Wednesday, June 30, 2010
That's a good move for Andrews, and for ESPN.
While the "Dancing" gig broadened Andrews' popularity beyond sports (as the show did with racecar driver Helio Castroneves) and sparked speculation that Andrews might try to ply that popularity into a different on-air opportunity with her contract expiring this week, staying with the all-sports network should be a good move for both parties.
For Andrews, it allows her to remain as perhaps the best and most recognizable sideline reporter in sports. Those assignments are always difficult simply because it's tough for the reporter to make valuable contributions, but she usually does well.
Had she gone to some entertainment-type reporting or non-sports gig, she would've been just another made-for-TV face. On sports, she brings credibility because she has worked so hard to do her job well throughout her career. She's not the first person who comes to mind in terms of breaking news or reporting controversy, but on the field she asks questions that must be asked and at least makes those sometimes unbearable on-field situations watchable.
Staying put also gives Andrews room to grow. She has a safe base in sideline reporting, but ESPN might find ways for her to test other on-air opportunities if she wants them. Those might include studio work, chances to do long-form reporting or, who knows, even a lifestyle-type show. Because the people at ESPN know and trust Andrews, the opportunity to avoid being typecast as only a sideline reporter should come.
Maybe she'll succeed in those endeavors if they come, or maybe not. Still, testing the waters -- or maybe just remaining happy doing what she's doing -- can be done much more easily from "home" at ESPN than as the new face of some network or program.
The fairly intense and enjoyable Xs-and-Os show will air at 7:30 a.m. Sundays during the regular season on ESPN. Late in the season and during the playoffs it will re-air at 8:30 a.m. on ESPN2.
Hosts Merril Hog, Ron Jaworski and Sal Paolantonio will return to the show that allows Hoge and especially Jaworski to showcase their film study skills and truly analyze one game each week.
The show is taped at a studio at NFL Films in New Jersey. According to reports of the deal, ESPN will sell the show's ads.
Monday, June 28, 2010
All of that leads to NFL training camps and college football -- real TV ratings powerhouses that people want to watch.
After all the hype for the World Cup (and that will continue a bit until somebody wins the event because ESPN will remain in place in South Africa and provide far too much information on "SportsCenter" as a result), a return to coverage and promotion of sports people actually care about should provide a nice contrast to what's been happening for the past month or so on TV.
Despite ESPN's best efforts (and all of the media, really), the U.S. match with Ghana drew just 14 million viewers.
That's not a number to scoff at -- according to ratings it's the fourth-most watched soccer game in U.S. history, behind two previous World Cup finals and the 1999 Women's World Cup that the United State won -- but with all the TV and online hype and coverage (and the same was true in print), the event did not merit the attention in received. Media members were complicit in a conspiracy of sorts, selling something nobody wanted.
With all the blathering (including live shots and stories about public places in the United States were people were watching by the thousands and feature stories about the popularity of the team), it was fair to expect that the U.S.-Ghana matchup would draw ratings and viewership to dwarf the U.S.-Canada hockey matches that aired the winter. That did not happen.
Part of the problem is that more people are not watching than are watching for almost any sporting event on TV in the United States every year. Not even half the country watches the Super Bowl.
For soccer, which has minimal broad-based interest to start, it's just unrealistic to think that many people could jump on board that quickly. Yes, some people cared and some people watched, but not in the mass the folks on TV were telling us. And their bias (either in terms of capitalistic need or nationalistic pride) shown through often.
If U.S. sports fans fail to embrace soccer -- which they have not done, despite many efforts the past 40 years, that does not make them any less intelligent. Or knowledgeable. Or passionate.
They save those traits, and their corresponding viewing habits for other sports. Usually football.
No summer sporting events, except for the All-Star Game, will rival the numbers of U.S. soccer matches the past few weeks but it just felt like so much of the soccer interest was contrived and manufactured by World Cup broadcast partners.
Even the preview segments for U.S.-Ghana did not focus on the game so much as the potential for overtime and even a possible shootout. Apparently the truth that TV did not want to share was that the game might be boring and close but the excitment, the real drama, would come in OT or if the game moved to a shootout.
That things played out as promoted made the TV partners seem prescient but really made no difference in the future of soccer in this country. After all that has happened the past few weeks, it will actually be nice to get a break from soccer again for four years.
In the meantime, people can watch baseball, debate about the NBA and even wonder about the future of Erin Andrews or which radio network will land the radio rights for the NCAA Tournament (they're still up for grabs despite the TV deal earlier this year). And all of those things are more interesting, and prompt more potential impact, for sports fans in the United States than the World Cup.
Friday, June 25, 2010
These arguments come every four years or so, usually in conjunction with the World Cup (or the Women's World Cup, which the United States won in 1999). Before that, there was the 1970s uptick in popularity sparked by the North American Soccer League, home of the New York Cosmos and its roster of international soccer stars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia.
All too often, those "next big moments" play out and little follows -- which might be the case this time as well.
On-field standouts and quality play need something more to produce a watershed moment for a sport. They need attention and a public response.
Luckily for soccer at this time, ESPN provides just such an enthusiastic partner with its endless promotions and quality coverage and production. And viewers have responded in record numbers.
Some 13 million watched the U.S. team's first match in pool play vs. England on ABC and this week's final match of group play vs. Algeria drew 6.1 million viewers to ESPN on Wednesday morning, making it the most-viewed weekday morning event in the all-sports network's history. (Yes, there must be some perspective with that because the number of quality, ratings-drawing morning programming has been limited, at best, through the years. Still, it's impressive.)
So, the stage would seem set for a big moment for soccer because of a rare combination of nationalistic attention and interest. Other sports have parlayed those things into turning point moments, but it's just not that simple for soccer in the United States.
When it Worked
1958: The first TV moment that validated a sport came Sunday, Dec. 28, 1958. In the NFL championship game (years before there was Super Bowl), the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants played to a tie through four quarters and the game entered sudden death overtime for the first time in league history.
After New York took the opening kickoff and was forced to punt, Baltimore pounded the ball down the field. They reached the 8-yard-line when the game was interrupted as a man ran on the field. (In another example of the power of TV, that man was an NBC employee who was told to create a distraction so the network could repair its feed, which had just gone dead.) When play resumed a few minutes later, the Colts continued their drive and Alan Ameche eventually scored the decisive touchdown on a 1-yard run.
Some 45 million people in the United States watched the game (even though it was blacked out in New York City), and it was credited as the event that launched the NFL into public consciousness -- spurring a growth trend that has pretty much continued for 50-plus years.
1979: On Monday, March 26, 1979, Indiana State with Larry Bird and Michigan State with Earvin "Magic" Johnson met in the championship game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. It was the final act of the Final Four -- and the first act that helped spur college basketball and the NCAA Tournament to previously unimaginable heights.
Interest in the game was unparalleled, and the game remains the highest-rated basketball game, college or professional, in U.S. history. Some 35 million people watched as Michigan State won, 75-64. Bird and Magic were the focal points, as they had been throughout the tournament.
In the years that followed, the NCAA Tournament expanded from 40 to 64 teams and became a cash cow for the NCAA itself -- because the TV rights that CBS and its partners now pay ($10.8 billion through 2024) to carry the tournament help support every other championship sanctioned by the NCAA.
Also, it's probably fair to argue that the game, as the kickoff and first in-person meeting for the the Bird-Magic rivalry, helped the NBA as well. Both players went pro the following year and their rivalry eventually made pro basketball a TV successful staple again.
1987: The most-watched college football game of all time took place Jan. 2, 1987 when top-ranked Miami met No. 2 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship. Officials at NBC had moved the game to Friday night, making it the first bowl game ever contested after New Year's Day, and expected people across the nation would watch.
They were correct, and surprised, as nearly 70 million people watched a good game with a great storyline -- hard-working simple and solid Penn State against brash, colorful and loud Miami. The game was close from start to finish. In the final minute, a late Pete Giftopolous interception stopped a Miami drive and secured Penn State's 14-10 victory.
After that, college football once again emerged as more of a national sport. Big games, including bowl games, moved more regularly to accommodate TV. Also, New Year's Day was no longer a sacred or secure date and many bowl games moved to Jan. 1 or later.
Still, it's Soccer
Those success stories make the combination of compelling athletic competition and widespread attention with millions of TV viewers sound like a sure-fire blueprint for success, but that's not always the case. The formula often fails with Olympic sports or quadrennial events, such as the World Cup.
For example, while 41 million people watched Olympic figure skating on Feb. 25, 1994, most were interested in what would happen to Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan had been attacked at U.S. nationals and was sent to the Olympic games with her recovery uncertain.
Skating officials connected Harding (and her husband, bodyguard and other accomplices) to the attack before the Olympic Games in Norway and attempted to remove her from the U.S. team. But she threatened legal action and stayed on the team. Kerrigan eventually earned the silver medal while Harding finished eighth. She later had her U.S. title stripped was banned for life from U.S. figure skating events as a competitor or coach.
It was reality TV before networks created the genre, and it did nothing for figure skating popularity.
Perhaps the most fair comparison for World Cup impact and ratings can be found in Olympic hockey -- especially the United States-Canada matchups just this year in Vancouver.
The teams met twice, first in the preliminary round and then in the gold medal game.
In the preliminary round, which was shown live only on MSNBC, 8.2 million people watched the United States earn a 5-3 victory.
More than a week later in the gold medal game, Canada recorded a 3-2 overtime victory that attracted an average of 27.6 million viewers on NBC. At its most-watched moment, some 32 million people were watching.
If soccer matches those numbers (and it has a way to go because the 8.2 million watching on MSNBC trump the 6.1 who watched this week on ESPN), it would be an interesting progression for the sport -- and a major victory.
For anyone to discuss or expect that the soccer team's success in the World Cup this year would propel the sport to more mainstream status in the United States is a bit optimistic at best and simplistic at worst. Even with a favorable formula, any "next big step" remains far away and unrealistic.
Soccer might eventually emerge as a more mainstream sport in the United States with a verifiable major professional league on U.S. soil that people care about at watch, but that's more likely to be the result of years of little steps as opposed to one big leap.
ESPN Radio host Erik Kuselias was spot-on with his analysis of the U.S. victory that pushed them out of pool play. He called Landon Donovan's goal the most important in U.S. soccer history and he was correct.
Had the U.S. endured another draw and not made the knockout round, it would've been a disappointment and ended the sport's chances with casual fans -- again. Or at least for the next four years.
Instead, the program got an emotional lift and a chance to play more meaningful matches.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Somehow ESPN analyst Pam Shriver missed the message when she got into a bickering match with struggling James Blake.
While Shriver offered what might be fair criticism of Blake's play, she did so loud enough that he could hear it during the match -- and he then responded to what was said.
Specifically, Shriver started with: "Usually, if you haven't played, or only played one or two matches, you're actually quite eager," she said. "You might not be match-tough, you might miss a lot of shots, but mentally you're not burned out.''
With Blake coming back from an injury, that made sense. But, Shriver's broadcast position was almost right on top of the court and she was talking loud enough for Blake to hear and loud enough that if she were a fan she might have been asked to leave the court area.
"Amazing you used to play tennis," Blake yelled up at Shriver's broadcast position. "I can still hear you."
A possibly minor incident should have ended there, but Shriver made it more than it was.
"James just yelled at me," she said, again loud enough for him to hear. "I'm way above the court, but evidently he can hear me. He's got rabbit ears."
With that, Shriver moved the moment away from a professional at work and more toward a petty on-air taunting -- not as bad as Jim Rome and Jim Everet (what could be?), but certainly not an example of a professional broadcaster at work, either.
Of course, Blake was not done, and neither was Shriver.
"You have to be an ass about it, too?" Blake yelled after the next point. "And act like I'm at fault.''
"And there he is, talking again," she said.
Sure, Blake was struggling and Shriver started off with valid points. Once you realize that you can be heard and you're becoming part of the action, though, it's time to stop talking so loud. It is tennis after all, and what happened was not at all professional by Shriver.
Her actions were certainly worse than others at ESPN who have been reprimanded for actions in the past. She should apologize -- and she should join that group that has at least had their hands slapped, soon.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Those covering the race, specifically TNT analysts Wally Dallenbach and Kyle Petty, slumped late in the race as well.
Ambrose, who had led 35 laps, was comfortably in the lead when a late-race caution slowed action. He took the opportunity to shut off his engine briefly to try to save gas. But when he tried to restart the engine it missed and he actually came to a stop on the track.
Because he was not able to maintain speed with the pace car and was passed under the yellow flag, NASCAR officials ordered him to start seventh in the ensuing restart -- a loss of critical spots that could not be made up with just a handful of laps remaining in the race. He eventually finished sixth.
Although the TNT crew correctly cited the rule NASCAR was applying at the time, they missed when they later strayed from racing to humor, and even to soccer.
The most tasteless moment came after the race, when Dallenback said in one egregious moment as Ambrose took his time before making himself available for an interview: "If you want to find Marcos Ambrose, go the the Golden Gate Bridge."
A reference to jumping off a bridge was not funny and unconscionable. Broadcast partners Adam Alexander and Petty groaned and, thankfully, tried to get away from that topic as quickly as possible.
Petty was not blameless, either. He tried to compare Ambrose's mistake to the potential third goal in the U.S.-Slovakia soccer match Friday, citing the need to follow the rules even if competitors do not like them. He was only half right, though.
Ambrose was a victim of the rules because he violated NASCAR's rules for caution periods. The soccer incident had nothing to do with rules, though, and Petty's disclaimer about not knowing anything about the sport should have been an out-loud clue even he could catch. Then he could have decided not to utilize the ill-conceived analogy.
To his credit, Ambrose did conduct the obligatory on-camera interview as he was walking from his trailer later in the broadcast and he shouldered responsibility for his gaffe. Dallenbach and Petty should do the same.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Had the United States lost to Slovenia, the team's chances of reaching the elimination round of the tournament would've been damaged almost beyond repair. The chance of ESPN of continually attracting casual soccer fans here in the United States would've decreased as well.
Instead, the team remains alive and ESPN has a breathless, come-from-behind tie to promote leading up to next Wednesday's match against Algeria.
Through two games, the U.S. team has attracted abundant TV attention, which will again show in ratings for Friday's match as well as information about the number of viewers/visitors at ESPN3.com for streaming coverage online.
And, while the team on the field has been entertaining, the broadcast crew has been even better.
Ian Drake provides a reason to listen, watch, whatever. He's emotional, entertaining and insightful. While some fret about the lead announcer/play-by-play man not being born and bred in the United States, they represent a misguided minority because Drake is great.
Even better, he makes former U.S. standout John Harkes strong as color commentator because they banter and Drake asks questions or creates room for Harkes to make points. They're a good broadcast crew -- and sound like they've been working together longer than they have.
From a broadcast point of view, ESPN has used its own cameras and people to complement the international TV feed well. Plus, the story during games has been the story of the games themselves -- spiced with appropriate statistics at the right times (Drake mentioned early Friday that the U.S. team was 0-15-3 all-time when giving up the first goal) and enough context and criticism to work well.
Specifically, neither Drake nor Harkes pulled punches when addressing the officiating during the game. But, ironically, Drake, often sounded more critical and almost like a homer, even though he's not from the United States. Because of that, his points mean more. He's coming from a good-of-the-game, overall-soccer perspective and it just works.
Conversely, ESPN's Bob Ley and former U.S. player Alexi Lalas sounded angry (and Lalas certainly was) when analyzing what had happened. Their analysis/criticism fell a little short -- despite the fact that emotion and opinion are necessary -- mainly because they sounded as if this game had happened in a vacuum. But international soccer has a reputation for poor officiating, and that context was missing.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
The sport's four majors mean more and merit more long-term attention, though, and the U.S. Open sits atop that group because of the challenge it inevitably provides for golfers. Those who take the course cannot win the tournament the first day, but they sure can lose it. Especially if they struggle in the infamous rough that the U.S. Golf Association always provides as part of the course setup.
For NBC Sports -- which plans a record 16 hours of high-definition coverage (including two hours each Thursday and Friday) from historic and picturesque the Pebble Beach Golf Links the next four days -- the tournament represents an obvious highlight to its year-long sports schedule.
"It's the greatest championship we do," said Dan Hicks, who will host the first two rounds and work from the 18th-hole tower throughout the Open with analyst Johnny Miller. "When you combine that and Pebble Beach, it makes it incredibly special."
For viewers, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach means golf that looks good on TV, with all those ocean views, and golf that could look bad on TV, with many of the pros potentially struggling, and certainly not posting the types of scores that they do when the PGA Tour visits Pebble Beach for its annual season-opening event, when greens are slower and the rough is shorter.
To make the telecast work this year, NBC has 274 staffer members, 51 cameras and 10 production trucks on site in California. More than 2.4 million feet of fiber cable has been run throughout the course to feed pictures back to the trucks and then out to the world.
NBC also has "cue ball" cameras on the seventh and 18th holes, and it added an 18th-hole crane camera, which will provide a straight-on look at tee shots on the final hole. The crane is parked next to the golf course in the backyard of a family that pulled out their shrubbery to make room for the device.
"The tee shots at 18 will be struck right at the camera, and then the second shots will be what we call a 'speed shot.' So the ball will actually come flying by our camera and land in the vicinity of the green," said executive producer Tommy Roy. "It's an angle that no one's ever seen before here. No one's been able to put a camera in a position like that. It's going to be a dramatic shot."
Those producing the broadcasts hope technology has little to do with the tournament's overall drama, though. Color and curiosity should drive interest and ratings the first few days, but they want big names in the final pairings Sunday and hopefully some close competition. While Tiger Woods' runaway victory at Pebble Beach in 2000 was historic and impressive, tight competition might draw more viewers than a dominant effort.
Finally, the West Coast location for the tournament, and corresponding timing of the tournament, which pushes action into prime time on the East Coast, should certainly bolster ratings.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
With the Big 12 down to 10 members because of moves by Nebraska and Colorado to the Big Ten and Pac-10, respectively, ESPN told conference officials it would maintain payouts according to its contract that runs through 2016. It's a bigger commitment for ESPN than fellow TV partner Fox Sports Net just because FSN's contract with the Big 12 ends in 2012. So ESPN will continue paying for 12 schools and getting 10 for a longer period of time.
Also, the remaining members of the Big 12 get "buyout" money from the two programs leaving the conference and Texas has a green light to create its own, school-specific television network.
Those factors make Texas the king of the conference by almost every possible measure -- especially because several of the remaining Big 12 schools agreed to take a smaller portion of the buyout money so UT could have more. They did so to keep Texas in the conference, and ensure that the conference remains alive for them.
Still, the Big 12 itself lags behind the just-enhanced Big Ten and Pac-10 as a top-to-bottom national TV draw. And everyone trails the Southeastern Conference, at least in terms of what other entities are willing to pay to broadcast games.
That's because the SEC makes more with less. It has deals with ESPN and CBS that total $3 billion and run through 2024 -- and it earned that kind of support despite having fewer major TV markets in its region than other conferences. So, people clearly must be interested across the nation.
At least the people signing the checks believe viewers are interested. Or, maybe ESPN and CBS overbid three years ago when they signed the deals, hoping to prevent the formation of an SEC Network similar to the already successful Big Ten Network.
Either way, TV money pumps essential financial life into the SEC despite the fact that it has just two top-15 TV markets in the region (No. 8 Atlanta and No. 13 Tampa). Even crediting Florida markets to the SEC, which might be a reach because of competition from the Atlantic Coast Conference which has Florida State and Miami, the SEC's other big makets are all outside the top 15. They are -- No. 16 Miami, No. 19 Orlando, No. 27 Raleigh-Durham and No. 29 Nashville.
Conversely, the Big Ten and revamped Pac-10 can each claim seven top-25 markets. Had the Pac-10 completed the Texas acquisition, it would've had 10 top-25 markets but that did not happen.
With realignment seemingly slowing down, the real impact of the moves might not be felt until the Big 12 attempts to update its existing TV deals. When that happens, the conference will find out of the comparative windfall continues. It's hard to imagine the Big 12 will ever be a more valuable TV property than the SEC, though.
Meanwhile the Big Ten makes up for its slightly lower payout from outside networks with its own Big Ten Network. The revenue from that entity, whose financial model includes a portion of cable subscribers' bills coming directly to the BTN, helps the Big Ten reap bigger per-school TV revenues than the SEC.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Not surprisingly, Saturday's United States-England tie on ABC was the most-watched first-round World Cup match since 1994. After all the hype as well as an appropriate nationalistic curiosity, it would've been a surprise if it did not draw a big number and lots of eyeballs. With a 7.3 rating, it attracted about 13 million viewers -- and those are great numbers for almost any sporting event, especially one that airs on a Saturday afternoon in mid-June.
According the ABC/ESPN, the three-hour window for the telecast (including a one-hour pregame show) drew more than 10.7 million viewers and the telecast ranks as the fifth-most-watched soccer event ever -- behind three World Cup finals (including the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final) and a round of 16 game (United States-Brazil) in 1994 -- in the United States. All of those matches were televised on ABC.
Through five matches of World Cup coverage, ESPN and ABC were averaging 3,427,000 households and 4,937,000 viewers -- up 95 percent and 108 percent, respectively -- versus the first five games of the 2006 World Cup (1,754,000 households and 2,379,000 viewers).
For soccer aficionados, that's good news -- probably opening the door for more soccer on TV, at least on the ESPN family, in the future because it's hard to imagine the numbers going down as the World Cup progresses.
The early morning weekday start times for the two remaining U.S. matches in pool play (9:30 a.m. Friday, June 18 vs. Slovenia and 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, June 23 vs. Algeria) might not be ideal, but even if people watch in fewer numbers than for the opener the matches will still shatter ratings for typical weekday mornings. And, the remaining U.S. matches could draw ratings similar to the opener as more people jump on the once-ever-four-years soccer bandwagon.
About the only thing that has not gotten universal approval from TV viewers during the World Cup are "vuvezelas" used by soccer fans in South Africa. The plastic horns, a tradition among fans in the country, create a buzzing sound that gets picked up loud and clear by ambient microphones at the matches.
According to several ESPN sources, the topic has been discussed by network officials -- including possibly using technology to mute the sound -- but it has not been the subject of loud or regular complaints from viewers in the United States. Not surprisingly, English fans (perhaps as a product of the 1-1 tie their nation's team endured in the first round against the United States) have been a bit more vocal with their complaints.
An Associated Press report from London said the BBC had received 545 complaints from viewers and the broadcaster was working to minimize the noise during its broadcasts. In fact, the BBC is considering a service that would allow viewers to must ambient game noise and still be able to hear the commentary of announcers.
FIFA president Sepp Blattner has said the sanctioning body would not ban the vevuzela from stadiums.
By midday Tuesday, the company that provides the world feed for matches, Host Broadcast Services, said it would provide additional audio filters for the buzzing sound created by the horns.
That's a shame, because the horns are part of the atmosphere in South Africa. ESPN Radio hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic are among those who believe the sound should stay.
Friday, June 11, 2010
First, England-United States in the World Cup at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ABC. It's the most tradition-rich sporting event in the world, and while many here in the United States will be watching here only for nationalistic purposes, it should still be worth watching.
There will be no recommendation in this space to watch all 64 games of the World Cup, or even a quarter of them, but an effort to take in the U.S. team seems appropriate.
Second, baseball's best tradition -- a dominant pitcher -- provides the reason to watch Washington Nationals rookie Steven Strasburg face the Cleveland Indians at 1 p.m. Sunday on TBS. Another interleague game (Phillies-Red Sox) was scheduled in that spot, but TBS asked to change and Major League Baseball wisely OK'd the switch so Strasburg's second big league start could be televised. People will tune in to see Strasburg. There's just something appealing about a good pitcher.
Third, Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics tips off at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC. It has become a solid series, worth watching. In addition, the NBA has provided a nice proving grounds for the use of instant replay and Jeff Van Gundy continues to emerge as a solid color commentator.
Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll chimed in on the USC sanctions from a safe distance, and without dealing with any reporters. Video of his statement carried by ESPN was credited to PeteCarrollTV. What's that? Why the personal YouTube channel for the coach, of course. ... Ratings for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals were the highest in more than 35 years. The Blackhawks' clinching game against the Flyers in Philadelphia attracted more than 8 million viewers -- the most for an NHL playoff game since 1974.
According to all official ESPN references, including whenever it's noted in the Bottom Line (that crawl of information across the bottom of your TV set), its the 2010 FIFA World Cup (TM). Yes, ESPN has been religious, or at least required, to even use the little trademark logo in every reference to the event.
ESPN paid $100 million for U.S. rights to the tournament, less than the $325 million Univision paid for rights in Spanish-speaking countries but still a sizable investment. Along with cash, ESPN has tied the launch of ESPN 3D to the tournament, with 25 World Cup games broadcast in 3D during the next month.
Before games begin and regardless of how popular the broadcasts will be, it seems ESPN has done several things correctly. Most notably, ESPN has not tried to force U.S. broadcasters onto games. Instead, people who call the sport regularly and call it well will work the games. Soccer fans want to hear people who know what they're doing and, honestly, casual fans will turn in for the athleticism, and mostly, games featuring the United States -- and they'll only be worried about some nationalistic pride and the score in those instances.
The announcers will also work on site in South Africa, unlike some World Cup games four years ago when announcers called games from studios in the United States while the event itself took place half a world away.
When the U.S. team plays, ESPN should draw good ratings, especially for its opening game, England vs. United States at 2 p.m. Saturday. That game will air on ABC. A weekend timeslot against England should mean all kinds of casual interest.
Still, the World Cup seems a bit like college football recruiting -- at least in terms of how some network officials and soccer supporters want to position it. Many, as usual with the once-every-four-years Cup, believe it can be a "flash point" or "starting point" for some great influx of soccer interest in the United States. Or at least an interest in soccer on TV.
Even if the World Cup draws good ratings -- and it likely will because of changing demographics in the United States and, honestly, overall ratings are typically low enough that a slight increase in viewership will make any ratings boost seem huge -- the impact of the event will not be able to be measured at the end of the summer or next year.
Maybe more soccer will show up on TV at a result of the World Cup, but if the ratings do not hold for international games or the MLS (and that league has never drawn eyeballs on TV), then ESPN, no matter how much it invested in promoting and providing the World Cup this year, will back away for a few years before ramps up the hype machine in advance of the 2014 World Cup.
First, former Florida QB and ESPN college football analyst Jesse Palmer, part of "College Football Live," added an off-hand remark about the importance of academics in the whole conference expansion mess. As if on cue, or on payroll from the Big Ten Conference, Palmer said people should not underestimate the importance of academics as the Big Ten considers which schools to invite for membership.
Throughout the process, and dating to 1989 when conference presidents added Penn State, Big Ten members have also been members of the Association of American Universities. The broad-based research schools that are members of that AAU (not the typically sports related Amateur Athletic Union) do have reason to consider themselves better or different from some other colleges and universities. It's a nice standard to have.
Plus, it's generally accepted that any new Big Ten members will be AAU members as well. Newcomer Nebraska is an AAU member, but it ranks lower than any other Big Ten school in most academic and research ratings.
Still, when Palmer and other analysts parrot lines about academics and that membership being a driving force in any decisions regarding conference expansion they're just wrong. It's not about academics, it's about athletics and money. Analysts need not be overly critical or cynical, but to continually offer the academics-first line is insulting to viewers.
Conversely, the calming, wise tones of Bill Curry's voice were a welcome sound Friday on "Mike and Mike in the Morning." The current Georgia State football coach (that program launches this fall) and former ESPN college football analyst just brings great perspective to everything he talks about.
With Greenberg and Golic on "Mike and Mike," Curry addressed the NCAA sanctions for Southern California and conference expansion. He put things in perspective well and offered the opinion that expansion was bad for college football. Because Curry brings experience as a player, Georgia Tech then a pro career with the Green Bay Packers, and coach, with stops in Alabama and Kentucky, his thoughtful perspectives are worth hearing. Not once in the conference expansion discussion, and granted his time was brief, did he mention academics. Then again, he knew better.
Here's just one reason he knew better -- the Big Ten cannot get its most-sought-after new member and maintain its academics-first, AAU-membership requirement. That's because cash cow Notre Dame -- which could still survive and maybe thrive as an independent football power depending on how things play out -- is not an AAU member.
It would be nice if some analyst, preferably someone with a full-time job, could just point out little things like that. That would include acknowledging that the Irish have a great academic reputation, but at the same time acknowledging that the school (in terms of enrollment and as a private school) is more different from most Big Ten members than it is the same.
That means the expansion efforts come down to money -- not academics.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
The show with a panel of national sportswriters addressing issues of the week has been taped in New York City at the ESPN Zone in Times Square since 1999. But, ESPN announced this week that its chain of restaurants would be closed by June 16.
So, colorful, spacious, but unprofitable locations in Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, New York City and Washington, D.C., will be shuttered. Several of those restaurants served as on-location studios for ESPN radio or TV shows. Most prominent in that group was "The Sports Reporters" in New York City.
If the June 16 date remains firm for all locations, "The Sports Reporters" would be taped for the last time this Sunday in New York. In subsequent weeks, the show will originate from ESPN headquarters.
From 1988 to 1999, the show was taped at a different location in New York.
The change in location also might impact who serves as guests on the show, or shakeup how often guests appear on the show. After all, it's not as easy to get to Bristol as it is New York, and if the network already has somebody on site it will be interesting to see if they keep that person around for another assignment, such as "The Sports Reporters," or now.
Also, it's certainly easier for Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, one of the critical, opinionated anchors of the show, to work in the Big Apple than travel to Connecticut each week. So it'll be interesting to see how the move impacts him and all the show's contributors.
In a rarity for a televised sporting event, the NBA has capably and fairly quickly implemented replay reviews.
Replay was used three times in the waning moments of Game 3 alone to determine possession of the ball. The NBA usually does a good job with its replay system throughout the regular season and the larger stage of the Finals has allowed the league to show its ability to harness technology in a logical manner.
Examples of such quality replay use should embolden Major League Baseball -- just a week removed from the perfect game that was not for Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga because of a bad call by an umpire -- to move forward with its own replay efforts.
Replay should have a role with major college and professional sports. With TV money driving all those entities, from small decisions such as game times to larger matters such as the makeup of conferences (and the Big Ten and Pac-10 could have a few more teams each by the time you're done reading), TV should also play a role to ensure accuracy and fairness in terms of on-field action.
That does not mean baseball should consider balls and strikes with replay. It should not. Ever.
But, a system that works can be found -- despite the NFL's ongoing attempts to make simple replay reviews a sloppy, slow process.
The model used well by one league and sport might not work as efficiently for another league. That does not mean leagues should not look for options, though. When used as part of an efficient system and implemented in a timely manner, replay can make games better.
Both fans watching on TV and those attending in person should expect leagues to be able to deliver and utilize such systems.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
He threw 94 pitches in seven innings of work and did it quickly. His fairly fast-paced routine works well for him -- and it might be good for baseball broadcasts as well.
While Strasburg has proven to be a big box office draw anywhere he pitches, his willingness to work fast has proven popular, too. With him on the mound for all but the final three innings, the game sustained a good pace and finished in 2 hours, 19 minutes -- well ahead of the major league average.
Almost everyone from broadcasters and owners to fans and umpires, has complained about the speed of games at times in recent years and while rules have been implemented about the time between innings to keep action moving, some games still drag along.
If Strasburg proves successful, his efficient approach might become the standard for copycats.
Former major league pitching coach Ray Miller always encouraged his pitchers to work fast, throw hard and change speeds -- an approach that too few pitchers practice.
It could only help the sport if the time of games diminishes a bit. If some small part of Strasburg's influence helps make that happen, that would make him successful beyond wins and losses for the Washington Nationals.
Pick the network, venue and expert/host and the reaction to the right-handed pitcher's debut was unanimous. It was awesome, impressive, an overwhelming success. All those adjectives, praise and more, were heaped on the 14-strikeout effort.
Some of the praise, especially that from proven and trusted sources, sounded so over-the-top it would've been considered silly coming from anyone else.
But, when baseball voices such as Bob Costas, Orel Hershiser and Jayson Stark agree (and they represent just a small sampling of a unanimous chorus of praise), sports fans probably feel they should listen.
Costas, working with Jim Kaat and John Smoltz (two pitchers who amassed 496 victories during 46 years combined years in Major League Baseball), sounded almost reverential at times during the game broadcast on the MLB Network.
Afterward, as experts made the rounds on shows after the game and early Wednesday, Cy Young Award winner and former NLCS and World Series MVP Hershiser, who pitched a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988, offered some of the highest priase.
"It's going to be a possible Cy Young as soon as he pitches a full season," he said. "That's the kind of performance and talent that can go for innings without giving up runs."
Likewise, ESPN expert Stark, one of the best in the business covering baseball, said he changed his schedule to see Strasburg's debut -- something he never does. And he was happy he did, calling the effort more impressive than he expected.
Completing the sweep of praise was some from unusual sources, among them Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio. Often an appropriate and reasoned critic of some things baseball, he admitted he was on the Strasburg bandwagon and encouraged Major League Baseball to promote the pitcher -- simply because: "It's so rare when the performance meets or exceeds the hype."
For Strasburg to meet the hype and praise that have been heaped on him in just the past 18 hours might be difficult, though.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Yes, it was David Stern as a guest on sports-talk radio -- this time with Jim Rome, the self-anointed king of sports interviews.
The two banter on a somewhat regular basis (with one visit good enough to last six months because Rome and his staff can mine the outtakes for all kinds of gems or all kinds of annoying repetitions), and the latest visit was more of the same.
When Rome prodded where Stern did not want to go, the conversation did not go there. Sometimes Stern interrupted Rome and sometimes Rome questioned back (but never too harshly) to keep the repartee moving. To his credit, Rome hit all the necessary topics -- including officiating in the NBA Finals and the future of LeBron James.
One one level it was good radio, a major professional league commissioner with a host of one of the nation's top sports-talk shows. On another level, it sometimes sounded like shtick or a show to make a show.
It's always hard to tell with both Rome and Stern, each of whom had a message to send and wanted to sound competent and strong without sounding either mean-spirited (in Stern's case, there's no need for him to be a bully) or overly aggressive (in Rome's case, there's no need for him to burn a bridge with topics that will not get answered but could make it difficult to get an on-air visit again).
Both sounded like they enjoyed the visit, and that's OK. At times listeners probably felt they were eavesdropping on two people having fun disagreeing with each other. Rome and Stern just might have enjoyed it a bit more than the listeners, though -- and that should not be something that a host lets happen on a regular basis because the shows should be for listeners.
Cost for ads has been slightly ahead of the $2.3 million per minute that CBS Sports charged for the Super Bowl this past year.
So, in terms of TV presentation, only one question remains about the big game -- the halftime entertainment. That announcement could come, if it follows the usual NFL timeline, before training camps open in July. With the game in Dallas, a crossover country-type performer (Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney) has been championed by some, but the NFL has most often leaned toward aging rock bands.
Fox previously announced that its hit show "Glee" would get the coveted post-Super Bowl timeslot.
He's held the role for the past nine years, working with color commentator Boomer Esiason, the former NFL quarterback who also works for CBS Sports on TV.
Albert will remain quite active. He works national NBA games on TNT and New Jersey Nets games for for YES Network during the regular season. He might just appreciate a little break from travel during the fall before basketball starts up again.
It will be a loss for listeners, though. He has a distinctive voice and usually handles his play-by-play duties well.
Westwood One has not named a replacement for Albert. Its two teams that handle Sunday afternoon NFL broadcasts are led by play-by-play men Howard David and Kevin Kugler, who could be candidates for the job.
Monday, June 7, 2010
With Bob Costas handling play-by-play duties and two former pitchers (Jim Kaat, John Smoltz) as analysts, the nuts and bolts of Strasburg's first start should be just part of the conversation. Veteran TV analyst Kaat and smart Smoltz should be able to discuss what the young pitcher does well and what he can do better.
That part should be informative and potentially interesting.
Beyond that, Kaat and Smoltz bring experience as players from different eras who have first-hand, maybe locker-next-door, experience with talented pitchers. Or pitchers who simply got a lot of attention.
As long as Strasburg does not struggle and get pulled from the game early -- and there's a reason he's making his debut against the Pirates if that's really a concern -- the two analysts could provide a good conversation about the youthful pitcher in terms of on-the-field performance as well as off-the-field adjustments. And, if Costas serves only as a proven traffic cop without interjecting himself much, it might result in a good broadcast.
If MLB Network and the folks in the booth can do that, it'll be a victory for them. (Of course, if Strasburg were to exit early and they someone produced a compelling broadcast between the Pirates and Nationals without the most-talked-about player in decades that would be an even more impressive feat.)
CBS Sports serves as the exclusive national network broadcaster of SEC home games and has first choice of available games each week for which will be the "Game of the Week." As part of its 15-year deal with the conference, CBS also carries the SEC Championship Game.
This marks the second year of the agreement and things such as Florida-Tennessee and Georgia-Florida represent obvious choices long before the season begins.
Notre Dame appears on the CBS schedule because the Notre Dame-Navy matchup is a Navy home game (although it will be played at New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey). Notre Dame, with all it's home games broadcast by NBC and most road games then picked up by ABC/ESPN, last appeared in a regular season game televised by CBS in 2008. That game was against Navy as well.
Here's a look at the schedule CBS announced (all games are Saturdays unless noted otherwise):
- Sept. 18 -- Florida at Tennessee, 3:30 p.m.
- Oct. 2 -- Doubleheader, 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
- Oct. 23 -- Notre Dame vs. Navy, Noon
- Oct. 30 -- Georgia vs. Florida, 3:30 p.m.
- Nov. 13 -- Doubleheader, Noon and 3:30 p.m.
- Dec. 4 -- SEC Championship Game, 4 p.m.
- Dec. 11 -- Army vs. Navy, 2:30 p.m.
- Friday, Dec. 31 -- Sun Bowl, 2 p.m.
Saturday, June 5, 2010
ESPN was the best prepared to cover the news of the beloved coach's death because of previous research and work.
Wooden was a focus on ESPN's "Sports Century" series in the past, and the hours of interviews with an appropriate variety of sources was mined for things such as this segment, which was utilized on TV and online almost immediately after Wooden's death.
Also, ESPN rallied all its resources to provide timely interviews and responses from its deep roster of college basketball efforts. Taken together, the breadth of coverage produced an appropriate picture of a man that almost all of ESPN's core viewers were too young to remember.
It was good work all around. Of course, a good man who did so much made it easy.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
With one of its championships on TV, the NCAA wanted to gets its message out.
Certainly a well-done piece, putting a postivie a spin on what TV money means for college sports. And, as a 30-second insert during a commercial break of a softball game, it almost makes you feel good about how such a revenue stream helps intercollegiate athletics.
What's missing, though, is a bit more context.
Information about where the TV money comes from would be nice, but it would also show how few dollars actually come in from the 88 championships the NCAA contests. In reality, the Division I men's basketball tournament accounts for more than 90 percent of all TV revenues. Rights fees for minor sports -- baseball, softball and just about any other -- amount to almost nothing.
Also overlooked in the promo piece is any mention of the power of those TV partners, the folks who provide that revenue. Game times? Controlled by TV. How events and teams get protrayed on broadcasts. Controlled by TV.
It's a nice piece, with an appropriate and feel-good message, but not all messages are complete.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
It was not 27 up and 27 down. Insted, it was another huge strike for baseball, which has refused to use TV replay to its full potential despite the ability of the technology to help the sport.
For some, the discussion in the aftermath of the blown call -- and it will begin to intensify Wednesday morning with sports-talk shows across the nation -- will focus the baseball side of the argument. A lost perfect game lost does matter.
For others, the focus will be on the use of replay in baseball. Problems with the integrity and practice of the sport matter more.
While baseball has replay, its limited scope does not include safe-and-out calls like that at first base in the Indians-Tigers game. So, Joyce's obvious mistake was not reviewable. And instead of an appropriate ending (with Galarraga hustling over and cover first base to close out his perfect game) the sport got a black eye.
Immediate kudos to ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian, though. His reaction segment used television and online showed why he's one of the best baseball experts in the business. He was accurate, honest and measured.
If Major League Baseball can take this aggregious error and build from it any way that's half a appropirate as Kurkjian's work here, it would certainly be a positive step for the sport.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
Game 1 on Saturday grabbed the best overnight rating for the first game of the Finals in 11 years. It produced a 2.8 rating and a 6 share, drawing more than 7 million viewers nationally. It was up 12 percent from last year.
In the team markets Saturday, 35 percent of all TVs were tuned into the game in Chicago and 25 percent in Philadelphia.
On Monday, the national numbers were even with last year's Game 2 between Pittsburgh and Detroit last year. About 7 million people watched on Monday.
Midweek numbers for the next game might not be as high, but the numbers are a good start for the NHL.
For comparison, though, the gold medal game from the Oympics between the United States and Canada drew more than 27 million viewers in the United States. So, nationalism apparently sells better than playoff hockey -- even hockey at its highest level.
Specifically, ESPN paid $100 million for the rights to aid the World Cup here in the United States. Meanwhile, Univision shelled out $325 million for Spanish broadcasts.
Mid-level events and series might buy or share time while giants such as the NFL invariably ink lucrative deals and sell their exclusive rights.
After that, how the partners behave -- in terms of what viewers hear and see on TV -- often depends on the nature of the relationship.
When a group buys its own time, for example, it's not a surprise if the coverage of the event sounds a bit breathless and hyped. When a network or station holds exclusive rights, there might be more of a chance for criticism and critique.
The Indianapolis 500, featuring the IndyCar Series, which has bought an abundance of TV time in the past, provided some prime examples of perspective impacting the performance of a partner this past weekend.
Common sense and facts were frustratingly missing ESPN/ABC's coverage -- and it started even before the race itself.
With "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts riding shotgun in the pace car for the race, and with a camera clearly showing her sitting in that passenger seat, the rest of the on-air crew -- most frustratingly Marty Reid -- said it was Roberts job to keep the car up to speed and set the pace for the race. Really? From the passenger seat?
It's neat that she was there, and a nice cross-promotion piece, but intimating that she was driving the car was an insult to viewers who could clearly see otherwise.
Another insult or at least some laziness without perspective came with the first accident of the race, when Tomas Scheckter bumped Davey Hamilton and sent him from the race on the first lap.
Our friends in the TV booth (Reid, Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear) cited Scheckter's aggressiveness and said pushing hard early and taking chances was something he was known to do. At the same time, they said Hamilton was surprised by the move, which prompted the accident. Even in an interview with pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, Hamilton said the move was something Scheckter typically tries.
Well, if it's that's the case, why was Hamilton surprised? Nobody asked.
Later in a race full of hype (and hope for a close ending), ESPN/ABC missed some irony -- and no partner could mention this but viewers certainly took notice -- when Englishman Dan Wheldon thanked his sponsor, the National Guard, and said how proud he was to drive for them on Memorial Day (a truly American holiday).
Also, ESPN/ABC did not do enough to cover the spectacular last-lap accident that sent Mike Conway airborne. In attempting to protect a partner (and, in fairness, protect Conway as well because they were not sure about the significance of any injuries), they missed what was happening and left viewers frustrated and uninformed.
At that point of the race, on the last lap after Dario Franchitti had dominated, the Conley crash was the most newsworthy and significant piece of the broadcast but it was overlooked.
Also surprisingly overlooked (at least in terms of usual hype) was the sixth-place finish of Danica Patrick. She got appropriate attention for a change, and pit reporter Jamie Little asked good questions in a one-on-one standup interview afterward. It was just less Patrick than usual and that in itself was striking.
Not overlooked was Franchitti's wife -- actress Ashley Judd, who got plenty of time on TV. She has become the first lady of open wheel racing on TV. And too much can be a bad thing.