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Sports Television Networks Don’t Need to Overpay Debate Pundits

“You can remove one zero and one comma from their annual wages. That’s all the networks need to pay.”

Jay Mariotti

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Next time I pass the CAA building in Century City, I’ll be shouted down by talent agents who won’t like the dirty secret I’m about to tell. They can get right in line, joining the numerous haters who can’t handle the truth in this space. Know the $8 million salary of Stephen A. Smith, the $6 million salary of Skip Bayless and the salaries of other leading loudmouths in the sports debate industry?

You can remove one zero and one comma from their annual wages.

That’s all the networks need to pay.

And maybe they’re finally starting to get it, with Fox Sports 1 cutting ties with Jason Whitlock, whose paltry ratings on “Speak For Yourself’’ spoke for themselves. Please don’t attach this breakup as an attack on black America in the violent aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, as some media dramatists might try. If anything, Fox is defending black America, given Whitlock’s provocative commentaries on race and politics.

Recently, with a take incendiary even by his standards, he accused LeBron James of exploiting Michael Jordan’s aversion to social activism after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, when James wrote, “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can’t even go for a damn jog man! Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!? ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!! I’m sorry Ahmaud(Rest In Paradise) and my prayers and blessings sent to the heavens above to your family.” James’ anger is justified today after another sickening episode of police brutality — and Whitlock’s position looks embarrassing. “This isn’t helpful. It’s twitter-trolling,’’ tweeted Whitlock, claiming James was grandstanding as Jordan was winning critical and ratings acclaim in “The Last Dance’’ documentary series. “It’s using this man’s tragedy to build a brand as more outspoken than Michael Jordan. There are all kinds of ways to draw attention to this tragedy. Suggesting that we are hunted everyday/every time is just s–t-stirring.”

LeBron James Says 'Blacks Are Hunted EVERY TIME We Go Outside ...

But trust me when I say Fox doesn’t care what comes from Whitlock’s mouth if the ratings justify his bluster. They didn’t, sometimes sinking to the level of Kansas City drive-time radio. Simply, the network bosses let his deal expire, realizing they didn’t have to hand him bigger money.

I have personal knowledge in this particular area. For eight years, I was the most-utilized regular panelist on ESPN’s “Around The Horn,’’ appearing on the vast majority of daily shows during the program’s high-popularity era. Every ratings period, a producer would report in our conference call that the numbers rose yet again, to the point a project once mocked as a “Pardon The Interruption’’ knockoff was approaching the commercial success of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Airing each weeknight at 5pm ET, ATH was responsible for generating lead-in momentum for PTI.

Damned if we weren’t about to pass the old men. At one point, we were creeping toward a million viewers daily, and while this was before cord-cutting and cord-nevers and Netflix and YouTube and various iterations of Facebook, our impact was staggering. I couldn’t walk down the street without someone asking if Woody Paige is really that goofy (he is). Charles Barkley, who often would rip me and Bayless on TNT, bought me beers in a Cleveland bar. I’d be standing in a terminal at O’Hare, waiting for a late afternoon flight, when someone would look at me, then at the TV above, and say, “If you’re that guy, how can you be standing here?’’ Some trashy websites no longer with us — R.I.H. (Rot In Hell) — would cover me like Justin Bieber. In Florence, we’d just finished walking 463 stairs to the top of the Duomo when a kid in a Ohio State jersey yelled, “Around The Horn!’’ When a panelist was involved in a court case that later was dropped, the New York Post headline read: “AROUND THE HORNY.’’ We were parodied by “Saturday Night Live.’’

Judge Judy had to be nervous. Montel Williams, too. Maybe even the local newscasts. Maybe even Ellen DeGeneres, though probably not.

TBT: As Around the Horn turns 15, a look back at the very first ...

And what was my biggest annual salary for a hit show that more than doubled Smith’s typical ratings on ESPN’s “First Take,’’ drew five times Bayless’s typical ratings on Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed’’ and safely can call itself the second-most-watched show — the numbers don’t lie — in the history of Embrace Debate programming?

About $300,000, not counting summer pay when subbing for Kornheiser beside the sacred PTI mugshot cutouts. With inflation, call it $500,000 by today’s rates. And I actually employed one of those Hollywood agents, a guy who ordered wild boar ragu on his pappardelle.

“Know how much money we’re making for ESPN?’’ I’d mumble under my breath every time a new title sponsor was introduced.

Stop before you accuse me of complaining. To this day, I’m grateful to have made the annual six-figure, one-comma salary long enough to put my kids through college and feed the dog. I would have done the show for free. But would someone explain what was happening in John Skipper’s head — perhaps I shouldn’t ask — when the former ESPN president went bankroll-bonkers on Stephen A.’s compensation? I’m all for people in sports media getting PAID, in a business that might not exist next week, but when only Tony Romo is making more than Smith in the all-time roll call of sportscasters, um, what the hell? A laughable travesty, Howard Cosell is venting somewhere. Bob Costas, the G.O.A.T. of his genre, was well worth his $7 million a year at NBC. Al Michaels and Joe Buck are worth their $6 million. Jim Nantz is worth his $5 million.

Why? Their audiences, for major events, are in the megamillions. They call the games that serve as gold and sustenance for their networks.

Stephen A.? He yells at Max Kellerman, who used to yell at me.

Bayless? He shouts down Shannon Sharpe, who seems oddly respectful of a guy whose ass I kicked when we were Chicago columnists.

Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless Are Pro Wrestlers, Not ...

But as an effective tag team on ESPN, Smith and Bayless became valuable when their urban-meets-Bible-belt act generated rare credible numbers in late mornings, a slot formerly surrendered to “SportsCenter’’ reruns. Fox Sports 1, trying to make a splash as a new player, chose to break up the Bristol band by throwing huge money at Bayless. ESPN had no choice but to appease Smith with epic money.

The model could be changing, though, at least at Fox. Bayless, whose lukewarm ratings also don’t justify his salary, might have to accept a sizable pay cut. Or, maybe FS1 abandons a debate element that hasn’t approached ESPN’s success in the twisting-and-shouting arena.

As someone who has engaged in past Twitter crossfire with Whitlock, I looked for a reaction on his feed. All I saw was this, from Sunday: “God’s design. One mouth. Two ears. Two eyes. We should all do 4 times as much listening and observing as talking. Don’t be afraid to reflect, acquire knowledge and listen to others with more wisdom. Social media compels us to speak even when we have little of substance to say.’’

Imagine, Whitlock with little to say about the world.

Maybe it’s because everyone stopped listening. And watching.

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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