This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a tweet: Sports Media Brief
Welcome to the another edition of Ad Age Sports Media Brief, a weekly roundup of news from every zone of the sports media spray chart, including the latest on broadcast/cable/streaming, sponsorships, endorsements, gambling and tech.
The Undoing Project
One day soon, when we’re living in some sort of post-apocalyptic “Fraggle Rock,” only with wayyy more cannibalism and the puppets all have knives, we’ll tell our horribly mutated offspring about the time an NBA exec managed to bring on End Times. As the sightless Doozers toss another flayed sacrifice into the maw of Marjory the Trash Heap, we’ll try to explain how Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey inadvertently wiped out 87.9 percent of the human race—a number that coincides with James Harden’s 2018-19 free throw percentage, strangely enough—by posting seven words on an Internet forum where people used to go to argue about a crime-clown movie.
Of course, given the state of their ears (melty) and brains (mostly just stems, really) there will be no way to make the children comprehend the enormity of what went down in October MMXIX. Their apertures will make slurping noises for a bit, almost as if some sort of profane dialogue were in the offing. Synapses misfiring, we’ll make a nervous joke. “Google it!” we’ll say in our blighted world’s all-but-incomprehensible sign language, a series of insulting gestures made with fingerless hands. Later that night, Boober will claim a few more trophies to add to his Nose Necklace. Life will be a macabre carnival of ventriloquized murder and bad manners, but at least there’ll be no more internet.
Morey’s long-since-deleted tweet and the furor it left in its wake precipitated a real brown-stuff-hits-the-fan crisis for the Rockets and the NBA as a whole, a sociopolitical bout of projectile diarrhea that will require an extensive cleanup effort. While China’s reaction to Morey’s public show of support for the anti-government protesters in Hong Kong was about what you’d expect from a one-party authoritarian state, the near-instantaneous blowback left the NBA scrambling for a measured response.
On the one hand, there’s a case to be made for not letting a little thing like overseas profit margins overshadow China’s record of human rights abuses violations, which range from the reported forcible detention of at least one million Muslims in reeducation gulags to a macabre organ-harvesting scheme that beggars belief. On the other hand, who are we kidding here? China is the world’s second-largest economy, and as the nation’s most popular sports league, NBA China is a $4 billion enterprise. The league’s sudden toxicity has had immediate and far-reaching implications; as state-owned broadcaster CCTV canceled plans to air a preseason Lakers-Nets matchup, the NBA’s 13 Chinese business partners began suspending their relationship with the league.
Also putting the squeeze on the league is Tencent Sports, which announced it would suspend its live-streaming of Rockets games. Tencent is the NBA’s exclusive digital partner in China, having recently signed a $1.5 billion deal to deliver the league’s games to the country’s 500 million basketball fans.
While Morey apologized for his tweet, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver inadvertently took another swipe at the hornets'-nest angered authorities last week when he said the league wouldn’t sacrifice the GM’s right to exercise his freedom of expression on the altar of commerce.
“I understand that there are consequences from that exercise of, in essence, [Morey’s] freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences,” Silver said during a press conference held last week in Japan. “But, as a league, we are not willing to compromise those values. I’m sympathetic to our interests here and to our partners who are upset. I don’t think it’s inconsistent, on one hand, to be sympathetic to them, and at the same time, stand by our principles.”
Silver finds himself and the league in a no-win situation, and criticism of the commish largely has been informed by each commentators’ political leanings. (Imagine that.) The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis offered what may have been the most self-reflexive take, arguing that the China fallout frees NBA reporters to “start covering Silver like a sports commissioner, not like our pal.”
But Silver’s not the only bold-face name whose found himself dragged into the week-long media frenzy; on Thursday, Steve Kerr took some fire from President Donald Trump, who tried to belittle the Warriors coach during a press conference. “I mean, I watch this guy Steve Kerr. And he was like a little boy,” Trump said when asked if China were overstepping its bounds in applying pressure to the NBA. “He was so scared … he couldn’t even answer the question. He was shaking. … He didn’t know how to answer the question, and yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly.”
Trump went on to accuse Spurs coach Gregg Popovich of “pandering” to China. Along with LeBron James, Kerr and Popovich are perhaps the NBA’s most vocal critics of the president.
Now that the NFL’s ongoing ratings boom has made that league a far less viable target for Trump’s brand of scattershot vitriol, the NBA in the near term may as well resign itself to being a punching bag. For his part, Kerr believes the easily distracted POTUS eventually will move on to other game.
“When you stop and you think, this is just every day,” Kerr said shortly after Trump issued his critique. “This is just another day. I was the shiny object yesterday. There was another one today; there will be a new one tomorrow. And the circus will go on. It’s just strange, but it happened.”
The NFL’s hegemonic stranglehold over the national TV marketplace shows no sign of slackening, as ratings for the league’s broadcasts are up 5 percent compared to the analogous five-week period in 2018. All told, the six TV windows are averaging 16.3 million viewers and a 9.5 household rating, with the biggest gains occurring on Sunday afternoons.
Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the late national window shared by Fox and CBS is up 6 percent to 22.8 million viewers and a 13.0 rating, while the 1 p.m. lead-in games are up 7 percent to 14.6 million viewers and an 8.6 rating. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” is reaping the benefits of a string of competitive match-ups (five of the network’s six primetime games were decided by a touchdown or less), and with an average draw of 20.5 million linear TV viewers and an 11.8 rating, deliveries for the network’s NFL showcase are up 5 percent.
CBS’s Sunday afternoon games are now averaging 16.9 million viewers, good for a 6 percent year-on-year boost, giving the network its hottest NFL start since 2016. Fox, which has bragging rights to the season’s highest-rated game thus far (last Sunday’s Packers-Cowboys battle drew 24.6 million viewers and a 13.8 rating), is now averaging 19.2 million viewers for its NFL coverage, up 8 percent. That marks Fox’s highest average delivery at this juncture in the season since 2015.
“Monday Night Football” on ESPN is flat year-over-year with 11.2 million viewers and a 6.8 rating, although the lack of growth is perhaps to be expected. The average margin of victory for this season’s Monday night telecasts is now 16.3 points per game, with the most lopsided contest, the Oct. 7 Browns-49ers blooper reel, having been settled by a less-than-suspenseful 31-3 score.
As Ad Age’s Jeanine Poggi reported in her annual deep dive into broadcast TV unit costs, the NFL’s ratings boom has secured pro football’s status as the priciest buy on the dial.
So what accounts for this huge TV turnout which, as it happens, is occurring in the midst of a steep decline in the fortunes of general-entertainment programming? (While the NFL’s deliveries of adults 18-49 are unchanged compared to its year-ago 5.1 rating, the Big Four broadcasters are collectively down 9 percent in the dollar demo to a 1.3.) Speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina, Fox Sports research guru Mike Mulvihill suggested that the ratings improvement is a function of more compelling offensive play and a strong showing by some of the league’s most bankable franchises.
“In most cases, the teams that are the biggest drivers of ratings are having a lot of success,” Mulvihill said, noting that Dallas, Green Bay, New England and the New Orleans Saints are all at the top of their respective divisions. Which isn’t to say that all of the league’s more popular teams are enjoying a successful season. “I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and traditionally they’ve always been a powerful brand, although their season has gone sideways with the Ben Roethlisberger injury,” Mulvihill said. Traina then chimed in to argue that Fox and the other NFL media partners shouldn’t expect to get much of a lift from the nation’s largest media market: “The New York market ain’t helping you this year.”
Mulvihill went on to discuss the impact out-of-home ratings are expected to have on NFL ratings once viewership in bars, restaurants, gyms and other public spaces is blended into the national Nielsen sample sometime next year. “It’s going to be a really sizable impact. If you look at the Thursday night game that we did last week, the Rams-Seahawks game, in the major markets we believe that the out-of-home added almost 20 percent to the audience in those cities,” Mulvihill said. “The NFL marketplace nationally is a multi-billion-dollar advertising market and if we can measure 20 percent more viewing just by a change in the way that Nielsen calculates the numbers, that’s an enormous impact.”
Retired Patriots tight end and human golden retriever Rob Gronkowski last week made his debut as a studio analyst on Fox’s “Thursday Night Football” pre-game show, and while the three-time Super Bowl champ wasn’t exactly doling out Tony Romo-grade analysis, he did provide for some entertaining TV. Following Erin Andrews’ interview with New England’s shaggy wide receiver Julian Edelman, the genial goofball offered the folks at home some insight into his erstwhile teammate’s rodential superpowers.
“He calls himself ‘the Squirrel,’” Gronk gronked, as he stared down the Fox Sports camera operator. “You want to know why he calls himself ‘the Squirrel?’ Because he is a squirrel! He is a squirrel! He’s furry! He’s furry, he’s cute, he’s elusive, he’s feisty and, most importantly, whenever he gets a chance, he gets that nut.’’ Well, OK. Sure. Much like Boston’s own Aerosmith, Gronk is a master of the single entendre.
When he wasn’t bouncing in and out of frame, Gronk cracked jokes with co-host Terry Bradshaw (“You are a legend … to my father”) and offered Pats partisans some hope that his may be a temporary retirement. “[A comeback] is always going to be open in my mind,” Gronk said between bounces. “I love the game of football, you know. I love playing the game, I love being around the game, I even love watching the game of football now. I’ll always keep it open. I’ll always keep it open. I’ll always keep the door open.”
According to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, Gronk from here on out “will be featured in mostly taped segments,” and Fox plans to tap into his spring-loaded exuberance during its coverage of Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
Hoops, hype and hoopla
In the wake of an absolutely bonkers off-season, the NBA’s media partners are understandably fired up about what the 2019-20 season holds in store. Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand interviewed execs at TNT and ESPN and the consensus is that there are “good games all over the schedule.”
TNT seems poised to tip off the season with a strong ratings push; the network’s Oct. 22 opener features shoe-exploding wunderkind Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans taking on the defending champs from Toronto, followed by an all-213 showdown between LeBron’s Lakers and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers. ESPN gets things rolling the next night with a doubleheader of its own, as Boston takes on the Sixers in Philadelphia before Denver and Portland square up in the late game.
TNT is particularly eager for the season to get underway, as it has bragging rights to the 2020 Western Conference Finals. Whereas Golden State spent the last several years as the prohibitive pre-season favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, off-season intrigues and an aging roster have conspired to place a stack of teams ahead of Steph Curry and the Dubs in the Vegas books. Among the squads booked at better odds to win it all are the Clippers, Lakers and Rockets, all of which represent the dominant Left Coast conference. However the season shakes out, TNT is expected to be in a celebratory mood, as its game-changing studio show “Inside the NBA” will mark its 30th anniversary sometime after the All-Star break.
As has been the case since 2003, ESPN’s corporate sibling ABC can look forward to doling out a pile of GRPs in June. Per Nielsen, Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals averaged 18.3 million viewers and a 10.7 household rating, making it ABC’s third biggest draw of the year behind only the 91st Academy Awards and the Jan. 5 AFC Wild Card Game (Colts-Texans) that was simulcast on ESPN.
By way of comparison, ABC’s most popular entertainment program, “Dancing with the Stars,” is currently averaging 6.86 million live-same-day viewers—and the majority of those impressions are being generated by consumers who have aged well beyond the upper limits of the 18-49 demo. Through the first four episodes of Cycle 28, the median age of the “Stars” audience is a Methuselean 65.3 years; the median age of this spring’s NBA Finals audience was a sprightly 47.4 years.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has relaxed the sponsorship guidelines for its athletes, a move that eliminates the draconian “Rule 40,” which forbade athletes from mentioning non-Olympic sponsors during the Games. Lifting the rule will enable Olympians to have their likenesses used for the purposes of advertising during the 2020 Tokyo Games; previously, a 28-day blackout provision prohibited any such activity.
Rule 40 was put into place as a means of forestalling the sort of ambush marketing tactics that have the potential to undermine the value of an official Olympic sponsorship. (As a four-year Olympic Global Partnership is believed to cost upwards of $200 million, it’s understandable that the USOPC would want to do everything it could to protect these investments.)
In an advisory issued last week, the USOPC noted that part of its mission was to “empower athletes to attract personal sponsors to support and celebrate their careers,” before adding that such opportunities effectively enable Olympians to train for and compete in the Games. It is the committee’s belief that “personal sponsors and athlete marketing can coexist without compromising official Olympic sponsorship and the financial sustainability of the Games.”
As much as the revision of Rule 40 allows athletes to make a few bucks while they’re arguably at their most marketable, the USOPC isn’t going to let Olympians run amok next year. Non-official ads must be generic, inasmuch as the copy and imagery may in no way imply an association with the Games or Team USA. Personal sponsors of the athletes also are prohibited from using the Olympics Rings or any other official trademarks.
As a reminder that the USOPC is in no way going to put up with any extracurricular monkeyshines, the committee warned would-be personal sponsors that any unauthorized use of a Team USA athlete for marketing purposes “puts the athlete’s Games eligibility at risk.”
Big Papi last week handed the 2017 AdAge Marketer of the Year Tito’s Vodka oodles of free brand exposure when he played a high-octane prank on the Big Hurt. Not only did the firewater purveyor stumble across its first-ever TV impressions (since bowing in 1997, Tito’s has never once bought any local or national airtime), but the Fox Sports tweet chronicling the 80-proof gag has been eyeballed by some 1.9 million users.