Game of Clones: SportsCenter vs. Fox Sports 1; Ware's break
Media Circus (Contd.)
Of all the battles to come between Fox Sports 1 and ESPN — and let's hope it's as intense as the Starks and Lannisters — one of the most delicious prospects is whether Fox Sports can siphon viewers away from ESPN's flagship program.
"There is no question they want to provide an alternative SportsCenter," ESPN's John Skipper told SI.com last week, when asked about the upcoming Fox Sports 1 challenge. "Our only reaction can be to try to make SportsCenter better. There is an upside benefit and we are not blowing smoke about it. It can make us better."
"The general reaction has been intrigue," said an ESPN-er who has hosted SportsCenter. "We're all competitive, especially when it comes to something like this and many of us are curious to see how and if they can field a product comparable to SportsCenter. I know it's fashionable by some to be critical of SportsCenter but many people here work hard on the air and behind the scenes to stay current, deliver quality highlights and compelling stories. It's not as easy as some presume. If that were the case, there would've been long-term competition in the past. This is not just about [Fox's] opening show. This is six months from that and a year from that. I guarantee it will make us better."
When it launches Aug. 17, Fox Sports 1 will debut Fox Sports Live, a three-hour news and highlight program from Los Angeles beginning at 11:00 p.m. ET. Fox Sports executives say they have a rough idea of the format, rundown and structure but have offered little additional specifics. No broadcasters have been hired yet.
"You want to make sure you give people at 11 p.m. what they need, which is highlights," said Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks. "It will be a news-based show. What makes our pregame show or NASCAR coverage different than everybody else's is the idea we do try to have fun. Part of what we want to do is bring people things that are interesting and not what somebody deems to be news. We are all on Twitter all day long, we talk to friends all day. What might be the most interesting topic of the day might not be a news story so how do you structure a show to take advantage of that?"
Obviously, Fox must provide highlights but if they want to differentiate themselves from ESPN they should think seriously about niche areas such as sports analytics and fantasy sports. They would also be wise to forgo ESPN's obsession with debate, which too often comes off like amateur hour at the Chuckle Hut.
Fox Sports Live will broadcast from the Fox NFL Sunday studio and an additional stage now used for the Fox Soccer Channel. Fox is also building a 24/7 sports news operation on the fifth floor of The Fox Network Center in Los Angeles, approximately 150 feet from the offices of Shanks and co-president Randy Freer. "SportsCenter is a tremendous franchise and we have the utmost respect for the people who work on the show and run the show, especially John Skipper," Shanks said, sounding like a UN ambassador.
How does ESPN plan to raise the bar on SportsCenter? First, it is moving the operation into a 190,000 square-foot, state-of the-art building (Digital Center 2). It will be the biggest on the ESPN campus. During its upfront presentation for advertisers and media buyers May 14, ESPN plans to highlight changes to the show including new sets and new graphics. Said Skipper: "We will sharpen up our game in order to compete."
"Our new set, graphics package and presentation looks so impressive and intimidating that our focus for the next year probably needs to be inward," added another SportsCenter anchor. "As an anchor it's very exciting to me. It will look nothing like the current SportsCenter. Having a news gathering competitor will be good for us. Our focus and drive is admirable with the amount of content we churn out daily, but it's always good to see how somebody else landscapes and to be pushed. MLB Network made an already excellent Baseball Tonight brand even stronger."
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
1. ESPN Sunday Night Baseball has had a revolving cast of characters over the last three years, from replacing the Jon Miller-Joe Morgan partnership to the additions of former managers Bobby Valentine and Terry Francona. Longtime studio host John Kruk is the latest addition -- he'll team with game-caller Dan Shulman and analyst Orel Hershiser this season. Why will this group have staying power?
"I had Joe Morgan in 2010, Bobby Valentine in '11, Terry Francona last year in '12, and now John," Hershiser said. "What John brings to the booth is a piece of almost all those guys. This might not be a team where next year I have a different partner. John and I can do this for a long, long time to come. I view him more as a peer, not somebody who is coming from another perspective like a manager or a Hall of Fame broadcaster like Joe. I think the debate is going to be clearer this year, us coming from the same page almost like teammates. That will be interesting to the viewer."
As opposed to football or basketball where the three-person booth can too often be cluttered for viewers, baseball's rhythms offer more time for more voices. (I still prefer a two-person booth.) All three of these broadcasters are unselfish on-air and this group has a chance to be good.
"I like the dynamic of having a hitter and a pitcher," Shulman said. "It's very obvious to people that John and Orel are different people and look at a lot of things differently. I think they'll have some debate and differences of opinion. I'm looking forward to see where it goes."
1a. Kruk spoke with SI.com last December about the move from the studio to the booth.
1b. ESPN said it will rotate its Wednesday Night Baseball broadcast booth, with Sean McDonough getting many of the lead announcer assignments. Commentators will be assigned "based on a relevant connection to the game."
1c. ESPN's new Monday Night Baseball crew -- Dave O'Brien, Rick Sutcliffe, Aaron Boone and reporter Tim Kurkjian -- debuts opening day with the Yankees-Red Sox game.
1d. Speaking of Valentine, SportsNet New York (SNY) announced they have hired the former manager for pregame and postgame Mets coverage. Valentine is expected to make 12 to 15 appearances during the season. Earlier this year, he signed on to co-host a sports-talk show on NBC Sports Radio.
1e. Shulman offered some interesting thoughts on how much analytics should be used in a baseball broadcast: "I don't think that many people are that deep into the new age analytics," Shulman said. "If you go back 15 years, nobody was even talking about on-base percentage, and now OPS is fairly common now. So things are moving. They're just not maybe moving that the [way] sabermetricians would like. In terms of my personal viewpoint, I think some of those things are applicable and useful, and I think some of those things are better off for columns on dot com because you can get into them a little bit more.
"I believe that numbers can tell a story, but I also believe if I sit there and watch a game with Orel and John, that the eye test from the experts tells a story as well. I don't get too caught up in the new age analytics. I think there are intangibles. I believe in intangibles, in chemistry, some guys performing better in certain situations than other guys. I defer to Orel and John's expertise in those areas as well. I do believe they have a use, but it's just like an organization. You can be all Moneyball or you can be all scouting or you can be some combination of the two. I think both have a place. I think my personal preference is to dip my toe in the water a little bit but not delve too deeply into those during a telecast."
1f. Tim McCarver will end his long run as a baseball analyst for Fox Sports upon the conclusion of this season's World Series. The 71-year-old analyst said following the conclusion of this year's World Series, he planned to travel to Italy, take cooking classes, read as much as he could and learn more about wine, one of his passions. Interestingly, he also said he wasn't totally done with baseball so don't be surprised if he works some games for a regional network in the future. Here's the piece I wrote after the announcement.
2. The image of a young athlete in pain is difficult to watch and television viewers have rarely seen as severe an image as Louisville's Kevin Ware breaking his leg Sunday during the first half of Louisville's 85-63 win over Duke. It was an unexpected news story for CBS Sports, filled with production pressure, and I thought they handled it well. The production quickly moved off the video of the play (there were only two replays) to tell the surrounding story: fans, teammates and coaches crying, opponents reacting with horror. CBS cameras followed Ware being removed from the arena and did so with proper distance. The network opted -- smartly -- to stay with the scene rather than go to commercial. (Many disagreed with that decision, including ESPN's Bill Simmons).
Game announcer Jim Nantz is very good in situations involving solemnity and expressed the proper tone given the images provided by his director. "I don't know in basketball if I have ever seen one like that," Nantz said. Replied analyst Clark Kellogg: "I know I haven't...This is totally uncharted territory for everybody in building, for these players, for us." Reporter Tracy Wolfson was particularly impressive. She reported quickly Ware had broken his leg, updated viewers often and conducted a strong postgame interview with Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Here was the AP recap of CBS's coverage.
2a. CBS president Sean McManus said that viewers should not expect a replay of Ware's injury during next week's coverage. "I do not see any reason why it should be shown again. I think if we did end up showing it for any reason, I think we would do is what CNN and some other outlets have done. And we have not even had that this discussion but on the top of my mind, we would blur it out. But, again, I would not expect to see footage of the leg breaking on CBS in the future."
3. Last week, Grantland.com and YouTube streamed NCAA Tournament talk from the Los Angeles home of Simmons. The conversation included Simmons, analyst Jalen Rose, Grantland writer Rembert Browne and frequent BS Report co-host Joe House. The notion was to drive an audience to a second screen (smartphones, tablets or a computer) during the CBS/Turner coverage. It was a smart idea and others are going to copy it. As Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand observed: "What's to stop Turner's Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley from putting on their own online halftime show around the NBA Finals, even though the games are on ABC? Or how about NBC firing up its 30 Rock studio to have Dan Patrick, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison analyze ESPN's Monday Night Football games online, starting with a couple of minutes left in the first half?"
Ourand is correct and Skipper confirmed ESPN would be experimenting further with programming the second screen as a companion to television.
"Everyone is trying to figure out second screen mechanisms and we have done more than anyone to be around the game even if we don't have it," Skipper said. "I didn't see anyone unhappy about [the Grantland programming], but we don't spend a whole lot of time gnashing our teeth about someone's unhappiness. Look, everyone else is going to do it. We happen to have more live product than anyone so as they say: What is good for the goose is good for the gander."
3b. The CBS/Turner coverage of the tournament was averaging 9.4 million total viewers as of Sunday morning, up nine percent from last year's 8.6 million viewers and tied with 1994 as the highest average for the NCAA Tournament through the Saturday regional round.
4. ESPN and the WNBA extended their rights agreement six years through the 2022 season, with sources telling Sports Business Daily the deal is worth $12 million per year, which amounts to about $1 million per WNBA team. The move is timed with the network's aggressive marketing campaign of soon-to-be-WNBA picks Elena Delle Donne (Delaware), Skylar Diggins (Notre Dame) and Brittney Griner (Baylor). Given the popularity of those players, ESPN will air the WNBA Draft for the first time in primetime April 15 at 8 p.m. ET. They also added an ESPN2 Memorial Day doubleheader May 27 that will feature the teams (Phoenix, Tulsa and Chicago) expected to draft Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins. Up to 30 WNBA games will air yearly on ESPN networks, including the postseason and All-Star game.
The ratings for the league are not strong -- a 0.2 rating or around 260,000 viewers per game -- but ESPN did get a big number for Game 2 of the WNBA finals last year. Its 778,000 viewers made it the most-watched WNBA playoff game on the network since 1999. Skipper believes the numbers will go up with the infusion of this draft group. "We think this a propitious moment," Skipper said. "You have three very visible women and they are visible not just as players...Also, the quality of the league is good enough. I don't mean just good enough. I mean it is good enough in terms of how good the women are now. We think if we get people to watch, the numbers will go up. I said we are happy. I didn't say we are satisfied. We will market it and we expect it to go up."
5. Watching ESPN's pre-match coverage last week from Azteca Stadium in Mexico City prior to its broadcast of the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier, I was struck yet again by how good ESPN can be when it stays away from its bloviating Baylessian tendencies. It was a broadcast for adults, led by host Bob Ley who pushed his analysts into interesting places for a game of significance. ESPN had roughly 70 staffers there and here's hoping all of them got internal praise.
"During the pre-production process, the production team and announcers had several discussions of what the most important topics would be: rivalry, Azteca [Mexico's national stadium, where the game took place], the missing players, goalkeeping and impact of Mexican-American players," said Joe Rodriguez, who produced the prematch, halftime and postmatch studio shows. "At the same time I felt that historic events were going to be key to the show. I also wanted to make sure that we covered Mexico the same way we were covering the U.S. or at least very close and as objective as possible. You have to take into account that you're representing the whole country and not just a region. In addition you have a growing number of Mexican-Americans that are fans of Mexico tuning in. So I wanted to make sure we were inclusive to them. In the simplest terms, I wanted to make sure that we conveyed to the viewer a sensation of a big game feel and make them aware that not only it was a very important game for them, but also a huge game for us."
5a. The World Cup qualifying match between Mexico and the U.S. was watched by an average of 2.385 million viewers, making it the most-watched World Cup qualifying match or international friendly telecast on an ESPN network. The previous World Cup qualifying record on ESPN was U.S. vs. Mexico in February 2009 which drew an average of 1.191 million viewers.
6. The search for the next ESPN ombudsman has reached the latter stages. "The search is in the interview stage and we intend to conclude the process in April," an ESPN spokesperson said. The next ombudsman -- the company's fifth -- will be an individual as opposed to an organization such as the Poynter Institute, which concluded its 18-month run in November 2012. ESPN executive editor John Walsh and ESPN.com Editor-in-Chief Patrick Steigman are the point people in the search.
7. Among the memorable sports pieces this week:
• Paula Lavigne of ESPN's Outside The Lines -- an ace regarding computer-assisted reporting -- had a well-reported piece on athlete charities not measuring up.
• Sensational piece by GQ's Steve Marsh on the NBA's new style wars.
• Strong work by David Waldstein of the New York Times on how Alex Rodriguez's contract is killing the Yankees.
• SI's Mallory Rubin paired Game of Thrones clans with MLB teams.
•Michael Davies and Roger Bennett had a sitdown with Leyton Orient owner and boxing promoter Barry Hearn.
•A non-sports piece all should take note of: Boston Globe photo blog The Big Picture had a stunning gallery of newly-discovered photos from Vietnam shot by a U.S. solider in 1968-69.
8. Body language isn't always the best indicator of on-air chemistry, but watching Greg Anthony and Doug Gottlieb interact this weekend on the CBS NCAA Tournament studio show reminded me of the warmth between North Korea and the U.S. Obviously, Gottlieb's ham-handed diversity joke last Thursday night was brutal and he should buy Charles Barkley a gift for coming to his defense on camera to help quell the story. But the longterm issue is how Gottlieb fits stylistically with others on the set. When it comes to breaking down college basketball, Gottlieb is excellent. He lives the sport, he's clearly prepared and he can deliver serious X's and O's commentary. As far as personality goes, he gets himself in trouble when he channels his inner-Bayless with over-the-top brazenness.
"He's an extreme personality and that rubbed some people the wrong way," said an ESPN staffer who worked with Gottlieb. "There are others who really liked him. He definitely had a rep of looking out for himself -- consequences be damned. Some didn't like him because he'd make someone look stupid on the air by providing much stronger analysis or disagreeing with them. Doug does the work. Not every ESPN person does and Doug would expose that."
8a. On Monday I asked McManus how he would evaluate the chemistry of his studio group. "That's a good question. I'm sure you are referring to Doug because the only change this year was Doug Gottlieb. Listen, there has been a lot of discussion about it. Doug is a man of very strong opinions and any time you inject someone with strong opinions into a studio show that is established, you will get some fireworks and some interesting moments. But I think if you look at what Doug has said and how the other guys have played off what he has said, I think he has added an element to the studio show that we did not have last year. As you know it always takes time for studio analysts to become comfortable with each other. I think they were infinitely more comfortable Sunday afternoon than when they first went into the studio together on Thursday. It s evolving and I think it is getting better and better. I think the perspective Doug gives has added to the studio presentation."
8b. ESPN college football analyst Mark May called for Gottlieb to be canned for his comments -- a significant overreaction -- but of interest here was May being so public about a former ESPN colleague. The House of Bristol, as many ESPN staffers know, is very touchy about social media criticism of its own people ("At all times, exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for colleagues, business associates and fans," reads ESPN's social media guidelines). But there is no written provision preventing ESPN staffers from blasting away at competitors.
9. As first reported by SI.com March 20, ESPN formally re-signed Rick Reilly to a multi-year contract extension last week. He joined ESPN in 2008 after 23 years at Sports Illustrated. The network said he will continue to write columns for ESPN.com and contribute television essays to ESPN's Monday Night Football and other major events. Why did ESPN bring Reilly back? The biggest reason is the president of the company is a major believer in his talent.
"When we brought Rick over from Sports Illustrated, the emphasis was all on the competition from Sports Illustrated and the size of the contract," Skipper said. "What the emphasis needs to be on now for us is the quality he provides. What he does on Monday Night Football for us really works. What he does for us at The Masters and the U.S. Open [golf] works. He is still writing very good columns so we wanted to retain him. We think what he provides for us is valuable."
10. Former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine filed the initial paperwork in a defamation lawsuit against ESPN. In the court paperwork, according to the Associated Press, Fine indicated he'll sue for defamation and seek undefined damage.
10a. CBS Sports Network will air Masters on The Range, a live show from the tournament practice range of Augusta National Golf Course beginning on the Monday (April 8) before the tournament through the final Sunday. Also, for the first time ever, CBS Sports Network will replay CBS's coverage of the third and final rounds of the Masters immediately following the conclusion of its coverage.