Jonathan Zaslow Is No Longer A Caveman
“I never would have been that guy who was not only listening to a female in sports radio, but preferring to do a show with a female. I used to be a caveman. I’ve definitely evolved.”
Everybody in sports radio has to start somewhere. Often times it’s in a small town like Sioux Falls or Poughkeepsie. There aren’t many hosts that get their start in a top-15 market without having to relocate. Jonathan Zaslow of WQAM in Miami is one of the lucky ones in this regard. He didn’t have to pack his bags for a market in the hundreds. He was able to get his foot in the door at home and talk about the teams he rooted for growing up.
Zaslow has made the most of his opportunities. He’s had a successful run in sports radio and has worked with big names like Joy Taylor, Amber Wilson, and Boog Scambi. Zaslow has also covered Miami Heat basketball for the past 12 years and would love to get more play-by-play opportunities in the future. We talk about what Zaslow has learned most from Joy and Amber, how Stugotz played an important role in his career, and how he has evolved from a self-described caveman. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: Where are you originally from?
Jonathan Zaslow: South Florida is my hometown. I grew up in North Miami Beach and the only time really that I ever left was when I went to school. I went to the University of Florida, but I’m a Miami guy. Most people who want to do sports radio, they want to be a sports radio talk show host; I wanted to be a sports radio talk show host in Miami. So I really limited the playing field as far as what I wanted to do. I just felt like I wanted to be able to be passionate and root for the teams that I grew up rooting for while talking about them every day and with the same type of people who were just like me listening growing up. I’m from here and I guess you never say never, but I don’t have any plans on leaving.
BN: What was it like for you to initially get started in sports radio when you specifically wanted to be in South Florida?
JZ: I got really, really lucky and my path is not one to try and be replicated. I used my last semester at the University of Florida to do an internship down here at the local NBC affiliate in Miramar. Luckily, this was unbeknownst to me, in September of that year right at the end of my summer internship, a brand new radio station was starting up down here, 790 The Ticket. They were starting up to challenge the incumbent WQAM. They had some money behind them and it was for real.
The lead sports anchor at the NBC affiliate was Joe Rose who had been the longtime morning host at 560 and was leaving 560 to be the new morning host at the startup 790 The Ticket. At the end of my internship he said to me hey, you’re looking for a job? Call this guy. This guy, whose name he writes down on a piece of paper, Jon Weiner, I call up the next day. I later on found out okay, Jon Weiner is Stugotz. Stugotz from the Dan Le Batard Show was the general manager of this new startup station. That got my foot in the door.
I was doing all the grunt work of course. I was 23 years old. It also gave me the opportunity where it’s a brand new station and they’re just putting people on the air on weekends. Yeah, I’ll do that shift. I’ve never done it before, I’ll do it. I was in a place where I got to do my first sports talk shows, instead of like in Des Moines where I probably should have been doing them, I was doing them in Miami in the No. 13 overall market in the country where I grew up. I already had a wealth of knowledge about all of these teams. I got my foot in the door, really lucky.
BN: Did it take long for you to get a weekday opportunity?
JZ: While I was doing these weekend shifts I was the weekday producer for the Boog Sciambi Show. Boog of course now is the television man for the Cubs, ESPN, all of that. He was the midday host here. He and I became very close and we’re still very close. We had great chemistry together. He was using me on air a lot. That was helping me kind of find my voice a little bit, also get the audience used to who I am. Then eventually Boog left full-time for the Atlanta Braves. That was probably in ‘07. A slot opened up and I ended up taking over weeknights. I was on 7-10 p.m. Probably about three years in, I was now full-time Monday through Friday 7-10 p.m.
BN: How long were you with The Ticket altogether?
JZ: Our parent company is Audacy. They were rivals for many, many years and then eventually they merged and Audacy has both stations. I was moved about two months ago from 790 The Ticket to 560 WQAM. I was the last remaining original employee of 790 The Ticket. I started with 790 in September of ‘04 several days before they actually launched. Until a couple of months ago, I was always able to say I’m the only remaining original employee — still the longest employee, I was there for 17 years — but I was the last one.
We’re two doors down. People ask me what’s it like, you’re now on 560 WQAM. I’m like yeah, I’m just doing my show. It’s in the same building and I’m just two studios down. It’s really no different for me. But all those years where I would be on the air and I would say, ‘I’m 790 ‘til I die. I’m the only original employee still here. I’m not going anywhere.’ And now I’m on 560.
BN: [Laughs] That’s funny, man. How would you describe what it was like to do a show with Joy Taylor and what it was like to do a show with Amber Wilson?
JZ: Really different. The two of them were really, really different. I love them both to this day very much, but really different. With Joy, Joy and I were doing the show together at a really interesting time for both of us. That worked out in both of our favor. What I mean by that is we were both still really young at the time and trying to get a foothold into this career if you will. We were in on the grind. If it didn’t work out, I don’t know what else I’m doing. And if it didn’t work out for her, she doesn’t know what else she’s doing. We were in it to win it. I knew that she was in that foxhole with me and we are working hard together. That was great. I knew that I could count on her and she the same with me. She’s also a very big personality.
The big difference with Amber is she’s so smart. She is like really, really smart. Joy could do some characters and she could be very over-the-top; Amber is herself. She’s super opinionated, but also coming at it from a really, really intelligent place. She made the show a lot smarter. That’s for sure. She was also really good at poking fun of herself. Amber was really playful. Joy was also, but I would say the main difference was Joy and I were at a unique place in both of our careers and Amber was bringing a really super intelligence quotient to the show that it probably did not have before. Not that it didn’t have it from Joy, it didn’t have it from me.
BN: What would you say are some important things that you’ve learned from any of the on-air partners you’ve had?
JZ: I think probably what I learned from working with Amber, I definitely learned how to listen better. That’s for sure. Not everything that comes out of my mouth is the most important thing. I definitely learned how to listen more because she’s really smart and I was able to lean on her with stuff like that. She was going to be able to express maybe what both of us are thinking a lot better than I was going to. She was really good at that kind of stuff, at explaining serious topics with the audience. I definitely learned how to listen a lot better with her.
What I learned by working with Joy, I think I understood how to make sure that it’s good to bring in the personal stuff. When I was doing shows on my own from 7-10, I was doing a hardcore sports show. Nothing personal was coming on. I didn’t know if that was the way to go. I was like all right, well we’re a sports station so let me just stick with sports. With Joy, I really learned how to get all the personal stuff on the air because she was really good at busting my balls and getting on me. I think that’s probably what I learned from her the most.
BN: The lasting influence from Le Batard and his style in Miami, does the town still feel it to this day?
JZ: Yeah, it’s a major imprint because when it was just 560 WQAM, you had that old guard. It was a much older host. We’re talking about Hank Goldberg, Jim Mandich, Jeff DeForrest, guys who are legends down here, but obviously a little bit older than certainly, I was at the time. It was very hardcore sports and it was a Dolphins town. You got to talk Dolphins. Hurricanes, Dolphins.
Then when 790 started up, the whole idea was they’re going to be younger, they’re going to be hipper, and they’re going to do things differently. The station was centered around Le Batard. He was the original afternoon host and he was all about challenging the way that sports radio operates. All of it. And not just sports radio, but challenging sports media and the way that we cover these teams and the way that we think.
I think most of all what had probably the most effect on me was also we don’t have to do this hardcore sports show. We can totally just have fun and that plays in Miami. We’re not New York, we’re not Philly, we’re not Boston. We get busted on for not having hardcore fans here. That’s bullshit. We have incredibly hardcore fans. I’m one of them. There just aren’t enough of them that are like that. The way that you bring in everybody is you’ve got to add a little bit of fun to it and do all the laughing.
I do plenty of shows where most of the show is not sports-related and I’m just having fun. I’m talking about either movies or music or I’m talking about pro wrestling because I love pro wrestling. I would never have done that at the start until I realized okay, this is something that works down here. That I think it’s a permanent imprint that Le Batard had on the sports radio scene here.
BN: What’s the deal in Florida with sports gambling basically being a go, and now it’s not; what impact has that had on fans and also business?
JZ: It’s a go in regards to sports radio and our show. I’ve always been big into sports gambling. I just checked my Hard Rock app yesterday and it works. The Seminole Hard Rock here in Hollywood, that app works. It seems like they’re just kind of hey, we’re doing gambling now, it’s not legal in the state of Florida, but the Seminole Indian tribe, they’ve got their own — it’s complicated down here. That app seems to work, so I don’t know. I think we’re okay, but we’re not? I don’t know.
BN: [Laughs] It’s kind of like the way it was before it became legal. People gambled anyway, so that’s probably where it’s at in Florida, right?
JZ: Yeah, nothing has changed. The only thing that’s going to change is when it all becomes legitimately 100 percent legal. Otherwise, it’s still business as usual. Everybody either has their site or wherever they go. You’ve got the daily fantasy, all of it. And certainly, Audacy is heavily invested with their BetQL Network because it of course is legalized in a bunch of states, but Florida is not one of them yet. Soon.
BN: Being a huge fan of Pearl Jam, has that taught you anything as far as growing and aging with your sports radio audience?
JZ: You know, it’s funny. I’m a massive Pearl Jam fan and it’s funny because they are not the same band that they were 30 years ago. They have absolutely evolved. Their music does not sound the way that it did before. Certainly, they’ll do things today that their younger version would not have done or would have thought was cheap or maybe even a sellout-type move. In the same vein, I have completely evolved in the way that I do my shows as well.
I’m definitely the guy who would never have wanted to hear a female on sports radio. I never would’ve wanted it. I was definitely a caveman and I have evolved.
I love doing the show with a female. I loved doing the show with Joy Taylor. I loved doing the show with Amber Wilson. My goal is to eventually get back to that. If I do pick up a host again, I do want it to be a female. I think it’s important. I like the inclusivity. I like what a female brings to the show. I get along with females, I always have. I think it’s fun and I never would have been that guy who was not only listening to a female in sports radio, but preferring to do a show with a female. I used to be a caveman. I’ve definitely evolved.
BN: As far as the future goes, what’s something that you would like to accomplish or experience as you go forward?
JZ: I’ve done 12 years with the Miami Heat now on their pre, halftime, and post-game. I love it. That’s a dream come true for me. I grew up a massive Heat fan. They’ve always been the most important team down here to me as a kid. That’s a dream come true. I got the opportunity last year to fill in for the now-retired Mike Inglis. I did some play-by-play and I loved it. I’d like some more opportunities to do that. I think that’s the next thing.
As far as sports radio goes, I love doing local. I’m not going to say never, that I would never move on to something else, but I love doing local. I love Miami. I certainly don’t have any aspirations to do mornings again. I don’t think that stuff matters anymore as far as the time of day because everybody listens on digital, podcasts, you can rewind on the app. That stuff isn’t as important anymore. I love my time slot, but as far as doing extra stuff, I would like to continue doing some play-by-play. I’d also like to do a pro wrestling podcast or radio show. I’m pretty passionate about it, and I’d love to do something in that world.
BN: Is there anything you do to work on your play-by-play chops in case there is an opportunity for you?
JZ: Yeah, the way that I prepared for those games last year, I was recording games and then I would sit in my game room here and I would actually put on headsets just to kind of put myself in that place, and I would call the game. That’s when I kind of realized, I’m like alright. If I keep doing this, I think I might be good at this. It’s funny because a few years ago I was like I’d really like to practice, but if I show up to one of these Heat preseason games and I set up my equipment, Mike’s going to think I’m trying to take his job. I couldn’t do that. [Laughs] I could record games for sure and I could simulate the broadcast. It’s definitely a way to keep practicing.
BN: What’s something about play-by-play where after doing it you were like wow, I didn’t realize that part was going to be tricky?
JZ: That’s a good question. You know what, it seems like such a simple thing, but understanding when they call timeouts and when all the commercials come, that’s not something I ever would’ve thought about. And that stuff comes fast. You have to know all right, is this one of the breaks that we’re supposed to go to commercial here? On my radio show, I’ve got that in my head. I know exactly what I have to do, but here, all right they called timeout, oh the red light came on, that’s going to be a TV timeout. All right, so I’ve got to do this. That kind of stuff is not easy. And that happens fast.
BN: The impact on your body doing mornings for seven years versus middays. How do you explain what your body feels like now?
JZ: It really changed my life. They told me about two years ago that they’re moving me and Amber from mornings to middays. I was shocked of course because another thing I used to be able to hold onto was no one has ever done mornings in 790 The Ticket’s history longer than I did. That record still stands, seven years. I was a little bit shocked. Did we fail here in some regard? That was upsetting at first.
But then I started to think about it and wow, during Heat season, I don’t have to start thinking that if I fall asleep right now, I get a total of four and a half hours. Oh, now if I fall asleep, I get four hours. I don’t have to do that ever again. That weighed on me every night. People can tell you it’s an early wake-up but you’ll get used to it; there’s no getting used to it. You never, ever, ever get used to it. The 4 a.m. wake-up is 4 a.m. every single day. There’s no getting used to it. It’s changed my life.
BN: It’s funny because I think it’s something with sports radio hosts where they almost feel guilty, or have to hide the challenges of it because they’re not digging ditches.
JZ: Oh my God, I was explaining this one time. It was when I was doing the show with Amber Wilson and Brett Romberg. One morning I decided to talk about how tired I am after the show by 10 a.m. The listeners are like you got to be effing kidding me, Zaslow. You’re tired? I’m like it’s tiring. I’m talking for four straight hours and there’s no downtime. My brain is constantly spinning. I’m tired at the end of the four hours. People, they can’t grasp it. I am having fun. I’m not saying it’s not fun. But they can’t grasp the idea that you can still get tired doing a job that’s really fun.
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.