The best college football conversation involving ESPN staffers last season failed to make the network’s airwaves. It took place last January inside a first floor conference room at The Langham Hotel in Pasadena on the day before the national championship game. Sitting around a conference table were a dozen boldfaced names in the sport, including Alabama coach Nick Saban, former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, and College GameDay regulars Lee Corso, Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and David Pollack. With ESPN’s College GameDay coordinating producer Lee Fitting serving in the role of James Lipton, the group discussed Florida State and Auburn for a solid two hours with no breaks. “I’ve been producing GameDay for 10 years and it was the best football conversation I have ever been around,” Fitting said.
The goal of any executive who runs a sports studio show is to create compelling (and hopefully authentic) conversation, and that is what Fitting is charged with every Saturday morning. He will not be afforded uninterrupted two-hour blocs, given that ESPN isn’t PBS, but as the coordinating producer of the network’s most successful studio production, Fitting has a lot of freedom and power on the direction of his show. He has a massively successful product -- GameDay expanded to three hours last year (9:00 a.m.-noon ET on Saturdays) and averaged 1,830,000 viewers, a 10 percent increase over the same period on ESPN in 2012 -- but plans to make some changes he believes will improve the editorial flow. The show opens its new season at Sundance Square Fort Worth on August 30 in advance of the Cowboys Classic between Florida State and Oklahoma State. The game will air that night on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET.
Below, I examined some of the changes -- and offer some thoughts on GameDay -- after speaking with Fitting and Fowler earlier this week.
• GameDay will have limited commercials in its opening hour this year as viewers will get long stretches of conversation, with an aim toward hardcore football fans. “I think we need to have stronger opinions and more opinions, but do so organically,” Fowler said. “I think one of the reasons GameDay has had its long-term success is we don’t force things in merely for theater.
• Fitting says the show is looking to add a full-time DJ to keep the crowds (mostly of college students) entertained. The DJ will occasionally appear on air, and the hope is to hire a woman in the role. “One of the challenges we have run into with the show going three hours is we are asking the kids to be out there for 3-5 hours and they lose energy,” Fitting said. “So we thought: Why don’t we bring a DJ out that plays music off air during breaks? You keep the crowd energized and it becomes more of a party." This person would then slowly become on-air talent for GameDay. Fitting said that since the show is “overloaded with middle-age males,” his preference was to get a female DJ.
• Fowler’s schedule is obviously a major story, since he has replaced Brent Musburger on the ABC Saturday Night Game. He said he is doing specific game prep earlier than he has done before and already knows what ABC’s second Saturday Night Football game will be -- it has not been announced yet. The travel schedule he and Herbstreit will likely employ will involve arriving on Thursdays at one of the schools playing in the Saturday Night game, and then flying Friday to the GameDay site if the site is different from their game. “It’s not about Saturdays -- Saturdays are just about having the stamina to do it,” Fowler said. “It’s how you make it work from Sunday to Thursday before you go on site."
Added Fitting: “We are not blowing up how we operate during the week. I told my bosses that I could see our guys for the first time all week at 8 a.m. Saturday and we will be good. Chris will not let this fail in terms of doing both. The way in which he hosts GameDay will not be affected. He will restructure the way he organizes his week to make this work.”
• As for how long Fowler will do the GameDay-Saturday night double, ESPN executive vice president John Wildhack told SI.com in April that "ours and Chris's focus is on the upcoming season. We always evaluate each and every season in detailed scrutiny." Fowler agreed on that timeframe.
“There is no way I perceive it being a long-term thing,” Fowler said. “I view everything either year by year or even week by week. I’m pretty good at staying micro. Management’s job is to look longer term. An announcer’s job is to look at the next assignment and do it well. I want to see if I am enjoying GameDay and if it is not too busy.
• The dream celebrity pickers once again include President Barack Obama and golfer Tiger Woods. ESPN has been in contact with the White House -- Fitting said Obama is interested – but there is no set date and it would obviously only work if the President’s schedule deemed it so. Fitting said he also spoke with Woods’ caddy, Joe LaCava, a month ago and Woods is interested in doing it. Again, the schedule has to work.
• As for a new dream celebrity picker: Fitting said Playboy founder Hugh Hefner is high on the list. “We have always wanted Hugh Hefner,” he said. “I don’t know or care if he has a connection to a school. He’d be fun."
• Fitting said Fowler and Herbstreit’s game assignment will not dictate where GameDay goes. Last year, GameDay went to eight ABC/ESPN games and seven non-ESPN/ABC games. “I can promise you we will not be going to sites just because Fowler and Herbstreit will be there,” Fitting said. “Our bosses have been great. They have always said, “Go where you need to go.”
• Corso, who turns 79 in August, is not going anywhere anytime soon. “This is a topic that I lose zero sleep over and spend little time thinking about,” Fitting said of Corso’s eventual replacement. “I don’t see him shutting it down anytime soon. He is in great health. At times his speech is slurred as he knows, we know and the viewer knows. To me, for what he brings to the show, the sport and the chemistry of the show, I can handle a handful of slurred words for everything else he brings.”
• ESPN said the first week of GameDay will be the 240th headgear selection for Corso. His first-week record picking games is 9-6 all-time.
• Fitting said GameDay will talk more gambling this year in an organic way. “We will weave in naturally more gambling references and tips and information,” Fitting said. “But it won’t scream gambling. I think gamblers will pick up on it, but non-gamblers will not be turned away. I like gambling information when it appeals to the non-gamblers.
• SEC Network contributor Paul Finebaum will be on GameDay again even with his new job. Fitting said Finebaum will appear either via satellite in the first hour of the show or as part of a segment when he is not appearing on the SEC Network’s SEC Nation pregame show. Viewers should also expect SEC Network staffers Tebow and Marcus Spears to show up on GameDay occasionally. The reverse will also occur, as Pollack will appear on SEC Nation. The cross-promotion will exist, Fitting said, when the editorial dictates it.
• Fitting said GameDay staffers loved going to Fargo, N.D., last year and he would consider going again.
• Fowler is more than just the host of the show: Think of him as GameDay’s co-CEO with Fitting. Fowler said the toughest part of his dual role this year will be juggling the early part of the college football season when it intersects with the U.S. Open tennis tournament. “I don’t want to give up the U.S. Open; it’s important to me,” Fowler said.
• The national semifinal games will have dueling studio sets in Pasadena, Calif., and New Orleans, and the studio hosting will be split up between Rece Davis, John Saunders, Joe Tessitore, Scott Van Pelt, Chris Cotter, Sam Ponder and perhaps even Fowler. “How they are involved we have not figured that out yet,” Fitting said.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the notable sports media stories of the week.
1. Tim Howard will have a second job this year beyond keeper for Everton -- and perhaps a second career as well down the road. Last week the U.S. national team goalkeeper signed a multi-year agreement to work as an on-air analyst for the NBC Sports Group’s Premier League coverage. The network said Howard will appear on up to 10 Premier League games this season, serving as both a game analyst and on-site studio analyst. His assignments will be scheduled around Everton matches.
“It’s still in its infancy but yes, certainly where I am at the moment, if I could do this after I’d been playing certainly that would be something I would enjoy,” Howard said.
Howard will prepare for his assignments at his home in Manchester, usually the Tuesday or Wednesday of the week he has a weekend assignment.
“Feet up on the couch or in bed, just resting because that’s my job,” Howard said. “It was actually welcomed, all of the information and statistics and game prep kind of filled up the time that I would normally be watching DVDs or something. [NBC Producer] Pierre [Moosa] is very conscious about making sure my day job is paramount. I think we got that right. If you look at Everton’s results prior to myself doing a broadcast, you could say that the balance was good.”
2. Sensational work by ESPN producer Brett Wilensky, director Michael Roig, play-by-play announcer Mark Jones and analyst Fran Fraschilla for how they handled the live airing of Paul George’s injury during the Team USA showcase on Friday night in Las Vegas. Jones and Fraschilla were measured with their commentary, stayed away from speculation and guided viewers through a tough moment with thoughtfulness and news judgment. Wilensky and Roig let the pictures tell the story without being sensationalistic (Wilensky told Jones there would be no multiple replays of the play, and Roig used his camera people wisely to get a sense of player and fan reaction.) These staffers made ESPN look very good.
2a. This is unlikely to happen en masse in sports television but I wish it would: I’d like to see networks at the start of game, studio coverage and long features list the names of the producer and director of the coverage at the top of the screen. That’s what they do at news magazine shows such as “60 Minutes” and “Real Sports,” and it’s a nod to key behind-the-scenes staffers who deserve to get the same shine as those in front of the camera.
3.Outside The Lines staffers have referred to it "as being buried": The now-annual move every summer that sees both the daily and Sunday Peabody Award-winning show move from ESPN to ESPN2. You might not think moving from ESPN to ESPN2 would make a major difference in viewership, but it does -- dramatically.
After averaging more than 800,000 viewers for its final Sunday show on ESPN last August, the show sank to averages between 160,000-220,000 when appearing on ESPN2 during the fall. Already we are seeing the impact of the daily show’s move from ESPN to ESPN2 (5:30 p.m.).
It’s a curious move for a show that ESPN pitches heavy when it wants to sell its journalistic imprint. Not so curious is the Strongman push by certain ESPN PR staffers for the second season of Colin Cowherd’s Colin’s New Football Show, which will air Sundays on ESPN2 after Outside The Lines. That Cowherd gets a better time slot on ESPN2 on Sundays tells you how valuable management considers personality-driven programming.
Last week Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president for production, program scheduling and development, answered some questions from SI on the topic (Some of the answers were edited for space.) As always, we appreciate Williamson’s time on the issue:
Why is Outside The Lines moving from ESPN to ESPN2?
Williamson: As a little bit of background, I am equally responsible for the scheduling and moving. It is one-stop shopping here so that is either a good thing or bad thing. So I am equally responsible for the scheduling -- because I oversee the schedule -- as well as the production of Outside The Lines because it rolls up to me. The decisions that we make are obviously an effort to maximize audience and as it relates to seasonal changes – for college and pro football the demarcation line is training camp to the Super Bowl -- in an effort to serve our audience and give them what they want, we have different tactics and one of those tactics is to program NFL and college football-related programming to maximize audience and to maximize viewership. As we do that and make that move, we are not dismissing Outside The Lines at all. Yes, we are moving it from a network in 98 million homes to a network in 98 million homes. Outside The Lines still lives very aggressively in other places. Outside The Lines lives within the fabric of SportsCenter, it lives in its half-hour incarnations every day -- Monday to Friday -- as well as on Sunday. It lives digitally. To me, the move is to maximize audience to serve our fans around the change of seasons around college and pro seasons. It is one of many moves we make with the schedule throughout the year.
Let me ask a question using specific metrics. The last Sunday Outside The Lines that aired on ESPN in August 2013 averaged more than 846,000 viewers. When the show moved to ESPN2 and an hour earlier, it averaged between 160,000-250,000. That's a seismic drop. Why would you want a show to hemorrhage ratings?
Williamson: So a number of things. The time slot moved as well. It came earlier in the day. What we try to do is not look singularly at any one program. We are programming multiple networks. We are programming ESPN and ESPN2 and we look at the offerings in a day part and in this case, Sunday morning. Are we cognizant in the drop in the ratings in any one specific show? Absolutely. But also more importantly we are looking at what are the cumulative numbers of people we are attracting across ESPN and ESPN2 in those day parts. When you look at it in those metrics and day parts, we are gathering and retaining even more people even at the expense of a singular branded show.
Outside The Lines staffers have told SI in the past that this is a de-facto “burying” of the show. What is your reaction to that term?
Williamson: I love the fact that people are passionate about what they are assigned to and what their current roles are. I really do. Whether that is people on Outside The Lines, Baseball Tonight, NFL Live, or First Take. I want people to be passionate about what they are assigned to. That’s the way the place has really grown here. We want people to say what they feel and we want them to be passionate about their work -- and I respect that a lot. At the same time, I am charged with creating the most amount of audience and growing audience while preserving brands such as OTL …I worry more about people who do not voice their opinion. At some point you want them to be passionate about what they are doing and want them to stand up for they are doing and be proud of what they are doing. So I don’t have a problem with that at all. I encourage people to come to my office, write me an email or call me at any point. During the course of my day we have these conversations quite often.
What will happen to the Sunday Outside The Lines and weekly show upon the conclusion of the NFL season?
Williamson: The plan is to revert back to the previous schedule, which would be 3:00 p.m. ET on ESPN Monday through Friday and then back to the old time slot on Sunday morning. That is absolutely the plan right now.
How much are programming decisions at ESPN about ratings versus quality of show?
Williamson: It is both. Look, there are no absolutes in this game. That is part of what we are doing. You do a lot of things. The beautiful thing about working here and having the ability from a programming or production perspective is that we have a big toolbox. … At the end of the day we are a business and we do need to drive audience and we do need to compete and we do need to increase our ratings. But that does not mean we are exclusively doing that 100 percent of the time or 90 percent of the time. We have the ability – and it is a great luxury -- to program and try different things and do things that can potentially enhance the brand or grow over time. But I do not the exact secret sauce is.
Do you consider the OTL brand more, less or equally as important as the First Take brand?
Williamson: More, less, or equal? Hmmm. Well, in a lot of respects it is more, because it fuels SportsCenter.The OTL brand from a journalistic standpoint is able to do things with the reach that the show has -- the show can do on the shift in baseball or the n-word assessment or examine the Redskins. The reach of OTL and the journalistically integrity that it has and how the OTL brand in its current configuration fuels our digital space as well as SportsCenter-- which is our most important brand besides ESPN. So I would say that OTL is more important than First Take if you wanted to limit me just to do the two … When you access OTL, the exposure that it’s given, the work that it does, the presence digitally, the presence on ESPN Audio, the presence on SportsCenter, the presence on ESPN and ESPN 2, everybody is going to nitpick and maybe want a little bit more. But I think when you look at the totality of the year on the OTL brand, I think they are delivering great work and I think we are giving it pretty good exposure and we are delivering and connecting with the audience.”
3a. Ultimately, Williamson is the ESPN executive who signed off the OTL decision given he oversees all of ESPN’s programming. He said he consults with programming and production executives, looks at audience flow and the demographics of shows, as well as the ad sales potential and the monetization possibilities for such decisions.
3b. Here’s OTL doing what it does best, on former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. Great work by Sharon Matthews of the Feature Unit and ESPN enterprise staffers Greg Amante and Tim Hays.
4. ESPN released its college football game and studio announcers lineup, a pancake-wearing army of more than 100 on-air people. Fowler’s move to the announcing seat on the ABC Saturday Night broadcast is the headline change from last year. Other notable moves include NFL draft analyst Todd McShay joining the team of Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman as a sideline reporter. New Saturday teams for ESPN/ABC/ESPN2 include Joe Tessitore-BrockHuard-ShannonSpake; Mark Jones-Rod Gilmore-Jessica Mendoza; Bob Wischusen-Matt Millen-Quint Kessenich; Adam Amin and John Congemi (ESPNU) and Clay Matvick and Anthony Becht (ESPNU). Dave Flemming, Danny Kanell, and Alison Williams will work as a new Friday night team for ESPN or ESPN2.
Former Texas coach Mack Brown is the most notable new studio analyst not named Tim Tebow. He will work with Saunders and Kanell on the pre-game, halftime and post-game for College Football Countdown on ABC each Saturday. Former Miami, North Carolina and Browns coach Butch Davis will work with AdnanVirk and Robert Smith on ESPN2’s pre-game, halftime and post-game Saturday coverage. Here's the full list of commentator assignments.
4a. Last Tuesday, I profiled what Fox Sports 1 has planned for college football this season.
4b. The Pac-12 announced its broadcast and studio teams last week.
5. Last Tuesday, ESPN announced it had suspended commentator Stephen A. Smith for a week. The network declined comment on whether it was a paid or unpaid leave, or part of a scheduled vacation (the SI.com story).
5a. ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte weighed in on when Embrace Debate goes wrong
5b. A SiriusXM spokesperson declined comment on Smith joining the staff of its Mad Dog Radio for a show that will be produced by ESPN Radio. Radio Ink had details here. The timing is interesting given Smith’s comments, but Mad Dog Radio, given its namesake, always comes with a hot takes caveat emptor before turning on the channel. Much better sports options exist on SiriusXM, which overall is a great service.
6. As SI.com first reported: Fox Sports officially hired Brady Quinn as a college football and NFL game and studio analyst. Quinn will work with Tim Brando on college games and Dick Stockton on the NFL. He’ll also see time on Fox Sports 1’s America’s Pregame and Fox Sports Live.
6a. Fox Sports hired longtime PGA Tour pro Brad Faxon and former USGA executive director David Fay to work as analysts alongside host Joe Buck, analyst Greg Norman and reporter/host Holly Sonders for the 2015 USGA Championships.
7. Sports pieces of note:
•SI’s Chris Ballard profiled what happened when a skydiving lesson went horribly wrong.
•Grantland’s Mark Titus on attending NBA Scout School.
•Beautiful piece by New York Times writer Joe Drape honoring the late horse racing writer Paul Moran, who had his ashes scattered on the dirt of the Saratoga Race Course.
•Grantland’s Jordan Conn on why New York City produce no longer produces elite NBA talent.
•SI.com’s Lee Jenkins on Paul George.
•Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Tom Roeder had a long investigative piece on alleged misconduct by student athletes that included possible use of date-rape drugs to sexually assault women at the Air Force Academy.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•The Kids Who Beat Autism.
•Via The Atlantic: How your first name dictates everything.
•Powerful words by commentator Goldie Taylor -- told through her tweets -- on domestic violence.
•Really important piece for parents who care for children with developmental disabilities.
•Via GQ Magazine: The Miraculous Face Transplant of Richard Norris.
•Via Poynter: More than 50 people were laid off from The Plain Dealer last year. Here are some of their stories.
•Esquire profiled the only abortion clinic in Mississippi.
•Via The Marshall Project's Maurice Possley: Did Texas execute an innocent man? Stunning reporting.
8. If you want a sense of what women in sports media face on Twitter, here's what Michelle Beadle dealt with after the suspension came down for Stephen A. Smith.
8a. On the same note: Mashable’s Sam Laird on the vitriol women in sports media have to wade through online.
9. Last week ESPN and SiriusXM MLB analyst Jim Bowden claimed his Twitter account was hacked, with the hacker procuring information from a fake Twitter account impersonating MLB Network insider Joel Sherman, and then tweeting out incorrect trade news on Marlon Byrd, making the hacker look like he was reporting a story without attributing it to Sherman, who in this case, was not Sherman but a fake.
On Sunday, an ESPN spokesperson told SI.com there was no gambling going on in Casablanca in response to queries about Bowden.
"According to Jim, both his email and Twitter accounts were hacked, and he had no control over those accounts until early Friday when he was able to work with both his email provider and Twitter to restore his authenticated access,” said the ESPN spokesperson, via an email. “Irrespective of others' policies, ESPN's sourcing guidelines require that we properly credit other media outlets as warranted. That is always our standard."
In related news, here’s one of the most memorable lines in cinema history.
10. HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp With The Atlanta Falcons debuts this week on Aug. 5 at 10:00 p.m. ET. It will have a five episode run and debut subsequent Tuesdays at the same time, leading up to the Sept. 2 series finale.
10a. Really like ESPN offering blowout coverage of the Major League Soccer All-Stars versus Bayern Munich. The coverage includes a three-hour pregame show on Wednesday starting at 6:00 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS and continuing on ESPN2 with a pregame at 9:30 p.m. That leads into the match at 9:55 p.m.
10b. NBA TV will televise the 2014 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond head up this year’s class.
10d. Pumped to start my new job in Bristol next week.
10e. Deirdre Simms, the daughter of CBS NFL analyst Phil Simms, had a big write-up of her wedding in the Vows section of the New York Times.
10f. Staying on the wedding theme: The weddings of Nicholas Skipper, the son of ESPN president John Skipper, and Michael Kornheiser, son of ESPN's Pardon The Interruption host Tony, were written up this week in the NYT. The Vows section is one of my favorite things to read on Sunday. Congrats to all.
10g.First Take drew 309,000 viewers last Monday -- the day Smith apologized to the audience for his remarks on domestic violence. On the show Smith made those remarks, July 25, the show drew 345,000 viewers.