Brown, Cowher, and Sanders to host Thursday night pregame; more

Tuesday May 13th, 2014

James Brown will anchor pregame coverage of the NFL's slate of Thursday games this season.
Jerome Davis/Icon SMI

So why were James Brown, Bill Cowher and Deion Sanders chosen as the pregame trio that will lead viewers up to Thursday Night Football on CBS and the NFL Network this fall? "We looked at the various analysts and hosts at both networks and came up with this group thinking their personalities were well-suited to work together and their name recognition well-suited to primetime," said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus.

The Brown-Cowher-Sanders trio will appear on both CBS and the NFL Network from 7:30 p.m. ET leading up to the kickoff of Thursday Night Football this season. Both McManus and Mark Quenzel, the NFL Network senior vice president of programming and production, said they were not ready to announce the talent on the NFL Network-only pregame show that will run from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. But the network execs did suggest the show will be a mix of CBS and NFL Network staffers. The two entities are working together unilaterally on decisions.

For instance, CBS analyst Tony Gonzalez would appear a likely choice to be part of the Buccaneers at Falcons game on Sept. 18. Same with NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk working the Colts at Texans on Oct. 9. McManus told that viewers should look for Phil Simms to have a role on the pregame show in addition to calling the Thursday night game with Jim Nantz.

Quenzel did say there will be both an indoor and outdoor set as part of the NFL Network's 6:00-7:30 p.m. show and wants a crowd element as part of its pregame. "We like the notion of going where the energy is," said Quenzel. "We want our viewers to feel like they are where the action is no matter where that is."

The 2014 Thursday Night Football schedule will feature games from Weeks 2-8 and Week 16 (Saturday) broadcast on CBS that will also be simulcast on NFL Network. Games in Weeks 9-12 and Weeks 14-16 will be televised on NFL Network and will be simulcast on over-the-air stations in the primary markets of the participating teams. The Brown-Cowher-Sanders trio will be the 7:30 p.m. pregame show on Thursday Night, regardless of network.

One staffer that has not been assigned a role yet is NFL Network host Rich Eisen, who is in the middle of contract negotiations with the network.

"Look, it is our intention for Rich to be here a long time," Quenzel said. "Rich is the face of our network and has been the face of our network since it launched. Rich does so many things for us and he is the primary voice on almost every thing we do and when you are looking at the landscape going forward, Rich can't do everything. At the end of the day, I want Rich Eisen anchoring our Super Bowl coverage in February and I don't want him on his hands and knees gasping for air. We are trying to figure out what the best place for him to be."

The Noise Report examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:

1. It might not be a perfect parallel to HBO's Hard Knocks but ESPN's "Inside: U.S. Soccer's March to Brazil" a six-part series which debuts Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. EST on ESPN, promises to offer a look at the U.S. Men's National Team never previously seen by a U.S. audience.

The multi-part documentary series from ESPN Films and produced by Jonathan Hock (who directed the 30 for 30 doc, The Best That Never Was as well as Grantland's series on Steve Nash) and Roger Bennett (one of the Men in Blazers), will shadow the team during its World Cup preparation camp and three international matches before their departure for Sao Paulo. The schedule for the remaining episode can be found here. I traded emails with Hock over the weekend.

"Soccer has never been more important in the world of sports, and the U.S. has never had a better team with a better chance to create a remarkable story," Hock said. "This is the story behind that story. We in the media have always depicted our team as a plucky collective, faceless guys about whom we care simply because they wear the flag on their chest. Both as a team and as a soccer-viewing country, we've all progressed way beyond that. We are putting the individual, human faces on the players and [coach] Jurgen Klinsmann, so when everyone watches the games in Brazil, they'll know Michael Bradley, they'll know Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard. They'll know them as human beings and they'll understand them as soccer players, and that will bring the World Cup to life for a mass viewership in this country as it has never been before.

I asked Hock how he'd define the access he's received from the National Team. "Our access has been consistent and strong," he said. "We've already been in six countries with the players, mic'd up Jurgen in closed-door coaches meetings, inside the locker room before games, on the players' bus, hotel rooms, the team plane. Players have given us childhood photos and letters. We've agreed to keep the crew small (as we usually work) and not to "sneak up" on them unannounced, and in exchange they've invited us in everywhere."

2. Sports Business Daily writers John Ourand and Chris Botta have the details on ESPN and Fox sharing the English-language rights to MLS and up to 10 (men's and women's) U.S. Soccer matches per year over the next eight years. Ourand reported the two networks are paying a combined $75 million per year on average for those rights. MLS also signed a Spanish-language deal with Univision for an average of $15 million per year. Here's the story.

2a. ESPN2 will televise 34 regular-season matches as part of the "MLS Game of the Week" series on Sundays at 5 p.m. ET, six playoff MLS matches each year, and the MLS All Star game and the MLS Cup in alternating seasons with Fox Sports. ESPN Deportes will also present 34 MLS regular-season and six playoff matches with Spanish-language commentators.

2b. Fox Sports 1 will air a Soccer Night In America package on Sundays in prime time (7:00-9:00 PM ET), with a minimum of 34 regular season games, featuring each U.S.-based club at least once per season.

3. Here's a mega recap of how ESPN and the NFL Network did with their NFL Draft coverage.

3a. The crazy, behind-the-scenes story of how ESPN landed Michael Sam's Draft celebration footage.

3b. Deion Sanders appearing on a CBS NFL pregame show comes 10 years to the week when he departed from the network over a money dispute. "We had a mutual parting of the ways but I stayed in very close contact with Deion," McManus said. "When we were looking at who would have an impact at 7:30 between CBS and the NFL Network, Deion's name was right at the top of the list. My relationship with him is good, and his relationship with CBS is good. There were no bridges to repair because they were never broken."

4. Three years ago when John Saunders was negotiating his current contract, he and ESPN executive Norby Williamson were talking about ESPN's talent office when Saunders came up with a question: He wanted to know why ESPN did not having someone coaching on-air talent to improve? Williamson had his own response for Saunders:

Would you do it?

So Saunders, along with ESPN's senior coordinating producer for on-air talent development Gerry Matalon and senior vice president, talent development and planning Laurie Orlando, set up a mentoring program that is informally referred to in Bristol as "Sessions with Saunders" Saunders said most sessions run between 90 minutes and two hours, with follow-up texts and phone calls. The host of The Sports Reporters and ESPN's college football coverage conducts them when he is in Bristol.

"The meetings are pretty much whatever the individual wants to get out of them," Saunders said. "But they've in most cases progressed into a road map for a fulfilling career. It's strange because most young sportscasters target ESPN as a career goal, but when they get here there are so many other goals within the company. So we start with where do you see yourself in five, 10, 20 years? Who are some of the people you look up to? But most importantly what would make you happy?

"John's mentoring of talent has been an extraordinary resource for our on-air players to better understand how to thrive at ESPN on and off-air by offering the benefit of his business and life experience," Matalon said. "He also has been an enormous asset to ESPN management in voicing the unique needs of our talent. I lean on him quite heavily for counsel on how we as a management team can more effectively communicate and elevate the performance of the "faces" of our company."

Among Saunders success stories are ESPN anchors Sage Steele and Adnan Virk.

"I'm not taking credit for anyone's success but Sage Steele and I talked long about the NBA host role a few months before it happened and she has been terrific," Saunders said. "Adnan Virk is a great example of someone who just needed to know which doors to knock on and now he's shown he's capable of doing anything."

5. ESPN management made a wise decision to re-sign Southern California-based reporter Shelley Smith to a multi-year deal. Smith has always done solid work and made the network look good as an on-air performer. Viewers rarely see women in their 50s on sports television as management always seems to push toward young. This was a message to marketplace that quality matters. Well done to Rob King, ESPN's senior vice president of SportsCenter and News who was instrumental in the Smith deal.

6. The International Olympic Committee announced Wednesday that it had extended its broadcast rights deal with NBC through 2032. Both NBC and the IOC said the deal was worth $7.65 billion including a $100 million signing bonus to be used for the promotion of the Olympics and the Olympic values between 2015 and 2020. Here's my piece, and one from Daniel Roberts of Fortune.

7. George Plimpton, one of the most renowned staffers in Sports Illustrated history, is the subject of a new documentary (Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself) premiering nationally on PBS Friday from 9-10:30 p.m. The voice of Plimpton, who died in 2003, serves as the film's narrator and Plimpton's widow, Sarah Dudley Plimpton, granted filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling access to Plimpton's private archives, including previously unseen material. A pioneer of participatory sports journalism, Plimpton famously boxed against light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore and attended preseason training with the Detroit Lions and Boston Bruins during his career.

8. The lowest levels of professional baseball are always rife with interesting stories, so Fox Sports will introduce the Pecos League -- an independent baseball league made up of eight teams that stretches across New Mexico, Colorado, and West Texas -- to a national audience this week. For a six-part documentary series that debuts on Fox Sports 1 Tuesday at 9:30 PM ET, the network's cameras followed the Trinidad Triggers as they played 70 games in 72 days. Michael Bloom, the senior vice president of original programming of Fox Sports, said he had been pitched countless versions of a Bull Durham-style reality show over the years but Rasha Drachkovitch, the executive producer of the Pecos League series, brought Bloom what he described as a compelling and unique piece of tape.

"We found a pocket of the sports world where athletes compete for the ultimate stakes every day... their very future," Bloom said. "To them, playing in The Pecos League is a step towards realizing their lifelong dream of playing in MLB. Viewers will appreciate the sacrifice these young men make to keep their dream alive."

9. Buffalo love: Every reader knows how I feel about Chris Berman hosting the NFL Draft for ESPN. Trey Wingo is the far better host (ESPN has plenty of other talent who would be an upgrade including Rece Davis) and if you consider social media as any kind of sentiment metric, most of ESPN's viewers would say the same thing about Berman in this assignment. Based on this year alone, however, Berman was far less self-aggrandizing than previous drafts and props to him for offering some heartfelt words about the Bills staying in Buffalo after the Sammy Watkins pick. Those from Western New York, and those like me who once lived there, appreciated those words.

10. Here's a look at some behind-the-scenes people who helped ESPN bring viewers the draft.

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