Fox Sports' rowdy upfront pitch focuses on what's really making money
Terry Bradshaw has four Super Bowl rings, a film resume that includes roles in two canonically great Burt Reynolds movies, and a country-fried, gospel- inflected tenor that once landed him on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. A loopy raconteur and irrepressible jokester, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and longtime Fox Sports studio analyst has a wealth of experience to draw on while he’s merrily improvising his way through his many speaking engagements.
But for this particular upfront event he has a sales pitch he’d like to make about, well, pants.
“My pants are called Fat Pants!” Bradshaw exclaims, as he riffs off fellow panelist Alex Rodriguez’s thoughts about complacency—or, as the former Yankee slugger puts it, “playing with a fat belly.”
“It’s going to be a Sansabelt thing, for the worker who wants to go and be comfortable, and sometimes, you know, they eat too much or drink too much, their gut gets too big and they gotta let their pants out,” Bradshaw says. “With my Fat Pants, you don’t have to let your pants out. I’m tellin’ you, it’s gonna be huge, I’m gonna get rich! Terry Bradshaw’s Fat Britches! Be on the lookout!”
By the time Bradshaw wraps up his impromptu pitch, he’s recruited retired Ohio State football coach and newly minted Fox Sports analyst Urban Meyer and WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon into his elastic-waisted trousers scheme. While there are no clothiers on hand—there is a Foot Locker rep in the crowd, but the two brands seem rather antithetical to one another—the audience of media buyers and marketing executives is enjoying this freewheeling sales presentation.
It’s a little bit past noon on Wednesday, April 24, and while monsoon-season New York is enjoying a momentary respite from a month-long drenching, the prevailing mood at City Winery is anything but dry. A month after shifting its studio and cable entertainment assets to Disney for $71.3 billion, a slimmed-down Fox is about to embark on its first upfront in which its primary focus will be on live sports, and the panel of talent assembled today is heralding the occasion with shaggy dog stories and Poconos-grade wisecracks.
In addition to all the banter, more than a few revelatory moments are in store. A-Rod confides that he had a few cocktails in him when he first spoke with Brian Cashman about joining the Yankees in 2004, while Meyer talks about how a dicey cellphone connection made him think he’d lost the recruiting war for Tim Tebow to Alabama. McMahon, whose “WWE Smackdown” is taking over Fox’s Friday schedule starting Oct. 4, offers some inside dope on how fans played a key role in the decision to give women top billing at this month’s WrestleMania 35 show. (With a total haul of $16.9 million in sales, WrestleMania 35 is the highest-grossing event in the history of MetLife Stadium.)
Throughout the lunchtime session, buyers and advertisers are fed a heady mix of NFL Draft predictions and hot takes. “First Things First” co-host Cris Carter says he has reservations about how the No. 1 NFL Draft pick, the 5’ 10” quarterback Kyler Murray, will fare behind Arizona’s porous O-line. A-Rod opines that baseball should relax and embrace the celebratory home run bat-flip, while Bradshaw ups the ante—“Throw the bat at him! Hit him with it!”—by suggesting that flinging a Louisville Slugger at the pitcher after a dinger would only serve to boost baseball’s TV ratings.
A-Rod goes on to offer a few cogent ideas about how Major League Baseball might better take advantage of its greatest assets—the players themselves—in order to cultivate a much younger, more digital-savvy fan base. A wildly gesticulating Bradshaw almost spills coffee on McMahon, and moderator/emcee Chris Myers wraps things up with a joke about gamblers, nuns and Notre Dame football that somehow serves as a bridge to Meyer vowing to stay with Fox Sports no matter which big-time college football program may come calling when the season’s over.
From this vantage point, perhaps the only substantive reminder that Fox has streamlined its operations lies in the music clearances. Two years ago, when I sat in on the sports division’s spring pitch to GroupM, the sizzle reel was scored by Led Zeppelin’s berserker Viking anthem “The Immigrant Song.” This year, the most prominent song heard is a cover version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” When I ask a TV buyer if he thinks the Fox song budget is at all significant, he snickers at me.
“Terry Bradshaw just tried to sell us pants,” the buyer says, laughing. “It’s the upfront—not everything’s gotta mean something.”
Of course, the Fox event isn’t all loosey-goosey. As an Emmy-winning television producer and the man with his hands on the purse strings, Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks understands the power of storytelling and sees little value in rushing to unspool the most entertaining parts at the end of the show. Before he throws to Bradshaw, A-Rod, McMahon, Meyer, Myers and Carter, Shanks invites his guests to give their attention to a more formal pitch. If this were a book, the index entry for Shanks’ section of the presentation would read: “Free lunch, no such thing as.”
What Shanks’ chalk talk boils down to is simple. Fox’s live sports assets, which include the top-rated Sunday NFL window as well as “Thursday Night Football,” college football and the World Series, make the net a must-buy for marketers looking to reach the greatest possible number of consumers during the time of year when Americans spend the most money. You can try to patch together your impressions by scarfing up inventory in a low-rated scripted-TV landscape that has become a less-than-friendly environment for advertisers, or you can buy Fox.
“So this is the very first upfront of the new Fox corporation, and boy, I tell you what—this really needs to go well,” Shanks jokes, before noting that that the divestment of FX and National Geographic has allowed Fox to focus on selling sports as a stand-alone entity rather than bundling that high-end content with the less consistent cable fare. “This means our sales team is back to its expertise in creating sports solutions for your needs and executing them at a really high level.”
“We want to be the creative partner that you think of first. And we love to engage early, especially in a Super Bowl year,” Shanks says, before handing the rhetorical baton to Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive VP of research, league operations and strategy. Mulvihill gives what amounts to a TED Talk on the seismic shift of scripted entertainment programming to an on-demand model and how this change in consumer behavior and the concomitant rise in ad avoidance has only served to reinforce the impact and value of live sports.
While Mulvihill isn’t necessarily telling the buyers anything they don’t already know, part of his particular strain of research genius lies in how he presents his findings. One slide in particular lands with all the force of a roundhouse kick to the face; in it, Mulvihill illustrates how fragmentation, time-shifting and the rise of Netflix have conspired to all but wipe out the legacy TV ad model. It breaks down like this: In 1998, a single commercial unit in each Emmy-nominated TV series (roughly 25 shows) delivered some 329 million impressions. Fast-forward to last year, and that same calculus delivers a mere 31 million impressions. In other words, in the span of 20 years, “more than 90 percent of your ability to reach consumers in the very highest-quality scripted content out there has simply evaporated,” Mulvihill says.
Run the experiment again, only this time swap in the top 20 sporting events, and the erosion is almost undetectable. A single spot that served up 467 million impressions during a sports broadcast in 1998 drew 438 million impressions in the same environment in 2018. Net decline: 6 percent, and much of that loss can be laid at the doorstep of Michael Jordan, whose retirement in 2003 took a good deal of juice out of the NBA ratings.
Incidentally, Mulvihill’s math holds up if you switch the parameters from the most-celebrated to the highest-rated shows, and narrow-down gross impressions to demo deliveries. During the 1998-99 season, the top 20 entertainment programs on broadcast TV averaged 9.9 million adults age 18-to-49. This season, the top 20 non-sports programs are eking out a hair over 2 million members of that dollar demo. Thus, in the span of 20 years, 80 percent of the viewers most coveted by advertisers have disappeared into thin air like Ice Cube at the end of “Boyz n the Hood.”
Those numbers present a stark picture of a business model in bad decline, while underscoring how the vast reach and singular immediacy of sports have preserved its efficacy. In the final analysis, sports is the only game in town for marketers looking to get their brands in front of as many consumers as possible. “There will never be another Nov. 4, 2009,” Mulvihill says, a nod to the night the Yankees beat the Phillies up in the Bronx to win their 27th World Series. “There will never be another now. And it’s that simple idea that makes our business so special and so valuable. See it now or regret missing it forever: That’s the power of now.”
Fox’s strategy of placing all its ova in a single carrying case is only as sound as its sports rights deals, and it’s reasonable enough to assume that the FAANG set could leave the network with more than a little yolk on its face should one of them make a play for the Sunday NFL package. As the NFL has made it fairly clear that broadcast’s reach and streaming’s latency issues are likely to preserve the status quo when the rights come up for bid, Fox may not have to worry about that particular threat until 2030 or thereabouts.
Shortly after the buyers start filing out into the SoHo sunshine, Rodriguez repairs to the restaurant’s cellar dining room, where he sits and signs a bucket of baseballs. After hanging up his cleats in 2016, the 14-time All-Star now finds himself one of the most bankable analysts in the game, so much so that he’s managed to work out a rare double-dip deal that sees him serving as an analyst for ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” before shifting to Fox in the fall for its postseason coverage.
A self-proclaimed baseball nerd, A-Rod has been vocal that the league needs to be far more proactive if it truly hopes to attract more younger fans to the game. (The median age of last year’s World Series audience was 56.2, a full decade older than the crowd ABC scared up with the 2018 NBA Finals.) In addition to tapping into the star power of today’s top young players, Rodriguez believes that opportunities for enhanced engagement are scattered all over the ballpark.
“If you have a son or a little daughter, they can’t stay up past the third inning of a night game, so why not let them see what happens before the game starts?” A-Rod says. “What about letting them go online and watch Aaron Judge hit batting practice every day for 10 minutes? Capture the real sound of when Aaron Judge hits the ball into the bleachers—it’s like an explosion, pop pop pop pop! That’s the kind of thing we have to lean in on, the nuances of what’s great about the game of baseball that I think a lot of times get overlooked.”
If A-Rod had his druthers, every stadium would be wired like the “Big Brother” studio. “Hot cameras in the weight rooms, hot cameras in the clubhouses, hot cameras in the bullpens,” he says, noting that between the on-field chatter that takes place between innings and the back-and-forth between umpires and managers, baseball is leaving a lot of low-hanging fruit to rot on the vine.
“There are thousands and thousands of moments that can be [mined for] content, and they’re sometimes more fun than the game itself—and yet we don’t touch them,” A-Rod says, adding that the hidebound traditions that inform the sport are also stifling its growth. “Sometimes we forget that we are in the entertainment business. Baseball can’t be so afraid to take risks. I understand not everything’s gonna work, but you have to push.”
Speaking of pushing things, when Bradshaw calls later in the week to provide an update on how his pants project is faring, he sings a few bars of Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” before announcing that a full launch is probably a year out. He says that he might try to smuggle a prototype onto “Fox NFL Sunday” this fall (“I may reveal them on the pregame show; you know, tease them a bit to prime everybody’s interest in my Fat Britches”), although he allows that it’ll be kind of tough to sneak on to the set with the pants on once this story publishes.
If Eric Shanks never makes it this far down this page, football fans are in for a real treat.