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Volume 21 No. 1



The 11th edition of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival starts this weekend, an event that has continued to grow in stature and relevance as ESPN Films has gained national acclaim.

“Sports storytelling and sports filmmaking should have a home,” said Connor Schell, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer for original content, reflecting recently on how the festival got its start. “There should be a place where people can go and have conversations about the movies and interact with the filmmakers.”

This year’s festival is the first following the critical success of ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” documentary, which won an Oscar for best documentary. Among the most buzzed-about films is “Mike and the Mad Dog,” which chronicles Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s breakthrough in becoming one of the most influential voices in New York City and sports media. That feature will later be shown nationally as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series this summer. The film will air on ESPN on July 13.

Schell said that probably less than 20 percent of the movies that have played at the festival have been ESPN Films. This year, ESPN will roll out two feature films, including “Year of the Scab,” which examines the 1987 NFL strike. Outside of ESPN’s programming, the rest of the festival is made up of independent films, as there will be five features total and a handful of short films as part of the festival’s sports programming.

ESPN’s Erin Leyden (far left) co-directed “This Magic Moment,” which played Tribeca/ESPN last year and featured Shaquille O’Neal.
Photos by: ESPN IMAGES
As well as premiering films, the Tribeca/ESPN Festival hosts panel discussions, conversations and events including audio storytelling and podcasting. The event is open to the public and credentialed media. Filmmakers and their subjects are also involved, discussing issues around making movies or trends in filmmaking.

When ESPN began exploring entering the documentary film space more than a decade ago, the network “talked a lot about the idea of how do we create a home for sports storytelling and sports filmmaking,”

Schell said. “At the time, a lot of sports filmmaking in the independent film community wasn’t taken all that seriously. That led us down a couple paths.”

The relationship with Tribeca began as ESPN Films was starting. Some of the films that premiered at the festival in the first few years of its running, like “The Two Escobars,” went on to generate critical acclaim.

The Tribeca/ESPN partnership is a slate of programming within the Tribeca Film Festival, as Tribeca handles everything related to the festival, while ESPN assists with the sports programming slate.

“The relationship with Tribeca was really important in both showing the filmmaking community that we were serious about it, but also helping us create relationships outside of those in the sports world,” Schell said. “The entire point from the beginning was never, ‘Let’s figure out a place where we can show ESPN Films.’ It was always, ‘Let’s figure out a place where ESPN can help shine a light on sports stories that may otherwise not be seen.’”

ESPN in the past has purchased and distributed films that have premiered at the festival, including “Through The Fire,” which profiled a young Sebastian Telfair and debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2004 and later was presented through ESPN Films. But for the most part, that’s not ESPN’s focus.

ESPN also partners with the Tribeca Film Institute on a grant awarded to a filmmaker each year, which includes mentorship and some assistance in financing, said Jenna Anthony, ESPN Films’ associate director for documentary development.

Meanwhile, in June, ESPN Films will debut its “30 for 30” podcasts. The podcast launch will be the subject of a panel at this year’s festival. Made up of three ESPN Films executives, the panel will preview “Dan and Dave Revisited,” which chronicles the 1990s marketing campaign around the world’s two best decathletes. “Dan and Dave Revisited” will be the first podcast to debut in ESPN Films’ new series. ESPN Films is now overseen by Libby Geist, who was recently promoted to vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and "30 for 30."

John Bauernfeind is a staff writer for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.

The Chuck Wepner movie is guaranteed to make a profit even before it’s sold its first ticket, said Mike Tollin, co-chairman of Mandalay Sports Media, which produced the film.

“Chuck,” a movie based on the life of the boxer, will be released in four theaters May 5 — two in New York and two in Los Angeles. It is scheduled to hit more than 100 screens by Memorial Day, and is expected to gain wider distribution after that, depending on how people respond to it.

The movie is in good financial shape primarily due to its unusually low production budget of around $5 million. Add in revenue picked up by selling the film’s distribution rights to IFC Films and post theatrical pay-TV rights to Showtime, and the movie already is in good financial standing.

“We’re already in the black on this movie at this point before we even sell a ticket, which is a great feeling,” Tollin said. “Cobble together the cumulative rights fees from foreign distributors, IFC Films and Showtime; work on a really tight budget; and everybody’s happy.”

Tollin said the film was able to operate on a lower-than-normal production budget because it compressed the shoot to 25 to 30 days instead of the normal 40 to 50. Producers also kept costs down by using digital technology with some of the fight scenes, adding in much of the crowd digitally. In 1999, when Tollin made the movie “Varsity Blues,” he had to convince hundreds of extras to go to an empty football stadium late at night.

“That was expensive and labor intensive,” he said. “Now it’s done mostly digitally. The digital effects have improved so well, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. That’s a big cost savings.”

A condensed shooting schedule and getting lead actor Liev Schreiber to commit to a lower salary helped keep the production budget of “Chuck” to around $5 million.

The key to completing the film on such a low budget, though, was to get Hollywood’s A-list stars to buy into the idea of taking a lower salary. In particular, Tollin credited Liev Schreiber’s commitment with the film’s success. It’s not known how much Schreiber, who plays the title character, is getting paid for the film.

“Back in the day when we had Jon Voight in ‘Varsity Blues’ and Samuel Jackson in ‘Coach Carter’ and Kurt Russell in ‘Dreamer’ and Keanu Reeves in ‘Hardball,’ their salaries were almost equivalent to the full production budget of ‘Chuck,’” Tollin said. “It starts with Liev Schrieber committing heart, soul and body to this movie and being willing to work for a fraction of what he could get on the open market. When you get that kind of loud-and-clear message from No. 1 on the call sheet, it’s much easier to attract other actors on that basis. Obviously, I don’t want to give away specific numbers.”

Tollin said the film could not have been made unless the production budget came in at less than $10 million. The well-known producer/director has spent the better part of a year talking about how sports movies, in particular, need to keep production costs low if the genre is going to become popular.

“There’s not a diminished appetite for sports movies,” Tollin said. “But the marketplace has shifted and we have to reinvent the economic model.”

That’s because U.S. sports films aren’t as popular in international markets. And that’s part of the reason why Mandalay changed the name of the film from its original title, “The Bleeder,” to “Chuck.”

“We wanted to make it more accessible and represent the fact that we don’t consider this a boxing film and aren’t trying to focus on a boxing audience,” Tollin said. “The lead character was a boxer, but the only real fight in the film is the Wepner-Ali fight, which happens at the end of the first act. But then it’s really a character study about a man spiraling downward in a sea of fame and not-so-much fortune.”

Tollin went on to describe the film as “classic Americana. It’s part ‘Rocky,’ part ‘American Hustle.’”

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

Several conversations caught my attention at the 2017 Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium at Villanova on April 7. Here are two that stuck with me.

The Barstool Effect

Barstool Sports has made its name by being an independent blog, not beholden to pressure from leagues or advertisers.

So it surprised me to hear its top business executive say that she is “very open” to establishing partnerships with the leagues and other media companies.

“Our brand is very established, but we are a very young company,” said Barstool CEO Erika Nardini. “Part of growing is starting to work with established players. When I got to Barstool [nine months ago], Barstool had never met up with Twitter. They had never met up with Facebook. They didn’t meet with reporters or people like ESPN or others. This week we broke two pieces of news and were credited for that on ESPN. That, in and of itself, is radical for Barstool.”

Even if it partners with others, Nardini said Barstool will not lose its focus on funny takes.

“You’ll never see us cover something in an Xs and Os capacity,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see us be the straight guy on something. But you will see us work with a lot of people.”

Later in the conversation, Nardini said Barstool’s independence is what sets the company apart from more established players like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, who also had executives on the panel.

“I don’t think there’s enough conversation around the business model because the business model is what chokes change,” she said, pointing to sponsor pressures as stifling new content ideas. “When you look at how many seasons there were of ‘American Idol,’ it went on forever. The reason is it commands so many ad dollars, it delivers enough eyeballs, that it perpetuates itself because the network doesn’t have a replacement show.

“The thing that has to change with content is how you make it commercial. … My single biggest focus from a monetization standpoint is [figuring out how to] get people to love the Barstool brand. How do I get people to want to wear the Barstool brand, show the Barstool brand. That enables us to be free in what we talk about.”

ESPN’s Eric Johnson and Barstool Sports’ Erika Nardini discuss content and engagement.

In response, Eric Johnson, ESPN executive vice president of global advertising revenue and sales operations, quipped, “I enjoy all of our revenues.”

He said ESPN’s focus has been on developing appropriate content for all of the different platforms.

“We’re noticing that for the Major League Baseball fan, every device has its own median age and the spectrum is 20-25 years,” he said. “It’s less about leagues, sometimes, and it’s more about platform and the ability to deliver through the platform. The same interest and consumption exists. It’s just consumed differently.”

Johnson added that ESPN research has showed that younger fans may watch three hours of MLB games, but not in one sitting.

“They might consume three hours of Major League Baseball across lots of platforms,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that the interest isn’t there or the engagement isn’t there. It’s going to be across all of our brands in terms of how they consume it.”

‘Sleepy Eyes’ Speaks

In an April 1 tweet, President Trump referred to “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd as “Sleepy Eyes.”
Event moderator Andrew Brandt, who helped develop the program, asked Todd what it’s like to have the U.S. president tweet about your eyes.

Todd: “He’s tagged me for a couple of years with that nickname. I asked him one time, ‘Where did you get that?’ He said, ‘I don’t remember. But once I come up with a nickname, I can’t change. Branding is everything.’

“I don’t want to become part of the story,” Todd said. “It is a strategy in politics more and more to make the media part of the story. It’s a deflection technique. If the media is part of the story, there’s less focus on what they did or didn’t do.”

After a sluggish start to its 12-year, $5.2 billion (Canadian) deal with the NHL, Canadian broadcaster Rogers Media is hoping that the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs offer a glimpse of what’s to come.

The first two years of the partnership, signed in 2013, have not delivered for Rogers, with 16 percent declines in viewership in the first two years. Adding to the woes: All seven Canadian teams missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 1970.

This season has brought renewed hope to fans across the country, however, thanks to young players like the Calgary Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews. All three powered their teams back to the playoffs, joined by the Montreal Canadians and Ottawa Senators.

The success of teams across the country was a boon this year for Rogers, which saw increases across all of its national “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcasts, as well as with its Sunday night “Hometown Hockey” programming.

It saw even larger growth regionally for the teams. Viewership was up 27 percent for Maple Leafs games on Sportsnet Ontario and up 40 percent for Oilers games on Sportsnet West. Even matchups between U.S. teams did better in Canada this season, up 4 percent.

Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties for Rogers Media, said he believes the recent rebound is just the start.

“What’s really exciting about this is that it’s not just this season and this year, but what you can see ahead for the next few years with all the young talent that has popped up across the teams,” Moore said. “Looking at the Canadian teams now, I think we’re poised for a good, strong run ahead.”

Moore said that the success of the ratings this year — especially for Toronto games — has led the network to increase rates multiple times. He decline to provide specific figures.

For the first round, Moore said, Rogers has taken roughly two minutes of advertisements out of each intermission break, putting that back into on-air content to better cover the games.

“We really want to tell this story better, and we’ve seen that overall ratings go up if we’re taking less breaks — and that means extra time for [commentators] Ron [MacLean] and Don [Cherry] in the first intermission, and our panel in the second,” he said. “With so many games, we’re expecting very good ratings, so since the value of each spot goes up, we don’t need to have as many.”

Moore said the network expects to exceed its projected advertising budget for the first round. He declined comment on how much ad revenue the network expects for this year’s playoffs.

“I’ve maintained that by the end of this deal that it will be viewed as an excellent one,” he said. “I joke with our finance people that my personal perceived IQ is already up 15 percent compared to last year.”

NBC Sports, even with fewer U.S. teams, sees an opportunity.

“Last year everyone was saying there are no Canadian teams [in the playoffs]. Was that great for the U.S.? No, it’s not,” said Sam Flood, NBC Sports executive producer “What’s great for the U.S. is great hockey and great stars. It doesn’t matter where they play. It matters that we get to showcase them.”