Scott Pioli joins NBC's Football Night in America; ESPN World Cup plans
The overwhelming popularity of the National Football League has created a new occupation for former general managers and player personnel directors:
Television sports analyst.
Networks have added the NFL's suit-and-tie crowd at a rapidly increasing rate over the past couple of years: Bill Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year, is an analyst for ESPN's SportsCenter, NFL Live and the network's draft coverage (as well as SiriusXM), and he'll soon be joined by former GMs Billy Devaney (Rams) and Phil Savage (Browns) as part of ESPN's "NFL Insiders" show that debuts on Aug. 5. The NFL Network uses former Redskins and Texans GM Charley Casserly as an insider, a job he held for CBS Sports from 2006 to 2012. Michael Lombardi held Casserly's role for four years at the NFL Network before he was returned to the NFL in a management position with the Browns. Then there is Gil Brandt, the former VP of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, who has become arguably the most famous voice on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Add Scott Pioli to that list.
NBC Sports has hired the former Chiefs general manager for its Football Night In America studio program. Pioli will appear weekly on either the FNIA studio set in New York City or at the game site of Sunday Night Football. He'll also appear every Monday on the NBC Sports Network's Pro Football Talk in segments with FNIA analyst Rodney Harrison.
Pioli said NBC Sports executives have told him they want him to be an "informationalist." He described that position as "being able to talk about experiences, tie them into what is happening currently, and attempt to educate fans and viewers about how things really work behind the scenes."
Pioli's segments will be a work in progress. On some weeks, he'll appear in-studio with analysts Tony Dungy and Harrison or with Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio and reporter Peter King. NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said he also might send Pioli to the Sunday Night Football game site, where he'd appear with host Bob Costas and analyst Hines Ward. (Pioli, whose wife, Dallas, is the daughter of Bill Parcells, will remain based in Kansas City).
"I just saw another smart football mind that gives us a different perspective that we don't have on the team right now -- a player personnel guy who has a smart way of looking at the game," said Flood. "We will try him in different areas throughout the show and it will all depend on his development. "I told Scott he'll earn his airtime."
Pioli, who SI.com named the NFL's top personnel executive/scout of the 2000s, was fired by the Chiefs last January after his teams went 23-41 in his four years. Pioli said he was contacted shortly by a number of different TV networks and NFL teams after he lost his job. Intending to show Pioli they were serious about him as a potential broadcaster, NBC Sports executive Dan Steir flew out to Kansas City in January to pitch him on the network. Pioli picked Steir up at the airport and they had a long dinner together at a local steakhouse. Then, at this year's Super Bowl in New Orleans, Flood spoke with Pioli about the prospects of him appearing on FNIA.
"I am evaluator by nature so I wanted to spend time taking it all in to make a thoughtful decision," said Pioli, who made appearances on NBC Sports, NFL Network, and Sirius XM Radio (where he still has a gig) leading up to the NFL Scouting Combine. "I decided this would be a great, new opportunity. Evaluating in my old job the things I did well and the things I did not do well, I certainly believe understanding the media and what their job is was something I did not do a good job of. I thought this was a good opportunity to learn and grow, and get better in a lot of different areas."
Pioli said he is familiar with most of the on-air talent at FNIA. Harrison was a member of the Patriots when Pioli served as that team's vice president of player personnel and Pioli said he has known analyst Dungy and Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli for years.
Asked about his comfort level regarding being critical of former colleagues and friends in the league, Pioli said, "I think there is a big difference between criticizing the performance and criticizing the performer. I am not going to be a person who criticizes people. Most of my background in the media is theoretical and academic so I have not entered the realm, but I think that is part of our obligation in the media is to try not to make it personal."
It will be interesting to see Pioli comment on the uber-secretive nature of NFL organizations, especially in the wake of this blistering piece last year in the Kansas City Star by Washington Post NFL writer Kent Babb, who covered Pioli in Kansas City.
Pioli said it was too early to evaluate whether he would be interested in returning to the NFL, or whether he would even get that opportunity.
"This was the first time since 1991 that I have not been part of an NFL draft and it felt very different," Pioli said. "I don't know what I'll feel like in September or October. If I sit here and think I'll be doing this the next 20 years and I'm not good at it, I will get run out. To me, it's a year to year thing from the standpoint that people will be evaluating me as well as I will be evaluating the situation."
"I see something special in the guy in the conversations we have had," Flood said. "If he wants to be in the television side of it, I hope he's with our family for a long time."
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
1. The tonnage of ESPN's 2014 World Cup coverage is going to please international soccer fans. Among the items of note: ESPN will broadcast all 64 matches live (and in HD) from Brazil on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and WatchESPN, and network executives said more than 280 original hours of soccer coverage will air across ESPN platforms from June 12-July 13, 2014. Next year's coverage will also include a new 90-minute postgame (World Cup Live) show after each match and World Cup Primetime, which will take large chunks of the matches of the day and condense them into a two-hour highlight show. ESPN FC, the network's new daily soccer show, will also broadcast from Brazil, as will segments of SportsCenter.
"It's pretty clear that the word that rings through all of this is authenticity," said Jed Drake, the executive producer of ESPN's World Cup coverage. "It's a powerful word and it means a lot, and it can't be hollow. Candidly, you and many of your colleagues wrote very highly of what we did in 2010 and our goal next year is to maintain that level of authenticity. That means we will speak to soccer fans with the level of assumption that they understand the game well. We will analyze, opine, and discuss at great detail the events that are unfolding and what they mean."
That's code for we plan on not dumbing down our soccer coverage, which is excellent news. ESPN's four-person play-by-play rotation four years ago in South Africa was Martin Tyler, Ian Darke, Adrian Healey and Derek Rae, and while Drake said that it was too early for him so say with absolute definition that all would be back, he did confirm "I think it is quite likely that group will be part of it." Asked specifically about using the popular Tyler again, Drake said, "We are having meaningful discussions."
As far as who will call the U.S. national games in Brazil, I'd bet heavy on Darke and analyst Taylor Twellman. Drake did reveal that ESPN will need a fifth game crew given there are 12 soccer venues (two more than South Africa) and that Brazil is nearly as large as the United States.
Regarding studio talent, Drake said he planned to meet next week in London with former German national team star Michael Ballack to convince him to return to ESPN's World Cup studio coverage. Look for ESPN to also lock up Everton manager Roberto Martinez, who worked for ESPN in South Africa and for its Euro 2012 coverage. That's in addition to the usual cast led by Bob Ley and Alexi Lalas.
Drake said ESPN will house its studio production at Rio's Clube dos Marimbás, a popular sailing club on the southern tip of Copacabana Beach. The network is building two studios at the location -- one for ESPN Deportes and ESPN International, and the other for ESPN's English-language U.S. networks -- so expect a lot of shots of bikinis and white sand.
"Let's start with the fact that it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet," Drake said. "We selected this place because of the vista. I have never seen anything close to it for a backdrop for a host set. It is seven miles of Copacabana Beach arching up behind our set and at night all the buildings will be lit. You can fly a paper airplane on the backside of our set and hit the ocean."
The 2010 World Cup were a huge ratings success for ESPN as games on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC averaged 3,261,000 viewers, a 41 percent increase from 2006. (The top-five markets for ESPN's coverage were: Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, New York, Washington, D.C., San Diego, and San Francisco).
Given that international soccer is more popular four years later and the time zone works to ESPN advantage -- most of Brazil is one-hour ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in the U.S -- the ratings are going to increase. It's also the network's final World Cup before Fox Sports takes over so ESPN staffers want to make this memorable.
"Are the ratings going to go up? Yes, they are," Drake said. "I have to check my ego here but I really think what we achieved in 2010 was a changing of the perception of the World Cup in this country. We know the level of ambition has to be higher because the expectation from our viewers was not that high the last time. Now, it is sky-high."
1a. Drake said World Cup Live (the post-match show) will air for 90 minutes. In 2010, ESPN was limited to a 30-minute post-match program. Drake said World Cup Live will bounce around different ESPN networks. "Suffice to say, by the time we have promoted it by the end of the third match, people will know where to go in terms of whether it is on ESPN, ESPN2 or whatever," Drake said.
1b. Drake said ESPN will eventually add a studio analyst with in-depth knowledge of the host Brazilian national team. Given ESPN Brazil exists out of San Paulo, there is plenty of talent to choose from within the company.
1c. Fantastic news: ESPN is bringing back its sensational "I Scored A Goal In The World Cup Final" video vignettes that featured World Cup Final goal-scorers talking about their goals. They are also working with ESPN Films on other projects for the World Cup.
1d. Drake said Outside The Lines and other ESPN newsgathering entities will be assigned to Brazil as a lead-up to the World Cup. "We will make sure people have an understanding of Brazil's greatness and its challenges," Drake said.
1e. Here's what you need to know about ESPN's coverage this month of the FIFA Confederations Cup:
1f. ESPN's broadcast of the World Cup qualifying match between U.S. and Panama on June 12 was viewed by 1.436 million viewers, the network's second most-watched FIFA World Cup qualifying ever. ESPN will air the U.S.-Honduras qualifying match on Tuesday at 8:30 ET.
2. Last week ESPN's Bill Simmons sent out a tweet that criticized a decision by SportsCenter producers to edit out an on-air joke about Dwayne Wade following Game 4 of the NBA Finals. (Awful Announcing has the breakdown here and even the New York Times weighed in.)
As readers of this column know, I interviewed Simmons two weeks ago about NBA Countdown and his future on the studio show (Simmons said he wants to discuss his schedule with his family before committing again in 2014. The ESPN management charged with the show -- executive vice president John Wildhack, Mark Gross, a senior vice president and executive producer who heads up the network's NBA coverage, and Countdown's coordinating producer Amina Hussein -- have said on the record (including to me) that they are pleased with the quartet of Michael Wilbon, Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose and Simmons and would like to see them return. In separate interviews with each, I think all were genuine about that. (Jason McIntyre of Big Lead Sports wrote an interesting post last week suggesting -- God help us all -- Stephen A. Smith would have interest in joining the show should openings occur). Regarding Simmons' tweets, ESPN PR sent out an expected response to reporters, saying the company had "conversations" with Simmons, which I interpret as ESPN president John Skipper emailing his pal Simmons, telling him to relax and have a Fresca.
The one part of my interview with Simmons that has yet to run was when I asked him the following question: Philosophically, what must you have for a great studio show and why? Here's his answer:
"TV is like professional wrestling - you need to have good moves, but you also have to sell everyone else's moves," Simmons said. "You're going to suck on TV if the other guys don't sell you. That's what killed [CBS Sports analyst] Doug Gottlieb with the "white man's perspective" joke. It wasn't the joke, which admittedly wasn't funny, but the fact that the other guys didn't sell it. They hung him out to dry and it looked worse than it was. You need to sell each other. And you need to spread the ball around. It's like basketball - if you have ball-stoppers who drone on without getting other people involved ala Carmelo Anthony, your offense isn't going to be that interesting. But if everyone is involved and the ball is moving around, you're going to be interesting and you're going to score points. I don't think it's rocket science."
3. Gross said that ESPN has a contingency plan if ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy departs for a head coaching job, though Gross would not reveal the specifics. "We always have a backup plan but I am not at liberty to roll it out to you," Gross said, sounding like an National Security Agency official. "If Jeff got a job, there is a backup plan in place. When you are dealing with former coaches or GMs that might go back, you have to have a backup plan." Gross wanted to make clear -- and no doubt he is being truthful here -- that he hopes Van Gundy stays at ESPN for many years.
4. How did NBC NHL play by play announcer Mike Emrick remain as energetic as he did through three overtime periods of Game One of the Stanley Cup Final? The announcer said that the NBC hockey booth is filled with peanut sandwiches (for him) and Swedish Fish (for analyst Ed Olczyk). Emrick said he returned to his Chicago hotel at 1:15 a.m. ET after Game One and went immediately to bed because he was heading back home to Michigan the following day. When SI.com reached Emrick last Thursday, his voice sounded strong. He showed no effects on Saturday night for a second straight overtime game. "I guess it's the grace of God and peanut butter sandwiches," Emrick said. "You get an extra shot adrenaline watching the players out there. It's a marvel they can do this. They are wonderfully conditioned but you do wonder at some point if it's too long to play even with the conditioning."
Emrick said he has called two four-overtime games during his career including the famous "Easter Epic" game April 19, 1987 when Islanders star Pat LaFontaine scored at 8:47 of the fourth overtime to lift New York over Washington in Game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals. (The game, broadcast on ESPN, started at 7:00 p.m. local time and ended shortly before 2 a.m on Easter Sunday. There was 68 minutes and 47 seconds of sudden-death action.)
"Afterward Bill Clement (his ESPN partner) and I went to a Denny's close to the arena in Landover, Maryland," Emrick said. "That was back at a time when I was eating late at night. I don't do that anymore. We ate breakfast and got back to the hotel at about 3 a.m. That was the latest ever for me."
4a. NBC's opening game of the Stanley Cup drew 6.358 million viewers, the most to watch a Stanley Cup Final opening game since Game One of the Red Wings-Flyers on FOX in 1997. NBC said viewership for the game peaked in the first overtime between 11:15-11:30 p.m. ET, with nearly 7.444 million viewers. It ranked as the top program of the day across both broadcast and cable among Adults 18-49, Men 18-49, and Men 25-54.
5. There was a remarkable outpouring last week among former ESPN colleagues (and some current) for longtime ESPN researcher Howie Schwab, who announced on his Facebook page last Wednesday that he had been let go by the company. Schwab hosted the "Stump the Schwab" trivia show but his main role in Bristol was making the talent look good on research. He traveled for years with Dick Vitale, serving as the college basketball analyst's personal researcher, and provided similar aid for a multitude of SportsCenter anchors. Layoffs are always awful, having survived multiple myself, but Schwab's cut hit staffers hard given how well liked he was and that he has long been supporting his wife, who is ill with a disease that affected blood vessels in her brain.
"After 26 years at ESPN, I am extremely disappointed to say farewell," Schwab posted on Facebook. "I have been proud of my association and my work during my tenure. I was a loyal employee, displayed respect for others, worked with numerous charities, represented the company well. I always did everything asked of me and more. What did I get in return today ... word that I should get lost. The only thing that mattered was my salary, which in my view was the lone reason I lost my job."
An ESPN anchor summed up the feelings of many in a text to me upon learning of Schwab's cut. "No words. I'm crushed," said the staffer.
5a. ESPN said it canceled two programs --- Highlight Express on ESPNews and Unite on ESPNU -- and laid off their staffs. Regarding ratings, Sports Business Daily reported that Highlight Express had averaged 42,000 homes so far this year, a 24 percent drop from the previous year. Unite, which launched last August, averaged just 20,000 homes.
6. ESPN NBA analyst Magic Johnson on Tim Duncan: "With a fifth [title], he's the best power forward that's ever played in my book because he passes [Kevin] McHale to me. His legacy will enhance and increase. We've already got him in the Top 10. You can slide him up there anywhere you want to put him, because it's not just him winning five, but it's how he won five. It's the way he played the game, how he approached the game...With this fifth one, he dominates his generation. He and Kobe would be the greatest winners during this time. Domination‑wise, he'll be just as dominant as any big man that's ever played, and also be a great winner as well.
7. Among the memorable pieces this week:
•ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham had a fascinating look at how the Spurs have (at times) eschewed American-born players.
•SI.com's Alex Wolff conducted a jailhouse interview with Nevin Shapiro, the notorious University of Miami booster.
•Awful Announcing chronicled ESPN's Stephen A. Smith debating against himself.
And three non-sports pieces of note:
•Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz wrote an extraordinary piece about a couple impacted by the Marathon bombing.
•Fascinating look by Adam Alter on how our behavior changes based on our environment.
• This Big Picture photo gallery of graduations will inspire you:
8. Here's a brief oral history of what some viewers think of Chris Berman hosting the U.S. Open golf coverage for ESPN. It's hard to view this assignment other than a vanity play by ESPN management giving a longtime staffer a boondoggle gig. Scott Van Pelt should be ESPN's host for its U.S. Open coverage and I've yet to find a credible golf observer (or non-ESPN staffers) who thinks otherwise.
8a. I listened to some of ESPN Radio's coverage of the U.S. Open on Sunday afternoon and was really impressed with the work of host Bob Wischusen, who guided the coverage from hole to hole with professionalism and knowledge. Nice work.
9. As first reported by the Sports Business Daily, Drew Kaliski has replaced Eric Mann as the producer overseeing The NFL Today. It's the first time in 25 years the show will have a new top executive. Does this mean a change in the on-air cast of The NFL Today? CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said no. "We are very happy with the talent," McManus said. "I do think Drew will have some new ideas to freshen up the show and give it a different look and feel, but I don't think the show will be dramatically different."
10. Fox Soccer will air nine games of the new National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) including two semifinal games on August 24 and the championship game on August 31. The network said they will televise one game per week over the final six weeks of the season with each club appearing at least once on national television. The season begins July 14 at 8:30 PM ET with Seattle (featuring Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo) against Washington.
10a. Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has been tabbed to serve as the guest editor of an August 30th special-edition issue of the Washington Blade, a newspaper focused on LGBT issues.
10b. Soledad O'Brien has joined HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and will make her debut on the June 25 edition of the monthly magazine series.
10c. ESPN is out of the 3-D business.
10d. Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News and Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer both reported that the Bengals will be featured on HBO's Hard Knocks this year. The official announcement is expected this week.