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Volume 21 No. 1

Media

ESPN's Chris Berman is praised for his ability to connect with fans off the field and athletes and coaches on the field.
Photo by: ESPN IMAGES
As Chris Berman was being honored with an industry award this summer, former ESPN President George Bodenheimer approached a reporter in the audience.

“I hear you’re working on a piece about Boom,” he said, referencing Berman’s nickname, “Boomer.” “Make sure you call me. I want to be part of that.”

Former ESPN Executive Editor John Walsh, who was at the same June event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., emphatically delivered an identical message. “I really want to help with your story. Call me.”

What's next?

Berman’s new role will see him:

Appear weekly on “Monday Night Countdown” with taped interviews and historical segments.
Host “NFL PrimeTime” after the Super Bowl and after the conference championship games.
Do play-by-play for ESPN Radio on MLB League Division Series games.
Participate in the ESPYs.

Weeks later former ESPN President Steve Bornstein expressed similar enthusiasm over the phone. So, too, did one of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s main spokespeople. “He definitely wants to contribute,” emailed Natalie Ravitz, the NFL’s senior vice president of communications.

Last week, as Berman announced his departure as ESPN’s main NFL studio host — the face of ESPN’s NFL coverage — after 31 years, the number of bold-faced names standing in line to pay tribute to Berman was long and stood in contrast to the media criticism levied against him over the years. The New York Times has described his act as “clownish.” Sports Illustrated called it “a Vegas vaudeville act that just won’t end.”

But many of the executives who have made the biggest programming decisions in sports television over the past decades were effusive in their praise of Berman and said those media critics did not understand Berman’s unique appeal, especially his uncanny ability to connect with sports fans off the field and the athletes and coaches on the field.

“When you have the bully pulpit, which Chris has had for more than 35 years, it’s natural for people to take shots,” Bornstein said. “When you talk to people in the world of sports, you don’t hear any of that. You talk to coaches and players — you don’t hear anybody taking shots at Chris Berman. They love him.”

Though he stays off social media (he doesn’t even have an email account), Berman has heard the criticism, of course. He’s too loud. He talks too fast. He’s stuck in the 1980s, and has not developed or grown since he first started becoming popular in the 1980s. But Berman says he tries to remember to have fun on the set and hope that fun gets conveyed to the viewers.

“I’m not worried about criticisms. Opinions are great,” he said. “As soon as you open up your mouth, you’re an idiot to some of them. You can’t change that, right? If that changes how I do my job, then it’s time to leave. Fair criticism is good. When you’re on live for all this time, not every sentence is going to be a Rembrandt painting. It’s just not going to be. Go with some finger painting here. It’s OK. It’s football. Relax. Aren’t you having a good time? Jeez.”

Bornstein was one of ESPN’s top executives in the 1980s when Berman first started hosting the network’s NFL studio shows. Bornstein pointed to Berman’s hardworking attitude — he volunteered for as many on-air jobs as he could in the early days — as much as his oversized personality as to why they gave such a big position to such a young talent in his late 20s.

“He certainly wasn’t the only personality at ESPN — I was also there with Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick,” Bornstein said. “But the NFL was clearly the most important programming relationship we had at ESPN then. It was a conscious effort to put Chris Berman — our No. 1 star — on that most important relationship.”

Chris Berman on the set with Randy Moss and Trent Dilfer
Photo by: ESPN IMAGES
The move immediately paid dividends, as Berman’s highlight shows quickly became ESPN’s most popular programming. For Walsh, Berman’s popularity came from the fact that he created a new way to deliver typical sports highlights — complete with nicknames and sound effects — that became part of pop culture.

“He made it into an artwork that lasted for a 30-minute show,” Walsh said. “He created something that didn’t exist before. When I got to ESPN, Chris Berman was the highlight god. He was the guy doing it better, and more inventively and more creatively than anybody had ever done it.”

The theme of Berman’s grit and intelligence is brought up by just about everyone who worked with him over the past three decades. Many reference the fact that he majored in history at Brown, showcasing his intellect. But most talked about his ability to connect with fans.

“He’s about the hardest working talent that I had the pleasure and honor to work with over my tenure,” said WME-IMG executive Mark Shapiro, who ran ESPN’s programming and production group in the early 2000s.

Shapiro relied on focus group research, and said that Berman’s personality broke through more than any other talent at ESPN in those days.

“Despite enormously talented people, there were very few that cut through — that were appointment viewing for sports fans — that they could name by face. I’m talking on one hand,” he said. “That was never the case with Chris Berman or Stuart Scott. Those two really jumped out, where everybody knew who they were. It was appointment viewing for many. And, of course, they were polarizing to some. But that’s good, sticky television.”

Berman recognizes that people react to him. He’s not sure why, but he says he appreciates it.


Tom Jackson
“Sunday NFL Primetime” partner

“The Broncos were playing the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII, the year after I retired. Our set was less than a mile away. I decided to stay for the entire game and walk back to our set. I fell into a creek on the way back to the set. The map that had been drawn for us said that it was very shallow. It turned out to be about 4 1/2 to 5 feet deep. I obviously got soaked, muddied. My feet were cut because I had pulled off my shoes and socks.

“They provided me with another shirt, another tie. People don’t know this, but I was doing the show without pants. Boom brings me in on the show for the second segment. He goes, ‘Tom, now the Denver Broncos have lost the Super Bowl for the third time. Each score has been worse than the previous score. This must have been a day that made you feel like jumping in a lake.’ We laughed hysterically. Obviously, viewers at home did not know.”

Brent Musburger

“I was let go by CBS back in 1990. The next day, Chris Berman called and told me that he was going to put on a pair of glasses like I wear. He said it was in tribute to what I had done on ‘The NFL Today.’ Later, ESPN took me up to Bristol and I opened up his Sunday show by saying, ‘You are looking live at Chris Berman.’”

“I think people feel at ease with me,” he said. “Maybe that’s the biggest thing if you just talk about my career. People feel at ease with me. They feel like they’ve met me. They’ve let me in their house. And they feel like they could talk to this guy if he’s in the living room and not on that box. I don’t take that for granted.”

Bodenheimer became friends with Berman in the early days of the network when Bodenheimer worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift and Berman hosted late-night “SportsCenter.” He also highlighted Berman’s everyman persona as one of his best attributes.

“His appeal is based on the fact that he’s truly a sports fan, and it comes across on the air,” Bodenheimer said. “Chris Berman in unfailingly polite and attentive to sports fans. There’s no autograph that goes unsigned; no request for a photograph that goes untaken.”

Or, as Berman jokingly put it, “If you’re on for 37 years and nobody asks for your picture, you must stink.”
Goodell said he valued Berman’s frank opinions on the game, adding that he will remember the times he shared with Berman at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

“He’s been incredibly successful in his career and a great partner at ESPN because he embodies the true passion of football fans,” Goodell said. “When you marry that pure love of the game with his broadcast skills and natural wit, you get magic. That is what I think fans appreciate about him. For me, it’s been his willingness to always share his insights into the game and, as a friend, give me a frank perspective on things. He has contributed so much to this sport, well beyond what he has achieved as a broadcaster.”

Bob Ley, who broke in with Berman in the early days of ESPN, said Berman’s personality — complete with the nicknames — is what endeared viewers to him.

“When they write the cultural history of the 20th century of the United States of America, there’s going to be a chapter in there about sports, and ESPN is going to be right at the top of it,” he said. “Chris is a huge reason why.”

Before he landed at ESPN in 1979 Berman was a radio disc jockey for a light rock station in Rhode Island. The last song he played before leaving the station to go to ESPN was The Eagles’ “Take It To The Limit.”

“I have played that song a lot lately,” Berman reflected earlier this summer. “Glenn Frey, who died last January, was my friend. That song has been on my mind all year. Now I realize it’s apropos to my career. I played it at the end of my first year in the business. I’m going to try to do it — take it to the limit one more time.”

NBC’s Playmaker Media and Turner’s iStreamPlanet partnered on the Rio Olympics. They aim to give BAMTech more competition.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
NBC Sports Group and Turner are combining their streaming services in an attempt to better compete with BAMTech, the technology company spun off from MLB Advanced Media.

The two broadcasting companies are partnering NBC’s Playmaker Media and Turner’s iStreamPlanet to help leagues and other networks provide over-the-top and video-on-demand services. The two divisions will continue to operate under their own brands, but they plan to go to market together.

“The market needs an alternative solution to BAMTech,” said Mio Babic, founder and CEO of iStreamPlanet. “It’s the only game in town outside of NeuLion … The market really needs a competitive solution.”

BAMTech boosted its coffers last year when ESPN invested $1 billion for a one-third stake in the venture, a move that is expected to lead to the creation of an ESPN-branded streaming service. The investment underscores the importance that traditional television networks are putting on streaming services as a new way to deliver video.

Babic said the combined efforts of NBC and Turner will target around 50 brands that Playmaker and iStreamPlanet believe they can help grow. They also expect to make an international push.

Babic said he tested the water through several confidential meetings and came away convinced that a market exists.

Currently, Playmaker streams the NFL, NHL, NASCAR, Premier League and Triple Crown races — all events to which NBC holds the rights. IStreamPlanet streams NBA League Pass, ELeague, the NCAA tournament and 2017 PGA Championship, all events to which Turner holds rights.

“This is not about huge volume; this is not about having 3,000 customers,” Babic said. “It’s about having 30-50 customers that we can help grow their businesses and build their digital brands.”

The two companies described the deal as a partnership. They would not offer specifics on how they would split revenue.

The partnership makes sense in that NBC and iStreamPlanet are longtime partners, going back more than seven years. Most recently, the two partnered on the Rio Olympics, where more than 100 million unique users consumed 3.5 billion minutes of video over 19 days. When NBC approached Turner about partnering, Turner jumped at the chance.

“It came out of the course of nature. We’ve been partnered with iStream since the Vancouver Olympics in 2010,” said Eric Black, CTO of NBC Sports Group Digital. “We are good friends and veterans of the space. We grew up together doing this.”

It was one of the most benign plays in football — a fair catch on a punt — that brought the biggest cheers inside Twitter’s makeshift production studio Dec. 1 during the Cowboys-Vikings “Thursday Night Football” game.

Twitter streamed the game live, one of 10 “Thursday Night Football” games the social media platform carried this season. The cheers that erupted in the second quarter came not because of the punt or the ensuing fair catch. Rather, the cheers were focused on what followed: one of Twitter’s commercial loads that ran during the game.

The moment underscored Twitter’s push into live video: sports, entertainment and news. The buzz in Twitter’s offices on Dec. 1 underscored the expectations around its most high-profile live video deal. Last spring, Twitter cut a $10 million deal to stream 10 “Thursday Night Football” games.

“This fits our strategy of integrating video,” Twitter COO Anthony Noto said during an early December interview. “Twitter had 300 live broadcast hours [from August through November]. The NFL accounted for less than 25 of those hours.”

Through a deal with MLB Advanced Media, Twitter shows one NHL game per week. It carries live college games through deals with Pac-12 Networks (for Olympic sports) and Campus Insiders. Twitter also has streamed PGA Tour Live coverage and Eleague competition.

Twitter staffers monitor various streams of last month’s Cowboys-Vikings matchup.
Photo by: JOHN OURAND / STAFF
Anybody who has covered Twitter’s entry into the NFL has heard advertisers and TV networks take shots at Twitter’s average minute audience, which fell way below expectations and generally was about 1-2 percent of the total audience. Across its 10 “TNF” games, Twitter’s average minute audience averaged just 265,000 (weighted by duration), sources said. Its total reach number was much higher, averaging 2.7 million.

The Dec. 1 game that featured one of the NFL’s biggest TV draws in the Cowboys, produced the biggest TV audience in “Thursday

Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Night Football” history. It averaged 21.8 million viewers on NBC and NFL Network. It also set a “TNF” record for streams, with Twitter, NBC Sports Digital and NFL Digital combining for an average minute audience of 479,000 viewers.

Noto said the average minute audience is misleading. A former NFL executive, Noto said Twitter’s NFL audience is one that the league covets in that it is younger and more international than the NFL’s TV audience.

Through the seven games, 70 percent of Twitter’s “TNF” audience was under the age of 25. And close to 25 percent of the audience was international.

More to the point, Noto said that Twitter has benefited from the NFL deal, helping it cut distribution deals that made its app available on connected TVs.

“Our overall video strategy has helped us drive distribution, and the NFL is a key element of that,” Noto said.

That distribution strategy could be seen during the Cowboys-Vikings game Dec. 1 in a makeshift production room at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. Around a dozen Twitter staffers sat at a table in a fifth-floor conference room and monitored seven TVs on the wall — each carrying a different feed of the game.

One Samsung TV carried an Apple TV feed; another carried an Amazon Fire TV feed. One Sharp set carried a feed from the NFL’s app on Xbox One, while another carried the feed from Twitter’s Xbox One app. A Sony television had an Android TV feed. Yahoo Sports and Sports Illustrated’s home pages carried Twitter’s live NFL video feed.

Noto said the NFL deal helps Twitter achieve another of its goals. Many reviews of “Thursday Night Football” raved about the viewer experience, especially when compared with the online efforts from traditional TV networks. Rather than using a cumbersome authentication process, users could access Twitter’s video feed with just one click. Video quality was generally excellent. And the Twitter scroll provided a level of interactivity that TV networks could not match.

“It’s easy to use — it only takes one click,” Noto said. “The quality of video is good. It’s interactive.”

As many as 30 staffers crammed into that fifth-floor conference room — adorned with NFL logos — during the 10 “TNF” games this season to monitor the various feeds. About a dozen were there during the Cowboys-Vikings game, noshing on takeout pizza. Noto stopped in during the second quarter and studied a computer showing the number of concurrent users at the time. Twitter group product manager Jeff Ma also stopped by for a couple of minutes.

The group consisted of engineers who are looking for latency issues that they need to fix. None arose on Dec. 1. Members of Twitter’s business insights and data team had their laptops opened in front of them as they studied real-time viewing statistics. The sports partnerships group headed by Laura Froelich was well-represented, monitoring the different streams.

The Cowboys-Vikings game was Twitter’s biggest of the year. But there was hardly a celebratory vibe. It wasn’t as chaotic as a television production truck, but it seemed clear that the Twitter staffers were working toward a common goal. Under Noto, Twitter has decided that live video — anchored by sports programming — is the best way to grow.

“We think the strategy we’re following makes sense for Twitter,” Noto said.

In the next few months, as the NFL renegotiates its TNF streaming deal, the industry will find out if Twitter makes as much sense for the NFL.

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

You’ve been at Twitter for three years. How has it changed?

FROELICH: When I first started, tweets were predominantly text based. You’d have the text, and any media in the tweet — photos, video — was a link. Shortly after I joined, we

Froelich at Sports Media & Technology conference last fall
Photo by: TONY FLOREZ PHOTOGRAPHNY
announced native video. Above anything else, that is one of the biggest things that has impacted the growth of the business during my time here because video is in such high demand from advertisers. Sight, sound and motion provides that emotional hook.

How does the live-streaming NFL deal help Twitter?

FROELICH: We’re able to grow the audience for advertisers. We can help advertisers reach fans in a way that they haven’t been able to before.

What’s Twitter’s pitch?

FROELICH: Advertisers have the opportunity to be part of everything. They can be part of the games themselves or the game around the game. We have the games. We also have the conversation that happens with highlights from games throughout the week and also behind-the-scenes video clips.

What have you learned from the NFL deal?

FROELICH: The more NFL content that we make available to fans, the more they want. Both the NFL and advertisers find that to be really attractive about our platform.

What will this look like in the next few years?

FROELICH: Media consumption patterns are shifting dramatically. There’s no turning back from that now. That’s going to keep happening. We’re going to keep going out there to find the content that fans want, and we’re going to be able to deliver it to fans who are cutting the cord or have never had authentication credentials. There’s going to be more of those people and we want to be there to satisfy them with the best content possible and all the amazing conversation around it.

— John Ourand

A mother of two who is an avid sports fan, but admittedly never roamed the sideline, is behind a tech startup that will aggregate coaching video and instruction.

She’s calling it Coaches Tribune and its website, coachestribune.com, will launch this week with instructional video for novice coaches, parents and anyone else who wants to learn how to run a practice.

The site is the idea of Michele Kiernan, an Ohio mother and commercial real estate developer whose husband grew frustrated with a youth basketball team he coached that couldn’t break a press. When Kiernan’s husband, Ed, a partner and chief marketer at Engine Shop, went online looking for instructional videos on how to break a press, he was surprised that there wasn’t a one-stop shop for coaching tips.

As Michele and her husband scoured the internet for coaching videos, it occurred to her that one site capable of aggregating all things coaching might be of value.

“You have a lot of youth coaches who are volunteers and they might not know that much about how to run a practice or give instruction,” Michele Kiernan said. “We really saw it as an underserved market.”

Michele Kiernan then reached out to a longtime family friend, John Kueber, whose Sirocco Media has helped launch several tech startups. Kueber’s agency helped create a business model and framework for Coaches Tribune.

Michele will be CEO and majority owner of the company, while also maintaining her real estate job. Husband Ed will help by providing introductions for sponsorship sales, which will be the sole source of revenue. Charlotte-based communications executive Jon Show will oversee content creation and aggregation from several different providers.

Coaches Tribune, which will start with sections for baseball, basketball, football and soccer, hopes to evolve into a social-centric site where coaches trade tips and stories, the kind of information that even in the digital age is mostly conveyed by word of mouth. There will be space on the site dedicated to other sports as well, including esports, as well as nutrition, health and safety, and training tips.

“We hope it will become the single greatest online resource for coaching youth sports,” Michele Kiernan said.