SBJ/January 16-22, 2012/Media

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  • Tough talk

    Michael Strahan seemed to fit right in with longtime Fox NFL analysts Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson when he began his broadcast career straight out of retirement following a Super Bowl win in 2008. But for the first few weeks of his new job, the seven-time Pro Bowler was dying inside.

    “I don’t want to say from day one I was comfortable, because I wasn’t,” Strahan said recently. “I was scared to death.”

    He even thought, back in those first fall weeks of the 2008 season, that if his new broadcast job didn’t work out, he’d simply move on and try to get another job in the NFL.

    “We wanted to create an atmosphere [like] if a viewer was sitting at a bar. It would be almost like that: guys talking ball at a bar.”
    — ED GOREN
    Fox Sports vice chairman

    Photo by: FOX SPORTS
    Four years later, Strahan loves his job — and is a shining example of a former star athlete who has made the transition from the field to TV.

    Many former players, as well as coaches, see broadcasting as a relatively easy second career. To hear those who have done it (and their agents) tell the story, though, it’s anything but. Odd and long hours, travel, and the need for a different kind of game-day preparation than they were used to on the field are constants.

    And then, of course, there’s the pay cut.

    “[Players] have to understand: Everybody is not going to make the big money,” said Keyshawn Johnson, who joined ESPN in 2007 after an 11-year NFL career.

    On this point, agents, network executives and broadcasters are in agreement. When it comes to going from the playing field to a broadcast booth or set, players and coaches will make far less money than they did with their on-field jobs. How much less is another matter, because unlike players’ salaries — which for the four major team sports are publicly known and reported — the salaries for sports broadcasters are not nearly as visible.

    “It’s funny: In this industry, I don’t know what other people make,” said Heath Evans, the former fullback who retired last year after a decade-long career and now works as an analyst for the NFL Network. “In the NFL, I knew what everyone makes. [In broadcasting], there is speculation, but nobody knows.” Evans said he took a reduction in pay when he joined the NFL Network but would not say how much.

    STRAHAN’S DAY

    During the NFL season, a typical work week for Strahan starts on a Thursday, when he and the rest of the Fox team holds a conference call to talk about what is going on in the NFL that week. It’s a pretty casual call and generally lasts only 15 to 30 minutes, Strahan said.

    “We talk kind of about what the stories of the week are,” he said. “We talk about what we are doing. Jimmy is talking about fishing. Terry is talking about farming, cows and horses.”

    On Sunday, Strahan’s day starts early in Los Angeles. He usually gets to the Fox studios — along with Long, Bradshaw and Johnson — about 5:30 a.m. local time. “If we are lucky and they throw us a bone, we come in at 6,” Strahan said.

    Strahan began his broadcast career straight out of retirement following a Super Bowl win in 2008.
    Photo by: AP IMAGES
    Strahan is the only one on the team who lives in Los Angeles, so he doesn’t have to fly into town to do the show.

    “We go on stage at 7 for a little rehearsal and camera shots,” he said. “We watch all the features that are going to be on the show.”

    Then comes make-up and getting dressed for the show. Usually there are guests who come to watch the show including, sometimes, people who have won the chance to watch the show through some sort of charity.

    The show starts live at 9 a.m. (noon ET). “Yeah, you sit in the chair for an hour, but you get to stand up,” Strahan said. “The hour goes fast.”

    After that hour, at 10 a.m. in Los Angeles, the first NFL games start. The Fox crew rolls out what Strahan calls “a wall of TVs,” and he and his co-hosts watch the games from the set. They also can watch the action in the green room, though, or sometimes, Strahan said, he watches the games in his dressing room, kicking back on his couch. Depending on the day and whether or not Fox has a doubleheader, Strahan and his co-hosts will end up doing a halftime show for the early games, a postgame show for those first games, a halftime show for the second game, and then “The OT” postgame show.

    Short days end at 4:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. ET); long days end about 5:30 p.m. After that, Strahan is officially off again until that Thursday conference call. He said he looks forward to every Sunday.

    “I walk in at 5:30 and I feel like I am walking in to have fun and hang out with the fellas,” Strahan said. “It’s a fun day and a great job.”

    Retired players and coaches take jobs in broadcasting because it keeps them close to the game, Strahan said, and it gives them something to do when their on-field careers are over. “What are you going to do?” he said. “You are going to watch the games anyway. You might as well get paid for it.”

    VIEW OF THE TOP

    While no one could provide exact figures, multiple broadcast talent experts said that of the hundreds of people working in on-air sports jobs, there are a handful of on-air personalities who make the most money, and none is a former professional athlete. Four men stand above the crowd and are considered the highest-paid broadcasters in the U.S., these experts say: Bob Costas and Al Michaels at NBC, Joe Buck at Fox, and Jim Nantz at CBS. According to multiple sources, Costas, Michaels, Buck and Nantz each earns in the range of $5 million a year. Several sources said that of the four, Costas earns the most, as he works not only multiple major sporting events for NBC, but he also works for MLB Network.

    IMG represents Costas and Nantz, and Sandy Montag, senior corporate vice president and managing director, IMG Clients, would not comment. Marvin Demoff, longtime NFL player agent and broadcast agent who represents both Michaels and Buck, also would not comment on his clients’ salaries.

    “The people who make a lot of money are people who do multiple sports, big events and are on major networks,” said Octgaon President Phil de Picciotto.

    After Costas, Michaels, Buck and Nantz, industry sources say there’s a steep drop-off in salary but still a definite pecking order. Chris Berman and Mike Tirico at ESPN, according to several agents, are considered the next-highest-paid network talent, with their salaries pegged at about $3 million a year. Agent Lou Oppenheim, who represents Berman, and Montag, who represents Tirico, would not comment. The top 10 game analysts would probably be next in a ranking of pay, agents said, followed then by second-tier play-by-play announcers.

    Over-the-air networks generally pay more, but not always, the agents said.

    “ESPN is not going to take a back seat to anybody,” said one agent who asked not to be named because he does business with all the networks.

    Agents said whether an in-studio, pregame-show analyst (such as Fox’s Bradshaw, Long, Johnson or Strahan) or an on-site game analyst (such as Troy Aikman) makes more money can vary. A top pregame show analyst and a network’s No. 1 game analyst could draw between $500,000 and $2 million a year, agents said, depending on a number of factors, including popularity, the broadcaster’s time with the network and when the deal was signed.

    Ed Goren, vice chairman of Fox Sports Media Group, would not comment on what Fox spends on its pregame analysts but he said they have been instrumental in the success of the NFL on Fox.

    “The thing about salaries,” Goren said, “I heard something yesterday … that whoever gets the Regis Philbin job is going to be paid between $5 million and $8 million a year, and we are nowhere near that. In many respects, the salaries [of sports broadcasters] have not escalated that dramatically in 20 years.”

    CONTINUITY PAYS OFF

    One reason sports broadcasters’ salaries are rarely reported is that broadcasters don’t change jobs or networks that often. In sports, top athlete free agents get huge contracts when multiple teams bid for their services; the number of potential buyers drives the market for that on-the-field talent. When top sports broadcasters become free agents, it’s rarely publicized, and they don’t seem to move as much.

    Keyshawn Johnson (center) joined ESPN in 2007 and is part of the “Sunday NFL Countdown” lineup.
    Photo by: JOE FARAONI / ESPN
    When Keyshawn Johnson started at ESPN in 2007, he signed a four-year deal, and he more recently signed a five-year extension, he said. “When my deal was up … there were a couple of networks that were interested in talking with us,” Johnson said of himself and his agent, Jerome Stanley. “But we wanted to be with ESPN. I feel like it is the best home for me.”

    Network executives say on-set continuity is important because viewers tune in to hear certain voices and see certain faces.

    “Jim Nantz has become the voice of CBS, the NFL, the NCAA Final Four, all of our golf events,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “If there is a major event, chances are, Jim Nantz [is announcing it.] He has carved out a unique niche. He is very closely identified with the biggest events.”

    Goren, similarly, called Buck “the face of Fox.”

    Eric Weinberger, executive producer at NFL Network, said he thinks top broadcasters stay with their networks for reasons beyond money. He said it would be quite a challenge to get a top-name broadcaster to leave his respective network.

    “It would be most difficult, probably not from the money standpoint, but these are loyal men you are talking about,” Weinberger said. “They know they are attached to the brand, and they have helped the brand — just as the brand has helped them.”

    At NFL Network, the lead voice is Rich Eisen. Said Weinberger, “The four men [Costas, Michaels, Buck and Nantz] are great; you can call them Super Bowls. But we think Rich Eisen is as competent or more competent.”

    As for programming, considering pregame shows especially, the programs through the years have gotten longer and even more important to the networks, Goren said — not that they haven’t always been key components to Sunday TV viewing.

    When the NFL debuted on Fox in 1994, the network was known as much for “The Simpsons” as anything else. Network pregame shows up until then had typically been a half-hour in length. Fox decided to start out with an hourlong show, hiring Bradshaw, Long and Johnson for its debut, along with James Brown — who had been, and now is again, at CBS — to host the show. The chemistry between those four, Goren said, played a major role in Fox’s success right from the start with the NFL. “We wanted to create an atmosphere [like] if a viewer was sitting at a bar,” Goren said. “It would be almost like that: guys talking ball at a bar.”

    For the past 17 years, the show has stayed virtually the same, with only a few changes. Brown left in 2006 to go back to CBS and has been replaced by Curt Menefee. Strahan joined the team in 2008.

    “The hiring of talent is as inexact a science as anything can be,” Goren said. Fox had looked at but turned down multiple opportunities to hire other broadcasters until Strahan became available after the Giants won the Super Bowl, and Goren said he can’t explain exactly why he hired Strahan — other than he was the right guy and the right fit with Fox’s longtime pregame hosts.

    TOUGH PARTS TO THE JOB

    Strahan’s path from the field to TV is atypical. Most recently retired players have to learn that once they leave the field, there’s a lot of hard work and paying of dues ahead of them in their desired new profession if they want to score a big network job. And no matter how long and hard they work, that prime job might never be in their future.

    “There are rare exceptions of players who right out of the gate will be paid a healthier salary [than his playing salary],” said marketing and broadcast agent Reed Bergman. “Michael Strahan is an example. He really made the jump from being an All-Pro football player to an all-pro broadcaster. He has one of the plumb jobs in the business.”

    “The travel is the toughest part. … Even when I was a coach I was home half of the time.”
    — BRIAN BILLICK
    Fox Sports

    Photo by: FOX SPORTS
    “It’s like anything else: There has to be something innate inside of you” for an athlete to succeed as a broadcaster, said “Sunday Night Football” producer Fred Gaudelli, speaking for himself and not for NBC Sports. “Some former players don’t like it. They don’t like to criticize other players. They don’t like the hours of travel.”

    Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick, now a game analyst with Fox, said that if there’s one thing that would make him quit the sports broadcasting business, it is that time away from home.

    “The travel is the toughest part,” said Billick, who’s been with Fox since 2008. “I am on the road every weekend. Even when I was a coach I was home half of the time [with eight home games.]”

    Billick is also not crazy about criticizing other coaches. “When I was coaching, we used to call it a ‘drive-by,’” he said of the quick-hit commentary from a broadcaster. “Just a whiz-by or a drive-by.” Billick said that when he does criticize other coaches on the air, he calls them the next week and talks to them about it.

    Similarly, ESPN’s Johnson said many former players don’t like criticizing current players on the air. “I think a lot of times, guys are afraid they are going to hurt someone’s feelings that they used to play with,” he said, adding that he has received calls from players unhappy with criticisms he has made on the air. “They get mad, but what am I supposed to do? I have a job to do.”

    As for preparation, the amount of work broadcasters do before their games or pregame shows varies based on the job — play-by-play announcer, game analyst or studio analyst — as well as the broadcaster’s individual work ethic and style.

    Johnson said he stays in touch with the NFL year-round but does not, like some broadcasters, call up coaches during the week to prepare for his duties at ESPN.

    Strahan said he watches football during the week but said he watches it and keeps up with developing stories about as much as an average NFL fan. “You as a fan don’t watch football eight hours a day [during the week],” he said. “I did that when I was playing. I don’t do that now.”

    MORE JOBS, MULTIPLE EMPLOYERS

    While it’s rare for broadcasters who have prime jobs to leave their posts, and the work that’s required in those jobs has inherent challenges, the good news for aspiring broadcasters is that in 2011, there were more sports broadcast jobs than ever before. In 2012, there likely will be even more.

    “The big story out there is that sports television is in a significant period of growth and probably is not going to stop growing for a while,” said agent Oppenheim, who has been representing sports television talent since 1981. “There are many more jobs in sports than there have ever been.”

    Said IMG’s Montag, “What you see is the growth in the nontraditional areas in broadcasting,” noting as an example that IMG client Brown now hosts an interview show that airs only on CBSSports.com. “You never would have heard of something like that 10 years ago,” he said.

    There are so many jobs, in fact, that many professional athletes who did not distinguish themselves as stars on the playing field are getting shots at a second career in broadcasting, agents said, when they wouldn’t have had a chance years ago. At the same time, they’re having to compete with established broadcasters and higher-profile players for those new jobs because more and more broadcasters are taking multiple jobs and working for more than one network.

    Such is the case with Billick. The end of his Fox game broadcast on Sunday is far from the end of his work week.
    After having spent three or four days in the city of the home team preparing for and covering the game, Billick catches a plane to Los Angeles, usually getting in around 11 p.m. Sunday night. Monday morning, he’s up at 6 a.m. to do three or four radio shows — usually with hosts Colin Cowherd, Dennis Miller and Dan Patrick. He moves on to the NFL Network studios at 8:30 a.m. for a pre-production meeting for his program “The Coaches Show” and then proceeds to the Fox studios around midday. He’s back at NFL Network in the evening to shoot “The Coaches Show” as well as “NFL Total Access.” All told, he’s usually done around 9 p.m. on Mondays, letting him catch the 10:45 p.m. red-eye back home to Baltimore, arriving about 6:45 a.m. Tuesday morning.

    “My wife has been asking me this on a regular basis: ‘What happened to all this free time we were supposed to have?’” Billick said.

    Having more than one employer obviously means more money, but the other reason broadcasters are taking multiple assignments is to build their own brand.

    In addition to working for Fox and the NFL Network, Billick does about 20 radio shows a week. Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback, handles weekly game-analyst duties for CBS, but he also started doing radio color commentary for Westwood One’s Monday night game coverage about five years ago. He now does half of those Monday night games for Westwood One.

    Fouts said broadcasters working more than one job and working for different employers is a trend that has continued to develop over the past several years. “I don’t know when it started, [but] I just think it’s happened, and it’s good your employers are letting you do these things,” he said. “I am not sure what started it — other than the guilt of the networks for not paying guys enough money,” he quipped. “They have to feel guilty at some point.”

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  • Rigorous boot camp offers broadcasting hopefuls a taste of what it takes to succeed

    Every year, in what’s been called the “four days of hell” known as NFL Broadcast Boot Camp, the league has a session it calls “American Idol” in which players in the camp audition for real network executives by interviewing other players.

    It is one of the toughest assignments in the 14-hour-a-day, four-day camp, because the network executives are brutally honest, says Glenn Adamo, NFL vice president of media operations. One year, he said, a strikingly large offensive lineman was in the camp, and although that player worked his hardest, “He was always perspiring,” Adamo recalls, declining to name the player.

    “It is a toughie,” Adamo added. “You are in a new career, and I will never forget [the offensive lineman] turned to us, and he said, ‘It is very obvious: I am a radio guy. I am not a TV host.’”

    Former Giants lineman Shaun O’Hara on the set at boot camp with CBS’s James Brown
    Photo by: CARA ANGELUCCI / NFL FILMS
    That offensive lineman did go on to get radio gigs after his NFL career was over. In fact, of the first about 100 NFL players who have been to Broadcast Boot Camp in its first five years, 67 of them are working in television, radio or some kind of broadcasting, Adamo said.

    Some of the graduates of boot camp who have gone on to get television or radio jobs include Tim Hasselbeck and Damien Woody, who work for ESPN; Dhani Jones, who has worked for NFL Network, Big Ten Network and Fox; Derrick Brooks, who has worked for SiriusXM NFL Radio; and Orlando Pace, who has a weekly Rams pregame show on the St. Louis Fox affiliate.

    CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus calls boot camp “a great learning step” for NFL players who want a second career in broadcasting.

    “The ones who go through the boot camp understand it takes a lot of work to be a broadcaster,” McManus said. “You can’t just go from the field to the broadcast booth. You really have to work at it.”

    Boot camp is held over four days in June at the NFL Films facility in Mount Laurel, N.J. Players who are selected to come to the camp — the NFL and NFL Players Association get hundreds of applications for the 20 to 25 slots — are picked up from their hotel at 7:30 a.m. and returned to their hotel at 9:30 at night.

    To participate in the program, players first have to submit applications that include a résumé, audio and video clips, letters of recommendations, and a personal statement or essay. Those applications are then reviewed by a group of representatives from the league and union, who ultimately select the players who will participate — and be put to work — in each year’s camp.

    “We basically designed a curriculum in a very intense four-day period,” Adamo said. “I mean, we put them through four days of hell.”

    The lessons include tips for play-by-play work, how to prepare to cover a game and advice on storytelling. Players are put in front of the cameras and they take turns interviewing each other. They are watched and critiqued by real network executives.

    The players, who may have made several hundred thousand dollars a year, or millions, annually on the field are also told that if they want to make it in broadcasting, they might have to work their local college or even high school games — jobs that pay a couple hundred dollars a game.

    NFL Broadcast Boot Camp is about the reality of going from the field to the studio, and the reality isn’t always rosy.

    “It’s an entirely new profession,” said Eric Weinberger, executive producer at the NFL Network. “They are starting an entirely new profession that they didn’t go to school for; they didn’t go to training camp or mini-camp for. If you ask some of the great players and not-so-great players who jump from the field to the studio, they will tell you that it is a lot harder than they ever thought it was going to be.”

    Tucker
    Ross Tucker remembers the first time he looked directly into the camera, at the first NFL Broadcast Boot Camp. It was 2007, and Tucker, an offensive lineman who retired in 2008 from the Washington Redskins after first making the team as an undrafted rookie out of Princeton University in 2001, wasn’t sure at the time that he wanted to go into broadcasting.

    That first time, Tucker said, looking into the lens was somewhat jarring. “As a player, you don’t really look at the camera; you look at the person interviewing you,” he said. “I remember looking at the camera for the first time, and for a split second it was really strange because you are not used to looking at a piece of metal. You are supposed to pretend it is a person and make it a third person in the conversation.”

    Tucker made it through boot camp and today could be considered the epitome of the new breed of sports broadcaster. During the football season, he works for five different employers: ESPN, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, YES Network, Sports USA and NBC Sports Network. His jobs have him covering both NFL and college football, so Tucker is constantly traveling and isn’t home much in the fall. “During my busy time of the year, I am only home Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights,” said Tucker, who lives near Hershey, Pa. “Those are the nights I sleep in my own bed.”

    One of the things that Tucker didn’t expect about his broadcast career is how much work it would be, including memorizing all the names of the players on the Ivy League teams he covers for YES and NBC Sports Network.

    Tucker also, despite his multiple assignments, is not making what he did when he was in the NFL. He would not discuss his salary as a broadcaster other than to say, “Everybody takes a pay cut, that is for sure. It has taken me several years to have as many opportunities as I have now to get to this point.”


    And it’s a point, he said, that he enjoys.

    “I thought I would enjoy it,” he said, “but I didn’t know I would enjoy it this much.”

    Sports broadcast agent Mark Lepselter, owner of Maxx Sports Entertainment, said that times have changed, and networks are demanding more from athletes than just having been a name on the field.

    “The networks prefer talent with name recognition, but they also want individuals who are going to work their rear ends off,” Lepselter said. “The other thing you are seeing more and more of: They will give you an opportunity, but more so than in the past, if you do not earn the dollars, you will not last very long.”

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  • Who's next?

    What players and coaches could we see talking about football instead of working it on the field in several years — and how might they do? Here’s a field of candidates, with thoughts on each from the SportsBusiness Journal/Daily staff.

    Hines Ward: He’s outspoken, articulate, probably wouldn’t, ahem, dance around any issues even if they did involve the league’s stars — and the 14-year veteran is about to become available.

    Donovan McNabb: Always a polarizing figure but also always strong in conveying his points to the media in interviews. He hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind on issues.

    Peyton Manning: He could be the next Gary Danielson and Cris Collinsworth rolled into one. In the booth this fall for CBS coverage of an SEC game, he was a natural: friendly and charming but also extremely insightful. At one point, he could call correctly whether the defense was blitzing or dropping back into a zone just by looking at their pre-snap body language.

    Chris Cooley: Redskins tight end is already an established personality, thanks to blogging and online video, but he’s not your standard TV talking head. Would any network be willing to put him in front of a live mike every week?

    Nnamdi Asomugha: He’s been one of the top cornerbacks for years, so whatever he says, there would instantly be credibility behind it. Also, he’s used his playing platform to push his philanthropic endeavors and community service work, so he’s used to speaking in front of people. That could help him make a seamless transition.

    • Darnell Dockett: He falls under the “loose-cannon” label taking from his Twitter account, but that means he would be the guy to keep viewers entertained with his comments: not afraid of going after anyone, fiercely defending his points and perhaps saying things for shock value.

    • Andre Carter: Patriots defensive end is from a football family, and he’s both smart and articulate. There’s never enough of that on Sunday mornings.

    • Domonique Foxworth: NFLPA executive committee member knows the game and its issues, as evidenced during last year’s labor talks. Well-spoken and familiar with media communications.

    • Jeff Saturday: See Foxworth.

    • Rex Ryan: Like all good analysts, you’ll either love him or hate him. He’ll say anything and he loves the attention — and besides, some might say he could be looking for work sooner rather than later.

    • Chad Ochocinco: Clever, direct, quirky — just some of the ways his Twitter followers could describe him. He’ll never sugar-coat, and it could be a ratings bonanza if all those followers were to become his viewers, too. Of course, a 2011 season with 15 receptions and one TD has muted him a little.

    • Tim Tebow: He’s confident, articulate and (in case you’ve been asleep for the past four months) people tend to talk about him. Somehow, he gets people fired up without even trying.

    • Drew Brees: He has that air of dignity and calmness about him — sort of a Merlin Olsen-type who is more concerned about the game than cracking jokes and hamming it up. Of course, to match Olsen, he’d need a modern-day Dick Enberg as his partner, and that’s tough to find.

    • Brian Urlacher: Torchbearer for Midwestern toughness. He falls into the Mike Ditka mold as a player and might do the same as a TV personality.

    • Jake Delhomme: An excitable personality but also a genuine kind of guy — and he has that crazy Cajun thing going for him. (Hello, Terry Bradshaw …)

    • Ray Lewis: Passion. Figure that he’ll give 100 percent on screen and expect the same from the rest of his talking-head colleagues. Perhaps he’s the next Shannon Sharpe: Maybe not born for TV work, but so respected as a player and so recognizable that one of the networks will take him in as soon as he retires.

    • John Fox: The next Jimmy Johnson? He has credibility and a good sense of humor and will tell it like it is, without being caustic.

    • Reggie Bush: The next Tiki Barber? Smart guy, good work ethic, winning smile, but maybe a bit flashy for audiences to identify with.

    • Shawne Merriman: The next Howie Long? Just the right mix of humor and gravity, with a great on-screen presence.

    • Corey Chavous: Now retired, he works on his own draft website. During his playing days, he was regarded as both a student of the game and a mentor for younger players.

    • Troy Polamalu: A likable guy who has an edgy look, great name recognition and is very TV/PR friendly. Perhaps an appeal to younger viewers?

    • Bill Belichick: You’re probably screaming, “What???!!” But take off the hoodie, work on voice inflection and you would be surprised how engaging he could be. Some of his press conferences are lessons on the game, and his weekly “Belestrator” segments on “Patriots All-Access” are must-watch for fans.

    • Brett Favre: What would an NFL list be without No. 4? He’s still out there. Probably always will be. We all watched when he played. Why wouldn’t a network think he’d keep drawing eyeballs if it were to have him on their set?

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  • Ackerson settles in behind the wheel, outlines goals as interim president at Speed

    After 17 years of managing Fox’s highly rated “Fox NFL Sunday” pregame show, Executive Producer Scott Ackerson has turned his attention to motorsports. Ackerson took over as interim president of Speed earlier this month, replacing Hunter Nickell, who had been in that role since 2005. Fox Sports Chairman David Hill tapped Ackerson for the job because he wanted someone who could improve production and programming at Speed. Ackerson spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Tripp Mickle about how he planned to do that last week.

    Speed is in close to 80 million homes and its ratings are OK. What needs changing?

    ACKERSON:
    There’s been a good base here, but my background in production can help elevate what’s already being done here with programs like “Speed Center” and the “Hub.”

    How do you do that?

    ACKERSON:
    You have better teasers. You have better features. You have better storytelling. You have better bumps. I’m a big fan of storytelling.

    Let’s look at a specific show. What sort of changes will we see to “NASCAR Race Hub?”

    ACKERSON:
    Rather than just putting on sound bites, I’m going to bring in an insider, someone much like a Jay Glazer. There’s a need for a NASCAR insider on that particular show.

    Better storytelling has become a buzzword in motorsports. Why does the motorsports world need that now?

    ACKERSON:
    A lot of these drivers tend to be guarded. I get that. There’s tens of millions of dollars they get from their sponsors. We’re not going to jeopardize that. But we need more time. You can’t tell a story with three- to four-minute interviews standing outside a trailer. It’s in everybody’s best interest to get their stories out. If you show a personality, you might root for a person. And if you root for a person, you might watch. And if you watch, ratings might go up.

    There’s been an emphasis in recent years on original programming at Speed. What’s your take on that?

    ACKERSON:
    We’ll be looking at different shows. We’re in the infancy of that so I don’t have a real answer for what new programs there might be. NASCAR is one of the highest-rated sports on television, so it’s in our interest to get them on air as much as humanly possible.

    You mentioned the importance of NASCAR programming. Could Speed exist without NASCAR?

    ACKERSON:
    Yeah. Speed could exist without NASCAR. I would hope it wouldn’t. We would just have to change our philosophy. You wouldn’t be covering as much NASCAR. It was Speedvision before. It was F1 and stuff like that, and it existed then so it could exist now.

    Why do you think NASCAR has been challenged with the young demographic?

    ACKERSON:
    The basic problem is the races are too long. If you’re 18 years old now or 20 years old or even 30 years old, it’s not the same as it was in the ’90s. You don’t have four hours, five hours to give to a race. The only reason we race 500 miles is because we race 500 miles. Things should evolve. This is pretty radical, but whether it’s a length of time for the race or it’s shorter, I think that would help. We really need to look at the sport and how you do it because those younger viewers are going to be the viewers of the future and we need to do everything we can to make them more interested in the sport.

    A year from now, you want to be able to look back at 2012 and say what …

    ACKERSON:
    I want to be able to say that we lived up to everything we said we would do: Production is a higher quality and ratings are up.

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  • CBSSports.com eyes bold stroke in fantasy

    In what is thought to be a first in the industry, CBSSports.com is allowing outside developers full access to its fantasy sports games and underlying data to develop commercial products, in hopes of developing the kind of marketplace for fantasy games that Apple’s iTunes Store has created for apps in general.

    CBSSports.com has partnered with six companies at launch — MLB Advanced Media, Bloomberg Sports, Rotowire, Statsheet, Advanced Sports Media and Ziguana — and more are expected to join. The platform will be announced this week at the Fantasy Sports Trade Association’s winter conference in Las Vegas.

    The CBSSports.com platform will have a revenue-sharing component with developers.
    “The fantasy sports experience simply hasn’t evolved as much as we’d like in the last decade,” said Jason Kint, CBSSports.com senior vice president and general manager. “What we’re trying to do is create an ecosystem and accelerate the next wave of innovation in the industry.”

    For developers, especially small operations, it means access to a wealth of consumer data that would have been impossible to compile or buy on their own, and a new way to reach sports fans. For users, it will mean a marketplace populated with new apps designed to enhance their fantasy sports experience.

    The platform will work similarly to iTunes. Developers who use the platform will participate in a revenue-sharing agreement with CBSSports.com, with 70 percent going to developers and 30 percent to CBS.

    Yahoo! Sports, also a fantasy industry power, allows outside developers access to its league and player data, but those developers cannot charge a fee for games they produce. Whereas Yahoo’s fantasy base is in free-to-play leagues, 60 percent of CBSSports.com fantasy sports customers pay to play.

    “Yahoo was the first to move in this direction with developers, and now CBS is kicking the door in,” said Paul Charchian, FSTA president. “This is one of the biggest developments we’ve ever seen in the industry.”

    Charchian said the new CBSSports.com platform will create business opportunities for upstart fantasy sports companies that haven’t been able to achieve any meaningful scale on their own, and in most cases, had little hope to do so going forward.

    “What’s been done is that a small company that may have a great idea now has access to millions of players,” Charchian said. “The industry has been so stratified among the big three or four companies, that we really don’t even have many middle-tier companies anymore. This platform changes all that pretty dramatically.”

    MLBAM, already a business partner of CBSSports.com, is using the platform to develop an application in which subscribers to the MLB.TV online live game package will be automatically directed to the game most relevant to their specific fantasy team. Users of the application will also receive personalized live scoring updates in real time as they watch games online.

    “We’re now giving people the chance to actually watch fantasy baseball live,” said Kenny Gersh, MLBAM senior vice president of business development. “We’ve always talked about this sort of thing, but we’re now bringing the idea to life.”

    Other products being developed in the new platform include a new fantasy trash-talking application, StatSmack, from Durham, N.C.-based StatSheet, that backs up boasts with a bevy of personalized data, and a wide range of analytics products that will continually update themselves.

    “This effort by CBS connects directly with the vision for fantasy that we also have,” said Bill Squadron, head of Bloomberg Sports. Bloomberg will enhance its Front Office fantasy baseball and Decision Maker fantasy football applications using the CBSSports.com fantasy data. “Having this level of deep integration is going to be very helpful.”

    A portal within the CBSSports.com, called App Central, will store all the games.

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  • ESPN’s Loomis fills production role at MLB Net

    MLB Network has hired Mark Loomis from ESPN to oversee the network’s production.

    Loomis replaces John Entz, who left the network after the World Series to take a senior production role at Fox. His title is senior vice president of production and he reports to MLB Network President Tony Petitti.

    He started at the beginning of the year and is based in the network’s New Jersey studios.

    Most recently, Loomis had been a coordinating producer for ESPN’s golf and college football coverage. Previously, he was a coordinating producer for NFL Network’s “Thursday Night Football” package.

    Since it launched in January 2009, MLB Network has been widely praised for the high-quality look and feel of its TV productions. Loomis said he has no plans to change any of that.

    “The worst thing I could do would be to come in and tinker with it,” he said. “This affords me the opportunity to continue heading in the direction they’re already going in.”

    Loomis said his focus would be making sure that the on-air talent has the right chemistry.

    “Whenever people are asked about telecasts, they always start with the announcers,” he said. “You can change the graphics. You can change the music. But the chemistry with the announcers is always the first thing noticed.”

    Loomis said the transition to MLB Network has been easy, considering the number of employees he previously has worked with during his career. That includes Petitti, whom he first met in the early 1990s when both worked at ABC.

    “It was really one of the main attractions for me,” he said.

    ESPN has not replaced Loomis. It plans to find a replacement during college football’s offseason.

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  • CBS Sports Network turns to media personalities to drive growth, distribution

    When CBS and Turner signed a deal to carry the NCAA tournament in 2010, the network’s cable channel, then called CBS College Sports, appeared to be an afterthought.

    Stuck in less than 40 million homes, the channel lost its only tournament game and was not part of the announcement.

    Nearly two years later, CBS’s strategy with the channel is beginning to take shape.

    The network hired David Berson a little more than a year ago to direct the channel’s growth. Berson has responded by signing programming deals with sports media personalities like Tim Brando, who simulcasts his three-hour radio show weekday afternoons, and Jim Rome, who last week agreed to host a daily show from 6-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday on the channel starting April 3.

    In the absence of live events, media industry executives say personality-driven programming is a good way for a network to grow. “The surest way for a network to grow is to have live events,” said sports media consultant Neal Pilson. “Attracting personalities is a strong No. 2 way of doing it.”

    CBS’s pursuit of Rome showed how the network can attract personalities. In addition to hosting a show on the poorly distributed cable channel, which was renamed CBS Sports Network last spring, CBS also was able to offer Rome time on its premium network, Showtime, and its broadcast network.

    All together, CBS’s three outlets made it easier for Rome to leave ESPN2 and its 100 million-home universe.

    “I’m not leaving ESPN as much as I am joining the CBS family,” Rome said.

    CBS Sports Network may not be able to have big events on its schedule, but that doesn’t mean that CBS will ignore them. CBS plans to use its cable channel to carry pregame or postgame programming around events that are on the broadcast network

    “We have great events at CBS Sports: college football or golf or NFL or tennis or college basketball,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “We haven’t taken advantage as well as we should have the association that CBS Sports Network could.”

    The channel still has a schedule that is heavy on college sports. But it’s slowly bringing new programming, such as Professional Bull Riders, into the mix. Still, much of its daytime schedule is littered with repeats of shows from its network. The task of remaking the schedule remains a long process.

    Distribution, too, has been slow. CBS Sports Network is in about 42 million homes. It has deals with the biggest distributors, including the two biggest cable operators (Comcast and Time Warner Cable), the two biggest satellite distributors (DirecTV and Dish Network) and the two biggest telecommunications companies (Verizon and AT&T). The channel, however, is relegated to poorly distributed sports tiers on most distributors, and networks have found it difficult to migrate off of those tiers.

    Pilson said channels need to get to between 70-75 million to have “national exposure.”

    McManus said he was confident the channel will achieve that distribution mark.

    “Eventually, it will be a fully distributed, viable sports network with very compelling programming,” he said. “No one’s looking for immediate growth. We’re looking for sustained and gradual growth, both in terms of the revenue and the distribution and the quality of the programming.”

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  • Fox Sports joins with Republican pollster to develop competitor to ESPN Sports Poll

    Fox Sports is teaming with Republican pollster Frank Luntz — a Fox News contributor — to develop a sports poll that will compete with the established ESPN Sports Poll.

    Results from the first Fox Sports-Luntz Fan Pulse will be released this week and identify everything from fans’ favorite sports moments to whether the media attention around Tim Tebow has been fair. Each poll will include up to 50 questions, most of which will be made public.

    Some early highlights

      
    The initial Fox Sports-Luntz Fan Pulse found that while the NFL lockout didn’t affect fans’ views toward the league, the NBA’s lockout is hurting interest in the NBA.

    The poll found that 39 percent of sports fans are less excited about the NBA this season. The poll found that only 15 percent said they were less excited about the NFL.

    The NBA’s biggest problem is in the Midwest, where 51 percent of sports fans were less excited about this season. Only 13 percent of Midwestern sports fans were less excited about the NFL.

    Fifty-nine percent of older fans — over age 50 — are less excited about the NBA this season, the poll finds. “It’s not that basketball is struggling,” Luntz said. “It’s that football is exceeding expectations.”

    Predictably, the poll also finds that fans think ticket prices are too high: 35 percent of overall sports fans identified ticket prices as the biggest disappointment in sports over the past five years. More specifically, 41 percent of baseball fans called ticket prices the biggest disappointment.

        “It’s not just that ticket prices are annoying people more and more. It’s that the home experience is getting better and better,” Luntz said. “People can be more resentful of what they have to pay and still enjoy the games that they love and really look forward to.”

    “We felt that there was a place for a poll that focused on big topics and tried to let the chips fall where they may,” said Pat Crakes, senior vice president of research and programming for the Fox Sports Media Group. “What does it mean for Fox Sports? What does that mean for our partners? And what does it mean for the sports industry as a whole?”

    Fox Sports restricted their questions to sports fans, conducting 1,009 online polls from Dec. 20-22.

    ESPN launched its Sports Poll in 1994 with Rich Luker. In the ensuing 17 years, the poll has developed into a steady business for ESPN, signing some of the country’s biggest sponsors as clients. Luker left Sports Poll in 1997, but early last year acquired exclusive rights to operate and market the poll on behalf of ESPN.

    Historically, ESPN used most of the poll results to develop programming strategies and provide information for its top advertisers. The Fox Sports poll will use a different strategy, with most results being made public. Fox will hold back some questions for internal purposes and will share some data with its partners.

    “The genesis of this poll from [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill was that we need to have an outsider’s perspective of what we’re doing,” Crakes said. “Not just us, but the entire sports business.”

    Fox Sports executives were familiar with Luntz’s work on Fox News, and Crakes said, “He also has a long and extensive list of corporate clients.”

    In addition to helping its advertisers, Fox Sports expects the poll results to give it ideas about how to improve its sports broadcasts.

    “By learning the truth, we’ll be able to construct better television programs, we’ll be able to acquire the properties that fans care about, we’ll be able to engage the conversation with other sports businesses and sports leaders and sports leagues,” Crakes said. “We want to be a better server of the fans’ interest.”

    Crakes will be the liaison to Luntz.

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  • NBC climbs back into boxing ring

    The last time NBC tried to bring boxing back to its schedule, it teamed with Telemundo to air fights showcasing four young Latino fighters promoted by Main Events: Rocky Juarez, Juan Diaz, Kermit Cintron and Francisco Bojado. The networks stuck a toe in with three dates in 2003, then came back with five in ’04.

    A year later, Main Events took those same fighters to ESPN as part of a short-lived deal in which the sports network would try its hand at pay-per-view. Boxing hasn’t aired on NBC since then.

    Heavyweight Eddie Chambers (right) will headline “NBC Sports Network Fight Night” Saturday.
    Photo by: NEWSCOM
    “Boxing became a challenging effort when it came to network television,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports, who was a sales executive at the network when it regularly aired boxing in the 1980s. “We weren’t getting great fights. Promoters were interested in a quick buck … and in building [fighters] up for a cable or pay-per-view payday.

    “We needed to get away from that if we were going to get back into the business.”

    Eight years after its last try — and a full 20 years after it stopped airing boxing as a staple — NBC Sports returns to the ring Saturday night. Sort of. Working again with longtime promotional ally Main Events, it debuts “NBC Sports Network Fight Night,” a two-hour show headlined by heavyweights Sergei Liakhovich (25-4) vs. Eddie Chambers (36-2) and junior middleweights Gabriel Rosado (18-5) vs. Jesus Soto-Karass (24-6-3). This time, the network has a sports cable channel on which to give boxing a shot.

    After nine months of intermittent talks, which followed a stream of pitches by Main Events CEO Kathy Duva over the last five years, NBC in October signed on for four dates to air on the cable channel formerly known as Versus. A March date will follow the debut. Main Events also is working on matches for June and December, with the latter two likely to feature some of the same faces as the first two. Miller said the network will consider extending the series if the four-show test shows promise. Last week, it signed Go Daddy as presenting sponsor.

    Rights fees will average about $150,000 per show, according to boxing sources, allowing Main Events to fill a middle-class void that exists between ESPN and the premium cable networks.

    So what changed? For one thing, NBC has a sports network to program, and it sees live events as one of its pillars. The rights for most major sports are locked up by other networks for now. Boxing can be had a la carte. The merger between NBC and Comcast also played a role. NBC and CBS both moved away from boxing after they saw the stars they developed graduate to fight for more money on premium cable. Because Comcast sees an upside from premium channel subscriptions and pay-per-view, that dynamic may not sting as much as it once did.

    “Every time I went back to NBC over the years — and believe me, I went back a lot — the answer I always got was: We’re going to build these guys up and then HBO and Showtime walk away with all the good fights,” Duva said. “Well, you’re Comcast now. So even if they leave, they don’t really leave. If more people subscribe to HBO and Showtime, that’s good for Comcast. And when more people buy pay-per-views, that’s great for Comcast.”

    Main Events has changed dramatically since the last time it aired fights on NBC. Once involved deeply in fighter development, the promoter now deals with only a handful of boxers. Main Events has pledged to offer up slots to any promoter, so long as they are willing to put their fighters in competitive matches. NBC also asked Duva to make fights with compelling story lines and keep them out of the dull backdrop of casino ballrooms. All the shows will emanate from cities in which Comcast owns a regional sports network, allowing for greater local promotion and additional programming for the RSNs.

    This week’s card, set at the 1,500-seat Asylum Arena in Philadelphia — the former TV home of Extreme Championship Wrestling — features a pair of Philly fighters, Chambers and Rosado.

    “We want there to be a rabid crowd,” Miller said. “The RSNs can promote it. They’ll really embrace it. In Philly, this will be a real happening.”

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  • Shell takes post managing USC Sports Properties for Fox Sports

    Fox Sports hired Dan Shell from IMG College to be vice president and general manager of USC Sports Properties.

    Shell started last week and will manage the University of Southern California’s multimedia rights, which include radio, print, venue signs, sponsorships and other promotional marketing and hospitality.

    For the first year of the deal, Fox will handle the rights to USC basketball on FS West. Afterward, those local TV rights go back to the conference for the planned Pac-12 channels.

    Shell will work out of Fox’s Los Angeles office initially before moving into an office on campus. Shell will report to Kyle Sherman, executive vice president of Home Team Sports, a division of Fox Sports that will oversee the property.

    “I’m looking to not just grow revenue, but grow it the right way, in a way that protects the USC brand,” Shell said. “Fox put a deal together that allows us to do that.”

    Last month, Fox Sports signed a 10-year deal worth more than $7 million a year to manage USC’s multimedia rights.

    Fox has a similar arrangement with the University of Florida through its Sun Sports regional sports network. Sun Sports hired Shell’s old company, IMG College, to manage the property. Fox executives say they don’t plan to pick up multimedia rights for other colleges.

    Most recently, Shell was director of regional sales for IMG College where he reported to Lawton Logan, IMG College’s senior vice president of U.S. business development.

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  • ESPN and MLB are on a TV Everywhere collision course

    John Ourand
    MLB Advanced Media will be pressured to adopt TV Everywhere principles this year when MLB negotiates its next media-rights deal. That’s because TV Everywhere — the concept that allows cable and satellite TV customers to watch channels on several different platforms — has emerged as the standard in cable circles and is backed by the industry’s biggest companies.

    ESPN has been leading the charge. Its long-term carriage deal with Comcast, which allows the cable operator to stream ESPN’s channels via broadband and wireless, is the latest example of the growth of the TV Everywhere strategy.

    So far, MLB has been slow to support the movement, preferring to rely on its own stand-alone subscription business. Through its MLBAM subsidiary, MLB brings in more than $500 million in total revenue; a significant portion of that comes from online subscriptions.

    “What is TV Everywhere?” Dinn Mann, MLBAM executive vice president of content, asked at a conference in the fall. “We look at it as something that is still complex and still evolving.”

    But TV Everywhere has reached critical mass. ESPN now has TV Everywhere deals with companies that represent around 40 percent of the country’s pay-TV subscribers, including the two biggest cable operators (Comcast and Time Warner Cable) and the biggest telco (Verizon). More importantly, ESPN has TV Everywhere deals with all the sports leagues with which it does business.

    In its upcoming media rights negotiation with MLB, sources say ESPN has made it clear that it plans to make one bid that wraps in linear TV and digital rights. Up until now, that hasn’t been the case. MLB’s current TV partners interested in TV Everywhere have had to cut separate deals with MLBAM to gain those rights, in addition to the bigger deals with MLB for linear TV rights.

    ESPN cut such a deal a while ago, but even then the rights were “not as clean as we’d like,” said Sean Bratches, ESPN executive vice president of sales and marketing, speaking at the same conference as Mann. ESPN was able to keep MLB games on its streamed channels, but it had to switch out other MLB content. It was permitted to stream one episode of “Baseball Tonight” per week. Plus, ESPN had a limited number of highlight rights. During “SportsCenter,” ESPN frequently would put up a scoreboard while an announcer described an MLB highlight.

    ESPN and MLBAM quietly cut a deal to clean up those rights in the past month, sources said. The new deal, which allows ESPN to stream more MLB content than before, ends in 2013. That’s the same time that MLB’s TV deals end — and that’s when the league and networks may butt heads. MLB may not be willing to strike a comprehensive, all-in-one deal for both buckets of rights.

    “At ESPN, we’ve been on this for eight years to buy cross-platform rights,” Bratches said in November. “This is really important to us, and I think it’s fundamental to our brand.”

    For ESPN and cable operators, the TV Everywhere push is about more than keeping up with technology. It’s about keeping all their businesses intact.

    Comments made at the industry conference in the fall illustrate the tensions between the two sides.

    ESPN and cable operators warn that leagues’ failure to adopt TV Everywhere will put sports rights fees, which are at an all-time high, in jeopardy. MLB’s TV deals pay it an annual average of $700 million. A new deal should easily eclipse $1 billion.

    “We don’t want to put content everywhere at the expense of the business model that allows us to remunerate Major League Baseball for rights,” Bratches said. “We want to do it in a very pragmatic, cadenced way.”

    Mann dismissed those concerns, saying that MLBAM executives are keeping a close eye on industry trends. “We haven’t seen an alarming migration of people getting rid of the one product to substitute it with another,” he said.

    But Time Warner Cable’s chief content officer Melinda Witmer pointed to her company’s Extra Innings offer as an example, saying that it is “performing substantially below expectations from where we were when we originally did that deal.” She pointed to MLBAM’s business model as a possible culprit. “We know today that a consumer can buy directly from baseball at a lower retail price than we can sell it at,” Witmer said.

    With the expected growth of smart TV technology, which would let viewers buy Extra Innings on their TV directly from MLBAM, Witmer fears that Extra Innings’ performance will become even worse for cable. “There is a perception that we are seeing an impact in our ability to be successful with baseball’s product to a degree because of the head-to-head competition with the ultimate rights owner,” she said. “My concern is that it becomes far more pronounced in a world where a consumer has a beautiful, brand-new smart TV.”

    The next few months will show whether MLB legitimizes those fears or whether it places its trust in the growth prospects of MLBAM.

    John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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