Sports TV News
ESPN+ Boss Russell Wolff Victim Of ESPN Layoffs
“There is no word yet on future leadership for ESPN+.”
Things took a major turn for Russell Wolff at the Walt Disney Company. The ESPN Executive Vice President and GM of ESPN+ was at one time considered a candidate to succeed John Skipper as head of the network. Now he is out of a job entirely.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Wolff is one of the victims of ESPN’s first round of layoffs. He joins fellow Disney streaming executive Michael Paull in exiting. Paull was cut loose in an earlier round of layoffs.
Joe Earley, who was president of Hulu, is now president of the direct-to-consumer unit for entertainment content at Disney. There is no word yet on future leadership for ESPN+.
“It is with great pride in all that we have accomplished as a team that I share with you that I will be leaving ESPN in July,” Wolff wrote in an email to his staff obtained by The Wall Street Journal. He said ESPN “has been the most amazing professional home, in the US and overseas, anyone could have asked for.”
Prior to taking over ESPN+, Russell Wolff oversaw ESPN International.
Under Wolff’s leadership, ESPN+ had been fairly successful. The service lead the way in Disney’s overall streaming growth last year.
Sports TV News
Stephen A. Would Welcome Shannon Sharpe to First Take
“If that included him wanting to come on First Take, the bosses at ESPN know that is something I would support. Not every day, but one of those days every week.”
Following a report of Shannon Sharpe leaving FOX Sports 1’s Undisputed at the conclusion of the NBA Finals, there may be a new landing spot for him in the future at ESPN on First Take. On Friday’s edition of The Stephen A. Smith Show, a digital podcast live streaming on YouTube, show host and executive producer Stephen A. Smith extended an open invitation to Sharpe to join him at ESPN.
“I don’t know what his plans are. I don’t know what he’s trying to pursue. I don’t know what he’s after, but if Shannon Sharpe needs me, I’m happy to be here for him. And if that included him wanting to come on First Take, the bosses at ESPN know that is something I would support. Not every day, but one of those days every week.”
The decision to publicly voice his support for Sharpe comes a day after incoming ESPN midday host Pat McAfee stated that he hopes Sharpe joins the network, as he feels he has a voice that can contribute to coverage. Sharpe has been working with Skip Bayless on Undisputed since 2016, but reports of tension between the two co-hosts presumably led to his purported exit. Front Office Sports reported that Bayless will have the final say on who replaces Sharpe and sits opposite him each morning.
“I’ve gotten to know Shannon Sharpe a little bit over the last few years,” Smith said. “I genuinely like him and respect him. He is a three-time Super Bowl champion; he is a Hall of Famer; he is one of the greatest tight ends in the history of the National Football League, and I personally think he’s done a hell of a job on television and with his podcast Club Shay Shay.”
Smith implored those listening that he will not speak against Skip Bayless, despite having contrary points of view on most topics. The duo previously worked together at ESPN on First Take for four years and elevated the morning show to new heights, attaining record ratings in sports television. When it was disseminated by the New York Post that Sharpe is leaving FS1, Smith recognized how big of a loss it would be for the network, but is content with the show’s current setup of having different panelists on the show throughout the week. Smith and co-host Molly Qerim are the only constants on the program at the moment on a day-to-day basis.
“I get to handpick who’s on First Take once they’re in-house for ESPN,” Smith said. “I don’t get to bring them from the outside in without the bosses’ okay. We have to be honest – I’m not the boss. That’s Dave Roberts; that’s Jimmy Pitaro; that’s Burke Magnus; that’s those dudes. I answer to them – it’s not the other way around when it comes to all matters pertaining to ESPN, but they know where I stand.”
Sports TV News
Judge Rules Diamond Sports Must Pay MLB Teams in Full
“As with the Padres, MLB will stand ready to make games available to fans if Diamond fails to meet its obligations.”
A judge has made his ruling has been reached in the caustic bankruptcy trial between Major League Baseball and Diamond Sports Group. Diamond Sports Group must pay the full value of the contracts with the four teams that are involved in the legal proceedings. These teams include the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Guardians, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers.
There was an additional caveat to the final ruling. The judge urged both sides to talk to one another, perhaps realizing the level of contemptuousness evident throughout testimony from both sides in the trial.
“Maybe market forces change terms of deals, but market risk is always there [and] inherent in every contract,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Lopez said in his ruling. “Knowing that I think the contract rate is the reasonable and the right rate, the way that teams are locked in [and] the evidence that’s presented before me, I’m going to find that the fees are the actual necessary cost of preserving the state. The teams can keep the 75% I believe they’ve already received and they should get the [other] 25%.”
Diamond Sports Group now has a decision to make regarding if it will oblige by the ruling and pay the four teams as directed. If not, they will be forced to relinquish the broadcast rights for those teams, just as the entity did for the San Diego Padres earlier this week.
Sources close to the situation have indicated that this represented somewhat of a breaking point between the two sides, and that the hostility will be too much to overcome for future deals. Diamond Sports Group is tasked with renewing rights for 28 teams across the NBA and NHL at the conclusion of next season, in addition to five Major League Baseball teams.
“MLB appreciates the ruling from the Federal Bankruptcy Court in Houston requiring Diamond to pay the full contractual rate to Clubs,” the league said in a statement. “As always, we hope Diamond will continue to broadcast games and meet its contractual obligations to Clubs. As with the Padres, MLB will stand ready to make games available to fans if Diamond fails to meet its obligations.”
Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. described a meeting he had with Diamond Sports Group’s management where the company threatened bankruptcy – despite having money in liquidity to pay the rights fees – in order to restructure itself and selectively reject contracts. He also divulged that the league will cover at least 80% of the payments the afflicted teams were supposed to receive from Diamond Sports Group, which operates as a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group. Major League Baseball says it is ready to take over production and dissemination of local broadcasts and prepared for this move in advance by strengthening its media division, including the hire of Billy Chambers as executive vice president of local media.
While Diamond Sports Group is technically a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the role of the latter has been diminished because of the former’s declaration of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Creditors agreed to trade the debt they owe for equity in Sinclair Broadcast Group, rendering the management structure somewhat ambiguous. The company’s decision to engage in bankruptcy protection will aid in eliminating $8 billion of outstanding debt after Sinclair Broadcast Group acquired the regional sports networks from The Walt Disney Company in 2019 for $10.6 billion. Major League Baseball, in partnership with Liberty Media, bid nearly $9.6 billion for the networks ($3.5 billion in leverage), but ended up falling short. Diamond Sports Group has local broadcast rights for 28 teams across the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, with all of those deals – along with five among Major League Baseball teams – set to expire at the conclusion of next season.
Sports TV News
Ernie Johnson: Death of Kobe Bryant Solidified Inside the NBA Crew’s Bond
“I’m in the fortunate position [of] getting us from point A to point B to point C with three guys who have been in every conceivable situation in a basketball game.”
As the Eastern Conference Finals concluded, Inside the NBA signed off for the final time of the 2022-23 season, officially closing the 33rd year of broadcasts led by Ernie Johnson. Kenny “The Jet” Smith joined the show on a full time basis in 1998, and Charles Barkley joined him two years later, creating a trio for the next 20 years.
They were joined by different fourth analysts over the years, including Reggie Miller, Magic Johnson and Chris Webber, but the company made a permanent hire in 2011 by adding Shaquille O’Neal. From that moment on, the four gradually blended into a family and now share a unique chemistry not often seen in television.
“Nobody tries to make themselves the show,” Ernie Johnson told Dan Le Batard on South Week Sessions. “They’ve never tried to make the show about themselves. I’m in the fortunate position getting us from point A to point B to point C with three guys who have been in every conceivable situation in a basketball game.”
Johnson undoubtedly knows his role on the show is to facilitate discussion and position the analysts in the best position possible to share their basketball knowledge gained through their playing years. He is a veteran studio host and broadcaster, contributing to TBS’s Major League Baseball coverage during the offseason, and is able to seamlessly transition between different sports over the course of the year.
“If you try to stray outside your lane and be something you aren’t, then it doesn’t work,” Johnson said. “The fact that we don’t rehearse and the fact that we just let it rip – there you go.”
The feeling is mutual between Johnson and his co-workers that they view each other as family and hold one another in extremely high regard. Le Batard acknowledged how he has heard Barkley talk about Johnson in such a venerated manner, and that he and the others give the impression that they would do anything for Johnson.
Johnson simply replied, “And I would do the same for them. We all would.”
Johnson vividly remembers when Kobe Bryant passed away and the Inside the NBA crew was doing a show from Los Angeles reflecting on his life and legacy. At one point on the broadcast, O’Neal addressed his colleagues and told them that he loves them, realizing that he does not say it enough. It was a heartwarming moment for Johnson, and one that brought their bond to light.
“I think one thing that whole moment of time taught all of us was that you don’t know how long you have,” Johnson said. “It behooves us to make sure that everything’s cool between us – not just between the four of us on the show, but between everybody in your life… If the unthinkable happens, do you want to leave that with, ‘Man I wish I had said this. I wish that silly feud; I could have stepped up and defused it.’… I think it was a pretty brutal reminder of that.”