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NFL Network lost around 12 percent of its production staff in recent months, as around 15 full-time staffers bolted for Fox Sports 1, which is based just two miles away in Los Angeles.
Another 10 to 15 permanent free-lancers also left for the soon-to-launch channel.
“In the last four months, we turned over more staff than I’ve turned over in 10 years,” said NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger.
NFL Network already has filled most of the open positions — only three to five slots remain open. But the amount of turnover — happening around the same time — irked network officials, who believe the moves could have been handled better.
“We got phone calls in the middle of the night from people saying that they were leaving,” Weinberger said. “They were done so quickly, our team would say it was messy.”
Ironically, most of the staffers who left had previously worked for Fox. Even Weinberger had worked for Fox for about eight years before joining NFL Network in 2003.
“People move to what they hope are better opportunities every day,” said Fox Sports spokesman Lou D’Ermilio. “As we recall, a significant number of people who launched NFL Network were hired directly from Fox Sports and FSN.”
Defections include coordinating producer Kent Camera, who left in December, and senior producer Bardia Shah-Rais, who left before the draft.
NFL Network director Geordie Wimmer, “GameDay” director David Faller and operations director Rod Conti also left for FS1.
“We lost some great people,” Weinberger said. “A lot of them are going to be working on football. So when I put my NFL hat on, they’re going to make the National Football League look great.”
Weinberger said most of the defections occurred around the NFL draft, which is the busiest time of the NFL’s offseason. “It was a daunting task to restaff this,” Weinberger said. “We’re a small shop.”
To counter the defections, NFL Network has brought in a bevy of new talent, including Scott Henry, who was hired from the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles to be coordinating producer of “NFL Total Access,” and Allan Flowers, who was hired from Fox Sports Midwest to be coordinating producer of “Thursday Night Kickoff.”
Other hires include Richelle Markazene, who produced ESPN2’s “First Take.” She will be a producer for “Around the League.” NFL Network hired Richard Isakow from MLB Network to be a producer on “NFL Total Access.”
Betsy Riley was hired from NBC Sports as a feature producer on “GameDay Morning” and Aisha Chaney was brought over from ESPN as a segment producer on “NFL Total Access.”
Fox hired popular Canadian sports hosts Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole to host an 11 p.m. news and highlights show on FS1 called “Fox Sports Live.”
ESPN responded by bringing back one of its most popular “SportsCenter” anchors, Keith Olbermann, to host an 11 p.m. show on ESPN2.
After Fox announced a football show for 6 p.m., ESPN loaded up on NFL between 3 and 5.
Photo by:JOHN ATASHIAN / ESPN
ESPN countered by retooling its afternoon lineup with two hours of NFL studio programming (“NFL Insiders” and “NFL Live”) from 3-5 p.m.
Though executives usually are reticent to admit it publicly, it’s not unusual for established channels to counter program in advance of a competitor’s launch. ESPN added more NFL programming and expanded its social media show “SportsNation” around the time NBC Sports Group rebranded Versus into NBC Sports Network 19 months ago.
ESPN is making similar moves in advance of FS1’s Aug. 17 launch. ESPN President John Skipper acknowledged as much last week when he announced Olbermann’s hiring.
“Clearly the timing of some of what we’re doing is intended to put us in a competitive position,” he said in response to a question about FS1.
The thought process for FS1 executives is similar. As the new channel nears, its executives made programming decisions based on ESPN’s schedule. Take its “Fox Sports Live” 11 p.m. news show, for example. Fox executives say they were conscious of ESPN’s 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” — its most popular edition — when they decided to launch “Fox Sports Live.”
“In order for us to be a credible channel for the audience and a clear alternative, we had to go head-to-head with them and present something that’s different and unique and bold,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports Media Group’s executive vice president of programming and research.
“SportsCenter” is ESPN’s flagship program. ESPN won’t change the show’s content because of Fox. ESPN, however, will use another one of its channels — ESPN2 — and Olbermann as a way to reach viewers that might be drawn to the FS1 personalities.
ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross said the 11 p.m. “SportsCenter” already has evolved over the past several years, and he doesn’t expect to make changes to it because of “Fox Sports Live.”
“‘SportsCenter’ at 11 p.m. is tighter than it was,” Gross said. “We’re moving from topic to topic or highlight to highlight quicker. We’re more aggressive about revisiting stories. That’s something that’s evolved over the last few years. We know that people aren’t watching the whole show. It’s OK to revisit a story, with another treatment, halfway through the show.”
Another battleground for the sports networks is the afternoon programming block, from 4-7 p.m.
“That time slot kickstarts the network,” Wanger said. “We’re going to make a big investment into our afternoon block. You’re going to want to get the network jumpstarted leading into your prime-time schedule.”
FS1 kicks off its afternoon programming with a half-hour show called “Fox Soccer Daily” at 4 p.m., which will be followed by “NASCAR Race Hub.” Fox views this hour as a way to give consistent windows to passionate fan bases before ESPN. Fox’s soccer show starts 90 minutes before ESPN2’s. And neither ESPN nor ESPN2 has a NASCAR-specific show in its afternoon lineup, Wanger pointed out.
Interestingly, ESPN announced plans to launch its own soccer show, “ESPN FC,” in May. The show launches Aug. 11, six days before FS1’s launch.
A big battleground will be at 5 p.m., when FS1’s Regis Philbin show, “The Crowd Goes Wild,” goes up against ESPN’s popular hour of “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.”
“We really wanted to give a great alternative and counter program ‘Around the Horn’ and ‘PTI’ on ESPN,” Wanger said. “While those shows might embrace the debate, ‘The Crowd Goes Wild’ will find the fun, so to speak, in sports. We think it’s great counter programming.”
Wanger also views “Fox Football Daily” as a good counter to the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter.”
“‘SportsCenter’ covers all sports,” he said. “Our show will focus on the most popular sport in America.”
Though it has tinkered with some of its afternoon programming, NBC Sports Network executives say they are not reacting to program schedules from other outlets.
“We don’t look at what other guys are doing when we program our channel,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports Group. “We want to give our shows time to find their audiences.”
Miller highlighted “ProFootball Talk,” which covers the NFL, and “Crossover,” which features a well-known host in Michelle Beadle, as shows that he wants to give time to grow.
Miller said his main focus is on live sports rights, and he wants to create shoulder programming around those live sports rights, which include the NHL, English Premier League and Formula One.
The NFL has hired former ESPN executive Ron Semiao to oversee NFL Network programming and the league’s media events, including the Super Bowl halftime show.
Taking on the new position of vice president of programming and media events, Semiao will report to Mark Quenzel, the league’s senior vice president of programming and production, and will be based in Los Angeles.
Ron Semiao, shown in 2008, moves to NFL Network.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
“You’ve seen that with the creation of ‘NFL Honors,’” he said. “We need to create content that has dimensions beyond just a television program.”
Semiao believes opportunity exist around the Hall of Fame and the NFL Combine.
“Live big sporting events and live award shows still have that appointment television aspect to them,” he said. “We’re trying to look at NFL Media not just simply as a cable TV network, but as a multiplatform content provider.”
Over close to 30 years at ESPN, Semiao worked with current NFL executives Steve Bornstein as well as Quenzel. He retired from ESPN in the spring and relocated to Los Angeles.
Though it’s a new position, an opening was created earlier this year when Lawrence Randall, who had been the NFL Network’s director of programming, left the company.
Some have suggested the story — and the fact that Fox is looking to get a license fee that’s three times higher than Speed — is further evidence that sports rights are climbing at an unsustainable rate. Throw in the sports channel carriage fights in Houston, Portland and San Diego, and talk of a sports bubble that’s about to burst becomes inevitable.
That talk is dead wrong, according to a super majority of my best sources. These executives believe the sports media industry is no closer to a bursting bubble than it was in 1993, when talk of a sports rights bubble first emerged. That was when Fox Sports outbid CBS by more than $100 million per year for the rights to the NFL’s NFC package. At the time, industry insiders thought the price was so outlandish that there was no way Fox would make money off that deal. Of course, the deal worked for Fox, and rights fees have risen ever since.
For as long as I’ve covered the media business, people have been sounding an alarm about a sports rights bubble. Every five years or so, it gets louder. I don’t get the sense that there’s any more validity to it today than there was 20 years ago.
Fox Sports 1, which rolled out its “Crowd Goes Wild” personalities last week, is having tough talks but not tough times.
Photo by:TOMMY GILLIGAN
There was outcry around 2002, when the New York Yankees launched YES Network. Distributors would be priced out of the market if every team decided to launch its own network.
That didn’t happen, either.
The bubble talk got louder again around 2007, when the Big Ten Network launched. What if every conference — what if every school? — launched its own network? How could distributors afford that?
In ensuing years, distributors figured out ways to post record profits.
Now in 2013, talk of the sports bubble is back in vogue.
With or without a bubble, the sports media industry is certain to see some changes. Sports rights, which have seen huge increases over the past decade, almost certainly will level off. Several of the new sports channels will fail. But that’s more evidence of a vibrant marketplace rather than a bubble bursting. In fact, the networks and leagues have structured deals in such a way that if there is a bubble to burst, it won’t happen for another 10 years, at least.
The most recent media-rights deals run well into the next decade. The NFL signed deals through the 2022 season. MLB’s deals run through 2021. In college, deals run toward the end of the next decade.
The NBA, NASCAR and Big Ten are the next properties to go to market, and you can bet that they will cut deals that run into the next decade, too.
If the sports rights market is a bubble that’s going to burst, it won’t be because of these long-term contracts. It won’t be from the distributor side, either. Distributors need the avid fan bases sports programming provide. Reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” on TBS may bring in more total viewers and more younger viewers than ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” as it did last week and most other weeks. But ask sponsors where they’d rather advertise. It’s with sports’ more-engaged audience. Ask cable operators what’s more important to them. ESPN is the only place to see “Sunday Night Baseball.” You don’t need cable to watch episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.”
The FS1 negotiations with Time Warner Cable show why it’s hard to believe a sports bubble exists. The deal almost certainly will get done — either in the weeks before or the weeks after launch. But negotiations between these two huge media companies involve much more than sports. FS1 is one asset of many that are involved in these negotiations.
The idea that the value of sports will drop seems naïve. The sharp increases may moderate, but it only takes two companies to make a market. With ESPN, Fox, NBC, CBS, Turner and others vying for live sports rights, the market for sports rights will remain vibrant for a long time.
John Ourand can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.