John Middlekauff Isn’t Screwing Around
“I think any time that I’ve ever had the opportunity to be around someone really successful, it was less about getting their words.”
The 3 and Out with John Middlekauff podcast has been acquired by Colin Cowherd’s network The Volume. Cowherd’s programming approach is “same sports, different angles.” I typically watch games while standing on my head, but I digress. This isn’t about me; this interview is about the former NFL scout, turned terrestrial radio host, turned podcasting stud. If you want different angles, Middlekauff’s got ‘em thanks to his time in the league. It doesn’t hurt that the Davis, California native is also smart, experienced, and unapologetically opinionated.
Some huge names have had a powerful impact on Middlekauff’s career. You can’t do much better than working with Andy Reid in football and Cowherd in broadcasting. In our chat below, the Cal Poly graduate makes an interesting point that the best advice he’s received was never spoken. Middlekauff talks about how he gauges success in podcasting and the most challenging role of his career. There is also a nod to his Bay Area radio days with Guy Haberman and Jason Barrett as well as some rapid-fire NFL gems. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: What was it about Cowherd’s network that convinced you it was the right place for your podcast?
John Middlekauff: I’ve been with Colin since the inception of this podcast on his other network. He’s the best in the business. Any time that a guy like that believes in you and helps you start something and is behind you, I don’t think you can ask for anything more. If Colin says let’s do this, I’m doing it. It’s not a complicated strategy. I just follow Colin’s lead to wherever he’s headed and I’ll be right behind him
BN: What are the things in the podcasting space that appeal to you more than terrestrial radio?
JM: I’ve been doing it now for five years. I worked in terrestrial radio for about three. I would say the things that I like, one, you’re coming for me. If you’re listening to the show, you are seeking me out. A lot of radio shows — now the big ones, you’re going for Colin — but most radio shows if you’re on the station, you might just end up on a show. You may like the guy, you may not, but you’re just stuck. Where in podcasting if you’re listening — it’s why a small percentage of podcasts are making a lot of money — people seek them.
The other thing is for me in radio, you’re partners with teams because you have to be in the big markets. It can be dicey for me. I’m someone that does not hold back. I don’t give a f*** what other people think. I’m not just trying to make things up but the team’s get very sensitive in my experience.
Now I was dealing with the second-rate teams in the area. I can understand dealing with the Yankees, the Cowboys, the San Francisco Giants, the 49ers — I get there’s a balance because they generate a lot of money for you. But the teams I was dealing with were struggling. They got so sensitive. Especially the football team was losing so much. It became very stressful. I’m paid to talk and be authentic. That’s one thing in the podcast space I can truly say whatever I want. I enjoy it a lot personally.
BN: In radio, the report card is the ratings book. What’s the metric in podcasting you look at to gauge success?
JM: Revenue. As long as we’re making money and growing, I feel good about it. I always thought the ratings thing in radio, it’s just made up. It’s based on a couple of meters. I think it’s a sham. You have no clue how many people are listening. Absolutely none. I live in a market with eight million people and it’s based on like 10 meters? It’s insane. If 1.5 million people listen to me in a given month, that’s actual people listening.
One time we had Terrell Owens on when I was working for Jason Barrett in radio. He was still a really big deal. The 20-minute interview did like a 30 share. Our show was number one in the market that month. That was a really big deal for the station. We were all fired up. But the next month we’re doing a sweet show, big guests, and we were maybe like fourth. You’re just playing these games with these meters. I don’t have to play any games with meters now. That’s a major, major difference. There’s no manipulation of it.
BN: Yeah, it matters but it’s so goofy. It’s like stoppage time in soccer where it’s not precise. It’s just ehh, we’re kind of making stuff up as we go along. And you live and die by that. It’s crazy.
JM: It’s wild. It’s like you can control it but you feel like you have no control over it. And then all of a sudden you’re like oh a meter left, and now he doesn’t listen to you anymore. So you just dropped like two points, but you’re like I think our show is better than it was two months ago and now we’re getting our ass kicked. What is going on? That’s the difference in podcasting, again at the higher levels.
This is my business. This is not a passion project for me. This is what I do to pay the bills. There’s no screwing around here. You have that mindset in radio; you approach it like a real job. It’s very serious. I think it helps since leaving you just maintain that mindset and treat it the same even though the meter and the ratings do not exist. That’s a major pressure relieved from your shoulders. You don’t even have to think about it. You got to get people to listen. You got to keep growing. But to me it’s easier to do that than it is to add an extra meter out there and you don’t even know the human or what he even likes.
BN: The knock among industry folks is that podcasting is harder to monetize. What has been your experience as far as that goes?
JM: Yeah, no issues. It was hard at first I’d say three or four years ago. But in 2021, I’ve had a lot of success monetizing. The two podcasts I’m a part of definitely generate revenue. I know that. I’d say the other difference is, as a radio host you don’t get to own the show. As a podcast you potentially get the ability to own your show or be a partner in your show and own the revenue coming in. That’s just something that’s a little different.
Now I would say one major difference is like you said the knock that a lot of podcasts can’t make money. It’s harder to generate; it is more of a hustle. But I’d say most businesses are a little bit of hustle at the ground floor. I argue that terrestrial radio is getting more and more segmented and splitting up. TV stations are cutting budgets. That’s the one thing in the digital space where they’re adding. A company like The Volume; they’re going to try to grow where some of the old-school television shows or a terrestrial radio station, they’re cutting. It’s going to be hard for them to ever add again. They’re probably not going to come back.
BN: When you think about your entire career — we’re talking scouting, radio, podcasting — what do you think has been your biggest break?
JM: It’s probably not one. There are so many influential people that changed my life. I’d say Pat Hill changed my life. Andy Reid changed my life. Once I transitioned into media I could just say I worked for Andy Reid and Howie Roseman. I would say without Guy Haberman I never would’ve gotten into radio. Who knows? Maybe I’d be selling insurance now. And then with Colin, he’s changed my life. It’s just individuals that believe in you, take a chance on you, and then once you’re able to associate with them, they are high-level, well-respected people in their business. Andy is one of the best coaches. Colin’s one of the best ever. Those two guys alone, it changed my life for sure.
I’d say there are always seminal moments. There’s nothing like your parents. Without them none of this is possible. But then once you become an adult you meet different people that can take you on paths that you didn’t know. If you asked me 10 years ago would I be sitting here talking to you, who knows? I get a lot of questions like where do you see yourself in five years? Well, I think that question was a lot easier to answer in like 1996. The world changes at rapid speed. I don’t f***in’ know what’s going to be around. [Laughs] Who knows? I think in this profession it’s borderline impossible to answer.
BN: What’s some of the best advice you’ve gotten from the who’s who of people you’ve worked with?
JM: I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily like individual advice. I would just be able to say watching their actions. The way they operated. The way they conducted themselves. Starting with Pat Hill and Andy just how friendly and nice, how much ownership they took in everything, and just the way they conducted themselves. Then when you meet all these other famous people that know them and how they revere those guys, it’s just like well I can see why.
Being around Colin, I remember a couple of years ago at the Super Bowl, just the way he treats his staff. He’s probably one of the more famous people I know. You see some of these stories about Hollywood people and you’re like God; he’s the complete opposite. He’s incredible. He really is a unique, authentic individual. It was the way I was raised; treat people well, do the right thing. And if you’re talented hopefully the cream will rise. That’s really something I kind of think about more than any individual advice like get into the break fast or that type of stuff. [Laughs] I don’t really think about that as much.
BN: It reminds me of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Favre didn’t have to say hey, do this and look out for that. But being around a guy like that is helpful. Is that similar to your experience?
JM: I think any time that I’ve ever had the opportunity to be around someone really successful, it was less about getting their words. Because again as an individual it’s hard to just take something someone’s said, but if you can just emulate the things that they do and the way that they treat people if they do it the correct way, I think that is a game-changer in life.
BN: What has been the most challenging role and the most enjoyable role you’ve had throughout your career?
JM: I would say the challenging role was my first year when I got to the NFL. It was just hard. There were just a lot of things going on. You’re fighting for your professional life. You’re basically on a one-year $20,000 contract, just the lowest guy on the totem pole. You’re doing all of these — looking back — trivial tasks, but at the time you feel like I got to pick this player up at the airport. I’ve got to get sandwiches for the coaches. You just feel pressure with everything you’re doing even if it gets up to oh, they’re letting me evaluate some players. That was just really, really intense. Just the pressure obviously going to Philadelphia, it was crazy. But it was good crazy. It was hard, there’s no doubt about it.
I would say doing podcasts now. The impact and seeing people that enjoy it, it’s definitely cool. Some of the sports media stuff can bore me. Just doing your go-to stuff. The clickbait.
I’m going to talk about what I want to talk about. I’m not going to talk about offensive linemen. I’m going to talk about the quarterbacks and the coaches. I’ve got a pretty good idea. I think like a fan. I’m not worried about the practice squad because that stuff kind of bored me when I was in the NFL, but you had to be really focused on it. So I just enjoy doing shows and having people like it.
BN: I’m just curious, man, if you break down your time scouting in the league year by year, what was that timeline for you?
JM: I was with Fresno State for two years. Then I was with the Eagles for three years. Andy got fired my third year. That’s when Chip Kelly came in. At the draft I got let go. I was probably 28. I didn’t know that many people in the league. So I didn’t really know what to do. I tried to get on some other places and I didn’t. It was like should I try to move somewhere? My third year I was able to work on the West Coast for the Eagles for college. I lived in San Francisco. I got to come back west. I was like I don’t really want to move. I want to do my own thing. That’s when Guy had just gotten hired by JB. I got lucky there. If he hadn’t been there who knows? I don’t know what I would have done.
I wasn’t dead set. I think a lot of people — that’s all they were going to do. Being in the NFL, I think that’s the way it is with the NBA, with baseball, these guys are just driven. They’re junkies. I don’t like football that much. I want to go play golf. I have other interests in business and other stuff that I do. There are other things that I want to do and I enjoy watching other sports. You don’t really have time for that sometimes depending on the time of the year. It’s just football in this bubble. It’s crazy.
I’m able to do it now on a much, much lower level than eat, breathe, sleep it 24/7, 365. There are so many players in the league. It takes a lot of time to master the league. And then even once you do, just to keep up and maintain it, it takes a lot of energy. It’s always moving. All of these coaches. I think a lot of fans say I would love to do that. It sounds good in theory and then you find out you make probably way less than you would make doing your job and the hours are insane. Again it’s the football 24/7, 365.
BN: With Guy in San Francisco, how did it come to be where you ended up on a show together?
JM: I think over the summer maybe in July or early August of 2013, he’s hosting the night show and doing the A’s postgame. He’s like bro, come in. Just come in for 30 minutes, you’re an NFL scout, we’ll talk Raiders, Niners, and just around the league. I think I did it a couple of times and JB was a legit boss. I would imagine most bosses around the country ain’t listening to some of the guests that come on the night show, but he was newer and putting the station together. It might have been the first time I went in, Guy hits me up a few days later and was like hey, my boss at the station just heard you and he’s going to reach out. He wanted me to become a part of the station on just like a random contributor type thing. It really all started because Guy had me on for 30 minutes, JB listened, liked it, and it kind of went from there.
BN: I’ve got a couple of rapid-fire NFL questions. What’s the storyline you’re most fascinated by heading into the season?
JM: I’m biased but it’s got to be the 49ers quarterback situation. Maybe just all the rookie quarterbacks. There are five guys drafted in the top 15. With five quarterbacks drafted that high, it’s going to be fun to watch. I’m excited.
BN: Is there anything that’s talked about a decent amount heading into the season that you don’t find very interesting?
JM: That’s a good question. The Deshaun Watson thing has started to bore me a little bit. Just suspend the guy, trade the guy; how long are we going to go on? It feels like it’s not going away because who’s going to trade for him right now. That story is getting exhausting. People just keep acting like he’s tradable. He’s not tradable until we get some clarity on the legal stuff. He’s no longer just Deshaun Watson 2020. He’s got some off-the-field issues that are kind of a big deal right now.
BN: Do you have a best bet for the season?
JM: I like Matt Stafford or Josh Allen to win MVP. I’d probably lean Josh Allen MVP. He might have a sweet season. He might just be unreal.
BN: What are you most bullish about in terms of a team exceeding expectations or being a disappointment?
JM: I think the Patriots are going to be good. Belichick’s just coming off a bad season. You got Mac Jones. They got all of these guys back on defense. Last year’s team sucked and they went 7-9. Jon Gruden, year four, I just think they’re not going to be good. Six, seven wins for $10 million a year. I think that place has a chance to be a disaster.
BN: Who do you think is the best color analyst in the NFL right now?
JM: I enjoy Tony Romo. I just enjoy his energy. I know some people think he’s cheesy or whatever but there are so many analysts that are awful. Let’s face it; there are a lot of broadcasters that are just terrible. You just mute them. Just f***ing throw on some music. It’s bad.
Most national broadcasts in 2021 — maybe it was different 15 years ago, it felt like it was good — it just doesn’t feel like it’s that good anymore. There are so many players, so many injuries, so many moving parts. That’s a tough job for the analysts. I’m not saying it’s easy. So even the guys that suck, it’s hard. I wouldn’t want to do it.
BN: By the way, I get a little bit of a Philip Rivers vibe from you. Just in terms of your energy and cadence.
JM: I appreciate that.
BN: You curse. Phil doesn’t. Other than twang and cursing, I sense some Phil.
JM: No children yet.
BN: [Laughs] Maybe there are like nine on the way for you.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide on FOX Sports Radio’s Countdown To Kickoff. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.