How Chip Brown stole the Big 12 spotlight; Erin Andrews' payday
Orangebloods.com was out ahead of realignment story from beginning to end
Snap judgments on ESPN's World Cup coverage through first 12 days of play
Plus: How much is Erin Andrews worth to ESPN? Studs, duds and more
He has covered Bush Family politics, the Branch Davidian standoff, a defamation trial against Oprah Winfrey, and even wrote a front-page story for The Dallas Morning News on the physical makeover of Jerry Jones. But only one story has given Chip Brown a national profile. "The Big 12 realignment," says Brown, "is by far the biggest I've ever broken."
In what might be the first (but won't be the last) example of a fan-based Web site leading the coverage of a national sports story, Orangebloods.com, a Rivals-owned site that focuses on the University of Texas football and recruiting, owned the Big 12 realignment story, starting with its June 3 report that the Pac-10 planned to invite six Big 12 teams to join its conference.
"Its pretty simple: Chip dominated the story beginning to end," said Pete Thamel, the national college football writer for The New York Times. "He's a first-class reporter, always has been, and he used his connections to keep the whole country on a string for two weeks. It was impressive wire-to-wire dominance."
Brown joined Orangebloods.com (he has an ownership stake in the site) in August 2008 after a two-decade career as a newspaper reporter for the Associated Press and The Dallas Morning News. With the Big 12's television contract negotiation scheduled for 2011, Brown said he sensed that some conference shifting might be in the offing. "There was talk at the BCS meetings earlier this year that the Pac-10 might want to do a non-conference football scheduling alliance with the Big 12," Brown said. "The Pac-10 also had a major TV deal with Fox up for renegotiation in 2011. The more I looked into it, the more I found. I think I was looking in the right place at the right time and was able to build my base of sources as the story went on. I literally did nothing else for 12 days except report this story, including miss time with my family and my radio show (Brown co-hosts a daily sports show on an FM station in Austin)."
From the time the story broke until the day after the Big 12 was saved, Brown appeared on ESPN seven times and did 70 radio interviews. His site now has 10,760 subscribers, up seven percent from the 10,050 subscribers at the time of his first realignment story. Brown said the site has surpassed Alabama's site as the No. 1 team site on the Rivals.com network. The story played out in the social media space as much as anywhere, with reporters and fans checking Twitter (especially Brown's account) and Facebook for updates. Said Thamel: "I remember vividly twice being on planes and the second they landed Googling: 'Chip Brown Twitter' to call up his feed immediately. So, yeah, I checked it a lot. The weird thing about this story, like a few other things this year, is that it was the first of its kind to play out on Twitter. It was fascinating, scary and nerve-wracking."
Part of the nerves for Brown was that ESPN reporting occasionally contradicted Brown's, including when the network reported on June 14 that the Big 12 was falling apart. (ESPN declined to discuss its news-gathering efforts for this story but praised Brown's work.) "I was initially worried on June 14 that [reporter] Joe Schad might have had an executive at ESPN telling him the effort to save the Big 12 was doomed because I knew ABC/ESPN was one of the players providing assurances to Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe that the conference could be saved," Brown said. "But I made a couple calls to my sources, and they told me the train was still on the tracks, so I put out a Twitter message saying I wasn't backing off my story."
With some contending that Brown was merely an agent of the Texas athletic department, SI.com asked the reporter to respond to the charge that Texas merely used him as a public microphone for its message and to advance its agenda.
"The people at Texas know that's not true," Brown said. "Even though I cover Texas, some of the people I had a great relationship with when I was at The Dallas Morning News were unsure about my move to Orangebloods.com. My phone calls got returned less frequently or not at all. I couldn't get a football credential until I agreed to do a Big 12 roundup for our national Rivals.com site. I still can't get a basketball credential. I have contacts across the Big 12 from covering the league for two decades. I get that the name of our Web site would lead everyone to believe we were having coffee with [Texas athletic director] DeLoss Dodds and [Texas president] Bill Powers each morning, but I never talked to them once during this whole process. They are still turning down my interview requests to come on the radio now that things have cooled down.
"I think I made the people at Texas totally uncomfortable through this whole thing, to be honest. They are incredibly controlling about information, almost paranoid. So the thought that someone at UT would use me to further their agenda is almost laughable."
At one point during the story, Brown reported that the Big 12 was dead. He stands by that reporting, saying that it was correct at the time. "I was told repeatedly by my sources that Texas was telling others in the league who I trusted that if Nebraska left for the Big Ten, Texas considered the league dead and would accept its invitation to the Pac-10," he said. "Powers and Dodds even gathered up the UT coaches on June 9 and told them they did everything they could to save the Big 12 but were unsuccessful. So when I went on SportsCenter that day, the Big 12 did appear to be dead. I will stand behind that reporting."
Thamel believes that part of Orangebloods.com's success on the story -- in addition to Brown's reporting -- is that college sports fans and athletic officials were early adopters of the web. "Virtually every college commitment story -- Joe Jones picks the Gators over the Seminoles -- is broken on a site like Chip's," Thamel said. "So while a story of this grand nature hasn't been dominated by a fan site, we're all used to reporters from those sites getting their share.
"I can vividly recall talking to ADs and commissioners off the record through this whole process and, by the end of this, they were saying Orangebloods as easily they would have said The New York Times, SI or ESPN. Administrators are all fluent in it because there's a site like Chip's covering every team. I don't think anyone who has covered college football the past 10 years, especially in that region, was surprised Chip was breaking this story. He's a dogged reporter, and a real good guy, for the record."
ESPN's World Cup coverage deserves a column of its own and it will get one in the future. But we offer here some snap judgments (underline snap) based on the first 12 days of coverage. On the whole, the tonnage has been excellent and ESPN's choice of game announcers nothing short of spectacular (Of course, we suggested using international announcers such as Martin Tyler years ago, but ESPN usually takes a couple of years to incorporate my advice). The network is using the world feed so you can't get on them for a lack of crowd shots. Game announcer Ian Darke and studio host Bob Ley are my early favorites for the Golden Mic, and as I've tweeted, Alexi Lalas' flag-waving act and disdain for other countries becomes tiresome quickly. Thus, the ratings:
Title Contenders: Ian Darke, Chris Fowler, Adrian Healey, Jürgen Klinsmann, Roberto Martinez, Robbie Mustoe, Jeremy Schaap, Martin Tyler, Derek Rae, JP Dellacamera (radio), Kyle Martino (radio).
Knockout Round: Glenn Davis (radio), Ross Dyer, Efan Ekoku, John Harkes, Ally McHoist , Steve McManaman, Shep Messing (radio), Mike Tirico, Tommy Smyth (radio).
Out in the Group Stage: Ruud Gullit and Alexi Lalas.