The Alliance of American Football looks to make a big splash with the help of CBS as a broadcast partner, plus more from the world of sports and media.
Alliance of American Football leaders have grand ambitions. They want to develop an innovative app that will allow for the first-ever, real-time, in-game fantasy football experience. They want to find the next Kurt Warner. They want to perfect a data collection system that “will far exceed anything anyone's ever done before,” in the words of CEO Charlie Ebersol.
But Ebersol doesn’t want you to worry about any of that now. When the inaugural season kicks off Saturday night, he just hopes to deliver quality football. Plain and simple. “I know there are 78 to 80 million people in America that stop watching sports the day after the Super Bowl until football comes back, and there’s a percentage of them that just want to watch football,” Ebersol said. “I think that’s our ultimate commitment to our viewer."
While the XFL plans a return next year, once again emphasizing how it can improve on the NFL product, the AAF is more focused on replicating the NFL experience. CBS will play a big role in that.
The network home of Super Bowl LIII will show the first AAF game on Saturday and the championship from Las Vegas in April. (TNT and B/R Live will also present games this year.) In January, Ebersol visited CBS’s New York headquarters for a production meeting, something the broadcaster has historically only done with NFL and NCAA basketball counterparts.
“The way you cover a play on a football field basically is the same as it’s always been, and we don’t want to deviate from that too much,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “We want to be very contemporary. We want to be incredibly innovative and I think the league will allow us to be really innovative, but that isn't the priority week one. The priority week one is to make it look like a football game on CBS.”
Ebersol also cited CBS’ lead over FOX and NBC in terms of digital footprint and fantasy product in explaining why the network was an ideal fit. Heading into week one, CBSSports.com already has gambling picks and power rankings for the new league. March Madness, meanwhile, will provide ample opportunity for cross-promotion. “We’re looking at growing this,” McManus said. “If you look at the relationships that we have a CBS Sports, they're not years long. They're all decades long.”
The Ebersol family is no stranger to gridiron startups. Charlie’s father, Dick, was a partner in the ill-fated XFL, and Charlie directed a documentary on Vince McMahon’s league. So he knows how what can go wrong. “My dad infamously said, 17 years ago, that after the first half of the first game of the league that he had started, he knew that they were dead,” Charlie recalled. “It was unrecoverable, the quality of football.”
Right now, as it nears its debut, the AAF's known faces largely come from the coaching ranks—Steve Spurrier, Mike Martz, Mike Singletary. The hope is that over the season, on-field stars will break out, and maybe even earn NFL gigs. “I think the more we feel like a part of the NFL ecosystem and the football ecosystem,” Ebersol said, “the more success that we’ll have.”
At that point, the league can figure out how to take its trove of first-party data and integrate it into the broadcast. By then, hopefully fans will see the benefits of deep app integrations. But that’s all for another day.
“Almost every answer you’re going to hear is: Slow and steady wins the race,” Ebersol said. “We’ve said it now like 10 times. Walk before you run. Everyone who tried to do this before was like, Just throw everything at it! Something will stick! That is not our business model.”
By the way, give me the San Antonio Commanders to win it all +500. I like their offensive weapons.
ESPN, KEVIN DURANT TEAM UP ON NEW SHOW
After Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning have explained on-field minutiae to ESPN+ viewers on Detail, Kevin Durant is hoping to shine a new light on the details that drive success off the court.
The Boardroom, a six-episode series featuring interviews and reported segments from the intersection of Silicon Valley, athletics, and business, launches on ESPN+ on Monday. Imagine LeBron James’s The Shop on HBO, but with a collection of CEOs and stars discussing investment strategies and endorsement deals rather than social issues. ESPN’s Jay Williams will host, with Durant appearing in each episode. Ultimately, the show is a bit meta, seeing as it epitomizes KD’s own growing corporate endeavor.
Thirty Five Ventures has invested in companies specializing in delivery, rentable electric scooters, pizza, and online entertainment. It also has a nonprofit arm. But Durant’s business partner, Rich Kleiman, says the company’s core is media. They’ve sold a show to Apple based on Durant’s time in AAU that will start production this spring, and Kleiman sees The Boardroom as more than just a series of episodes.
“We’ve invested in creating a newsletter element, other short form programming, a social media cadence,” he said. “The idea was the traditional boardroom and what people believe goes on in there isn’t the case at all. It’s athletes, tech CEOs, people in sweats and a t-shirt talking about multimillion-dollar deals.”
Another point of comparison for the show: Broke, the 30 for 30 documentary that outlined how and why athletes were ending up penniless. “I don’t want to talk about anything negatively,” Kleiman said. “This isn’t how to save your money and not get robbed. We’re past that. Athletes know how to speak at Google, they’re at the Blackstone retreat. The world has completely intertwined. I’m celebrating that.”
For example, Durant’s two shows exist partly thanks to the relationships he and Kleiman have cultivated with ESPN content czar Connor Schell and Apple SVP/Golden State superfan Eddy Cue. Meanwhile, Steph Curry is on his way to producing family-friendly entertainment and The Shop represents just a part of James’s media efforts.
“I see our media company as a bit more of a boutique business,” Kleiman said, but that doesn’t mean his overall goals are meager. “We’re doing this to build an empire,” he said. “We really want to build a company we are both proud of … and grow into a business that Kevin’s kids could run, that my kids could run.”
• Disney announced Tuesday that ESPN+ now has over two million paying subscribers.
• Greg Auman talked to Beth Mowins about her small role in the NFL’s chart-topping Super Bowl commercial and found out a bit about how the star-studded spot came together. Meanwhile Melissa Jacobs interviewed the young woman featured in the commercial, Sam Gordon.
• Complex ranked the NFL’s 32 team Twitter accounts. For once, the Patriots didn’t win.
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• A Dallas Morning News columnist played a surprising role in this incarnation of the Patriots dynasty, helping Bill Belichick find Julian Edelman.
• I’ve given up on trying to follow the sale of Disney’s 22 regional sports networks. But here’s a primer if you want to try.
• The NFL rolled out some nifty Next Gen stats features for the Super Bowl. Steven Ruiz dug into the story they told.
• Rory McIlroy and NBC Sports are trying to build “an all-in-one membership for golf,” featuring instructional videos, free rounds, and more.
• HBO will debut a new documentary on Tuesday focused on “The Many Lives of Nick Buoniconti,” a Hall of Fame linebacker who also dedicated himself to TV commentary and philanthropy. Here’s the trailer.
• Arsenal, Man City and Liverpool will launch Intel True View technology at their stadiums to capture highlights from all angles and add some neat illustrations for offside calls.
• Turner basketball reporter Allie LaForce opened up to the New York Post about how she and her husband, Astros pitcher Joe Smith are using IVF as a way to keep their children from inheriting Huntington’s disease.
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