Q&A: Rachel Nichols on her new role at ESPN
The afternoon sports studio show that does not involve NFL content has always been a tough sell, so it will be interesting to see how ESPN host/reporter Rachel Nichols fares in her new role. After leaving ESPN for a three-year stop at CNN and TNT, Nichols is back at the sports network and will host The Jump, a half-hour NBA-focused program originating from ESPN’s Los Angeles studios airing weekdays at 3:30 p.m. ET. The debut show comes on Thursday. Below, Nichols answered some questions via email on the challenges ahead:
Richard Deitsch: How do you get people to watch a studio show at 3:30 p.m. ET?
Rachel Nichols: I may be the wrong person to ask that, since I'm one of those people who watches almost nothing in real time—I have a very co-dependent relationship with iTunes, my DVR, and the podcast app on my phone. So since that's where I personally come from, one of my big goals for this show is to make it smart and distinct enough that people will want to find a way to see it even if they don't happen to be in front of their TV in the afternoons. That being said, there are plenty of people who are in front of a TV in the afternoon -- that's why daytime TV exists. Hopefully we become an important stop for those folks.
RD: You told The Hollywood Reporter there will be a rotating panel of current and former NBA players as well as ESPN analysts and reporters debating a range of topics. Who will be the on-air staff?
RN: I'm thrilled Tracy McGrady has signed on to be a big part of this show. He's smart and funny. And having the perspective of someone who was such an elite player makes for better conversations when you're talking about what's going on with today's elite players. Of course we'll mix in other former players, coaches, so you get different angles and experiences in there, and we'll get a big presence from our ESPN Insiders too. You'll see a lot of Zach Lowe, Ramona Shelburne, Brian Windhorst. We've got Israel Gutierrez and Tom Haberstroh coming in for some early shows; Amin Elhassan, J.A. Adande, Marc Stein will get in the mix. I could keep going, because we have so many smart basketball people at ESPN. Of course, you'll notice I'm listing off a lot of former newspaper/magazine writers...that's where I come from, and I love getting people on TV who come from a writer's perspective.
RD: There are a lot of NBA studio shows out there, from Inside The NBA to Countdown to hours and hours on NBA TV. How can you differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace?
RN: Our afternoon time slot just naturally allows us to occupy a different space than a lot of the other shows out there. Pregame shows have to spend at least a chunk of time setting up the game they precede. Postgame shows have to run a healthy dose of highlights. By the time our show airs in the afternoon, most NBA fans have seen the highlights, and that frees us up to have more wide-ranging discussions, to get to the “what is this really about?” question that I think is at the base of all good conversations.
RD: Why are you convinced ESPN management will support this show for the longterm?
RN: Gold bullion and whiskey. I'm stocking up for bribes.
RD: What have you been told about your Outside The Lines hosting duties?
RN: I don't think you'll see me on Outside The Lines too much during basketball season. But I'm thrilled I'll get to jump in there at times during the summer, when Bob is off. I'm a Bob Ley groupie, so being trusted to sometimes sit in his chair is never something I take for granted, and as you may remember OTL was the first ESPN show I ever appeared on. I have great affection and respect for that show.
RD: What would be—conceptually—your ideal show for The Jump?
Nichols: Dexterity. I want a show that's loose enough to have a fun conversation about that slam dunk contest we saw Saturday, but also smart enough that when, say, the NBA comes out with a huge gun violence campaign, we can have a textured and nuanced conversation about athletes and social responsibility, and guns, and all the sticky, interesting stuff. We also hope to have some big interviews, some fun features and enough space to allow for the unexpected.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines the notable sports media stories of the past week):
1. One of the most popular sports hosts on Spanish-language television is trying his hand at American sports television. Former Univision broadcaster Fernando Fiore made his English-language television debut with Fox Sports last October for a U.S.-Mexico men’s national team CONCACAF Cup match and the experiment went well enough for the American sports company to sign him to a three-year deal.
Fiore will work as a co-host and general contributor for the network’s soccer portfolio including the 2016 Copa America Centenario, Mexican National Team home matches, the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
In an interview on Monday, Fiore said that he previously worked with David Neal, the executive producer of Fox’s FIFA World Cup coverage, when both were at Univision Deportes. The two kept in touch via emails and after Fiore’s successful turn last October, Neal offered him a fulltime gig. Said Fiore: “He said, “You will bring your passion and a different kind of flavor for us and that I would be a good addition.’”
Fiore said he covered every World Cup for Univision from 1990 to 2014 (he also covered seven Copa Americas) before Univision lost the rights to the global tournament. Born in Argentina, schooled at Montclair State in New Jersey and now a Miami resident, Fiore said he approaches his job as more of a fan than a tactics analyst. If you watch him on-air, he is uber-passionate, fun, and an unapologetic fan of Argentina. Can his act be too much at times? Sure. But his passion usually wins out. “I know there are plenty of analysts, people will tell you 4-4-2 and 4-4-3 and how the goalkeeper kicked the ball to one side,” Fiore said. “All these approaches are covered. For me, a lot of sports is the passion.”
Fox will use him on Mexico’s national team games—he has a good relationship with the players—and you’ll see him working remotely in the pregame, postgame and halftime for its soccer telecasts. On the challenge of morphing from a Spanish-language broadcast to an English broadcast, Fiore said, “I'm 100 percent in Latin even though I’ve lived in the States for 35 years. It will be a shock for my brain cells but they will get used to it very fast. It’s not that I don’t use the language but I will have to adjust to working [on-air] in a different language. It will take me two or three games to get me completely used to it and then no problem. Is it different? Yes? But the approach and the way I connect with my audience will be the same.”
2. The NBA’s All Star Game averaged 7.6 million total viewers, up six percent (7.2 million) from last year. The game peaked with an average of 8.7 million total viewers from 8:45-9 p.m. ET. As Turner noted in its long press release—and I’d say fairly—the host city of Toronto was not reflected in Nielsen analytics (no Canada cities are) and traditionally a host city of equivalent population size to Toronto receives an approximate 50% increase in audience consumption for All-Star events on Saturday and Sunday. So the numbers were pretty good given that variable.
2a. TNT’s All-Star Saturday Night coverage averaged 5.6 million total viewers.
2b. The top local market ratings for the NBA All-Star Game: 1. San Antonio (12.4); 2. Oklahoma City (9.9); 3. Cleveland (9.7); 4. San Francisco (9.4) and 5. Memphis (8.4).
3. Episode No. 42 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN reporter Holly Rowe, who works on a variety of sports for the network including college basketball, college football, gymnastics and volleyball.
In this episode, Rowe discusses how she has a rare form of melanoma cancer that has spread through her body (it is her second bout with cancer, including another cancerous tumor in her chest removed last May). She then talks about the people who have reached out to her after announcing her diagnosis (from Les Miles to Urban Meyer to Charles Barkley), how to compete in an industry that seems to prize youth and beauty over other attributes, why Brent Musburger has had sustained success, her hardest interviews on the sidelines, why Doris Burke is among the toughest people she’s met in broadcasting, working the sidelines of memorable games such as the 2006 Rose Bowl, being a single parent in broadcasting and much more. Listen to it below:
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 @RichardDeitsch.
4. Two years ago I did small item for SI.com on the interest networks had in Peyton Manning should the quarterback ever decide to work in broadcasting. ESPN's senior coordinating producer Seth Markman said at the time that he “would think all the networks would be tripping over each other if Peyton Manning wanted to do this.” Markman, the executive in charge of hiring talent for the network's studio shows, continued that he “wouldn't be surprised if he was interested in college football as well."
Nothing has changed on that end outside of Manning being closer to retirement. Last week the fine Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand reported via sources that CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC all wanted a chance to convince Manning to work as a studio or game analyst. While Ourand’s report came out prior to the increased scrutiny on litigation involving Manning, sports television executives are the last people to worry about bad publicity when it comes to hiring former athletes. If Manning wants to work in broadcasting next year, he will. But most of the media executives I’ve spoken with over the past few years do not believe he will land in broadcasting.
5. Ourand had a number of interesting items this week including reporting that the digital companies interested in over-the-top rights to the NFL’s Thursday Night Football are being offered 10 of the package’s 18 games. Ourand said those companies (likely Yahoo! among others) have been asked to bid on the five early-season games CBS will carry and the five late-season games on NBC. Ourand reported that the NFL Network’s eight-game schedule will not be sold to a digital company because it would devalue that property. Also from Ourand: The NFL is likely to schedule a Cowboys-Redskins matchup for Fox’s Thanksgiving Day game.
5a. Media junkies should read this Nicholas Schmidle profile of TMZ.
5b. SI Video’s fourth season of Underdogs, the award-winning film series on high school football teams around the U.S., has launched.
5c. More good stuff from Ourand (and colleague Ian Thomas): The Buffalo Sabres have the best NHL’s local TV ratings at this point of the season despite their record in the Eastern Conference. Through early February, Buffalo had averaged a 6.81 rating on MSG, up 55% from last year. The Penguins, the traditional leaders when it comes to NHL ratings, had averaged a 5.51 rating during the same time frame. (SBJ does not include Canadian local ratings).
5d. The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism will hold an “Evening with Kevin Merida” seminar on Wednesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Eaton Theater of Knight Hall on the University of Maryland campus.
Merida is the Editor-in-Chief of the The Undefeated, ESPN’s soon-to-launch site on the nexus of race and culture in sports.