In a perfect sports television world, ESPN would clone Rece Davis so he could serve as the studio host on a variety of sports. As viewers witnessed during the NBA Draft, Davis is a broadcaster at the top of his craft, an always-prepared professional who understands how to drive a show without making it about him.
"My goal whenever I am hosting a studio show is I want the people at home watching to be involved in our conversation," Davis said. "I have shared with [colleague] Jay Bilas many times regarding the shows that I host that I want us all to have a conversation and I want us all to interject. Interjection when someone is talking is conversational. Interruption is rude. I want to get away from interruptions because I think it is off-putting to the viewer. But I do want people to chime in and go back and forth."
Davis will once again call college football Thursday nights this fall and he'll also be the only palatable part of the Saturday studio show featuring Lou Holtz and Mark May. Then comes college basketball season and hosting the traveling College GameDay circus. He says college football remains his love above all, and though he'd be a perfect fit to host NBA Countdown, it would weaken ESPN where it has a significant strength.
"I like all sports but the two that I love the most, I am fortunate to cover and work on," Davis said. "I grew up in Alabama where college football rules, and I love college football and college basketball. The most difficult thing for me in my career will be at some point giving up that college football Saturday. I love spending that day in the studio and having an impact on the discussion as it relates to the sport. The thing that drives the boat for me at this juncture of my career is college football. I want as big a role as possible."
On that note, Davis said he wants to be heavily involved in ESPN's coverage of the 2014 BCS playoffs. He knows he is unlikely to get a game-calling assignment but wants as big a studio role as possible. "Look, I have a friend -- and one of the best guys in the business with Chris (Fowler) -- who is going to have a huge role and I completely understand that," Davis said. "But with our level of coverage there is going to be a lot to do. I certainly don't want it to be perceived that I am trying to elbow anybody out of the way. I understand what Chris has accomplished and the level of his expertise. But I want to have as much a part of this as I can."
Davis's current contract with ESPN expires at the end of the Final Four in 2015, which will make him a 20-year employee at ESPN. Every sports network would be wise to make a run at him but he speaks like a man unlikely to leave Bristol.
"When you have been at a place as long as I have, there is a loyalty, a sense of belonging and a sense of pride that goes with working there," Davis said. "Our business is completely uncertain and everyone understands that, and speaking from a management standpoint, anyone can change their mind on anybody and at any point in time.
I don't think it is wise to deal in absolutes but I will say this: I feel like I am extremely loyal to ESPN and they have been great to me. I recall something Keith Jackson said a long time ago. He said the number one thing a sportscaster needs is inventory and in the sports that I work, who has better than ESPN? I hope the future will be as mutually beneficial as it has been the past 18 years."
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
1. Last week I paneled a group of writers and bloggers (and an NFL player) to answer a series of sports media-related questions. We present Part II this week with a couple of new voices added into the mix. The panel includes:
• Neil Best, Newsday sports reporter
• Staci D. Kramer, longtime sports, media and tech journalist; former editor of paidContent
• Patrick Hruby, Sports On Earth columnist
• Tom Jones, Tampa Bay Times sports columnist
• Steve Lepore, SB Nation NHL and media writer
• Stefanie Loh, U-T San Diego college football and sports enterprise writer and president of The Association for Women in Sports Media
• Robert Littal, BlackSportsOnline.com founder
• James Andrew Miller, author, Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN
• Jason McIntyre, Big Lead Sports founder and editor
• John Ourand, Sports Business Daily media writer
• Geoff Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman.
• Matt Yoder, Awful Announcing managing editor
The panel was asked a series of sports media-related questions with the only requirement being keep the answers tight. They were free to pass on any questions. For those of you on Twitter, you can follow any of the panelists by clicking on their name above.
A. How would you staff ESPN's NBA Countdown next year and why?
Best: I kind of liked having Bill Simmons on the panel, apparently more than he liked being on it. So I'd replace him with an official cheeky host/traffic cop in the Ernie Johnson mold. If the experiment of going without one just doesn't work, I'd nominate [ESPN's] John Buccigross, but he realizes hockey is better than basketball.
Jones: I wouldn't change a thing. Mike Wilbon and Jalen Rose are superb. I always thought Magic Johnson was the weak link, but even he improved last season by being stronger with his opinions. Meantime, I find Bill Simmons to be the most fascinating personality in sports media today. I'm always interested in what he has to say and I like the dynamic even if there are these occasional awkward moments. In fact, I actually like those moments.
Kramer: My first reaction was they should use Rachel Nichols. Oops.
Lepore: Rece Davis (host), Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose. I think we all saw how cool and easy Davis makes hosting a live event look during the NBA Draft. It was everything that NBA Countdown spent the year not being. Davis is -- along with Bob Ley and Chris Fowler -- one of the best hosts ESPN has. I would also get rid of Magic Johnson, who is simply not good enough on television to merit big assignments. Simmons and Rose have shown good chemistry on their own for things on Grantland.com, so why not let them go toe-to-toe, with Davis moderating and without another cook in the kitchen to dilute things?
Littal: The No. 1 priority has to be getting rid of Magic Johnson. He is like the A-Rod of the show, just dead weight and dead money. I'd keep Simmons -- he drives conservation, love him or hate him. Rose should stay, but not as the host. Scott Van Pelt or Rece Davis should be the host to bring in some personality and it would be much more watchable.
McIntyre: After the NBA Finals I wrote that if Simmons wants to bail, Stephen A. Smith is ready and willing to take over. How's this: Stephen A. Smith replaces Mike Wilbon, and takes over as the host. Smith gets the best of both worlds: He wants to host his own show again, and while this isn't "his" show, he'll be the host. That leaves him, Magic, Simmons and Rose. That's what I think will happen.
What I would do? Build something closer to a crew you had at the draft. A traditional 'get out of the way' host. Van Pelt as host, keep Simmons and Rose, and replace Magic with Chris Webber if he'd be willing to leave TNT.
Yoder: NBA Countdown got better this year but still has a ways to go. Step 1: Find a host. You have many capable options you already employ. Sage Steele, Rece Davis, John Anderson, Steve Levy, Lindsay Czarniak, etc. Pick one. Any of them. (Draw one from a hat or have them compete in a Wipeout-style competition.) Just do something to find a host. 2) Wish Magic Johnson the best in his future endeavors. He's a much better owner/human being than TV analyst. 3) Turn the show over to Rose and Simmons and let them be your Kenny and Charles. The two have good chemistry and with a more free-flowing and less crowded set, the NBA Countdown ship will finally have a direction.
B. How successful will Ray Lewis be on ESPN?
Best: Ray Lewis has all the makings of an ESPN star, as long as he remembers to smile a lot and keep it light. Intensity is great for playing middle linebacker and for postgame interviews, but not for the studio yukosphere. Baggage from 2000 Super Bowl incident? Most viewers don't care about that.
Hruby: Lewis is energetic, charismatic and often doesn't make a lick of sense when he opens his mouth. He'll do very well.
Jones: I'll be surprised if he is as candid, at least initially, as he will need to be to be good. I also don't think he will be well received by many viewers. Perhaps he is beloved in Baltimore, but I'm not sure the rest of the country has forgotten everything about his past.
Kramer: Don't expect an overnight success. If he can be honest and add insight without overreaching, be engaging without trying too hard, he should have a solid start for a good second career. Will he be an All-Star? Doesn't have to be to succeed.
Littal: I don't think ESPN was the right forum for him. Someone as preachy as he is, he would have been better on The NFL Network or even FOX. I think he is going to struggle with the regimented format of ESPN.
Loh: His football IQ, coupled with his public speaking skills, should bring him success in the booth.
McIntyre: How does one gauge the success of an NFL talking head? I'm an information guy, so give me a reporter any day of the week over what some former NFL player thinks about x, y, z.
Ourand: I see a Michael Irvin-type career arc. Ray Lewis could probably convince me to run through a wall. But will that translate to being an effective on-air talent? I'm skeptical.
Schwartz: Very successful. Well spoken and opinionated. Plus his opinions will have the weight of his knowledge and experience of the game.
Yoder: It all depends on the role ESPN gives him. If he's there to play a caricature of himself and give fake locker room pep talks it'll be a huge disappointment. If he offers serious, passionate analysis he has all the tools to be one of the best on TV.
C. Yes or No: Was Fox Sports assigning Gus Johnson as its lead World Cup announcer a smart move?
Best: It was smart. For soccer ever to be regarded as something more than an exotic foreign product that appeals disproportionately to highly educated coastal dwellers, it must break through the notion that it must be narrated by people with British accents who grew up with the sport. Some say, Why Gus? I say, Why not Gus?
Jones: No. I applaud Fox for trying to establish one voice for soccer, but Johnson was the wrong choice. To be fair, Johnson is not my particular cup of tea and I know a lot of people out there love his style. But this is about his lack of soccer experience. I think you need to hire someone with a better grasp of the sport. This is the biggest sporting event in the world and your audience is as passionate as they come. You need to give that audience someone with a rich history of calling the sport, not someone learning on the job.
Kramer: No. Gus Johnson could turn out to be a powerful World Cup announcer and Fox is taking the right steps to give him experience but ideally the lead for a world-class event doesn't learn the sport as he or she goes. Beyond who was chosen, the notion that it fits to pick someone who starts at the same low level of soccer knowledge as the viewers Fox needs to grab makes as much sense as choosing a Secretary of State whose only journey abroad was a class trip.
Lepore: No. But he has five years of on the job training to get better at it. After the World Cup in 2018 (or even by the time the Women's World Cup in 2015 rolls around) we could be singing a different tune. But for now, I remain unconvinced.
Littal: Yes. Gus Johnson makes sports fun, if you aren't a soccer fan you might find the sport boring, nothing is boring when Gus is on the play by play.
Yoder: If Gus puts the work in, learns the game (and the pronunciations), and grows over time, it will be a success. He still has a few years before the bright lights of the World Cup to improve and he's shown brief flashes of what has made him a cult favorite, take Ben Watson's FA Cup winner for Wigan Athletic. However, Fox may have already lost fans and turned them off to Gus Johnson as America's soccer voice by throwing him to the wolves and asking him to learn on the fly in front of a rabid fan base that expects the best from the likes of Ian Darke and Martin Tyler. The network should have started Gus on lower level games and built him up slowly towards the World Cup. Constantly switching partners hasn't helped either. He has some work to do to regain credibility with soccer fans and has to show a lot of progress next season to make this work. I hope he can pull it off because I think it'd be a great thing for everyone involved.
D. NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Television have gained little traction with viewers for their non-live event programming. How would you advise them on programming heading forward?
Best: There is only one way to generate audiences that justify the current number of sports programming hours on national and local cable channels: Take every American sports fan and clone him or her twice, thus tripling the number of available eyeballs. Short of that, the current glut of time-filling "content" is ludicrous.
Jones: You're not going to do a better job than ESPN with news or features. ESPN also has cornered the market on debate shows (PTI, Around the Horn, First Take), but that is where NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Television could make some inroads. My advice? Throw a bunch of money at ESPN's top debaters (Tony Kornheiser, Wilbon, Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith) and see if you can't get them to do for you what they are currently doing for ESPN. I doubt you could woo any of them, but my theory would be: if you can't beat them, steal from them.
Kramer: Be patient, be consistent, add value -- not hype or fluff. Do a better job of using the live events people watch to keep them coming back.
Lepore: It's a tough question. Both networks have already tried some original concepts (i.e. The Lights on NBCSN) and big names (Jim Rome, Doug Gottlieb, Michelle Beadle... Bob Costas still technically has a show on NBCSN!). I would consider doubling down and finding more ways to super-serve programming the networks already have. CBSSN should make their NFL Monday QB show an every day program, as there's never an end to the demand for NFL programming. If I were NBCSN, I'd give Mike Milbury a debating partner and a moderator, and air it for a half-hour prior to the network's hockey pre-game show every night. Combine compelling personalities (which, love or hate Milbury, he is one) with time slots where the shows would be an extension of the networks' popular game programming.
Littal: Stop being so predictable. Take some risks. One of my favorite shows is Dan Le Batard's Highly Questionable, mainly because of his father. It's quirky television. What do they have to lose? No one is watching anyway, so take some chances with programming and talent and more likely, something will catch fire.
Yoder: If there's anything we've learned in the last year it's that live sports drive viewers. You can have the highest quality shows and most popular people on air (and NBCSN specifically does produce good stuff) but viewers won't come without games. If they're truly interested in gaining a lot of viewers and not just being an obscure niche network they need at least three sports out of the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, or major college football/basketball. For example, The Crossover had 472,000 [viewers] as a Stanley Cup postgame on NBCSN -- over 10 times their average. Here's the rub though: I'm not sure either network really wants to step up to the plate and compete with ESPN and Fox. Both NBCSN and CBSSN have had chances to nab major sports rights and haven't. CBSSN is seemingly happy airing old football games, bowling, and PBR. NBC has had more success and ambition, but they haven't made a huge run at acquiring big time properties, instead going the alternative route with the EPL, F1, Tour de France, and NHL. Maybe they're content being niche networks for the next decade.
E. Give me a one sentence, bold sports media prediction for 2014?
Best: John Smoltz will succeed Tim McCarver as Fox's lead MLB analyst.
Hruby: An anonymous ESPN executive admits that the company is delighted by the launch of Pac-12 rights-sharing frenemy Fox Sports 1 because now NBC Sports Network will never amount to anything - denying parent company Comcast any additional leverage against ESPN during carriage fee negotiations.
Jones: Gregg Popovich quits as coach of the Spurs to become a sideline reporter for ABC/ESPN.
Kramer: Cable operators will find a way to offer local sports packs for subscribers who are traveling out of market (or it will be more unusual to find a sporting event that isn't being streamed than one that is.)
Lepore: Fox's MLB package will average lower ratings in the regular season than NBC's NHL package, and no game of the World Series will draw a larger audience than the least-watched game of the NBA Finals.
Littal: Every mainstream media website will have a TMZ style sports section on their home page that will be more popular than anything else on their site.
Loh: The new Fox Sports network will prove a worthy contender for ESPN.
McIntyre: ESPN rivals will look to unearth the next Bill Simmons - a non-mainstream media voice with the ability to discuss about topics fans can relate to.
Miller: Watch as multiple sports outlets vie for the services of Keith Olbermann and Chris Berman will let it be known that his current ESPN contract will be his last full time deal -- with anyone.
Ourand: The NFL will sell its out-of-market Sunday Ticket rights to a non-traditional media outlet like Microsoft for Xbox.
Schwartz: Fox Sports 1 will start to make a dent into ESPN viewership.
Yoder: Fox Sports Live beats SportsCenter head-to-head at least once in the ratings showing FS1 is a legitimate alternative to ESPN for sports fans.
2. The Nine for IX series from ESPN Films -- nine documentaries about women in sports, each directed by women filmmakers -- has its second offering Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET and it's worth your time, especially for college basketball fans. Pat XO highlights the life and impact of former Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt and rather than using a traditional documentary style, filmmakers Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters asked the impactful people in Summitt's life to film themselves using point-and-shoot cameras. Much of the film is told through their thoughts, along with Summitt reflecting on her time at Tennessee and as a women's sports pioneer.
"We had heard the story of Pat Summitt many, many times and we were struggling what would be our point of view," Lax said. "How would we tell it? After talking to many people and watching the Women's Final Four in 2012, we realized that there were so many people we wanted to interview, literally hundreds. So we came up with a plan: Let's get small, point and shoot cameras and send them to everyone in Pat's life who wanted to contribute."
Lax and Winters were worried about leaving the filming in the hands of others but the duo, along with editor Ray Conley, were able to construct an engaging narrative. (Here's a clip.). The best scenes are of Tyler Summitt, the son of Pat Summitt and now an assistant women's basketball coach at Marquette, prompting memories out of his mother as they go through old scrapbooks. "Seeing that relationship she has with her son was really moving," Winters said.
3. Next up on the partner list for Gus Johnson: Cobi Jones. The former U.S. national team player will partner with Johnson for three additional matches -- they called Sunday's Mexico-Panama game -- during Fox's month-long coverage of CONCACAF Gold Cup, including the final July 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET on over-the-air Fox. The networks of Fox (mostly the Fox Soccer Channel) will televise all 25 matches, and SB Nation's Steve Lepore has the breakdown. Jones is scheduled to call a total of ten matches during the Gold Cup -- the biennial tournament for FIFA teams in the North American, Central American and Caribbean confederation -- including both semifinals on July 24 on Fox Soccer, with game callers John Strong and JP Dellacamera.
"Hopefully, I can bestow upon him [Gus] my knowledge of the game," said Jones, who was a soccer analyst at the London Olympics for NBC. "I know he has been with quite a few other people over the past few months. I hope I can give him insight into my specialty, which is the American game."
Jones said he and Johnson called practice games together at a Fox studio in New York a couple of months ago and he thought it went well. "Everyone knows the excitement he brings so I thought it was pretty spectacular to experience it personally," Jones said.
4. Among the memorable sports pieces this week:
• If you click on anything in this column please let it be the video linked in the next paragraph. It might be the best feature piece I've ever seen on ESPN.
ESPN aired the 21-minute video on Outside The Lines on Sunday, which documents the remarkable friendship between former Cleveland high school wrestlers Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton. Crockett, who is legally blind, earned a Judo medal in the 2012 Paralympics in London, and now lives and studies in Colorado Springs, Colo., while Sutton, who lost his legs at age 11 when he was hit by a train, is now a college student in Phoenix. It is impossible to watch without weeping.
Bravo to former ESPN features producer Lisa Fenn, who produced the original piece on these friends in 2009 and was a central figure in Sunday's piece, and ESPN coordinating producer Jose Morales, who helmed the update.
• This Lee Jenkins story on LeBron James is highly recommended.
• Nicol Hay on why Andy Murray and Scotland get along so well.
Two non-sports pieces of note:
• Incredible and heartbreaking reporting from Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow on hunger in rural America.
• An amazing photo, via Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss, featuring Babe Ruth being knocked out of a game in 1924:
5. Viewers witnessed ESPN at its very best Sunday morning, as the network produced thrilling images and sensational booth commentary for Andy Murray's historic win over Novak Djokovic. Particularly notable was match caller Chris Fowler (who was terrific during the last two weeks) and analysts John and Patrick McEnroe laying out (not speaking) as Murray attempted to serve out his final game. As Murray struggled to put away Djokovic, the group found the perfect tone to explain the tension at hand. They also remained silent on championship point. Beautiful.
After the match, ESPN offered an array of fantastic images of how people celebrated the final point, from the family and friends in Murray's box at the club, to his coach Ivan Lendl, to those who assembled on Henman Hill, to a group watching in Murray's hometown of Dunblane, Scotland, to a massive throng near the Tower of London. When your remote production matches the quality of your announcing, you get a great broadcast. ESPN delivered like Murray on Sunday. Well done.
5b. The camera operator who followed Murray through the All England Club following the match -- giving ESPN viewers fabulous coverage of what a Wimbledon champion does immediately after winning a title -- was Howard Woose, a freelancer for BBC. He deserves a bonus from ESPN.
5c. This was the second year Davis hosted ESPN's NBA Draft coverage. Interestingly, he and Simmons had never met prior to the draft. (Bilas and Rose both work with Davis on the college basketball version of College GameDay). How did Davis view the now-famous on-air interaction between Simmons and Clippers coach Doc Rivers:
"It was authentic disagreement, which is good television when it happens," Davis said. "I did not know it was coming. None of us did. I'm not a fan of the term "traffic cop" or "tee-up" because I think a host needs to be involved in the conversation. But at the same time when there is a situation when both parties are there -- Doc has had his say and Bill has had his say -- sometimes I think it is incumbent on the host to bring it back to medium and let the viewer decide which side they want to be on rather than jumping to the defense of the person that is sitting beside you. It is a delicate line for sure and a feel thing...I have known Doc for a long time and have a great deal of respect for him. I am sort of a business is business guy. If he negotiated his way out of contract, that's all well and good for me. I felt like after Bill's reaction to it, I needed to say, 'Well, look, he orchestrated a business arrangement and the Celtics could have held firm.' I think a host has to sometimes bring it back to that side regardless of what your personal feelings might be."
5d. TNT said its coverage of the Coke Zero 400 drew 5.7 million total viewers, the most watched race on that channel since 2010. USA Today racing writer Jeff Gluck does note, though, that the TNT/TruTV simulcast last year had 6.18 million viewers.
5e. Awful Announcing is running a "Greatest Call of All Time" tournament throughout July. Check it out and vote.
5f. Congrats to the BBC's John Inverdale, media ass of the week.