A look at ESPN's BCS championship megacast; a Tim Tebow infomercial
ESPN's often gets criticized for its gigantism tendencies when it comes to sports coverage (it's even money that the network has hired an NFL analyst since the start of this sentence) but its mega-coverage of Monday's BCS National Championship game has huge potential to usher viewers into a new era for college football's biggest game.
As part of a "BCS Megacast," ESPN will offer different viewing options of No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 2 Auburn across six of its television platforms and audio and digital outlets. Executives from the network said they have contemplated such a concept for years and the programming department, headed up by Norby Williamson, particularly expressed the desire to do something big for this year's BCS title game. (We'll get to those additional elements in a moment.) The majority of ESPN's viewers will still watch the main telecast on ESPN (8:30 p.m. ET) with announcer Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit working their fifth consecutive BCS National Championship game together. The reporters are Heather Cox (assigned to Florida State) and Tom Rinaldi (Auburn).
"Ultimately, everything we do will be judged by how well the ESPN telecast is received," said Ed Placey, the senior coordinating producer of ESPN's college football coverage.
But the new elements are interesting and give viewers an amplified viewing experience. What are they? ESPN2 will air what it calls "BCS Title Talk," a casual conversation between ESPN personalities, coaches, players and celebrities. ESPN2's Numbers Never Lie co-hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith will serve in the host role with the following guests scheduled: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, USC coach Steve Sarkisian, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, actor-rapper Snoop Dogg, singer-songwriter John Legend and country music artist Jake Owen. ESPN staffers floating through the Title Talk room include Rece Davis, Paul Finebaum, Lou Holtz, Todd McShay, Jesse Palmer, David Pollack and Tim Tebow. There will be on-screen graphics featuring game statistics and a "social stripe" with notable tweets. USA Today reported that of the 63 cameras in use by ESPN for the game, four will be devoted to "Title Talk." Two of those cameras will directed on the head coaches, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Auburn's Gus Malzahn; another pair will be set on players on each team.
• ESPN3 will air the game featuring the radio calls from Auburn (announcer Rod Bramblett, analyst Stan White, reporter Quentin Riggins and host Paul Ellen) and Florida State (announcer Gene Deckerhoff, analyst William Floyd, reporter Tom Block and host Drew Branyon). The home radio broadcasts will have an on-screen presentation providing fans with the game feed plus isolated cameras on key coaches and players from that team. The coverage includes the halftime performances of the Florida State and Auburn marching bands. (I must say I think this is a great idea, and one Turner Sports announced months ago for its upcoming NCAA Tournament coverage.)
•ESPNews will air "BCS Film Room" with ESPN staff and guest coaches providing X-and-O analysis of the game as it happens from a film room equipped with multiple camera angles and touch screens. The coaches -- Boston College's Steve Addazio, Pitt's Paul Chryst and Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin-- will have access to multiple replays and cameras including the all-22 camera, which shows every player on the field during a play. Matt Millen, Chris Spielman and Tom Luginbill are the ESPN staffers assigned to the room. Placey said he hopes this comes off less like a TV show and more like a coaching room experience. Texas coach Charlie Strong was initially scheduled for this platform but his plans changed.
•ESPN Classic will have a "Sounds of the BCS" presentation, which will be absent of play-by-play. The broadcast will capture the natural sound of the Rose Bowl from 72 microphones (USA Today reported that is 30 more than a normal broadcast).
• The "BCS Command Center" will air on ESPN Goal Line. That platform will provide a split screen application with live game action and immediate replays of every play. The coverage will use the ESPN Radio broadcast call and incorporate live game statistics on the screen. There will also be a"BCS Campus Connection" on ESPN3 with live fan reactions from various watch parties within the home markets of Auburn and Florida State into the game coverage.
ESPN did a Full Circle experience (multiple cameras and multiple views) for a Florida-Auburn matchup a couple of years ago and a smaller scale version of the Megacast for a Longhorn Network football broadcast last September between BYU-Texas. How much of a blueprint will Monday night be for how future college football playoff games are broadcast on the network?
"I'm hoping what this results in is an excitement level for it and also for us to take what we did well, what we learned from it, and that it turns into what we do on an annual basis for the national championship game," Placey said. "But that's still to be determined."
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.
1. Cox experienced an avalanche of social media criticism last month -- especially from Florida State fans -- for her postgame questioning of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston following the ACC Championship Game. Many accused her of ambushing FSU's freshman quarterback. Others felt her line of questioning was inappropriate given the timing and setting of the interview. Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen, delivered a series of tweets expressing his disgust. She discussed it in an interview with SI.com and we spoke again on Friday about her BCS game assignment.
Cox said she told her ESPN bosses the night of the ACC Championship that it was important for her to be assigned to Florida State for the title game. She has covered Florida State three times this season and has a long-standing relationship with the program including coaches and players.
"I have developed relationships with the entire coaching staff, players, the administration, and I felt strongly that I would be able to do my best work because of how well I know their program," Cox said. "After the conversations I had with [coach] Jimbo [Fisher] last week, I feel very comfortable. I want the spotlight to be shining on them and not anything on who is covering them. The fans might have a different perspective but I feel very confident that everyone on that field is totally good with the situation... Coach Fisher told me 'I have always respected the work you have done and love the relationship that we have developed over the years. This is behind us.'"
Cox said she and Winston have spoken multiple times since the ACC Championship Game including the week after the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Said Cox: "He said he understood that I was doing my job. He also went out of his way to say he always enjoyed my work and respects the work I do. It was a very good exchange."
College football draws intense response from fans -- much stronger than the NFL, in my opinion -- and Cox is not the first nor will be the last reporter to be in the middle of such a social media storm.
"I look at it with two viewpoints," she said. "On one side, every print article, television report and every person from my colleagues to peers, it was all positive and supportive, people praising me for doing my job well, and doing it the way it needed to be done in a difficult situation. Then there is social media and this is the first time I ever encountered anything like this on social media. It showed me the mob, anonymous mentality of social media. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I respect that Florida State fans are passionate as they should be. They are entitled to their opinion and they can choose to care for or not care for how I did my job that night. But what is important for me is to let people know I did not do anything duplicitous or behind Florida's State back. Everyone was well aware of the intentions of that interview and what was going to happen. So when people said I lied or went behind their backs, that is what frustrates me."
1a. Musburger's ESPN contract is up in August so there's obviously a possibility this will be his last title game call. Placey said there are no plans for ESPN to do a Musburger tribute at the end of the game.
1b. Privately, ESPN management raves about the broadcasting potential of Alabama coach Nick Saban as much as I've ever heard network officials wax poetic about a current coach. If and when Saban ever decides to leave coaching and if he's interested in broadcasting, he'll be able to set his price for ESPN. He's also represented by CAA, which has tons of ESPN clients in-house. Saban will appear on College GameDay (6-8 p.m. ET), the network's pregame show (8-8:30 p.m.), and halftime and postgame coverage.
1d. Manziel and Boyd will both appear on a special edition of College GameDay on Monday between 6-8 PM ET. New ESPN employee Tim Tebow will be on the show as well.
1e. ESPN's coverage of the Rose Bowl (Michigan State over Stanford) averaged 18,636,000 viewers, up nine percent (17,024,000) over the 2013 Rose Bowl in the same window. The network's coverage of the Fiesta Bowl (Central Florida over Baylor) averaged 11,235,000 viewers, up six percent (vs. 10,562,000) from the previous year.
1f. Detroit had a household rating of 27.9 for the Michigan State-Stanford game, the highest-rated bowl game ever on ESPN in the market (the records go back to 2000). Columbus (22.3) was the second highest-rated TV market followed by Birmingham (22.2), Dayton (20.5), New Orleans, Portland, Ore. (16.3), Kansas City (14.8), Austin (14.7), Greenville (14.6) and Seattle (13.8).
1g. Orlando led all markets with a 17.5 rating for the Fiesta Bowl, the highest bowl overnight rating ever for an ESPN network in the market. Birmingham was the second with a 17.0 rating followed by Austin (15.3), Tulsa (14.2), Oklahoma City (13.2), Columbus (13.0), New Orleans (12.1), Dallas-Fort Worth (11.5), Jacksonville (11.2) and Kansas City (10.3).
1h. This isn't a revelation but the broadcast power of live sports goes well beyond the airing of a game. It also sets up programming before and after games and can destroy the competition on other related networks. Here's one dramatic example: Last Thursday, when ESPN aired Oklahoma's win over Alabama, Fox Sports Live 1 drew 26,000 viewers and an 0.01 rating on Fox Sports 1 from 11:18 p.m.-midnight. ET. While Fox Sports Live has offered college football fans very little in the way of news-breaking or insightful commentary, that's a staggering number and amplifies the power of live sports. ESPN's postgame show airing 30 minutes after Fox Sports Live drew a 6.0 rating.
1i. Fox's airing of Missouri's win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl drew an estimated 6.757 million viewers, which won last Friday night among broadcast networks. ESPN's Orange Bowl (Clemson-Ohio State) viewership numbers were not in at the time of publication but the Orange Bowl averaged a 7.2-metered market overnight ranking while the Cotton Bowl averaged a 4.3 overnight.
2. On Sunday NFL Countdown analyst Trent Dilfer fronted a piece on now-ESPN colleague Tebow attempting to become a viable quarterback, a piece one former ESPN-er in an email to me called "a new low for ESPN "cannibalism." In polling that should not be considered scientific (and should also factor in viewer fatigue from ESPN's obsession with Tebow stories), an overwhelming majority of my Twitter followers had issues with ESPN running the feature. Sample opinions are here, here, here and here.
Such is the editorial landscape ESPN must negotiate now that Tebow is an employee and an employee who has been an editorial gateway drug for the network in the past. The piece played too much like an infomercial whether that was ESPN's objective or not. While Fox Sports has opened this door with Jay Glazer interviewing his own MMA clients, I expect higher journalism standards from ESPN because they have shown they care about such standards. If it were my call, this feature would have never run.
Given some of you inquired about this, ESPN emphatically said the feature was not part of any contractual quid pro quo with Tebow upon his being hired. Said an ESPN spokesperson: "Absolutely not. One has nothing to do with the other." The spokesperson said Tebow reached out to Dilfer several weeks ago because he valued Dilfer's opinion as an expert on quarterbacks. Dilfer said he wanted to do it for a story and Tebow agreed.
2a. Former Saints safety Steve Gleason live-tweeted (using his eyes) the Saints-Eagles game for NBC. Here's an awesome Vine of Gleason tweeting and story by Mashable's Sam Laird with a story on the technology Gleason used.
2b. Here's what NFL Network and NBC NFL analyst Mike Mayock said Saturday morning on NFL GameDay First before the Colts-Chiefs game. "If Indy can get this game into the fourth quarter and if Andrew Luck has an opportunity to have the ball on the last possession, he's the best young quarterback in football and he'll win the game for them."
2c. NBC said its Wildcard games on Saturday combined for an 18.7 overnight rating, the second-best Wild Card Saturday (behind 2011) under the current TV format since 2002.
2d. The top 10 TV markets for the Chiefs-Colts game: 1. Kansas City (which drew an impressive 48.0 rating locally); 2. Indianapolis; 3. Denver; 4. New Orleans; 5. Seattle; 5. Richmond; 7. Sacramento; 7. Norfolk; 9. Buffalo; 10. Dayton
2e. The top 10 TV markets for Eagles-Saints game: 1. New Orleans (which drew an monster 55.8 rating locally); 2. Philadelphia; 3. Richmond; 4. Denver; 5. Seattle; 6. Sacramento; 7. Greensboro; 8. Memphis; 9. Charlotte; 9. Baltimore; 9. San Diego.
2f. CBS NFL Today analyst Bill Cowher said he has not met with any NFL teams about returning to coaching. "I never met with anybody," Cowher said on Sunday. "No one has called. I'm flattered when that happens, but I have no intention on coaching. I really like the job I have.
2g. There were a ton of complaints yesterday from customers regarding Fox's streaming of the Packers-Niners game on Fox Sports Go. Fox Sports PR issued a statement during the second quarter of the game: "Our understanding is that the technical issues we were experiencing have been resolved, and we apologize for any inconvenience."
2h. NBC NFL producer Rob Hyland on the image or sequence he was most proud of during the broadcast of the Colts' win over the Chiefs. "I'd say the Colts fourth-quarter drive that culminated with the Andrew Luck fumble-recovery touchdown." Hyland said, in an email. "It was a crucial, no-huddle drive and I thought our team captured it all, culminating with an iconic play within a historic comeback."
3. NBC's airing of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 averaged 4.404 million viewers, the highest-rated NHL regular-season game in nearly four decades and the second-most watched regular-season NHL game in 39 years. The most-watched NHL regular-season game (excluding regional coverage) remains the Capitals-Penguins Winter Classic game on Jan 1, 2011, which drew 4.525 million viewers.
3a. The Classic's 2.5 household rating tied the 2009 NHL Winter Classic (Red Wings-Blackhawks) as the highest-rated NHL regular-season game since 1975.
3b. The highest rated TV markets for the Winter Classic were as followed: 1. Detroit; 2. Buffalo; 3. Pittsburgh; 4. St. Louis; 5. Chicago; 6. Boston; 7. Minneapolis; 8. Philadelphia; 9. Providence; 10. Washington D.C.
5. Tebow has always been very open and public with his faith and he's used various platforms to espouse that Christianity for him is about having a relationship with Christ. ESPN and other sports networks have traditionally been reticent about commentators bringing religion into commentary and at times, ESPN has apologized to viewers when religion has become, in the network's words, too much of a distraction. I asked Justin Connolly, the senior vice president of programming for the SEC Network, how comfortable the network was with Tebow discussing his faith either on air or in social media now that he was an employee of ESPN.
"Sure, we acknowledge and understand that Tim's faith is a big part of who he is," Connolly said. "It's part of what makes him special, and we certainly respect that. At the same time we hired him for his football opinions, his analysis of football, his experience and his view and knowledge of the SEC and the SEC fans, and playing in the SEC. We know that that's what our audience expects from him. In terms of kind of the question on where the line is, I think that's kind of a continuing dialogue between ESPN and Tim and one that Stephanie and I will have with him. But the reality is we hired Tim based on his ability to break down players' games and give a kind of behind-the-scenes look into what it's like to compete and play in the SEC at the highest level. That's what the fans will expect, and that's what the focus of the relationship is going to be."
6. I received a lot of reader feedback off my end of the year column (much appreciated, even the haters) but one email stood out above all. It was from Nick Cellini, the Atlanta-based sports-talk host whose mocking of Steve Gleason on the air was as low rent a bit as I've ever heard in sports talk. I tagged Cellini, Chris Dimino and Steak Shapiro, the former co-hosts of 790 (Atlanta) The Zone's Mayhem in the AM, as the biggest media knuckleheads for 2013. I'm publishing it here with the permission of Cellini, who had no idea I would do so until I contacted him on Saturday afternoon.
I hope this finds you well. I just wanted to say that I've read your column for a long time and enjoy your work. Without question I deserved to be one of the "clowns" of the year. What I did was beyond reprehensible. I paid the price deservedly so. The silver lining: I became more educated about what ALS really is, helped raise money to fight this dreaded disease and had the pleasure of driving to New Orleans and spending time with Steve Gleason's family, who were more than gracious in accepting my apology. I also was pranked via email/telephone by Steve himself. His rationale: It started with a
prank, so why not end it with a prank. It was a real eye opening experience for me, truly learning about the power of forgiveness, something I hope to pass on to my children, especially my four-year old son. I've also pledged to donate my first months salary to fight ALS should someone ever take the chance on me again full time in radio or TV. I also reached out to Peter King, who was also gracious enough to accept my apology and even appeared on my podcast. I don't know what the future holds, but I know that I will continue in the fight against ALS no matter where I end up. Sorry for rambling, just wanted to give you a brief update on where things are."
You can click here for the Team Gleason website.
7. Sports stories of note this week:
•Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe ("I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot") on his tenure with the Vikings.
•This Scott Burnside piece on how the U.S. Olympic hockey team was selected was terrific.
•Here is Washington Post writer Kent Babb's brilliant dissection of Mike Shanahan's last day at Redskins Park.
•Penn Live's David Jones produced some remarkable quotes from Bill O'Brien upon the football coach leaving Penn State.
•Business Week's Joshua Yaffa on the waste and corruption of the Sochi Olympics.
•Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz on Andrew Luck's magic act.
•Grantland's Chris Brown on Gus Malzahn's offensive evolution.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•New York Times magazine writer Paul Tough wrote a riveting account of a Long Island fisherman going overboard. This was the best piece I read last week.
•Via The New York Times: Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer.
•Washington Post photographers spent 2013 documenting one birthday a month.
• NPR on where we feel emotions.
•I recommend this mini-documentary on a Fresno fourth grader who is blind and trained to run cross-country. The piece ran on Fresno's KMPH Fox 26 and was produced, directed and edited by Nick King and Alex Taylor.
•Rosemary Mahoney on why we fear the blind.
8. If you are an sports audio junkie, the CBS Sports Network will offer something you might like during its coverage of Villanova-Seton Hall men's college basketball game on Wednesday (7:00 p.m. ET). The game will have 30 microphones at court level and both coaches and one of the referees will also have mics.
9. Fox Sports 1 produced a terrific year-end video that featured fan reactions to some of the great sports moments of 2013. The group behind the piece: Josh Parcell (producer), Jantzen Gianfrancesco and Craig Swanson (editors); Jim Mitchell (audio mixer); Yaron Deskalo (executive producer), Kevin Lincoln (script) and Todd Kapostasy (consultant). Well done.
9a. Fox Sports Live hosts and Canadian sex symbols Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole are switching their work schedule. Starting this Tuesday, the duo will work the 11:00 p.m. ET show from Tues-Sat.
10. On Sunday longtime San Diego Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman passed away at 89. He was beloved figure in that community.
10a. ESPN research passed along this interesting ratings note: The most viewed program in the history of ESPN2? A Red Sox-White Sox playoff game on Oct. 7, 2005, which drew 4.494 million viewers.
10b. TSN's Scott Cullen put together his favorite reads of 2013. So did USA Today's Dan Shanoff and Deadspin's Tim Marchman. I also liked this grouping from Patrick Hruby of Sports On Earth and really liked this selection from ESPN's Kate Fagan.
10c. Tampa Bay Times sports writer Tom Jones offered his best and worst of 2013 in the sports media.
10d. L.A. Daily News sports media writer Tom Hoffarth released his annual Dubious Dozen column.
10e. Awful Announcing published its best and worst for the sports media in 2013.
10f. ESPN has leased office space in Fall River, Massachusetts in preparation for Aaron Hernandez trial. Said an ESPN spokesperson to SI.com: "While things can change for a number of reasons, our plan is to provide consistent reports from the trial. In terms of complete gavel to gavel live coverage, we haven't determined if that's something we would do here."
10g. Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs was a recent podcast guest for Sports On Earth writer William Leitch, and a healthy part of the discussion was sports media and sports media reporters, including this one who was graded by the host as "kind of okay."
10h. Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy examined whether Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy should return to calling games in 2014 in the wake of his son being charged with murder.
10i. Via World Soccer Talk comes this news bummer: Fox Sports 1 has temporarily removed Fox Soccer Daily from the air.
10j. Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times on whether DirecTV will keep or punt its Sunday Ticket package.
10k. ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
10l. ESPN released its first World Cup promo for Brazil 2014 and it was all kinds of terrific.
10m. Meet Skip Bayless, seven-figure professional football scout for ESPN2.