For coverage lacking objectivity, Michelle Akers's critical and unbiased voice is a welcome one in U.S. Soccer
One of the ways women’s soccer will continue to grow in popularity in the United States is through objective broadcasting. Every sport needs people not tethered to that sport’s existing body and beholden to current players and coaches. That’s why it’s been refreshing to read and hear the words of Michelle Akers, the former U.S. national team star who is working the Women’s World Cup for SiriusXM’s 24/7 soccer channel, SiriusXM FC (channel 94). She and Glenn Crooks, a former Rutgers women’s coach, appear before and after games.
Akers, 49, is a generation removed from the current group of players and she’s been a voice of realism when it comes to the performance of the team under head coach Jill Ellis. “If [Ellis] is pleased with the way we played tonight then what the hell is she doing coaching our U.S. team?" Akers said after a lackluster U.S. win over Colombia. “You know what I’m saying? That’s a scary comment to me. I would expect more out of my team if I want them to be the world champions.”
• SCHEDULE: 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup bracket
Given her credentials as a player (arguably, along with Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, the best U.S. women’s player of all-time) Akers said she felt she could add a perspective to the coverage. She also thought the assignment would be fun and a way to be involved in the game. Of note here is Akers’s age. Women over 50 appear on sports television with the regularity of Halley’s Comet, and that’s a shame because Akers is a perfect example of how experience can provide viewers and listeners with quality insight.
On Friday, in between cleaning stalls at her rescue horse farm in Powder Springs, Ga., Akers told SI.com that she approaches every life assignment under the framework of how it can aid her horse rescue outreach enterprise, a public charity that she started in 2007. Working in the media gives her a platform to promote her life’s work.
“Commentating is not the dream I wake up to every morning but a way I can contribute to the game,” Akers said. “I thought Sirius would be fun and I could do it from the farm and I would not have to be away from my son (Cody, 10) and my horses.
“For some of the commentators it is important for them to be ingratiated into the system, so that means U.S. Soccer or MLS or the Women’s Pro League or FIFA or whatever,” Akers continued. “They want information, they want to be included, they want a job. So if you are commentator for Fox or ESPN or whomever, you want access to the players. So I guess—I’m just theorizing —that if you say s--- about them that is negative, why would they want to talk to you? I guess they try to stay on the fence or on the more positive side to keep the door more open for information. They might have relationships with the players so maybe those friendships would curb what would they would say. For me I am not necessarily speaking for the viewers, I am just saying what I see. This is just me and how I am. I really don’t have an agenda other than saying what I see and wanting better for my team.”
Akers said she had been reluctant in the past to speak up publicly because she “catches a lot of s---” when she speaks. So why did she opt not to hold her tongue for this Cup?
“My whole career on the team I was a leader more by action than voice, but when I felt compelled, like something was too important to let go, I would speak up,” Akers said. “So along the way I pissed a lot of people off, including U.S. Soccer, for different issues. I think the way I say things is very direct. I could perhaps be more politically correct in my timing and words. I burned a lot of bridges but I didn’t care because my team was the most important thing ... and I would become involved in matters that would throw me under the bus.
"A lot of people might be like 'It’s sour grapes; U.S. Soccer did not hire her so she is just coming down on Ellis,'" she continued. "No, it’s not that at all. There is no vengeance, nothing like that. I saw our team lose to Japan in the  World Cup and I was like, 'I can’t take it.' I just had to say something. That’s what I do. I say what I am feeling most strongly about. It’s not like I am a loose cannon talking out of my butt. What I am saying is true. If I were with Fox or ESPN or whatever, I would still have to say what I thought and be true to myself. I’m not a faker. I can’t do that. It’s not to be applauded or 'look at me.' I just can’t, even if my job depended on it."
I find Akers super refreshing and I hope heading forward, if soccer broadcasters don’t use her specifically, I hope they attempt to find broadcasters with her kind of truth ethos.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories
1. The United States's 1–0 win over China last Friday averaged 5.7 million viewers on Fox, the most-watched game of the tournament and the third most-watched women’s soccer match of all time, trailing only the USA-China 1999 Women’s World Cup final (17.975 million) and the Japan-USA 2011 Women’s World Cup final (13.458 million). The US-Nigeria 2015 group stage match is now fourth at five million.
1a. Fox said its audience for U.S.-China began at 1.9 million viewers at 7:13 p.m. ET and peaked at 8.1 million from 9 to 9:15 p.m. ET. The previous peak audience for the tournament was 6.4 million, reached during the USA-Sweden group stage and USA-Colombia round of 16 matches.
1b. Kansas City was the highest-rated TV market for U.S.-China followed by St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Austin, Greensboro, Norfolk, Atlanta, Sacramento, Tulsa and Dayton.
1c. Germany and France averaged 1.7 million viewers, a tournament high for a non-U.S. match.
1d. The top-rated TV markets for all five USA matches are as follows: 1. St. Louis; 2. Washington, D.C.; 3. Kansas City; 4. Richmond; T5. Baltimore and Milwaukee; T7. Austin, Hartford and Norfolk; 10. New York.
1e. The team of Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St. Aubin was awarded the call of the England-Japan semifinal on Wednesday. Julie Stewart-Binks was assigned as the reporter. That's a nice job by Fox Sports brass to reward three people who produced quality work during the tournament with a high-end assignment. The third place match (July 4) will be called by Justin Kutcher and Aly Wagner, with Stewart-Binks on the sideline. JP Dellacamera, Cat Whitehill, Tony DiCicco and Jenny Taft were selected to call the final on July 5 in Vancouver. That group will also have the U.S.-Germany semifinal on Tuesday.
1f. DiCicco on how he would game plan against Germany if he were coaching: “I would look to press, and the reason is so few teams press Germany because they are afraid to extend the game. I would look to press [the Germans] high, create some mistakes and take them off their game. Right now my biggest concern for the USA is that [it is] playing great defense, especially the back five including Hope Solo. But we’re not scoring a lot of goals. I think USA has to score two goals to win this game.”
1g. ESPN soccer analyst Julie Foudy on whether interest in the Women's World Cup will carry over to the National Women's Soccer League: "We're kind of in this bubble to gauge how it's being received. I mean the numbers, in terms of people watching the games, obviously have been huge, which has been great to see. Especially when you're not just talking Fox, you're talking FS1 as well. [Its] numbers have been great. So I think that's a positive sign.
"If you're pulling in five million on FS1 or just about, which is what I think [it] got, I think that's a great sign," Foudy continued. "And there is constantly conversation now, not just 'Oh, this is where they like to shop or these are the things they like to do.' It's tactics. It's 'What should we be playing and how come we're not playing better?' It's all these questions that you get from people just walking around town of 'What's going on?' or 'That was better' and constant commentary on how they're playing, which I think is healthy. So instead of treating it as an anomaly, and 'Wow, what is this?' it's more, 'O.K., we're in this and we're paying attention.' I think that's all positive. Hopefully, it will have a positive impact on this critical third year with the league."
2. Last week, Awful Announcing reported on significant cuts to the news operation at Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1, and if you are fan of sports journalism, such news is distressing. The website reported that a number of news-specific staffers are losing their jobs—I can tell you that the assignment desk suffered significantly and producers have been re-assigned—and that Fox Sports staffers who work as reporters in the news operation will be doing very little travel in the near-term. Fox Sports also plans to reduce its on-site reporting for events where it does not have television rights. For those on NFL, college football and NBA beats, that’s a devastating blow and essentially eliminates those staffers from being competitive against the likes of ESPN and others. A Fox Sports staffer called the environment “grim.”
“The consumption of news and information is constantly evolving and we are shifting to a digital/mobile-first strategy under our successful @TheBuzzer brand to reflect changing consumer habits,” Fox Sports told Awful Announcing in a statement. “As a result, in an effort to reduce expenses and increase efficiency, we are aligning our staffing to better meet our new programming needs and viewers' consumption habits.”
Why did this happen? Well, live sports rights cost a ton and Fox has spent dramatically over the last couple of years with its World Cup, U.S. Open and NASCAR rights agreements. Live sports rights are also how you increase your cable sport channel’s distribution and affiliate fees (there’s also massive long-term costs in starting a new network) and Fox is no doubt eyeing the upcoming Big Ten rights, which CBS and ESPN have until 2017.
For the digital arm of Fox Sports, there appears to be a clear pecking order regarding which content gets pushed the heaviest, starting with video, and recent personnel moves suggest that being a provocateur and providing bro-style commentary might insure better job security than straight reporting.
On the TV side, the recent hiring of Jamie Horowitz, most recently at NBC but a former ESPN executive who championed First Take, signals the desire to build FS1’s day parts around personality-driven talents rather than those who cover the content more down the middle. The message to young sports journalists: Learn how to debate and major in drama in school.
Two years ago, Fox Sports executives talked boldly about a significant investment in news to provide around-the-clock coverage and even predicted a morning edition of Fox Sports Live from New York after a year. "There is a baseline news investment that you have to have to be credible in a 24/7 environment," Fox Sports president Eric Shanks told this column in 2013. Clearly, the fiscal and editorial environments have changed.
Fox Sports has never had the same seriousness about journalism as ESPN—it once ran a column comparing 20-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams to Paris Hilton, after all—but it did make some thoughtful hires suggesting it was serious about building a quality news organization. (A prediction here: It’ll never compete heads-up with ESPN with a half-baked news organization.) Print journalists are used to these kinds of gloomy headlines, and so Fox Sports cutting staffers is a real bummer because the company offered (in theory) a potential long-term competitor to ESPN for good-paying jobs for sports journalists who cared about quality editorial. That future remains more cloudy today.
3. How has the attempt to blend sports and comedy generally fared for content creators?
About as well as it did for Barzini and Tattaglia at the end of The Godfather.
The good news is the low barrier to the digital space presents opportunities for moderate success, and the four-person group (head writer/producer Joel Solomon, host/writer Yannis Pappas and writers Brendan Fitzgibbons and DJ Gallo) behind AOL’s "2-Point Lead" thinks it has the right mix of sports and comedy that will appeal to readers and viewers. The digital shorts (around 2–3 minutes) have high production value and they’ve been able to attract some interesting people.
“For some sketches we wait for the right athlete or actor like ‘1-800-BACKUP’ with Bruce Gradkowski or ‘The Stockton Army’ with Michael Rappaport,” said Gallo. “Something like ‘The Shrinx’ (a Deflategate parody of HBO’s The Jinx) we turned around from start to finish in less than a day. It’s super important for us to stay topical, but we also plan 1–3 weeks in advance. Right now, we’re trying to line up with comedian Bill Burr’s schedule to shoot something with him. So, that’s at least planning for 2018.”
AOL posts new episodes every day at 2 p.m. ET and you can find an archive here.
“Let’s face it, it’s getting harder and harder for anyone to make something great and make money at it,” said Brian Fitzsimmons, AOL.com's sports editor. “Fans are flooded by so many options for content and simply doing comedy isn't enough. The manner in which our content is delivered and the high production quality is what we value. You have to make something that doesn’t just involve a green screen or a talking head. There hadn’t been a regular place where fans can go for a comedic touch in bite-sized doses that offers the same, if not more, entertainment value as a 30-minute television show.”
4. Last week I contacted eight of the 46 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters to ask them if their evaluation of Tom Brady for the Hall had changed at all with the Wells Report. As you might have predicted, based on this sample, Brady appears to be in little trouble as a first-ballot Hall of Famer if nothing new comes to light.
4a. The guest for the eighth episode of the SI Media Podcast is Tom Verducci, a Sports Illustrated senior writer, an MLB analyst for Fox Sports and a studio and game analyst for MLB Network. In the podcast, Verducci discusses his preparation for different mediums (broadcast and print), the best questions to ask for interviews, how to get subjects to speak with you, why Jackie Robinson is the player from the past he most wishes he could profile, why he’s not on Twitter, the challenges of covering a member of your family, how growing up as the son of a high school football coach shaped his journalism and why he loves talking to pitchers such as Max Scherzer.
5. Sports Business Daily reporter John Ourand on Discovery Communications landing Europe’s Olympic media rights through 2024 for $1.48 billion.
5a. The Povich Center on the campus of the University of Maryland is hosting a sports journalism camp.
5b. The family of the late Darryl Hamilton, who worked as a studio analyst for the MLB Network after a 13-year career as a major-league outfielder, has established a foundation to accept donations for his three children. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Darryl Q. Hamilton Memorial Fund for the benefit of his sons. Direct contributions can be sent to: BBVA Compass c/o Karen Dixon/Anne O'Conor, 2200 Post Oak Blvd, Suite 1900, Houston, Texas 77056.
5c. NBC Sports begins its Tour de France coverage on July 4 at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN. The sports division will show all 21 stages live for a total of 91 hours of live coverage from July 4-26.