The brewing battle between ESPN and Fox Sports 1 heats up, more

Monday July 29th, 2013

Lisa Fenn (middle), became part of the story after forming a close bond with the subjects of her feature.
Courtesy of ESPN

We live in a world of hyperbole and Baylessian pronouncements so I choose my words carefully here:

The 21-minute video at the top of this piece is the best feature I've ever watched on ESPN.

It documents the remarkable friendship between former Cleveland high school wrestlers Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton. Crockett, who is legally blind, earned a Judo medal at the 2012 Paralympics in London, and now lives and studies in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he trains with USA Judo. Sutton, who lost his legs at age 11 when he was hit by a train, will graduate from Collins College in Phoenix on August 17 with a B.A. in Game Production. The two high school friends were originally profiled by ESPN in 2009, and in that piece, ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi described Crockett and Sutton as "a wrestler who couldn't walk carried to matches by a wrestler who couldn't see."

The updated story ran on July 9, and I've never seen better feature work on a cable sports network. ESPN coordinating producer Jose Morales reintroduced the main characters and the extraordinary events that have taken place since the original piece aired including Lisa Fenn, who produced the original piece for ESPN before leaving the company to raise a family, became an integral part of the lives of Crockett and Sutton. The unlikely trio has formed a remarkable family unit, and the love they have for each other flows off the screen.

"I believe the piece struck a chord with viewers because it combined so many of the important elements that make for a great story, from sadness to admiration to sheer joy," said Morales. "Leroy and Dartanyon's struggles likely made people examine themselves and realize they have so much to be grateful for. The story also illustrated the basic human desire to be loved, which crosses racial, socioeconomic and cultural barriers. The bond Lisa, Leroy and Dartanyon formed serves as a reminder that kindness, compassion, and love still exists in the often difficult and challenging world."

Fenn said this week in the immediate days after the piece aired, she averaged two to three emails a minute. She now has 3,000 emails in her inbox, and said there was only one negative email. Fenn has also received donations from 100 people to her since the follow-up piece aired. Those donations will help subsidize Crockett's tuition (he is enrolled at Pikes Peak Community College at Colorado Springs) after the USOC discontinued such funding last year as well as money for tournament travel. After Sutton graduates from college next month, he will stay in Phoenix to polish up his portfolio and learn how to drive through an adaptive driving course. Some of the donated money will be used to help Sutton learn to drive.

"What has been so beautiful --and Leroy also recognized this -- is that the response now feels different than the first piece," Fenn said. "If you read through these emails, what is different about them is the first story inspired people to care about Leroy and Dartanyon. But this story has seemed to inspire people to care about others. That has really moved us. I didn't expect an outpouring like this."

Fenn said she just returned from San Francisco with Sutton where they met with people in the gaming industry about future job prospects for him.

He aspires to be a 3-D character modeler for a video game company.

"They rolled out the red carpet for him and top designers in the industry spent time with him and gave him critique and guidance," Fenn said. "They confirmed he is talented but his work needs a little polishing and redirection. That was his winning lottery ticket, his Olympic moment. He said to some people that he was not looking for a handout, but people told him it was a hand up. I thought that was perfect. I'm much more relieved where his future is headed."

Fenn and her husband, Navid Mahooti, live in Beverly, Massachusetts, about 20 minutes north of Boston. They have a 3 1/2-year-old son and 2-year daughter. (They adopted their son from a Cleveland adoption agency shortly after the end of the filming of the first piece in 2009.) She worked as a producer at ESPN from 1997-2010 and now freelances for networks and corporations. Why does she think Crockett and Sutton struck such a chord with so many viewers?

"I think Leroy and Dartayan have a real chemistry that moves people," Fenn said. "Nothing that was shown on television or was written about was exaggerated or fabricated. What you saw was how they are all the time. I have never in four years seen them complain about anything."


( examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)

1. ESPN's Suzy Kolber will be very busy this fall. As part of a new Sunday NFL Countdown feature, Kolber will be assigned to the most impactful early Sunday afternoon game twice a month where she'll be joined for reporting and analysis onsite by either Ron Jaworski or Merril Hoge. Kolber will also host the upcoming one-hour "NFL Insiders" show every Wednesday and Fridays at 3:00 p.m. ET on ESPN. (Wendi Nix will host the other days.) The new show, debuting August 5, features Adam Schefter, Chris Mortensen, John Clayton, Ed Werder, Bill Polian, and other contributors such as former GMs Phil Savage and Billy Devaney. There will be no ex-players on the show. "I think the strength of the show will be to separate the reality of what people are hearing and what is really true," Kolber said. "I think there will be an opportunity to break news on the show."

Kolber was a sideline reporter on Monday Night Football from 2006 to 2012 and says she's excited about returning to game sites for the Sunday feature. "I really missed being on the road and having that personal contact, seeing it and feeling it and talking to players and coaches onsite," Kolber said.

1a. Kolber is not active on Twitter, though she does have an account. Why has she opted not to join her many ESPN colleagues on the social media service? "I hate to say it but there is so much trash that people say and I'd have to cut through the vulgarity and other things that I don't appreciate," she said. "I really enjoy being able to follow people but I don't want to engage in that type of thing. I'm a very private person so I'm really not interested in conveying what I'm doing or where I am going. That's just not me."

1b. Kolber famously worked with Keith Olbermann on ESPN2's SportsNight when the network debuted October 1, 1993. Various publications have chronicled their relationship, which was unhealthy at best and toxic at worst. Asked for her thoughts on Olbermann's return to the network, Kolber laughed and said, "Live and let live. Contrary to what has been written in books and other places, I have felt for a very long time that the hatchet has been buried. There have even been various things where Keith has even defended me on. I have no issue with him having another job [here] and if it helps ESPN, more power to everybody. I have no issue at all."

So would Kolber ever appear on "Olbermann?" She laughed even harder at that question. "Would that be a ratings getter?" Kolber said. "Let's see how the show is doing and if it is doing well, yes."

Defectors like Thompson - who is leaving ESPN for FS1 - only heighten the competition between the two networks.
Craig Barritt/Getty Images

2. Get used to Fox Sports executives continuing to pound a series of talking points -- no doubt run through a focus group lab -- when it comes to Fox Sports Live, the flagship news and highlight show for Fox Sports 1.

I'll try to sum those talking points here:

1. Our show is fun.

2. Our show is really fun.

3. You'll want to hang out with our super-fun hosts, some of which are fun former athletes.

4. SportsCenter is not fun.

"We think this is a group you'll want to sit down with every night, maybe have a beer with and hear their opinions," said Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks. "You're going to get attached to this core cast. You're going to want to make an appointment at 11:00 PM to sit down and see what the crew is doing."

Shanks and his co-minister of fun, Scott Ackerson, an executive vice president of studio production, were part of a conference call last week to formally announce the panel of yet-to-be-formally announced members of Fox Sports Live. They included former SportsNation co-host Charissa Thompson, Donovan McNabb(who will continue his NBC Sports Radio gig), Gary Payton and former NFL offensive lineman Ephraim Salaam. That group will be part of a panel (along with former tennis star Andy Roddick) that will hold real-time discussions on the sports topics of the day. The panel will work Monday to Friday. The Saturday and Sunday shows will be highlight-based shows. The most promising part of the show was previously announced -- the hiring of the popular TSN SportsCentre (Canada) duo of Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole to serve as highlight readers along with Roddick as a panelist.

Fox Sports executives said they looked at the late-night sports landscape and wanted to create something that was different. "We noticed that there was not any type of opinion-based types of discussion on any late-night show," Ackerson said. "We went into this project to find people who could talk intelligently on multiple topics, would be interesting and could be serious when they need to be serious."

Shanks said Fox Sports Live will have different gears, and not be beholden to a straight rundown. Some nights will have a heavier focus on highlights if events dictate it. Breaking news and updates will be handled by Don Bell and Ryan Field, with contributions from correspondents Molly McGrath and Julie Stewart-Binks. The show will debut with the full cast on Aug. 17

2a. And what of Keith Olbermann, the former Fox Sports Net employer whose new ESPN2 show, "Olbermann," will be competing against Fox Sports Live. "I don't know if Keith Olbermann would be back if Fox Sports Live or Fox Sports 1 did not exist," Ackerson said. "To kind of give you a little difference in our philosophy and Keith's philosophy: Keith likes to look at the worst person in the world and we like to look at the best person in the world. So we will have a segment on the best person in the world...I don't think there is anyone here that believes they just decided to bring Keith back because it was the right time."

Translation: It's on like Donkey Kong.

2b. Asked if Fox Sports Live will stick to covering only major sports or the sports Fox has a financial stake in (a tag often given to SportsCenter), Fox Sports Live executive producer Michael Hughes said, "Obviously, we're going to cover the major sports...but we certainly won't ignore many of the sports that will appear on our network whether its soccer, UFC or any of the NASCAR motor sports. We'll certainly pay attention to those things, but I think the show will be a reflection in a lot of ways of what the national conversation is regarding sports every night. Whatever the story is will rise to the top regardless of what sport it comes from."

Translation: We will focus heavily on big names and certainly cover the sports we own.

2c. Prompted by a reporter, Fox Sports execs were asked if Fox Sports Live was equipped to cover serious news during its timeslot: "If serious breaking news happens, we will approach it accordingly," said Ackerson. "We have reporters in a number of different locations, whether it be our writers at or our personnel with our different properties whether it be with soccer, or NFL, or what have you. If serious news happens, much like any other news organization, we switch into serious mode and try to gather as many facts as humanly possible, try to gather the correct facts, try to be right rather than be first. One of the things I've seen in terms of media nowadays is there's a race to be first. I'd rather be right rather than first if first is wrong. I can't stress that enough. It doesn't matter if you are first if you are wrong. It only matters if you are right. I believe that there has been a sense that right doesn't necessarily matter as much as being first. And I personally find that appalling."

"We are investing heavily in news," Shanks said. "Without a credible 24/7 news organization with journalists backed up on the digital and TV side, we could not take this extra gear. Hopefully, we will get the news part right."

Translation: Maybe.

2d. Both Hughes and Thompson admitted they saw loose parallels between Fox Sports Live and the now-defunct The Best Damn Sports Show Period. There should never be a parallel between any sports show and that show. Period.

3. ESPN's hiring of Nate Silver saw an unlikely convergence of reporters from politics, tech and the sports media. Mark Coddington of the fantastic Nieman Journalism Lab aggregated a ton of pieces on The Silverado, nearly all of them universally praising his Nateness.

3a. ESPN purchased the URL and the FiveThirtyEight trade name. "It's not a pure licensing deal," Silver said. "It is a more all in partnership." Silver will serve as the top editor of the site and he'll be charged with hiring a team of journalists, editors, analysts and contributors in the coming months. Both Silver and ESPN president John Skipper cited as a model for the new site. "Obviously I have a background in sports, and that would be a big focus here, but it's not just going to be a politics site or a sports site," Silver said. There's lots of potential in business and economics and weather and health and education and technology and culture. We're not going to necessarily cover all those things all at once, but it's really more of a horizontal approach for how we do journalism and how we make data a résumé for people in terms of storytelling and visuals and good journalism."

3b. Silver said he has not made any hires for his site and that a re-launch on ESPN's platforms was months away. Neither he or Skipper would comment on the length of his ESPN deal, or the amount of money ESPN paid for the site. (You don't have to be Nate Silver to surmise it had contained a lot of these: $$$$$$$.)

3c. On the topic of Silver appearing on "Olbermann" as a guest, Skipper said, "We have not made any decision about Nate appearing on the Keith Olbermann show."

4. NBC Sports announced on Saturday that former Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan had agreed to an exclusive interview with the network as part of an upcoming documentary on Kerrigan and Tonya Harding that will air on NBC during the Sochi Olympics. The documentary is timed to the 20th anniversary of the skaters' dramatic showdown at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Kerrigan will be interviewed by Mary Carillo, who will narrate the NBC documentary.

What makes this announcement interesting is the gamesmanship between ESPN and NBC for Kerrigan. ESPN Films announced in May that it was producing a 30 for 30 documentary on Harding and Kerrigan, a film being directed by Nanette Burstein, who co-directed the sensational documentary, "The Kid Stays In The Picture." Burstein told in May that she was optimistic Kerrigan would sit down with her for an interview but as of this writing, Kerrigan had declined ESPN's overtures (ESPN has already interviewed Harding). Burstein said if the she could not get Kerrigan on film, the documentary would still proceed. It is scheduled to air in November. Said an ESPN spokesperson: "We are still pursuing an interview with her, but we're completely prepared to do a film in which Nancy exists only in archives."

An NBC Sports spokesperson told on Saturday that Kerrigan is not being paid for her interview with Carillo. But when asked if Kerrigan was being considered for an on-air gig for the Sochi Games, the spokesperson said, "Nancy is among many former Winter Olympic athletes under consideration for an on-air role in Sochi."

5. I spoke with Ray Lewis about his upcoming role as an ESPN NFL analyst for Lewis will travel to the Monday Night Football site each week to serve as an analyst for Monday Night Countdown and also work eight Sundays (and all playoff shows) at ESPN's studios in Bristol, Conn., appearing on the network's Sunday NFL Countdown pregame show during the season. He debuts on Sunday, Sept. 8, when he joins the cast of Countdown. The following day, he'll be in Landover, Md. for his Monday Night Countdown spot, leading into the Eagles-Redskins game at FedEx Field. For a conversation with Lewis and my take on his broadcasting debut, click here.

6. NBC Sports returned to NASCAR last week by purchasing ESPN's entire NASCAR Sprint Cup package, plus half of Turner's six races. They paid big money for the privilege: Sports Business Daily reported the cost was $4.4 billion over 10 years. The deal begins in 2015 and NASCAR races will often serve as a lead-in to Sunday Night Football. It's an excellent deal for NBC Sports given NBC Sports Network needs more live inventory but is it a good deal for NASCAR viewers? Longtime Sporting News NASCAR writer Bob Pockrass examines whether leaving ESPN will come back to haunt the sport.

6a. NBC now owns the rights to the final 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, the final 19 NASCAR Nationwide Series events, and select NASCAR Regional & Touring Series events. Seven of the 20 Sprint Cup events will be carried on NBC annually, while 13 will air on NBC Sports Network. As far as the Nationwide Series, four of the 19 races will air on NBC, with 15 airing on NBCSN. NBC said the season-ending championship event will return to network television in 2015 for the first time since 2009

6b. In addition to rights to NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide Series races, NBC obtained rights to practice and qualifying sessions for NBC's national series events during their portion of the season, as well as rights to broadcast the NASCAR K&N Series, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, NASCAR Toyota (Mexico) Series, the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony and NASCAR's season-ending banquets. NBC was also granted Spanish-language rights, certain video-on-demand rights and exclusive TV Everywhere rights for its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series events.

6c. There has much chatter about how much ESPN will cover NASCAR in the future and every NASCAR fan should be concerned given ESPN's treatment of the NHL after the league parted ways with the network. In a statement, Skipper said, "ESPN has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with NASCAR. We have tremendous respect for the France family, the drivers and all in the sport and wish them well. We will continue to serve NASCAR fans through SportsCenter and our other news platforms as we continue to enhance our industry-leading collection of quality assets."

Added NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France: "They have different thinking about how they want to cover sports. John Skipper is as good as it gets in his organization, and we've had conversations. Obviously you think about all those things, but the reality is they have to cover the big events that people watch every weekend. You never can predict the future, but we didn't think that was something that would hold us back from making this deal, that's for sure."

6d. NASCAR still has inventory left for a future television rights deal involving the first half Nationwide package (14 Nationwide races) along with three Sprint Cup races.

7. Sports pieces of note this week:

• ESPN The Magazine's Chris Jones had a fantastic piece on a 16-year-old Japanese pitching prospect and the duty he feels toward his country's national baseball tournament.

• Deadspin staffers Patrick Burns, Reuben Fischer-Baum and David Roher discovered some significant truths about celebrity coverage after a year of watching SportsCenter.

• SI's David Epstein published an excerpt -- 'Why MLB hitters can't hit Jennie Finch and the science behind reaction time" -- from his remarkable new book, The Sports Gene.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Susan Elizabeth Shepard wrote a brilliant piece for Buzzfeed on being a topless dancer in an American boomtown. This is sensational work.

• Should Reddit be blamed for the spreading of a smear? New York Times magazine writer Jay Caspian Kang examines the question as he reports on the Boston Marathon bombings and mistaken identity.

•The Economist had a brilliant obit on a Myanmar heroin king:

• Thanks to CBS Evening News correspondent Wyatt Andrews, producer Maggie Dore and managing editor Scott Pelley for the care they used for this CBS Evening News piece on the amazing social media experience shared by my Twitter followers. Please check it out.

•The same goes for the staff of CBS This Morning, which also ran a piece on the single best moment photo project.

8. As one of SI's women's basketball writers, I'm looking forward to this week's Nine for IX documentary from ESPN Films. Swoopes documents the story of women's basketball star Sheryl Swoopes, one of the great players of her era and the highest-profile athlete in her sport to acknowledge she was gay. The film premieres on July 30 at 8:00 p.m. ET and is directed by ESPN SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm. Of note: Swoopes is now engaged to a man and this April, the 42-year-old landed the women's basketball head coaching job at Loyola of Chicago.

8a. ESPN Films announced its next slate of "30 for 30" documentaries. The subjects include Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau, former Islanders owner John Spano, the run Jimmy Connors went on during the 1991 U.S. Open, and the Kerrigan-Harding doc. The series begins Oct. 1 on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET with Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau.

9. CBS Sports needs to get more traction with the CBS Sports Network -- especially given how aggressive its cable sports networks have been over the last few months -- and one way is providing viewers with onsite pre- and post-event coverage of major sporting events televised by CBS Sports. On that note, the CBS Sports Network will air the PGA Championship Clubhouse Report live from Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. after the conclusion of tournament play from Aug. 8-11. The show is scheduled to air from 8 to 9 p.m. ET and will be co-hosted by Andrew Catalon, Billy Kratzert and Billy Ray Brown.

10. Miscellaneous: Former major leaguer Gabe Kapler will be an MLB contributor to Fox Sports 1.

10a. SiriusXM will broadcast the Guinness International Champions Cup featuring AC Milan, Chelsea, Everton, Inter Milan, Juventus, the Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Madrid and Valencia competing over seven days at different venues across the U.S. Of note: The always-fun Ray Hudson will serve as the analyst for the third-place match on August 7 (6:30 p.m. ET).

10b. Jason McIntyre of Big Lead Sports reported last week that chronic athlete enabler Ahmad Rashad has had his role shifted on The Golf Channel's Morning Drive. Few people under the tag "sportscaster" have kissed the booty of athletes and leagues more than Rashad.

10c. McIntyre also reported that former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher will be joining Fox Sports 1 as a football analyst. The NFL Network had been pursuing Urlacher, who told The Rich Eisen podcast last month that he was not sure broadcasting was for him. It is now.

10d. Sunday Night Football game-caller Al Michaels will be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame next Friday with the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. The award is given annually by the Pro Football Hall of Fame "for longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football."

10e. The MLB Network will air 17 hours of live coverage leading up to the 4:00 p.m. ET trading deadline on Wednesday, including a six-hour MLB Tonight: Trade Deadline Special starting at 11:00 am ET. Other highlights: MLB Network insiders Peter Gammons, Jon Heyman and Ken Rosenthal will have live cameras positioned inside their offices throughout the day, and MLB Network correspondents ('s Richard Justice, USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale, Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers and New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman) will report breaking news from their cities.

10f. The well-regarded Judy Battista, a longtime New York Times sports writer with a specialty in pro football, was hired last week by NFL Media ( and the NFL Network). Beginning on Aug.5, Battista will file stories for and appear on NFL Network on a variety of shows.

10g. The votes are in and Awful Announcing has determined the final minute of the U.S's 4-3 win over the U.S.S.R in Olympic hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics as the greatest call of all-time. Here's Michaels with the call.

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