Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bowl Bonanza About to Begin

Five games in five days was just the start.

That bowl season appetizer that started with Temple-Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 17 and continued until Wednesday night with TCU-Louisiana Tech in the Poinsettia Bowl included three games decided by a touchdown or less and -- more importantly for ESPN -- relatively inexpensive programming that draws decent ratings.

Starting tonight, with No. 7 Boise State vs. Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl, things kick into a higher gear. There are no games Dec. 23 or Christmas Day, but from Dec. 24 through Jan. 2 the schedule includes 23 games. Only one of those games, the Sun Bowl between Georgia Tech and Utah on Dec. 31 (2 p.m., CBS), will not air on ESPN or a related network.

At its busiest, the blitz features 14 games in four days (Dec. 30 to Jan. 2) on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, EPSN3 and ESPN 3D.

What's missing will be true New Year's Day games, though. Because Jan. 1 falls on a Sunday, bowl organizers and their TV partners (of course, ESPN actually owns a few games) have ceded that day to the pro game.

After Jan. 2, the number of games on TV drops significantly, with one a night leading to the BCS National Championship between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama on Jan. 9.

If you're limited to watching just a few games during the next couple weeks, some best bets include:
  • California vs. No. 24 Texas (Holiday Bowl), Dec. 28 (8 p.m., ESPN)
  • Florida State vs. Notre Dame (Champs Sports Bowl), Dec. 29 (5:30 p.m., ESPN)
  • No. 19 Houston vs. No. 22 Penn State (TicketCity Bowl), Jan. 2 (Noon, ESPNU)
  • No. 17 Michigan State vs. No. 16 Georgia (Capital One Bowl), Jan. 2 (1 p.m. ESPN)
  • No. 13 Michigan vs. No. 11 Virginia Tech (Sugar Bowl), Jan. 3 (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
ESPN's coverage includes hundreds of behind-the-scenes personnel and 70 on-air talents, 53 of which will work multiple assignments. At the top of that chain, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will work their fifth consecutive national championship game. The first two were on ESPN Radio and the three most recent have come on ABC or ESPN.

Maybe the biggest challenge of bowl season will be for the LSU-Alabama rematch to attract as many viewers as last season's national championship game. While many college football experts consider the 1-2 matchup an obvious matchup of the two best teams in the nation, some administrators and programmers worry that the rematch of a regular season game that LSU won in Alabama might not draw as much TV interest.

Last season's game, matching No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 2 Oregon, attracted an average of 27.3 million viewers and 17.7 million households. It was the most-watched program in the history of cable television.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Same Old Story, ESPN Gets Beat on Own News

It happens every year, it seems -- a former coach turned ESPN commentator decides to leave "the Mothership" and return to coaching. Or, some on-air talent finds legal trouble (perhaps a DUI, perhaps a spousal abuse, just about anything really) and the news breaks everywhere except the all-sports network.

It's happening again this week. This time, the Dallas Morning News and USA Today were among the numerous outlets that beat ESPN to the news about college football analyst Craig James.

His departure from the broadcast booth (as soon as Thursday), and the possibilities of career invigoration that radio/TV jobs provide bookend things here ...

Act: Color commentator Craig James set to leave ESPN and run for the U.S. Senate in Texas.
React: It's a good move for James and for ESPN viewers. He has strong opinions he wants to share in the nation's capital and he has the makeup to be a politician -- most evidenced by his unrepentant comments during "Pony Exce$$," the documentary as part of the "30 for 30" series that detailed the deep roots and pay-for-play problems at SMU in the 1980s.

While he does not bother, disappoint and offend me on game broadcasts like he does some others, it's his seemingly untouchable status at ESPN -- especially in the wake of his son's situation under then-coach Mike Leach at Texas A&M -- that put the all-sports network in many bad situations.

If he wins, he'll fit right in in D.C., and his open seat at ESPN should allow some other talents to advance to deserved opportunities. If James confirms his run for Senate by Thursday's filing deadline, he should be done as an on-air talent for ESPN. Of course, if he declares his candidacy and somehow gets to work the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday that would not be a shocker, either. That's pretty much been his M.O. at ESPN.

Still, a big part of the story remains that an ESPN talent plans to the company and ESPN itself might the last place to officially acknowledge or report about the situation. This reliably ridiculous situation (we're still only days away from the farce of Urban Meyer's departure) reflect poorly on ESPN and the personalities themselves. It's just hard to believe none of the individuals want to be more forthright, especially if they're moving to positions where they'll lead people as a coach or even an elected official. And every time it happens, ESPN loses another small little piece of trust among its audience.

Act: Replay gets stronger role in baseball and NASCAR.
React: As part of its latest labor agreement, baseball plans to expand the role of replay to more than just home run calls. It's an overdue move that, if approved by umpires, would allow replay to look at fair and foul calls as well as decisions about whether balls were caught or trapped. If officials can figure out how to tackle things in a timely manner, it should be a good move for the game.

While baseball's move to replay will play out publicly, NASCAR's replay move -- which should be just as good for the sport -- might be more of a behind-the-scenes endeavor. Typically (and frustratingly), NASCAR partners do not have access to NASCAR officials in a timely manner when decisions are made. That seems likely to continue with replay, and it's a shame if it does. It should be easy to allow broadcast partners access to the decision-making process, but it does not regularly happen.

Act: Said ESPN's John Skipper, "The perception that our actions are similar to Penn State's is irresponsible."
React: Skipper is completely correct. The situations could not be more different. After all, we know what happened at ESPN -- information was withheld for years, company officials have admitted as much. And, just days after Skipper tried to differentiate the situations, the men's basketball coach at Syracuse was sued.

Conversely, while there have been many charges and intimations at Penn State, but nothing has been proven. That school's head football coach has not been named in any legal action, but he has lost his job.

To think that nothing has happened at Penn State would seem naive. Still, what differentiates the media's approach between Penn State and Syracuse the most between has to be patience. At Penn State, there has been none. At Syracuse, there has been an abundance of patience -- and the media has closed ranks regarding the story.

For example, Pat Forde of Yahoo!, who left ESPN earlier this year, told a Sports Illustrated podcast Wednesday that we know what "happened at Penn State and allegedly at Syracuse." What's unsettling is that it should be allegedly at both places, but that word has been dropped in regard to Penn State.

As with Skipper's response, there's an arrogance from the media about the situations, and that arrogance has driven the disconnect between the media (ESPN in this case) and some sports fans. Again, to think nothing happened at either place might be silly, but to serve as judge and jury, as some in the media have seemingly done, is irresponsible. Especially when they overlook their own obvious missteps and problems in the same situation.

Act: The Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame inducted its latest class on Dec. 13. The eight-member group included: legendary broadcaster Jack Buck, former NBC executive Dick Ebersol, late NASCAR leader Bill France Jr., Deb Honkus and George Hoover of NEP Supershooters, IMG founder Mark McCormack, Steve Sabol of NFL Films and Ron Scalise of ESPN.
React: A deserving and strong class, with on-air talent, behind-the-scenes masters and founding forces that shaped the way sports gets presented on television. Just a great group. Here's information from the Hall of Fame about the inductees.

Act: Along with Meyer, coaches who have left radio/TV and returned to football recently include: Bob Davie, ESPN to New Mexico; Leach, CBS Sports Net and Sirius XM to Washington State; and Rich Rodriguez, CBS Sports Net to Arizona.
React: While Meyer was hush-hush (except he was not) as he sought to return to the sideline, it seemed like Leach was always lobbying for another job. No matter how they go about it, though, media jobs seem to be the perfect cleansing and revitalization tool for coaches before they go back to work. Just a thought, and it's really early because he still has a coaching job, but a media opportunity might be a good think for Penn State's Jay Paterno. And it would not be good for him. He has the skill set to serve sports fans well.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Gus Gets Back-to-Back Championship Games

Much was made of Gus Johnson's move to Fox Sports, and after a full season of college football games he gets a seemingly special set of assignments this week -- working back-to-back conference championship games.

Here's the rub, though. One of the games is a dud, neither means anything in terms of the national championship chase and Johnson has proven to be a bit better at basketball than football.

His starts his championship double with UCLA vs. Oregon in what should be a lopsided Pac-12 Conference championship game Friday night. Heavily favored Oregon might provide the fast-paced, high-energy action that Johnson describes so well, but the game itself could be a blowout by halftime.

On Saturday night, Johnson travels to Indianapolis for the first Big Ten Conference championship game, a rematch a thriller from the regular season between Michigan State and Wisconsin that was won on the last play of the game -- a play that required a correct replay ruling to determine the outcome.

That game, especially that least that play, would've allowed Johnson to thrive. After hearing him on a few football games this year, if feels and sounds like he needs a bit of emotion, energy and drama (things that basketball can package on a more regular basis) to thrive behind the microphone.

He's good on football, just not as good as he is on basketball. Perhaps in that sense he's the perfect match for championship games he'll work this week. They're both good matchups -- just not exceptional -- as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wall-to-Wall Coverage Produces Some Standouts

After two weeks at the wrong end of cameras and microphones from across the world, many Penn Staters might be more than ready for the attention to cease.

That’s not going to be the case for a while, though. All those segments on “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show” and even "Saturday Night Live," along with entire programs dedicated to the topic by “Anderson” and “Rock Center,” among many others, might continue for a while.

Sure, it hurts to hear the charges, to realize the impact on Penn State and to share the pain of alumni all over the world, but if the truth eventually comes out and anyone who harmed children is punished it will be worth the temporary pain.

Certainly there have been media missteps -- maybe more than missteps -- during coverage of the story, but there have been standouts as well. Because most of my exposure to the situation has come from ESPN, a partial listing includes:

“Mike and Mike in the Morning” on ESPN Radio: Hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic have a good show, and their perspective and questions have helped shape some reaction nationally. They’ve been inquisitive, honest and mostly measured.

Tom Rinaldi: One of ESPN’s best, he was on campus from the start and found the correct sources. He was tough, but revealed an understanding of the community, especially after the candlelight vigil, and showed compassion when appropriate.

Roger Cossack: It’s always good to hear him share insights on legal matters on ESPN. When he’s talking about you, your program or your team, though, that’s not a good thing. He’s informative and almost always has interesting insights.

John Ritchie: A former Cumberland Valley standout recruited by Penn State, specifically Jerry Sandusky, Ritchie revealed his conflict between who he knew and the allegations. He said his mom had considered retiring and working for The Second Mile. He was conflicted, as are many close to the situation. It was honest, good TV.

Bob Costas: A strong interview from him was not a surprise. Best of all, though, in his segment-ending banter Monday night with “Rock Center” host Brian Williams, Costas did not throw all of Nittany Nation under the bus, giving good insight to the conflicting emotions the situation has prompted.

One thumbs-down (amid many possibilities) to Armen Keteyian and CBS News.

The oversell on their supposed interview with Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueary earlier this week was inexcusable, and Keteyian's defense to a Washington, D.C., radio station that any other network would've done the same does not make it any better. The interview -- a brief exchange in a doorway -- did nothing to further the story, but it probably did drive some viewers to the "CBS Evening News" for a few moments.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sustained Focus on Penn State Reveals Warts for All Involved -- Including Some in the Media

Watching family home videos can be embarrassing, but at the same time it usually prompts some enjoyment or fun because those videos chronicle important or memorable activities and events.

Watching unforgettable family moments play out live, in high definition on national television, can be much less enjoyable. Especially when the media converges, and the story itself transforms into one of the most salacious and sensational stories in years -- a small-screen miniseries.

"It's like living inside a case study," said Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society who serves as director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. "What has happened here with the media, and continues to happen here, will be written about for years."

In fact, Paterno and his relationship with the media have been a case study at Penn State for several years, with faculty member Mike Poorman teaching COMM 497G Joe Paterno and the Media. This week, Moran, who teaches courses in sports writing and ethics, Poorman and many other faculty members have incorporated the news into their classrooms -- as this article from The New York Times relates.

As the nation has followed news about Penn State this week, what viewers have found has often been both compelling and unflattering. It's been even harder for those of us closer to the action to stomach.

But while it's troubling to discover the crimes and lies that were happening right next door, it's necessary to acknowledge the work the media has done with the story in general. With a close-up view, my assessment of their work would be that it's been generally fair, albeit in a few instances lazy.

As it should with a sports-related story of this sort (and, in fairness, there has been no story of this sort before), ESPN has generally led the way on TV since the story gained traction last weekend. Cameras and talent, including the tenacious Tom Rinaldi, converged on Happy Valley by Monday. The lineup of satellite trucks was well established by that afternoon.

Throughout the week, the media's determination has been matched only by the related missteps of those on whom the cameras and microphones were turned. From ambush interview attempts with administrators and man-on-the-street moments to stunning silence by those in charge and a silly spokesman (that was Scott Paterno, not Chris Farley, speaking for his family and to anyone who would listen Tuesday) -- the amazing options have rarely disappointed the media.

Plus, the story seems to have tentacles, twists and turns that will never end.

It's all happening quickly, too. That's why those who attempt to exercise hindsight or perspective about the media's coverage are even more at fault than the media themselves who have made the (generally small) mistakes.

It's easy for critics such as the Poynter Review Project, columnist Richard Sandomir in The New York Times and even @RobLowe to pan ESPN's coverage of the Wednesday evening happenings, but that must be nit-picking, at best. From the sloppy-all-around news conference by the university's Board of Trustees to student rioting downtown, it certainly felt like ESPN had its cameras and commentators on the pulse of what was happening.

Just because we as media consumers in this age expect everything to be on TV or available on our smart phone, that does not mean making it happen is easy. Especially with hastily called news conference or spur-of-the moment demonstrations.

Criticism about not enough cameras of the streets full of thousands of students, of which a relative few got violent? Did people need to actually see the footage to know what was happening? More cameras downtown in the area where students were protesting (and rioting) would not have added depth to the story, just more "sexy" shots.

And with reports like what follows about some news media members apparently trying to incite students, the overall story adds another layer. This from a column by Penn State faculty member Russell Frank, a longtime journalist who teaches ethics, on Thursday ...
"Joe Paterno made enormous contributions to this university. But he's not a cardboard cutout in a shop window. He's a man, with all the flaws that men have. It's touching that so many students thought otherwise. Now they know.

Now they know what a media circus looks like. Three students in my ethics class told me they saw reporters trying to incite the crowd that gathered in Beaver Canyon on Wednesday night. One raised and lowered his arms, the way football players do when they want the crowd to make more noise. One complained that what he was seeing wasn't a riot, and urged the students around him do better. One told the students he interviewed what he wanted them to say."

Honestly, ESPN and others have not missed much, if anything, about about the story. While it's been hard to watch from our seats here -- kind of like looking through a life-sized magnifying lens that reveals a lot while distorting some things -- the circus has, in some ways, been necessary.

The biggest missteps by radio and TV types have come as they try to out-shout each other and share each possible tidbit of information as quickly as possible. The fact that it's not a simple story has made things even more challenging and changeable.

"I've never been around a story that's changed as much as this one," Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski told students in the Paterno class Thursday. "A lot of people are here just to spout their opinion. Everybody's trying to top each other -- 'No, I'm more against child molestation than you are.'

"There are some people who are doing good work, but a lot of people came here to bury Joe."

After Penn State cancelled Paterno's weekly news conference Tuesday, media members turned to each other as sources for stories, and they became justifiably more upset about access and information they could not get from the university.

By Wednesday night, after an afternoon retirement announcement by Paterno and his subsequent firing by the university's trustees that night, ESPN had expanded to an all-Penn State, all-the-time approach.

Somehow, though, the balance and perspective initiated each morning by "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio, remained through most of ESPN's offerings. With Rinaldi and others on the ground, and capable studio hosts like Steve Levy and Stuart Scott, ESPN tracked down Penn Staters for interviews and regularly leveraged the talents of its deep stable of college football experts, especially those with Penn State roots, for opinions.

That produced memorable TV when Matt Millen broke down while discussing the situation. Also, Todd Blacklege, who initially hoped to avoid doing much radio or TV work related to the story, offered only pained silence when asked on radio if Paterno should be allowed to coach on Saturday. (That reaction itself was a "yes" that became moot when the trustees made the decision to fire the veteran coach.)

Even with all their efforts, there was some perspective missing from what ESPN and other TV outlets offered. And on both TV and radio it was easy -- as Scott Van Pelt repeatedly displayed -- to generalize.

On his show Thursday, Van Pelt took an easy route to lump Penn State as insular and misguided simply because of the students' actions after Paterno's firing. While such talking heads clamor for the students to display proper perspective, they fail to do the same things. That's because the view from afar is often not as clear as an up-close look. And the story has nuances.

Conversely, those who have been on site have been able, at times, to bring a bit more depth to what they have produced.

Some here wish that positive stories -- about students going downtown to help cleanup after the riotous actions of others, about the fact that many do not want the actions of a handful to further damage the reputation of a half million people who are Penn Staters, about the fact that many have already pledged thousands of dollars to fight child abuse and other charities -- would find more airtime. That's just not going to happen right now, though.

A lot more remains for the story -- from the obvious (such as as sit-down interview by someone someday with Paterno) to the scary (if rumors about even worse things by Sandusky prove true).

If the media can continue to do what they've done so far -- even though it comes with embarrassment and emotional pain for those closest to the story, and even though it comes with a couple mistakes and some self-aggrandizing by certain media members -- that's OK. We'll deal with some shared warts because the truth needs to be discovered and those who committed heinous crimes or covered them up need to be held accountable.

Monday, November 7, 2011

'Roll Tide/War Eagle' Set for Debut

With No. 1 vs. No. 2 over on the field, college football's clear-cut No. 1 rivalry takes center stag when "Roll Tide / War Eagle" makes its debut at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

It's a rivalry worth documenting, and apparently a documentary worthy of the rivalry.

From director Martin Khodabakshian and producers Joe Tessitore (who does play-by-play for ESPN college football games) and Bruce Feldman (of CBS Sports, and formerly ESPN), the hour-long film promises an interesting look at the rivalry, which features the past two national championship teams.

During its premiere in Birmingham, Ala., last week, Khodabakshian told the audience the most-asked question about the film was about its title. He said it was simply a matter of alphabetical order.

He's proud of the final product, as are Tessitore and Feldman, who said the film was strong from start to finish.

"If you're not riveted by the first five minutes, by the energy of the film, nothing is going to get you," Feldman told Alabama sports radio shock jock Paul Finebaum (who plays a big role in the film) and his listeners last month. "Then the story takes over. There's a lot packed into the film."

Friday, November 4, 2011

CBS Sports Good Enough for 1-2 Game

Every sports-media outlet in the country has helped CBS Sports this week with an abundance of coverage and pre-game hype for the matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night.

If viewers cannot find the game on TV, it will not be for a lack of information.

ESPN "embedded" reporters with each team (and, after that term was used with media members covering wars it seems somewhat inappropriate for a college football game anymore, even one of this magniture). Sirius/XM Radio got more mileage than usual out of its Southern-sounding lineup, especially the "Paul Finebaum Show."

Those are just two examples, a sampling of the efforts and hundreds of hours of hype for the game.

Still, what matters most happens once the contest kicks off Saturday night -- and CBS Sports should be up to the task.

While the Verne Lunquist-Gary Danielson on-air tandem might not be the best in college football, and maybe not in my personal top three, it's not far behind.

Lunquist brings a steady sound to games and does his job well. He's not spectacular, but he stays away from big mistakes. Danielson, who at first sounded out of place working Southeastern Conference games when he moved from ESPN to CBS Sports in 2006, knows SEC teams and traditions after a half decade focusing exclusively on that conference.

They work well together and rise to the occasion for big moments in a game. Best of all, they know the game is not about them. They focus on the field, and this game deserves that approach.

Beyond the guys in the booth, CBS Sports has Tracy Wolfson as its sideline reporter, and it can really flex its muscles in terms of football knowledge and reporting online -- with writers such as: Tony Barnhart, who just sounds like Southern football and has a well-earned reputation after years of work in Atlanta and now on radio and TV as well; Dennis Dodd, a talented and tenacious reporter; and Bruce Feldman, who recently moved from ESPN, and even prompted a policy change for that network in regard to as-told-to books. Plus, Feldman was a guiding force behind "Roll Tide/War Eagle," a documentary that will make its debut Tuesday on ESPN.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Power of Video Costs Some, Not Others

Access to instant replay played a role in two significant football moments this week. In one case that prompted serious action, and in another no action was taken.

Actually, perspective was important in several radio/TV-related situations this week. Specifically ...

Act: Coaches Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers and Jim Schwartz of the Lions exchange a handshake, and more, after their teams' game.
React: The NFL repeatedly reviewed the fracas and while some media talkers initially wanted league action (a fine or suspension), the NFL was wisely not swayed by the potential power of video. No action was taken against either coach.

That was the right decision. While such an incident was rare, it was hardly historically unusual. Coaches have had emotional on-field exchanges before, and the fact that this one was caught on tape would've been the only reason for disciplinary action. Again, the NFL was wise to ignore what looked worse than it was.

(And Harbaugh's tongue-in-cheek admission later in the week that he could improve and would "work on his handshake" actually made the situation all the better.)

Act: Michigan State defensive end William Gholston loses his composure, punching an opponent and trying to rip the helmet off another during his team's game against rival Michigan.
React: Gholston's actions were goonish and stupid. They have no place on a football field. And he should have been kicked out of the game immediately when they happened. Instead, he remained in the game and Big Ten Conference officials later suspended him for this week's game against Wisconsin.

They were right, but it was the power of the video -- repeated over and over on television, and discussed on ESPN -- that must've swayed the eventual decision makers, because it was not until six days after the game that he was suspended. Six days, nearly a full week. Really?

And again, as ESPN's Matt Millen points out, Gholston's goonish actions were worse simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time -- he was stupid, not subtle -- and his actions were caught on tape.

Act: Fox Sports earns the U.S. broadcast rights for the 2018 and 2012 World Cup
React: Bad for soccer purists, who enjoyed ESPN's complete coverage of the most recent World Cup. Not a bad thing for those of us not interested in soccer, because Fox Sports will be easier to avoid than ESPN when surfing channels.

Finally tonight ...
Act: Bryant Gumbel attacks NBA commissioner David Stern at the end of HBO's Real Sports, comparing him to a plantation overseer.
React: Gumbel was wrong, and several usually outspoken critics who have better NBA credentials than Gumbel pointed that out. Among them was ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, who professed his respect for Gumbel but offered strong disagreement -- he called the characterization "highly inappropriate" as he pointed to African-American owners, administrators and in the NBA and Stern's role in making that happen. "I think (Gumbel's comments) are beyond the pale," Smith said. "If you look at the history of the league under commissioner Stern, it's just factually incorrect."

Friday, October 7, 2011

No Hank Jr. But 'Are You Ready' Will Return

Yes, Hank's gone -- necessarily so -- but expect someone else to ask "Are You Ready for Some Football?" sooner rather than later during the opening segment of "Monday Night Football."

ESPN owns the trademark on the phrase, and it would be surprising if it does not return in some manner with a prominent entertainer or signer at some point. Maybe even this season.

(As an aside, it's interesting that the trademark for the phrase was not filed until March 17, 1997, and approved on April 21, 1998. Williams started in the role nearly a decade earlier, in 1989. Imagine how this situation would have been different it he would have secured the trademark.)

While some purists like the football-focused feel of this past Monday night's opening, which happened because ESPN pulled the iconic Hank Williams Jr. singing intro because of his politically charged remarks on "Fox and Friends," the "MNF" broadcast made the big opening an expected and synonymous part of the game's pop culture-sports combination.

The influence of the approach was so great that when NBC Sports launched "Sunday Night Football" it first used Pink (a good although maybe edgy choice for some) in that role. "SNF" later moved toward a somehow safer and similarly sexy Faith Hill for its opening song.

For both ESPN and Williams the fallout, as summarized well by USA Today's Michael Hiestand, should be positive. The network gets to distance itself from a problem and Williams gets to play a victim card that will boost ticket sales for his upcoming tour and allow him to bolster his rebel image.

Still, the biggest unfortunate outcome of the situation is the continued perception that what entertainers or sports types think about politics (or any subject other than the area in which they work) matters.

Make no mistake, Williams was not wrong in expressing his opinion. He was just wrong in thinking that it would not impact whether he was employable as a representative of the brand on one of the most-watched TV shows during any season.

At the same time, those who blather and react about Williams have heightened the controversy around the situation for no reason. And some -- including almost every talking-head "expert" in this "Outside the Lines" piece from earlier this week (the only one with any sense seems to be the academic) -- seem more offensive than Williams because they promote their own agendas and take things out of context. They're doing what they do knowingly, too. If not, that's even worse.

In this case, "OTL," often a beacon of sports journalism on TV moved closer to Jerry Springer than anything else. And that's a shame.

Friday, September 23, 2011

'Driving Force on Realignment' a Farce

As college football moves into the fourth week of its season (and after a week of off-field turmoil that again included major changes in conference alignments), one major player in the ongoing saga unsuccessfully tried to wipe its hands clean in the controversy.

All-powerful ESPN, the funding agent for all this change -- most recently Pitt and Syracuse to the Atlantic Coast Conference with Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech staying put in the Big 12 Conference (for now) after a flirtation with the Pac-12 Conference -- issued a statement this week that put the onus for all the change on the conferences and schools.

Said ESPN: "The driving force on realignment lies with the conferences and universities. The Big 12 determined in 2010 to grant each of its schools the ability to create their own networks. As a result, the Big 12 stayed together and University of Texas made the decision to launch its network. ESPN subsequently won a competitive bid to become its media partner. We have since seen Kansas State and Missouri create opportunities while Oklahoma is exploring its media options. The concept of LHN remains the same as it was 15 months ago."

Uh huh, sure. None of the changes would be happening without TV money, big TV money, and for ESPN to distance itself from the matter rings just as hollow as big tobacco companies insisting they're not marketing to children or drug cartels shrugging their shoulders about deaths along the border.

Despite the PR message and spin (specifically in reference to the Big 12 and the Longhorn Network, which was launched as a partnership between ESPN and the University of Texas), ESPN and television networks are the ultimate driving force in what's happening.

Because of the TV income -- monies that provide an addictive kick for athletic departments as well as jock-sniffing academics and well-intentioned administrators -- big-budget colleges and universities cannot find a reasons to stay put. Everyone keeps looking for a bigger payday to fund on-campus building projects and stadium upgrades that are inevitably part of the arms race in intercollegiate athletics. Or, the schools simply used the money to pay bills related to the costly endeavor of intercollegiate athletics. That includes everything from coaches salaries to transportation costs.

It's a never ending cycle, with many willing participants. For ESPN to claim it's not part of the problem, though, is simply wrong -- and the networks leadership, as well as its PR posse, has to know better.

Friday, September 16, 2011

'Ratings Center' Worth the Watch

When ESPN researchers wanted to craft an informative piece about TV ratings, they found a perfect partner with JESS3, a creative agency based in Washington, D.C.

With a tip if the hat to ESPN tradition and an old-school "SportsCenter" look, as well as some state-of-the-art skills, the final result provides an engaging and informative look at TV ratings.

In addition, JESS3 crafted a nice behind-the-scenes video about the final product. Good work all around.

Friday, September 9, 2011

'Game On' for Rovell's Timely, Topical Show

It's about time. With all that blather that exists around TV sports, and the big business that sports has been for years, it's about time that we get a show dedicated to sports business.

For so long, sports writers were not able or not interested in covering sports business issues and while that has changed in recent years, the topic has often been a sideline to other sports stories.

That changes (hopefully) with the debut of "CNBC Sports Biz: Game On." Here's a preview of the weekly show from its host, one of the originators of sport business coverage, Darren Rovell.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

ESPN's Top Talent Enhances College Football

All those executives at ESPN have it mostly right in regard to college football -- especially with their on-air talent assignments.

Fans watching games produced by the all-sports network on any of its outlets (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU ...) invariably get their game coverage some of the best in the business when it comes to play-by-play, color commentary and studio work.

This weekend again shows the depth of the network's talent and the oh-so-slim margin between the top broadcast teams. That's because while the No. 1 team gets a typical primetime assignment, the No. 2 team gets the week's only matchup of two Top 25 teams.

Play-by-Play/Color Commentary

First, the pecking order. ESPN's top three teams are ...
1. Brent Musburger/Kirk Herbstreit
2. Brad Nessler/Todd Blackledge
3. Sean McDonough/Matt Millen

My personal top three would be almost identical, except for a possible flip-flop of the first two.

Still, it would be easy to argue that what ESPN considers its No. 1 TV team deservedly hold that spot -- if only by the slimmest of margins as the result of some self-inflicted challenges.

It's clear Musburger/Herbstreit (who have Notre Dame-Michigan this week) deserve their perch because of Musburger's experience and talent, and because Herbstreit is one of the best in the business as a color commentator.

Their work almost invariably meets the level of the game their covering, and the team's only weak points come (albeit with regularity) because of Musburger's insistence on hype and pontification. After just one game this year, he has already anointed a Heisman Trophy favorite and proclaimed one team as national championship favorite. Sometimes that's just too much, and if he could simply describe the action, provide some context and work back-and-forth with Herbie they would be even better.

That knocking-on-the-door No. 2 comes in the form of Nessler/Blackledge. They're informative and steady, with Blackledge especially able to get his finger on the pulse of a game and related adjustments. Best of all, they know the show is not about them -- even with the Todd's Taste of the Town segments when Blackledge visits diners and restaurants near the home team's campus each week.

They get No. 3 Alabama at No. 23 Penn State this week and they're worthy of the assignment as well.

The tandem faces a big challenge later this season, though, because Nessler also picks up Thursday night play-by-play duties on the NFL Network. That could cut into prep time for Saturday games and Nessler has always seemed more like a college than a pro guy.

The top three concludes with often overlooked but professional Sean McDonough and Matt Millen, but their hold on that spot is not firm. It's not the play-by-play guy's problem, either. McDonough capably calls anything and he has a good approach to college football -- balanced, informative and rarely missing a call.

Some criticize Millen because of his flopped tenure as general manager of the Detroit Lions, but that's unfair. He's decent, but he honestly has not reached the level he was at when working NFL games for Fox Sports before he became an executive. Plus, he splits work on college and the NFL as well, and that sometimes seems to impact the depth of his perspective on certain games. His work lacks (when it does) more because of that than because he was not a good GM in pro football.

Studio Shows

Here's another area where ESPN has it right, as two standouts lead much of what the network does in regard to college football -- or at least in regard to what it does well.

Hosts Chris Fowler and Rece Davis provide a wonderful one-two punch as traffic cops in studio. They guide viewers through programs, encourage banter among participants and enable the shows to deftly touch on topics that range from entertaining to emotional.

Nobody has filled such as role as well as Fowler -- and that's in any sport on any network -- but Davis is not far behind.

Problem Pieces
Of course, with all the talent it has, and all the hours of programming it must produce, ESPN makes missteps. On that topic three names come to mind.

First, Lou Holtz/Mark May -- and they only come to mind as a problem piece when together, separately they're not bad and May can be really, really good. Together, though, their shtick has become stale at times. It's even silly, and not good silly.

While "College GameDay" with Fowler, Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Desmond Howard and emerging David Pollack capably combines entertainment and information, the middle ground and nuances sometimes gets lost with Holtz and May. That's a shame, too, because they both have potentially great information to share, but the shtick gets in the way.

Still, ESPN's biggest problem regarding college football remains Craig James, to whom they have been overly fair and loyal.

Let's see, he's gotten the company dragged into at least two lawsuits, they recently decided they needed him more than they needed longtime reporter Bruce Feldman (who wisely left for CBS Sports) and what James brings in terms of information and insight to broadcasting opportunities could be similarly provided by any number of former experts or players. He's not otherworldly in terms of TV talent, but they keep having his back.

At some point they need to watch from the front and listen.

He's OK, but he has limited himself. For example, how can he capably be able to talk about anything related to the Big 12 Conference? And did anyone at ESPN watch "Pony Excess," the SMU "30 for 30" film when he was included and seemed anything but regretful or remorseful about his part (of course the film was all about others who were paid so maybe he was the only one who was not) in what happened?

Maybe many of us who are watching are missing some obvious positives with James, but it just seems like he's accumulated so much baggage that at some point that would outweigh the fact that he's just not spectacular.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Good Moves for Versus/NBC Sports Network

It's been a good week or so for Versus, which will officially become NBC Sports Network on Jan. 2, 2012.

With a couple of important deal (one moreso than the other), the announcement of some potentially strong programming and the return of legendary Dick Ebersol as an adviser to NBC Sports in general, the soon-to-be re-branded network, the latest all-sports hopeful to someday challenge ESPN, has gained some important traction.

Here's a look at the moves, act-and-react style, in order of importance:

Act: NBC Sports Network signs three-year deal with MLS (beginning in 2012), which complements an existing 10-year agreement with NHL.
React: A decent and necessary move to gain some programming and live game action, something any sports network needs. And they are professional leagues, so it's something. Still, it's hockey and soccer. Think of them as rungs on the sporting step ladder. If something better existed, and a deal could be made, NBC Sports Network would step up if it could. Maybe someday it will. For now, it's a programming and a consistent home network for fans of those sports.

Act: Versus to debut original programing next week.
React: Every network needs some homegrown staples, and it seems like every cable network has at least one such series -- from "Jersey Shore" on MTV to "Pawn Stars" on History Channel and many, many more. A couple of sports-talk/studio shows might not reach that level, but with "NBC SportsTalk" (6 p.m. weeknights) and especially "CNBC Sports Biz: Game On" (7 p.m Fridays) the network might have something worth watching. The NFL show promises Mike Florio and Peter King on Friday nights. Best of all, the sports business show, with Darren Rovell could emerge quickly as must-see sports TV. Rovell ranks as the Evel Knievel or sports business coverage because he basically invented the genre and continually sets the standard. He's aggressive, connected and entertaining enough to make a half-hour show seem short. And, he'll do a good job harnessing social media to add another layer for the show and keep it relevant with certain demographics without, hopefully, alienating others.

Act: NBC Sports announces Dick Ebersol has been retained as a "senior adviser."
React: So much for a divorce or long hiatus. After a separation that started in May over a disagreement with Comcast Corp., which purchased NBC, the legendary sports television executive has returned just in time for the start of the NFL season. He'll work on the big network's "Sunday Night Football" package (including next week's Thursday night opener featuring the New Orleans Saints and Greeen Bay Packers) and will be in London next summer for the "all live" Olympic coverage promised by the network. Maybe it's a bad thing for whoever hoped to emerge from his shadow, but with so much of sports TV business and success based on relationships, it's a huge return for NBC. More importantly, as NBC Sports Network grows and seeks to land the better programming (the NFL) having Ebersol around will certainly help.

Act: Versus/NBC Sports Network reaches agreement with NFL and NFL Films to air weekly "Turning Point" program beginning Sept. 15.
React: Now this is bigger than a deal with the MLS -- by miles. It's even more important than Ebersol's return. That's because the deal gives the all-sports network an presence as an NFL partner. At this point, it's just one show a week, a highlights-based look ahead at the coming week's game on NBC (so it's valuable as cross-promotion, too), but it could certainly set the groundwork for a bigger relationship in the future. With the NFL expected to open bidding on another piece of its TV package, something on cable during the week, that's a property that would attract interest from a channel like NBC Sports Network. So if things go smoothly with "Turning Point" and the talk shows mentioned earlier, that could position the network to get its hands on the most important property in sports television -- the NFL. Weekly shows will air at 10 p.m. Thursdays, and be produced by NFL Films, which means the network will get a high-quality show as well.

Friday, August 26, 2011

'GameDay' Campaign Kicks off Strong Again

Perhaps it's not surprising that the best sports show on TV has he best commercial promos, but the folks who shill "College GameDay" on ESPN have done it again.

As the show begins its 25th season, a new series of commercials will hit the air beginning Monday. Some of the spots are already online, though -- including one that celebrates the quirks of LSU coach Les Miles and another that pokes fun at the sideline signing system used by Oregon coach Chip Kelly and his staff.

Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener was the creative agency for the campaign.

Future spots will feature Oklahoma's Sooner Schooner and Oregon State's Benny Beaver. As usual, though, veteran analyst Lee Corso inevitably finds a way to shine and all of the on-air talent plays their roles perfectly -- just as they do with news and analysis most Saturdays.

Here's a look at the first two commercials ...
LSU and Les Miles

Oregon's Chip Kelly

Friday, August 19, 2011

ESPN's 'Blueprint' a Start, But More Necessary

With scandals at Ohio State and Miami still fresh in the minds of sports fans -- and still months from being settled -- ESPN has a timely backdrop for its "College Football Blueprint for Change," which airs for a half hour beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday on ESPN in the typical spot for "Outside the Lines."

Segments of the session have aired on "SportsCenter" and "College Football Live" this week and an hour-long version of the show is scheduled to air at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU. Re-airs are scheduled at 5 p.m. Monday and at 11 a.m. Aug. 27 on ESPN.

The show, which was edited into a "series" for the nightly shows, features panelists discussing topical issues such as pay-for-play, the postseason, and recruiting and enforcement rules.

Along with host Rece Davis, those involved include: ESPN college football analysts Kirk Herbstreit, Urban Meyer, Mark May, Mike Bellotti, Robert Smith and Rod Gilmore; ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas; current college football coaches Nick Saban (Alabama) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma); former Big East Conference commissioner Mike Tranghese; and current Tennessee athletic director Joan Cronan.

It's a generally good show and not a bad start in terms of addressing issues. It remains just a start, though.

ESPN can, and should, do more -- and in a more visible fashion. Half an hour on Sunday morning? An hour (sure, several times) on ESPNU? Not enough.

In many ways, ESPN and the media are just as complicit as those breaking the rules for the way they've changed intercollegiate athletics. If change is to come, such topical shows do provide a blueprint, but a structure and more substance must follow.

More regular issue-oriented shows would be nice, perhaps on a regular basis (quarterly?) with different guests, and guests that wield the influence necessary to move toward change.

Again, it's a start (see excerpt below) -- but the topic, and viewers, deserve more.

Monday, August 8, 2011

CBS Bags Interesting Interview w/Caddy

Put the microphone in front of caddy Steve Williams after his guy wins a tournament and you get an interesting interview -- an interview that might have been more about sending a message to his former boss that sharing his enjoyment with Adam Scott.

Then again, maybe he's just honestly happy and sincere. Take a look:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Network Hooks Longhorns with Problems

At some point (and we're past that point), you have to wonder how the folks at ESPN, the University of Texas and even throughout the Big 12 Conference failed to overlook the obvious regarding the soon-to-be-launched Longhorn Network.

A competitive advantage for UT? Certainly.

How could it be overlooked? Impossible to believe.

In fairness, ESPN and UT were blinded by the money and the potential windfall from a network that airs only Longhorn sports and university-related programming. It's another brand and another revenue stream.

For other Big 12 Conference members, the possibilities were clearly never considered. After all, the channel came about when the conference was about do dissolve and UT was flexing its muscle to keep things alive after the departure of Nebraska for the Big Ten Conference.

Texas is the bell cow for the Big 12, and the other members that were suckling it to remain alive and together were no doubt happy to have a reason for the Longhorns to remain. So they hardly questioned the network when it was proposed.

In theory -- and eventually in reality -- it's not a bad idea.

We've seen the success of a conference channel (with the Big Ten Network) so it only made sense that some big, powerful school would attempt to anchor its own channel. Few schools have the following to make such a channel possible, but Texas is in that limited group and BYU believes it can do the same.

However, compared to the Big Ten Network, which does a good job of balancing hours of programming dedicated to specific schools and sports, the Longhorn Network would be all UT all the time. That's not the major problem in some aspects, though, because the Longhorns' opponents in games that air on the network would get exposure as well. Even if games would only be a small portion of the programming, it could be argued that all parties could benefit from the network's existence.

Beyond that, UT would get huge benefits in terms of exposure with coaches shows and other programs. That's something other schools could not match.

In addition, the Longhorn Network had planned to air high school football games, something that would clearly benefit UT in terms of perception and recruiting. That's the network's biggest problem, and it's good the games have been put on hold.

The potential has even prompted the NCAA to order a confab with those involved in all existing and potential conference and team channels. That "summit" will take place Aug. 22 in Indianapolis, and it's a necessary meeting.

Although the NCAA often reacts to changes without providing guidance and leadership, this reaction makes sense. Hopefully some direction and leadership will emerge from the meeting.

It's clear that Texas and its people are not prepared to bring leadership and perspective to the situation. After all, UT football coach Mack Brown has vocally dismissed the network as creating any possible recruiting advantage for his program, and to make that argument he has to either be clueless or immensely ill-informed.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Are You Ready for Some Football?

One of the most certain signs of an NFL lockout settlement came late last week, when Hank Williams Jr. filmed this season's promos for "Monday Night Football" during a long session in Florida.

For the 62-year-old country music superstar (and make no mistake, he's so well known in part because of the success of those "MNF" promos), the annual sessions provide a reason to be excited. Especially because what was supposed to be a one-year deal in 1989 has earned an anticipated spot in U.S. sports culture.

A generation of fans know "MNF" only with Hank Jr. kicking off the action, and his role in the weekly telecasts has lasted longer than almost any other talent associated with the show.

The season's game-opening segments were taped during a long day at on campus at Full Sail University, an award-winning school for entertainment media, and included dozens of faculty and students from the school as well as a couple hundred extras.

And, while NBC has tried its own musical opening with Faith Hill, it's OK but just not the same. The Peacock Network should have stuck with its original female singer -- Pink. Because if you're going to be different -- different, entertaining and strong are good.

ACT: Hope Solo tells Dana Jacobson the U.S. women's soccer team did not choke. Video
REACT: Some people, including ESPN analyst Tommy Smyth, disagree because they believe the U.S. team could've done a better job protecting the lead. Twice. Still, it's good to have a bit of analysis and a sports-talk feel in the aftermath of the Women's World Cup. Otherwise, it's not a sporting event. It's just some cultural experience. Still, the dynamic of the questioning by Jacobson, and Solo's response, was polite and subdued compared to other such situations with other sports. If you listen/watch closely, though, you see that Solo takes the typical jock, people-do-not-understand-the-sport defense as at least part of her response.

ACT: HBO's Ross Greeenburg decides not to renew contract and leaves the company.
REACT: A potentially impactful loss for sports on TV. Hopefully HBO has enough of a culture established to withstand his departure, but he's been that good and that much of a driving force. Boxing on HBO never waned (despite the sport's problems) under his leadership. Plus, he created "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" and the "Hard Knocks" series. During his tenure, HBO earned 51 Sports Emmy Awards.

ACT: Shaq joins TNT as a basketball analyst.
REACT: A wise decision by the Big Analyst. They'll find a better role for him and he'll make the same amount of money and work less (over many fewer platforms) than he would have at ESPN. Plus, he'll still get all kinds of media attention.

ACT: Poynter Project reviews Bruce Feldman, ESPN situation. Link
REACT: So, he was not suspended, just asked not to do some work for a while. Sure, that's believable. It was just a poorly handled situation all the way around. Honestly, communications companies may communicate more poorly than any kind of business. In the end, it's not ESPN but Feldman who takes the bigger hit, and that's a shame because he's good and deserves to be in a better situation.

ACT: K-Swiss unveils long-form, online commercial. Video
REACT: It's supposed to be irreverent and naughty, something that could garner buzz and gain traction online. It's a nice premise, but it's just OK -- a little much to much. It's too long. Plus, dropping all the f-bombs happens just because they can and becomes self-serving.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Women's Soccer Always More Than a Game

As reliable as the once-every-four-years schedule and publicity blitz that puts the Women's World Cup front and center for sports fans, some people invariably attempt to make the games and the outcome about more than the games themselves.

It's not just compelling action and exceptional athletes, it's something more, some window into a bigger cultural or sports issue. And that's a shame, because it detracts from what's happening on the field. (OK, the pitch in this case.)

It's NOT about Title IX, and it's NOT about the acceptance or growth of women's sports internationally. Sure, those things happen as a result of the tournament, but that's not what it's about.

It's about the competition, the competitors and the games. It's about winning. (Cue the Charlie Sheen sound bite.)

Making the ancillary or aftermath things the story actually detracts from the effort and performance of those playing the games.

People in the United States rally around the Women's World Cup -- Sunday's game (2 p.m., ESPN) could draw one of the largest TV ratings ever for a women's soccer game and interest has prompted ESPN to boost its production bells and whistles for the championship game -- because:
1) it requires minimal investment, you only need to pay attention for one week every four years;
2) because of nationalistic pride, a lot of people like to wrap themselves in the flag, or any red, white and blue apparel;
3) because we're winning, and people love to jump bandwagons and put their pointer finger in the air; and
4) because they've been programmed to care by a consistent media onslaught led by ESPN and supported by outlets of almost all types across the country.

That's all a good thing. Shared sports experiences are special, and this particular team seems determined, gritty, successful and talented -- all good things.

That does not mean women's professinal soccer has a future in the United Sates, because it has proven it probably does not. Nor does it mean more consistent coverage of women's college soccer in the future, because that's not the case either.

Still, the Women's World Cup is fun. It's good sports action, and it's really good TV -- thanks in large part to Ian Darke.

Yes, I'm sure its empowering and reaffirming for some, too. That's just not THE story. This is not 1973 with Billy Jean King in some made-for-TV tennis mismatch against circus barker/over-the-hill loudmouth Bobby Riggs.

No, this is 2011, with a women's soccer team worth watching because they're that good and nothing more. Let's just enjoy it for that and nothing more.

Monday, July 11, 2011

HR Derby, All-Star Game ... Just-OK Options

It's Midsummer Classic time again, and that means a baseball game that's not what it once was supported by another over-hyped exhibition that remains back, back, back in the dark ages.

Sure, the Home Run Derby (8 p.m. Monday, ESPN) has changed -- with "team captains" picking the participants and some promised alterations this year. Those things are overdue, though, and it would be nice if they could work because the made-for-TV event has become too long and lost much of its cache in recent years.

Plus, there are only so many times before Chris Berman can offer "back, back, back" and it not be tiresome. (We will have reached that point before the first pitch this year.)

The made-for-TV derby should be good, but it has seemed to lumber along in recent years. Sponsor State Farm has provided some emotional and fun tie-ins at times. Those types of things -- with contest winners getting some big prize depending on the outcome of the contest -- have helped and made the event special at times.

Still, the derby needs help. Hopefully it'll come this year. If not, it'll just be more of the same -- the kind of TV event that baseball is lucky to have happen during the summer because it would be pummeled in the ratings were it to fall during the full-fledged TV season.

A mid-summer schedule has not really helped ratings for the derby (down 22 percent last year from the year before) or even the All-Star Game, though.

The game itself has been on a downward ratings trend for years -- hampered by the interleague schedule, players who skip the game, multiple pitching changes and the remaining vestiges of that silly tie years ago.

Sure, they're playing for something (home field advantage in the World Series for the winning league), but the All-Star Game (8 p.m. Tuesday, Fox) still seems a far cry from its heydey. Of course, that heydey came during the time of limited TV selections and, as an older fan, my memories are ties to seemingly wonderful incarnations of the exhibition in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In fairness, the game remains -- in many ways -- the best of any professional all-star contest. It's much better than what the NBA and NFL offer in terms of competition for their all-star games. Still, it just seems like it needs rescued from itself. It no longer seems special. Instead, it's just OK.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

'Field of Dreams' Football Spoof a Hit

While Ray Lewis delivers the hits in this great video from Funny or Die, he's not alone. A mix of strong writing and some wonderful cameos makes it fun -- and funny.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

'Difference Makers' Should be Worth the Wait

Everything about "Difference Makers" -- the 90-minute special that airs Thursday night on ESPN and ESPNU featuring college coaching legends Joe Paterno and Mike Krzyzewski -- took time.

An offer for a Coach K visit to Happy Valley came five years ago.

Ideas about this specific show were then nurtured on the respective campuses (and with input from ESPN) for months. Finding a date, some single time when the two coaches did not have commitments for their respective sports or conflicts with charity and family activities, added more time.

Then, on the day of the taping (June 20) people in the live audience at Penn State discovered that a 90-minute TV show actually takes more than two hours to tape. And that came after three days of on-site preparation at the venue.

Still, all the time will prove worthwhile when the show makes its debut at 8 p.m. on ESPN. It continues at 9 p.m. on ESPN.

Energetic, informative efforts by the coaches provide the centerpiece of the show. A solid hosting effort by Rece Davis moves the program along. And a strong commitment by the ESPN production team shows in pre-packaged pieces and the overall format of the program that make "Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno and Krzyzewski" and fast-moving and satisfying program.

Abundant effort and time were the key. ESPN's behind-the-scenes team --led by senior coordinating producer Ed Placey, senior coordinating director Linda Wilhite, producer Jonathan Labovich and director Tom Lucas -- capably met the many challenges associated with the program because of ample planning and preparation. While the show was different for all involved (a studio-type show not in a typical studio, conducted in a venue that rarely host TV shows), all those who worked outside their typical level of comfort did so with a greater purpose in mind.

They knew what "Difference Makers" could be, and their tireless efforts will help it be just that. While viewers will not see all the hard work, they will see the final product.

It's a good TV program. And it's different. It's talking, but without arguing and self-aggrandizing. It's informative, without being preachy. It's old-school (with an 84-year-old coach and a 64-year-old coach it has to be), but it seems state-of-the-art.

It's just good sports TV, the kind of thing that rarely occurs and probably not cannot be repeated (at least with the gravitas these two coaches provide).

All of that makes it worth watching.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

DirecTV, Mannings on Target with 'Football Cops'

Want a little bit of tongue-in-cheek fun while waiting for the NFL lockout to end?

DirecTV provides it -- thanks to the Manning family -- with its online series, "Football Cops." Here's the show's site, and the first season trailer.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Big TV Deals Guarantee Change, Not Stability

Milestone deals become memories pretty quickly in the world of TV sports, and that might be most true with regard to college sports. Especially the past few years.

After all, what were once eye-opening, slightly surprising and even set-for-life deals seemingly get surpassed the next time another conference reaches an agreement with a broadcast partner. Being first simply sets the standard that others use as a reference point. And that point rarely represents a negotiating ceiling for those that follow.

That's why the Southeastern Conference -- just three years into its deals with ESPN/ABC and CBS -- has made noise recently about talking with its partners about altering or updating its broadcast agreements. While SEC officials have said that they're comfortable with the escalator clauses in the deals, the news that the growing Pac-12 Conference had landed a big deal with ESPN and Fox did not play as well in the South as it did on the West Coast.

Also, unlike the Pac-12 and Big Ten Conference, the SEC remains without the ability to create its own channel, which would provide another revenue stream for the conference.

That's a revenue stream the University of Texas, with its Longhorn Network, hopes to tap exclusively starting this fall. With the help of ESPN, the UT-specific channel hopes to get as much as 40 cents per subscriber per month from cable operators who would carry the channel.

Like the Big Ten Network, which draws some of its revenue from that approach, that dual revenue stream changes the game for college sports on TV.

That's part of the reason the Big Ten Network remains the biggest cash cow in college sports TV. It's deals -- with ESPN/ABC, CBS and as majority owner of the BTN (51 percent, compared with Fox's 49 percent) -- generate more than $250 million annually, according to Sports Business Journal.

Next are:
-- the Pac-12 ($250M through deals with ESPN/ABC and Fox);
-- the SEC ($205M with ESPN/ABC and CBS;
-- the Atlantic Coast Conference ($155M with ESPN/ABC); and
-- The Big 12 Conference ($150M with ESPN/ABC and Fox).

That's the end of the cash cows, though. After those major conferences, TV revenues drop off significantly. The Big East Conference collects an average of $36 million each year from ESPN/ABC while CBS College Sports pays less than $16 million and more than $11.7 million to Conference USA and the Mountain West, respectively.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Preseason Games, Revenue Loom for NFL

With the NFL lockout at nearly 100 days, a not-so-surprising reason might account for the possible thaw in relations between owners and players and the recent spate of high-level meetings during the past week.

As always, it's about TV revenue.

Credit Peter King of Sports Illustrated for pointing out some important facts in a recent "Monday Morning Quarterback" column online. Specifically, King referenced the NFL's 11 nationally televised preseason games, which each include 60 advertising buys at 30 seconds apiece.

That's 660 potential ads, and the corresponding revenue -- combined with ticket sales and other income -- means the preseason usually produces around $700 million for the league.

Without a preseason, that money would be lost to all parties involved.

Lost money, and who can survive the longest without an income stream the longest, always rests at the core of any labor dispute. In that respect, the NFL, it's owners and players are no different.

They are different, though, because they have a sure-fire solution to regain revenue.

They just need to play the games, which are scheduled to begin Aug. 7 with the Hall of Fame Game featruing the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams on NBC.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Regarding Rece ... He's Really, Really Good

My list of all-time sports TV studio hosts begins and ends with Chris Fowler.

Every year -- in a different location every week as "College GameDay" treks across the country for appreciative on-site audiences and ESPN viewers during college football season -- Fowler sets a standard few can match.

He's the perfect foil/traffic cop/voice of reason on a show that often includes a wide range of voices, most notably analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit.

While an older generation of NFL fans grew up with Brent Musburger telling us "You are looking live ..." and helping a show with Phyllis George and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder move along reasonably, Fowler remains better. At the same time, Bob Costas did steady studio work for NBC. Still, Fowler is better.

My belief was that Fowler stood head and shoulders above those before him -- and even among the current crop of TV sports hosts. Turns out I was a little wrong.

Fowler has company in the form of his ESPN colleague Rece Davis, who handles "GameDay" duties for college basketball.

This week, during a taping for an ESPN show with Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and Duke men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski ("Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno and Krzyzewski" will air at 8 p.m. June 30 on ESPN and 9 p.m. on ESPNU), Davis flashed his skill and talent repeatedly.

He artfully interrupted the coaches and helped make points when necessary. He balanced all the challenges of a taping before a live audience well. He helped create an enjoyable atmosphere and evoke information while doing so with a deft touch. He was pitch perfect from start to finish, even mixing in some jabs at "GameDay" partner Jay Bilas who was working the show as well.

While Davis's performance was not enough to nudge Fowler from the top of my studio-host list, he did more than enough to show that Fowler has company. And, in the case of this taped show, that's before any editing, which means Davis's performance should come off as even more polished and professional.

Friday, June 10, 2011

'OTL' Tackles Payments to OSU's Pryor

The award-winning "Outside the Lines," which airs at 9 a.m. Sunday on ESPN, offers more information about former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor earning money for his autographs this week.

As part of an investigation, Tom Farrey found a source who revealed details about regular payments (multiple times each week) of at least $500 to Pryor for signing his autograph.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book's Biggest Bad Guy? Bascially 'Boomer'

Before the ESPN book -- "Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN" (2011, Little, Brown and Company) -- hit shelves a week ago, much of the preliminary chatter about the 745-page oral history was that it would provide an inside look at the all-sports network in Bristol, Conn.

According to some, chauvinism, partying and sex were common. Some called it a fraternity culture.

The book reveals some of those things, just as it hits most of the highs and lows of the growth of the fledgling cable channel to the "worldwide leader," but it's reading between the lines that provided two of the more striking insights.

First, and least important, were references to Brad Nessler's failed stint as ESPN's lead NBA play-by-play announcer, including the admission from executives that having him in that role was a mistake. That cannot be good news for the NFL Network, which plans (if the season happens this fall) to use Nessler as its lead play-by-play man.

Sure, NFL viewers might flock to games and be less turned off by an announcer than their NBA counterparts (and Nessler certainly has more strength with football than basketball), but his failed stint has to be a cautionary tale.

Most striking, and least surprising, from the ESPN book was the fact that ESPN original Chris "Boomer" Berman, would be portrayed so universally poorly. In the words of others -- and the book is all an oral history, which makes it at times fabulous and at times laborious -- Berman comes off as self-centered, uncooperative and vain.

Those might be requirements for a talented, on-air TV type, but he's not also referred to as talented, which would seem to be a requirement. Instead, Berman is portrayed as a shill -- especially in regard to the NFL.

While he rates as an top-tier star for the ESPN, a network that for a long time tried to prevent its anchors from being stars, you get a sense that others in the business (everyone except Tom Jackson) endure rather than enjoy him and his work.

While time has proven that ESPN and TV need stars, they draw viewers, especially in a loyal niche market, Berman in many ways has "jumped the shark." And the fact that he was consistently referred to in that manner in the book might be the most striking element of the big tome.

Monday, May 23, 2011

From Ebersol to Ratings in 'A&R' Debut

A busy week-plus of TV sports news, combined with some travels, has limited my action on the blog. It's time to catch up and quickly cover a few things all at once.

That prompts the debut of "Act and React," a potentially regular feature as opposed to a make-up game. Here goes ...

ACT: Dick Ebersol leaves NBC Sports.
REACT: Wow. And the move comes with less than a month before Olympic negotiations. While those left at NBC insist the network remains interested in the Olympics, the move cannot enhance the likelihood that the Peacock Network, now owned by Comcast, will retain the rights. Then again, after striking out on recent college football deals, Comcast/NBC might want the Olympics worse than before. Ebersol's inability to come to a contract agreement for himself and remain with the company does not mean an end to his career. He's still motivated (maybe more than ever) and young. At the end of June he'll be the biggest free agent in sports. Period.

ACT: Gus Johson to Fox Sports.
REACT: A loss for the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but he was unlikely to ever get a shot at the Final Four. Probably a good financial move for him, and he'll become the major college basketball and football voice for the Pac-12 Conference and probably still work Big Ten Conference games as well.

ACT: Marv Albert might be working on a deal for him to do NFL games for CBS Sports -- a more likely possibility with the departure of Gus Johnson to Fox Sports.

ACT: Miami Heat take series lead in Eastern Conference finals.
REACT: More fans might show up at start of games to prevent shots of those silly empty seats draped in white -- reminiscent of fake snow used for by NHL on 50-degree day for Winter Classic in Pittsburgh in January.

ACT: ESPN shares research that TV sports ratings are up 21 percent over the last five years, compared to a 6 percent increase for TV viewing overall.
REACT: And that's exactly why rights fees for college conferences, and all televised sports, have gone up so significantly as the most recent deals have been announced. People are watching more than ever before. Although audiences might be splintering a bit, the numbers are still more than solid -- making sports worth spending on for TV types.