What we’re about to experience, coronavirus permitting, are ballgames on mushrooms. It’s the best the pandemic can do to lift our battered beings from America’s daily morass, one that has left us alternately numb, angry and slap-happy. If NBA players aren’t being tested for recreational drugs in their Disney World Snitch Bubble, it’s only fair that fans get stoned as they warily enter the new sports twilight zone Thursday.
That’s when a COVID-19 testing site in Los Angeles, formerly known as Dodger Stadium, moonlights as an Opening Night TV studio.
Artificial crowd noise will be piped in from a video game and equipped with 75 effects and reactions, which is so typical of Major League Baseball, lying instead of embracing innovation and miking up players. Camera shots will be tight to avoid showing vacant caverns. The house organ and walk-up music will be eerie. And cardboard cutouts as fans? At least they won’t be hospitalized or killed by screaming foul balls, just pelted with holes. Wrigley Field looked like a vacant movie set Sunday night, sad and hollow, a reminder that sports never should take fans for granted in the live experience
But even if it seems like something Will Smith stumbled upon in “I Am Legend,’’ it’s still baseball of some sort. Not that it’s safe in the least, as underscored by the fears of Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, the most prominent of many players who’ve shuttled back and forth after battling the virus. “I was just scared to go to bed,’’ said Freeman, whose fever reached 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit. “I was scared if I spiked even higher when I was sleeping, what would happen.’’ He was scared of dying, but, hey, get your ass out there and play ball! DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees called his positive test “a scary experience’’ though he had no symptoms. Know this going in: Chances are, the 60-game season will be shuttered by outbreaks because, unlike Bubble life, players will be vulnerable to virus transmission in the 18 hours they aren’t at the park daily.
The Canadian government is locking the Blue Jays out of Toronto, not wanting players to catch anything in the contaminated U.S. The geopolitical quagmire requires the club to play home games in … Buffalo? L.A. County still might force Dodgers players to quarantine 14 days — along with me and anyone else who lives here — if contact tracing so demands, meaning the World Series favorites would be at a competitive disadvantage in an area where more than 4,000 died last week from the virus. “It’s not going be to like anything else we’ve done,’’ said Clayton Kershaw, “but at the same time, we’re all going through it on an exactly level playing field.’’
Maybe not, big guy. How can MLB begin to stage a realistic season if the logistical field is uneven? Answer: the $4 billion that owners are frantically trying to recoup from desperate broadcast networks, with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf — a man for whom few feel sorry — telling USA Today he has incurred losses “in the nine figures’’ from his MLB and NBA franchises. The face of baseball, Mike Trout, probably won’t play much, if at all, prioritizing his wife’s August pregnancy. Other major names are staying home; more will join them in coming weeks. Rosters will be so depleted, the season could become illegitimate before they even juice the balls. And given how the so-called commissioner, Rob Manfred, has been an abysmal failure in normal times, imagine what chaos awaits amid a health crisis. Yet, bastardized as it all is, we’re going to try and watch these games, if only for a few days, because, you know, we need a friggin’ escape hatch.
Oh, how we need a diversion from mask warfare, Daniel Snyder, the disturbing notion of Black anti-Semitism, the sin of athletes getting quick test results when many commoners cannot, a vomit-inducing NFL labor battle over still-absent virus protocols, wealthy coaches who push for a college football season while asking unpaid young men to assume health risks, the continuation of insensitive nicknames after “Redskins’’ was purged, the hypocrisy of prospective Mets owner Alex Rodriguez advocating an MLB salary cap after earning $450 million during his playing career, Tiger Woods’ balky back, upheaval in the media world and the creep who secretly recorded Rachel Nichols in her hotel room, the latest bit of madness from the burning house of ESPN, which actually seems nuttier than the White House.
“America needs baseball,’’ declared the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
Actually, America needs baseball to get away from President Trump, who created this godforsaken medical mess even as he tries to blame and stonewall the good doctor, Anthony Fauci. I’m not sure anyone cares what happens in these ballgames, but at least we have something to watch on ESPN, which actually ran two Eagles concerts in prime time, channeling Zach Ertz through Joe Walsh.
And America needs to get away from the evil Snyder, who finally faces a national reckoning as the derelict NFL owner who flouted a racist nickname and allowed a culture of sexual harassment and piggery. Somehow, in the nation’s capital, he employed enough cavemen in his hierarchy to prompt 15 women to voice serious allegations, leading to numerous firings in another dark moment for the Washington franchise. Alex Santos was dismissed as pro personnel director after Rhiannon Walker, a reporter for The Athletic, accused him of inappropriate advances, telling her she “had a little wagon for an ass’’ and that she “wore the f— out of the jeans’’ she wore one day. In what world is a man like this allowed to be gainfully employed?
In his usual weenie way, he recruited a female lawyer, Beth Wilkinson, and empowered her firm “to do a full, unbiased investigation and make any and all requisite recommendations.’’ Then he recruited his wife, Tanya, to co-draft an apology that was emailed to all employees, saying the details in a Washington Post report have “no place in our franchise or society.’’ But it’s hard to believe an owner, even one as clueless as Snyder, didn’t have some idea of the toxic climate in his front office. As the man responsible for such abuses, Snyder should be forklifted out of his perch by league owners. That won’t happen; Snyder was not accused directly in the allegations, and the influential Jerry Jones, for one, is a Snyder pal who has indulged in his own piggery.
Though the league condemned the franchise in a statement — saying the alleged behavior is “serious, disturbing and contrary to the NFL’s values’’ — expect a fat fine, which is a wrist slap for a billionaire whose team is worth $3.1 billion. Settlements with victims will cost Snyder considerably more, and if he were smart, he would sell the team before he botches the next nickname. He’s fortunate to have a respected fixer in Ron Rivera, who is running the football operation and coaching the team and produced the defining quote of the debacle.
“My daughter works for the team,’’ he said, “and I sure as hell am not going to allow any of this!”
But then, the NFL is too busy playing loose and free with COVID-19, announcing that a couple of thousand players are due in training camps next week. There isn’t a health protocol in sight, a frightening thought in a close-contact sport with no chance of physical distancing, prompting players — including the increasingly vocal Patrick Mahomes — to blast the league in a tweeting ambush. “The league is in charge of opening and closing the plant. We ask, `Is it safe?’ ‘’, said J.C. Tretter, president of the NFL Players Association. “It’s up to the NFL to make those decisions on when we open. Every decision we make that doesn’t look at the long term of getting through the whole season will set us up for failure.’’ All of which is code for ugly negotiations ahead. I’d be shocked to see an NFL season.
Same goes for college football, with LSU coach Ed Orgeron declaring this during a roundtable discussion with — how’s this for a duo? — Vice President Mike Pence: “We need to play. This state needs it. This country needs it. This (the coronavirus) can be handled. I don’t think we can take this away from our players, take this away from our state and our country. We need football. Football is the lifeblood of our country.’’
America doesn’t need football. America needs to get well, to keep ICU beds from filling up, to stop people from dying. But don’t tell Coach O. He and Dabo Swinney think they’re bigger than any old pandemic.
Tensions also are inevitable inside the NBA Bubble, where players and coaches accustomed to the best in life are isolated for weeks and months. The Snitch Line — the league’s anonymous hotline used to report those breaking protocol — already is causing problems, with Dwight Howard upset to have received more attention for not wearing a mask and being the only player at a league party than social injustice crimes. “Breonna Taylor, the people who did the heinous incident against her, they’re still free,” said Howard, who had thought about not joining the Lakers in Orlando. “They’re out there living their best life. Instead of worrying about if I have my mask on or not, that’s something we should be discussing. Why haven’t these people been brought in? Why haven’t they been charged for anything or arrested for what they’ve done? Instead of the topics being about who’s not wearing a mask in the bubble, who was at the DJ party, who wasn’t — all of these things seem entertaining. But we’re not going to forget about what’s going on around our world.
“Those cops, one of the cops just posted a picture of himself at the beach. How could you have a conscience? You just killed somebody. And you’re out at the beach with women. You killed a woman. And you’re out at the beach with some more women having a good old time. You know, that’s not right. There’s families out there mourning, white and black who’ve been killed by cops. Been killed through different things. The topic of discussion is who doesn’t have a mask on and people snitching. Let’s not forget why we are here.’’ I echo his thoughts. Still, Howard must wear a mask.
Without much to cover since March, the sports media industry has gone gnarly, too, turning on each other within their own companies. We realize ESPN can be a petty place, but what prompted someone, presumably employed by the network, to record Nichols in her hotel room inside the NBA Bubble and send the audio to a sleazy site? This wacknut was trying to sabotage Nichols, host of “The Jump’’ program, and portray her as a backstabber as she discussed company affairs, including broadcasting assignments for the NBA postseason. Again, in what world is such a person allowed to be gainfully employed?
ESPN’s world. This in a week when the network’s NBA insider, Adrian Wojnarowski, was suspended without pay for only two weeks after sending a “F— you’’ Woj Bomb to a Missouri senator. Insane place, Bristol. Anyone running the joint? Other major media organizations are dealing with internal coups, including the New York Times and L.A. Times, where the sports staff crafted a letter to the executive editor, Norman Pearlstine, outlining what it sees as ethical issues involving columnist Arash Markazi. The Times hired Markazi to emphasize, among other millennial subjects, social media — making him more Billy Bush than Bill Plaschke, which didn’t go over well with old-school writers and editors. Nor did it humor them that Markazi was getting more media attention than most of those old-schoolers, including praise from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lauded him for losing 130 pounds.
The signees say Markazi’s work habits “negatively affected reporters’ relationships with the people, teams, and leagues that we cover, as well as our peers. During this time of deep newsroom reflection, we feel compelled to demand action in response to these transgressions. At stake here is not only the integrity and credibility of the sports staff, but of the entire Los Angeles Times.”
Key question: If The Terminator calls on Markazi’s behalf, will Pearlstine side with him or the sports staff?
While on leave, Markazi always can mask up and help Chico Herrera in the Dodger Stadium outfield. Who is Chico Herrera? He’s the clubhouse attendant who played left field during an intrasquad scrimmage, actually throwing out Chris Taylor at second base on a deep fly ball.
And why was Chico out there to begin with?
Because too many of the Dodgers were in quarantine.
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.