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Volume 27 No. 53

SBJ Media: ESPN Executive Exodus Continues

I can't begin to make a guess for NBA Draft viewership on Wednesday. There’s not a lot of buzz around the event, which suggests low numbers. But there’s not much competition either, which suggests good numbers. Email me your best guess for average viewership (here's how the telecast has done in its normal June slot). I’ll give a shoutout to whoever is closest.

Libby Geist Is The Latest Senior Executive To Leave ESPN

Another senior production exec is leaving ESPN. Libby Geist, VP & Exec Producer of ESPN Films & Original Content, will leave in January after a decorated 12-year run at the company. Geist’s exit comes just a week after ESPN Exec VP/Content Connor Schell told colleagues that he also was leaving. ESPN Senior VP/Social & Digital Content Ryan Spoon left the company last week. None of these moves were related to the 500 ESPN job cuts that were announced this month.

Earlier this spring, as sports shut down during the pandemic, ESPN’s production group rushed several documentaries to air, including “The Last Dance,” “Lance,” “Be Water” and “Long Gone Summer.” “I just feel a level of burnout and a need to step away that I’ve never felt before to focus on family, my mental health and hit the reset button," Geist said. "It was a rough spring, but so gratifying, too. I wouldn’t have traded that for the world. It certainly led to me looking to take a break.”

Geist said she wants to focus on her family, including her two young sons, take a deep breath and figure out her future, which she says almost certainly will involve documentary production. “Before I came to ESPN, I was at a really small documentary production company [called Shoot the Moon Productions]. That’s where my heart has always been,” she said. “I certainly miss getting my hands dirty and being more a part of the creative process. You grow away from the creative parts of the job as you grow up in a company. I might look for that in my next job. But I honestly don’t know. I really don’t.”

ESPN has not settled on who will replace Geist in running production at ESPN Films. Two names that have emerged as candidates: VP & Executive Producer of Original Content Brian Lockhart and Executive Producer Erin Leyden.

Geist started at ESPN as an associate producer in 2008, just as the "30 for 30" documentary series was ramping up. During the ensuing 12 years, she’s overseen 130 sports docs and even more short films. “’The Last Dance’ is such a great way to leave here,” she said. “I feel really good about my contributions here. I’m going to look around for other mountains to climb."

SBJ Media Exclusive: Bassmaster Moves From ESPN To Fox

Bassmaster is leaving ESPN after more than a two-decade run with the network. Fox Sports picked up the rights to the Bassmaster Elite Series season as part of a four-year deal worth six figures annually. As part of the deal, which starts in February, Bassmaster will produce the events; Fox and Bassmaster will split ad inventory. Doug Perlman of Sports Media Advisors repped Bassmaster in this deal.

Bassmaster decided to move to Fox, in part, thanks to the promise of live coverage, including a three-hour block on the broadcast channel for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic in March. In the past, ESPN had carried Bassmaster events on tape delay. FS1 will show 60 hours of live coverage from 8-11am ET on weekend mornings -- a regular time slot that Bassmaster craved. FS1 will carry 10 events from February through August.

Fox sees Bassmaster as a complement to its NASCAR programming on weekends in the spring, said Fox Sports Exec VP and Head of Programming & Scheduling Bill Wanger. “This has strong appeal to the middle part of the country where bass fishing is quite popular,” Wanger said. “It fits well with some of our other content, particularly NASCAR, and it’s at roughly the same time of the year.”

Wanger said Bassmaster will fill weekend programming hours that had been filled by Bundesliga soccer games. “This fits nicely into those weekend mornings and plays well in our schedule and can work nicely to lead into our NASCAR programming on Saturdays and Sundays,” he said.

Production Review: Aqib Talib Could Be A Breakout Star

The Lions' win over the Washington Football Team only went to 8% of the country. But analyst Aqib Talib, calling his first NFL game, received enough rave reviews for his outside-the-box commentary that he’s certain to land another shot. As D.C. radio host Kevin Sheehan said on 980 AM this morning, “He’s a potential star as an analyst.”

Repped by Ryan Hayden of United Talent Agency, Talib did not sound like a traditional analyst. He sounded more like a player -- no surprise since he competed with most of the players on the field yesterday. At one point in the second half, the camera focused in on Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio while his team was on defense. Without missing a beat, Talib said, “What you got here, Jack?” He sounded just like a defensive player asking the coach what played he had in mind.

Talib was not polished. He was not cookie cutter. And that seems to be why viewers warmed to him. It was clear that he was having fun. Paired with the always solid Dan Hellie, Talib got bogged down in X’s and O’s on occasion. But, as Sheehan said, “His analysis was really good. And I thought as a personality, he was outstanding.”

I asked Fox Sports’ Brad Zager how he decided to put a newcomer like Talib on an NFL game yesterday, one of nine that Fox produced. Zager met with Talib last year while he was still playing with the Rams. Talib was close to the end of his playing career and wanted to get into broadcasting.

Fox brought Talib back in for a virtual audition during the pandemic, pairing him with veteran play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt. Afterwards, Burkhardt told Zager that he was impressed with Talib, even if he didn’t fit the mold of a traditional TV analyst. “If Burkhardt had told me that he was unprepared and unprofessional, Kevin’s words would have gone a long way,” Zager said. “We were all on the same page that there was something different here.”

Will viewers see more of Talib in the broadcast booth this season? Zager: “We don’t have any thought right now to changing our crews or mixing things up for the rest of the season. But other games can pop up. We like what we’ve seen.”

Speed Reads

  • Marlins VP/Communications & Broadcasting Jason Latimer tells SBJ's Lucas Smith that the team received more than 50 press requests from network, non-sports and international outlets for new GM Kim Ng since the announcement of her hiring was made on Friday. Ng made the media rounds this morning, appearing on ABC’s “GMA,” NBC’s “Today” and “CBS This Morning” to talk about her historic hiring, and has appearances tonight on CNBC's "The News With Shepherd Smith" and the Scott Van Pelt-hosted "SportsCenter."

  • CBS viewers only saw 16 Tiger Woods shots and five Bryson DeChambeau shots yesterday. This Masters shot chart from Classic TV Sports is my favorite blog post every year.

  • In addition to having people set up in Tokyo and Stamford, Conn., NBC will produce the 2021 Summer Games out of Sky Sports in London, Telemundo in Miami and CNBC in New Jersey -- plus of course 30 Rock in Manhattan. Las Vegas will be the distribution point for its feeds, NBC Olympics Executive Producer & President Molly Solomon told me. "This is no new venture for us, but it’s still pretty darn complicated," she said.

  • "Sunday Night Football" cameras last night panned to NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell next to Patriots Owner Robert Kraft, who chairs the NFL owners’ media committee. As my colleague Ben Fischer noted: "Negotiations over the NFL’s next round of media rights are ongoing."

  • Ever heard of Wrexham AFC? You're not alone. But the Welsh club, which plays in the fifth tier of British soccer, got some serious social media love today when actors Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds bought the club for $2.5 million. Reynolds' tweet to his 16.8 million followers had 67,800 likes at presstime, while McElhenney's tweet to his 583,000 followers had 19,800 likes.

  • Fitness training tracker and social media platform Strava raised $110 million in a Series F financing round, led by TCV and Sequoia Capital. O’Melveny attorneys Warren Lazarow and David Makarechian repped Strava in the transaction.

The Last Word

Tonight’s Last Word goes to one of my favorite media writers, Peter Kafka, who tweeted about Hulu’s 44% price hike over two years. “Hoo boy Hulu. > 20 percent price hike, trying very hard to get me to cut the cord, for real. Makes digital antenna option for football look more plausible…Hulu live TV cost me $45 a month two years ago. Now it’s going to be $65.”