SBJ/Feb. 17-23, 2014/Opinion

CBS ‘wanted’ Thursday NFL deal more

Before I traveled to New York recently, conventional wisdom had either NBC Sports or Fox Sports as the winning bidder for the NFL’s Thursday night package. CBS was an afterthought, based on the fact that the network did not engage in recent NASCAR and soccer deals and doesn’t seem interested in the NBA. But over Super Bowl week, it became clear that CBS was the slight favorite to land the deal. There were consistent reasons we kept hearing: significant buy-in from CBS CEO Les Moonves, who made it a priority and was very engaged in the process; the commitment by CBS to bring its top talent and production team for every game, enhancing the look and feel (which was vital to the league); and on the NFL’s side, the draw of CBS’s strong viewership numbers on Thursday nights. As one top NFC team executive told me last week, “CBS just wanted it more than everyone else and it showed.”

This is a big win for CBS Sports and its leadership of Sean McManus and David Berson. A few skeptics have dismissed it as a one-year gamble that may not pay off. Yes, it’s only a one-year deal, and the NFL has been very clear that it’s using this deal strictly to increase the value so the next package goes for at least $600 million a year. But CBS was intent on keeping its network audience and not losing it to NFL action on one of its competitors. And incumbency isn’t a bad place to be these days in negotiations with the NFL. Moonves and McManus are clearly well-regarded in NFL ownership circles, and while other partners may pay more, no other single network can boast two different TV packages with the league.  That’s a real coup.

I’m eagerly anticipating the Thursday night schedule to see if its slate of games improves. Keep an eye on this story — the team executive I mentioned above predicted Thursday night will be right up there with the most watched games of the week and believes it could mark a cultural shift in consumer viewing during the week.

> PLAYING BALL: I recently sat in a discussion with a Fortune 100 CEO who stressed the need to balance tradition with innovation when it came to the game of baseball. His point: Games are too long and the pace of the game is a threat to the appeal to today’s youth. It’s something we’ve spent a lot of time talking about in our newsroom. It also came up in my recent conversation with former John Hancock Financial Services CEO David D’Alessandro, and some of you may have missed a blog posting where he addresses today’s coverage of baseball. “Baseball broadcasting is a disaster,” he told me. “But baseball in person is actually a very, very strong play. What is more boring than the broadcasters in baseball? They’re terrible. They’re filling time. … And it’s pace-of-game related. Baseball needs a whole different way to be broadcast. How much focus is there on pitch speed? We all love pitch speed. ‘Oh, he is throwing 95 miles per hour!’ In physics, that’s only half the transaction when the ball is hit. How fast he is throwing the ball and the movement is important, but what is also really important is bat speed. If you have a chip in the bat, a tiny chip that won’t change the bat, and you put one in the ball, you’ll know every time exactly where the ball was hit on the bat, and how much of the ball was actually hit. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know, if the ball is coming 90-something miles per hour, and David Ortiz’s bat speed is 37 or 47 miles per hour, which is down from last year. So, his bat speed is a little slow. Then you’d be able to show where he hit, because the ball flattens. We could actually see the dynamics of what’s happening. And it would make the broadcast more interesting. Tie that to the fact that the under-35 crowd is so tied to their smartphones, and you could actually simulate that in a stadium.  Fans and viewers could see what’s going on and talk about that in a manner that’s appealing.”

We’re doing a package on improvements we’d like to see to the game, so if you have an idea on how baseball should balance tradition with innovation, send it my way.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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