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  • With ESPN moving in a new direction from Chris Berman, Sam Ponder has emerged as a strong candidate to host Sunday NFL Countdown.
By Richard Deitsch
March 05, 2017

It can often go ugly when a television entity moves on from a longtime staffer (see: Curry, Ann), but give ESPN management a ton of credit: They handled the end of the Chris Berman era with particular aplomb, threading the fine line of allowing Berman a celebratory exit as the host of Sunday NFL Countdown and ESPN’s NFL draft coverage while making it clear they were moving in a new direction for his hosting roles.

Berman’s departure left open three significant NFL on-air jobs at ESPN: The host of Sunday NFL Countdown, a studio role on Monday Night Countdown, and the host of ESPN’s opening night NFL draft coverage. One of those jobs is already filled. While not officially announced, Trey Wingo, the longtime host of the second and third day of the coverage, will get the Day One assignment. Wingo declined comment to SI.

The most interesting staffing decision is who will replace Berman on the signature Sunday morning show. Last week Jim Miller, the author of the These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World Of ESPN tweeted that he was hearing that ESPN college football reporter Sam Ponder would become the new host of Sunday NFL Countdown and Suzy Kolber would continue on Monday Night with an expanded role. The Sporting News reported Ponder had “emerged as a strong candidate.” SI.com can confirm Ponder has indeed been offered the position. Nothing is signed as of this writing. Ponder declined comment through her CAA representation.

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The thought process behind offering Ponder the Sunday NFL Countdown hosting role is this: ESPN president John Skipper and senior vice president of event and studio production Stephanie Druley (who worked with Ponder at the Longhorn Network) believe Ponder has great potential as a studio host. Skipper also wants to get more women in front-facing positions for the network’s NFL coverage. There has also been plenty of internal talk that management wants the host of this show to focus on facilitating conversations between the analysts as opposed to being an NFL wonk. Anyone who has watched the show over the last decade knows Berman rarely offered an opinion beyond something you’d see out straight out of the NFL’s PR office. It’s not like the host of that show was delivering Ernie Johnson, Rebecca Lowe or Chris Fowler-level commentary, so Ponder would be able to work into learning the league. She has a reputation of being a hard worker on the college side.

As for those wondering about the conflict of having a host married to an active player in the league (Christian Ponder is an unrestricted NFL free agent who played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers last season), ESPN brass long ago stopped pretending they care about such things (e.g. Jon Gruden announcing Jay Gruden’s games and Mary Joe Fernandez interviewing Roger Federer, whose agent is Fernandez’s husband).

If I had to bet, I’d bet Ponder takes the job. It’s a very high profile role at the company and Skipper and top management have made it clear the spot is important to them.

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Kolber looks to get an expanded role on Monday Night Countdown, as Miller tweeted. She is already excellent in the on-site Monday Night role. Last year’s Monday Night Countdown featured analysts Trent Dilfer, Matt Hasselbeck, Randy Moss, Charles Woodson and Steve Young along with NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen and Michelle Beisner-Buck doing features. I’d expect some changes but generally the same roster. Interestingly, the Monday NFL show draws more than the Sunday show. Monday Night Countdown averaged just under 2.0 million viewers in 2016, down 5% from 2.1 million viewers in 2014. According to the Sports Business Daily, Sunday NFL Countdown, shortened to two hours last season, averaged 1.7 million viewers, down 11% from 1.9 million viewers for the three-hour show in 2015.

Not that ESPN has asked for my consulting, but here’s how I would have staffed Sunday NFL Countdown: Kolber as the host, Moss and Louis Riddick as the analysts, and a rotating fourth chair filled from a collection of NFL voices at ESPN including newsbreaking, fantasy, gambling, and analytics.

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. During my career at Sports Illustrated I’ve seen many layoffs at our company. There are few things more gutting and demoralizing to see great people leave your organization. I report the following joylessly:

SI has learned that ESPN will have significant cost-cutting over the next four months on its talent side (people in front of the camera or audio/digital screen). Multiple sources said ESPN has been tasked with paring tens of millions of staff salary from its payroll, including staffers many viewers and readers will recognize. Those with contracts coming up would be particularly vulnerable, sources said. The company is also expected to buyout some existing contracts, which is something rare for ESPN historically beyond a few NFL talents. The cuts are expected to be completed by June. Sources within ESPN say that there is no set list of names yet and stressed that behind-the-scenes people will likely (key word) not be impacted by these cuts.

Last month Reuters reported Disney had a lower-than-expected quarterly revenue, hurt by the drop in advertising revenue at ESPN. In addition, ESPN continues to shed subscribers at an enhanced rate, down to 88.4 million households in Dec. 2016. That number was 100.002 million in Feb. 2011.

Though it remains one of the great destination jobs in the sports media and hiring will continue, ESPN has experienced significant layoffs over the last two years. In Oct. 2015 the company laid off roughly 300 employees, many who had spent their entire professional careers at ESPN. Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand, in this piece on those layoffs, examined the skyrocketing rights fees and deep distribution cuts that led to those layoffs.

On Sunday when contacted by SI.com, an ESPN spokesperson provided the following statement: "We have long been about serving fans and innovating to create the best content for them. Today's fans consume content in many different ways and we are in a continuous process of adapting to change and improving what we do. Inevitably that has consequences for how we utilize our talent. We are confident that ESPN will continue to have a roster of talent that is unequaled in sports."

2. Along with its otherworldly success on the court—106 consecutive wins as of this writing—the UConn women’s basketball team has found an unexpected audience in New York City. SNY (the home of the New York Mets) aired 17 of UConn’s 29 regular season games this season and the network said that live game viewership set a record in the New York City market. For the season, the UConn women averaged an 0.42 household rating in New York, breaking the previous high by 83% and beating the men’s college basketball teams that air on competitors MSG Network and YES Network. “I think what we saw this year somewhat unexpected is the growth outside of Connecticut,” said SNY president Steve Raab. “Based on the feedback we get, the winning streak has transcended the sports fan in New York.”

SNY officials said SNY has approximately 50 people working on its UConn women’s programming, including season-long shows, and a reporter who will travel with the team during the postseason. That’s an impressive number given ESPN gets UConn’s highest-profile games given its college basketball contracts.

One of the most viewed regional sports networks in the country, SNY last week moved into a new state-of-the-art studio facility located at the network’s new headquarters at 4 World Trade Center. The production space is located 50 floors above the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and has three independent studios (named after Jackie Robinson, Tom Seaver, and Mike Piazza), two control rooms, and a 360-degree views of the Manhattan skyline.

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2a. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about why Brad Nessler is not calling NCAA Tournament games for CBS and Turner Sports. CBS and Turner said they were making no changes to their play by play group for the tournament. “We have a great bench of play by play announcers,” said a CBS Sports spokesperson.

2b. The longtime Los Angeles Kings broadcaster Bob Miller announced he will call his last home game on April 8 against Chicago and their regular-season finale at Anaheim the following night to end his career. According to the AP, he will end his career after 44 years and 3,351 games.

3. Episode 107 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features ESPN NFL analyst Jim Trotter, who appears on NFL Insiders, SportsCenter and other ESPN programs. Trotter previously worked at Sports Illustrated and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In this podcast, Trotter discusses the coverage of Roger Goodell and the league office by the NFL media and whether it is effective; why Goodell and NFL owners are not accessible to media; the impact of access journalism in the NFL and whether that’s good or bad for the public; morphing from print/digital work to television; how the NFL Hall of Fame voting works inside the room; what the Hall of Fame future will be for Paul Tagliabue and Terrell Owens; why Hall of Famer voters should be criticized for a lack of transparency; why Trotter makes his vote public; how voters see players who treated the media poorly during their career; how Trotter was laid off by SI and what he did in the immediate days afterward; the advice ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio gave him about appearing on television; how fans outside of San Diego should view what is happening with the Chargers; and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• Terrence Ross wrote a great piece for The Players Tribune on playing in Toronto.

• From ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi and Kristen Lappas: A distance of 6,455 miles doesn't begin to measure the journey one dog made—to join a team, and find a family. The digital story and video.

• SI’s Lee Jenkins profiled Rockets star James Harden. 

• Via David Fleming of ESPN: Tim Tebow’s Relentless Pursuit of Failure.

• This is an excellent interview of Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields by Andrew Maraniss of The Undefeated.

• From David Epstein: Why Our Champions Are Getting Older.

• From Ken Rodriguez: At age 32, Noah Miller is not ready to die, but he is planning his funeral.

Non sports piece of note:

You May Want to Marry My Husband. Remarkable piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

• From David Raether: How one man went from writing for Roseanne to being homeless.

• Via Patricia Wen of The Boston Globe: Two sisters, one house, and a mystery.

• From Nick Tabor of the Oxford American: A Town Under Trial.

• Via Mother Jones: A brief history of men getting credit for women's accomplishments.

How The Trolls Stole Washington, by Amanda Hess of The New York Times Magazine. 

• From The Atlantic’s City Lab: What's Behind Declining Transit Ridership Nationwide? 

• Great work from Jennifer Early of the Dallas News: When an unthinkable crime shatters a family, a father is forced to confront the emotional wreckage. 

• From Buzzfeed’s Patrick Strudwick: Meet The Man Who Stopped Thousands Of People Becoming HIV-Positive.

• Via Southwest The Magazine: Why are thousands of people watching this man’s grass grow? 

• From Quenton Miller of Guernica: Roger Ebert, Wikipedia Editor

• Via The Guardian: How Technology Gets Us Hooked.

• New York Magazine interviews David Letterman

5. The Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. acquired Tennis Media Co. in an $8 million deal. The plan includes combining Tennis.com and Tennis Magazine with the Tennis Channel to make it the media hub for the entire sport. Here’s the Baltimore Business Journal piece on the sale.

5a. Mashable’s Sam Laird profiled the rise of The Players Tribune.

5b. ESPN’s Around The Horn host Tony Reali wrote an essay for The Washington Post on his faith.

5c. The final episode of Showtime’s excellent 60 Minutes Sports airs Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. One of the pieces that night is titled "The Nomads," and chronicles the history of the most exclusive black golf/social club in America. The piece is fronted and reported by Armen Keteyian, produced by Alan Goldberg and edited by Joe Schanzer. “It’s a remarkable story about a little known group that, trust me, is about to come into the light,” Keteyian said.

5d. The Big Lead’s Ryan Glasspiegel reported that ESPN and SEC Network reporter Kaylee Hartung is leaving ESPN for CNN.

5e. NBC Sports NHL host Liam NBCSN’s Liam McHugh was a guest on the Barstool Sports NHL podcast, Spittin’ Chiclets

5f. Jeff Pearlman had a terrific interview with the longtime writer Dave Kindred.

5g. Amusing sports television on the NFL Network Sunday afternoon as Patriots coach Bill Belichick took some reps in the booth during the network's coverage of the NFL combine.

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