Since the season began, the NFL has managed to avoid controversy. Then last week happened: 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.
Just when the NFL was enjoying a [relatively] controversy-free season, the metaphorical doo-doo collided with the merrily whirring blades of the oscillating fan this week, as on- and off-field issues threatened to overshadow the league’s current ratings boom.
On Thursday night, Browns defensive end Myles Garrett snatched Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off his head before proceeding to club him with it, an act that sent Sports Twitter and the screaming heads of cable’s “embrace debate” class into a frenzy. Serving up the first official hot takes were Fox Sports NFL analysts Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, who were calling the Pittsburgh-Cleveland game on “Thursday Night Football.”
“One of the worst things I’ve ever seen on a professional sports field,” Buck tutted, as league officials began processing the mess back in New York. “This is barbaric, is what this is,” said Aikman, who’d apparently forgotten all about the helmet-to-helmet hit Damarious Randall served up to Diontae Johnson in the third quarter, a blow that not only concussed the rookie wideout but caused him to bleed from his right ear.
As Twitter came to a rapid boil—several fans observed that Rudolph had instigated the fight by trying to yank Garrett’s helmet at the tail end of the play, while others went all-in on speculation, suggesting that the quarterback had said something he shouldn’t have said to the end-rusher—producers at the cable sports debate shows began scrambling for context. On Friday morning, the name Albert Haynesworth was invoked by FS1 contributor Eric Dickerson (the former Tennessee Titan in 2006 was suspended five games and fined $190,000 the day after stomping on Andre Gurode’s head in a way that evoked wine-making), while “Undisputed” co-host Shannon Sharpe reminisced about Greg Townsend’s act of helmet-thievery back in 1986.
The hollering really started to reach tinnitus-producing decibels on ESPN’s “First Take,” when co-host Max Kellerman effectively said that Rudolph had it coming. After an exasperated Damien Woody yelled at Kellerman, the Internet got in a whole lot of yelling of its own, until eventually those who agreed with his assessment of the situation began yelling at the Kellerman-yellers. It was another great day to be Extremely Online, and if nothing else the brawl served as a reminder that everyone on the Internet hates everyone else on the Internet.
Despite the advocacy of several angry Twitter denizens who demanded that Garrett be jailed and/or served with a lifetime ban from the NFL, the Browns’ star lineman was instead suspended indefinitely, or as the league’s communications arm put it, “at a minimum for the remainder of the regular season and postseason.” He was also fined an undisclosed sum, while Cleveland and Pittsburgh both took it on the chin for $250,000. At around the same time the league handed down his sentence, Garrett issued an apology via the Browns’ Twitter account.
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey and Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi also received some time off, with the former earning a three-game rest and the latter benched for the Nov. 24 game against the Miami Dolphins. The Browns and Steelers will square off again in Pittsburgh just 16 days from now.
Oh, and: As for the aforementioned noggin-stomper Albert Haynesworth, he would go on to play another six seasons in the NFL. In January 2015, the retired defensive tackle was cited by Tennessee police for reckless boating.
Thursday night’s melee aside, the NFL seemed to court controversy earlier this week when it announced that it had authorized an unprecedented private scouting forum for ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which is set to take place on Saturday. According to ESPN, some 13 teams are expected to send representatives to watch Kaepernick work out in Atlanta, although video of the event will be provided to those clubs who opted to sit out.
Kaepernick hasn’t taken a snap since 2016, which is when he began his so-called “anthem protests” against racial injustice and police brutality, an effort he made visible by way of kneeling during pre-game performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The NFL earlier this year settled Kaepernick’s collusion grievance for an undisclosed sum that is subject to a confidentiality agreement; in March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the QB/activist had been awarded less than $10 million.
That the Kaepernick issue seemed to have been resolved in the courts makes the sudden decision to hold Saturday’s workout-cum-tryout all the more curious. Some observers believe the whole thing is some sort of NFL publicity stunt, while others think it makes sense for teams to have a look at what Kaepernick can do, given the dizzying number of backup quarterbacks who’ve had to step in this season. (At least a dozen former bench-warmers are expected to be under center on Sunday.)
The timing is certainly peculiar. Kaepernick’s reps were given a mere five-day heads up from the league, and most team visits are scheduled for Tuesdays, when the NFL takes a breather. But as ESPN’s Dan Graziano reports, teams who’d expressed interest in Kaepernick also didn’t seem willing to use the traditional scouting playbook, and that the Falcons’ facilities would be free all day Saturday. (Graziano also noted that his sources have told him that the NFL in no way is “required to hold this workout as part of [the] settlement.”)
Will Kaepernick get signed to an NFL roster this weekend? Anything’s possible, although this outcome is highly unlikely, given his three years out of football and the fact that even as a backup he’d have to learn an entire offense in no time flat. So why is this happening in the first place? As Graziano concludes, Saturday’s event may only to serve to help generate “negative PR at a time when the league is doing all right.”
And “all right” is an understatement. As the NFL heads into Week 11, ratings are up 6 percent year-over-year, with all TV windows averaging 16 million viewers and a 9.3 household rating. Deliveries for the marquee primetime package, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” are up 5 percent to 20.2 million viewers and an 11.6 rating, and the broadcasts are flat in the adults 18-49 demo (8.25 million). The Super Bowl is selling like proverbial hot cakes (a metaphor, for what it’s worth, that really only makes sense within the context of iHop), and even that Steelers-browns fiasco managed to scare up 15.3 million viewers, making it the third-biggest “Thursday Night Football” draw of the season.
Weird things always come in threes. Perhaps this time, the third thing never arrives.
What about Bobs?
Broadcast mainstay Bob Costas this week sat down with former ESPN anchor Bob Ley to hash out the state of sports media, and among the first topics tackled was Costas’ parting of ways with NBC.
Speaking to journalism students and faculty at Seton Hall University on Monday, Costas went into some detail about his decision to leave NBC last year after having put in 40 years at the network’s sports division. “I left NBC because we mutually agreed that they no longer were inclined to do the things I was, at this point in my life and career, interested in doing,” Costas told Ley at the top of their two-hour discussion. “I certainly wasn’t inclined to continue hosting the ‘Sunday Night Football’ broadcast.”
Costas said that his role at NBC became diminished by the network’s increasing unwillingness to rock the boat with the NFL. An outspoken critic of the league’s handling of player concussions and its attempts to discredit the links between football and debilitating brain damage, Costas suggests that he was effectively silenced by NBC.
The trouble began in November 2017, when Costas told a crowd at a University of Maryland journalism symposium that football was an inherently unsustainable game. “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains—not everyone’s, but a substantial number,” Costas said at the time, an assertion that would travel around the internet at mach speed. Shortly thereafter, Costas was told that his services would not be required during NBC’s broadcast of Super Bowl LII.
“The comments went viral, they made NBC uncomfortable and they decided that I shouldn’t host the 2018 Super Bowl,” Costas told Ley. “I was told, ‘You’re no longer the right guy because [the Super Bowl] is a day-long celebration of football.’ Yeah, you’re damn right. Have someone else pass out the noisemakers and the party hats.”
Costas is of the opinion that the NFL is such a juggernaut that the networks will tie themselves in knots to avoid running afoul of the league. “The NFL almost gets to dictate the terms,” Costas said. “Sports TV in general, and especially the relationships between the networks and the NFL, is the only business arrangement I can think of where the buyer has to continually flatter the seller. ‘Here’s the billion dollars. But if we’ve offended you by delivering it in the wrong denominations, we’ll be right back with another Brink’s armored truck.’”
For the privilege of broadcasting NFL games, NBC signed an eight-year, $8.55 billion contract with the league, an agreement that sees the network fork over around $950 million per season. As Ley noted, ESPN, which doesn’t have the right to air a Super Bowl and whose postseason coverage consists of a single Wild Card playoff game, coughs up $1.9 billion for “Monday Night Football” and all the ancillary rights that come with it.
Because the NFL is now quite literally the only regularly scheduled programming that can still deliver a massive audience, it is as essential to broadcasters as electricity. As such, the networks will pay just about any fee to remain in the business of presenting NFL games. “‘Negotiation’ is not necessarily the operative word,” Costas said.
Protecting those relationships often works at the expense of good journalism, Costas said: “On the networks, the feeling is [that] people tune in to see the games, to see the action. And generally speaking, with notable exceptions, the only thing the networks—and I’m talking about ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox—the only thing that they’ll do is acknowledge issues. But they will not delve into them or run the risk, generally speaking, of alienating one portion or another of their audience.”
Among some of the other topics the two Bobs discussed were: the hypocrisy of the “stick to sports” crowd, the Cold War between the NBA and China, the coming digital shakeout, the enigma that is Colin Kaepernick and the legend of Marvin Barnes and his time machine.
On the subject of Kaepernick, Costas criticized the quarterback’s methods, opining that he “diminish[ed] the credibility” of his protest by doing it in such a way that offended so many football fans. “To a lot of decent Americans, Americans who don’t want Colin Kaepernick or people who superficially look like him to be oppressed in any way, that song means something else,” Costas said, before adding that the blowback Kaepernick faced is “irrational and over the top.”
“There’s a weird disconnect here,” Costas said. “We have more of a negative response to Colin Kaepernick than we do to criminals, especially if those criminals can get into the end zone for our team.”
Costas went on to declare that the digital age is a “gratuitously mean-spirited, corrosive assault on basic civility,” an assessment that no doubt will encourage less-than-civil people to tweet gratuitously mean-spirited and corrosive things at him.
In a move that stunned the sports-media world, David Levy this week stepped down as the CEO of the Brooklyn Nets and its home arena Barclays Center after just two months on the job.
The circumstances behind Levy’s departure from the Nets were not made public, although a statement released by the team on Tuesday characterized it as a mutual parting of ways. In a brief phone interview with the New York Times, Levy reinforced the idea that a philosophical rift had brought an end to his tenure with the Nets. “It wasn’t one thing,” Levy said. “It just wasn’t the job I signed up for. I wish I could say it was this or that, but it wasn’t what I signed up for.”
Levy was named CEO of the Nets (and an operating partner in new owner Joe Tsai’s Blue Pool Capital) on Sept. 19. The longtime Turner Broadcasting president and Turner Sports boss took the job with the local NBA franchise just a few months after stepping down from the media conglomerate.
In a statement issued Tuesday, J Tsai Sports CEO Oliver Weisberg, who will fill in for Levy on an interim basis, suggested that Levy and the Nets may not have shared the same vision. “As we enter an exciting next chapter of our organization, it’s important that ownership and management are completely aligned on our go-forward plan,” Weisberg said.
A towering figure in the sports-media biz, Levy was instrumental in negotiating Turner’s NBA, NCAA men’s basketball and Major League Baseball contracts. In his 33 years at Turner, he not only spearheaded the sale of advertising inventory on TBS, TNT and the company’s other cable networks, but he also was a driving force in developing the latter network’s wildly popular “Inside the NBA” show.
While Levy declined to go into specifics about his split with the Nets, he did tell the Times that his departure had “nothing to do with the Nets’ and NBA’s recent travails in China.”
Speaking to Bloomberg’s Ed Hammond at the Oct. 30 technology conference “Sooner Than You Think” in Brooklyn, Levy joked about the China situation. “What I didn’t know when I took this job was that my job description [would entail] worrying about U.S.-China relations,” Levy said.
Over the course of their 18-minute conversation, Levy spoke about optimizing the fan experience at Barclays Center, building content to further the Nets brand and the emerging sports-gambling market. “I think betting is probably the most important new aspect that our organization is looking at from an investment standpoint,” Levy said. “If you bet on a sporting event, you’re 90 percent more likely to watch it. Shocking, but it’s true! If ratings go up, advertising dollars go up … and as everything goes up, the value of the franchise goes up.”
While the Nets are currently reviewing their local carriage deal with Yes Network, the big picture is to take the Brooklyn brand worldwide. “That’s why I’m a part of this,” Levy said last month. “Joe’s vision and my vision is to take this to be a much more global brand than it is today.”
However things shake out under the new executive leadership, the Nets’ global ambitions will have to be realized without the benefit of Levy’s vision.
Sports Illustrated sizes down
First there were the layoffs, now here comes the frequency squeeze.
Sports Illustrated is transitioning to a monthly publication, according to Yahoo Finance reporter Daniel Roberts. The magazine will be culled down to just one issue per month beginning in 2020, with the stripped-down pub schedule expected to be enhanced by four special supplements as well as the revenue-generating Swimsuit Issue.
The move comes in the wake of the sale of the 65-year-old title to The Maven in June and the subsequent dismissal of nearly 40 percent of the editorial staff. As each issue will close three weeks before its publication date, the new-look SI will be short on news. Steve Cannella, SI’s co-editor-in-chief told the New York Post’s Keith Kelly that the reduction in frequency was inevitable. “The age of the weekly is over,” Cannella said. "But we’re still committed to premium storytelling.”
R.I.P. Rob Tobias
Sad news out of Bristol as former ESPN VP of Communications Rob Tobias died Friday after a bout with brain cancer. Tobias retired from ESPN in 2015 after 32 years at the network. ESPN PR boss Chris LaPlaca remembered Tobias as a “great man, a mentor to many, a guy who made us laugh every day,” and in a post on the ESPN Front Row blog, former “SportsCenter” anchor and voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers Charley Steiner eulogized Tobias as a “sweet, decent and funny man who was really, really good at what he did.”
Steiner’s remembrance is worth reading in full. “In a world where egos were plentiful, Rob had the gift of standing in the wings with a bemused smile on his face, arms folded across his chest, watching the talent be talent, encouraging them when needed and occasionally cleaning up a mess that they left behind,” he wrote.
Rob Tobias was 60 years old.