How ESPN can improve its image after the network’s unfavorable 2015
Amid all my reporting in 2015, there was a comment passed along by a longtime ESPN staffer that really struck a chord. If you have endured layoffs at your place of employment, you know how extraordinarily awful they are, and ESPN employees experienced the lowest moment in the company’s history last October regarding the loss of colleagues. The company cut the jobs of around 300 employees, about 5% of its workforce, a particularly brutal act of gutting given the long tenures of many of those who were cut. Particularly hard hit were members of the production, technology staff and talent office. Many of these employees helped build the foundation of ESPN and had given their professional life to the company.
“We’re just another company now,” the longtime ESPN-er told me that week. “And that was never the narrative, nor the reality here."
Narrative. It’s an interesting word. ESPN remains the dominant media player in sports and will be so for some time. But the company’s narrative for 2015 was decidedly awful. There were the layoffs, the cancelation of millions of cable subscriptions (“cord cutters”), a decline in SportsCenter and NFL ratings, the shuttering of Grantland just months after pledging long-term commitment, a region (New England), at least anecdotally, that no longer trusts the network’s reporting, the still-awaited launch of The Undefeated, high-profile talent suspensions, company personalities threatening NBA MVPs, the First Take-ization of content beyond that show (Stephen A. Smith has become the on-air face of the company), an NFL reporter exhibiting an embarrassing display of entitlement off hours at a parking garage, an acrimonious split with Bill Simmons, a continuing inflexibility when it comes to institutional attribution of other outlets and on and on and on.
Of course, even after an Annus horribilis, neither Fox Sports nor any of ESPN’s other competitors have closed the perception (or ratings) gap regarding who the most dominant media player in sports is. But ESPN, whether network officials want to admit or not, needs to turn its external PR around in 2016. One immediate suggestion would be to get president John Skipper out in front of press more. Even if you disagree with him—and I certainly do on Grantland and building mornings around Skip Bayless—he remains among the company’s most thoughtful spokespeople. On this note, I asked 10 current or former sports media reporters to offer some thoughts on what ESPN should focus on in 2016.
Ty Duffy, staff writer, The Big Lead:
I think ESPN should focus on quality investigative journalism. ESPN nuked Grantland; it shed most of its strong voices. Pointed, critical reporting, from Outside the Lines, the Undefeated or elsewhere would build credibility, drive discussions, and offset a lot of the outright shilling. ESPN remains one of the few places with the resources to do it well across multiple media. Doing so would go a long way within and outside the industry.
Another challenge, for 2016 and beyond, will be reinventing non-live sports programming. Highlights aren’t practical in 2016. Debate dried out. Branded SportsCenters have had little impact. ESPN’s business model will transition from strong-arming cable providers to offering a core audience a prestige (and much pricier) product. The selling point can’t be nebulous buzzwords, expensive sets, and a second decade of PTI.
Chad Finn, sports columnist, Boston Globe:
It’s going to be very difficult for ESPN to repair its image in a single year—that’s how disastrous 2015 was to the perception of the network. There were legitimate reasons why ESPN, per Disney orders, laid off more than 300 people, starting with the drip-drip-drip of lost cable subscribers juxtaposed against the enormous rights fees it is paying for live sports. But the optics were horrible—it looked like and was a bloodletting of the hard-working and dedicated behind-the-scenes people, with the famous and highly compensated mostly spared. The way the Grantland disbanding went down came across as petty, with a supremely talented staff ending up as collateral damage in management’s chronic attempt to teach Bill Simmons who’s boss. (Amazingly, this went on even after he moved on.) It’s not a quick fix, but there are obvious routes to progress and improving its image, starting with more transparency and less deliberate antagonism. As a New England proxy here, I’m fascinated to see whether ESPN dedicates the resources to the Peyton Manning/HGH story as it did Tom Brady and Deflategate—whether it investigates it as deeply (get on this, Don Van Natta), whether it seeks the truth or supports Roger Goodell’s version of the truth and whether it accountably acknowledges and corrects its mistakes should there be reporting missteps along the way, as there were with Deflategate. As for the antagonism aspect, there are replacement-level trolls who will work for much cheaper than Skip Bayless. Embracing debate is fine. But viewers eventually tire and tune out the insincere and phony. Let Bayless go to Fox, save a few million bucks and use that to bring back 30 or so of the behind-the-scenes people who were laid off. Now that’s a way to get a better narrative, not that it will ever happen.
Mike Freeman, senior writer, Bleacher Report, author, ESPN: The Uncensored History:
I think the answer to this is really simple. Go back to relying heavily on journalism and reporting. Where I really fell in love with ESPN was the early 1990s. I was covering the Giants and I’d rush home from covering practice to watch six o’clock SportsCenter that was always chock full of great reporters and interesting stories. There was very little trolling or tomfoolery. The same would be the case for later SportsCenter with Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. The reporting and storytelling were far more compelling than some of the entertainment shows they have on now. They also now need more insidery shows. More Adam Schefter. More Buster Olney. More hosts like Trey Wingo who don’t make everything about them.
I’d also say this: give some of their women journalists even more of a platform. Some of them really are the reporting class of the network, like Josina Anderson, Shelley Smith, Lisa Salters and Michele Steele, among others. Jemele Hill is one of best storytellers I’ve ever seen or read. Give Hill her own show where she does reporting and features. One thing I notice is that—and this isn't the case in every instance—but the women care more about reporting and storytelling than they do their own egos. Watch a lot of the men on some of those opinion shows, a lot of me, me, me—say something purposely divisive, then wash, rinse, repeat. A lot of the women are more studious and professional and bring more to the table.
Last thing. If you’re going to do entertainment shows, model them after Pardon the Interruption. Not the format but how Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon conduct themselves. That show has expertly managed to be both classy and opinionated.
Tom Hoffarth, sports media columnist, Los Angeles Daily News/Los Angeles News Group:
I go to Staples Center these days and can’t help but look across the street at L.A. Live and wonder: How long before this ESPN fortress becomes dismantled? Whether or not that’s reasonable doesn’t matter because of all the things that went fan-hitting last year. Maybe it should come as some relief that ESPN has had to deal with the nasty realities of media life in American today—it’s not immune to staying within budgets and making decisions that come off as more business-directed than consumer friendly.
As far as what ESPN should do, versus what it will do, is the issue. It should be attempting to rebuild its quasi-journalistic credibility even as it cuts loose some of its largest lightning rods. I really don’t see the brand perception gap shrinking over its competitors, and from what I’m hearing, it could be poised to re-establish the pecking order in diving into things it avoided in the past. ESPN once was steadfast in resisting mixed-martial arts and the UFC, but watch how it is positioning itself to take that business soon from Fox, with the UFC’s cooperation. (Any kind of coincidence that ESPN platforms lately are getting more preferential treatment when it comes to UFC news/interviews/post-match?)
If Turner can show there’s money as well to be made in a video-game league, why wouldn’t we conclude that today’s ESPN Classic are to be tomorrow’s ESPN Call of Duty, especially if that generates income/advertisers/branding? At some point, even the X Games will run its course, right? And as teams in L.A. like the Clippers threaten to take their local TV rights to an online platform, ESPN can get into that by showing it has made all kinds of strides as well in attracting more smart-phone video-stream viewers for its live game coverage. I still trust there are smart people there trying to divide and conquer, but with a corporate harness around them. They’ll live by the motto that collateral damage happens when you’re trying to redirect a behemoth onto another set of rails.
Peter Kafka, senior editor, Re/code:
Seems to me that ESPN has two routes to a better story in 2016:
• Argue, persuasively, that the increasingly conventional wisdom about its shrinking base of TV subscribers and the inflated value of sports right is wrong.
• Argue that it has a digital strategy that will allow it grow even if/as its traditional TV business shrinks.
The former is the much more plausible route, since it is probable that narrative about its decline is overstated. Because that’s the way narratives usually work. On the other hand, Burbank and Bristol had a good six months to make that argument last fall, and it didn’t seem to take.
The latter sounds much more fun, and HBO got enormous PR mileage last year when it went over the top. But for both business and technical reasons, it seems very unlikely that ESPN will actually break free from the cable bundle with a full-fledged, standalone subscription business anytime soon. Which means that any digital growth they get will be at the margins, and not enough to quiet the drumbeat.
Austin Karp, assistant managing editor, Sports Business Daily
The Worldwide Leader was definitely the piñata of sports media in 2015. Layoffs, high profile talent turnover and cord cutting/shaving/nevers seemed to highlight the narrative. 2016 needs to see Bristol focus on basics. The network still has the properties sports fans want and it's the first thing most sports fans flip to.
On the rights front, don’t overpay for the Big Ten. Be sensible. On cable fears, Disney stock may still slip some, but ESPN is still well positioned for any future. Don’t listen to Chicken Little views on the net’s future. On talent, focus on showing us some new good voices and highlighting the great talent still there. Losing Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd was not some Waterloo-type moment: This doesn’t mean overexpose us to Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless. And please try and talk some sense into the CFP. New Year’s Eve for two of the three biggest college football games of the year isn’t a good idea.
James Andrew Miller, contributing writer for Vanity Fair, and author of These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN:
ESPN loyalists couldn’t wait for the ball to drop on 2016 after enduring one of the most difficult years in their beloved network’s recent history. Cord-cutting, layoffs, messy divorces and the final insult—brutal CFB playoff ratings—were no party, and you can cry if you want to.
Herewith three proposed action points for Year Four of the John Skipper era:
First, Bristol oughta buy one hundred tons of confetti and throw George Bodenheimer his own “Canyon-of-Heroes” parade thru beautiful downtown Bristol—with banners proclaiming, “Congratulations, George, On The Best Career Timing In The History of Media."
Second, sock Wall Street with a strong narrative that addresses continued changes with declining revenues from subscriber fees. Disney chairman Bob Iger did the best job of responding to such challenges in ’15, but Skipper needs to go further and deeper. He should deliver a State of the Network speech on why he’s not afraid of the future. And try to be convincing about it.
Third, Skipper needs a Skipper of his own. When he served as Head of Content under George Bodenheimer, ESPN enjoyed strong connective tissue throughout all editorial initiatives and decisions, and creative talent benefited from a stronger bond with management. Management benefited too. Yeah, right, the place is bigger now, but that’s the point: Skipper can’t do it all. Forget all the silos and pick a Content Czar.
John Ourand, media reporter, Sports Business Daily:
ESPN finished 2015 as the top-rated cable TV network—an accomplishment that was lost amid its cost-cutting and corporate layoffs. The fact is that ESPN still controls more sports media rights than any other media entity, a situation that will not change until at least the next decade. ESPN should spend all of its focus on those live games. It’s the dominant player in college football and basketball. It’s a go-to place for MLB and NBA games. And it controls more NFL highlights than anyone else. ESPN’s focus should remain on the rights its holds and the TV ratings they bring in.
Ed Sherman, writer, The Poynter Institute and Sherman Report:
After parting ways with Bill Simmons and Jason Whitlock, and closing Grantland, it is important for ESPN to finally do a full launch of The Undefeated. Hard to believe, but this site has been in the works since Aug. 2013, when ESPN brought Whitlock back into the fold with much fanfare. Obviously, he sorely lacked the leadership skills required to run The Undefeated, and that delayed the process. ESPN appears to have corrected that mistake by tasking former Washington Post managing editor Kevin Merida to finish the job.
Like Grantland, The Undefeated, a site blending sports, race and culture, represents a unique opportunity for ESPN. As the leader in the industry, ESPN needs to be bold and innovative. It has to continue to evolve. If The Undefeated is strong in telling these important stories in an unconventional manner, ESPN will be able to regain the luster it lost when it shut down Grantland.
Speaking of Grantland, it will be interesting to see if ESPN can find a replacement for Simmons. He was a powerful voice for ESPN. There is a void with his departure. While ESPN’s mantra is that nobody is bigger than the four letters, the network also knows big stars drive ratings and page views. It might not be this year, but at some point look for ESPN to develop another Simmons.
Matt Yoder, managing editor, Awful Announcing:
What can ESPN do to turn things around after a traumatic 2015? First, let’s not think there's too dark a cloud hovering over Bristol. This is still a billion dollar company that is still miles ahead of their competition in every single department and still televises most all of the major events in sports. However, there's no doubt morale needs boosted and positivity needs to take a foothold given how rocky 2015 was.
ESPN would be best served doing what they do best—innovating. ESPN didn't become the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" by treading water and simply doing what they always did. Given the industry seems to be in such a transformational period, ESPN should focus on developing new ideas and initiatives that are going to lead the way for the next generation. Give us new programming ideas aside from Embrace Debate. Develop new stars that will carry the torch for the Patricks and Olbermanns and SVPs of the world. Continue to develop new ways for us to enjoy sports through mobile and tablet and be a leader for how traditional media adapts to cord-cutting. ESPN needs to do everything they can in 2016 to look forward and not backward, they have no other choice.
John Walters, senior writer, Newsweek:
Happy Days did not jump the shark because Fonzie strapped on a pair of water skis. It jumped the shark because what had been the top-rated prime-time show on TV (1976–77) stopped caring about being a sitcom based in Milwaukee during the Eisenhower, and later JFK, era. It replaced a Fifties vibe with mid-Seventies coifs and a fern bar.
Happy Days betrayed its soul.
As I tune in to what had been my favorite ESPN program, College GameDay, each fall Saturday morning, I notice a certain Malachi Crunch of its integrity taking place. Its panelists are now as ubiquitous during the commercials than the three-hour program itself (When will Bear strike an endorsement deal?). Nearly every Tom Rinaldi piece features either an orphaned child or one who is terminally ill (I picture Rinaldi combing newspapers in college towns in search of his holy grail, a terminally ill orphan). Its original and erstwhile host, Chris Fowler, who was perfectly suited for that job, has now become the network’s No. 1 college football analyst—even though there are at least three men at the network better-suited for that role. I wonder how close ESPN’s cult-favorite show is to becoming Joanie Loves Chachi.
College GameDay is but a casement window to the big picture for ESPN, but it is symptomatic of the network’s gravest danger: becoming intoxicated by its own popularity. For all of the terrible maneuvers ESPN made in 2015 (note to ESPN president Skipper: Stop firing your most valuable employees via Richard Sandomir tweets), here is something it got right: the midnight SportsCenter starring Scott Van Pelt. A little self-deprecation and a lot of intelligence go a long way (I also love Neil & Stan).
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. CBS said it averaged 19.1 million viewers (Persons 2+) for its regular season NFL coverage, up 2% over last year’s 18.7 million viewers. The network said the 19.1 million viewers is the highest number of average viewers for the regular-season for the AFC television package in 29 years, which is far back as CBS’s records go for that package. The network’s average rating for games was 11.1, up from last year’s 11.0.
1a. SBD’s Karp reported that NBC’s annual Winter Classic drew a second straight year of record-low viewership. The game (Canadiens-Bruins) finished with 2.78 million viewers, down from 3.47 million viewers last year for Blackhawks-Capitals and 4.4 million for Maple Leafs-Red Wings for 2014.
1b. I asked readers on Twitter why they think the viewership of the Winter Classic has declined. Here’s what they said.
2. On Monday I wrote about what ESPN can do—and will do—following the catastrophic viewership numbers from the college football playoff semis.
2a. On Monday, Bill Hancock was a guest of The Audible podcast featuring Fox Sports staffers Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel. He said CFB has no plans to move off the NYE date.
2b. SI’s legal analyst Michael McCann offer his analysis of what readers and viewers should be paying attention to regarding the suit Colleen Dominguez filed in federal court earlier this month alleging she’d been the victim of discrimination by her employer, Fox Sports.
3. Episode No. 35 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch features Fox Sports college football and college basketball play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson, one of the most popular broadcasters among fans for his word play and enthusiasm. Johnson is calling a part-time schedule this season for the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s also previously worked for CBS and famously called many great moments at the NCAA tournament.
In this episode, Johnson discusses his preparation for calling different sports, how much he misses calling the NCAA tournament, his year-long journey calling international soccer and ultimately walking away from it, working with a variety of analysts over the years from Bill Raftery to Joel Klatt, why he’d love to call a game with Al Michaels and Marv Albert—and no analysts; how he came up with some of his well known expressions including “I’m Al Harrington—and I get buckets!”; his broadcasting start at Howard University; his admiration for longtime Pistons broadcaster George Blaha, how fans interact with him, the advice he'd give to young broadcasters and much more.
At the 39-minute mark, Johnson explains how he brokered peace between a feuding Bill Simmons and Isiah Thomas a couple of years ago. Johnson had long been close with Thomas and respected Simmons’ work. While all were in Las Vegas for summer league play, Johnson was lounging at a hotel pool in Las Vegas, where most people were topless and most of the NBA officials and media were hanging out. When Thomas told Johnson that he and Simmons had "beef," Johnson said he walked Thomas over to Simmons. Said Johnson: "I said, ‘Bill, this is Isiah. Isiah, this is Bill. You guys work it out.’ And I left and went back my margarita and making sure everything at the pool was cool.”
4. One of the most talented image-makers I’ve come across in the sports media is Tim Thompson, an independent filmmaker who for years composed the montages that opened Hockey Night In Canada’s coverage. Thompson made one for the Bruins last week as a prelude to the Winter Classic. (It’s a must watch). With CBC Sports losing the rights to HNIC last year, Thompson no longer works for that property. Last week I caught up with him via email for an update on his work.
Richard Deitsch: What work are you doing for CBC?
Tim Thompson: Currently, I’m working on a show called Road To The Olympic Games. CBC Sports has now become the vehicle in Canada for everything to do with the Olympics and the lead up to each Games. It’s been tough there after losing Hockey Night In Canada, but we’re fighting the good fight, and building it back up into something that I think will be a really important part of the Canadian sporting landscape. So I’m doing features and things like that for CBC. I had great fun, and a good run of music montages for the Sochi Games, so I’m hoping that will happen again for Rio this summer. I’m also doing a fair bit of indie work in Toronto. A few music videos for some musician friends of mine, some documentaries, and I was just hired by an organization called Lake Ontario Waterkeeper—part of the Waterkeeper alliance, an organization headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. which protects the world’s waterways—to make a film for them.
RD: How much hockey montage work are you doing on a regular basis?
TT: I’m actually not doing a lot of hockey montage work anymore. The people running that world in Canada now didn’t think that what I was doing was worth keeping around. But I have been asked by various teams to make montages for them, which has been fantastic. I made a few videos for the Montreal Canadiens last playoffs. They were shown to the team before games, which was really cool. In years previous, they had requested the Hockey Night videos to show the guys, which I would send to them. So it was great to make some pieces just for them. They invited my Dad and I down to a playoff game, and treated us unbelievably well. I also made a piece for the Toronto Maple Leafs before this current season started. There’s a new feeling about the team and organization in Toronto these days. It really feels like better days are ahead. I just wanted to make something that offered hope, by looking to the storied past. I posted it online, the night before the season started. Word spread, and they contacted me and expressed interest in showing it opening night. It’s currently playing in the Air Canada Centre before every home game. The song is by a friend of mine named Ron Hawkins, who is one of our great songwriters. To see and hear it play in a dark arena before the team comes out onto the ice is a real honor and quite special for me. I helped them with another video, and may do some more work in the future. And recently Boston asked me to make a video for the Winter Classic. Hopefully, some more will happen in the future as it’s something I really miss doing on a regular basis.
RD: Have you been approached by any American entities to do any work, even freelance?
TT: Other than the Bruins, I haven’t been approached by anyone in the States to do any work. I wondered after last season if that might change but to date, nothing has popped up. It’s interesting, as these pieces seem to really strike a chord with people, yet it’s been harder to get them out there. I really care a great deal about the work I do whether it’s the montages, features, or documentaries—and spend a lot time crafting them. I’m open to doing anything that I find compelling and interesting, so who knows what the future will bring. But the ideas keep coming to me, and hopefully I can keep making them in some form.
5. Via SBD’s Ourand: The Big East basketball package has yet to average more than 100,000 viewers for its games in Year 3 of its deal with Fox Sports 1. Through 31 games this season, Ourand reported the Big East had averaged 81,484 viewers.
5a. NBC said Sunday’s Vikings-Packers game drew a 52.4 overnight rating in Minneapolis, the best local rating ever for regular-season SNF game in that city.
5b. If you have kids, you’ll be interested in this: Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?
5c. On Monday, Taelor and Sydni Scott, the daughters of the late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, created a video with Dear World to commemorate the occasion.