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Volume 24 No. 156


ESPN President John Skipper last night defended the net's decision to move announcer Robert Lee off the Sept. 2 William & Mary-Virginia football game in Charlottesville, stating in a memo sent to ESPN employees that the "goal was to avoid the possibility of Lee facing social media 'hectoring,'" according to VARIETY. He also "reinforced that Lee was given the choice of assignments and that he opted to switch to a different game." Skipper "blasted the motivation" of the people who "spread word of Lee's assignment shift earlier this week." Skipper in the memo wrote, "There was never any concern -- by anyone, at any level -- that Robert Lee's name would offend anyone watching the Charlottesville game. Among our Charlotte production staff there was a question as to whether -- in these divisive times -- Robert’s assignment might create a distraction, or even worse, expose him to social hectoring and trolling. Since Robert was their primary concern, they consulted with him directly. He expressed some personal trepidation about the assignment and, when offered the chance to do the Youngstown State/Pitt game instead, opted for that game -- in part because he lives in Albany and would be able to get home to his family on Saturday evening. I’m disappointed that the good intentions of our Charlotte colleagues have been intentionally hijacked by someone with a personal agenda, and sincerely appreciate Robert’s personal input and professionalism throughout this episode” (, 8/23). The Asian American Journalists Association in an email said it is "unfortunate that someone's name, particularly a last name that is common among Asian Americans, can be a potential liability." The AAJA added, "We do not, however, believe this decision was motivated by race" (WASHINGTON POST, 8/24).

CAUSING DAMAGE TO THEMSELVES: In K.C., Pete Grathoff noted ESPN may have been "trying to preemptively avoid outrage" by moving Lee off the UVA game in Charlottesville, but the net instead "created it" (, 8/23).'s Richard Deitsch wrote the move is a "self-inflicted wound and a decision made out of fear of negative press." ESPN would have been "far better served with Lee doing the game and dealing with the one-day fallout ... of jokes and snickers" (, 8/23). In Chicago, Phil Rosenthal wrote in "trying to avoid one kind of social media backlash, ESPN has stumbled into another." If the net's intent was to "quietly get on with its business by reassigning one of the thousands of people in the United States named Robert Lee ... it was a failure of fantastic proportions" (, 8/23). In DC, Cindy Boren wrote ESPN "came to what it deemed to be the lesser of two bad choices -- and somehow made the poorer one." The move will be the "topic of intense conversation for weeks to come" (, 8/23). In N.Y., Maureen Callahan writes this was the "biggest unforced error of the week" (N.Y. POST, 8/24). Rick Jaffe, the Vegas Stats & Information Network Exec Producer who formerly was Fox Sports Senior VP/News, said if ESPN "never brings this up ... absolutely nothing would have happened." Jaffe: "It would have been a non-issue. ... Sometimes, every boss or decision-maker overthinks things, and I think that's totally the case on this one" (, 8/23). 

GIVING CRITICS MORE FODDER: In N.Y., Marc Tracy notes the move has "left one inescapable conclusion: However many times sports media outlets ... are implored to 'stick to sports,' the centripetal force of politics is bound to make a battlefield of almost anything." The decision provided "new fodder for those who accuse ESPN of liberal bias." While the move was made "for business considerations, it nonetheless provided a forum for longstanding complaints over ESPN's perceived slant." It seems clear ESPN "blundered by overestimating its ability to keep its and Lee’s decision quiet and underestimating the reaction once it became public" (N.Y. TIMES, 8/24). YAHOO FINANCE's Daniel Roberts wrote dealing with the response to moves like the one with Lee is ESPN's "reality, and has been for a couple years now, as the noise around ESPN's supposed liberal politics has grown louder." Roberts: "These days, everything ESPN does is fodder for political-based criticism. It finds itself in a lose-lose situation" (, 8/23). Univ. of Alabama Sports Communications Program Dir Dr. Andy Billings said, "Failing to realize the potential fallout from opting to shift Lee ... opened the company to the oft-levied claims of liberal bias" (, 8/23). In Pittsburgh, Sean Gentille wrote this was "about as big a mistake as ESPN can make. Gentille: "It propagates the growing myth that they have a willful political slant, rather than a desire to make as much money as possible" (, 8/23). In L.A., Mark Whicker writes this was an "early Christmas present for the circling opportunists, who, incorrectly, have cast ESPN as some sort of left-wing clearinghouse." Whicker: "All of ESPN's good work can be subsumed by one frivolous moment like this" (L.A. DAILY NEWS, 8/24).

A CASE OF OVERTHINKING:'s Jimmy Traina wrote ESPN "grossly overreacted," and it was an "over-the-top and completely unnecessary decision." However, it "wasn't coming from an evil or nefarious place." Traina: "It came from a place of over-sensitivity. It also wasn't a political message. ... At the end of the day, it's really not a big deal and ESPN doesn't deserve the major crushing it's taking" (, 8/23). In Maine, Drew Bonifant writes the move "on its face ... isn’t an outrage." ESPN "isn’t being a bully" and it "didn’t ban Lee from the assignment." Bonifant: "All evidence suggests that it didn’t strong-arm him into agreeing to an assignment change. It’s silly, over-the-top and unnecessary" (KENNEBEC JOURNAL & MORNING SENTINEL, 8/24). In Buffalo, Kimberley Martin writes ESPN "allowed overthinking and oversensitivity to lead to overreaction" (BUFFALO NEWS, 8/24). SPORTS ON EARTH's Will Leitch: "This was simply a dumb incident, a massive corporation trying to corral something it does not, still, entirely understand" (, 8/23).

Fox Sports yesterday renewed its deal with the BIG3 for another season, and while viewership for the Ice Cube/Jeff Kwatinetz-backed basketball league has not been off the charts, it was well above FS1’s programming in the same slot last year. Heading into the championship, FS1 for nine tape-delayed BIG3 telecasts has averaged 191,000 viewers. That figure is less than half the audience that watched the first three-hour telecast on June 26 from Barclays Center (400,000 viewers). The second telecast from Spectrum Center averaged 235,000, and then no subsequent regular-season airing drew over 200,000 viewers. The BIG3's lowest audience came this past Monday for the semifinals from KeyArena, as that tape-delayed telecast drew 118,000 viewers. That window had competition from a Giants-Browns preseason game on ESPN, WWE telecasts on USA and President Trump's address on the Afghanistan war strategy on cable news nets. However, in the same Monday primetime slots in ’16 from June 27-Aug. 15, FS1 averaged only 105,000 viewers for a mix of UFC specials, the World Poker Tour and repeat episodes of "Speak For Yourself." BIG3 has delivered a 91% increase over that comparable programming from last year.

SI Play, SI's youth sports registration portal, is making its second broad retooling of its mobile application in 14 months, broadening the offering to make it free to any sports team or club. Previously positioned toward larger youth sports leagues and organizations, SI Play will now be available to any individual youth sports team, offering a wide array of functions including scheduling, scoring and statistics, interteam communication, payment processing, field directions and content sharing. The economic model for SI Play will now rest predominantly on positioning partner services such as travel assistance, custom team apparel and insurance to its user base. “We’re looking to address all facets of the youth sports market and make the suite of digital tools accessible to as many people as possible,” said SI Play CEO Jeff Karp. The repositioning of SI Play is discussed in an editor’s letter in this week’s print issue of SI that reads in part, “Our vision for SI Play is bigger than an admittedly great app. ... Look for SI Play’s message to be integrated into SI,, and SI Kids.”

In Wyoming, Emily Mieure reports ESPN's Ryen Russillo was arrested in Jackson Hole yesterday morning after he "drunkenly wandered into a stranger’s condo and stripped off his clothes." Russillo was "charged with criminal trespass" when officers were called around 3:30am MT for "reports of a drunk man refusing to leave." He was "said to have had bloodshot eyes and slurred speech" (, 8/24). An ESPN spokesperson said, "We are looking into it" (, 8/23).

COMING UP ROSES: MLB reporter Ken Rosenthal is joining The Athletic, and in an introductory piece on the site, he noted his "work at Fox Sports and MLB Network, on both television and video, will continue." Rosenthal added, "I’ll be as active as ever on Twitter. The only difference now is that my written articles will appear exclusively on The Athletic" (, 8/23). Rosenthal's first story for the subscription site is on a medical issue common to David Price and Nolan Ryan.

CHANGE ON THE FLY: In Nashville, Adam Vingan noted former NHLer Chris Mason will "become the full-time color analyst on local television broadcasts with play-by-play announcer Willy Daunic." Mason previously "appeared on the Predators’ television and radio broadcasts on a part-time basis." Stu Grimson, who "served as the Predators’ television analyst for the past three seasons, will not return." Former NHLer Hal Gill will "join play-by-play man Pete Weber" on WPRT-FM. Gill replaces former Predators assistant coach Brent Peterson, who will be a "part of the station's pre- and post-game shows" (, 8/23).

OUT OF THE BOOTH: In Portland, Tyson Alger notes Univ. of Oregon broadcaster Jerry Allen will "move to the role of analyst for Oregon men's basketball games, while Joey McMurry will take over full-time play-by-play duties." Allen will "continue to call football games for Oregon." McMurry, an Oregon graduate, has "called baseball games for Oregon the last three seasons and will continue to do so" (, 8/23).