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If They Don’t Feel Safe, Athletes Should Shut Down Sports

“As ominous signs and numerous positive tests threaten the resumption of seasons, candid concerns from Sean Doolittle and Mike Trout should warn desperate leagues and TV networks that players have all the power.”

Jay Mariotti

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My eyeballs did lock, admittedly, when MLB Network provided sweeping visuals we haven’t seen in eons: Wrigley Field swallowed by sunshine, the pause in Clayton Kershaw’s windup, Max Scherzer already in full uniform, Bryce Harper swinging in a bandana. Yep, the brainwashers had me going until I looked around those ballparks, at the start of “Summer Camp’’ in the most ass-backward year of our lives, and noticed a familiar disparity that has turned America into the globally mocked epicenter of COVID-19.

Some players wore masks.

Many players, defiantly and foolishly, did not.

I should have known this was the precursor of a debacle, a weekend that reminded us that Major League Baseball has no chance of surviving a pandemic-slammed season when it can’t even begin to repair the rampant troubles threatening its very existence. Just hours into commissioner Rob Manfred’s bumbling folly, the testing protocol already resembles a sham — filled with misinformation if not downright lies, including suspicions that MLB isn’t being transparent about a sizable number of positive coronavirus tests. All of which surprises no one accustomed to baseball as the most scandalous of sports.

Forget Harper, Kershaw and Scherzer. All attention should be paid to Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, a vocal critic of Manfred and the owners during the embarrassing recent labor squabbles with the players’ union. On a Zoom call Sunday, Doolittle told reporters that of his four tests, two required longer than 48 hours for results to return from MLB’s ridicule-made Salt Lake City laboratory. The Oakland Athletics had to cancel a workout for position players because test results weren’t available, and other teams were awaiting testing data before resuming.

Nationals Pitcher Sean Doolittle Reveals Phish-Themed Glove | 93 XRT

Only 17 days remain before Opening Day. At this point, Manfred has a better chance of putting people in body bags than pulling off a 60-game season. It’s about time to mercy-kill MLB, assuming Doolittle hasn’t done so with a memorable commentary.

“There’s a lot of players right now that are trying to make decisions that might be participating in camp that aren’t 100 percent comfortable with where things are at right now,’’ he said. “That’s kind of where I am. I think I’m planning on playing. But, if at any point I start to feel unsafe, if it starts to take a toll on my mental health, with all these things we have to worry about, and this cloud of uncertainty hanging over everything, then I’ll opt out.

“Those results gotta be back. That’s one of the biggest things — a lot of guys on the fence decided to try to play and see how this was going to go, because we were going to have our results within 48 hours.’’

Baseball is slow about everything. You thought a sport that can’t finish a game in three hours would have COVID-19 results in two days?

At least the NBA has a shot to resume a season, with its Disney World biobubble awaiting the arrival of players. Baseball looks dead before it starts. “I think there’s still some doubt that we’re going to have a season now. By no means is this a slam dunk,’’ said Cardinals reliever and union leader Andrew Miller.

Mike Trout, baseball’s transcendent figure and someone you don’t want to upset, wore a heavy-duty mask in the outfield after voicing considerable apprehension about playing a 60-game season in a pandemic. Emphasizing that his wife, Jessica, is due to deliver the couple’s first child next month, he said, “Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable. We’re risking our families and our lives to go out here and play for everyone. Obviously, with the baby coming, there’s a lot of stuff going through my mind, my wife’s mind, just trying to (figure out) the safest way to get through a season. I don’t want to test positive and I don’t want to bring it back to my wife. We thought hard about all this, still thinking about all this. It’s a tough situation we’re in, everyone’s in, and everybody’s got a responsibility in this clubhouse to social distance, stay inside, wear a mask and keep everybody safe.’’

MLB: AL MVP Trout still doesn't feel comfortable about this year ...

In essence, Trout was PLEADING that his Angels teammates not be COVID-iots in coronavirus-slammed California, where face coverings are mandatory in public places and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti again is warning, “You should assume everyone around you is infectious.’’ And yet not minutes later, within a few feet of Trout, maskless teammates were frolicking and talking while shagging fly balls, oblivious to his concerns about an outbreak. This on a weekend when dozens of major-leaguers — including Braves star Freddie Freeman, who isn’t well and will sit a while — tested positive for the virus, along with NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson, more soccer players amid an MLS restart collapse, a main-event fighter in UFC 251, and, naturally, Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend. Several NBA teams shut down facilities because of the virus. And in the haste to rush workouts, Giancarlo Stanton almost took off Masahiro Tanaka’s skull inside an eerie Yankee Stadium, counterproductive to the title cause.

It all seems so fragile, hapless, hopeless. But at least wear a mask, right? Reports had some major-league players discarding masks when, of course, they should be covering up when possible as a symbol of their commitment to safety, an infomercial for America to stop political mask warfare and a respectful nod to Trout, who, armed with the sport’s most lucrative contract, has every reason to sit out this shotgun season. He still might go home at any moment. Can we blame him?

“We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people,” said Doolittle, taking aim at mask warfare in America. “We’re way worse off as a country then we were in March when we shut this thing down. And look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve.

“If there aren’t sports, it’s going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized. We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands.”

Amen. Sean Doolittle for commissioner.

Or president.

It’s time to ask the question no one in sports wants to face: If enough marquee athletes bow out, will competitive integrity be diluted to the point it’s useless to continue what would be an illegitimate season? The thought of a total sports shutdown mortifies the broadcast networks that drive the sports engine, particularly Fox Sports and ESPN, both of which might crumble if the cash-cow NFL cancels its $15-billion-a-year, TV-dominant season as ESPN parent Disney suffers an abysmal fiscal third quarter. The pressure already is palpable as athletes begin to realize they ultimately hold the power in this restart ecosystem.

Dodgers pitcher David Price opts out of 2020 season

If too many players don’t want to play and scram, as David Price and Victor Oladipo have done and Buster Posey is pondering, down goes MLB, down goes the NBA and down goes the NFL. Once college football players (and their parents) realize they are assuming health risks without being paid, down go Clemson and other superpowers — and down goes the season. And down go the TV networks, doomed to financial disaster. A baseball season is not a baseball season without Trout. And as more prominent athletes fail tests and suffer injuries — bubble or no bubble — sports become less about the games and more about a coronavirus survival test that fans will not enjoy, much less the players.

“If I test positive, it’s my first child, and I have to be there,’’ Trout said. “If I’m positive, doctors have told me I can’t see the baby for 14 days. Jess won’t see the baby for 14 days if she tests positive. We’re going to be upset. I can’t put them in jeopardy. … It’s going to come down to how safe we’re going to be. You never know what can happen tomorrow or the next day, if there’s an outbreak. … A lot of guys have families, some are single and younger, need to get out of the house. One guy can mess this up. One guy can go out and not wear a mask and contract this virus and bring it into the clubhouse. I’ve talked to a lot of guys across the league. They’re all thinking the same thing, `Is this going to work? ‘ ‘’

For all his wondrous skills on the field, never has Trout been more valuable than he was in that virtual interview room. Passionately and reasonably, he spoke to a sports industry that insists on restarting play when common sense and workplace ethics demand a shutdown until 2021. As infections surge and new single-day case records are established daily in the U.S., leagues and broadcast networks that once derided President Trump are conveniently embracing his delusional belief the virus will “just disappear.’’ Driven by massive, stubborn business egos and a hunger to recoup billions of dollars, the industry’s power elite thinks it can beat down the virus and prove that humankind is bigger than a killer disease. And athletes? They’ve been conditioned most of their lives to think they’re superheroes when, in reality, nothing is heroic about resuming sports amid a still-raging crisis.

Jeff Samardzija: San Francisco Giants Starting Pitcher Snaps Bat ...

It’s stupid, actually. And exceedingly dangerous, a recipe for outbreaks in all leagues and an abrupt end to all sports seasons, which underscores the importance of the preeminent baseball superhero speaking out. He’s not alone. “I think we’ve seen with these owners, they’re not scared of anything, and they’re not scared to put anyone at risk if they get the opportunity to, especially if it makes them money,’’ Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. Not only is it unfair to ask athletes to resume seasons and assume all health risks — commissioners and owners, remember, will be bunkered down with their accountants — the reset ignores data that sounds alarms about the outsized impact of coronavirus in the black community. When about 75 percent of NBA players and 70 percent of NFL players identify themselves as African American, the discussion has been suspiciously non-existent about: (1) a COVID-19 mortality rate that is 2.3 times higher for black people than for whites and Hispanics, according to the Washington Post; and (2) a metric that shows African Americans are five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white people, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The leagues can take all the measures they want to appease black athletes in a turbulent, potentially explosive summer, from the NBA’s decision to paint “Black Lives Matter’’ on the Disney World courts and allow players to wear “social justice’’ slogans on jerseys to the NFL’s plan to play “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing’’ before “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ in pregame ceremonies. Daniel Snyder finally can find a non-racist nickname for Washington’s NFL franchise, and the Cleveland Indians can do the same. If players don’t feel safe in a pandemic, they’re not playing. Major League Baseball, mired in a disastrous diversity crisis on all levels, looks worse when Price follows Ian Desmond in opting out. It was Desmond who said baseball is “failing’’ in efforts to aid minority participation, writing on Instagram, “Think about it: right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war. We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners. Perhaps most disheartening of all is a puzzling lack of focus on understanding how to change those numbers. A lack of focus on making baseball accessible and possible for all kids, not just those who are privileged enough to afford it. If baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now.’’

Well said.

The NBA has racial peace. But to prevent the virus from spreading in the bubble, all players will have to obey the safety protocol and commit weeks, if not months, to life in isolation. Do they have it in them? I’m not the only one doubting it “My confidence ain’t great,’’ said All-Star guard Damian Lillard, “because you’re telling me you’re gonna have 22 teams full of players following all the rules? When we have 100 percent freedom, everybody don’t follow all the rules.’’

How A DeMar DeRozan Sign-and-Trade Would Work - Project Spurs

Said Spurs star DeMar DeRozan, whose publicly shared battles with mental health underline another issue with players in virtual lockdown: Will they go stir-crazy? He can’t understand why ping-pong doubles games are banned. “Guys can’t do this, but we can do this and battle over each other (on the court),’’ he said. “I got through 10 lines of the (safety) handbook and just put it down because it became so frustrating and overwhelming at times, because you just never thought you’d be in a situation of something like this. It’s hard to process.’’

On the mental health topic, Doolittle said,  “I can already tell this is going to be a grind mentally, and I might go crazy before anything else. There’s this cloud of uncertainty. You’re always kind of waiting for more bad news. Every time I get a text message or something on my phone throughout the day I’m worried that it’s going to be some kind of bad news, like somebody in the league tested positive or somebody opted out or so-and-so broke protocol and there’s pictures of people going out on social media when they shouldn’t be.’’

Then there was JJ Redick. The NBA veteran delivered the defining observation of the restart, surely speaking for many athletes when he said, “To say that we have any sort of comfort level would be a lie. There is no comfort level. We’re not with our families. We’re not at our homes. We’re isolated in a bubble in the middle of a hot spot in the middle of Florida — while there’s social unrest going on in the country — and we’re three months away from potentially the most important election in our lifetimes. Now, we have to figure out a way to perform and play basketball and all that, because I do believe it is the right thing to go and play. But there is absolutely no comfort level — none.’’

All weekend, like a toxic drip, the news digest offered more reasons not to play sports in 2020. I even read a story suggesting the PGA Tour will continue to risk outbreaks as long as winners hug caddies, as Daniel Berger did after winning the Charles Schwab Challenge. Maybe that’s why ESPN.com refused to budge for hours on what it viewed as the leading story: Joey Chestnut (a record 75 consumed) and Miki Sudo continued to dominate Nathan’s Famous Dog-Eating Contest, even when separated from other slobberers by fiberglass panels.

It wasn’t proper journalistic judgment. But it did generate a grin. When was the last time we grinned about sports?

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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