How WrestleMania got traction at ESPN; CBS prepares Masters coverage
It was the announcement heard round the WWE universe. On March 24, after months of speculation, former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar announced that he had ruled out a return to mixed martial arts and would instead re-sign a three-year deal with the WWE. But what might have been the most interesting thing was the venue Lesnar announced the decision: SportsCenter, the flagship news program for ESPN.
That did not happen by accident. The WWE worked with Lesnar’s management team (who worked with ESPN) on the reveal. The talent interviewing Lesnar were also pro wrestling supporters: ESPN’s Michele Beadle, an unabashed wrestling fanatic who has long supported WWE stars appearing on her vehicles, conducted the interview where Lesnar announced his decision. Wrestling Inc. had a good piece on how much Beadle knew about the announcement prior to Lesnar making it official.
Lesnar was later questioned by ESPN’s Jonathan Coachman, a former broadcaster for the WWE. Getting such a powerful entity to push its news could not have gone better for McMahon Land.
Of course even back when it was the WWF, the WWE has long attempted to court the mainstream sports media. But the buildup to WrestleMania 31 appeared – at least anecdotally -- to have more mainstream outlets (including this column) discussing the WWE than we’ve seen in some time. (Writer Ty Duffy amusingly compared the in-house WWE Network to the in-house NFL Network). How would the WWE define its efforts this year to place and push its talent toward mainstream sports media?
“Mainstream media outreach and the ensuing coverage is an ongoing part of business for WWE, including coverage from sports and entertainment media,” said Brian Flinn, a senior vice president of Marketing & Communications for the company, in an email.
Flinn cited the first WrestleMania at Madison Square Garden in 1985 when wrestling (Andre The Giant, Hulk Hogan, Paul Orndorff and Roddy Piper) collided with Hollywood (Liberace and Mr. T), music (Cyndi Lauper) and mainstream sports (Muhammad Ali and Billy Martin) to create significant mainstream coverage.
“Since then, WWE's iconic superstars such as The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H and John Cena among many others have continued to draw the attention of mainstream media, including sports,” Flinn said. “WWE has also continued the tradition of connecting athletes and other celebrities, including Lawrence Taylor, Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, Donald Trump, Hugh Jackman, Shaquille O'Neal, Kim Kardashian, LeBron James, The Muppets and Jon Stewart to our events in order to draw additional attention from all types of mainstream media.”
I was curious about whether there was a point person at ESPN who pushed (or had been pushing) for the intersection between the company and professional wrestling. Along with Lesnar’s SportsCenter announcement, there was an appearance by the WWE mic-speaking maestro Paul Heyman on SportsNation, NFL analyst Jon Gruden predicting on WWE.com who would win the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royale, a SportsCenter feature on previous WrestleManias as well as a SportsCenter report on Seth Rollins winning the WWE’s heavyweight title from Lesnar (in heel-like fashion). The SportsCenter Twitter and Facebook account -- with millions of followers -- also sent out live WrestleMania results.
What else? The week prior to WrestleMania 31, Bill Simmons (whose Grantland site writes regularly about wrestling) served as a guest announcer on USA Network’s RAW for a match. Even CBS Sports got into act on Saturday when it ran a graphic featuring analyst Charles Barkley’s favorite wrestlers of all time. Fox Sports personalities pushed out content and there were a ton of media people who tweeted wrestling information during the lead-up to WrestleMania 31 as well as during the actual event. ESPN's E:60 show will have an hourlong behind-the-scenes look at WWE NXT, premiering May 5 on ESPN. It's a show ESPN producer Ben Houser has worked two years on.
When I contacted ESPN management this week regarding professional wrestling appearing more frequently on its mediums, ESPN spokesperson Josh Krulewitz said the increase was not the result of one person’s initiative. (Bummer, because I would have given that person King Kong Bundy-sized praise in this space.) Krulewitz said it was mostly a series of independent one-offs, helped by in-house connections. For instance, the Gruden WWE piece was suggested by a former Monday Night football production staffer who now works in production for WWE.
“While there were examples related to WrestleMania across different ESPN shows, it was more a series of one-off opportunities, each with individual circumstances, and not necessarily a larger concerted effort,” said the ESPN spokesperson. “With that said, we had athletes we’ve covered regularly (Ronda Rousey, Lesnar), along with the news value of the Lesnar announcement, and entertaining video that sports fans were talking about and connect with our shows’ audiences.”
What the ESPN spokesperson did not say was that collectively, this was a very smart business play for ESPN -- and one I’d recommend other sports outlets of all mediums follow more regularly. But let’s get it out of the way: No, the WWE is not a sport. There are terrific athletes and entertainers working there but this is sports entertainment with outcomes pre-determined. No one would suggest that ESPN or CBS Sports Network cover the WWE like the NFL or MLB. Yes, I recognize there are plenty of smart people who think pro wrestling is ridiculous. No, I don’t believe the debates on ESPN2’s talk shows are legit all the time, either.
But outlets (and I include SI here) would be wise to cater to WWE fans when appropriate given its demos. The RAW episode that aired following WrestleMania drew 5.4 million total viewers including 2.4 million adults 18-49 and 2.4 million adults 25-54. (The average SportsCenter gets under a million.) The WWE audience is also very active on social media. Website editors and writers will tell you that wrestling content on sports sites draw a ton of page views. The interest exists.
Using ESPN as an example, the network often brings in entertainers and musicians to do its circuit of radio shows and debate TV. They’ve even given some actors (Ken Jeong) an actual gig on SportsCenter. How great would it be to see Heyman do a regular spot on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike? (You know Mike Greenberg would call him “The Great Paul Heyman”) or Daniel Bryan doing a regular gig for Fox Sports Live (which would be a lot more entertaining than some of the athletes there). As someone who enjoys the WWE, I hope this intersection grows. As someone who writes about sports media, I think the mainstream outlets that push this connection are going to get rewarded.
The Noise Report
1. Wisconsin’s 71-64 win over Kentucky on Saturday night across TBS, TNT and truTV averaged 22.6 million viewers, up 39 percent over the same window in 2014 and the most-viewed Final Four game in 19 years, according to CBS/Turner. Keep in mind the numbers get bumped up a bit because the game airs across three channels. The game is now the most watched college basketball game ever on cable television and peaked at 28.2 million viewers between 11:00-11:15 p.m. ET. Duke’s win over Michigan State across TBS, TNT and truTV averaged 15.2 million viewers, a 31 percent increase over last year for that window. The two semifinals combined to average 18.9 million viewers, the most-viewed semifinal coverage in 18 years.
1a. CBS and Turner said the NCAA tournament coverage across TBS, CBS, TNT and truTV has averaged a 10.8 million viewers for the tournament, the most-viewed tournament coverage in 22 years and a 6% increase over 2014.
1b. Here are the Top 10 Highest Rated TV markets for the two semifinals (this is ranked combining both games):
5 Columbus, OH
1c. NCAA March Madness Live, according to the networks, has accrued more than 77 million live video streams and 16.8 million live hours of video consumption through Saturday’s semifinals, up double digits over last year, with live hours of video consumed up 17 percent.
1d. If CBS and Turner Sports continue with the Team Stream telecasts for the NCAA semifinals – and I hope they do because 1) It’s additive content for viewers, and 2) Watching homer broadcasts is hilarious – the networks must spend more marketing dollars educating the audience on where the middle of the road broadcast is located. On Saturday night once again, Twitter was filled with complaints from viewers who mistook the homer broadcasts (on TNT and truTV) for the middle-of-the-road broadcast (which aired on TBS).
1e. SI broke the news last week that ESPN did not renew the contract of Bob Knight. His last broadcast was NIT final.
2. It was disappointing to learn that longtime SportsCenter anchor Bram Weinstein has parted ways with ESPN. His last day was Thursday. Understanding that it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, there always seems to be money in Bristol for ex-athletes-turned-broadcasters while rank-and-file talents often have to fight very hard come contract time. Weinstein was a quality writer and an engaging figure on the air. He’ll be missed.
Said an ESPN spokesperson: "We appreciate the good work he did during his seven years at ESPN and wish him the best."
2a. Pam Oliver will make her Fox Sports 1 hosting debut on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET with "Pure Sports," a new 30-minute news magazine show. Among the stories airing, according to the network: the therapeutic effect of basketball on the typhoon-stricken Philippines; Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s tribute to a fallen military serviceman; the story of Jay Blake, who became the first blind crew chief in professional auto racing, and a profile of Krissie Newman, on her life a NASCAR wife and mother.
3. CBS will air The Masters for the 60th consecutive year, beginning with live third-round coverage on April 11 (3-7 p.m. ET). The final-round 18-hole coverage is scheduled for Sunday from 2-7 p.m., ET. The talent lineup: For the 30th consecutive year Jim Nantz will cover the Masters (his 28th year as host). Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo joins Nantz in the 18th hole tower as lead analyst. The other hole analysts: Ian Baker-Finch (17th): Verne Lundquist (16th); David Feherty (15th); Bill Macatee (14th); Peter Kostis (13th); and Frank Nobilo (11th and 12th).
3a. CBSSports.com will have five channels of Masters golf: Andrew Catalon, Brian Crowell, Bobby Clampett and Billy Kratzert will call the live video streaming action for Masters On The Range; Grant Boone and Matt Gogel will call Amen Corner (holes 11-13), and Billy Ray Brown and Luke Elvy are assigned to Holes 15 and 16. There will be two separate channels featuring live streaming coverage of selected groupings each day beginning on the 10th hole. Catalon and Kratzert will serve as announcers for Featured Group 1 while Carter Blackburn and Rich Beem will serve as announcers for Featured Group 2.
3b. ESPN will air 4.5 hours of live Masters play from the first two rounds of Augusta including the traditional Par 3 contest the day prior to the tournament. ESPN’s tournament coverage begins Thursday from 3-7:30 p.m., with an edited encore presentation each night from 8-11p.m. ET. Mike Tirico hosts and will conduct player interviews.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• If you've never read John McPhee's 1965 New Yorker profile of Bill Bradley, the New Yorker was kind enough to make it available again.
• Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: John Holdzkom was bored, broke and out of baseball a couple years ago. So he called into Chelsea Peretti's podcast.
• NBA fans: Here’s Lee Jenkins’ long profile of Russell Westbrook.
• Fantastic piece by NYT’s Sam Borden on the last man to beat Floyd Mayweather Jr.
• ESPN’s Marty Smith goes longform on Handsome Harry Gant, still feisty at 75.
• From Jason Quick of The Oregonian: The Rebuilding of Wes Matthews.
• SI’s Brian Hamilton goes inside the Wisconsin basketball team.
• From David Dorsey: Was this Ted Williams' last bat? A baseball mystery.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Thomas Gray lived six days, but his life has lasting impact. Please read this from Michael Vitez of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
• The NYT’s Sarah Lyall on The New Yorker's grammar Jedi, Mary Norris.
• The Nerd Hunter, via The New Yorker:
• The NYT obituary for Gary Dahl, the inventor of the pet rock.
• From The Verge: The Definitive Oral History of Max Headroom.
• Tampa Bay Times writer Joe Smith on his father’s Parkinson’s.
• ESPN’s Adam Amin on why his brothers named him Adam.
5. Here are 200 Q&A interviews from writer Jeff Pearlman.
5a. Sports Business Journal writers Terry Lefton and John Ourand reported on Friday that DraftKings, the online fantasy sports business, is close to getting significant financial backing from ESPN. Industry sources told Lefton and Ourand that ESPN has agreed to invest hundreds of millions of dollars for up to a 20 percent stake in DraftKings.
5b. ESPN NBA analyst Avery Johnson has accepted the head coaching job at Alabama, freeing up an analyst spot on the network’s pregame show.
5c. A number of ESPN staffers reached out to tell me that ESPN president John Skipper attended the memorial service for Ivan Maisel's son, Max. That’s an impressive gesture by a company president. Much respect.