As part of a Variety-Sports Illustrated conference last week in Los Angeles, the ESPN anchor Hannah Storm offered an interesting possibility as part of a conversation on “The State Of Live Sports Coverage.” Storm suggested major sports broadcast outlets were not far away from hiring fans to work as on-air broadcasters and that their addition would take the global sports bar experience of social media platforms to another level. The question would be how to place such fans within the ecosystem of a traditional sports broadcast network.
Storm’s comment got me thinking about possible scenarios.
Could an entity such as SportsCenter use fans in one of its signature hosting positions? Doubtful, though some in ESPN management would no doubt enjoy the cost savings. Hosting is a specific skill and at the highest levels of the business (such as ESPN or networks), it would be nearly impossible for someone to come in with little experience and perform. Even more unlikely would be a fan working as a play-by-play commentator, analyst, sideline reporter or any other on-air position for a major remote broadcast. It’s unrealistic to think a major entity would turn the controls over to someone without the skill set of working live television, especially for games of significance. Could we see a fan added to a sports studio show? Absolutely, in my opinion. That’s a place where I think it could work and be an interesting addition. But when I brought up the idea to Seth Markman, the senior coordinating producer for ESPN's NFL coverage, he was a little more skeptical.
“Maybe, but I still think they want to hear from informed analysts and insiders,” Markman said. “I do think fans’ opinions matter and there is a place for that somewhere but not sure how much. We actually tested that at some point years ago with a guy I know who I think is funny and knows sports well. We called it the "Voice of the Fan" and paired him with Mike Golic and Eric Allen. Conceit was to have average guy mix it up with former players to give fan perspective. It was actually a decent watch but think we basically decided that we weren't sure viewers would really care what the average guy would think in this case. Kind of like people don't care about other people's fantasy teams.”
After careful deliberation, I offer this thought for any outlet that wants it, a place within the coverage of a sporting event where a fan’s role could really be an asset for both over-the-air and particularly digital outlets invested in live streaming. Where is this place?
The non-studio pregame show.
If you talk to executives within the sports broadcasting and sports business industry, they all want to capture millennial viewers and part of what that group demands is increased engagement as part of their sports experience. A great way to do that would be to offer a streaming experience where viewers can watch fans engage at tailgate areas, parking lots, campus hotspots, bars etc... I’m not claiming this is a new concept. Some of this is being done already, even at the high school level. But it would be an interesting experiment to see places with significant resources invest money in a high quality streaming experience featuring those without traditional broadcasting experience.
“From a performance standpoint, these folks (most likely inexperienced) must be put in a position of success in communicating their message. They might have great information but they need to be skilled in communicating as well,” said Gerry Matalon, a longtime ESPN executive who is now an executive vice president of talent for Playbook Inc., a firm which represents sports broadcasters. “Producers and news editors will need to increase their attention to make sure these fans are not just reporting accurate information, but doing so in a way that’s engaging to the audience. The web is populated with extremely smart and insightful fans, many of whom are challenged in the art of delivering a message. Ultimately, I would look to create this role online, sample on TV and radio and see whether it better serves the consumer.”
For me, what would work best would be uncensored coverage (e.g. no restrictions on language) and unfiltered scenes of what was happening around the games. It wouldn’t always be pretty but it would be authentic. Ideally, the live-stream would run for a couple of hours prior the start of the game and the stream would have the capacity to be mobile. Think of the possibilities with college football, NASCAR, and soccer, in particular.
If the streaming personalities got big enough, it could lead to an audience watching the game with no sound on screen and staying with the pregame show all the way through the game’s conclusion.
Obviously, those with bandwidth would have the biggest advantages because they could survive the inevitable trial and error to find fans that drew interest from viewers. Such a format would also be a great laboratory to discover talents who could move from live-streaming to more traditional roles.
As for more established players, you’ve already seen Barstool Sports have major success with its recent road trip and Fox Sports has sent personalities on the road to varied success. As sports outlets continue to experiment with user-generated content, especially in an era where many places have turned off comments on stories, the fan as streaming commentator/reporter could provide dividends.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. After a New York Times story on July 13 declared he would be a speaker on Night Four at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Tim Tebow took to his Facebook account to refute the story. The ESPN analyst and former Florida and NFL quarterback said that reports of his involvement at the RNC were just "a rumor” and called for people to unite and forget about the “quarrels” existing today. The 48-second clip was more Presidential than a lot of what is happening today.
What seems obvious is that an invite to Tebow was leaked to certain press outlets and when Tebow and his representatives got wind of it, they smartly declined to speak at this year’s RNC. At 28 with potential political interests down the road, Tebow will have plenty of chances for this sort of thing.
But the scenario did bring up something interesting. What if Tebow wanted to speak at this year’s RNC? How would his employer react? As an ESPN analyst, here are the rules Tebow is supposed to follow, as set by his company:
“We should refrain from political editorializing, personal attacks or “drive-by” comments regarding the candidates and their campaigns. Approved commentaries on sports-specific issues, or seeking responses from candidates on relevant news issues, are appropriate. However perceived endorsements should be avoided.”
Anyone following ESPN talent on Twitter knows that these rules are violated daily. There is also the case of the selective enforcement by ESPN when such rules are violated. Personally, I subscribe to the idea that your social media accounts represent you beyond your job and for an employer to restrict political editorializing (which intersect with sports daily on issues of race, gender, labor etc…) as part of a social media policy seems overly restrictive or worse. Do they have a right to do it? If you sign an employment agreement that agrees to follow such clauses, they do.
Back to Tebow. I asked ESPN on Sunday whether Tebow would have been granted permission under the existing policy.
Said an ESPN spokesperson: “We would expect them to ask and while your question is hypothetical, the answer for either convention would be no.”
1a. Last week NBC announced that Heather Cox, who spent 22 years with ESPN, had joined the NBC Sports Group to serve as a sideline reporter on its Thursday Night NFL package, select Golf Channel assignments, as well as cover indoor volleyball at the Summer Olympics in Rio as well as the Paralympics.
Cox had been the lead reporter for ESPN’s college football games, including the past four national championships, and NBA games for ESPN/ABC. The network made a decision to elevate Sam Ponder and Cox and her representative (Sandy Montag, who also reps new NBC employee Mike Tirico) smartly looked elsewhere. Cox has always been a quality reporter for ESPN, with a journalism-first ethos. It’s a good hire for NBC.
Last week, Cox via NBC PR football chief Dan Masonson, answered a few questions from this column:
Richard Deitsch: As specific as you can: At what point did NBC contact your representation (or your representation contact them) about working for them, and are the responsibilities you have now what they initial presented, or did you get more assignments?
Heather Cox: My involvement with the past three Olympics has offered an opportunity to have an open dialogue with NBC throughout the years, especially when I have been in “open negotiation” windows during a contract year. As it relates to my current deal, my representation and NBC had been in discussions for a few months, working out details and specifics in terms of events I would be covering, etc. And yes, the events that I will be covering are the events that we had discussed in the beginning. It started with NFL and grew from there.
RD: In your initial conversations with NBC production people and talent, how are they different or similar regarding what they expect from the reporter role on a football broadcast?
HC: NBC has been proactive in sharing with me their process for not only producing the games, but also what occurs during the week to ensure that the best possible broadcast is put on the air. The discussions that I have had so far with my producer Fred Gaudelli have given me the confidence that I will be supported in ways that will allow me to do my job to the very best of my ability. I will be focused on reporting breaking news, updates, injuries, interviews and being the eyes and ears on the field throughout the games.
RD: You obviously know about people leaving ESPN including many of your professional friends. As far as recent departures, you and Shannon Spake just left for new roles at new places. How should viewers read departures such as yours from ESPN?
HC: I can’t say what other people’s departures mean for ESPN and what viewers should read from them, but I can say what mine means. It simply means that this was the perfect opportunity at the perfect time. Every time my contract has come up over the last 22 years at ESPN, it has made sense to talk to other entities. In previous times of doing that, it made sense for me, in terms of my goals and growth, to stay at ESPN. During this contract period, it made more sense to make this move. ESPN offered a very nice opportunity to stay, however, I feel that this NBC opportunity is the ideal one for me.
RD: What will be your responsibilities for the Golf Channel?
HC: I will contribute to Golf Channel’s news coverage at a select number of PGA Tour events. I will be an onsite reporter for Golf Central, Golf Channel’s evening news show and pre-game/post-game show. I have always wanted to be more involved in golf and this is a tremendous opportunity for me to achieve that goal.
2. If you want to get a sense of the dominance of the NFL and NBA in this country, check out this list of the most watched sporting events so far in 2016 from Sports Media Watch. Thirteen of the top 15 programs are NFL games.
3. Erin Andrews has re-signed with Fox Sports for multiple years but her new deal comes with a big change: She will no longer be part of the network’s MLB coverage. Upon being contacted by SI.com, the network confirmed Andrews will focus solely on the NFL and did so in the most flattering of terms. “We are thrilled that Erin will continue as our lead sideline reporter on the NFL on FOX's 'A-Team’ including our upcoming coverage of Super Bowl LI,” said John Entz, the network’s president of production. “We appreciate Erin’s great contributions to our MLB coverage. With her commitments beyond Fox Sports, we fully support Erin's decision to focus her role here at FOX on the NFL.”
Fox’s MLB World Series team has now changed dramatically since last year. Last year’s booth of Joe Buck, Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci, with Andrews and Ken Rosenthal in the dugouts, has shifted to Buck and John Smoltz as the lead team, with the likelihood of Rosenthal and Verducci working the dugouts. Andrews was long miscast in the role of a baseball reporter, parachuting in for on-off assignments and honestly not providing much for viewers. This setup will help her with her other principle gig, Dancing With The Stars, as she no longer will have to miss taping that show due to the MLB postseason. Seems like a win for all.
3a. Fox’s coverage of the MLB All-Star Game drew 8.707 million viewers, down from last year's 10.9 million and the least-watched All Star Game all-time. While the percentage of the drop feels like a one-year fluke—Fox usually wins the night but this year was beat by NBC’s America’s Got Talent—it is worth examining whether the new reality for the MLB All Star Game will be below the 10 million viewer mark. (For comparison: The Pro Bowl did 8.0 million this year; the NBA All Star Game did 7.6 million)
Here are the last five years of viewership for the MLB All Star Game:
2016: 8.7 million
Baseball will likely still lead the other All-Star Games in viewership for the near-future but novelty of that game standing out well above the other All Star Games is over.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• An autistic fan’s view of soccer.
• Vice’s Aaron Gordon examines how we often look at the Olympics from a U.S. prism.
• Fox Sports writer Sam Gardner on a basketball player wrongly accused of murder.
• SI’s Tim Layden profiled Usain Bolt.
• Ricky Williams wants to open a chain of sports-themed cannabis social clubs. From SI’s Greg Bishop.
• Via The New York Daily News: A former volleyball player breaks silence three decades after alleged abuse by her coach who continues to lurk on courts.
• From The Atlantic: When athletes take political stands.
• Shane Ryan of Golf Digest argues why it’s not Rory McIlroy’s responsibility to grow the game of golf.
• SI’s Jack McCallum looks back at the career of Tim Duncan.
• This Gary Sheffield piece in The Players’ Tribune was excellent.
Non sports pieces of note:
• Really worth your time: What it’s like to be black in Naperville, America.
• From The Marshall Project: Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport.
• This Newsweek piece on Turkey was published in March.
• From L.A. Times: A black son, white parents and ‘the conversation’ about police.
• Via The Atlantic: How the CIA hoodwinked Hollywood.
• Can we stop terror-by-truck?
• From FiveThirtyEight: Gun deaths in America.
5. The ESPYs will always feature obsequious moments—especially in the pre-show run-up—but last Wednesday’s show had a notable amount of heft thanks to several powerful moments including the family of Zaevion Dobson accepting the Arthur Ashe Award on his behalf; Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager getting the Jimmy V Perseverance Award; Chance The Rapper composing a new song for Muhammad Ali; and Chris Paul, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade speaking out on violence and social injustice in America.
5a. ESPYs producer Maura Mandt told Vanity Fair how Anthony, James, Paul, and Wade came together to open the ESPYs show.
5b. Max Kellerman has been named as the co-host for ESPN’2 First Take. As we’ve written, expect Stephen A. Smith (with the backing of his longtime management enablers) to make First Take the Stephen A. Smith show, with special guest stars Kellerman and Molly Qerim.
5c. Via The MMQB: Randy Moss (sort of) addressed whether he will be at ESPN in the near future. Keep in mind: When a broadcaster says he or she doesn’t know what is going on, of course he/she and his/her reps know.
5d. Golf Central Live’s David Duval on Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson separating themselves from the field at the Open Championship at Royal Troon Golf Club in Scotland: “The golf was beyond spectacular and it’s something we probably won’t see for a long time again.”
5e. Via Sports TV Ratings, ESPN drew 4.104 million for Portugal-France Euro final on ESPN, up from the 4.068 million viewers the network drew in 2012 for Spain-Italy.
5f. Here’s a good Olympic primer from Variety on whether you can stream Olympic coverage. In short, you have to have a cable subscription to get mass coverage.
5g. Sports Business Journal assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that ESPN drew 1.79 million viewers for Andy Murray’s win over Milos Raonic in the men's final at Wimbledon, the network’s lowest figure for a men’s final since it acquired full rights in 2012. It also is the lowest viewership for the men's final in at least a decade. (Last year's Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer final drew 2.02 million viewers.) Serena Williams' win over Angelique Kerber drew 1.6 million, up from 1.43 million viewers for Williams's win over Garbine Muguruza last year.
5h. Karp also reported that last Sunday’s U.S. Women's Gymnastics Trials drew 8.58 million viewers in primetime for NBC, the most viewed sporting event of that week but down 14% from 10.02 million viewers for the same window in 2012. NBC also drew 4.99 million viewers for the U.S. Track & Field Trials on Sunday night, down 12% from the Sunday night window in '12. Karp noted the decline for women's gymnastics and track & field was joined by a sharp drop that was seen by the U.S. Swimming Trials. Will it impact the Olympic viewing numbers? Doubtful. But it does point declining interest in Olympic sports away from the Olympics.