Low cost, not ratings power, keeps sports reality pipeline full

The trend of sports-themed reality TV shows won’t end any time soon, even though some high-profile series are slogging through disappointing ratings this summer.

Even as shows like “The Superstars” and “4th and Long” flounder in the ratings, a bevy of reality shows featuring sports stars is being pitched to all TV outlets, from the biggest broadcast networks to the smallest cable channels, according to producers, network executives and industry analysts.

Nobody pretends that these shows are high-brow. Networks aren’t interested in their quality. Rather, they are drawn to the relatively low costs associated with producing reality shows. They also like using athletes who already are well-known to many viewers.

For example, ABC is rolling out a show with NBA star Shaquille O’Neal on Aug. 18 called “Shaq Vs.” Versus has started production on a show starring Junior Seau that will debut later this year. And Bob Horowitz, a former IMG executive who now heads Juma Entertainment, is pitching a show starring Warren Sapp that has the working title of “What’s Sappening.”

“Sports are filled with those kinds of people,” Horowitz said. “Oversized characters drive these kinds of shows.”

“4th and Long” has earned so-so
numbers on Spike; other shows
have fared even worse.

Horowitz, an executive producer of “The Superstars,” also believes remakes have more juice than new concepts.

He says he’s close to a deal to place a remake of “Len Berman’s Sports Fantasy” on a cable TV channel. He’s also negotiating with network broadcasters about the former ESPN show “I’d Do Anything” and has interest in remaking shows from the 1970s such as “Greatest Sports Legends,” which was hosted by Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench, and “The American Sportsman.”

“I’m looking for pure brands, established brands and established formats,” Horowitz said. “That was our sales pitch in acquiring the rights to ‘Superstars.’”

ESPN says it hasn’t received a lot of these pitches in the last several years, since it moved away from entertainment programming. But several nonsports cable networks have expressed interest. Spike TV, for example, carries Michael Irvin’s “4th and Long,” and TruTV is planning to roll out another NFL reality show later this year, with the working title of “NFL Full Contact.”

Charles Coplin, the NFL’s vice president of programming, said he has heard a lot of reality show pitches, both from producers looking to place shows on NFL Network and ones seeking to use NFL marks for shows on other networks. Coplin says he is open to taking meetings but warned that the league is especially picky about the shows it works with officially.

“I’m most interested in the shows that are about our game,” he said, like HBO’s “Hard Knocks” or TNT’s “Six Days to Sunday.”

The league used to give its stamp of approval to skills shows, like “The NFL’s Fastest Man,” but “player safety concerns have made us as a league less interested in that,” Coplin said. “It’s got to be something that makes sense for the NFL as a whole. Most of the stuff we do, we produce ourselves.”

What makes this trend so surprising this year is that the current crop of sports-fueled reality shows has posted anemic ratings.

ABC’s ratings for “The Superstars” consistently lag the repeats against which it competes and has lost viewers almost every week.

Meanwhile, Spike TV’s NFL series with Irvin, “4th and Long,” averaged a so-so 0.45 rating/759,000 viewers. Terrell OwensVH1 show, “The TO Show,” generated a lot of buzz but wound up tied for the 798th-highest-rated cable show of the week with, among others, a 5 a.m. airing of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” on Nick at Nite.

Then there’s A&E’s “Keyshawn Johnson: Tackling Design,” which is hardly a blockbuster, averaging 532,000 viewers through three episodes in its Saturday afternoon time slot.

With these numbers, why would any network invest in sports-themed programming?

“The name of the game is cost containment, especially this year,” said sports media consultant Mike Trager. “With the squeeze we’ve seen for the last 18 months, there aren’t a lot of dollars out there for shows that are creative. Expediency and cost effectiveness are overruling creative judgment.”

John Ourand can be reached at

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