SBJ Unpacks: Giants' Mara Feels NFL Positioned To Manage Outbreak
The sports world continues to witness in real time the extent of the challenges involved in playing a season outside of a bubble environment.
Today brought the significant, yet not unexpected, move by Major League Baseball to temporarily suspend the Marlins' season through Sunday after at least 17 members of the organization tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days. The Phillies' series with the Yankees has also been postponed.
MLB had first explored playing a shortened season in bubble environments in Arizona, Texas and Florida. Once a large number of players balked at the possibility of being in quarantine for a long period of time away from family, the league moved to playing in all 30 home markets.
Now the precarious nature of that model is on full display.
-- Eric Prisbell
MARA CONFIDENT NFL WILL HANDLE PANDEMIC HURDLES
- Giants President & CEO John Mara told SBJ’s Ben Fischer that the Marlins’ outbreak is “obviously something we’re paying attention to.” But he defended the NFL’s plan to minimize the pandemic’s effect on teams and players, and said it’s prepared to adjust based on new information as camps open and the facts emerge.
- Asked if MLB’s struggles just four days into the season is proof that COVID-19 trouble is inevitable, Mara said: “I’m sure the perception is out there among some people, but we have had a whole second round of CBA-like negotiations with the players, with the joint medical committee, and those took a long time. ... We came up with these protocols, and we believe they’re going to work and protect players and staff.”
- Mara continued: “We think there will be some positive tests, because that’s what we’ve been told, but I think we’re positioned to manage it well.”
NFL SEES FIRST WAVE OF PLAYER OPT-OUTS
- The rash of player opt-outs reported today -- in particular six Patriots (and three longtime starters in Patrick Chung, Dont'a Hightower and Marcus Cannon) -- spooked some other team executives around the NFL who have expected few or none on their own roster, SBJ’s Ben Fischer reports. “It’s really strange,” one said. “We haven’t had any so far. So maybe it is an outlier.”
- Another exec also used the word “strange,” adding: “I don’t think we’re anticipating any, and certainly not a high number.” Of course, the NFL and NFLPA bothered to negotiate terms of opt-outs fully expecting some players to take advantage, but few if any thought there would be a critical mass.
- If that expectation was wrong, or if the first wave of opt-outs spurs others at scale, then teams will have to scramble -- both for the roster and for the marketing side if more stars follow through. NFL Network reported this afternoon that “dozens” of players have informed teams they will opt out, but the actual legal document encompassing the union agreement hasn’t been finalized yet.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR MLB AFTER MARLINS OUTBREAK?
- MLB's 100-plus page operations manual is exhaustive in its health and safety protocols related to testing, ballpark behavior and how to handle an individual who tests positive, writes SBJ's Eric Prisbell. What's less clear? How to handle a significant outbreak within an organization.
- MLB is now grappling with the challenges an outbreak presents in full view of the sports world, making the dramatic move today to temporarily suspend the Marlins' season through Sunday in the wake of at least 17 positive cases. Throughout the drafting of the manual, baseball officials stressed that the document was fluid and the need to be nimble was paramount as circumstances warrant. That is being tested now.
- MLB also decided, out of an abundance of caution, to postpone the remainder of the Phillies' series with the Yankees, who were scheduled to play the next three nights. The Phillies, who finished a three-game series with the Marlins on Sunday, have not had a player test positive afterwards. But epidemiologists caution that the incubation period for COVID can be two to five days, so early testing of Phillies' players this week may not be a conclusive indication of contagion.
- In its announcement to pause the Marlins' season, MLB also defended its health and safety protocols, saying that its response was triggered immediately upon learning of the spate of positive cases. That response included contact tracing, quarantining and testing of all close contacts. Marlins' personnel who tested positive remain in isolation and are receiving care. MLB also said that more than 6,400 tests conducted since July 24 produced no new positive cases among on-field personnel from any of the other 29 teams.
- Had MLB not moved to pause the Marlins' season, the Nationals were not expected to make the trip to Miami this weekend. Manager Dave Martinez said that the players voted nearly unanimously not to make the road trip.
MLB VIEWERSHIP SEES UPS & DOWNS ON UNIQUE OPENING WEEKEND
- The COVID-shifted TV schedule to start the MLB season led to more overall exposure across Fox Sports and ESPN, but that opening weekend shift also made for a mixed bag in terms of comparisons to the start of past seasons, per SBJ's Austin Karp.
- ESPN had four exclusive games from Thursday through Sunday, beginning with record opening night viewership for a rain-impacted Yankees-Nationals game (4 million viewers), as well as its best late-night game on record with Giants-Dodgers. The net’s “Sunday Night Baseball” opener, featuring the Braves’ 14-1 win over the Mets (1.39 million viewers), did not fare as well, seeing a 25% drop compared to the Braves-Phillies opener last season. ESPN also had a late-night “SNB” tilt -- Giants-Dodgers -- which drew 1.33 million (no comparison). When two non-exclusive ESPN games from Friday are included, the net averaged 1.78 million viewers over six telecasts.
- Fox Sports averaged 1.72 million for four games on opening weekend. Three games aired on Fox on Saturday. Last year, the broadcast network did not air an MLB game until around a month-and-a-half into the season. Those three Fox games averaged 2.21 million viewers, down 8% from Fox’ first three games last year. Fox for the entire 2019 season averaged 2.4 million viewers for a slate of regionalized windows on Saturdays and some Thursdays. Yankees-Nationals on Saturday in primetime was Fox’ best game of the weekend, averaging 2.79 million viewers, 19% better than Fox’ primetime MLB average last season.
- FS1 carried one game late on Saturday night, drawing 279,000 viewers for the Padres’ win over the D-backs. That figure was well below FS1’s average of 340,000 viewers in 2019, and even 16% lower than the net’s average last July (333,000).
SUNS LAY OFF STAFF MEMBERS ACROSS MULTIPLE DEPARTMENTS
- The Suns have laid off an undisclosed number of staff across a variety of departments due to internal restructuring, reports SBJ's John Lombardo. Suns Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Dean Stoyer confirmed the job cuts but refused to disclose the specific number of layoffs or positions.
- “The impact of COVID-19 was not a factor but we are looking at how the sports and entertainment landscape is changing moving forward and how our structure is set up to address it,” Stoyer said, adding that the layoffs were caused by a combination of role redundancy and some outdated roles.
Stoyer would not discuss whether there are other layoffs to come in the future.
SO FAR, SO GOOD IN NBA BUBBLE
- The NBA "appears safe, secure, and comfortable in its Walt Disney bubble," as the consensus from players and coaches there is that they are "being well taken care of, even if some of the players aren’t exactly pleased with all of the medical protocols required for the season to resume," according to the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn.
- Clippers C Joakim Noah said, "It’s very repetitive, but overall I think the NBA is going a great job. They’re keeping us safe, that’s for sure." ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said there is a sense that the NBA "got it right early" with deciding on the bubble concept. He added NBA players and the league are "far different than what you’ve seen in baseball and I think it is at the root of the NBA's ability to put a bubble together." There is a "sense among players and the league that they're in this together and for the future of the league financially, on a lot of levels, they've got to work to make this thing get to October."
CAA IMPLEMENTING SIGNIFICANT LAYOFFS
- CAA confirmed to SBJ's Liz Mullen that it is implementing workforce reductions, including laying off 90 agents and executives across all departments of the company and furloughing 275 assistants and other hourly employees.
- CAA will continue to pay the health care premiums for those being furloughed, the company said in a statement. “CAA began working remotely earlier this year due to the pandemic," the company said. "Everyone at the company participated in reducing compensation with the hope that we could keep all employees financially whole through the end of our fiscal year, September 30th, 2020. We are honoring that commitment, including for those impacted by today’s announcement."
- It was not immediately clear how CAA Sports was affected by the workforce reductions, but reports earlier in the day said the division is expected to be among the hardest hit.
CANADIAN NHL CLUBS DROVE TWITTER MENTIONS DURING HIATUS
- Toronto and Edmonton are the two hub cities for the NHL’s return to play, and it’s those same two teams -- the Maple Leafs and Oilers -- who were the most-mentioned clubs on Twitter in Canada during the pause in action, writes SBJ’s Mark J. Burns. Others listed include the Canucks, Canadiens and Flames to round out the top five, according to data provided by Twitter to SBJ. The timeline spanned March 13 to July 25, and the rankings were only based on mentions of teams’ Twitter handles.
- The top-five mentioned teams in the U.S. during the stop in play were the Bruins, Flyers, Seattle Kraken, Penguins and Rangers. During just the regular season, the Golden Knights had the top spot. The Blues and Hurricanes came in second and third, respectively, followed by the Avalanche and Penguins.
- Meanwhile, the top mentioned NHL players on the platform globally during the same period included Connor McDavid (Oilers), PK Subban (Devils), Auston Matthews (Maple Leafs), Alex Ovechkin (Capitals) and Mitch Marner (Maple Leafs). During the regular season, the rankings were completely different, as the top mentioned NHLers globally from Oct. 2 to March 12 were Marner, John Tavares (Maple Leafs), Ovechkin, David Pastrnak (Bruins) and Matthews.
SUMMER READING WITH KATIE LAVIN & FRANK VUONO
- With 2020 forcing everyone across the industry to shift their calendars around, SBJ's Kody Timmers is catching up with execs, talent, team personnel and more to see how they are making the most of an unprecedented summer. Below, NLL VP/Marketing Katie Lavin and 16W Marketing co-Founder Frank Vuono dish on what they're reading and binge watching.
- NLL's Katie Lavin:
- Reading: “'Daring Greatly' by Brené Brown (a mix of life, lessons, leadership, and growth); 'Big Summer' by Jennifer Weiner (good ol’ millennial murder mystery summer read). Next up: 'Rodham,' by Curtis Sittenfeld."
- Binge watching: "Billions," "Love Life," anything HGTV.
- 16W Marketing's Frank Vuono:
- Reading: "'The Last Stand of Payne Stewart' by Kevin Robbins; 'The Beatles From A to Zed' by Peter Asher; 'Three Days At The Brink (FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win WWII)' by Bret Baier; 'NFL Century (The One-Hundred-Year Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League)' by Joe Horrigan.
- Binge watching: "Everything! 'Money Heist,' 'The Wire,' 'Ozark,' 'Bosch,' 'Jack Ryan,' 'The Man in the High Castle' and 'Shameless' (second time around)."
- Both ESPN and Fox say their involvement in a future XFL under new ownership can’t be counted on, even though the defunct league had at one point hoped to include those contracts in a bankruptcy sale, reports SBJ's Ben Fischer. Bids are due Thursday, with an auction for XFL parent Alpha Entertainment’s intellectual property set for Aug. 3. While neither contract included a rights fee, the robust promotional and programming commitment made by ESPN and Fox were seen as key to the XFL’s initial success before its abrupt cancelation and bankruptcy at the start of the pandemic. Read more here.
- Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson writes if there is "anything the NFL is taking away" from MLB’s situation with the Marlins, it is that an outbreak preceding a game "isn’t going to be taken lightly." Especially if it "means an NFL team would take the chance of sending out a team on Sunday that might have multiple infected players taking the field." “Definitely a ‘no’,” said one NFL GM, when asked if he’d risk playing with a swath of potentially infected players. “No way,” said another. “Never.”
- An update in the ATP's rulebook late last week makes “repetitive or blatant” breaches of COVID-19 precautionary measures a violation of the players’ code of conduct. A major violation could result in a fine of up to $20,000. An ATP spokesperson told SBJ’s Bret McCormick that the addendum was published last week, part of a gradual process to update procedures that have been impacted by the pandemic. The 19-page addendum also spelled out a new requirement for events to appoint a Tournament Infection Control Officer (TICO), to be submitted to the ATP well before the tournament for the tour’s approval. The addendum spells out criteria the TICO candidate must meet, including (but not limited to) at least two years’ experience with infection control.
- Beginning Thursday in Memphis, there "will no longer be COVID-19 pairings on the PGA Tour for players who continue to test positive for the virus after 10 days of isolation and 72 hours without any fever or respiratory symptoms," per Golf Digest's Brian Wacker. Golfers Dylan Frittelli, Harris English and Denny McCarthy have been "subject to the 'timed out' policy in recent weeks and were required to play as a single or in a group of other players who tested positive for COVID-19."
- Ohio State "will likely limit capacity for football games at Ohio Stadium this season to 20%" according to Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch. Tailgating also will be "banned, concessions will be limited and spectators must wear face coverings." The school has "sold 44,320 season tickets to donors, faculty members and the general public, a renewal rate of 87%."
NEWS YOU NEED FROM SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY
- During this crisis impacting the sports business, we want everyone to be up-to-date on the latest news and information. Select stories from Sports Business Daily are free, outside the paywall, for the foreseeable future. Below are today's headlines:
SBJ UNPACKS -- THE ROAD AHEAD
- Check out the most recent editions of our "SBJ Unpacks" podcasts around COVID-19:
- John Ourand and Bill King on the broadcasting plans being utilized during MLB’s return.
- ESPN's Amy Rosenfeld and Mike Foss on the net's MLS production inside the Orlando bubble.
- The best of Adam Silver and Don Garber from the latest SBJ: The Road Ahead virtual event.
- John Ourand and Bill King on the broadcasting plans being utilized during MLB’s return.
THE FUTURE OF FACILITIES
Lead Up Webinar
Tuesday, July 28 – 1-2pm ET
These executives will discuss how venues are preparing for live games. They will share what new design elements, ingress/egress patterns and safety procedures will be implemented when fans return to live events.
• Bobby Sloan, Associate Principal, Populous
• Gerardo Prado, Sports Practice Leader & Vice President, HNTB
• Justin Wood, Principal, Sports Practice Director, Dimensional Innovations
The webinar is complimentary to all SBJ/SBD subscribers, click here to register.
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