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Volume 23 No. 17
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Forum: Ten stories worth watching

Ten stories from January that were a big part of the conversations last month:

Baseball’s Bad Boys: The sign-stealing scandal shows no signs of slowing down despite the aggressive approach by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. It already brought down leaders of three organizations and altered the future of the Astros, Red Sox and Mets. My main questions: 1) How will this affect interest in baseball; 2) How will the Astros show contrition; 3) How will the Astros be received by other teams (one player told me he has no qualms about aggressively going after any of the players involved); and 4) How will fans react? I’ve already heard stories of fans buying tickets just to go boo the Astros.

WNBA’s Daring Deal:  The WNBA’s new CBA didn’t receive the attention or credit it deserves. New President Cathy Engelbert showed real leadership, and the league, and owners, made a bold bet by dramatically increasing investment, player salaries and benefits, with the hope that the money will follow. As Mystics owner Ted Leonsis said, “There’s no new revenue that’s been promised to us. We’ve dramatically increased our expenses in hopes of … now we can go out and try to attract sponsors, media deals.” I’m especially interested in the deal’s “Changemakers” program that hopes to bring on sponsors focused on shifting the business model around all women’s sports.

NFL’s Attendance Trend: The average of 66,648 during the NFL’s 2019 regular season marked the first time since 2010 that the figure dropped below 67,000, and it was the league’s lowest average since 2004. Fifteen teams saw a decline. Even though it only looks like a slight drop, it is top of mind of every team and league executive. Look for more incentives to maintain the appeal of being at the live event.

Sports’ Lead Card: In figures that execs should cite all year, sports again showed its dominance on TV. In 2019, sports accounted for 92 of TV’s top 100 most-viewed telecasts. That is up from 88 for sports in both 2018 and 2016 (Olympic years), and up from 81 in 2017. It was another feather in the cap of the NFL, as 78 game windows ranked in the top 100, up from 63 in 2018 and 64 in 2017.

Where Is The Floor?: Figures that broke in late January may have gotten lost amid the run-up to the Super Bowl, but distribution for both Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network fell below 80 million. These concerning trends mirror other networks. Years ago, I was assured by high-level cable executives the floor was 85 million homes. That’s clearly not the case. I view 80 million homes as one of the many distribution benchmarks. Keep an eye on the future distribution numbers of ESPN and ESPN2 — both slightly north of 82 million.

The SEC’s Bold Move: This deal is still developing and not announced, but the SEC’s move from CBS to ESPN/ABC roiled much of the media industry. No one seems surprised by the rights fee’s nearly 600% increase, to north of $300 million per year, but there have been questions about the process and the speed at which the SEC decided to go all in with ESPN.

The Power Of Audio: Podcast programming was integral to Penn Gaming’s acquisition of Barstool and Spotify’s deal for Bill Simmons and The Ringer, demonstrating the sticky following and power of this medium. Simmons is a business-builder and I’ll be keeping an eye on his desire to build a new series of documentaries with HBO around rock music. 

A Rival Golf League?: With the PGA Tour’s new media agreements likely to be announced around The Players Championship, talk has begun to bubble up about the World Golf Group’s plan for an 18-event global tour. The idea has seemingly been in the works for a while, largely driven by The Raine Group, and observers are watching to see how PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan solidifies his members and squashes any momentum the fledgling tour may gain.

NFL And Endeavor United: A lot of people are talking about Endeavor’s acquisition of On Location Experiences because of the big personalities and companies involved. Ari Emanuel and Mark Shapiro handled negotiations, dealing with Roger Goodell and Robert Kraft. Now, the focus turns to how the two companies can take a business that has been scaling quickly and spins off more than $60 million of EBITDA to one that generates more than $100 million.

Major Executive Shake-Up At WWE: The news came late on Jan. 30 that the WWE terminated co-Presidents Michelle Wilson and George Barrios. The move shocked industry insiders, as the two were architects of the WWE’s media move to Fox and USA Network and had tremendous influence on its revenue generation. WWE Chairman Vince McMahon can be mercurial, and this move came out of nowhere and sent the company’s share price tumbling.

First Look podcast, with Abe Madkour and Bill King on a variety of issues around the industry, at the 24:10 mark:

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