Let The Games Begin…And The Chaos Continue
“Brady busts, Belichick smirks, LeBron smells glory, and L.A. launches a spaceship — but as Covid rattles college football and MLB, why is Fox downplaying the national anthem protests so paramount to NFL peace?”
It’s almost amusing now, the way sports is smothering us with sensory overload. America’s archivists are occupied by more pressing matters, but as they record the gnarly story of 2020, they’ll marvel at how this collective blur — football, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis, golf, soccer, cornhole — has done what this country still hasn’t done: Figure it all out and make something palatable from the abnormal.
We saw Tom Brady lose to Drew Brees AND Cam Newton on the same Sunday, as Bill Belichick grinned and hawked Subway sandwiches. We saw Aaron Rodgers flip the script and Cleveland flip the bird at Baker Mayfield, while Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson carried on. We saw LeBron James reach another conference final and the Clippers again clutch their throats. We saw Joe Burrow’s heartbreaking debut and the opening of a futuristic but barren $6-billion palace in Los Angeles, down the street from homeless encampments amid unbreathable air choked with wildfire ash.
We saw Alec Mills pitch a no-hitter weeks after Lucas Giolito did the same, which must be a sign of what could happen only during a pandemic: a Cubs-White Sox World Series. We saw Dodgers fans gather on Vin Scully Avenue and greet the Astros’ buses with trash cans, Joe Kelly pouty faces and other references to the electronic sign-stealing scandal. We saw two grown men ejected from the NBA Bubble, one the trash-talking brother of Rajon Rondo and the other for inviting a female COVID-19 tester to his hotel room. We saw Naomi Osaka take over women’s tennis while wearing names of Black shooting victims on her face masks.
And we saw almost no fans in the endless slabs of empty seats, hearing nothing but echoes and canned noise that only reminded us of the force-fed greed and frivolousness of it all.
They want us to think this is sports utopia, a heavenly convergence of seasons and events unprecedented on Planet Earth. In truth, it’s part of our ongoing dystopia. And there was no more glaring example Sunday than how the leagues and certain TV networks, with a collective conscience of zero, tried to pretend that two persistent viruses don’t exist.
Racial injustice? The NFL already is facing protest-related upheaval, a division between teams that don’t buy into the league’s sudden embrace of social reform and others that dutifully line up on the sideline and stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ A pattern is developing — some teams boycott the national anthem by remaining in the locker room; some teams are split between players who kneel, stand or sit on the sideline; some teams stand united with no one kneeling; and some teams link arms and stand together, not just for the national anthem but the traditional Black anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing.’’ It’s a potential powder keg when the Patriots, coached by military man Belichick, have no players kneeling while the Dolphins, led by Black head coach Brian Flores, are in the locker room. Or when the Packers stay in the locker room while the Vikings are split — some standing, some kneeling — as nine members of George Floyd’s family watch from a stadium concourse in Minneapolis. Or when the Texans remain in the locker room while Patrick Mahomes, Face of the League, stands with the Chiefs as only one teammate kneels.
This divergence happened throughout the league and won’t be ending soon. I am not an advocate of keeping score on how people protest, but I know a sitting President who does just that, sadly making this a story. And I know an unemployed quarterback already disgusted by it all, with Colin Kaepernick tweeting Sunday that “the NFL runs propaganda about how they care about Black Life.’’
So why wouldn’t we notice every display? The Jaguars remained in their locker room while Colts head coach Frank Reich was the lone man kneeling on his sideline, as all his players stood. Mayfield, who had vowed to kneel, decided to stand, while Myles Garrett joined two other Browns players in kneeling. The Bills and Jets both stayed in their locker rooms in Buffalo, while the Falcons and Seahawks took a collective knee for the opening kick in Atlanta. The Cardinals stayed inside while the 49ers mostly stood. In Baltimore, Jackson kneeled while coach John Harbaugh stood. Carolina’s Teddy Bridgewater kneeled. All of which were powerful scenes that feed directly into America’s noxious pre-election climate, creating the disunity desired by President Trump and no doubt causing heightened tensions in a league in which 70 percent of the players are Black. I’d like to think each player would respect the decisions of others, but once Trump gleefully weighs in about the small percentage of kneelers — and early TV ratings declines — yes, there will be Players Association backlash and hard feelings that lead to … God, who knows what?
“We don’t need another publicity parade, so we’ll just stay inside until it’s time to play the game,’’ Dolphins players said.
“Our intent is to bring attention to the issue of systemic racism and the injustice therein. We wanted to demonstrate a symbolic gesture of how we believe meaningful change happens,’’ the Colts said of Reich’s solo display. “(Kneeling) is not a posture of defiance but rather one of humility — taken by the White community — to acknowledge the injustice and inequality that is present and to find courage and resolve to make the changes needed.’’
“I have been showed that a gesture such as kneeling will only create more division or discussion about the gesture,’’ tweeted Mayfield, “rather than be a solution toward our country’s problems at hand.’’
The differing approaches were as complicated as racism itself. Not that you’d have known if depending on the Week 1 TV coverage. For a historic matchup of all-time quarterbacks, on what Fox Sports called “America’s Game of the Week,’’ the network didn’t bother showing the live anthem scenes in New Orleans. Wasn’t it important to see if Brees — who drew a firestorm of offseason criticism when he condemned sideline kneeling as a form of “disrespecting the flag’’ — chose to stand or kneel? And what would Brady do as a Trump associate? The only way of knowing was via news reports: Buccaneers and Saints players all stood during the anthem, and Malcolm Jenkins the only New Orleans player not on the field.
Where was Fox? The network showed the Vikings during the national anthem — and responded with broadcast-booth silence, saying nothing about the Vikings or Packers. Given the presence of Floyd’s family, wasn’t the scene worth commentary from Chris Myers and the crew at U.S. Bank Stadium? Or is this a hint that Fox — and, by extension, the NFL — will cowardly stick to football after NBC’s Cris Collinsworth at least addressed the racial tension before kickoff Thursday night? CBS was responsible in showing the Dolphins’ no-show and how the Bengals and Chargers linked arms for the anthem, with requisite booth and sideline commentary. And NBC got it right Sunday night, showing about a dozen Rams kneeling as quarterback Jared Goff stood, and, with owner Jerry Jones placing a hand over his heart, Dallas players standing at attention except for nose tackle Dontari Poe, who kept his vow to kneel. But naturally, the NFL Network loaded up the day with game highlights and little protest footage.
I bring this up not because Americans should be inundated by activism, but because players demanded that the league and TV partners cover the Black Lives Matter movement consistently — and not quickly turn away when audience segments are offended, as seen late in the Kaepernick movement. If players don’t trust the motives of commissioner Roger Goodell, the first evidence is how the networks handle the story. So far, the coverage is erratic.
And the coronavirus? What coronavirus? College football and Major League Baseball resumed shameless money grabs, despite a relentless flurry of positive tests that ignore health risks and already have turned seasons into mayhem. In a disturbing contradiction, Big Ten presidents were meeting to discuss a return to football as Michigan State, a member institution, was asking the entire student body to self-quarantine for 14 days. All while Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley was making a mockery of Covid, saying he wouldn’t be forthright about positive tests heading into a game. “Just like we would with an injury, we made the decision not to broadcast that,’’ Riley actually said. “You don’t want to give your team a competitive disadvantage.’’ So let’s just conceal an infectious disease in the name of winning a football game! Boomer Sooner!
After a thrashing of Missouri State, Riley said the game nearly was postponed because, yep, his team was hit with a torrent of Covid cases, sidelining the starting running back and All-America kicker and leaving his offensive line in disarray. “It hung in the balance for a little bit, but we were able to do it,” Riley said after the 48-0 win. “Thankfully, we were able to.’’
Thankfully? Anyone concerned about the players, their families, their grandparents? How positive tests will contribute to more virus spreads on campuses, the current scourge of American academia? Across the sport, teams have Covid issues: Clemson was without three starters in beating Wake Forest … five Auburn starters have the virus … several games were postponed … and the ACC said it will scrap the season if at least eight of its 15 teams aren’t available to play, which likely would cause the SEC and Big 12 to fall into lockstep and shut down the College Football Playoff. Why are they even playing football when campuses are the nation’s hottest virus spots? “This is not a time when you can state with any sort of veracity that you’re going to play all your games,’’ Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby admitted. “We could find ourselves in the same situation that the Big Ten and the Pac-12 are in later in the season. I’m not prepared to have any bravado about it whatsoever.”
Baseball never should have attempted a season. The Covid interruptions have made the games unwatchable, stripping an already dawdling sport of all continuity and interest. MLB Is in a shameful race to claim $1 billion in TV revenue if a postseason somehow is completed. But now players are balking at commissioner Rob Manfred’s proposal to utilize Bubbles in the playoffs, in Texas and southern California, wondering why qualifying teams would have to quarantine for a week and force players to separate from their families. The answer is as obvious as a swab up the nose: The NBA and NHL have succeeded in keeping Covid out of restrictive environments; baseball has failed miserably so far outside a Bubble. Yet the pushback is considerable, especially from teams that have been Covid-free. “You’re asking us to choose between our families and the playoffs?” Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ union rep, told The Athletic. “That’s a stupid question, especially when we’ve played however many successful games this season. Obviously, there were two blips early on (Marlins and Cardinals), but it was out of poor choices by individuals. Other than that, it has been a pretty successful season. Why change all the protocols now?’’
Is he really asking that question? Unlike a regular season in which a team’s games could be paused for days or weeks after an outbreak, one positive test makes a mess of a postseason that can’t afford hiccups.
Still, from Saturday morning through Sunday night, America managed to feel awake again, if not close to completely alive. This is the September buffet we’d heard about but never thought would happen, the full-blown resumption of sports that I railed against all summer. There’s still nothing remotely prudent about it, and if athletes who dare to play amid Covid are fighting significant medical effects years from now, please remember how I damned the leagues and networks that prioritized wealth over health. Billions of dollars breed corruption, and as we absorb Riley’s comments, tell me: Do you trust any people in power to be transparent when they can hide behind privacy laws or just openly lie? `As the NBA and NHL approach final rounds and MLB stumbles toward October, beware of such fakery.
It’s impossible to ignore the swirling convergence of crazy activity. The games are on TV around the clock, which gives the industry a chance to remind us “why we love sports,’’ as ESPN says. The surreal events of 2020 also mean people might not care about sports as much as they once did. They can watch, as a diversion, but can you really pull on a replica jersey when you’re trying to stay employed, pay a mortgage, educate your kids online and avoid the virus? I’ll be anxious to monitor the ratings. More sports are live in a single timeframe than ever before, yet even with a lack of original programming choices, who’s to say people will flock back to sports? The Jaguars, the only NFL team to allow fans Sunday, made 16,800 tickets available.
Only 14,100 showed up.
The games and individual performances still need to move and inspire us. Front and center were Brady and James, as they’ve been since the start of the millennium, creating new chapters in epic careers. James and the Lakers become the favorites to win the NBA title, resting as the hallway-rival Clippers crack as usual under pressure. Giannis is gone. Kawhi might be next. After all this time in confinement, think LeBron isn’t smelling the weirdest championship of his or any other lifetime?
“I understand the Laker faithful and what they felt or were going through over the last decade of not being in the postseason, or not competing for championships,” James said. “I took that responsibility as well. I’m happy I’m able to do a little bit and be a part of it.’’ Notice his humility when he’s in control.
Brady will be happy to survive his 44th year on Earth in one piece. He threw two interceptions, fumbled once and was sacked three times in a 34-23 loss to the Saints, and already, we hear Camp Belichick declaring victory — Brady was the product of the New England system and needed Belichick more than vice versa. It’s too early for all that, but so far, Newton — mobility! — owns one more victory in 2020 than the toast of Tompa Bay.
One of Brady’s picks went for a touchdown. The Bucs could have kept James Winston to do that. And if Brady thought Belichick was gruff at times, his new coach, Bruce Arians, blamed him for both interceptions.
“Poor execution. I made some bad, terrible turnovers,’’ Brady said. “I’ve obviously got to do a lot better job. There’s no excuses. We’ve got to clean that up for next week.’’
And we’ll see him, at home against Carolina, on Fox.
The same can’t be said for the anthem, which, at the moment, is much more important to the national condition than Tom Brady’s arm strength.
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.