Last September I had a long conversation about the longevity of the Mike & Mike radio showwith Traug Keller, who oversees all aspects of the ESPN’s audio business, including talent, staffing, national programming content, scheduling and event production. I have always enjoyed speaking with Keller because 1) he does not talk in corporate speak and 2) he deals straight. He told me something that day that stayed with me when it came to how ESPN management viewed Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic internally.
“I will tell you that a litmus test of mine for Mike & Mike and how it fits in with the brand is I want Mike & Mike to be able to be on with the moms driving the kids in the backseat to school,” Keller said. “We get feedback on that, and it matters. It matters to our brand. Do we want to have the sports show of record where commissioners want to come to get their point of view across? Yes. All that stuff matters. It actually allows us to deliver an audience that advertisers feel very comfortable in and more and more today advertisers are trying to stay away from controversial talk.”
For someone like me who lives in a major metro East Coast city (e.g. Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C.) with multiple pro teams and fans who are very parochial, Mike & Mike had little impact on the sports media landscape of the city. Same in Chicago where 670 The Score consistently trounced ESPN Radio (ESPN 1000) in the mornings. But when I traveled throughout the country for SI, particularly in college cities, I found that Mike & Mike was very popular. It's nearly impossible for a national sports talk show to find popularity in every market—especially in polarizing cultural times—but Keller was correct in that Golic and Greenberg produced a safe, non-confrontational show that appealed to large-scale ad buyers (who were selling to parents). The longevity of their partnership was impressive no matter how you felt about their content or interviewing style. What started as a morning show on Jan. 3, 2000 soon became a television simulcast (they started on ESPNews in 2004 and the large viewership prompted a move to ESPN2 in 2006) and one of the company’s most successful on-air enterprises. Most impressively, as I wrote last week, they gave countless ESPNers significant opportunities to promote their on-air work. They are unquestionably one of most successful sports radio pairings of all-time.
Breaking them up is a massive gamble because it ends a successful and profitable paring. Furthermore, what each are moving onto provides no guarantees for ESPN. Golic will continue on ESPN Radio starting Nov. 27 with new partner Trey Wingo, who has experience on ESPN Radio and is one of the network’s signature NFL hosts. Mike Golic Jr. will also be part of the show each morning from 6-7:00 a.m. That show, still based in Bristol, Conn., will be simulcast on ESPN2 before moving in January to its regular slot on ESPNU. The likelihood is most affiliates will stick with the show initially given Wingo’s name recognition and football-centric background. "Whatever the big stories are, we're going to do,” Wingo told The Chicago Tribune. “And the NFL, no matter what people are saying about it, still moves the needle like no other sport...The NFL and college football are what people talk about and care about and what people are invested in."
Greenberg’s next foray presents a much bigger risk for ESPN management. He will host a new morning show in New York City on ESPN with co-hosts Michelle Beadle, Jalen Rose and one additional staffer (Damien Woody is a serious possibility). That show enters the most challenging environment in linear television given competition exists both in sports, politics and traditional cross-over plays such as the NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America. ESPN president John Skipper announced this week that the show (titled Get Up) will start April 2 but the project has already been delayed once from an initial start date of Jan. 2, 2018. With ESPN building new studios in downtown Manhattan for this show, I would not be surprised if the show gets delayed beyond April 2. The start date is important too. The spring and summer is not an ideal time for a morning sports show to begin given it is the offseason for the NFL and college football.
On this week’s SI Media Podcast, New York Times best-selling author Jim Miller, who wrote These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN and Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand discussed the potential of a Greenberg solo project.
“It’s the old expression—they are climbing Everest on a cold day in their shorts,” Miller said. “But I feel they need to do things like this, they need to take swings, they need to take chances, they need to mix things up. Before it even airs it is very, very expensive show—Greenberg, Beadle, Rose, that is kind of like a Steinbrenner-esque lineup in terms of salaries. [Editors note: All the main talents announced are CAA clients.] As a result, there is even more pressure. This is very high stakes. They made a decision to bring Mike Greenberg out at upfronts [last May] as way of announcing the show and he sat down with Serena Williams. I think the one thing that emerged—he had all those years with Mike Golic on the radio—is that there is not a particular kind of style that Greenberg has in terms of interviewing. It’s certainly not Letterman-esque. We don’t even know what it is yet. They need to figure out what is going to be compelling and not just hanging out with those people for several hours. Is he going to have people on that we will not see anywhere else? That’s very hard to do. Is he going to be asking questions that no one else asks? Maybe. Is he willing to do that? It doesn’t seem that is part of what he has been about. I just think the uniqueness of that show is not clear yet.”
Said Ourand: “His sales point to be is that he is affable, somebody you sort of want to sit-down on the mornings with. But how he is going to be different than someone like Matt Lauer or the Morning Joe crew? That is something that they have to figure out.”
Obviously, viewers need to see the content of the show and the chemistry of the group—it helps that they all share the same talent agency so the incentive is tied together—before making any kind of judgment. Like Miller I am highly skeptical that a Greenberg-fronted project will be destination viewing for morning viewers, and particularly so in the era of Donald Trump when so many of the political-oriented shows are up in viewership and demos. This is an expensive foray for ESPN—a company undergoing layoffs this month—and given the outlay the show must produce results and likely fast. It will certainly need to top the current SportsCenter AM (which drew between 340,000 and 382,000 viewers in October) by a significant number.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. ESPN Radio’s lineup will have significant changes starting Jan. 2, 2018. The most significant move is the return of The Stephen A. Smith Show to terrestrial radio stations across the country. Smith’s program will air from 1-3 p.m. ET. Ryen Russillo has yet another partner (Will Cain) and will air in a new spot from 3–6 p.m. (also simulcast on ESPNews). Sarah Spain and SEC Network commentator Jason Fitz will co-host a show from 6-9 p.m. ET. Freddie Coleman and Ian Fitzsimmons get an extra hour at night (9:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m.). Golic and Wingo, as noted above, debuts Nov. 27. The division also announced that Bomani Jones, Jalen Rose and David Jacoby and Katie Nolan will debut new podcasts. Jones leaves his spot to do an upcoming television program on ESPN.
What the above schedule makes clear is that ESPN management valued Smith over Russillo in terms of giving him the higher-profile slot. When it comes to a national sports talk show, potential affiliates are much more likely to take a late morning or early afternoon national show than drive time, where most major cities employ local people given the huge interest in local sports. ESPN management has obviously been trying to get Cain more reps across the brand given he is a conservative political voice. This slot will give him volume in addition to his appearances on First Take.
2. Fox Sports found itself in the rare position of beating ESPN in college football. The network’s coverage of No. 5 Wisconsin beating No. 24 Michigan drew a 3.5 overnight rating, the top-rated sporting event on any channel on Saturday. Some other college football overnight ratings:
UCLA at USC (8 p.m., ET, ABC): 2.9
Virginia at Miami (noon, ABC:) 2.7
Navy at Notre Dame (3:30 p.m. NBC): 2.29
Kentucky at Georgia: (3:30 p.m., CBS): 2.2
Illinois at Ohio State (3:30 p.m., ABC): 2.2
LSU at Tennessee (ESPN, 7:15 PM):1.6
2a. Terrific feature by ESPN producer Michael O'Connor and reporter Jen Lada on 14-year-old Jarren Jasper, the son of a Navy football coach.
3. Episode 146 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a sports media roundtable with best-selling author James Andrew Miller, the host of the podcast Origins, and John Ourand, the media reporter for Sports Business Daily.
In this podcast, Miller and Ourand discuss the upcoming ESPN layoffs and what it means heading forward; the re-signing of ESPN president John Skipper; why I am wrong about the re-signing being bad optics at this time for ESPN; the challenges for a Mike Greenberg-led morning show; whether ESPN would get out of the Monday Night Football business; the re-signing of Scott Van Pelt; Fox Sports being accused of paying bribes to acquire soccer rights; ESPN’s partnership with Snapchat; the declining ratings of Sunday NFL Countdown; and much more.
4.Non-sports pieces of note:
• Haunting piece on domestic abuse from Katherine Fugate.
• Incredible journalism from NYT reporters Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal investigating US airstrikes in Iraq.
• From the Washington Post: I asked 25 North Koreans what their life was like after Kim Jong Un took over.
• Politico Magazine’s Josh Dawsey profiled the loathsome Chris Christie.
• From Ken Armstrong of The New Yorker: In dozens of criminal trials, prosecutors have put the same gun in the hands of more than one defendant.
• This two-part podcast on an Iraqi civilian who lost his family due to an errant U.S. air strike is one of the great pieces of audio journalism in my lifetime. From The Daily:
• From Slate: Roy Moore’s fixation on protecting children from gay people now feels even more sinister.
• Via the NYT’s Yamiche Alcindor and Katie Rogers: House and Senate Are ‘Among the Worst’ for Harassment', Representative Says.
• From Megan Garber of The Atlantic: Al Franken, That Photo, and Trusting the Women.
• Tremendous reporting by the KC Star: How Kansas lawmakers keep you from finding out what they’re doing—until it’s too late.
• Alabama political reporter Josh Moon on Roy Moore.
• Via Washington Post: How Poland became a breeding ground for Europe’s far right.
• From The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman and Kevin Maurer: Green Beret Discovered SEALs’ Illicit Cash. Then He Was Killed.
• Nice mic drop tweet from Andrew Kaczynski of CNN.
• From Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine: “Your Reckoning. And Mine.”
Sports pieces of note:
• Charlotte Observer writer Scott Fowler, on the young man Rae Carruth left behind.
• The Washington Post’s Amy Ellis Nutt, on struggling towns still seeing football as a way to make it through.
• From ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham: Roger Goodell has a Jerry Jones problem and nobody knows how it will end.
• From Andrew Keh of the New York Times: North Korean Soccer Talent Tests Defenses and Sanctions.
• The epidemic of sex abuse in Olympic Sports, by Will Hobson and Steven Rich of The Washington Post.
• Via Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic: Bill Clinton: A Reckoning
5. Given where I work, I have inherent biases about Sports Illustrated projects. So read this short piece knowing that I’m not an independent observer here.
Last Wednesday night I attended the premiere of 89 Blocks, an 86-minute documentary film which chronicles the East St. Louis (Ill.) High Football team during its championship-winning 2016 season. SI’s Dan Greene wrote about the team, which plays in a city with the nation's highest per capita murder rate and 43.5% of its 26,922 residents living below the poverty line. The film is part of a new Fox Sports Films documentary series called Magnify, which Fox Sports hopes becomes their version of ESPN’s 30 for 30. It was executive produced by Sports Illustrated along with LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s Uninterrupted company. The film will premiere on Sunday, Nov. 26 on Fox at 4:00 p.m. ET. The title (89 Blocks) is a nickname used by East St. Louisans to describe the area of the city.
The doc is one of the best projects in SI history, a truly terrific piece of filmmaking—emotional and honest about the daily struggle the East St. Louis players face amid the crime and poverty around them. The center of the story is a remarkable coach, Darren Sunkett, who issues life lessons amid tough love. Sunkett must juggle teenage players with parental responsibilities as well as a star player who will not commit in full to the team. SI contracted ImagineMotion Productions—led by directors Alex Agnant and Joe Ward—to attend every practice and every game during the season and the film was shot in observational cinema style with no narrator—the cameras follow the kids and coaches everywhere, from police ride-alongs to players throwing up during training to Sunkett calling out players for failing to keep up with academics.
5a. New York Times Magazine writer Jay Caspian Kang profiled Barstool Sports.
5b. From AL.com: How Alabama's Conrad Thompson created one of the world's biggest wrestling podcasts.
5c. Interesting, in-depth piece from the New York Times on how CBS executives choose which regions get which games on a given Sunday.
5d.NYT writer Scott Cacciola profiled the Warriors broadcasters Tim Roye, Jim Barnett and Bob Fitzgerald, who witnessed a lot of bad basketball before the glory days.