XFL’s embrace of gambling could be instrumental to its growth: Sports Media Brief

SMBWelcome to this week’s edition of Ad Age Sports Media Brief, a weekly roundup of news from every zone of the sports media spray chart, including the latest on broadcast/cable/streaming, sponsorships, endorsements, gambling and tech.

You bet your sweet bippy I did

Ratings for the XFL’s opening weekend were encouraging, with 22.5 million viewers sampling the wares on ABC, Fox and ESPN. According to Nielsen data, the average XFL viewer tuned in for 61 minutes, a measure that is comparable with college football consumption (69 minutes) during the 2019 season.

Whether the league manages to retain those early adopters—or, better still, expand on the opening numbers—remains to be seen, but the XFL’s embrace of gambling could be instrumental in boosting its popularity. According to ESPN’s David Purdum, not only did Fox and ESPN announcers talk up point spreads and over/under bets during the inaugural broadcasts—a practice  encouraged by XFL brass—but the league actually prepped for the start of the season by “consulting with bookmakers on new rules.”

As Purdum reports, part of the XFL’s mission is to “embrace the spread,” a catch phrase that XFL president Jeffrey Pollack says is indicative of the league’s determination to develop a product that aligns with “the sports-betting future that’s coming fast.” The legal gambling boom is such an integral part of the XFL’s operating philosophy that league officials went as far as to share their proposed changes to football’s established scoring rules with Vegas sportsbook operators. (One new wrinkle allows for a team to choose between attempting a one-, two-, or three-point conversion following a touchdown—a modification that can make a nail-biter of even the most mundane spread or over/under bet.)

Purdum notes that while the opening-week XFL handle didn’t exactly make for a windfall—the Caesars Sportsbook said that less than $10,000 was bet on the inaugural Seattle-DC game—“it was more than the amount bet on many of Saturday’s college basketball games and even some NBA games.” Meanwhile, FanDuel’s New Jersey book said patrons bet 20 times more money on the first XFL game compared to the amount that was wagered on the now-defunct Alliance of American Football League’s opener.

While the legit books were happy to take XFL wagers (naturally, setting the initial spreads and over/unders was a bit of a guessing game), many of the old-school guys wouldn’t go anywhere near the action last week. When asked if he would take a bet on the St. Louis Battlehawks at plus-9.5 points, a bookie of our long-standing acquaintance recommended a 12-step program before cheerfully accepting a wager on a professional bowling tournament.

Lucky 13

In the absence of a comprehensive audience metric, defining the scope of the Super Bowl audience remains a bit of a head-scratcher. But Fox this week got a little closer to determining an official delivery after Nielsen revealed the game’s out-of-home viewership.

All told, about 13 million people watched Super Bowl LIV in bars, restaurants or at a friend’s house, bringing the broadcast to a final tally of 113.4 million viewers, compared to CBS’s year-ago average (112.7 million)—a gain proportionate with the initial comparisons between the two live broadcasts.

According to Mike Mulvihill, executive VP for research and league operations at Fox Sports, the addition of the out-of-home data allows Fox and other broadcasters to get closer to the end goal of being able to “capture as much consumption as we can.” While the bonus eyeballs makes a hash of any attempts to compare this year’s Super Bowl to all the others for which out-of-home estimates weren’t made, recognizing the non-traditional views “is a step in the direction of greater accuracy … that gets as as close to the truth as possible,” Mulvihill said.

Fox will begin baking in OOH estimates as part of its NFL guarantees as it begins selling its 2020 inventory of Sunday afternoon windows and the “Thursday Night Football” package. ESPN was the first to begin negotiating against the somewhat controversial metric, but the initiative hasn’t been met with universal acceptance. (While Nielsen’s definition of a viable OOH impression relies on the clear transmission of the audio signal, buyers have questioned the validity of impressions delivered in noisy environments.)

All told, the OOH views accounted for a 13 percent lift versus Fox’s linear deliveries, which is in keeping with the 12 percent boost such public consumption afforded the network’s Sunday NFL broadcasts. Mulvihill said Fox’s Thanksgiving Day deliveries jumped 20 percent this year thanks to all the additional over-the-river-and-through-the-woods impressions.

Aside from merely boosting the overall numbers, OOH is instrumental in recapturing those hard-to-reach millennials. Per Nielsen, out-of-home boosted the number of adults 18-to-34 who watched Super Bowl LIV by 19 percent.

Now that the OOH data is set to be an inseparable part of the standard TV numbers issued by Nielsen every day, Mulvihill expects to see a significant change in how the networks promote their NFL broadcasts. “Traditionally, we haven’t embraced the opportunity to have big public watch parties, because we don’t get credit for those impressions,” he said. “When those out-of-home figures become the currency in the fall, all that will change—and that can only improve the fan experience.”

That’s quite the flex

Sports Business Daily’s Ben Fischer and John Ourand this week reported that the NFL “has asked teams for feedback on the prospect of radically expanding flex scheduling, including the possibility of moving games from Sunday to Monday in mid-season.” In other words, the flex scheduling proviso that has allowed NBC to weed out much of the potential duds from its “Sunday Night Football” roster may be extended to ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

While no specific plans are in place—were they to come, any changes in the current flex scheme wouldn’t be made official until the zeroes turn over on the new media rights deals in 2023—ESPN obviously would love to have the power to swap out late-season games between no-hopers. In 2018, the cable network carried a Christmas Eve curiosity featuring the 6-8 Denver Broncos and 3-11 Oakland Raiders, a joyless squabble that now stands as the lowest-rated “MNF” telecast in history (8.6 million viewers/4.5 household rating). Under a revised flex schedule, ESPN would have been given the latitude to sub in the far more compelling Houston (10-5) vs. Philadelphia (8-7) game that aired in CBS’s early Sunday window.

In addition to the flex expansion, SBJ reports that ESPN has told the NFL that it plans to shift “Monday Night Football” back to broadcaster ABC if it retains the rights to the primetime package. (Bristol’s deal expires at the end of the 2021 season.) Such a scenario would likely involve some sort of “MNF” simulcast on ESPN, which depends on the NFL not only as a source of ratings points but as the property that buttresses its staggering affiliate fees.

In a podcast interview with Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina, the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand suggested that money will determine whether the flex schedule comes to “MNF,” before adding that the real-world implications of flexing a Sunday game to Monday night may be less than ideal for the fans who travel to the games. “Obviously, for TV purposes, flexing the games makes a lot of sense; it is a bit of a tougher equation for fans attending the games,” Marchand said. Traina concurred. “I think it’s a disaster for fans…but the NFL doesn’t care about the fans going to the games,” Traina said. “They care about keeping their TV partners happy and generating ratings.”

A change is gonna come

The Post’s Joel Sherman reports that Major League Baseball is mulling over a series of big changes to its postseason format, one that would expand the playoff field from 10 to 14 teams and introduce a “reality show twist” to how the clubs are paired off in October. As Sherman explains it, the proposal would allow the runner-up in each league to select its first-round opponent. In 2019, the Yankees posted the second-best record in the American League behind those trash-can-banging “cheats” in Houston; under the expanded playoff rules, New York would have been given the option to play against the Rays, Indians or Red Sox.

“Boston had the worst record of that group,” Sherman wrote. “Would the Yanks pick them or avoid the baggage of a series with their rival? It would create a ton of strategy and interest, and this is what MLB wants to sell.”

The choices themselves would be presented on a selection special that would air on the final Sunday night of the regular season. More to the point, the addition of two teams from each league to the playoff mix would serve to reward additional postseason advertising industry to MLB media partners Fox, ESPN and TBS. Any alteration to the playoff format must be approved by the players’ union; as Sherman notes, the collective-bargaining agreement, like the TV deals with ESPN and Turner, expires after next season.

Not everyone is over the moon about baseball’s thought experiment. On Monday, Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer tweeted a shot at the proposal and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Your proposal is absurd for too many reasons to type on twitter and proves you have absolutely no clue about baseball,” Bauer sniped. “You’re a joke.” Bauer expanded on his 140-character grouse with a seven-minute YouTube tirade in which he discusses how the plan would be a disaster for starting rotations before going on to suggest that Manfred doesn’t have a firm grasp on media dynamics.

The outspoken Bauer, who has a history of flapping his gums at the MLB boss, was fined an undisclosed amount of cash last summer after flinging the ball from the mound over the centerfield fence in what ESPN characterized as a “tantrum.” Two days after chucking the sphere into the seats, the pitcher was traded from Cleveland to Cincinnati.

Social disease

“He’s a Cinderella boy. Tears in his eyes, I guess, as he lines up this last shot. He’s got about 195 yards left, and he’s got a, looks like he’s got about an 8-iron. This crowd has gone deadly silent… Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greens-keeper, now about to become the Masters champion. … It looks like a mirac…it’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!”