Friday, July 30, 2010

Daredevils Do Provide Star Power at X Games

My mistake X Games. Please let me apologize.

In a tweet earlier this week, my not-so-subtle hint was that X Games 16 was without stars. That was certainly wrong.

It's just a sign of age, I guess, and having grown up on Evel Knievel (who remains my best in-person sports-related meeting even after covering the Super Bowl, All-Star Game and more) you'd think I'd have a bit more respect for action sports -- which has long outdone anything Knievel, the sports founding father, achieved.

This week's edition of the X Games -- that's X Games 16 -- originates from Los Angeles, and ESPN's made-for-TV (and Internet and mobile) action sports conclave again provides a complementary mix of action and TV coverage.

The event provides comparatively cheap programming for ESPN and serves as a testing ground, of sorts, for production technology. That includes everything from small cameras attached to competitors to 3D technology.

Also, X Games 16 has well-known competitors, even for an almost ancient action sports like me. Specifically, Travis Pastrana was the focus of Moto X Freestlye action Thursday night with his gold-medal effort, and coverage this weekend includes BMX Freestlye with Jamie Bestwick, Skateboard Vert with Shaun White and Skateboard Street with Ryan Sheckler.

They're just part of the talent pool that helps make the X Games surprisingly good TV. The access, athleticism, danger/drama and technological highlights combine to make the four-day action sports festival entertaining.

The X Games and action sports still might not be mainstream, but they're much less marginalized than they was a decade ago (or even less) -- and deservedly so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More Than Ready for Some Football

Just 11 days remain until meaningful football returns to TV, and it comes just in time to end an otherwise dull span of sports on the tube.

While some might debate whether an NFL preseason game qualifies as "meaningful," there's no doubt the Aug. 8 Hall of Fame Game, which matches the Bengals and Cowboys, will draw interest and ratings.

Interest in that preseason game (and just about any other NFL preseason game that shows up on a national network in advance of the season) should outpace that for regular season games, and some post-season matchups, in every other sport.

Sports fans love football, the NFL in particular, and that passive-aggressive relationship (after all viewers sit at home with their emotions often stirred to an extreme) kicks into full gear in the next few weeks.

After the Hall of Fame Game, other NFL preseason games follow and college football season opens Sept. 2 with six games on the ESPN family of networks.

Since many fans last watched football on TV, we've filled the void with everything from reality TV (my favorites include "Cake Boss" and "Deadliest Catch") to boring baseball, imitation football -- although those CFL games on the NFL Network have been entertaining at times -- and on-air moves and news, such as "Moose" Johnson joining the NFL Network as a studio analyst. (He'll continue to work games for Fox Sports.)

Still, the real fix cannot come until the return of the NFL and college football. Especially NFL preseason games.

While my habits most certainly put me in a minority, I believe watching preseason games allows fans of a specific team to feel a bit more informed, to evaluate and watch for themselves regarding personnel changes. Although every team in the league probably knows 95 percent of its roster before camp begins -- meaning only a handful of spots are up for grabs during the preseason -- the ability for fans to watch preseason games actually shifts the information-control paradigm that leagues and teams have been honing the past few years.

In the preferred model, leagues and teams take information directly to fans. They become more transparent (in theory), using social media and websites to pass information onto fans and, in some cases, avoid the media. The approach usually generates praise from fans and dismay from the media.

With the current set of four preseason games, fans also get to see things for themselves, to watch how players develop and react. That first-hand experience, either in person or on TV allows fans to invest even more in their team. They can watch a potential diamond in the rough develop or witness an aging pro who has lost a step. Fans can often tell who has what it takes to make the team. Even if they're wrong, it fuels interest.

At the same time, college football games count from the start, and enough programs schedule quality non-conference games early in the season that numerous must-see matchups exist. In the first full weekend alone, the extensive list of at-least-interesting games includes: USC at Hawaii, Sept. 2; LSU vs. North Carolina, Sept. 4; and Boise State vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 6.

All that action cannot start soon enough.

Until then, we'll have to make due with more previews and prognostications, including next week's Big Ten Conference media days, with coverage on the Big Ten Network.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

NASCAR Nuances Pose a Problem for Partners

While the on-air types at ESPN insist a NASCAR race that looks boring might not be dull at all, the inability of TV to transfer the nuances of auto racing could be another problem for the sport this week.

After Fox Sports and TNT split coverage of the Sprint Cup Series season since February, ESPN takes over for the final 17 races of the season beginning Sunday with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's an historic venue for racing, but it's also a the type of place -- a big, flat and sweeping 2.5-mile oval -- that rarely produces side-by-side action that best defines NASCAR.

Still, ESPN broadcasters and officials insist (as they must) the race merits watching.

"The history and prestige of the event is enough to make it a great race regardless," analyst Andy Petree, a former NASCAR crew chief, said during a teleconference earlier this week. "But it's also a great watch because it's very tactical how these drivers have to run it -- how they make these passes and how it's tactical for the crews to keep that track position because it is so critical at that track because passing is difficult. It just puts more emphasis on different strategies and that's what I love about it."

Those strategies and tactics rarely transfer well to TV, though, and a wide audience of potential viewers does not love it as much as those who formerly worked in the sport.

At its best auto racing thrives in an action- and personality-driven atmosphere and the Brickyard 400 typically pulls any such emotional momentum down like, well, a ton of bricks. While how drivers set up passes and make the most of what little room exists on the track, it often winds up on TV as a line of cars, nose to tail. For many casual viewers (and NASCAR needs that group for its ratings to ever recover to where they were a few seasons ago), that parade translates to boring racing.

Fellow analyst and former driver Dale Jarrett appreciates the challenges of those on the track. He calls it "very rewarding whenever you can make a pass at a track that is that difficult" while he also admits that from the broadcast booth "what we'll hopefully show is that there is great racing that goes on."

In the midst of a season when dips in attendance and TV ratings have been a big part of the NASCAR story, Indy represents a challenging starting point for ESPN's return.

For years, ESPN was the standard bearer for quality auto racing coverage. Way back in the 1980s, as about the only consistent TV outlet for stock-car racing, whatever the channel tried usually met with a positive response.

As NASCAR's popularity grew more advertisers came to the sport, things such as finding a good time for commercial breaks in an effort to miss as little meaningful on-track action became more difficult. In addition, TV partners changed, and they changed in the middle of the season -- as has been the case for several years.

Fans have become a bit more demanding an cynical in recent years, and broadcast partners inevitably hear from those fans. To their credit, the braodcasters take what they hear into consideration, but balancing what older fans might want to see on TV with finding ways to appeal to 18- to 34-year-old males (a desired demographic because of their purchasing power) cannot always be done easily.

"What we talk about is serving the NASCAR fan as a whole, first and foremost," said Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president for programming and acquisitions. "ESPN has a ton of events but we have news and information programming that tends to skew to that younger demographic, so there is an opportunity there. We think if we cover the race and cover the product as we think NASCAR fans in general do, regardless of their specific demographic, that demographic will continue to climb."

So far this year, that 18- to 34-year-old male demographic is down 30 percent for races on Fox Sports and TNT. It's hard to believe ESPN's approach will differ in any significant level that might change that trend.

In fact, ESPN's planned changes to NASCAR coverage hardly seem monumental. They include broadcasts of "SportsCenter" directly after races -- allowing for more race-related news coverage -- and a deal with driver Carl Edwards as a standing guest after each of the races on ESPN.

Combine those ho-hum changes with a race that has more going for it in terms of strategy than sheer speed, and it might be another tough week for viewership.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

ESPNU Provides Coverage of SEC Media Days

Yes, it's officially college football season as conferences across the nation begin their annual media days.

With ESPN's relationship with the Southeastern Conference, it's no surprise ESPNU will provide live coverage of the event in Hoover, Ala., for the next three days. That includes live coverage of every head coach at the podium and, no doubt, abundant analysis as well as other interviews.

Here's the TV schedule ...
  • Wednesday, 2 to 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Woeful Week a Clear Channel of Change

In the past week, a few highs and lows have again confirmed that how fans consume sports on TV has changed.

Games no longer matter as much -- unless it's the NFL (in almost any form) or playoff series (preferably Game 7) in another sport. Interest in start-to-finish game action has given way to events and personality driven programming.

That's why 12.3 million people watched LeBron James make his decision. More people watched that made-for-TV event than watched 95 percent of all NBA games last season. Even though the promised announcement came 27 minutes after the show started as opposed to the promised 15, people watched.

That's also why 12.1 million people watched the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. It was the least-watched and lowest-rated "Midsummer Classic" ever. The slow stick-and-ball showcase, bogged down by too many unfamiliar players and no drama despite the home-field-for-the-World Series stakes, has not been a classic or must-watch television for years.

It became less meaningful when interleague play began in 1997, when 16.7 million people watched, and ratings have fallen since then. It was in trouble even before that, though.

Cable TV's prevalence and a more diverse, growing U.S. population have impacted all sports viewing habits. Back in the days of three network channels and PBS for many homes, in the 1970s and 1980s, the All-Star Game drew as many as 36 million viewers with nearly half of all TVs in the country tuned into the game.

No sporting event, aside from the Super Bowl, merits such interest these days. So it's logical that many regular-season events would struggle on TV. Plus, with almost every possible game on TV these days, no real urgency exists to watch one over the other.

Still, it's not all bad news for broadcasters and sports conferences and leagues. Because of the explosion of channels and viewing options, diversity and niche events can find good homes. Plus, cable TV -- which can supplement advertising revenue with income from subscribers' monthly bills (on average ESPN gets about $4 of a family's monthly bills) -- can make those broadcasts profitable.

That's where events and personalities fit. So the Home Run Derby can find an annual home on ESPN, even if it is boring, long and devoid of A-list stars. Likewise, leagues can diversity -- as the NFL has done -- and create programming for any number of partners. Last year it was a reality series for truTV and this year the league has a cartoon series ready to launch to appeal younger viewers.

If a league and a network can find the right program, a popular series can be profitable -- even if it does not draw the viewers associated with a major event. That's why the MLB Network this weekend (8 p.m. Sunday) will unveil "The Club," a reality series following the front office personnel from the Chicago White Sox. It's a similar approach to what MLBN did last year with "The Pen," which followed the Philadelphia Phillies' bullpen.

The recipe of finding a trademark show (or two) for a channel has been well-documented on cable. From "Deadliest Catch" on Discovery Channel to "Jersey Shore" on MTV, many original programs or reality shows have become cash cows and visible entry points for any number of channels.

Not surprisingly, sports leagues, teams and broadcast partners have followed that model. As a result, we get things that appeal more to short attention spans as well as more entertainment and personalities.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Logical Moves Reshape 'College GameDay'

Recently resigned A-list sideline reporter Erin Andrews got a bigger role Monday when ESPN announced changes to one of its best studio shows, "College GameDay."

Beginning Sept. 4, the popular and well-down show that usually originates from the site of the week's best or most interesting college football game, will expand from two to three hours every Saturday.

The first hour, beginning at 9 a.m., will air on ESPNU with Andrews hosting several segments. She will also serve as sideline reporter for the game from which "GameDay" originates -- as long as the game is on the ESPN family (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2).
ESPN also announced that it Andrews would provide "select reports" for "Good Morning America" on ABC throughout the year. That's a sensible extention of her duties beyond sports, and it's something that can happen easily within the ESPN/ABC family. It's also the kind of opportunity that probably made it appealing for Andrews to remain with ESPN, despite her overall visibility increase after participating in "Dancing with the Stars" and rumors that she might be exploring other TV options.

At 10 a.m. on Saturdays, the typical "GameDay" crew -- host Chris Fowler and analysts Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard -- takes over with the show on ESPN as always. In an smart move, ESPN Radio will simulcast "GameDay" from 9 a.m. to noon and "College GameDay on ESPN Radio," which airs from noon to 7 p.m., will originate from the same site as the TV show.

In the past the two shows (TV, radio) had separate travel schedules -- which allowed the network to have a presence at different locations but provided some challenges. With both shows at the same site, some duplication of effort can be eliminated -- although the radio folks (host Ryen Russillo and analysts Trevor Matich and Brad Edwards) might not get as many of their own original interviews or access to team personnel as a result.

Among the other personnel moves for college football, Fowler and John Saunders will pick up a few more studio shifts for "College Football Live," which should be interesting with Fowler's already busy schedule.
Unfortunately, he was replaced on Thursday night play-by-play duties. If he wanted the change to limit travel, OK. If not, it's a shame to lose an engaging and smart person on TV. Whatever the reason, it's a loss for viewers.

ESPN's Berman Honored with Rozelle Award

ESPN's Chris Berman was named as the 2010 recipient of the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award, which recognizes “long-time exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.”

Berman will receive the award Aug. 6 during the Enshrinees Dinner in Canton, Ohio, when the members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010 -- Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little, John Randle, Jerry Rice, and Emmitt Smith -- receive their gold Pro Football Hall of Fame jackets.

Their enshrinement ceremony takes place at 7 p.m. Aug. 7 and will be televised live on ESPN.

Past recipients of the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award include: Bill McPhail (1989); Lindsey Nelson (1990); Ed Sabol (1991); Chris Schenkel (1992); Curt Gowdy (1993); Pat Summerall (1994); Frank Gifford (1995); Jack Buck (1996); Charlie Jones (1997); Val Pinchbeck (1998); Dick Enberg (1999); Ray Scott (2000); Roone Arledge (2001); John Madden (2002); Don Criqui (2003); Van Miller (2004), Myron Cope (2005); Lesley Visser (2006); Don Meredith (2007); Dan Dierdorf (2008); and Irv Cross (2009).

“I embraced pro football a long time ago. I am honored and humbled beyond belief that pro football, in turn, has embraced me," Berman said in in ESPN release. "To have my name associated with Pete Rozelle’s in any way, shape or form is an honor that I take very much to heart.”

“With a signature style and genuine enthusiasm, Chris has informed and entertained millions of football fans as the face of ESPN’s coverage of the National Football League for more than three decades, and we are thrilled that one of our company’s pioneers will take his place among the sport’s most important contributors,” added ESPN President George Bodenheimer in the release.

Berman has been working at ESPN since October 1979, one month after the network launched. This season marks his 25th consecutive season as studio host of "Sunday NFL Countdown," the weekly Sunday morning show that has won seven Sports Emmy awards for outstanding weekly studio show. He has worked with Tom Jackson on the show since 1987, when ESPN first acquired the rights to carry NFL games.
In addition, Berman has covered 28 Super Bowls and served as master of ceremonies for the prestigious Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony for 10 years (1999-2008). In 2009, he presented Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. during the enshrinement ceremony.
Additionally, Berman has anchored ESPN’s annual NFL Draft telecast since 1987.
Berman has been named National Sportscaster of the Year six times by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. His various shows have won 10 Emmy Awards and 12 CableACEs.

Friday, July 9, 2010

ESPN Adds ACC to its Inventory

ESPN and the Atlantic Coast Conference announced a 12-year deal -- beginning with in 2011-12 and running through 2022-23 -- that gives the all-sports network exclusive rights to every conference-controlled football and men’s basketball game, plus women’s basketball and Olympic sports matchups, and conference championships.

The value of the deal has been variously reported at about $1.86 billion and would significantly increase payouts to ACC member schools from existing levels.

Here's the official ESPN release, and a report by Milton Kent at that includes comments from ACC commissioner John Swafford.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

V Foundation Auction the Best of Sports Radio

One of the best days of sports radio every year takes place Friday when ESPN Radio presents the annual V Foundation auction.

Officially, it's the "Don't Give Up ESPNs V Foundation Auction," and it's also one of the most emotional, entertaining, meaningful and significant things that happens on sports radio all year long. It's must-listen radio. (Or, you can follow along at online.)

While many items have been available as part of an online auction since June 29, the fundraising efforts for the V Foundation -- which conducts cancer research and was created by late college basketball coach Jim Valvano and ESPN in 1993 -- culminate with daylong, on-air activities Friday. The online auction ends Friday as well.

Hosts such as Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg, Colin Cowherd and Scott Van Pelt know the meaning of the event and drive the auction through interaction with guests and personal stories. Hourly "experiences" or special bid items highlight their respective shows. (Complete hour-by-hour list.)

This year people may donate via text messages, and the auction includes a "sweepstakes" element that allows people to earn a chance for a live broadcast of "Mike & Mike in the Morning" from their home. For every separate $50 minimum donation, people get once chance in the sweepstakes.

In the past, that on-site show has been a bid item but it has proven so popular (and pricey) that the down-to-earth hosts were out of the price range of many hard-core fans. With the sweepstakes, ESPN hopes many smaller donations will equal one large one as people hope for the chance to host the show.

Beyond the on-air talent, a behind-the-scenes team of ESPN personnel really drives the auction's success -- and it has been an unparalleled success. In 2009, the event raised $1,035,512 for the V Foundation for Cancer Research. That's a 415 percent increase from the total of $201,000 for the inaugural event in 2005.

That behind-the-scenes team, led by senior director Keith Goralski, sets the stage by working with pro teams, leagues and other sources to secure charity bid items and experiences. Items range from signed jerseys and memorabilia to special access ticket packages for pro and college events as well as ESPN-related experiences to visit various events and shows.

"Our first year we really didn't know what we were doing, but we put together a lot of nice experiences and that's grown in past few years. Teams really want to be involved, so they'll come up with nice packages -- and then we'll haggle a little to try to make them even better," said Amanda Gifford, an program director for ESPN Radio who directs a team that seeks donations and then works to fulfill experiences once the auction ends. "Sometimes you just hit the jackpot.

"As far as the ESPN experiences, those are a slam dunk to make happen because their ours."

Experiences that draw bids of $10,000 or more also get extra addition because Gifford and other ESPN personnel then arrange logistics and travel for the winning bidders.

The auction and all its related facets provide year-round activity for the folks at ESPN. After its conclusion, they focusing on delivering all the items to winning bidders and fulfilling all the experiences. Because those experiences allow winners to attend a session of "College GameDay" or any of several other ESPN shows or team-related functions, and because those winners could be based anywhere, logistics can provide a challenge. Especially because "GameDay," for example, does not know the site of its specific taping until a week before any given college football Saturday.

Still, for Gifford and all those who help with that work (and then start planning in each March, if not earlier, for subsequent auctions), the efforts are worthwhile. Every dollar from every auction item goes to the V Foundation, which has raised more than $95 million to fund cancer research grants since its inception, and those who help with the event know its value as well.

"It's awesome because you're going to work and making a difference. It's really a cool part of the job, and people here all get engaged," said Gifford, who previously served as a producer for "The Herd with Colin Cowherd." "Two years ago, a woman called and shared her story and it was emotional. Colin was crying on the air."

Along with the online auction, hourly special bid items will be available from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on the various ESPN Radio programs. Those include special access to events such as the Breenders Cup, Little League World Series and a "Monday Night Football" game as well as ESPN-specific tours and experiences. Penn State, USC and Virginia Tech also have one-of-a-kind experiences as part of the hourly packages. (Complete hour-by-hour list.)

Ironically, sports news (and some might argue ESPN-created hype) could provide the biggest challenge for the V Foundation auction this year. On a typical Thursday before the auction, ESPN Radio hosts would start discussing and promoting the auction heavily. This year, though, the LeBron James free agency drama -- with tonight's made-for-TV announcement about his destination on ESPN -- has kept talk away from the auction.

On Friday, in the aftermath of the James announcement, when the typical auction-sports ratio of talk might be 80-20, the radio shows might focus more on sports than in previous years. With a move to 50-50 in terms of auction-sports (and even that might be a tough balance to maintain judging by all the James hype in recent days), the lack of discussion might hurt the auction's bottom line.

Hopefully, though, the auction's reputation (because of so many cool experiences and items) and the many ESPN Radio hosts will give the auction the attention it deserves. Because it certainly deserves all the attention it gets.

Monday, July 5, 2010

'Outside the Lines' Covers Spill Well

What does the ongoing mess the Gulf of Mexico have to do with sports? A lot.

And, ESPN's "Outside the Lines," with on-site coverage from reporter Wright Thompson, provided some of the best TV coverage about the oil spill this past weekend. While TV networks and cable news outlets have had months to cover the story -- and will hopefully continue to focus on the issue -- "OTL" again showed why it can be one of the best sources for television journalism with the entire show focused on the issue Sunday.

Thompson put faces on the issue and provided facts. He and his producers selected the correct images and, better yet, it was written well. Plus, a panel discussion with a journalist and an elected official even worked well in the second part of the half-hour show.