Ray Lewis has joined another team: ESPN.
SI.com first reported on Jan. 3 that Lewis was close to signing with ESPN, and Tuesday at a launch event in New York City for a new ESPN Films documentary series, ESPN president John Skipper confirmed the hire when asked how comfortable he was with the possibility of Lewis as an NFL analyst. The Ravens linebacker will have a significant role next fall as an NFL analyst on the network's Monday Night Countdown program and will also appear on Sunday NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. The formal announcement is expected to come sometime in the next two weeks because the contract is still not officially signed, and neither ESPN nor Lewis is pressing for an announcement.
"We had an opportunity last fall to get Ray and we debated internally some of the history," Skipper told SI.com. "Obviously, we decided we were comfortable with it. We must have because we did it. I will tell you we did remind ourselves of some of the issues. We sort of decided that the NFL welcomed him back into the fold and the fans welcomed him back into the fold. I think we are fine with second chances and we think he will make great television. Ultimately, we were comfortable with it."
One of Lewis' main requirements was flexibility in his schedule so he could attend the games of his son, Ray Lewis III, who will be a freshman running back/defensive back next season at his father's alma mater, the University of Miami. Lewis will likely work a number of Sundays in Bristol, Conn., depending on his personal schedule. He is not expected to appear regularly on ESPN's airwaves until the start of next season.
When SI.com interviewed executives at CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports and The NFL Network in December to find out who was on their watch lists among current NFL players, Lewis ranked very high.
"Ray Lewis has an intensity about him and a way of communicating that is very infectious," CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said at the time. "He is a bigger-than-life personality, very articulate and [has] an incredible passion for the game. If Ray Lewis decided to take that same passion and put it into a broadcasting career, I think he would be a terrific studio analyst or, I imagine, game analyst, too."
The Noise Report
1. ESPN's 30 for 30 sports documentary series represents the company at its creative best, and its upcoming Nine for IX initiative featuring nine sports films told through the lens of female filmmakers looks terrific. At a luncheon in New York featuring ESPN management, on-air talent such as Hannah Storm and Jemele Hill, and a number of acclaimed female documentarians, ESPN Films revealed the details (and showed footage) from some of the upcoming docs.
The subjects include longtime Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt (Pat XO); distance-running legend Mary Decker (Runner); tennis champion Venus Williams (Venus VS.); basketball icon Sheryl Swoopes (Swoopes); the late free diver Audrey Mestre (No Limits); Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt (The Diplomat); and a documentary on the struggles of female sportswriters in the 1970s and '80s (Let Them Wear Towels).
"Internally, we consider Nine for IX as a mini 30 for 30," said ESPN Films producer Libby Geist, one of the point people for the series. "When taken as a whole, we think this series will give the viewers a real sense of how women in sports have evolved over the last 40 years."
The series debuts on July 2 (likely with the Williams documentary as a tie-in to Wimbledon) and will air for nine consecutive weeks at 8 p.m. ET. Blurbs on each film and a list of the filmmakers can be found here.
2. Jon Gruden's best work at ESPN has come on Gruden's QB Camp, the engaging winter series where Gruden prods draft-eligible players with sharp questions, sarcastic remarks and an overdose of football fanaticism. This year's version features 12 college prospects (up from 10 last year), and the three non-quarterbacks in the group (Texas A&M offensive lineman Luke Joeckel, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o) could produce the most interesting television.
How did the show land Te'o? Jay Rothman, the executive behind QB Camp and the producer of Monday Night Football, said the former Notre Dame star committed before Deadspin broke the story of his fictional girlfriend. How much Lennay Kekua talk should viewers expect on QB Camp?
"We're going to be getting him post-Scouting Combine and the kid could not have been more up front for the Katie Couric interview, given the embarrassment he went through," Rothman said. "Same with his interview with Jeremy Schaap. ... I'm sure in Jon's unique way this will come up in the conversation, but Jon Gruden is not Katie Couric and he's not Jeremy Schaap. He's a football coach-turned TV analyst."
The show is filmed at Gruden's office in Tampa, Fla., and the first group of players will join Gruden at the end of February. Each show's taping usually starts at 8 a.m. and runs for six hours (which means more than five hours never makes the air). Rothman used to contact agents to get prospects (this wasn't a hard sell, given the publicity of the show and that ESPN was footing the bill), but now agents pitch him. He and Gruden scout show prospects during the NFL season. Knowing this year's quarterback class would not be as heralded as previous years, they wanted to add some non-quarterbacks. (Rothman said Gruden specifically requested Lattimore after his knee injury.)
Rothman said former participants often contact Gruden during the NFL season and he's seen Gruden interact with Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow.
"John is kind of the pied piper and takes ownership with these guys," Rothman said. "I really think this helps pacify his thirst for teaching."
The first episode of the show airs April 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Segments will also appear on SportsCenter and ESPN's NFL studio shows. Asked if there were a player he wished had done the show over its three previous years, Rothman did not hesitate: "I wish we could have done Colin Kaepernick and Christian Ponder."
2a. Skipper is confident that Gruden will be back in the MNF booth once again, despite rumblings that some NFL teams might still make coaching changes. "There were seven coaching openings, so I was 14 percent more confident every time a team hired a coach." Skipper said. "Jon has said he is committed, but every time there is an opening, I lose about an hour of sleep that night."
3. Normally, Gus Johnson would be traversing the Big Ten this time of year, a series of stops between Ann Arbor to Bloomington to East Lansing. "Instead, I'm in Madrid, London, and Manchester and maybe Munich," said Johnson, speaking on the phone from his London hotel last week. "It's been a lifestyle change."
After calling the first leg of Real Madrid-Manchester United last week, his first game as a world soccer broadcaster, I asked Johnson how he would evaluate his performance.
"I didn't have time to be nervous," he said. "I was just focused on what I needed to do to get off to a clean start. The energy in the stadium was electric. The storylines were wonderful. I felt good. I thought [analyst] Warren [Barton] and I had a good chemistry. I thought our pace was good.
"I made a couple of mistakes. I called Ryan Giggs an Englishman, and he's Welsh. I was trying to say he was one of the most decorated players in English Premier history and instead of saying that, I said he was one of the most decorated English players in history. I had a bobble there. Also, sometimes the vantage point is rough. It was a night game, Madrid is in white and you can't see the far side of the field.
"But overall, I thought it was fun and I was pleased with it. The goal is to get better, By no means do I think I am an expert yet, but given time my knowledge will grow."
One person in Johnson's corner is ESPN's Dave O'Brien, who called the World Cup for his network in 2006.
"First of all, I think it is an inspired choice," said O'Brien, who today calls ACC basketball for ESPN and is the primary radio play-by-play announcer for the Boston Red Sox. "Gus is a mainstream sports guy like me and not the first announcer I'd expect to call the World Cup. But I heard the same thing in 2006.
"There are soccer fans in the U.S. who are Premier League devotees and used to British accents on game calls. There is a perception among those fans that that group of play-by-play announcers are the only ones who can best understand the game and interpret what is happening in the match. I have always disagreed with that. As long as the matches are well done and they are broadcast well, I would not care [about] the accent or nationality of the individual calling the game.
"But I think it's a smart move to have this long of a run-up for Gus," O'Brien continued. "That will benefit him tremendously. I think much of the criticism leveled at me and ESPN was predetermined. Gus has to be true to himself. Not everyone is going to love him and that's just a fact of life when you are an American calling soccer."
4. NHL bloggers, fans and writers (who don't work for ESPN) have often criticized the network for not covering hockey as prominently as it did when it owned the television contract. Skipper said the perception that ESPN has given hockey the short end of the stick is not accurate.
"Look, I don't think it's fair," Skipper said. "I see SportsCenter every day and we cover hockey every day. We do not have a significant differential between highlights of hockey now and when we had it. The only difference is we are not there [as a rights holder]. If we were there for the playoffs, we'd be throwing to the guys calling the game. We can't do that, but we are at hockey games. We are doing hockey highlights."
5. The news that Jay Mariotti had received a freelance assignment from ESPN found many in both the mainstream media and sports blogosphere wondering why ESPN would be back in business with a figure whose most significant contribution to the network was being part of a barking chorus signifying very little. Mariotti's professional work has always been a study in absolutes; he lacked the nuance the best sports columnists of his era showed weekly. He was also disliked by many of his colleagues (I work with two at Sports Illustrated right now) and when he found himself in legal trouble, you saw the resulting schadenfreude.
When I informed a female ESPN on-air staffer this week that Mariotti was being brought back to ESPN, her response was: "Holy bleep, are you kidding me?" Other ESPN staffers I spoke with reacted in similar fashion.
"If what I've read is completely true, then I do think it's a shame," said one ESPN female staffer who asked not to be named. "Since there are many talented writers and journalists out there, why hire someone with a less-than-stellar image?"
Mariotti is of course entitled to pitch his work wherever he can and one can admire to some degree the loyalty shown by those in ESPN management who are trying to help out a friend. But the announcement was particularly frustrating given how many young writers would kill for a freelance assignment from Bristol.
There has been plenty of speculation that this represents an entrée for Mariotti to return to Around the Horn or ESPN on a regular basis. Two management sources at ESPN insisted to SI.com that Mariotti's assignment is not a re-entry into a larger role. They classified it as a one-time freelance assignment.
6. After a 23-fight run on HBO, Floyd Mayweather Jr. announced Tuesday that he has a new pay-per-view deal with Showtime and its parent company, CBS. Showtime said the deal is a revenue-sharing arrangement between Showtime PPV and Mayweather, and will enable the boxer to fight up to six times over a period of 30 months. The first event comes May 4 when Mayweather will defend his WBC welterweight title against Robert Guerrero on Showtime PPV. Mayweather has averaged more than one million pay-per-view buys per event, the highest PPV buy average of any boxer in history.
7. The NFL Network will air more than 60 hours of programming from the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, beginning Thursday. (Live coverage starts Saturday at 9 a.m. ET.) The network celebrates excess in on-air talent -- television agents should thank them for that -- and so 24 analysts, hosts and reporters will be on site, including two new hires: former NFL general managers Scott Pioli and Mike Tannenbaum. Host Rich Eisen and lead analyst Mike Mayock will be stationed in a "perspective desk" above the field for coverage of the on-field workouts. Why is this good television, you ask?
"I think a lot of folks tune in [because] they're still jonesing for football being two and a half some weeks removed from the final game being played," said NFL Network senior coordinating producer Mike Muriano. "This is insight for folks as they start really moving on to the next question, some of which fans of certain teams moved on to at the end of December: How is my team going to get better? Who is out there for the taking?"
7a. Mayock thinks Te'o will be picked around No. 20 in the first round. "I think there are two schools of thought," Mayock said. "One is most of us have made mistakes at age 21, the kid's naive, and it's embarrassing. But it shouldn't really hurt the kid because it's not like one of those major things where you say we can't have him on our team. Some other teams are going to look at him and say he lied to his father. He had a chance when he found out about what really happened, he had a chance to tell the nation, and he lied to the nation. And do you want a liar in your locker room?
"Most teams feel the former, and I know a few teams that they told me they'd be concerned about a liar in the locker room. At the end of the day, what I think happens is that up until that story became public, he had a plus, plus, plus intangible grade. Was he going to become Ray Lewis? Could he galvanize a locker room? He had a huge intangible grade that would push his on the field grade higher. I think he's lost all of that. At best, it's now going to be neutral. Just, what kind of player you are, and where can we slot you?"
7b. Mayock on whom the Chiefs will draft at No. 1: "I don't care whether it's [Alabama guard Chance] Warmack or Joeckel. Either way, I think they've got to get an offensive lineman and come back at No. 33 and prepare to go with a quarterback or wide receiver or something."
8. Michael Jordan isn't known for introspection -- or for giving reporters access -- but ESPN's Wright Thompson beautifully illuminated a middle-aged Jordan in his terrific profile that ran on ESPN.com last week. Why did Jordan choose to speak with the writer?
"I chased his people aggressively for a considerable length of time, explaining the idea and the approach," Thompson said in an email. "From the beginning, a series of connected questions about him fascinated me more so than the 'get,' and I think that came through -- that I'd been thinking about this. My first letter to his manager was frank and detailed. Then, even after they agreed, they still had to ask Michael. Maybe he was just in a good mood that day. "
(On that note, Thompson told ESPN's Schaap that Jordan had come back from a vacation the day his staff asked him about the interview.)
Thompson said he interviewed more than a dozen people for the piece. He and Jordan had never met before the story.
"I'd never been around him except for a Wizards media scrum once in Memphis," Thompson said. "I'm certain he'd never heard my name before. His people knew some of my stories, and they obviously read more as we talked."
8a. Among the other memorable pieces over the last week
? Howard Beck of TheNew York Times had a great piece on the NBA's statistical revolution.
? Deadspin's Emma Carmichael did a fabulous as-told-to with Craig Ehlo, who explained what it was like to guard (and get torched by) Jordan.
? The Washington Post had a fun travel piece on two men attempting to track down where U.S. presidents took their last breaths.
? A fantastic profile of a fantastic actress: New York Times Magazine writer Susan Dominus on Connie Britton.
? Jordan has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 50 times. Here's all of them.
9. What network will end up airing games of the Catholic basketball schools from the Big East? Skipper predicted the so-called Catholic 7 will sign with Fox, but he's hoping ESPN can still have a presence.
"I think it will be good basketball," Skipper said. "We are not in a first-position here. It's clear that Fox has established a relationship. I can't tell you that they will get a deal done but I think they will, and then we will be interested in sub-licensing."
9b. Sports Business Journal writer John Ourand reported this week that the Big East was close to finalizing deals with NBC and CBS. The deal with NBC would put football and basketball games primarily on the NBC Sports Network, with the ability to move some games to NBC. (Such added inventory is vital for the NBC Sports Network, which needs live programming outside of the NHL.)
Ourand also reported that CBS was close to renewing its package of Big East basketball games for its broadcast channel. The cost? NBC would pay close to $25 million per year over six years for the combined football/basketball rights while the CBS contract called for $2 million to $4 million per year, according to SBJ.
10. Miscellaneous: Those with SiriusXM have a pretty cool option for Sunday's Daytona 500: Driver2Crew Chatter features the in-car audio of NASCAR's top drivers, including reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, three-time champion Tony Stewart, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, pole sitter Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
10a. TNT's coverage of the 2013 NBA All-Star Game averaged 8.0 million viewers, up 13 percent over last year (7.1 million total viewers).
10b. While the NBA All-Star Game numbers were up this year, the television ratings for the league were down in the first half. Sports Business Daily ratings guru Austin Karp reported that TNT was averaging 2.1 million viewers for its games, down 26 percent from last season. ESPN's games were averaging 1.8 million viewers, flat compared to last season, and down slightly from '10-11. NBA TV's viewership was also down nine percent from last season, but up from '10-11.
10c. The MLB Network opens its spring training coverage on Saturday at noon ET with the Nationals at Mets.
10d. Jim Boeheim versus Andy Katz.
10e. Good news for writers: Grantland is hiring. As for the next evolution of the Bill Simmons-led site, Skipper said they are actively searching for original voices. "Early on in Grantland we added podcasts, and we had the shorts [short films] this year," Skipper said. "We've also made a push to identify people on television as being from Grantland. But I think the next evolution is to find more writers. We are very ambitious about doing interesting, long-form journalism and finding new voices."