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Sports Television Networks Don’t Need to Overpay Debate Pundits

“You can remove one zero and one comma from their annual wages. That’s all the networks need to pay.”

Jay Mariotti

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Next time I pass the CAA building in Century City, I’ll be shouted down by talent agents who won’t like the dirty secret I’m about to tell. They can get right in line, joining the numerous haters who can’t handle the truth in this space. Know the $8 million salary of Stephen A. Smith, the $6 million salary of Skip Bayless and the salaries of other leading loudmouths in the sports debate industry?

You can remove one zero and one comma from their annual wages.

That’s all the networks need to pay.

And maybe they’re finally starting to get it, with Fox Sports 1 cutting ties with Jason Whitlock, whose paltry ratings on “Speak For Yourself’’ spoke for themselves. Please don’t attach this breakup as an attack on black America in the violent aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, as some media dramatists might try. If anything, Fox is defending black America, given Whitlock’s provocative commentaries on race and politics.

Recently, with a take incendiary even by his standards, he accused LeBron James of exploiting Michael Jordan’s aversion to social activism after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, when James wrote, “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can’t even go for a damn jog man! Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!? ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!! I’m sorry Ahmaud(Rest In Paradise) and my prayers and blessings sent to the heavens above to your family.” James’ anger is justified today after another sickening episode of police brutality — and Whitlock’s position looks embarrassing. “This isn’t helpful. It’s twitter-trolling,’’ tweeted Whitlock, claiming James was grandstanding as Jordan was winning critical and ratings acclaim in “The Last Dance’’ documentary series. “It’s using this man’s tragedy to build a brand as more outspoken than Michael Jordan. There are all kinds of ways to draw attention to this tragedy. Suggesting that we are hunted everyday/every time is just s–t-stirring.”

LeBron James Says 'Blacks Are Hunted EVERY TIME We Go Outside ...

But trust me when I say Fox doesn’t care what comes from Whitlock’s mouth if the ratings justify his bluster. They didn’t, sometimes sinking to the level of Kansas City drive-time radio. Simply, the network bosses let his deal expire, realizing they didn’t have to hand him bigger money.

I have personal knowledge in this particular area. For eight years, I was the most-utilized regular panelist on ESPN’s “Around The Horn,’’ appearing on the vast majority of daily shows during the program’s high-popularity era. Every ratings period, a producer would report in our conference call that the numbers rose yet again, to the point a project once mocked as a “Pardon The Interruption’’ knockoff was approaching the commercial success of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Airing each weeknight at 5pm ET, ATH was responsible for generating lead-in momentum for PTI.

Damned if we weren’t about to pass the old men. At one point, we were creeping toward a million viewers daily, and while this was before cord-cutting and cord-nevers and Netflix and YouTube and various iterations of Facebook, our impact was staggering. I couldn’t walk down the street without someone asking if Woody Paige is really that goofy (he is). Charles Barkley, who often would rip me and Bayless on TNT, bought me beers in a Cleveland bar. I’d be standing in a terminal at O’Hare, waiting for a late afternoon flight, when someone would look at me, then at the TV above, and say, “If you’re that guy, how can you be standing here?’’ Some trashy websites no longer with us — R.I.H. (Rot In Hell) — would cover me like Justin Bieber. In Florence, we’d just finished walking 463 stairs to the top of the Duomo when a kid in a Ohio State jersey yelled, “Around The Horn!’’ When a panelist was involved in a court case that later was dropped, the New York Post headline read: “AROUND THE HORNY.’’ We were parodied by “Saturday Night Live.’’

Judge Judy had to be nervous. Montel Williams, too. Maybe even the local newscasts. Maybe even Ellen DeGeneres, though probably not.

TBT: As Around the Horn turns 15, a look back at the very first ...

And what was my biggest annual salary for a hit show that more than doubled Smith’s typical ratings on ESPN’s “First Take,’’ drew five times Bayless’s typical ratings on Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed’’ and safely can call itself the second-most-watched show — the numbers don’t lie — in the history of Embrace Debate programming?

About $300,000, not counting summer pay when subbing for Kornheiser beside the sacred PTI mugshot cutouts. With inflation, call it $500,000 by today’s rates. And I actually employed one of those Hollywood agents, a guy who ordered wild boar ragu on his pappardelle.

“Know how much money we’re making for ESPN?’’ I’d mumble under my breath every time a new title sponsor was introduced.

Stop before you accuse me of complaining. To this day, I’m grateful to have made the annual six-figure, one-comma salary long enough to put my kids through college and feed the dog. I would have done the show for free. But would someone explain what was happening in John Skipper’s head — perhaps I shouldn’t ask — when the former ESPN president went bankroll-bonkers on Stephen A.’s compensation? I’m all for people in sports media getting PAID, in a business that might not exist next week, but when only Tony Romo is making more than Smith in the all-time roll call of sportscasters, um, what the hell? A laughable travesty, Howard Cosell is venting somewhere. Bob Costas, the G.O.A.T. of his genre, was well worth his $7 million a year at NBC. Al Michaels and Joe Buck are worth their $6 million. Jim Nantz is worth his $5 million.

Why? Their audiences, for major events, are in the megamillions. They call the games that serve as gold and sustenance for their networks.

Stephen A.? He yells at Max Kellerman, who used to yell at me.

Bayless? He shouts down Shannon Sharpe, who seems oddly respectful of a guy whose ass I kicked when we were Chicago columnists.

Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless Are Pro Wrestlers, Not ...

But as an effective tag team on ESPN, Smith and Bayless became valuable when their urban-meets-Bible-belt act generated rare credible numbers in late mornings, a slot formerly surrendered to “SportsCenter’’ reruns. Fox Sports 1, trying to make a splash as a new player, chose to break up the Bristol band by throwing huge money at Bayless. ESPN had no choice but to appease Smith with epic money.

The model could be changing, though, at least at Fox. Bayless, whose lukewarm ratings also don’t justify his salary, might have to accept a sizable pay cut. Or, maybe FS1 abandons a debate element that hasn’t approached ESPN’s success in the twisting-and-shouting arena.

As someone who has engaged in past Twitter crossfire with Whitlock, I looked for a reaction on his feed. All I saw was this, from Sunday: “God’s design. One mouth. Two ears. Two eyes. We should all do 4 times as much listening and observing as talking. Don’t be afraid to reflect, acquire knowledge and listen to others with more wisdom. Social media compels us to speak even when we have little of substance to say.’’

Imagine, Whitlock with little to say about the world.

Maybe it’s because everyone stopped listening. And watching.

BSM Writers

The Chiefs & Eagles Have Super Bowl Game Plans, How About You?

“The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either.”

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When it comes to preparation, I usually hold off. I’m a procrastinator’s procrastinator. It sounds better if I say; “I’m driven by deadlines,” but the truth is, I just generally put things off until they absolutely have to be checked off the list. If your goal as a producer is to have a great post-Super Bowl show, don’t be me, you best start working now.

There are many things that complicate booking guests for a Super Bowl reaction show. The obvious is that you have no idea who is winning the game. But, beyond that, you have no way of predicting what will be the biggest story coming out of the game. It could be anything from overtime to a blowout, halftime show debacle, officiating blunder, or even a surprise retirement announcement.

With that in mind, there are some strategies for targeting guests. With these, though, working ahead is paramount. Most anyone that is going to have enough insight to improve your show will be slammed in the hours following the end of the game.

Strategy 1: The Game Participant

This is a big risk, big reward strategy. It is also one that is only available to a select group of shows. If your show is nationally syndicated, in a very large market, or home market for one of the teams, you have a shot here. If not, the odds are not in your favor. The team’s media departments are as busy as anyone during a Super Bowl run. They aren’t likely to help a show they’ve never dealt with during that whirlwind of action.

I am reminded of a friend of mine who worked as the media relations director for a mid-major basketball team that sprung a huge round two upset and advanced to the Sweet 16. Needless to say, he was swamped overnight with interview requests for his coach. He told me every station led with “ESPN Radio” then mumbled the part about being in Puyallup, Washington. It never hurts to ask, but understand it is a long shot.

Strategy Two: Local Player Not In The Game

This can be a really solid idea for both previewing the Super Bowl and the Monday after the game. If you are in a local NFL market, or if a local college or high school star is in the NFL, consider him as an analyst. Who better knows what happens in an NFL game than an NFL player? Bonus points if he has been a Super Bowl participant in the past.

Don’t underestimate how many NFL players are thinking about life after football. One of the dozens of roles as NFL analyst at a major network is an excellent retirement plan. You don’t have to have a Hall of Fame jacket for those gigs, but you do need to be good on air. You might be surprised by how many players will agree to an interview with that in mind.

Strategy Three: The Trusted Analyst

Every network has all their biggest voices either In Phoenix or in the studio for the game. These are people that know the interview game and have plenty of experience. This strategy comes with some obvious hurdles; it turns out the networks paying the analysts to be on site keep them rather busy. While they might have been happy to join your show the Monday after Week Three, this is a different animal.

One other factor you should consider in this strategy is the fact that Sky Harbor airport will be one of the busiest in the world Monday morning. Many of the analysts will be scrambling home to start their off season as well. If your analyst is on the move, travel delays can wreck your whole plan.

Strategy Four: The Pop Culture Angle

Oftentimes the biggest talking point coming out of the game is one of the things happening outside the actual play on the field. If you watch Super Bowl Twitter, the biggest traffic moments are people joking about a slow starting Star Spangled Banner “hitting the over” or how bad the halftime show is. Regardless of the act, it has become the default position that the halftime show is awful, even when we all think they are pretty good. 50 Cent hanging upside down will forever be a meme.

Commercials are going to be a massive talking point after a game, especially if the game doesn’t quite deliver. Who is the voice that can talk to your audience about everything from Rihanna to a Taco Bell commercial? There is the inherent risk of alienating the “talk more sports” guy with this type of guest so, as you should with any guest, make certain they are entertaining.

The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either. Communication between hosts and producers is critical. Have a plan, work ahead and be on the same page.

Most of all, try to enjoy the game – and take the Chiefs and the points.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Burying ‘Outside the Lines’ Shows Little Regard for Respected Brand

Continuing to use the ‘OTL’ brand is likely a nod to the great work of Bob Ley, Ryan Smith, and Jeremy Schaap.

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Image via ESPN

With the end of college football season and the Super Bowl marking the conclusion of the NFL season, ESPN has air time to fill on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the next six months. In past years, that opened up a window for the network to bring back its prestige news magazine program, Outside the Lines.

However, late last week, Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand reported that ESPN has decided not to bring back the standalone OTL show. The program most recently aired Saturday mornings during football’s offseason, typically from mid-February through August. That timeslot essentially buried a show that was once an important part of ESPN’s Sunday morning programming.

Outside the Lines provided substantive, in-depth sports features, interviews, and discussions on Sunday mornings, when viewers were conditioned to expect important dialogue and commentary with weekly public affairs programs and political talk shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation.

Originally anchored by Bob Ley, OTL was a departure from the highlights, analysis, and quips that made up most of the network’s programming. This was ESPN doing journalism with a capital “J,” reporting and investigating longer-form stories on pertinent issues in sports, usually off the field, and examining trends that developed through a news cycle.

Eventually, the number of stories the OTL staff worked on — and presumably, the appetite for such content from ESPN viewers — necessitated expanding the show to a daily schedule airing in mid-afternoons. After Ley retired in 2019, Ryan Smith and Jeremy Schaap hosted the show and continued its deeper look into topical sports stories.

Producing for a daily schedule probably spread the show too thin, however. Finding important stories that warranted the stronger coverage promised by the OTL brand became difficult, forcing the show to include panel discussions that resembled the sort of debate programming seen throughout the day on ESPN. As a result, OTL content was whittled down and integrated into the noon edition of SportsCenter each day.

OTL also suffered amid the inherent conflict at ESPN from having a news-gathering, journalistic operation while entering partnerships with the sports leagues it was covering. Hard-hitting reports on domestic violence issues in the NFL, particularly in light of the Ray Rice assault scandal, and player safety concerns with the rise in traumatic brain injuries gave the network’s producers and reporters credibility. But such stories also rankled league officials and team owners who sought more positive promotion for their sport.

ESPN would surely balk at the idea that it throttled back on in-depth reporting and scrutinization. But the network’s relationship with the NFL is obviously better than it once was, best demonstrated by getting better match-ups on the Monday Night Football schedule, Wild Card playoff games, and Super Bowl telecasts for ESPN/ABC in 2027 and 2031. Meanwhile, Outside the Lines has been effectively buried among ESPN programming.

Yet ratings ultimately decide what stays on a broadcast schedule and what doesn’t. And OTL hasn’t drawn a good number of viewers in quite some time. Some of that is likely influenced by an early Saturday morning timeslot that drew an average audience of 303,000. But SportsCenter AM attracts 572,000 viewers in the same timeslot, so it’s apparent that fans want quicker, breezier content as they begin the weekend.

Outside the Lines simply may not stand apart in the current sports media landscape, either. Longer-form storytelling and reporting are often found in documentaries now, and we’re living in the golden age of sports nonfiction films. That includes ESPN’s own documentary brands E:60, 30 For 30, and ESPN Films. (E:60, in particular, seems to have replaced news magazine programming or special reports, which were once reserved for monthly specials early in OTL‘s life, at ESPN.)

Shuttering the Saturday OTL fortunately won’t result in anyone losing a job. According to SBJ‘s Ourand, some staffers will be reassigned to other studio programs. And others will continue to work on OTL-branded content that runs on SportsCenter throughout the day, not just at noon, under the “OTL on SC” banner. Additionally, OTL content will run on ESPN’s digital platforms such as the network’s YouTube channel. So the show will go on… sort of.

ESPN obviously values the OTL brand and realizes that it carries respect among fans and media. (The show also penetrated pop culture enough to warrant a parody on Saturday Night Live.) Otherwise, the network might shelve the title entirely. Yet perhaps that’s really a nod to the work of Ley, an ESPN institution, and Schaap, one of the network’s best reporters (with ties to sports media royalty in Dick Schaap).

That may be Outside the Lines‘ true legacy. Ley created a brand (continued by Smith and Schaap) taken seriously enough that viewers knew it meant bolder sports journalism unafraid to explore stories and questions that warranted such attention. The OTL name carries enough weight that ESPN can’t bear to get rid of it entirely, even if it doesn’t hold the place at the network that it once did.

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BSM Writers

Chris Broussard Is No Longer Just A ‘Basketball Guy’

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great.”

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After embarking on a career in sports, Chris Broussard made a name for himself as a writer, specifically as it pertains to covering the NBA. Whether it was covering the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal, covering the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets for The New York Times, or doing television hits for ESPN, Broussard had always, whether it was justified or not, been pigeon-holed as a “basketball guy”.

That was the perception then, but today, the reality is different.

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great,” said Broussard, the co-host of First Things First on FS1 and the co-host of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio. 

“But what was good for me was that at ESPN, I had done First Take with Skip Bayless a lot.  There were a few years where it was a rotation and I was in that rotation. That enabled me to at least do the other sports.” 

Broussard has certainly made a seamless transition from print to electronic media.

After joining The New York Times in 1998, Broussard started to get television exposure doing local hits and then appearances on the various ESPN platforms would soon follow. He joined ESPN full-time in 2004 as a writer for ESPN The Magazine, but that also included regular guest appearances and fill-in hosting opportunities on shows like First Take and the opportunity to be a co-host for NBA Countdown for the 2010-11 season.

With that gig came the opportunity to work with Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, and his childhood hero Magic Johnson.

“I think that may be have been the pinnacle because Magic is Magic,” said Broussard. “He was my favorite player until Jordan came along and (with Wilbon and Barry), we just had great chemistry.”

After one season, Broussard and Barry were replaced by Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose. A few years later, Broussard would make the move that would bring him to the next chapter of his career.

In 2016, Broussard left what amounted to being just a reporters role at ESPN for a new opportunity at FS1 where he would also be an analyst as well as a regular panelist for shows like Undisputed, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, First Things First and Lock It In.  In 2018, he began co-hosting The Odd Couple radio show with Rob Parker on FOX Sports Radio.

And then in August of 2021, Broussard was named the full-time co-host of First Things First, something that almost had happened when the network first launched.

“When they asked me to come on as a full-time co-host, it was great and maybe a long time coming,” said Broussard. “I know when Jamie Horowitz first brought all the people over from ESPN to be on FS1 in 2016, he was considering doing a show where Nick Wright and I were the co-hosts.”

Broussard now co-hosts the show with Wright and Kevin Wildes.

“I thought that I really just fit right in with the chemistry and it’s just been a great trio,” said Broussard. 

Born in Baton Rouge, Broussard and his family also lived in Cincinnati, Indiana, Syracuse, Iowa, and Cleveland.  He was a star football and basketball player for Holy Name High School in Parma Heights, Ohio and went on to play basketball for Oberlin College, an NCAA Division III school in Ohio.

Believe it or not, his first love was not basketball.

“My favorite sport growing up was football,” said Broussard. “I played football through high school. I played basketball at Oberlin College but they recruited for me football and basketball. I even played baseball up until I was about 16 years old.” 

So much for being just a basketball guy, right?

After college, Broussard had a decision to make. He knew he wanted to be a sports reporter but wasn’t sure if it was going to be print or electronic media. When he was an intern at The Indianapolis Star, he spoke to people in the know about which direction to go.

“I was told that it’s just easier and there are more spots in print journalism than there are in television and radio,” said Broussard. “I chose print because I thought I had more opportunities.”

Broussard’s first taste of covering pro sports was in 1995 at the Akron Beacon Journal when he was a backup writer covering the Cleveland Indians who would go to the World Series for the first time since 1954. He shifted to covering the Cavaliers and then it was off to New York and a bit of culture shock for Broussard.

During his 2 ½ years covering the Cavaliers, Broussard typically wore a rugby shirt, jeans and sneakers at games. But he noticed that when the Knicks and Nets would come to Cleveland or when Broussard travelled to New York and New Jersey when the Cavaliers visited the Knicks and Nets, that the New York writers would typically wear suits and ties when covering the games.

So, when he interviewed for the job with The New York Times, Broussard had an important question for his future editor.

“I asked him when I was being interviewed for the job do they require that your writers dress up,” said Broussard. “He said no but they do generally in New York because they know television opportunities are there. So, when I started working at The New York Times, I started dressing up wearing a suit and tie or sportscoat and tie whenever I would cover games.  Ultimately that led to television.”

And the rest is history.

This coming week, Broussard will be busy co-hosting his shows from the Super Bowl in Arizona. It’s one thing to host a radio show or a television show from a studio but it’s really something special to do it from a live event, especially on the giant stage of the Super Bowl.

And this week, Broussard will be center stage in front of a lot of ears and eyeballs.

“It’s always great,” said Broussard. “FOX Sports Radio always has one of the biggest and best platforms on radio row. It’s always fun when you’re doing these live shows at the big events and you’ve got an audience, it really can kind of bring out the best in you. I’m excited about it both for TV and radio.”

Chris Broussard has certainly come a long way in his career in sports. 

From his days as an athlete in high school in college to getting his start as a write to a transformation into a radio and television personality, Broussard has worked hard to get to where he is today.

“I haven’t written a word since I went to Fox,” said Broussard. “I do feel fortunate that I’ve been able from morph from a writer into TV and radio. What you want to do in this business is stay relevant and you want an audience and a platform. There’s not that many people who get that opportunity to do it.”

He’s no longer just a “basketball guy”. He’s a “sports guy”.

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