“Jon Gruden is going to be the next coach of the Oakland Raiders. The only question is when it happens.”
– ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, appearing on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt on Sunday
ESPN has never had a comfortable handle on how to report news when the news involves ESPN employees. One of the more famous incidents of this came in 2011 when Ohio State pursued Urban Meyer, then an ESPN college football analyst. The result is usually this: Other outlets end up beating ESPN on stories involving an ESPN staffer leaving the company to return to coaching or management. That’s what made the last 48 hours on Jon Gruden particularly interesting. On Dec. 30 Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen, the network’s two highest-profile NFL reporters, put out a detailed report on the Raiders pursuing Gruden with a coaching offer so strong it could even include an ownership stake in the team. The company has since followed up with multiple stories (and multiple television appearances about the story) that have all but assured that Gruden, who has worked as a Monday Night Football analyst since 2009, is leaving broadcasting to return to the Raiders. There is no way such stories get this kind of treatment without ESPN management signing off on them. Somewhere, a decision was made that ESPN was not going to get overtaken on this story, even if it created an uncomfortable week for the Monday Night Football production crew, which is calling the Tennessee at Kansas City wildcard game next Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET on ESPN and ABC.
ESPN management will start thinking about the big talent decision at hand when the offseason hits or sooner. Who will replace Gruden on the company’s most important content property? Even though the average viewership of Monday Night Football slipped to 10.757 million this year from 12.896 million in 2015, the series remains the most-watched show on cable and ESPN’s best promotional weekly platform to pitch what it is to viewers. The MNF analyst job is easily among the top three talent jobs at ESPN. In 2014 Gruden agreed to an extension with ESPN through the remainder of the company’s current NFL rights agreement, the 2021 NFL season (such contracts usually have out clauses).
Gruden also contributed to ESPN’s NFL Draft and Super Bowl week coverage, and his Gruden’s “QB Camp” series.
When contacted by SI on Monday for comment on Gruden, an ESPN spokesperson said, “Jon is preparing for our Wild Card game Saturday in Kansas City.” SI requested interviews with executive vice president of content Connor Schell and senior vice president of event and studio production Stephanie Druley on the prospect of Gruden leaving. Those interview requests were declined.
In speaking with a half-dozen people including sports television executives at networks who own NFL rights, broadcasting agents and NFL broadcasters, here is the consensus blueprint that ESPN is likely to follow: They will examine all the NFL coaches who get fired or retire and analyze if any could step in and have a Tony Romo-like impact. (Unlikely.) They will reach out to Peyton Manning and pray he has a change a heart about broadcasting. (Very unlikely.) They will do an inventory in-house of potential candidates for either a two- or three-person booth. They will determine how high they can go on salary, which will not be close to the reported $6.5 million Gruden makes annually. The biggest problem for ESPN is that there is no can’t-miss candidate out there at the moment.
“Timing is everything, and any legit candidate other than Peyton Manning is not ready to jump into the booth right now,” said a high-ranking NFL broadcast staffer at another network. “I think Mike Tomlin would be fantastic in the studio or the booth. Philip Rivers is interesting—he can talk ball with the best of them—but I’m not sure of the entertainment factor. Bruce Arians is engaging and likable but may not be polished enough to help carry a broadcast. It’s going to be a serious challenge for them.”
Of the coaches who lost their job or stepped down on Monday, Arians was mentioned the most by the industry people SI spoke with but the consensus was he’d be a better fit at first for a studio job or as an analyst on a lower-tier game. Browns lineman Joe Thomas is an interesting broadcasting candidate if he retires but rarely do we see offensive linemen get the analyst chair on an No. 1 NFL team, especially with no NFL game experience.
Another challenge for ESPN is that John Skipper would normally be the final decision-maker on a hire of this magnitude, but the company president is no longer at ESPN, suddenly resigning on Dec. 18 to what the company termed as a substance addiction problem with no further details. The decision will now likely fall to some combination of Schell, Druley and Mark Gross, also a senior vice president of production and remote events—at least until a new permanent president has been named. There would certainly be input from ESPN Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman and director Chip Dean, as well as play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough (assuming he is back).
As far as in-house candidates, one name I kept hearing as a potential fit was Matt Hasselbeck, who is currently a Sunday NFL Countdown analyst. Steve Young fits the paradigm of an interim selection (he has experience calling MNF) if ESPN wanted more time to figure out a long-term solution. Countdown analyst Rex Ryan was the analyst for MNF’s opening week Broncos-Chargers game but his performance was uneven at best and it’s hard to see ESPN management giving him the job. Fellow Countdown analyst Randy Moss is an interesting possibility given ESPN management likes him but he does not have game experience. (Choosing Moss or Hasselbeck means more changes again to Countdown, which just went through a big cast change.) Kurt Warner was a non-ESPN-er I was told to keep an eye on depending on his contract situation. Warner has called Monday Night Football on Westwood One for four seasons and filled in for Cris Collinsworth for the Dec. 16 Chicago-Detroit game on NFL Network, and the Christmas game of Pittsburgh at Houston on NBC and NFLN.
It’s going to be a challenging hire for an ESPN management group which is in major flux with the Skipper resignation. The long-term candidate to replace Gruden simply might not exist this year.
THE NOISE REPORT
1. Sony Michel's 27-yard touchdown run that vaulted Georgia into the College Football Playoff National Championship is a play that you’ll be seeing a lot this week. How you saw it was the work of ESPN’s Derek Mobley, who directed the Rose Bowl and will also direct the national championship game on Jan. 8. Mobley directed the famed 2006 Rose Bowl where No. 2 Texas beat No. 1 USC.
“The play happens and I see it is going to the far right corner and I know that my far right side hand-held camera (run by a camera operator on the field) is in the corner of the end zone,” Mobley said after Georgia’s 54-48 double-overtime win over Oklahoma. “I immediately look at that camera to see if he has a good shot, so I know that is going to be my first cut. I’m going to stay on that camera with the celebration until I have a next, better shot. [Oklahoma quarterback] Baker Mayfield is the face of college football this year, a Heisman winner, also a polarizing figure. All game I thought we did a good job covering his highs and lows. So when I saw him bending over dejected, I knew I had to get to that next shot. In a big moment, it’s not just about winners. Sometimes the loser shot is equally telling and especially his—he played a great game.”
One of the challenges for sports television directors like Mobley is that a college football field gets flooded seconds after the winning play, by other media, support staff, students and who knows. “It’s very hard to get a clean handheld shot or a hard camera shot of all the people you care about,” Mobley said.
Directing the Rose Bowl has its unique charters. Mobley said he attempts to get a lot of the color and environment of the game into his images in the first half. “I want the San Gabriel Mountains and all the stuff that makes the Rose Bowl special,” he said.
“But as the game gets tighter and it gets to the end and overtime, all of that really doesn’t matter anymore,” Mobley said. “I narrow my focus to the players and documenting what is going on.”
2. Statistically, nearly all of you missed the women’s basketball broadcast between Seton Hall and St. John’s on FS2 on Dec. 30, 2016. The game drew just 9,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, but something remarkable happened during that game, the rare time a sports broadcast felt revolutionary. Fox Sports producers placed microphones on both women’s basketball coaches for the entire game and offered access viewers rarely have—including full speeches by the coaches at halftime, the coaches’ interactions with officials for all 40 minutes, and unlimited access to the huddles during timeouts and between quarters.
With the technical success of the game, Fox is bringing back the conceit for Tuesday night's Creighton at Seton Hall women’s basketball game on FS2 (7:00 PM ET) and the Providence at DePaul men’s basketball game on Jan. 12 on FS1 (8:30 PM ET). All of the coaches will have a live microphone for the entire game (on a five-second delay) with the commentators offering perspective intermittently. Fox will have live locker room speeches at halftime and huddles and timeouts will be treated like corners between the rounds of a boxing broadcast. Most of the game will be in “triple-box” form—one each of the coaches and one box on game action. Fox Sports Go will offer two additional streams—dedicated to each coach for the full duration of the game. The games will be produced by Fox Sports college basketball producer Steve Scheer and directed by Matt Gangl, who directed the World Series. Coordinating producer Geordie Wimmer and others are in LA monitoring the feed for language.
Lisa Byington and LaChina Robinson have the call for Creighton-Seton Hall, with live audio from Creighton coach Jim Flanery and Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella (who was great last year). Joe Davis and Len Elmore are on the call for Providence at DePaul with Friars coach Ed Cooley and Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao on the mic.
3. National title game viewership:
2018: Georgia-Alabama: ?
2017: Clemson-Alabama: 26.029 million total live audience
2016: Alabama-Clemson: 26,709,000 total live audience
2015: Ohio State-Oregon: 34,148,000 total live audience:
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• Here are Washington Post writer John Woodrow Cox’s six stories in 2017 that explored how children in America contend every day with gun violence. An amazing, sobering series.
• The Best of the Marshall Project in 2017.
•New York Times writer Mike McIntire on the college sports tax.
• From Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post: Polls show Americans distrust the media. But talk to them, and it’s a very different story.
• From The Globe and Mail: What's Paw Patrol's secret? How it captivated children and conquered the world.
• From Pro Publica’s Sarah Smith: Tyler Haire was locked up at 16. A Mississippi judge ordered that he undergo a mental exam. What happened next is a statewide scandal.
• mran Siddiquee considers the ways in which his identities—as a Bangladeshi-American and as a man—were shaped by growing up in the shadow of The Simpsons.
• The American Prospect, on local dailies and weeklies are in a slow death spiral thanks to the private equity industry.
• From Yashar Ali of the Huffington Post: The Miss America Emails: How The Pageant’s CEO Really Talks About The Winners.
• How the news media distorts black families.
• From Evan Osnos: As Donald Trump surrenders America’s global commitments, Xi Jinping is learning to pick up the pieces.
Sports pieces of note:
•B/R’s Howard Beck on women moving into positions of power in NBA front offices.
• NYT writer Scott Cacciola on, the Fantastical Adventures of Fabulous Flournoy.
• Maria Mendoza-Sanchez raised four children in Oakland, built a nursing career and bought a home. Then came the election—and the most agonizing decision of her life. By Hamed Aleaziz of the San Francisco Chronicle.
• From Chuck Culpepper of The Washington Post: Two racehorses, both male, ‘fell in love’ and grew inseparable. Until tragedy did it for them.
• From Tara Sullivan of the Boston Globe: The demanding careers of Patriots receiver Chris Hogan and his doctor-wife Ashley Boccio.
• SI’s Kalyn Kahler on how the NFL is watched.
• Great pregame story here on LeBron James’ struggles in Utah from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
• The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis: Can you offend people with your politics and still be a sportswriter?
5. Sports Media Watch had the final ratings for all the Christmas Day sporting events.
5a. SI’s Rohan Nadkarni profiled the ESPN afternoon NBA studio show, “The Jump.”
5b. Longtime ESPN horse racing and college football reporter Jeannine Edwards retired from broadcasting after this year’s Cotton Bowl.
5c. With ESPN Radio host Ryen Russillo opting not to re-sign with the network, and Bomani Jones moving from radio to podcasting and a studio show debuting sometime in 2018, ESPN Radio has revamped its weekly national lineup. The new lineup, starting Jan. 2:
All times Eastern:
4-6 a.m. First and Last (Mike Golic Jr.)
6-10 a.m. Golic and Wingo (Mike Golic, Trey Wingo, Mike Golic Jr.)
10 a.m. – 1 p.m. The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz (Dan Le Batard and Jon Weiner)
1-3 p.m. The Stephen A. Smith Show (Stephen A. Smith)
3-6 p.m. The Will Cain Show (Will Cain)
6-9 p.m. Spain and Fitz (Sarah Spain and Jason Fitz)
9 p.m. – 1 a.m. Freddie and Fitzsimmons (Freddie Coleman and Ian Fitzsimmons)
1 a.m. – 4 a.m. SportsCenter AllNight
ESPN management made clear that they favored Smith over Russillo when they gave Smith the 1 to 3 p.m. slot (which is more likely to be picked up affiliates over a drive-time spot). Cain recently teamed up with Russillo and now gets his show. I’ll make one prediction: This won’t be the lineup in 2020.
5d.Quality feature that ran on Hockey Night in Canada on the consensus overall No. 1 NHL draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin.
5f.Great advice from the terrific combat sports journalist, Karim Zidan.