with Jamie Swimmer
1. Now that Super Bowl 51 is in the books, the NFL will turn its attention to its routine and not so routine challenges. Whether or not you were thrilled with the Patriot’s fifth NFL championship in the 2000s or feel that they have officially now assumed the New York Yankees’ role as the Evil Empire of sports, once the off-season starts, all 32 NFL franchises return to a neutral playing field to hammer out their most pressing business issues. At the top of the 2017 list are two major challenges: resolving the league’s franchise relocation issues out west, and beginning to think about renegotiating the existing CBA, now at the halfway mark of its 10-year term. While five years out may seem like it’s way too premature to plan for the next round of NFL-NFLPA CBA negotiations, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith just ruled out renewing the current CBA, pointing to several issues, including the league’s concussion protocol, player discipline, and whether players should continue to give the league stadium credits (which reduce revenue shared with players so teams can invest in stadiums). After he handed the Patriots the Lombardi Trophy, Commissioner Roger Goodell should now be able to put “Deflategate” squarely in the rear view mirror and focus on league business, including relocation, early CBA strategizing, declining ratings, and international expansion.
2. For thousands of current and former college athletes, a $6,000 check may soon be on the way thanks to the settlement of a far-reaching class action case on Friday. The NCAA and 11 Division I conferences "agreed to create" a nearly $208.7 million fund for the benefit of current and former D-I basketball and FBS student-athletes, settling the "monetary claims portion" of a grant-in-aid class-action lawsuit, according to the association. The settlement, announced in a Friday statement, will be "funded entirely from NCAA reserves, and no conference or member schools will be required to contribute." The settlement is "subject to approval by the court and will award class members money up to, but not exceeding, their full cost of attendance.” Other aspects of the class action suit remain unresolved, including an effort to eliminate all restrictions on compensation for student athletes. While the NCAA has stated it will “vigorously oppose” all portions of the lawsuit seeking “pay for play,” the next stage of the process will focus on changing existing rules so that collegiate athletes receive more compensation. Stay tuned.
3. After picking up so much momentum in a short period of time, the Oakland Raiders’ hopes of relocating to Las Vegas are beginning to dwindle quickly. According to the L.A. Times, Goldman Sachs, the bank that originally said it “would finance” the Raiders’ new stadium, “pulled away from the project.” The Raiders told the NFL that the bank would fund their planned $1.9 billion stadium despite Las Vegas Sands Chair & CEO Sheldon Adelson withdrawing from the deal last week, but that is no longer the case. Sources close to the deal reported that Goldman Sachs pulled out because Adelson rescinded his support of the stadium. State Senator Aaron Ford suggested that public money for the stadium "could be diverted for other purposes if the situation isn't quickly resolved." Those who know Adelson well confidently stated that there is very little hope of the businessman reentering the deal. Marc Davis, Las Vegas, and Nevada will surely scramble to replace the “missing equity piece.” But NFL Commissioner Goodell’s statement that no investors in a team or facility can have any ownership stake in a casino may be what makes the effort go bust – it’s virtually impossible to find deep-pocketed investors in or around Vegas with no casino ties.
4. The Baltimore Ravens are planning on investing $120 million as part of a three-year project to renovate M&T Bank Stadium. According to the Baltimore Sun, the project will become the team’s biggest investment in facility upgrades to date; it will add “elevators and escalators, enlarge the end zone video boards and improve the sound system and kitchen facilities.” On top of the Ravens’ investment, the Maryland Stadium Authority also pledged $24 million to the project. "We need to keep making improvements,” said team President Dick Cass. “You can’t ever stop. You have to keep putting money into your stadium.” The 19-year-old stadium had its Wi-Fi improved in 2013 as part of a $45 million investment that saw concourses and concessions upgraded as well. In today’s NFL landscape, teams continually open new mega stadiums and renovate older ones; the Ravens are playing catch-up. The M&T Bank Stadium renovation is the next in a long line of major upgrades around the league – as leases with stadiums built in the 1990s come up for renewal or renegotiation and technological standards and fan comfort coalesce in new improvements.
5. Twelve cities have formally applied for MLS expansion bids, but only four of these hopeful markets will eventually land a team. According to Soccer America, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego, and Tampa are all vying to join the growing domestic soccer league. The bid groups "include owners with interests in the NFL, NBA and MLB," while eight "have had interests in teams" in NASL and the USL. A MLS expansion committee is expected to begin reviewing applications later this month focusing on three areas: “Ownership, stadium details; and financial projections, corporate and soccer support.” Two of the selected franchises will hopefully begin play in 2020, with the other two to follow. Speaking of the 12 applicant cities, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, “All great cities, support of proven leaders, and passionate fans.” MLS now faces the standard tradeoff that all leagues analyze: significant expansion revenue and higher franchise values vs. the long-term harm of overexpansion.
6. In a push to make the game safer and more popular for kids, USA Football “intends to introduce a drastically altered youth football game.” According to the N.Y. Times, there has been a sharp decline in youth football participation over the past few years in response to the concussion crisis sweeping through the sport. The organization has “created a new format that brings the game closer to flag football and tries to avoid much of the violence in the current version.” Teams will now play with between six and nine players on the field instead of the traditional 11, the field will be smaller, and all kickoffs and punts will be eliminated. "There are, legitimately, concerns among parents about allowing their kids to play tackle football at a young age,” said Packers President & CEO Mark Murphy, who is on the USA Football Board of Directors. “So they can look at this and say they’ll be more comfortable that it is a safer alternative.” All youth football organizations (including Pop Warner and USA Football) are experimenting with various safety measures, format changes, and contact restrictions in order to “stay ahead of the concussion science.”
7. Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby finished atop the list of best-selling NHL jerseys during the first half of the 2016-2017 season. According to Yahoo Sports, Crosby’s sensational 2016 campaign, one that included a Stanley Cup title last season and a spot in the top three on the total points list this season, resulted in him having the highest-selling jersey for all of 2016. Meanwhile, jersey sales for Toronto Maple Leafs Center Auston Matthews through the first three months of the 2016-2017 season reflect his status as a "rookie sensation," as his sweater was the "second-highest-selling jersey" on Shop.NHL.com. Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane finished third on this year’s list; he led the NHL in jersey sales back in 2014 but slipped after sexual assault allegations last season. Rounding out the top five are Blackhawks Center Jonathan Toews, who “led the NHL in jersey sales” in 2015, and Edmonton Oilers Center Connor McDavid. The NHL is in astronomical health in many ways. Their “superstars” represent the younger demographic (Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid) combined with the “old guard” of Crosby, Kane, and others. A good mix for the future.
8. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will have a weirdly unique feature: the medals that will be awarded to athletes will be made from recycled materials. According to Reuters, organizes in Tokyo said that the medals will be “forged from recycled metal from old mobile phones and appliances donated by the general public to give them a sense of direct involvement in the Games.” On top of keeping the general public involved, this move will also save costs after the initial budget “ballooned” to more than $26.4 billion at one point. The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee hopes to gather as much as eight tons of metal – 40kg of gold, 2,920kg of silver and 2,994kg of bronze – to meet the required amount of materials needed to properly make the Olympic medals. Several million units of mobile phones will be required to meet the "eight-ton target," the organizing committee said. A national recycling effort will officially begin in April. A symbolic but important effort to focus on environmental concerns – that will be one of the Tokyo Olympic legacies going forward.
9. Sports have recently acted as a popular medium for athletes and teams to express themselves politically and socially, and “The Bridge Tournament” is set to become another example of just that. According to Xinhua, border-region Mexican and American soccer teams are planning to “play a tournament to protest the wall U.S. President Donald Trump plans to build along the two countries’ shared border.” The new president drew a significant amount of criticism during his campaign for his proposal of a wall and how to fund it, and the criticism has only escalated since he announced his intention on following through with the initial plan. No date has been set for The Bridge Tournament yet, but invitations have already been sent out to potential participants. “The event will pit three teams from each country, including Ascenso MX side Correcaminos, Tampico Madero and Reynosa from Mexico, against U.S sides Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas and Rio Grande Valley FC Toros.” A welcome symbolic and practical attempt to maximize “hands across the border” given the obvious political concerns. In this case, sports may help show the way for better regional cooperation.
10. San Diego State’s impressive 80-game regular-season sellout streak is over and the university is now struggling to keep its students interested in the team. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, last season saw a 10-15% no-show rate for students at basketball games at Viejas Arena, with the trend escalating this season. Around 700 students “failed to collect free tickets” to SDSU’s game against Wyoming, equating to around 30% of the 2,500-person student section remaining empty. It has been “seven seasons since all student tickets were not claimed for a conference home game with school in session.” The university has begun to float the idea of converting 500 of the student section seats into season tickets for paying fans, but no move has been made yet. The “cash-strapped athletic department” seems likely to make this switch in the near future because these additional season tickets “could generate an additional $500,000” for the university. The team has been consistently successful both and off the court. Long-term marketing techniques are sometimes necessary to sustain interest between championship caliber teams.
11. The NWSL will now have its games streamed on Lifetime after A+E Networks “purchased an equity stake” in the league. According to the K.C. Star, weekly matches will be streamed on the network and there are plans to launch NWSL Media, “which will oversee live streaming of all matches.” NWSL Media will "serve as the commercial branch for the league, overseeing its broadcast and sponsorship rights." It will also "administer a new website and phone app." The TV deal with the NWSL and Lifetime is set for three years, marking the “top broadcast arrangement in the league’s history.” Another part of the deal will see Lifetime’s logo placed on all official league jerseys with a patch on the right sleeve. Due to the 4:00pm ET slot that NWSL games will have on Lifetime, NWSL games and MLS games will “go head-to-head at least 10 times this year” when men’s games air on ESPN. Lifetime may have provided a “life line” to the league – with the hopes that the product and demographic appeal can carry the day and reenergize momentum.
12. The NFL is looking to expand its International Series in Canada. According to the Toronto Sun, the NFL scouted four Canadian stadiums in 2016 as “candidate sites for possible future regular-season games.” Rogers Centre and Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, and B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver were the four venues considered, as confirmed by NFL Executive Vice President/International Mark Waller. The league was primarily evaluating the locker rooms and whether or not the venues met the NFL’s technological standards. Waller noted that the NFL has "not yet reached a conclusion on a Canadian venue," nor does it "disclose findings of such information missions," but the league will be heading back to Mexico next year regardless of what happens north of the border. The NFL recently confirmed a game between the Raiders and Patriots will be played at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City next season. Inevitable and positive news by the NFL to expand its reach north of the border while continuing to work with the CFL.
13. The Tennessee Titans and the NFL are at odds about the team’s ownership structure and whether or not it “complies with league rules.” According to the Nashville Tennessean, Controlling Owner Amy Adams Strunk took over for her sister, Susie Adams Smith, in March 2015 and each owns 33% of the team; the remaining ownership stake is “split among three other family members.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the ownership situation in Tennessee by saying, “The fundamental aspect of our policy is to make sure that we have an individual who has the ultimate authority over the franchise, and to make those decisions, including league-vote decisions, as well as locally, and it’s clear – it’s clear to the ownership group and it’s also clear to the membership.” When Amy Adams Strunk took over in 2015, the league levied a six-figure fine on the franchise, but that did not ultimately change the situation. Look for these ownership and transition issues to be resolved as soon as possible, especially with the evolving estate tax laws and the need for stability and clarity in the Nashville market.
14. The departure of star player Elena Delle Donne to the Washington Mystics is almost surely going to negatively affect the business of the Chicago Sky. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the WNBA franchise is losing “not only one of the faces of the WNBA, but one of the most marketable female athletes in the country.” Since being drafted by the franchise in 2013, the Sky’s ticket sales have risen by 27% to a “franchise record of 7,009 per game at Allstate Arena last season.” The Sky also “signed a landmark five-year local TV deal with Weigel Broadcasting shortly after drafting Delle Donne,” putting the team in 8 million local TV homes. The Sky said that they also “ranked in the top three of the WNBA's 12 teams in sponsorship revenue last year.” When she joined the team four years ago, the Sky immediately launched a “Delle Donne deal” on season tickets, helping to boost sales. Without their star player to build their business around, the on-court and off-court success of the Chicago Sky remains uncertain. As always, a team and league depends on the stability of its superstars. As a result, they continue to look for stability and “sizzle” at the box office and on television.
15. Broadcasting legend Brent Musburger has officially retired, and the sports world will miss his on-air presence. Musburger capped his 50-year broadcasting career by calling the Georgia-Kentucky men’s basketball game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Following the overtime game, “a video aired of some of Musburger’s best broadcasting moments, followed by his closing remarks,” according to ESPN. “What a road we’ve traveled together,” reminisced Musburger. “Thanks so much to you for sharing your time with me, (what) great memories we had over the last almost 50 years.” The former broadcaster will be remembered for his “unique ability to tell a story and paint a picture for the fans,” as longtime broadcasting partner Dick Vitale noted. He is set to retire to his new home in Las Vegas, where he will take his first break from broadcasting since he began decades ago. The torch is passing from many of the media icons – Dick Enberg, Verne Lundquist, Vince Scully, now Brent Musburger. From a business perspective, the older viewing demographic will lose some of its reason to watch.