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Sports or Politics? Flip-Flopper ESPN Can’t Decide What It Is

“Desperate for eyeballs, the network has re-embraced the social justice commentary it abandoned in 2018, yet it’s wrong to downplay coverage of a pandemic that could shut down sports.”

Jay Mariotti

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The first sign of trouble for any desperate company is the complete, amnesia-based 180. Wasn’t it only two years ago when ESPN decided it needed less Colin Kaepernick, Jemele Hill and activism? Now, ESPN and Walt Disney Company want more Kaepernick, Hill and activism — and once Bob Iger and Jimmy Pitaro stop teetering like Bobbleheads in a windstorm, perhaps they’ll start to think again about what their viewers want.

Sports.

I thought ESPN finally had grasped as much when Iger hired Pitaro to replace John Skipper, who’d become more a ‘60s hippie than a sports network president. Not long ago, in the fall of 2018, Iger communicated a sea change from his perch as Disney chief executive when he told the Hollywood Reporter: “There’s been a big debate about whether ESPN should be focused more on what happens on the field of sport than what happens in terms of where sports is societally or politically. And Jimmy felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field. And I happen to believe he was right.”

They WERE right. Until they weren’t.

Colin Kaepernick Partners with Disney to Develop More Diverse Stories

Anyone who knows me realizes this isn’t some shallow fanboy directive to “stick to sports.’’ Never have I stuck to sports, as evidenced by recent columns and podcasts, including a takedown of a creepy bigot at Barstool Sports and my hope that sports continues to attack racism while ignoring President Trump’s tweeting barrages. In ESPN’s case, it’s an exercise in understanding the expectations of your traditional audience — the daily digest of sports — and not straying awkwardly as a miscast political commentary machine. But that’s about to be reprised after Kaepernick, with Bristol-ousted Hill as his lead producer, cut a lucrative deal to create “scripted and unscripted stories that explore race, social injustice and the quest for equity.’’ A featured project will be an ESPN documentary series on Kaepernick, the quarterback-turned-civil-rights-force, that is sure to stretch for weeks like “The Last Dance’’ blockbuster.

Again, there is a reason millions of people watch CNN, Fox News and agenda-driven news channels. It is not the reason people watch ESPN, even now, in a volatile and divided America.

No doubt there is ample room at the network for content that continues to expose systemic racism, a monumental theme of this culture-crushing 2020. But to flip-flop so abruptly as a policy-maker smacks of opportunism in the crumbling house of Iger, whose entertainment empire has been devastated by the pandemic — Hollywood, sports, amusement parks — and can rely only so much on Michael Jordan and the streaming debut of “Hamilton’’ amid abysmal third-quarter fiscal numbers. When in doubt, tap Kaepernick. When in doubt, have Stephen A. Smith lambaste Trump for foolishly suggesting the noose in Bubba Wallace’s Talladega garage was “just another HOAX.’’ When in doubt, have other personalities weigh in on racial injustice. To be clear, those are important content elements at all times, not just in the current climate.

But when juxtaposed against Iger’s comments less than two years ago, the sudden embrace of race — anew — comes off not as a natural function but a push to bring eyeballs and relevance to a network with no live sports and ratings that faintly recall the fledgling days of tractor pulls and Irish hurling. Race has become the dominant topical substance of the network and its accompanying news site when, suspiciously, ESPN has been mostly hands-off in critical commentary about the resumption of sports.

Why would that be? Oh, because ESPN is a business partner of Major League Baseball, which is botching early COVID-19 testing protocols the way it botches everything else it touches. One by one, the prominent likes of Mike Trout and Kris Bryant have voiced an alarming lack of confidence in commissioner Rob Manfred and his ability to launch an abbreviated 60-game season, much less complete a World Series in late October. Said Bryant: “What we agreed to was testing every other day, and we’ve had guys who showed up on (June 28) and hadn’t got tested again (until) seven days later. And you don’t get the results until two days later. That’s nine days without knowing. If we want this to succeed, we have to figure this out. I wanted to play this year because I thought it would be safe. Honestly, I don’t really feel that.”

Disney names Bob Chapek CEO; Iger to chair board through 2021 ...

How did ESPN respond to the flurry of concerns, opt-outs, positive virus tests and protocol buffoonery? Tamely, with a wishy-washy request for patience from baseball insider Jeff Passan. We’re only talking about a deadly health crisis here, folks. Why not apply the same heat on Manfred that Stephen A. directs at Trump? Oh, maybe because ESPN was busy leading its site with the 2020 MLB schedule, including two opening night matchups: Yankees-Nationals, Giants-Dodgers.

“ESPN will broadcast both games,’’ ESPN reported.

Expect an even longer editorial runway for the NBA, which literally is beholden to Iger for offering Walt Disney World as the league’s medically contained bubble. There will be problems, including players who stray from protocol or want to go home, and a possible lack of transparency concerning infected players. What if LeBron James tests positive? Or Giannis Antetokounmpo? Will the public ever know? Will the league cite a sprained toe? With the NBA restricting bubble access to merely a few hand-picked media people, ESPN’s reporting presence becomes more urgent. But if commissioner Adam Silver asks his network bedfellows to withhold sensitive information, does anyone have faith that journalism will prevail when the league and network are trying to recoup billions?

Tuesday, Silver acknowledged concern that more positive virus tests once players are sequestered in the bubble could jeopardize the season — “in essence (putting) a hole in our bubble,’’ he said. This should have been the lead story on ESPN.com. It was not.

Pro football, the ultimate contact sport and uniquely vulnerable to a massive coronavirus spread, has little chance of launching a season in September. You wouldn’t know it watching ESPN, which minimized a story in which NFL Players Association president JC Tretter said the league “is unwilling to prioritize player safety and believes the virus will bend to football.’’ Of course, ESPN was all over the record-smashing contract extension of Patrick Mahomes, as well as the anti-Semitic messages posted by Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, whose direct superiors in Philadelphia — owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman — are Jewish. Both were major stories. But any bigger than a union leader suggesting the NFL is intentionally risking players’ lives?

Q&A with the 'First Take' duo of Stephen A. Smith and Max ...

Brainwashing, I call it. The heavy coverage of racial issues should be flanked by equally heavy coverage of the pandemic, which will continue to threaten the future of sports — and ESPN’s existence — until a vaccine is approved and distributed, which could be years away. For almost four months now, Bristol has wanted you to believe the return of sports is imminent. “LIGHT AT END OF TUNNEL,’’ flashed a graphic atop a “First Take’’ chat this week about the NFL. There is no light, of course, but there was a statement from Iger about Kaepernick, contradicting his words of 22 months earlier.

“During this unprecedented time, The Walt Disney Company remains committed to creating diverse and inclusive content that resonates and matters,” he said. “Colin’s experience gives him a unique perspective on the intersection of sports, culture and race, which will undoubtedly create compelling stories that will educate, enlighten and entertain, and we look forward to working with him on this important collaboration.”

What I want Bob Iger to do is explain, to his core ESPN audience, why COVID-19 is anathema to a $200 billion sports industry and his once-almighty network. Seems telling the truth would be bad for business.

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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