Rare is the first-time SportsCenter anchor who can produce a 25.5 percent ratings increase from the previous week, but that's what happened on Friday, Nov. 1 when the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter -- co-hosted by a scrappy 44-year-old SportsCenter rookie -- drew 813,000 viewers, up from 648,000 viewers for the previous Friday show.
The name of this incredible sports broadcasting prospect?
Yes, the dude from The Hangover.
The talented actor/comedian appeared on SportsCenter 10 days ago amid much public relations fanfare and rewarded ESPN with a huge ratings bump for an edition of SportsCenter that struggles compared to its morning and late-night counterparts. So, was this a ratings ploy?
"One-hundred percent it was," said Steve Bunin, the former SportsCenter and Outside The Lines staffer who now works in Houston as an anchor for Comcast SportsNet Houston. "My first thought was: That already is a give-up show. I don't think there's much shame in it. It's fun. It's a clear ratings ploy. If something heavy breaks, they'd sideline the celeb. It mostly sucks for the anchors desperately fighting for a chance to do that show, and yes, it's another chip in the wall of pure journalism. But no more to me than so many other things they do. I saw a SportsCenter segment recently where they had Tim Legler speak for three straight minutes on one topic so that viewers could vote their opinion on the SportsCenter Facebook page. That to me is a clear example of time that could have been spent far better asking him about any other NBA topic."
That's a smart take. Most media (capital M) are plenty guilty of fawning over celebrity but I think experimenting with unorthodox staffing in a throwaway timeslot (Friday evening) is an interesting idea. I'm not suggesting having an actor host SportsCenter weekly -- there's already plenty of acting going on certain ESPN shows --but an interesting monthly (and sports-savvy) guest anchor from entertainment, music or some other creative arts could be interesting television.
The list of possibilities are long (e.g. Kenny Chesney,Will Ferrell, Ashley Judd, Norm MacDonald, Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Eddie Vedder etc.) and the mechanics of the broadcast would not be difficult to pick up given actors, comedians and singers already understand television blocking (much better than print journalists). There's also a stage manager (as well as a producer in your ear) to help navigate potential problems. As for segments involving Q&As with analysts -- Jeong interviewed NBA analysts Jeff Van Gundy -- such questions are discussed ahead of time that it wouldn't be that difficult beyond a clean read and improvising (something most actors are good at naturally -- or at least practice with some frequency) off the script.
"I'm a proponent of the move," said ESPN SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross. "The 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET show is the best time slot in my mind for a "guest star." So much of the days news and water-cooler talk has been parsed (especially by a strong PTI show just prior) and the evening's games have yet to played. Also, it reminds me of something I learned here long ago: Our competition is not just other sports networks; it's every network out there. Small little surprises and tweaks is what has helped sustain this amazing brand since I started watching the show in high school. It's aged remarkably well. Way better than Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are."
So what happens if significant news breaks during a celebrity SportsCenter? Well, other than karma biting ESPN in the fanny, the other anchor would handle the major reps and direction of the show.
"If it was really serious, say Penn State or something where they needed to go commercial-free, I could see a sendoff segment where they thank Ken Jeong for his time," said Bunin, who was just nominated Lone Star (Texas) Emmy. "I think they [the producers] would honestly do that."
Interestingly, such a one-off assignment would seemingly fit into the Fox Sports 1 ethos, given it has cast itself a rag-tag band of fun-loving (mostly) blonde-haired funsters. Fox Sports Live hasn't done much journalism of note so if its show is truly about fun, this would fit into the show's narrative perfectly. "The celebrities are also right there in LA," Bunin said. "I honestly don't know why one of the networks don't ask Will Ferrell to do it."
Bunin pointed out one downside-- and it's as salient point. Assigning an episode of SportsCenter to a celebrity means an in-house anchor does not get that assignment. That's an important rep for an anchor in front of both a large audience and, more importantly, the bosses in Bristol who decide whether you rent or own in one of Connecticut's tony suburbs.
Buccigross said he thought one hour every 3-4 months for a non-traditional host would be the right fit. "It has to be the right person at the right time, produced the right way," Buccigross said. "We have a valuable brand to protect and Fox is trying to construct a roster that is relevant, recognizable, and respected."
Bunin predicted ESPN would soon announce another Jeong-like assignment (it's also happened in the past with Billy Crystal), especially given how much the performers enjoy the experience. "One of my fun moments in Bristol was when was Justin Timberlake was in promoting Love Guru and I got to interview him," Bunin said. "He told me had watched me often. That was pretty great for me, just some kid from Seattle who lucked into this job at ESPN. The celebrities who dig sports like being there."
"It reminds me of our impact and our lofty place in the entertainment/informational/inspirational world," Buccigross said. "We do so much TV, we sometimes forget that. When Crystal and Jeong preach and worship from our pulpit that must also make some sort of impression on the viewer and help our reputation and stature. Even if that's achieved subconsciously."
What does ESPN management have to say about this?
"We have been open to opportunities to have talented celebrities who are sports fans be a part of the program," said an ESPN spokesperson, "and will continue to do so."
Bet on it.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.
1. Kudos to CBS's The NFL Today for approaching the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story with significant heft on Sunday. After spending more airtime last week promoting Mike and Molly actor Billy Gardell than a substantive discussion on NFL locker room culture, the NFL Today went after the Incognito-Martin story with gusto. Host James Brown provided a timeline of the story as a lead-in to reporter Jason LaCanfora that setup a terrific panel conversation where Shannon Sharpe and Bill Cowher were as good as they've ever been on the show. Particularly worth noting were Sharpe's comments on race, the 'n-word' and locker room dynamics. I don't think Sharpe (and this column has certainly been critical of him in the past) has ever been better than he was this week. The clip is here.
1a. The NFL Today also featured a second discussion on locker room dynamics led by Brown and featuring Redskins linebacker London Fletcher and former players Jon Jansen and Bart Scott. (Scott is an analyst for TOPS, the CBS Sports Network NFL pregame show.) Again, this was intelligent dialogue that provided the viewer with insight and interesting takeaways. When The NFL Today gets away from its frat boy, laugh-at-every-joke nonsense, it's a pregame show worth paying attention to for smart viewers.
1b. Jay Glazer's exclusive sit-down interview with Richie Incognito was obviously the most notable moment among the Sunday NFL pregame shows. Prior to the interview, Glazer said he "held nothing back" and asked Incognito "everything." Did he fulfill that charter? I'd say not entirely given this viewer wanted to hear Incognito address the allegations that he harassed a women on a golf course in 2012 during a team charity golf tournament, how often Incognito had been called into the NFL offices over the last couple of years, as well as an on-camera denial from Incognito refusing to answer questions about the role of Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Joe Philbin.
1c. Glazer said on Twitter that "for all asking about golf course incident that's a different story to cover that has nothing to do w Martin. Separate scoop to get." I'd counter that alleged incident speaks directly to Incognito's behavior and character. Glazer also opened a question with this preamble ("You obviously have had a very checkered history. From way back in college all the way up to recently with last year with the incident at the golf course....") that basically negated his own argument.
To be fair to Glazer, the edited Incognito interview (Glazer interviewed Incognito for 45 minutes in total Saturday afternoon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles) had to fit within the restrictions of an hour pregame show and you obviously can't run the interview in full on Fox NFL Sunday. That the interview happened at all is extremely valuable because we have now heard from one of the participants. Also, Glazer was very strong on the contents of text messages Incognito sent to Martin. ("How do you expect anybody in America to believe you're not a racist?: Glazer asked pointedly) and he got Incognito to confirm that he left a voice mail message to Martin last April that included a racial slur and a threat to kill Martin. This wasn't a famous ex-NFL player pitching softballs to current NFL star, nor was it Oriana Fallaci grilling Henry Kissinger in 1972 on the Vietnam War. It was somewhere in the middle. You can judge yourself as Fox released a transcript of what aired here.
1d. There were plenty of people on Twitter and elsewhere who questioned whether Glazer should be conducting an interview with Incognito given Glazer previously trained him (meaning they had ties) in MMA and clearly has a personal relationship with him. It's a topic involving Glazer that has come up before among the sports media community. Is Glazer the ideal candidate to interview Incognito? No. I think an independent entity would have conducted a much different interview but here's the reality: I also can't see Incognito sitting down for this kind of interview with anyone else other than Glazer. Every national NFL reporter has certain players, agents, coaches and executives they have relationships with that extend somewhat into friendships. Glazer did address (minimally) his relationship with Incognito, and Fox has long said they are comfortable with him reporting on players he has trained, citing Brian Cushing as one example.
Glazer has never ducked the question -- at least to me -- about conflicts of interest and it has always been out in the open what he does away from Fox Sports. Viewers can decide whether this was a meeting between questioner and subject or a setup between two pals and that pal's legal team.
1e. Fox NFL analyst Howie Long predicted that this story will change some of the dynamics of the NFL locker room forever: "The NFL locker room will change forever as a byproduct of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin," Long said. "The $30,000 dinners will be out the window. The hazing will be out the window.
1f. ESPN's analysts -- and some would argue even its reporters -- have generally taken a pro-Martin tact in panel discussion (There is no doubt ESPN has significant sourcing within the Martin camp based on previous reporting). On Sunday NFL Countdown, analyst Tom Jackson did not even drop the word "allegedly" when discussing Incognito alleged harassment of the women at the Florida golf course. The transcript is here and it is vivid.
1g. Jackson gave a personal reflection off the news that Pro Football Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure and NFL All-Pro Leonard Marshall had been diagnosed with signs of CTE. Said Jackson: "Do I get depressed? Yes. What part of it plays out because of my activities in the NFL? I don't know. My legs go numb. They did this week about six times. You've (Chris Berman) seen it and you've helped me with it. There are times that I cannot walk. The artificial hip, the artificial left knee, the pain in the shoulder, all of those things are part of what I did. I will not trade a second of it. I loved what I did in the National Football League. But for me, and many others like me, payment is going to come due. He is 59, Tony Dorsett. I am 62. Payment is coming due for our experiences in the National Football League."
1h. The NFL Network held a series of roundtable discussions Sunday including whether the Incognito-Martin situation will change anything in the NFL, race relations in the league and what constitutes the current locker room ethos.
1i. I generally find NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp to be a mega-bloviator but he's been excellent on the Martin-Incognito story. Here, he discusses the situation as well as destroyed ESPN's Keyshawn Johnson's work ethic when Johnson was a member of the Bucs.
1j. Football Night in America's Tony Dungy, on what a head coach should know in a locker room: "People are asking me, how Joe Philbin could not know what was going on in that locker room? Well, as a head coach, you don't know everything. My job was to set the atmosphere up, and I counted on my leaders. So, if I said no hazing in the locker room, then it was up to Derrick Brooks, Jeff Saturday, Reggie Wayne, and those types of guys to control it. If there was a problem, then they would come to me. If they were not saying anything, then I assumed that everything was fine."
2. No NFL television program is afforded the access of HBO's Hard Knocks-- here's a piece I did for the MMQB on how the show is put together-- and NFL Films has long shaped the narrative of the league for football fans. In the wake of the Incognito-Martin story, the question arises as to the role the next edition of Hard Knocks should play regarding footage and stories on hazing and bullying. Alas, everyone is on shutdown mode at NFL Films. Asked by SI.com last week to discuss how the Icognito-Martin story might impact next year's Hard Knocks production, NFL Films supervising producer Ken Rodgers said the company had no comment at this time.
3. CBS Sports announcer Verne Lundquist served up a hilarious moment near the end of Alabama's win over LSU on Saturday night that surely drew the attention of some at ESPN. Let's take you now to Bryant-Denny Stadium, with the CBS cameras squarely on two Alabama football fans.
Lundquist: "Among those who have remained despite the rain, clapping her hands, AJ McCarron's mom, Dee Dee Bonner, and just to the left, his girlfriend, Katherine Webb. And they watch now as AJ McCarron may or may not make another appearance on the field."
Danielson: "That's it. That's all you are going to say? (laughs)."
Lundquist: "You are darn right. (laughs). I don't work for that four-letter network. Discretion!"
Lundquist, of course, was referring to this now-famous ESPN clip from last year's title game when Brent Musburger pronounced his "admiration" for Webb.
4. I profiled ESPN's Fantasy Football Now for the MMQB, a pregame show that consistently delivers on its promise.
5. There are several sports documentaries airing this week that are worthy of your time. The best of the group is Showtime's Against The Tide, which examines the cultural and societal impact of the 1970 college football game between Alabama and the University of Southern California. Produced by Ross Greenberg, the former head of HBO Sports, it's a thoughtful piece with revealing interviews from those who played in the game (especially USC's Sam Cunningham and Alabama's John Mitchell, the school's African-American scholarship varsity player) as well as activists in the civil rights battle during that time. (Seeing footage of the reptilian Bull Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s, will get the blood boiling for some.) The documentary debuts Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
5a. With increased fascination in the Kennedy Assassination given the 50th anniversary of the death of John Kennedy, the CBS Sports Network is airing Marching On: 1963 Army-Navy Remembered, a documentary on the college football game played between Army and Navy on Dec. 7, 1963, 15 days after the assassination. There's great voices in the film including historians Douglas Brinkley and Robert Dallek, as well as the quarterbacks for both academies -- Navy's Roger Staubach and Army's Rollie Stichweh. NFL fans will find it particularly interesting to hear the thoughts of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose father was a Navy assistant coach at the time. The one-hour documentary airs this Thursday (8:00 p.m. ET).
5b. The Big Ten Network airs its first feature-length documentary this Saturday at 7:00 p.m. The 60-minute Tiebreaker examines the impact of the 1973 Ohio State-Michigan football game, which ended in a 10-10 tie and caused considerable controversy afterward when the conference athletic directors voted that Ohio State would represent them in the Rose Bowl. Each school had identical 7-0-1 records. The film includes footage from a dinner the network convened featuring six members from each of those teams.
6. Here are ESPN's men's college basketball assignments for 2013-14. You'll notice that Bob Knight, serially enabled by ESPN, is back in the fold.
6a. ESPN airs more 29 hours of consecutive basketball coverage over the next two days including 16 men's games and two women's games across ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. The showcase matchups are No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kentucky (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN) and No. 5 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke (Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN)
6b. This crazy dude is going to attempt to watch all of them.
6c. Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery were in terrific form on Friday for the call of Boston College-Providence. As I wrote last week on SI.com, the Johnson-Raftery pairing gives FS1 instant credibility with its in-game basketball coverage. We'll see if the network's studio team can duplicate that, and if unlike college football, Fox Sports management will invest in college basketball reporters with journalistic bona fides as their competition in Bristol has done with college sports time and time again. Raftery will call Tennessee at Xavier on Tuesday night (9:00 p.m.) with Justin Kutcher.
7. Another strong week for notable sports pieces:
• Wrote ESPN's Tim Keown: "An uncomfortable truth: The NFL needs Richie Incognito more than it needs Jonathan Martin."
• MMQB's Robert Klemko on the use of the n-word in an NFL locker room.
• Grantland's David Shoemaker offers a concise history of racism in pro wrestling over the last three decades.
• This Elle Magazine profile of Brittney Griner is terrific.
• High school teacher Patrick Sicher on the Martin-Incognito story.
• The Prime Minister of Canada had written a scholarly treatise ...about hockey.
• Grantland's Brian Phillips declares a war on the warrior culture.
• Leonard Marshall discussed CTE on SI Now.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• A 5-year-old leukemia patient's wish to be Batman for a day is getting fulfilled in San Francisco. If you read one thing here, read this.
• "Lee Harvey Oswald Was My Friend." A fascinating first-person memoir from a friend of Oswald's.
• The intersection of porn and murder in Miami. Great work by Michael E. Miller of Miami New Times.
• The Wall Street Journal on when being lonely turns to loneliness.
• The Single Best Moment project that was prompted by my Twitter followers was named by Time Magazine as one as one of the 140 Moments That Made Twitter Matter. Thanks.
8. This E:60 report on Thai children as young as seven fighting in arenas controlled by organized crime and gambling syndicates is worth your time.
8a. Major props to longtime College Gameday feature producer Ben Webber and reporter Tom Rinaldi for this feature on Patrick Yarber, a legally blind fan who attended his 125th different Division 1 college football stadium this weekend.
9. Throw it down, Chiney Ogwumike! Bill Walton will pair with Rebecca Lobo and play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch for ESPN's January 27 women's basketball broadcast between Stanford and USC. That will be fun.
9a. ESPN aided women's basketball significantly last season with its push of Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins last season. This year a "Need to Know" initiative will be integrated throughout each women's telecast highlighting Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (Connecticut); Ogwumike (Stanford), Odyssey Sims (Baylor), Breanna Stewart (Connecticut) and Alyssa Thomas (Maryland).
10. I've written often how impressed I've been with NBC's coverage of the Premier League -- they treat soccer fans like educated adults -- and its studio show (led by Rebecca Lowe) has been exceptional. Last Saturday morning the show on NBCSN drew 254,000 viewers as a lead-in to play. That's a terrific number given CFB competition (GameDay is a ratings juggernaut) and non-sports competition. NBC has stayed away from carnival barkers and dudes looking to get attention by saying outlandish things for its BPL coverage and they've been rewarded with near-universal praise from critics and fans. Perhaps other TV execs might want to take a look at what's going on here.
10a. NBC Sports sent out a release last week that reported 12 million viewers had tuned into its Premier League coverage through last Friday, up 82 percent from this point last year (6.6 million on ESPN/ESPN2 and Fox Soccer). The most-watched game was Arsenal-Liverpool on NBC, which drew 991,000 viewers.
10b. Last Sunday's Outside The Lines drew 213,000 viewers That's a strong number given how early the show aired (7:00am ET). Alas, OTL has still hemorrhaged viewers after being moved from ESPN to ESPN2.
10c. ESPN's Keith Olbermann vs. WFAN (New York City) sports-talk staffers Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton and Mike Francesa. Quite glorious.
10d. I expected better from KNBR-AM and Damon Bruce.
10e. The NBA Development League will have more than 350 live games on YouTube for the 2013-14 season, making it the most comprehensive live game offering on YouTube by a major professional sports league.
10f. Ad Age reported that Fox Sports 1 had to offer some advertisers "make-goods" in high-profile sporting events on Fox to compensate for ratings shortfalls.
10g. How the University of Maryland launched an extensive PR campaign to change impressions about Big Ten move.
10h. NBC Football Night In America analyst Hines Ward recently competed in the Ironman World Championship, finishing with a time of 13:08.15. That race will air on NBC next Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET as part of a 90-minute special.
10i. Marc Payton, who has directed four decades of boxing matches for HBO Sports, is retiring at the end of this year.
10j. The 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is going to be the subject of a film.
10k. The Onion reports a new ESPN show is in the works.
10l. RIP: Dave McDaniel, a well-known fixture in Alabama sports as a radio broadcaster and producer, who was killed in an automobile accident last week at age 52. I asked SI's Lars Anderson, based in Birmingham, to offer his perspective on his passing: "Dave was like a great offensive lineman: He did it all behind the scene. I teach a journalism class at Alabama and I took my students to Talladega. We met with Dave. His message was this: "Be fast or, well, just don't even f------ try.'"