Here is this week’s edition of SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
Tiger vs. Phil: What to watch for
Craig Barry is spending Thanksgiving on the golf course. Turner Sports’ chief content officer has spent 10 hours each day of this week at the Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas preparing for Friday’s pay-per-view match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
His team is rehearsing with new drone technology, super slow-motion cameras, an array of live microphones—basically, enough toys to keep Barry entertained over the holiday (a work Thanksgiving is also planned for Thursday evening). Plus, there’s plenty of pressure keeping the 29-year Turner Sports veteran motivated.
With the first tee still days away, reviews are already coming in. Rory McIlroy said the event “has missed the mark a little bit.” Justin Thomas said he’ll be watching football instead. Others have criticized the event’s $20 price tag, its corporate-friendly setup, or its slate of announcers, while the conversation this week seemingly has shifted back towards defending what could be a fun time. Ultimately, it will be the production’s job to live up to the hype and counter the criticism. “Big picture, we feel really comfortable with the amount of publicity and the type of publicity that the match has garnered,” Barry said. “We’re confident.”
Televised challenge matches have a history dating back to the 1960s, but Barry opted not to meticulously study how the events have been covered in the past. “I wanted us to be as fresh as possible,” he said. “There are very few times in your career when you get to build something from scratch.” Here are a few things to look for, starting at 3 p.m. eastern Friday.
• In turning Turner president David Levy’s vision into reality, Barry has plenty of tech at his disposal, but he said the priority remains building a narrative. Without commercial breaks, the biggest challenge will be keeping that sense of momentum while the players walk between shots. That responsibility will largely fall on play-by-play man Ernie Johnson, along with analysts Darren Clarke and Peter Jacobson and reporters Shane Bacon and Natalie Gulbis. Before the match, Turner is rolling out a personality-filled pregame crew of host Adam Lefkoe, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Barkley, and pro golfer Pat Perez.
“I feel strongly that we have an obligation to both the hardcore fan and the casual fan,” Barry said. “The casual fan needs to be entertained and the golf commentary needs to be good at the core. We will be calling the match as a sanctioned PGA tour event, as we’d call any golf event. We’ll have that credibility to go along with the entertainment value.”
• As for providing updates on social media, “The short answer is we are going to be a little more generous than a pay-per-view boxing match,” Barry said. “We’ll build a social narrative so people know what’s going on…. We knew that we didn’t want to alienate people that didn’t have the time to watch or didn’t want to pay.” Partly, Turner is limiting its social output because TNT will be carrying content on its network on a later date.
• TNT’s show will represent yet another instance of the new WarnerMedia (created by AT&T’s combined ownership of Time Warner and Turner). Last week, HBO ran a 24/7 episode delving into Tiger and Phil’s history, while Bleacher Report brands, including House of Highlights, mine their competition for social content.
As much as Barry hopes the event hits its revenue targets, from his content side of things, the match’s biggest significance is how it has brought the brands together for the first time, proving AT&T’s sports muscle and setting the stage for more special events. The Match II could be just around the corner.
Religion of Sports Growing a ‘Cult’ Following
Sports matter. That was the simple message filmmaker Gotham Chopra got across in the 2016 debut season of Religion of Sports, a docuseries co-produced by Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. In response to his wife, Dr. Candice Chen, who would ask, “Why do these people care so much about this thing?” and his father, New Age speaker Deepak Chopra, who was “not a sports fan, at all,” Gotham set out to show the critical function sports played in society, offering sublime experience, shared meaning, and camaraderie. Religion of Sports wasn’t just a tagline but a full philosophy.
And now it has followers, Deepak and Chen included. Strahan, Brady, and Chopra have extended RoS from a single television series into a budding media empire. Chopra helped produce the recent “Shut Up and Dribble” series on Showtime, he launched a podcast called Why Sports Matter, and earlier this year the team raised $3 million to push the venture further. Strahan said that was money he and Brady could have covered, but bringing in strategic investment partners will help the company grow faster.
Having shown how sports matter, Chopra has a new task as Religion of Sports returns to AT&T’s Audience Network’s for Season 3 starting Wednesday: answering the follow-up question. So what? Chopra believes that sports can engage, teach, and inspire communities—a common theme in this year’s six-part series. And he’s eager to do those same things with his show. One episode in particular has stuck with him, featuring a pair of football teams who play on opposite sides of the U.S.—Mexico border, which he hopes will “provide a level of hope in dark times.”
These days, Chopra often thinks, “As we build out this Religion of Sports brand and community, how can you inspire and activate that community,” he says. “We’re at the early stage of that.” Rather than build on a business model like The Athletic has, or construct a platform like MasterClass, RoS started with content, partnering with AT&T, Facebook, and Showtime to get its message out—”To evangelize, I guess,” Chopra says. Eventually, Strahan says, the goal is to “be that go-to place where you go to find those things that make sports more than just the sports, where you can find interesting and compelling stories that are told in a way that you’ve never seen it before.”
For him, RoS is an opportunity to be involved in that storytelling process, and to build something from the ground up. Brady is active, too, making every board meeting conference call, even while travelling during the season. Strahan says this could just be a part of Brady’s media empire whenever he decides to retire. “He’ll have more time to focus on things year round,” Strahan said. “Maybe Tom will be our next health guru of the world.”
Inside DAZN’s MLB Deal
To hear DAZN North America executive vice president Joe Markowski describe it, the path to dominating the U.S. sports media landscape is actually quite straightforward. There are only three steps, even if each is much easier said than done.
1. Establish yourself in a niche sport
2. Spread into broader content
3. Capture the country’s most valuable rights packages
As of last week, DAZN has entered phase two—and a year ahead of schedule, Markowski said. The international sports subscription service announced a three-year, $300 million deal with MLB that will have the streaming platform host a daily whiparound show in the same genre as NFL RedZone. The league and DAZN will work together to create the show, with hosting talent to be announced and the location still undecided, though DAZN will have access to MLB’s studios.
The idea for the show actually originated on the MLB side, according to DAZN chairman John Skipper. “[Commissioner Rob Manfred] and I ran into each other over the summer and we were catching up and he said that he had something that might be interesting for you, but that if you’re interested we should get into it in a hurry,” Skipper told The Washington Post. “I said, ‘We’d like to do that.’ And we got a deal done in about three weeks. We asked them if there was a price we could buy it that they would not take it to market, so it came together quickly.”
The show pairs with DAZN’s current fight sports lineup by offering a consistent presence in the app for half the year to go with the special fighting events which occur more sporadically. There also should be some overlap between fans of Mexican world champion boxer Canelo Alvarez, who recently inked a $365 million DAZN deal, and the multicultural fans Major League Baseball is reportedly targeting by partnering with DAZN.
MLB extended its biggest rights package with Fox Sports through 2028, keeping the World Series and baseball’s All-Star game on broadcast TV, but this deal will allow them to experiment with modern programming. The MLB Network already has a nightly show based around live look-ins. DAZN’s version, though, “is not going to look anything like any other MLB show out there,” Markowski said. “That would be a waste of time for both parties.”
Until we see what that show looks like, the most significant part of DAZN’s latest deal is the proof it provides that the company is deadly serious about competing in the American market. “I see a lot of coverage that talks about us being a niche fight sport platform,” Markowski said. “We’re a multi-sport broadcaster. I said we’d do that and we are now doing that very quickly.”
A ROUGH TWO MINUTES FOR MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
Last week, Monday Night Football lead producer Jay Rothman was asked to evaluate his new announcing team. “I think when football is happening fast in front of us and you’ve just got to react and have all that knowledge and experience come through, I think that’s when the three of us are at our best, and I think we’ve had those moments especially in some fourth quarters this year,” he said. Focusing on Monday’s battle of 9-1 juggernauts, Rothman added, “I think this game plays to our wheelhouse.”
Yet, the first-year MNF outfit was not able to consistently rise to the level of the Game of the Year as the Rams’ 54-51 triumph over the Chiefs wound down. Over the course of two minutes of game action late in the fourth quarter:
• The commentators went dead silent for 13 seconds following a questionable lowering the helmet call before Booger McFarland and Jason Witten both jumped in.
• Using the telestrator, Witten initially misidentified which two L.A. defenders collided on the Chiefs’ go-ahead score.
• Graphics and sound indicated a commercial break was coming when in fact the Rams were able to run one more play before the two-minute warning. “It is indeed 2:01,” Joe Tessitore said as the graphic faded. “That’s what we thought on first glance.”
• Witten repeatedly stumbled over the pronunciation of linebacker Samson Ebukam, who scored twice on the night, while breaking down Patrick Mahomes’s interception with 1:28 left.
Each was an innocent, honest mistake. But combined in such a short stretch of time while covering such a dramatic event, they show just how much farther this group has to go. Despite the positive ratings numbers, I’d consider Monday night a missed opportunity for ESPN. (Maybe worth mentioning: both Disney CEO Bob Iger and ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro were at the game.)
ABOUT THAT BROWNS–CONDOLEEZZA RICE STORY
Cleveland had its bye Sunday, and yet the team still generated news thanks to a report from ESPN insider Adam Schefter. “Browns interested in interviewing Condoleezza Rice for head coaching job, source tells ESPN,” Schefter tweeted at 10:37 a.m. The linked story had more detail, as did Schefter when he appeared on NFL Sunday Countdown. “The Browns are interested in getting her ideas and her input into the organization,” he said. “Everyone knows she would be an extreme longshot to get the job.” However, most of the public ran with the initial report. The post turned into Schefter’s highest performing news tweet since announcing Hue Jackson’s firing, while Condoleezza Rice rose to the top of Twitter’s trending topics.
Most analysts responded by saying that given Rice presented an overqualified resume, she could fit in a team’s front office—or even the commissioner’s suite—but considering her for head coach made a mockery of the search and presented yet another example of the Browns playing the role of NFL jesters.
Two hours after the report, Cleveland GM John Dorsey denied it. “We are still in the process of composing the list of candidates and Secretary Rice has not been discussed,” he said in a statement. For her part, Rice wrote on Facebook, “I’m not ready to coach but I would like to call a play or two next season if the Browns need ideas!”
Speaking Tuesday, Schefter told SI, “I stand by my story 100%.”
Last week, Dorsey said, “I just want the best possible head coach to move this thing forward regardless of age. It could be a woman, too.” After that, Schefter said, “I made some calls to see what woman would be on the list. I was told that Condi Rice was on their list…. I thought it was very interesting.” After confirming the information, Schefter prepared the story for Sunday Countdown.
“They were legitimately impressed with her,” he said. “Look, in the NFL people interview a lot of people, and it doesn’t mean they are hiring those people, OK? … I think it makes sense.” Even with his role in the heart of the NFL rumor mill, Schefter was somewhat surprised to see the story take off, earning references on CBS News, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone. And he understood when the franchise put out its statement. “Basically, teams and organizations say what they have to say at a certain time,” he said. Declining to discuss his sourcing or the team’s possible motivation, Schefter added, “The Browns tried to throw water on it intentionally, and that doused it some, but it continued.”
The topic appeared on sports talk shows throughout the day Monday, with commentators discussing the role of women in the NFL and Rice’s possible future in the sport. It now seems unlikely that the Browns will sit down with Rice as part of the coaching search, but the news was still plenty to react to.
• The NFL Today on CBS tomorrow will highlight the work of Aaron Maybin, a 2009 first-round pick at linebacker who struggled to stick in the NFL before retiring in 2014. He returned to Baltimore to pursue art and teach at a local elementary school. “LaVar Arrington begins this story by stating that many have either forgotten about Aaron Maybin or have made a judgment of him solely on his NFL career,” producer Charlie Bloom said. “LaVar challenges all of us to learn more about the man…. We learn that Aaron is a published author, artist, teacher and a man looking to make change and a difference. Hopefully many will come away seeing that he is succeeding at something much bigger than a football life.”
• The first round of bids for Disney’s 22 regional sports networks are in, and The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss talked to a few experts about what Amazon’s reported interest in the channels might mean.
• In other Amazon news, the company announced that its average-minute audience for NFL games is up 36% this year to over 450,000. A total of 14.7 million viewers have tuned in at some point on Prime Video or Twitch.
• Kevin Draper has profiled NBA reporter Brian Windhorst, who is slowly emerging from LeBron James’ shadow, in The New York Times.
• The Athletic has added television veterans with plans to grow its video offering in 2019. In trademark Athletic fashion, executive producer Armen Keteyian, an 11-time Emmy winner, wrote a post explaining why he’s joining.
• ESPN+ debuted a new, eight-episode show, More Than An Athlete, about LeBron James and his friends-turned-business partners this week. James is listed as an executive producer on the show. On The Undefeated (part of ESPN), Marc J. Spears has more info after talking with the other men behind the project.
• Peyton Manning assessed his brother Eli’s play on last week’s edition of Detail—notable given that reports this offseason indicated that Peyton passed on broadcasting opportunities this year partly because he did not want to have to criticize the younger Manning.