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.