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ESPN, going "far beyond televising games ... has become the chief impresario of college football," according to the first of a three-part front-page special by Miller, Eder & Sandomir of the N.Y. TIMES. By "infusing the sport with billions of dollars" it pays for TV rights -- more than $10B billion on college football in the last five years alone -- ESPN has "become both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches." The money and programming "focused on college football by ESPN, as well as its competitors, have transformed the game, creating professionalized sports empires in the midst of academic institutions." ESPN is "not the only network that exerts control," but it is the "undisputed leader." ESPN channels this season will "televise about 450 college games." ESPN’s "closest competitor, Fox, will show 50 on various networks." ESPN and the universities "often call each other business partners, and that partnership has been enormously rewarding for both sides." ESPN President John Skipper said, "With college sports, you have enormous volume, great quality, and there is unbelievable passion with the fans."
COVERED FROM ALL ANGLES: Miller, Eder & Sandomir wrote "underscoring ESPN’s special relationship with college football is the fact that it created and owns the software used for scheduling games." The online portal, known as the Pigskin Access Scheduling System (PASS), is "now used by virtually all conferences and colleges, as well as competing networks." The colleges generally "work together to set up nonconference matchups, but sometimes they reach out to ESPN for a suggestion, or even to play matchmaker." As much as "any piece of ESPN programming, 'GameDay' crystallizes the dynamic of exposure, and the colleges’ hunger for it." ESPN also owns nine bowl games, which "generally draw some of the lowest TV ratings of the college football postseason." ESPN-owned bowls have "among the lowest payouts to participants, so colleges can lose money, after travel expenses and contractual bowl bonuses for coaches."
CONSULTING THE ORACLE: Boise State President Bob Kustra said, "To the extent that Bronco Nation is defined by people outside our area and our blue field, it’s ESPN’s coverage over recent years that allowed this to happen." Miller, Eder and Sandomir noted in "less than a decade," ESPN helped "establish Boise State as a national brand." The extent of ESPN’s involvement in conference realignment also "has been the subject of much debate." Skipper acknowledged that conference officials "frequently consulted him." He said, "I had, on occasion, two conference commissioners ask me about adding the same school, and I said to both of them: ‘Yes, you should add that school. If you can add that very prominent school, it would be good for your conference. But I’m not telling you to do it.’ I don’t provide leading advice, and I don’t say, ‘Wink, wink, I’ll pay you more money if you do that'" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/25).
CARDINAL RULES: Miller, Eder & Sandomir in the second part of the series focus on the Univ. of Louisville's relationship with ESPN and write the school "made exposure on ESPN the centerpiece of a campaign to rise above its commuter-school roots and become a powerhouse in college sports." ESPN over the "past dozens years, to feed its unending appetite for live football," has made UL midweek games "a mainstay in prime time." UL AD Tom Jurich said, "If it wasn’t for ESPN, we would be a fraction of what we are today. We owe them so, so much. They were willing to take a chance on us." UL’s ascent is "a case study of how an institution of higher learning can become all but inextricably conjoined with ESPN." The cost to UL was that the school "had to be ready to play whenever ESPN could fit the Cardinals into its schedule." Former ESPN producer Mark Shapiro said, "Louisville came to us and said, ‘We’ll play anyone, anywhere, anytime.'" The arrangement also has "been a boon to ESPN." UL's primetime games "quickly became ratings winners, convincing others that playing at midweek, while unconventional, could be a blessing in the form of exposure." Shapiro said, "It was a programmer’s dream. We already had NFL on Sunday nights, NHL and MLB on multiple nights, Thursday night college football. We were all filled up. So I said, ‘How about Tuesday nights?’ They seized it, and over time their results have been spectacular" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/26).
Electronic Arts' Madden NFL video game today celebrates its 25th anniversary "with nearly 100 million copies sold since its 1988 debut on Apple II," according to Mike Snider of USA TODAY. Pro Football HOFer John Madden is "now perhaps most well-known as a video game mogul." He said, "Now I would have to think the 'Madden' part is so doggone much bigger." Madden is "no longer the company's best-selling game: That honor goes to soccer game FIFA 13, which has sold more than 14.5 million units, thanks to its global appeal." But the "workhorse isn't slowing down." Last year's model of Madden "sold faster than 2011's, eventually selling about 5 million." Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said the game "generates about" $240M annually for EA. Digital World Research analyst P.J. McNealy: "Madden has been the backbone of Electronic Arts for many years ... (and) has been held up as the gold standard of video game development." For the release of "Madden NFL 25," retailer GameStop will "host midnight kickoff events at nearly 3,000 stores nationwide." While John Madden "no longer serves as a commentator in the game, he remains active in its design." The EA Sports game design team "meets with Madden throughout the year." EA Sports GM/Football Games Cam Weber said, "He has a great way of breaking football down into words and terms and ideas that are simple to grasp. A lot of times our guys will get down into the weeds of all the details and Coach has a great ability to see the big picture" (USATODAY.com, 8/25).
REVIEWS ARE IN: IGN.com's Jack DeVries wrote for an anniversary "so important it warrants messing up a long-established naming scheme, you’d think EA Sports would do more to celebrate it than just put in some retrospective trivia in the loading screens." Unfortunately "Madden NFL 25" is "more of a run-of-the mill upgrade than a big anniversary edition, but it is still a great version." DeVries: "I love that EA Sports is finally prioritizing the efforts to make Madden NFL look like real football, but it comes up short in those important spots." Other sports games "are lightyears ahead of Madden 25 here, and while it seems like a superfluous thing, it makes a big difference" (IGN.com, 8/23). In N.Y., Ebenezer Samuel notes EA execs "still haven’t truly changed the game." For "Madden NFL 25," that means "an average video game in a special anniversary year." "Madden NFL 25" is "still the best football video game in town (partly because it’s the only football game in town), and EA makes several little refinements to push the game forward." By Madden standards, this is "the best game yet in the series and a solid step forward from Madden 13." However, by the sports genre's standards, this is "a game that lags behind the pack and is increasingly unreflective of the professional game it represents." It is "increasingly unreflective of true NFL football, too often concerned with selling things to gamers instead of making the game fun" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 8/26).
ESPN President John Skipper said a trailer for PBS' documentary on concussions was the "catalyst or starting episode" of what ultimately resulted in ESPN’s decision to part ways with “Frontline” on the project, according to ESPN Ombudsman Robert Lipsyte in his most recent column. Skipper called the PBS-ESPN collaboration a "loose arrangement." Sources indicated that Skipper had discussed ending the partnership with Disney Chair & CEO Bob Iger, as well as "lawyers at both Disney and ESPN." Skipper "confirmed that was true." However, Skipper said that he had "made the calls to advise those parties of his decision to 'remove the brand because we did not control the content.'" He "denied that anyone at Disney or the NFL demanded the action." Skipper: "I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming." Lipsyte wrote the end of the collaboration "seems an unusually sloppy execution for ESPN, an organization that is usually much more buttoned-up." Lipsyte asks, "Was attention not being paid at ESPN? Too much time spent acquiring tennis rights, the SEC, Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, and not enough on journalism?" At best, "we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence." At worst, "a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege." The best "isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel." League commissioners are "always trying to strong-arm or sweet-talk ESPN executives, especially Skipper." How well they "succeed is a matter of constant speculation, both among Ombuddies and from some inside ESPN" (ESPN.com, 8/25).
OUT OF NOWHERE: SI.com's Richard Deitsch wrote ESPN's decision was "a shocking end to fruitful collaboration," and by PBS "announcing it before ESPN did, it left those in Bristol in a defensive public relations stance." "Frontline" Deputy Exec Producer Raney Aronson-Rath said that there was "no hint of discord." Deitsch: "Was this a bone being thrown to a business partner unhappy with an upcoming documentary, a case of not having editorial control, or a sea change in how ESPN operates journalistically for the toughest stories involving television partners?" The "next pressure point comes the second week of October" with the publication of "League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis," a book by ESPN's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru that served as a basis for the "Frontline" project. ESPN staffers "who care about journalism are watching to see how aggressive the company will promote the book and documentary" (SI.com, 8/25).
HIGH STAKES: In Chicago, Rick Morrissey writes the "surprise" is not that ESPN ended its collaboration, but that it "ventured out of the bed it shares with the league in the first place." ESPN is "as monolithic as the NFL is." It "doesn’t think with a journalist’s brain when it comes to decisions that have to do with the bottom line." It "thinks with a suit’s mind," which "says that it doesn’t want to upset a corporate partner that brings the network billions of dollars" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 8/26). In N.Y., Bob Raissman wrote ESPN with its decision "damaged the credibility of all its NFL voices." The "hammer used by the NFL is not hard to identify." If Commissioner Roger Goodell and other NFL execs "have a problem with you, it becomes clear your money might not be as good as another network’s in the next contract negotiation." Raissman asked, "With ESPN now facing competition from Fox Sports 1, does the Bristol Faculty want to even chance positioning itself to eventually lose 'Monday Night Football'? And if the NFL puts another package of games on the market (like Thursday night) doesn’t ESPN want a shot at that too?" Raissman: "That’s why it’s best to get on your knees and bark when the NFL tells you to" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 8/25). In Columbus, Rob Oller writes, "Size and strength are not synonymous. Large can be weak. Gigantic can lack backbone. Just look at ESPN. ... The cowardly lion comes to mind." It is "difficult to believe the NFL did not exert pressure." While the NBA "excels at spinning information, the NFL goes one better by controlling it." The NFL "delivers good times by keeping the worst of the bad news to a minimum, even when that means burying it by making a fist during lunch at a tony Manhattan restaurant" (COLUMBUS DISPATCH, 8/26).
MLBAM has acquired the global multi-platform distribution and sponsorship sales rights for the '13 Global Citizen Festival, a music benefit aimed at fighting extreme poverty. The festival, developed by education and advocacy organization Global Poverty Project, will be held Sept. 28 at Central Park in N.Y., and feature Stevie Wonder, Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys and John Mayer. Last year's inaugural festival drew more than 60,000 people in attendance, and more than 15 million watched it live. Financial terms were not disclosed, but the deal represents MLBAM's first complete distribution rights purchase of an event, with other similar initiatives expected in the coming months (Eric Fisher, Staff Writer). In N.Y., Brian Stelter notes the concert "has no connection to baseball, and that's partly the point." MLBAM President & CEO Bob Bowman said, "We want to gain experience selling worldwide rights." Stelter notes MLBAM already "provides the back-end technology for Glenn Beck’s Internet television channel, ESPN3’s streams of sporting events and an in-flight TV service on Southwest Airlines." MLBAM Exec VP/Revenue Noah Garden said, "The idea is to maximize the eyeballs for it." He added that the concert "would be live-streamed on Web sites like YouTube and The New York Times and will most likely be repackaged into a two-hour special for a major television network." Stelter reports negotiations for the TV special "are continuing" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/26).
In N.Y., James Miller writes Keith Olbermann and ESPN, "sixteen years after an acrimonious parting," are "putting on happy faces for their highly anticipated reunion," which begins tonight when his eponymous show debuts at 11:00pm ET on ESPN2. Olbermann said that he has been "enjoying his new environment during weeks of preparation for the premiere." He said, "There has been no friction at all. No one has said to me, 'We let you back in, now sit back and shut up.' Instead they’ve said, 'We’ve let you back in, now tell us everything you want and why.'" ESPN VP/Original Programming & Production Jamie Horowitz said Olbermann has been "incredibly responsive” to ideas and suggestions. Horowitz added that a "dreaded 'degree of rigidity' on Mr. Olbermann’s part 'is not there,' and that he has been affable and amenable." Horowitz: "He’s been accountable and willing to do things. Even if I want to change a word in his script, he’s said, 'O.K., Jamie, I’ll change it.'" Each nightly show will begin with Olbermann "alone at the anchor desk for 10 to 15 minutes, reviewing as few as one or as many as 10 sports events making news." Highlights will be "followed by a playful interlude tentatively titled 'This Week in Keith History,' with clips of Mr. Olbermann from 'SportsCenter,' from 1992 to 1997, that he has not seen in advance." His job "will be to react amusingly" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/26).
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT: In this week's SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL, John Ourand reports ESPN has "finalized a deal that ensures it will carry the Little League World Series through 2022." Sources said that ESPN will pay "around" $60M over eight years, nearly double the $30.5M deal ESPN signed in '07. ESPN execs have "long valued Little League programming, and the new deal continues a 50-year relationship." The net has carried LLWS games "every year since 1987, and it occupies large programming blocks in August -- a time when there are few live events on air." ESPN was averaging 911,000 viewers for this year’s LLWS through Aug. 18, up 12% over last year. Little League said that it "did not enter into serious discussions with other networks" (SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL, 8/26 issue).
MEASURE OF THINGS: In N.Y., Josh Kosman reports the fate of Nielsen’s proposed $1.26B purchase of Arbitron "likely lies with ESPN." The company "licenses software from Arbitron for a new project that enables it to tell how often viewers are watching the network over television, radio, PCs, smartphones and tablets." The license expires soon, and sources said that the "ability of ESPN to squeeze a promise from Nielsen that it will be able to continue to license the software is likely integral to the merger getting federal approval." A source said that ESPN Senior VP/Research & Analytics Artie Bulgrin has been speaking to the FTC "about the licensed software." A source said that ESPN was "initially against the merger ... but now is discussing a compromise" (N.Y. POST, 8/26).
Lakers Exec VP/Business Operations Jeanie Buss said of former coach Phil Jackson's role with the team, "If we asked him to fill in on the broadcast because someone was out, I'm sure he'd do it. Just because everyone puts him as a coach doesn't mean that's the only thing he's capable of doing." She added, "Right now he has no official position. He wants to be supportive of me and the organization. He has no contractual obligation. He would listen to anything where he might be able to help." Lakers Exec VP/Player Personnel Jim Buss: "We can call him at any time" (Ric Bucher, SULIA.com, 8/23).
COUGAR TOWN: In K.C., Kerkhoff & Davis noted Big 12 football is among FS1's "big properties," and Kansas State's first two games this season -- against North Dakota State and Louisiana-Lafayette -- are part of that package. This brings national attention for games "that in other years would have received only regional exposure at best." KSU AD John Currie said, "We probably would have been an 11 a.m. kickoff on Saturday on one of the Fox affiliates." Kerkhoff & Davis: "In other words, one of many football viewing options at that time on a channel that didn’t have 90 million subscribers" (K.C. STAR, 8/25).
HOT COMMODITY: BLOOMBERG NEWS' Alex Sherman wrote time "may be running out" for Cablevision to find a buyer. Financial analysis firm Macquarie Group said that with its "highest valuation in two years," the $4.8B cable operator "should take advantage of a surge in cable matchmaking to sell." Sources have said that Charter is "considering combining with Time Warner or Cox Communications" (BUSINESSWEEK.com, 8/23).