with Jamie Swimmer
1. It appears we have to go to the bathroom again. Texas has unveiled a legislative proposal similar to North Carolina’s HB2 law but allowing for exceptions for special events, according to USA Today. Texas bill SB6 would ensure "that transgender people would have to use public restrooms and locker rooms” assigned to the “biological sex” on their birth certificates. However, the bill is worded to make it “possible for a private organization to determine the bathroom-usage rules at public facilities they rent” – as when the NCAA leases the Alamodome for the Final Four. In September, the NCAA removed all of its championship events from North Carolina, claiming HB2 was contrary to its inclusion policies. The ACC followed suit as did the NBA, which quickly moved the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans. While Super Bowl LI in Houston is not in jeopardy due to the sheer scale of moving the event last minute, other major events such as the 2017 CFB season opener between Florida and Michigan at AT&T Stadium and the 2018 men’s Final Four could be at risk despite the bill’s exception clause. Time and again, sports has been at the forefront of influencing political policy, and Texas will be the next proving ground of ideology vs. economics.
2. According to Fox Sports research, there were 10,869 nationally-televised sports events in 2016. Few, however, attract the eyeballs and wallets of the CFP Championship, whose 2017 edition kicks off Monday night in Tampa. The CFP Championship generates significantly more revenue than the old BCS system did, resulting in “at least double the annual revenue” for each of the 10 FBS conferences. A conference receives $6 million for each team that is selected for the semifinal games, and each conference whose team participates in a playoff semifinal, Cotton, Fiesta, or Peach Bowl, or in the national championship game, will receive an additional $2.16 million per game to cover expenses. ESPN’s broadcast rights deal for the playoff and each of its six associated bowls for is valued at approximately $5.64 billion through 2025, about $470 million annually. Championship contenders Alabama and Clemson each drew more than 19 million viewers for their respective semifinal games on New Year’s Eve. The CFP Championship has quickly become a mini-Super Bowl in terms of widespread interest and economic reach, providing yet more proof that more people are actually interested in sports than ever before.
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3. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the CFP games, this year’s Allstate Sugar Bowl wasn’t as sweet as in seasons past. Usually one of college football’s most popular bowl games, the New Orleans matchup between Oklahoma and Auburn drew its smallest crowd since 1939. According to SportsBusiness Journal, the game attracted a crowd of only 54,077 to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The 2015 game was played on New Year’s Day between Ole Miss and Oklahoma State in front of more than 72,000 fans. 2016 was the Sugar Bowl's "first non-sellout since the OU-Alabama game three years ago," but that game was "close to full." Some upper level sections of the Superdome were left completely empty, much to the chagrin of bowl officials. Auburn fans "dominated the crowd by a good 65-35 split," but once Oklahoma "took control of the game, most of the Tigers fans retreated to the French Quarter." Among forty bowls and the national championship, attendance is down 4.5%. While the Sugar Bowl is a highly-visible example, bowl success is never evaluated on attendance alone. Ratings and fan avidity are bigger factors, but a half-empty stadium certainly doesn’t help appearances.
4. New PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan made his first goal clear: to expand golf’s appeal “beyond its base.” According to the Wall Street Journal, golf’s business has been very stable as of late, but Monahan is planning to “tinker” with it in pursuit of new fans. "What are the ways that we can evolve to be relevant to broader audiences? Over the next year or two, you’ll see us be more aggressive in that area," said Monahan. One of the short-term objectives of the PGA Tour is to rearrange its schedule to maximize attention relative to other sporting events, such as NFL games. Another possibility is also to form and sponsor a PGA Tour-LPGA event, drawing both fan bases together for one weekend. On top of a new schedule, the PGA Tour has explored the option of starting its own cable network. Commissioner Monahan has an easy job on one hand: maintaining a seamless transition with Tim Finchem, and a hard job on the other: satisfying the high expectations of continued long term growth. Obviously, he needs to continue to develop and sustain relationships with superstars, ordinary Tour players, sponsors, tournament directors, fans, and the entire golf industry over time. Look for him to shine at the 2017 PGA golf show.
5. Despite a minor rain and fog delay, this year’s NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic was a massive success – a fitting gateway to the league’s centennial season. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Blues beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 “in front of a sellout crowd of 46,556.” The win for the Blues over their Midwestern rival was a key win on a national stage for the Stanley Cup-seeking franchise. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said that he "expects another three in-the-elements games next season," regardless of whether NHLers participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Outdoor games are now more common than they were years ago, but they still create a unique buzz in the middle of regular-season hockey. According to USA Today, outdoor games have a "Super Bowl feel," while weather is "always a sub-plot." The games are also "bigger than the sport," and "results matter." The Winter Classic has morphed into a series of outdoor major celebrations. Kudos to Gary Bettman and staff for creating a significant brand that adds excitement throughout the regular hockey season.
6. On the heels of signing DH Edwin Encarnacion, the Cleveland Indians have experienced a massive ticket sales boon. According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, the team is sitting at more than 10,000 full-season equivalents for the upcoming season, marking the “first time since the 2009 season” that the club has reached this marker. The Indians added 150 "full-season equivalents and 250 new season-ticket-holder accounts" in the four days after signing Encarnacion to a three-year deal last month. This marks a "critical step in the franchise's lengthy quest to improve upon an attendance figure that annually ranks among the lowest" in MLB. In addition, the Indians have “padded their season ticket numbers by more than 1,000” in the months since losing to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. These numbers have been very encouraging for the franchise thus far. The Indians needed a boost after being two outs away from a World Series championship. The direct relationship between a major signing and ticket sales is obvious here, but will it be as impactful long term? We’ll just have to see.
7. As the 2022 World Cup in Qatar inches closer, more formalized plans to build necessary stadiums are coming to light. According to the Architects’ Journal, United Kingdom-based sports specialist AFL Architects will “deliver Foster + Partners’ designs for the centerpiece stadium” in Qatar. That stadium is planned to hold 80,000 spectators and will be named Lusail Stadium. As the tournament centerpiece, Lusail Stadium will host the opening match as well as the closing ceremony. AFL will forward the schematic design for the "internationally recognizable landmark" which Foster + Partners completed earlier this year, along with proposals for "how it will integrate" with neighboring Lusail City. This stadium will represent one of the eight venues being constructed for the 2022 World Cup and will include an advanced air conditioning system on the field to keep players cool. Qatar finally unveils its World Cup stadium plans. They look ambitious and astronomical as you might expect with unlimited oil money. The next question is when the construction will begin given the clamor over reevaluating the 2022 bid process.
8. As the NFL Playoffs advance to the divisional round, the San Francisco 49ers find themselves scrambling once again to fill key front office positions, much to the embarrassment of CEO Jed York. According to the San Jose Mercury News, York channeled the "frustration of his fan base" regarding the dismissal of coach Chip Kelly and General Manager Trent Baalke. The formerly formidable 49ers have not won the Super Bowl in 22 years, and York has vowed to find “worthy” replacements for the fired executives. When asked why he has not been dismissed himself, York shot back, “I own this football team. You don’t dismiss owners. I’m sorry that that’s the facts and that’s the case…I’m going to do everything I can to get this right.” Bottom line: the offensive-minded Kelly did not meld with the defensive-minded Baalke, creating a conflict York lacked the football experience to resolve. The brand of the San Francisco 49ers is at risk. With Levis Stadium entering its third year, and after the success of Super Bowl 50, it’s time to shift the focus to performance for the team, league, and sponsors.
9. A year after winning the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos likewise find themselves at a crossroads. Head coach Gary Kubiak has retired due to health reasons, and now the Broncos need to focus on keep John Elway in the Rockies. According to the Denver Post, Broncos President Joe Ellis said that he is trying to sign Elway, in the final year of his contract, to an extension, while simultaneously searching for a new coach. Ellis and Elway "started talking about a new contract in October." Elway currently serves at the team’s Executive Vice President/Football Operations and as General Manager. If he is not retained soon, other teams around the NFL will definitely be knocking on his door. But it remains likely that the legend will stay put. The Broncos are a significant brand, and their long term legacy is at stake, especially with shakeups among ownership, top executives, and coaches.
10. Jason Day is now officially represented by Nike, but he will no longer be sponsored by longtime partner RBC. The bank elected not to renew its deal with the world’s top-ranked golfer after he announced his partnership with Nike, switching over from previous sponsor adidas. According to TSN.ca, Nike now stipulates that none of its golfers have “other corporate logos appear on a player’s clothing." This means that RBC would have been forced to move its logo from Day’s collar to his golf bag, but the bank “decided that the value wasn’t there.” RBC's decision also means Day is "unlikely to tee it up" in the RBC Canadian Open. A big signing coup for Nike, Day unveiled his swoosh-laden apparel last week at Kapalua. This is yet another example of the high stakes game of sponsor musical chairs, relating to the top golfers in the profession. Equipment deals, as well as other major category sponsorship deals, are always open for renegotiation.
11. Atlanta Motor Speedway is set to resurface its track for the first time since 1997, according to Motorsport.com. AMS President & General Manager Ed Clark confirmed the decision to repave after the NASCAR race weekend in early March, noting that the “time was right to update the racing surface.” "We got 20 years out of this surface and we’re getting ready to have our 21st season and that’s about as good as you can get,” said Clark. The track’s 24-degree bank in the turns will not be altered as part of the project, which track owner SMI will oversee. The new surface is going to be laid down directly on top of the old one. USA TODAY's Jeff Gluck noted AMS' surface is the "second-oldest" on the NASCAR circuit behind Auto Club Speedway. The age of the pavement has "made for a slippery surface where drivers slide around the track in several different grooves, which produced above-average racing for an intermediate oval." All sports facilities need to do ongoing maintenance that does not affect the bottom line but affects the structural integrity of the facility itself. This is one of those examples. Spending money does not directly relate to increased revenue, but it impacts the overall stability and credibility of the track and the sport.
12. Ahead of the tennis year’s first major, the Australian Open, USTA has opened its brand new, $60 million national campus in Orlando. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the 64-acre campus is set in the Lake Nona development and is meant to provide “opportunities for newer players to brush shoulders with rising stars.” The campus "stakes out the industry's mission to grow" as tennis participation has increased 23% to 17.9 million participants in the past decade. Sixteen short courts are available for families to walk on and hit at any time, while the player development quarters are dedicated for juniors’ and budding professionals’ usage only. Even before the property opened, USTA had "booked more than 100 events that range from a conference on the business of undersized courts to USTA pro circuit events." The facility will host its first official collegiate matchup on January 21, between Alabama and Michigan. A viable Orlando complex may impact the location of the Miami tennis event, and long term development on the east coast, and may actually cultivate young American players.
13. On the heels of multiple Chinese soccer clubs spending record amounts to bring international talent to the Chinese Super League, a very opinionated and negative editorial was written in the People’s Daily about this trend. According to ESPN.com, the People’s Daily is one of the official media outlets of China’s governing Communist Party, meaning that it is widely read and highly regarded. The article represents the international “frenzy associated with Chinese soccer is becoming an increasing concern,” noting that it warned clubs not to “let money mortgage the future.” Attitudes are now changing in China toward international talent due to the lack of funding and success in China’s international team and at the youth level. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on players like Oscar and Carlos Tevez, as “many clubs' budgets on foreign players are over two-thirds of their entire expense.” China is seemingly focused on two things – cyber superiority and soccer superiority. They are spending significant money to accomplish both, looking at signing players, buying teams, and developing facilities over time.
14. The Arizona Diamondbacks have sued Maricopa County in an effort to break the team’s lease at Chase Field. According to the Arizona Republic, the team is doing so in order to “seek financiers to build a new stadium or renovate the 19-year-old ballpark.” Under their current contract, the D-backs are not allowed to talk to outside groups until at least 2024, and are not allowed to play outside of Chase Field until at least 2028. The lawsuit is the "latest twist in a long-running conflict over which party is responsible" for as much as $187 million in repairs and upgrades to Chase Field. The D-backs "counter that the county-run stadium district has not set aside enough money for needed upgrades and is risking safety." The team would prefer to stay in downtown Phoenix if possible, but the longer this issue drags on, the harder it will be to find adequate land. Good example of a long term relationship gone bad. The Diamondbacks were the definitive Arizona sports brand in 2001 and beyond after their World Series win. Lack of attention to detail, miscommunication and maintenance issues have caused a frayed relationship that might not be easy to repair.
15. The NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights are in talks with the Chicago Wolves to make that team their AHL affiliate. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Wolves are currently one of 12 AHL teams that are not owned by an NHL club, making it plausible for the Golden Knights to have “its top minor-leaguers play” for the club when the team debuts next season. The Wolves serve as the St. Louis Blues’ AHL affiliate, but that would not prevent them from becoming the Golden Knights’ as well. The Vegas Golden Knights "might like to be closer to their home base," but the "only Pacific Division AHL team that is not owned by an NHL team is the San Antonio Rampage." While this long-distance relationship would not be ideal, sources close to the issue note that it would only last “for a couple of years until the Knights can fully stock their own roster.” Gary Bettman has made Las Vegas a top priority, and the success of the Vegas franchise significant as well. Look for the team to develop significant corporate affiliations and build community hockey rinks and education programs and the like to maximize long term success.