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Volume 21 No. 17

Media

Fox Sports is telling advertisers to expect a stronger “Thursday Night Football” schedule and more impactful ad placements for its NFL games this fall.

 

The network kicked off its NFL sales campaign last week with an exclusive advertising dinner at the upscale Italian restaurant Del Posto in the Chelsea area of New York. About 50 ad buyers from top agencies Publicis Media, OMD, Carat and others, sat at round tables adorned with white tablecloths and centerpieces made up of the NFL’s official Wilson footballs.

The main theme to come out of Fox’s presentation is that NFL games are the most popular programming on television and that Fox will carry more NFL games than any other network this fall. Fox will have 38 NFL game windows this season between its Thursday and Sunday schedule, and network executives projected that it will account for more than 40 percent of all NFL game viewing during the season.

The sales process is a particularly important one for Fox, which in February committed more than $650 million annually over five years for the rights to “Thursday Night Football,” plus other events including the NFL draft. That was a strikingly aggressive bid, as previous “Thursday Night Football” rights holders, CBS Sports and NBC Sports, have said they lost money on their deal, when they paid a combined $450 million per year.

“Thursday Night Football” has been the focus of complaints by fans and players who say the quality of the games on a short week of practice pales to what they see on Sundays.

Fox executives believe the NFL is making moves to change that perception. The most noticeable of those changes should come from the strength of the “Thursday Night Football” schedule, which is expected to be released later this month. Fox executives have told NFL schedule makers that it would like to see high-quality games that normally would have anchored Fox’s late Sunday afternoon window to move to Thursday night. The goal is to have the games rival “Sunday Night Football” in terms of quality.

“We committed to the NFL that we are happy to have any of the top games from our NFC package show up on Thursday Night,” Eric Shanks, Fox Sports president, chief operating officer and executive producer, told the crowd.

The NFL will relax rules from previous seasons that had Thursday night games made up of teams that came from the same time zone, which means, for example, the Cowboys could play their interdivision rivals, the Eagles, Giants or Redskins, on “Thursday Night Football” this year.

Still, the league has rules in place that make scheduling Thursday nights more difficult. Thursday night rules mandate that teams will not have to play on a short week more than once a season. It’s possible that the same team could play on consecutive Thursday nights, like the past couple of seasons when the Cowboys have played on Thanksgiving and the following Thursday.

“The NFC package on Sunday is the best package in football by far,” said Tom McGovern, president of Optimum Sports, who attended the dinner. “If you want to pick games for Thursday night, you want to pick them from that package. Having a cooperative partner on the NFC package opens up greater opportunity.”

Fox Sports’ top executives attended the event, including Shanks; Joe Marchese, president of advertising revenue; John Entz, president of production; and Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy.

During his talk, Shanks also spoke about Fox’s plan to give advertisers better placements for their messages during the game broadcasts. Shanks was short on specifics, but he used last year as an example, when the NFL implemented a new format that virtually eliminated the extra-point-commercial-kickoff-commercial rotation. Two years ago, NFL broadcasters had 503 of those “double ups.” Last year, that number was down to 46.

“We’re working with the NFL to do things this year with Thursday night that are going to be able to get brands closer to the game,” Shanks said. “That’s actually going to make the pace feel even better — feel like there’s fewer interruptions.”

Shanks also hyped its pregame show, which will be produced from New York with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Michael Strahan. Long, Strahan and sideline reporter Erin Andrews attended the dinner and participated in a panel that showed why Strahan, in particular, is so important to the pregame show. Fox Sports had a 2-minute sizzle reel that it planned to show at the beginning of the event. When it failed to run — marred by technical malfunctions — Strahan made light of the situation and seamlessly started the panel session.

“Fox has a very special talent in the pregame show,” McGoven said. “How Strahan carried that room in a time of near crisis was impressive. He is a special television talent.”

How do you say “Roll Tide” in Hawaiian? That will be the task facing Eli Gold, the University of Alabama’s radio play-by-play man, going into the next college football season.

 

That’s because the Crimson Tide’s radio programming will be carried on two AM stations in Honolulu, where NBC Sports Radio AM 1500 (KHKA-AM) and ESPN 1420 (KKEA-AM) will broadcast live games and shoulder programming throughout the 2018 season.

The deal marks the first time Alabama has signed radio affiliates in Hawaii.

The bond between Alabama football and Hawaii grew out of the heroics of Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama’s quarterback who came off the bench against Georgia to lead the Crimson Tide to an epic comeback victory in the College Football Playoff championship game.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who played high school football in Hawaii, has fueled interest.
Photo: getty images

Tagovailoa already was a legendary football figure for his exploits as a high school star in Honolulu at Saint Louis School, the same school that produced 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. But when he emerged onto the national scene by throwing the winning touchdown pass in the national championship game and becoming the obvious pick to be the projected starter for 2018, the two stations reacted quickly.

The day after the title game in January, Blow Up LLC, a Honolulu-based media company that owns the two radio stations, made a call to Learfield’s broadcast group in Jefferson City, Mo., and they began working on an affiliate deal.

“We’ve got what I would consider a robust radio network already, but this really shows the strength and reach of the Alabama brand,” said Jim Carabin, the longtime vice president and general manager of Crimson Tide Sports Marketing.

Learfield, the multimedia rights holder for Alabama athletics, operates the Tide property and manages the radio network.

The two Honolulu stations will carry pregame and postgame programming, live football games and other weekly shows “Crimson Tide Rewind,” “Hey Coach” and the “Nick Saban Show.”

Mike Kelly, president and GM of Blow Up LLC, said that Tagovailoa’s game against Georgia inspired “a new wave of Alabama fans right here in the Islands.”

NBC Sports Radio AM 1500 and ESPN 1420 join one of the largest collegiate radio networks in the country. Alabama’s affiliate group included 70 radio stations during the 2017 season and is expected to be even larger this season as the Tide pursues back-to-back championships with Tagovailoa under center.

The list of Tide affiliates ranges as far east as Columbia, S.C., across the Southeast to Jackson, Miss., and north to Nashville, covering seven states in all.

Of the 70 affiliates, 22 are from out of state. Stations pay an affiliate fee to be on the network and then share the advertising inventory with Crimson Tide Sports Marketing.

New York Times obituary writer Richard Sandomir had a visceral reaction when news broke in December that John Skipper shockingly resigned as ESPN’s president. “When that story broke, I almost ran to the other side of the newsroom to volunteer my help,” said Sandomir, who was one of the country’s most influential sports media reporters for more than 25 years.

 

In the fall of 2016, Sandomir traded in his sports media press credential for a job on the Times obituary desk. In the year-and-a-half that he has written obits, Sandomir cited the Skipper story and its aftermath as the one time he wished he was back on the sports media beat.

Sandomir has been participating in podcasts and news stories to support the release of the paperback edition of his book, “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” I caught up with him April 10 for a trip down memory lane.

Sandomir

What do you miss about sports media?
Sandomir: Not a whole lot, actually (laughs). I think I expended as much energy as I could over 25 years. One of the things I miss most is talking to announcers. I’ve had occasion to speak to Marv Albert because I talked to him about Craig Sager and John Andariese dying. Some of the people I spoke to in the past are people now I speak to to comment on obituaries.

You wrote so many reviews of sports telecasts during your career. Do you still watch sports with such a trained eye?
Sandomir: I almost instantly returned to my position as a viewer where I can sit and relax without taking notes or without calling one of the network publicists and asking why something is happening. I can cheer for a team now. It didn’t take long to say to myself that I don’t need to take notes or stop the video. I’ve really moved on.

What are you watching?
Sandomir: I spend most of my time on SNY because I watch Mets games all the time. I particularly enjoy watching Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling.

How do you see the state of sports media today?
Sandomir: Things keep marching on. Nothing I’ve been reading has surprised me because I saw the changes from a mostly broadcast world to a cable world. Now, we’re going to a streaming world. I couldn’t have predicted a lot of these things, but none of it surprises me. It’s a natural path of innovation and change.

What’s the state of the sports media beat?
Sandomir: Coverage has dramatically diminished since I started when there must have been 30 or 40 newspapers that had TV sports writers. Most of those are gone and have been replaced by some bloggers. There’s always going to be interest. But in newspapers that are struggling to cover the stuff that they have to, covering sports media and sports business was inevitably a place that they would cut out because it’s not as necessary as another beat.

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

Baseball broadcasters regularly describe the broadcast booth at Nationals Park as one of the league’s worst. Situated on the fifth floor of the 41,000-seat ballpark, the sightlines are so far above the field that announcers lose a sense of perspective.

Lazy fly balls to the outfield look like crushed home runs. In-field pop-ups can resemble roped hits to the outfield. Announcers are resigned to the fact that they will make mistakes calling games in Washington that they will not make anywhere else.

“I guarantee you I will kick a few of them in this game,” ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” play-by-play voice Matt Vasgersian said a few hours before an early season Mets-Nationals game. “I will botch a couple of pop-ups in this one. It’s just what happens.”

Speaking on the SBJ/SBD media podcast, Vasgersian referenced the Nationals-Giants 2014 NLDS series that he called with John Smoltz for Fox from a hastily built broadcast booth constructed much closer to the field.

“It should tell you a lot when the postseason begins … and Fox builds a broadcast booth three decks down behind the first level of stands for broadcasters in a postseason series to get a better view,” he said. “Why not just start over with this? They don’t care, though. Those are just inside baseball things for announcers only.”

Vasgersian referenced Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Angel Stadium in Anaheim and Camden Yards in Baltimore as MLB’s most broadcast-friendly ballparks.

“You’re behind the plate,” he said. “You kind of feel like you’re in the game a little bit more.”

Vasgersian’s other favorites include San Diego’s Petco Park and Seattle’s Safeco Field. He also cited the “vanguards” — Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium.

“There are more good ones than bad ones,” he said. “If we were having this conversation in the late ’80s when Three Rivers and Riverfront and The Vet and other blights on society like that were still around, it would be a whole different discussion.”