John McEnroe and conflict of interests in tennis broadcasting
We have written this before: No sport does broadcasting conflicts quite like tennis, dating to former agent Donald Dell, who provided commentary of matches involving players he represented and tournaments his firm owned and managed. That’s morphed today into ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez talking about a player (Roger Federer) represented by her agent-husband. Fernandez also draws a salary from being Fed Cup captain, where the Williams sisters’ commitment is often the key to winning or losing. She’s also the U.S. Olympic coach in Rio.
Patrick McEnroe previously made a six-figure salary from the USTA, which put him in a tricky situation when questions came up about the U.S. Open scheduling and the stadium’s need for a roof. The Tennis Channel has experienced this stuff with Justin Gimelstob (who used to coach John Isner) and Lindsay Davenport (who used to coach Madison Keys). As one longtime U.S. tennis wag joked to me about the sport a couple of years ago, "We now go to Mrs. Boras for a report on Alex Rodriguez." (A-Rod has since dumped Scott Boras.)
This year saw ESPN’s John McEnroe, now a consultant/coach for Milos Raonic, work the Wimbledon semifinal between Raonic and Roger Federer for the BBC, which drew some angry tweets from Brits on conflict of interest and potential bias. McEnroe then worked as an analyst for ESPN for the final against Andy Murray. My Twitter timeline was filled with equal parts complaints about bias and people saying it was fascinating viewing. Not unexpected.
Truth be told, tennis has worn me down a bit on such conflicts across broadcasting. Things are so incestuous in tennis that I’m convinced nothing will ever change. Here’s a good piece by Yahoo Canada on those conflicts. I like ESPN’s tonnage at the tennis majors as well as many of the network’s in-game commentators. I believe the company respects the sport given the hours it commits to it. But if you ask me whether I believe an analyst such as Fernandez is giving you unfiltered commentary on Federer or those she coaches at the Olympics, I do not. If you ask me if I think ESPN tennis announcers have pulled punches with players they work with, I do. But then again, I think print/digital journalists have done the same thing with people with whom they are involved. What you are not being told is the real issue.
One exchange I thought was very interesting involved Darren Cahill (who coaches Simona Halep) and my colleague Jon Wertheim. Cahill wrote that he hasn’t called a WTA match in over 18 months involving any WTA player.
If F. Scott Fitzgerald were covering tennis, he’d note that the rules for John McEnroe are different than for you and me.
The easy solution, if you believe such optics are bad, would be to simply not assign a broadcaster with financial (e.g. car owner Jeff Gordon calling Jimmie Johnson races) or family ties to a player or team. But networks rarely re-assign star play-by-play announcers or analysts for any reason, and they also fall in love with the familial narratives (Darrell Waltrip calling Michael Waltrip, Jon Gruden on Jay Gruden, Jeff Van Gundy on Stan Van Gundy, Bob Griese calling Brian Griese at Michigan).
The truth is the majority of viewers don’t care about this. Should they? I think so. But I understand why they don’t.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. On Sunday I reported that Vice President Joe Biden will present the Jimmy V Perseverance Award to Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager during the ESPYs ceremony on Wednesday from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. The show airs on ABC that day, starting at 8 p.m. ET.
1a. Fox Sports has followed up its excellent hire of college football analyst Chris Spielman by bringing in another on-air talent who treats viewers like adults on game broadcasts. The network has added the former ESPN reporter Shannon Spake to work over multiple sports including as the lead sideline reporter on its college football and college basketball coverage and well as a member of its NASCAR broadcast team. Spake also will report from the sidelines for select NFL broadcasts. Over the weekend, she answered a couple of questions via email from this column.
SI.com: At what point did Fox Sports contact your representation (CAA) about working for them, and are the responsibilities you have what Fox initially presented, or did you get more assignments?
Spake: It really was so much more casual than you might think. Not only did I work at the SpeedChannel early in my career, but almost every weekend in the NASCAR TV compound, I would find myself sitting next to a Fox executive or reporter. I knew them, and they knew me, and over the years I have come to consider many of them close friends. Those relationships were key in my move. When my ESPN contract entered the last few months of my three-year deal, my agent and I discussed my goals and what I want out of a new deal. Growth was key, and I knew there was always a chance ESPN wouldn’t be able to offer the same range of growth. So, we explored options. My offer from ESPN and Fox came right around the same time, but I didn’t start negotiating terms with Fox until I decided and informed ESPN that I was going to make the move.
It was obvious that Fox wanted to maximize my experience; in fact, I’m the one who had to narrow the responsibilities down because they offered a lot. NFL was important to me and so was being a part of their top college football team. I also can’t wait to work the pits for the first time at the Daytona 500!
SI.com: What has Fox Sports management told you, if anything, about how they see the job of sideline reporter in terms of what they expect you to bring to an audience and your production team?
Spake: A few years ago, at one of our ESPN seminars, one of the senior VPs said it’s important to “Bring the viewer to a place where their ticket can’t take them,” and that’s been my philosophy ever since. Fox doesn’t want to change that. I’ve been so fortunate to work and learn from the best play-by-play, analysts, directors and producers in the business, and I’ve learned valuable lessons about preparation from each of them. I am extremely proud of my relationships and my reputation, and regardless of what network’s name is on my business card, I will continue to hold myself to a very high standard and always ask: “How could I have done that better?"
SI.com: How do you view ESPN today? As a competitor, or something different?
Spake: I’m really not a fan of the word competition. Sure, if another reporter tells a story/angle that I missed or gets a key interview that I was hoping to get it bothers me. But I have never considered anyone a competitor. I feel like there is plenty of room in this space for all of us, especially because each of us [has] a different style and way of doing things. Rather than compete, I am motivated by my television colleagues and because ESPN sets the bar so high, there’s no doubt I will watch them and continue to find motivation in their story-telling and coverage.
1b. Nice job by Andy Roddick using Periscope (and not working under the constraints of a host broadcaster) to analyze the Wimbledon final.
The future will be filled with such experiences, especially if there is a way to monetize the social media live platform.
2. Fox’s All-Star Game coverage has gotten a significant makeover this year. John Smoltz will make his All-Star Game debut as an analyst (alongside Joe Buck) while Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci serve as the dugout reporters. The latter assignments are of note because for too long Fox opted to parachute in personalities such as Erin Andrews as opposed to those who report on baseball day to day. Rosenthal and Verducci (yes, he works at SI) are two of the best baseball reporters of their generation and assigning them to the dugouts of each team shows viewers that you respect them.
2a. Fox’s pregame show will begin Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on FS1 featuring host Kevin Burkhardt, Pete Rose, Frank Thomas and Verducci. Pregame coverage shifts to the Fox broadcast network at 7:30 p.m. ET.
2b. MLB Network will air the All-Star Game batting practice at 6 p.m. ET
2c. ESPN’s Home Run Derby is always a tough watch, mostly thanks to host Chris Berman, but for those interested, the network has a new main set of hosts featuring Sunday Night Baseball analysts Jessica Mendoza and Aaron Boone, along with Berman. Mendoza is the first female analyst for a Home Run Derby telecast. The better listen will be on ESPN Radio where Jon Sciambi and analyst Chris Singleton will call the exhibition, along with reporter Peter Pascarelli and studio host Marc Kestecher.
2d. On Wednesday I wrote a piece positing why the NBA should air at least half of the Warriors games nationally if not more for the upcoming year. Last year the Warriors made 30 appearances combined across ABC, ESPN, and TNT (NBA TV also aired 12 games), exceeding the contractual 25-game cap for those networks. Of the 10 most-watched regular-season games last year, the Warriors were involved in seven of them. The list is here.
2e. ESPN’s Ed Werder offered advice to families dealing with cancer.
3. Episode 66 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features New York Magazine writer-at-large Rembert Browne, who previously spent four years as a staff writer at Grantland.
In this episode, Browne discusses how he finds his stories, why he believes ESPN folded Grantland, how he came to interview Barack Obama on Air Force One, the joys and pains of being an Atlanta Hawks fan, his plans for covering the upcoming Republican convention in Cleveland, how Bill Simmons acted as a boss, why he’s not currently working for The Ringer, how you find your voice in writing, his thoughts on why ESPN founded The Undefeated, his attempt to write for 500 straight days and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• From Foreign Policy: A 25-year-old American traveled to Nepal to volunteer after the earthquake. She found a friendly host on Couchsurfing.com. She was never heard from again.
• “Terrorism can hurt us. On Thursday night, it did. But it doesn’t win. This is our city, and we won’t let it.”
• Profiles in courage: A look at the lives of the 14 Dallas ambush victims
• “How a $2 Roadside Drug Test Sends Innocent People to Jail”
• New York Magazine’s Ashley Weatherford, on sadness when you are black and confused
• Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. on madness in America
• From Michael Eric Dyson: What White America Fails to See
• Via The Atlantic: “Why One Woman Pretended to Be a High-School Cheerleader”
• Via Buzzfeed: How to survive a lynching
• A remarkable Dallas Morning News front page
• Where do you go when you’re scared of becoming a father? Hawaii. By Kevin Koczwara
Sports pieces of note:
• WFAA’s Dale Hansen on the shootings in Dallas. This is a must-watch, in my opinion.
• From the NYT: “The Trusted Grown-Ups Who Steal Millions From Youth Sports”
• ESPN SportsCenter anchor David Lloyd shares his daughter’s fight against cancer
• Broadcaster Troy Clardy on the dearth of black play-by-play announcers
• NYT’s Harvey Araton on why the NBA needs to invest more money in its Developmental League
• SI’s Drew Lawrence had an oral history of American Gladiators
• From Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy: “The inside story on Celtics’ meeting with Kevin Durant”
• SI’s Chris Ballard on how a flight delay dashed a swimmer’s Rio dreams
• NYT’s Richard Sandomir on Lenny Dykstra’s new book, a narcissist’s delight
• From Dirk Chatelain: College baseball comes with a cost
5. Last week Syracuse University named longtime ESPN executive John Wildhack as its new athletic director. Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore wrote a piece on what Syracuse’s hire of Wildhack tells us about college sports.
5a. Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp reported that the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials this year were down 26% from 2012. Karp wrote that NBC’s seven primetime windows from June 26 to July 3 (Sunday to Sunday) averaged 4.9 million viewers, down from 6.69 million viewers in 2012, when the net aired eight primetime windows (beginning on a Monday).
5b. ESPN has invested an impressive amount of digital capital for its Diary of Myles Thomas series, which is a real-time experiment in the form of a diary of a pitcher on the 1927 Yankees. The pieces are complemented by a fact-based content from the season, published along the same timeline as the events of that year.
5c. Variety was not a fan of Twitter’s live-streaming of Wimbledon
5d. Some quality college football moves by ESPN recently, including shifting Greg McElroy into a game analyst role and re-signing play-by-play broadcasters Dave Pasch and Bob Wischusen.
5e. Excellent work by WEEI’s Kirk Minihane during this podcast with Dykstra. Not only does he let viewers in on how publicists suggest questions for an interview (a ridiculous practice), he asked for specifics from Dykstra (which threw off the author’s talking points). The interview ended with Dykstra hanging up on the host.
5f. My friend Kathleen Galligan, an award-winning photographer at the Detroit Free Press, was five months into photographing women for a book about breast cancer when she diagnosed with the same damned thing. She wrote about her experiences here. It’s worth your time.