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The Biggest Pandemic Lesson: Fans Have The Power Now

Many remained doggedly loyal as sports struggled to survive the last 365 days — now, an industry known for greed and corruption must pay back the people with a responsible, fan-friendly future.

Jay Mariotti

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Bet you didn’t know it before March 11, 2020. But YOU, the fans, are the stars of sports. Yes, YOU — the diehards, the gamblers, the casual followers, the season-ticket holders, the sabergeeks, the tavern revelers, the bracket pickers, the jersey buyers, the trading-card hoarders, the website readers, the radio-show listeners, the Stephen A. Smith devotees, the social-media loons, the kids who still want bobbleheads.

Column: Washington sports fans show their major league mettle | WTOP

Not Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Not Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Trout. Not LeBron James and Steph Curry. Not the Dodgers and Nets and Lightning. Not Nick Saban. Not Gonzaga. Not Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and the mobility of quarterbacking nobility. Not Tiger Woods in his hospital bed. Not Trevor Bauer and his Twitter trollery. Not Novak Djokovic and his reluctance to take a vaccine.

YOU.

And if professional leagues, college conferences and broadcast networks have learned nothing else these last 365 days and nights, it’s that the people who support their industry and collective livelihoods never, ever should be undersold, mistreated or ripped off again. When team owners, star athletes and coaches used to cite the standard tribute, “I want to thank the greatest fans in the world,” they didn’t really believe it.

Now, they must not only embrace it as sport’s new existential mantra, they should be prepared to worship at your feet. The old script — taking the fans for granted — has been flipped by a profound appreciation for your mass interest, your in-venue energy and, of course, your annual multi-billion-dollar financial infusion. It took a global pandemic, the most disruptive health catastrophe in more than 100 years, for the sports behemoth to finally realize who holds the power and operates the on-off switch.

Because if YOU wanted to shut down sports, you could have these last 12 months. You could have stopped watching, stopped betting, stopped paying attention — and the beast would have fallen. Instead, with limited or no access to stadiums and arenas, millions still kept an eyeball on the games while trying to survive life. Never mind that a lack of crowd noise, the fluctuating roars and groans, made for awkward and often dull viewing experiences. Never mind that cardboard cutouts and canned sound created insulting TV caricatures. Never mind that some events, especially in the NBA and Major League Baseball and college sports, were unwatchable. Many folks kept tuning in anyway, and if the ratings were low and in some cases rock-bottom, having a game on was better for the industry than a test pattern. It was the American fan who prevented the American sports foundation from crumbling. Got it?

Notice how Curry — a man with seemingly everything, from immense wealth and family grounding to worldwide popularity — spoke reverently of the 2,000 or so folks allowed into Madison Square Garden for a recent Warriors-Knicks game. “There were some fans heckling, which was awesome,” he said. “Me and Draymond (Green) were talking about it. There’s no better feeling, I don’t care if it’s 19,000 or 2,500 or whatever it is: You love silencing a road crowd.”

See the newfound power YOU’VE accrued in COVID-19 absentia? Let’s hope this understanding will lead to a host of healthy lessons moving forward in sports. The operative word is perspective. Meaning, rather than transforming the games that people love into a perpetual money grab, it’s time the industry considers the fans first when making landmark business decisions.

Start with vaccinations. As I write this, only 9.9 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, but that hasn’t stopped leagues from ramping up their latest mad money rush: recklessly filling empty seats to generate ticket, concession, merchandise and parking revenues. I want to hurl. Let’s not advance the folly that sports events can resume in stadiums and arenas, with packed houses, while taking a half-assed approach to coronavirus vaccines — not requiring athletes and spectators to be inoculated. Otherwise, the virus will continue to endanger people and disrupt schedules, and the pandemic still will be with us. While understanding personal concerns about vaccines, particularly among Blacks and Hispanics, the thought of a locker room divided by vaxxers and anti-vaxxers only invites more infections, more quarantine periods, more missed games — and the possibility of internal dissension, if not a crippling postseason outbreak. As for the fans, a hopelessly split America means spectators in wide-open, mask-off states — such as Texas, which is whipping doors open to a potential 40,500 bodies for the Rangers’ home opener on April 5 — could be walking into superspreader events for months ahead.

Why would MLB allow this? Are the owners, most billionaires, so hard up for ballpark revenues after a dry 2020 that they’re prematurely risking the health of human beings? While 25 of the 30 teams have been approved to welcome fans, including five in California, most are being responsible, such as the 20 percent capacity allowed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot for the Cubs and White Sox. “As a diehard sports fan myself,” Lightfoot said, “I’m personally excited to have Chicago take its first, cautious steps toward safely reopening our beloved baseball stadiums to fans this season.”

That’s the proper approach. Same with California, which works off a tier system based on COVID-19 spread. If rates continue to decline, San Diego’s Petco Park might host 10,000 fans for Opening Day while Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, might have 11,000. The Rangers are being grossly irresponsible. “We’re very confident we won’t be a super-spreader event,” said team CEO Neil Leibman, referencing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to fully open the state. “With all the protocols that we’re following, we’ll be extremely responsible and provide a very comfortable environment for somebody to enjoy a game without worrying we’re going to be a spreader event.” Excuse me, but where’s the so-called MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred? Oh, he’s monitoring the outcry in hopes it won’t be too robust, so other franchises can invite capacity crowds and owners can begin to recoup $3.1 billion in lost revenues. The Baltimore Orioles received state approval to allow 50 percent capacity, or about 23,000 fans, at Camden Yards. The Colorado Rockies can have 21,000 at Coors Field.

Not safe.

Not yet.

But then, no one is forcing a fan to go. Remember, YOU’VE got the power. Watch it on TV. Save the money. Avoid the hassle. Elude the superspread.

Just as it’s uncertain how many MLB players will be inoculated, even as vaccines become readily available to all groups later this year, the NBA has a bigger problem. Some of the sport’s elite stars aren’t committed to taking vaccines, which could influence large percentages of players to follow suit. That would leave an indefinite pandemic cloud over the league.

“That’s a conversation that my family and I will have,” James said. “Pretty much keep that to a private thing.”

LeBron James says he plans to keep decision on whether or not he'll get the  COVID-19 vaccine 'private' - CBSSports.com

“That’s something that I am still thinking about, and I think every individual player, they’re their own person so they can decide if they’re going to get the vaccination or not,” James Harden said.

“I haven’t come to a decision yet,” Donovan Mitchell said. “I’m just trying to learn as much as I can about this vaccine first before I go ahead and make this decision.”

While family comes first, the fans aren’t far behind in the vaccine equation, either. For the NBA to keep producing an optimum product, COVID-19 infections must subside. That won’t happen if non-vaxxers are prevalent on rosters. Have the players considered who made them rich and famous — the fans — and that the league would be best served if they all were vaccinated and basketball life can carry on safely? Commissioner Adam Silver, coming off an ill-advised All-Star Game with dreadful ratings, knows a lingering virus could bury his league. “My hunch is that most players ultimately will choose to get vaccinated,” he said, wishfully. “They have to make personal decisions at the end of the day — and I take that very seriously; I take concerns very seriously. But my sense is most players will, ultimately, decide it is in their interest to get vaccinated.”

If they don’t, look no further than March Madness, where a team hit by an outbreak must forfeit and go home — Gonzaga, Baylor, any team — if it doesn’t have five healthy players for an NCAA tournament game. The NBA postseason, which was peculiar enough last year in the Disney World Bubble, doesn’t need more virus unpredictability.

Then there’s the abominable concept of tanking. When the fans stood by sports amid a crisis, how can any franchise have the gall to quit and impugn competitive integrity?

Or raise ticket prices?

Or, worse, how can a league become so preoccupied by a labor fight that it leads to a work stoppage? Can you imagine MLB, with maybe 10 of its 30 clubs interested in October success this season, asking fans to care anyway — then shutting down the sport in 2022?

I was on a radio show when Rudy Gobert tested positive, put the NBA on pause and changed sports forever. That was one year ago tonight. Since then, sports simply hasn’t mattered as much as it once did, and rightly so. Maybe it never will matter as much again. What does it all mean when you’re trying to get your arm jabbed while staying employed, keeping your family together and making sure your kids are schooled?

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The sports industry is challenged, then, to stop thinking it’s all about them — athletes and owners and executives — and realize the mission is completely about the fans and how to respectfully turn them into paying customers again. They did sports an extraordinary favor by not drifting away when their lives were disrupted. It was a gesture of good faith that a corrupt, greedy industry didn’t fully deserve.

And if sports screws up again?

It’s your ball now. Take it and go home.

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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