Sports will do what sports wants to do. It’s an unspoken prerogative of the American way, as shown through time by athletic entitlement and too many catch-me-if-you-can scandals, and the modus operandi is no different with summer turning to fall in the damndest year of our lives.
We are venturing into a new phase of the unknown — still vice-gripped by the pandemic, still one more George Floyd asphyxiation or Jacob Blake shooting from the possibility of mass violence. Yet sports carries on in its TV-revenue-sealed Bubble, figuratively and literally, floating above societal dishevelment and medical helplessness by dribbling, swinging, checking, racing, putting, punching, linesperson-whacking and, come Thursday night in Kansas City, tackling and spitting and bleeding and breathing in the face of all infectious disease logic.
The games and events come at us so quickly now — morning, afternoon and night — that we’ve almost grown used to the virtual big-headed fans, cardboard cutouts and canyon-esque echoes. And rather than talk about the weirdness, we’re once again talking about sports. Why did Novak Djokovic lose his cool, blast a ball that inadvertently struck a line judge in the throat and perhaps botch his ultimate place in tennis history? Have we misjudged the pedigree of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who might just limp away from Milwaukee as another postseason charlatan? Is that what I think it is on Pico Boulevard: a large billboard featuring Tom Brady and Drew Brees, hailing the start of Fox Sports’ live NFL coverage outside the network studios in Los Angeles? Are Bill Belichick and Cam Newton really having a lovefest in New England, and isn’t it being done to tick off Brady? And did Washington’s Mike Rizzo, maskless, become the first general manager ever to be ejected from a luxury suite for yelling at umpires?
“If it was Donald Trump, I’d eject him, too,’’ veteran crew chief Joe West told the Associated Press. “But I’d still vote for him.’’
Students can’t attend classes. Employees can’t report to workplaces. A big night is Netflix without the chill. Traveling beyond your street corner is all but verboten. Colossal cities have been ghosted. The coronavirus still sickens people of all ages, many on COVID-iot-infested college campuses, and still hospitalizes and kills in daily bulk. And Trump vs. Joe Biden? It reminds me of those gory MTV claymation brawls, where blood is copiously spilled and body parts are grossly ripped away — and neither one wins.
Yet inside Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs and Houston Texans will emerge like immune superheroes from the toxic haze — facial shields and masks optional — to entertain millions of NFL diehards, serious gamblers, fantasy players and casual onlookers while 16,000 spectators expectorate in the stands. This weekend, fans in three of college football’s Power Five conferences are itching to do the same in larger numbers. The feeling is exactly what one expects from an alpha-dog sport of machismo and self-assumed invincibility: All associated parties think their seasons will be completed in full, regardless of racial unrest and COVID-19, regardless of the Election From Hell and regardless of how the virus has derailed much of the Major League Baseball season in a sport that plays — like football — outside a restrictive environment and relies on athletes to obey protocols at home and on road trips.
“We are confident we’re going to be able to play, not just the start of our season but through the remainder of our season to the Super Bowl,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Does any of this make sense?
It does if you understand America, or what is left of it.
Unlike any other collective endeavor, football continues to move us, define us, unite us in big and small locales alike. It shouldn’t be that way — too violent, too much brain trauma, too many old men in charge — and it certainly shouldn’t be that way now, with the virus linked to heart issues and other health risks posing possible long-term consequences for young athletes. But if those who view football as a wholeness equation of religion, community and identity haven’t let concussions interfere with their fun to date, why would the virus dent one’s conscience? In their minds, the virus has yet to kill a prominent athlete or coach, which is more miraculous than any testament to the leagues outthinking science. So, they ask, why not play? Only the Big Ten and Pac-12, the two major football entities without footholds in the Deep South, chose health over wealth and safety over lifestyle. Which is why the sport, in a disturbing reflection about our nation, could have substantially more impact than merely providing appointment TV for homebound souls lacking the usual original programming options.
Football, and sports, might play a major role in who wins the election.
It was President Trump, remember, who arranged the conference call with the industry’s power brokers and urged them to play their seasons. And with the country dialed into sports in surprising numbers, a recent trend about to be fortified by sizable NFL ratings, Trump now is positioned to tell the American people that he pushed hard for the games to return and created a happier vibe. Never mind that the virus is capable of outbreaks at any time in any sport, Bubble-ized or otherwise, with football and baseball still most vulnerable. Or that the game boycotts staged after the Blake shooting could happen again, namely in the NFL, where Jerry Jones and other owners might balk if hundreds of players kneel during the national anthem for the entire season. Does Jones sound like a man who wants to see Cowboys players protesting, even as quarterback Dak Prescott says they have the freedom to decide for themselves? Will he allow a kneeling display on Sunday in L.A., then return to his hard-line stance?
“We all do understand where I stand relative to the national anthem and the flag. On the other hand, I really do recognize the time we’re in,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan. “I will assure you: Our players, they are sensitive to and can respect what America is as it relates to the flag. And I would hope that our fans, which I think that they will, will understand that our players have issues that they need help on. And they need help along with the majority of America. They need help.’’
Countered Cowboys defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford: “We definitely have the green light on all that. But also just try to find something that is going to make a boom and not just something people look at one time and kinda just swipe by. We want to do something that makes a boom and people remember and actually create some change.”
A boom. That’s exactly what Colin Kaepernick created, a movement that Jones and the league eventually quashed. If the NFL tries again to subdue the protests, yes, players could boycott games, a shutdown that could lead to athletes in other leagues doing the same, as seen last month. All while dangerous political lines are being drawn by clashing social ideologies, creating an election pressure cooker unlike any seen in this country.
So much could go wrong in the coming weeks. But if sports maintains a savvy equilibrium and continues to handle the challenges of racial injustice and the pandemic, the country could hum to the unprecedented rhythm of major champions being crowned across the landscape from now through mid-November — COVID-19 permitting, of course. Already, Trump has curried the favor of key Midwestern swing states by pushing hard for Big Ten football to return.
“On the one-yard line!’’ he tweeted after trying to petition Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren.
So imagine when he pops up on Twitter after every mega-event and hypothetically congratulates, in chronological order: trainer Bob Baffert for winning his sixth Kentucky Derby, Serena Williams for winning her 24th tennis Grand Slam, Dustin Johnson for winning golf’s U.S. Open, the Tampa Bay Lightning for winning a Stanley Cup, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat for winning the NBA title and the Los Angeles Dodgers for finally winning a World Series, while dropping the names of Brady and Dabo Swinney along the way. In Trump’s mind, that’s a recipe for re-election. And if that’s how it shakes down, we all should look for a one-way ride to Mars, because sports should have no impact on the most important vote in this nation’s history. Even more surreal: Many of the athletes the President would trumpet are urging Americans to vote — which is code for voting against Trump.
But with all previous normalcy seemingly gone forever, sports has been the one consistently familiar element of American life, even with no fans and canned noise. The NBA’s ratings have caught fire in the Disney World Bubble during an engaging postseason, with LeBron James in attack mode again and the East about to produce a surprise finalist. The coronavirus hasn’t been a factor so far, with family members joining players the past week, and there’s a good chance a championship will be decided in a few weeks — a scientific leap in time for commissioner Adam Silver and Disney Company chief Bob Iger. The NHL, too, has had a virus-free tournament in two Canadian sites. It’s the leagues not playing inside Bubbles, as the NFL and college football should note, that haven’t fared well.
The baseball season has been waylaid by positive virus tests. The latest team to have games postponed, the Oakland A’s, have no idea how pitcher Daniel Mengden contracted the coronavirus. “There was no breaking of protocols,” general manager David Forst said. “That’s frankly what’s scary about this virus.’’ At the chaotic U.S. Open in New York, the disqualification of Djokovic came after other players were sent home, having been exposed to COVID-19 during a card game at the players’ hotel. UFC and its virus-ignorant frontman, Dana White, staged a program with only seven fights because of the virus, its skimpiest card since 2005. And in college football, the Tennessee Volunteers, who expect 25,000 fans in Neyland Stadium for their home opener, canceled a scrimmage because 44 players were out — many sidelined by positive tests and contract tracing.
“I’m really glad we’re not playing today,’’ coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “We’d have had a hard time beating anybody.’’
Or, um, fielding a team.
Is anyone noticing the problems? Not really. In that vein, sports mirrors the attitude of Trump, who never has taken the virus seriously, botched America’s medical response, encouraged untold millions not to wear masks and, thus, gave much hope to the Democrats. If this sounds hypocritical — a sports world that turns around and protests Trump when players kneel and boycott games, leagues that protest Trump when they support those players — well, the double standard shouldn’t surprise you. Sports wants it both ways, ripping Trump when racial inequality is the issue and embracing Trump when he greases the political skids for sport’s grand resumption of 2020. And when influential media companies hold major financial stakes in the pickup of the sports economy, they strategically downplay coverage of COVID-19’s impact and emphasize regular sports coverage — whetting the appetites of fans and gamblers. ESPN was much more interested in the Eagles’ move of Jason Peters back to left tackle than why Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward left a game feeling lightheaded and short of breath.
So what if 6.3 million Americans have contracted the virus and close to 200,000 have died from it? Just bury that COVID-19 stuff, say the bosses. It’s not good for business or the bottom line. Tell them how the L.A. Rams are opening a $6 billion stadium and that Patrick Mahomes signed a $503 million contract.
Which also is known as lying to the readers. I must have missed the semester in journalism school when they taught Deception For Business Purposes 401.
In a supply-and-demand industry, the TV ratings show that people have missed live games. But if they’re watching more basketball, less baseball, some hockey and golf and almost no tennis, they certainly will watch the NFL in droves. And the league will keep telling us that few players, if any, are testing positive for the coronavirus, which will lead to questions about transparency. The owners have 17 billion reasons to downplay COVID-19 outbreaks, while hiding behind privacy laws that protect infected parties, and when we saw a disproportionate number of injuries during secretive training camps, I was left to ask how many involved positive tests. The same suspicions surround college football, where Penn State’s team doctor said one-third of Big Ten athletes who’ve contracted the virus have had symptoms associated with myocarditis, a heart condition that could endanger long-term health.
The games go on anyway, bulldozing through the American muck in a parallel universe, reminding us often that there have been no virus-related casualties. Those delusions mirror those of the President, meaning sports and Trump are bedfellows, dependent on each other as a country hunkers down for football. If we’re sitting here on Nov. 1 — and sports somehow has staged seasons without tumult, as millions of entertained Americans whoop and holler — is it possible enough segments of our divided and battered republic will like the glow just enough to think about re-electing the incumbent? Just the same, if COVID-19 outbreaks and racial protests shut down sports, will it be the final avalanche that buries Trump and rewards Biden?
In a year when everything has happened, isn’t anything still possible?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
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.
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.
- 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.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
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.
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.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
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.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.