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Story of a Lifetime…And Few Media on the Front Lines

“The pandemic is giving sports leagues and teams what they’ve always wanted: control over access, who they want covering them and complete priority for rightsholders, which spells big trouble for the media business.”

Jay Mariotti

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The game is Sports versus The Virus. Any other competition is wholly insignificant, now that human rivals are united as allies and all strategies and tactics have been unleashed upon a killer pandemic. COVID-19 is the mightiest of dynasties, undefeated and prohibitively favored by Vegas sportsbooks to destroy, in succession, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, college football and, in the final nuclear scene, an NFL behemoth that might look like King Ghidorah after he was mauled by Godzilla.

A power sweep has become the Hazmat-level cleanup after each event. A double is the number of negative tests, two, necessary to escape MLB quarantine. The pick-and-roll refers to an NBA player picking at the stale roll from his Disney World food bag. Banging on a trash can is what the Astros will do when teammates are about to be Instagram-outed at a crowded bar. And maintaining six feet of physical distance?

“That’s how we guard anyways,’’ said coach Mike D’Antoni, managing a crack about the Rockets’ defensive challenges.

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It’s the biggest story of a sports journalist’s life, really — the audacity of this industry to defy the heavyweight champion of infectious diseases. What a damned shame that only a few will be able to legitimately cover it. Because leagues must minimize coronavirus risks within extremely strict protocols, welcome to a new world of Sports Reporting By Zoom, in which traditional locker-room access is long gone and almost all credible media members will be relegated to asking questions via group streaming sessions while tethered to seating areas with far worse sightlines than folks watching at home. I’d like to say the arrangement is temporary.

In truth, it’s the future. This is what sports leagues have dreamed of, marginalizing and controlling the media while hand-picking those who will remain obedient to the corporate cause. Now that a new order has been established, think they’ll ever return to the old way? Heh.

Only those who pay lucrative rights fees, the broadcast networks, will have any chance of in-person interviews with athletes and coaches during the sports reset. In the NBA’s case, just 10 national-scope reporters will be allowed post-game access in a socially-distanced news conference — and literally at a price: $550 per day in the Rudy Gobert Dome, with their news organizations ponying up for a hotel room, three daily meals, a once-a-day virus test, transportation to the gyms and, naturally, a waiver form absolving the league of liability if the reporter contracts COVID-19.

And make out the check to Walt Disney Company, please, which means news outlets are paying ESPN for coverage capabilities when, I dunno, I thought reporters were supposed to be competing against ESPN.

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Oh, and if one of those 10 league-approved reporters is switched out for whatever reason? The news organization will have to pay an additional fee of about $4,500, all according to the Miami Herald. As for dozens of other reporters who cover the league regularly and need to follow the 22 teams in Orlando? They can attend games but have to sit in some distant nether region, though they’ll have priority to ask questions via Zoom. Gee.

Some gig, right? Risk your life by flying to Florida, the bastard child of the American pandemic, and you still might have to call a buddy at home if you couldn’t determine if a game-winning shot beat the buzzer.

If our year from hell has changed life interminably, sports media have been reduced to the ranks of the utterly non-essential. With newspapers and websites on perpetual death watches, executives are faced with no-win decisions: Either spend money from ravaged budgets to pseudo-cover these games, or don’t cover them and risk losing readers accustomed to up-close-and-personal sports coverage. Specifically, how can The Athletic — maybe the last-gasp option for the sportswriting profession — continue to charge $59 a year in good conscience when its reporting no longer will be distinguishable from the free-of-charge digital norm?

And football coverage, though the sport has little chance of operating this season, will be even flimsier. When players are endangered by an in-your-face contact sport with lines of scrimmage and locker rooms lurking as coronavirus petri dishes, media members won’t be allowed in the same county, much less anywhere near field level.

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A sports fan might ask, “Why does a reporter need one-on-one access, anyway? What’s wrong with Zoom?’’ Once leagues and teams are allowed to cultivate pack journalism, the likelihood of original reporting shrinks, and coverage takes on a homogenous look. The sports industry doesn’t want fierce independence in media people. It wants yes robots who don’t rabble-rouse or break damaging stories. For years, teams have relied on paid broadcasters to carry the public-relations flag. Even they are being shortshrifted during these shortened seasons, with baseball announcers forced to call road games via remote from home ballparks or studios.

As I’ve always feared, leagues ultimately will sell their product entirely through broadcast partners — and writers hired as promotional flacks — and control all narratives and messages. They realize the sports media industry is in chaotic free-fall and smell an opportunity. This is the thanks we get for helping to popularize these sports and elevate them into multi-billion-dollar colossuses. America is about to witness the most bizarre few weeks, if not months, in its sporting history. It’s a story that requires large numbers of highly skilled, sophisticated journalists to make sure leagues are telling the truth and lives aren’t being jeopardized.

But based on the early work of ESPN’s embedded Malika Andrews, whose hard-hitting NBA reporting so far has entailed uninspiring food selections in the Trouble Bubble — falafel and oatmeal, yum! — I’m not sensing sports in a pandemic will be covered as the story of a lifetime. I was doing my radio program when planes crashed into towers on 9/11. I watched grown men dive under press-box tables during the Bay Area earthquake, then stayed for days covering the rubble. I was there, in Greece, when demonstrators threw rocks in protest of Colin Powell’s trip to the Olympics. And I would love to be at Disney World, raising hell.

Mickey Mouse has a better chance than any reporter does of breaking news, which is by design, of course. Sports wins, media lose.

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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