Why ESPN is featuring WWE on Sportscenter, and why other media outlets would be wise to cater to wrestling fans going forward.
Get all of Richard Deitsch’s stories as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Last March, when looking for an outlet to announce that he re-signed a three-year deal with WWE, former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar opted not to make the reveal on the the WWE Network, the company-owned subscription video service. Instead, Lesnar and WWE officials chose a program known more for covering Peyton Manning than piledrivers.
Lesnar made his announcement on SportsCenter, ESPN's flagship news program.
This was not by accident. Mainstream media outreach is an ongoing part of business for WWE, but even more interestingly, it represented a specific content play for ESPN. The network has long suspected there was a strong intersection between WWE fans and ESPN viewers. Now it says there is data to prove it.
Glenn Jacobs, senior coordinating producer of ESPN’s New & Next Group (a 25-30-person group that focuses on new content plays for the company), said his staff has spent a lot of time researching what ESPN viewers are paying attention to on social media. They found that ESPN viewers are very interested in WWE content. For example: Last Monday’s WWE Raw, which airs on USA Network, was the most-talked about topic among SportsCenter’s nearly 26 million Twitter followers (The ESPN researchers look at hashtags and key words). WWE content, in fact, drew three times as many as mentions as the second-most talked about topic that night: LeBron James. Jacobs said WWE Raw has been a top five talked-about topic over the last five weeks among SportsCenter followers on Twitter and a top 10 topic for 15 straight weeks.
“We are seeing a really strong and clear correlation between wrestling and those followers, and that helps make the argument all the more clear that this is something our fans care about,” Jacobs said. “So why should we not try to serve them? Data takes it out of the theoretical and into reality.”
With an eye toward the news cycle next week as WWE holds its annual WrestleMania event on Sunday, April 3 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Jacobs said ESPN will send SportsCenter host Jonathan Coachman, a former WWE broadcaster, to cover the event. Coachman will front taped segments from Arlington next Saturday and Sunday, as well as some live SportsCenter hits. He will also likely appear live on SportsCenter following the conclusion of WrestleMania 32.
Jacobs said last year he, Coachman, social media producer Steve Braband, and SportsCenter producer Ashok Moore pitched SportsCenter chiefs Rob King and Mike McQuade on ways to intersect ESPN and the WWE. Management agreed to give it a shot, and Jacobs said the results have been good so far. He cited an interview Coachman did with Daniel Bryan upon Bryan’s retirement that drew 396,000 video starts. Another interview with Roman Reigns accumulated 120,000 video starts. Jacobs said ESPN would pick it spots over the calendar year to feature WWE content.
“First and most obviously, there are millions of wrestling fans and a lot of them are also sports fans, so why not capture as much as the audience as we can?” Jacobs said. “We experimented last year by sending Coachman and a small team to [WWE’s] Summer Slam and it was well received. I would also add that Brock Lesnar’s cross-over success as an athlete in the UFC also helped.”
Outlets (and I include SI here) would be wise to cater to WWE fans when appropriate given its demos. Website editors and writers will tell you that wrestling content on sports sites draws a ton of page views. There's no doubt that some ESPN viewers will be unhappy seeing WWE programming on SportsCenter—no, it’s not a sport—but the idea that SportsCenter is sacrosanct regarding sports-only is long gone. The show often has actors and musicians hyping product, cross-promotion with Disney entities, lists of non-note from its anchors, and various personalities screaming about something.
On the opposite side, you can understand why the WWE wants mainstream media attention given the declining television ratings (though still much bigger than SportsCenter) for WWE Raw, the flagship show for the company. I asked sports television ratings expert Douglas Pucci of Awful Announcing and Programming Insider to run the numbers of Raw over the past three years for some shows leading up to WrestleMania. Here’s how it looks:
Monday, March 14, 2016
8 p.m hour: 3.471 million total viewers and 1.544 million adults 18-49
9 p.m hour: 3.392 million total viewers and 1.591 million adults 18-49
10 p.m hour: 3.510 million total viewers and 1.722 million adults 18-49
Monday, March 21, 2016
8 p.m.: 3.466 million total viewers and 1.473 million adults 18-49
9 p.m.: 3.416 million total viewers and 1.524 million adults 18-49
10 p.m.: 3.317 million total viewers and 1.525 million adults 18-49
Monday, March 16, 2015
8 p.m.: 3.881 million total viewers and 1.724 million adults 18-49
9 p.m.: 3.961 million total viewers and 1.766 million adults 18-49
10 p.m.: 3.915 million total viewers and 1.774 million adults 18-49
Monday, March 23, 2015
8 p.m.: 4.178 million total viewers and 1.810 million adults 18-49
9 p.m.: 4.342 million total viewers and 1.886 million adults 18-49
10 p.m.: 4.043 million total viewers and 1.851 million adults 18-49
Monday, March 17, 2014
8 p.m.: 4.001 million total viewers and 1.762 million adults 18-49
9 p.m.: 4.174 million total viewers and 1.840 million adults 18-49
10 p.m.: 4.051 million total viewers and 1.795 million adults 18-49
Monday, March 24, 2014
8 p.m.: 4.218 million total viewers and 1.800 million adults 18-49
9 p.m.: 4.393 million total viewers and 1.933 million adults 18-49
10 p.m. 4.207 million total viewers and 1.871 million adults 18-49
It's worth noting that ESPN is on a bit of an island regarding cable sports networks and the WWE. NBCSN said it had no coverage plans, which makes sense given most of its studio shows such as Premier League Live, NHL Live, and NASCAR America are sport-specific. CBS Sports has often covered WWE online but has never done so on CBS Sports Network. Fox did not return a query on this topic but FS1 would seem to be a perfect place to experiment with the WWE, as it has given extensive coverage to wrestling digitally. Of course, Fox is a partner with UFC, so perhaps UFC wants it to stay away.
I’ll be interested to see the post-WrestleMania SportsCenter ratings on April 3. I’d bet they go above the average for the year.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Imagine if ESPN parted ways with Adam Schefter without an explanation. Or Yahoo! Sports did the same with Adrian Wojnarowski. Last Wednesday UFC on Fox reporter Ariel Helwani, who has been part of the network’s UFC coverage since 2011 and is generally considered the sport’s most connected media insider, tweeted a statement that he had parted ways with the UFC on FOX and would no longer be appearing on UFC Tonight, as well as the event coverage on FS1.
“It's been an honor and a privilege to cover the sport for FOX,” Helwani wrote. “I was one of the first on-air MMA people hired back in 2011, and I met some wonderful people along the way. I hope to work with some them again at some point. I thank everyone involved for the opportunity. But I'm completely at peace with this decision and believe it's for the best.”
This was a very curious development given how much Fox Sports has invested in UFC content. Fox Sports clearly seemed to like Helwani as recently as two weeks ago. On March 7 the network referred to Helwani as “the best UFC insider in the biz” on Fox Sports Live with Jay and Dan. Hewani’s bio still exists on Fox’s website, replete with superlatives about the reporter. Helwani’s contract, similar to many broadcast contracts, had a minimum number of appearances he had to meet. I’m told that those numbers had not been met for 2016. That’s a curious thing to remove talent who has not even reached the minimum on contractual appearances.
Fox Sports was asked by SI on Thursday afternoon why Helwani was no longer with the UFC on FOX broadcasts and how much, if at all, UFC was involved in this talent decision. It had not yet responded to SI’s inquiry by the time this column was published.
Not surprisingly, people within MMA circles reacted to the news. The Canadian mixed martial artist Rory MacDonald, the top-ranked UFC welterweight, tweeted out support for Helwani on March 23, saying the reporter was run out for being too truthful.
Top UFC lightweight Edward Alvarez called Helwani “the best in the biz.”
On the issue of Helwani's departure, SI MMA reporter Jeff Wagenheim tweeted, “I think fans of the sport -- and of journalism -- know why.”
That’s clearly an inference that Fox Sports made the move at either the behest of UFC or to placate one of its most important business partners. Based on this tweet from last Dec. 29 and this Washington Post story, UFC president Dana White is unlikely to be dining with Helwani anytime soon. The panel that I conduced last month with seven MMA journalists—including Helwani—discussed a myriad of media issues in the sport. When contacted by SI, Helwani declined to comment beyond his tweet but did say he would address his parting from Fox on his podcast, The MMA Hour.
Contacted on Sunday, a spokesperson for UFC said “Appreciate the opportunity but we respectfully decline comment.”
Networks have previously removed announcers at the behest of leagues or bodies, most famously Jack Whitaker being banned from calling The Masters for five years by CBS after he called a gallery a “mob scene” in 1966. If Helwani was dropped by Fox for not being enough of a PR man for a Fox Sports partner, Fox should simply come out and say it’s not interested in journalism for its UFC product. That would be honest.
1a. Turner sideline reporter Craig Sager told HBO Sports last week that his cancer is no longer in remission. “I’m grateful to HBO for telling my story and I’d like to thank everyone for their ongoing support,” Sager said in a statement. “I have acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive type of cancer. The typical prognosis is 3-6 months to live, but I would like to stress that is for a patient who is not receiving treatment. Fortunately, I am receiving the best treatment in the world and I remain fully confident I will win this battle. Again, I would like to thank everyone for your generosity and encouragement. I sincerely appreciate it and it means so much to me and my family. I look forward to continuing my work on the sidelines for Turner Sports."
Turner said Sager is scheduled to work the March 28 game between the Wizards and Warriors, the March 31 game between Chicago and Houston, and the April 7 game between the Bulls and Heat.
1b. According to the NFL, the Rams volunteered to be the team for HBO’s Hard Knocks this August. Here’s Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register with more details from the Rams' side.
2. The AP’s Doug Feinberg had a long report on ESPN broadcasting six women's NCAA tournament games remotely. As Feinberg reported, the broadcasters, directors and producers were not on site for the first- and second-round games hosted by Maryland and Mississippi State. Instead, the broadcasts were produced from studios in Charlotte or Orlando.
It’s a trend in sports broadcasting that is here to stay given the enormous rights fees for sporting event. That part is understandable. What comes off as disingenuous is to say that you are as committed to the women’s basketball tournament as any other property. Because that’s no longer true on face with this change. You can never have as comprehensive a broadcast with announcers working remotely, and you are also gambling that nothing truly significant happens such as a player or fan death. The honest statement is to admit the ratings are not strong for the opening round of the NCAA women’s tournament compared to other live properties and that this is a way to save money company-wide. Would a remote broadcast ever happen for Monday Night Football? Of course not.
2a. ESPN said it averaged 343,000 viewers for the first and second round of the women’s NCAA tournament, the second-best viewership ever (behind 398,000 viewers in 2013) and up 46% from last year's 235,000 viewers.
3. Episode No. 47 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN NBA analyst Hubie Brown, who has worked in NBA broadcasting for more than three decades.
In this episode, Brown discusses his broadcasting style and how he watches a game, who he learns from in today’s game, how he prepares for a broadcast, how he feels about the advanced metrics in the game, his relationship with the late Dr. Jack Ramsay, why the 1975 Kentucky Colonels (featuring Hall of Famers Dan Issel, Louie Dampier and Artis Gillmore) are perennially underrated, how he handles travel at age 82 (hint: limousines), his favorite broadcasters to work with, and much more.
In one of the best parts of the podcast, Brown goes in-depth on what he would do as a coach to try to slow down Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
4. Sports pieces of note
• The New York Times reported that the NFL played down the risk of head injuries using research that it falsely claimed was comprehensive.
• From The Guardian’s Marina Hyde: Novak Djokovic needs The Nice Guy’s Very Brief Guide to Discussing Women’s Sports and Issues Therein.
• Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck on the brotherhood between LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
• From Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com: Sneaker Wars: You Won't Believe How Nike Lost Steph.
• With the passing of the Dutch master, Johan Cruyff, this Guardian piece is worth reading on the Cruyff turn.
• The Church of Cruyff, by David Winner.
• Two young boxers meet in a ring in a church hall in Youngstown, Ohio. From Dan Barry of the New York Times.
• Via the New York Times Magazine: Bill Walton’s Long, Strange Tale of N.B.A. Survival.
• Sue Bird, for The Players’ Tribune, on the disparity between men’s and women’s sports when it comes to analytics.
• The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan on what would happen if the 1985-86 Celtics played this year's Warriors.
Non sports pieces of note:
• Fantastic piece from Alex Tizon of The Atlantic on missing persons in Alaska.
• The curious case of the woman Donald Trump “interviewed” for a job.
• From the Times: 13 questions to ask before getting married.
• From Gary Shteyngart of the New Yorker: Garry Shandling's benevolent spirit.
• Via the Washington Post: Zika's terrifying path.
5. It was fascinating to watch the NFL challenge the New York Times sports department on that outlet’s comprehensive, investigative report into the NFL’s research on concussions—and the NYT respond in real time. The Wall Street Journal examined what went down.
5a. Sporting News sports media writer Michael McCarthy interviewed Fox Sports National Networks president Jamie Horowitz about FS1 and FS2’s plans to challenge ESPN: They include a major shift toward opinion, bloviating and personality-based programming. Horowitz said he is interested in procuring the services of the professional television wrestling heel Skip Bayless, whose ESPN contract is up this summer.
The recent layoffs and buyouts at FS1 would suggest that news is mostly on its way out at FS1 during the morning and afternoon blocks given a number of Emmy Award-winning producers were let go, and journalists such as former L.A. Times man Rick Jaffe and the excellent golf writer Robert Lusetich have left the company. While the sports media industry at large would like to see FS1 succeed—new outlets mean more jobs and competition is good for viewers—it appears that FS1 is only looking for a certain type of on-air performer and staff to back that performance up. Within the McCarthy piece, Horowitz referred to ESPN’s SportsCenter as a dinosaur. Asked by SI if they wished to comment on its flagship program being categorized as anachronistic, ESPN declined comment.
5b. Per Deadspin: Here's video of a Cuban protester appearing live on ESPN. Note the police response and ESPN host Bob Ley’s honest handling of the situation.
5c. Arlo White will fill in for Rebecca Lowe as the host of NBCSN’s Premier League Live for the weekends of April 2-3 and 9-10 before Steve Bower hosts for the rest of the season.
5d. If CNN was around during Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton’s time.
5e. Joe Garagiola, who spent 57 years in baseball broadcasting, passed away at age 90. Here’s an excellent tribute from Marty Noble of MLB.com.
5f. From 1991: Tampa Tribune writer Tom McEwen recalls his time serving with Garagiola at POW camp in Philippines.