February Media Power List
Baseball writer Rob Neyer makes a bold move from ESPN to SB Nation
The NBA is poised for its best televison ratings season in years
Should reporters endorse products? The debate continues
1. Rob Neyer -- SB Nation: Arguably the Internet's most influential baseball voice -- the writer Jonah Keri referred to him as a "gateway drug" to baseball on the web -- Neyer left ESPN after 15 years to become the national baseball editor for the sports blog and community site SB Nation.
In his new position he will continue to write, as well as shape his new employer's baseball coverage. "One of my absolute favorite things about blogging at ESPN.com was the opportunity to turn my readers onto excellent writing they might not otherwise have seen," Neyer said in an e-mail interview. "I don't have any plans to stop doing that... I can tell you that 15 years is a long time in one place, at least for me. I'm excited about the vitality I've felt since my first day at SB Nation. I can also tell you that everyone in the company has made me feel incredibly welcome, and that's been immensely gratifying."
Asked about the effort ESPN made to keep him, Neyer said, "Let's just say that in the course of our negotiations for a new contract, I found that ESPN's offer simply was not competitive, in a variety of ways, with SB Nation's."
It is an interesting gamble for Neyer and an experiment worth watching on whether a popular sports writer can transfer his or her ESPN-built audience to a smaller destination. How much concern did Neyer have regarding the loss of audience, and specifically, ESPN's ability to expose his work on multiple platforms?
"Frankly, it was a concern," Neyer said. "When you're in our line of work, you're supposed to build your "brand," which sounds a little ridiculous but essentially just means making as many people as possible aware that you exist and can [ideally] produce good work, consistently," Neyer said. "One way to do that is to get on TV, but I was never able to cadge more than one short spot per week on ESPNews' Hot List. I enjoyed that for a few years, but when Brian Kenny left ESPNews it just wasn't the same, and I had a hard time justifying taking a couple of hours out of my writing day to do something that wasn't much fun. Another way is radio, but aside from a late-night weekend slot, with the great Bob Valvano, I should add, I wasn't able to really break through there, either.
"I'm not blaming ESPN. And I've been blessed with dozens of radio hosts around the country who are kind enough to have me on the air regularly. But in terms of ESPN's various platforms, I was either underutilized or under-talented (you choose). I will most especially miss ESPN's promotional opportunities when my next book is published ... Except since I started blogging a few years ago, I've barely had time to think about writing another book. Let alone actually writing one."
2. NBA ratings: When your All-Star Game rises 37 percent in the ratings from the previous year (TNT drew 9.1 million viewers for its broadcast, up from 6.9 million in 2010) even Charlie Sheen would concede that you're winning. According to the fine folks at the Sports Business Daily, ESPN's NBA ratings are up 24 percent through its 54 games this season (The broadcasts are averaging 2.0 million viewers per telecast).
TNT is averaging 2.4 million viewers for its NBA coverage (after 40 games), which is up 30 percent from last year. SBD says TNT is on track for its best NBA regular season ever. The network's previous best through the same point of the regular season was 1.885 million viewers during 1995-96 season. Earlier this month USA Today took a look at some potential reasons for the uptick.
3. Poynter Institute: Meet the new ombudsmen, not exactly the same as the old ombudsman. The journalism institute has been hired to review ESPN content across all platforms and publicly comment on ESPN's efforts. Faculty members (there are three assigned to ESPN) will post monthly columns (and other pieces as issues arise) on ESPN.com. This partnership offers great potential given Poynter's journalistic bona fides and the caliber of its faculty.
What remains unanswered is how an organization with little sports background handles sport-specific issues that arise within Bristol Land. Click here for an SI.com Q&A with Poynter president Karen Dunlap and ethics head Kelly McBride, the faculty member charged with writing the initial critiques.
4. Jay Bilas -- ESPN: With a mix of acute observations, sarcasm and mockery of his colleagues, Bilas has become one of the most popular sports media members on Twitter since joining last month. His feed has already surpassed 30,000 followers.
The college basketball analyst says his wife, Wendy, convinced him to take the plunge. "I looked at Twitter as being the world's stream of consciousness of thoughts better left unexpressed," Bilas said. " She said it's the way people are communicating, and I need to give it a try. I just think she is tired of having to listen to my rants and wanted others to share in her considerable pain... I am really just putting down some of the things I would say to my friends, without my usual emphasis on the profane. I haven't really thought about a philosophy. I'm not Kant or Descartes, though I feel I was a better weakside rebounder than either."
Bilas spends considerable time on his feed mocking colleagues Digger Phelps and Bill Raftery. Are they following what Bilas is saying about them?
"In matters of technology, Digger and Raftery are just slithering out of the primordial ooze, fascinated by anything shiny," Bilas said. "Neither Raftery nor Digger ever uses a computer or e-mail. Actually, I am getting questions about when Bob Knight will get into Twitter. He probably doesn't need 140 characters to get his points across. I am guessing that four characters at a time will do."
5. Jack Cristil -- Mississippi State radio network: Few sports broadcasting figures are as beloved in a community as a longtime college basketball or football voice. The 85-year-old Cristil called football and basketball games for Mississippi State for 58 years before ending his career last month. As the Jackson Clarion Ledger reported, his tenure spanned 12 football coaches and eight basketball coaches. The newspaper has some great stuff on Cristil here. This tribute from ESPN.com's Chris Low is also quite lovely.
6. Justine Gubar, Colleen Dominguez -- ESPN:
I'd encourage all to watch this terrific Outside The Lines piece (produced by Gubar and reported by Dominguez and Gubar) on the life and death of LPGA golfer Erica Blasberg, who committed suicide last May at age 25. It's thoughtfully done and Dominguez's interview with Blasberg's father, Mel, is compelling video, given how blunt Mel Blasberg is a subject. Gubar and Dominguez reported the story for seven months, including trips to Dubai, Las Vegas and Portland.
7. Todd Fritz, Seton O'Connor, Paul Pabst -- The Dan Patrick Show: Radio producers and show bookers are the underappreciated stars of sports-talk radio. After Pabst, the executive producer for Patrick's radio show, saw a TMZ item on Charlie Sheen speaking to the UCLA baseball team, he decided to text Sheen (whose cell phone had had kept from a 2009 appearance on the show) to see if the actor would come on. The result was a pair of interviews that launched an endless news cycle on Sheen.
The actor watched his first interview on DirecTV and later called into to the show for a second 10-minute interview. "When Charlie called in [on Feb. 14], we weren't planning in delving too much into the CBS stuff or his personal life," Pabst said. "We knew it could come up, and that Charlie would probably take us there on his own, which he did."
(Obviously, The Dan Patrick Show has a connection with SI and I've met Pabst, Fritz (who books most of the guests for Patrick's show) and O'Connor (the show's director of operations. Longtime SI.com editor Andrew Perloff is also one of Patrick's on-air staffers. I think Patrick's behind-the-scenes people are particularly talented, but you should definitely judge this item knowing it's from someone who shares a masthead with Patrick. )
Pabst declined to answer when asked about putting someone on the air who could potentially be in the middle of a crisis. The subject of whether Sheen is being exploited or enabled by the media is an interesting debate, one that prominent writers and news organizations are starting to debate.I'd argue by any metric Sheen remains of interest to the public. There is a co-dependent relationship between the media, the subject and a public that remains voraciously interested in this story. As for the Patrick show, it might never do an interview again with more news currency.
"We've had major sports stories that have come from our show, but this was different," Pabst said. "Just about every news and entertainment outlet played clips of the interview. I saw the interview mentioned by media in Australia, Germany, Japan and other places."
8. Chris Broussard -- ESPN: I enjoy my weekly dialogue with ESPN p.r. people on proper attribution for stories, which we all agree is an old-school journalism precept that should be maintained in a 3.0 world. So props to Broussard, who appeared as a guest on the Colin Cowherd show after the news broke that Carmelo Anthony had been dealt to the Knicks. As Cowherd proceeded to praise Broussard for breaking the story, Broussard dropped the proper info: The Denver Post had it first. "The Denver Post actually had the story up," Broussard told Cowherd. "They did not have the complete trade but they had it was done."
Sure, I know that most readers don't care about scoops the way the media does, and I agree people in our profession probably make too much of it, but hard work deserves proper and accurate credit.
9. Don Cherry -- CBC's Hockey Night in Canada: There's no American equivalent for Cherry, a sports media star (arguably his country's biggest) who turned 77 on Feb. 5. The hockey analyst recently agreed to an extension with the CBC, and will continue to appear on his iconic "Coach's Corner" segment through the end of the 2012 season.
There are plenty who think Cherry's act is outdated after 32 years with HNIC, and he recently made news in the States with a rant against Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. I've always found Cherry entertaining -- even when he's misguided -- but I'm sure part of that is I'm not as exposed regularly to him the way my friends in the Canadian press are.
I also have a fondness for 70something sports broadcaster, be it Cherry, Brent Musburger or Dick Enberg, who have beaten the odds and survived the ageism that we often see in the profession. Perhaps one day we'll see a 70something women working on-air in sports television. That will be a momentous thing indeed.
10. Media endorsements: In a scathing piece on Poynter's website after news broke that Nike had been paying a group of ESPN on-air talent to serve as emcees, the former New York Times writer David Cay Johnston did not mince words: "The payments that Disney lets some of its ESPN on-air reporters take can be described in one word: corrupt... What if Citibank paid the Wall Street Journal's David Wessel? The Patton Boggs lobbying firm paid ABC's Jake Tapper? PBS Newshour's Paul Solmon by Moody's? Their unassailable work would no longer be trustworthy.
"Indeed, imagine that Richard Sandomir, the NYTimes sports reporter who broke this story, was being secretly paid by Fox Sports and that news broke right after his piece on the secret payments to ESPN reporters was published. Oh, the howls we could expect from [ESPN spokesperson] Mr. Krulewitz, whose employer competes with Fox to air games."
ESPN does not have a formal policy regarding its talent endorsing commercial products. The network has long said that it evaluates each of the requests on an individual basis and makes a determination on it. It is in the process of asking on-air staffers to declare outside contracts, likely a result of the company not knowing about Chris Fowler's, Kirk Herbstreit's and Lee Corso's paid gigs for Nike. I have little doubt there are other on-air talent at ESPN and other networks who have been hired by similar companies for similar gigs.
In his piece (which also included Erin Andrews, who has a contract with Reebok to endorse athletic apparel) Johnson asked "what distinctions does the network and other networks draw between "reporters" and "personalities" who appear side-by-side covering the same games, the same events, the teams, all influencing public perceptions? And what would be the rationale for any such differences, if they exist, among its on-air talents?"
That's a good question. Part of problem with the case-by-case endorsement policy is that it sends mixed messages to the viewer (not to mention sets up a star system among employees). ESPN's most-well known entity is Chris Berman, who sells the soap for plenty of places. That's fine, but ESPN also wants us to believe he's a journalist or produces journalism (certainly on its NFL draft coverage).
Same with Andrews. I've previously written and believe it to be true that ESPN executives, especially those on the newsgathering side, hate hearing charges that the network shows favoritism toward athletes. But what should its audience think when one of its well-known talents is hawking Reebok alongside the Manning brothers.
Fowler and Herbstreit are two of the most thoughtful voices on college football. But it's disturbing to know that they were sharing the same employer (Nike) as some of the coaches they comment on. As McBride recently told the Oregonian ("Journalists can review products. But they can't take money from a company to endorse them.")
I asked spokesman Josh Krulewitz if anything had changed in ESPN's endorsement policy since the news broke involving the College GameDay staffers. "We are in process of reviewing all matters relating to endorsements and our commentators," he said.
That sounds like a wise step and something Poynter will likely weigh in on early in its tenure.