There is nothing 'awesome' about what went down at Sports Illustrated
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.
Fear Strikes Out
Viciousness and stupidity are as endemic to the publishing business as are deadlines and rate cards, but what took place yesterday at Sports Illustrated’s office in lower Manhattan was an exercise in the most unbridled form of corporate sociopathy.
The 65-year-old publication on Thursday laid off “35 to 40 percent of [its] editorial staff,” according to Wall Street Journal reporters Jacob Bogage and Ben Strauss, who characterized the cuts as a business decision that “could decimate what was once the standard-bearer of American sports journalism.”
That so many well-respected SI reporters lost their jobs over the course of an afternoon is disconcerting enough, but the manner in which the layoffs were meted out by the Seattle-based firm now managing the brand was nothing short of contemptible. After SI employees had been ordered to attend one of two separate “transition meetings” at noon and 12:30 p.m., new overseer TheMaven canceled both sit-downs “moments before they were set to begin.”
Now completely in the dark as to what was about to go down, SI staffers tried to get back into the rhythms of their daily routines. After a few hours of anxious silence, they’re told that the meetings are back on, with roughly half the group remanded to a 4:15 session and the other half scheduled for a 4:30 huddle. As the latter group filed into the conference room, they discovered that everyone in the earlier meeting had been dismissed.
Fifteen minutes before the layoffs began, an SI staffer noted that TheMaven wasn’t going to let something like divesting dozens of people from their livelihoods to spoil their plans for a party, which was to be held later that same evening. This is the sort of anomie one usually associates with serial killers or comic book villains.
In place of the laid-off SI vets, new owner Authentic Brands Group will hire 300 “contractors,” which is to say freelancers who won’t be provided with healthcare benefits. ABD acquired SI in May from Meredith for the fire-sale price of $110 million. (Meredith just the year before forked over a whopping $1.8 billion to Time Inc. for SI as part of a deal that included other brands including People, Real Simple, InStyle, Food & Wine and other iconic brands.) TheMaven manages the publication for ABD, a “marketing and brand development company that predominantly licenses brand and trademarks of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe.”
When the WSJ reporters reached out to ABD chief executive Jamie Salter on Thursday, he characterized the situation at the magazine as “awesome.” Salter then went on to issue verbal boilerplate about things like “influencers” and “product” without managing to so much as stumble across the word “journalism.”
The new Sports Illustrated print publication and website will launch in January.
The rich get richer
While the fall broadcast schedule is shedding younger viewers at a record clip, the NFL’s ratings success has shown no sign of slowing down. Through the first week of the 2019 season, the league’s six TV windows are averaging 16.2 million viewers and a 9.4 household rating, which marks a 3 percent improvement compared to the year-ago 15.7 million/9.2.
As expected, the late national window shared by Fox and CBS remains TV’s biggest source of commercial impressions; with an average draw of 22.2 million viewers and a 12.8 rating, the Sunday afternoon games are up 3 percent year-over-year. Meanwhile, the package that is currently enjoying the biggest gains belongs to NBC, as “Sunday Night Football” deliveries (20.9 million/12.1) are up 6 percent versus the analogous period in 2018.
With a quarter of the regular season in the books, Fox, CBS and NBC are all off to their strongest NFL starts since 2016.
As the NFL’s premiere primetime offering, “Sunday Night Football” is worth a bit of a ratings drill-down. Through five games, NBC’s adult audience is 65 percent male and 35 percent female, a ratio largely in keeping with last season’s 66-34 split. According to Nielsen, 42 percent of “Sunday Night Football” viewers are members of the 18-49 demo, while 17 percent are part of the 18-34 crowd. The median age of the audience is 50.5 years, up 2 percent from the year-ago 49.7 years, but well shy of broadcast prime’s 58.8-year average.
“Sunday Night Football” is up 2 percent in the dollar demo, with the broadcasts averaging 8.87 million viewers thus far. By comparison, the Big Four networks averaged just 1.75 million adults 18-49 during Premiere Week. And while NBC’s football showcase is seeing some declines among younger viewers—adults 18-34 are down 4 percent year-over-year to 3.52 million, a dip consistent with the dip among men 18-34 (2.33 million, down from 2.42 million), the rates of change are nowhere near as pronounced as they are for broadcast prime as a whole. Season-to-date, TV usage among the 18-34 set is down 12 percent on NFL Sundays, while men 18-34 are down 11 percent.
Across the board, NFL TV windows have thus far delivered 34.3 billion ad impressions, according to iSpot.tv, 99.1 percent of which have been viewed live. The best-performing spot thus far is the State Farm “I Got an App” ad starring Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his infuriatingly inept “agent.”
Among the most visible in-game advertisers are official NFL sponsors Amazon, Verizon, Hyundai McDonald’s, Tide and Bud Light. Also spending freely on football are Apple, Geico, Progressive, Samsung, AT&T, Toyota, State Farm, Chevrolet, Volkswagen and Facebook.
♫ Buy me some peanuts and crack— ♪
Major League Baseball’s recent efforts to speed up the pace of play seemingly have come to naught, as the league just set another record for draggy ballgames. According to the Associated Press, the average time of a nine-inning game in 2019 was a stupefying three hours and five minutes and thirty-five seconds, which is exactly how long it takes to screen Stanley Kubrick’s lotus-chewing 1975 film “Barry Lyndon.” That beat the previous record for sloth, which was set in 2017, by 25 seconds.
Baseball’s less-than-frenzied pace coincided with a 2 percent decline in attendance, although it’s unlikely that TV viewers will see a lot of empty seats on the screen during the postseason. The league’s three biggest draws (Dodgers, Cardinals, Yankees) have advanced to the playoffs, with Los Angeles attracting more fans than any other club with a home attendance of 3.97 million. That marked a 4 percent improvement from last year; meanwhile, the Cards greeted 3.48 million paying customers, up 2 percent, while the Yankees scared up 3.3 million, down 3 percent. The Astros, which are favored to repeat as World Series champs, finished tenth among all MLB franchises with 2.86 million in attendance at Minute Maid Park, down 4 percent versus 2018.
Those who made it out to the ballpark, or simply watched the season unfold on TV, bore witness to an unprecedented barrage of home runs. The MLB’s totally-not-juiced baseball’s flew out of the park no fewer than 6,776 times, smashing the previous record of 6,105 set in 2017. Squaring off in tonight’s American League Division Series are the Minnesota Twins, which closed out the regular season with a record 307 dingers, one more than their opponents the Yankees. In crushing 306 moonshots, the Bronx Bombers beat their previous all-time record (set only a year ago) by a margin of 39.
A deep run by the Yankees would be a boon to Fox and TBS, as New York appeared in all of the league’s top-rated televised games. Deliveries for ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” were up 2 percent year-over-year, thanks in part to a Yankees-heavy schedule that included a July 28 showdown with Boston that averaged a season-high 2.43 million viewers and a 1.5 household rating. On the broadcast side of the lineup card, Fox’s MLB coverage this season improved 9 percent to 2.44 million viewers.
In what may well have been the most myopic stadium naming-rights deal ever committed to paper, Syracuse University in 1979 gave the air conditioner manufacturer Carrier permission to slap its logo on the school’s fancy new dome for a period no shorter than, well, forever. The cost to Carrier? A negligible $2.75 million, which works out to a far-from-prescient $9.7 million in today’s dollars.
With a long-overdue renovation of the dome in the wings—among the planned upgrades to SU’s parachute-pants-wearing concrete bunker is the installation of central air (yes, the arena named after the climate-control colossus is not air-conditioned; as such, a September football game in Syracuse is like being inside an active water bong for three hours)—the university is perhaps starting to suspect that it got the short end of the old sponsor-dollar stick. As such, the 'Cuse is now engaging in a campaign of passive-aggressive erasure that has left legal experts and brand mavens alike sort of scratching their heads in wonder.
Baby, there’s no guidance when random rules
There’s an awful lot of money to be made in the emerging field of esports—during the recent OWL Grand Finals, T-Mobile’s Overwatch sponsorship was estimated to have generated a few hundred-thousand dollars in “social media value,” whatever that is—nobody seems to have the slightest idea how to measure the value of an esports buy. As Digiday’s Seb Joseph reports, buyers are getting tired of dealing with vanity metrics and inflated valuations, and would like someone to stop up and figure out a way to properly measure and price this stuff.
Good luck with that. The TV marketplace just closed out the thirteenth upfront bazaar in which the C3 commercial currency was used to set ratings guarantees and unit costs, and while the industry’s consistency seems laudable enough, this is the same measuring stick that was designed to last maybe two years tops. The advertising world moves slower than a game of baseball played by the cast and crew of “Barry Lyndon,”—Kubrick callback!—all of whom are now either octogenarians or taking the Big Dirt Nap.
Pay up and shut up
California Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week signed a bill that will allow Golden State student-athletes to be compensated for the use of their names, images and likenesses. Naturally, the NCAA immediately Chicken Little-d all over the place after Newsom capped his pen, huffing that any scheme designed to empower young athletes and allow them to seize control of their personal brands would absolutely capsize amateur sports.
Newsom signed the “Fair Pay to Play” act during an appearance on LeBron James’ streaming series “The Shop.” “Let’s do it man, alright,” Newsom said as he signed the document in front of James, former NBA player Ed O’Bannon and Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi. “It’s now law in California.”
The bill will prevent universities from revoking a student-athlete’s scholarship for accepting money, while clearing the way for them to sign agents and seek out business deals.
“Fair Pay to Play” will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.
Shortly after Newsom signed the bill, the NCAA released a statement saying it would “consider next steps in California” before warning that the subsequent adoption of similar policies in other states would lead to a “patchwork of different laws … that will make unattainable the goal of providing a fair and level playing field” for all student-athletes.
On the ropes?
Does the recent pro wrestling boom have legs? While we won’t know how the premiere of Fox’s new WWE showcase will fare until the ratings roll in on Monday morning, a newly-established rival has already posted some encouraging numbers. On Wednesday night, TNT’s “AEW: All Elite Wrestling” bowed to 1.4 million viewers and a 0.7 rating in the 18-49 demo, eclipsing USA Network’s “WWE NXT” (891,000/0.3) in head-to-head competition. The AEW opener also put up bigger deliveries than WWE’s relocated “SmackDown” managed to scare up during the last six months of its USA run (0.6).
But, as Wall Street Journal reporter Spencer Jakab notes, the proliferation of the scripted sports-entertainment hybrid comes as the dominant WWE is facing some brisk headwinds. “[V]iewership, live-event attendance and merchandise sales all have dropped recently, with the first quarter of 2019 looking particularly ugly,” Jakab writes, before adding, “The number of viewers of its marquee event, WrestleMania, fell for the first time ever this year.”
That said, a strong WWE ratings performance on Fox would only serve to inflate the cost of its next TV deal four years from now, especially if the ongoing gutwrench powerbombing of scripted broadcast shows continues apace.
You tell 'em, Farber.