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  • Jemele Hill's two-week suspension is scheduled to end soon but her future with ESPN is still very much in doubt.
By Richard Deitsch
October 15, 2017

Jemele Hill’s two-week suspension is scheduled to end on Oct. 23. The likelihood is she will come to work that day in Bristol, CT. and continue to co-anchor the 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter for the foreseeable future.

But I believe her tenure as a SportsCenter anchor is effectively over. I also think her time as an ESPN employee is down to months rather than years. Hill cannot feel that she has management’s unwavering support given the events of the last month—and ESPN management clearly has limits to the speech it will allow from front-facing talent on social media, and particularly those representing the SportsCenter brand.

Then there is the show itself, dubbed SC6. What Hill and co-host Michael Smith envisioned, what made their chemistry honest and unique on the ESPN2 show His and Hers and their podcasts together, is being slowly chopped away by the addition of segments you see on traditional SportsCenter shows. Those include interviews with reporters in the field and blocks that feature the kind of short, bite-sized takes viewers get on shows such as Around The Horn. Multiple people told me last week that there is an effort to bring in ESPN talent as guests with opinions counter to the hosts. If I had to bet, I would bet that at this time next year the 6 p.m. ET slot is either a standard version of SportsCenter or some sort of PTI-extension. I would also bet that Hill is elsewhere.

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What do the parties say? I’ve reached out repeatedly to ESPN to speak with the senior management who made the decision on Hill. That includes ESPN president John Skipper and ESPN executive vice president Connor Schell. I’ve been repeatedly declined. Hill is also declining comment. The end of SC6 is simply my prediction from observing ESPN for years. I have no specific reporting that says it is done. That opinion is shared—and was first posited long before I came to it—by James Andrew Miller, the author of a best-selling oral history on ESPN Those Guys Have All The Fun. He was one of the guests this week on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast along with Brooklyn Nets analyst Sarah Kustok.

Miller said he believes there is a fundamental flaw in assigning opinion-first talent to SportsCenter.

“I don’t think it is going to make it,” Miller said. “I think it was an experiment where the [SportsCenter] brand is being challenged technologically and by a host of other challenges in the marketplace, and they were trying to figure out ways to rescue it in a different way. You know what? That is great. That is what networks and executives are supposed to do. You try things and you don’t necessarily bat 1.000%. I think in this case, I think there is enough evidence and minds along the road to say we tried and we are going to figure out something different. If there is one takeaway from this whole SC6 experiment it is to make sure that if you are going to have someone with bold opinions and lot of gumption that you put them in an environment do that.”

It was interesting to look back this week at the Jan. 30, 2017 press release when Hill and Smith were announced as the hosts of a re-imagined version of SportsCenter. This was when management was touting boldly that ESPN had made a strategic shift in thinking to rebuild the SportsCenter franchise around what one of its executives termed “personalities and conceits that work for specific audiences.”

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Here is part of that release:

“With a format geared to fit Smith and Hill’s personalities, along with a specially-designed set and its own music, The Six will be different from any other SportsCenter produced since ESPN’s first telecast of its signature news and information program in 1979. Debuting on the day after the Super Bowl, the premiere episode of the weekday offering will be hailed with an hour-long simulcast on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS. Smith and Hill, who previously co-hosted ESPN2’s His & Hers and will be the first African-American duo to host SportsCenter on a regular basis, will combine some of the best elements of their previous program with SportsCenter for the new show, including a deliberate and well-paced conversational format in which they discuss sports topics, news, culture and social issues. The program will continue SportsCenter’s focus on news of the day and breaking news as warranted.

“I’m most excited for the viewers to see how much freedom we are going to have,” said Smith, who’s been with ESPN since 2004.

That was only eight months ago, but it feels like a lifetime given the news cycles since Hill’s series of tweets on President Donald Trump last month, and another series of tweets following Dallas Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying his players will stand for the national anthem and not disrespect the flag, and if they don't, the player or players will not play.

Of all its selective discipline for on-air talent over the years, ESPN management has made it very clear that the subject where it offers little flexibility for employees is when management believes an employee has said something that could impact the company’s bottom line. Skipper said as much in his statement to employees following Hill’s series of tweets on Trump. He never publicly supported Hill in the statement. He did, however, sound like Triple H of the WWE in one of his sentences. “We had a violation of those standards in recent days and our handling of this is a private matter,” Skipper wrote. “As always, in each circumstance we look to do what is best for our business.”

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The moment I read that statement is the moment I believed Hill’s ESPN tenure was coming to an end.

As far as the viewership of the show, management knows that any replacement for SC6 will not produce a magic bullet. Douglas Pucci of Programming Insider and Awful Announcing has charted ESPN studio shows over the past couple of years. What he found was that ratings movements (ups or downs) are generally parallel to those of its PTI lead-in. I’ve said this repeatedly: ESPN’s studio shows in the afternoon are only trending one way long-term and that is down. That will be the case long after whenever Hill and Smith depart too.

For the week of Sept. 26-29, 2017, Pucci’s last post on ESPN ratings, SC6 averaged 508,000 viewers including 277,000 adults 18-49. One year earlier in the same week (Sep. 27-30 & Oct. 2), the SportsCenter 6:00 p.m. show averaged 475,000 and 245,000 adults 18-49. That is a 6.9 percent increase in overall viewership.

You can also find weeks where the show is down: For example: For Sep. 12-15, 2017, SC6 averaged 448,000 viewers, down 20.2 percent from the 562,000 viewers for the corresponding week in 2016 when Hill and Smith were not hosts. The show averaged 408,000 viewers (and 215,000 adults 18-49) from Oct. 3-6, 2017. That was down from 477,000 from Oct. 4-7, 2016, per Pucci. Then there are the weeks that are flat: The 6:00 p.m. SportsCenter averaged 469,000 viewers for Oct 11-13, 2016. Last week, from Oct. 10-12, it averaged 463,000 viewers.

I've talked a lot with Hill over the years about a number of topics in sports media, from sexism to race to sports media people discussing social issues on Twitter. I find her to be one of the most honest brokers I deal with in sports media. This quote from August 2017, from her to me, always stood out:

“It’s very important to make the distinction between politics and commentary, information and discussion of social issues,” she said. “I find that the majority of what comes into my timeline is related to social issues. Nobody is dying to engage in a discussion about repeal and replace, at least not with me. The percentage of people who want to discuss social issues has, however, increased substantially. Everyone is consumed with what's happening in our country right now. I don’t tweet a lot about politics. I do tweet more about social issues, which I consider to be issues of morality. Racism isn’t politics. Racism is an issue of right and wrong. Tweeting about significant issues that impact marginalized people isn’t politics. That's right and wrong. If I had to guess, I would say I’ve increased my tweets about social issues about 20%. I’ve tried really hard not to let these issues consume my feed, because there are a lot of days where I just want to have fun on Twitter. I want to debate with Power and Insecure fans about what's happening on the show. I want to make jokes and have silly sports arguments, but unfortunately those days feel like they happen less.”

THE NOISE REPORT

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

1. Incredible work by Andrés Cantor of Telemundo last week as he simultaneously called three World Cup qualifying games of meaning: Honduras-Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago-United States and Panama-Costa Rica. Telemundo showed a triple box in the second half and Cantor morphed between them.

“I mainly tried to focus on the three teams that—if they scored—changed the entire equation,” Cantor said in an email. “We had decided in pre-production that if two games had implications, we would show those. As it happened all three had everyone’s chances on the line until the final whistle. I mainly focused on the attacks of the teams that needed a goal and on the defensive plays of the teams that needed not to concede. It was challenging to say the least but a great way to show all the drama at once."

Cantor said a similar situation happened to him while calling the World Cup in France in 1998.

“Mexico was losing to Holland in the last group match and was being eliminated,” Cantor said. “They needed help from South Korea that was playing Belgium simultaneously so I called every South Korean attack and then every Mexico attack. When Luis Hernández scored the tying goal at the 90’ minute, we dissolved full to the Mexico game and stayed with it until the end since they were securing their qualification to the next round.”

Here’s a podcast I did with Cantor on how he approaches his work.

1a. Hyperbole is the drug of choice these days in the sports media but the U.S. Men's National Team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was a disaster for Fox Sports. The World Cup is a momentum tournament over its 64 broadcasts and the U.S. broadcaster needs the national team in the tournament because it establishes a huge audience early on for those games. It also attracts viewers who are not traditional soccer watchers. Here was ESPN’s viewership for the U.S. games during the 2014 World Cup:

U.S. vs. Belgium (July 1, 2014): 16.5 million

U.S. vs. Germany (June 26, 2014): 10.8 million

U.S. vs. Portugal (June 22, 2014): 18.2 million

U.S. vs. Ghana (June 17, 2014): 11.1 million

These kind of viewership numbers are now gone for the early part of the Russia tournament. The 2014 FIFA World Cup ranked as the most-viewed World Cup ever on English-language TV in the United States. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC combined to average 4,557,000 viewers for the 64 matches, up from 3,273,000 viewers in 2010. It’s simple math: Take away the U.S. team, and the tournament average goes way down.

Nothing will change with Fox Sports’ production, which is the largest in the network’s 24-year history. The network will air 350 hours of World Cup programming including half of the games airing on over-the-air FOX. There will be more matches on broadcast television than the last four World Cups combined. Daytime and late-night studio coverage will air from a set in Moscow’s Red Square. There will be three studio shows—World Cup Live (airing at 6 a.m. ET); World Cup Today (prior to matches) and World Cup Tonight (airing after matches). The network said it will air 15 original series on FOX Sports Go and has partnered with National Geographic for a multi-platform visual experience. But the dollars lost will be huge. The Group Stage represents 48 of the tournament’s 64 matches. That is a ton of advertising inventory.

Here’s the rest of my piece on what it means for Fox Sports. 

1c. ESPN soccer analyst and former USMNT member Taylor Twellman delivered a memorable postmortem of the U.S. loss.

2. Episode 142 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features two guests: best-selling author James Andrew Miller, the host of the podcast, Origins, and Sarah Kustok, the lead analyst on the YES Network for the Brooklyn Nets.

In this podcast, Miller discussed ESPN’s two-week suspension of Jemele Hill; how much that suspension was related to ESPN’s relationship with the NFL; how far ESPN employees can go regarding commentary; the future of Hill and Michael Smith with the SportsCenter brand; Hill’s First Amendment right not insulating her from sanction by her private sector employer; ESPN management’s role in discipline; whether ESPN management has any recourse against White House attacks; whether ESPN will remain part of a larger culture war, and more.

Kustok discusses how she studies game film; what she is looking at during a possession; the Nets naming her as their game analyst alongside Ian Eagle and Ryan Ruocco; whether sideline reporter positions are a good opportunity for women or whether they reinforce that women are not getting other positions on a sports broadcast; her first assignment as an NBA analyst; the impact of Ann Drysdale, Doris Burke, Beth Mowins and Jessica Mendoza on her career; the similarities of working in Chicago and New York; her social media approach; what, if any, personal experiences she has when it comes to sexism; why we have not seen a woman calling play by play full-time in the NBA; her 2017-18 scouting report for the Celtics, Cavs, Thunder, Warriors and Rockets; the quality of the Warriors public relations staff, and much more.

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

3. Game 5 of the Yankees-Indians series averaged 7,610,000 viewers across FS1 (7,261,000), FOX Deportes (207,000) and FOX Sports GO (142,000), according to the network. The game peaked from 11:15 to 11:30 PM ET with 9,175,000 viewers on FS1. The network said it was the most-watched ALDS game on any network since 2011.

3a. Interesting college football ratings weekend: ESPN said Michigan’s win over Indiana drew a 2.9 overnight, the highest-rated game of the week across all networks. That game aired at noon ET. Rare to see a noon ET game beat the rest of the schedule.

3b. Turner Sports said Game 1 of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and Dodgers averaged 6.4 million across all of its platform, a strong number but down from the TBS-record 7.89 million viewers who watched the Cubs-Mets on TBS for Game 1 of the 2015 NLCS.

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• Brilliant work by Christopher Goffard of the L.A. Times. This will be the best thing you read this week.

• From Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker: Birth of a White Supremacist

• From Yashar Ali and Lydia Polgreen of the Huffington Post: How Top NBC Executives Quashed The Bombshell Harvey Weinstein Story

• Via the New York Times: How Israel Caught Russian Hackers Scouring the World for U.S. Secrets: 

• Remarkable reporting from Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker: From aggressive overtures to sexual assault: Harvey Weinstein’s accusers end their silence

•This Washington Post/60 Minutes story will infuriate you

• From Ali Watkins: China grabbed American as spy wars flare 

• They survived six hours in a pool as a wildfire burned their neighborhood to the ground

• Via CJR: What if the right-wing media wins?

• From New York Times reporter Farah Stockman: Becoming a Steelworker Liberated Her. Then Her Job Moved to Mexico

Sports pieces of note:

• From John Branch: The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey 

• SI’s Lee Jenkins had two sensational profiles last week: Timberwolves forward Jimmy Butler and Cavs guard Isaiah Thomas

• From Tim Bontemps and David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post: Pro sports teams were once reliable patrons of Trump’s hotels. Not anymore.

• From Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal: A twitter account under the name "Jones Smith" puts reporters on blast when they criticize Roger Goodell. It actually belongs to the NFL commissioner's wife, Jane Skinner

• Via SI’s Luis Miguel Echegaray, Andy Gray and Nihal Kolur: The 30 Most Influential Hispanics in Sports

New York Times writer Marc Tracy‏ on the activism of Howard University cheerleaders

• Tom Verducci on the Justin Verlander game 

• From ESPN’s Baxter Holmes: How the Warriors built the most explosive offense in history

• ESPN Fantasy analyst Matthew Berry, on thinking he suffered a heart attack

5. Last week Bill Simmons weighed in on Jemele Hill and the box ESPN management is in with front-facing talent. Wrote Simmons:

“When ESPN suspended me for three weeks (two without pay) after a 2014 podcast rant about Roger Goodell during his full-of-s**t apex, I was advised a few weeks later by someone very, very, very, very, very high at ESPN that I should lay off Goodell. And not just because the NFL was ESPN’s most lucrative partner, but because Los Angeles was going to land two NFL franchises soon. And Iger wanted a piece of one of them. I never laid off Goodell even though the tip eventually turned out to be correct. The following May, I went on Dan Patrick’s show and was asked about Goodell and Deflategate. I made a “testicular fortitude” joke that read worse than it sounded. People wrote about it. Stories were emailed up and up and up the ladder, even as I was hosting The Grantland Basketball Hour on ESPN that same night. The next morning, we found out on Twitter that Skipper wasn’t going to renew my contract. It happened that fast. I have always believed that Iger made the final call.”

5a. ESPN and Barstool Sports officially became partners last week with the announcement that Barstool Van Talk will premiere on Oct. 17 at 1 a.m. ET on ESPN2 and air weekly on Tuesday nights at 1 a.m. ET. The interview show will be hosted by three principles behind the popular Pardon My Take podcast—Dan Katz, PMT Commenter and Hank Lockwood. As Variety noted in this piece, it is Barstool’s biggest media deal to date. The show will be produced by Embassy Row, which produces NFL Network’s Good Morning Football, NBC’s Men In Blazers and previously produced FS1’s Garbage Time With Katie Nolan. (That the Roger Goodell-loving Barstool and the league-owned morning show are now part of the same content family is quite delightful).

There is great irony here. Once upon a time ESPN’s lawyers sent Barstool a cease-and-desist letter over Pardon My Take, claiming its logo and name were too close to Pardon the Interruption and First Take shows. ESPN staffers have also long been the target of Barstool’s ire especially when it comes to the network’s coverage of the Patriots.

Of course, this deal isn’t much of a surprise if you’ve been following the landscape over the past year as Barstool and ESPN have become promotional partners for each other. If you look at the 2017 guest list on Pardon My Take, it is littered with ESPN talent as guests including multiple appearances by Rachel Nichols and Scott Van Pelt, as well as ESPNers Adam Schefter, Kate Fagan, Matthew Berry, Greg McElroy, David Ross, Mark Teixeira, Randy Moss, Nate Silver, Jay Bilas, Jay Williams, Trey Wingo, Mike Golic, Jemele Hill, Michael Smith and Paul Finebaum. ESPN management and talent know full well that the PMT podcast draws mid-six figure audiences for each podcast. 

For Barstool, the deal gives them capital and increased mainstream visibility. For ESPN it’s a low-cost opportunity with three talented sports media personalities in a time slot with low viewership. It also gives ESPN the opportunity to expose their brand to 18 to 35 year-olds that might not be inclined to watch them outside of live games. When Barstool content appeared on Comedy Central during Super Bowl Week at midnight ET, viewership for those episodes ranged between 217,000 viewers and 310,000 viewers. I think ESPN would be thrilled if the show came close to 200,000 viewers.

5b. Here’s The Big Lead’s Ryan Glasspiegel, the Boston Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert and labor lawyer Phillip Miles on sports broadcaster Elika Sadeghi refusing to sign an employment contract issued by Barstool.

5c. Given the quality of talent among play-by-play voices, I thought it would be a fun parlor game to list the 25 best working play-by-play broadcasters in the business. The list was entirely subjective. It is entirely based on my likes when it comes to professionalism, preparation and quality of broadcast. I also set some parameters on it including omitting those fantastic play by play voices who are local as opposed to national. I expected (and was told) on social media that the list sucks. Reflecting a couple of days later, there are two additions I wish I made: First, Andrés Cantor of Telemundo should have absolutely been in my Top 25 given how much I love his work. Just a total whiff on my part.

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Second, Thom Brennaman should have been listed in the intro as someone who would be on other Top 25 lists. Here’s the full list.

5d. Some honors for former Sports Illustrated senior writer Dan Jenkins

5e. Inside Edition correspondent Lisa Guerrero, a former Fox Sports and ABC Sports commentator, told Newsweek on Thursday that when she was an on-air reporter at Fox Sports in the early 2000s, she was twice propositioned by Fox executives and twice rejected them. “I was supposed to provide on-site coverage for the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans that aired on Fox,” Guerrero told Newsweek’s John Walters. “Before we departed, an executive—he was married—suggested that we share a hotel room.” Guerrero said when she rejected advances, “they took me off our [2002] Super Bowl coverage.”

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