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ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in his most recent column wrote the net scheduling the debut of the "splendid" "Nine for IX" documentary "Let Them Wear Towels" against Fox' broadcast of the MLB All-Star Game was "one of several confusing messages by ESPN in July." ESPN Exec VP/Programming Norby Williamson said that the Tuesday night airing was "part of ESPN’s programming plan to create a consistent schedule to showcase the Nine for IX documentaries throughout the summer." Williamson said, "It was not counterprogramming. It was part of a long-term strategy to create a flight for the marketing of quality shows. ... We wanted a window, almost appointment TV, for documentaries throughout the year. And Tuesday night was the night least likely to have a game." Lipsyte wrote, "I like the idea of 'classy Tuesday,' of a date with quality, but it makes me uneasy, too. ... The word 'marginalizing' still comes to mind." Meanwhile, Lipsyte wrote The ESPYs "offer another message, much like the annual White House Correspondents' dinner: We’re all in this together." It is "fine for news executives, columnists and anchors to party with politicians and lobbyists, to get to know them as human beings, just as it is fine for ESPN executives, columnists and anchors, to party with athletes." But the "concern ... is that viewers might be getting the idea that they are the rubes at these circuses, that the jocks and the pols who show up can expect, in return, access and favors from the media." This "might be why the audience ... sometimes wonders whether ESPN is protecting a pal." It is "hard not to get the impression that certain athletes, like certain politicians, get a pass because members of the media hobnobbed with them and expect to do so again."
WALKING THROUGH THAT DOOR: Lipsyte discussed the recent high-profile hirings by ESPN of Keith Olbermann and Nate Silver. While responses to Olbermann’s return were "predominantly political," Williamson and other ESPN execs "will be tracking age demographics" after Olbermann's self-titled show debuts on ESPN2 Aug. 26. Williamson noted that Olbermann left ESPN 16 years ago, which "means there are viewers who don’t remember when he and Dan Patrick were the reigning stars of 'SportsCenter.'" Meanwhile, watching the Silver hire play out "should be fascinating." Lipsyte: "Will Silver extend the reach of ESPN into politics, weather, education, you name it? Will the Silver site become a duchy within the ESPN kingdom? Will it affect other franchise players?" The two moves "didn’t happen in a Bristol bubble," as Fox is debuting FS1 on Aug. 17. That is the "first potentially serious challenger to ESPN’s hegemony." These will be "interesting times for ESPN viewers, readers and listeners, not to mention the company’s employees" (ESPN.com, 7/30).
SILVER LINING: Silver participated in an online chat at DEADSPIN.com on Monday and wrote he plans to "hire people (whether as full-timers or freelancers) devoted to politics/elections, sports (preferably people who can cover several different sports as opposed to just one), and economics." There might be a couple of people "who can flex between different categories, e.g. sports and politics." Silver: "We'll have people who specialize in sports, I'm sure, as opposed to politics or economics or culture. But I'm not sure that we'll have people who specialize only in (say) baseball or golf, as opposed to sports more broadly." Silver also wrote the "goal is perhaps to have a site where we're publishing 3-4 articles per weekday, plus perhaps some blogs and other quick-hit type stuff." Silver also wrote when he was "negotiating with ESPN, they said 'yes' to an awful lot of things, in terms of our vision for the site." But the "one thing they were firm about is that they had to buy the 538 brand name and the URL." The "basic reason is that they're going to be investing lots of additional resources into 538, and no well-run business is going to be willing to do that and then have the brand yanked away from them at the end of the contract." So it was a "question of either keeping 538 as is (essentially a 2-3 person operation) and perhaps keeping the trade name -- or doing something bigger and bolder and more entrepreneurial, but also selling the 538 name as part of the package" (DEADSPIN.com, 7/29).
The NFL has unveiled Fantasy Genius, an online community "designed to spur participation in fantasy football," according to Dawn Chmielewski of the L.A. TIMES. The site "enables novices to seek advice from more experienced participants and pose questions about whether to accept a proposed trade, start a particular player or draft" one player over another. Fantasy Genius is "one of several new offerings" from the NFL Digital Media team that "oversees the league's presence online and on mobile devices." Since taking its digital media operations in-house in '07, the NFL has "assembled a team of 150 people recruited from Silicon Valley start-ups, sports networks and the worlds of investment banking and data analysis to create a presence for the NFL across multiple screens." The goal is to "meet the fans any time, anywhere, with the content they want." NFL Network President & CEO Steve Bornstein, who will step down next spring, said, "It's critical in this day and age to have a relationship with your fan base. It's in the best interest, not only of our fans, but for the NFL, to have a direct consumer relationship. Much of what we do in the digital space is trying to enhance that." Chmielewski noted since taking things in-house, the NFL "has seen annual visits to its properties quadruple, to 1.2 billion, and the number of fantasy football players triple." NFL Mobile GM Manish Jha said that some of the "biggest opportunities are on mobile devices." His team last year "introduced a companion app for the NFL Network's 'Thursday Night Football' that offers real-time polling, statistics and live reports from the sidelines." The NFL has "dabbled in next-generation mobile technology." Its "Catch Deion" app used "image recognition to trigger a virtual dance performance by Hall of Famer Deion Sanders when people pointed a smartphone camera at Sanders' image on a poster at a Dick's Sporting Goods store" (L.A. TIMES, 7/30).
Bleacher Report has introduced a new home page and version of its Team Stream mobile application targeted for the U.K. audience. Located at BleacherReport.com/UK, the online destination will contain news and commentary on soccer, cricket, rugby, F1 and other sports of interest to the U.K. market. To support the initiative, Bleacher Report has boosted its int'l editorial team. Lee Walker, former Eurosport Managing Editor, has been hired as Managing Editor of Bleacher Report's U.K. operations, and will report to Dave Finocchio, company co-Founder and Chief Content & Product Officer. Walker will lead a team of more than 50 writers, editors, and contributors.
GammonsDaily.com, the new online venture from HOF columnist Peter Gammons, formally launched today, with the Red Sox’ acquisition of P Jake Peavy from the White Sox before the trade deadline serving as the top story at presstime. The page is split into “The Gammons Files” and “The Hit List,” reports from outside contributors. Below is a rumor roundup under the headline “Sources Say” (THE DAILY). Gammons earlier in the week discussed the endeavor on Vimeo, saying, "Back in 1972, I started my Sunday baseball notes column, which became something of my signature. The media's changed dramatically in that time, but one thing has never changed -- this is a game played by great athletes who also happen to be vulnerable. I'm really grateful for the opportunity to cover this game all these years. Now I'm going on a new venture. I'm going out to start something called GammonsDaily.com, which is an unfiltered look at baseball through my eyes and through the eyes of many friends of mine. What you'll find on GammonsDaily.com are exclusive interviews, live Google hangouts, exclusive breaking news from my MLB sources, player and team analysis and featured contributions from around the country. I'd be honored to have your support" (VIMEO.com, 7/29). For more on GammonsDaily.com, see this week's SportsBusiness Journal.
Private equity firms Columbia Capital and Rho Ventures completed an undisclosed investment in Mandalay Sports Media that will allow the year-old company to grow its content business and allow it to acquire some sports media entities -- including programming or companies -- and invest in others. "Having financial capital available to make strategic investments gives us a unique standing in the marketplace," said Peter Guber, Mandalay Sports Media co-Chair and Mandalay Entertainment Group Chair & CEO. "It gives us more credibility. We don't need funding to make programming. This gives us gravitas to separate ourselves from a huge number of the wannabees." As part of the investment, Columbia Capital and Rho Ventures will take minority equity stakes in Mandalay Sports Media. Columbia Capital Partner Jeff Patterson and Rho Ventures Managing Partner Mark Leschly will join the company's BOD. Mandalay Sports Media co-Chair Mike Tollin said the funding will allow his company to grow in the sports media community. Tollin: "There's an opportunity to forge alliances to create joint ventures and bring other entities into our portfolio." Mandalay Sports Media CEO Rich Battista said the investment gives the company the flexibility to grow its content portfolio more quickly. The company has produced programming for networks and digital sites, including documentaries for sports TV companies like ESPN and Turner Sports and movie companies like New Line Cinema and Incognito Pictures. "We pursued this new funding because it allows us to accelerate the growth of our operations and gives us the ability to have access to substantial funding," Battista said.
ADWEEK's Tim Nudd reported once Wieden + Kennedy "drew up a list of its 10 favorite SportsCenter ads," ESPN "one-upped its agency -- devoting a whole special to its 50 favorite SportsCenter spots of all time." The show hosted by actor Jason Sudeikis will air tomorrow at 8:00pm ET. It "will feature anecdotes and stories about the top 50, and fans are encouraged to vote for their favorite spot over on Facebook." Sudeikis will "announce the winning spot on the show." More than 1 million votes "have been cast so far" (ADWEEK.com, 7/30).
COLD COMFORT: In Salt Lake City, Scott Pierce writes NBC is "in a tough spot" when it comes to covering the '14 Sochi Games, and the net "isn’t off to a real good start." With Russia passing anti-gay laws and "violence against gays bad and getting worse," the "fear is that, in order to keep the host country happy, NBC won’t even report on what’s happening." NBC Sports Group Chair Mark Lazarus "didn’t do anything to allay those fears" when he recently commented on the subject. His "non-answers are patently ridiculous" (SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, 7/31).
PATRIOT GAMES: The Patriot League on Monday announced the creation of the Patriot League Network (PLN) in collaboration with Campus Insiders, to debut in fall '13. Under the multiyear agreement, the league will live-stream hundreds of men's and women's sports events (Patriot League).