'It gets late early out there': Sports Media Brief
Welcome to a special calamity 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.
Perhaps the primary function of sports, that timorous hive of superstition, is to serve as a reminder that things can go wrong, and disastrously so. Surrendering to optimism is an invitation for chthonic forces to start doling out a whole lot of emotional rump puntings; disaster is the reward for feeling a little too chipper about your team’s prospects.
On Thursday night, possibly because somebody somewhere woke up on the right side of the serotonergic bed, the Furies played a few spirited rounds of tetherball with the hearts of sports fans, advertisers and network sales execs. Calamity struck first in Denver, when Chiefs signal caller and the NFL’s reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes, dislocated his right kneecap while running a quarterback sneak. As the league’s most dynamic young star lay on the turf at Empower Field, a team trainer popped the patella back into place as if he were realigning a stray Lego brick.
A few hours later and more than halfway across the country, New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia exited Game 4 of the American League Championship Series after his shoulder appeared to give out in the midst of a bases-loaded jam. Hoping to remain on the mound for at least as long as it would take to try and retire the Astros’ George Springer, the 39-year-old lefty tossed one exploratory warmup pitch before trudging toward the home dugout.
That practice throw would be Sabathia’s last as a major leaguer. Having suffered a partial dislocation of his left shoulder, the Yankees’ workhorse this morning was removed from the 25-man roster. In the unlikely event New York manages to overcome Houston’s 3-1 ALCS lead and move on to the World Series, Sabathia will no longer be eligible to take the hill for the Yanks. His career is over.
For Mahomes, the prognosis was far less dour. While the radical feng shui reboot of his kneecap will sideline him for at least three weeks, an MRI today confirmed that no bones had been broken and no ligaments or tendons had been mangled or otherwise damaged. He’s due to have more than a few consultations with joint specialists, but Mahomes is expected to return to the Kansas City lineup after a relatively brief rest.
We’ve addressed how quarterback injuries can wreak havoc on the NFL’s TV ratings, and Mahomes’ absence won’t leave the networks totally unscathed. NBC undoubtedly will miss the phenom’s inspired brand of howitzer-armed razzle-dazzle next week when the Chiefs host Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on “Sunday Night Football.” (Ad Age’s 2019 NFL preview likened the prospect of the 24-year-old Mahomes squaring off against wily veteran Aaron Rodgers to “Kevin Bacon’s showdown with John Lithgow in ‘Footloose,’ only without all the Kenny Loggins on the soundtrack. Presumably.”)
Which isn’t to say that NBC’s deliveries will nosedive without Mahomes; with an average draw of 19.4 million viewers and an 11.3 household rating, the Packers are currently the fifth most-watched and highest-rated franchise in the national TV windows. But another major sporting event slated for that very same night may pull away more would-be NFL viewers than usual, which is where Sabathia and the Yankees come in. Or, more to the point, don’t.
If it was tough for Yankees fans to have to watch Sabathia end his career on such relatively ignominious terms, the prospect of the Bombers sitting out yet another World Series—Game 5 of the Fall Classic is set to take place opposite the Packers-Chiefs showdown—is perhaps even more gutting.
Partisanship aside, Fox really can’t be thrilled about the way things have shaken out in the postseason. Before Joe Kelly gave up a grand slam to the Nationals’ Howie Kendrick in the 10th inning of the NLDS, the Dodgers seemed all but certain to appear in their 21st World Series. And while the powerhouse Yankees would have to get past a lethal Astros squad, Vegas oddsmakers began favoring the prospects of a New York-Los Angeles championship series.
A Yankees-Dodgers matchup not only would have featured the teams from the nation’s two largest media markets—together, New York and L.A. boast just shy of 12 million TV households, or 11.2 percent of the U.S. homes that watch television—but would also mark the return of one of the MLB’s greatest rivalries to baseball’s grandest stage. If a seven-game series were in the offing, the ratings would have been sick.
While no one expects baseball to generate the same sort of deliveries it scared up back in the pre-cable/pre-internet 1970s, it’s perhaps worth noting that the Yankees and Dodgers participated in the highest-rated World Series in history. Per Nielsen, the 1978 L.A.-N.Y. series averaged 44.3 million viewers and a staggering 32.8 household rating; 56 percent of the homes that had their TVs in use at the time were tuned to NBC.
As much as a Yankees-Nationals pairing would make for some pumped-up Nielsen stats, the chances of such an outcome are slender, man. In 116 years of postseason play, only 13 ball clubs have bounced back from a three-games-to-one deficit. The Cubs managed the feat against the Indians in 2016 (and you can bet that Fox and its advertisers were pleased with those results), while similar comebacks were staged by the Giants, Red Sox and Marlins earlier this century.
Whether the Yankees’ 2019 campaign comes to an end tonight in the Bronx or they live to fight another day down in Houston, let’s just assume that the pinstripes eventually will fall to the ‘Stros. It’s not a worst-case scenario for Fox, not by any means—Washington is the nation’s seventh-largest DMA, and Houston is No. 8—and the deeper the series progresses, the more the ratings will swell. Fox will have a narrative to spin in Washington, a town that last earned its way to the World Series in 1933. As with Patrick Mahomes’ peripatetic kneecap, this is by no means a disaster, but given what might have been, nor is it the best of all possible outcomes.
Mahomes was the primary topic of conversation during Thursday mornings screaming-heads shows, as ESPN’s “First Take” and FS1’s “Undisputed” lead off with a few minutes of spirited debate about who or what should be held responsible for the young QB’s injury.
Stephen A. Smith approached the topic with his trademark sangfroid, which is to say that he escalated his Dr.-Seuss-swallowed-a-Word-a-Day-calendar rhetoric before yowling at co-host Max Kellerman like a possum that’s been awakened during a dream about trash cans. Stephen A. pointed the finger at Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, arguing that given his bum left ankle, Mahomes should never have been ordered to run the sneak in the first place.
“All I’m saying is that, there’s an elevated level of caution, to me, that should have been exercised,” Smith said. “There were so many things working in your favor. You had J.D. McCoy averaging better than five yards a carry! Tyreek Hill is back, Travis Kelsey is there, Robertson is there! You got options! What’s wrong with saying, ‘Look, I’m gonna be a little bit paranoid and I’m not gonna put this dude in any kinda situation like that!’”
Incidentally, the “J.D. McCoy” cited by Stephen A. only coincidentally recalled the fictional quarterback of the same name who played for the Dillon Panthers on “Friday Night Lights.” Smith appears to have mixed and matched the initials of former Chiefs fullback J.D. Moore with the surname of active running back LeSean McCoy.
Kellerman, for his part, said that Mahomes’ injury could be chalked up to bad luck, and that just as air travel is statistically safer than riding in a car, quarterback sneaks are less perilous than, say, dropping back for a pass. After that, the two “First Take” hosts yelled about a “man sneaking in a pile of bodies” and the state of Kellerman’s spinal column.
Over on “Undisputed,” Shannon Sharpe regretted that Reid had “put this kid in harm’s way” with his embrace of “unnecessary risk,” a claim Skip Bayless parried by pooh-poohing the suggestion that a QB sneak is any riskier than crossing the street.
“You know what the odds are on a dislocated knee on a quarterback sneak? Billions to one!” Bayless rumbled. “Because you know what, it’s never happened in the history of football! There’s no risk!”
After Bayless finished his read of the patellar actuarial tables, FS1 broke for a commercial break. First up was a Nationwide spot starring Peyton Manning, who in the course of 18 NFL seasons had attempted a mere 22 sneaks. (The oft-herniated Manning practically had to have his head bolted back onto his neck in 2011, which in a sense only reinforces Bayless and Kellerman’s assertions that QB sneaks are the safest bet. Inductive reasoning tells us that if Manning had run more QB sneaks, his neck bones would’ve been far less rickety. Logic meets science, people.)
After the Nationwide spot, FS1 ran a Geico ad featuring spectral spokeskid Casper the Friendly Ghost. Wanna feel old? Patrick Mahomes was born 115 days after Universal Pictures opened the live-action film named after the chipper dead kid.
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