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Welcome to another 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.

Young Guns
The NFL isn’t expected to officially begin renegotiating its media rights contracts until after it locks in a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players’ union, but informal talks are underway. And while the noise about a disruptive bid by an Amazon or Google is in no danger of dying down, the heads of the Frankensteined ViacomCBS entity want to assure investors that they’re not going to let TV’s last great ratings driver slip out of their grasps.

Speaking to investors earlier this week at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference in New York, ViacomCBS Chief Financial Officer Christina Spade said the company comes to the NFL table “from a position of strength.” Much of that strength has to do with CBS’s ratings prowess; per Nielsen, the network’s national NFL windows last season averaged 22.2 million viewers and a 12.4 household rating, up 5 percent compared to its 2017 deliveries.

“CBS offers broad reach, which the NFL enjoys,” Spade said. “We also have a strong history of high-quality production. And we continue to invest and advance our multi-cameras and the technology that goes against bringing the consumers the best game experience that we can offer.”

In addition to its eight national TV windows and its annual Thanksgiving Day broadcast, CBS also produces six regional Sunday afternoon broadcasts per week. Through the first two weeks of the 2019 NFL season, CBS’s regional games are averaging 15.3 million viewers and a 9.0 rating.

Taking the rhetorical baton from Spade, ViacomCBS President and CEO Bob Bakish suggested that the company’s next NFL deal may include simulcasts on platforms other than CBS. “Viacom adds two other elements that are important to the NFL,” Bakish said. “While CBS skews on the older side, Viacom skews on the younger side from a media-delivery standpoint and that’s true for both our linear services and things like our on-demand Pluto platform, which as you know, is the largest free television streaming service in the United States.”

Viacom’s stable of cable networks includes MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

Bakish added that the youth movement is particularly important to the NFL “because they have a brand and associated team brands that they want to continue grow over time, and part of that is making sure you bring younger audiences into it.”

The median age of CBS’s primetime audience is over 61 years old, although its ports coverage attracts a significantly younger crowd. Together the Viacom nets reach an audience with a median age of around 28 years.

The ad-supported Pluto, which boasts in the neighborhood of 18 million monthly active users, recently launched the NFL Channel, a curated library offering that is unaffiliated with the league’s legacy cable outlet, NFL Network.

Shortly after speaking at the Goldman Sachs confab, Bakish appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street. “I am confident that Viacom and CBS will have a long-standing and highly-productive partnership with the NFL,” Bakish told CNBC’s David Faber.

As was the case at the morning event, Bakish told the CNBC audience that the NFL is “going to want a bigger check” when it comes time to hash out a new rights package. Under the terms of CBS’s current deal, which expires at the end of the 2022 season, the network pays $1.03 billion per year—a 65 percent increase from the $620 million per year it forked over between 2006 and 2013.

When asked if CBS could afford to pay more for the privilege of continuing its partnership with the league, Bakish replied in the affirmative. “Absolutely. The financial strength of the combined company is second to none,” he said.

Ex-Patriot Games
First, Nike parted ways with Antonio Brown, and now the Super Bowl champs have ended their association with the embattled wide receiver. Brown, who is being sued for rape and sexual assault, posted a photo to Twitter Friday afternoon with the caption, “Thanks for the opportunity appreciate @Patriots[.]” He then thanked Patriots head coach Bill Belichick before following up with the terse message, “The marathon continues[.]”

In a statement released shortly after Brown’s tweeted revelation, the team confirmed the news: “The New England Patriots are releasing Antonio Brown. We appreciate the hard work of many people over the past 11 days, but we feel that it is best to move in a different direction at this time.”

Brown’s ouster comes on the heels of Nike’s decision to cut ties with the seven-time Pro Bowler. “Antonio Brown is not a Nike athlete,” a company spokesman said Thursday, declining to elaborate on the reasons for the split. “We don’t get into specifics of sports marketing relationships.” The Nike story was first reported by the Boston Globe.

As has been the case with other athletes who’ve had their sponsorship deals terminated (Ray Rice, O.J. Simpson, Aaron Hernandez) the loss of the ancillary paycheck may be of marginal importance to Brown. Athletes that see their sponsorship deals go up in smoke often do so on the way toward irrevocably screwing up their lives, so the forfeited revenue is often the least of their worries. Before jumping to New England a few weeks ago, Brown effectively set fire to an agreement with the Oakland Raiders that would have earned him in $30 million in guaranteed wages over the next three years. Now he’s back to square zero, with more than one criminal investigation hanging over his head, and it seems unlikely that another organization will risk bringing him into the fold.

No Sleep til Brooklyn
Former Turner boss and sports media VIP David Levy is tuning up for his second act, accepting an offer to serve as CEO of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the team’s home arena, Barclays Center. Levy, who parted ways with WarnerMedia in the spring, also adds oversight of the investment holding company J Tsai Sports to his résumé. In an interview with Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, Levy said the challenge he has set for himself is nothing short of extending the Brooklyn brand around the world.

Levy’s new gig reunites him with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, a friend and colleague with whom he’s worked for over 30 years. For media junkies, another reunion that’ll be worth looking out for is set to take place on Dec. 4, when Levy’s Nets travel to Atlanta to square off against the Hawks. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin was the entertainment chief at Time Warner’s Turner unit when Levy was the company’s ad sales and sports boss; by all accounts, their relationship was akin to that of Shaq and Kobe. Should be fun!

Under Levy, Turner Sports managed the NBA digital assets and effectively redefined the concept of the studio show. Featuring the all-world team comprised of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and the aforementioned Shaq, “Inside the NBA” seamlessly (and hilariously) blends expert analysis with inspired riffing on pop and sports culture, and as such offers a rough blueprint for how Levy may approach his new position in Brooklyn. (Although he probably hasn’t even picked up his Barclays parking pass yet, we’d bet a kidney that one of the first things the Syracuse alum does as Nets boss is to offer a short-term contract to former Orange star, Brooklyn native and current free agent Carmelo Anthony.)

No Country for Old Men
Through the first two weeks of the 2019 campaign, the NFL’s national ratings are up year-over-year, with the Sunday afternoon and primetime windows improving 3 percent to 21.8 million viewers and a 12.5 household rating. When seen as an extension of last season’s 5 percent ratings hike, the league is putting some distance between itself and the sharp viewership declines that marred 2016 and 2017. If the NFL is to continue adding to the win column, it’ll do so via the arms of its young quarterbacks.

Injuries and other reversals suffered by the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Eli Manning have radically changed the chemical composition of some of the NFL’s most reliable ratings draws, and it will be up to the howitzer-armed Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes to make up for any imbalances.

Take the L
Gatorade took the plunge with NFL Network Thursday night, buying a pair of what the league’s cable channel are marketing as “L-Wrap” units. A modification of the split-screen ads that have aired on Fox, ESPN and other sports outlets, the L-Wrap brackets the on-field action with a vertical brand space to the left of the screen and a slightly more narrow text unit branching off that across the top. In two distinct six-second intervals of the Titans-Jaguars telecast, Gatorade ran a glamour shot of a bottle of its fruit punch-flavored brew alongside the tag “Nothing Beats Gatorade.”

As with the more established split-screen units, the L-Wrap offers advertisers an uncluttered space in which to highlight their brands without the disruption of a traditional commercial break. According to iSpot. tv data, Gatorade also invested in two standard 15-second ad units to go along with its twin L-Wraps. Perhaps the next brand to dip a toe in the L-Wrap waters will find a bigger audience than the one that greeted Gatorade’s exploratory run. NFL Network’s presentation of the Titans-Jags skirmish averaged 6.32 million viewers, making it the least-watched “Thursday Night Football” telecast since the Bills and Jets scared up just 5.84 million viewers on Nov. 2, 2017.

Huddle up
With its relaunch date just 20 weeks away, the XFL is on the verge of tapping the Dallas-based Connect Partnership Group and Chicago’s Navigate Research to assist with its sponsorship sales. According to Sports Business Daily’s Terry Lefton, the agencies “will collaborate to work on sponsorship pricing, packaging and strategy for the second iteration of the XFL, which will begin play Feb. 8.” In August, Connect was instrumental in brokering a $33 million naming rights deal for TCF Bank and the Detroit venue formerly known as the Cobo Center. Navigate is focused on sports/entertainment research and evaluation, but as Lefton notes, the firm “recently branched out into third-party sales representation.”  

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