One of the current parlor games in sports broadcasting revolves around who will replace College GameDay analyst Lee Corso when he decides to leave the iconic pregame show. Last winter Corso signed a two-year extension so there is no immediate change on the horizon, and Lee Fitting, the longtime executive of the program, has consistently said the 80-year-old Corso will stay as long as he wants. “As far as I am concerned as long as I am there, he is there as long as he wants to be,” Fitting said. “We don’t get caught up in the future. That’s not a stock answer. That’s the truth.”
I believe him. Fitting said this year marks the best six-week stretch for Corso he has since his stroke in May 2009. But when potential candidates become available, it’s natural to examine the possibilities. Such was the case on Saturday when former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier sat in on the show.
Spurrier, 70, appeared in multiple segments including a Tom Rinaldi tribute to him in the first hour, an overly deferential Q&A with the current cast including questions on why he left in midseason and whether he’d get back into coaching. He was also an engaging part of the Saturday Selections part of the show (he was 4–6 with his picks). Spurrier was engaging enough—his best moment was picking South Carolina when asked for USC–Notre Dame pick—but he by no means looked like a can’t-miss prospect and at times, understandably, looked a little confused by the mechanics of the show.
Was this audition for a future ESPN role? Fitting, one of the point people at ESPN for college football talent hires, said it was not. At least not right now.
“From our perspective and people may call ‘BS’ on me: By no means is this an audition,” Fitting said. “This is a chance to have someone in the news this week and a legend in the college game be a part of our show and help us set the landscape for Saturday and the week that was. Down the road if he does have interest in television and we have interest, then we will talk and set up a formal audition. This was simply: We think this could be a couple of good segments of TV.”
He continued, “It doesn’t mean that he’s an automatic lock for being a good studio analyst. There is a chance he’d be good. There is also a chance that a lot of people in our business and viewers overreact to his halftime and postgame press conferences and assume he will be great on TV. That’s not always the case. You can’t make that knee-jerk reaction. Just because people say some funny lines and are a character so to speak, it’s not an automatic that they would be a good sports television analyst. It’s not a lock.”
That’s a good observation because Spurrier by no means came across as a can’t-miss star. It’s impossible to judge under this setting because he was mostly a guest rather than an analyst. On Saturday afternoon, Fitting said Spurrier “was very good” for the first time out.
How did the show land Spurrier? This one was pretty simple. Fitting asked Rece Davis, who was covering Spurrier’s resignation press conference in Columbia, S.C., to ask Spurrier if he was interested in working for GameDay this week. Said Fitting: “I told Rece: 'Ask Coach for me if he would come to Ann Arbor this weekend?' Thirty seconds later Rece texted me back: 'He’s in.'”
I’ve always contended—and Fitting has never been shy about proclaiming how much he likes him whenever he appears as a guest—that Alabama coach Nick Saban is the ultimate target for GameDay. Saban shares a CAA broadcasting agent with Davis and many others at ESPN, and I’m not sure there is a current coach in any sport who ESPN wants to employ more if he or she becomes available (UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who has worked for ESPN at times, is also up there).
GameDay, by the way, has not missed a beat with the switch in hosts from Chris Fowler to Davis. Through six weeks, College GameDay is averaging 1,951,000 viewers, up 9% from last year (1,788,000 viewers) at this time and 4% (1,867,000 viewers) from 2013.
“I knew it would be smooth transition simply because of Rece and what he stands for and how talented he is on television,” Fitting said. “But that transition has been 10 times better than I even thought it would be, I really think the show has not missed a beat. The show has a slightly different tone and feel as I thought it would be given a different host. Man, I am thrilled where we are at right now.”
One thing Fitting did come away with from his time with Spurrier this weekend in Ann Arbor was that the Head Ball Coach might be intrigued by the media world. “I spent a lot of time with him the last 24 hours,” Fitting said on Saturday. “I sensed he’s somewhat intrigued by television.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the most memorable sports media stories of the week
1. TBS hit the broadcast Wonka ticket this year by broadcasting the National League Championship Series (NLCS) between the Mets and Cubs. That’s the No. 1 media market versus the No. 3 media market, with the added narrative of the Cubs attempting to win the World Series for the first time since 1908. Saturday’s Game 1 averaged 7.9 million total viewers, the network’s most-viewed and up 46% in total viewers over the last time TBS aired the NLCS (St. Louis vs. Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013).
I thought it would be interesting to panel some professional colleagues who often write and tweet about sports television ratings to offer ratings predictions. (Me? I think this series will draw 8.9 million and go six games). The answers below came prior to the Game 1 rating.
Neil Best, Newsday:
Average viewership for the NLCS obviously will depend on its duration, but if it goes six or seven games I believe it could average 9.9 million viewers. Interest in the Cubs will capture casual fans, and their opponent comes from a fairly large media market that has embraced the team. Even Yankees fans will watch!
Anthony Crupi, Ad Age:
7.16 million viewers. This NLCS has everything going for it —the No. 1 & No. 3 TV markets, a pair of wildly entertaining ball clubs, the curse-dispelling mojo of Theo Epstein—but even a seven-game series faces an uphill climb, as two games are scheduled for the Witness Protection Program that is Saturday night and another three conflict with NFL prime time.
Chad Finn, Boston Globe:
Mets-Cubs is such an appealing series that it's tempting to suggest it will double the average of 4.5 million that Cardinals-Giants got for Fox and Fox Sports 1 last year. But I'll under bid, Price Is Right style, and go with an 8 million average, which is slightly more than Red Sox-Tigers got for the ALCS in '13.
Michael McCarthy, Sporting News:
Book it: If the Chicago Cubs-New York Mets series goes the distance, Game 7 will be the most-watched, highest-rated baseball game in cable TV history. And Cubs-Mets will end up as the most-watched, highest rated LCS in cable TV history. (My prediction is an average of 8.3 million.) You’ve appealing young clubs from two of the three biggest U.S. TV markets going at it. You’ve got a classic on-the-field matchup, pitting Cubs power hitters Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber against mediagenic Mets pitchers Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. As they try to win their first World Series in over a century, the Cubs are also drawing millions of casual sports viewers who otherwise might not watch postseason baseball.
John Ourand, Sports Business Daily:
It will be the best baseball rating Turner has ever posted, regardless of how many games the series goes. Reasons: Two of the top three media markets; two teams with rabid fan bases that haven’t won in a long time; and the Cubs.Turner’s highest rated/most watched was in 2010, when the six-game Yankees-Rangers series averaged a 5.9 HH rating/8.2M total viewers. I expect these numbers to be 20 percent higher — averaging around 9.8 million viewers.
Douglas Pucci, TV Media Insights and Awful Announcing:
The Mets-Cubs will be TBS's highest-rated, most-watched LCS to date since those "lovable losers" from Chicago are an assured large national draw for MLB playoff games, including the possibilities of either a Cubs' historic feat or succumbing to the specter of a fluky/unprecedented occurrence. The Mets hail from the No. 1 TV market in the nation, and the entire series airs in prime time (although Game 6 would be an afternoon affair if the ALCS reaches seven games). Prediction: 8.5 million viewers and a 5.3 household rating.
Richard Sandomir, New York Times:
I'll go with 9.6 million if it goes 7 games where the seventh game usually gives a big boost to the overall number. TBS has never had an LCS with more than 8.2 million viewers so the match-up of the New York and Chicago markets should give TBS a record. But don't expect anything close to the 16.8 million that Fox drew in 2003 when the Cubs played the Marlins. Not only was that a dozen years ago, but it was on a broadcast network, not a cable outlet like TBS.
Sports TV Ratings.com editors:
Nine million viewers average for Cubs-Mets NLCS will surpass 2010 ALCS (Yankees-Rangers 8.2M) and become TBS' most-watched MLB playoff series. The Cubs are the big draw, though it doesn't hurt TBS any that they'll be playing a team from the biggest market.
1a. On Sunday, Fox announced it had hired Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez to be a guest studio analyst for the duration of the playoffs. Sports television executives rarely factor so-called on-field character issues (such as PED use) with hires unless their league partners have issues. Bringing Rodriguez on for a short-term play is an interesting move, and potentially a good one. The expectations will be very low and they'll be a tune-factor given Rodriguez’s name recognition. (I’d also expect some hate-watching, which still counts in the ratings.) Yankee beat reporters will tell you that Rodriguez’s baseball knowledge is off the charts. He has a habit of seeing everything on the field and a number of them emailed me Sunday to say that he’s particularly good at diagnosing pitching issues, which is counter to what you might think given he’s a hitter. Will that translate to television? We’ll see.
1b. The MLB postseason on TBS is averaging 5.9 million total viewers through 11 telecasts, up 41% over last year to rank as the network’s most-viewed postseason coverage to date.
1c. The Blue Jays-Rangers series averaged 3.55 million on Sportsnet in Canada, which is a crazy, big number given Canada has a population of 35.1 million.
1d. FS1’s coverage of the American League Division Series on FS1 averaged 2,795,000 viewers, down 10% from the NLDS on FS1 last year (3,120,000).
2. Dottie Pepper and David Feherty have uniquely different broadcasting styles, not to mention passports, and nobody knows that better than Pepper. Last week CBS announced that the former LPGA star and longtime NBC and ESPN golf analyst will replace Feherty as CBS’s on-course reporter. She’ll work 20 events for CBS in 2016 including the Masters. (Her CBS contract is a two-year deal with an option for a third.) Pepper will also continue working for ESPN’s golf coverage (her contract is 35 days a year for ESPN) and write for espnW, making her the rare sports broadcasting person to work for two different networks concurrently.
Clearly, it’s a notable signing for CBS. Pepper is the first full-time female voice for the network that covers the most PGA Tour events and she will be the first woman to work the Saturday and Sunday broadcast of the Masters. CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said that when it became evident that CBS Sports would not get a deal done with Feherty, Pepper was the only person he considered.
“I heard so many good things about her from other networks where she had worked,” McManus said. “I had watched her work a lot and the reports back on her work ethic, knowledge of television, and knowledge of golf, all came back really, really good. She has enormous amount of credibility. We obviously didn't hire because she is a woman but we have talked the last couple of years to add a woman to our broadcast team.”
Said Pepper: “I told Sean and the other guys at CBS that I will tell you one thing: I am not funny but I am going to work my tail off. Naturally, they laughed. I’m not trying to replace David Feherty. I’m trying to do what I always have done, which is give the viewer something they do not know whether it’s about a shot to be hit, something I have observed off-camera, a conversation between a player and caddy, anything like that. Then I get out of the way because people want to watch great golf.”
McManus said CBS asked for permission from ESPN to speak to Pepper because she still has two years left on her ESPN deal. To ESPN’s credit, Bristol execs John Wildhack and Mike McQuade (the network’s vice president of golf production) recognized this was a terrific opportunity for Pepper(who negotiated her CBS contract without an agent) and allowed the cross-network deal to get done.
As for the Masters, Pepper will work for ESPN on Thursday and Friday and for CBS on Saturday and Sunday. She will be on-course reporter for CBS throughout the golf season but given there are no on-course reporters for CBS at the Masters, McManus said, “Her role there is still TBA but it will be a prominent role.”
Pepper previously worked as a golf analyst at NBC Sports from 2004 until 2012. She was a 17-time winner on the LPGA Tour, including two majors wins. Her first event for CBS comes the last week in January at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego.
2a. CBS said through five weeks of the 2015 NFL regular-season it was averaging 18.2 million viewers, the highest number of average viewers for the first five weeks of the season for the AFC television package in 29 years.
2b. CBS NFL Today analyst Bill Cowher said on Sunday he would release Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel: “I have watched Johnny Manziel now for a year and a half. I think he's a backup quarterback at best. He's a distraction off the field. I believe in second chances, but after the second chance, to me there is a zero tolerance policy. He can't put himself in the position he put himself into. I would ask for his release and do it for this reason. In that locker room, players want accountability and be held to that. There is an accountability on the field, but there is also an accountability off the field that you always be a professional in your community. To me, that is the message that needs to be sent here. You are accountable for your actions not only on the field, but off the field. That is why I would ask for his release.”
2c. ESPN said its broadcast of Michigan State’s stunning last-second win over Michigan drew the highest overnight rating (5.1) for any college football game this weekend. It was also the best overnight rating ever for an ESPN college football game in the month of October. The game received a 28.3 overnight, the best ever rating in Detroit for a regular season college football game on ESPN. The LSU-Florida game on ESPN (4.0 rating) was the second highest rated overnight among CFB games.
2d. NBC’s telecast of USC- Notre Dame game drew a 2.89 overnight rating, the highest overnight rating for a Notre Dame on NBC broadcast since Michigan-Notre Dame last year. The Top 10 local markets were: 1. Indianapolis; 2. Los Angeles; 3. San Diego; 4. Las Vegas; 5. Tulsa (4.3)
3. Welcome to episode No. 24 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast. In this podcast, which is published weekly, I interview members of the sports media about their work, and interesting people about the sports media.
This week’s guest is the FS1 anchor Jay Onrait, who co-hosts Fox Sports Live with Dan O’Toole. The two also co-host the Jay and Dan podcast.
In the episode, Onrait, who grew up Athabasca, Alberta and was a popular anchor for TSN, discusses the differences between Canadian sports television and U.S. sports television, why moving from Canada to the States was the right decision for him, how he was frustrated by the direction of Fox Sports Live initially, what he learned growing up as the son of a pharmacist and a nurse, how long he plans to work with O’Toole, the most underrated on-air talents at FS1, whether he’s personally competitive with ESPN, why the World Cup of Hockey is a terrible idea, why TSN was like ESPN when it came to salary philosophy, and much more.
On the podcast, Onrait confirmed that he and O’Toole have had their options picked up by Fox Sports for 2016 and 2017. “We had our options picked up for those two years so you are stuck with us for a couple of years,” Onrait said. “We want to stay with the company for a long time.”
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• An amazing piece of journalism from N.R. Kleinfeld in the New York Times: The Lonely Death of George Bell.
• Washington Post writer Julie Zauzmer had a remarkable piece on a Pennsylvania boy blessed by Pope Francis.
• From The Wall Street Journal: Inside An FBI Hostage Crisis.
• Via NYT’s Jonathan Mahler: What Do We Really Know About Osama bin Laden’s Death?
• Which drew this response by Mark Bowden in Vanity Fair.
• Via Julia Ioffe: Why Russia's alternate history of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 matters.
• From CJR: Where the right to know comes from.
• Via Elizabeth Weil: What happened when one of San Francisco’s most notorious underworld bosses tried to go clean.
Sports pieces of note:
• SI's Lee Jenkins on Lamar Odom.
• The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins on Terry Bradshaw calling out Greg Hardy and NFL broadcasters being complicit with their silence.
• Via New York Times: The Dark Reality of Sports Betting and Daily Fantasy Games.
•Via Grantland’s Charlie Pierce: It’s Time To Stop Being Stupid About Gambling.
• Sensational work by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! following the Michigan-Michigan State game.
• From SB Nation’s Brandon Sneed: Born That Way: The Legend Of Coach Marvin Jarman.
• Good story by Ben Shpigel on NFL players now adopting the soccer tradition of exchanging shirts after games
• Nick Ironside of 247 Sports had an oral history of the “Bush Push” game between USC and Notre Dame in 2005.
5. The CONCACAF Cup match between Mexico and the United States averaged 5.1 million viewers on Univision Deportes, and was the highest rated broadcast station regardless of language for total viewers in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Phoenix and Sacramento. The match averaged 1,561,000 viewers on FS1, the most-watched men’s match ever on that channel and bigger than all but three matches from the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
5a. The Big Lead’s Ty Duffy notes that the last ESPN Ombudsman column came on Dec. 3, 2014.
5b. With FS1 executives telling reporters that they are actively looking for more opinion-focused programming, the network’s newest (and former) opinioniator, Jason Whitlock, let Fox Sports’ online readers know in no uncertain terms his opinion of Deadspin, the Manhattan-based website that chronicled in a series through audio recordings and documents Whitlock’s management tenure as the ousted head of a still-yet-to-be-launched ESPN site on the nexus of race and sports. Last week Whitlock released on his Fox-sponsored Tumblr account a series of posts countering what Deadspin had written on him, as well as criticizing that site’s ethos, calling the site a font of “angry white hipsters.” He charged Deadspin writer Greg Howard with making up a lead anecdote about him and tagged Howard a “token black mascot” at the site. Howard responded to Whitlock with a strongly-worded evaluation of Whitlock on his own blog. Howard also was part of a roundtable on the subject in the latest episode of the PostBourgie podcast, a conversation about race and class and gender and politics. The Washington Post’s Matt Bonesteel has a recap here, as does Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz. No doubt some Fox Sports execs are enjoying all the fun, despite where they might end up in the afterlife.
Prior to Whitlock re-joining Fox, ESPN said that the opinionist was welcome back to appear on Pardon The Interruption, a show run by Whitlock’s biggest champion at that network, Erik Rydholm, who is a television hero of Whitlock’s current boss, Jamie Horowitz. Given Whitlock is expected to have a show on FS1 in the same late-afternoon bloc where PTI appears – he’ll also be a weekly guest on new pal Colin Cowherd’s radio show–it’s a long shot he will be a frequent guest on PTI in the near-term.
5c. FS1 had a gorgeously produced October baseball essay featuring some of the great moments in MLB history. Props to Fox Sports/FS1 senior associate producer Etienne Materre for creating the images to match Tom Verducci’s words (You can watch the piece here.) Materre said the piece took about a week to complete and the toughest part was finding the right visuals to illustrate Verducci’s script.
“It was a collaborative idea that came up in a meeting with me, our other AP’s, our coordinating producer Bardia Shah-Rais, and our producer Jonathan Kaplan,” said Materre, who has worked at FS1 since its 2013 launch. “The concept behind it was driven by the great storylines going into this MLB postseason. The idea was to highlight those in combination with the amazing moments from the past to get the viewers excited for what they were about to see this year. Tom Verducci’s words are what really made the piece by laying a beautiful foundation. I was just fortunate to be able to run with it.”
5d. Great work last week by Outside The Lines producer Andy Lockett and reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada on the controversies surrounding Daily Fantasy.
5e. Fox said Katie Nolan’s “Garbage Time” commentary on “Why Greg Hardy’s Return to the NFL is a Problem” had nearly 1 million views in its first 72 hours across all of Fox Sports’ platforms including its linear broadcast and Facebook and Twitter.
5f. Lucasfilm announced that the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens will debut on ESPN’s Monday Night Football during halftime of this week’s Giants-Eagles game. The Spanish language version of the trailer will air on ESPN Deportes simultaneously.
5h. Great job by my colleague Stefanie Kaufman to put this NFL coffee table book together:
5i. Urban Meyer’s book with writer Wayne Coffey, a recent guest on the SI Media Podcast, is already the No. 1 football book on Amazon after two weeks. Coffey was dumped by The New York Daily News after 30 years, a horrific decision by that paper.
5j. NBC Sports is moving into the short-form original digital content space under a banner called NBC Sports Digital Shorts. The first project is “Sherman’s Warriors,” a six-part original digital series featuring former Packers head coach Mike Sherman. The series follows Sherman as he coaches a high school team in Cape Cod.
5k. Thanks to Zach McCrite for the invite to speak on his About Sports Radio podcast.
5l. EPIX will once again air the Road To the NHL Winter Classic, which consists of four one-hour episodes on the Bruins and Canadiens preparing to play in the 2016 NHL Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium. The first show airs Dec. 16 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
5m. Terrific news: Sideline reporter Craig Sager will work the Pelicans-Warriors game for TNT on Oct. 27.