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Next Battlefield For Sports: Players vs. Owners

The completion of an NFL season hardly means the industry is home-free, with labor confrontations looming in the NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL as common trust breaks down.

Jay Mariotti

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If this is where life brightens and crystallizes again, following a Super Bowl that connected us and returned us to Tom Brady Normalcy Mode, then explain the disjointed scene in Brooklyn. If we’re nearing the one-year anniversary of Rudy Gobert Night — and a realization that sports has managed to bob and weave through all the evil droplets and complete every league season, for better or worse — why was Kevin Durant told he couldn’t play, then told he could play, then ordered to leave the court and isolate, in a chaotic swirl of medical incompetence that only jeopardized his Nets teammates?

“Free me,” Durant tweeted from the locker room. “Yo @nba, your fans aren’t dumb!!!! You can’t fool em with your Wack ass PR tactics.. #FREE7.”

“He was around all of us,” James Harden said. “The game should have been postponed.”

Consider it a jarring reminder that sport’s calendar of calamity is no one-off.

Even as COVID-19 numbers improve nationwide and millions of arms are being pricked, even as the NFL finished a 269-game schedule without any players or coaches dying, the industry continues to be, uh, Wack ass. The NBA is inviting a dangerous revolt fueled by its most influential stars, including LeBron James, who feel mistreated as the league force-feeds an All-Star Game they don’t want and urges them to take vaccines resisted by the African-American community. Major League Baseball is in its usual war zone, with owners trying to delay the season so more vaccinated fans return to ballparks while players instinctively don’t trust them, all a prelude to a work stoppage — after the season if not before then — that would set back a troubled sport for years. And the NHL? At last count, five teams have been idled and more than 100 players removed from the ice while 33 games have been postponed.

“Because you are going in and out of hotel lobbies with other people, it’s impossible to feel as safe,” said Rick Bowness, the 66-year-old coach of the Dallas Stars. “In Carolina the other day, when we were getting on an elevator, a couple got off and the woman did not have a mask on. So we don’t know, was she coughing in the elevator? Was she sneezing? Who knows?”

The new issue is labor. You knew it was coming. For 11 months, the leagues and unions have co-existed in navigating an unprecedented crisis, a pandemic requiring cool-headed collaboration so everyone could keep making money, broadcast networks could keep airing games and the leagues could avoid devastating shutdowns. The most shocking survivalist story was the NFL, which, without help of a protective Bubble like the NBA and NHL of 2020, mushed through a full season that included several outbreaks but avoided a mass cancellation. “We don’t think there was a safer place to be than in NFL facilities this year,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We never doubted that for a second.” The success largely resulted from the league’s massive wealth and influence — administering about a million daily COVID-19 tests, making necessary logistical investments, taking extra precautions on road trips that lasted only one night and staying true to an elaborate chip system that made sure all league employees maintained proximity and duration via tracking devices.

But with no assurance of when paying spectators are returning to stadiums and arenas, the money squeeze is being tightened with vice-grip tensions. And the leagues are starting to crack, with the NBA, MLB and NHL gamely trying to complete second coronavirus seasons more challenging than the first.

The spirit of Kumbaya in the Disney World Bubble, emboldened by Black Lives Matter protests and a disabling of Donald Trump, seems to be gone. Now we have superstars, one by one, trashing the concept of an All-Star Game in a pandemic. They are spot-on about the NBA’s hypocrisy. In one sense, the league was concerned enough about Durant’s three car rides with a Nets employee last Friday to not let him start the game that night despite three negative tests in 24 hours; yet inexplicably, the league let Durant enter the game even when the employee’s virus test was inconclusive before yanking him for good in the third quarter when the test proved positive. If that is disturbingly erratic, does commissioner Adam Silver actually think players would be safe in Atlanta, where COVID-19 restrictions are lax, even for a one-night event featuring the game and skill competitions? Or that players would obey protocols — a problem when both Durant and the Nets employee reportedly weren’t wearing masks during their contacts?

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For the first time, the players don’t trust Silver, believing he’s exploiting them in a desperate TV money grab. Specifically, James is upset — and he is someone the league does not want as an adversary. “I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year. I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game,” said James, on track for another MVP trophy and fifth NBA title. “”Short offseason for myself and my teammates, 71 days. And then coming into this season, we were told that we were not having an All-Star Game, so we’d have a nice little break — five days (in March) from the 5th through the 10th, an opportunity for me to kind of recalibrate for the second half of the season. My teammates as well. Some of the guys in the league. And then they throw an All-Star Game on us like this and just breaks that all the way up. So, um, pretty much kind of a slap in the face.”

His sentiments were echoed by elite peers. “(The league) is just putting money over health right now,” Kawhi Leonard said. “It’s money on the line. There’s the opportunity to make more money.”

“The big dog says he has zero excitement and energy for the All-Star Game, and I’m the same way. I don’t want to do it,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, referring to James. “I really right now don’t care about the All-Star Game. I want to see my family.”

“If I’m going to be brutally honest, I think it’s stupid,” De’Aaron Fox said. “If we have to wear a mask and do all of this for a regular game, then what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back? Obviously, money makes the world go round, so it is what it is.”

Compounding the problem: a growing reluctance among NBA players to be vaccinated. In a league of predominantly Black players, inoculation isn’t a given but, rather, a delicate personalized question based on a historic distrust in the African-American community about vaccines. What if only one-half of the league’s players and coaches get shots when they are available? That could create a locker-room divide when seasons and aspirations are disrupted by more positive tests among anti-vaxxers.

MLB’s long-term outlook is shakier. The players insist on starting spring training next week despite a seemingly smarter suggestion by the owners, as backed by the Biden administration: Start the season a month late with a 154-game schedule, allowing more players and team personnel to be vaccinated, as well as the fans who ultimately need to generate ballpark revenues for the league to avoid a shutdown. But the players don’t trust the owners after years of labor infighting — and who can blame them? — so they’re pushing forward with a full season against common sense and health logic. The players want paybacks after agreeing to accept only 37 percent of their salaries during the protracted 2020 season, but the owners say they lost $3 billion last year — in truth, they made $3 billion less than the year before.

So what we have is another hot mess of a season clouded by more volatile standoffs between the owners and Players Association, only 9 1/2 months before the collective bargaining agreement expires and the sport unravels like never before. They did agree Monday on health protocols and a return of seven-inning doubleheaders and runners starting at second base in extra innings, but those are window dressings on a ticking bomb. This could be the last baseball we see for quite a while, not that it will be a legitimately competitive season.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, blowing through MLB’s $210-million competitive balance tax like a Porsche on Pacific Coast Highway, signed Trevor Bauer for $40 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022 with opt-outs if he prefers after each season. His salary is expected to exceed the entire 26-man payroll of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland (Whatever We’ll Be Calling Them), and he’ll join Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Julio Urias in a rotation that might never lose. Mookie Betts last year, Bauer this year. Why bother playing the season when the Dodgers are a cinch to win again, even if Bauer complicates the clubhouse camaraderie with dangerous tweets that criticize commissioner Rob Manfred amid a growing labor crisis?

Image result for tony clark rob manfred

“This season is about making sure history remembers us as we wish to be remembered,” Bauer said in one of his self-produced videos. “This season is about adding to our legacy. And I can’t wait, Dodger fans.”

Fans of two dozen other teams will just ignore baseball altogether.

The NHL is on thin ice, as commissioner Gary Bettman already has said the league will lose billions if it somehow finishes a season already in COVID-19 disarray. Maybe that’s what the owners want; the Buffalo Sabres, since hit by COVID cases including an infected head coach, are angry they were forced to play New Jersey without being informed the Devils were dealing with cases.

“It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play,” said Bettman, only exacerbating tensions.

Soon, almost six dozen college basketball teams will descend upon greater Indianapolis, assuming anything in Indianapolis is great, for a bubble-ized NCAA basketball tournament being played only for TV revenues and gamblers — while players who take all the health risks are unpaid. I fear that a new kind of March Madness awaits.  And if it seems fairly normalized that 30,000 daily spectators are allowed this week at the year’s first tennis major, the Australian Open, I have a question for officials Down Under: If you’ve successfully kept the coronavirus under control in your country, why push your luck by trying to pull this off at Melbourne Park?

The sensible health conclusion, in what has been the most confounding time of our lives, is that seasons played outdoors or inside protective Bubbles can be completed. And that seasons played under traditional roofs, with athletes able to come and go as they please in the real world, might not complete seasons.

But now the complications extend beyond the coronavirus. Sports has entered the labor zone, also plagued by a disease known to mutate. Only this one poisons egos and kills leagues.

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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