Media Power Rankings for March
John Smoltz should excel with Turner Sports and the MLB Network
ESPN is pushing host Michelle Beadle across its platforms
Tiki Barber's future in sports broadcasting remains unclear
1. John Smoltz, Turner and MLB Network: Of all who signed with baseball broadcasting entities this offseason, from Aaron Boone to Nomar Garciaparra to J.P. Ricciardi, Smoltz has the best chance for long term stardom. The future Hall of Fame pitcher was pursued by ESPN, Fox, Turner and the MLB Network because their executives saw the same thing baseball beat writers did: an intelligent and thoughtful voice on the game. Smoltz will call regular-season and playoff games for Turner and do a handful of games for Peachtree Television (they broadcast Braves games along with Fox Sports South and SportSouth). He'll also work about 15 games for the MLB Network. As for a midseason comback, Smoltz said it's unlikely to happen.
"There's a greater percentage of me being a broadcaster than playing," Smoltz told SI.com. "I'm just not officially ready to say that's it because there are some unique opportunities that might arise where it would allow me to think about it again. But here is the process: I might think about it. I might train for it. But that does not mean it will happen. The longer I do this and the more I enjoy it, the less likely that something of that magnitude would come into play. I would call it a very, very slim percentage that I will play this year."
As with all ex-players-turned-broadcasters, viewers will quickly learn whether Smoltz's allegiance lies with them or if he's merely a house organ for certain parties. "My criticism won't be a style of harshness," said Smoltz. "I'm not going to be a psychologist. I'm not going to be one of those guys who tells the viewer what the guy is thinking per se, or trying to guess what he is thinking. What I can provide will be experiential viewing, and a narrative of the game that offers insight. I enjoy talking about the game and its insides. More or less, what I will bring is the pitcher-catcher relationship and how that translates into how the game is played."
2. Michelle Beadle, ESPN: The Bristol Press isn't just the name of a newspaper. Last month, over a 96-hour period, two separate ESPN public relations people called me to pitch an interview with Beadle (they were politely turned down) to coincide with the debut of ESPN's Sports Saturday block, which she co-hosts. There's also been a heavy publicity push for her ESPN2 SportsNation show, which Beadle also co-hosts. Last week, ESPN announced Beadle would co-host (theme alert) next month's network's upfront presentation, an annual event in New York City where ESPN talent and salespeople implore media buyers to advertise with the network. What all this publicity does for Beadle and the growing Beadlemania in Bristol remains to be seen, but I do know one person who is very happy: Her agent.
3. Curt Schilling, ESPN: Love him or hate him, Schilling gets people talking, and it's a terrific gamble by ESPN to hire him as an analyst for Baseball Tonight and as a contributor to ESPNBoston.com. (It also counters the hire of Nomar Garciaparra, who up to this point has produced more yawns than a bottle of Ambien). Schilling has always been very good radio because the medium affords him the time to do what he loves most: Talk. He'll be a regular every Monday on Colin Cowherd's ESPN Radio program and he last week told a mesmerizing story from his playing days about umpire Joe West squeezing the strike zone against him because, according to Schilling, the pitcher made a joke about West at an offseason banquet. ESPN said Schilling will have no restrictions on content for his 38pitches.com blog, which often delves into politics and other hot button issues. We look forward to when those worlds collide.
"I think in some ways Billy was a larger than life presence at CBS and in the college basketball community," McManus said. "He did a spectacular job for many years. A lot people miss him. I miss him. I miss him at our media press conference, which every year managed to have something incendiary, controversial, amusing or of great interest, depending on the word you'd choose. He always had something interesting to say, which was a great asset for us and the college basketball community. Having said that, I think Jim and Clark have very quickly developed into the best team in college basketball. I think Clark has made the transition from studio to broadcast booth seamlessly. From my standpoint, it is an unqualified success but there is a presence that Billy had that is certainly missed."
5. Tom Rinaldi, ESPN and Kelly Tilghman, Golf Channel: If you want a pair of winners to come out of the Tiger Woods news coverage over the last two months -- besides sales of the National Enquirer and page views on TMZ.com -- Rinaldi and Tighman rate high on the list. Given the restrictions of the time frame -- dictated by Team Tiger -- both interviewers stayed on point and asked petinent questions. Rinaldi's work was particularly exalted on Twitter including New York Times reporter Don Van Natta Jr., one of the nation's top investigative reporters, who tweeted, "Tom Rinaldi did the near-impossible. In 5 minutes, he extracted a massive amount of new information and riveting drama." Tilghman has business relationships with Woods which made her choice as an interviewer questionable, but she turned in an even-handed performance.
6. Bill Simmons, ESPN: I've long enjoyed when the ESPN.com majordomo gets into media criticism because 1) He's amusing at it; 2) It amplifies the silliness of the ESPN policy that its talent should not engage in it, and; 3) It highlights in neon the Jordan Rules that Simmons enjoys at Camp Bristol. Over the last two months, Simmons gloriously went off on Keith Olbermann ("KO, please know the feeling is mutual. You're my worst case scenario for my career in 12 yrs: a pious, unlikable blowhard who lives alone"), CBS's NCAA coverage ("Still can't believe DirecTV/CBS screwing up those late game switches. If they were air traffic controllers, we'd all be dead"), and Jim Nantz ("Jim Nantz saying Tiger "managed a 69 through all of this" is my favorite sports moment of 2010 hands down."). He also took a nine-iron to Nantz in a post-Masters column, saying that Butler Cabin turned the announcer into jello. Simmons then pulled off a Keyser Söze by having Nantz on his podcast a few days later.
7. Jim Nantz, CBS: Speaking of Butler Cabin, no sportscaster has been in the public eye over the last two months more than the CBS announcer, who called the most-watched Super Bowl in history, the most-watched NCAA Championship in 13 years, and the most-watched Masters since 2001. Normally low-key in pushing his own brand, Nantz has been growling over the past two months, from chastising Woods for his language on the Augusta National course ("He used the Lord's name in vain . . . If I said what he said on the air, I would be fired") to scolding reporters for asking him about his flowery language at the Masters.
The latter came after Newsday's always-on-the-ball Neil Best inquired about those who have poked fun at Nantz (my hand is raised) for his reverential language at the Masters. "Seriously, you don't get it?" Nantz told Best. "Why don't you go around to a golf tournament sometime and if we run into a thousand people and if one in a thousand says something to me, then I will pay you a hundred dollars. Nobody looks at it that way except for people that don't watch golf. Golf's an easy sport to attack. You don't understand the culture of it...I am in love with the Masters, OK? That's the way I feel about it. Nobody is putting those words in my mouth. Why would I want to tailor my way of approaching the Masters tournament to some guy who's a blogger who doesn't watch the Masters, or to someone like you who doesn't understand the difference between a birdie and a bogey? Why would I care what you think about it?"
Good for Nantz. If he believes it, sing it to the masses. Personally, I have zero problem with Woods' language because it's milder than the trash-talking that goes on in a Sunday morning beer league softball game. But I've also never been to Augusta National, so I cop to having a limited take on the culture.
8. "Lavs": With ESPN's most foremost college basketball personality dangerously close to those he covers -- his name rhymes with Dick Vitale -- we're asking very nicely if the folks in Bristol can put an end to calling St. John's coach Steve Lavin by his ESPN nickname. We know you like "Lavs." We know "Lavs" is a fun guy. But "Lavs" now coaches St. John's, so please call him "Steve" or "Lavin" or even "Coach Lavin." Thanks.
9. The Pulitzer Prize: Once again, sports was shut out of newspaper journalism's most prestigious prize this year, which means Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann, whose work with the St. Paul Pioneer Press uncovering academic fraud in the men's basketball program at the University of Minnesota won him the award for beat reporting in 2000, remains the last sportswriter to earn the honor.
I've tackled this subject before: Is there a Pulitzer bias against sports? Perhaps not overtly, but the current Pulitzer Board lacks anyone with a background in sports, and some remarkable sports journalism (e.g. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' work on BALCO in the San Francisco Chronicle) failed to get the honor. Worth noting is that the 2010 nominating juries for journalism also did not include anyone with a significant sports background.
Many moons ago, I graduated from the school that hosts the awards (the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism) and once asked Sig Gissler, long the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, whether his organization would consider establishing sports as its own category. He said it was an interesting suggestion, and it has stayed as such.
In my opinion, establishing a sports Pulitzer category would bring an inordinate amount of press to the awards, and most importantly, could bring some new (and younger) readers to newspaper journalism. But I wanted to get someone with a better take on the subject, so I asked Dorhmann.
"People will say that there is a bias against sports journalism, but I think the reason is far simpler: Our best work rarely has the impact of the work of the winners," Dorhmann said. "Look at the stories Alan Schwarz of The New York Times has written on concussions. It is great, great stuff, some of the best work by a sportswriter over the past year. But which winner from the 2010 list would you bump off to award Alan a Pulitzer? The exposing of a rogue police narcotics squad by the Philadelphia Daily News? A series on the dangers of contaminated meat by the New York Times? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's work exposing fraud in Wisconsin's childcare subsidy program? The reality is that as good as Alan's work has been, his stories have not had an impact on society in the same way.
"The category I won in, Beat Reporting, no longer exists (it was replaced after 2006) and I think that hurt the chances of other sports journalists. The way sports beat reporting is headed (less game stories and more analysis and criticism) would have helped with the Pulitzer board. That said, I don't think there should be a category dedicated to sportswriting. The need for one would arise if sports journalism were being overlooked. I don't think it is. If a sportswriter's work is good enough, he or she will win. Also, what makes sports journalism so unique that it requires special status? If you are going to create one for sportswriting, shouldn't you create one for business and other specialties as well? A special citation for sports would be, in my view, like playing golf with a handicap. Your work is one of the best in journalism, all of journalism that year, or it isn't."
10. Tiki Barber: NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker called him "one of those rare personalities who appeals to virtually every audience imaginable." USA Today tabbed him "a 21st-century Frank Gifford." The New York Times offered its readers a pair of glowing profiles here and here the week he became a national broadcaster. In Feb. 2007, it was good to be Tiki Barber. Damn good. Three years later, Barber now finds himself on the cover of New York tabloids over a marriage split and is no longer being used by NBC Sports. It's a reminder just how fast broadcast companies fall out of love with talent, and the difficulty of predicting which former players will connect with an audience for the longterm. I'm betting on Smoltz, but I also won't be surprised if I'm wrong.