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Is Anyone Concerned About The Athletes?

“Through wildfire smoke, protest backlash, Covid uncertainty, collegiate mind-changing and in-game silence, the players deserve praise — salaries and all — for how they’re handling the heavy challenges of 2020.”

Jay Mariotti

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We should worry about firefighters, Covid-19 frontliners, the homeless, the maskless. We should worry about police encounters on the streets and what could happen next. We should worry about the long-term economy, climate change, the air that has me dry-heaving in California. We should worry about young people, parents, teachers and what kind of life a 20-year-old is looking at in America The Pitiful no matter who is president.

Athletes? We’re not supposed to worry about them, especially those who’ve resumed making one-percenter salaries. Clippers fans might argue that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are worthy of voodoo pins after their Game 7 washout, but, please, this is much bigger than outcomes and so-called curses. I cover sports, have for a long time. And I’m stunned by what the players are dealing with as leagues across the landscape, hellbent to complete seasons, begin to recoup the ample revenues once thought lost.

Imagine being a Black athlete and thinking 2020 finally has brought measures of truth and justice to social inequality — only to hear the White face of Old Man Football, Mike Ditka, ordering you to leave the country if you protest racism and police brutality during the national anthem. “You don’t like the game, get out of it. It’s not for protesting one way or the other. What color you are, what you think, this or that. You play football. That’s it. You’re privileged,’’ said Ditka, who turns 81 next month and has lost touch. “I would tell those players: Go to another country and play football there. You don’t have to come out if you go to another country. You can’t! Because the game’s only played in this country. And if you can’t respect this country, get the hell out of it.”

Sigh.

Imagine being on a baseball team forced to play a doubleheader in the city with the world’s worst air, Seattle, where it’s surprising none of the Mariners or A’s didn’t suffocate in the smoky haze hanging over the field. Check back to see how many suffered lung damage. “I’m a healthy 22-year-old. I shouldn’t be gasping for air or missing oxygen when I’m getting to the line. I’ll leave it at that,’’ said A’s pitcher Jesus Luzardo, among many asking why the games proceeded, under the retractable sort-of-roof of an outdoor/indoor ballpark, when air quality was measured at a “very unhealthy’’ 233. Why is Major League Baseball unfazed by the historic wildfires that left a freakish orange glaze over both Bay Area ballparks and impacted all teams based on the West Coast? Oh, because commissioner Rob Manfred is a madman who will risk the health of others — but not his — to bum-rush a regular season that leads to a nearly $1-billion TV payout in October. Never mind that the postseason would include a Bubble in southern California and possibly four of the state’s five teams.

Cough, hack, wheeze.

Imagine being a professional athlete tested regularly for the coronavirus yet wondering if the leagues have been transparent and forthright about the results. The NFL is swabbing daily and insists the players are Covid-free, but with teams operating outside a single isolated Bubble and traveling to road games, isn’t an MLB-like outbreak inevitable? How serious is the NFL when Rams coach Sean McVay is allowed to work the sideline most of a game with a mask worn under his chin? Why did the league wait until the next day to admonish him? And when Manfred mentions having fans at postseason games and a World Series in Texas, isn’t he, uh, defeating the purpose of finally placing players in a Bubble setting starting next week, when playoff contenders are quarantined in hotels for seven days? In the sport in which players have most often flouted protocols, you’re inviting fans who might not obey protocols themselves, some after traveling long distances from other places? And mixing them all together?

WTF?

Imagine being a college football player, unpaid and impressionable, having to trust power freaks who run the biggest programs and university presidents thirsting to reap the financial bonanzas. Ed Orgeron, coach of defending national champion LSU, isn’t considering the long-range health dangers that accompany Covid. Sounding uninformed and almost diabolical, he actually hopes his team achieves herd immunity — though he clearly doesn’t understand what that may or may not mean. “Not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it. I think that hopefully they won’t catch it again, and hopefully they’re not out for games,’’ he said. “Hopefully that once you catch it, you don’t get it again. I’m not a doctor.’’ Then why is he trying to play one? Know how many college football coaches are playing hocus-pocus with players’ lives? And their loved ones? And the students they associate with — and party with — on Covid-ravaged campuses? The Big Ten had been one of the two wise conferences not playing, yet there were those presidents, voting to return in October, kids be damned.

Help.

And imagine being a player in the NBA or NHL, sequestered in restrictive environments since July. Covid has been kept out of the Bubbles and Igloos, infection-free so far as family members visit the (Adam) Silverdome, but it will take a grounded soul to survive isolation and lead a team to a title. Is it any wonder LeBron James is best equipped mentally to hoist a trophy with the Lakers next month? “Meditating helps a lot for me personally with taking a lot of deep breaths, closing my eyes and just centering myself and listening to my inner self,’’ he said. “That definitely is something that keeps me sane in the Bubble.” As opposed to George, who lost himself inside the Bubble, as have others not as willing to discuss it.

Aummmmm.

Through it all, the athletes are expected to perform at optimum levels and entertain us as we sit in the relative safety of our homes. And they’re doing so in front of only smatterings of spectators, if any, in stadiums and Bubbles. We shouldn’t feel sorry for them because they work in silence; consider the daunting plights of the aforementioned. But it’s another stark departure from normalcy that requires them to find inspiration from within in spooky surroundings. Sports Business Journal provided a rundown of comments after Week 1.

“There’s just no excitement. There’s just no energy from an outside source,’’ Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said.

“ “You definitely could hear the defense and hear what they’re calling,’’ Ravens receiver Marquise Brown said.

“It felt like a scrimmage out there,’’ said Tom Brady, who wished the game hadn’t mattered.

“Even that little buzz in the stadium that they create in between plays, it just feels like a whisper compared to what it normally is,’’ said Drew Brees, who had enough Superdome familiarity to beat Brady and Tompa Bay.

The eerie stillness was best captured by Bill Belichick, who said of the fan-less atmosphere in New England: “Practice. It’s like scrimmaging the Titans, or scrimmaging Detroit, or scrimmaging the teams we scrimmage. I mean there were a few fans there, but basically there are no fans there and it’s just competition. There’s some energy from your teammates and your own energy. It is what is. That’s what it’s like out there in practice.’’

The game-day experience is formidable, starting with the pre-game decisions about protests. Who’s kneeling? Who’s standing? Who’s staying back in the locker room? What is Colin Kaepernick going to tweet next? What other advocate of President Trump will lash out like DItka? What are they saying on TV? Kaepernick’s latest tweet condemning commissioner Roger Goodell — “… the NFL runs propaganda about how they care about Black life …’’ — was followed by a tweet from his former kneeling partner, Eric Reid, who wrote this about the league’s treatment of Kaepernick: “What the @NFL is doing is half-hearted at best. @nflcommish has gotten comfortable saying he “was wrong” as if his mere acknowledgement reconciles his admitted wrongdoing. He hasn’t even called Colin to apologize, let alone reconcile, proving this is only PR for the current business climate. As such, Roger Goodell uses video of Colin courageously kneeling to legitimize their disingenuous PR while simultaneously perpetuating systemic oppression, that the video he’s using fights against, by continuing to rob Colin of his career. It’s diabolical.’’

Thus, the protests remain front and center on the NFL stage, as the first presidential debate nears. On the day Ditka’s tirade went viral, another fixture of Old Man Chicago culture, Dan McNeil, was fired for a noxious tweet. He compared the outfit of ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor, who is Black, to that of a host for an adult film awards show. Proud day for Chicago, Chicago, that doddering town. How would you like to be a Black athlete in that racially polarized, kid-murdering city?

At least the games are being watched by home viewers. But other than the Brees-Brady game, ratings are down in the NFL, where prime-time metrics from the initial Sunday and Thursday nights — featuring Patrick Mahomes, the Cowboys and the vast Los Angeles market — is causing anxiety at NBC. At ESPN, the “Monday Night Football’’ doubleheader was a ratings disaster. This follows lower numbers for NBA games and staples such as U.S. Open tennis and the Kentucky Derby. Is Trump right when he says most Americans are weary of pre-game protests? Are the games just too ragged and sloppy? It’s too early to make sweeping judgments, but two weeks into Sportsapalooza — the 10-week cornucopia of championship events and meaningful games unlike any stretch in American history — our national depression clearly has seeped into sports.

Something is lost when the Heat win a thriller — Jimmy Butler hits a shot, followed by Bam Adebayo’s soaring rejection of Jayson Tatum’s flying dunk attempt — and there is no visceral reaction from spectators. It was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, but it felt like a Summer League thing, players walking off the floor to a minimum of sound. To quote two troubadours from the past, silence like a cancer grows.

You don’t have to feel sorry for athletes. But I do.

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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