ESPN and Fox Sports compete against each other for viewers, an extension of a long-running competition between the two mega-media companies that has amusingly extended to its public relations departments over the years. But when it comes to MLS television coverage, the two rivals are as tight as Miles Davis and cool.
“I am not blowing smoke: We really are partners,” said Amy Rosenfeld, the ESPN senior coordinating producer in charge of the network’s soccer coverage. “In a category like soccer where it really has to be all hands on deck, I am not kidding when I say we are partners. The lead producers talk to each frequently and we find ways to have synergy and help each other. We have to be united to try to grow because we will all benefit.”
“It’s within all our interests for this league to be successful,” said Jonty Whitehead, the executive producer of soccer for FOX Sports. “Then you have more people going to the games, better atmosphere in the stadium, and it makes our job easier as television-makers. I think ESPN and Fox are all in it together. There isn’t a sense of competition. There is a sense of hopefully they had a good figure that week, and hopefully likewise with ourselves too.”
MLS ended on a high viewership note last year when the Seattle Sounders-Toronto F.C. MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Big Fox. That was up 111% in viewership from the previous year (the game aired on ESPN) and ranked as the most-watched MLS Cup since the Galaxy-Earthquakes in 2001, according to Sports Media Watch. The regular season ratings were also up. ESPN’s audience (when you combine ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes) for MLS regular season games in 2016 averaged 307,845 viewers per game, up from 244,970 in 2015, via Sports TV Ratings and World Soccer Talk. Fox, FS1 and Fox Deportes averaged 270,258 viewers, up 37% from 2015. Univision’s average viewing audience was also up by 1.29%, per World Soccer Talk.
“I get that it is a small increment on a small rating but up is up,” Rosenfeld said. “There are very few sport categories that can say they are up so I will take a up even a few small percentage points. Anytime we can couple great international soccer with MLS, I think it drags over some of the more casual viewers or viewers that are not completely embedded in MLS. That’s the challenge. We know who the ardent MLS fan is, and what that rating is. Now it is our task to grab a few people who love soccer and are not really familiar with MLS. Or you don’t really love soccer but say, ‘Wow, what a cool scene that is.’”
“The biggest impact television can have is trying to exploit as much as possible spectacle and big event as we can,” Rosenfeld said. “That will not always occur but now more than 10 years ago, there are a lot more venues in MLS that convey big event. We will also personalize the players we cover, especially players who will be part of the U.S. pool for the World Cup qualifying and ultimately the World Cup. I think that is an area where we can latch on to some fervor.”
Whitehead said being on Big Fox last year helped his group experiment with production tools such as enhanced lineups, cameras in the locker room, a cable-cam running above the field, new graphic packages, and enhanced statistics that will include expected goals ratio. The lone talent change for Fox is sideline reporter Katie Witham in for Julie Stewart-Binks, who has moved to ESPN to be that network’s primary soccer sideline reporter. ESPN also added a new studio host (Sebastian Salazar) and studio analyst (former U.S. national team player Herculez Gomez).
As far as the 2017 regular-season television schedule, ESPN will air 31 regular season matches and has flexibility to add additional games. Fox Sports will air 33 regular-season MLS matches, including four on Big Fox and 29 on FS1, with all 33 matches simulcast in Spanish on FOX Deportes. As part of an every other year rotation, ESPN will air MLS Cup this season while Fox has the 2017 MLS All-Star Game from Chicago on Aug. 2.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Last October Fox Sports vice president of production Bardia Shah-Rais passed along a story about Alex Rodriguez that was meant to illuminate how much he enjoyed being an MLB analyst for Fox.
“He’ll email me at midnight sometimes and say something like, ‘You know what? I re-watched [Cubs first baseman] Anthony Rizzo’s at-bat and here’s what I’m thinking as a demo,’” said Shah-Rais. “He’s vested into owning the content. He loves baseball. He is a true baseball nerd. I think he gets a certain fix doing this. Only Alex can answer if he wants to do this full time but I can say after getting to know him over the past two years is that this is not a hobby for him. It’s not a parachute in. He’s invested. If we have a noon meeting, he’s there at 11:30 a.m. He’s emailing story ideas in the morning. He wants research. He’s almost all-in to the point where it’s annoying.”
Rodriguez will be even more-in for 2017. On Tuesday Fox announced Rodriguez had joined the network as a full-time analyst. Along with working as an MLB studio analyst, Rodriguez will serve as a game analyst for select Fox MLB Saturday telecasts as well as feature reporter for pregame coverage and the FS1 studio show, MLB Whiparound.
For years Fox had struggled to find a compelling baseball pregame and postgame show but found something special with host Kevin Burkhardt and analysts Rodriguez, Pete Rose and Frank Thomas. The producers of the show, Jon Kaplan and Royce Dickerson, plan discussions for the program but ultimately let the group go where they want to go, which is in the spirit of Turner’s Inside The NBA and ESPN’s College GameDay. That free-form approach helped the show find its voice. Rodriguez has been consistently interesting as an analyst since he made his broadcasting debut during the 2015 World Series as a guest studio analyst for FOX Sports and increased his workload last year.
Sports network executives are not moralists and history has shown they will hire bad actors on the field as long as those actions did not occur during their broadcasting tenure. Rodriguez has been an exemplary Fox employee so far by all accounts and Fox has had a sting of excellent baseball hires in recent years including Burkhardt, Rodriguez, Rose, and John Smoltz.
2. Chris Berman’s departure left open three significant NFL on-air jobs at ESPN: The host of Sunday NFL Countdown, a studio role on Monday Night Countdown, and the host of ESPN’s opening night NFL draft coverage. One of those jobs is already filled. While not officially announced, Trey Wingo, the longtime host of the second and third day of the coverage, will get the Day One assignment. Wingo declined comment to SI.
The most interesting staffing decision is who will replace Berman on the signature Sunday morning show. Last week Jim Miller, the author of the book These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN, tweeted that he was hearing that ESPN college football reporter Sam Ponder would become the new host of Sunday NFL Countdown and Suzy Kolber would continue on Monday Night with an expanded role. The Sporting News reported Ponder had “emerged as a strong candidate.” SI.com can confirm Ponder has indeed been offered the position. Nothing is signed as of this writing. Ponder declined comment through her CAA representation. Read the rest of the story here.
2a. As SI reported last Sunday, ESPN will have significant cost-cutting over the next four months on its talent side (people in front of the camera or audio/digital screen). Multiple sources said ESPN has been tasked with paring tens of millions of staff salary from its payroll, including staffers many viewers and readers will recognize. Those with contracts coming up would be particularly vulnerable, sources said. The company is also expected to buyout some existing contracts, which is something rare for ESPN historically beyond a few NFL talents. The cuts are expected to be completed by June. Sources within ESPN say that there is no set list of names yet and stressed that behind-the-scenes people will likely (key word) not be impacted by these cuts.
3. Episode 107 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features ESPN NFL analyst Jim Trotter, who appears on NFL Insiders, SportsCenter and other ESPN programs. Trotter previously worked at Sports Illustrated and the San Diego Union-Tribune. In this podcast, Trotter discusses the coverage of Roger Goodell and the league office by the NFL media and whether it is effective; why Goodell and NFL owners are not accessible to media; the impact of access journalism in the NFL and whether that’s good or bad for the public; morphing from print/digital work to television; how the NFL Hall of Fame voting works inside the room; what the Hall of Fame future will be for Paul Tagliabue and Terrell Owens; why Hall of Famer voters should be criticized for a lack of transparency; why Trotter makes his vote public; how voters see players who treated the media poorly during their career; how Trotter was laid off by SI and what he did in the immediate days afterward; the advice ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio gave him about appearing on television; how fans outside of San Diego should view what is happening with the Chargers; and much more.
4. The most-watched MLS game of week one was Univision’s coverage of Galaxy-FC Dallas. The broadcast drew 509,000 viewers.
5. NFL Network will re-air “NFL 360: The Conversation” on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET and 10 p.m. PT, which examines the reactions to Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest. Here’s some background to the piece.
5a. SI Kids is now accepting applications for our Kid Reporter program. If you’re chosen to be a Kid Reporter, you will write stories and blog posts for SIKids.com and work with SI Kids editors to pitch stories and learn how to become a better journalist. You may even meet a sports star or two along the way.
5b. The NBC Sports Regional Networks, including the NBC-owned stations and NBCSN, have been hosting symposiums at local universities in their markets on women in the sports media. It’s part of a month-long multi-platform documentary project called TOMBOY that aims to elevate the conversation about gender in sports.
5c. Philly.com’s Jonathan Tannenwald had a long conversation with Rosenfeld.
5d. Facebook will air all the 2017 World Surf League Championship Tour men’s and women’s events and Big Wave Tour (BWT) events via Facebook Live. Per John Ourand of Sports Business Daily: The deal is for one year and comes three weeks after Facebook agreed to carry 46 Liga MX games on Facebook Live and four months after it agreed to carry NBA D-League games.
5e. Bill Webb, a longtime MLB director for Fox Sports and SNY (which airs the Mets), passed away on Tuesday night after a long battle with cancer. Last November Richard Sandomir of the New York Timesprofiled Webb’s remarkable career.