Media Circus: Sports media's greatest what-ifs

0:53 | Tech & Media
Media Circus: The 'What If's' of sports media
Sunday April 16th, 2017

What If? Two words that cut to the heart of what we love (and sometimes hate) about sports. In this week’s Sports Illustrated magazine, we have a 20-page look at sports’s most tantalizing alternative realities, including Peyton Manning becoming a member of the Chargers, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams not missing games because of World War II and Wayne Gretzky never leaving Edmonton.

In this spirit, I decided to have some fun with the lead of the column and offer some “What Ifs?” for sports media. Hope you enjoy the imaginary zone.

What if ESPN did not suspend Bill Simmons for his comments about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in September 2014?

Maybe Grantland still dissolves the following year, but let’s take an alternative path: Simmons continues building his website and podcast network at ESPN and re-signs with the company as some of his close friends (senior vice president and executive producer of original content Connor Schell and NBA Countdown producer Kevin Wildes) move up in the ESPN power structure. With new management in place, there’s a renewed energy to keep investing in Grantland.

Seeing the site get corporate support for ESPN and its unmitigated love for the NBA, Yahoo! Sports news-breaker Adrian Wojnarowski contacts Simmons and pitches a basketball vertical within the Grantland site. Simmons and ESPN president John Skipper love the idea, especially since Wojnarowski has been beating them on big scoops for years. In 2015 ESPN announces they have hired Wojnarowski to form The Vertical on Grantland.

This major commitment to the NBA leads ESPN Los Angeles senior writer Ramona Shelburne to ask to move full-time to Grantland; the company grants her wishes. She’s later joined by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, Scott Cacciola of The New York Times, and Candace Buckner of The Washington Post, all of whom want to work with Zach Lowe & Co. Longtime NBA voice (and Schell and Wildes pal) Michelle Beadle signs a new deal that puts her in front of NBA Countdown on television as well as Grantland on digital. With Grantland now having a killer NBA staff and traffic getting bigger, the site goes after Lee Jenkins, SI’s star NBA writer. In an effort to keep Jenkins, SI forms an NBA site around the writer called Jenkinsville.

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What If The Decision never aired?

Imagine if the self-aggrandizing, selling-out-our-journalistic-soul, narcissistic 75-minute sham-a-thon 'The Decision' never aired on ESPN on July 8, 2010. Instead, LeBron James simply announces through his management company that he has signed with Miami and opts not to the do the WWE-esque “Welcome To The Miami Heat” ceremony with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

Well, for starters, that night ESPN airs an MLB game.

Those in Cleveland obviously remain intensely angry and betrayed, but James does not become public enemy No. 1 in the NBA. Because of that, ESPN ultimately cancels the ESPN2 show First Take in 2012 when the daily bashing of James neither produces ratings or logic. One of the actors on that show, Skip Bayless, ultimately leaves the network to take a job with The Sun newspaper in the United Kingdom. James’s popularity grows over the years, and billionaires line up to contribute to his LeBron James Foundation, which aids Boys and Girls Clubs across America. When James announced his return to the Cavaliers for the 2014–15 season, ESPN does an hour show called “The Decision,” co-hosted by ABC’s Robin Roberts and ESPN’s Bob Ley that celebrates his return to Cleveland.

What if Fox did not outbid CBS for the right to televise NFC games in 1993?

With CBS now holding on to the NFC, which the network had aired for the previous 38 years, Fox outbids NBC by $300 million to land the rights to the AFC package in the same year. Given the NFC's hold on many of the major television markets and the Cowboys, CBS never relinquishes the package, and the famed team of John Madden and Pat Summerall work together until Madden retires from CBS in 2008.

Fox settles into the AFC package, and the addition of the NFL helps grow the fledgling network. Verne Lundquist, hired away from CBS, and Cris Collinsworth become one of the premier NFL broadcasting teams and carry Fox’s NFL game coverage to great success in the 1990s and 2000s. NBC, wanting to get back into football, wins the bid for Monday Night Football rights in 1998, which it airs to this day and is considered the preeminent primetime game each week, as it was when on ABC. (The XFL never happens.) ESPN in the 2000s agrees to a multi-billion deal for the rights to a new Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football game, both of which it airs to this day.

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What If Peyton Manning had an interest in broadcasting?

After Manning retires from football in March 2016, he decides to weigh offers from every network that airs football—CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC and NFL Network. After meeting with each group, Manning ultimately decides to take the CBS job, which has offered him its No. 1 game analyst role alongside buddy Jim Nantz. The man Manning replaces—Phil Simms—negotiates his contract out and heads to Fox to become its No. 2 analyst behind Troy Aikman. (Fox sees Simms as a good fit to call the many Giants games it airs.) Though there is talk that he would be a very good broadcasting prospect after he retires, Tony Romo sees that there are no top NFL broadcasting jobs available. He opts to play football in 2017, signing a two-year deal with the Texans.

What if the USSR beat the United States on Feb. 22, 1980?

ABC’s coverage of the Soviets’ 10–2 win over the Americans is mostly remembered as one of the most disappointing nights in American sports. Broadcasters Al Michaels and Ken Dryden called a solid game, but there’s only so much you can do in a blowout. It takes Michaels a long time to become the lead announcer on ABC’s baseball coverage, but he finally gets the job in 1992, a couple of years after the memorable work that Gary Thorne and Tim McCarver do covering the earthquake series in San Francisco. Michaels stays on baseball for a decade before joining Monday Night Football in 2000 in what’s an experimental booth alongside Dennis Miller and Dan Fouts. Two years later, Michaels gets a big break when John Madden is paired with him.

What if Greg Anthony was never arrested in 2015 at a Washington D.C. hotel on suspicion of trying to hire a prostitute who was an undercover police officer?

While Anthony has since been reinstated as a Turner Sports and NBA TV analyst (he reached a plea agreement in 2015 in which he was required to perform community service and escape arrest for any other violations, which he fulfilled), he was at the time the lead analyst for the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four telecast alongside fellow analyst Steve Kerr and Jim Nantz. Kerr ultimately left for the Warriors head coaching job in 2014. If you presume Anthony would still be in his position, where would that leave current Final Four analyst Bill Raftery? We see a Sunshine Boys pairing of Raftery and Verne Lundquist calling games through the Elite Eight round.

What if Vin Scully accepted ESPN Radio’s offer to call the World Series after it acquired the World Series radio rights from CBS in 1998?

ESPN Radio, per Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, had hoped to start its first season as baseball’s radio network by teaming Scully with Jon Miller, the voice of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball on television. The pairing of two Hall of Fame broadcasters goes so well that ESPN works out an agreement with Scully to call Sunday Night Baseball for ESPN TV with Miller, quietly dropping analyst Joe Morgan after the 1999 MLB season.

The Noise Report

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

1. Episode 113 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a return of the sports media roundtable with Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand and SI.com columnist Jimmy Traina.

On this podcast, we discuss CBS’s decision to hire Tony Romo for its No. 1 NFL spot; what challenges Romo will have in 2017; why the move was made at this time; how much influence Jim Nantz had in the move; the impact of social media on executive decisions; Michelle Beadle getting the top spot as the host of NBA Countdown and why it happened; why ESPN should have been more clear about Sage Steele already having another job; the lunacy that emerged from those claiming Steele was either fired or lost her job for her political and social viewpoints; Amazon landing the streaming rights for the Thursday Night Football package; the flagging final round viewership of the Masters; the challenges that are coming for Fox at the 2018 and 2022 World Cup and why 2026 might be lock in the U.S.; why Traina is back at Sports Illustrated; why Ourand thinks Mike Greenberg can be successful as a soloist on television and why Traina thinks that’s insane, and much more.

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

1a. Sources tell SI.com that ESPN management expects to finish most of its job cuts prior to the company’s upfront presentation for media buyers on May 16 and possibly by May 9, the date of Disney’s second quarter earnings call.

Last month SI reported ESPN was undergoing significant cost-cutting on its talent side (people in front of the camera or audio/digital screen). Multiple sources said ESPN had been tasked with paring tens of millions of staff salary from its payroll, including staffers many viewers and readers will recognize. Jim Miller, the author of the oral history of ESPN, said he believed the number of staffers impacted would be between 40 to 50. Those with contracts coming up would be particularly vulnerable. The company is also expected to buy out some existing contracts, which is something rare for ESPN historically beyond a few NFL talents.

On Sunday morning, an ESPN spokesperson declined comment.

1b. Boston Globe sports media writer Chad Finn ranked his Top 10 big-event play-by-play announcers

2. TNT will televise more than 40 NBA playoff games, including the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. The first round commentator teams consist of:

• Marv Albert and Brent Barry

• Kevin Harlan and Reggie Miller

• Brian Anderson and Kevin McHale

• Ian Eagle and Greg Anthony

(Chris Webber will miss the first round because his wife is expecting. He is supposed to return for the second round.)

2a. ABC and ESPN will combine to televise up to 44 NBA postseason games, including coverage of the Western Conference finals on ESPN and the NBA Finals on ABC. Broadcasting teams include:

• Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson

• Ryan Ruocco and Doris Burke

• Mark Jones and Hubie Brown

• Dave Pasch and Doug Collins

2b. Sports Media Watch has the breakdown of the NBA’s regular season ratings on national television. The numbers were down across the board.

2c. More great stuff from Paulsen at Sports Media Watch: He tabulated which NBA teams were the most-watched nationally this year. Not surprisingly, the Warriors were the most-watched team during the regular season, averaging 2.8 million for 30 windows across ESPN, ABC and TNT. The Cavaliers averaged 2.4 million over the same number of games. The Thunder ranked third with 2.0 million, just ahead of the Spurs (1.991 million). The Knicks were fifth (1.94 million), followed by the Celtics (1.71 million). Sports Media Watch said the Pacers were the least-watched (1.10 million), behind the Heat (1.11 million), Nuggets (1.11 million), Nets (1.11 million) and Pistons (1.12 million).

3. Sports Business Media writer John Ourand reported that Fox Sports had emerged as the network most likely to hire NFL Senior VP of Officiating Dean Blandino for an on-air role. Ourand said Blandino will work on some NFL games and Fox’s college football telecasts as well. Both CBS and NBC offered statements that they are not hiring Blandino.

3a. Per Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp, NBC and NBCSN’s NHL viewership declined during the 2016–17 regular season. NBC averaged 1.23 million viewers for its 15 NHL games, down 20% from last season and the lowest NHL broadcast TV average on record (figures date back to ’93–94 season). The publication said NBCSN averaged 336,000 viewers for its 91 games, the league’s lowest average on cable TV since the ’11–12 season (332,000 viewers). Karp said this season was down 11% from 378,000 viewers in ’15–16, which was the league’s best full-season average on cable. As for combining TV and digital, NBC Sports averaged 475,000 viewers for the NHL, down 6% from last season.

4. Non-sports pieces of note

• An illuminating piece on what is currently happening in Turkey.

• In 1984, Cliff and Wilma Derksen's daughter was abducted and left to die in the Winnipeg winter cold. With no idea of her killer's identity, they made a controversial choice: to forgive. The Globe and Mail’s Jana G. Pruden writes on a suspect in the case who now awaits his verdict.

• From velamag.com: SuperBabies Don't Cry, by Heather Kirn Lanier.

• Via The Guardian: These protest photos of a singular woman taking on power are amazing.

• Crooks, Swindlers and Sex Hounds: On Alabama politicians, from Campbell Robertson of the New York Times.

• From Longreads: The Slave Who Outwitted George Washington.

• The always excellent Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.‏ responds to a reader who feels he’s been too negative since the election. 

• From The Washington Post: Ten years after the Virginia Tech shooting, objects of grief.

Sports pieces of note:

• From ESPN.com’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham: How Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis outflanked power brokers to put the Raiders in Las Vegas.

• Via Deadspin’s Sarah Barker, the brutality of the Barkley Marathons.

• Amazing story from the Mercury News: How an NFL player’s donated heart saved the life of a baseball Hall of Famer.

• For Dave Strader, a.k.a. ‘The Voice,’ NHL playoffs are an escape from chemotherapy

• ESPN’s Zach Lowe’s MVP case for Kawhi Leonard

• From ESPN.com’s Andrew Marchand: Will Jean Afterman be baseball's first female GM

• NJ.com’s Steve Politi went to all 16 Waffle Houses in the greater Augusta area in search of the Masters... and calories. 

5. Joe Buck’s talk show on the AT&T Audience Network finishes up its third season this Wednesday with guest Roger Clemens. The show airs at 8 PM ET/PT.

5a. The Big Lead staff had an interesting roundtable on whether they would play a round of golf with Donald Trump.

5b. The Sporting News writer Mike McCarthy reported that Tim Brando has signed a multiyear contract extension to continue calling college football and college basketball for Fox Sports.

5c. SI’s The Narrative podcast looks back at the 1987 four-overtime game between the Islanders and Capitals.

5d. Alan Hairston and Jacqui Dean paid $330 for a storage bin and found a treasure trove of sports memorabilia, including vintage Sports Illustrated magazines, valued at $100,000 by Heritage Auctions. Here’s the story from Dallas Morning News writer Barry Horn. 

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