Does Fox have the right playbook for college football?
The ESPN college football monster got bigger this year. Along with launching the SEC Network – which will feature a ton of football – ESPN owns the television rights to the first-ever Division I college football playoffs. The surest bet of the college football season: Look for ESPN to promote the sport from now until January 2015 with the subtlety of the Soviet Red Army.
Fox Sports has little chance of defeating ESPN on tonnage and viewership in college football but network executives know this is a huge year for them regarding establishing quality of programming, production and editorial weight. Last season the network rarely broke a college football story of note and had personalities criticized frequently on social media (if talked about at all). But give the sun-tanned, L.A.-based Fox Sports suits credit: They’ve made some excellent moves during the offseason to improve the product.
•Veteran college broadcaster Tim Brando was brought in to call games on Thursday and Saturday. That's an excellent hire. Brando will work Thursday nights with Joel Klatt – who was very strong last season as a studio analyst – and will team with new hire Brady Quinn, the former NFL and Notre Dame quarterback, for a set of Saturday games.
•Fox has abandoned a Saturday morning pregame show after getting crushed by GameDay both in viewership and editorial smarts. Its main studio pregame show will consist of Rob Stone, Klatt and newcomer Dave Wannstedt. The group will be part of an expanded college football pregame show on big Fox that will air most weeks at 6:30 p.m. ET, leading into the Saturday primetime game. The show will feature highlights of concluded afternoon games as well as the obvious hype job on the Fox game ahead.
•Fox officials are very high on Wannstedt after he crushed an audition last April.
“Everybody brings in guys for auditions at different times of the year and he just nailed it,” said Stone, who was the anchor for Wannstedt during the 10-minute tryout. “We had our executives coming through the door as quick as I’ve ever seen. It was as if they were negotiating with him there on set.”
One of those executives was Fox Sports executive producer John Entz.
“We were not expecting a whole lot,” Entz said. “And Dave was a little under the radar last year as a special teams coach with the Bucs. But after the audition we all looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow.’ I’m not just selling the soap here: I think he is going to be tremendous. He has a great personality and knows everybody in the game – pro and college. He’s a respected coach who has been at every level. We are thrilled.”
•Sideline reporter Molly McGrath has been promoted to the No. 1 broadcast team of Gus Johnson and Charles Davis. It’s clear from speaking to Fox Sports executives and on-air staffers that McGrath has been tabbed for big things at Murdoch Land. Entz said management was particularly impressed by McGrath’s work last year during a heavy snow game between the Lions and Eagles.
“Rough conditions, she did not have a ton of experience on NFL sidelines, it’s really hard to plan for something of that nature, and she did an unbelievable job,” Entz said. “We think Molly has huge potential in this business.”
Sideline reporters often fall into paths: Those who want to be television personalities who occasionally practice journalism or journalists who appear on sports television. We’ll see where McGrath falls as the assignments get bigger.
•Veteran college football reporters Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel (a former colleague at SI) have been brought in as a combo web-television play. They give Fox Sports some much needed college football reporting gravitas. Entz said other insiders will be part of the show during the year.
•The possibility of a Friday night pregame presence: Fox is considering debuting a Friday night pregame show on Fox Sports 1 that would include a segment in Las Vegas that focuses on gambling lines. The network has a seminar next week in Los Angeles, so look for a decision to be made there.
•Stone will provide updates all day on Fox Sports 1 in addition to his studio hosting role with Klatt and Wannstedt. He said he does not look at his role as replacing Erin Andrews, who hosted the Saturday morning pregame.
“[These are] two completely different roles,” Stone said. “Erin last season was essentially just doing the two-hour pregame last season and then off to the airport for NFL. I’m not replacing Erin by any stretch of the imagination.”
•Joe Davis, a young broadcaster who ESPN was very high on, was hired as a play-by-play voice to work with analyst Joey Harrington and sideline reporter Kris Budden.
•Petros Papadakis, always passionate about college football, will float between Fox Sports Live, America’s Pregame and other studio work.
•Entz said there was no attempt to convince Andrews to stay on at college football. That’s interesting given how much promotion there was by Fox for her connection to the sport when she was initially hired in 2012. Of course, perhaps moving Andrews to the NFL was the plan overall.
Said Entz: “It was the natural evolution for her career and the right time.”
•Something Fox Sports 1 would be wise to do: An onsite studio presence at both the Pac-12 and Big Ten championships – which air on Fox – as well as an on-site setup at the site of the national championship. The latter is particularly important. Yes, ESPN owns the playoffs and will draw most of the audience but if you want to be taking seriously in college football, you have to have a presence at the playoffs and national title game.
•The schedule is the best Fox Sports has ever had, including a Week 2 game (Sept. 6) featuring Michigan State at Oregon (6:30 p.m. ET)
•How will Entz determine college football success at season’s end?
“There’s always ratings points and ad dollars, but in terms of quality production, you listen to what people have to say and then part of it is in what’s in your gut,” he said. “I will say this: We think we have the pieces in place.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
-1. Big Ten Network lead studio host Dave Revsine, always a measured and professional on-air voice, spent four years researching the origins of college football for his new book, The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation. College football fans will find the material compelling.
You spent more time researching this book than writing it. Why spend a couple of years researching the origins of college football?
Revsine: Believe me, I asked myself the same question many times. “I have a family and a very time-consuming job – what the heck am I doing?" Occasionally I replaced "heck" with other words. I couldn't bring myself to stop, though. I was just completely fascinated by it. I stumbled upon the story of this guy Pat O'Dea, who played at Wisconsin and was one of the first superstars of the game and then had this crazy, mysterious life that I tried to unravel and that serves as a thread through the book.
But, the more I read about O'Dea, the more I realized that there was this captivating tale of the early years of the sport that hasn't been widely told – that everything that's happening today in college football, good and bad, had its origins in this time period. From the huge crowds, to the massive media coverage, to the creation of superstars, to the scandals – recruiting and academic – to the injury concerns, to the focus on money, to the squabbles between conference members. It was all there.
How much of what you discovered relates to the modern game?
Revsine: Almost all of it. The scope has obviously changed dramatically – this is an exponentially larger enterprise than it was in 1898. But all of the issues are the same. Think of the big topics this spring and summer. For instance: Amateurism and the name and likeness issue that is the basis for the O'Bannon trial. Well, in the early 1900s, Michigan fans could have smoked "Willie Heston's Cigars," named after the school's halfback, who got a portion of the proceeds. Same deal in New Haven with a Yale All-American named James Hogan, who got a cut of campus tobacco sales in exchange for his endorsement. Concussions and possible changes to the rules have been a central debate as well.
Well, in 1905, 18 players died at all levels from injuries suffered playing the game and Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene. The next few years were filled with intense debate surrounding proposed alterations to make the game safer. Walter Camp, who advised Yale's powerhouse team and was the head of the rules committee, tried to block those changes. When the forward pass was legalized in an effort to reduce injuries, Camp, whose offense was based around a dangerous wedge-based rushing attack, refused to add his signature to the new rules. He was advocating for his team's self-interest. Think Nick Saban and his substitution rule proposal. There are parallels like that throughout the book. And I think that understanding how we got here in the first place helps provide a framework for where the sport might be going next.
SI.com: What figure in your book did you find the most compelling and why?
Resvine: Pat O'Dea got me into it, and I devote a lot of the book to him as kind of a central character, so obviously I loved his story. But I found Amos Alonzo Stagg to be fascinating as well, just because the reality of who he was, and what University of Chicago football was, ran so counter to what I had always believed it was. I had this sense that Chicago "did things the right way," and that they eventually decided to drop the sport because they were appalled at what it became. Chicago was practically founded on football. The university president saw the game as a way to instantly be recognized on a plane with Yale and Harvard and Princeton.
Chicago hired Stagg to be its coach before the university officially opened its doors and paid him more than any professor. They brought in grossly unqualified students and placed them in classes with instructors who would give them passing grades – all with Stagg's encouragement and blessing. In addition, Stagg was a ruthless businessman, who used his location in far and away the most populous city in the Western Conference, the predecessor to the Big Ten, to dictate the location and financial terms of the Maroons' games. His heavy-handedness on financial matters nearly led to the dissolution of the league in the first few years of its existence. I found Chicago and Stagg to be so similar to some of the football-focused schools of today and these all-powerful coaches who lead them. It stunned me.
2. On Monday ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith issued an apology for his comments three days earlier about domestic violence. The SI.com story is here.
3. My column yesterday had information on Michelle Beisner’s move from the NFL Network to ESPN. I asked Beisner, who is married to Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck, why she thinks Buck is such a target on social media.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It could be a combination of who his Dad was (Jack Buck – and notions of nepotism) or that he calls such big games. I don’t know and I don’t understand it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. He’s great about it,and self-deprecating. The Funny or Die piece that he did from New York was hilarious and I’m so glad he did it and so was he. The great thing about him is he is carefree about it. I live by the motto that ‘It’s nice to be important but it’s important to be nice’ so I don’t get the bullying on any such platform. When you see that stuff about your husband, naturally your blood boils a little bit. I think if you spent two minutes with Joe, you’d know he’s pretty funny and pretty cool.”
4. Former college football coaches Mack Brown and Butch Davis have joined ESPN as college football analysts. They will contribute commentary across multiple ESPN platforms including SportsCenter, College Football Live, ESPN Radio and ESPN.com
5. CBS Sports will feature three service academy football teams on Nov. 1. The day starts with Air Force-Army from Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y. at 11:30 a.m., ET, with the primetime game (8 p.m. ET) featuring Notre Dame vs. Navy from FedEx Field in Landover, Md. The afternoon game features the annual Florida-Georgia tussle at 3:30 p.m., ET.
5a. ESPN's Keith Olbermann on Ray Rice.
5b. Really liked this MLB Network intro for its Hall of Fame coverage on Sunday