USFL gets passing grade


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

It came as no big surprise when Fox Sports’ Eric Shanks told me this weekend that the USFL would definitely be returning for a second season. That was the plan when Shanks started talking about his spring league, and nothing from this season has influenced that strategy.

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

Prior to the start of the season, Shanks was less concerned with how to produce these games for television. Instead, he insisted on setting up football operations – everything from finding coaches and players to checking that weight rooms are following health and safety protocols.

“Having this under our belt – oh my God, we can actually do this – now you start thinking about selling sponsors and things that we know how to do,” he said. “The things we didn’t know how to do, I feel a lot more comfortable with.”

Speaking of sponsorship sales, Fox has emerged from the initial ad sales market with the second season of USFL already more than 50% sold, said the network’s executive vice president/sports sales Mark Evans. “We were able to secure a significant portion of next year’s inventory already in this year’s upfront,” he noted. “The advertisers were able to plan for it this year, have an evaluation trail that they could study and better see the long-term viability of the league.”

This marks a change from this year’s inaugural season, when Fox announced the season last fall – after marketers’ planning season ended. “We had to get people to transfer dollars to the USFL instead of having a year to plan it,” Evans said.

Fox discovered that advertisers in categories that were buying time during NFL games were transferring money 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 was 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 provided iPads on the sidelines, and T-Mobile, which had its brand on headsets worn by coaches and players. Gatorade was also all over the sidelines, which isn’t a big surprise considering the brand is ubiquitous on the fringes of most established leagues. Still, his presence marked a fine win for the upstart league. “It’s uncertain whether they’re going to support every new league,” Evans said. “The thing is, Gatorade stepped up and wanted to be on the sidelines.”

Because Fox owns the USFL and has the kind of control and access it could never get with the NFL or college football, I was very interested to see how its TV productions differed from games at autumn.

I asked Fox Sports production manager Brad Zager to identify which new USFL wrinkles he liked the most. He immediately mentioned audio and transparency.

  • Fox and NBC used microphones much more frequently on gamers and found it worked particularly well with linemen. “The impact on the line with the linemen is something people haven’t heard before,” Zager said. “We wanted people to really know what it does for everyone on the pitch.”
  • Using these microphones, Fox and NBC were able to listen to the coaches talking with the players, often using language casual fans couldn’t understand. “We really tried to get that language of football to the viewers,” Zager said.
  • My favorite aspect was during replays where Fox and NBC not only listened to the review decisions, but the networks allowed their announcers to interview the head of refereeing after he made his decision.
  • Fox and NBC used drones much more frequently than they did in the fall, but Zager said it took a few games to figure out how to best use those camera angles. “There were a few times early on where we turned the drone into a not-so-good sky cam,” Zager said. At the end of the season, they were using drones as isolation cameras on a receiver running a route. “That was the most important thing, figuring out where this technology works and where it doesn’t.”

The headline was that ESPN had agreed to a three-year renewal to keep F1 rights between $75m and $90m a year.

The subtitle is that Netflix threw the tires on live sports rights. One wonders how serious he was trying to get the rights. But my sources tell me that Netflix made an offer.

Here’s what I know: Netflix hasn’t come close to the money, which is why so many people consider its banter not serious. In today’s market, any company that offers a streaming-only offering has to offer much more than traditional media companies.

I was also told that F1 executives were concerned about some of the technical and operational hurdles Netflix faced in distributing live sports content. By the end of negotiations, the sports media flirtations of Netflix had played out and F1 chose ESPN over Amazon and Comcast.

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

USL business manager Court Jeske said USL was talking to “three or four” media companies to secure the rights. It entered the market hoping to consolidate the three professional leagues, but the league is now considering other options. “We approached the market with the idea that it would be a single package, but we are also open-minded and want to do what matches and also helps develop the objectives of our media partners,” said Jeske told Silverman.

USL does not use an outside agency to advise on the deal.

  • When you take the NFL and add two of the biggest tech companies in the world, Apple and Amazon, you end up with huge outlets publishing stories that push the news about Sunday Ticket negotiations forward. There’s not a ton of new news in these stories of Alex Sherman and Joe Flint/Lillian Rizzo. But they both give good and accurate insights into the current state of the negotiations.
  • My colleague Erik Bacharach profiled the Savannah Bananas in SBJ this week, noting that some of the baseball team’s games have already aired on YouTube. ESPN+ is launching a docuseries on the team later this summer. Owner Jesse Cole says he’s heard from four different bands talking about broadcast rights.
  • Securing media rights deals is the top priority for LIV Golf executives, according to SBJ’s Eric Prisbell. The likelihood of LIV events being on linear or OTT/streaming platforms in 2023, an LIV official said, is “very high. We absolutely know that we need TV partners.
  • Fox is confident about NASCAR’s performance this season. Fox Sports Exec Vice President Bill Wanger told SBJ’s Adam Stern that he saw no notable trends or concerns about the drop in viewership toward the end of Fox’s campaign.

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