The Super Bowl ended days ago. Are you ready for some football?
Charlie Ebersol hopes so. He will this Saturday kick off a new era of professional spring football, even though the recent history of U.S. sports is littered with scrapped attempts to give gridiron fans more of their favorite game. Ebersol – and TV partners like CBS and AT&T – are betting that his Alliance of American Football can succeed where others have not.
“I was dropped on my head a number of times when I was a kid,” Ebersol (above, pictured) quips in an interview. “I don’t like doing anything that doesn’t scare me to death.”
A number of deep-pocketed entities and big media outlets are eager to add more football to the average American sports diet. CBS this Saturday will open a series of primetime broadcasts from the Alliance, a new league co-founded by Ebersol, son of sports-TV great Dick Ebersol, and Bill Polian, former general manager of the Buffalo Bills and vice-chairman of the Indianapolis Colts. CBS Sports Network will also air one game each week during the season. AT&T’s Turner Sports will stream eight games, and air one regular-season game and one playoff game on cable. Meanwhile, the XFL is backed by Alpha Entertainment, a holding company controlled by Vince McMahon, the chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment. That league is slated to start a new season in 2020, and CEO Oliver Luck expects rights to be picked up by broadcast, cable and streaming outlets.
Football games represent “one of the few appointment viewing opportunities left for the networks,’ says Luck, in an interview. “The demand has been healthy and that gives me confidence that there will be an audience – not just for us, but for theirs.”
Successful spring football might lend the networks an economic cushion. Current rights to broadcast NFL games start to lapse in 2021, when ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” contract comes up for renewal. NFL broadcasts bring Walt Disney, CBS, NBC and Fox their biggest audiences of the season. If they can build on the fall with spring football, well…consider the fact that NBC commanded an average of $670,846 for a 30-second commercial in “Sunday Night Football” last season, according to media buyers. Some ad prices topped $700,000.
Spring football will not start at those heights. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus aims to move slowly with his Alliance broadcasts – even though the network ran promos for the new games during the Super Bowl. ”Everybody sort of agrees philosophically that there is a place for spring football on the sports calendar,” he says. “The problem is no one has been able to pull it off yet.”
The two start-ups hope to prevail where entities like the USFL, the United Football League, and even a previous incarnation of the XFL – a joint venture of NBC and WWE – could not. “They both certainly have a chance to build a compelling league, but should expectations be immodest, they may be considered to have fallen short,” says David M. Carter, a sports-industry consultant who is executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute. “Managing expectations is critical, as neither wants to find themselves in a situation where success seems out of reach, even if they have created a viable league.”
Both groups will field eight teams, and offer some in-game tweaks and innovations. Both Ebersol and Knox think fans want a shorter game. Alliance broadcasts are likely to stay with the action on the field by using a “split screen” to show the field alongside commercials. Only local ads will prompt a break from the telecast, says Ebersol. The Alliance games will make use of a skycam to display unique angles and offer fans in-depth access to different pieces of audio of the game. His games will have no kickoff, and, if all goes well, last less than two and a half hours. The XFL games are expected to be under three.
And executives from both groups say they know how to succeed where others have not: Show a good game. “All the pyrotechnics, sneak camera angles and all this other stuff can’t save you,” says Ebersol. Instead, he says, he needs to offer good games, first and foremost, every week. “We want opening night to be an event Mom, Dad, Billy and Sue can all watch and enjoy.”
The XFL also believes in the basics. Viewers won’t see any of the professional-wrestling elements that were in the league’s previous incarnation, which featured skimpy cheerleader outfits and color commentary from Jesse “The Body” Ventura. “Vince has learned from the mistakes that were made in 2001,” says Luck. “In football, you don’t need that bravado and swagger and flair, because it’s always there.”
Madison Avenue is already interested. Ebersol says he’s been approached by a lot of traditional advertisers, like banks and car manufacturers, when he thought the new venture might attract lesser-known sponsors. “I think everyone is going to take a look at it,” says Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, a media-buying unit of Omnicom Media Group.
Sports executives say the NFL isn’t getting in the way of the new leagues. “I think they believe that more football on the air – as long as it’s not competitive with what they are doing – is probably a plus for the football fan,” says CBS Sports’ McManus. “We are going to walk before we run, but I think this thing has a real shot.”
Saturday’s game on CBS will give people a sense of what the spring outing might be able to do. The San Antonio Commanders will take the San Diego Fleet and the Atlanta Legends will visit the Orlando Apollo, following an 8 p.m. pre-game show led by Jamie Erdahl with Kurt Warner. Spero Dedes, Trent Green and Tiki Barber, along with Erdahl, call the action for the San Antonio-San Diego game from the Alamodome, while Andrew Catalon and Gary Danielson will announce from UCF’s Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Fla. with Melanie Collins reporting from the field for the Atlanta-Orlando game.
Ebersol wants NFL fans to tune in Saturday and get a product that’s on par with the games that excite them. While his league has the freedom to experiment with TV football, “you can’t do anything that’s going to feel like a gimmick,” he says. “We have an ability to make the product better without making it ‘MTV Cops.'”