Obama, Tiger Woods on College GameDay?; Fox's All-Star Game plans
Home Run Derby coverage; ESPN's drop in ratings
ESPN's College GameDay has had its share of famous celebrity pickers -- the boldfaced names includes LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, Matt Ryan, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Kenny Chesney, Lolo Jones and (infamously) Ryan Lochte -- but this season the program is eyeing two of the most famous people on the planet:
Barack Obama and Tiger Woods.
ESPN Senior Coordinating Producer Lee Fitting told SI.com this week that representatives from both the White House and Woods have reached out to express interest in appearing on the show.
"The President has expressed interest and as crazy as it sounds, he might come whenever he can fit in," said Fitting, who has produced GameDay for the last 10 years. "It sounds crazy to even talk about, I know. Tiger has also expressed interest and we have talked to his agent, Mark Steinberg. He just has to work it into his schedule. We are talking about going to Stanford for it."
Such interest speaks to the popularity of one of ESPN's strongest franchises and on the short list (along with TNT's Inside The NBA) for the best sports studio show on television. Fitting said ESPN will announce the first three weeks of GameDay locations sometime around the first week of August. The show's traveling circus usually goes to the site of the biggest game of the week. (I'd say College Station, Texas, is a near-lock for Week 3, when Alabama plays at Texas A&M on Sept. 14.)
As for tweaks to the show, Fitting said the one thing viewers should look forward to is more opinion from main set panelists Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Lee Corso.
"I want more opinion," Fitting said. "I don't want screaming. I don't want yelling. I don't want slamming the desk. That's not what our show is about. But I do want people to take a side and be passionate about it. Now, our guys on set already have good opinions. This isn't an overhaul of the show. We just want to keep strong opinions coming.
"They have as much credibility as anyone in the sport and this will be an easy conversation. Something like "Chris, Herbie, Coach, continue to be strong in your opinions and when you can, take a little more of a stand." My goal at College GameDay is to be as smart as possible, to educate the college football fan, with one agenda: Get the college football fan ready for Saturday.
GameDay has added Scott Van Pelt, David Pollack, Sam Ponder, Tom Rinaldi and Gene Wojciechowski over the past few years, additions Fitting described as "organic" for both the show and the sport of college football. The producer's biggest change will come in a couple of years. Corso, who turns 78 on Aug. 11, signed a two-year extension last year that will take him through the end of the 2013-14 season. Asked about the post-Corso era, Fitting said it depressed him just thinking about it.
"He has done more for the sport of college football over the last 20 years than almost anyone," Fitting said. "And the beauty of Coach is you see him once a week for two hours. He's not here and there, on SportsCenter or First Take and PTI. I think about it from time to time, but he is irreplaceable. Someone will take his seat but you are not going to replace Lee Corso. Just even to think about it gets me bothered."
Fitting did say that he would not bring in anyone with a similar personality to Corso and he was not wedded to a former coach. He also said he was open to a three-person main set or a five-person main set. "I like the chemistry of four people right now but if you asked me five years ago when it was Chris, Lee and Kirk, I would have said the show has to be three," Fitting said. "So who knows what will happen."
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
1. Fox airs its 15th All-Star Game broadcast (1997, 1999, 2001-'13) on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET and network executives are rooting for one result: More eyeballs. Last year's sleep-inducing 8-0 National League blowout was the lowest-rated and least-watched ASG on record, drawing an average of 10.9 million viewers and a 6.8 rating. Television executives are compensated highly to see summer in winter, so here was Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks last week when asked how troubled he was about All-Star Game ratings.
"The Mid-Summer Classic is still a jewel event of the summer," Shanks said. "At Fox Sports we look at it as a part of our total baseball business. We still have an extremely healthy regional local baseball business and very strong demand for our national business and strong demand for the All-Star Game. When you put it in context among all of the entertainment choices out there, it still completely rises to the top in the summer. Not just the All-Star Game, but baseball itself. The national game of the week on Saturday nights is winning the night against all networks in the demos. I feel that it's very healthy. I think people can take a look at ratings and ask questions about trends but overall we view our baseball business as very healthy."
Lead broadcaster Joe Buck cited the many young players in the game still unfamiliar to the audience -- a fair point -- and offered viewership might rise as the public becomes more familiar with players such as Manny Machado and Jose Fernandez. "We've had a bit of a changing of the guard and it's going to take a little time for national audiences to know who these guys are and get excited to watch them play in a game that maybe does not impact their team locally," Buck said. "That's what makes it exciting for Tim [McCarver] and me. We get to tell new stories about new blood."
1a. Buck will do a sit-down with Yankees closer Mariano Rivera at the start of the broadcast while analyst Tim McCarver, calling his record 22nd and final All-Star Game, will close the telecast with a feature on his favorite All-Star Game moments. Fox will also air a 90-second promo for its upcoming Fox Sports 1 network, which debuts on Aug. 17. Also, don't look for Buck to offer a testimonial about McCarver's career on this broadcast. That will likely be saved for the final game of the World Series. Ken Rosenthal and Erin Andrews will both report from the field during the game.
1b. McCarver is calling his 15th ASG with Buck -- a record for any broadcast team. (Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek are second with seven.) Gowdy is also second behind McCarver in All-Star games called as an analyst, with 14.
1c. Fox said there will be approximately 80 field and crowd microphones around Citi Field, including a ton of PZMs, or "pressure zone microphones," which are used to pick up the natural sounds of the game. Additional microphones will be placed near the stands, dugouts and the bases and there will be 15-to-20 microphones available for managers, coaches, umpires and players to wear during the broadcast. Fox sent a release saying it will have 25 high-definition cameras for the ASG, including three Phantom Cams that shoot at 3,000-5,000 frames per second.
2. The ambitious Nine for IX series from ESPN Films -- nine documentaries about women in sports, each directed by women filmmakers -- continues on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET with "Let Them Wear Towels." The documentary examines the obstacles (most notably equal access to the locker room) faced by the early wave of women sports journalists. Here's a clip.
Is this a great doc? No. But it's an important one. The doc is hurt by the lack of archival footage, but the content is strong (and important for those who work in the field) thanks to the voices of those who battled for equality on the front lines, including former Sports Illustrated writer Melissa Ludtke, who successfully challenged Major League Baseball after she was kept out of the New York Yankees' locker room.
Pioneering sports writers Jane Gross, Robin Herman, Lawrie Mifflin, Claire Smith (who tells a remarkable story about how Steve Garvey helped her), and Lesley Visser are also prominently featured, as is Lisa Olson, who, as a 25-year-old reporter for the Boston Herald, had to deal with some Grade-A ass-clowns in 1990, when a group of New England Patriots players sexually harassed her in their locker room by exposing their genitals and making lewd and vulgar comments. Olson left the U.S. shortly after for Australia, returned, and has since had a distinguished career, including being awarded last month with the Mary Garber Pioneer Award from Association for Women in Sports Media. (Olson declined to be interviewed for the film).
"We were asked to look at women sportswriters and there was so much and the stories were so large," said co-director Ricki Stern, who directed the film with Annie Sundberg. "We focused on what we thought was the seminal moment for women -- they were getting hired by newspapers but not able to get into the locker room where the stories were being told. That battle to get into the locker room was the moment we decided to focus on. Each of the women in our film had so many first and their interviews were so rich that they really deserved their own hour."
3. Greg Brown has been a Pirates radio and television broadcaster since 1994, which means he has never been part of a season where the club finished with a .500 or better record. (This is likely to change this year.) I was curious if the perpetual losing had impacted Brown's broadcasting style. "It really doesn't impact the game itself," said Brown, who calls games for Root Sports Pittsburgh and KDKA-FM. "You approach each game as its own story with each starting pitcher playing a lead role, and there are always plenty of sidebar stories regardless of where the Pirates sit in the standings."
Broadcasters calling a team that loses often must balance between being honest about the play in front of them with the enthusiasm many fans expect from a broadcast, especially those fans who favor a hometown broadcaster rooting for a team. How does Brown view the line?
"I have never had a problem being enthusiastic about the Pirates," said Brown. "Longtime Penguins voice and Hall of Famer Mike Lange is a great friend of mine who gave me the best advice I've ever received when I first started doing games. He said, "Always be yourself. Don't try to be someone you're not. People in this region can always spot a phony." I am generally an enthusiastic person and I certainly root for Pirates players to do well. I find it ludicrous to suggest that someone who is with a group of guys from the middle of February through early October -- and gets to know them and their families and finds most or all to be genuinely good people -- should not root for their success. I've never understood or believed that any home team announcer played it straight. Listen to any broadcast and you will hear a different tone when one of his players does something special."
4. Chris Berman is once again hosting ESPN's coverage of the Home Run Derby (July 15, 8 p.m. ET). This guarantees two things: Guttural sounds and Berman trending on Twitter throughout the broadcast for the wrong reason. The more palatable coverage will come on ESPN Radio, with Jon Sciambi and analyst Chris Singleton calling the long-ball circus with on-site studio host Marc Kestecher and reporters Peter Pascarelli and Tim Kurkjian.
ESPN has aired Home Run Derby for 21 straight years and the event is consistently the network's most-viewed regular-season baseball telecast. Last year 6.882 million viewers watched the Derby, up three percent from 2011.
4a. Analysts John Kruk and Nomar Garciaparra, and reporters Pedro Gomez and Buster Olney will be on hand for the television coverage along with the host.
4b. The producer for ESPN's Derby coverage is Scott Matthews, son of longtime top ESPN executive Loren Matthews, who passed away last March. The elder Matthews was PA announcer for the Mets from 1970 to '76, so producing this event at Citi Field will have deep meaning for the younger Matthews.
4c. MLB Network's All-Star programming includes on-field access to batting practice, player and manager interviews, and on Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET MLB Net will air the MLB All-Star Red Carpet Show, which features the All-Stars parading down Manhattan's 42nd Street. The network will also air batting practice and three-plus hours of pregame coverage leading up to Fox's coverage. MLB Net will also have the annual Triple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday night at 9 ET.
4d. Why do people continue to watch the Home Run Derby? "I think it's the power," said Kruk. "People love to see how far guys can hit baseballs. No one comes out to watch people bunt a ball; who cares about that? A lot of people can bunt, but try to hit one 500 feet like these guys, and especially without a cage. You're out there all by yourself with 40,000 or 50,000 people staring at you."
4e. Strong work last week by SportsCenter anchor Max Bretos, who conducted a bilingual interview with Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig. Bretos was royally screwed by ESPN management with a too-harsh suspension last year, so I'm happy to see him live up to the challenge for a not-so-easy live interview.
5. Some curious words here from Fox Sports Media Group's senior vice president and head of marketing Robert Gottlieb while selling the soap about Fox Sports 1 to Cynopsis.com. In an interview that highlighted the strategy and brand message of the upcoming network, Gottlieb said, "It's not about steroids, Tim Tebow and other BS that keeps getting crammed down our throat."
No sane person would argue about ESPN's ridiculous obsession with New England's third-string quarterback and its corrosive embrace debate nonsense, but those on the edit side of Fox Sports 1 have pledged they'll be creating a serious sports news unit for the new channel. (That promise comes with a big caveat emptor given journalism has not been a strong point on Fox Sports's television game coverage). Performance-enhancing drugs in athletics is a serious, important topic and an issue in every major sport Fox covers, so if Fox Sports 1 wants to be a respected editorial player, it would be wise not to think of that topic as BS, and follow the thoughtful path set by ESPN -- as well as its own lead baseball reporter -- on this issue.
6. The ESPYs are ESPN's annual orgy of self-aggrandizement and vainglory -- who could ever forget ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd sizing up Justin Bieber as "centered" and "so real" after a five-minute red carpet interview in 2011? Thankfully, the saving grace of an egomaniacal night is a good monologue (Jon Hamm is this year's host) and the promise of at least one or two touching moments, including the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Presenters include Don Cheadle, Danica Patrick, Maria Sharapova and others. The show airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.
7. Among the memorable sports pieces this week:
• The Wall Street Journal tracked down the bat boy for the famous "Pine Tar Game" between the Yankees and Royals in 1983.
• Fascinating obit of a basketball player who played a role in the beginning of the end of segregation in college sports.
•Really liked this Tommy Tomlinson piece on poker.
• Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss tweeted out this rarely-seen photo of Babe Ruth a year before he died in 1948.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•A remarkable read on freelancing in Syria for $70 per story.
•Thanks to ABC News, The Atlantic, CNN, Daily Mail (U.K.), E! News, Mashable, New Haven Register, USA Today, U-T San Diego, and others for writing about the amazing social media experience shared by my Twitter followers. It's the best thing I've ever experienced on Twitter.
8. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp crunched the numbers on how the cable sports networks did in primetime for the second quarter of 2013. The headlines: NBC Sports Network, which could use some good news, soared thanks to hockey. ESPN declined significantly, though some of that was due to lower NBA ratings as pointed out here by ESPN PR staffer Mike Soltys. However, Sports Media Watch reported that ESPN's daytime programming (6 a.m. -6 p.m.) had a 13 percent decline in household viewership from last year and daytime SportsCenter broadcasts had dropped 11 percent. Deadspin's John Koblin examined the fall, and the network's PR campaign following the ratings announcement.
8a. SportsNation, the show that launched a thousand ESPN press releases about social media buzz, continues to sink in the ratings. The show averaged 212,000 viewers in June, down from 229,000 viewers the previous month and 259,000 viewers last June. Via the TV Sports Ratings feed, SportsNation had the lowest ratings of the Males 12-24 demo this June since August 2011.
9. ESPN senior fantasy analyst Matthew Berry has written an entertaining book (at least the half I've read as of this writing) that breaks this month. Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who's Lived It celebrates the impact fantasy sports has played on our lives.
I consider the pregame show Berry appears on -- ESPN2's Fantasy Football Now -- among the best NFL pregame shows because it provides service information as opposed to an NFL yuckfest. I asked Berry in an email what he thinks is the next evolution for Fantasy sports in sports television.
"That it becomes even more ingrained in everyday programming," Berry said. "Currently, fantasy stats appear on bottom line tickers. Shows like SportsCenter or NFL Live have segments devoted to fantasy and there are a few Sunday morning shows like Fantasy Football Now...I think the future includes improving and adding to these and other offerings and making them more integrated... Knowing what a hardcore, large and passionate fan base fantasy has, there will be multiple daily fantasy shows as multiple networks compete for viewers. And finally there will be more people on TV that have my job. That is to say, they are only a fantasy sports analyst -- not a hybrid of some sort."
Asked for the person he wishes he could compete most against in a league, Berry said SiriusXM host Howard Stern. "First, just because I'm a huge fan of his," Berry said. "Fantasy is about having fun, trash talk, competition and camaraderie, and trash talk from Howard would be epic. Second, he's so bright and looks at the world in such a different way that'd it'd be fascinating to see how he would attack fantasy strategy because he's not a huge sports fan but he is highly competitive. Third, I always see part of my job to be a big promoter for fantasy sports. Howard's audience is so large and loyal that if Howard got into it and started talking about it, he'd be the greatest advocate ever."
10. Odds and Ends: Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts will be given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs on Wednesday. Last year Roberts announced she was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome), and in September received a bone marrow transplant from her sister, Sally-Ann Roberts. Heat star LeBron James will present Roberts with the award.
10a. The FINA World Championships for diving, swimming, synchronized swimming and water polo will air on both NBC and Universal Sports through Aug. 4.
10b. ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote a blog post on the network's coverage of Dwight Howard.
10c. MLB Network will air a documentary on White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson ("The Colorful Life of Ken Harrelson") Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. The hour-long special is narrated by Bob Costas.
10d. Washington D.C.-based sportscaster Dan Hellie was hired by the NFL Network to anchor its daily NFL Total Access show.
10d. The Pac-12 Network debuts a series called "Varsity Days," on July 15, highlighted by rarely-seen historical footage of Pac-10 athletes and coaches from 1952 to 1982. The series is hosted by Rick Neuheisel and will air five half-hour episodes each day at 6:30 p.m. PT.
10e. Here's ESPN's full coverage plans for golf's oldest major, The Open Championship, from Scotland's Muirfield Golf Links this week.