SBJ Football: XFL Suspends Operations, Terminates Employees
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never done so many dishes in my life. On to football:
SECOND EFFORT AT XFL LIKELY DONE
- The XFL suspended operations and terminated all team and most league staff today, an apparent end to Vince McMahon’s second attempt to launch a new football league. COO Jeffrey Pollack shared the news with roughly 375 people on a noon ET conference call that lasted about 10 minutes. No explanation was given for exactly what led to this decision, my colleague Eric Prisbell reports, though the March 20 cancellation of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic blew a massive hole in league financial projections.
- There was no mention of a 2021 season on the call, leaving open the remote possibility of it coming back. But as of this moment, there is only a skeleton staff, and yesterday, the XFL refunded fan deposits on 2021 tickets and would not commit to another season. Two weeks ago in this newsletter, I speculated the WWE’s problems could bleed into the XFL. Nevertheless, the decisiveness of this move today is surprising. Until just a few days ago, XFL business partners were operating under the belief that 2021 was full-steam ahead. My efforts to reach Pollack and Commissioner Oliver Luck have not been immediately successful.
- Employees were paid out through Arpil 12 and for remaining vacation/personal days. Two team execs woke up this morning to an ominous sign: an unexplained larger paycheck than expected. Execs were told they'd hear more on benefits soon.
- Nick Kelly, an exec with Anheuser-Busch InBev, spoke with SBJ's Terry Lefton about the brewer's XFL sponsorship: “We had a lot of fun testing new things with them. We are disappointed to see it end so abruptly, but in today’s society and what’s going on, we completely understand and sympathize. ... A problem for them would be that the desire for more traditional and familiar leagues is probably only going to be heightened after all of this winds down somewhat.”
MICROSOFT, OTHER NFL TECH PARTNERS SEE VIRTUAL DRAFT OPPORTUNITIES
- Just over a month ago, Microsoft announced a sponsorship extension with the NFL that added its business collaboration software, MS Teams, to the deal. At the time, it didn’t seem that consequential -- at least not compared to the camera-visible value generated by Surface tablets in use on NFL sidelines. But then the world changed. We’re all stuck at home and dependent on video chat and teamwork tools like never before. Now, MS Teams is ready for a starring role at the draft.
- Ravens coach John Harbaugh this week said he’s worried about hackers on team Zoom video chats during the draft -- and he’s right to be. The NFL won’t require teams to switch to Microsoft Teams, but league HQ does think its own sponsors have “the best” solutions, said NFL VP/Partnership Marketing Dave Lynch. “With some of the collaboration software out there and some of the issues that some providers have had of late, a lot of the teams are switching over to our partner,” Lynch said.
- The tougher question is how Microsoft and other tech sponsors will promote this newfound relevance (Bose, Verizon and Amazon Web Services are in similar positions). Some of it will come from organic integration on screen during the draft telecast, but at this late date, promotion and activation are “moving targets,” Lynch said. Understandably, most of the tech sponsors’ focus has been on shoring up the practical side of actually picking players remotely. There’s also some PR risk -- if something goes wrong, nobody wants a draft day repeat of Bill Belichick’s 2016 screed against the tablets.
NFL, TEAMS GROW MORE CONFIDENT IN MESSAGING DURING PANDEMIC
- When the pandemic-related economic shutdowns first hit, there was some concern around NFL circles about how to conduct offseason business. Columnists suggested it was inappropriate to sign eight-figure contracts amid the crisis, and some have raised similar concerns about the draft. But a month later, teams are quite certain of two things:
- Fans crave some sense of normalcy.
- There is such a thing as a message to fans that’s both sensitive and effective.
- One reason for the confidence is league data. The NFL Fan Tracker, plus other opinion research, has found the following: 83% of avid fans say they’re likely to watch sports to get away from the news, 61% are looking for “fun and entertaining content” and 57% of fans want draft updates during the pandemic.
- Of course, there is no template for these times, and different teams make different decisions. The Buccaneers released new uniforms on Tuesday with little fanfare, introducing some new social media features but otherwise declining to talk much about the process. Meanwhile, the Falcons were happy to talk about their new duds released one day later and the process behind them.
- Cautious of the difficult messaging environment, Falcons leaders debated daily for six weeks about when to release the new uniforms, said CMO Morgan Shaw Parker. But confidence grew as the NFL firmed up plans for the draft, and league survey data and the Falcons’ own season ticket holders said it was OK. “Sports is a unifying force, and for us, as the Falcons and the city of Atlanta, we know the fans are going to be back, stronger than ever, and we want fans to be looking forward to that,” Shaw Parker said.
GIANTS' DRAFT PREP PARTY AVOIDS COMPETING WITH LEAGUE CONTENT
- The Giants are putting a twist on the virtual draft party concept announced by the Redskins and Dolphins earlier this week: A draft preparation party. On April 20, about 20,000 season ticket holders are invited to a password-protected site where they will hear from GM Dave Gettleman and first-year coach Joe Judge about the upcoming draft, along with appearances from radio voice Bob Papa, former players Sean O’Hara and Carl Banks and some current players.
- The Giants decided to leave the heavy lifting on draft day to the league. “We started going down the virtual draft show road, and we kind of quickly realized that we’d be competing directly with the league’s content, which is not necessarily where you want to be,” said Giants Chief Commercial Officer Pete Guelli. When the Giants make a pick during the April 23-25 draft, team media will snap into action with lots of information about the new team member, but for the most part, their heavy lifting will come that Monday.
- Fashion brand Van Heusen is on board as presenting sponsor, with MetLife, Pepsi, Dell, SAP and Dunkin’ also committed, Guelli said. Another reason for the pre-draft event: The Giants haven’t been able to get Judge to many offseason events because of the pandemic, so this is another chance to introduce the coach to season ticket holders on a semi-personal level. The Giants don’t yet know how many fans to expect on the site.
- A few other teams aren’t waiting for the draft to do virtual fan experiences. The Broncos and sponsor Bud Light are doing a virtual happy hour tonight with offensive lineman Dalton Risner. The Chargers did a virtual town hall on Thursday to introduce four new free agent signees to season ticket holders, and the Packers last week had a virtual watch party for a new documentary series called “Legacy.”
- The Browns’ JC Tretter acknowledged the uncertainty amid his election to the NFLPA presidency as the new CBA was being finalized. Tretter told The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo, “We knew going into it that it was going to be a tight, tight vote. Both sides -- there were people who loved it, people who didn’t like it -- both sides were extremely vocal. We understood what we were getting into when the vote went out. This wasn’t a slam dunk either way.” Tretter said he understood the new president would have to be “willing to step into both of those realities -- going back into negotiations or trying to move us forward.” Tretter: “Now it’s about trying to get everyone on the same page and understand the reasons guys were against the deal. Those critiques and concerns don’t fall on deaf ears.”
- The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy said new Buccaneers QB Tom Brady appearing on SiriusXM’s “The Howard Stern Show” and penning an article for The Players’ Tribune, among other efforts, show his desire to "ingratiate himself to the rest of America" after being “metaphorically chained to the radiator in Foxborough for the last 20 years." Shaughnessy, on "The Jim Rome Show," said, "There will be more ‘Oprah’ and just the kind of free fall questioning that he allowed (Tuesday). ... He wants to sell the TB12 method. He wants to show that he can play quarterback at the age of 43, 44, 45 and it's good for the brand. I think this is all part of a campaign and the notion that he's able to do it in the middle of a freaking pandemic is amazing to me.”
Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel is among those who believe CFP expansion is on the horizon following Brett McMurphy’s poll that found 88% of college AD's are in favor of expanding the field. Thamel, on the “Yahoo Sports College Podcast,” cited sources saying there are already serious discussions underway. “You know what’s going to make more serious discussions? The significant financial crunch all these athletic departments are likely going to be under as we look at the reality of some type of shortened season. … For there to be evolution -- there has to be some type of trigger. Well, this pandemic is going to be the trigger. It’s going to change college sports as we know it.” The CFP is now halfway through its 12-year deal with ESPN.
- Another example of never underestimating Saints fans. Per the Baton Rouge Advocate's Jeff Nowak, more than 70,000 New Orleans homes tuned in to the team's 2006 "Domecoming" re-run on ESPN this past Monday, the team's first home game after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The broadcast's local rating in NOLA "quickly jumped" from 2.8 to 10.9 before kickoff at 7pm, "never falling below 10.1" until "SportsCenter" took over at 10pm.
- The upcoming virtual NFL Draft has emphasized the importance of scouting staffs, says NFL Network’s Charley Casserly. He told ESPN Radio Seattle’s John Clayton: “The teams that rely upon their scouts and have the best staffs have a distinct advantage, because you’re eliminating a lot of stuff in the spring where people play catch up. The teams that were ready to draft right after the Combine should have an advantage here.” Asked if there will be a lack of trades during the Draft, Casserly said, “Maybe less than ever, and they may not be as complicated.”
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