SBJ/Sept. 1-7, 2014/Opinion

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  • Cartoon: Ready for some football?

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  • From ratings to Redskins: What to watch in the NFL

    There were more than 1,500 stories related to the NFL in SportsBusiness Daily from the day after Super Bowl XLVIII to last Wednesday. It indicates an eventful offseason for the league with a wide range of headlines: some controversial (high-profile arrests of Jim Irsay and Ray Rice); some polarizing (the debate over the name Redskins) and some sad (the health battles of Pat Bowlen and Jim Kelly). As the league kicks off Thursday night, here are the stories I’ll be keeping an eye on.

    > IS THURSDAY NIGHT MUST-SEE TV?: This has been a top story since the NFL floated out the eight-game package to bid last year, and now we get to see just how the marketplace responds. CBS’s schedule is pretty strong: Steelers-Ravens, Giants-Redskins, Vikings-Packers and Jets-Patriots to name a few. The network is guaranteeing a 12.0 rating, which seems doable with the NFL Network simulcast, but it’s also facing stout prime-time competition with the likes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” on ABC. It will still rate strongly, and I believe more people will tune in to CBS’s seven Thursday night games, on average, than the first seven weeks of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” 

    There are a lot of elements to consider here: Could this slowly change the weekly viewing habits of U.S. sports fans in terms of Thursday night? … It’s a significant test of strength for the league on a new outlet on a still nontraditional night for NFL football. … It’s a big bet by CBS’s Les Moonves and Sean McManus, who don’t want to build up the franchise only to lose it to another network after one year. … If it’s deemed successful, what can the NFL get for a rights fee when it either decides to stay with CBS or takes the package back to the open market? 

    Additional impact: The NFL insists that it is as committed as it’s ever been in NFL Network, even with CBS getting part of the Thursday package. I will be looking to see how the new package affects not only NFL Network, but also ESPN, which has had a successful two-decade run with Thursday night college football.

    > WHAT ELSE I’LL BE WATCHING: I signed up for NFL Now when it launched — just the basic plan, not the premium service. As a Patriots fan, I wondered how it would differ from Patriots.com, which I find to be a very valuable news source: good writers, great videos and behind-the-scenes content. Early on, I’m testing NFL Now mostly through my iPhone, where it’s less “clunky” than my PC experience. I’m seeing similar Pats-based content across both sites. NFL Now obviously has more surrounding NFL video, so I’ll watch to see how NFL Now develops over the season to curate and give me Patriots-based video from sources that I may have missed. … Keep an ear open to references to Microsoft tablets on the NFL’s sidelines. Microsoft pays the league more than $80 million annually and for the first time this year, it has its tablets on the sidelines. Early on, I’ve caught a few media mentions of “the iPads now being used on the sidelines.” Microsoft needs to leverage its brand equity out of this enhancement, but that will be diminished significantly if media mentions fail to accurately refer to the product and instead tout a competitor. Don’t think the NFL isn’t reminding its broadcast partners and other media of that.

    > BEYOND THE MEDIA MUSING: I’ll also pay attention to story lines on the health and safety of players. Wes Welker’s third concussion in 10 months reinforces that continuing narrative. … With the NFL’s keen focus on London, I’ll specifically be watching the Oct. 26 game, when the Falcons and Lions kick off at the early time of 9:30 a.m. ET/1:30 p.m. local at Wembley Stadium. This is a first and will make that International Series game stand out because it will allow the NFL to have games all day Sunday, from 9 a.m. until midnight, putting this one at a more desirable local London time and perhaps hinting at the window for future games. … Last year’s much publicized efforts to enhance in-stadium video with behind-the-scenes footage and RedZone got off the ground only marginally. Will this year offer more? … On the team side, who emerges to land the Bills? Most of the fans I speak to from the Buffalo market are bullish about the potential of Terry Pegula owning the team. They point to his deep investment in the market, his vast net worth and his learnings from owning the Sabres. Final price tag and any new owner’s interest in reducing profit margins in exchange of possible new stadium debt also is worth watching. … The future of the Raiders and the team’s ownership under Mark Davis is a story line to follow. … Last week, Sean Gilbert outlined an aggressive agenda in running against NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who is up for re-election in March.  Gilbert certainly didn’t play to the middle in calling for an 18-game season and a termination to the current CBA. Keep an eye on what player and agent factions emerge as he challenges Smith and how the  campaign possibly affects the relationship between the NFL and union.

    > WHAT WILL DANIEL SNYDER DO? The NFL story that crosses over to the mainstream is how long Redskins owner Daniel Snyder will insist on keeping the team’s name. He’s dismissed all the public relations hits from media columnists and even national politicos calling for a change. Those don’t affect the organization’s bottom line. But this story shows no sign of going away any time soon.

    I used to think that the only thing that would make Snyder re-evaluate his decision is if some serious financial consequences came into play. If FedEx, which pays an estimated $7.59 million a year for naming rights to the team’s Landover, Md., stadium and has a deal through 2025, said it were opting out unless there were a name change, or if a large number of the team’s roughly 40 local sponsors, or even if some of the NFL’s three dozen national sponsors, began to seriously lobby for a change, perhaps then we would see a move. But we have seen nothing that indicates that type of push is happening.  

    If the organization is prevented from using its intellectual property in merchandise, that could also greatly affect the bottom line and force a decision. The decision by TV broadcasters and talent to refrain from using the name will put some stress on the partner/rights holder relationship, and Snyder (and the NFL) can’t be thrilled when national broadcasters are so outspoken in continuing the drip, drip, drip element that’s driving this issue. But is it a tipping point that will move Snyder off his stance?   

    Outside the Beltway, Snyder and his PR advisers  have consistently been on the defensive, failing to craft any convincing message as to why the name should remain. But within the Beltway, the legion of the team’s fans support their owner’s decision, for now. If the people of the District of Columbia and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington and Fairfax counties were to ever take action, though, they could make a profound statement, because if that support began to erode, Snyder’s hand may be forced. 

    As a side note, in a recent Turnkey Sports Poll of 2,000 senior-level sports industry executives, 48 percent of respondents said they think the team should change the name; 42 percent said it should remain Redskins. 

    > OUR PLAN GOING FORWARD: We will continue to use the Redskins name in our editorial coverage in SportsBusiness Journal/Daily and Global. We understand the name causes offense to many people, but as a trade publication that covers the business of sports, we will follow the marketplace. As long as the NFL, the league’s teams, the sponsors, and the licensees and media companies that align with and use the team’s intellectual property refer to the team by its current name, so will we. 

    > AN ALUM WILL“MEET THE PRESS”: A tip of the cap to my former colleague Chuck Todd, who will make his debut as the new anchor at NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday. I met Chuck in August 1994, when I joined the startup SportsBusiness Daily. He had just left The Hotline to help launch SBD, serving as assistant editor for more than a year. He taught me a ton in a short period of time: tips on how to quickly get in and out of the sketchy neighborhood where we picked up newspapers at a delivery plant in Washington, D.C., at 4:30 a.m.; how news cycles rolled; how to look for spin; and helpful ideas to curating an effective news briefing. He returned to The Hotline as editor-in-chief the following year. It’s been great fun watching his rise at NBC, and this opportunity to lead “Meet The Press” is perfect for someone who bleeds politics and sports. A well-deserved congratulations to a good man. In case you missed it, Todd talked about his role with SportsBusiness Daily during our 20th anniversary roundtable (SportsBusiness Journal, Dec. 9-15, 2013). 

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

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  • Growth of a game: How tennis has changed, where U.S. stands

    AAs the 2014 U.S. Open enters its second week, I am frequently asked two questions about the current state of professional tennis:

    What has changed in the pro sport since 1968, when the first U.S. Open was held at Forest Hills and when amateurs could compete with professionals for prize money?

    Everything has changed since tennis went professional in 1968. 

    From a technical perspective, tennis is a different sport now, transformed by power. Wood rackets have been replaced by highly developed composites of graphite and carbon fibers, making them lighter but just as strong. Players can generate more racket speed, turning tennis into a baseline power game instead of the finesse, serve-and-volley style of the past. 

    Even the new strings, like the Babolat synthetic and the Luxilon power strings, are designed to be strung looser, with more ridges to generate more spin, allowing players to hit harder while making the ball dip into the court. Gone are the Eastern grip forehands and safe slice serves of the Open era. Today, 10-year-olds are taught open-stance forehands, exaggerated Western grips and arched-back kick serves. Tennis is more physical, being played higher and higher, with racket back-swings up around the ears and topspin shots bouncing at shoulder height. 

    The surfaces are faster too, going from grass courts to hard courts, reinforcing the speed of play. The players’ diet, fitness regimes and cross training — many travel with a physical trainer and a nutritionist in addition to their coach — have contributed as well. Even the scoring has changed, with the introduction of the tie-breaker quickening a match’s pace. And players can now challenge close line calls everywhere, through the Hawk-Eye instant replay, encouraging them to take some chances and go for the lines. 

    Players also travel in packs, with entourages of trainers, coaches, families and mental-toughness gurus, insulating them from the outside world and making traveling the tour more of a serious and isolated experience.

    But the biggest change in pro tennis has been

    Total purse of the 1968 U.S. Open, won on the men’s side by Arthur Ashe, was $100,000. When Rafael Nadal won last year, the purse topped $40 million.
    Photos by: GETTY IMAGES (2)

    the tremendous explosion of prize money and athlete endorsements over the past 40 years. In 1968, the first U.S. Open gave $100,000 in prize money for the whole tournament. By 2015, the prize money at the U.S. Open is expected to approach $50 million. Today, agencies can make whole businesses around advising brands how to spend their money in the sport. And this growth of endorsement capital and sponsorship money has brought an enormous change in the attitude of the players. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic both earn well over $25 million a year in endorsement and sponsorship deals.

    Today, players are far more professional in their approach to competing on a world tour. They are serious, dedicated, phenomenal physical fitness specimens, more muscular and fit than ever before. In the days of the 1950s and ’60s, when it rained, we played cards or went to the movies. Today when it rains, 90 percent of the pros are working out for several hours in the local gyms. Today’s players are willing to pay the price to be the very best that their talent will allow them to be. Their work ethic is outstanding. 

    Ivan Lendl was one of the first players who brought fitness to the game. He had a relentless consistency that was based on his work in the gym. Other players soon followed. Federer set the tone and pace of the totally professional approach to winning major events, through his physical fitness and professional demeanor on the court. 

    Djokovic loves to extol the virtues of going gluten free, and off the court he also uses a pressurized egg, called a CVAC pod, to improve his fitness. Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, who have dominated the four Grand Slam championships for the past six or seven years, all work with personal trainers, spending as much time training off the court as they do on.

    The tremendous growth of prize money through sponsorship and television has driven the players, both men and women, to be more competitive than ever. Quite simply, there are many more financial rewards at stake today.

    What is wrong with American tennis, and where are the future American stars?

    It’s really quite simple. As prize money, sponsorship and television grew exponentially in the ’70s, young players began to learn the game from different countries all over the world. Gone were the days when America, Australia, England and Germany dominated the Davis Cup and Fed Cup in tennis, when motivations were tied to pride of country more than financial gain. This patriotic focus was replaced by the ATP and WTA computer rankings, which vary and change on a weekly basis. 

    Today, there are 800 players in the ATP rankings from all over the world. In parts of Europe and Asia, professional tennis has become a ticket out of the player’s local environs, giving players much more financial incentive and hunger to work hard, travel, and win prize money to improve their lives and the lives of their families. 

    As a child, Djokovic trained in his home of Belgrade, which was under siege during the Kosovan war. He’d play without nets, on broken concrete. Today, he’s the world’s top-ranked men’s singles player. On the other extreme, there are foreign governments that pay for the best and most athletic kids’ training, often starting at an earlier age than we do in America.

    Today, the world of professional tennis is truly a global sport, with literally hundreds more good players striving to improve everywhere. In America, we must understand that the battleground is really for the competitive interests of 6- to 8-year-olds as they decide whether to focus on football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer or the individual sports of golf and tennis.

    In order to raise kids’ interest in tennis, the U.S. Tennis Association has embarked on a program called Quickstart Tennis in which it is spending millions of dollars to attract the best young 6- to 8-year-old athletes to the game by using short courts, large foam yellow balls and smaller racquets — so that a 6-year-old will enjoy the sport more from the very first hit. It will take time, but we shall see the results of this program in the years ahead.

    America needs a new young champion and star whom the kids will idolize — a Jimmy Connors, a Pete Sampras or an Andre Agassi. But the breadth of players competing from all nationalities will make it highly competitive and difficult to achieve. n

    Donald Dell is group president at Lagardère Unlimited and vice chairman of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Dell also was a member of the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily class of 2013 of The Champions: Pioneers and Innovators in Sports Business.

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  • When a loss is really a win, and the future of the NCAA

    The recent O’Bannon v. NCAA ruling has been widely characterized as a loss for the NCAA. But was it? 

    In my opinion, the NCAA was the real winner in this case, and its victory started long before the ruling was handed down. So what does that mean for Division I men’s basketball and the Football Bowl Subdivision going forward?

    O’Bannon was certified as a national class-action on liability, but not on damages, which was the first real win for the NCAA. D-I men’s basketball and FBS, the focus of the O’Bannon lawsuit, bring in $6 billion-plus of the total approximate $10 billion in sports revenue for all of Division I. That’s where the money is, and the plaintiffs were shut out from pursuing damages based upon that pot of gold.

    The day before the O’Bannon opinion was released, the NCAA voted to allow the major conferences autonomy to enact their own set of rules so that they can have grants-in-aid that equal the actual cost of attendance, and otherwise adopt rules more reflective of their commercialized environment, such as paying stipends to players. The rules would become effective next year after they are drafted and adopted. Other D-I schools are allowed to opt in to the autonomy model.

    The next day, federal Judge Claudia Wilken essentially did the same thing: She enjoined the NCAA’s rules that prevent payment for actual cost of attendance for these same major conferences as well as the remainder of FBS and all D-I men’s basketball. Wilken’s opinion also enjoined the NCAA’s rules that prevent sharing of revenue by the same groups with college athletes, but she said the NCAA could cap this at no less than $5,000 per athlete, which must be uniformly applied for each team and which may be deferred until after graduation or withdrawal from school.

    The NCAA is not done in the courtroom: Appeal on O’Bannon ruling and Jenkins case await.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

    So what does “win” mean? If someone told you that you might have to share maybe $300 million of your $6 billion-plus pie, would you care, or would you breathe a sigh of relief, especially when the judge tells you that you can engage in future antitrust violations by capping the “sharing” at $5,000, apparently forever? Remember that the NCAA had threatened to seek an antitrust exemption from Congress if it lost. But didn’t Wilken just give it one without the messiness of congressional hearings that might propose crazy things like capping coaches’ and presidents’ salaries?

    The NCAA appeared to win on everything else. Even so, the NCAA has stated that it intends to appeal the ruling, although an appeal may make its situation worse.

    To show how badly the plaintiffs lost: Prior to trial, they waived their claims for damages, and they waived their claims for unjust enrichment and an accounting, thus just leaving the antitrust claims, which was a huge strategic mistake, since unjust enrichment should have been the primary focus in the first place. Why does this matter? Let’s go back to the money, which means the broadcast money, if we’re talking about the pot of gold, and here’s what Wilken wrote:

    The first set of potential buyers — the television networks — already compete freely against one another for the rights to use student-athletes’ names, images, and likenesses in live game telecasts. Although they may not be able to purchase these rights directly from the student-athletes, they nevertheless compete to acquire these rights from other sources, such as schools and conferences. The fact that the networks do not compete to purchase these rights directly from the student-athletes is due to the assurances by the schools, conferences, and NCAA that they have the authority to grant these rights. Such assurances might constitute conversion by the schools of the student-athletes’ rights, or otherwise be unlawful, but they are not anticompetitive because they do not inhibit any form of competition that would otherwise exist.

    So in the complicated legal world, claims matter, and the claim that mattered most, and which could have actually recognized college athletes’ property rights, unjust enrichment, was gone. Whether the plaintiffs will appeal “winning” no damages is unknown as of yet, but their attorneys are now seeking $52.4 million in attorneys’ fees and expenses.

    Going forward, what does O’Bannon mean for men’s basketball and FBS?

    First, considering the power five conferences, they don’t need to do anything as it relates to autonomy unless they want to go further than Wilken’s order. If the remainder of the FBS schools as well as men’s basketball wish to go further, they can choose to opt-in to the autonomy model.

    Second, as it relates to men’s basketball and FBS, those colleges and universities can start competing next year for incoming college athletes in these sports by offering increased grants-in-aid and revenue sharing, as long as those amounts offered are uniform for all incoming athletes. The NCAA has the option of erecting a cap of at least $5,000 per athlete, but with autonomy, the major conferences can opt-out. However, they can’t impose their own cap, because Wilken’s order prohibits them from colluding on what they pay college athletes. Thus, at least on a group basis, the free market will determine, team by team, what those college athletes are worth.

    Third, college athletes are largely left with no individual rights, because Wilken believes they need to be protected from commercial exploitation from third parties but not from their own colleges and universities. Unless the unionization effort takes hold, they will continue to be unorganized and really have no voice at the economic table. Whatever rights or privileges they have will be whatever the colleges and universities decide to give to them, unless Congress mandates otherwise.

    What does the future hold? There are multiple things that will be tugging at the interrelated college sports landscape. One or more of the conferences may just resign from the NCAA, a move that could remove those conferences from the scope of Wilken’s order. The conferences also no longer need the NCAA, since its primary purpose was to shield them from litigation and bad public relations — yet it has hardly done a good job at that under its current leadership.

    The pending Jenkins v. NCAA case, which is aimed at both the NCAA and the power five conferences, is still hanging out there, so look for those conferences to be bargaining with class-counsel to give the college athletes the individual rights they now lack. And if they’re smart, they’ll do so without the confines of the NCAA. 

    So while the NCAA may have won the O’Bannon case, it is largely unnecessary to the major conferences at this point. In fact, it has become the problem. Thus, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the NCAA.

    Only time will tell if the NCAA has lost the war. 

    Richard G. Johnson (rgj@rgjcolpa.com) was plaintiff’s counsel in Oliver v. NCAA, which established college athletes’ right to counsel.

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