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.