The new scariest-word-in-the-vocabulary is “variants.” They’ve arrived in America from far-flung coronavirus capitals, such as South Africa and Brazil, and they are mutating with enough infectious potency to weaken the efficacy of vaccines that are supposed to save us. “A wakeup call,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, who really hasn’t been wrong yet.
Except you won’t hear “variants” uttered much this week in Tampa, where the NFL is throwing itself a COVID-19 victory party of sorts. Roger Goodell and the owners are ready to turn Super Bowl Sunday into a patriotic celebration of perseverance, having demonstrated how to survive a pandemic-pocked season without cancelling even one game. I can hear Jim Nantz now, gushing about the triumph of our inherent spirit and the light at the end of our dark national tunnel. Certainly, in the short term, the league should be proud of its six-month effort — which seems too good and clean to be true — while trumpeting its success in a scientific paper published by the Centers for Disease Control.
“We hope that our experience will have benefits for public health generally, and we’re pleased that the CDC was willing to engage with us on that topic,” league executive Jeff Miller said.
“We were able to show that you can play a team sport while minimizing risk to the participants,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.
The problem with all this backslapping, of course, is that it creates a false and premature narrative: an almighty sports league showing Americans how to navigate the virus landmines. In truth, the only light created was within the NFL itself. When the 32 franchises alone are worth a collective $100 billion, it isn’t too difficult to invest $100 million in the 955,000-plus daily tests that kept the schedule as coronavirus-free as possible. Confronting COVID-19 is more easily accomplished when the wealthy and privileged are driving the tanks. So let’s not shoot off fireworks and turn this into the 2021 version of a previous Americana spectacle in the same Florida city, 30 years ago, when Whitney Houston made us cry during the Persian Gulf War with the greatest national anthem of all.
Our war against the pandemic is not ending. It is just getting started.
“The road to herd immunity from the coronavirus suddenly looks longer,” the Washington Post wrote Sunday. “The emergence of more transmissible, potentially vaccine-evading variants threatens to extend the global health disaster and make 2021 feel too much like 2020. A complicated mix of good news and bad news makes any forecast for the coming months fuzzy. But scientists have one clear and sobering message: The pandemic is a long way from over.”
In that context, the NFL’s ability to reach the Super Bowl is merely a one-percenter conquest. A fraternity of owners didn’t reap their usual revenues — about $12 billion, down from last season’s $15.2 billion — but did maintain heady momentum veering into broadcast-rights negotiations that will bring staggering increases from four network partners and a streamer such as Amazon. They also can brag at their country clubs about staring down COVID-19 and winning … until next season, when the same logistical problems await if vaccines aren’t rolled out more quickly and efficiently.
And to think the sports kingdom assumed 2021 would be so much better and simpler. The calendar flipped to January, ending our annus horribilis. A presidential transition took place, an elderly man replacing a loon. George Clooney even emerged to say “we’re gonna be OK,” and, gee, we can’t thank him enough for that. So, by logical extension, we’d soon be shedding masks, attending games, launching saliva globules without shame and renewing our collective lifelong vow with sports.
Not to throw a stinkbomb on the resumption fairy tale, but as we scan the global landscape, even Sports Pollyannas are wearing Chicken Little suits. The Tokyo Olympics might be shut down and leave an eight-year gap between Rio de Janeiro and Paris. Super Bowl LV will have 48,000 empty seats swallowing 22,000 scattered fans, none allowed on the Raymond James Stadium pirate ship. The wife of the infected Russian hockey superstar, Alex Ovechkin, thinks she’s an epidemiologist and suspects a U.S. conspiracy. Basketball and hockey games are postponed by the hour, rosters decimated beyond recognition. The NBA is attempting to curb outbreaks by banning post-game hugs, even after 20-some players and three game officials spend the previous two hours sweating and breathing on each other.
Meet the new sports. Same as the old sports.
Nothing has changed, nor will it anytime soon. COVID-19 is still the house bully, or the devil, and the longer it’s allowed to rage with deadly force in 2021, the more the virus weakens an industry mechanism that can’t afford another year with few or no fans in the buildings. We’ll continue to consume pandemic sports via television and streaming, as we generally have done the past 11 months, and we’ll watch games inside massive makeshift studios until enough Americans are vaccinated to resume sociable live experiences. But what that target date is … the health experts keep pushing it back, like LeBron James’ hairline, to the point he could be as bald as Michael Jordan before the first capacity crowd is allowed inside a stadium or arena.
Months? Next year? The year after? When?
What was presumed to be a blip, and then a phase, is now the grudgingly accepted new way of sporting life. The fans have adjusted, finding the NFL conference title games in ample numbers and other leagues sporadically because, hey, what else is there to do but watch TV? Broadcast networks keep pretending the virus doesn’t exist in a hocus-pocus game with viewers. Advertisers are feeling enough buzz to keep supporting the programming inventory, to the point we’re sick of Jake from State Farm and Lily at the AT&T Store. It’s easier now making legal bets than clipping toe nails, as simple as a phone call in many states. Media sites continue to cover it all, though never more awkwardly, as if life-and-death-occupied human beings want to waste time psychoanalyzing Kyrie Irving or arguing where Deshaun Watson should play next.
Yet sometime not far off, a breaking point is coming. Because, at its core, sports is a cluster of multi-billion-dollar corporations dependent on all revenue streams to support high-priced labor. And if COVID-19 outbreaks continue to sabotage schedules deep into the new year, the industry will start to crack, and then crash. The pipedream of herd immunity, essential to the full-throttle resumption of sports, is further endangered by the onrush of these aggressive variants. And any hope of an expedited vaccine rollout this winter — Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration called it — is more comparable to a cement-mixer crawl. Meaning, the NBA and NHL potentially could lose billions. And Major League Baseball, careening toward an inevitable labor impasse, already is locked in early strife between owners who want to delay the season and players who do not.
Sports has no one to blame for the prolonged misery but, of course, sports. In the insistent rush to mush through COVID and complete haphazard seasons, the leagues have sent a reckless message to the masses. When games are played and create a sense of perverse normalcy, some unenlightened people watch and think, “Hey, I don’t have to wear a mask if they aren’t wearing masks playing basketball.” Thus, despite 450,000 U.S. deaths and collapsing hospital systems, millions of Americans have spread the virus with sports as a contributing enabler — if not a superspreader itself. Has the NFL even thought about infection possibilities Sunday, with 25 percent of respondents to a USA Today poll indicating they’ll attend gatherings to watch the Buccaneers play host — I’ve waited forever to write that — to the Chiefs? In Los Angeles, the virus epicenter where outdoor dining finally has resumed, a county order mandates that “televisions or other screens that broadcast programming must remain off until further notice” on outdoor restaurant patios.
Shouldn’t that be a national mandate? “It will be tragic if the Super Bowl becomes a superspreader of coronavirus,” said Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County public health director. “Don’t organize a party at home. Don’t go to a Super Bowl party.”
It’s a vicious cycle, hurdling headlong toward March 11, the anniversary of Rudy Gobert Night in America. Did you honestly believe, after the Utah Jazz center recorded the first positive test in U.S. professional sports, that we’d still be swirling in the COVID storm a year later? You would if you were watching the Jazz the other night, when Gobert went to the bench, removed his mask and started talking to teammates. If he hasn’t learned, will anyone? All you need to know is that Tom Brady, again the star of Super Bowl week at the incomprehensible age of 43 years and six months, was petrified when both his parents contracted the virus in September. They’ve recovered and will be in Raymond James Stadium to watch their legendary son try to win his seventh league championship.
“They’re doing great, so I think that’s the best part about all of it — they came through it,” Brady said. “There are a lot of things that happen in your life. Like all of us, as you get older, there’s more that you take on. I still obviously love going out there and competing. But on the other side of that, there’s a lot of family things that are very important to me. Certainly, the health of my parents is very important. I’ll be very excited to know my parents will be in the stands for the game on Sunday.”
With most of the country still homebound, hoping that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline as vaccinations accelerate, Brady’s matchup against Patrick Mahomes — literally for the ages, and for once not a cliche — should attract more than 100 million viewers. The common fan doesn’t care that celebrity parties aren’t happening in Tampa, or that “Opening Night” actually featured daytime Zoom interviews with only nine players per team instead of the usual free-for-all involving hundreds of media. All America wants is some semblance of normalcy, and while this Super Bowl experience will be much more isolated than convivial, pro football has exhibited staying power while other sports have struggled with inconsistent viewership.
The NBA is in an ugly place, cutting and pasting, trying to save a season and avoid financial doom. If the Disney Bubble was magical, the real world is maniacal. The only games worth watching involve top contenders — Lakers, Clippers, 76ers, Bucks — and, I suppose, the follies of a Nets experiment that features three of basketball’s supreme talents but also a spectacular lack of defense and consistency. With teams such as the Heat and Wizards leveled by outbreaks, the league faces a competitive imbalance problem that could lead to a hollow ending — and an 2020-21 asterisk.
The NHL, playing indoors in the virus-conducive chill, already has postponed a slew of games after commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will lose billions playing a truncated season. “Let me make something really clear: We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people — particularly in isolation, or where there are curfews — a sense of normalcy and something to do,” Bettman said. “It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play. We’re going to lose more money, at the club level and the league level, by playing than by not playing.”
As for whatever they’re doing Down Under, I was stunned to see 4,000 maskless fans in Adelaide — a city said to be COVID-free — watching Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and others play a pre-Australian Open exhibition. The gathering came just hours after a controversial 14-day quarantine, required of all players participating in the season’s first Grand Slam tournament — which is allowing up to 30,000 fans per day at Melbourne Park. The Aussies think they’ve conquered the virus. As we know in America, the minute you think you’ve won, you’re about to lose.
And the Olympics? Can you say sayonara? We know trouble looms because NBCUniversal is issuing hopeful statements — “I believe there will be an Olympics,” said CEO Brian Roberts of parent Comcast — as the Japanese government and residents openly resist the Summer Games with or without spectators. Tokyo was supposed to represent the symbolic restart of sport as we’ve known it. Instead, it could be a casualty of massive proportions.
Only the NFL has shown relative immunity, keeping a date with a Super Bowl once thought impossible. This is the team sport utilizing the largest swath of athletes, with the closest proximity to each other on a line of scrimmage, but the trick was being outdoors and not on university campuses, as we saw during a chaotic college football season. NFL players and their families miraculously heeded Goodell’s midseason warnings to follow protocols. Are we absolutely sure the league didn’t procure the earliest vaccines and distribute them to everyone but the Cleveland Browns, who nonetheless played well and nearly upset the Chiefs?
We’ll be hearing plenty this week from Dr. Sills, who will tell us why the 32 NFL Bubbles were some of the safest places in the land. We’ll also be hearing from Dr. Goodell, citing his COVID-19 success story as another example of why the NFL is king.
Honestly? I think everyone should just say a group prayer, play the damned game and be very, very, very thankful a catastrophe was avoided. Because no one is winning here except King COVID.
Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards
“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”
I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.
While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.
Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.
This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.
I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.
Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.
I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.
A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.
There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.
It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.
It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.
Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.
More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.
If Netflix Wants Live Sports, F1 May Be Just The Beginning
“Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.”
In the past, Hollywood dealmakers and stockbrokers wondered whether another studio or streamer would catch Netflix. Its dominance stemmed from being a first-mover and not having a serious competitor until Amazon and Disney ten or more years after their launch. However, Netflix would eventually have to compete for content, original and licensed, other platforms that offered less expansive ad-based options, and additional content like live sports or a very popular series or movie premiere.
Arguably, the pandemic accelerated the move to digital and it allowed competitors to gain subscribers because people were spending more time at home. More subscribers and additional streaming options for consumers has not caused Netflix to faulter, but it has caused Netflix to rethink its sports strategy. For years, Netflix was dead set again streaming live sports because of their cost and commercials—Netflix does not have advertisements on its platform currently.
Netflix’s popular Drive to Survive docuseries about the Formula 1 (or “F1”) racing circuit, which was renewed for a fourth season, and the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls The Last Dance represents a golden era and renaissance of sports documentaries. As much as fans of feature films and television series enjoy learning about actors during and off camera they similarly want to know about sports stars, their coaches, and franchises. In other words, the business of sports is booming in valuation and behind-the-scenes content.
Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated that the popularity of Drive to Survive has caused the company to rethink its stance on purchasing live sports content. The broadcast and streaming rights to Formula 1 will become available via ESPN and Sky Sports in 2022 and 2024. Netflix, will have some competition to secure F1 rights, which will drive up the cost. It was also reported by Front Office Sports that the Netflix CEO would require a level of exclusivity for sports rights that other platforms do not normally require. The exclusivity is likely required because Netflix will want to justify the purchase price and to keep-in-line with what Netflix customers expect—exclusive content on the platform.
With Premier League club Manchester United looking to secure a broadcast deal for selling its rights outside of the traditional league format, it might be the perfect acquisition for Netflix. An exclusive team vs. an entire league would also be less expensive and more targeted. One aspect of uncertainty for all streamers is their subscribers overseas, particularly in untapped China. The international market is far from settled or established. Netflix also has a large operation in India so possibly cricket via the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) could be a rights purchase to consider.
In 2018, the original content on Netflix only accounted for 8%. This means that 92% of the content on the platform just a few years ago was all owned (at least partially) by someone else. That statistic has changed because Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple+, and many others have since been created and stocked or restocked with content. Controlling interest in Hulu was even purchased from FOX by Disney. Disney and Amazon now both rival Netflix in terms of subscribers. Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.
As Comcast-owned NBCUniversal CEO Brian Roberts recently said, purchasing sports rights can be difficult. Sports rights are expensive. Exclusive sports rights are even more expensive. Sports rights only become available every five to ten years. Networks and streamers are highly competitive to secure those rights with the hope of landing viewers, subscribers, and advertising dollars.
Will Netflix get into sports rights bidding? In the past, the digital entertainment giant has been steadfast is its non-sports approach. However, the market has changed and is flooded with more competitors now. Netflix has to change to meet its customer and the market needs.
Formula 1 presents an interesting scenario for Netflix as a buyer and partner. F1 is a popular league internationally and growing in the United States. Two new F1 races in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, in addition to season four of the Drive to Survive Netflix series are sure to drive traffic, pun intended, and interest in the racing sport.
Formula 1 is a sports league that will cost less to purchase streaming rights than a traditional American “Big 4” like the NBA, NFL, or MLB. Formula 1’s structure is also centered at the top so it would be easier to make an exclusive deal that Netflix seeks. The remaining questions being, will Netflix pursue Formula 1 sports rights to increase its streaming platform subscribers and compete with others? Second, will Netflix be the first to offer commercial free live sports programming—for a premium price—or offer in-screen ads and additional during-break inside looks, content, and analysis? Or will Netflix act more like a traditional broadcaster and offer advertisements to pay down its purchase price? One will know more after a few laps around the sun.
Manningcast Is Best Experienced As A Fan, Not As A Broadcaster
“I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat.”
Much has been written on this site already about the ESPN alternative to a traditional Monday Night Football broadcast, the Manningcast. Andy Masur asked if it worked and questioned the network pulling its audience in two different directions. Mark Madden said the concept undoubtedly works, but the content is poor.
Both articles are good reads. Both provide another level of insight from those in the industry and how they view this unique/high-profile concept. Industry views provide solid insight to the success and quality of the show itself, what works – what doesn’t. But if we can’t sit back and take our industry glasses off, and just look at this broadcast as sports fans, I feel we’ll never see it in clear view.
I’ll admit, for me, it took me no more than 5 minutes of watching week 1’s Ravens vs Raiders game to say “yeah, this isn’t meant for me”. I didn’t like the non-traditional approach of the broadcast, it felt like it lacked the energy of a traditional sportscast. The stadium volume was turned way down, the excitement was more in the conversation they were having with each other, rather than the game itself. It took me out of the moment of the game, rather than allowing me to get sucked in.
Now, in fairness, I kind of went into it with a narrow mind, thinking that would be the case. I am not someone who has the desire to flip around during the College Football Playoff broadcasts and catch the coaches corner or studio chatter, I want the game.
Bottom line is, I hated the Manningcast when I watched it in Week 1. I even went on the air the next day and trolled members of my audience that were effusive in their praise of it. In the limited sample I provided for myself, I had come to the conclusion that this broadcast wasn’t made for REAL football fans (insert caveman sound effect here) and that only the most casual viewer would want to watch this SNL wanna be of a football broadcast.
However, week 2, I decided I was going to be more open minded to it. I made it a point to break away from the traditional Packers vs Lions broadcast and watch the Manningcast, no matter how painful. I was completely wrong in my initial opinion.
Was Peyton Manning wearing a helmet and acting a little too zany for my taste in week 1? Yes. Is the guest connection quality well below what we should find acceptable in broadcasting? Yes. But that’s where I made the mistake. I was looking at this broadcast through the eyes of a broadcaster and not as a sports fan.
Peyton Manning’s charisma jumps off the screen, he is elite at describing what he sees on the field in a way that no one else can. Eli can be a little dry, but he’s low key funny. And they have real chemistry together, as they should. They are family after all.
The thing that hooked me the most was just how invested Peyton was in the plays on the field, he really gets into the game, truly invested in the success and failure of the quarterbacks. There was a moment in week 2 when Jared Goff threw the ball to an empty patch of grass 15 yards down the field and was subsequently called for intentional grounding. You could see Goff yelling at the referee, pleading his case. Peyton surmised, probably accurately, that Goff was telling the ref that the ball was thrown to the right place and that its not his fault the receiver didn’t run the correct route. Peyton then carried on and told stories of when this type of thing would happen to him when he played for Indianapolis and Denver. I was hooked.
I realized that I was far more invested in week 1 as a stand alone football game, I’m from Baltimore, I have a lot of love for the Ravens. Being invested in the game itself doesn’t lend as much flexibility. As a fan, you to want to hear about anything else but the action on the field. However, when watching two teams that I have no personal interest in, the Manning broadcast took on this new life. It created a level of interest for me as a REAL football fan that I otherwise would not have had. I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat. I felt like I had a front row view to a football clinic, held by two of the most accomplished players in league history.
Personally, I could live without the guests. I am not as entertained by the back and forth with Rob Gronksowski or Pat McAfee as it seems the majority of social media is, but the Manningcast does a brilliant job of bridging the gap between the hardcore football fan and the casual observer. It’s an absolute hit and I’ll be locked in for the next one.
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