SBJ/July 11-17, 2011/Media

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  • HBO tells Flood’s tale well in documentary

    Many casual fans and even some MLB players are either unaware of Curt Flood or incorrectly believe he toppled baseball’s long-established reserve clause and introduced free agency to the sport. HBO Sports seeks to correct that with “The Curious Case of Curt Flood,” a 90-minute documentary premiering Wednesday that explores the complex, historically important Flood.

    An all-star outfielder for St. Louis in the 1960s, Flood challenged the reserve clause after an unwanted trade to Philadelphia and took MLB to court. He ultimately lost before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, but the case helped galvanize the MLB Players Association in its fight for impartial arbitration and free agency. By late 1975, the union had prevailed in its push, and free agency quickly changed the face of baseball.

    Flood was soon left as a historical footnote as seven-figure salaries and high-stakes collective bargaining became norms. Following the HBO Sports documentary playbook, the network carefully chronicles the often tragic, sometimes triumphant, life of Flood, who died in 1997 after a battle with throat cancer.

    Rather than dive into the legal twists and turns of Flood v. Kuhn, the documentary takes a wider view of Flood’s life. Extensive segments cover Flood’s battles with racism, alcoholism, insolvency and family turmoil — all elements that helped harden his nerve to battle baseball’s establishment.

    ALBERT COQUERAN
    Curt Flood’s widow, Judy Pace Flood, attends the New York City premiere of “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” on June 29 with former Cardinal and current MLB executive Joe Torre (center) and HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg.
    By producing the film now, HBO was able to interview 94-year-old Marvin Miller, the influential former executive director of the MLBPA, the one who warned Flood that taking on baseball would be “a million-to-one shot.” HBO artfully blends interviews with Miller; Flood’s widow, Judy Pace Flood; and others, with vintage footage of Flood himself.

    Intimidating and often reclusive hall of famer Bob Gibson, Flood’s teammate and close friend, comes across as open and candid. “Was I was behind Curt? Yes, but about 10 steps behind,” Gibson concedes. “There was some fallout.”

    HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg calls “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” “one of the most important documentaries we’ve ever done. I always felt this story needed to be told.”

    In a business often full of hyperbole, Greenburg’s statements, as well as the film itself, are thankfully devoid of it.

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  • Troubled Mets, Dodgers take local ratings hit

    Two teams that have been in the news for the wrong reasons — the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are now in bankruptcy court, and the financially distressed New York Mets — have seen two of the biggest drops in MLB’s local TV ratings so far this season.

    Both major-market teams have faced high-profile ownership controversies that appear to be affecting local viewer interest this season. Dodgers games on Prime Ticket have the third lowest local rating among all U.S. MLB teams (1.19), and Mets games on SportsNet New York have the seventh lowest mark (2.30).

    But it’s the drop in ratings from last year for each team that is the most telling statistic. The Mets’ local ratings are down 29 percent from midseason last year; the Dodgers’ ratings are down 27 percent.

    Only the Astros (down 34 percent on FS Houston) and Rays (down 37 percent on FS Florida and Sun Sports) have seen steeper local declines.

    The Dodgers have struggled on the field this year, mired in last place in their division, and that surely has affected viewer interest. But just how far have they fallen? The team is in danger of being watched by fewer Los Angeles-area homes than Los Angeles’ second most popular NBA team. The Dodgers’ 67,000-home average is just above the 56,000
    homes the Clippers averaged last season. By comparison, an average of 271,000 Los Angeles-area homes tuned in for Lakers games last season.

    MLB’s local ratings — where 16 teams have dropped and 13 teams have increased — generally are trending the same as the league’s national TV ratings. Fox (1.9 rating for Saturday afternoon), ESPN (1.5 rating for “Sunday Night Baseball”) and TBS (0.4 rating for Sunday afternoons) are all flat with last year.

    The St. Louis Cardinals, last year’s local ratings champion, remain on top with the highest local ratings thus far in the 2011 season, posting a 9.06 average on FS Midwest.

    GETTY IMAGES (3)

    * Compared to midseason ratings last year.
    Note: Comparable data was not available for the Toronto Blue Jays.
    Compiled by John Ourand and David Broughton
    Another strong story is in Philadelphia, where Phillies games on CSN Philadelphia are making a charge for the local ratings crown, posting an 8.87 average rating, up 29 percent from last year.

    The Yankees, once again, are producing the biggest overall audience, averaging 309,000 homes for each game.

    Other points of interest:

    The Red Sox are stopping their three-year ratings slide on NESN. Fueled by the team’s offseason acquisitions and its first-half story lines, Sox games are up 22 percent so far this season in the Boston DMA. The team’s 7.66 local rating is fourth best in MLB.

    MLB’s Florida teams are having a rough TV year. While ratings for the Rays (3.46) and Marlins (2.31) are in the middle of the pack, their drops from last year are significant. The Rays are down 37 percent; the Marlins are down 26 percent.

    Despite fielding its most competitive team in years, Nationals games on MASN and MASN 2 are down 24 percent, and their 28,000-home average is MLB’s lowest. Last year, ratings jumped during games when Stephen Strasburg pitched. He is injured and hasn’t played this year. MASN says the posted rating does not reflect bonus coverage on the RSN’s second channel, MASN2, after Baltimore Orioles games end. That bonus coverage would lift the Nats’ mark from a 1.17 rating to a 1.25.

    Some of MLB’s small-market clubs have enjoyed strong numbers so far. Fueled by their surprising first-half on-field performance, Cleveland Indians games on SportsTime Ohio are up a whopping 80 percent, the biggest increase in baseball. Their 6.32 average rating is seventh highest in the league and highest at this point in the season in the six-year history of the team-owned network. The Pirates (up 33 percent on Root Sports Pittsburgh), the Brewers (up 32 percent on FS Wisconsin), the Royals (up 26 percent on FS Kansas City) and the Reds (up 24 percent on FS Ohio) are also doing particularly well this season.

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  • How ESPN captured NBC’s turf at Wimbledon

    Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

    Cracks in Wimbledon’s 43-year relationship with NBC first started appearing in March, when top executives from the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club traveled to New York.

    Up to that point, NBC was the clear front-runner to renew its Wimbledon contract, which ended with this year’s tournament. Over four decades, the network had turned the event’s early morning matches and its introduction of “Breakfast at Wimbledon” into a cultural tradition.

    But NBC executives say they were blindsided by the message the All England Club delivered in March. NBC was preparing to bid on Wimbledon’s entire TV package, retaining its broadcast package and poaching the cable portion from ESPN.

    GETTY IMAGES
    All England Club Chief Executive Ian Ritchie laid out the club’s strategy to ESPN execs over dinner at the 21 Club.
    NBC Sports’ top executives at the time, Dick Ebersol and Ken Schanzer, were shocked to find out during those meetings with All England Club Chief Executive Ian Ritchie and commercial director Mick Desmond that ESPN’s package ran for two more years. The only package that was expiring was NBC’s broadcast package.

    “They felt that we hadn’t told them,” said IMG’s Barry Frank, who advised the All England Club. “We thought they knew.”

    NBC immediately felt at a disadvantage and believed the different contract lengths only helped ESPN, which had rights on more platforms than NBC, including the ability to stream matches live. Facing years of criticism for tape-delay, NBC saw the combined broadcast and cable bid as a way to present a new “live” package. But now, without the ability to stream matches until 2014, after ESPN’s deal was done, it meant two more years with no streaming rights beyond their TV window and strict contract language that almost certainly would have led to more taped-delayed matches through 2013.

    The news disheartened NBC executives, but they still hoped their 43-year bond with the All England Club would be too strong to break.

    It was during those March meetings that ESPN executives first realized they had a good chance to bring the entire championship to cable. ESPN executives had long pitched Wimbledon officials about picking up all the rights, but given NBC’s relationship, ESPN still viewed such a move as having little chance.

    Over dinner in a private room at New York’s exclusive 21 Club in March, Ritchie and Desmond laid out their strategy to ESPN executives George Bodenheimer, John Skipper and John Wildhack.

    Wimbledon officials didn’t believe that ESPN and NBC worked well together during Wimbledon. They believed each network was too focused on protecting its own rights at the expense of the tournament. That led to situations where ESPN stopped showing some matches while they were still going on, and NBC could not stream matches.

    The dinner conversation hammered home the fact that All England Club officials were strongly considering moving its media rights to one company, and ESPN believed it was the best media company for Wimbledon.

    ESPN executives became even more optimistic three months later, when they saw the bidding schedule set up for London. Fox Sports would make the first bid presentation on Monday, June 27. NBC would make the second one on Tuesday afternoon, followed by ESPN later that day, all within a conference room on the Wimbledon grounds.

    “We knew it meant something that we were last,” Skipper said. “I don’t think it was alphabetical. They wanted us to go last because I think they wanted to see where we were.”

    A trio of top executives from Fox Sports — Randy Freer, Eric Shanks and Larry Jones — made the first presentation to a group that included Ritchie, Desmond, Frank and Hillary Mandel, senior vice president of programming and distribution for IMG Media.

    Fox emphasized the reach and demos of its broadcast channel. It also said it would put Wimbledon matches on FX. They told the All England Club that they were willing to sign a 10-year deal for around $350 million.

    The club was heartened. Fox’s bid of around $35 million per year would be a healthy increase over the $23 million annual average it was getting from NBC ($13 million per year) and ESPN ($10 million).

    NBC’s Mark Lazarus and Ken Schanzer were up next. They promised to show all Wimbledon matches live starting in 2014, when it could get all the rights. They also emphasized their broadcast network, promising to make more broadcast hours available. They also planned to utilize Versus once ESPN’s cable deal ended after the 2013 tournament. NBC wanted to convince Wimbledon’s decision-makers that it could do everything ESPN was going to promise.

    But NBC did not bid a price, hoping that the All England Club would propose a figure that NBC could accept or reject.

    ESPN was last. Skipper and Wildhack did not want live matches on ABC, and knew they had to address why the club should reject NBC and Fox in favor of an all-cable deal. They proposed highlight shows for ABC, but they really emphasized ESPN’s reach compared with Versus. They also highlighted broadband and mobile applications. Monetarily, ESPN offered a similar deal as Fox, around $35 million per year for 10 years.

    After the opening bids, ESPN was the front-runner. Despite its 43-year tenure, NBC was now more of a wild card.

    The next day, Wednesday, the All England Club contacted all the bidders again. Wimbledon executives called the Fox executives, who left London for Los Angeles on Tuesday. They said Fox would have to make a higher bid if it wanted the rights. Fox said it would not go any higher. Fox was out.

    NBC finally put a number to its bid, saying it would sign a deal that would average in the mid-$30 million range. ESPN increased its bid to the high $30 million range and would eventually offer $40 million a year.

    ESPN remained the front-runner, and Bodenheimer watched the Friday matches from the Royal Box as a guest of Philip Brook, chairman of the All England Club.

    But the club believed NBC would sweeten its bid. Late Saturday afternoon, it did, as Schanzer submitted NBC’s final bid. With Lazarus and Comcast’s Brian Roberts patched in via a conference call, NBC said it would sign a 12-year deal that would average in the high $30 million range.

    Ritchie and his team went back to ESPN. The deal would be theirs if they increased their $40 million average annual bid from 10 years to 12 years. ESPN agreed. The All England Club holds an option on the final two years, which will be north of $50 million per year.

    The atmosphere in the NBC compound was dour over the weekend. On Saturday night, NBC executives sensed their long relationship with Wimbledon was about to end. Schanzer, who announced his retirement in May, had stayed on through the summer to lead Wimbledon negotiations for NBC. Just six months earlier, it seemed inconceivable that NBC would not renew Wimbledon. But in that short period, so much in NBC Sports’ world has changed. That point was made evident again that Sunday when Lazarus, who had returned to the States earlier in the week to attend his grandmother’s funeral, received a call with the news that for the first time since 1968, NBC would not hold Wimbledon rights.

    The mood was much different in ESPN’s production office within the Wimbledon Broadcast Center, which is where Skipper found out that ESPN won the rights. He was with Wildhack, John Papa, Jason Bernstein and Marie Donoghue. The executives started jumping up and down in celebration.

    “It was a funny scene,” Skipper said. “We’re high fiving. It was special because it’s one thing to renew. It’s another thing to become the sole partner.”

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