Another year is just about in the books, and as usual, there were plenty of major stories across the sports media world. In case your finger isn’t on the pulse of this beat, you may have missed some of the biggest stories of the year. Here’s our recap of the top ten stories of the year, including one that just broke over the last week, in no particular order.
There is suddenly competition in the college football pregame show landscape
For the last three decades, the conversation about college football pregame shows started, ended, and largely consisted of talk about ESPN’s College GameDay, which premiered in 1987 and has been going on the road since 1993. There have been some efforts to counter-program GameDay over the years (most notably, Fox College Saturday, which was hosted by Erin Andrews and lasted all of a year on FS1 back in 2013), and the only ones that have arguably succeeded are the shows airing on the conference-specific networks, specifically BTN Tailgate and SEC Nation.
But this year, Fox announced they’d be debuting a new pregame show leading into the noon window of games, which the network would prioritize over the mid-afternoon window (dominated by the SEC on CBS) and the primetime windo (which usually features several marquee games on ESPN’s family of networks). Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff would be hosted by Rob Stone, and would feature four college football titans as analysts: Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Urban Meyer, and Brady Quinn. The pregame show got strong reviews out of the gate, continued to improve as the season went on, and became a legitimate alternative to GameDay (at least in the 11 AM hour). Fox also loved the spike in ratings for its noon window that came along with the success of Big Noon Kickoff, and by the end of the year, Fox was dominating the live window at noon and Kickoff was actually getting close to matching GameDay’s viewership in that 11 AM window (which even led to a silly PR battle, comparing the viewership of two pregame shows using completely different criteria).
Year two of the battle between GameDay and Kickoff will be interesting to watch, for several reasons. Will ESPN attempt to freshen up their flagship show after the challenge Fox provided? Will Fox be able to maintain their momentum from 2019 if Urban Meyer leaves to take an NFL job? Can Fox pivot if the Big Ten’s top teams don’t live up to expectations? If history repeats itself in 2020, GameDay remains stale, and Fox comes out of the gates with guns blazing, we could finally see GameDay knocked off its throne.
Sinclair Broadcast Group emerged as the victor in the bidding for the Fox Sports RSNs
The future of the Fox RSNs was up in the air for most of 2018 and the first half of 2019. Numerous suitors emerged, and numerous stories about the interest (or lack thereof) from various companies dripped out over the weeks and months leading into the bidding process. Finally, a logical victor emerged: Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of a wide variety of local broadcast stations across the country, along with the college-focused Stadium and Cubs’ new RSN, the Marquee (not Marquis. Never Marquis) Sports Network.
Nearly six months after Sinclair’s purchase was formally approved, we’ve yet to see what the next step is for the Fox RSNs, though in-game betting is rumored as an option for the networks’ live games. None have been rebranded. Graphics are the same. Changes to the daily, non-live event programming have yet to take place. Going into 2020, the future of these RSNs will continue to be a story. It’s easy to assume that the switches will be flicked by the time the baseball season starts in late March, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the most notable changes rolled out later in the summer.
NBA ratings have been a disappointment this year after several impressive seasons
The last NBA Finals matchup between LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors two summers ago really was the end of an era for the NBA. That series drew the lowest average viewership of the four matchups between the two teams, and would be a harbinger of things to come during the 2018-19 season. Ratings across the league fell on both the national and local levels, capped off with a Finals matchup between the Dubs and Raptors, which disappointed in America but shone north of the border.
Two months into the 2019-20 season, the ratings decline has not slowed down. A number of superstars, including (but not limited to) Curry, Kevin Durant, and #1 overall pick Zion Williamson, have been shelved this year, a major downside of a superstar-focused league. This has resulted in poor records for many of those teams, and as a result, poor viewership for the nationally televised games. Some in the league have blamed cord cutting, which seems like nothing more than a convenient scapegoat. The NBA also had to contend with waves of negative publicity regarding China in October, but it’s unclear whether that actually had an effect on ratings (given that uh, most of the people criticizing the NBA didn’t exactly seem to be regular viewers), casting a cloud over the league going into the start of the year.
Carriage disputes between providers and networks are on the uptick
Carriage disputes between networks and providers aren’t anything new. But this year, it really seems like we’ve seen more of them. And while a number of providers have gotten involved in disputes, two keep coming up over and over again – Dish and DirecTV. Dish has dropped local Fox affiliates and cable networks, and regional sports networks this year. They inked a long-term carriage deal with Fox, but the RSNs remain pulled from lineups.
DirecTV has had numerous battles with a variety of networks this year, including ESPN, CBS, and Sinclair’s local broadcast stations. It would be surprising if we saw carriers stop fighting tooth and nail with networks (especially those that bundle numerous channels together – looking at you, Disney) in an attempt to cut costs, but if subscribers end up walking away from their packages, will providers see the light?
ESPN’s marquee primetime broadcasts continue to disappoint viewers
For the second straight year, ESPN’s two signature primetime broadcasts have been punching bags for the internet. Year two of the Sunday Night Baseball experiment of Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza, and Alex Rodriguez continues to be reviled by baseball fans, despite the trio having a full season of games together under their collective belt coming into 2019. Then, there’s Monday Night Football. The Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland pairing dropped Jason Witten after the 2018 season, and even after a potentially clean slate, fans have not warmed to the new duo.
ESPN will be under more of a spotlight than its competitors due to the sheer size and history of the company, but it’s hard to remember a network whose top team for two sports has come under as much fire as ESPN over the last two years. ESPN’s public position on the teams is (of course) that they are satisfied with their performances, but just how long that will be the case is anyone’s best guess. After all, Fox eventually pulled Gus Johnson from soccer, ABC dumped Dennis Miller from the MNF booth, and CBS moved on from Billy Packer.
Sports Illustrated was sold to The Maven, which immediately turned it into a shell of itself
Another story that has been dragging on for quite awhile is the sale of Sports Illustrated, which was part of a bundle of magazines bought by Meredith back in 2017. Meredith was able to spin off a number of the other titles in its new portfolio, but had issues flipping SI. Eventually, the sale came, and the buyer was the Authentic Brands Group. But ABG didn’t want much to do with the day to day running of SI, and looked to sell off the publishing operations of the magazine. The buyer of those rights was a company called The Maven, run by Ross Levinsohn and Jim Heckman. Levinsohn and Heckman immediately went about turning SI into something straight outta 2002.
The Maven laid off a chunk of SI’s staff and began to focus on hiring team-specific “mavens,” who would write, edit, and create videos focusing on their team. That system ran into issues in December, when SI’s USC writer reported that Clay Helton would be fired. That report was disputed by newly hired SI reporter Pat Forde, and the writer eventually apologized and retracted his report. SI’s print operations have also dramatically shifted to just one issue per month, closing three weeks in advance (meaning that the stories included would be less time-sensitive). We all expected changes to SI this year, but nothing this extreme really crossed our radar.
Deadspin’s new ownership tried to take away part of what made Deadspin Deadspin, and it did not go well
I apologize for the excessive use of the word “Deadspin” in that title, but it was the best way to describe what happened to one of the internet’s original sports blogs. Deadspin and its fellow Gizmodo Media Group sites were sold to a private equity firm called Great Hill Partners earlier this year, and while all of the sites were effected to some degree, Splinter News and Deadspin were hit the hardest.
In August, Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell resigned after tensions with management insisted that the site be “laser focused” on sports. Management continued to meddle in the site’s day to day in late October, deleting a post about autoplay ads on the site. The next day, Barry Petchesky was fired, and the rest of the staff followed him out the door a day later. Less than a week later, G/O Media editorial director Paul Maidment (who much of the Deadspin staff clashed with) resigned, and lawsuits were filed against CEO Jim Spanfeller, alleging mistreatment of female executives. Spanfeller’s first meeting after the Deadspin mass resignation was a debacle, and the site has been content-free since November 4th (the day before Maidment got out of Dodge).
But hey, aside from all that, it’s been a great year for Deadspin!
More and more events are getting stuck behind a secondary paywall
The days of being able to just use your cable login to get access to extra content are over. These days, that extra content is getting stuck behind an extra paywall, one that non-cable subscribers can get behind. However, if you are a subscriber, you’re gonna need to shell out even more cash. This secondary paywall isn’t a new thing, but with last year’s launch of ESPN+, it’s becoming far more noticeable.
Fox has dumped extra soccer matches behind the Fox Soccer Match Pass for years, though that will become far less palatable once the Bundesliga heads to ESPN+. NBC has been doing the same thing with their NBC Sports Gold packages, made even more infuriating that they paywalled Premier League matches that once could be streamed with just a cable login. Many events that had been available (and admittedly, many that hadn’t) with a cable login through ESPN3 are now behind the ESPN+ paywall, and if you want to buy a UFC pay-per-view, you need to shell out for both an ESPN+ subscription and the cost of the PPV itself. Turner stuck the vast majority of its UEFA Champions League matches (and all but one of their UEFA Europa League matches) behind the B/R Live paywall. Even CBS is getting in on the act with their Champions League coverage in 2021, though we’re still light on the details there.
The worst part is that networks are realizing they can force subscribers to double dip, and they’re exploiting that realization to the fullest. If you’re an English soccer fan, you’ll need a cable subscription and subscriptions to at least two (three if you cheer for a top-seven side) streaming services to watch all of your team’s matches. If you cheer for a non-power conference college, you’d better believe that the bulk of their games will be paywalled. Enjoy pretty much any combat sport? You’d better prepare for a cable subscription and a subscription to a streaming service (though at this point, paying out the nose is old hat for fight fans). The biggest winners in the secondary paywall model are the networks. The biggest losers, naturally, are the fans.
The Athletic’s quest for domination of the sports world takes another massive step forward
2017 was the year where The Athletic started become a significant player in the national sports journalism landscape. 2018 saw further expansion and a sizable push into local markets. And in 2019, The Athletic expanded outside of North America with their widely successful UK, soccer-centric launch (with certain teams in other European countries getting coverage).
At our last update, The Athletic had a valuation of over $300 million, and had over half a million subscribers. In addition to its Premier League coverage, The Athletic has expanded into full-time coverage of the WNBA, NASCAR, MMA, and boxing, and has drastically expanded its lineup of podcasts. At this point, it’s reasonable to ask what the hell is next for The Athletic. If anything, 2020 would seem to be a year of maturity for the site: can the convert a huge chunk of those trial subscriptions to longer-term, higher-cost subscriptions? If so, further expansion is likely in the cards. If not, it could be a rough year and we might be talking about The Athletic taking a step back.
CBS and the SEC appear to be going their separate ways
The SEC on CBS has been college football’s premier package for more than 20 years. CBS wanted to retain the package (obviously), but have reportedly bowed out of negotiations after being blown out of the water with an offer from ESPN.
This story is only a week and a half old, so there haven’t been many stories that have sprung out of it yet, but it’s undoubtedly going to be a huge story going into 2020. Will ESPN take over the package, or will Fox trump their bid? What direction will CBS go in following the loss of the SEC? Will the Big 10 and Pac-12 also be able to cash in? This is what we’ll be keeping our eye on more than anything else in 2020.