2020 Aside, The Future Of Sports Depends On…Sports
“With a full slate of Corona-defiant events and plenty of homebound viewers watching, a fortunate sports world now should lean on its trump card: great performances that disrupt the national conversation.”
I’m not sure which is a bigger stinkcrock: the idea that President Trump likes Big Ten football or his comparison of police officers who shoot Black people in the back to golfers who “choke’’ when “they miss a three-foot putt.’’ But you get it. Trump is trying to influence voters in critical Big Ten-Country swing states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — while hoping Black America noticed when he cold-called the African-American commissioner about resuming the season.
That’s all it is, another pre-election ruse, best ignored by higher minds.
And while Black athletes throughout sports are poised to boycott more games — and seasons — if necessary, my same advice applies regarding Trump’s latest Twitter warning to NFL and Major League Baseball players. He no longer wants them kneeling for the national anthem, as NBA players continue to do, and while protesting should be their choice for as long as they damn well please, I’m compelled to issue a reminder amid the tumult and fear of 2020 America: Social awareness aside, athletes still can make overpowering statements about who they are and what they stand for while competing on fields and courts of play. “People are tired of watching the highly political @NBA,’’ Trump typed yet again. “Basketball ratings are way down, and they won’t be coming back. I hope football and baseball are watching and learning, because the same thing will be happening to them. Stand tall for our Country and our Flag!!!’’
What, only three exclamation points?
Sometime soon, such as right now, sports should jackhammer through the fury and frustration and just let sports take over. It alarms me, as you know, when Neymar vacations in Ibiza and, of course, becomes the latest soccer superstar to test positive for the coronavirus. But rather than ask why Neymar was in Ibiza, fans of Paris Saint-Germain just count down his 14 days of quarantine (and those of two teammates) as if they have sore quads. So, for now, I’m giving up on preaching common sense even in an ongoing pandemic storm. If leagues insist on flipping off COVID-19 and jeopardizing health to play games — or, as Kirk Cousins foolishly told Kyle Brandt, “If I die, I die. I kind of have peace about that,’’ — then the mindset moving forward should be to entertain and dazzle the masses and at least disrupt the political conversation.
Live and let die? Live and let live, says sports — defiantly.
Somehow, September launches a 10-week Coronapalooza of TV-tailored events that evidently, unless the world ends or the virus swallows us whole, will include the NFL regular season, Southern-fried college football, the U.S. Opens of tennis and golf, the NBA Finals, Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals, two Triple Crown events in horse racing and, finally, the Masters in mid-November. I’m not sure how we got here, viewing all of this as a Petri dish for medical disaster, but I’ve come to realize I’m not risking my health out there. If athletes decide to risk their immune systems, why don’t we watch and wait for the usual thrills while hoping — no, praying — there isn’t a superspread?
This will be remembered as the year when sports, like our country, washijacked by a cocktail of coronavirus, social injustice and police brutality. The hatred inevitably continues this week, at the Kentucky Derby, where the trainer for favorite Tiz The Law exacerbated protest tensions ahead of the race. Said Barclay Tagg: “I don’t know what these guys are gonna do, these rioters. Who knows? All I know is, you’re not allowed to shoot them and they’re allowed to shoot you. That’s what it looks like to me.” Tiz The Law should boycott, I say. Other horses should follow.
But sports doesn’t have to remain in the toxic haze, imprisoned by the moment. With seasons in full bloom, for better or worse, the industry does have a chance to give itself oxygen — and a stronger future — by reminding us of what sports does best: delivering emphatic, riveting performances that bring us back for more. Only sports can save sports. And athletes and leagues must realize that viewers are still watching in surprisingly sizable numbers, in Bubbles and beyond, and that their best collective revenge is to provide great moments despite surreal and volatile circumstances.
Already, we’re seeing examples of stuff that cuts through the difficulty and awkwardness of taking sports seriously amid so much tumult. As much as their energy and noise are missed, we’ve learned to adapt without fans in the stands. The NBA playoffs haven’t missed a beat since last week’s game boycotts, with two Game 7s and flopping drama involving Chris Paul and the former teammate who wanted him out of Houston, James Harden (who still sucks in the postseason). Is this the year an upstart contender, such as the Heat, shocks the world? With an upset of the Bucks, will the door open for Miami to trade for an unfulfilled and playoff-underachieving Giannis Antetokounmpo? A likely Western final between the shiny Lakers and gritty Clippers should be held in a downtown L.A. alley, but the Bubble will do. Still, who might ditch Disney World first: LeBron James or one of many Clippers candidates? And now that family members and friends are allowed in the Bubble, is COVID-19 plotting a sneak attack?
To preserve continuity and fortify the future, it’s vital that each league generates competitive momentum this year and proves its sturdiness. The NBA has a fraught future, with a business model dependent on the arena experience and lucrative sponsorships. But the NFL, though cavalier about obvious virus concerns that could shut down the season, is positioned to thrive because of revenue feeders frothing at the mouth for next week’s season opener: broadcast networks, gambling sites and loyal advertisers who’ve remained on board. It remains to be seen if players will boycott games if faced with social justice opposition from the league.
But if the virus and Jerry Jones allow, the NFL doesn’t lack for intrigue: Tom Brady fighting time in Tampa with crazy-uncle Bruce Arians and party-boy Rob Gronkowski … Bill Belichick, with his new Subway ads, risking his system-is-king legacy on Cam Newton … Aaron Rodgers against the world, including his own bosses, as Jordan Love stands by in Green Bay … Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, trying to build a dynasty and helped by 16,000 fans in the seats, creating a competitive imbalance for 25 teams that won’t have home fans to start the season … Amid thick racial tension, will the Saints forgive Drew Brees for his insensitive words or turn on him if he plays like an old man? … Cincinnati, a dead end for football joy, hopes Joe Burrow provides life support … The Browns, with their third head coach in two years, try to avoid inevitable dysfunction with Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and Myles Garrett in the house … Will Lamar Jackson realize there’s more to football than a regular season? … Tua Time in Miami? … The Bills as a sleeper? … And what if Cousins contracts the virus and spreads it to his Minnesota teammates?
“If I get it, I’m gonna ride it out. I’m gonna let nature do its course,’’ said Cousins, before lamely trying to clarify the comments. “Survival-of-the-fittest kind of approach. And just say, if it knocks me out, it knocks me out. I’m going to be OK. You know, even if I die.” You know.
What if a teammate sneezed in the huddle? “Within the building, there’s gonna be a dichotomy of people who couldn’t care less about the virus, have no concern about it, have never lost a minute of sleep about it,’’ Cousins said. “And then you get people on the other side of the spectrum who, every second of every day, they’re consumed with fear about it. What you don’t know is who’s where on the spectrum when you first go back.”
You don’t think that attitude could divide a locker room, do ya, Kirk?
The NFL’s COVID-iots need only to examine the virus struggles of MLB, also played outdoors without a restrictive Bubble environment. It will be a miracle if baseball and its inept commissioner, Rob Manfred, get through a postseason and crown a champion. Also notice how teams keep wanting to brawl, including the Rays and Yankees, a disgraceful pandemic scene that saw Aroldis Chapman throw a 101-mph fastball near the head of a Tampa Bay pinch-hitter while each manager was suspended a game. It’s a shame because MLB broadcast ratings, on a steep decline for years, have been helped by pandemic audiences with limited entertainment options and a lack of original programming. People are so desperate for anything to do, including women and young people, they’re actually watching baseball. But unlike the NBA, which has suffered a Trump-gleeful ratings drop, MLB doesn’t move us with story lines. When the San Diego Padres create the most buzz — thanks only to Fernando Tatis Jr. and a flurry of trade-deadline activity — it doesn’t bode well for October interest when football and the NBA Finals will rule sports chatter. Imagine a San Diego-Tampa Bay World Series. As industry stories, low-revenue teams are sweethearts.
They also make for record-low postseason ratings, with games slower than ever and diluted by the same home-run binges that reek of fake news.
Hockey? Only the diehards are watching, but like NBA commissioner Adam Silver, NHL boss Gary Bettman is impressively surviving his Bubble experiment without a COVID-19 disruption. Players are ignoring protocols and fighting — 11 bouts so far, triple the rate of last year’s playoffs — but at least we’ve learned what is tantalizing about Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. By the way, three Tampa teams — Lightning, Rays, Buccaneers — could flirt with championships.
Only in a pandemic.
Just like a Cubs-White Sox World Series.
Sports simply has to keep selling the goods through the madness. The formula is time-tried and reliable. Collin Morikawa sold us with his electric finish at the PGA Championship, creating fun noise for golf’s U.S. Open and Masters as Tiger Woods fades and Phil Mickelson tweets. Serena Williams gets a big headline if she wins her 24th Grand Slam title in New York. All day and all night, sports events are on TV, a dream for fans and gamblers.
It’s almost enough to make one back-burner the politics. An important case study is the Bucks. As the first team to boycott a playoff game after the shooting of Jacob Blake, in Milwaukee’s backyard of Kenosha, Wis., the players were dismayed when the state’s Republican-bent legislature didn’t take immediate action this week on proposed policing measures. Have the Bucks been so consumed by politics that they’ve lost focus on why they’re in Florida? If so, it’s a sour development for a championship contender trying to retain Giannis long-term.
Said veteran guard Kyle Korver: “It was disappointing. Surely, there are things to talk about right now, right? Like surely there are things that our state needs leadership in and how can we be better. What we’re trying to figure out as a team is, we don’t want to be aligned politically. Sport has always had the opportunity to be a bridge in life in so many ways, and that’s what we’re trying to do as a team. We’re trying to find that balance. There’s things going on in our country that are more important than basketball.’’
America is well aware. Yet in the pursuit of higher moral ground, sports cannot forget its primary purpose. After a harrowing spring and summer in a weary, bleary republic, autumn is upon us, and people still want to watch games and events. This is a lucky opportunity, nothing short of shocking.
So entertain them, would you please?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pac-12 Pushing Enhanced Access, Deion Sanders Reeks of Desperation
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Coach Prime if those game telecasts aren’t seen?
Getting experimental has drawn some attention to USFL and XFL broadcasts during each league’s seasons. The Pac-12 is apparently hoping the same approach will draw viewers to its football telecasts beginning this fall.
Last week, the conference announced that its broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Pac-12 Networks would feature enhanced access for viewers. Head coaches will be interviewed during games. Players and coaches will be mic’d up during pregame warm-ups. Cameras will have pregame and halftime access to team locker rooms. And handheld camera operators will be allowed to film parts of the field and game experience which were previously prohibited.
Those familiar with USFL and XFL telecasts will likely see some similarities to the greater access that those leagues allow their TV partners. Coaches are mic’d up on the sidelines, giving viewers insight into play calls and strategy. Players are interviewed during the game, providing near-instant reactions to success or failure. Cameras in the replay booth show how officials decide to either overturn or uphold calls on the field.
What the Pac-12 intends to do with its broadcasts won’t go as far as the USFL and XFL. Access to coaches and players is being expanded but will still have limits. The conference doesn’t have to demonstrate familiarity, credibility, and legitimacy to fans and media.
Spring pro football leagues are a tough sell to mainstream sports fans accustomed to college football and the NFL from September through January. Especially when the level of play is subpar and rosters are filled with unfamiliar names, the USFL and XFL have to give fans more reasons to watch.
USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are established national brands and regularly compete with the top teams in college football. Utah has played in the past two Rose Bowls, seen on millions of televisions during the New Year’s Day holiday. All five of those schools finished among the final AP Top 25 rankings of the 2022-23 season. USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.
Yet the Pac-12 is promoting the gimmick of enhanced access because it needs to attract positive fan and media attention. Right now, most of the headlines the conference is generating aren’t flattering.
Notably, the Pac-12 needs a new media rights deal. Losing two of its most prominent schools, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten in 2024 certainly isn’t helping with that. Rumors have persisted that Washington and Oregon could soon follow. Additionally, the Big 12 is reportedly eyeing Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah as possible expansion targets.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is left to tout Colorado’s new head coach, Deion Sanders, as a selling point in a new media rights deal. Never mind that Sanders hasn’t coached a game in Boulder yet. The Buffaloes are also coming off a 1-11 season and have won more than five games only once since 2007.
If Coach Prime is as successful as Colorado hopes, how likely is he to jump to a better program and stronger conference? And as mentioned in a previous paragraph, even if Sanders sticks around, Colorado could be poached by the Big 12. How much value would Coach Prime provide for the Pac-12 then?
ESPN’s deal with the conference expires in July 2024, shortly before USC and UCLA defect, and reportedly has no intention of renewing. (ESPN could still agree to a package of lower-tier games for late-night broadcast windows, but Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that doesn’t appear likely.) Fox’s agreement is up at the same time, though prospects of a renewal seem more optimistic. The network needs Pac-12 games to fill its college football Saturday inventory.
The options from there aren’t promising. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports that current speculation has USA Network, part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate, as a possible landing spot. According to The Athletic, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff believes that the conference’s next media rights deal will have a large streaming component with Amazon and Apple TV+ mentioned as potential partners.
A streaming partner might be good from a financial standpoint, helping produce some of the revenue that ESPN has cut off. But forcing fans to find your product and asking them to pay for another TV platform isn’t a good way to draw interest. It may well be a path to irrelevance and obscurity. That’s not going to compete with the Big Ten and SEC, or even the Big 12.
And as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, how can streaming be expected to save a conference like the Pac-12 when it isn’t even helping TV networks (or standalone providers) right now? Disney is losing money with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. NBCUniversal has lost billions on Peacock, as has CBS with Paramount+. Maybe the Pac-12 won’t care about that because it got paid. But there’s little chance for growth.
OK, Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly, Dan Lanning, and Kyle Whittingham could be interviewed during games. But they probably won’t say much interesting during a game. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. will be mic’d up during warm-ups. Maybe we’ll see coaches and players going crazy in the locker room at halftime. Just remember that Peyton Manning said most players only have time to use the bathroom and have a snack. There’s your compelling television.
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Deion Sanders if those game telecasts aren’t seen by large audiences? To say otherwise is desperate. That’s exactly where the Pac-12 is.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But
It was April 19, 1775 when the first shots of war were fired on battlefields in Lexington and Concord that would send shockwaves across the world. Some brave soul among a group of rebel farmers and blacksmiths, doctors and lawyers literally pulled the trigger on what would become known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Indeed, the world would never be the same.
The college athletics version of that event was June 11, 2010. On that day, regents at the University of Nebraska officially applied for Big Ten membership and were unanimously approved by the other eleven schools (if the number in the conference name not matching the number of schools in that conference is something that bothers you, this column may not be for you). From that day forward, we have never really exited the “expansion era”.
One conference that has gone largely untouched in that time is the ACC. Only Maryland has left the ACC since 2010, heading to the Big Ten, and the conference has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in that same window. That is significant when you consider only the SEC and Big Ten have avoided any departures in this era. Every other major conference has seen great turbulence while those three conferences have primarily seen only growth.
That trend may actually continue for the ACC and that may not be a net positive for the conference or the ACC members. This is thanks to the long term grant of rights deal the conference schools negotiated with ESPN. The grant of rights means ESPN holds the broadcast rights to all home games of the current ACC schools, and do so for the next 13 years.
When the deal was signed in 2016, the 20 year media rights deal seemed like a win for the ACC, creating stability in a time of great instability. Now, what seemed like a “must have purchase” may be the impulse buy that the league schools regret for decades.
Put simply, the ACC has been lapped in the media rights race by the Big Ten, SEC and even the Big 12. At best, the ACC schools are working at a $10-15 Million per year deficit when compared to Big 12 schools. At worst, they are operating at a much larger $30-$40 Million annual deficit when compared to Big Ten and SEC programs. It would be a battle of monumental proportions for the ACC to compete on the same level as those other conferences at that large of a disadvantage.
The conference’s options are slim. ESPN has a deal that is locked for 13 more years, what benefit would it be to them to renegotiate just so the ACC can compete? For instance, it would require $140 Million annually from ESPN just to place the ACC in the same financial neighborhood as the Big 12 Conference. What would be the benefit to ESPN in doing that?
The other option for ACC schools would be to bang the departure drum. Almost all legal analysts have painted a very grim picture for the schools that would be itching to leave. The exit fee is $120 million and may get the schools some nice parting gifts but does not give them their media rights. Their home game broadcast rights will still be a part of the ESPN deal with ACC. That greatly reduces a departing school’s value to any other conference.
Maybe ESPN is willing to broker a deal for a departing school if it is going to a conference, such as the SEC, that has a large rights deal with ESPN. If one of the schools desires a departure to the Big Ten, who has large deals with networks not named ESPN, one would have to think The Worldwide Leader would be in less of a deal-making mood.
Some league athletics directors, led by Florida State’s Michael Alford, are suggesting teams be incentivized for success. Breaking the code; rather than equal distribution, the power schools want a bigger share of the money. This is where Wake Forest points out that it is all they can do to exceed football expectations on their current stipend, what will become of them if that money shrinks? It seems that conferences and leagues that steer away from an equally shared revenue model have had a difficult time making that work long term.
Maybe the ACC teams that are ready to punch out could flash back to the period of time our country was in with the events we started this column remembering. They have a team in Boston, go throw some tea in the harbor and revolt, have a modern day Boston Tea Party. As it stands now, there are several ACC members that want to leave the party they are part of. Their only problem is they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.