At a midtown Manhattan coffee shop last Tuesday morning, four blocks north of the mighty News Corporation headquarters, I sat down with a sports television and digital executive who could be a serious contender for the services of Bill Simmons. This executive has the money, the bandwidth and the incentive to take on ESPN.
But here’s the big question:
Does the Bill Simmons brand mesh with the Fox Sports brand?
“To the extent that we believe that Fox’s brand is kind of bold and edgy and youthful, to that extent, yeah,” said Eric Shanks, president of Fox Sports. “I think that there is any of number of things that either Bill or Fox would have to decide on regarding what are the goals here. Whether it’s Bill or someone else, you are going to pay them a certain amount and then you are going to figure out do I have the assets to get the value out of that amount, and that’s after you have figured out whether your brands mesh.”
Simmons and Fox Sports are not a perfect fit. The television and digital coverage of the NBA (the sports is Simmons’s strength) from Fox Sports is light compared to other entities, and so far Fox has shown no interest in producing the kind of content that Grantland does. But Simmons would clearly be drawn to the one company that has talked boldly about challenging ESPN for the long term. He’s also close with Jamie Horowitz, the former ESPN programming chief who is now the head of programming, marketing and scheduling for Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2.
I asked Shanks if there was any part of him that selfishly would love to add a former high-profile ESPNer the same way ESPN president John Skipper made talent moves (Olbermann) designed to take audience away from Fox Sports 1. “It’s a completely different scenario because he is a free agent, but TV personalities—the right ones—can drive viewership and, if they are on you channel your digital properties, it means they are not on someone else’s.”
Shanks has previously met Simmons, though he wanted to make it clear that there have been no formal talks with Simmons or his representatives. I would not bet on Simmons signing on with Fox Sports in full, but I would seriously watch for them to be contender for some of his services, especially because of their location (Fox Sports 1 and Simmons are based in Los Angeles). Also, keep in mind that Fox has consistently added talent with full-time jobs at other places—Yahoo! Sports’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, for instance. And no network is also better at letting its talent (e.g. Erin Andrews, Michael Strahan, Charissa Thompson) extend personal brands to entertainment. Shanks said that he could envision—at least conceptually—having Simmons in a part-time role for Fox Sports. “Potentially, sure,” Shanks said. “We don’t have an issue with people there. We work out a lot of different deals.”
The Noise Report
1. Play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert works for multiple broadcast outlets—Fox, NBC and the MSG Network—and with that comes a busy April and May. How busy? Albert emailed his schedule for the past two months:
2—NHL: New York Rangers at Minnesota Wild (radio)
3—NBA: New York Knicks at Washington Wizards (MSG TV)
4—NHL: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers (radio)
5—NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks (MSG TV)
6—NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Rangers (radio)
7—NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils (radio)
8—NBA: Indiana Pacers at New York Knicks (MSG TV)
9—NHL: Ottawa Senators at New York Rangers (radio)
11—MLB: Kansas City Royals at Los Angeles Angels (TV, Fox Sports 1)
13—NBA: New York Knicks at Atlanta Hawks (MSG TV)
14—Boxing voiceovers in Stamford, CT
(* Start of the NHL playoffs)
15—NHL: New York Islanders at Washington Capitals (TV, NBC)
16—NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers (radio)
17—NHL: New York Islanders at Washington Capitals (TV, NBC)
18—MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox (TV, Fox Sports 1)
19—NHL: Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks (TV, Fox Sports 1)
20—NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins (radio)
21—NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Islanders (TV, NBC)
22—NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins (radio)
23—NHL: New York Islanders at Washington Capitals (TV, NBC)
24—NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers (radio)
25—MLB: New York Mets at New York Yankees (TV, Fox Sports 1)
30—NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers (radio)
1—NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens (TV, NBC)
2—NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers (TV, NBC)
3—NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens (TV, NBC)
4—NHL: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals (radio)
5—NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild (TV, NBC)
6—NHL: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals (radio)
7—NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning (TV, NBC)
8—NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers (radio)
9—NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens (TV, NBC)
10—NHL: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals (radio)
12—NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Tampa Bay Lightning (TV, NBC)
13—NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers (radio)
16—NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Rangers (radio)
17—NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Anaheim Ducks (TV, NBC)
18—NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Rangers (radio)
19—NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Anaheim Ducks (TV, NBC)
20—NHL: New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning (radio)
22—NHL: New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning (TV, NBC)
24—NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Rangers (radio)
25—NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Anaheim Ducks (TV, NBC)
26—NHL: New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning (radio)
Part of Albert’s schedule above consisted of 11 games in 11 days (including two Fox Sports 1 baseball broadcasts). He also had a stretch in early May in which he was on a plane for eight straight days. Then there was this: After calling Game 1 of the NHL playoffs in Montreal on May 1, a game that went to double overtime, Albert had to work a 12:30 p.m. game in New York the next day. So he and NBC NHL analyst Joe Micheletti took a six-hour car service from Montreal to New York just to be safe. They arrived at 6:15 a.m. in Manhattan, slept for a couple of hours, then called the Caps at Rangers. Later that night, they flew back to Montreal for Game 2 of the Canadians-Lightning series.
On Tuesday, Albert will call his 31st NHL playoff game this postseason (Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Rangers and Lightning). Last year he worked 39 NHL playoff games between radio and TV.
“The volume of games is similar to the Winter Olympics,” said Albert, who has worked the last four Olympics for NBC calling men’s and women’s hockey. “Often, we work two or even three games per day. The difference is there is no travel once you arrive on site. You are in the same hotel for two weeks. However, there is even more preparation than during the Stanley Cup playoffs due to the volume of games and number of countries/teams involved.
“The energy and travel [for this Stanley Cup postseason] is pretty similar to last year, although I had two ‘off’ days in the middle of the conference final round this year (in between Games 3 and 4 in Tampa), then the travel day between Games 4 and 5 of the Rangers-Tampa Bay series. Last year I worked the last 17 games played in the NHL (all seven Chicago games in the Western Conference finals, the last five in the Rangers/Montreal East finals, plus all five games of the Stanley Cup finals). There have been wild and crazy aspects to the travel both years.”
2. This week's SI Media podcast guest is NBC Sports broadcaster Rebecca Lowe, the sensational host of that network’s English Premier League coverage. Perhaps the highest accolade a viewer can give a sports broadcaster is that the broadcaster knows his or her subject matter cold, and I’m certain I speak for most world soccer viewers when I bestow that commendation on Lowe. During the podcast, Lowe went in-depth on how she preps for her job, how she reconciles her Crystal Palace fandom with objective analysis, why she prefers Roger Moore over all other Bonds, her desire to host a baking show, why she’d pick Gareth Bale first overall in a fantasy draft (not involving Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) and the impact of her father, the longtime BBC presenter Chris Lowe, on her career.
The iTunes link is here.
3. The contracts of Fox Sports Live anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole—who arrived from TSN Canada in the summer of 2013—come up in 2016. I asked Shanks if he was interested in extending their tenure in the States. “I am,” Shanks said. “I think they are unique voices and personalities and solid at what they do. One of the hardest things to do in this business is to create chemistry, and they have it built in. So whatever the format of that show is, Jay and Dan are pros, they like each other and it comes through. They are very creative and almost like producers as well as talent.”
3a. Next month Fox Sports begins a 12-year run broadcasting the U.S. Open, with tournament coverage beginning Thursday, June 18, at noon on Fox Sports 1. Why did Fox want to get into the golf business for the first time this year?
“It wasn’t necessarily the start of a large golf strategy but we are big believers in broadcasting big event sports on broadcast TV,” Shanks said. “This is a big event that captures the attention for at least a week if not more. It’s a major sports championship where you get to crown a champion at the end of it, and that was the appeal. It fits well with our big-event strategy. It’s not about us getting us into 23 weeks of golf.”
What will distinguish Fox’s golf coverage from other networks? “I think it starts with the announcers,” Shanks said. “It's people talking to people. So we could not be the same as say CBS if we tried just because we have Joe Buck and Greg Norman and Brad Faxon. So it starts with the voices and the analysts telling the production team what stories they want to tell and the production team figuring out what devices they can use to tell that story."
3b. Some highlight’s of Fox's Women's World Cup broadcast schedule.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• The Bergen Record’s Tara Sullivan on leaving Isiah Thomas' press conference feeling angry.
• The Nation’s Dave Zirin asks why few are reporting on Thabo Sefolosha and the NYPD.
• Peyton Manning wrote a first-person essay for The MMQB on David Letterman.
• Yahoo! Sports’s Graham Watson on former Arizona baseball player Chris Moon, who gave up the game and sacrificed for his country.
• ESPN’s Nick Friedell on Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
• SI’s Steve Rushin on NHL postseason overtime.
• Via Jason Kersey: How OU pole vaulter Tanner Williams went from scared teenager to gay rights advocate.
Non sports pieces of note:
• Remarkable piece by Washington Post writer Ian Shapira on Dutch families tending to the graves of U.S. military vets.
• A father's initiative. More tremendous reporting from Eli Saslow of the Washington Post.
• Mashable’s Sam Laird on traveling to Cuba.
• This Daniel Kellison piece on working for David Letterman is sensational.
• Jon Hamm addresses the final scene of Mad Men. An absolutely must-read for fans of the show.
• A powerful letter from the family of Boston Marathon bombing victim Lingzi Lu.
• Longtime Letterman writer Bill Scheft (also a former SI staffer) diaries the final day of the show.
• The best and worst ex-Presidents.
5. The 2015 NBA draft lottery telecast drew 3,550,000 viewers on ESPN, up six percent over 2014.
5a. Ring Magazine’s Michael Woods takes a look back at ESPN’s Friday Night Fights.
5a. Via Re/code: Why Netflix (probably) won’t stream the NFL.
5b. ESPN’s E:60 has made available its profile of Ernie Johnson. Take the time to watch.