- With Alex Rodriguez retiring, SI looks at his future as an MLB analyst and whether Fox Sports should hire him. Also, ESPN explains its decision to add Jordan Rodgers to the SEC Network.
In the middle of his MLB studio analyst assignment for Fox Sports last October, following a deluge of positive reviews from outlets not always so kind to him, Alex Rodriguez was asked by this column if his positive experience at Fox Sports would lead him to consider broadcasting after his career was over. At the time, Rodriguez said it wasn’t something he was entertaining. “I’m a novice at this,” Rodriguez said. “I’m having fun at it and I was flattered to be asked. But look, this is not my strength. My strength is to play baseball and I have done that for 21 years in the major leagues. My focus is 100% baseball.”
On Sunday, Rodriguez announced his retirement from major league baseball as an active player. He will play his final game Friday before moving to a job with the Yankees as a special advisor and instructor. His immediate retirement means he will have no professional obstacles from once again serving as studio analyst for the postseason for Fox. It is a move Fox Sports should consider seriously and one it will likely explore.
“We’d love to have him back in some capacity, but right now we think its only fair to let Alex focus on what will obviously be an emotional week,” said Fox Sports executive producer John Entz, in an email on Sunday. “We had high hopes for Alex last year and he exceeded all of them. His content was fantastic and his desire to improve was off the charts. We were unbelievably impressed with Alex across the board.”
Last October, Rodriguez joined another of baseball’s famous rogues, Pete Rose, to create what was compelling, interesting and at times trainwreck (thanks to Rose) sports television. Rodriguez justified Fox’s curiosity regarding his television potential by providing quality analysis in a succinct manner. He quickly adapted to his colleagues, and most importantly, viewers learned something from his analysis. Yankees beat reporters will tell you that Rodriguez’s baseball knowledge is off the charts and that he has a habit of seeing everything on the field. A number of them emailed me last year to say he’s particularly good at diagnosing pitching issues, which is counter to what you might think given he’s a hitter. He proved that on the air.
Why hire someone with a checkered on-field reputation? Sports television executives rarely factor in off-the-field issues with hires unless their league partners have issues with the hire. They also do not factor in how an athlete or coach treated the media (outside of their own organization) during that athlete’s career. I think it’s an insult to hire someone who showed no respect for your profession but from the hires of Bob Knight to Sterling Sharpe and many others, sports TV executives simply do not care.
As for Rodriguez, he had some awful moments with the press—he accused my former colleague Selena Roberts of breaking into his Miami home, which was patently untrue—but he was accessible to the media most of his career. His baseball crimes are well known: He repeatedly lied to everyone about using performance-enhancing drugs. Again, sports network executives are not moralists. They are in the business of making money and getting eyeballs.
On the issue of preparation for broadcasting, Rodriguez told Sports Illustrated last year that “I read the papers, I try to organize my thoughts, I try to remember facing each of these guys I faced. That’s kind of what I bring to the table. I have faced most of these guys over the last six months. I organize my thoughts and convey it to the audience … I have always respected guys like Bob Costas, Michael Kay, Joe Buck, you name it, but they have gone to a higher pedestal. This is challenging and difficult.”
Entz said he has remained friendly with Ron Berkowitz, who serves as Rodriguez’s public relations representative. Last year, Laura Marcus, the former Fox Sports vice president of talent relations, connected Entz with Berkowitz to initiate the Fox deal.
If you are looking for additional Fox Sports connections to Rodriguez, the soon-to-be-retired player prior to talking to the Yankees press core gave an exclusive interview on Sunday to Ken Rosenthal, the lead MLB insider for Fox. All directions point to Fox Sports asking Rodriguez to jump on its coverage again, and if he does, viewers will benefit, even those who despised him as a ballplayer.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. NBCUniversal says it will air 6,755 hours of programming for the Games, which is roughly 356 hours of coverage per day (19 days). The network said if the 6,755 hours ran on one channel, it would take 281 days to finish airing. Since you can’t watch all the coverage, SI.com offers an Olympic Guide to help you navigate the TV Games.
1a. The viewership for the Olympics has been significantly down from 2012 over the first two days of the Games. Sports TV Ratings reported on Sunday that NBC averaged 19.475 million viewers for its primetime show on Saturday night, down 30% from the equivalent opening night in 2012.
1b. The opening ceremony drew a 16.5 overnight rating on NBC, down 28% from London in 2012 (23.0) and down 23% from Beijing in 2008 (21.5). Sports Media Watch noted the rating was tied for the lowest opening ceremony overnight for a Summer Olympics since 1980.
1c. The top 10 TV markets for the opening ceremony:
1. West Palm
3. San Diego
4. Washington D.C.
5. Salt Lake City
6. Los Angeles
7. New York
9. San Fran
10. Fort Myers and Richmond
1d. Here’s my review for SI of the opening ceremony
1e. Seth Winter, the president of advertising sales for the NBC Sports Group, said last week the network has sold $1.2 billion for national Olympic sales, which Winter said was an all-time record “for any Olympics that have ever been broadcast, telecasted, streamed, and I think probably any single media event that has ever been developed.” Winter said it was a little bit more than 20% of London’s booking. “The sales are strong across obviously all of our platforms, both television and digital,” Winter said. Digital sales are up almost 33% versus London. Without being too braggadocios, I would say we are hitting on all cylinders.” (Note: Winter said this prior to the ratings of the first two days.) Variety’s Brian Steinberg said Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, estimated NBC’s ad dollars for the 2012 London Olympics were $1.33 billion.
1f. The Spanish-language broadcasters for the Olympics (via Telemundo Deportes, Telemundo, NBC Universo) includes more than 25 commentators. Andrés Cantor, working his fourth Olympics for Telemundo, will call the network’s soccer coverage.
1g. Sports Illustrated has a daily Olympic podcast hosted by Mitch Goldich and Alex Abnos during the Games
1h. Apparently, she came to the Olympics as a 15-year-old girl and left as an Olympic champion.
1i. Newsday’s Neil Best had an interesting piece on the restrictions NBC Sports puts on other networks who want Olympic highlights.
1k. Westwood One is the official radio rightsholder of the Rio Games and will produce broadcasts of men’s and women’s basketball (all U.S. games), women’s and men’s soccer (including all U.S. matches) and coverage of the men’s golf competition.
1l. SiriusXM has launched a special channel dedicated to providing around-the-clock coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics, including live play-by-play of Olympic events as well as news, commentary and highlights. SiriusXM’s Rio Olympics Radio channel will air 24 hours a day on SiriusXM channel 106 through the closing ceremony.
2. Last week ESPN’s SEC Network announced it had hired former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers (he’s the brother of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers) to work as a college football studio analyst for the network. Rodgers’s only major television experience, as many Americans know, was winning this season’s “The Bachelorette” on ABC. This made the hire rather curious.
To her credit, ESPN Senior Vice President Stephanie Druley answered some Qs from this column on why Rodgers landed the job.
SI.com: You told ESPN Front Row that Jordan Rogers was one of your first calls when you were planning the upcoming football season. Why was he one of your first calls and did he actively pursue employment with ESPN?
Druley: Our talent office had Jordan on their radar for some time. His name was in the initial group of names that we discussed when looking at people to bring to Charlotte (the SEC Network home) for auditions. He played at Vanderbilt. He played quarterback. We had seen some interviews that he had done. So we reached out to him. At the time, he was unavailable due to filming. I’m not even sure that we knew what show he was doing. When he became available, he came to Charlotte. He walked into my office and the first thing I said to him [jokingly] was that his hair might be too high for our network. Despite that, it was clear he had a real passion and a deep knowledge of college football. The audition was really good—rare that someone walks in off the street and does an audition that we would be willing to air.
SI.com: Many people will see this as ESPN attempting to capitalize on the popularity of a show that aired on a fellow Disney property. Why or why not is this the case?
Druley: He had been on our radar before the show, he didn’t need the show to get our attention. In fact, I had a real concern with how he would be viewed by fans of the show and what it might mean for him down the line. We waited until the show was a few weeks into its run before we made an offer. He accepted the offer the day I was in an airport and saw US Weekly with him splashed across the cover. Thankfully, the article didn’t live up to the headline nor did a lot of other ones I read, and I’m certain that I read about 90% of what was written because I was vested in what it’d mean for the work he’d do with us. But the fact that my group had spent time with Jordan made us confident in the decision.
SI.com: How do you equate a talent’s experience on a reality show versus how they potentially might be on a sports studio show?
Druley: The advantage Jordan had when he sat down in front of our cameras in Charlotte was that he had just spent the past three months in front of a camera or many cameras. I think that’s the advantage it gave him. When you combine that with the fact that he knows college football and can speak intelligently about it, it made him the right fit for us.
2a. ESPN formally announced last week that Tom Jackson has left the company after 29 years. His final broadcast was the NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony on Saturday night. Here’s a group of ESPN employees paying tribute including longtime colleague, Chris Berman: “Tom long ago became almost a brother to me. We completed each other’s sentences, listened to the same music, laughed together and sometimes cried together. Oh yes, we enjoyed football together. What was a day with Tom Jackson like? Like the Temptations sang, ‘I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.’”
Jackson concluded his final ESPN segment shortly after 11:20 p.m. ET on Saturday night, with Berman at his side on-air. Berman has long struggled with avoiding self-aggrandizement—which was fueled by ESPN management and PR—but he was quite touching with Jackson, telling the story of Jackson’s ESPN audition. Jackson has declined comment on why he opted not to return to ESPN this year—management wanted him back—and he went out as he worked, with class. “The fans have lifted me every day I’ve worked at ESPN and I am not talking about ratings,” Jackson said.
2b. HBO’s “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Los Angeles Rams” debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
2c. Per Sports TV Ratings.com: “Good Morning Football,” the NFL Network’s new morning show, averaged 51,500 viewers through Thursday. “NFL HQ” averaged 36.3K in the previous Mon-Thurs timeslot.
2d. Great to see ESPN’s Chris Mortensen make an appearance at the Hall of Fame ceremony. Mortensen, who has throat cancer, won the McCann Award from the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished contribution to pro football.
3. Episode 69 of the “Sports Illustrated Media Podcast” features two guests: Ato Boldon, the lead track and field analyst for the NBC Sports Group and a four-time Olympic medalist, and Rowdy Gaines, who has served as NBC’s lead Olympic swimming analyst since the 1992 Barcelona Games and was a three-time gold medalist at the 1984 Summer Games.
In this episode, Boldon (who appears first) discusses how he prepares to call track and field, his research methods, what is unique about Usain Bolt, where Bolt stands amid all sports figures, how Boldon approaches discussing drugs on-air, who might surprise viewers on the track in Rio, and much more.
Gaines discusses how he prepares to call swimming, his research methods, whether NBC is too patriotic on its Olympic coverage, where Michael Phelps stands amid all U.S. athletes, the dominance of Katie Ledecky, how he approaches discussing drugs on-air, the access NBC gets with top swimmers, why you should keep an eye on Australian swimmers, 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. Sports pieces of note:
• A great piece from SI’s Michael McKnight: Whatever happened to sprinter Houston McTear?
• The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur, on a beautiful, earnest opening night for what’s likely a cynical, ugly Olympics.
• Bleacher Report’s Lars Anderson on USA Rugby’s Jillion Potter.
• SI’s Tim Layden on the dual existence of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.
• What makes Simone Biles a world-class gymnast? Great multi-media from NYT.
• SI’s Lee Jenkins had an exclusive with LeBron James.
• The Indianapolis Star had a devastating report on how USA Gymnastics failed to report sex abuse cases.
• How The Indy Star investigated USA Gymnastics.
• ESPN’s Mina Kimes profiled the NFL’s Bennett Brothers.
• From SI’s Dan Greene: Whatever happened to ‘The Worst Boxer in the History of the World’?
• Via The Guardian: The Olympic media village was built on a sacred mass grave of African slaves.
• Vice’s Patrick Hruby on the case for ending the sports war on doping.
• Sports Business Journal reporter Liz Mullen asked sports biz execs whether athletes should “stick to sports” during the presidential election.
• espnW’s Johnette Howard on the final Olympic run of Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Geno Auriemma.
• Via The Florida Times-Union: From Canadian fashion model to Jaguars front office official
• ESPN’s Rob Demovsky reported a oral history of how Brett Favre came to the Packers.
• Deadspin’s Akiva Wienerkur ranked all 306 Olympic medal events
Non-sports pieces of note:
• From Jennifer Percy: Five years after the tsunami that killed tens of thousands in Japan, a husband still searches the sea for his wife, joined by a father hoping to find his daughter.
• Via NYT: How to read lips
• John Noonan on nuclear deterrence and Donald Trump.
• How an AP reporter took down flossing.
5. Excellent work by the Golf Channel during the final moments of Jim Furyk’s historic round of 58 (the lowest single round score in PGA Tour history) at the Travelers Championship, including getting CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Peter Kostis to call the final hole. (CBS was airing the final round later in the day.) Unlike Lauer & Co during the Olympic opening ceremony, Nantz laid out (went silent) after calling (“Mr. 58 is Jim Furyk”) the historic moment. Also, great work by The Golf Channel production to follow Furyk all the way to the scoring trailer.
5a. Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand had an interesting item about Hillary Clinton spending money on ads during sporting events. Wrote Ourand: “While Clinton’s ad buys so far largely have centered on female-focused networks, like Lifetime, she has been active in MLB this year, buying time in key swing states, such as Cleveland Indians games on SportsTime Ohio, Miami Marlins games on FS Florida, Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports, and Boston Red Sox games on NESN to hit New Hampshire.”
5c. Thanks to Just Not Sports for the podcast invite.
5d. Brian Berger of Sports Business Radio had a podcast featuring Chris Evert. Among the topics: Evert’s ESPN work.
5e. Fox Sports podcasters Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel spoke with Derek Crocker, the senior director of college sports for FOX Sports, about how college football TV programming schedules are created.
5f. This is ambitious storytelling by ESPN. Check it out.
5g. Golf.com’s Sean Zak hosted a podcast featuring ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi.
5h. Bleacher Report recently announced an exclusive social content partnership with Notre Dame football where members of Bleacher Report’s social media team will be embedded with the football program and travel with the team to road games. Clearly, Notre Dame sees this as a way to reach millenials (both for recruiting fans and players) and Bleacher Report obviously believes it can sell the product. Something to watch now will be whether Bleacher Report’s college football writers are given total independence to report on Notre Dame, despite the brand having financial ties to the program.
5i. SportsTVRatings.com reported that ESPN has fallen to 88.7 million households from 100 million in 2011. FS1 fell to 82.7 million from 84 million last year.
5j. ESPN announced it has extended the contract of Fantasy Sports analyst Matthew Berry through 2021. It’s a smart signing. I’ve always believed the Fantasy Sports analyst position has been undervalued at major sports outlet given the tangible metrics and monetization the best in class can bring you. To Berry’s credit, via columns, podcasting (one of the most downloaded in all of sports) and self-marketing inside and outside ESPN, he’s built himself into a brand, and one more valuable than many people at his company who are more compensated then he has been. Here’s his annual NFL Draft-Day Manifesto.
5k. An ESPN short: What the Hell Happened to Jai Alai.
5i. I thought this Onion piece on FS1 personalities and executives was hilarious.
5j. This is the first Olympic Games I’m not covering for Sports Illustrated since 2002. It’s a weird feeling. When I was growing up, my dream was to cover one Olympic Games as a reporter. I beat my goal by six, which is ridiculous. The Olympics (and the NHL) were one of the few places where my father and I could converse and find common ground. He wasn’t much for warmth but he loved the Games and drove by himself to Montreal to attend the 1976 Olympics. That someone paid for me to travel to Salt Lake, Athens, Turin, Beijing, Vancouver, London and Sochi still seems inconceivable today.
For these Olympics, because I have twins under the age of 2, I asked my bosses last September if I could pass on this round in Rio, long before the steady drumbeat of awful news out of that country. My editors were very understanding. I knew such a decision meant I could be off the Olympics forever, but I can live with that choice, which wasn’t much of one for me. Of course I miss the competition, and every tweet I see from reporters I know, there is the Olympic observer in me that wishes I was there. On the other end, it was the worst run-up of news I’ve ever seen prior to an Olympics—and I’ve sat in meetings with security telling our Olympic team about legit terrorism threats. It’s time the world reconsiders how and where we stage this competition.
At SI, the Olympics were the bi-annual place where the best writers came together for four weeks. For decades, SI was one of the biggest media dogs at the Games. In Salt Lake City and Athens, we threw four massive parties that probably cost about as much as Mike Conley’s contract. The last party of the Athens Games featured just about every American medal winner, former Olympic greats, most of the cast of the Today show, and a ton of other athletes from other countries. I remember there was a guy who asked me if the seat next to me was free as I was ingesting some high quality booze. I said it was. He said, “Cool. Nice to meet you. My name is Carl.”
So I said hello to Carl Lewis and had a nice conversation with him. It was that kind of party. Alas, that party today would be thrown by Snapchat.
One of the great thrills for me professionally was that in five of those Olympics, one of my jobs was to serve as the editing liaison between SI.com and SI. In short, I got to help plan the stories that ran on the web from the magazine writers (today, there is no delineation between magazine writers and web writers, thank God). It was incredibly fun to assign stories to the writers I grew up reading, as well as manage egos. (In hindsight, I should have tried to pull a Trump-like coup of the organization during my time in power.) Writers such as Tim Layden, Michael Farber, Scott Price, Jack McCallum, Grant Wahl, Kelli Anderson, Austin Murphy, and Ed Swift; editors such as Craig Neff (a legendary SI Olympics writer) and Richard Demak, it was just amazing to watch them grind in person. The Olympics will always be the best professional assignment of my working career, no matter whether I go back or not. I wish my colleagues and others in Rio safe travels and experiences.
My favorite Olympic story? I covered Badminton in 2008. The venue was Peking University in Beijing and I’ll never forget the thunderous sound of the crowd chanting “Jia-yo” (Let’s Go!) before each point. Here’s the story if interested.
So this will be a different experience for me. At the Olympics, we always got the live feed from every venue as well as the local broadcasters, so I’m used to watching the competition both with no announcers as well as through the prism of that country. This will be the most intensive I’ve watched NBC’s coverage since 2000 and I’ll be writing about those experiences, as I did the opening ceremony above. Thanks for reading.