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Volume 27 No. 87

SBJ Unpacks: NFL Clears Browns To Return To Team Facility

Tonight in SBJ Unpacks: The Browns re-open their facility two days before their first playoff appearance in 18 years.

  • New HBO doc goes deep on legend of Tiger Woods
  • Stage set for New York mobile sports betting
  • Australian Open planning for fans as tournament start nears
  • Spartan Race outfit gains new cash boost
  • Fanatics' Michael Rubin snatches up Hamptons mansion

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Browns Return To Team Facility Two Days Ahead Of Playoff Game

The Browns this afternoon were "cleared by the NFL for their first practice of the week"  at 4:30pm today for their "biggest game in 18 years -- the wild card game Sunday night in Pittsburgh," per the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The team training facility is now open "for the first time all week after the Browns had nine new positive COVID-19 tests this week, including coach Kevin Stefanski and left guard Joel Bitonio, who will sit out the game." 

Acting head coach Mike Priefer: “It’s like every morning you wake up and say, ‘What else can you deal with?’ Everything has been different. ... We have been so adaptive, we have been so flexible and we’ve been so resilient and just fighting through every piece of adversity that we’ve had to deal with this year. We’ve done a great job with that thus far, and we are going to continue to do so.”

ESPN reported all Browns players tested Thursday and Friday are negative, with only assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters, who had "missed last Sunday's game as a high-risk close contact, testing positive for COVID-19." 

Browns-Steelers on Sunday night will put a capstone on the NFL's first Super Wild Card Weekend, the last of six total games played Saturday and Sunday.

New HBO Doc Goes Deep On Legend Of Tiger Woods

HBO this Sunday night will debut the first episode of the two-part "Tiger," a documentary on the life and career of Tiger Woods, based on a 2018 biography by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Co-director Matthew Hamachek, who makes his feature debut with the project, was drawn to the large unknown that Woods still is to fans over three decades into his career. 

He told SBJ's Thomas Leary & Chris Smith, "For me, it was ‘Here’s the most famous person in the world, and the public knows almost nothing about him.' In place of having any sort of insight into who he was, everyone had taken sort of these expectations that had been built around him since he was a child … and started to project what they wanted him to be. That, to me, is endlessly

Hamachek and co-director Matthew Heineman placed an emphasis on interviewing only those who had first-hand personal relationships with Woods at some point in his life. Hamachek: "We didn’t want a bunch of experts telling stories that they’d heard from somebody else. We really wanted to find people that knew him extremely well, knew the family extremely well. … When we started to find journalists that we wanted to talk to, one of the rules that we had was it needed to be someone who had really been with Tiger and talked to him over the years."

For Hamachek, the biggest surprise came from those featured in the documentary who did not have an amicable split with Woods. "Whether it was (Stevie Williams) his caddie who had been fired or his first girlfriend (Dina Parr) -- almost everybody, whether they are fans of him now or not, they’re just fiercely protective of him. I think a lot of that probably has to do with having that front row seat to this, in some cases, this kid's life as the media became obsessed with him." More Hemachek: "The challenge for us with almost everybody we talked to was, we had to earn their trust. That’s a very common thing when you’re making a documentary, but especially so in this one. We had to show people that we were going to make this film the right way."

Be sure to read Chris Smith's review of the documentary today in SBD, and look for more in next week's print edition of SBJ on Monday.


Cuomo Now Sees Opportunity With Mobile Sports Betting

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a stir this week when he revealed that he will drop his opposition to mobile sports betting in light of the state’s projected $15 billion budget deficit, writes SBJ's Bill King. He’s expected to reveal more details Monday during his state of the state address.

Based on what he’s said so far, Cuomo will propose a framework in which the state gaming commission selects a single company that will be licensed to operate a mobile app, with the state keeping what figures to be a sizeable percentage of revenue, rather than the typical 10-20% tax rate seen in states in which multiple sportsbooks are licensed and taxed. It sounds similar to frameworks in place in Oregon, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, where DraftKings operates on behalf of the state lotteries, taking about 50% of revenue in each of the latter two.

That looks nothing like the framework in bills that state Sen. Joseph Addabbo and Assembly member Gary Pretlow have crafted while championing sports betting legislation through the past two years. Whether Cuomo’s support will advance, or complicate, their work bears watching. It could go either way.

“As recently as a week ago, I was on a call where we dreamed of having sports betting in the state of the state,” said Jeremy Kudon, chair of the public policy group at law firm Orrick and architect of the coordinated sports betting lobbying strategy of the NBA, MLB, PGA Tour, FanDuel and DraftKings. “So the fact that not only is it going to be covered in the state of the state, but he highlighted it beforehand, was in my mind a stand-up triple.”

By including mobile sports betting in his budget, the governor set the stage for a three-way negotiation with the state senate and assembly, which each will submit their own budget recommendations. With all three accepting the premise, it comes down to a discussion of the model.

For more, see today's issue of SBJ Betting.

Australian Open Planning For Fans As Tournament Start Nears

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said the Australian Open, which begins a month from Friday, should be "able to have at least” 50-75% fan attendance. Tiley, appearing on Tennis Channel, said, “We’ve had a long period of no cases, and when you do get a few cases here it’s a big deal. We were in lockdown for four months to get us to zero cases." Tiley said the situation has "been crazy.” Tiley said logistically to successfully stage the tournament and keep the players safe is going to be a “small miracle, but we’re giving it a good go.” Tiley: “We’re hoping that when you look at the Australian Open in February, there’s a lot of normalcy to it."

Tiley also said that there had been "strong buy-in from the playing fraternity after Victorian health authorities agreed to quarantine conditions, which allow players to have a daily five-hour block for training and treatment," per the Sydney Morning Herald. He said that the players "'fully understand' the severe penalties they face" for potential breaches. On top of "maximum $20,000 fines, players run the risk of criminal sanctions, spending additional time in quarantine or being deported for not abiding by Victorian government directives."

Misfits CEO Talks Guiding, Growing During 2020 & Beyond

Operating Misfits League of Legends in Berlin as well as the Overwatch League Florida Mayhem and Call of Duty League Florida Mutineers in the U.S. simultaneously has created myriad operational complexities for Misfits Gaming CEO Ben Spoont, who today identified one key silver lining to emerge from the pandemic. He said, “For as much chaos as it’s obviously wreaked across the world, it has really created many new gamers. We’re seeing increased engagement across all of our brands.”

Spoont joined our Andrew Levin on the latest “SBJ Unpacks: The Road Ahead” podcast for a wide-ranging discussion on the esports landscape and what’s to come in 2021. Among the takeaways:

On whether Spoont supports a bubble format for esports this year: “I don’t think it makes sense to put folks in a bubble for six months. I think what we will do is miniature bubbles, where players can come for a week or two and be able to have a full-fledged tournament in a bubble format. I think that makes sense. But, outside of that, I like having our players here in Florida at our office.”

On joining ESPAT TV’s Creative Collective in December: “The deal with ESPAT allows us to have someone who’s going to be able to sell content onto OTT platforms for us, like, obviously, Netflix and (Amazon) Prime and Hulu, and there are many opportunities for us to create content series. Think about like a ‘Hard Knocks?’ … We could potentially sell a ‘Hard Knocks’ product to an OTT platform.”

On what traditional sports can learn from esports: “The emergence of Barstool and Bleacher and House of Highlights, these types of platforms are really indicative of the way which we communicate with our fans. It’s not corporate at all. It’s memes. It’s GIFs. It’s jokes and making fun of ourselves, and I think that’s one of the things … and they’re starting to do a better job.”

Spartan Race Outfit Gains New Cash Boost

Boston-based obstacle racing company Spartan Race has "closed on $5.75 million in investment" from Hearst Ventures, which has been a minority shareholder since 2016, per the Boston Business Journal. Just weeks before the pandemic hit in early 2020, Spartan Race "closed on the acquisition of its obstacle-racing rival, Tough Mudder." Then 90% of its revenue "dissolved as the global economy shut down and its races were canceled."

Spartan Race founder & CEO Joe De Sena: "Twenty years in the making, things were going great, then, boom -- just like Mike Tyson said: Everybody's got a plan until you get punched in the face."

Like many health and fitness companies, Spartan has "continued to engage with its community members online." De Sana also said the past 10 months have been "used to bring together Tough Mudder's operations, invest in technology and execute some of the online strategies that had been discussed, but not put into practice." Spartan now has a "full slate of obstacle races scheduled for 2021."

Buyers & Sellers: Michael Rubin Snatches Up $50 Million Hamptons Mansion

Fanatics Exec Chair Michael Rubin is the "mystery buyer of a $50 million Bridgehampton mansion previously owned by HFZ Capital Group founder Ziel Feldman," per the N.Y. Post. His new oceanfront Hamptons manse is "reportedly over 8,000 square feet, with seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and a pool on nearly 6.5 acres." Sources said that it was originally up for sale for $75 million.

Neverland Ranch, the onetime amusement park-inspired home of Michael Jackson, has "finally changed hands," per the L.A. Daily News. After five years and some price cuts, Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle "bought the Los Olivos property for $22 million -- a steep discount from the $100 million initially sought in 2015."

Former tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki and her husband, former NBAer David Lee, are "listing their Miami area condominium for $17.5 million," per the Wall Street Journal. Located at the Palazzo Del Sol development on Miami’s tony Fisher Island, the "roughly 8,400-square-foot property has five bedrooms and roughly 2,500 square feet of terrace space." It has "views of the ocean, Biscayne Bay and the Miami Beach Marina."

Former MLBer Ben Zobrist and his wife, singer Julianna Zobrist, will "list their six-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot Victorian-style house" in Chicago for just under $2.1 million, per the Chicago Tribune. The day after the Cubs won the World Series in November 2016, Zobrist "famously emerged from the house to sign autographs for fans and to chat with them, thanking them for their support."

Speed Reads

  • The NFL is giving its broadcast partners “an additional two minutes of commercials during the playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl,” per the Wall Street Journal. That will result in “several million dollars of new revenue for the networks.” Postseason ads can run “as high as $1 million during the early playoff rounds and can top $2 million for the conference championships.” The extra ad inventory covers all of playoff games except Super Bowl LV.  

  • MLB is "bracing for a reduction" of approximately $150 million per year in rights fees in a deal it is closing in on with ESPN, according to sources cited by The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal. MLB’s previous deal with ESPN was an eight-year, $5.6 billion contract worth $700 million per year. Sources said that the agreement under discussion would be for seven years and approximately $3.85B, "reducing the average annual value" to about $550 million per year.

  • The Hollywood Reporter's Mike Barnes pays tribute to the late Tommy Lasorda and his appeal to those outside the sports industry. Barnes: "Frank Sinatra promised him that he would sing the national anthem at Dodger Stadium if Lasorda ever became manager of the team, and so he did on Opening Day in 1977. Lasorda once put Don Rickles in uniform and let him sit in the dugout, and legend has it he sent the comic out to the mound to make a pitching change. Lasorda also counted Ronald Reagan, Robert Wagner, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Milton Berle and Tony Danza among his buddies, and Pia Zadora sang 'The Way We Were' at his son’s funeral in June 1991."

  • What to watch for in next week's print issue of SBJ: The pandemic dealt the NHL and its partners a mighty blow, but they spent the offseason planning, and now everything from sponsorships to schedules has been reimagined to create the opportunity for a new season unlike any other.

News 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. Tonight, select stories from Sports Business Daily are free, outside the paywall. Below are the headlines: