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Sports vs. The Virus: As Games Resume, Pandemic Rages

Defying medical logic, MLB is returning (and paying Mookie Betts) along with other prominent leagues, yet with months of virus tests determining the fate of seasons, COVID-19 remains a heavy favorite.

Jay Mariotti

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I am staring at two websites. The lead page on ESPN.com has a banner blasting the arrival of “OPENING NIGHT 2020,’’ with logos of the Yankees and Nationals, alongside these editorial offerings: a monster $365 million deal for Mookie Betts, expert MLB predictions, highlights from the first team scrimmages in the NBA Bubble, a synopsis of Patrick Mahomes’ MVP chances, a match race between Terrell Owens and Tyreek Hill (T.O. lost), pitchers plunking Astros batters, the Best of UFC and a live lacrosse game between teams with which I’m not familiar.

And here is the top headline on a New York Times lead page saved just hours earlier: “Trump Says Virus Will Probably `Get Worse Before It Gets Better.’ ‘’ Followed by: “C.D.C. Says Cases Could Be 2 to 13 Times Higher Than Reported in Parts of U.S.’’ And later: “Rise in Coronavirus Cases Far Outpaces Growth in Testing.’’

This is more than a parallel universe. This is a disconnect of defiance, a wedge between the continuing devastation of a raging pandemic and a sports bulldozer that insists on plowing through the carnage — death tolls, record infection numbers, lengthy waits for test results, mask-less masses — so live games can resume in North America while leagues and broadcast networks recoup billions. I don’t apologize in admitting I remain torn by it all, if not baffled like never before in my years on Planet Earth.

Yes, there is the human need to celebrate uplifting visuals we thought might be lost forever: games, athletes, competition, the sporting aesthetic. But there also is the personal responsibility of hearing a resistant president finally acknowledge the truth concerning COVID-19 — “Get a mask,’’ Trump actually said — and to keep being real until a vaccine or cure emerges.

And what’s real, in sports, is that we have no real.

If you profess to know what will happen in the months ahead, your first name is Pinocchio and your last name is Ponzi.

Mookie Betts, Dodgers reportedly 'closing in' on contract extension - True  Blue LA

The mixed messages are stupefying. The La La Land Dodgers, oblivious to a pandemic that threatens a sport already in deep existential doo-doo, are in life-pretend mode in finalizing a deal with Betts. In one sense, it’s about time this cash-cow behemoth starts paying up for superstars, especially when the recipient is Betts, an African American sensation in a sport mired in a racial crisis. In another sense, who extends any player for 12 years when the world could be headed toward long-term disarray? And when White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, still a power player, openly doubts there will be a 2021 season? The Dodgers march on anyway, even as California surpasses New York as the state with the most COVID-19 cases.

And even as Pittsburgh, making medical sense, rejects the Blue Jays as temporary tenants after the Canadian government refused to allow U.S. teams to play in Toronto. “In recent weeks, we have seen a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Pennsylvania,” said the state’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine. “To add travelers to this region for any reason, including for professional sports events, risks residents, visitors and members of both teams. We know that this virus does not discriminate and can even make professional athletes very sick.’’

Might every U.S. city reject the Blue Jays, in a political tit-for-tat with Canada? If so, how can MLB play a legitimate season without all 30 clubs?

And how, in good conscience, do leagues continue to hoard testing kits when so many Americans need tests to stay alive? “U.S. Labs Buckle Amid Testing Surge,’’ says the Associated Press.

Look, nothing would make this seen-it-all columnist happier, for the sake of humanity and sanity, than the completion of all sports seasons and events with a minimum of contagion havoc. Baseball would avoid outbreaks from players vulnerable to transmissions in public settings. The NBA would keep hundreds of players occupied enough with cornhole events, DJ sets, golf, legal recreational drugs and a basketball postseason to avoid late-night Bubble defections requiring snitch-line calls. The NHL would do the same in Canada, where the coronavirus has been widely contained and players will be confined to restricted zones in Toronto and Edmonton (each should be called The Igloo). And football players, NFL and college, would just grunt and pound their way through the inherent risks of a close-contact sport with no chance of social distancing. Sports Euphoria would converge in the fall — the Masters, tennis majors and the Kentucky Derby joining the party — and all the corporate S.O.B.s would make back their money as fans and gamblers rejoice.

NFL to create COVID-19 classification for players | Yardbarker

In this ideal world, sports would serve as a beacon for society to beat down the virus, as the NFL’s chief medical officer is suggesting. Said Dr. Allen Sills: “I think this is important not just for the NFL and professional sports, but I think what we’re trying to do — find a way to mitigate risk and to co-exist with this virus — this is really key information for schools, businesses and all segments of society. I think we have a unique opportunity but also a responsibility to use the platform and resources of the NFL to study and learn and take that knowledge and apply it for the benefit of the other segments of society. That is what we plan to do.”

He is planning a miracle, then. Because the likelihood of all that taking place, the perfect rollout described above, carries the same approximate odds as Johnny Depp and Amber Heard kissing and making up in a London courtroom. ESPN and other sports-dependent media can bombard us with brainwashing campaigns — “Give Us Baseball’’ … “NBA Is Back’’ …  Zion Williamson as a multi-sport star in a new Gatorade ad when he already has left the Bubble for a family medical matter — and my cable company can demand an extra monthly $5 for a “sports upgrade’’ when it provided no refunds for mostly abysmal sports programming since March. No matter the spin, sports is venturing into the murky and scary unknown, and much as I don’t want to be called “a Negative Nancy’’ as one reader did — isn’t that sexist, bro? — it’s more important to be genuine in unprecedented, ultra-surreal times.

We do have hopeful signs that weren’t anticipated so soon. None of the 346 NBA players swabbed last week tested positive for the coronavirus, an indication that the isolation campus hatched by commissioner Adam Silver and Disney Company boss Bob Iger remains the one experiment that just might succeed. “Everything has gone the way it’s supposed to since we’ve been here, and it’s given me no indication why it won’t continue,” James said in Orlando. “If something happens or a spike happens, which we don’t believe it is, we’ll adjust and go forward from there. I don’t wake up in the morning saying, `OK this may not work.’ I don’t approach it that way. I woke up this morning thinking about my family, one, and then thinking about how I was going to impact practice today and help us get better.

“Everyone keeps asking, ‘How is the bubble?’ or, `How is it going?’ And I just say, `It’s 2020.’ Nothing is normal in 2020. Nothing seems as is, and who knows if it will ever go back to the way it was. You make adjustments and you figure it out along the way. That’s what life is all about.”

But the more optimistic news I absorb about positive tests — only six negatives from 10,548 MLB swabs in the latest weekly audit, and only two negatives from 2,618 NHL-gathered samples  — the louder my b.s meter beeps like those social-distance sensors in the NBA Bubble. With so much at stake financially, and privacy laws protecting testees from the public release of test results if they so opt, is full transparency a pipedream? How do we know MLB, a league known for deception and scandal, won’t lie about an outbreak to avoid rebellion among players and public hysteria?There already is proof that delays in test results from what now are two  official labs, in Utah and New Jersey, could sabotage a team or an entire season. I hear no one in baseball expressing James’ confidence, and when a prominent member of the cheating Astros publicly fears a testing snafu, you know baseball is ripe for a virus spread.

Astros' Justin Verlander will donate MLB paychecks to a different nonprofit  each week

“It’s really inexcusable in-season for a player that can help you win a game to miss said game because test results didn’t get back quickly enough when we were told that they would be,” Justin Verlander said. “What would happen if my test results didn’t come back on time and I’m the starting pitcher that day?”

And what about catchers, who will have difficulty maintaining a required distance from batters and umpires behind home plate? “It’s been a little weird. Just from being back there for so long, you get used to having people around,’’ Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly said. “But now you get some second thoughts: `Oh wait, should I be this close to this guy?’ We’ve got a job to do, but at the same time, we need to be safe.’’

No one is safe. Maybe people are SAFER on the NBA’s $170 million hoops campus, but protocols are made to be broken by players unaccustomed to being cooped up without freedom and multi-millionaire perks. All it takes is one COVID-iot such as, oh, Dwight Howard, who doubled down on not wearing a mask in the Bubble when he said on Instagram Live, “I didn’t know that the coronavirus be flying through the air looking for people.’’

Should we laugh? Or cry? Put Howard in a locked room with Gregg Popovich, who, at 71, is susceptible to the virus more than most in the Bubble. “I don’t want to die. I wear my mask all the time,’’ said the coaching legend, who won’t be around Orlando long with a lagging Spurs team. “If you have half a brain, you have to take this seriously.’’

Said Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who once coached Howard: “Without getting too political, it’s somewhat embarrassing that people are fighting over a mask. If it helps your neighbor out, to me it’s obvious; you do it. We’re all in this together. Obviously, the virus is not red or blue. It’s out to get everybody and we have to keep everybody as safe as possible. It makes no sense that we’re arguing, we’re fighting over masks.’’

Nets' GM Marks shoots down Popovich head coaching rumors | WOAI

I’m surprised Popovich, always seeking justice, isn’t on the warpath about the tens of thousands of tests already being used by MLB, the NBA, the NHL, the PGA Tour, NASCAR and Major League Soccer — or hundreds of thousands if the NFL and college football play seasons. Athletes are being tested daily or frequently and, for the most part, they are informed of the results within a day or two. Juxtapose those easy procedures against the plight of common folk who need tests — often having to wait in long lines — and aren’t getting results for a week or two … or longer.

But those same people are thrilled to see the restart of sports. Or are they? if you believe a poll of 1,003 fans (18 or older) by ESPN, which has a self-serving agenda, 78 percent want sports to return even without bodies in the stands. But a Harris Poll shows just the opposite, with 71 percent of Americans concerned about health risks assumed by athletes and only 44 percent thinking the resumption of games is wise.

Of course, none of this is wise. But rather than wait reasonably until 2021, sports must channel its inner superhero and try to topple a beast. Vegas hasn’t changed its view: COVID-19 remains a prohibitive favorite.

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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