He has covered Bush Family politics, the Branch Davidian standoff, a defamation trial against OprahWinfrey, and even wrote a front-page story for TheDallas Morning News on the physical makeover of Jerry Jones. But only one story has given Chip Brown a national profile. "The Big 12 realignment," says Brown, "is by far the biggest I've ever broken."
In what might be the first (but won't be the last) example of a fan-based Web site leading the coverage of a national sports story, Orangebloods.com, a Rivals-owned site that focuses on the University of Texas football and recruiting, owned the Big 12 realignment story, starting with its June 3 report that the Pac-10 planned to invite six Big 12 teams to join its conference.
"Its pretty simple: Chip dominated the story beginning to end," said Pete Thamel, the national college football writer for The New York Times. "He's a first-class reporter, always has been, and he used his connections to keep the whole country on a string for two weeks. It was impressive wire-to-wire dominance."
Brown joined Orangebloods.com (he has an ownership stake in the site) in August 2008 after a two-decade career as a newspaper reporter for the Associated Press and The Dallas Morning News. With the Big 12's television contract negotiation scheduled for 2011, Brown said he sensed that some conference shifting might be in the offing. "There was talk at the BCS meetings earlier this year that the Pac-10 might want to do a non-conference football scheduling alliance with the Big 12," Brown said. "The Pac-10 also had a major TV deal with Fox up for renegotiation in 2011. The more I looked into it, the more I found. I think I was looking in the right place at the right time and was able to build my base of sources as the story went on. I literally did nothing else for 12 days except report this story, including miss time with my family and my radio show (Brown co-hosts a daily sports show on an FM station in Austin)."
From the time the story broke until the day after the Big 12 was saved, Brown appeared on ESPN seven times and did 70 radio interviews. His site now has 10,760 subscribers, up seven percent from the 10,050 subscribers at the time of his first realignment story. Brown said the site has surpassed Alabama's site as the No. 1 team site on the Rivals.com network. The story played out in the social media space as much as anywhere, with reporters and fans checking Twitter (especially Brown's account) and Facebook for updates. Said Thamel: "I remember vividly twice being on planes and the second they landed Googling: 'Chip Brown Twitter' to call up his feed immediately. So, yeah, I checked it a lot. The weird thing about this story, like a few other things this year, is that it was the first of its kind to play out on Twitter. It was fascinating, scary and nerve-wracking."
Part of the nerves for Brown was that ESPN reporting occasionally contradicted Brown's, including when the network reported on June 14 that the Big 12 was falling apart. (ESPN declined to discuss its news-gathering efforts for this story but praised Brown's work.) "I was initially worried on June 14 that [reporter] Joe Schad might have had an executive at ESPN telling him the effort to save the Big 12 was doomed because I knew ABC/ESPN was one of the players providing assurances to Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe that the conference could be saved," Brown said. "But I made a couple calls to my sources, and they told me the train was still on the tracks, so I put out a Twitter message saying I wasn't backing off my story."
With some contending that Brown was merely an agent of the Texas athletic department, SI.com asked the reporter to respond to the charge that Texas merely used him as a public microphone for its message and to advance its agenda.
"The people at Texas know that's not true," Brown said. "Even though I cover Texas, some of the people I had a great relationship with when I was at The Dallas Morning News were unsure about my move to Orangebloods.com. My phone calls got returned less frequently or not at all. I couldn't get a football credential until I agreed to do a Big 12 roundup for our national Rivals.com site. I still can't get a basketball credential. I have contacts across the Big 12 from covering the league for two decades. I get that the name of our Web site would lead everyone to believe we were having coffee with [Texas athletic director] DeLoss Dodds and [Texas president] Bill Powers each morning, but I never talked to them once during this whole process. They are still turning down my interview requests to come on the radio now that things have cooled down.
"I think I made the people at Texas totally uncomfortable through this whole thing, to be honest. They are incredibly controlling about information, almost paranoid. So the thought that someone at UT would use me to further their agenda is almost laughable."
At one point during the story, Brown reported that the Big 12 was dead. He stands by that reporting, saying that it was correct at the time. "I was told repeatedly by my sources that Texas was telling others in the league who I trusted that if Nebraska left for the Big Ten, Texas considered the league dead and would accept its invitation to the Pac-10," he said. "Powers and Dodds even gathered up the UT coaches on June 9 and told them they did everything they could to save the Big 12 but were unsuccessful. So when I went on SportsCenter that day, the Big 12 did appear to be dead. I will stand behind that reporting."
Thamel believes that part of Orangebloods.com's success on the story -- in addition to Brown's reporting -- is that college sports fans and athletic officials were early adopters of the web. "Virtually every college commitment story -- Joe Jones picks the Gators over the Seminoles -- is broken on a site like Chip's," Thamel said. "So while a story of this grand nature hasn't been dominated by a fan site, we're all used to reporters from those sites getting their share.
"I can vividly recall talking to ADs and commissioners off the record through this whole process and, by the end of this, they were saying Orangebloods as easily they would have said The New York Times, SI or ESPN. Administrators are all fluent in it because there's a site like Chip's covering every team. I don't think anyone who has covered college football the past 10 years, especially in that region, was surprised Chip was breaking this story. He's a dogged reporter, and a real good guy, for the record."
ESPN's World Cup coverage deserves a column of its own and it will get one in the future. But we offer here some snap judgments (underline snap) based on the first 12 days of coverage. On the whole, the tonnage has been excellent and ESPN's choice of game announcers nothing short of spectacular (Of course, we suggested using international announcers such as Martin Tyler years ago, but ESPN usually takes a couple of years to incorporate my advice). The network is using the world feed so you can't get on them for a lack of crowd shots. Game announcer Ian Darke and studio host Bob Ley are my early favorites for the Golden Mic, and as I've tweeted, Alexi Lalas' flag-waving act and disdain for other countries becomes tiresome quickly. Thus, the ratings:
Title Contenders: Ian Darke, Chris Fowler, Adrian Healey, Jürgen Klinsmann, Roberto Martinez, Robbie Mustoe, Jeremy Schaap, Martin Tyler, Derek Rae, JP Dellacamera (radio), Kyle Martino (radio).
Knockout Round: Glenn Davis (radio), Ross Dyer, Efan Ekoku, John Harkes, Ally McHoist , Steve McManaman, Shep Messing (radio), Mike Tirico, Tommy Smyth (radio).
Out in the Group Stage: Ruud Gullit and Alexi Lalas.
Erin Andrews becomes a free agent on the same day as LeBron James, though her contractual status will become clear long before the man from Akron's future home is resolved. In a move that no doubt had some suits at ESPN none too happy, Andrews recently highlighted to USA Today her "crazy" number of suitors.
Andrews owes much of her fame to timing. She came along at the explosion of the sports blogosphere, and to her credit, she handled her Internet It Girl status with humor and aplomb. When I left her off my list of the decade's best sideline reporters, I heard about the omission from her defenders, many of whom reside in the Nutmeg State.
I think Andrews does an adequate job and I've always described her as a personality who occasionally practices journalism. Why? Because great sideline reporters will put themselves in uncomfortable positions with a coach or organization to provide news for the viewer. They'll also occasionally ask questions that tick people off, because those questions need to be asked. There's no doubt that her subjects like Andrews, and with that comes access and information. There's also no doubt that the personality part of her equation has risen dramatically with her appearance on Dancing With The Stars. So the question is, How valuable is she now to ESPN?
Deadspin.com examined that last week, and the issue piqued my interest. So I contacted a longtime television agent who negotiates contracts with networks, including ESPN.
My agent surmised that Andrews is currently making in the neighborhood of $200,000-$250,000. (Someone such as Suzy Kolber would likely be making double or more, given her work on Monday Night Football and hosting shoulder NFL programming.) ESPN often structures contracts that pay talent by events or dates worked on the calendar. The more dates you work, the more you make. Obviously, high-profile talents such as Jon Gruden have significant leverage to make their own number.
Andrews is clearly liked by certain members of ESPN management, including executive producer of production Norby Williamson, who told SI.com a couple of months ago, "We think Erin is terrific on the sidelines. She clearly has some interest in things beyond sports, and we have had some interest for Erin in things beyond the sidelines." People on her college football crew have told me that she's collegial and hard-working. She also has her detractors, including people at ESPN, who question her interviewing ability, and her long-term ability to evolve beyond the sidelines. The agent I spoke to asked a fair question: If Erin Andrews is such a valuable asset to ESPN, why have they not expanded her brand or platform outside of sideline reporting?
If Andrews sticks around on a one- or two-year deal, I imagine ESPN (and ABC) will expand her assignments to justify the increase in salary and exposure. As far as the "crazy" offers, one imagines that they include a sports/entertainment play (Versus, anyone?) or a straight gig on an Extra TV-type of show. "I think someone will have to create something very specific for her to do well," said the agent. "I think she could get a job at an Entertainment Tonight or something like that, but I also think she'll flame out there."
I'm not sure I agree with that assessment. The bar for red carpet interviews is about the size of Emmanuel Lewis, and I'm confident that Andrews can pull out as much information from Cameron Diaz as Kevin Frazier does. "On a financial basis, there is no way to justify paying Erin Andrews $500,000 a year," said the agent. "I don't believe anyone knows who the sideline reporter is for the game before the game is on. You can't promote that. You can't put that in TV Guide. But she's in the news all the time. Is that valuable for their brand? I think there are people there that think it might diminish the brand, but it's an interesting question. The problem is no one knows."
There was something the agent mentioned that struck me, and it's worth keeping in mind because it might be Andrews' biggest chit for a new deal at ESPN. Advertisers love big names, and it's why Andrews flogs televisions next to Peyton Manning and razors beside Tony Parker. "They may pay $500,000 a year because they may think she's a big, big person to have at their upfront presentations," said the agent. "They might think having her in the room with corporate sponsors will drive a lot of ad dollars."
• When ESPN hired Bob Knight in February 2008, I had one question for network executives: Why would a news-gathering operation with hundreds of working journalists hire a guy who has consistently treated members of the media with contempt? The answer came from Williamson, who said that SportsCenter had probably been the biggest critic of Knight when there have been controversies or when there have been potential issues involving Knight. "ESPN, SportsCenter, Outside the Lines and ESPN News had aggressively asked those questions and dealt with those issues," said Williamson. "I feel very comfortable given our position and how we examined that. To be honest with you, that gives us the credibility to go there."
Knight has since developed into an entertaining and often informative analyst in both the studio and in game broadcasts. But he still plays by his own rules.
Upon the death of John Wooden, here is what we heard from Bob Knight: Nada. Zip. Zero.
During a June 10 appearance on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning last month -- six days after Wooden's death -- Knight was asked about conference realignment, USC sanctions and how much coaches know in programs, but not about a coach he competed against both on the court and in the public's imagination. Why haven't we heard from Knight on Wooden? Well, he has long had issues with Wooden as pointed out here and here, and made it clear that he won't do interviews about Wooden. That's fine as a private citizen but not when you are a paid analyst for the Worldwide Leader in college basketball. I'll be reminding myself of this during one of the 3,000 times this winter when Dick Vitale tells me how great Knight is.
• Here's a transcript, courtesy of the Orange Country Register's excellent Kevin Ding, from one of the more comic moments of the NBA Finals.
STUART SCOTT: Magic, last year Dr. Jerry Buss' son told me standing at this podium, now that we won, we need two to beat Boston. We need to catch Boston's 17 championships. Now you're one away. What does it mean to beat the team that you're chasing all time?
MAGIC JOHNSON: First of all, let me congratulate the greatest owner in the world in Dr. Jerry Buss and the Buss family. Then I would also like to congratulate the back to back champions, the Los Angeles Lakers. Unbelievable. I want to say to the greatest coach in the world, Phil Jackson, and we do have the greatest player in the world in Kobe Bryant, and I think all the hard work paid off for this team. But the credit goes to this team and Phil Jackson but also to Dr. Jerry Buss for always putting the best product out on the court and to the greatest fans in the world, the Los Angeles Lakers' fans. Here's your trophy.
Prior to the Lakers' defeating the Celtics in seven games, Johnson worked as one of ESPN's NBA analysts -- something he has done for the entire playoffs. Obviously, Johnson, a part-owner of the Lakers, is not objective when it comes to his team, and both TNT and ESPN decided that they could live with the RalphSampson-sized conflict of interest to employ one of the most famous living basketball players around and a very likeable guy (although an average analyst). Where it morphed into the theater of the ridiculous last week was when Scott interviewed the Larry O'Brien trophy-holding Johnson on the court following the game. I wish Magic (the analyst) had interviewed Magic (the owner). That would have been memorable television.
• Tweet after tweet they came, a wave of real-time analysis from across the country. At one point on Friday night, after typing "Chris Berman" into Twitter Search, there were 30 consecutive tweets bashing Berman's coverage of the U.S. Open, including here and here and here and here and here. Admittedly, I don't watch much golf outside of the majors, and there are plenty of better critics of the coverage of the sport. I also believe ESPN when its executives say that they listen to feedback from their audience. Well, the audience is certainly saying something here.
• This terrific New York Times piece beautifully debunks an utterly nonsensical story about how people in Spain were in an uproar over Spanish reporter Sara Carbonero, the girlfriend of Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas, covering the team during the World Cup.
• A couple of months ago I tweaked CBS Sports for its refusal to ask its own employee, Bill Cowher, about his possible coaching destinations last season. (Instead, you had to go ESPN's NFL pregame show for updates on the former Steelers coach.) Conversely, I now come in praise of ESPN's Hannah Storm, the network's NBA producers and analyst Byron Scott for treating viewers like adults. During the NBA Finals, Storm asked Scott on-air about being pursued by the Cavaliers, among other teams. The former Nets coach answered the questions like a straight-up guy and the whole thing took 45 seconds.