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If you want a safe bet in the sports media space, bet on SportsCenter being around longer than any executive at a competitor portending its demise. The show has had declining ratings for years—we’ll get to that in a moment—but ESPN has the capital and the bandwidth to continue that franchise long into the future, no matter the medium. Most importantly, they have the flexibility to make changes, including dropping some shows, changing talent, and building the franchise via digital, social and mobile.
The flagship show of the network was a topic of discussion on Tuesday afternoon following ESPN’s annual Upfront presentation for media buyers. These are defensive times for the Worldwide Leader in Press Releases given declining subscribers and other issues. ESPN executives are understandably trying to counter a narrative that SportsCenter has significant issues. (See this piece by Newsday’s Neil Best for more on the show’s struggles.) Now, the brand does have significant issues, but it also has significant strengths, including a story that ESPN’s public relations department will soon be pushing hard from the home office in Moscow. One of the talking points ESPN president John Skipper pounded hard for reporters Tuesday was that new data is coming from ESPN to measure outside-the-home television watching in places such as airports, bars, college dormitories, gyms and restaurants. ESPN plans to release out-of-home later this month and Skipper said when Nielsen folds its out-of-home sample with its linear TV ratings
in 2017, ESPN will get a 6.5% to 7% increase for all programming, with as much as 12 to 15% for college football and shows such as College GameDay. SportsCenter would also get a bump. Obviously, ESPN and other sports networks want out-of-home viewing numbers to become standard because they can promise higher ratings to advertisers for more ad dollars. The question is how advertisers view the increased numbers—many of those out-of-home viewers are not paying any heed to the ads, even if the sound is on. As Kevin Draper of Deadspin put it in this excellent piece, “This is how you find more meat on a gnawed-over bone.”
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According to SportsTVRatings.com, SportsCenter is averaging 479,000 viewers across all telecasts per Nielsen data through May 16. Through a similar period last year through May 17, 2015, the website reported that SportsCenter averaged 509,000 viewers. That’s a 6% drop.
Then there is the 6 p.m. Monday-Friday SportsCenter telecast, which is relevant because FS1 has announced that in the same time slot they will use two former ESPN personalities as part of a new studio show (Speak for Yourself), presumably featuring a lot of contrarian gobbledygook. That SportsCenter day part is down 12% (634,000 to 560,000) versus last year—a very bad trend given it has one of the best lead-ins on the network. ESPN will counter those numbers by saying that SportsCenter’s streaming and social numbers are not getting proper due from the press but if SportsCenter was up in TV viewership, ESPN execs know full well their p.r department would be launching press releases at the rate Klay Thompson launches three-pointers. “Any narrative that SportsCenter does not remain central to a sports fan’s experience is inaccurate,” said Skipper. “We understand that fans are going to get some of their scores and highlights from digital media, and guess where they are going to get it from? They are going to get it from ESPN.”
Skipper cited a stat—though he did not cite where it came from—that 54% of all consumption of the sports news in the country comes from ESPN sources. He said SportsCenter as a standalone network would be the sixth largest cable network among men 18 to 34. (It also would be the seventh largest country ... not really.)
ESPN executives admitted on Tuesday that they needed to make SportsCenter a more compelling program no matter the time slot. This is true. They believe the key to producing a more compelling SportsCenter is to use different themes depending on the time of the day and to deploy distinct personalities. This is also true. One good note for the SportsCenter franchise: The Scott Van Pelt-led SportsCenter at midnight Eastern is up 7% (654,000 viewers to 699,000) from the same point in 2015.
“We have to make every hour distinct because SportsCenter [in the past] was on all the time and we did not differentiate between the morning SportsCenter and say, the late-night SportsCenter,” Skipper said. “Now, we are doing that. I think that is how we can make it compelling, to make it different. We have to allow the people on the shows to display their personalities.”
If you buy this thesis, then the question is whether ESPN has the right people in place and structure in its SportsCenter slots. That’s subjective, of course, but one place ESPN would be wise to seriously think about a reboot is the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, which is currently hosted by Lindsay Czarniak. It’s is a very tricky SportsCenter—the numbers have declined for some time including since executives split up John Anderson and Czarniak in January of 2015—but there will be a lot of attention here given FS1’s moves. It’s arrogant to think I have the answer. I don’t. But a few thoughts:
1. Give Czarniak a permanent partner to play off because the show isn’t resonating at the moment, even with the expensive remotes from sites of games.
2. Skipper has repeatedly said he wants more Hispanics to come to ESPN, so maybe it’s the spot for a Hispanic anchor to share the bill with Czarniak. Antonietta Collins is ready for such a prime gig.
3. Make the co-host a rotating set of ESPN staffers outside of SportsCenter hosts for to get a more spontaneous and interesting program. It would also be a promotional vehicle for those other properties.
4. Bring in a rotating current athlete or coach interested in television to serve as the co-host. (Obviously, you would format the show so that Czarniak carries the hosting load, but the surprise factor for each week could be compelling.)
5. Go bold and make Mondays the day you bring in a big-time comic/sports fan (Hannibal Buress, Anthony Jeselnik, etc.) for some dangerous and compelling sports television.
6. Hire FS1’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole when their contracts are up because they are getting no promotion from Fox and they can be great in the right format.
7. Do nothing and you’ll still beat FS1 five-to-one in viewers.
Some other topics Skipper hit on at the Upfronts:
• On who will replace Skip Bayless on ESPN2’s oleaginous First Take: “You asked who is going to go in the chair? We don’t know yet. You heard Stephen [A. Smith] talk about our comfort level that Stephen can lead the show. We believe we will be fine.”
• On the Special Olympics: Skipper said ESPN would broadcast the Winter Special Olympics from Austria in 2017.
• On charges from former ESPN MLB analyst Curt Schilling that ESPN is biased against political conservatives: “No. We have no tolerance for points of view that are not inclusive. We have a diverse culture and we are very focused on making sure everybody can exist comfortably and succeed in that culture. That is what we have no tolerance for, and I don’t care what the politics of the person who has such an attitude are.”
• On ESPN talent speaking out on social media about the presidential election: “Our talent do not speak out much about the election for the president, and we will encourage that.”
• On Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza being the subject of criticism by Fox Sports Radio and other media outlets: “I am overwhelming happy and comfortable with the job Jessica is doing and support her completely.”
• On how committed ESPN is to The Undefeated, its new website on sports, race and culture: “We are committed to The Undefeated as long as the content is good, and I am highly confident that is as permanent a state as we can get in the media business.”
• On ESPN’s interest in the Big Ten rights package: “We have been partners with the Big Ten for a long time. Our interest is high. We would like to remain partners.”
• On the subject of ESPN being in Disney shareholders crosshairs as a drain on the company: “We’re quite encouraged by many of the discussions we are having with new distributors, over-the-top distributors, and new packages. We’ve got some real traction with distributors like Sony [PlayStation Vue] and Sling and others. Look, we’ve said repeatedly, we like our hand. You saw today. We think we still have a little swagger. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as being in the crosshairs [of Wall Street]. But we’re going to continue to perform.”
• On the Re/code story that Disney is in talks to take an equity stake in BAM Tech, the video technology business MLB Advanced Media has been looking to spin off into a separate company: “I’m not going to comment on that.”
• On losing talent to other networks: “We are highly focused on new voices and diverse voices and changing the way we look to reflect the way the fan looks now. We are quite happy with our complement of talent.”
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. ESPN announced its Week 1 college football schedule on Tuesday—at least the highlighted games—and the primetime ABC game will feature USC vs. defending champion Alabama (8 p.m. ET) from Arlington, Texas. National runner-up Clemson plays at Auburn at 9 p.m. on ESPN.
1a. Fox Sports has had a run of awful decisions of late—including letting three of highest-ranking and longest-serving public relations executives walk out the door—but the company bringing in former ESPN analyst Chris Spielman to work on its college football and NFL coverage is a sensational move, one of the best sports TV talent acquisitions of 2016. As I wrote at the end of 2015, I believe Sean McDonough and Spielman were ESPN’s best announcing team regardless of sport, and he’ll be a huge addition to Fox given his preparation and professionalism.
1b. I’ll have more on Fox Sports losing senior vice president Lou D’Ermilio (who started in 1994), vice president Dan Bell (1995) and director of communications Ileana Pena (1998) on Sunday. In my opinion, these three p.r. practitioners understood the role of the media, even when the press was critical of their properties. Yes, people leave businesses all the time. No, Sports TV p.r. departments don’t lose this kind of talent all at once. But, hey, you all signed Skip Bayless.
1c. ESPN announced on Wednesday that Samantha Ponder will join the ABC Saturday Night Football telecast as a reporter; play-by-play commentator Joe Tessitore will move to the ESPN College Football Primetime game alongside Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe, and Steve Levy will call college football play-by-play role with Brian Griese on ABC or ESPN on Saturday afternoons. Here’s the full release. Not included in here is Brad Nessler, who is departing.
2. TNT's Western Conference Finals Game 1 coverage of the Thunder and Warriors drew a 6.7 overnight rating, the highest overnight rating for a Conference Finals Game 1 since 2011 (Heat vs. Bulls).
2a. During NBA Countdown prior to Game 1 of the Cavaliers-Raptors series, analyst Jalen Rose said the Cavs would win by at least 20 (the spread was 11). Cleveland won by 31. Nice scouting.
2b. Here’s the excellent ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla on potential No. 1 NBA draft picks, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram: “Simmons is as good a passer as you will ever see from a 6’10” guy. And I know; I'm old enough to go back Magic [Johnson]. The kid is gifted. He's as good a passer as there is, and he makes your team automatically faster because of his ability to rebound and not outlet it, but push it. There are some analytics that just blow you away. One of them is a minor one, but he has the best assists per 40 minutes for a power forward in the last 40 years with the exception of Draymond Green who tied the same amount of assists. So he's a rebounder, he's a great passer, and he's a tremendous athlete. The shooting will scare some teams, but the way the NBA is right now, a guy that makes your team faster from the power forward spot is unheard of, really.
“In terms of Ingram, you're looking at a young combo forward who has got multiple offensive skills but still weighs 205 pounds. You're going to have to figure out if you draft him, are we playing him at the three, or are we playing him as a stretch four, what I would call a floating four, and he's got a world of upside. But defensively right now, you're going to be covering for him for the foreseeable future because he doesn't have a position to guard at the moment. But an enormous offensive talent. So you're deciding between taking, do you like vanilla or do you like chocolate? To me, as long as the attitude checks out, Ben Simmons is a once-every-five-to-10-years-type of draft pick.”
2c. ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy says Raptors coach Dwane Casey deserves more media attention: “I think if Dwane Casey was coaching a team in the States that overachieved like the Raptors did by winning 56 games, and now getting to the conference championship, he would be generating headlines, because I think the way he had this team progress throughout his time in Toronto, has been one of the great untold stories in the NBA over that period of time. He has a marginally talented team that he has melded into the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. He's done it while having his contract—he's going to be approaching free agency at the end of the year, I hope he's supported in Toronto, because he's done a miraculous job there.”
3. Episode No. 58 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features TNT NBA analyst Chris Webber, who will call the Western Conference Finals with Marv Albert and Reggie Miller.
On this episode, Webber discusses how forthcoming today’s NBA player are, how he viewed the press during his playing days, whether the league is watered down today, the hardest players for him to guard (Vin Baker ranked high on the list), how his Kings teams would have done in today’s game, how he prepares for his broadcast, how Marv Albert and Dick Stockton tutored him as a broadcaster, working with rapper Nas, his all-time All-Detroit team including Jalen Rose, why Allen Iverson was the best teammate he ever saw and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play 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.
4. A reader suggested I should have one item in every column that gives you a flavor of sports media coverage or broadcasting from the past. Love that idea. For our debut, here’s sideline reporter Verne Lundquist throwing to Pele, Sly Stallone and Jim McKay during ABC’s coverage of the NASL Soccer Bowl halftime in 1980.
5. Bill Simmons told New York sports radio host Mike Francesa that his new website, The Ringer, will launch next month.
5a. ESPN’s 2016 WNBA tip-off game delivered the best audience for a WNBA regular-season game on ESPN’s networks (excluding ABC) since 2001. The Lynx-Mercury drew an average of 505,000 viewers.
5b. Fox Sports has partnered with National Geographic to cover the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. This collaboration has cool potential. Here’s the release.
5c. An ambitious attempt to do a quarterly magazine about tennis—in print.
5d.Hamilton’s Grammy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated artists Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom, Jr. opened and closed the ESPN Upfront presentation with an original performance written and created exclusively for the event. It was very cool and no doubt cost as much as an NFL analyst. Check it out here.
5e. Had I been in charge of the ESPN Upfronts, I would have had a montage of all the ESPN-ers who left—like the Oscars honoring the people who died—featuring people like Mike Tirico, Skip Bayless, Colin Cowherd and others. The crowd would have been laughed their butts off, and it would have been very self-aware.
5f. I would watch this show every night.