All-Star Game 2021: Behind the NBA’s Decision

The NBA All-Star Game is an annual tradition dating back to 1951. In normal circumstances, the weekend is a highly-anticipated event for fans and players alike. Besides the exhibition game showcasing the league’s best, the voting, slam-dunk contest, and parties make the game one of the most interactive and exciting annual weekends for sports fans. In-person interactivity is something that has been out of reach for almost a year now, so as one might expect, the excitement surrounding the All-Star Game has dwindled during the pandemic. So much so, that some of the league’s highest-profile players have issued statements expressing their disinterest. Earlier this month, Giannis Antetokounmpo told The Athletic, “The Big Dog (LeBron James) says he has zero excitement, zero energy for the All-Star Game. I’m the same way; I really, right now, I don’t care about the All-Star Game. I got zero energy, zero excitement.” Between the Orlando Bubble last spring, the league’s heightened health and safety protocols, and game postponements, a collective sense of pandemic-induced moral fatigue is understandable. Despite some player apprehension, the league officially announced last Thursday that the Game will take place in Atlanta on March 7th. Additional travel for players and staff presents an increased risk of infection, making the decision to go forward with the game seem rather counterintuitive during an already challenging season. ESPN’s Bontemps and Wojnarowski report that each time the NBA has returned from a break (in June, before the start of the bubble, and in November, before the start of training camp), there has been a significant spike in cases across the league. Therefore, the pros of holding an All-Star Weekend during the pandemic must outweigh the cons. Let’s take a look at the considerations the league may be looking at. 

NBA, ESPN, Turner Sports Media Deal 

In 2014, the NBA announced a nine-year extension deal with its long-term partners ESPN and Turner Sports, keeping the Association on the networks through the 2024-25 season. Although the terms of the agreement remain undisclosed, the deal was reportedly at $24 billion and nearly triple the previous contract’s annual value. Consequently, the NBA All-Star Weekend is a big one for Turner-owned TNT and TBS. Last year’s game averaged a 4.1 rating and 7.3 million viewers across TNT and TBS Sunday night (an 8% increase from 2019). Additional All-Star programming is exclusive and spans across the entire weekend, while Turner makes approximately $30 million in ad revenue alone. The New York Times estimates that for the NBA, the event is worth about $60 million. In the event of cancellation, the NBA would have to make up this amount to Turner later. 

Here, we can start piecing together that canceling the game would present some financial concerns thatfor the leaguemay outweigh the cons of canceling. As Sacramento Kings Point Guard, De’Aaron Fox pointed out, “money makes the world go ’round, so it is what it is. “Due to COVID-19, the NBA suffered losses of around $1.5 billion in 2020, and losses of such magnitude affect staff across the league — not solely the players. Therefore, one may consider that the decision to give the All-Star Game the green light comes from the NBA needing to maximize revenue…but what about that aforementioned apprehension from the players?

Labor Relations, HBCU funding, and Vaccine Confidence

This is where the league’s labor union, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), comes in. The NBPA’s mission is to ensure that the rights of NBA players are protected and that every conceivable measure is taken to assist players in maximizing their opportunities and achieving their goals both on and off the court. The most important document between the league and the labor union is the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the language of which explicitly notes that players do not have much choice on whether to partake in the game. Article XXI of the collective bargaining agreement states that any player selected to play in an All-Star game must attend and participate in the game and every other event conducted in association with All-Star Weekend. Additionally, a player will not be required to participate only if he has been excused from participation by the Commissioner at his sole discretion. 

Chris Paul, current NBPA President and point guard for the Phoenix Suns, expressed in an interview, “the job for the union has been to try to make sure our players are healthy and safe” while making it clear that players’ opinions are not a big factor in the league’s decision. Per ESPN, the NBA sent out a memo to its teams on Monday detailing its agreement with the National Basketball Players Association for health and safety protocols during the All-Star break, both for selected players and those who are not. 

Players selected to play are allowed to travel solely to their out-of-market home before going to Atlanta strictly by NBA-provided private transportation. Negative PCR tests are mandatory on March 6th and 7th, and each player can bring a limited number of guests who are to follow the same protocols as the players. Non-selected players can enjoy greater flexibility in travel as they can stay in their market home or go anywhere within the United States; however, staying at and using public accommodation is prohibited. Regardless of whether selected as an All-Star or not, all players have to undergo daily PCR testing. 

Notably, both the league and the NBPA have emphasized that the Game will feature a philanthropic component to benefit historically Black colleges and universities and COVID-19 relief efforts while featuring a campaign to urge fans to take the coronavirus vaccine. Thus far, NBA leadership has withstood the test of a global pandemic. In fact, the league has seen some weeks since the season’s start where none of the players tested positive, indicating that their protocols work. Here’s to hoping this holds true through All-Star Weekend. 

2020 in Review, 2021 Preview: M&A

Having (finally) turned the page to 2021, today let’s take a look back at some of the biggest stories in sports law from the past year. 2020 was set to be a consequential year in sports even before the arrival of COVID-19. However, the pandemic only heightened the importance of a year that witnessed both blockbuster mergers and widespread layoffs in sports business, overdue support for athletes’ expression in social justice movements, and on-the-fly adjustments of how sports are watched and played.

Much of 2020’s chaos that rearranged the sports world will continue to have significant commercial impacts on the industry. Below are some of the fascinating stories that last year provided, and what we might expect 2021 to bring.

What happened:
Penn-Barstool Partnership
Perhaps the most surprising deal transpired at the beginning of the year with Penn National Gaming turning heads during Super Bowl week. The company announced that it had purchased a 36% stake in Barstool Sports for $163 million, valuing the Boston-based sports media group at $450 million. The deal was widely-regarded as a win-win as the oft-in-controversy Barstool gained the legitimacy and platform of a media superpower, while Penn acquired easy access to an ideal market audience for the rollout of a much-anticipated sports betting division. The agreement came at a time with sports betting experiencing skyrocketing growth, and in the court of public opinion, gambling has gone from taboo to tantalizing as more and more legislators rush to legalize the industry in their own states. However, the Penn/Barstool combo faces an uphill battle getting their share of the market as sports betting is already dominated by established operators in FanDuel, Draftkings, William Hill, and others.

Cohen Gets the Green Light
Steve Cohen, a hedge fund manager worth roughly $14 billion, gave Mets fans everywhere something to be excited about when he purchased the team for a MLB-record $2.475 billion this past fall. However, the acquisition did not come without significant hurdles. Back in February, he and the longtime Wilpon family ownership had reportedly agreed to a deal that would have transferred 80% of the Mets to Cohen, however talks suddenly fell through and the agreement was pronounced dead. The team went back on the market and Cohen – in his second effort – faced a competitive bid from longtime Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez and entertainer-fianceé Jennifer Lopez. Then, when it became clear that Cohen was willing to far-outspend the competition, rumors swirled that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was “trying to kill” any sale of the Mets to Cohen, reportedly stemming from the fact that Cohen’s former company, SAC Capital Partners, pleaded guilty in a 2014 insider trading case, which cost the firm $1.8 billion in fines. Despite these obstacles, Cohen’s purchase of a 95% stake in the Mets was approved in October. So, after years of being run like a mid-market team, the New York Mets are already seeing dividends now that Cohen, a longtime Mets fan himself, is at the helm. Following promises to spend big on the Mets, Cohen has quite literally put his money where his mouth is, already adding more than $100 million to the team’s payroll through various key moves. Since 2010 (and excluding last year’s pandemic-adjusted season), the Mets have had an average payroll of roughly $124 million. With the start of the MLB season still more than two months away and potentially more moves to be made, the Mets’ payroll already exceeds $160 million and only figures to increase. According to Forbes, the Mets are the 5th most valuable MLB team and the 41st most valuable team globally.

Spotify Snags Simmons
Spotify continued its run of podcast acquisitions with another big name buy. Having already shelled out $400 million for Gimlet Media, Anchor FM, and Parcast, Spotify reportedly spent more than $196 million to land Bill Simmons’ The Ringer in an effort to grow its sports vertical. In Spotify’s words, The Ringer, launched by Simmons in 2016, is a “website, podcast network, and video production house creating an innovative blend of sports, pop culture, politics, and tech content.” According to Statista, The Bill Simmons Podcast, part of The Ringer’s robust podcasting lineup, was the 5th highest earning podcast in 2019 bringing in over $7 million. While the growth of podcasting is hard to pinpoint, the following statistics paint a picture of its vast potential: in 2020, 55% of Americans had ever listened to a podcast, 37% of Americans twelve or older listen to one monthly, and podcasts accounted for 19% of all spoken-word audio listening in the U.S., compared to 2017 when these numbers were 40%, 24% and 15% respectively.

What to look for:
NFL to hit $100 billion?
With most NFL broadcasting rights agreements set to expire in 2022, the league will sign a new contract this year with many expecting that it will be a 10 year deal that could “far exceed” $100 billion in total value – and it’s easy to see why. Out of the 50 most-viewed TV Broadcasts of 2020, the NFL dominated claiming 33 of the largest audiences, including Super Bowl LIV, which reeled in one-hundred million viewers, unsurprisingly making it the most-watched broadcast last year – for the 28th year in a row. While core aspects of the NFL’s current agreement figure to remain intact, a few key games are expected to change hands, even including America’s most popular program. Nothing is set in stone, but rumors are that ABC and ESPN will be added to the Super Bowl rotation and ESPN will receive more flexibility in its Monday Night Football (MNF) slate to ensure the best-possible matchups. Perhaps more intriguing, the NFL is reportedly considering offering ABC, ESPN, CBS, and Fox two Super Bowl broadcasts each, and auctioning off the final two at a later date. The new broadcasting agreement will likely witness one of Amazon, ESPN+, Peacock or Apple take over the Sunday Ticket package given that DirecTV seems poorly-positioned to continue the deal. Also, Amazon may become the exclusive provider of Thursday Night Football with Fox reportedly looking to move on from the package. NBCUniversal is focusing on retaining the most-watched prime-time TV show for the last nine years in Sunday Night Football. Finally, a few notes on current pricing and revenue: rates for Sunday afternoon games have been $1 billion annually, but may jump to $2 billion; ESPN has paid $2 billion for MNF, but may need $3 billion to retain the package; Sunday Ticket is priced at roughly $1.5 billion annually, but will likely be subject to a bidding war which will drive up the cost; the NFL’s annual revenue from its media rights is currently around $7.5 billion and could double to almost $15 billion. In any event, the NFL’s much-anticipated TV deal will be something to look out for as it will undoubtedly shape the broadcasting market for the next decade.

XFL game-planning for 2022
Among all the losses experienced due to the pandemic, it’s hard to argue that any sports entity suffered more than the XFL, whose debut began with a very promising start in February, only to be stopped short the next month and later, subjected to bankruptcy. Thanks to careful planning, significant funding, and an impressive marketing effort, the XFL seemed well-positioned to erase the doubts stemming from its 2001 failure and establish itself as a legitimate and profitable “minor league” to the NFL. Early returns on the XFL proved as much: the league averaged 1.9 million viewers and was projected to hit $46 million in gross revenue for the unfinished 10-game season, exceeding internal expectations. Of course – consistent with the theme – the pandemic plunged the XFL and its investors into financial ruin, forcing CEO of WWE, Vince McMahon, to sell the team to actor and businessman Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for just $15 million. Citing the needs to restructure the organization and have fans back in seats, the XFL has no plans for a 2021 season, however expects to return in spring 2022. Accordingly, many expect Johnson, alongside business partners Dany Garcia and Gerry Cardinale, to be active in securing investments to position the XFL for a strong – and permanent – revival next year.

Sportradar on the move
In a year that witnessed the continued growth and popularity of sports betting, Sportradar, unbeknownst to most, finds itself poised for a major move. Sportradar is an international, Switzerland-based company that collects and analyzes sports data, providing it to bookmakers, sports federations, and media companies, including the MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, William Hill, Bet365, and many more. The company employs more than 2,000 people over 30 locations across the globe and boasts Michael Jordan and Mark Cuban among its list of investors. So, why is Sportradar making the news now? Well, after receiving a B+ credit rating from Fitch Ratings, it was revealed that the sports betting powerhouse has been raising $505 million to finance a potential acquisition, reportedly with a specific M&A entity in mind. Though the identity of this target remains unknown, some have speculated that it could pursue another sports betting platform, while others predict Sportradar may look for a casino platform. In any event, most seem to agree that at some point this year Sportradar will look to go public, however disagree whether it will do so through a traditional IPO or a SPAC, the latter of which would allow the company to reach the public roughly two-to-four months faster than using the former. Regardless, it is clear that Sportradar has big ambitions for 2021. The company just appointed a former CEO of Fiserv Inc., Jeff Yabuki, to chairman of the firm’s board of directors and while its plans are still in the dark, many expect Sportradar to make lots of noise early on in 2021.

Amid postponements NBA awaits vaccine, mulls mandate

Editor’s Update: Adam Silver spoke about the NBA’s vaccine policy today (1/19/21) on Sportico’s NBA Valuations Panel. Silver highlighted the role that players might have in promoting vaccine efficacy to skeptical populations. Specifically, members of the African American community may understandably mistrust the vaccine given the racist history of vaccination in this country. Silver also reiterated that the league would wait until public health officials agree it’s the right time to vaccinate players.

It is not uncommon for a team’s roster to fluctuate in size as a result of players’ injuries or other personal reasons. However, nowadays rosters seem to be thinning faster due to contact tracing and other COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Last Sunday’s game between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat was postponed after Miami fell short of the eight-player minimum due to COVID-19 contact-tracing concerns. Per ESPN, Miami guard Avery Bradley was out due to health and safety protocols. Forward Kelly Olynyk, guard Goran Dragic, and center Meyers Leonard were also among the players potentially unable to play due to injury. The Celtics, however, do not have a brimming roster to boast of as of now either. Last week, seven players on the Boston team were out due to health and safety protocols. In fact, Jason Tatum has recently tested positive and is undergoing a 10-14 day quarantine. The Philadelphia 76ers are also currently missing players as Seth Curry tested positive earlier last week, which meant that four of his teammates had to also go into quarantine per the league’s health and safety protocol.  

Teams appear to be short-handed at this point in the season; however, according to ESPN’s Wojnarowski, the NBA has no plans to pause the season. The 2020-21 NBA Health and Safety protocol is reported to be extensive at 158 pages; however, it does not list criteria for the season to be suspended. Monitoring the virus and preventing outbreaks is significantly more challenging outside of last season’s Orlando bubble; however, teams have avoided a single large outbreak. Since last week, twelve more games have been postponed, bringing the total to fourteen. The thing that seems to be counteracting the considerable inconveniences, such as precarious competitive balance across teams and continually disrupted chemistry, is the collective sense of hope for a vaccine and a less volatile latter half of the season. The league’s health safety protocol states, “Once a vaccine is available, the league and the National Basketball Players Association will negotiate whether players, coaches, and staff will be required to receive it. If it is not required, adjustments to the safety provisions — such as requiring more masking or testing of those who choose not to receive the vaccination — might be implemented.” 

Decisions surrounding the distribution of the vaccine will be interesting to observe across professional sports leagues given that considerable skepticism already seems to exist. For example, Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors told USA Today, “I’m a guy that don’t really take any vaccines. I try to stay away from a lot of medicine.”  Moreover, Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. raised some eyebrows over the summer when he suggested that coronavirus was “being used for a bigger agenda” and revealed that he had never been vaccinated. Porter contracted the virus earlier in January and is currently on the list of players sidelined for the duration of their quarantine. Undoubtedly, a mandatory vaccine (assuming it’s ethical, safe, and effective) of all players, coaches, and staff could very much ease the season’s flow and ensure a quicker return to normal. So, can the NBA mandate a vaccine? Take the flu vaccine, for example. The league “strongly recommends” it, and all players and their households receive the option to take the vaccine. In the case of denial, the respective team has the right to provide the player with an educational course on the vaccine’s benefits. However, in 2021, the world is dealing with much more than just the annual flu, so how will the process be handled?

While the NBA has avoided comment on how it will handle the issue so far, history may provide insight on the legality of a potential mandate. A most relevant landmark case is Jacobson v. Massachusetts; a 7-2 decision held that Cambridge, Massachusetts could fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections during the 1905 epidemic. Jacobson’s side argued that introducing smallpox to a healthy functioning immune system is a violation of the 14th Amendment, specifically of life and liberty. In response, the court reasoned that under the 10th Amendment, states have the authority to enact reasonable legislative action to protect public health. While this decision is over one hundred years old, there is little precedent on vaccine mandates and the NBA may look to this holding as a means to justify enforcement.  However, this determination seemed to grant power to respective states and it is uncertain how it can be applied in the context of an organization. Interestingly, although personal and ethical views are usually insufficient, “sincerely held religious belief” may qualify an exemption from a mandatory vaccination policy under Title VII. However, the current pandemic is largely uncharted territory. The consequences of a player or a coach denying the vaccine may be significant. In light of this, the conversation surrounding risk-management is likely to develop further, and shift legal determinations. Additional federal and state guidelines will likely also inform league decisions surrounding vaccination protocols. For now, Adam Silver has commented that the NBA will not “jump the line in any form whatsoever” in terms of receiving the vaccine.