ESPN sounds off on FS1’s trash talk, World Cup of Hockey bust
- FS1 has made a point to mention SportsCenter’s falling ratings, but one ESPN exec responds to the criticism, saying “I think their strategy here has been—and frankly this part has worked—they are only getting headlines when they bash ESPN.”
During a glitzy one-hour presentation for ad buyers at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square in March 2013, Fox Sports executives introduced Fox Sports 1, a new 24/7 cable sports network aiming to be a viable competitor for ESPN. Even at its onset, Fox Sports 1 (now FS1) executives had no problem taking shots at ESPN. During the presentation, Fox Sports mocked its cable sports competitor by showing a robot in a video repeating the phrase “Tim Tebow” over and over again.
Flash forward three years later and FS1 is a much different network than what it originally intended. Network executives have bet big on opinion-oriented programming, including hiring former ESPN squawkers such as Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd to lead the brigade. So far, that bet has not been rewarded by viewership. But one thing that has stayed the same is Fox Sports execs continue to mix it up with ESPN publicly. (As a child of the WWF-WCW wars, I appreciate such ethos.) Fox Sports National Networks president Jamie Horowitz, a former ESPN producer, has been particularly vocal when talking about his former employer. Speaking at the 2016 CAA World Congress of Sports, Horowitz cited the declining ratings for SportsCenter, ESPN’s signature show. “I’d be a little worried if I were them,” Horowitz said. As reported by John Ourand of Sports Business Daily, the FS1 executive cited stats that showed SportsCenter ratings had dropped 27% since 2010.
For months, ESPN institutionally has opted not to have its executives respond to FS1 outside of an occasional quote. But last week I received an email from ESPN PR saying management was ready to talk about FS1. And talk they did.
“I think their strategy here has been—and frankly this part has worked—they are only getting headlines when they bash ESPN,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president for programming and scheduling and one of the top execs in the company. “It is almost never for the quality of what they do. That strategy is fine but at some point there has to be substance behind it. Otherwise, it’s just noise.”
Magnus said he does not believe FS1’s lineup of opinion-based talkers from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET will be a successful recipe to surpass ESPN.
“I think they have made a big mistake in abandoning journalism and abandoning news and information completely for all debate. It is never going to be one thing for anyone. It’s not one thing for us and never has been about one thing. We have a variety of opinion shows—or call them debate shows—that have been highly successful for us in a long time as part of an array of offerings including SportsCenter, live events and storytelling like E:60 and 30 for 30. It’s that combination that has been successful. They may have a hit here or there with a particular show but it really needs to be more diverse than that in my opinion.”
The ESPN executive continued.
“Their claims seem somewhat ridiculous,” Magnus said. “They are doing their thing; we are doing ours. We like the hand we have. None of the noise about [ESPN2’s] First Take vs. [FS1’s] Undisputed is going to be a referendum for success or failure here … Our belief here is that we are well positioned. We have a rights portfolio that is a mile deep and they are extended in most cases well out into the next decade if not further. We have a rich history of high quality news and information and journalism. We have our own variety of compelling and diverse opinion shows. We take a multi-platform approach which has always been part of our DNA. And we have a great focus on long-form storytelling.”
Given Bayless departed ESPN for FS1 and is now competing against his old employer in the same time slot, naturally heavy attention is being paid to how First Take is doing compared to Undisputed, the new Bayless vehicle. Short-term conclusions? Based on ratings data compiled by Sports TV Ratings, First Take has dropped viewers since Bayless left but his new Fs1 show has barely found an audience.
Magnus said he does not believe any First Take viewership drops can be boiled down to Bayless’s departure. “Certainly breaking up a team that has had a successful show for that long will definitely have an impact,” Magnus said. “But it’s not a huge concern. If you want to get into First Take and Undisputed throwing haymakers at each other, we still have four times the audience that they have for that show.”
While ESPN executives have been cautious about firing back at FS1 publicly—worth noting is Magnus was accompanied by a longtime ESPNPR vice president during our call—he did enjoy Scott Van Pelt’s fiery response in The Washington Post last month on any thesis that ESPN is somehow going away because of cord-cutting and subscriber declines. “Nothing in Fox’s strategy regarding blasting us to get headlines really has any substance behind it,” Magnus said. “After awhile it gets tiresome and Scott reacted to that. Privately, he got a lot of backslaps. What he said hit a chord with our employee base because of the pride they have in what we do.”
In an artful bit of trolling, FS1 paid for billboards of Bayless to be put up in Bristol, Ct., the home base of ESPN. It’s part of a war of words (and billboards) that will certainly continue in the near-term.
“My reaction would be that it was another example of style over substance,” Magnus said, “but ultimately we are in favor of anything that benefits the local economy in Bristol, Conn.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports stories)
1. If one examines ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup of Hockey using ratings as the singular metric, the production has been somewhat of a bust. The U.S. team getting eliminated last Tuesday ended any hopes of a momentum push for the tournament. The high for the tournament so far? The Canada-U.S. round-robin game drew 766,000 viewers on ESPN. For context, the 766,000 viewers would rank as a top 10 regular season game on NBCSN. As for comparing it to Olympic hockey, the U.S.-Canada at the Sochi Olympics drew 4 million viewers at noon ET on a Friday on NBCSN. A game between Team Europe and Canada last Wednesday drew just 287,000 viewers on ESPN2 from 8:00 p.m.-10:38 p.m.
“I don’t know it is a disappointment because I don’t know we had any expectations with great accuracy attached to them given the fact the World Cup of Hockey was last held in 2004 and it’s a preseason tournament so you are attempting to get people interested in hockey prior to the season,” said Magnus.
Naturally, ESPN execs had hoped Team USA would advance further given it would have added eyeballs at the end of the tournament.
“We have to do deal with the cards we get dealt,” Magnus said. “We are just overjoyed to present meaningful hockey again on ESPN even if just for a couple of weeks. I think the viewership has been fine and I am looking forward to a compelling finish.”
On the issue of whether the NHL must be on ESPN for relevance, this tournament will not add to that narrative. But the key word is must. The NHL having ESPN as a secondary partner behind NBC would be very good for the league and potentially good for viewers too. Magnus said he is hopeful that when the NHL television rights come up for bid again after the 2020–21 season, his company “will have a shot.”
Said Magnus: “Everything I say on this subject is qualified that it is many years in the future but I will say we have really enjoyed rekindling our relationship with the NHL on this property. Obviously, our investment in BAMTech puts us into business with the league on their digital properties. We also have an existing international relationship with them and this was a game-changer in terms of our relationship with the league. We are hopeful that we will have a shot when that time comes. There is more than one way to divvy up rights in today’s world.”
1a. Honest, raw and powerful television from ESPN MLB analyst Eduardo Perez and Hannah Storm on the death of Jose Fernandez.
1b. Props to CBSSN for its coverage at the end of the Eastern Michigan-Wyoming football game on Friday night, as the network stayed on the air to cover a peaceful protest that happened immediately after the game. Kudos to the crew including producer Jason Ross and director Andy Freedman (the first time they had worked together), play by play announcer Ben Holden, analyst Sherdrick Bonner and sideline reporter John Schriffen.
1c. College Football Overnight ratings:
Florida-Tennessee: 3.7 (CBS)
Stanford-UCLA: 2.8 (ESPN)
LSU-Auburn: 2.4 (ESPN)
Arkansas-Texas A&M: 2.3 (ESPN)
1d. CBS and NFL Network averaged 17.5 million viewers for Patriots-Texans on Thursday night, up 4% from last year’s Redskins-Giants game (16.9 million).
1e. Nice work by CBS’s The NFL Today on Sunday to open its NFL studio show with the death of Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez—a thoughtful decision by the producers. The NFL Today also gave Austin Denton, a 15-year-old cancer survivor, the assignment of interviewing Broncos coach Gary Kubiak. Kid handled himself very well.
2. Given the intensity of this election cycle, I think Monday’s night debate will draw 75 million viewers, which would make it the most-watched program of the year after the Super Bowl. As part of a fun parlor game exercise, I collected predictions below from a wide-ranging group of 19 media writers, sports public relations practitioners and sports media executives. Here’s how they see it.
2a. Bayless, the arguer-in-chief for FS1, recently was a guest on Peter Kafka’s Re/Code Media podcast and offered some remarkable commentary about himself. After Bayless said he did not make a ton of money at ESPN, Kafka countered, “I bet you were not poorly paid.” Replied Bayless: “By what I was giving them, I was poorly paid. I was the most underpaid on-air talent at ESPN for 12 years. That’s my opinion. In the end they came around, but that went on for a long time”
Now, even if Bayless was underpaid compared to other talent (and he might have been), such a self-absorbed, tone-deaf take is not going to endear you to industry people. But the more interesting news to come out of Kafka’s podcast was Bayless revealing that he and Stephen A. Smith were offered by ESPN management a segment on Monday Night Football’s halftime show as an inducement to keep him at ESPN. That was a remarkable admission. When asked by SI if that was indeed true, ESPN PR confirmed that its executives did discuss an MNF halftime segment with him when he was with ESPN.
Now get ready for another kicker: The current cast at First Take will have a taped segment during Monday Night Football’s halftime show this season, beginning with Monday’s Falcons-Saints game. The cast will debate a topic for 90 seconds.
“First Take is a thought-provoking and entertaining show and we are taking this opportunity to expose the talent and chemistry of Stephen A. and Max [Kellerman] to a wider audience,” said ESPN senior vice president of event & studio production Stephanie Druley.
ESPN has junked up Monday Night Football at times with celebrity guests in the booth, as well as management making play by play decisions for its opening week doubleheader strictly on hubris and marketing. Some viewers were not happy with the additions of Dennis Miller and Tony Kornheiser—I actually liked both in that spot—and saw that as not becoming of the MNF brand. The prospect of sullying Monday Night Football—ESPN’s most important property—with the First Take shtick is a poor choice, even if it’s just 90 seconds. It makes the production look small as it competes with A games on CBS, Fox, NBC and now Thursday Night Football. One can only imagine what Roone Arledge would have thought of the show he built becoming a marketing play for the worst of ESPN’s embrace debate obsessions. Perhaps ESPN management is feeling the heat of First Take’s declining ratings, but this is a very bad idea.
2b. On Monday ESPN2 debuts a show with interesting possibilities to add new viewers into its universe. Nación ESPN is a sports talk show that will target young, bilingual U.S. Hispanic sports fans. While the show will be produced in English, guests will be free to communicate in their language of preference—Spanish or English. The show will air weekly and live on ESPN2 every Monday at 5 p.m. ET.
Ignacio Garcia, the coordinating producer of the show, said in an interview on Friday that show will be conducted in English at the beginning to provide continuity for the sports fan used to watching English-speaking shows on ESPN2. “We will look for organic opportunities where it will make sense to do the show in Spanish,” Garcia said. “The show will have hard-hitting, passionate debate and we will also have interviews to try to get some news.”
Nación ESPN will be fronted by Jorge Sedano, co-host of the L.A.-based ESPN radio show, Mornings with Keyshawn and Jorge and LZ; Bernardo Osuna, a boxing reporter and host of ESPN Deportes’s A Los Golpes, and Marly Rivera, an ESPNDeportes.com MLB reporter. (Rivera has been an excellent panelist in this column on baseball topics.)
Garcia said the conversations on the show will include all the usual subjects you see on ESPN, but you will likely see some additional conversations on global athletes of interest to Hispanics. Worth noting: Garcia said everyone in front and behind the camera represents the audience they are trying to reach. “We see the existence of the show as a win for the company,” Garcia said.
2c. As Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand noted, the PGA Tour can opt out of its network media deals with CBS and NBC in 2018. Recently, ESPN execs met with PGA Tour officials in Bristol. “It was very much the PGA making us aware of their status since it has been a long time since they were in the marketplace,” Magnus said. “The TV broadcast rights are available. Golf Channel’s cable deal goes for a few years. The PGA is a world class, globally relevant sports property so we take those meetings and pay attention.”
2d. Magnus mentioned, very thoughtfully, that he was thinking about the late John Saunders when he was watching World Cup of Hockey games in Toronto. “He would have loved being part of this,” Magnus said.
2e. I asked Magnus about the perception from many viewers that ESPN is a left-leaning organization and identifies more with progressive than conservative ones.
“It is a complicated time in our world and politics and sports have collided in so many ways that we have never seen before,” Magnus said. “Or maybe we have seen them, but it’s about where we are in terms of personal media, social media, and technology that affords instant communication and very personal thoughts that can be communicated with great ease. It has made our jobs very difficult relative to navigating these types of issues. As part of the Walt Disney company, we believe in diversity and inclusion and that puts us in the conversation I suppose in a lot of ways when issues like Colin Kaepernick or what we helped facilitate in terms of conversations with the NBA players at the ESPYs and subsequent town hall conversations about these topics. It is fraught with peril but we do our best to navigate what are complicated issues. I would not suggest to you there is any agenda here corporately, but we will cover when the world of politics, sports and social commentary collide.”
2f. Former MLB-er Jimmy Rollins has joined Turner Sports as a studio analyst for MLB on TBS coverage leading up to and throughout the 2016 MLB postseason. Rollins will be part of a studio team including Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield and host Casey Stern. TBS is the exclusive home of the American League throughout the playoffs.
3. Episode 78 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features sports journalists and longtime Sports Illustrated senior writers Michael Farber and Jack McCallum. Farber currently works for TSN of Canada among other entities while McCallum is a freelance writer working on a basketball book involving the Golden State Warriors.
In this episode, Farber and McCallum discuss their best and toughest interview subjects over the years; the media access given to them by Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan; transitioning from a fulltime writing job to other projects; what writers and broadcasters pay attention to today; why Isiah Thomas was a tough interview for McCallum and why Thomas once gave Farber a plant; how to transition from print to television; why Gordie Howe is one of the all-time media friendly subjects; thoughts on Olympic hockey and basketball and the World Cup of hockey; McCallum’s top 5 NBA players of all-time (Jordan, Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic and LeBron) and Farber’s top five NHL players of all-time (and why he flip-flops Orr and Gretzky often); how SI can stay relevant today, 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.
3a.Episode 77 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features journalist Jessica Luther, the author of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape.”
In this episode, Luther discusses the difficulties of covering accusations of sexual violence and rape involving college football players; how she and fellow writer Dan Solomon exposed the underbelly of what was happening within the Baylor University football program; the Jameis Winston sexual assault case at Florida State; the lack of transparency from coaches and athletic departments on sexual violence cases involving athletes; how much of the coverage we read and hear is impacted by mostly men writing about it; the role and responsibility of the sports media when it comes to covering the intersection of college football and sexual violence; how a reporter avoids burnout on this beat; and much more.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• From SI’s Chris Ballard: Robert Swift’s road from NBA lottery pick to drug addict to ...
• Keith Olbermann, for GQ, on Vin Scully.
• ESPN’s Wright Thompson on Theo Epstein.
• Via Sam Laird of Mashable: The ballad of a beloved Rockies’ beer vendor.
• Southern’s Devon Gales lost his ability to walk and his family home. By Luke Johnson of The Baton Rouge Advocate.
• Vice’s Alisa Solomon on how University of Michigan female athletes finally got their varsity jackets, after a decades-long fight.
• Joe Lemire of Vocativ.com examines why many sports writers love to stay at Marriott hotels.
• From NYT’s Conor Dougherty: Moments of Giants Glory: What Alzheimer’s Couldn’t Steal.
Non sports pieces of note:
• Frank Main of the Chicago Sun-Times witnessed a woman kill herself in a very public manner. Sobering, but worth your time.
• The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos offered a sobering and reported look at a potential Donald Trump first term.
• An interesting piece on how hard it is to be a College Republican right now.
• A fascinating oral history by Patrick Healy of the first 2000 Presidential debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
• New York magazine on the man who could take down Chris Christie.
• Via Time.com: European Politics Are Swinging to the Right.
• From Garrett Graff of Politico: Who’s In Charge of America After a Catastrophe? Who Knows?
• From CJR: When investigative reporting competes with Brangelina.
• The New York Times, from Oct. 11, 1860, endorses Abe Lincoln for President.
• Via Ellen Barry of The New York Times: Young Rural Women in India Chase Big-City Dreams.
5. The WNBA said its combined ESPN and ESPN2 regular season viewership was up 11% this season over last year (224,000 average per game viewers vs. 202,000).
5a. The longtime sports journalist Colleen Dominguez passed along this handwritten letter she received from Vin Scully.
5b. NBC said its primetime coverage of the Rio 2016 Paralympics averaged 143,000 viewers, up 175% from the London Paralympic Games (52,000 viewers).
5c. FOX’s airing (in select cities) of Toronto FC-New York Red Bulls drew 1,298,000 viewers, the most-watched MLS telecast of any kind and on any network in 12 years.
5d. Via Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp: IndyCar finished the 2016 season averaging 1.3 million viewers across NBCSN and ABC, open-wheel racing league’s best figure since ’11.
5e. Fox Sports put out an interesting press release on the number of analyst partners play by play broadcaster Kenny Albert has had during his career. The list is 250 people and growing.