Welcome to the first (and possibly last) SI Media Mailbag. Writing a Mailbag—as egocentric as it is—is a fun exercise to do. So thanks for the questions.
Why do major networks trot out Joe Morgan, Harold Reynolds, Phil Simms types if the feedback (at least on social media) is so consistently negative?
—J. Walter Weatherman
Because many people in sports television management are stubborn, hubristic and, worst of all, allow personal relationships to interfere with judgments of performance. Admittedly, it’s tough to get rid of people for managers, even high-salaried people. There’s a real human element there. But always remember that removing broadcast talent is an indictment of the person who choose the talent in the first place. Networks, especially CBS and ESPN regarding NFL talent, have become somewhat immune to social-media criticism. Why? Because it’s too much to counter. The waves of anti-sentiment against the likes of Simms, Mike Carey, Ray Lewis and Chris Berman are so voluminous that networks often chalk it up to “Twitter is negative,” which dismisses the underlying issues that their talent is underperforming.
Does the Saturday NBA Primetime game have a Sunday Night Football feel to you? Great teams, exciting games. Feels like an event.
Obviously the viewership numbers are not close—21 million for Sunday Night Football versus 3–5 million for the NBA on Saturday night—but the NBA wants this package to succeed given its airing on an over-the-air network (ABC). ESPN has assigned its top production team to the games (Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Lisa Salters, producer Tim Corrigan and director Jimmy Moore) and networks always give their top teams the resources to succeed, including the top tech people and added cameras. It does feel bigger than other regular-season games.
Skip Bayless...why? Why? Why? Also how? And why?
—Rim Sim Sim
The answer is John Skipper, John Wildhack, Marcia Keegan, cheap production costs, and money.
Hope they’re around for a few more years, but who do you like as capable successors to Al Michaels and Mike Emrick?
I wrote a piece two months ago examining what NBC should do in the post-Michaels era. I think Kenny Albert is the logical successor for Emrick, but I hope that time does not come soon.
Bob Costas is 63. Who is the heir apparent at NBC for their Olympics coverage?
The perfect choice is Premier League host Rebecca Lowe, a professional through and through, and someone who would be perfect for the cross-over role of politics mixing with sports. But there would be some management knucklehead arguing Americans want an American voice hosting primetime.
With news of Peyton Manning’s likely retirement, what are the chances he will transition into a career in broadcasting?
Manning could name his job—and his price—but I think he has designs on ownership or football management. It would be an easy and lucrative paycheck for him to do studio work for NBC or CBS once a week.
For the upcoming NCAA tournament, what would you improve about the broadcast? What is your favorite part?
I love that CBS and Turner introduced games on multiple networks with staggered start times so you can play producer between all of the games. Getting truTV remains a nightmare if you are on the road, though. One thing that would improve the coverage is jettisoning game analysts such as Reggie Miller in exchange for analysts who cover the sport year-round.
Is PFT Commenter the most elite political writer?
He’s even more elite now with that big fat paycheck he just landed from Barstool Chernin Sports.
If we can agree that replicating Charles Barkley is impossible why don’t other networks do their shows with minimal production?
Because it’s very hard to duplicate what Inside The NBA does given Barkley is a singular entity. But I agree with you: So many studio shows are little more than rundowns of here’s what we will do in A-block, B-block and C-block, and making sure everyone has equal time to speak.
How much room does Players’ Tribune have to grow in the market? Are media members grumbling about the access they have?
I like what the Players’ Tribune has done so far and I think they have plenty of room to grow regarding digital extensions. However, I don’t believe for a minute they are a threat to media access. The media has plenty of access to every person who has written a Players’ Tribune essay.
With local news outlets still struggling, where do you see the future of local sports coverage heading?
I see budgets being reduced. The days of the high-salaried local sports anchor is just about done. But there will always be sports coverage on local news in most cities given sports is a huge part of the local fabric of towns. We just may see the lead anchors handling it instead of sports anchors.
What on earth happened to Wright Thompson? Feel like [he] disappeared.
He’s around. He just quit Twitter.
Why do networks hide behind “ratings” to defend low-brow stuff when they could easily push and churn quality content?
Because quality costs money and you can always find an audience to tune into bloviators or those trolling fans, fan bases, players etc… First Take reportedly makes somewhere between $10-20 million per year despite having just 400,000 viewers daily. It’s cheap to produce because ESPN has the studio facilities so you are only paying for talent. The formula: get a couple of television executives who know better but like their houses in suburban Connecticut and are paying for kids in college and you have Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith spewing stuff unchecked.
The sports world is already pretty saturated with podcasts. Are they succeeding? Do you foresee more continuing to pop up?
I think we’re going to see the growth of sports podcasts continue. The barriers to entry are small, the ad dollars are still in their infancy, and on-demand audio is a product that appeals to millennials.
Who will be televising the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show next year?
Fox Sports will carry Westminster for 10 years starting in 2017.
Is the sports media culture similar or different in Canada? And in what ways?
I’m by no means an expert on Canadian sports media culture but having been a weekly guest on Sportsnet 590 (my favorite sports station) for three years including hosting live shows in Toronto for a week—and knowing dozens of Canadian sports media people—I can tell you that I find Canadian sports media more accepting of conversation over debate, and more thoughtful in approach. There are far fewer opportunities however as most of the jobs are consolidated into a few big media companies.
With cord-cutters impacting ESPN’s profitability and subscribers, what other changes do you expect from them?
You are already seeing them. Check out how SportsCenter and Mike & Mike have been rebranded to come off like a morning show, a la Good Morning America—happy talk from anchors; bright, friendly sets; personality-driven. You’ll see more events being broadcast back from Bristol in an effort to save money. And, obviously, ESPN will be focusing on mobile to grow that business.
With the understanding that you can’t really compete with ESPN, what will success look like for Ringer?
Relevance in the sports media digital space, which will come from stories and podcasts that pop, as well as a steady and slow growth in traffic. The Ringer will not have ESPN.com’s fire hose to promote itself but it will have many potential readers who want it to succeed, especially those Grantland fans who miss the site.
When guests appear on radio or podcasts, do they get paid to appear?
Depends on the outlet and the market size. Some radio stations pay for guests—especially if they are weekly guests—but most do not and most podcasts do not.
Do you think that Simmons has to chill on his feud with ESPN?
Absolutely not. Professional wrestling teaches us that you always poke the bear if you are an underdog, and Simmons is now an underdog since leaving the First Order.
What are the respective skill sets that lead an analyst to do television versus radio? Thinking of the incredible David Locke (Utah Jazz radio announcer) here.
The skill sets are complementary as far as an ability to communicate in a clear, concise and entertaining manner but television is far more lucrative on the whole. Most people who have done both will tell you radio is more satisfying and fun given the length.
Better long term positioning: NBCSN or FS1?
NBSCN. They’ve spent less on sports rights.
Does an on-air talent move the viewership dial? And how do you really know, because top names get top games.
It’s a good question and hard to measure perfectly. Personally, I don’t believe any game talent increases ratings. I do believe they have a major impact in how you view and come away from a broadcast. One sports broadcast talent on a studio show I believe directly impacts ratings is Charles Barkley. If you remove him from Inside The NBA, I think that show would drop viewers precipitously.
I much prefer sports podcasts to sports radio. How much, if it all, is number of sports radio listeners decreasing in past year?
It’s hard to give accurate national stats on sports radio because the majority of it is regionally-based. But I don’t think sports radio is declining. We are simply seeing audio distributed in different ways including radio shows being made available via podcasts. I give ESPN Audio a lot of credit. They have been aggressive at getting most of their radio shows available the same day in podcast form and every major sports-talk show in every market should do the same.
Should fans of The Dan LeBatard Show fear for the show's cancelation before the conclusion of their contracts?
No chance. One of ESPN president John Skipper’s goals is to bring more Hispanic viewers into ESPN – they are underserved by all the English-speaking sports nets – and he personally likes LeBatard, as does LeBatard’s boss, Traug Keller. His show isn’t rating in some major cities such as New York, but no ESPN show has a shot in late mornings or drive time against powerful local shows in sports-crazed cities.
As sports media continues to devolve, where’s the bottom? How long until trolling becomes open conflict with players?
Who knows where the bottom is but you will definitely soon see bloviating media members engaging in Twitter combat against athletes. And some will be rewarded handsomely for it.
Do you feel there’s a double standard between men and women reporters when it comes to personal appearance? Thoughts?
Absolutely. Ask any woman in the sports business—especially one who works in a front-facing medium—and you’ll get a seminar in Sexism 101. There’s pressure on men when it comes to appearance but it’s nothing compared to women. And keep in mind it’s males in nearly every case who make the decision on talent. Here’s a panel with Michelle Beadle, Andrea Kremer, Kimberley A. Martin (Jets beat writer, Newsday), Amy K. Nelson (multimedia journalist), the MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas and Lisa Wilson, executive sports editor of The Buffalo News, on this and other similar topics.