Thursday, May 30, 2013

'Small' Outlet Hampers Paterno Family Message

After months of anticipation and waiting, the family of Joe Paterno broke its silence and offered more fuel for the ongoing fire of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and aftermath at Penn State when it announced that it was filing suit against the NCAA this week.

Others named in the suit were NCAA president Mark Emmert and Oregon State president Edward Ray, who was chair of the NCAA's executive committee when the NCAA announced its sanctions against Penn State.

In the view of many at Penn State and especially Paterno supporters, the NCAA last July coerced the university into accepting a "consent decree" based on the findings of the controversial Freeh Report rather than completing its usual investigation process or offering some sort of due process.

The announcement of the lawsuit was not unexpected, and the suit was joined by a handful of Penn State board of trustees members as well as an interesting mix of former players -- everything from former captains to at least one player with well-publicized legal problems.

Still, the family's official legal response was an important message that needed to be shared. It was another step in the ongoing saga at Penn State.

It's a saga that has played out fairly typically for the media as well -- with a hefty reaction to the initial story and then a somewhat subdued or quiet response to nuances and updates along the way ... especially those that might contradict initial storylines.

Unfortunately for the Paternos and their supporters, the medium they chose to share their message this week was "smaller" than the message itself and what the family really needed -- some sort of validation from the show's host -- was lost as well.

When the Sandusky scandal broke, NBC and its then-recently launched news program "Rock Center with Brian Williams" was the forum for sharing information about the scandal at Penn State. The show and its Penn State segment were the centerpiece of a primetime schedule for the network. The story was the keystone for a couple of episodes in back-to-back weeks, as well as subsequent updates.

In the initial episode that focused on the story, generally respected NBC Sports veteran Bob Costas conducted an interview with former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky that garnered abundant attention and propelled the show's ratings. Millions of people watched, and formed opinions as a result.

It was actually a high point for the ill-fated "Rock Center," which was canceled earlier this year.

Conversely, the episode of "Costas Tonight" with the Paterno family response on Wednesday night aired 42 minutes later than it's scheduled 11 p.m. airtime on NBC Sports Network, which gets watched by a fraction of the audience of NBC or ESPN, even on a good day.

Segments, including some video, from the show were shared with other media outlets before the episode aired but, simply put, not many people got to see the Paterno's side of the story.

Plus, for the Paternos and their supporters (whose lawsuit seems less frivolous as the missteps of the NCAA become more obvious to a wider audience) the news of the lawsuit was not really what mattered. Again, people expected a lawsuit.

More than anything, the Paternos and their supporters -- who could eventually emerge victorious in the court of public opinion because of the NCAA's ongoing problems and the questions that come to mind with a logical examination of the case -- need some sort of seemingly high-profile neutral voice in their corner.

That could've been Costas, who pledged a few months ago to review the Freeh Report (because of problems with it that have become obvious) and the situation in general. His opinion and response were not among the take-away messages from the latest episode of "Costas Tonight" or the latest episode in the Penn State saga overall, though.

If the family's opportunity to to share its side of the story ends up as the extent of Costas's evaluation, that might be a little less than the Paternos need. And, if the story continues to play out on a barely watched and under-distributed sports channel, that's not a good thing either -- even if the host ranks as one of the best in the business.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

No Nuance -- Just Pontification and Preaching

In lieu of facts and often without a timely point to be made (especially during a long offseason), college football relies on pontification and preaching in an effort to shape perceptions. It's all a power play.

Unfortunately, the media never really knows how to handle such messages or even play the game -- and that's especially so when those messages are delivered by coaches.

For many reasons -- from the desire to be first with news or an ongoing effort to secure higher ratings -- the media simply stumbles. There's no nuance or perspective. All to happy to have anything to report, the media amplifies the shouting, diminishes up the quality of the message and gives fans/viewers less as a result.

Simply ignoring the inane never seems to be an option, either.

In just the past couple weeks, there have been several examples of the approach, as well as the meaningless results.

First, no radio or TV station could avoid the booster club-style remarks of Michigan coach Brady Hoke as he playfully jabbed Notre Dame and its supporters about the end of the schools' series. He talked about the Irish "chickening out" when speaking to a group of Michigan supporters, and in this age of social media the comments got attention all over the country.

Still, the comments were intended mostly for the people in the room, and every media member who propelled them further knew that as well. So, the amplification was irresponsible.

Sure, Hoke's opinions matter but as much as he knows all the factors that play into the hiatus for an on-field football series between Michigan and Notre Dame so too does the media know that he's just making a point in a room full of die-hard supporters of his program. For the comment to go much farther beyond that is simply sloppy.

At the same time, any message delivered over and over sometimes becomes almost accepted as fact -- and that seems to be the approach of some Southeastern Conference football coaches and programs when it comes to Alabama coach Nick Saban.

Too often in recent months, rival coaches have -- again, mostly in program-specific booster sessions -- referred to him as "the devil" or even "Nicky Satan."

Again, they might be nice laugh lines, a cool jab for folks in on the joke, but it should take more for it to become news -- and unfortunately it does not. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin later apologized for his line, "Nicky Satan," but that did not stop Florida offensive line coach Tim Davis from taking a shot at a man on whom's staff he previously worked.

Said Davis when comparing Florida coach Will Muschamp (also a former Saban assistant) to Saban: "I've always wanted to work with Will. Will's got a plan. Will coached under the devil himself for seven years. I only did three. He did seven. And is DNA is not any different than Nick."

Really? You have to wonder how Davis's time served ("only did three") helped propel his career. You also have to wonder how Saban can be so evil is Muschamp's DNA is not any different.

It's just meaningless bull -- a coach talking to hear himself -- and not really news. But, barring any real context or depth, minus a story on anything related to the academics or safety of student-athletes, sports fans get such drivel instead. Sure, the comments end up on message boards after boosters parrot them when they get home from rah-rah events, but there should be a difference between message board fare and honest-to-goodness journalism.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Agreements, New Network Ensure Profits, Stability

While the on-field action at the top level of college sports might not officially be irrelevant or secondary, it certainly took a backseat to a couple of sports-media moves announced in recent weeks that have ensured the profitability and stability of intercollegiate athletics for years to come.

The long-expected announcement of the SEC Network came this week. It's a deal about longevity and revenue.

The Southeastern Conference and ESPN announced the 20-year agreement through 2034 to create and operate a multi-platform network that will launch in August 2014 and be based in Charlotte, N.C. The deal gives CBS Sports the one football game it has had each week for years (usually at 3:30 p.m. Saturday) and the rest of the inventory belongs to ESPN outlets, including the SEC Network.

According to several different sources for revenue estimates, the SEC Network could generate as much as $29 million per season per school, slightly more than the $25 million produced by the Big Ten Network -- which created the business model for conference channels that has produced huge profits and prompted imitators (such as the SEC Network).

The SEC Network could have some advantages, too.

First and foremost, there's ESPN's muscle and multi-platform promotional approach. While the Big Ten Network and partner Fox (which owns 51 percent of BTN) have set an impressive and profitable standard for such a conference channel, ESPN remains the biggest player in the big-money sports business.

In addition, the Big Ten Network has limited itself in a way the SEC Network might not. By not accepting ads for alcohol and other vices, the BTN has made money with some apparent standards. It's not clear the SEC Network would partner with such advertisers, but the SEC has never attempted to burden itself with all the academics-first and student-athlete rhetoric of its rival conference to the north.

Because ESPN has a 100-percent ownership stake in the outlet, the SEC Network could also impact everything from game selection to college football news in general -- including what gets covered and what does not. At the least, it will impact the perception of those things.

The 20-year agreement gives conference members guaranteed revenue, and a reason to stay put. Not that any school would consider leaving the SEC.

Last month, though, the Atlantic Coast Conference moved to keep its teams from departing through a similar approach -- when all current ACC members surrendered their media rights to the conference, even if they were to leave the league. Because TV money holds the key to any conference's lifeblood, that move prevents any program from exiting for the Big Ten Network or someplace else.

That approach was a bit more unexpected, an unusual, than creating a conference network, but it certainly made an impression. And it should keep the ACC together and viable -- perhaps for as long as the ESPN-SEC deal lasts. (Or at least until some other really rich conference, one like the Big Ten or SEC that has its own network, figures out a way to make a move somehow more lucrative for a school to move.)

While the ESPN-SEC agreement does not automatically result in riches for everyone involved, it's darn close, and work during the next 15 months -- as ESPN and the SEC Network iron out agreements with cable networks throughout the Southeast -- could hold the biggest key to what happens initially.

For example, Big Ten Conference officials had trouble getting some cable networks agree to carry their network (it took more than a year in some instances), but once a cable company came on board the channel could start collecting higher per-subscriber fees to carry the channel. If the rabid approach of SEC fans carries over to their cable subscribers, those negotiations could be interesting.

They'll either go quickly, because cable operators will know they need the programming to keep viewers happy, or they could become contentious and lag. In that case, it'll be interesting to see who gets painted as the bad guy in the process.

Either way, the profits will come for conference members. And with that comes a reason to embrace stability.