In this week’s media column: Why the Warriors need more nationally televised games, a Ramona Shelburne Q&A on Ronda Rousey and more
The Golden State Warriors are the most television-friendly team in pro sports. They play a beautiful brand of basketball, from balletic ball movement to exquisite shooting to scrambling, suffocating defense. They have a transcendent star in MVP Steph Curry, who is to distance shooting what Michelangelo was to sculpting. They also rarely lose. The Golden State Warriors are an absurd, incomprehensible, preposterous 24–1 as of this writing, and they represent that ultimate broadcast cliché:
They are must-see television. And we should be seeing more of them.
So what prevents the NBA from putting every Warriors game on one of its national television partners or league-owned network given their astronomical start? As I watched Golden State’s games this weekend against the Bucks and Celtics—the crowd intensity for both games was epic—I wondered whether the NBA would ever consider bypassing its existing provisions on how many times one team can appear on national television. The current limit is 25 among ESPN, ABC and TNT but the league does allow flexibility for special requests. Logically, the NBA should want every Warriors game to air nationally given the incredible marketing the team provides for the NBA product. But there are a number of factors that go into flex scheduling decisions, including the current national television schedule, the national broadcast windows, and the teams’ local television networks. For example, Comcast SportsNet broadcasts the Warriors in the Bay Area and every game the league takes away from the regional carrier, it devalues that package.
So how does the NBA decide whether to approve or decline when a league national TV partner asks to add a game, or flex a game? The NBA says it constantly evaluates its television schedule and works with its national partners to strategically make revisions where they think it is appropriate. Those revisions are in consultation with the networks and teams after taking into account all relevant factors, including the interests of the local rightsholders. On Saturday, prior to the Warriors’ loss, the league said no decisions had been made about adding additional Warriors’ games to the national schedule. That seems insane, but that is reality.
Programming executives at ESPN and TNT will tell you that have ongoing conversations with the NBA, and often those conversations are about inventory flexibility. For instance, in the midst of the fervor for the Heat’s Big Three (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), ESPN and TNT added more Heat games to their national schedule. Last year ESPN reduced its allotment of Knicks and Lakers games late in the season as those teams struggled.
So what have the Warriors meant this season for their partners? Sensational ratings. ESPN/ABC has aired four Golden State games this season, two of which were added after the season started. Those four games have averaged 2.1 million viewers, up 18% over ESPN’s average (1.8 million) for all games this season. The team is scheduled to appear 11 more times on ESPN/ABC this season, including:
Dec 16: Golden State vs. Phoenix (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET)
Christmas Day: Golden State vs. Cleveland (ABC, 5 p.m. ET)
Jan 20: Golden State at Chicago (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Feb. 3: Golden State at Washington (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
Feb. 6: Golden State vs. Oklahoma City (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
Feb. 20: Golden State at LA Clippers (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET)
Feb. 27: Golden State at Oklahoma City (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET)
March 6: Golden State at LA Lakers (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET)
March 14: Golden State vs. New Orleans (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET)
March 19: Golden State at San Antonio (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET)
April 1: Golden State vs. Boston (ESPN (10:30 p.m. ET)
TNT has averaged 2,265,000 viewers this season for the four Golden State games it has aired, up 37% in average viewership when compared to TNT’s season to date telecasts this year. There are six more Warriors games scheduled on TNT:
Jan 14: Golden State vs. Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET)
Jan 18: Golden State at Cleveland (8 p.m. ET)
Feb 9: Golden State vs. Houston (10:30 p.m. ET)
March 3: Golden State vs. Oklahoma City (10:30 p.m. ET)
March 29: Golden State vs. Washington (10:30 p.m. ET)
April 7: Golden State vs. San Antonio (10:30 p.m. ET)
The Warriors have aired six times on NBA TV and those games had averaged 526,000 total viewers prior to Saturday’s game against the Bucks, up 29% compared to the average for Warriors’ games (407,000) during the 2014–15 season, according to the league. They are also up 70% over the net’s season-to-date game average, according to Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily. The Warriors-Pacers telecast on Dec. 8 drew 823,000 viewers, ranking as NBA TV’s fourth-ever most-viewed regular season game all-time. There are six more Warriors games scheduled on NBA TV including:
Jan. 5: Golden State at Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET)
Jan. 25: Golden State vs. Spurs (10:30 p.m. ET)
Feb. 22: Golden State at Hawks (8 p.m. ET)
March 1: Golden State vs. Atlanta (10:30 p.m. ET)
April 3: Golden State vs. Portland (8 p.m. ET)
April 10: Golden State at San Antonio (7 p.m. ET)
Thus, at the moment, the Warriors will appear 23 more times (out of 57 remaining games) on national television among ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV. That feels like a lost opportunity given the historic nature of the season. At a minimum, the NBA should air every Golden State games if/when it gets close to Chicago’s single-season win record of 72–10 (1995–96 season).
Had the Warriors remained unbeaten prior to Dec. 25, the team’s Christmas Day home game (5 p.m. ET, ABC) against LeBron James and the Cavaliers would have likely topped the viewership of the 2004 Christmas Day game featuring the Lakers and Heat (famous for Shaquille O’Neal’s first game against the Lakers after being traded in the off-season to Miami). Dubbed Shaq vs. Kobe I, given Shaq and Kobe Bryant were famously feuding at the time, the game drew 13.18 million viewers, the best viewership on Christmas Day since the Michael Jordan era. (The Heat won 104–102 behind 29 points by Wade and 24 points and 11 rebounds by Shaq; Kobe finished with 42).
With three home games over the next nine days, the Warriors will likely be an astonishing 27–1 heading into that NBA Finals rematch. That game will end up as the most-watched NBA regular season game of 2015–16. After that, nine of the team’s next 10 games have no national carrier.
That’s a big mistake. The Warriors are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation season and the league should recognize the value of showcasing Golden State to the widest possible audience at every possible turn. If Comcast SportsNet Bay Area is scheduled to broadcast the game, Northern California fans of the Warriors are still likely to watch there, even if a national carrier also picks it up. (The league can also block the national carriers locally to protect the regional network.) For multiple generations, including the NBA’s youngest fans, Curry & Co. are appointment viewing. Give fans around the country the option to see them on most nights.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1 . The announcer position in the WWE—as Michael Cole and Paul Heyman elaborated on during recent interviews with SI.com—is a vital role in selling the sports entertainment product to the masses. It can also be a stepping stone to landing a gig with a significant mainstream sports broadcaster For example, former WWE announcers Jonathan Coachman and Todd Grisham are now ESPN announcers. On Monday the WWE will announce that Showtime boxing announcer Mauro Ranallo will become the new voice of WWE SmackDown when the show moves to the USA Network on Jan. 7 (at 8 p.m. ET.) Ranallo called the international feed for the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight and has called boxing, kickboxing and MMA for national outlets. He has also called New Japan Pro-Wrestling for AXS TV. USA Network will air SmackDown every Thursday night beginning Jan. 7. USA also airs Monday Night Raw live 52 weeks a year.
In an interview with SI.com on Friday, Ranallo said Cole, who handles broadcast talent development for the WWE in addition to on-air work, emailed him about a month ago to inquire about his interest in working with the company. Ranallo then sent the WWE some of his broadcast work, including a promotional vehicle he did for Berkshire Hathaway shareholders where Ranallo called a mock fight between billionaire Warren Buffett and Floyd Mayweather. (This was no low-end production: The video was directed by Animal House director John Landis.) The WWE brass, including chairman Vince McMahon, was impressed. “This was an opportunity I did not think I would get at this point of my career and I jumped on it,” Ranallo said. “I have been a lifelong fan of the product. Michael said that when Vince saw the Warren Buffet video, it seemed to cinch it. They believed I could sell the entertainment part.”
Ranallo said he will still call boxing for Showtime and do GLORY kickboxing as part of his WWE deal. But he will be a fulltime member of the WWE’s traveling circus. In addition to weekly appearances on SmackDown, he’ll be backstage at Monday Night Raw, pay-per-view events and Wrestlemania next April in Dallas. Ranallo said he did not know who his analyst partners will be on SmackDown but he expected to have some. Jerry Lawler and Booker T are the current analysts for the show. Prior to joining Showtime, Ranallo was the voice of the Pride Fighting Championships, and also hosted Canada’s first TV show dedicated to MMA. In Toronto, he teamed with Renee Young, currently a WWE broadcaster, on a pro wrestling show (“Right After Wrestling”) that aired on the former Score Television network.
Asked if he would be willing to take a bump (an in-ring fall) as part of a WWE storyline, Ranallo laughed and said he’d do his part. “I’m 45 but I’m definitely open-minded about that,” he said.
1a. Sherdog writer Joseph Santoliquito had a long profile on Ranallo where Ranallo discussed his bi-polar disorder:.
1b. ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne wrote a recent cover story on Ronda Rousey for ESPN The Magazine—it also appeared on ESPN.com—where Rousey was remarkably introspective about the impact of her loss to Holly Holm. For Shelburne, the piece and the access were the culmination of spending a ton of time with the MMA star during her training camp as well as traveling to Australia 10 days prior to her fight with Holm. What would have likely been a story about one of the most famous athletes in the U.S. culminating an amazing year turned into something entirely different when Holm won at UFC 193 in Melbourne. Below, here’s an email interview I had with Shelburne this week about profiling an athlete after a bitter loss.
Richard Deitsch: How many hours of tape did you have from the interview?
Ramona Shelburne: Maybe 75 hours? It’s impossible to tally that up, but there’s a gigantic stack of transcripts that I’m not sure what to do with. I spent a lot of time with Ronda, but also a ton of time interviewing her sister, her boyfriend, her trainer, her mom and other UFC folks. They were all lengthy interviews. Like, 2 to 3 hours each, on multiple occasions. I don’t always turn the tape on, sometimes you just take notes depending on the setting. But there was a ton of material to go through from the two months I’d been working on the story. Ultimately though, the two-hour interview I did with Ronda after the fight, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, ended up being the main thrust of the piece.
RD: Why do you think people find her compelling?
RS: I think men and women find her compelling for different reasons. Men seem drawn to her because she’s strong and beautiful, without seeming needy. At first I thought it was some dominatrix fantasy, but the more I talked to men in the fight game, the more I realized this went far beyond sexual attraction. There was a genuine respect there. Women seem drawn to her because she says things women all think about saying but rarely do. She’s taken all the things that have been weaknesses—crying, impulsiveness, vulnerability, sensitivity, sentimentality, neediness—and turned them into strengths. I can't tell you how many women from all walks of life, all ages and all places, were interested in her. The most fascinating thing became how all those things people liked about her, got flipped after she lost. It was amazing to me how quickly people wanted to shame her back into behaving after she lost.
RD: How long did it take you to write the piece?
RS: It depends what parts of the process you consider writing. I’d been thinking and free writing and sketching out scenes for weeks. But only one of those scenes I pre-wrote actually made it into the final story (the scene with her judo coach Justin Flores). The rest of the story, the first draft anyway, was done between a Friday night and Sunday afternoon. The interview we did was just so powerful and raw, I knew I had to frame the whole story around it. I finished the interview around 1 p.m. on a Friday, walked around Venice Beach for a few hours to collect my thoughts and process it, drove home, grabbed a few things and checked into a hotel near my house where I go sometimes when I’m on a tight turn. I have an amazing husband who understands that I need to do that sometimes. I had to fly to Bristol to tape a TV special on the Ideas of the Year issue that week, so my editor, Raina Kelley, spent all day with it on a Monday while I was in the air, and sent me notes by the time I landed. We worked on it together during the day on Tuesday, then I stayed late at the office that night to finish a second draft. On Wednesday Raina and the top editor on the piece, Eric Neel, went through it closely and did line edits. We closed the story on Thursday. I tend to talk about my story a lot with a lot of people. It helps me to work through everything, but you also get a lot of insights and ideas from people that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. One of the people I really enjoyed talking with during the story was her sister, Maria Burns Ortiz, who wrote her book with her. She obviously knows her better than I do and she really helped me understand the dynamic between Ronda and her mom.
One of the things I admired was that she’d worked with difficult, contradictory, messy, emotional material from her sister before and wasn’t afraid to deal with it. If you read her book, you'll see what I mean. There’s a ton of stuff in there that’s not flattering, especially from the year she was bartending and basically drinking, smoking and partying her life away. She held none of it back, which is one of the reasons why I was initially drawn to the story. When you do an access-y piece, you need the person you’re writing about to understand you’re going to write about everything you see, not just the good parts. Ronda got that. Honestly, I can only remember two to three times in the whole reporting process where she said something was off the record. Even the day at the gym when her boyfriend went public with their relationship and she got very emotional discussing how conflicted she was about the situation, she never once asked me to turn off my tape recorder.
SI.com: How do you anticipate she will respond to this loss heading forward?
Shelburne: I think she’s going through a mourning period now. It’ll last a few months. Then she’ll get back in the gym and gear up for the rematch. What I really wonder about is how this loss changes her. She said to me many times that she’ll never get over losing at the Olympics (getting the bronze and not the gold). She’d set a goal to retire undefeated. In a lot of ways, this was a bigger loss because of how far she had to fall. She is incredibly strong, yes. But this shook her to her core and will change her fundamentally.
2. CBS Sports broadcast of Army-Navy drew an overnight rating of 5.1, up 13% from last year and the highest-rated Army-Navy game in 19 years (5.5 in 1996).
2a. Karp also examined the impact of the Warriors on the S.F-Oakland-San Jose market. He found that local ratings on CSN Bay Area for Warriors games were up 87% (as of Friday) compared to last season. The 9.59 local rating for Warriors-Nuggets on Nov. 22 was the highest-rated game in CSN Bay Area history, including playoff games. In addition, CSN Bay Area’s “Warriors Pregame Live” audience is up 35% and its “Warriors Postgame Live” is up 133%.
2b. The Celtics-Warriors game on Friday night generated the highest local regular season rating for the Celtics in more than 20 years. The game aired on Comcast Sports Net New England. The network said they had more than 5,000 streams on a “Stephen Curry cam” which streamed his warm-ups 90 minutes before tip.
2b. Fun to see College GameDay analyst Lee Corso watching footage (for the first time) of him as a Navy assistant coach in 1968.
3. Episode No. 33 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features TSN and NBCSN NHL Insider Bob McKenzie, one of the foremost authorities in hockey journalism and a pioneer of the position of on-air hockey insider. Prior to joining TSN, McKenzie was editor-in-chief of The Hockey News for nine years and a hockey columnist for The Toronto Star for six years.
In this episode, McKenzie discusses what his work week is like, how he uses Twitter for job (but how it can also hinder him), the reduction of media access in the NHL, the competition between Rogers and TSN, how he tailors his content for an American audience vs. a Canadian audience, how TSN has adjusted from having national NHL rights to regional rights for certain teams, how he reported—with quotes from Pat Burns—that Pat Burns had not yet passed away, his thoughts on the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, how he would advise a young journalist entering the field today and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
Sports pieces of note:
• This harrowing piece from former NHL Patrick O’Sullivan on child abuse from the Players Tribune was the best thing I read last week.
• The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan screened the film Concussion with 70 retired NFL players. The results were sad.
• SI Underdogs visited Middletown (Ca.) High School’s football team after a massive wildfire ravaged their community. Worth your time to view.
• Orange Country Register writer Pedro Moura on former big leaguer Floyd Youmans, now driving for Uber.
• Really good feature by SI’s Dan Greene on Providence basketball player Kris Dunn.
• An apology to Justin Britt, and an admission on the limits of reportorial football expertise.
• Longtime Charlotte Observer sports columnist Tom Sorensen wrote his final column for the paper.
• New York Times writer Zach Schonbrun had a very cool piece on a Seton Hall basketball player who is also a law student.
• Heidi E. Carpenter put together a multimedia presentation of American Pharoah’s career.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Scott Weiland’s ex-wife’s candid letter to deceased singer on behalf of his two children.
• National Post’s Joe O’Connor on a Christmas lights tribute to a dead teen.
• The New Yorker’s Ben McGrath on a solitary canoeist meeting his fate. Great, great piece.
• “Get home safe, my rapist said.” Powerful piece in the New York Times.
• From Pro Publica: While evidence of abuse of the disabled has piled up for decades, one for-profit company has used its deep pockets and influence to bully weak regulators and evade accountability.
• From Buzzfeed: The women whose two-word catchphrase made the military care about climate change.
5. Last week I posted a 4,200 word Q&A with New York City sports radio host Mike Francesa. The conversation included whether Francesa believes he and his former partner, Chris Russo, would ever reunite on a full-time basis, how Francesa approaches the final two years of his radio contract and the March 30 one-time only live Mike and The Mad Dog show at Radio City that will benefit the Garden of Dreams Foundation.
5a. Fox averaged 3.0 million for its college football package in 2015, up 15% in viewership from 2014 (2.6 million). It also drew its most-watched regular season game ever: Stanford’s win over Notre Dame on Nov. 28 drew 7.3 million viewers. Michigan State’s win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game on Fox drew 9.8 million viewers.
5c. The Day (Ct.) columnist Mike DiMauro on the lowering of language standards in newspapers.
5d. Here’s a 10 Things I Think I Think I did for The MMQB.
5e. SBJ’s John Ourand examined how ESPN's new midnight SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt is doing.
5f. New York Times sports reporter Marc Tracy reported that ESPN and CFP officials agreed not to have advertising for daily fantasy games during the telecasts of the national semifinals or the national championship game this season.
5g. Golf.com’s Peter Madden recently wrote about the PGA Tour being cautious about getting involved with Daily Fantasy Sports. The PGA Tour sent a memo to its players on Sept. 24 banning them from playing or endorsing DFS.
5h. Nice recognition in the Seattle Times for George Hill, who has worked as the personal stat man for Al Michaels and Brent Musburger for the past 40 years.