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Political Football Disrupts Mahomes’ Charmed Life

In a glimpse of NFL turbulence ahead, the Houston Texans boycotted two anthems while superstar Patrick Mahomes did not kneel and fans booed, kicking off an election season that keeps score for the wrong reasons.

Jay Mariotti

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If only this was an ordinary kickoff to another NFL season, a chance to celebrate the humble audacity and babyfaced artistry of Patrick Mahomes. If only this was an ode to how he took over the league at 24, signed a $450 million contract during a pandemic, picked up his Super Bowl ring the day he gave his high-school sweetheart an engagement ring, bought a piece of a major-league baseball team, rocked the endorsement industry and still found time to put ketchup on his mac and cheese.

But try as we did Thursday night to focus on a real, rootable American superhero during an actual football game, the heat from the political blast furnace already was engulfing the country. If this was a kickoff, it started the clock on an eight-week tornado of social mayhem unlike any this land has seen. President Trump had warned NFL players not to protest during the national anthem, and this time he wasn’t lying, as he was last spring when he purposely downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus, explaining now, “I don’t want to jump up and down and shout `death, death.’ I have to lead a country.” Part of his posture on leadership is to ask Black athletes to shut up, stand for the national anthem, play football and set aside outrage about racial injustice and police brutality.

“If they don’t stand for the national anthem,’’ said Trump, “I hope they don’t open.’’

Well, the NFL opened. And America instantly became entangled in more upheaval, divided by pre-game events that mirrored our ideological chasm. Tears in his eyes, Mahomes did not kneel as Colin Kaepernick once did, standing with all but one of his Kansas City Chiefs teammates for the “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ minutes after they had stood, arms locked, for “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,’’ the traditional Black national anthem to be played before NFL games. If Trump and his supporters surely approved that only defensive end Alex Okafor took a knee, they might have blanched when the Houston Texans boycotted both anthems by remaining in the locker room, with a team executive saying the players wanted “no misinterpretation of them celebrating one song and throwing shade on the other.’’ The Chiefs also left the field after both anthems and were booed — yes, booed — on the night the team raised a Super Bowl championship banner for the first time in 50 years. When the teams returned, they locked arms in a “show of unity’’ in the middle of the field just before kickoff, with fans continuing to boo in a largely empty stadium in the heartland.

An hour earlier, there was another jolting reminder that the activism is only beginning: Miami Dolphins players announced they’ll also stay inside for both songs, criticizing the NFL’s unification efforts as “empty gestures’’ and apparently unimpressed with how the league has painted “IT TAKES ALL OF US’’ in one end zone and “END RACISM’’ at the opposite end of all fields. “This attempt to unify only creates more divide. So we’ll skip this song and dance, and as a team we’ll stay inside,” Miami players said in a video. “We need changed hearts, not just a response to pressure. Enough, no more fluff and empty gestures. We need owners with influence and pockets bigger than ours to call up officials and flex political power.”

Said Dolphins coach Brian Flores, one of the league’s three Black head coaches: “We’ll just stay inside.’’

It was a potent message to the NFL’s 32 owners, 30 of whom are white: The protests will last as long as the players want them to last. Next thing you knew, there was an image of Joe Biden on the NBC broadcast, in a paid advertisement that excoriated Trump and urged America to “start fresh.’’

So off we go, political football intercepting the NFL season before it barely started. The face of the NFL, Mahomes, suddenly is a sellout, some will say, after a hot summer in which athletes in all sports kneeled and even boycotted games in protest. It’s unavoidable that people keep score in this regard, given the national condition, yet just as it’s a player’s right to kneel after centuries of racial inequality, it’s Mahomes’ right to stand. Problem is, Trumpers will see it as a victory — and the Democrats as a loss — that the superstar quarterback of the defending league champions did not kneel in Arrowhead Stadium, where a swirl of protests, infectious disease anxieties and America’s most popular sport converged with typical 2020 weirdness.

It was Mahomes, remember, who was front and center in the dramatic June video of players calling out the NFL for racial inequality. It prompted commissioner Roger Goodell, the very next day, to finally condemn racism after turning a deaf ear during the Kaepernick-led protests. Now, Mahomes wasn’t kneeling? He knew he couldn’t win whatever he did. “I’m going do whatever I believe and what I believe is right and I’m going to do whatever I can to fight for equality for all people,’’ he said. “I’m going to continue that fight and I’m not worried about people and how they’re going to do negative stuff back to me. I’m worried about doing what’s right for humanity and making sure that all people feel equal.”

The nation is talking over him today. How about listening to Mahomes? He wants change, and if he thinks standing is a better call than kneeling, it’s his call and his life. “It has become something where it’s whether or not you’re going to kneel instead of what the reason why the kneeling began in the beginning, which was social injustice and police brutality,” he said. “And I feel that’s been the biggest thing: It’s not necessarily the gesture, but we’re trying to fix something, we’re trying to make it where it’s equal, everybody feels safe, everybody feels secure, everybody can go about living their lives and they really, truly care about the person next to him. Every single time you get interviewed or you go out and you’re in public, people are asking, `Are you going to kneel, are you not going to kneel?’ They’re not asking about the actual injustices that you’re trying to fix and what you’re trying to help the community with.”

Was he shocked to hear boos? “Being out there, honestly, I didn’t hear a lot of booing,’’ said Mahomes, wisely avoiding a public flap. “I wanted to show unity. We wanted to come together and fight the good fight. I hope our fans will keep supporting us.’’

Said Texans coach Bill O’Brien: “I thought that that was a nice thing to do, so I’m not sure why they would boo that.’’

What’s sad is that Mahomes is as cool and grounded as advertised. He just wants to outwork, outthink and outperform the competition, as he showed again in throwing for three touchdowns in a 34-20 victory that suggests the Chiefs could repeat as champs. “There’s a reason the guy has the accolades and the money he does,’’ Texans star J.J. Watt said after Mahomes spread the field and used multiple weapons, including breakout rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Just as he didn’t ask to be the King of Football, it’s unfair at his age to ask Mahomes to orchestrate reform against systemic racism, much less take a knee. He is all “about love,’’ working beforehand with Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson in how the teams stood united after the anthems. The boos were disconcerting — did Kansas City look and sound racist on a night of civic pride? — but they weren’t surprising. Unity, after all, never has been a more elusive goal.

We await the Sunday protests and reaction of Trump, which will trigger how some conservative NFL owners respond about possible repercussions if players kneel or stay in locker rooms. Goodell insists the league supports any decision by the players, including game boycotts, but the owner with the most influence, Dallas’ Jerry Jones, has sent scattered messages, asking Cowboys fans in one breath to “understand that our players have issues that they need help on,’’ then asking players “to be very sensitive to just how important it is to the majority of our fans, more than any other team … in recognizing what this great country is and what this flag stands for. Everybody knows where I stand. And there’s no equivocation there at all.” Jones will allow players to protest Sunday night in a new, spectator-less, $6-billion stadium in Los Angeles. He’ll throw a fit if there’s another such display days later in Texas.

Each NFL week, from now until early November, will bring new political winds. Giants owner John Mara is supportive of the players at the moment, saying, “I’m going to support your right to do that because I believe in the First Amendment, and I believe in the right of people, especially players, to take a knee in silent protest if that’s what they want to do.’’ But how will he and others feel if it’s happening in Week 8?

At least we had football again. This was an unprecedented day in U.S. sports history — never before had the NFL, NBA, NHL, WNBA, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and tennis’ U.S. Open played on the same date. But the opening of football, the American lifeblood, was bigger than just another sports event. It was the nation’s self-worth on stage — resilient and brave against the ongoing threats of civil unrest and the coronavirus. “America needed it. I needed it,’’ NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said.

What Collinsworth couldn’t do was execute his trademark “slide’’ into the camera shot as the broadcast opened with partner Al Michaels. That’s because of social distancing protocols that weren’t obeyed by all Chiefs fans, in defiance of rules required masks of the 16,000-plus allowed in the 76,500-seat stadium. NBC’s Liam McHugh wasn’t through with his first pre-game report when a maskless fan leaned into view. Will the Chiefs enforce the law by ejecting the fan? Or is the protocol just more of the same lip service from a league that thinks it’s above COVID-19? The league has successfully prevented an early spread of the virus by agreeing to test players daily and keeping them inside “32 bubbles,’’ as Goodell puts it.

But now that players from opposing teams finally have spent three hours in full tackle mode, breathing and expectorating on each other, we’ll await the next test results. That is, assuming the league is transparent and not hiding data to avoid panic — which is what Trump did last spring, right?

I applaud Chiefs coach Andy Reid for trying to combat COVID-19 with a face shield attached to his red cap. Unfortunately, the plastic fogged up on a wet night. “It was a bit of a mess. We’ll get that cleaned up,’’ he said.

Besides, he had a more important message. Asked about the boos, Reid said, “I thought that was kind of a neat deal, both sides coming together for a cause, and the story was told there. We can all learn from this, and really it’s just to make us all better, even a stronger country than we already are. We have a chance to just be completely unstoppable when all hands join together, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Completely unstoppable.

Have we heard anything so inspiring from either presidential candidate?

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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