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Volume 27 No. 26
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SBJ Unpacks: NFL Vows To Stay Flexible

Tonight in SBJ Unpacks: The NFL gives more credence to the possibility of Week 18, but plans for a bubble seem far off ... for now.

  • Univ. of Florida suspends football activities after outbreak
  • Bojangles CMO talks engaging consumers in 2020
  • T-Mobile's Amy Azzi on spurring creative change
  • Direct-to-consumer gets thumbs up from brewers
  • Synergy Sports CEO breaks down recent merger

 

NFL OPEN TO WEEK 18, BUT COOL ON BUBBLE

  • Top NFL officials acknowledged today they may need to extend the regular season by a week to account for COVID-19 postponements, but they have not discussed contingency plans beyond that -- such as canceling games outright. They also showed little interest in creating a bubble environment to protect players, either now or in the playoffs, reports SBJ's Ben Fischer.

  • The focus is on playing the 256 games in the 17-week window, knowing that potentially -- if more outbreaks force more schedule changes -- the 18th week "could be an option,” said Exec VP/Football Operations Troy Vincent during an afternoon conference call with reporters.

  • With COVID-19 infections forcing multiple game postponements in the first five weeks, the league appears prepared to continue fine-tuning its protocols and stick with the schedule to the extent possible. Despite reports that the NFL has been evaluating the concept of a playoff bubble, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills said, "We don’t feel that is the safest course of action for us,” while emphasizing that nothing has been ruled out.

  • In response to a question about punishment for the Titans, whose widespread outbreak has caused scheduling chaos, Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “This is not about discipline, this is about making sure we’re keeping our personnel safe.”

  • Goodell also said he is “absolutely not” concerned with the NFL’s roughly 10% viewership decline, citing the changes to the schedule, unconventional broadcast windows and general uncertainty facing the world during the pandemic. He said comparisons to prior years are “difficult” and instead focused on comparing the league to other TV properties. "I think what we’re doing, and where our numbers demonstrate, is that we’re putting distance between us and every other programming, sports and entertainment included. We’re really pleased where we are."

  • Meanwhile, NFL owners are scheduled to vote on a plan tomorrow to move Super Bowl LVIII in 2024 out of New Orleans because of a conflict with Mardi Gras, instead giving the city hosting duties for Super Bowl LIX in 2025. Read more here.

 

UNIV. OF FLORIDA SUSPENDS FOOTBALL ACTIVITIES

  • The Univ. of Florida has "suspended all football activities because of a spike in positive COVID-19 tests," AD Scott Stricklin announced this afternoon. UF "reported five new cases in the past week," per the Tampa Bay Times. The situation "will be reevaluated Wednesday."

  • The outbreak news comes one day after Gators coach Dan Mullen "raised eyebrows" with his call to pack fans into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday for the team's scheduled game against LSU. The Gators had 2,000 of a "nearly 17,000 allotment unsold for their home opener against South Carolina two weeks ago," per ESPN.

 

 

BOJANGLES CMO ON ENGAGING CONSUMERS IN 2020

  • Bojangles CMO Jackie Woodward has been tasked with keeping the fast food chain relevant amid a tumultuous 2020. The veteran marketer today at the virtual Intersport Brand Innovation Summit stressed the importance of “starting with the consumer and what matters to them.”

  • For Bojangles, that meant maintaining its identity as a tailgate brand, even as fans were forced to watch live sports from home. Under Woodward’s guidance this fall, the chain partnered with 12 colleges, including Alabama and Clemson, as well as the NFL Panthers, on customized Big Bo Boxes for at-home watch parties. Woodward: “We figured this year, this might be the only way or one of the few ways for consumers to really engage with their passion points. … We had a hunch that has absolutely paid out.”

  • Other quick hits from Woodward: 

    • Elements she considers as a brand steward now compared to other times in her career? “There's a lot that hasn't changed. I like to think that the what of our roles will never change, but the how, has to change. … Creating demand, understanding consumers, creating those ideas, and then executing them with excellence -- that never changes.”

    • Still optimistic about sports as a platform? “If anything, I think sports is filling an even greater void for consumers than it has in the past.”

    • On what to watch in the next three-to-five months: “The ratings really matter and I think the social engagement matters. … Are (consumers) engaging with fun things and interesting things, or are they engaging with more serious topics? Sports has got to be that place where consumers can get away a little bit and enjoy themselves, and I think they're looking for that and we keep an eye on sentiment very carefully.”

    • On landing Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the first celebrity to voice the “It’s Bo Time” slogan: “Dale is a Bojangles fan and we met at the Darlington race last year. … It's been fun and great to work with him.” 

 

T-MOBILE'S AMY AZZI TALKS SPURRING CREATIVE CHANGE

  • The ability of brands to strengthen their relationships during challenging times and the pandemic’s ability to spur creative change in activation were key topics in a discussion with T-Mobile Senior Director of Sports Marketing & Sponsorships Amy Azzi at today’s Intersport Brand Innovation Summit.

  • Azzi said T-Mobile was able to leverage its capabilities as a telecom company to support longtime partner MLB during the league’s virtual draft in June. “They came to us and said, ‘Hey, what can you do to help us from a connectivity standpoint?’ And our T-Mobile for Business group really stepped up to the plate and provided devices, hotspots,” Azzi said. “We helped ensure optimal coverage across all of the locations and the venues, so that all of the clubs and the prospects were able to connect during that time virtually.”

  • Azzi also pointed to T-Mobile’s Beyond the Bases promotion as “a pivot that we made specifically due to the pandemic.” The video series, which features Bleacher Report's Taylor Rooks conducting personal but lighthearted interviews with MLB stars, was a significant shift in T-Mobile’s promotional strategy.

  • “We've historically armed our regional marketing teams with our trucks, and our retail stores, with assets and opportunities to interact with local fans on the ground.” Azzi said. “We've had a transition to a virtual model just knowing the landscape.” She noted Beyond the Bases has allowed T-Mobile to stay “close to our objectives" increasing brand social engagement through player content amid a challenging MLB season.

 

DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER GETS THUMBS UP FROM BREWERS

  • Remembering that some leagues were founded by and for those making and selling suds, it’s no exaggeration to call beer the lifeblood of sports business, writes SBJ's Terry Lefton. Therefore, any distribution shift is worthy of note. To date, the pandemic is the best thing that ever happened for direct-to-consumer beer sales. 

  • Heineken USA CMO Jonnie Cahill called it an “explosion of e-com" that has grown 8x domestically this year for his brand. He termed it an “extremely undeveloped market," noting that in the U.S., e-commerce accounts for just 0.5% of overall alcohol sales, compared to 6% in the U.K. 

  • Heineken has recovered to the point where Cahill is now projecting his U.S. unit will achieve 90% of its pre-pandemic sales goal this year. “The closing of bars hurt us ... but if you’d offered me back in March what we have now, I would have signed on, for sure," he said.

  • For more on direct-to-consumer beer sales, see today's first issue of our latest newsletter offering -- SBJ Marketing.

 

SYNERGY SPORTS CEO BREAKS DOWN RECENT MERGER

  • Getting more video, in better ways, to more sports properties, in a cost-efficient manner: That is the purpose of the new Synergy Sports, a company created via the late-September merger of Atrium Sports, Synergy Sports Technology and Keemotion, the latter two acquired by Atrium Sports in 2019.

  • Mark Silver -- who has taken the helm as CEO of the newly merged company -- told SBJ’s Andrew Levin why it made sense to merge: “What we recognized is that, although the video and data that we were producing on the different business vines were for different applications and use-cases, in the end, it came down that we would be able to better serve sport at large … by unifying both the operation aspect of what we do and the service offering.”

  • Silver called computer vision and AI a “very active area of investment for sports owners” because they recognize the “value that it has both within their organizations and at the market at large.” He explained, “The obvious consumption culture we have through social media and other platforms has made video more and more important by day. Everyone just expects video to be available in sport.”

  • He also addressed what he hopes Synergy Sports’ long-term impact in the industry will be. “It’s really the democratization and availability of elite sports technologies to all aspects of competition levels,” Silver said.

  • For more insights from Silver, including the public-health benefits of Synergy Sports’ technology amid the pandemic, check out today’s episode of “SBJ Unpacks: The Road Ahead” podcast.

 


SPEED READS

  • The ticketing and seating business within Learfield IMG College has used the last eight months of the pandemic to reinvent itself as more of a data collection and analysis business that’s playing a role in donations and development -- not just selling tickets. In the SBJ College newsletter tonight, Michael Smith catches up with Jake Bye, the Exec VP who oversees ticket and seat solutions. He describes the evolution as a long-term goal that became more pressing during the pandemic when there weren’t any tickets to sell.


  • Nissan Stadium is hosting fans at a "planned 12.5% capacity" for tonight's Bills-Titans game under a newly-implemented Safe Stadium Plan, despite the "cloud now hanging over the organization after the Titans were struck by the NFL’s first teamwide COVID-19 outbreak."  Meanwhile, Philadelphia will "increase its coronavirus restrictions on crowd sizes of up to 7,500 people at the city’s largest outdoor venues, a step that will put thousands of Eagles fans back in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field for Sunday’s game."

  • MLS President & Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said the league is "not really" considering adding a bubble for the MLS Cup Playoffs, according to ESPN's Jeff Carlisle. Abbott said, "There are advantages and disadvantages to the bubble. I think that it becomes effective once you get established, but it's also disruptive in people's lives."

  • Overwatch League's Grand Finals earned a peak viewership on YouTube of 180,000 viewers and saw a global average viewership of 1.55 million -- up 38% from last year and good for the most watched OWL match ever, reports SBJ's Adam Stern. The Grand Finals took place on Saturday morning U.S. time in South Korea and saw the S.F. Shock repeat as champions after defeating the Seoul Dynasty. Average minute audience in China was 1.39 million via streaming platforms including Huya and Bilibili. Activision Blizzard did not release average minute audience for the U.S., but the event peaked around 115,000 on the main OWL channel on YouTube and also had a further 65,000 on related channels. 

 

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Something related to coronavirus and sports business catch your eye? Tell us about it. Reach out to Austin Karp (akarp@sportsbusinessjournal.com) and we'll share the best of it.