Traug Keller says ESPN did everything it could to retain Colin Cowherd. When the radio host suggested he wanted to move his base of operations from Bristol, Ct. to Los Angeles, ESPN management greenlit the proposal. Extra television opportunities? You bet, the company said. Keller, a longtime ESPN executive, would know the details of such contractual negotiations. The senior vice president of production business divisions oversees all aspects of the ESPN’s audio business including talent, staffing, national programming content, scheduling and event production. He’s also enjoyed a good relationship with Cowherd since hiring the host in 2003 to replace Tony Kornheiser for the late morning time slot on ESPN Radio.
But while ESPN’s offer was aggressive, it was not enough. Last week The Big Lead’s Ryan Glasspiegel broke the story that Cowherd was leaving ESPN at the end of his current contract.
“I’m close to Colin and I think he’s a unique talent,” said Keller by phone from Gleaneagles, Scotland, where he is attending The Open Championship. “But I think he was playing this around in his mind, 'Is there something bigger and better out there for me?' This was also, and make no mistake about it, this was about the bids that were put in. We put in an aggressive bid for Colin and I think he got a better one from Fox. As you know, that’s life.”
While an official contract has yet to be signed as of this writing, Cowherd is heading for Fox Sports as Keller’s quote above indicates. Negotiations are currently finalizing between that network’s brass and Cowherd’s reps. One of the questions remaining for Fox was whether ESPN would let Cowherd out of his contract early, keep him on air until the end of his contract, or pay him to sit on a California beach until his contract’s end. Keller would not confirm an end date for Cowherd but he did say it would be an amicable parting. I’m told Cowherd’s ESPN contract ends in December but he’ll be off ESPN well before that.
If you are looking for a starting date for Cowherd at Fox Sports, keep this in mind: Cowherd has a book coming out Oct. 1 and I’d guess he’d want to be at his new employer to promote that (as well as having his new employer promote the heck out of the book). Based on multiple industry sources I spoke with, the Fox Sports salary they anticipated for Cowherd was north of $6 million annually when you include radio and television work.
What will Cowherd do for his new employer? Here’s some informed speculation after four days of speaking with people inside and outside of Fox Sports: Look for Cowherd to host a nationally syndicated show on Fox Sports Radio that's fully simulcast on Fox Sports 1. I’d also look for him to have a separate 30-minute or 60-minute presence on Fox Sports 1. Glasspiegel reported that one potential idea would have Cowherd on FS1 at 6 p.m. ET to compete with SportsCenter. Two Fox sources confirmed such an idea is being kicked around. Fox hiring Cowherd will reunite the host with Jamie Horowitz, his former boss on ESPN’s Sports Nation who last April was brought in by Fox to oversee all programming, marketing and scheduling for Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Horowitz is currently kicking around a ton of pilots for both networks, presumably some involving two hosts screaming and blaming LeBron James for the Greek economic crisis.
As for Cowherd’s replacement, multiple sources told SI.com that The Dan Le Batard Show, which currently airs on ESPN Radio from 4-7 p.m. ET, is the frontrunner to take over Cowherd’s morning 10-1 p.m. spot. That would cause an opening in Le Batard’s current spot, with multiple in-house candidates being kicked around including Bomani Jones, who currently hosts an ESPN Radio show from 9-11 p.m.
The choice of Le Batard makes a lot of sense internally for a number of reasons. First, ESPN president John Skipper is personally fond of Le Batard and has said so in interviews with this column. Second, Le Batard is key talent figure in Rydholm Projects group, the company led by producer Erik Rydholm that produces Highly Questionable, Around The Horn and Pardon The Interruption in partnership with ESPN. Rydholm’s shows build on each other to funnel into what ESPN management considers its most important property in SportsCenter and whether he wants to admit it or not, Rydholm is the most powerful producer at ESPN. If you regularly appear on Rydholm shows, you can feel comfortable buying, as opposed to renting, that two bedroom loft in Brooklyn or Miami.
But just because ESPN management thinks Le Batard is a good fit by no means assures it will happen. Le Batard and Jones work on Highly Questionable, which tapes at 12:30 p.m. ET (the slot Cowherd currently hosts). That show is very important to Le Batard and Rydholm, not to mention ESPN’s TV side. Also, keep in mind Le Batard and his radio show have spent years establishing an audience during the drive-time hours in Miami. That’s something that group might not want to screw around with. It also seems inconceivable that Le Batard would make any move that has a negative impact on the television show he does with his father, Gonzalo. As for Jones, he does a lot of spots on Around The Horn (which tapes at 1:30 p.m.) so that’s also a factor with him. I believe Keller when he says nothing has been finalized.
Asked where ESPN Radio stood on a new lineup, Keller said, “We have a deep bench. There are great network programs. We have a guy named Le Batard in Miami who is doing a great radio show.”
Keller then rolled off a number of additional ESPN Radio names from Jones to the L.A.-based Max Kellerman and Marcellus Wiley to the Chicago-based duo of Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman to the New York-based ESPN Radio show featuring Michael Kay and Don La Greca to Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, the hosts of ESPN2’s His and Hers.
So file those names away, too, as part of a radio chessboard. “We have strong ideas but I am not ready to talk about it right now,” Keller said.
Asked specially if the Le Batard show was the front runner for Cowherd’s slot, Keller said, “I’m not going to comment.”
I asked Keller if conceptually, he felt the Le Batard show could work at the 10-1 hour. “That content is not germane just to 4-7,” Keller said. “There is no sports content that is specifically germane to a day part. If it’s entertaining and fun and the people that are the talent connect to the sports fans, whether it’s 4-7, 1-4, 10-1 or 6-10, it works.”
Keller said he was not worried about Cowherd competing against ESPN. “We welcome the competition and it’s a big pool,” Keller said. “We like our model. It’s not a network beholden to terrestrial radio. We have our own thing. I’m not worried about it but he’s a very good talent.”
For those who think ESPN Radio is going to fall off a cliff from 10-1 without Cowherd, guess again. The person or persons who replace Cowherd will essentially be given a Wonka Golden Ticket.
Cowherd’s show airs on 400 terrestrial radio stations, Sirius XM, iTunes, Slacker, Tune-in and is simulcast on TV.
“I think about 'Who is next?' and that’s the fun part of my job, taking folks, putting them on, and watching it happen,” Keller said. “Look, you and I both know that after a 10- or 15-year run, people get the itch. Maybe it’s better over there. I get that and that happens. But the part that keeps me going and what I love that we have is this ability to take people and let them loose to see what they can do.”
On the topic of other ESPN Radio shows, I’ve been told by a number of ESPN staffers that the relationship between ESPN management and Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic has been chilly since management pulled out from the plans of moving them to New York. In a splashy announcement at the ESPN upfronts for advertisers in May, ESPN said Mike & Mike would originate from ABC’s Times Square studio beginning Feb. 8, 2016, the day after Super Bowl 50.
“Look, I think it’s fine,” Keller said. “They are disappointed but no one has stormed into my office saying I am really unhappy. I think people were excited about this and are now disappointed but we will get through it. I really do mean it: If you listen to the show, they are all in.”
Keller said he recently had a long conversation with Golic, which he characterized as excellent, about the future of the show, and said Mike & Mike “is firing on all cylinders.” Keller said ESPN is committed for the long term. “It’s one of the great morning shows in radio,” Keller said.
Keller declined to comment on the futures of Jen Lada, the Chicago-based Comcast Sports Net anchor and reporter who had been scheduled to join Cowherd’s show, and NFL Network's Molly Qerim, who had been announced as the third person on the rebranded, New York-based Mike & Mike. But look for both women to land at ESPN with regular assignments. Qerim, for instance, has been serving as the interim moderator at ESPN2’s Shawshank Prison (First Take).
As for the future of Ryen Russillo, who hosts the ESPN Radio shift from 1-4 p.m. ET and whose contract is coming up , Keller said, “There are good conversations going on with him right now.”
THE NOISE REPORT
1. Reggie Love says Barack Obama did not write him a letter of reference for his new job as the brand ambassador and editor at large at VICE Sports.
“Look, man, I give President Obama his sports credibility, “Love said, laughing. “It’s not the other way around.”
From 2007 through 2011, Love served as the special assistant and personal aide to Barack Obama, a position commonly referred to as “body man.” He left the White House in 2011 to complete his Master of Business Administration degree at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Prior to his White House stay, Love played basketball at Duke and was on the 2001 team that won the NCAA national championship. He also played wide receiver for the Duke football team.
Love’s job at VICE Sports is still evolving. He said his objective is to increase the site’s content and help with strategy. Clearly, he will use his contacts to help expand the brand. He travels from Washington to VICE’s offices in Brooklyn a couple of times a month. “The main strategy to is to make sure that VICE Sports is part of the daily conversation,” Love said. “We’re not a place were people come for statistics and scores so how do we maintain ourselves in the sports conversation?”
Love said he wanted the job because he loves sports. He was hired by Alyssa Mastromonaco, the chief operating officer of VICE and a former Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. VICE Sports launched June 2014 and this April it added local editions in Germany, Spain and England. A company spokesperson said expansion will continue to Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Italy and Latin America later this year. Last month, along with adding Love, VICE Sports announced that senior staff writer Jorge Arangure Jr. had been promoted to editor-in-chief and Caitlin Kelly, formerly of the New Yorker, had been hired as managing editor.
I asked Love if there were any similarities between Obama and Mike Krzyzewski, the coach Love played for while at Duke.
“Yes, in their work ethic and how they are able to inspire people to go out and play and perform at a high level,” said Love, who teaches a public relations course focusing on sports at the School of Continuing Education at Georgetown. “The U.S. Government employs, I don’t know, how many millions of people of people who work in government for pennies on the dollar against what they could probably make at other places. They do it out of the love of the country and because guys like President Obama and Coach K are able them to inspire them to do things. Coach K can take five McDonald All-Americas and get them to play with one basketball. But the President has a tougher job because Duke basketball is not a democracy.”
Love published a memoir earlier this year, Power Forward: My Presidential Education, which described his years at the White House. He said Obama would watch every Bulls and Bears game, as well as most NBA games, if they were airing while traveling on Air Force One.
“During the first week of March Madness, for some reason, we always ended up in Europe,” Love said. “The first thing he would always ask in the morning was 'What happened in the games last night?' He assumed that I had found some bar at 3 a.m. to watch the tournament, which I usually did.”
Obama is a noted basketball fan—he and Love played often at the White House—and I asked Love for a scouting report on the President’s game.
“The best thing about his game is that he cares about winning more than his own statistics,” Love said. “He’s a guy that makes everyone on the court better. His actual game, his physical ability, I don’t want to give it away because if someone blocks his shot, he will be like, 'Why are you giving everyone the scouting report on me?' But he is savvy, and he’s surprisingly in very good shape for an older fellow.
Does Obama’s game compare to any current of former pro?
“I didn’t meet him until his mid-40s,” Love said, “so I have no idea what his game was as a young man, but I would say of guys that I played with, his jump shot almost looks like Johnny Dawkins’ jumper."
1a. Last week ESPN and the NBA announced that ABC will air an eight-game package of NBA games on Saturday night. The series will tip off Jan. 23, 2016 and run twice a month through the rest of the season, with games starting at 8:30 p.m. That means ABC and ESPN will now combine to televise NBA games on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. No commentators have been selected for the Saturday package of games.
As for the quality of games on Saturday night, Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president for programming and scheduling, said, “We work closely with the NBA on all scheduling matters and this new series will be no different. Both ESPN and the NBA are committed to creating a schedule for this new franchise that will feature the biggest stars, best teams and most compelling matchups.”
Under its current rights deal with the NBA, which expires after next season, ABC was scheduled for 16 games. Instead of airing doubleheaders on Sundays, ABC will now air one on Saturday nights and one on Sunday afternoons. Per usual, ABC's NBA schedule begins with its Christmas Day doubleheader.
2. The optimist—or someone who works for Major League Baseball—will tell you that baseball's All-Star Game remains the best-rated all-star game of the four major North American pro sports leagues. The pessimist would say something else: The All-Star Game ratings are tanking.
Fox drew an average of 10.9 million for this year’s All-Star game, down from last year’s 11.3 million, 10.96 million in 2013 and 10.89 million in 2012. Fox noted in a release that the 10.9 million viewers fell within the 10.897 – 11.338 million range established for the last five MLB All-Star Games but that’s a significant decrease from 14.6 million in 2009 and well down from 16 million in 2001. Outside of a controversy or something unforeseen in the marketing of its stars, there’s no impetus to suggest the numbers will ever go back up to early 2000s levels.
2a. The top TV markers for the All-Star Game: 1. Kansas City; 2. Cincinnati; 3. St. Louis; 4. Pittsburgh; 5. Dayton; 6. Detroit; 7. Sacramento; 8. Minneapolis; 9. Columbus, Ohio; 10. San Diego.
2b. ESPN’s Home Run Derby broadcast averaged 7.1 million viewers, the most-viewed and highest-rated Home Run Derby since 2009 (8,250,000 viewers). Viewership was up 32% (5,402,000 viewers) from 2014.
3. The 11th episode of the SI Media Podcast features ESPN reporter Shelley Smith. In the podcast Smith discusses her public battle with breast cancer, ESPN nearly dropping her in 2014, being a woman in her 50s on sports television, counseling colleague Britt McHenry after McHenry appeared on a videotape berating a tow-truck operator, producing an upcoming 30 for 30 on the 2006 college football national title game between Texas and USC and missing Stuart Scott and Bryan Burwell. A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here.
Here’s Smith on reaching out to McHenry:
“I knew she was hurting and we have all been there, we have all done things, and lashed out and said really heinous things that were not caught on tape. But I got a lot of heat for that. Shortly after your article ran [on this topic] a lot of people came up to me and asked why in the world would I reach out to her. And some of the people who came up to me have been the meanest people in this business. I’m not going to name names but you can probably figure it out. I was thinking, ‘You of all people are chastising me for reaching out to a young girl who made a really horrible mistake?' I just said, ‘Look, she’s a young girl and she’s hurting. When I called her she was just sobbing. She said, ‘I feel like I let you all down.' I said, ‘Well, you did.' I didn’t sugarcoat it. I told her we expected more. But I also said people make mistakes, and you will be [yesterday’s] news soon.”
4. Sports pieces of note:
• From CJR’s Anna Clark: This month, one of the best baseball reporters will be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Trouble is? He's unemployed.
• ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Tim MacMahon on how DeAndre Jordan went from the Clippers to the Mavericks to the Clippers.
• From The Harvard Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law: Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off the Field.
• Tom Verducci took a road trip from Las Vegas to Santa Clarita with Pete Rose. His story from the mag on it.
From Vice Sports: Life as a transgender high school athlete.
Non sports pieces of note:
• Via The New Yorker: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when. I cannot encourage you to read this piece enough.
• This story by Michael Vitez is about a remarkable 18-year-old who had every bad hand dealt to her and overcame it.
• This was great from The New York Times: Judd Apatow narrates how he approached a scene (featuring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader and LeBron James) from his new film, Trainwreck
• From Vox: Watch: 2 Russian men held hands in public. People reacted horribly.
• Via The Washington Post: The homeless man who went to Harvard Law with John Roberts.
• From Ron Judd, Walker Orenstein and Miguel Otárola of The Seattle Times: The high schooler who survived a plane crash.
• Excellent piece by Mairead Small Staid on the NXT Revolution in women's wrestling.
• From Patrick Radden Keefe: El Chapo Escapes Again.
• Nicholas Winton rescued 669 children from the Holocaust. They share their stories.
• From Caitlin Gibson of The Washington Post: This judge mentored a quadriplegic man. Then he helped her through her own spinal injury.
• Via Ian Urbina of The New York Times: Few places on earth are as free from legal oversight as the high seas.
5. The ESPYS, appearing on ABC for the first time in its 23-year run, drew 7.7 million viewers, a 250% increase over last year’s audience (2.2 million) and also up dramatically over 2013 (2.5 million). ESPN said the show grew by 1.9 million viewers (6.6 million to 8.5 million) from the first hour to the final hour, when Caitlyn Jenner’s speech occurred. Here’s my piece on it.
5a. ESPN's John Saunders offers to pay for Eric Garner's tombstone.
5b.Real Sports’s next episode (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT) investigates domestic violence among pro MMA fighters and efforts by MMA organizations to address it. It also includes Christy Mack telling her story for the first time on television.
5c. Sean Grande, the excellent play-by-play announcer of the Celtics, was hired by Bellator MMA to call its bouts on Spike. Grande is in his 15th year of calling the Celtics.
5d.Sports Business Daily reporter John Ourand spoke with new head of ESPN’s affiliate group, Justin Connolly, about the challenges facing his company.
5e. Van Miller, who called Buffalo Bills games for 37 years, passed away on Friday night at 87. On a personal note, when I was a young dude with zero profile covering the Bills, he was extremely generous and kind. Rest In peace.
5f. A website has been set up for the sons of the late Darryl Hamilton, the former major leaguer and MLB Network analyst (darrylqhamiltonfund.com). On Aug 11 there will also be a Darryl Q. Hamilton Golf Tournament in Milford, CT. Donations will directly benefit Darryl's sons.
5g. Fox Sports 1 coverage of the USMNT’s 1-1 draw with Panama drew just under 1.1 million viewers, becoming the most-watched non-FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer match in FOX Sports 1 history.
5i. Some thoughts from Twitter followers about who should replace Cowherd.
5j. ESPN’s live telecast of Round 4 of The Open at Scotland’s St Andrews will begin at 6 a.m. ET (11 a.m. in Scotland) on Monday. There will be a three-hour re-air Monday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
5k. As I’ve written before, I’m not a big golf watcher but I do try to watch the majors. On Sunday I was away from a TV so I listened to ESPN Radio’s coverage of the event and really came away impressed by the production and specifically the solid work of the announcing team. Full marks to Doug Bell, Dennis Paulson, Bill Rosinski and Bob Wischusen.