USFL gets a passing grade

The Nats have a matinee against the Pirates on Wednesday, which means that I’ll be taking my calls from Nationals Park that afternoon.

It did not come as a big surprise when Fox Sports’ Eric Shanks told me over the weekend that USFL would definitely return for a second season. That was the plan when Shanks first starting talking about his spring league, and nothing from this season swayed that strategy.

Shanks: “We have a multi-year plan to build this football business. If anything, the success of season one makes me even more excited than we were before going into season two and beyond.

Before the season started, Shanks was less concerned about how to produce these games for television. Rather, he’s stressed about setting up football operations — everything from finding coaches and players to making sure that weight rooms meet health and safety protocols.

“Having that under our belt – oh my gosh, we can actually do this — now you start to think about selling sponsorship and things that we know how to do,” he said. “The things we didn’t know how to do, I feel much more comfortable about.”

Speaking of selling sponsorships, Fox emerged from the upfront ad sales marketplace with the USFL’s second season already more than 50% sold, the network’s Exec VP/Sports Sales Mark Evans said. “We’ve been able to secure a significant portion of next year’s inventory already in this year’s upfront,” he noted. “Advertisers were able to plan for it this year, have a ratings track they could study and better see the long-term viability of the league.”

That marks a change from this year’s inaugural season, when Fox announced the season last fall — after marketers’ planning season had ended. “We had to get people to shift dollars to the USFL as opposed to having a year to have them plan for it,” Evans said.

Fox found that advertisers from categories that buy time during NFL games switched money around to the USFL. Some of the biggest advertisers included T-Mobile, Google, PNC, Papa John’s, Edward Jones and Jersey Mike’s.

What made selling ads around USFL games different for Evans is the fact that Fox Sports also acts as the league’s marketing arm selling official sponsorships.

Some of the more unique sponsorships were sold to Apple, which supplied iPads on the sides, and T-Mobile, which had its brand on headsets worn by coaches and players. Gatorade was all over the sidelines, too, which is not a huge surprise given that the brand has a ubiquitous presence on the sidelines of most established leagues. Still, its presence marked a nice win for the upstart league. “It’s not a given that they’re going to support every new league,” Evans said. “The fact is that Gatorade stepped up and wanted to be on the sidelines.”

Because Fox owns the USFL and is afforded with the type of control and access it could never get with the NFL or college football, I was most interested in seeing how its TV productions differed from games in the fall.

I asked Fox Sports’ top production exec Brad Zager to identify what new USFL wrinkles he liked best. He immediately mentioned audio and transparency.

  • Fox and NBC used microphones on players much more frequently and found that it worked especially well with linemen. “The impact at the line with the linemen is something that people have never heard before,” Zager said. “We wanted people to really know what it feels like for everybody down on the field.”
  • Thanks to those microphones, Fox and NBC were able to listen into coaches talking with players, oftentimes using language that casual fans could not understand. “We really tried to bring that language of football across to viewers,” Zager said.
  • My favorite aspect was during replay reviews where Fox and NBC not only would listen in as review decisions were being made, but the networks allowed their announcers to interview the head of officiating after he made his decision.
  • Fox and NBC used drones a lot more frequently than they do in the fall, but Zager said it took a few games to figure out how to best use those camera angles. “There were a couple of early times on where we were turning the drone into a not-as-good sky cam,” Zager said. By the end of the season, they were using drones as an isolation camera on a receiver running a route. “That was the major thing, figuring out where this technology works and where it doesn’t.”

The big headline was that ESPN agreed to a three-year renewal to keep F1 rights for between $75-90 million per year.

The subhead is that Netflix kicked the tires on live sports rights. There is some question about how serious it was in trying to win the rights. But my sources tell me that Netflix made a bid.

Here’s what I know: Netflix did not get close on money, which is why so many people view its daliance as not serious. In today’s market, any company that puts forth a streaming-only bid has to offer much more than traditional media companies.

I’m also told that F1 execs were concerned by some of the technical and operational hurdles Netflix faced in order to distribute live sports content. By the end of the negotiations, Netflix’s sports media flirtations had played out, and F1 picked ESPN over Amazon and Comcast.

The United Soccer League expects to complete a media deal by September, league officials tell my colleague Alex Silverman. USL, which operates two pro men’s leagues at the second and third tiers of American soccer and plans to launch a second-tier pro women’s league next year, currently has a streaming-heavy agreement with ESPN that ends after the 2022 season.

USL Chief Commercial Officer Court Jeske said USL is talking to “three or four” media companies for the rights. He went into the market expecting to bundle all three professional leagues, but the league now is considering other options. “We approached the marketplace with the idea that they would be one package, but we’re also open-minded and want to do what fits and helps grow our media partners’ objectives as well,” Jeske told Silverman.

USL is not using an outside agency to advise on the deal.

  • When you take the NFL and add in two of the world’s biggest tech companies in Apple and Amazon, you wind up with huge outlets publishing stories that push news about the Sunday Ticket negotiations forward bit by bit. There’s not a ton of new news in these stories from Alex Sherman and Joe Flint/Lillian Rizzo. But they both give good and accurate overviews of where negotiations stand now.
  • My colleague Erik Bacharach profiled the Savannah Bananas in SBJ this week, noting some of the baseball team’s games have already streamed on YouTube. ESPN+ is debuting a docuseries about the team later this summer. Owner Jesse Cole says he has heard from four different groups about broadcast rights.
  • Securing media rights deals is the top priority for LIV Golf execs, sources SBJ’s Eric Prisbell. The chance that LIV events will be on either linear or OTT/streaming platforms in 2023, a LIV exec said, is “very high. We absolutely know we need TV partners.”
  • Fox is feeling confident about how NASCAR performed this season. Fox Sports Exec VP Bill Wanger told SBJ’s Adam Stern that he didn’t see any trend or concern to note about the viewership dip toward the end of Fox’s campaign.

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