Being Like Mike

Last week was the final Thursday Night Football game for FOX, a significant event if only because it was the first time in FOX’s 27-year association with the league that it let a package of games they acquired go.   One could have also watched that game on Prime Video.  Since I’m a person who prefers to look ahead , that was my choice.  Next year I’ll have no choice, and it’s entirely possible that may be the case with NFL Sunday Ticket in 2023 as well.   And for Prime Video chief Mike Hopkins, should that happen that would be both serendipitous and ironic.

Mike cut his professional eyeteeth as part of the distribution team at FOX that helped shepherd and monetize numerous sports rights deals that Rupert Murdoch and David Hill boldly negotiated, all starting with the stunning announcement that the still-nascent FOX Broadcasting Company was acquiring the rights to NFC Sunday afternoon games in 1994.  Yes, the National Football League, far and away the most popular live entertainment available, was going to wind up on a bunch of UHF television stations around the country.

That reality shook the media industry like an earthquake.  In fact, Murdoch took full advantage of that to acquire–and switch affiiations of–numerous large-market “Big Three” affiliates, many with much larger local audiences and established local news operations, to allay the fears of fans and lawmakers in NFL-rabid cities such as Cleveland, Atlanta, Tampa, Kansas City and Detroit that they wouldn’t be able to find their game.

Mike eventually rose to head the sales operation that grew from that decision into a sports-laden panoply of national rights and regional sports networks that eventually acquired rights in every major U.S. team sport.  I had the privilege of working with Mike and a number of other superb executives on many of the local market negotiations of the FOX RSNs.  Every time a deal was up it was trench warfare.  We would commission research that demonstrated how passionate those most likely to subscribe to cable and satellite were about their local teams and the team Mike was part of would use this ammunitition with lethal tenacity, often extracting significant increases in carriage fees and clearances for other FOX networks that were well out of line with their actual popularity.   There would certainly not have been an FX had it not been for the FOX Sports Networks and the all-star team that Mike was part of.

Decades later, Mike became my boss’ boss at Sony, recruited by Tony Vinciquerra to head Sony Pictures Television at a time it needed executive stability.  Mike was fresh off a stint at Hulu where he helped steady that service and was in charge when it clicked creatively with The Handmaid’s Tale.   Many of my Sony colleagues knew I knew Mike from FOX and nervously asked me how different he was from Steve Mosko, the leader they had known for over a decade (and who had recruited me for what turned out to be one of the most satisfying acts of my career to date).  I assured them with the sports analogy that Steve was like Alabama football coach Nick Saban, while Mike was more like Cubs (and Red Sox) genberal manager Theo Epstein.  While Mosko/Saban was a field general with loud enthusiasm, Hopkins/Epstein was a tactician and a quiet, inspiring deal maker.  Both were at the top of their worlds.  I was confident Mike would put Sony at the top of its.  That didn’t happen.  Amazon came calling for him.  Mike left, and soon after so did I.

Mike’s been quite busy.  In the spring of this year he helped negotiate both Amazon’s acquisition of MGM as well as the expansion of its Thursday Night football rights to bolster and clarify its position in the ever-changing streaming media world.  Mike knew from his FOX experience that having strong live sports would drive both the opportunity for quality scripted content to been both produced and seen, and the combination invaluable to a media company.  In two bold moves he has assured that despite the efforts of traditional media companies to create streaming platforms with their existing libraries, IP and sports rights Amazon would have its own portfolio as well.  The rights to NFL Sunday Ticket will be decided early in 2022, and the impact of the NFL’s  decision will be as dramatic as the one Murdoch convinced them to make nearlky three decades earlier.

The NFL has all the cards in its hands.  Ratings are up this year, a near-impossibility in this fractionalized, pandemic-shaken landscape.  There are plenty of suitors for the package.  ESPN and Disney are eager for a tentpole for ESPN+.  NBCU and ViacomCBS would love to have something to help drive Peacock and PAramount+ subscriptions, which have lagged.  Netflix, for all of its success and market dominance, still doesn’t have sports, nor does Apple.  WarnerMedia, particularly with David Zaslav about to take over, looms as a very formidable threat–remember they still have a stake in DirecTV.

When DirecTV acquired the Sunday Ticket rights soon after FOX Broadcasting’s deal it shook up the media distribution world.  More than a million households specifically switched from cable to satellite (or dual-subscribed to both, as I foolishly did) and helped grow DirecTV to what at what time was the second-largest MVPD in the industry.  Like FOX, they were once the cool insurgent.  As FOX took on CBS and shifted affiliations of both stations and viewers, DirecTV did the same to cable subscribers and fans.  Now both FOX and DirecTV are considered legacy businesses, and Amazon is poised to strike a blow against both.

Numerous sports media pundits think the NFL will take the safe route and spread Sunday Ticket rights across several companies so as not to risk any audience (and revenue) denegration, not to mention keep as many major media companies in their orbit so as to assure competition down the road.  I for one think Amazon and Hopkins have an opportunity to strike the same kind of blow that FOX, Murdoch and Hill did back in the 90s.  I am going on record that if DirecTV were to lose Sunday Ticket rights I will become a cord-cutter and subscribe to Amazon’s package of channels.  I’ll fill in whatever gaps may exist with local TV and other content packages where demand exists.  I’m confident I’m not the only Baby Boomer with such resolve, and I’m certain younger, less loyal households will even more easily make the switch.

For anyone that doubts this can happen, I’ll simply say this.  I know Mike Hopkins knows how to negotiate, And I know Amazon knows how to change industries. Every time I look in my apartment complex’s mailroom I see more Amazon boxes that I do USPS deliveries.  If Amazon can make the post office obsolete, I’m not betting against them taking DirecTV and FOX Sports down as well.

Until next time…


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