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Who Ever Thought There Could Be a Football Season?

“When a line of scrimmage and locker room are petri dishes for COVID-19 outbreaks, it’s immoral for the NFL and major college programs to launch seasons fraught with enormous health risks for players.”

Jay Mariotti

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Three months, 36 columns and countless radio shows ago, including an ESPN appearance that ended a Kremlin cold war, I wrote an introductory piece titled, “Stop The Delusion: Sports As We Know It Is Finished.’’

Was I wrong? A freaky baseball season is doomed to starts, stops, opt-outs and testing debacles involving a converted PED lab. The NBA’s Disney World bubble is one J.R. Smith after-hours sneakout from mass infection. Hockey is wise to flee the U.S. virus jungle, yet Canada won’t stop players from spraying particles and Brad Marchand from spitting on opponents.

And football? Who ever thought there could be a football season?

The last few hours finally brought an awakening, or a reckoning, that America should find something else to do in the fall. The words dreaded by millions — “We are running out of time …’’ — were uttered by none other than Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, from the very sector of a mask-politicized nation that still thinks COVID-19 is the flu and football is bigger than God and disease. What’s happening now is an incremental series of heads-up acknowledgments, soon to include the chiefs of all five power conferences, that college football likely won’t be played in 2020. After months of denial, even the truthers realize that people do get sick from the virus, and do die, and that athletes aren’t the only ones testing positive; Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill and Pac-12 boss Larry Scott are among the infected. This sweeping reality eventually will be adopted by various NFL megalomaniacs, from Jerry Jones to Roger Goodell to Tom Brady to broadcast executives, once they recognize that they, too, stand no collective chance against the virus.

Hard to believe, I know, but true.

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Never mind the 136,000 deaths, the 5,000 fatalities over the last week, the record U.S. caseloads, the numb fact that many more people on this earth will be saying goodbye before the pandemic does. Football had to wobble for reality to kick in — and America is not handling it well, AT ALL. Baseball? It’s background noise when Sonos isn’t working and Alexa has laryngitis. The NBA? It’s a social media opiate, less sport than glitz-and-snark entertainment. Golf is a joy with Tiger Woods, meh without him, and soccer and auto racing are niche itches. The American soul would be dented without them, hardly totaled.

But an autumn without football? To hear the anguish, the absence of pro and college games would prompt the masses to run into the nearest body of water and never come back. I don’t get it. For the life of me — and life is intended literally, being in a pandemic and all — it’s baffling why reasonable people can’t grasp the obvious: To play football without a vaccine is to invite the coronavirus to blitz unblocked from the blindside, an opportunity for massive outbreaks and spreads in a country already bombarded by enough of them.

The line of scrimmage might as well be renamed “the petri dish,’’ with sweating, panting, bleeding and call-shouting men within inches of each other before the ball is snapped, followed by maniacal blocking, grunting, running, tackling and trash-talking. Then they head to the confined spaces of locker rooms — indoors, mind you — where COVID-19 will pitch tents in stadiums for months throughout the land. Other than rugby, UFC (a lost cause) and the Kiss Cam, no sporting endeavor is less conducive to safety and wellness, and it’s unconscionable to think the powers-that-be would ask players to assume such dangers. As Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay put it, while publicizing an HBO “Hard Knocks’’ series also on the endangered list, “I mean, we’re going to social distance but we play football? It’s really hard for me to understand all this.”

Denial sweeps the nation anyway. Fans need their controlled violence, their beloved teams and schools, their fantasy teams, their more serious gambling action. And broadcast networks? They don’t seem to care how many people fall ill in a trigger effect of playing football, petrified by the devastating financial consequences if a $15-billion NFL season and a $4-billion college season are lost. Would Fox Sports pull the plug on ailing FS1? How many of those daily ESPN shows would be shelved? Without football, what would those networks air? Remember, America thrives on football like no other show business genre, including Hollywood, Broadway and music. Even amid the cord-cutting and fragmentation of the television industry, 41 of the top 50 telecasts in the U.S. last year were NFL-related.

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That appetite hasn’t waned during the lockdowns and isolation of a paralyzing health crisis. It only has become more ravenous. The NFL news cycle has thundered on as if the pandemic doesn’t exist: Brady, joined by Rob Gronkowski, thumbing his nose at Bill Belichick from Tampa Bay and believing the TB12 lifestyle is bigger than the virus; Cam Newton, on the cheap, seeking revenge in New England until Belichick orders him to stop the postgame fashion show; Patrick Mahomes, young enough to be Brady’s kid, already the King of Sports and NFL compensation before his 25th birthday. Turn on any sports talk station, and the hosts aren’t focusing on the pandemic or the new round of social activism, though they should be. They’re talking NFL and Power Five, baby.

The rationale is this: If football can get through a concussion crisis, a barrage of off-the-field conduct problems and a Colin Kaepernick protest movement about to return with a furious vengeance — and rightfully so — why can’t it plow through during a pandemic? And it’s not just the fans and media networks embracing that mindset, but football men on the pro and college levels, ego-driven warriors who believe it’s their life mission and duty to take on an infectious disease and beat it down.

Well, I have a news flash for all of the aforementioned.

COVID-19 is invincible, shakeable only by a vaccine. It can wipe out a position group, a locker room, a community, a league. And if football isn’t careful, it might not recover from the resulting massacre. You have to love Richard Sherman, who quickly pointed out the absurd hypocrisy of the NFL’s new post-game policy: Players are banned from swapping jerseys and interacting within six feet of each other. “This is a perfect example of NFL thinking in a nutshell,’’ tweeted the veteran union rabble-rouser. “Players can go engage in a full contact game and do it safely. However, it is deemed unsafe for them to exchange jerseys after said game.’’

He followed with three laughing emojis, but he knows nothing is funny here. The NFL is treating players like pieces of meat. Risk your lives for three hours on a field, then get your asses straight home afterward so you can risk your lives the next week. Which is why the season is jeopardized not only by COVID-19 but the league’s arrogant proposal to hold 35 percent of player salaries in escrow. If it mirrors the strategy of Major League Baseball owners who actually cried poor during their public huff with the Players Association, brace for another round of depressing labor talks. At the very least, the NFL should provide daily virus tests, given the proximity issues inherent to the sport. Nope — the league wants testing every other day, though it will provide face shields to minimize spread during games, which J.J. Watt — among many uncommitted to playing — says could lead to breathing and glare/fog problems. “Huge outstanding issues are still unresolved,’’ said Sherman, the San Francisco 49ers cornerback and NFLPA executive committee member.

So, why play?

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The answer — and the wrong one, the corrupt one — is money. The powers-that-be are so blinded by the horror of lost billions that they’ve de-prioritized health risks for players. College football has tried to hold on as long as possible, riding the indifference and politics surrounding the virus in certain geographical pockets. But common sense and human decency finally are prevailing. Seasons cannot proceed when fraught with health risks, especially for a college player who receives a humble stipend, room and board but otherwise isn’t paid. Imagine the potential for spread when players, in daily close contact during games and practices, venture onto campuses that do allow student bodies. Also consider the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in fraternity houses, where players might be partying. This explains why Southern states, filled with people inclined to view the virus as a hoax, are being required to wear masks — ohmygod, masks! — amid the rising death toll.

And why Sankey, in an ESPN Radio interview, said his level of concern is “high to very high’’ about a season ever starting. Said Sankey, who meets Monday with SEC athletic directors: “We put a medical advisory group together in early April with the question, `What do we have to do to get back to activity?’ and they’ve been a big part of the conversation. But the direct reality is not good and the notion that we’ve politicized medical guidance of distancing, breathing masks and hand sanitization, ventilation of being outside, being careful where you are in buildings. There’s some very clear advice about — you can’t mitigate and eliminate every risk, but how do you minimize the risk? … We are running out of time to correct and get things right, and as a society we owe it to each other to be as healthy as we can be.”

He wouldn’t come out and say it, so I will: The COVID-iots who haven’t worn masks have sabotaged football.

At least NFL players would be paid for their roulette game. But if the MLB season is vulnerable to players opting out, Goodell should prepare for a mass exodus, assuming many show up at all. One skeptic is Donovan Smith, who, as the starting left tackle of the Buccaneers, is responsible for Brady’s blind side.

Tampa Bay Lineman Donovan Smith Questions Football During COVID-19 ...

“The unfortunate events of the COVID-19 pandemic have put a halt to a lot of things. Football is not one. To continue discussing the many UNKNOWNS do not give me the comfort,” Smith wrote on Instagram. “Risking my health as well as my family’s health does not seem like a risk worth taking. With my first child due in 3 weeks, I can’t help but think about how will I be able to go to work and take proper precautions around 80+ people everyday to then go home to be with my newborn daughter.

“How can a sport that requires physical contact on every snap and transferal of all types of bodily fluid EVERY SINGLE PLAY practice safe social distancing? How can I make sure that I don’t bring COVID-19 back to my household? Yes, we can get tested every day, but if it takes 24 hours to get my results, how can I know each day that I am not spreading this virus or contracting it?’’

Amen. Yet for every thoughtful commentary, there is lunacy from the likes of college coaching legend Lou Holtz, who emerged from cobwebs with a curious plea: Play the season, risks be damned. Said Holtz: “The way it is right now, they just don’t want to have sports and there’s no way in this world you can do anything in this world without a risk. People stormed Normandy. They knew there was going to be casualties, they knew there was going to be risk, but it was a way of life.”

Until a way of life becomes a way of death.

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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