When companies make bold decisions in the sports world, they expect those decisions to work out well. Some have – think of Tony Romo’s success with CBS, or Turner joining up with CBS to win the rights to the NCAA Tournament, or even (if you want to go way back) Fox disrupting the market and acquiring NFL rights on Sundays. Others have worked out much worse – think about the glow puck, Dennis Miller and Tony Kornheiser in the Monday Night Football booth, and the ESPN Phone.
We could be seeing some other sports media busts rolling along right now, including the new Monday Night Football booth, Alex Rodriguez, game analyst, and Steve Nash, soccer analyst, among others.
Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen both hits and misses. Today, we’re going to focus on some of the more substantial whiffs by networks. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are a whole lot more we could have listed, but these are ten of the biggest sports media busts from the last decade.
Any Given Wednesday
I guess we’ll start off with a bang. Any Given Wednesday was Bill Simmons’ once a week sportsish show on HBO, airing on (for whatever reason) Wednesday. Simmons initially had a three-year deal with HBO, with 20 episodes of Any Given Wednesday greenlit for the first season. We gave the show’s premiere a somewhat positive review, but the ratings and reception for the show were never all that strong. The ratings issue was never really taken care of, the show was too Boston-focused, and there wasn’t much appeal for a fan who didn’t really care about Simmons’ column and podcast work. One of the final episodes of the show didn’t even crack 100,000 viewers, and Any Given Wednesday was axed after not even five months on the air.
In the aftermath of Any Given Wednesday’s cancellation, Simmons opined that he wished the show was monthly instead of weekly. He actually ended up getting a new deal with HBO, seemingly due in part to the great success of the Simmons-backed Andre the Giant documentary. But Any Given Wednesday was a complete disaster for Simmons and HBO, and will forever be a warning sign to those who try to break away from a major sports network to do their same old thing on a non-sports network.
Mike Carey, CBS rules analyst. Ah, those were the days. CBS hired Carey in the summer of 2014 as a counter to Mike Pereira and Gerry Austin. His debut with the network got off to a rough start and never really improved. Amazingly, CBS backed Carey at the end of his second season with the network by claiming that his analysis was correct more often than it was wrong only to part ways with him over the summer a few months later.
Carey’s legacy at CBS – Super Bowl prop bets on whether or not he’d make a wrong call. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus kinda sorta defending Carey in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. Carey only popping up once during that aforementioned Super Bowl. Carey was not cut out for TV at all, and when you compare his tenure at CBS to that of Gene Steratore (who was just hired over the summer, and no one has gotten up in arms about his performance), you can see how poor he really was and what a whiff his hiring was for CBS.
Once upon a time, Michelle Beadle worked for NBC. It sounds ridiculous right now, considering how entrenched she is at ESPN, but it’s true. Beadle joined NBC in 2012, and became the host of a show called The Crossover in January of 2013 with a guy named Dave Briggs, and…well, it didn’t go well from the beginning. There was minimal chemistry between Beadle and Briggs, leading to his ouster from the show in May, and the show was canceled in September of 2013, eight months after it premiered. A number of preemptions doomed the show, and soon after the cancellation, Beadle left NBC and headed back to ESPN.
Beadle lasted at NBC for about a year and a half, and she talked about how the situation at NBC had turned ugly for her. A fair chunk of that time was taken up by The Crossover, which never gained a significant foothold among viewers, wasn’t much of a critical success, and wasn’t thought of highly enough at NBC to be worked into the schedule when live events were eating up NBC’s airtime. Since returning to ESPN, Beadle hasn’t missed much of a beat, hosting SportsNation, Get Up (briefly), and NBA Countdown. Weirdly, Beadle was the final piece in a trade between NBC and ESPN along with Premier League highlights in exchange for Ryder Cup rights, something you really don’t hear about every day in the sports media world.
When you think of RSN failures, you think of CSN Houston. A brief history: the Astros and Rockets were partnered with Fox Sports Southwest, airing first on the Fox Sports Houston subfeed and then on the Fox Sports Houston RSN proper. Eventually, Fox Sports Houston was shuttered, and CSN Houston was launched with the Astros and Rockets as the network’s prime partners and attractions. That’s all well and good, but no major providers in the Houston area actually picked up CSN Houston (outside of Comcast, naturally), and the network was doomed from the start.
In the two years that CSN Houston was a thing, lowlight after lowlight followed. One September Astros-Angels game didn’t even draw 1,000 viewers. The network followed an involuntary bankruptcy petition after less than a year. The Astros didn’t get paid rights fees, and then accused Comcast of trying to screw them over. The Rockets sided with Comcast and against the Astros in the dispute. The current owner of the Astros sued the former owner of the Astros. The major cable systems in Houston declined to participate in a free trial. The Rockets eventually turned against Comcast, 75 employees got laid off, and a bankruptcy court finally approved the sale of CSN Houston to AT&T and DirecTV.
The network was rebranded as Root Sports Southwest (and now, AT&T SportsNet Southwest), and through the purchase by AT&T, gained carriage on both U-Verse and DirecTV. And that ended the saga of CSN Houston, one of the most hapless RSNs we’ve ever seen during its brief existence. It, along with the still-rocky launch of the Dodgers’ SportsNet LA, served as a warning to any teams looking to launch their own RSN in a crowded market.
ESPN 3D TV
3D TVs were going to be the next big thing in entertainment. But to the shock of many of the marketing geniuses at networks and manufacturers, consumers didn’t want to shell out thousands of dollars for new televisions *and* watch events wearing a stupid pair of glasses. Imagine that!
ESPN really tried to make 3D a thing, for whatever reason. They launched a 3D network in the summer of 2010 as part of their World Cup coverage, but it never gained much of a following. After about six months, they turned the 3D network from a live events only network into a normal (ish) 24/7 network. They also compared the rollout of 3D to the rollout of HD, which kinda/sorta makes some sense on paper. A year later, ESPN was still trying to make 3D TVs and 3D programming happen, even though costs of 3D TVs still hadn’t declined yet. Finally, in June of 2013, it was reported that ESPN 3D would be shuttered by the end of the year after three-plus years in service.
No viewing data for ESPN 3D was ever released, mainly because the carriage and audiences were so small that Nielsen couldn’t measure the network properly. ESPN wasted so much time, so many resources, and so much money on ESPN 3D, and it didn’t even manage to last one World Cup cycle. The SEC Network, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary in August, has already been around longer than ESPN 3D, and it feels like that just launched. Great job, everyone!
FS1’s original daily programming lineup
Say what you want about FS1’s extreme example of embracing debate – it’s had a lot more success than their weekday lineup at launch. The live programming actually didn’t start until 4 PM with Fox Soccer Daily, hosted by Julie Stewart-Binks. It was followed by NASCAR Race Hub (which is still airing on FS1, although in a different timeslot and expanded to an hour long), and the much-maligned Crowd Goes Wild (hosted by Regis Philbin and a host of others, including Katie Nolan). After that came an hour of Fox Football Daily (hosted by a number of the Fox NFL Sunday stalwarts), whatever live or magazine programming was lined up for that night, and then at 11 PM, Fox Sports Live, featuring Jay Onrait, Dan O’Toole, Charissa Thompson, and the (gulp) athlete panel.
It took a month for FS1 to implement changes. Fox Soccer Daily was pushed up to 3:30 and Race Hub was (wisely) expanded to an hour. Replays of live events were aired overnight instead of Fox Sports Live replays. Fox Soccer Daily vanished from the schedule at the turn of 2014. For whatever ridiculous reason, they then brought Mike Francesa in to simulcast his radio show during the weekday dead times (at least on non-Champions League days), and things got frosty between Francesa and FS1 within just a couple of months. In March, Fox Football Daily was canceled and replaced with America’s Pregame. At the end of April, Crowd Goes Wild was axed, in favor of expanding Francesa’s simulcast and pushing Race Hub back an hour. The Erin Andrews-hosted college football pregame show was axed after one season. After less than a year, all that was left from the original daily lineup was Race Hub (in a different time slot, with a different length) and Fox Sports Live.
And then, the debates came. Colin Cowherd arrived to replace Francesa as the radio simulcast of choice, leading to the Sports Pope being banished to FS2 before leaving Fox completely. America’s Pregame was canceled in September of 2015. Fox Sports Live was pulled off the air and eventually retooled at the beginning of 2016. Speak For Yourself essentially replaced it in June of 2016. Skip Bayless finally arrived at Fox in the fall of 2016 after a painful summer of speculation about what his future at the network would look like. Finally, Fox Sports Live was canceled for good at the beginning of 2017, and Onrait and O’Toole left the network.
A number of new shows have launched since then, including the long-rumored morning show (First Things First), the obligatory gambling show (Lock It In), and the interview show (Fair Game). For better or worse, FS1 has an identity now, which they really didn’t during that first year. There’s really nothing wrong with trying something different, but to completely move on in the way FS1 did after less than a year is somewhat jarring.
Gus Johnson, soccer announcer
In February of 2013, Fox made the decision that their voice of the 2018 World Cup in Russia would be Gus Johnson. The decision was not received very well. Fox had him call Champions League matches to get practice. That was also not received well, even though he wasn’t terrible in his debut. Fans were far less kind in May when he called a semifinal between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
In 2014, Fox went back to the well with Johnson. You’ll be shocked to learn that it didn’t go well. Fox passed on the chance to have Johnson call MLS games, and pulled him from soccer coverage in September of 2014, nearly four full years prior to the start of the World Cup he was supposed to be the lead announcer for.
Eventually, the baton was passed to lead MLS announcer John Strong, who has done a fine job for Fox (when compared to Johnson, at least). The network tried to re-invent the wheel with their soccer coverage, and fell completely flat. All they had to do was have a soccer announcer call their top soccer games, and no one really would have given too much of a shit. But they opened the door for criticism by throwing Johnson into the fire with little experience, and they got burned. At least they came to their senses in 2014 instead of 2017.
When Bob Knight retired from Texas Tech and joined ESPN, he was supposed to turn into one of the top college basketball analysts in the game. Shit, in his first year with the network, he was being teamed with guys like Brent Musburger, Dan Shulman, and Jay Bilas on ACC games. In his final year with ESPN, Knight was working AAC games with Mike Patrick and Len Elmore. That’s a pretty significant slide down the pecking order, and his 2015 departure didn’t come as much of a surprise (though his 2013 contract extension *did* come as a surprise).
What were the highlights of Knight’s time at ESPN? Well, he yelled at fans to sit down for blocking his view. He didn’t comment on the Mike Rice/Rutgers scandal (which probably would have been a disaster, but hey, whatever). He had no idea how the shot clock worked. And….that’s about it. Knight wasn’t the next Digger Phelps, Bill Raftery, or Dick Vitale – hell, he wasn’t even the next Steve Lavin.
Pivoting to video
In June of 2017, Fox Sports killed written content on their website. It was a short-sighted move that cost Fox the written work of several talented reporters and writers, most notably Bruce Feldman and Ken Rosenthal. Less than a month later, Jamie Horowitz was fired, yet Fox continued pushing forward with this “strategy“. In the aftermath of the pivot, Fox had egg on their face, especially when they began to ask reporters for raw audio from written articles…presumably to make videos. Three months after the pivot, Fox Sports’ website lost 88% of its viewership, and it still hasn’t rebounded.
Of course, they’re not the only ones who misread the market when it came to pivoting to video. Mic, Vocativ, and Vice were three other websites that pivoted to video, and all experienced similar stark drops in pageviews. ESPN and Baseball-Reference were just two of many outlets to take shots at the outlets who pivoted away from written content and towards video, while The Athletic continued to invest in written content – and also dipped their toe into video as a supplement to that written content.
But the real dagger for those outlets that pivoted to video came a couple of months ago. So many of these outlets pivoted based on Facebook video views, and according to a Wall Street Journal report, Facebook dramatically over-estimated those video views. Essentially, so many outlets pivoted to video and let go of writers based on a complete lie. Great job, everyone.
Ray Lewis retired from the NFL in 2013 after the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII triumph over the 49ers, but before the door had even finally closed on his playing career, rumors began to circulate about Lewis joining ESPN in the next phase of his career (including, hilariously, a no comment from ESPN in an ESPN.com story about Lewis joining ESPN). The hiring became official in March, and many (including myself) thought he would be a dynamite NFL analyst.
And oh boy, were we all ever wrong. Former teammate Joe Flacco admitted to laughing at Lewis’ pregame shenanigans. Trevor Pryce, another former Ravens teammate, ripped Lewis and called him self-serving. A third former teammate, Brendan Ayenbadejo, said all of the things about the Ray Rice saga that Lewis should have (and never really did). Public opinion began to shift on Lewis as an analyst (and his future in the role) after his disappointing response to the Rice incident, and despite remaining in a prominent role at ESPN, he was never able to make an impact as an analyst that people assumed he would.
Lewis left ESPN in the summer of 2016 after three NFL seasons with the network. A year later, he joined FS1 and Showtime’s Inside the NFL, but the prospect of him being a top-tier NFL analyst had long sailed away. He can’t even get a consistent spot on one of Fox’s *two* NFL pregame shows, just a couple of years after being a fixture on ESPN’s on-site and studio coverage. He’s been lapped as an analyst by Randy Moss (who joined FS1 the same year Lewis joined ESPN), Nate Burleson (who has shot up the pecking order at both CBS and NFL Network in just a few brief years), and Tony Romo (who was put in a prime position with CBS alongside Jim Nantz, and has thrived in that role), and Lewis’ stock was never higher than it was on his first day at ESPN. He was just never able to live up to those expectations.