Howard Eskin Still Has Plenty To Say
“He (Cataldi) says if he’s going to take calls from the Secret Service, then he should take calls from you. He gave out my cell number on the air. I mean come on, man. What are you doing?”
Sports radio is sometimes too polite. “Well, in my humble opinion,” and that sort of thing. Every once in a while it’s nice to hear a host say, “Eat it if you don’t like it.” Enter Howard Eskin. The radio and TV personality has showcased a no-holds-barred style that has gained notoriety on the Philadelphia airwaves since 1976. There are times when the truth is ugly and grimy. Eskin hasn’t been afraid to get his hands dirty along the way in pursuit of honesty.
As you will be able to tell from our chat below, Eskin doesn’t offer wishy-washy stances. His opinions are strong and his responses are direct. That doesn’t mean Eskin hasn’t had fun along the way as well. He once did an interview with the San Diego Chicken on a news telecast. Eskin offers an unfiltered response to a recent criticism from fellow WIP host Angelo Cataldi. Eskin also destroys a myth about older hosts and offers thoughts about the success of his son, Spike Eskin, who’s now the program director at WFAN. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: Where have you worked outside of Philadelphia during your lifetime?
Howard Eskin: I worked in New York earlier in my career. I worked in the Maryland, Washington D.C. area at the beginning of my career. I was a disc jockey. I was a production engineer for a classical station. I had done a lot of things and then I spun records for guys here in Philadelphia. George Michael, who I worked with in Philadelphia who had the Sports Machine, I did segments on the Sports Machine for 11 years. He was a disc jockey up in New York before he went into television.
But that was it, New York and Washington. Then since the mid-to-early ’70s, I’ve been in Philadelphia. I’ve been on the air since ‘76 in Philadelphia, which is a long time. I’ve been on TV and radio since ‘82. Philadelphia is my home and this is what I like. I’m just happy that I can work in the town that I grew up in, which doesn’t always happen. It’s not necessary, but I don’t know if my career would have been the same if I hadn’t been here in Philadelphia. That’s what it comes down to; this is where I was meant to be.
BN: What would you say is the most fun you’ve had during your broadcasting career?
HE: I have fun doing what I do on the air. I don’t want to say I have fun arguing with players and coaches but we kind of get to know each other. Dick Vermeil invited me to his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. At the beginning, Dick Vermeil didn’t like me a little, tiny bit because I was critical of how hard he worked players. At UCLA where he came from, he never got criticized. It was different for him, L.A. to Philadelphia now, people are going to say things.
He told his players not to listen to me. Herm Edwards came out to practice one time, and said ’hey man, what did you do to coach’? I go ‘what are you talking about’? He says, ‘he told us you’re talking out your ass’. And then my first day in television I was at the head table, September 20, 1982 and Dick Vermeil was one of the speakers. He buried me at the Maxwell Club. It was a luncheon back then. Buried me. I said that’s okay, Dick. Now we’re really good friends. I’ve been over to his house. We’ve been out to dinner. He’ll text me when I’m on the air if he thinks he can help me with some kind of info.
It’s kind of interesting, but there’s been players that want to kick my ass. Mitch Williams wanted to punch me in the mouth. You go right down the list and now Mitch Williams and I are friends. They understand after they’re done playing that that’s really my job. But I’d go into the locker room, I’d yell at Larry Bowa and Darren Dalton. I would yell at Lenny Dykstra who was crazy. And then 30 seconds later we’re laughing because we get over it and we move on. I don’t know that it’s always that way now.
I’ll give you a couple of cool moments; I’m on the sidelines for an Eagles’ game and Bradley Cooper walks up to me and says ‘hey Howard, Bradley Cooper’. I said, ‘come on, man, I know who you are. How do you know me’? He said, ‘I grew up in the area. I listened to you and watched you for all of those years’. Will Smith did the same thing. Those are just really cool moments. Then whenever they see me they’re always very nice. You never know who’s out there.
Allen Iverson, he was interesting. We got along great his first few years. Then the guys he hung with told him not to listen to me because I was trying to tell him to do the right things especially with Larry Brown. He wasn’t all about listening to the coach, so then after a few years it was a little adversarial.
So he’s walking in the hallways at a Sixers game and he sees LeSean McCoy. Obviously I knew LeSean playing here, and LeSean says what do you think of this guy? He says that MF — I use MF because regardless of where this goes, I still don’t think it’s proper to put it in print and these people on satellite can use the four letter word — that MF he was always killin’ me. Killin’ me. And then Allen says to LeSean McCoy, but I love him. I love him.
Now every time he sees me he gives me a hug and says you’ve got to let the past be the past. I think he understood because he always tried to keep it real and I always tried to keep it real. So in the end, after it’s all over, I think he respects me for that.
BN: Angelo just did an interview with The Ringer…
HE: Angelo who?
BN: [Laughs] That’s right.
HE: Obviously, I’m kidding.
BN: Oh yeah, I know. Angelo said that he has a classic love/hate relationship with you. On the bright side he gave you compliments and said that he loves your work ethic and especially what you mean to Philly sports. But he also said that he didn’t think you were a great team player. What’s your reaction to that?
HE: You know what, I have no idea where that comes from. I work my ass off. I don’t know if he was kidding because sometimes when you see it written — I didn’t hear it. If they ask me to do something whether it’s help with a client or help in other ways, my biggest problem is I don’t say no. I don’t say no to charities. I don’t say no to the people I work for. I don’t say no. There have been management people I haven’t agreed with. I may not agree, but I’ll sit down and talk to them about it. I really have no clue what he was talking about. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.
I do whatever they ask me to do and what I think I have to do. I go to games and talk to players and connect with people. It gives me information. I consider what I do on the air, I inform and I entertain. You can do both with the correct information. I don’t have to do all those things. I don’t have to share it with WIP, and I do share a lot of things with them. I really have no clue what he was talking about. Absolutely no clue because I don’t want to say I’m the best team player, but I’m somewhere at the top of the list. Whatever they ask me to do, and those people will tell you that too, the management people, the people I’ve worked with over the years, they’ll all tell you that.
I don’t know if Angelo is somewhat jealous on the way out that I lasted longer than he did. It’s hard to get up in the morning. Doing those morning shows I’m sure is no piece of cake. He was compensated well for it so that’s the benefit of that. But I can’t answer that question because it surprised me not a little bit, it surprised me a lot with all I do.
I don’t want to go down that road and be critical of things that he’s done, although I will tell you one thing he did when he was a complete jerk. He wanted to get Bill Clinton on the air and I had a connection with Bill Clinton through the Secret Service. One night a bunch of Secret Service guys were coming to town and one guy called me, my phone rang. I didn’t have it on vibrate at the time while I was doing a show. I went to a break. I went back on the air and said that was somebody from the Secret Service that wanted to get in touch with me from the White House.
He got so angry because at that time the governor of the state told him he was going to get Bill Clinton on the air. It was Ed Rendell. That wasn’t going to happen. So anyway, he says if he’s going to take calls from the Secret Service, then he should take calls from you. He gave out my cell number on the air. I mean come on, man. What are you doing? Why would you do that? There was obviously a jealousy there, which I had a connection. That was wrong but I didn’t dwell on it afterwards and I’m not going to dwell on the things that he says now. [Laughs]
BN: [Laughs] As far as uncovering news, you’re known for going to great lengths to break stories. Why do you find it important to do so?
HE: When there’s something there that’s interesting to sports fans, I’m lucky enough, in my phone I have 5600 contacts. If I ever lost that — you can go right down the list, there’s always somebody that you can call and try to get some info on a situation when you hear about it. A lot of times there are stories I have and I try to pass them along but I always try to check. Luckily enough, I have a lot of people to check.
I’ll tell you a story outside of sports to show you maybe my reach. There was a friend of mine who had brain cancer. Very, very, very devout Catholic. I knew someone at the Vatican. Like, how do I know anyone at the Vatican? I mean you’ve got to be kidding me. And I asked to get a letter from the pope to this guy. He passed away like five months later after he got the letter. I didn’t get the letter, but I got the pope to send a letter to this guy. [Laughs] It’s like are you kidding me?
You get to know people, and it doesn’t always have to be sports, but people are people. It’s not like you ever count favors, you just do for people because they do for you. That’s why, I’m not a team player? I don’t know what the hell that’s all about. And I’m not going to worry about it. If you hadn’t brought it up, I wouldn’t have brought it up either.
BN: Is the Pope one of the 5600 contacts? [Laughs] Do you have the area code and everything?
HE: [Laughs] I don’t, but I have a bishop in the Vatican’s number. So that’s one of the 5600. Can you imagine? I’m a Jewish guy and I’ve got someone’s number in the Vatican.
BN: [Laughs] That’s great. Did you know that Spike’s (Eskin) career would unfold the way that it has?
HE: He did it by himself. I’ve got to give him credit. There’s only two things I helped him with. I helped him get an internship in the company at that time. And then when he was thinking about coming back to Philadelphia from Chicago — he was a disc jockey and then a music director and all of that — the general manager at the time didn’t want to pay him more money. He wasn’t going to come back.
I said hey listen, you’re letting this guy go in the morning; you’re going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can’t give him, I don’t know if it was $25,000 or $30,000 more a year to convince him to come back to Philadelphia? I just was trying to help him. That’s the only involvement I ever had. I didn’t tell him what I think he should do. There may have been one time or another where I had an opinion, but I wouldn’t really say that to him because he could do it on his own especially when he became the program director.
I knew he was a bright guy, bright kid at the time. He’s not a millennial although he wants to be a millennial. He’s out of that range now. But yeah, he was creative. I’ve got to say that all my kids are creative and he’s one of them. He works hard. He’s firm. If he would tell me something that I needed to do, he didn’t tell me much because I kind of knew what had to be done, I never really debated him on it. I just did it. If I didn’t agree with it, I kind of would go halfway, but I knew he was pretty sharp.
He was very good at what he does and I know he’s doing a great job up there. I’ve known his boss, Chris Oliviero, for 25 years and he’s a great guy and a very, very creative guy. But those two together I know they’re doing a great job and WFAN is doing terrific. I’m glad to see that he works well with Craig Carton. I like Craig a lot. I know he had problems, but I think Craig is a brilliant, creative air talent. Brilliant and creative. He really is good. I wished in some way, shape or form he could have come back to Philadelphia and work, but he’s doing what’s good for him. His wife’s from Philadelphia so he still has connections here.
BN: Who would be on your Mount Rushmore of Philly sports radio hosts?
HE: Wow, putting me on the spot here. I don’t want to say I’m egotistical, but being I started this whole thing I would have to be up there somewhere. Rather than leave Angelo off there so he has something to whine about, he’d have to be on it because he worked a long time and the morning show was very successful. I don’t agree with everything he does, but he doesn’t agree with everything I do, so he’d have to be up there.
Craig Carton was here. Craig is funny, he’s bright and even though he wasn’t here that long I’m telling you I’m a big, big fan of Craig Carton. I’d have to put him on there. So now we’ve got three and maybe I’ll leave the fourth spot open for somebody that takes over the morning show. We’ll kind of leave that there.
There have been guys that have come through here, but if they didn’t stay here that long they can’t be on the Mount Rushmore. How about if I leave that fourth spot open on that Mount Rushmore. People will criticize me, what are you doing on it? Put yourself on that? No, I don’t put myself on Mount Rushmore, others put me on Mount Rushmore. So, eat it. Eat it if you don’t like it.
BN: [Laughs] What do you think about the word retirement?
HE: People say are you going to retire? Or when are you going to retire? I says if you can spell that word for me because I can’t spell it, maybe I’ll think about it. But I can’t spell that word. When people say retire, no. What, do you think I should retire? No, no, no. I’ll tell you the joy that I have, there is a belief in radio that older people don’t get younger people who listen to them. That’s such BS because when people come up to me, because I’m at a lot of games, I’m in the public a lot, people come up hey man, I listen to you. If you’re good, or what you do is interesting and they think it’s good, then that’s all that matters to me.
BN: If you could pick one thing on your list that you want to accomplish going forward, what would you say it is?
HE: That is a really difficult question. I’ve been successful in the Philadelphia market, which is obviously not the easiest market to work in. It’s my home. I’ve known a lot of people here. I’ve met a lot of people. I just want to continue to do what I do and have the passion. If there’s anything I want to accomplish, I just want to have the passion and the love to do what I do. Whether it’s radio or TV.
Unfortunately, it’s kind of sad. Television sports is really — what a waste. I’ve told people this, it’s like it’s an afterthought on television. You know what, if there’s anything I want to do, I want to get TV to realize that sports on television is ridiculous. It’s not anything anybody tunes in to watch because on our phones you have the highlights before you get to the news. We have the news before we get to the news. You’ve got six different segments of weather, but I get them on my phone updated every 10 minutes, so I don’t need that.
Publishers have asked me to write a book. I have notes that I put down, different things that have happened to me in my career that I think would be interesting to people. I got my leg broken at a game on Christmas night in 2017, the year the Eagles went to the Super Bowl. I worked five games with a broken leg, but I didn’t tell anybody and I didn’t put a cast on it. It was a non-weight-bearing bone; I wouldn’t have been able to be on the sidelines if I had a cast on. I tell Nick Sirianni now for all your players that are soft, I worked five games with a broken leg. Stop already with all of these guys. [Laughs]
So someday, because you have to sit down, you really have to put some time into it and I wouldn’t write it myself, I would get a writer to help me write it. There’s some really interesting experiences. Again, stories I can, and stories I can’t tell. The can’t-tell stories are good, but the can-tell stories are still good too.
BN: Would there be anything about Angelo in there?
HE: You know, the one thing I didn’t do but I’ll wait till he retires, is rip Angelo a new ass. [Laughs]
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.