Already three days into this new year and HUGE things are going on in the sports media world. To the untrained eye, there is nothing on the surface, but deep below major events are occuring as we speak. It’s subtle, but reading the tea leaves, the implications of this January may dramatically alter the sports media world for years to come. Below are some topics to keep an eye out for.
NHL Television Deal
Let’s start with hockey where NBC and Versus’ exclusive bargaining window with the NHL expires this month. Aided by HBO’s 24/7 coverage of both teams, the Winter Classic ratings reached new highs, despite having the game postponed due to weather.
The Washington Capitals’ 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins outdoors at the Steelers’ Heinz Field earned a 2.3 rating and 4 share on NBC. That’s a 10 percent increase from a 2.1/4 for last year’s overtime game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins at Fenway Park.
NBC said Monday it was the most-watched regular-season NHL game since a Flyers-Rangers match-up in 1975, when the population was much smaller.
No doubt the NHL is happy about this as they begin evaluating final pitches from Versus and NBC. It has been a constant debate: should the NHL make an effort to return to ESPN because it is missing the exposure and promotion the network can bring? Meanwhile, though, more people are watching hockey on Versus than ESPN was ever able to draw, and that’s with a more limited distribution of the channel.
The NHL’s resurgence is the reason that ESPN and potentially Fox are believed to be looking to make bids for those rights should Versus and Comcast not be able to consummate a deal. If the NHL does not extend their deal with NBC, Versus, or Comcast this month, they can still negotiate. However, at that point, the doors are opened for other bids. (click read more for stuff that’s going on)
Right now is crunch time for both parties. Versus and NBC helped nurse the NHL back to health after the lockout and have improved coverage over time. Both companies acquired the rights as independent companies back in 2005, but will be merging in 2011 pending regulatory approval (which may take place this month, as well). Many believe that Versus could be rebranded as NBC Sports and that synergy between the merged company could help bolster ratings.
For Versus/Comcast/NBC, retaining the NHL and extending the amount of coverage the league gets will be crucial. Versus has attempted for many years to work deals with MLB and the NFL, and still have aspirations on both fronts. Losing their first major league partner would be a huge step back for them and an impediment in the building of a true ESPN competitor something that a combined Comcast/NBC/Verus has the potential to accomplish.
ESPN already has the NBA and college basketball, but may see a great opportunity to land a first round knockout in the early rounds against their new number 1 contender.
Fox is desperate, but hockey might not fit. Still, though, with MLB ratings declining and their NFL coverage receiving a lot of criticism this year, it’s possible they’ll try to get involved–especially after a couple whiffs at acquiring college football rights. Fox is basically that really drunk guy around last call at the bar who is all alone and creeping everyone out.
Meanwhile, the Winter Classic and improved all around ratings have the NHL in a strong position. They also have some flexibility. Can they extend their work with HBO? Can they guarantee that the hottest matchup will be in the Winter Classic every year for their new television partners? Perhaps add another outdoor game or some other out-of-the-box idea?
I have no idea how the Lions and Cowboys became the default teams to play on Thanksgiving. At some point the NFL did it because it made some level of sense albeit at the cost of having to watch a half decade of Joey Harrington. [Ed. note: Here's the history]
With new arenas, a new generation of stars, a memorable Winter Olympics and, now, the Winter Classic validated again, their actions in the coming weeks/months will be the largest and biggest piece for them to reaching the U.S. mainstream audience.
That said, here is John Ourand’s best guess at what plays out.
If the NHL can actually navigate a deal that keeps them on NBC and Versus, as well as their own NHL network, AND ESPN… it would be the equivalent of hitting that elusive four-team parlay you keep trying for every week.
If Versus can hold the line, they’re still in good position to maybe add some NFL or MLB games in the near future. Definitely stay tuned….
Bowls are Boring and the BCS is BS
The new year brought in a lot of firsts for college football. The Big Ten shifted their bowl games to mostly New Year’s day, the Rose Bowl moved to cable, the ACC and Pac 10 were nowhere to be found on New Year’s day, and the Cotton Bowl retreated back away from its usual Jan 1/Jan 2 date to this Friday.
So far, none of this seems to have gone well. Seats have been empty (even for BCS bowls), ratings are down and schools have actually lost money by not being able to sell their ticket allotments. The Big Ten was throttled and it seems asinine to think that four of their New Year’s day games overlapped and likely split their audience. In fact, three of them were match-ups vs. SEC schools, so you really had the two most passionate fan bases scrambling to watch these games instead of having them staggered at different times or days.
A non-BCS team (TCU) finished undefeated while BCS’ers Uconn and Virginia Tech were crushed and we still have two BCS bowls to go, along with some other rogue bowls.
All this adds a whole hell lot of fuel to the now burning inferno of frustration at the BCS bowls. A four prong mess of bad games, bad ratings, bad scheduling, and poor attendance could be the economic indicator that turns the tide in this public debate. The Big Ten, one of the most vocal proponents of the BCS, may be rethinking their position, which would be a monumental shift in regards to overhauling the BCS and bowls.
If the Sugar Bowl and Championship games produce two other snoozers with poor ratings, you may actually see the discussion move away from unhappy fans and back to the NCAA and their member schools.
ESPN Facing Another Scandal
By now you’ve read about announcer Ron Franklin’s suspension also known as Exhibit 209 of ESPN’s Sexist Work Culture. I thought what was very telling was Brooks’ note about the punishment for Franklin.
From talking to ESPN sources today, I’m getting the indication that Franklin will not be further disciplined by the network.
I’ve been told that ESPN’s attitude about the situation though could change depending on how much negative media coverage Franklin’s comments to Edwards elicit.
Franklin is a second tier guy for ESPN and I think if he is apologetic and diplomatic he’ll likely be okay, but it’s certainly interesting that folks at ESPN think that punishment is now heavily influenced by public opinion. I think ESPN is also in the back of their mind thinking about the pending release of the book “Those Guys Have All the Fun”, which will shed a lot of light at some of the frat-like culture that allegedly purveys ESPN.
With so many scuzzy incidents for ESPN over the years, you have to wonder if they’re looking to get a bit more serious about their work culture as the release of the book nears. Franklin’s case could be a barometer going forward.
Gus Johnson the New Face of Big Ten Network
If you love college basketball and Gus Johnson then you’re missing out if you don’t have the Big Ten Network.
Yes, that screenshot says it all. Football is over and it seems the BTN has wisely pushed all-in with Johnson being the face of the network’s basketball coverage. This goes along with him doubling up the amount of games he’ll call this season and some cool web initiatives like this landing page which has Johnson’s best calls. Below is the full commercial:
The thing that sticks out here is that Johnson is having the red carpet rolled out for him by BTN while he’s still somewhat lower on the ladder at CBS, one of the only major networks without sports cable partners.
Fox has Fox Sports affiliates and might add sports to FX, ABC has the ESPN family of networks, and NBC will soon have Versus and the Comcast affiliates. If Johnson worked at any of those media companies, his employment would likely be exclusive to that media company.
Instead, he’s limited in the number of appearances he can do with CBS and is now hunkering down with the Big Ten Network, as I’m sure there are some competitive clauses that outline he can’t work with ESPN.
While Johnson’s popularity has skyrocketed the past couple of years, CBS seems content with keeping Johnson as their third string play-by-play guy for college basketball (behind Nantz and Lundquist) and 5/6th string for NFL games. Not exactly the red carpet, and with the BTN–which is 49% owned by Fox–showing the love, you have to wonder just how patient Johnson will be with his role at CBS. That’s something we’ll look to ask him know that he’s on our speed dial.
That said, keep an eye on BTN basketball ratings as well as any chatter from CBS on a plan to elevate Johnson.
What did Conan do when he felt a huge, digital savvy, young and enthusiastic audience embrace him while a network went with an old “safer” bet? He left and never looked back. Something to keep in the back of your mind.
Herbstreit and Pryor Feuding
Well, just about everyone in the announcing world has got their licks in on Ohio State for their current scandal. One thing to keep an eye on, though, is the war of words between ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit and Terrelle Pryor. The two have been going back and forth with comments at each other, and it’s possible that if neither can “be the bigger man,” you might see ESPN avoid having Herbstreit covering any Buckeye games next year.
Sounds ridiculous, but considering Herbstreit can’t even pick any game he is working as an announcer for College Gameday, there is a precedent of ESPN not wanting their game analysts working games in which a fan base feels slighted by the announcing team. This little feud seems to have got very personal and may in fact keep Herbstreit away from Columbus in 2011, although I’m sure ESPN would just schedule him elsewhere rather than acknowledging a rift.