Kevin Durant's decision to sign with Golden State is a major victory for the NBA and its television partners.
Here are some indisputable facts regarding the outlets that broadcast professional sports: They love super-teams. They love star power. And they particularly like polarizing teams. The Dallas Cowboys have long been the most popular television team in pro football, and that is because of the emotion they produce on all sides. “Either you love the Cowboys and are passionate about them, or you hate the Cowboys and you are passionate about your hatred,” says Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli. “They are one of the few teams that evoke those kind of feelings on both sides of the aisle.”
The Golden State Warriors are about to join that club, which is why ESPN, Turner Sports and NBA TV executives are thrilled with Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Western Conference champs. Last year, amid the team’s run toward regular-season history, the Warriors were far and away the league’s most popular television draw. Of the 10 most-watched regular season games last year, the Warriors were involved in seven of them:
|12/25/15||Cleveland @ Golden State||ABC||11,160,000|
|12/25/15||Chicago @ Oklahoma City||ABC||5,862,000|
|2/27/16||Golden State @ Oklahoma City||ABC||5,322,000|
|3/19/16||Golden State @ San Antonio||ABC||5,171,000|
|1/23/16||Chicago @ Cleveland||ABC||3,916,000|
|12/25/15||San Antonio @ Houston||ESPN||3,881,000|
|3/6/16||Golden State @ L.A. Lakers||ABC||3,723,000|
|4/13/16||Memphis @ Golden State||ESPN||3,649,000|
|1/18/16||Golden State @ Cleveland||TNT||3,622,000|
|3/13/16||Oklahoma City @ Golden State||TNT||3,614,000|
Golden State also ranked first as the highest-rated, most-watched NBA team on ESPN’s air across ABC/ESPN, averaging 3.374 million viewers on average across ABC/ESPN this season. (Three of the four most-watched games on ESPN and ABC this season were Golden State matchups.) Come playoff time, Stephen Curry and Co. were a monster. Game 7 of the NBA Finals drew 30.8 million viewers on ABC, the most-watched NBA Finals since Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. The star power of Curry, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, plus the extension of the series to its limit, was a boon to the NBA. The series averaged 20,166,000 viewers, the most-watched NBA Finals series since 1998.
Now comes the addition of Durant, which has caused consternation from many fans and bloviating from the usual sports media suspects (more on that later in this column). But such preseason chatter is great for television. Golden State was one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams in history to watch. Adding one of the five best players in the game means even more interest.
Last year the Warriors made 30 appearances combined across ABC, ESPN, and TNT (NBA TV also aired 12 games), exceeding the contractual 25-game cap for those networks. Out of the Warriors’ 30 combined national appearances, several of the national telecasts above the 25-game mark were not made available in the home market of the participating team to protect Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. “Much like we did with the Miami Heat’s winning streak, it is not unprecedented to add more appearances for a team based on the historical importance of games,” said league spokesman Mike Wade. “The decision to add more games is one that the NBA makes working closely with our teams and our network partners.”
What should the NBA do for the 2016–17 season? I’d air at least half of the Warriors games nationally if not more, and I’ll argue the same thing I did last December: The league should want every Warriors game to air to the widest possible audience given the incredible marketing the team provides for the NBA product. Excluding U.S. Olympic rosters, you can argue Golden State’s upcoming starting group might be the best all time. (I’d still put a nod in for the 1982–83 76ers team, but it’s a fun debate.)
The NBA says it constantly evaluates its television schedule and works with its national partners strategically to make revisions where they think it’s appropriate. Those revisions are in consultation with the networks and teams after taking into account all relevant factors, including the interests of the local rights-holders. If Comcast SportsNet Bay Area is scheduled to broadcast a game, Northern California fans of the Warriors are still likely to watch there, even if a national carrier also picks it up. (The league can also block the national carriers locally to protect the regional network.)
If you are curious how the games end up on specific national carriers, Julie Sobieski, ESPN’s vice president of programming and the point person for the company on NBA scheduling, said that ESPN/ABC can select up to 13 Warriors games this season (that’s how many they had last year) and will request that number again. “They are sort of the ‘it’ team for us—the best ratings draw and from an attention perspective,” Sobieski said. “For us, we are playing with house money. We already would have maxed out on Golden State this year, and this just creates even more excitement around that team.”
Sobieski said one place Durant’s signing will have impact is ESPN lobbying the league to get a Golden State game against Oklahoma City. She said the first official scheduling meeting with the league came right before the NBA draft, and at these meetings, both ESPN and Turner officials talk about matchups and philosophies and the prioritization of schedule. For instance, ESPN prioritizes its ABC Saturday Night primetime package as well as Christmas Day schedule above all. Sobieski said ESPN has not had an official conversation with the league since Durant’s signing but she has texted and sent emails to league officials (no doubt pushing for the best games). Sobieski said ESPN officials will learn at least three of the five games they get on Christmas, as well as some of the Saturday night schedule before the formal schedule announcement in August. She confirmed she’d be willing to give a pint of blood for a Golden State-Cleveland rematch on Christmas.
Scooter Vertino, a senior vice president of programming for Turner Sports, said he anticipated Golden State would be among the most featured teams again on his network. Vertino said Turner is in regular communication with the league and have had general discussions both before and since the Durant announcement.
I asked Vertino if he believed there was an appetite to air more than half of Golden State’s games in 2016–17 nationally. “When you factor in the national game schedule across TNT, NBA TV, ESPN and ABC, there have been in excess of 30 national games in recent years,” Vertino said. “All indications are those games have performed incredibly well across the respective networks. That said, we’re also committed to showcasing the entire league and there are a wide number of appealing teams and stars to feature on a nightly basis.”
If I had to predict, I think you’ll see Golden State games spike very high at the start of the season. Then, it will be up to the NBA—with pressure from its national partners—to decide what to do. For multiple generations, including the NBA’s youngest fans, this might be the most viewer-friendly team in history. The NBA should up the national inventory if the team performs as expected.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. The Durant move saw fantastic bouts of hypocrisy from the biggest bloviators on sports television. First up, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who tweeted, “Weak move by KD. You go to GSW, the team who beat you, when you’re already on a title contender? Please!”
Smith left Fox Sports in 2011 to rejoin ESPN.
Next, Smith’s former tag-team partner in dishonest commentary, Skip Bayless: “Just to be clear: Michael Jordan NEVER would have left Bulls to join forces w/ other superstars,” Bayless tweeted. “But LeBron and Durant are not MJ.”
Bayless’s career includes job-hopping from Dallas to Chicago to San Jose. He left the San Jose Mercury News in 2004 to join ESPN and spent this year negotiating with Fox Sports, which will formally announce they have signed him later this summer. (Fox won’t be announcing his salary, which will be $5.5 million a year.).
There were plenty of others sports commentators and writers knocking Durant who have job-hopped to either bigger outlets or outlets that afforded them the resources to the kind of work they wanted. Same as Durant.
1a. Look for Durant to become the new First Take fall guy. On Monday ESPN’s main account—with nearly 29 million followers—tweeted out Smith’s commentary about Durant . . . twice. No other ESPN commentator talking about Durant was given such a powerful platform, not Jemele Hill or Adnan Virk or Michael Smith or Kevin Connors or Jay Williams or Jay Bilas or Chris Broussard or Marc Stein or Rachel Nichols or anyone not named Stephen A. Smith.
As most people know, Smith has become the face of ESPN when it comes to front-facing talent. Executives from ESPN president John Skipper on down have long looked the other way, through threats to former MVPs and on-air misogyny, in exchange for social media buzz and a show that overperforms in its time slot. It’s why when ESPN’s p.r. operatives say from their summer beach houses that the company has many people who can claim to be the face of the company, one must laugh at the Kremlin-style spin. The S in ESPN stands for Smith right now.
2. Episode 66 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features New York writer-at-large Rembert Browne, who previously spent four years as a staff writer at Grantland.
In this episode, Browne discusses how he finds his stories, why he believes ESPN folded Grantland, how he came to interview Barack Obama on Air Force One, the joys and pains of being an Atlanta Hawks fan, his plans for covering the upcoming Republican convention in Cleveland, how Bill Simmons acted as a boss, why he’s not currently working for The Ringer, how you find your voice in writing, his thoughts on why ESPN founded The Undefeated, his attempt to write for 500 straight days and much more.
3. Episode 65 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features two guests: Steve Herz, president of IF Management, and Matt Kramer, a talent agent for CAA. The two are part of firms that represent hundreds of people in the sports media, from broadcasters to journalists to bloviators. Herz’s firm represents ESPN’s Dan Shulman and Jessica Mendoza, while Kramer’s clients include Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski and ESPN’s Doris Burke and Marty Smith.
In this episode, Herz and Kramer discuss the skills needed to work in sports broadcasting, the salary structure at local markets compared to national cable companies such as ESPN and FS1, how they deal with multiple clients competing for the same job, sexism and ageism in the industry, how much appearance factors into broadcasting decisions, what management people at the networks are best to deal with, whether there is a demand for opinion-based commentators versus journalists, what’s next in the sports media business, how much agents can get paid and much more.
4. Some sports and non-sports pieces of note:
• The most troubling piece I’ve read on the problems in Rio leading up to the Olympics from The New York Times.
• The New Yorker republished Lillian Ross’s amazing 1950 profile of Ernest Hemmingway.
• From Annie Waldman of Pro Publica: Instead of offering families of dead student borrowers loan forgiveness, New Jersey state agency suggests life insurance.
• Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin had a terrific piece on four-time gold medalist Matt Grevers.
• From NYT Magazine: How “advantage players” have the odds in their favor at casinos.
• Knoxville News writer Dan Fleser on covering Pat Summitt for 25 years.
• Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins on Pat Summitt’s last gift.
• Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone, on the lack of coverage of women’s sports.
• Loved the way the front page of The Tennessean honored Summitt:
• Great story from Princeton coach Courtney Banghart on Summitt.
4a. Some smart Durant takes:
• ESPN’s Zach Lowe on Durant leaving for the Warriors.
• SI’s Lee Jenkins, on what Durant leaves behind.
• ESPN’s Royce Young on what changed Durant’s mind.
• Ten twists of fate that helped the Warriors land Durant, from San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami.
• Complex’s Russ Bengston on Durant and chasing rings.
5. Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily reported that NBC drew 5.7 million viewers for NASCAR's Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, the most-viewed Sprint Cup Series summer race from Daytona International Speedway since TNT drew 6.03 million viewers in 2011.
5a. I once spent 18 straight hours with Summitt.
5b. Jeff Pearlman had an interesting Q&A with NFL Network and HBO broadcaster Andrea Kremer.
5c. It’s always awful to see people lose their jobs as we have seen at Rogers Media over the last couple of months. Post-layoffs, I was glad to see David Amber, the former ESPN staffer, get promoted to the co-host role of Hockey Night in Canada alongside Ron MacLean.
5d. Here’s a list of NBC’s full roster of commentators for the Rio Games.