Howard Stern Would Listen To Chad Dukes
“The biggest compliments I’m getting right now are people saying ‘I feel normal listening to your show, you’re not all doom and gloom, I feel like my life is a little bit normal because I turn on WJFK 106.7 The Fan and I’m hearing all my favorite shows do their shows.'”
It’s a unique and challenging time for sports radio hosts. Conducting entertaining sports radio while sporting events are paused indefinitely isn’t something many hosts or stations have experience with. But the average listener is equally impacted by COVID-19 in their own life, so the show must go on.
Many hosts are having to adjust, without being able to depend on last night’s game to drum up passion and create entertaining radio. But if we look at Howard Stern’s interview with Tom Brady as an example, sports fans don’t need an expert of last night’s game to be entertained.
Chad Dukes Vs. The World airs weekdays from 2 – 6:30pm in Washington, D.C. for Entercom’s 106.7 The Fan. Entercom hit a rough patch in recent weeks with two rounds of employee cuts, but Dukes remains focused on what he can control, creating great radio.
Chad has a background hosting on music stations, even working locally on Free FM affiliates in the post-Howard Stern era of terrestrial radio. He hosts afternoon drive for the top sports station in D.C., but Chad Dukes Vs. The World is rarely 100% sports focused. That’s made it easier to transition when forced to create content without last night’s game to discuss.
Brandon Contes: We’ll start with the idea of hosting a sports radio show without live sports. You have a radio background working for stations that weren’t sports focused. Does that give you an advantage when creating content right now?
Chad Dukes: Yes, guy talk or whatever you want to call it, is the format I came from and I feel like I’m adept at it. I try to keep the format as much as possible just because there’s so much content about coronavirus and I want to keep a sense of normalcy on my show. It’s about 50/50 or even 60/40 sports content to non-sports content on my show anyway.
BC: Has that percentage changed at all since live sports stopped?
CD: Because the NFL is so active and free agency has been so salacious with Tom Brady moving to the Buccaneers, we’ve been lucky. Even here in Washington, the Redskins have been doing all sorts of crazy stuff, so I’ve been able to talk about the NFL because it’s busy.
There’s a lot of lame sports talk content right now, where the uptight sports guys are like, ‘give me your Top 10 sports DVDs!’ and it just – [deep sigh] it feels childish to me. I’m trying to operate my show as I normally would, because I just think everyone else is being completely oversaturated with content.
BC: So are you saying you didn’t do a bracket?
CD: No. There’s 10 billion brackets out there. So, no [Laughs]. No brackets for us.
BC: I thought it was interesting once sports came to a stop, there was an adrenaline rush for a lot of hosts. It seemed like they needed a boost, I saw a lot of tweets, ‘this is what separates the great hosts, I’m always creative, I never just fill time, I always entertain.’ Did you get any sense of that mentality?
CD: No, a lot of that’s virtue signaling, especially on social media. I used to do radio with Chris Cooley and he would say “there’s guys who need to have their facemask grabbed or screamed at by linebackers and I’m not one of those guys.” Well I’m not one of those guys either.
I realize with broadcasting, it’s going to be more important because people are listening for different reasons and at different times. My policy is, this is a difficult time for everybody and people are losing their jobs. I don’t want to be the squeaky wheel. I’m trying to do this with as little bombast and virtue signaling as I possibly can throughout this process.
BC: What are some things you look at as filler radio? Some hosts will say call segments are filler or just saying the word ‘steroids’ is filler. Is there anything you try to avoid?
CD: Yea, who’s better, LeBron James or Michael Jordan? There’s too much of that in our business. It’s lazy. You can get people screaming about it any time.
I try to do stuff that everyone can contribute to. I don’t want to say it’s a low brow show, but I try to keep in mind not everyone’s an expert. A lot of people have families and other things going on in their lives. I try to do topics where if I’m going to involve the listeners, it’s something a majority of them can contribute to.
BC: I love radio, but it’s more formatted than the podcast space, which is one of the reasons podcasts grew on me. In radio, there’s a way a show needs to sound to make sure you get your commercials, get your sports updates and sports minutes in. Can the strict formatics and regimen take away from creativity?
CD: I have a lot of live reads during my show and I’m lucky to have those sponsors. But some of that stuff gets repetitive from time to time with commercials and updates and traffic – there’s a lot of crap that’s around. But I gotta be honest, I think it gives radio a leg up on podcasts and it’s why you see so many people still listening to radio, because it’s happening now.
I have a friend, JP Finlay who works for NBC Sports Washington and you’ll see him, ‘We’re going to drop an emergency podcast tonight about Kyle Allen being traded!’ Well I’m talking about it right now on the radio, taking callers, having reporters on that are covering it.
Radio will always be better than podcasts because it’s live as it’s happening, there’s interaction between the listeners and people. A podcast is a static thing that already happened, it’s a rerun. I like them, I do podcasts, but there’s not that interpersonal relationship that you get with live radio because it’s current.
BC: With that interpersonal relationship and without sports, you have an open slate of topics that you can discuss because you don’t need to be focused on what the Nationals did last night. So can bypassing sports make the show even more personal and build a stronger connection with listeners?
CD: I think so. The other day we had someone call in and say you’re not supposed to refrigerate butter. It turned into a 45-minute conversation about condiments and whether or not they should go in the fridge.
The biggest compliments I’m getting right now are people saying “I feel normal listening to your show, you’re not all doom and gloom, I feel like my life is a little bit normal because I turn on WJFK 106.7 The Fan and I’m hearing all my favorite shows do their shows.” I take a lot of pride in that.
BC: Does being in D.C. lead to political conversations on-air? Since you’re in the thick of it?
CD: Not for me. If you talk about politics on sports talk radio, you’re committing career suicide. People on either side don’t want it, I think they want sports. I didn’t do Colin Kaepernick, I didn’t do the take a knee stuff, I didn’t do any of it. Because I don’t want 49% of my listeners to be pissed off about my opinion on it, no matter what it may be. If you want to come find me in a bar, I’ll tell you how I feel about that stuff. I’ve always thought ratings are about getting as many people under your big top as you possibly can and that’s how I look at it, even though we’re right here in the belly of the beast.
BC: Has your segment time and amount of content you produce in an hour changed in recent weeks? Obviously it varies around the country, there are shows that do 33-minute hours and shows that do 50-minute hours, but as advertisers become harder to find, I imagine it will adjust, even in big markets.
CD: My live spot load has diminished slightly. But no, whatever it is they’re doing, PSAs or regular commercials, we’re still pretty lucky that a lot of our people stick with us. A lot of the people I work with are essential, so thus far it’s been a fairly traditional way of doing it.
We did something cool over the weekend. All the part-timers unfortunately aren’t able to get hours, but the salaried hosts joined together for mashup shows. I did a three-hour shift Saturday with Cakes from The Sports Junkies. It’s kind of fun to mix and match midday guys with morning guys.
BC: How do you like working with a PD like Chris Kinard?
CD: He’s the best, man. I’m lucky, I’ve known him since high school. My career took me away from here for a couple years and we figured out a way to get back. He really cares about people and is a tremendous radio mind. He listened and was influenced by a lot of the same shows I was, so he gets where I come from.
He puts up with me being unconventional because I couldn’t do my show in Detroit or Chicago, they wouldn’t put up with my show. He gets it, he gives me a lot of creative freedom and we don’t have many fights. He’s one of the best minds in radio and he just got a big promotion that is well deserved in the company. I think he’s going to be a general manager before he knows it and feel very lucky to have him be my boss for the last 12, 13 years or so.
BC: Do you know if you’re going to keep hosting with someone different on Saturday?
CD: I’m up for anything. I want to be pulling on the rope in the right direction and like I said, don’t want to be the squeaky wheel. So if I need to put some hours in for free, I don’t mind doing that.
I loved working with Cakes and The Junkies. They’re an institution here. They’ve been around for 23 years. They took over for Howard when he went to Sirius and never looked back. I interned for their radio show at 21 and I didn’t believe I could be on radio before that. I used to listen to Stern, I listened to Greaseman and Don and Mike and all these shows and said, well I can’t do that. But when I listened to The Junkies, they make it sound so effortless and I thought I could do it. Luckily, I was correct. Being able to do a show with a guy from the program that meant so much to me in my career, it’s really cool for me. It’s an honor and a lot of fun, I hope we’ll do more shows together.
BC: I want to check out The Junkies right now to hear them do it from home. You’re solo, even if you bring your producer in, you control when that happens. I would imagine having four or more people on one show would be really tough to do that from different locations.
CD: Sure, and they’re on TV. They’re simulcast on NBC Sports Washington and they’re from home and there’s four of them. I can’t imagine what it’s like to put all that together. Their producer, Drab, used to be my producer. He’s now the APD and really coming into his own doing all this in such an arduous process under all these constraints, but they’re pulling it off without a hitch. They’ve really stepped up. It’s been a learning experience for all of us.
BC: Is there concern because there’s already been a lot of changes? You’re working from home, you’re working on weekends because part-timers were cut. It’s only been two weeks since sports stopped and it could be two, three or even six months more. It’s going to continue to impact advertising dollars and such. Are you worried about the industry?
[This question was asked prior to Entercom laying off a significant number of full-time employees Apr. 2]
CD: Entercom wants to make this work. They’re a radio company, they understand radio and we’re lucky that they’ve been very communicative with us. We need advertisers, we need to sell commercials, I understand that, but I also can’t predict that.
I have a tendency – my brain works a lot when I don’t want it to and I found it helps to focus on what you can control. I can’t control any of this right now. What I can control is doing the best radio show I can. Showing up, being available for whatever they ask me to do and that’s all I’m trying to focus on right now.
BC: Are you someone that does a lot of show prep and planning?
CD: No, we have guests, I have four or five guys that I like to talk to and rotate. If there’s an A-topic, we’ll figure out how to revisit it two or three times during the show because the listeners turnover. I might be tired of talking about it, but Ronnie Rockville’s getting into his car to start his commute and wants to hear about Dwayne Haskins taking a selfie, even though I’ve been talking about it for the last 3.5 hours. I’d say the most prep I do goes into taking the biggest topic of the day and trying to address it in different ways throughout the course of the afternoon.
BC: You mentioned you’re a Stern fan, how was the Ian Rapoport scuffle when Howard played that a couple years ago?
CD: Oh man. It’s just unbelievable. I’ve been very lucky. Opie and Anthony, The Junkies, Ron and Fez, and all these iconic shows, I have good relationships with them. Mike O’Meara, I consider a close friend, he did 15-20 years with the Don and Mike Show, the biggest show in D.C. Stern’s been there my whole life and seemed bigger than life, like I’d never be able to interact with him. He’s generally not all that positive about other radio guys.
BC: Especially sports radio!
CD: And he literally said, ‘this is the type of sports talk radio I would listen to.’ And he said that about my show. I can’t think of a greater endorsement.
BC: Is there a specific bit you did on-air that stands out?
CD: The one I’m known for is the Redskins rant after the Monday Night Massacre, where I believe Mike Vick hung five touchdowns on the Redskins. I came in the next day, as a lifelong Redskins fan with only one year or so in sports talk here at that point. I lost it. I was screaming like a crazy person. Now I’m embarrassed by it, but not a week goes by that I don’t have a Redskins fan tell me they go back and listen to it on YouTube and say it’s the greatest rant of all time. I got booked everywhere, [Laughs] Questlove followed me on Twitter after he listened to it. It was my 15 minutes, even though it’s a little embarrassing.
BC: Radio’s been impacted right now, but you’re also a small business owner, which isn’t easy, how’s Commonwealth Dry Goods doing?
CD: It’s tough because they just locked Virginia down. My wife runs the day to day, she does a great job of that and we’re able to do online orders. The great thing is, I’m in D.C. doing radio and I’m from here, so I’ve built a following. People are being very generous and want to support the store. So far, we haven’t been impacted too much. We had to change the way we do business, but sales are fine. I appreciate you asking because owning a small business is a very unique thing to do.
BC: It’s also cool to be a small business owner because it’s something that resonates with listeners, especially now. Everyone that owns a small business is struggling and depending on each other for support. I think the fact that you’re involved with that helps further your connection with listeners.
CD: It does, it gives you a perspective when you’re supporting small businesses, just how much it really means to them. There’s a taco place called Tippy’s that I’d go to back when I was three years old, my dad used to take me. They messaged me the other day that they’re hurting and need customers and I was able to rally people to get there. I’m not getting paid for that, but it makes you feel good to have an impact on a struggling local business that’s been around forever.
Brandon Contes is a former reporter for BSM, now working for Awful Announcing. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonContes or reach him by email at Brandon.Contes@gmail.com.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pac-12 Pushing Enhanced Access, Deion Sanders Reeks of Desperation
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Coach Prime if those game telecasts aren’t seen?
Getting experimental has drawn some attention to USFL and XFL broadcasts during each league’s seasons. The Pac-12 is apparently hoping the same approach will draw viewers to its football telecasts beginning this fall.
Last week, the conference announced that its broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Pac-12 Networks would feature enhanced access for viewers. Head coaches will be interviewed during games. Players and coaches will be mic’d up during pregame warm-ups. Cameras will have pregame and halftime access to team locker rooms. And handheld camera operators will be allowed to film parts of the field and game experience which were previously prohibited.
Those familiar with USFL and XFL telecasts will likely see some similarities to the greater access that those leagues allow their TV partners. Coaches are mic’d up on the sidelines, giving viewers insight into play calls and strategy. Players are interviewed during the game, providing near-instant reactions to success or failure. Cameras in the replay booth show how officials decide to either overturn or uphold calls on the field.
What the Pac-12 intends to do with its broadcasts won’t go as far as the USFL and XFL. Access to coaches and players is being expanded but will still have limits. The conference doesn’t have to demonstrate familiarity, credibility, and legitimacy to fans and media.
Spring pro football leagues are a tough sell to mainstream sports fans accustomed to college football and the NFL from September through January. Especially when the level of play is subpar and rosters are filled with unfamiliar names, the USFL and XFL have to give fans more reasons to watch.
USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are established national brands and regularly compete with the top teams in college football. Utah has played in the past two Rose Bowls, seen on millions of televisions during the New Year’s Day holiday. All five of those schools finished among the final AP Top 25 rankings of the 2022-23 season. USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.
Yet the Pac-12 is promoting the gimmick of enhanced access because it needs to attract positive fan and media attention. Right now, most of the headlines the conference is generating aren’t flattering.
Notably, the Pac-12 needs a new media rights deal. Losing two of its most prominent schools, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten in 2024 certainly isn’t helping with that. Rumors have persisted that Washington and Oregon could soon follow. Additionally, the Big 12 is reportedly eyeing Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah as possible expansion targets.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is left to tout Colorado’s new head coach, Deion Sanders, as a selling point in a new media rights deal. Never mind that Sanders hasn’t coached a game in Boulder yet. The Buffaloes are also coming off a 1-11 season and have won more than five games only once since 2007.
If Coach Prime is as successful as Colorado hopes, how likely is he to jump to a better program and stronger conference? And as mentioned in a previous paragraph, even if Sanders sticks around, Colorado could be poached by the Big 12. How much value would Coach Prime provide for the Pac-12 then?
ESPN’s deal with the conference expires in July 2024, shortly before USC and UCLA defect, and reportedly has no intention of renewing. (ESPN could still agree to a package of lower-tier games for late-night broadcast windows, but Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that doesn’t appear likely.) Fox’s agreement is up at the same time, though prospects of a renewal seem more optimistic. The network needs Pac-12 games to fill its college football Saturday inventory.
The options from there aren’t promising. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports that current speculation has USA Network, part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate, as a possible landing spot. According to The Athletic, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff believes that the conference’s next media rights deal will have a large streaming component with Amazon and Apple TV+ mentioned as potential partners.
A streaming partner might be good from a financial standpoint, helping produce some of the revenue that ESPN has cut off. But forcing fans to find your product and asking them to pay for another TV platform isn’t a good way to draw interest. It may well be a path to irrelevance and obscurity. That’s not going to compete with the Big Ten and SEC, or even the Big 12.
And as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, how can streaming be expected to save a conference like the Pac-12 when it isn’t even helping TV networks (or standalone providers) right now? Disney is losing money with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. NBCUniversal has lost billions on Peacock, as has CBS with Paramount+. Maybe the Pac-12 won’t care about that because it got paid. But there’s little chance for growth.
OK, Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly, Dan Lanning, and Kyle Whittingham could be interviewed during games. But they probably won’t say much interesting during a game. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. will be mic’d up during warm-ups. Maybe we’ll see coaches and players going crazy in the locker room at halftime. Just remember that Peyton Manning said most players only have time to use the bathroom and have a snack. There’s your compelling television.
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Deion Sanders if those game telecasts aren’t seen by large audiences? To say otherwise is desperate. That’s exactly where the Pac-12 is.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But
It was April 19, 1775 when the first shots of war were fired on battlefields in Lexington and Concord that would send shockwaves across the world. Some brave soul among a group of rebel farmers and blacksmiths, doctors and lawyers literally pulled the trigger on what would become known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Indeed, the world would never be the same.
The college athletics version of that event was June 11, 2010. On that day, regents at the University of Nebraska officially applied for Big Ten membership and were unanimously approved by the other eleven schools (if the number in the conference name not matching the number of schools in that conference is something that bothers you, this column may not be for you). From that day forward, we have never really exited the “expansion era”.
One conference that has gone largely untouched in that time is the ACC. Only Maryland has left the ACC since 2010, heading to the Big Ten, and the conference has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in that same window. That is significant when you consider only the SEC and Big Ten have avoided any departures in this era. Every other major conference has seen great turbulence while those three conferences have primarily seen only growth.
That trend may actually continue for the ACC and that may not be a net positive for the conference or the ACC members. This is thanks to the long term grant of rights deal the conference schools negotiated with ESPN. The grant of rights means ESPN holds the broadcast rights to all home games of the current ACC schools, and do so for the next 13 years.
When the deal was signed in 2016, the 20 year media rights deal seemed like a win for the ACC, creating stability in a time of great instability. Now, what seemed like a “must have purchase” may be the impulse buy that the league schools regret for decades.
Put simply, the ACC has been lapped in the media rights race by the Big Ten, SEC and even the Big 12. At best, the ACC schools are working at a $10-15 Million per year deficit when compared to Big 12 schools. At worst, they are operating at a much larger $30-$40 Million annual deficit when compared to Big Ten and SEC programs. It would be a battle of monumental proportions for the ACC to compete on the same level as those other conferences at that large of a disadvantage.
The conference’s options are slim. ESPN has a deal that is locked for 13 more years, what benefit would it be to them to renegotiate just so the ACC can compete? For instance, it would require $140 Million annually from ESPN just to place the ACC in the same financial neighborhood as the Big 12 Conference. What would be the benefit to ESPN in doing that?
The other option for ACC schools would be to bang the departure drum. Almost all legal analysts have painted a very grim picture for the schools that would be itching to leave. The exit fee is $120 million and may get the schools some nice parting gifts but does not give them their media rights. Their home game broadcast rights will still be a part of the ESPN deal with ACC. That greatly reduces a departing school’s value to any other conference.
Maybe ESPN is willing to broker a deal for a departing school if it is going to a conference, such as the SEC, that has a large rights deal with ESPN. If one of the schools desires a departure to the Big Ten, who has large deals with networks not named ESPN, one would have to think The Worldwide Leader would be in less of a deal-making mood.
Some league athletics directors, led by Florida State’s Michael Alford, are suggesting teams be incentivized for success. Breaking the code; rather than equal distribution, the power schools want a bigger share of the money. This is where Wake Forest points out that it is all they can do to exceed football expectations on their current stipend, what will become of them if that money shrinks? It seems that conferences and leagues that steer away from an equally shared revenue model have had a difficult time making that work long term.
Maybe the ACC teams that are ready to punch out could flash back to the period of time our country was in with the events we started this column remembering. They have a team in Boston, go throw some tea in the harbor and revolt, have a modern day Boston Tea Party. As it stands now, there are several ACC members that want to leave the party they are part of. Their only problem is they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.