Return To Football & Media Companies Protection Of Live Sports Content

The NFL preseason is already three weeks old, and college football will begin traditionally on Labor Day weekend; football is back and for many Americans that means that they have something to watch on TV again. The excitement for the start of both a new college football season as well as a new NFL football season is tempered by the continued movement of media companies to protect live sports content.

The trend towards eliminating cable television service, or “cord-cutting”, is gaining momentum each year as Americans look to trim the monthly expenses in order to pay for rising costs for other services, such as healthcare. The “cord-cutting” trend has been aided by the prevalence of streaming television products and platforms available to the consumer.

However, the consumer that is looking to still utilize “live TV” can do so through a few different pathways: HD antenna, streaming devices, and hybrid streaming services. The HD antenna is very simple: it attaches next to your TV and provides the broadcast channels within the mileage range on the box. The antenna would provide CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, CW, and PBS as well as a few more local stations.

The antenna would provide you access to live sports broadcast on the national networks, and would not include any games broadcast on cable television. This option would work very well for NFL football, and some college football games. It would be of little use to obtain access to any other major sports, other than an occasional game.

The local baseball, basketball, and hockey games are almost exclusively aired on cable regional sports networks or on national cable sports networks such as ESPN or NBC Sports Network. This leads us to option two: streaming devices.

The streaming device route or Smart TV route can provide access to a huge amount of live sports content, but most of that content is not free of charge. The NBA, NHL, and MLB all have streaming “apps” but they require a subscription to access. The streaming device route can also support “live streaming” of certain networks but most of that would require either a cable subscription or another type of payment arrangement to access that content.

The hybrid streaming device route would be a DirecTV now, Sling box, or a few other smaller services that allow for the content available on a very large package of channels to be viewed in other rooms in your home. This would require a subscription and at least one box connected from either a cable or satellite provider. This route may also require the purchase of additional equipment.

However, this setup would enable access to a significant amount of live sports content. The other service is through Hulu which will feature a package of channels for $40.00 per month which would allow for live streaming of network and cable television, including live sports.

The networks pay such a high premium for the live sporting events that it is, in some ways, understandable that they have put in place certain measures to make it more difficult to stream the content without a cable or satellite subscription. The challenge will be in adapting their content providing platforms to attract other audience/fan base demographics.

The younger generation is conditioned toward streaming versus watching any regular television programming. The advertising around some of the streaming services and apps can be a bit misleading. Some of the sports related streaming apps will give you access to certain content for free and require a fee or cable subscription for access to the most important content: the live game or archived game broadcasts.

The NFL has partnered with e-commerce giant, Amazon, to stream 10 games this year as part of the Thursday Night Football package. This exclusive opportunity with the NFL and their coveted live game content cost Amazon $50 million. The broadcasts are free for all those with an Amazon Prime membership which runs at $99.00 per year.

This agreement with Amazon is different than the agreement they had last year with Twitter for the Thursday night games because Twitter streamed them live for free to everyone with an account, Amazon requires a Prime membership for access. It will remain to be seen if that will have an impact on live stream viewership, either positively or negatively.

The future of sports content on TV, and other content on TV is trending more toward a structure where the consumer will pay to have all sorts of content streamed on a customized basis. The consumer access to a broad range of content will require membership to a wide range of services, similar to the premium channel cable TV subscriptions currently (HBO, Showtime, Starz, Encore). It is important to note that whatever service or method you use it is like the old adage: “there is no free lunch”.

A good example of this trend is the decision by Disney recently to end their partnership with Netflix to start their own streaming service. This translates into a scenario where in order to gain access to Disney content you will have to purchase their streaming service. I think that many other major media companies are going to follow suit.

The return to football means some exciting weekends relaxing with family and friends. It conjures up memories of past football weekends with the big college games on Saturday nights, and the CBS games at 4 o’clock on the East Coast with the aroma of a home cooked dinner in the background.

It is time for many of us to watch TV again, and I hope that this piece informed you on the best options that you have to access this content. I wish you all a happy and safe football season.

The Politics of Sports: The Seattle Arena

The politics of sports has been on display fully over the past week with the announced plans for the Seattle arena. The city decided that their best option at this point is to move forward with the proposal from Oak View Group (OVG) which involves a complete renovation of the old Key Arena at Seattle Center.

This option was chosen and recommended by the Mayor and other politicians involved over the proposal from Seattle Partners, which also had a plan to renovate “the Key”. However, their plan contained some elements that concerned some key people in the city government. They officially “withdrew” their proposal ahead of not being chosen just before the announcement was made late last week regarding the arena plan for Seattle to gain either an NBA or NHL franchise.

The other option on the table is the SoDo arena concept pushed by Chris Hansen and his group of investors, which he has spent huge sums of his own money obtaining land in that part of the downtown area with the goal of getting the Sonics NBA team back to the city. The plan involves the vacation of a roadway which is very unpopular with the politicians as well as a location that is close to the Port of Seattle and the major outdoor stadiums for their other professional sports teams.

This location coupled with the change to the roadway grid and the potential for traffic congestion near the Port, all are factors that are stacked against the SoDo arena concept. Those factors outweighed the amended proposal from that investment group that stated that they would develop the site and construct the arena completely with private funds.

The renovation of the Key Arena at Seattle Center will be a public/private partnership arrangement for the financing, which is admittedly unpopular with some Seattle residents. The OVG proposal involves keeping the iconic roof structure of the facility intact while essentially gutting and rebuilding the entire existing interior structure. It will reconstruct the entire seating bowl and their plan for the site involves digging below ground to expand the footprint of the building while maintaining structural integrity. It will also be an environmentally friendly building project, with LEED certification processes involved in the various aspects of the construction of the renovated facility.

NHL Response

The NHL was contacted almost immediately after the news that Seattle was moving forward with the OVG renovation project for an arena that would meet NHL standards. The NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, issued a statement that essentially stated that the NHL has had no contact with Seattle and has no plans to expand the league at this point.

The politics of sports on the professional stage was in full effect here as well. It is no secret that the NHL has interest in expanding to Seattle. The demographics of that market make so much sense for the league in several metrics, that they would be foolish not to explore the option. The OVG proposal added two partners that are keen on getting professional hockey to Seattle, which was noted in the press release of the announcement.

Bettman is playing his cards here because he does not want to discourage other markets interested in potential expansion from thinking that Seattle has any sort of inside track to what will probably be the last slot available in the NHL for a very long time. The NHL has a conference alignment issue with 16 teams in the East and 14 teams in the West. The league took one step toward correction of that imbalance with the addition of Las Vegas as an expansion franchise beginning next season.

The assumption is that they will add one more team in the West to balance the two conferences and the league for scheduling and other purposes in the somewhat near future. The OVG group stated that the proposal is still pending approval and they will need at least 2 years probably closer to 3 years to get the entire renovation at Key Arena completed.

Design Concerns

Some area residents are not happy because they did not want another major sports team or teams playing in that neighborhood. This is a very political issue and the design of the building and the mass transit plan for light rail access is part of the proposal from the city level to alleviate traffic concerns.

The design of the building was also a point of concern for residents of that neighborhood. Some concerned parties did not want a monstrous new arena going into that Seattle Center site. The trend in sports arenas is for larger footprint buildings packed with amenities for fans and concert attendees.

The OVG plan for Key Arena accomplished providing more amenities without dramatically increasing the overall footprint of the facility by proposing to dig below ground and implementing those amenities in areas below the current street level. The plan for the renovated facility also calls for improvements to the park area around the Seattle Center, which should be viewed favorably by the residents.

NBA: “Cutting the Pie”
The return of the NBA to Seattle is an entirely different situation. The topic of expansion for hockey has been an active one, with Las Vegas set to join the circuit and with the imbalance of teams alluded to earlier. The NBA is in a different stage in their life cycle as a league. The owners and the league office just agreed recently to a new TV and media rights deal that will reap them significant economic revenue which is divided up among each member franchise.

The NBA owners are currently not eager to “cut the pie” into more pieces by adding more franchises. The amount of the expansion fee would be offset by the amount that the new team gets as their portion of basketball related income. The NBA also has no franchises in a situation where relocation is being discussed.

These factors, when all are taken into account, amount to the fact that the Key Arena renovation, if approved, is going to take approximately three years to complete from the point that permission is given for renovation work to begin. The NBA is not planning to expand any time soon. The NHL has other interested cities in expansion, but they may never expand to Seattle for a variety of reasons.

The politics of sports in this situation leaves the SoDo arena proposal in serious jeopardy. The time, effort, and money spent by that group is going to upset some powerful people in that city if that proposal is rejected by the political groups involved.

Up In Flames

The politics involved in the Seattle arena decision also could become a leverage play for another team: the Calgary Flames. The president of that hockey team, Brian Burke, commented to a group of business leaders at a team function recently that the franchise could move out of Calgary if it does not get a new arena.

He continued his comments reportedly by stating that the Flames had relocation cities under consideration if they were to ultimately decide to move the team out of Calgary. In that scenario, once relocation is brought up, Seattle is not very far behind. It is no secret that Seattle wants an NHL team, and the opportunities for relocating an existing franchise are very unique and infrequent.

The Calgary Flames have presented their vision and plan for a new arena and entertainment district with other real estate development around the new facility that has been deemed “unsustainable” by the political powers that be in that city. This is where the friction between the city and the team began.

The Flames play in the SaddleDome which was built when Calgary hosted the Olympics in 1988. It is among the oldest arenas in the league, a fact that supports the team ownership and their contention that it needs to be replaced. The Mayor and other politicians have stated that they do not support using taxpayer money to fund a new arena. This could get very sticky, and the speculation over the future of the team in that city will follow suit.

It is doubtful that Calgary will leave a city that they have an established fan base within and have over 30 plus years of history. It could be that Seattle is a leverage play, as I mentioned before, or it could become seriously considered for their future. The primary issue is that Seattle lacks a suitable arena for at least three years.

Another option to watch is the Flames using Quebec City as either a chip to secure their own new arena deal, or for a real alternative should the political situation with Calgary become untenable. Quebec is a whole different scenario because they have an NHL ready arena built and fully operational, they just lack a team.

It is all part of the politics of sports and it has played out in two places, Seattle and Calgary, in a week. Those two situations are just a drop in the bucket, wait until next week, and the next potential issue with politics and sports will be right around the next bend.

Monday Night Football Ratings Take A Nosedive

The ratings were released today for ESPN’s Monday Night Football and they were the second lowest ratings for a season and would have been the lowest if not for the huge rating turned in by the Dallas Cowboys-Detroit Lions contest this past week.

The problem facing the ratings for MNF is part of a broader trend facing all NFL broadcasts this season, as a ratings decline was felt across all their broadcast packages. The ratings slump was seen by some as being connected to the presidential election, but even after that was decided in early November, the ratings have not rebounded to expected levels.

This past week, with the long Christmas/Chanukah holiday weekend the NFL lead the ratings for their main telecasts: Thursday Night Football (Eagles vs. Giants), Sunday Night Football, and Monday Night Football.

The ESPN Monday night package had been down in recent years because the matchups were generally not as compelling as the games featured in other NFL packages. The other theory being that with the addition of more Thursday night NFL games on network channels with CBS and NBC splitting those telecasts, that the average as well as the hard core NFL fan was becoming disinterested by the time Monday night rolled around.

The broadcast of NFL games, prior to this season, held the sentiment within the media and advertising industries as the “final frontier” for programming which remained immune to drops in ratings or viewership. This season though dispelled that theory as each segment of the NFL broadcasting tiered structure, from the regionalized coverage on Sunday afternoons to the primetime broadcasts, all experienced a downturn in ratings.
The before-mentioned Presidential election had some effect on the NFL ratings because the cable and network news programs on Sunday nights saw a marked increase in ratings. The NFL numbers rebounded somewhat after the election, but still were softer overall than in recent years.

I have written previously about a potential oversaturation point for the NFL with televised games and I think the 2016 season is evidence that the threshold has been reached. The final weeks of the season were also fairly devoid of drama surrounding the field of playoff teams, with the AFC side decided except for seeding a couple of teams, and the NFC side basically set except for the NFC North.

The matchup to decide the NFC North title between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers served as the season finale to Sunday Night Football on NBC and it finished with a 13.7 rating. That served as an increase from the Christmas night game on NBC between Kansas City and Denver which finished with an 11.2 rating.

The NFL, for its part in this situation, has repeatedly stated that they are looking into the ratings downturn and evaluating strategies to increase viewers moving forward. They also remain committed to Thursday and Monday night games despite the decline in ratings this season for both of those programming entities.

The players, notably Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks among others, have been vocal in their disdain for Thursday night games which create short weeks for both teams, especially the visiting team that must also travel to the game site. The discussion is now shifting toward improved scheduling of Thursday night games such as positioning it following a bye week for the teams involved, or scheduling more divisional matchups with shorter travel distances for the visiting team.

I had also written previously about the National Anthem protests by NFL players and whether that had an impact on the ratings slump for the NFL. The issue undoubtedly drew people away from watching certain primetime games (especially those featuring the San Francisco 49ers which were at the center of the issue) and I know people personally who refused to watch certain NFL games because of those protests.

However, the Denver Post conducted a survey about the NFL ratings slump and only 25% of the respondents felt that the National Anthem protests were the core issue as to why they were changing the channel from the NFL production. It should be noted that this survey was unscientific but it had some revealing results which demonstrated that the number of penalties, overall quality of play, and the off-field issues for players (domestic violence, drugs, guns etc.) were the top reasons for the decline in viewers.

First, the number of penalties in these games is bordering on being out of hand. The league office has to get together with the officiating crews during the offseason and discuss some ways to cut down on penalties, especially during primetime games. There were points in this season where my schedule allowed me to watch more Monday night games than anything else, and the number of penalties and stoppages for challenged rulings on catches or some other issue made the games very difficult to watch at points. I am a huge fan of the NFL and watch more out of market games for that sport than any other, so if I am frustrated with that, it has to effect the average viewer.

Second, the overall quality of play is a huge issue here with ratings and they are connected very closely to the decline this season. Many of the Thursday and some of the NBC games on Sunday in primetime as well as the Monday night edition on ESPN had scores that were so lopsided that the viewers bailed well before the end of the game. The retirement of Peyton Manning and some less attractive matchups in some of the primetime packages drove this rationale further in the impact on ratings.
Next, the off-field issues for the players is a definite concern for the league, to which there is no easy way to mitigate because of the way information is transmitted today via social media and the internet. The media coverage of a variety of off-field matters from domestic violence charges, weapons charges, and other infractions such as drug or PED use is a definite setback to the image of the league. The league has talked about transparency, so it is not like they can keep these matters out of the public domain, so it will remain an issue for the NFL moving forward.

Finally, the topic of oversaturation was discussed in multiple media reports (SI.com produced a great piece about the ratings slump) and the before-mentioned Denver Post survey noted that only 29% of viewers watched all three days of NFL football (Thursday, Sunday, and Monday). That translates into a situation where you have oversaturation of product in the airwaves.

The combination of factors driving the decline also translates into a situation where the solution is not easily obtained. It should be interesting to see how the NFL responds to the ratings data from this season and whether they can reverse this trend, stay tuned.

The NFL seems bullish on not eliminating any of these package tiers so they are going to have to work around this reality that, until they address some of these other issues, the ratings are going to remain hovering around the levels they were this season. The NFL is getting a dose of the fact that reality is sometimes a very difficult concept to accept.

Collateral Damage: The Disposability of Coaches in Our Society

In writing about the recent firing of New York Red Bulls Head Coach Mike Petke for another website, and reading about the New York Giants dismissal of their defensive coordinator, Perry Fewell on Friday; I started to think about the seemingly inherent instability surrounding sports coaches. Our society treats these men and in some cases, women, as collateral damage in the major college sports and professional sports ranks.

 

The news cycle today includes the Denver Broncos, who were eliminated from the playoffs yesterday, “mutually agreeing to part ways with Head Coach John Fox” and the team fired all of the assistant coaches on the staff. Coach Fox guided the Broncos to the Super Bowl last season, though they lost to Seattle in that championship game, the decision today illustrates the cold reality in which these decisions are made.

 

Another recent example of a situation I was directly involved in covering was the firing of Head Coach Peter DeBoer by the New Jersey Devils. The team was mired in a slump and has not played consistently the entire season, but he was fired the day after Christmas, from the emotional standpoint that must have been very difficult for his family as well.

 

I understand that the world of major college athletics and professional sports has evolved into a scenario where a lot of money is at stake. The revenues of certain sports leagues are at all-time highs and the sheer amounts of money being exchanged for season tickets, personal seat licenses, and television/media rights are enormous in scale. The pressure on the respective front office and coaching staff of any team has to be tremendous given the circumstances. The emphasis on winning and delivering championships is at a tipping point in today’s sports landscape.

 

The players in major professional sports are highly talented and well compensated, they are the best and most gifted athletes on the planet. However, the blame seems to usually fall on the coach or the coaching staff if a team underperforms their expectations. The end result is that head coach, or in many cases an entire staff of coaches, being terminated from their jobs.

Hired To Get Fired

 

I understand from being a big sports fan that one of the sayings that coaches use, especially in the pressure cooker that is the NFL, is “you get hired to get fired”. There is a genuine understanding going into the situation that it is probably not going to end well. The rare exception is a coach finishing his tenure and leaving on his or her own terms; the majority of the time the situation ends in termination for the coach and their staff based on a losing season or poor performance.

 

A good case study of that scenario is Head Coach Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants. He has gone through some rough patches during his tenure with the team, at two different points the fans were ranting about the poor performance of the Giants. The team looked lost on the field, and both times the Giants turned their seasons around and ended up winning the Super Bowl. This past season was no different, with two championship victories on his resume, the focus still shifted to whether Coughlin should be fired because of the poor performance of 2014 Giants during their season.

 

The other scenario that costs a coach their job is essentially team politics which seems to be the case with Mike Petke and the New York Red Bulls. The team hired a new Sporting Director (essentially a GM or director of personnel) and he dismissed Petke after the best two years in the history of the team, to bring in a coach he had worked with in the past. Those type of relationship driven decisions on coaches have happened in the NFL and the NBA as well, in the rare case that the General Manager is fired and the coach has remained with the team. Most of the time the new GM will then fire the coach and bring in “his own guy” with whom he has a prior working relationship.

 

The attitude of disposability when it comes to these people is rather concerning to me. I know some others within the sports media world that have the same misgivings about the way our society approaches these matters. I understand that people spend their hard earned money on attending games and buying merchandise to support a given team and that we all want to see that team win.

 

However, at the same time, I do not think it gives any of us a license to demand that somebody, or an entire staff of people should lose their jobs. These people have families, they have children and dependents that rely on those jobs to live. Yet when a team hits a losing streak I turn on sports radio in the car and every caller is screaming about firing the coach. These people are human beings, they make mistakes, and they should not be treated as disposable items.

I am all for accountability, and we each are held to certain performance metrics in the workplace, but could you imagine having several hundred or a few thousand people coming into your place of work and yelling that you should be fired? I would imagine that would be very unsettling to many of us.

 

I know that, as a fan, watching losses pile up, like in the case of the New York Knicks who are having one of the worst seasons in their history, is upsetting and frustrating. I am also upset that the fans were chanting “fire Fisher” about their head coach, who has a family to support and a daughter who is very sick.

 

I also know that my detractors would say that these coaches, especially in the higher profile universities or in the top of the professional ranks, understand the pressure that comes with “the territory” and that if they “cannot take the heat then get out of the kitchen”. I also understand that many of the head coaches, and in baseball it would be the manager, are well compensated for their talents.

 

However, the assistant coaches and other staff members are not always well compensated and they are subject to dismissal, and very often are dismissed with the head coach when they get fired. In many cases, the head coach will find work again elsewhere and usually rather quickly. The assistant coaches and other staff members can be out of work potentially for much longer periods of time. It is difficult to find work if you are a particular type of assistant coach such as strength and conditioning, quality control, or offensive line coach; those job openings may be few and far between.

 

In comparison, if John Q. Public got fired from his job in marketing, there are other marketing jobs out there. He may have to take a different level job, maybe a step back from the level he was working as far as seniority, but he can find other work. The coaching ranks are competitive and unforgiving. The same goes for General Managers of sports teams, those job openings are rather specific and are generally pretty sparse.

 

Take A Step Back

 

I understand as sports fans, we want our teams to be successful and compete for championships. I understand that some coaches can make some rather dubious decisions with players, lineups, and strategies.

 

I just ask that the next time you are ready to go on a ranting tirade about a coach or a general manager that you consider what is at stake for those people. I ask that before you get ready to make that phone call to your favorite sports radio talk show, that you take a step back and realize that these coaches are people too. They have the right to be treated with respect and not as disposable parts, and certainly not as collateral damage.