ESPN has walked back its gambling coverage after taking a step forward, expanding gambling talk on shows like Sportscenter and College GameDay. What's behind the shift?
One of the hot-button topics this month in the sports media has been the ESPN directive to infuse its college football on-air coverage with more gambling content. If you’ve watched ESPN’s College GameDay over the past few weeks, you have seen the on-set cast pick games against the spread as well as graphics highlighting some of the biggest spreads of the weekend. You also saw during ESPN’s Sept. 4 broadcast of Baylor-SMU a “cover alert” pop up informing viewers that Western Michigan had scored a third quarter touchdown to cut Michigan State’s lead to 17 in a game the Spartans were favored by 18. The Scott Van Pelt-hosted midnight SportsCenter has also embraced gambling content as well.
This is not new ground. Gambling graphics have popped up on Fox Sports 1 regularly and the radio networks with connections to the football-airing networks discuss spreads all the time. Also, longtime announcers such as Brent Musburger and Al Michaels have for years made veiled references to the line on a game.
“We talked about doing this all of the past off-season and we’ve considered this for a long period of time,” Lee Fitting, the coordinating producer for College GameDay, told this column earlier this month on the subject of gambling content. “We recognize that fans are very interested in this type of talk. Our goal on College GameDay is to serve the fans and we believe by doing this, from time to time and when we feel it’s right, serves the fan.”
That’s why I read with interest a report on Monday from John Ourand and Michael Smith of the Sports Business Journal. The writers reported that ESPN executives have told college officials that the network will no longer use the “cover alerts” on game broadcasts that it rolled out for the Baylor-SMU game. Ourand and Smith said it was that highlight that “generated howls of protest” from university athletic executives. (Cue your own laugh track on college athletic administrators being worried about so-called corrosive behavior on young adults.)
“We did it once. I didn’t like it, and we stopped it,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and production, told SBJ. “To me, it was too overt. Part of everything we do has a little bit of trial and error.”
As for ESPN’s gambling content on GameDay, I’m told nothing will change. The show plans to create original content to inform those fans who like to gamble, including trends, analytics and picks. On the issue of pushback from the NCAA, Fitting said earlier this month that he believed GameDay would do things in a smart and thoughtful manner and that he was in constant contact with ESPN’s Programming Department, which would likely handle any angry calls from NCAA officials.
In the Ourand and Smith piece, which you should definitely read, the reporters spoke with some Power 5 college football commissioners as well as reps for CBS Sports, Fox Sports and NBC Sports. What’s interesting to me is the designation that’s being played out: ESPN and Fox Sports are staking out pregame and studio shows as the place for gambling information while the conferences consider game broadcasts sacrosanct when it comes to gambling. Thus, the pushback on cover alerts.
Such pushback invokes the phrase “distinction without a difference” and I’d like to see ESPN push back on the push back. If you have crossed the so-called Rubicon on gambling information with viewers, which clearly ESPN and Fox have based on their digital content and the Twitter feeds of many staffers, why would you cede ground to the conferences on in-game graphics which provide the same kind of gambling education you are advocating in your pregame? (Not too mention that seemingly half of ESPN and Fox Sports talent are fronting for Draft Kings at this point, which I believe is Latin for gambling.) I feel the same way about the wink and nod treatment from Michaels. That Michaels is tiptoeing around odds available globally highlights the silly dance. Let’s end this charade once and for all.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com looks at some of the more memorable sports media stories of the week
1. The NBC Sports Group and the Golf Channel held a conference call last week to introduce a signature talent acquisition: the longtime on-course analyst and reporter David Feherty. The 57-year-old Feherty will work as an on-course and tower analyst for NBC’s golf coverage including the Ryder Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics (where golf makes its Olympic return). He’ll also continue hosting his Golf Channel show Feherty, and has a clause in his contract with Universal Television that could potentially expand his role into non-sports entertainment. Feherty joins NBC after working for CBS for 19 years.
“It goes without saying how much his wit spices up a telecast, but his ability to analyze in my opinion like he has at the Masters is off-the-charts good, and I think under our system David will have the ability to provide even more depth to his analysis,” said NBC Sports golf producer Tommy Roy. “For example, I can't wait to hear him verbalize what it takes for a player to successfully navigate the Bear Trap. I can't wait to hear him set up a shot the leader faces at the 72nd tee at The Players. I can't wait to hear the adjectives he uses to describe the pressure the players face on the final few holes as they try to win the FedExCup and the 10 million that comes with it. I'm so grateful to know that he's now with us for our Open Championship and Ryder Cup telecasts, events that carry extraordinary meaning to him, where his passion and his firsthand knowledge will help us take the coverage of these two incredible events to new heights. Finally, I'm so looking forward to hearing the repartee between David and Johnny Miller. It's going to be some pretty damned good television.”
When a high-profile talent makes a move to a competitor, there’s going to be plenty of speculation on and off the record as to why the move happened. Clearly, negotiations broke down among Feherty, his CAA reps and CBS, and this Ron Sirak piece in Golf Digest offers some thoughts as to why. CBS and NBC Sports publicly took the high road on the subject, and Feherty did not reveal much when asked to clarify what happened.
“I can't watch myself on television, and I don't read anything about myself, either, whether it's good or bad,” he said. “I'm not sure the way it was characterized. All I can tell you is that the way that it went was I think the way these negotiations always do. There are offers, there are counteroffers, and in the end I'm left to make a decision. The decision could have gone either way. I just felt that NBC Universal, NBC Sports and The Golf Channel was an opportunity for me that I couldn't get anywhere else, and the kind of opportunity to do different things and perhaps do them in a different way every 20 years it seems I do something different. I played for 20 years, I had 20 years at CBS, and hopefully I'll have 20 here. The negotiations, I actually don't know that much about. It was me that had to make a decision in the end, and I'm comfortable with it. I'm not saying it wasn't difficult. It was extremely difficult and emotional for me, but I'm looking forward to this.”
2. Dusty Baker was approached by multiple television networks after he was fired by the Reds in 2013 but after 20 years of baseball managing including stops in Cincinnati (2008-13), Chicago (2003-06) and San Francisco (1993-2002), Baker said he needed to take some time away from the game. He was 64 years old and had been part of 3,164 games as a manager after a 19-year career as a player.
But when Turner Sports executives approached his broadcasting agent Lou Oppenheim a couple of months ago (Baker was introduced to Oppenheim through friend Chris Berman of ESPN) Baker was interested.
“Last year was too early for me to consider because I had to get over the initial shock of being fired,” said Baker, 66. “The timing wasn’t right and there was also the issue of travel. At this point of time in my life, things have to align right for me to consider them. So I flew to Atlanta [for an interview with Turner] and they contacted me again shortly afterward. They were like, 'Hey, man, let’s work on a deal.' It was pretty simple, actually.”
Baker will work as a TBS MLB studio analyst leading up to and throughout the 2015 postseason. He’ll sit alongside Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and host Casey Stern for pre- and post-game shows during TBS’s coverage of the 2015 National League postseason coverage. The studio team will also offer pre-game coverage for the final two Sunday MLB on TBS regular season telecasts (Sept. 27 and Oct. 4).
There is a mutual option, Baker said, if he and Turner want to continue the partnership in 2016, but he said that he’s learned over the years not to worry about how many years he’ll have a job. “I don’t like to live too far in the future because the present is too important,” Baker said. “Even when I was managing, I preferred two-year deals.”
Baker took some hits from the sabermetric community for his inflexibility as a manager so it will be interesting to see how numerically inclined viewers take to his analysis. On the issue of managing again, Baker said it would have to be the right situation and right organization.
“I didn’t retire,” said Baker. “I was fired even though it was being construed that I was retiring because of my health. But I was healthier the next year. If the right job comes along, and I have not been approached by anyone, I would do the same thing I always do. It has to be the right situation, the right organization, things have to be right.”
3. The latest Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN anchor and reporter Suzy Kolber. In the episode, Kolber discusses how she prepares for Monday Night Countdown and NFL Insiders, how she has maintained her longevity on-air, why she left ESPN for Fox in the late 1990s, her thoughts on her 2003 Monday Night Football interview with Joe Namath where the Pro Football Hall Of Famer said on-air he wanted to kiss her (and later apologized), raising a child as a single mother while working in the sports media, the impact her parents had on her (her father is Gene Kaye, a well-known radio personality in Pennsylvania) and much more.
Kolber, on the Namath incident:
“It was always stunning to me it got as much publicity as it did. At the time it was almost no different than many other situations I could have found myself in. I have always marveled at how fascinated everyone was by that because to me, it would have been over seconds after it happened. I probably looked at our photographer, rolled my eyes and that would have been it. I would have never thought about it again.
“So it is so hysterically funny to me that it’s what I am most known for. I would never have done anything differently than I did, and I refused to discuss it publicly for a long time. Every news outlet, newspapers, late-night talk shows, everybody wanted me to talk about and I never did. I did not talk about it on-camera until HBO did the documentary on Joe and even then I requested of the producers to ask Joe’s permission if I can talk about it. Because for him and me, I wanted it to go away. He and I did speak the day after it happened and the first 30 seconds of the conversation was on the record where he said he was sorry, and the next 35 minutes was off the record. He felt embarrassed, humiliated, all of that stuff. I said to him, ‘I’m fine.’ One of my favorite things came from my mom. Her comment afterward was, ‘Good to see Joe still has good taste in women.’”
4. Green Bay’s win over Seattle drew a 16.3 overnight rating, the first time SNF has opened with a 16 overnight rating for each of first three games. The top markets for the game were: 1. Milwaukee; 2. Seattle 3. Portland 4. Las Vegas 5. Denver 6. New Orleans 7. Minneapolis 8. Albuquerque 9. Richmond and 10. Phoenix
4a. The upcoming Sunday Night Football game (Broncos at Lions) is NBC's first game at Ford Field since getting the Sunday night package in 2006. The last time Al Michaels, coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli director Drew Esocoff did a game at the stadium was Super Bowl XL, which aired on ABC.
5. On the Tuesday‘s edition of the CBS Sports Network show We Need To Talk (8 p.m. ET), Lesley Visser, one of the panelists on the show, will debut the first of a three-part series highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Dolphins in Miami. Visser said the project took months to complete (Brian Davis is the producer) and interviews include Don Shula, Mercury Morris, Dan Marino, Bob Griese, Tim Robbie (son of late owner Joe Robbie) and many more.
“It was a beast,” said Visser. “Honestly, thank goodness I've covered the NFL for 40 years because it was so much to go over. Don Shula and the Dolphins were bedrocks of the NFL for 25 years. How many times did we see them on Monday night and dream of going to Joe's Stone Crab? Now the stadium struggles to sell out and half the fans are still wearing No. 13. They're still enormous in South Florida. You drive down Shula Expressway to Dan Marino Blvd to get to the stadium!”
5a. On Saturday NBC will televise its first heavyweight championship boxing match in primetime, WBC champ Deontay Wilder (34-0, 33 KO) vs. Johann Duhaupas (32-2, 20 KO), since May 20, 1985 when Larry Holmes beat Carl "The Truth" Williams on the network.
5b. Away from broadcasting, Baker has written a book on Jimi Hendrix and being influenced by the singer after seeing him at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The book is titled, “Kiss The Sky: My Weekend in Monterey for the Greatest Rock Concert Ever.” Also, Baker’s son Darren, who famously was a bat boy for the Giants at age 3 at the 2002 World Series, is now 16 and has already committed to Cal to play baseball.
5c. Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead reports layoffs are coming to ESPN.
5d. Four stories worth reading:
• When he was a senior in college, three teenagers from West Philly abducted, robbed, and threatened to kill Bradford Pearson. It changed his life. Years later, Pearson tracked down his kidnappers for this piece.
• Here's Andre Agassi in the current Harvard Business Review.
• How far would you go to avenge the death of a sibling? The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe’s story about the obsessive, 3-decade quest of Ken Dornstein.