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espnW Summit Puts the Bright Future Of Women’s Sports in Spotlight

Derek Futterman

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The presence of women in sports media has precipitously grown, and women’s sports as a whole have become part of the mainstream culture over the last several years. The launch of espnW in 2010 surely helped hasten that process, bringing a revamped approach in covering games themselves and empowering future women to render it sustainable. The brand operates with the goal of promulgating the stories of women while blending sports and culture. 

On Thursday from Brooklyn, N.Y., it held its 13th espnW Summit. Women from sports media, advertising partners, ESPN company executives and aspiring professionals were on hand to gather insights from some of the best and brightest in the industry, and foster professional relationships.

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Laura Gentile, EVP of Marketing at ESPN, had a significant role in launching espnW and was inspired to initiate a distinct brand dedicated to communicating the augmentation and assimilation of women in sports. At the time of its launch, women were estimated to accumulate for less than a quarter of ESPN’s total viewership, as the network focused much of its coverage on men in professional sports. Today, ESPN provides all viewers a wide array of coverage pertaining to both men’s and women’s sports, and Gentile has arguably been a key component of the mission’s effectuation.

“The momentum’s clear, and the deal-making is happening and the conversations are in-depth and specific,” Gentile said. “It’s growth on so many levels. Whether it’s women’s college basketball; women’s gymnastics; WNBA. There are so many things that are ascendant, and it was awesome to be in this space first, and now it’s awesome to be a part of a bigger team really having great conversations about where we go next.”

The annual event was hosted by ESPN’s Sarah Spain, and the inspiration she receives from other women in the industry is renewed each time she participates. 

“I love being the host because not only do I get to kind of guide everyone through this awesome day of content, but I always have so many comments and opinions on all of the panels, even the ones I don’t host,” she said. “When I get back up on stage to go to something I’m hosting or just to throw it to break or something, I have the opportunity to offer a little insight or reflect on something that I heard that was meaningful to me.”

The momentum of women in sports media has rapidly progressed over the last decade, and there have been myriad professionals innovating in the space. Through constructing new opportunities to share opinions and express themselves, women are acting as entrepreneurs and establishing a new standard in which the industry’s progeny will be able to share. Now, perhaps more than ever before, women are taking ownership of their collective visions and commanding the manner in which they create and disseminate content.

“These women know how to build their own platforms and aren’t waiting for a media company or a legacy media company to tell their story,” said Jessica Robertson, co-founder and chief content officer of TOGETHXR. “They’re also building audiences that are much bigger than some of these media companies in the first place, so they get to dimensionalize themselves [and]… they are their own brands.”

ESPN’s First Take just completed its most-watched April. The show includes ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith with a rotation of panelists such as JJ Redick, Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo and Marcus Spears. Show host Molly Qerim values her colleagues, but finds it especially fulfilling when the show gives women a chance to express themselves, including Kimberly A. Martin, Mina Kimes and Monica McNutt. She met additional ESPN personalities for the first time at the event, including Cristina Alexander and Blake Bolden, moderating a panel about the lives of women working at the network.

“I always wanted to just attend the event, let alone be a speaker,” Qerim said. “For it to finally come together and culminate, I’m just extremely grateful. It’s such an honor to be on the stage and in the room with so many incredible women both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.”

Qerim had to adjust to First Take’s format, centered around Smith debating various challengers, upon the departure of former commentator and debater Max Kellerman. She was unsure about how the new format would work, but knew that her role on the show would adjust as the only other daily cast member.

“This ‘Stephen A. vs. The World’ has worked,” Qerim said, “and I think it just brings a lot of energy and a lot of interest to the program in having so many different voices. I know for myself it opened up more space for me and my role was able to grow on the show as well.”

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As one of ESPN’s most prominent hosts, Qerim seeks to engender support for women in sports media by being candid and supportive of her counterparts. She draws inspiration from her colleagues and others in her life, part of the reason she felt prompted to share her battle with stage 4 endometriosis. Qerim worked at the network earlier in her career, starting as an intern before covering football and basketball for CBS Sports and NFL Network. She ended up returning in 2015 to join Smith on First Take. Upon her return though, she noticed a marked shift in culture pertaining to the way in which women were viewed and how they interacted with one another.

“There’s such a shift with women in every industry in every capacity just empowering one another, encouraging one another, championing one another,” Qerim expressed. “….I’m just so grateful to see this trajectory and to see this shift and to see this change. There’s still a long way to go, but the momentum has been tremendous.”

ESPN SportsCenter host Kelsey Riggs admired the espnW Summit for many years, but she was never able to attend the event. This year, she made the trip to New York City to watch the panels and speak to the audience about her professional experience. 

Riggs, who was a college soccer player at Charleston Southern University, got her start in sports media working in local news, and was afforded a chance to help launch the ACC Network in 2019. 

“You have to make it your own, which means you have to be yourself,” she said. “I might not be what somebody else is with getting all the jokes off or having a certain personality. I want to always be authentic to myself, and so I just try to do that.”

Part of Qerim’s, McNutt’s and Riggs’s jobs with ESPN is to speak with athletes, many of whom consume the network’s programming from afar. Additionally, the athletes utilize their platforms to help promote the growth of women’s sports, both by speaking at functions akin to the espnW Summit and serving as role models for the next generation.

“I’m trying to kind of reach out to people and see what I could do to help the game,” said Detroit Pistons point guard Jaden Ivey. “Obviously, coaching is a big part. If I’m done playing, maybe I’ll be able to coach women and inspire little girls.”

Ivey just completed his rookie season with the Pistons. He is already embracing the city’s history in women’s sports by advocating for the return of the Detroit Shock, a WNBA team that moved to Tulsa in 2010 before ultimately settling in Dallas, Texas and being rebranded as the Dallas Wings.

“There’s so many talented players now going into the WNBA, so it’s really fun to see,” Ivey said. “….I want to see the Detroit Shock back. Me and my teammates have been talking about [if] they could do that, along with some other teams they used to have. It includes money and a lot of other factors that go into it, but hopefully we could see it change.”

The 2022 WNBA season was its most viewed campaign since 2006, averaging 412,000 over 49 live game broadcasts on ESPN. Furthermore, its postseason play – which ended with the Las Vegas Aces defeating the Connecticut Sun to win the league championship – averaged 456,000 viewers, 22% higher than viewership in the 2021 postseason.

The league recently signed a new media rights deal with Scripps Sports and is entering its 27th regular season set to tip off on Friday, May 19, and there are a plethora of storylines to follow amid expansion to a 40-game schedule. The New York Liberty made a series of transactions during the offseason, adding Jonquel Jones via trade and signing Courtney Vandersloot and Breanna Stewart in free agency. They will suit up alongside young phenom Sabrina Ionescu with the goal of securing the franchise’s first championship while seeking to expand interest in women’s sports both locally and abroad.

The Liberty were the focus of a panel at the summit. Jones, Stewart, and moderator LaChina Robinson discussed the impact a new “super-team era” could have on interest in the WNBA.

“We’re just barely scratching the surface of where we can be,” Stewart said. “I think that women’s sports and women’s basketball have so much untapped potential. It’s nice to see everyone else kind of realizing that because from the players’ perspective, we know that, and now everybody else sees it.”

Bleacher Report has become a prominent brand and an entity which has rapidly expanded, providing untapped, niche coverage pertaining to various professional sports leagues. The company’s women’s platform, HighlightHER, was founded by Ari Chambers. It was prompted partially because of her experience at a previous espnW Summit.

“I was just re-ignited with everybody’s energy from here in order to fulfill my mission and really build what I wanted to build,” Chambers said. “The espnW Summit is a family; a community that all wants the same thing – to push the game forward. To be able to represent on the stage of this community [and] there’s nothing like it.”

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As a brand, ESPN is leading the industry in women’s sports programming, garnering a net share of 68% and a total of 33,180 hours of content produced. Moreover, ESPN+ amassed 19,713 hours of women’s college sports programming, which includes basketball, field hockey and a variety of other sports. Yet there is a lack of shoulder programming surrounding the coverage; therefore it can sometimes render games difficult to appeal for consumers to watch and become fully immersed in the content.

“I think there’s a lot of interesting conversations and things will come out of media rights deals that are up right now,” Jessica Robertson said. “I’m hoping to see investment where these games that are broadcast feel premium and special to that as the men’s games and events.”

“You see the percentages year-over-year continue to increase because the visibility is there; because the consistency is there with coverage,” Chambers added.  “I don’t anticipate it slowing down any time soon. We’re coming into a generation that’s accustomed to women’s sports at an elite level and being broadcast. The next generation is confident in stepping into knowing that their ceiling doesn’t exist.”

ESPN has a variety of brands within its portfolio and shares its work across various social media platforms, following a year where it generated 7.5 billion engagements, a 34% annual increase. The majority of the audience its social media platforms serve is under 35 years old, yet its linear audience is over 50, wherefore it is essential to construct specialized content with which they can connect.

“The most important thing is that your followers on a particular platform know that you’re just not talking to them like you are talking with them,” said Kaitee Daley, vice president of social media at ESPN. “You are giving them content that they will engage with.”

The social media ecosystem has experienced turbulence over the last year. Algorithms of nearly every platform seem to change consistently, and users are looking for engaging, short-form content.

“Our team practices nimbleness all the time,” Daley said, “but to us, the most important thing is that we’ve built authentic communities off our platforms. If a platform changes it up and decides they’re going to do something, [we have to say], ‘Okay, how do we still keep the core DNA of what we know our community wants, but adjust some of our tactics to what the platform is elevating?’”

The mission of espnW is supported company-wide, evinced through the presence of those in other departments at the conference. Marsha Cooke, who works as the vice president and executive producer for ESPN Films and 30 for 30, felt a sense of pride watching women create their own opportunities and showcase progress.

“It really shows our commitment as a company to bridge the gap between what people perceive women’s sports to be and what the reality is of women in sports,” she said. “We do it all. We do it well. We should be recognized for it, and most importantly, it’s something that I think we need to find a level and equal playing field not only in what we broadcast and what we cover, but how we support [it].”

One method through which espnW connects with its audience is in producing original podcasts. ESPN soccer commentator, reporter and host Julie Foudy hosts Laughter Permitted. Since the show’s inception in 2019, Foudy and producer/co-host Lynn Olszowy have interviewed influential women in the world of sports, including WNBA coach Becky Hammon, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and former tennis player and women’s rights advocate Billie Jean King.

Courtesy: Allen Kee/ESPN Images

Foudy was a midfielder and captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team. Over the course of her playing career, she won two World Cup titles (1991, 1999) and two Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004), giving her unparalleled insight and perspective into what it takes to achieve goals and be part of a team.

“Once people hear a story, their curiosity is piqued about an athlete because they’ve watched them on TV, but they don’t know enough about them,” Foudy said. “Then all of a sudden you’ve got that hook. I think we’re doing – obviously with all of the different platforms and forms of media – we’re doing a lot better job of telling stories.”

Foudy and Olszowy taped an episode of their podcast in front of a live audience at the espnW Summit and welcomed NASA astronaut Nicole A. Mann, who made history by becoming the first indigenous woman to travel to space. She was recently working out of the International Space Station as commander of the NASA SpaceX Crew-5 mission, spending just over five months away from earth. She had previously appeared as a guest on Laughter Permitted during that time.

“I remember being a young child growing up and it was difficult to find your mentors in life and your heroes in life because it just wasn’t readily available,” Mann said. “It’s just great to see everybody sharing their story. I think it helps to inspire the younger generation and really give them the opportunities to reach out so they have the tools to achieve their dreams.”

Ally Financial Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Brimmer joined Foudy on stage prior to the taping of the podcast and was joined by members of the company’s new initiative, “Team Ally.” Various athletes and creators shared the significance of being part of the team and helping expand the collective reach, awareness and support for women’s sports.

“With Ally, we’ve done such incredible things because the moment we met, we were like, ‘Tell me I can’t and I’ll show you I will,’” said retired NWSL player and Gotham FC creative advisor Ashlyn Harris while on stage. “The rest has been history and I love aligning myself with companies who get it, who want to create a change who aren’t checking a box.”

Women in sports media have made significant strides to coerce mainstream consumers to recognize that it is indicative of more than just a niche audience with esoteric knowledge. In the last year alone, viewership for The NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament experienced an estimated 81% growth, and athletes both in college and playing professionally have earned more followers and engagement on social media platforms. Through all of the panels with athletes, media personalities and journalists, it is salient that a critical part of maintaining and hastening momentum is through togetherness.

“You’re never going to accomplish anything on your own, so it’s important to surround yourself with people who are going to be there to support you – whatever that may be – family, teammates or just people in your community,” Mann said. “You’ve got to set those dreams.”

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“Keep fighting,” said Stewart. “Obviously, we’re the ones that know what we need the best and what we need the most. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean we stop.”

“At some point, my dream is that we’re not having an entire panel dedicated to, ‘What does the growth of women’s sports look like?,’ because it’s already so massively overgrown that it’s saturated the market,” Robertson added. “Know your value; know your worth; and follow in the paths of those that have trail-blazed ahead of you.”

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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.”

Derek Futterman

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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.

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Courtesy ESPN Images

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.”

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Courtesy ESPN Images

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.”

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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?

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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.

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ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But

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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.

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