If Charles Barkley is serious about leaving sports broadcasting when his current contract with Turner Sports expires in 2016 (the prediction in this space is that he will ultimately end up extending his stay with Turner) the network needs to think about a succession plan. The truth is no one can replace Barkley, the most impactful and valuable studio analyst on sports television today. But there is a name out there who could have a Barkley-like impact on an NBA studio show or remote broadcast if he has interest in broadcasting as a post-NBA career.
His name is Kobe Bryant.
There are certain traits shared by the best sports broadcasters: intelligence, passion, credibility and honesty. Personally, I like a bit of edge and distance from the establishment, too. Bryant possesses all of these. If you talk to NBA beat and national writers, Bryant has become one of the best interview subjects in the game. That he’s also an all-time great is a huge marketing bonus.
"If he chose to do it he'd be incredible," said ESPN Los Angeles senior writer Ramona Shelburne, who has covered the Lakers since 2003. "He's sarcastic, smart, insightful, fearless. Think the player version of Jeff Van Gundy. I'm not sure he's fun enough for the typical NBA pre and postgame show. The guys that thrive there are the ones who always sat around in a locker room after a game, BS-ing with other players and reporters or coaches. I've seen Kobe do that from time to time, but only when he's soaking his feet in an ice bucket. The rest of the time, he's all business … He is singularly focused on basketball. That level of focus has keeps him at a distance from a lot of people. Yes, he forms friendships with players around the league, but they are the 'mutual admiration' kind of friendships. I think that distance is actually what would make him a great broadcaster. If he's able to call Pau Gasol his 'brother' in one moment and then tell him he needs to put his 'big boy pants on' in another moment, just think about what he might say with a player he didn't like and admire.”
If Bryant indicates he is serious about a broadcasting career after his NBA career ends, industry sources say he’d command $4 million to $5 million annually, if not more, because there would be a heavy competition for his services. ESPN (whose studio show is based in L.A.) and Turner are guaranteed to be interested.
"He’s obviously smart and articulate and he would be a great candidate," said Turner Sports senior vice president and executive creative director Craig Barry. "But like any job there is a certain amount of passion that the person needs to have for the day to day. That element of passion and wanting to share the game is a huge part of being able to connect with the viewer. That’s a huge part of being a successful broadcaster and I think Kobe would be great at it. But he would have to want to do it."
ESPN NBA host Sage Steele sees the fit.
"He's got the resume, the look, he's got the ability to properly articulate his thoughts, and so much more," Steele said. "But most of all, he isn't afraid to give his opinion. So many broadcasters in every sport have awesome insight and strong opinions but once that red light turns on, they are too worried about what their peers who are still in the game will think if they hear it. Will Kobe want to work hard enough to be a genuinely good television analyst? It isn't easy. It takes a lot of hard work to stay up on every aspect of the game. So could he be great? Absolutely."
Bryant has been a frequent guest on TNT’s Inside The NBA during his career and Barry described him as “smart, concise, articulate, with the ability to poke a little fun at himself.” The Turner executive said they would love to have Bryant as a guest analyst if the Lakers failed to make the playoffs and that he would absolutely reach out to Bryant after he retired to take his temperature on broadcasting.
What television role would best fit Bryant? It’s an interesting question because one’s personality and acumen suggest a better fit for either the studio or a remote analyst position. Barry said he thought Bryant would be equally adept at both.
"Part of what makes great television is great chemistry and who he was working with would be a big part of his success," Barry said. "Chemistry would be a big part of the puzzle."
One 7-foot-1 part of that puzzle could be Shaquille O’Neal, who is already part of Inside The NBA. If the Turner execs could swing it with their egos, how great would it be to have Kobe and Shaq on the same set?
"They were a super duo on the court and regardless of what transpired between them, and I can’t speak to it as an authority, there is no reason they could not be one in a broadcasting scenario," Barry said.
So what is Bryant’s interest in broadcasting, if any?
Bryant has not discussed any post-career plans publicly and on Sunday he declined comment to SI for this piece via a Lakers spokesperson. But those close to him say he is far more likely to head into business rather than broadcasting or the business of basketball. Last year he purchased a Newport Beach office for his international headquarters. Still, one thing Bryant and his Kobe Inc. advisors will no doubt consider, as Magic Johnson did, is the value of appearing on television to push a post-career business brand. That’s what ESPN and Turner should sell Bryant on with any pitch.
"He’s pretty much shot down all the conventional post-career tracks we've asked him about -- coaching, front office work, even ownership," Shelburne said. "He's too intense, too unforgiving and stubborn to coach players who don't have that same mentality. At least for now, he seems really focused on building up Kobe Inc., the line of products he's developing and business ventures he's creating with Andrea Fairchild, a former Nike and PepsiCo executive. Over the summer he told me he's busier than he's ever been as he trained for the season and worked on building up Kobe Inc. I think he has a vision for what life as a businessman would look like, and the types of things he wants to invest his time in once he does this full time. But until he retires and really is doing this full time, I don't think any of us, including him, know if that will be enough for him. Personally, I can't see him walking away from basketball entirely. You can't go from obsessed with something for 30 years to quitting cold turkey."
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. Upon the conclusion of an early-morning production meeting on Sunday morning, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus stood up inside a Providence hotel room and delivered some big news to his NFL group: The network was getting another season of Thursday Night Football.
The NFL had been clear about its goals for the TNF package heading into 2014. It wanted the games to be on a network (at least part of the schedule) and it wanted that network to treat those games with playoff-quality production. CBS did its part through staffing (it assigned its A-level production and talent groups) as well as hyping up the package with Don King-like flair. The official word on the renewal came on Sunday.
"From our perspective we had a very specific set of goals that we outlined with the NFL this season and the goals involved promotion, marketing, production quality, branding," McManus said on Sunday. "And we met or exceeded all of those goals."
The rights deal is mostly similar to this year: CBS will broadcast the first eight Thursday Night Football games (last year it had the first seven games and a late-season game), and those games will once again be simulcast on NFL Network. The NFL Network will then televise exclusively eight games leading up to the playoffs. There will be 14 games on Thursday nights and two late-season games on Saturday. The full schedule of 16 regular-season games will be produced by CBS with its lead broadcasters (Jim Nantz and Phil Simms) and production team on all Thursday night games. The pregame, halftime and postgame shows will continue to feature NFL Network and CBS Sports hosts and analysts.
"We don’t plan any changes behind the scenes or in front of the camera," McManus said.
Last year the Thursday Night schedule consisted of divisional matchups. McManus said that what type of games is still up for discussion, though with time zones and travel restrictions for a short week he believed the majority of the games would once again be division games. As far as production tweaks in 2015, McManus said he anticipated using more next-gen stats on CBS’s Thursday and Sunday afternoon coverage. As part of the deal, CBS and NFL Network will create more NFL programming together for CBS and NFL platforms. The Thursday night games averaged 12.3 million viewers in 2014, up 52 percent over the previous year’s 8.1 million for 13 games on NFL Network. The most-watched game was the inaugural game in Week 2, when Steelers-Ravens drew 20.8 million viewers.
The new agreement is for the 2015 season with an additional year at the NFL’s option. Sources said the contract went for more $300 million, which would be an increase from the $275 million CBS paid for this year’s package. In sports television circles, that’s a bargain.
1a. On the issue of rules analyst Mike Carey, who had a tough rookie year for CBS, McManus said, "I think we are still redefining that but the plan is to go forward with Mike."
1b. The production quality for the Seattle's thrilling overtime win over Green Bay was very high. Particularly great with director Rich Russo's decision at the end of the game to flip quickly to an overhead camera above Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson so viewers could get a real sense of just how crazy the postgame scene was near Wilson.
1d. Last week I had an extended conversation with Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman. The 48-year-old NFL Hall of Famer addressed a number of topics, including nearly leaving the profession in 2008 because it wasn’t satisfying him; how his work gets reviewed; why Buck faces the criticism he does; the reckless insinuation by now-ESPN host Skip Bayless that Aikman was gay; and what he projects for the immediate future of the Cowboys. It’s here for those who missed it.
1e. Per Robert Seidman: The ESPN2 telecast of The Coaches Film Room during Ohio State-Oregon drew 294,000 viewers. ESPNU’s Voices coverage, featuring Jay Bilas, Julie Foudy, Mike Wilbon etc…, drew 145,000 on ESPNU. The ESPNews “Off The Ball” platform, which looked at plays away from the ball, drew 83,000 viewers.
1f. The power of a mega lead-in: SportsCenter’s coverage (starting at 12:32 a.m. ET) following the Ohio State-Oregon title game drew a massive 6.5 million viewers, more than six times an average evening episode of SC. Fox Sports Live’s college football-heavy show at that same time drew 42,000 viewers. I’ve made it clear that I believe Fox Sports management endorsement of trolling college football fan bases isn’t a winning strategy for the long-term (the network gets a lot of credit for upgrading talent in both the studio and game broadcasts this year) but this kind of disparity is about the $7.3 billion ESPN pays to broadcast the CFB playoffs. Sports viewers, as a rule, don’t change the channel after big events. (Thanks to SportsTVratings.com for the data).
1g. Nice work by NFL Network reporter Andrea Kremer and producers Hilary Guy and Lauren Gaffney with this interesting video feature on Tom Brady Sr. The piece gives you insight into where Brady’s drive for football was first born.
2. One of the biggest parlor games of 2015 for the sports media is guessing what Bill Simmons will do when his ESPN contract ends later this year. As a monthly service for you and to annoy ESPN management, SI.com handicaps the odds.
ESPN (3-1): Still the favorite to retain Simmons but the odds have gone up given Lena Dunham’s BFF is clearly perturbed by his excessive suspension (three weeks) for calling Roger Goodell a liar and daring management to suspend him. In a recent column, Simmons delivered a nice shot to ESPN management and First Take for what he perceived (correctly) as a double standard on suspensions. Still, no other entity affords him more resources and distribution for the content he enjoys, and the company also holds a long-term rights deal with his beloved NBA through the 2024-25 season.
The Glenn Beck model (4-1): This path represents forming an online media network, including a YouTube Channel and podcast network, and would give Simmons the creative independence he craves as well as the finances (fronted by a company or wealthy individuals).
Vox Media: (7-1): In November Vox closed on a $46.5 million round of financing from General Atlantic, a New York investment firm. That money is being targeted to raise the profile of Vox’s brands and for investment in video. Thus, Welcome To The Bill Simmons Channel.
Yahoo Sports: (9-1): “Hello, Bill? Marissa Mayer here.”
Old-school media conglomerates (12-1): “Hello, Bill? Rupert Murdoch here.”
Vice Media (18-1): Seeing Simmons report from Azerbaijan would be fun.
The NBA (22-1): Perhaps a sub-site around Simmons, featuring the NBA's staff of veteran reporters?
Bleacher Report (24-1): Increasing the odds significantly here from last month given Simmons’ continued shots at the product and B/R looking for sport-specific writers.
WWE Network (29-1): Simmons is a huge wrestling fan and John Cena could use some support right now.
The NFL (38-1): Goodell, channeling his inner-Ted Dibiase, tells Simmons that “everybody has a price” -- and finds it.
2a. I asked Shelboune how she would define Bryant’s current relationship with the media?
"Great. I think he's one of the most interesting, open, compelling characters that we have today. Yes, every once in a while he's short with us or sounds too much like he's reading lines from a Nike commercial. But for the most part, he's fascinating … When Kobe opens up, he really opens up. It's almost like he's working through some of his issues in the interview setting. You know how writers 'find the story' by writing? That's Kobe in press conferences and interviews. He'll come in the room depressed or angry after a loss and he works his way through all those emotions throughout the interview. I think you'll see that at a different level when his documentary [Kobe Bryant’s Muse] for Showtime comes out this spring, which he describes in the trailer as 'therapy on film.'
"[ESPN colleague] J.A. Adande and I were just talking about this the other day. It used to be you had to try to pull Kobe aside after a game to get great quotes or his best insights. He'd grant the 'walk-off' interviews to the reporters he had a relationship with and trusted -- Bill Plashcke, JA, me, Adrian Wojnarowski, Sam Amick, Ken Berger, Howard Beck. But a few years ago, he just started saying everything in front of everybody. He didn't save the best stuff for the walk-off anymore. He just said it in the general press conference with all the cameras. I think this shift happened about the same time he joined Facebook and Twitter and instantly became one of the most interesting athletes to follow. Once he started opening up a little, it was like the dam broke and he kept sharing more and more. Gosh, Mark Zuckerberg would love that statement."
3. Can boxing find an audience on television? At least one network believes so. Last week NBC Sports announced it will air 20 live shows on NBC (including primetime coverage) and NBCSN as part of what it’s calling the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) series. The agreement is between NBC and top boxing manager Al Haymon, who is paying the network $20 million annually for airtime. NBC will produce the shows, with Al Michaels serving as the host of NBC prime-time bouts. Sugar Ray Leonard will be an analyst for some of the cards. New York Times’ Richard Sandomir and Yahoo!’s Kevin Iole had pieces worth reading.
The first NBC show is scheduled for March 7 at 9 p.m. ET and features Keith Thurman (24-0, 21 KOs) against former featherweight and super featherweight champion Robert Guerrero (32-2-1, 18 KOs) for the interim WBA welterweight title and three-division champion Adrien Broner (29-1, 22 KOs) against John Molina (27-5, 22 KOs). The second card (on April 11), according to those who cover the sport, is highly anticipated: a junior welterweight title unification match between Danny Garcia and Lamont Peterson. NBC officials said there will be five Saturday primetime shows on NBC, six Saturday afternoon shows on NBC and nine Saturday primetime shows on NBCSN. All shows will be streamed live on NBC Sports Live Extra.
"Our telecast will feature top matches with the best fighters from the top venues," said Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports. “We will present the PBC on NBC with the same high production value that viewers saw on the NFL playoffs and that we show every other year in the Olympics on NBC.”
3a. The last fight NBC had on in prime time? Larry Holmes defeating Carl “The Truth” Williams on May 20, 1985.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s Robert Klemko got remarkable access with Richard Sherman.
• SI’s Greg Bishop on former football players finding a second career in commercials, TV shows and movies.
• Via Fox Sports’ Erik Malinowski: In 1983, a group of older, rugby players set out to do the impossible.
• For those who love writing: Last week we republished one of SI's greatest profiles: Frank Deford on Bob Knight from 1981.
• An interesting profile of Leigh Steinberg, who once ruled the sports agent universe before he self-destructed due to his own vices.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• If you have mental illness in your family, I really think you would benefit from reading this devastating piece.
• Remarkable piece by Mariya Karimjee about forgiving her mother for having her ritually circumcised. Highest rec.
• The Washington Post profiled 14 children whose parents died fighting in Afghanistan.
• This Eddie Huang piece on turning his memoir into a network show is really good.
• Fascinating Washington Post piece on high-end shooting clubs.
• Via Vanity Fair: Trial by Ebola.
• Actor Tom Hanks wrote a great op-ed on his community college experience.
5. This Martin Luther King Day promo by the NBA is excellent.
5a. How much transparency does ESPN owe viewers when the telecast is not broadcasting from the game site?
5b. TNT analyst Reggie Miller on unrest between the Cavs coach David Blatt and Cavs players, "Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. There is probably a little validity to what everyone is saying. However, there is one person in this building who can stop all this nonsense, and it’s LeBron James. If LeBron were to get in front of a microphone and say, ‘I’m tired of hearing all this noise,’ we wouldn’t hear anything. We’re rolling with this guy. But it’s silence from LeBron James … I understand he’s in a tough predicament, but he could stop all of this."
5c. MLB Network, as part of its MLB Network Presents series, will air an episode Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, the 1990 Reds relief pitchers better known as the “Nasty Boys.”
5d. CBS Sports Network and the Army reached an agreement on a five-year deal renewing CBS Sports Network’s rights for coverage of every Army home football game and select neutral site games in which Army is the home team. The agreement begins with the 2015 season.
5e. On Tuesday I’ll have some thoughts on CBS and Turner Sports basketball analyst Greg Anthony getting suspended indefinitely by his employers after he was arrested and charged with soliciting a prostitute during an undercover sting operation last Friday, according to D.C. police.
5f. Interesting note from Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp: ESPN2 drew 1.44 million viewers for North Dakota State’s FCS national championship win last Saturday, up 16 percent from 1.24 million viewers over 2014 and 31 percent over 2013 (1.1 million viewers).
5g. Arnold and Harriet Greenberg, the parents of ESPN Radio host Mike Greenberg, are selling the Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore on Madison Avenue in New York City after three decades in business. The NYT had a nice profile of the couple on this unique store.
5h. Fox released its first Women's World Cup ad during the Packers-Seahawks game.