Last week ESPN president John Skipper announced a series of management moves that will have significant impact on how you view ESPN, as well as who you view on the network. For ESPN-ologists, media reporters, and those who work in Bristol, Skipper's memo was the apotheosis of corporate inside baseball. For the rest of you, what matters most is how this group will impact your sports viewing. That's where the name just below Skipper's comes in: John Wildhack, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and production.
Wildhack has added oversight for programming acquisitions, rights holder management and overall scheduling to his previous job, which means both the programming and production departments fall under his umbrella. He is the top decision-maker not named Skipper, who will be deciding ESPN's college football plans next season, and his company is currently contemplating some game-changing talent moves. The catalyst for change: Longtime announcer Brent Musburger turns 75 in May and his current broadcast contract ends three months later.
After speaking with more than a half-dozen television executives and on-air college football staffers on the topic (from inside and outside ESPN) over the last couple of weeks, here is what I have surmised.
• As first reported by James Andrew Miller, Musburger has been offered the job of lead college football announcer for the upcoming SEC Network, which debuts at the end of August. It is unclear whether Musburger will take that offer, as some sources I spoke with noted he is unhappy with how the process is shaking out. What seems clear is that Musburger is being pulled from the lead announcer spot for ABC's Saturday Night Football, which is ESPN's top game each week. (Musburger, via ESPN PR, turned down an interview request from SI.com. "He isn't doing any interviews on the subject," said an ESPN spokesperson.)
As I've written previously, I think Musburger's performance during Florida State's win over Auburn in the BCS title game, as well as his performance over the last couple of years has earned him at least one of those playoff games. That, alas, is unlikely to happen.
• College GameDay host Chris Fowler is the leading candidate to call ABC's Saturday Night Football game as well as next year's national championship game with Kirk Herbstreit. (The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre reported on the possibility of Fowler getting the top job last month). He and Herbstreit would also call one of the semifinal games under this scenario. Fowler's contract expires after the World Cup in July -- a key leverage point for Fowler -- and it was not hard to read between the lines what he wanted when I spoke to him a couple of months ago on his ESPN future. "I don't think it is anything secret internally what I want the next for me to be at ESPN," Fowler said. "I don't think that is a mystery given the landscape. It's why GameDay is a unique standalone thing for me. It doesn't act or feel like a studio show. But the live events are the most inspiring, unexplored thing for me. I really have a passion to document live events as they happen. Hosting is wonderful and remains really satisfying but the joy for me is calling big matches"
There are a couple of catches: Some in ESPN management do not want Fowler to host both GameDay and call a college football game the same night. Herbstreit performs the double as an analyst, but Fowler's responsibility on GameDay are much more demanding than Herbstreit's.
Also, there is the business element. College GameDay is a profitable and marketing behemoth -- one of the most successful things ESPN has ever done -- and there are some who believe changing the talent setup poses significant risks.
• Rece Davis, who currently calls ESPN's Thursday Night Football, is also a candidate for the Musburger spot. His contract is coming up as well, so he has leverage with the network given that he has been an A-plus level performer (and considered a loyal company guy) for many years. If Fowler leaves College GameDay for the ABC announcing role only, Davis is a lock to take over College GameDay. If Fowler does both GameDay and the lead game with Herbstreit, I'd expect Davis to stay with Thursday Night Football. Worth noting is there is also a faction who believe Davis or Joe Tessitore is the better pure college football gamecaller than Fowler. The good news for ESPN is all candidates are excellent and Herbstreit will help ease any transition given his professionalism and preparation.
• Tessitore has been slotted to host the SEC Nation pregame show on the SEC Network but he could be part of the Thursday Night Football equation should Davis switch to GameDay.
• Fowler would almost assuredly continue as the network's number one announcer for tennis, a job he enjoys and continues to improve at weekly.
• The crossover idea of Mike Tirico becoming ESPN's lead Saturday night college football gamecaller as well as continuing on Monday Night Football ultimately was rejected, at least based on people I spoke with last week. Miller reported that ESPN's NFL executives thought Tirico needed to be at MNF meetings over the weekend.
• Longtime analyst Todd Blackledge is a serious candidate as an analyst for the non-Herbstreit playoff semifinal.
• One last thing worth watching: Which ESPN decision-maker will ultimately make the call? Will Skipper get directly involved, will it be Wildhack's call, or will it be a collaborative decision? Given the viewership numbers of a potential college football playoff series, Skipper is likely to play a significant role.
Obviously, I'd love to get direct insight from Wildhack but he declined to comment. Asked for an interview this week from SI.com, an ESPN spokesperson said. "We are in the midst of a negotiation so John is declining the interview. We hope to keep Brent on our college coverage."
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
1. The bidding for a package of Thursday night NFL games closed last week with Reuters, which broke the initial story, reporting that Fox and CBS had submitted bids. Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand previously reported NBC, Turner Sports and ESPN/ABC were also bidding on the package.
One source familiar with the NFL's thinking told SI.com that the number of games being bid on was not set to a specific number, meaning the package could be from anywhere from six to eight games or more, depending on the proposals from the networks. The source said the NFL was very interested in what broadcast group would provide the best promotional plan to amplify the viewership of Thursday night games. (On this end, ESPN would reportedly air games on ABC.)
The NFL sought bids for a single season, starting this September, with the likelihood of extending the contract after its first year. The league was happy with how the NFL Network positioned Thursday as a football night but feels a network partner can improve viewership numbers (which they will). The NFL Network -- at least according to the league -- will continue to air a simulcast of the games, using the announcing and production teams of the winning bidder. This year's 13-game NFL Network schedule averaged 8.0 million viewers in 2013. That was up 10% from the 2012 season average, but well behind viewership for games on CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN.
1a. Sunday's games produced massive viewership numbers for both CBS and Fox. Denver's win over New England averaged 51.3 million and peaked with an average of 59.1 million viewers from 5:30-6:00 PM ET. Fox's coverage of Seattle's win over San Francisco averaged 55.9 million viewers and topped out at 60.3 million in the final minute.
1b. Fox said the top-rated markers were Seattle followed by San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland and Milwaukee (38.9/57). The game was the most-watched non-overtime NFC Championship Game since 1995 (Dallas-San Francisco, 56.8 million viewers).
1c. Reached at halftime on Sunday of the Niners-Seahawks game, Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Troy Aikman both agreed this year's NFC Championship at CenturyLink Field in Seattle was the loudest crowd they had ever been part of as broadcasters. "I have never seen or heard anything like this place," said Buck.
1d. Sports Business Journal assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that NFL teams averaged a 28.5 local rating in their respective home markets for regular-season game telecasts in 2013, an increase of four percent from 2012. The Saints led all teams with a 52.0 local rating in New Orleans, up 14 percent from last season. Here's a list of ratings in the NFL local markets.
1e. The NFL Today viewers are used to hearing the voice of voice-over artist Tia Texada between prior to commercial breaks but for the last two weeks, the show has filmed her doing her spots. The MMQB profiled Texada earlier this year.
1f. Courtesy of The Big Lead, here's Erin Andrews interviewing Seahawks cornerback (and TheMMQB.com) Richard Sherman after Seattle win over San Francisco. Per a Fox Sports spokesperson to SI.com, Fox's game producers cut short the interview. It's a judgment call for all producers and Fox's lead NFL production team is terrific. In this case, I think they were too cautious. Viewers are inundated weekly with vanilla interviews and BS coach-speak. Sherman's postgame reaction, straight out of the WWE playbook, was dangerous, interesting television. They should have stuck with it. Andrews discussed the interview with The Dan Patrick Show on Monday.
2. After years of chasing an interview with former Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, NBC Sports reporter Mary Carillo said she finally landed a Manhattan breakfast meeting with Kerrigan and her husband, Jerry Solomon in March 2012. "I told them, "Look, Tonya [Harding] is unknowable and Nancy is unknown'," said Carillo. "Tonya has spent 20 years basically using her reputation as this outlaw celebrity -- she has been using her infamy to make a living out of it as much she could ... Basically we said, people are going to doing stories with or without you so why don't you tell us once and that will be it."
At the time, Kerrigan had not spoken in depth in years about the surreal events of January 1994, but she clearly knew that stories would come when the Tonya-Nancy saga hit the 20-year anniversary. A few weeks after the breakfast, Carillo said Solomon told her that Kerrigan would sit down for a documentary. The one-hour piece, which includes interviews with Harding, will air during the last week of the Sochi Games during NBC's coverage. The specific time and date is still being determined.
Carillo said she and producer Margaret Grossi (who joined Carillo for the breakfast) started working on the project last summer and the pair did two long sit-downs with Kerrigan. Asked directly if Kerrigan agreed to do an NBC documentary as a quid pro quo for being named an ice skating correspondent by NBC for this year's Games, Carillo said, "I did not even know that notion was out there. Nancy agreed to do this story. Anything that happened after that is beyond me. When we first sat down with Nancy it was Jan 2012."
Last week ESPN ran an entertaining 30 for 30 doc on Harding/Kerrigan (The Price of Gold) that one could view as being somewhat sympathetic to Harding. But Carillo said that she does not worry about viewer fatigue given the ESPN doc. "Obviously there will be an overlap but I think the big surprise is Nancy. We have all heard from Tonya and we kind of know what to think of her and what she thinks of us... Nancy came from a very stable background and Tonya came from instability. That is the biggest difference between them I believe."
2b. Carillo will work as floating correspondent for NBC during the Sochi Games and has already been to Russia three times -- over a period of five weeks -- to film features for the network. That included two weeks in Siberia in December. She's also encountered seals at Lake Baikal, saw rare Faberge eggs and profiled the Russian ballet to see how figure skaters studied it to better dance on the ice. "You always think that one day you might get that call from your bosses: We are sending you to Siberia," Carillo said. "My first question was, 'Are you sending me back?'"
2c. Carillo, who will cover her 12th Olympics and has done plenty of hard-hitting stories for HBO Sports, said she is convinced NBC will do a thorough job covering the news elements of the Games. "If you are the rights-holder, you want to get it right," she said.
2d. NPR's David Folkenflick examined how NBC will cover gay issues during the Sochi Olympics.
3. Here is NBC's list of the 84 broadcasters who will cover the Sochi Games from Sochi and the network's studios in Stamford, C.
3a. NBC said its broadcast roster includes Olympians who have won a combined total of 35 Olympic medals (9 gold, 14 silver and 12 bronze). Team NBC would have finished second in the Vancouver Games medal count ahead of Germany and Canada and just behind the U.S.
4. Should a television sports reporter/personality cover a team while being in a relationship with a member of that team? That was a question I posed to my Twitter followers after reading that NESN Red Sox reporter Jenny Dell and Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks were in a relationship. As a blanket rule, I think NESN should remove Dell from covering the Red Sox as long as she is involved with Middlebrooks, even if you as a viewer believe her work falls under the title of entertainment. Appearances of interest conflicts matter, or they should to any editorial entity that cares about disseminating information. Such a relationship -- if NESN stays the course -- also hurts the efforts of female sports journalists. On this note, here were some answers to my question from women sports journalists in the field:
Boston Globe sports reporter (and former Red Sox beat writer) Amalie Benjamin: "Never. Ever. And more, it hurts the credibility of every female reporter doing it the right way."
USA Today's Lindsay Jones: "Never, never, never. Did I mention never?"
SI's Joan Niesen: "Under no circumstances. None whatsoever. No, no, no."
5. Grantland published a piece last week ("Dr. V's Magical Putter") on a miracle golf putter and the mysterious inventor behind it. I found myself enamored by the terrific writing, reporting and storytelling of the writer. I tweeted out the piece out multiple times and praised it in my tweets. Plenty of other journalists pushed the piece, too, but I own my actions here.
In the days after the piece was published, there has been a torrent of criticism of the story, and I'd urge you to read these pieces from writers Maria Dahvana Headley, Melissa McEwan and Tracy Moore.
They are part of an important conversation about transgender issues that need to happen in journalism, sports and elsewhere. Gawker offered a tick-tock of the conversation about this story on Twitter. Some counter opinions on the criticism above include the Free Beacon and this discussion on Gangrey.com, which includes some journalists offering insight into the process. The New Republic's Marc Tracy is also worth reading here.
If I had a Twitter mulligan, I wish I had immediately recognized the pain many felt about outing the subject in the piece (which was clearly wrong), and the impact of the piece on the transgender community. I would have framed my tweets smarter and tried to prompt intelligent discussion on it. I also should have thought more about the ethical issues that popped up before tweeting it out, including if there was a written or verbal agreement that the author would only write about the science of the putter and not Dr V's personal background. I think I was so enthralled by the reporting and whodunit aspect of the tale -- and the skill of a talented journalist -- that I failed to recognize some vital issues about the piece.
This is important: Though I do not know the writer personally, I believe he initially approached the piece without ill intent, and the same writer has produced thoughtful takes in the past including on homophobia in MLS. I also know enough editors and writers at Grantland to know they care about people and the subjects they feature on their site. This is not the clown division at ESPN. I'll also note the writer has gotten death threats on social media and that type of response is unconscionable.
Had Grantland had the piece to do again, I'd like to believe they would have reframed (or excised) the latter half of the piece -- the suicide should have been handled far more sensitively -- and offered a separate piece from the reporter or editors explaining motivation, the reporting process and why they ran the story. Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons addressed the story on Monday afternoon in a Letter From The Editor, ESPN staffer Christina Kahrl did as well, and ESPN PR released this statement to SI.com on Sunday afternoon. "We understand and appreciate the wide range of thoughtful reaction this story has generated and to the family and friends of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, we express our deepest condolences. We will use the constructive feedback to continue our ongoing dialogue on these important and sensitive topics. Ours is a company that values the LGBT community internally and in our storytelling, and we will all learn from this."
Emily Perper, an editor-at-large for The Annual Tweets, tweeted something Saturday that sticks with me. "My favorite journalists love Caleb Hannan's story for Grantland," she wrote. "The activists I respect think it is repugnant and unethical." I'll be thinking of that.
As I read pieces on this over the weekend, I was impressed by the thoughtful work of Slate's Josh Levin on the journalistic moral dilemmas of the piece. But I want to conclude with something that all editorial people should be aware of -- this Poynter piece which offers nine ways journalists can do justice to transgender people's stories.
6. Tim Brando announced last week that he was leaving CBS Sports after working for the network for 18 years. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle's David Barron, Brando said, "I feel confident that something good is going to happen and that my future is bright, but in order for that to happen, I have to be someone who is available. They have to know that I am a free agent," he said. "For those that are out there and making plans and shuffling the deck, they need to know that I would like to put my name in the shuffle and let's see where (the cards) fall." I like Brando. He's a smart, well-prepared broadcaster and no doubt he'll land somewhere.
7. Sports stories of note this week:
• SI's S.L. Price on Richard Ben Cramer's quest to understand Alex Rodriguez.
• ESPN's College GameDay (basketball) ran a beautiful piece on Baylor center Isaiah Austin, who suffered a torn retina that caused a loss of vision in his right eye. Props to producer Sharon Matthews:
• ESPN's Liz Merrill on the centers who have played with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
• SI.com's Sam Page on sabermetrics in pro hockey.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• The Secret State of North Korea: A sobering and must-view documentary from Frontline PBS.
• One of the more remarkable obits you will ever read.
• Former Wall Street trader Sam Polk on wealth addiction.
• What happens when Barack Obama sits down next to you at a cafe? Nice fly-on-the-wall work by Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic.
• From the Harvard Business Review: "The more love co-workers feel at work, the more engaged they are."
• Via Romenesko: Who owns a newspaper sports photo?
• Bloomberg News' Mina Kimes on her relationship with her father.
• How Google searches reveal gender expectations by parents. If you have kids, read.
• The Washington Post on three brothers who went to war. One came back.
8. ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte weighed in on ESPN talker Dan Le Batard giving Deadspin readers his Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballot.
9. HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel will air a piece on marijuana use in the NFL on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Here's Chris Kluwe from the piece produced by Chapman Downes and reported and narrated by Andrea Kremer: "For a lot of guys, they see what happens with the older generation of players and how a lot of those guys got addicted to pain pills. You know, - they have alcohol problems. And they're like, 'Well, you know, is there an alternative? Is there something else we can do?' And marijuana is an alternative."
9a. With the new Pro Bowl format, the NFL Network is airing a Pro Bowl Draft Show on Tuesday and Wednesday at 8:00 PM ET. NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice will have final say over draft decisions, and will be assisted by two active player captains and one NFL.com fantasy football champion in the draft process.
9b. NBC NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth will have a Pro Bowl Special at 7 pm ET on Jan. 26 as a lead-in to 7:30 PM ET telecast of the Pro Bowl on NBC.
10. The Big Ten Network will air a special edition of BTNLive at 6:00 pm ET on Monday that pays tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King. The show will be hosted by Rick Pizzo and Stephen Bardo and includes interviews with Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith and Penn State women's basketball coach Coquese Washington. Charlie Scott, the father of Ohio State junior guard Shannon Scott and the first African-American basketball player at North Carolina, will also discuss what the day means to him.
10a. Bill Russell will be part of a SiriusXM hour-long special (Remembering The Dream) on Martin Luther King that airs Monday at12:00 pm ET on SiriusXM NBA Radio, channel 217
10b. TNT analyst Charles Barkley on Dwight Howard: "He's a very good player but I thought by now he would be a great player. I don't think you can build your team around him. He needs a lot of help to get deep in the playoffs."
10c. ESPN said none of the coaches -- including Alabama coach Nick Saban -- were paid for their appearance on the BCS pregame and MegaCast coverage.
10d. Congrats to Christine M. Werder, the daughter of ESPN NFL insider Ed Werder, on publishing her first children's book.
10e. Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel and ESPN PR staffer David Scott were two of the screenwriters on the film "Life of a King," which opened this weekend.
10f. Off the Rez, the fine documentary from filmmaker Jonathan Hock on Louisville basketball players Shoni and Jude Schimmel, will be released on iTunes on January 24.
10g. Via John Ourand: ESPN2's BCS Title Talk had nearly four times more viewers than ESPNews' BCS Film Room during the BCS Championship (389,000 vs 100,000).
10h. The NBA's All-Star starters will be exclusively announced this Thursday during TNT's NBA coverage. Expect the announcement during the 7:00 EST p.m. hour.
10i. Shared Belief, a 2-year-old juvenile owned by CBS Sports talk-show host Jim Rome, was named the 2-year-old male Eclipse Award winner after winning all three of his starts. He is the current co-favorite for the 2014 Kentucky Derby.