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A detailed look at the last year in sports media free agency

In the few years I’ve been closely following sports media (back to the olden days of AA 1.0 in 2006), I can’t remember a time when there were so many major talent shakeups.  In just over the past year, Gus Johnson, Erin Andrews, Michelle Beadle, Jim Rome, Darren Rovell, Bruce Feldman, and many others have traded places.  The past year has been like watching the famous NBA Summer of 2010 play out… except without Michelle Beadle holding a one hour primetime special to announce her move to NBC.  I’d have to think she’d at least handle it better than LeBron did… and include fancy hats.

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With all these moves taking place and Erin Andrews signing with Fox on the weekend, it’s time to reset and take stock of how each network (ESPN, CBS, NBC, Fox) has changed and the overall analysis in this season of transformation.  Let’s take a closer look at each network - who’s in, who’s out, and in some cases, who stayed.  (Keep in mind, this won’t be a complete list by any means, but the biggest names that have been in the news in the past year.  Also, it’s a shame the networks don’t make trades with one another because that woud disrupt the space-time continuum.)

Fox

Who’s In: Gus Johnson (CBS), Rob Stone (ESPN), Erin Andrews (ESPN)
Who’s Out: Nobody

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Analysis: Fox has certainly made the two glitziest moves in the past year - adding Gus Johnson and Erin Andrews to headline their college football coverage. Even though they don’t have a huge selection of must-see games, Fox is putting both feet back into college football game once again. The team of GuJo and Charles Davis was great last year, but they lacked relevant, important games until the Pac 12 and Big 10 title games rolled around. Furthermore, Gus was only used for 1 NFL game and has been off the Fox radar since the winter. With EA being touted for not just a new college studio show, but a role in MLB and NFL coverage, expect her to be right behind Joe Buck as one of the faces of Fox Sports throughout the year.

The much quieter move I’m as interested in is former AA Podcast guest Rob Stone. Fox shocked the world in winning the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The network desperately needed to improve on 2011’s Champions League Final abomination to show they can televise international soccer like adults and did a much better job with the tournament this year. Having a solid, full-time studio host is step one of that commitment. Adding your own announcers and more studio analysts are the next steps.

Fox has made the biggest acquisitions in the last year, and for good reason – their bench just isn’t that deep. Dick Stockton and Tim McCarver called a primetime MLB game together this weekend for cripes sake! Adding luminaries like Gus Johnson and Erin Andrews is a start, but Fox still has a long way to go across the board to rejuvenate their on-air stable.

CBS

Who’s In: Bruce Feldman (ESPN), Jim Rome (ESPN)
Who’s Out: Gus Johnson (Fox)

Analysis: CBS lost just a little bit of its soul when it let Gus Johnson walk to Fox. March Madness wasn’t quite the same without Gus, but the truth is CBS has perhaps the deepest rotation of play by play men in television. Just look at their NCAA Tournament lineup – Jim Nantz, Marv Albert, Kevin Harlan, Verne Lundquist, Ian Eagle, and Brian Anderson were the top six. You can add in Greg Gumbel on the NFL side, too. The loss of Gus Johnson hurt, but it hurt his fans more than CBS because he could never be the #1 guy there. Jim Nantz’s shadow is too large and there were too many places in the pecking order to try to climb.

Elsewhere, CBS was able to land Jim Rome to throw a bone to the fledgling CBS Sports Network. Although Rome is a big name and has been an afternoon institution for many years, his reported ratings at CBS Sports Network are abysmal. But it’s not Rome’s fault.  There are no games worth any value whatsoever on the network.  The only sports events scheduled for today on CBSSN are Army-Navy replays… and that’s it! ESPN Classic thinks that’s weak!

But where CBS has grown in the past year is online. The Free Bruce situation led to respected college football writer Bruce Feldman joining CBSSports.com, but he hasn’t been the only addition. Jeff Goodman and Brett McMurphy have also been stellar additions, with McMurphy owning realignment. In fact, CBS’s talent acquisitions in the online realm may be the most underrated of all the major networks.

NBC

Who’s In: Erik Kuselias (Golf Channel), Michelle Beadle (ESPN), Arlo White (Seattle Sounders), Hines Ward (Free Agent)
Who’s Out: Darren Rovell (ESPN)

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Analysis: NBC has been the much balleyhooed future challenger to ESPN, but they were unable to make any real talent or rights acquisitions since rebranding at the beginning of the year… until hiring Michelle Beadle. The NBC network is full of top talent – Costas, Michaels, Patrick, Collinsworth, and Mayock working football alone. Doc Emrick is the best play by play man in sports. Dan Hicks is very underrated at golf and as one of the voices you’ll hear most in London calling swimming. But NBC needed someone, anyone, to be one of the faces of NBC Sports Network. That person can very well be Michelle Beadle.

Beadle will be working for Access Hollywood and major events for the NBC mothership, but she’ll be an Olympic host for NBCSN. There has also been talk of a future show on the network for Beadle eventually. NBCSN has to start somewhere, and Beadle is it. (Similar to CBSSN and Jim Rome, although NBCSN is not just miles ahead, but astronomical units ahead of CBSSN at present time.)

NBC’s other moves have been hit and miss. Erik Kuselias’ recycling as NBC Sports Talk host was met with collective lamentations. On the flip side, Arlo White has been magisterial as the network’s MLS voice. He has that gift of making a game sound more important than it should be and sounds like he was born to call a football match. However, for NBC and NBCSN, it isn’t so much about talent as it is the games that talent will cover. MLS, the NHL, and Tour de France coverage can only take you so far. Once NBCSN is finally able to add some more in-demand live events, say MLB for example, then a real, viable plan can come together.

ESPN

Who’s In: Darren Rovell (NBC), Bill Polian (Free Agent), Jerry Rice (Free Agent), etc.
Who’s Out: Bruce Feldman (CBS), Brian Kenny (MLB Network), Dana Jacobson (free agent), Pat Forde (Yahoo), Amy K. Nelson (SB Nation), Michelle Beadle (NBC), Rob Stone (Fox), Erin Andrews (Fox)… Craig James (saving America), Sarah Phillips (Parts Unknown)
Who Stayed: Scott Van Pelt, John Buccigross

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Analysis: Is it safe to call it a mass exodus from Bristol in the past year?  The sheer amount of talented individuals to leave ESPN in the past year is staggering.  It would severely damage any one of the sports departments above, but let’s be real here, this is ESPN we’re talking about.  The worldwide leader.  They could lose a hundred talented individuals tomorrow and it’d be little more than a bb bouncing off Godzilla’s chest.

Ask yourself this, is ESPN going to be noticeably hurt by losing any one of those individuals?  Michelle Beadle made SportsNation, but now Charissa Thompson has arrived.  Even if that show fails, Colin Cowherd is widely reported to be getting his own show.  Erin Andrews gone?  Thanks for your service, but we have Jenn Brown on standby, and she’s just as popular in the 18-22 male demographic.  And so on.  What has hurt ESPN more than anything in the past year is valuing bluster and ego and ridiculous hyperbole (Berman/Bayless/Tebowmania) above quality and insight and putting viewers first.  Also, stupefying behavior in the entire Craig James situation and Free Bruce.  (In some cases, the network got better via addition by subtraction.)

With ESPN’s additions, way too many to contain above, only a few are memorable.  Honestly, you probably forgot ESPN added Jerry Rice to its NFL coverage because there is a battalion of NFL analysts at the network already.  What you will notice are the additions that bring something different, compelling, and interesting to the table – like former Colts GM Bill Polian.  For every six Jerry Rices, there is one Bill Polian that makes it all worthwhile.  And, love him or hate him, Darren Rovell is going to fit that Polian mold for the network because he brings a unique perspective and creates buzz.  (And as ESPN has more than proved in the past year, it values buzz and trends perhaps more than anything else.)

With all the shakeups at ESPN though, their best move was keeping one of their own – Scott Van Pelt. SVP’s brand has grown more than anyone in the media in the last year with his SportsCenter anchoring and popular radio show. His guest hosting spot on PTI Friday was met with near-unanimous approval on the web. Ultimately, he proved to be the least replaceable of all the individuals that left ESPN in the last year, and that’s why Bristol pulled the necessary strings to keep him.

In this last cycle, we learned plenty about ESPN. We learned their position at the top of the sports world is perhaps as entrenched and stronger than ever because they continue to thrive despite losing some of their biggest stars.  It’s unimaginable in the real sports world.  It’s like some sort of Reverse Yankees Effect.  Instead of signing the biggest stars from elsewhere because they have the most money, ESPN can allow their homegrown stars to leave because they know they can create new stars.  For ESPN, the talent that go through the Bristol turnstiles is just a brushstroke on the canvas of the worldwide leader in sports.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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