2018 was another busy year in the sports media world. While some of the biggest stories from this year didn’t attract much coverage outside of the sports world, many of them were still quite important, and could shape the future of the industry for years to come. In no particular order, here are the top 18 sports media stories of 2018 (see what I did there?) and an explanation with some additional context for each.
Disney’s purchase and eventual sale of the Fox RSNs.
At the end of last year, rumors began to circle that the Fox Sports RSNs would be included in a sale of 21st Century Fox. Disney eventually ended up winning the bidding for the Fox assets, and it was initially expected that the Fox RSNs would somehow be folded into the ESPN sports portfolio, which would have been an absolute boon for the company.
But you know how this goes – Comcast eventually inserted itself into the bidding for the Fox assets, but eventually fell short. Anti-trust concerns then reared their head, and the news dropped that Disney would look to re-sell the Fox RSNs once the deal closed. This has led to a number of possible bidders getting involved, including Fox itself, a private equity firm that tried to bring LeBron James on board as a partner, the New York Yankees, Major League Baseball, Ice Cube, and Amazon, among many others.
The RSNs still haven’t been sold, and the first round of bidding seemed to be (to be blunt) a clusterfuck. A number of bidders that we thought would be involved weren’t actually involved (or so they claim). Private equity firms are still looming on the horizon. This story is probably going to roll deep into 2019 before it eventually reaches a conclusion, and fans could end up as the big losers here – especially if new in-market streaming deals don’t come to fruition before the start of the MLB season.
DAZN hiring John Skipper and pushing into the American landscape full-force.
Streaming service DAZN has entered the American market after largely focusing on international markets prior to this year, and they’ve attempted to plant their flag in an increasingly crowded field of subscription streaming services. DAZN went all-in on combat sports, agreeing to deals with Matchroom Boxing, Bellator MMA, and most notably, Canelo Alvarez, to the tune of a 13-fight, $325 million exclusive contract. DAZN also stuck its toe in the MLB waters with a streaming deal starting during the 2019 season, Furthermore, DAZN announced a number of significant hires for their coverage, including Brian Kenny, former ESPN president John Skipper, and in an adviser role, former Fox Sports president Jamie Horowitz.
Skipper’s hiring was the surprising one, and the ousted ESPN exec has pivoted into a very pro-streaming role with DAZN, just months after a very public and abrupt split from ESPN. Will he manage to grow DAZN in the States? It’s still unclear, as the biggest headlines regarding DAZN in the US revolve around its weird USA Today ad targeting President Trump earlier this month, their attempt to add Gennady Golovkin to their stable of athletes, and the addition of sponsored content and product placement to replace traditional advertising on their platform. DAZN’s story won’t be completed in 2019, but they’re going to need to add a few significant chapters to it this year if they don’t want to be left in the dust.
The continued expansion and growth of The Athletic.
I remember the days when The Athletic had only launched in like two or three markets. It was a simpler time, and we really didn’t obsess over every hire and every new market they entered…because they weren’t making a ton of new hires, and they weren’t entering many new markets! That’s gone out the window over the last two years, hiring new writers on seemingly a weekly basis and entering nearly every major market in the country. In the early part of this year, The Athletic moved to dominate MLB coverage, adding a number of beat writers and expanding into a trio of markets back in February. They proceeded to launch even more local sites before Spring Training, and hired a beat writer for two-thirds of MLB teams. Then another $20 million in funding came in (the latest in a long line of funding for sports media companies), more markets were broken into, the Boston market was finally opened up, and The Athletic’s surge looked like it would never stop.
Since then, The Athletic has moved into local and national college football coverage, domestic and international soccer coverage, even more American markets, and expanded their NBA coverage with the hires of Frank Isola and Shams Charania, among others. They even hired Jay Glazer for NFL coverage, which is something that would have seemed mindblowing two years ago.
But the latest round of funding (another $40 million) came with a nugget of information that caught many offguard – The Athletic would be using some of that $40 million to focus on creating original audio and video content. On the bright side, that doesn’t mean The Athletic is pivoting to video – their first video series was a collaboration with The Players Tribune, focusing on Gordon Hayward’s return from a knee injury, and the hire of veteran journalist Armen Keteyian also indicates that they’re looking for deeper content here rather than viral videos or listicles in video form.
What will 2019 hold for The Athletic? Well, given all of their hires in 2018, and all of the new markets they expanded into, one should probably not expect them to continue this hiring spree, at least for beat writer positions. If 2017 was about extreme growth following the rounds of layoffs at ESPN, and 2018 was about continued expansion, 2019 should probably be about retaining and growing The Athletic’s audience. The absolute worst thing for the company in 2019 would be if its subscriber base actually fell, or remained stagnant, in the face of all of these hires and investments.
The tumultuous launch of Get Up.
The “unnamed Mike Greenberg morning show” has been a running joke around these parts for awhile. The rumors about the show launching have percolated for over two years, finally becoming official at the beginning of last year with the breakup of Mike & Mike. A number of names were linked to the show, including Sage Steele, Katie Nolan, and Charissa Thompson before Michelle Beadle and Jalen Rose were tabbed as cohosts. (We’re still in 2017 here, folks). The show’s planned January 1st launch date was pushed back, and then the show was officially announced and called…Get Up.
This is when things get even more interesting, mainly because from day one, Get Up replaced the now-retooled and re-labeled SC6 (more on that later) as the favorite whipping boy of angry internet commenters. No one knew what the hell the show would look like – maybe it wouldn’t avoid politics, maybe it would. Initial promotional calls from ESPN gave off the narrative that Get Up would be a “woke” morning show, and criticism continued to mount, even after a thoroughly mixed review from us. The salaries of Greenberg, Rose, and Beadle were leaked just weeks before the show’s premiere, furthering the criticisms, especially in the face of early poor ratings.
Eventually, the narrative began to turn again, and it was a matter of “if” not “when” Get Up would be eliminated. Changes were promised for the show if ratings didn’t improve before football season (going into the summer, which seems…well, odd), and if the show failed, there would be ramifications for everyone involved. Eventually, Get Up did make changes – mainly in the form of guest hosts. Alex Rodriguez came in for a bit in June. Rotating guest hosts were rumored, and then confirmed as both rotating NFL and college football guest hosts heading into football season. Soon after, Michelle Beadle proclaimed her disgust with football, left the show for a more advanced role with ESPN’s NBA coverage, and the show was cut by an hour. Shockingly, with the shorter show airing and with football season in full effect, ratings for Get Up increased, and much of the furor disappeared…for now, at least.
What’s next for Get Up? Who in the hell knows? With ratings improving in the fall, pulling the plug on Get Up now after initial poor ratings would be an odd decision. Could they instead punt on Get Up in the spring when we hit a dead spot on the sports calendar? Sure, but two more hours of SportsCenter (or whatever the hell they would air in the mornings instead of Get Up) doesn’t seem like the best path to success in 2019. But I also don’t think anyone really thinks that Get Up is going to be a long-term building block for ESPN, and the end seems like it will eventually come sooner rather than later – but when that is will be anyone’s best guess.
Thursday Night Football jumping to Fox Sports.
The NFL’s third network partner finally got its taste of Thursday Night Football in 2018. Fox won the TNF contract with a five-year bid worth somewhere around $3 billion, and immediately started touting the importance of live sports (especially in the New Fox portfolio). Fox wanted a stronger schedule for TNF, sort of got it, and promoted the hell out of those matchups. Fox’s top NFL broadcast team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were eventually given the reins to TNF (despite rumblings about guys like Mike Tirico and Peyton Manning), and the streaming rights were eventually retained by Amazon, who named Andrea Kremer and Hannah Storm as the Prime-exclusive broadcasters.
As for the early returns, they’re strong for Fox. In the first week of TNF, Fox was the only network soaring in primetime, while later in the schedule, a disastrous rating for TNF still beat a handful of other live sports on the air in similar windows. In November, TNF drew its best overnight in two years, and a couple of weeks later, the Dallas Cowboys dragged TNF to its best overnight ever. Paying ten figures over five years is a substantial investment for a handful of games each year, but given the strong viewership those games drew for Fox, they’re not even close to regretting the investment – especially considering that those viewers are being siphoned away from CBS and NBC, two previous TNF partners.
Alex Rodriguez’s continued quest to revitalize his image.
For better or worse, Alex Rodriguez was everywhere in 2018 after shining in a role as an analyst for Fox Sports from 2015-17. A-Rod was named as a Sunday Night Baseball analyst on ESPN for the 2018 season, working with incumbent analyst Jessica Mendoza and newly-minted play by play broadcaster Matt Vasgersian. The trio started the year shakily, ended it disappointingly, and didn’t have many peaks in between.
But Sunday Night Baseball wasn’t all for A-Rod in 2018. ESPN announced he’d be hosting an interview show, and then quietly shifted it to 2019. A-Rod also guest hosted Get Up, “made peace” in a “heated argument” with Cubs manager Joe Maddon, got criticized by Lance Armstrong for being too likable, and hosted a sports business podcast with Big Cat of Barstool Sports. A-Rod was everywhere in 2018, and by the end of the year, some Rodriguez fatigue was starting to set in. A-Rod on a month of Postseason coverage and maybe one studio show a week is fine. A-Rod on Postseason coverage, a weekly game in the booth, daily studio shows, and podcasts, while also still staying in the news for incidents in the news related to his jobs (like the Maddon argument) is a bit much. There’s only so much of one ex-player that the world can take, no matter how appealing they may be.
The launch of B/R Live.
Turner finally got into the OTT streaming game in 2018 with the launch of B/R Live. The service was highlighted by UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches at launch, available on a per match basis in addition to the usual monthly subscription plans. This immediately drew criticism, because when Turner won the Champions League rights way back in February of 2017, their plans were still hazy and many were optimistic. That optimism quickly faded when Turner announced they’d be paywalling far more matches and airing far fewer matches than Fox had in recent years. The optimism took another hit when Steve Nash, the former NBA player, was named as a soccer analyst for Turner, and even called a game on-site in Barcelona with Stu Holden.
But any talk about B/R Live would not be complete without talking about THE MATCH, the $19.99 match play event between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson that was lampooned from the getgo. Turner went all-out with the event, including Charles Barkley and Samuel L. Jackson in the coverage and putting Ernie Johnson on the call. Of course, THE MATCH itself was a disaster – technical difficulties plagued the B/R Live stream from the start, and it was given away for free. Turner also dished out refunds to everyone that paid and couldn’t watch, and still talked about making the damn event a franchise going forward. On the bright side, the only way to go from here is up, but B/R Live failed miserably when airing its first marquee event. Combine that with the constant gripes about Champions League match selection, and you’ve got all the makings of a streaming service that is going to need to take a long hard look in the mirror in 2019.
NFL ratings spiking.
The fall seasons of 2016 and 2017 were dominated by one major narrative regarding the NFL, and that was slipping ratings and viewership. Plenty of reasons were thrown around – greed! The election! Peyton Manning’s retirement! Oversaturation! The ratings slip continued into 2017, and despite people who would be in a position to know calling the drops “immaterial,” those with both the NFL and the league’s broadcasters were concerned.
Then we moved into 2018, and…the NFL’s ratings are just fine, to the point where we don’t even bother to cover them with baited breath anymore. It’s become boring to discuss, as there are only so many ways to talk about the numerous green blocks on Paulsen’s NFL ratings page at Sports Media Watch. Yes, some windows each week are down, but the majority are up, including every window except the Christmas Eve Monday Night Football game this past weekend. The bleeding for the NFL has stopped, and the league is hoping that strong postseason viewership in January will kill the narrative dead for good.
WWE SmackDown heading to Fox.
WWE programming has been a staple of NBC Universal’s cable lineup for years. Minus a brief spell on TNN, Raw has been a fixture on USA since its launch in 1993. SmackDown currently makes its home on USA, but has been more of a migrant show, airing on a variety of networks including UPN and SyFy. But with more and more outlets valuing live content, and WWE still smarting after a disappointing rights deal with NBC last time around, there was reason to believe that one of WWE’s two signature properties would be on the move in the latest round of carriage negotiations. Sure enough, smoke began to build in February, when a handful of Fox execs were at SmackDown. A couple of months later, a report indicated that SmackDown would be leaving USA and Raw would be staying with NBC paying a whole lot more money to air the show.
Then, it became official – starting in the fall of 2019, SmackDown would be heading to Fox, with the network reportedly paying roughly $1 billion over five years. Furthermore, WWE is getting a weekly studio show on FS1, and the company could eventually decide to sell the digital rights to both Raw and SmackDown and bring in some more cash. Fox is essentially banking on WWE being able to replace UFC on its airwaves (which might be a challenge in terms of total hours of content, but shouldn’t be difficult in terms of overall viewership), and most of our staffers felt that the WWE rights were a better investment for Fox than the UFC rights.
Combine these two new rights deals with the surging WWE Network, and it’s no wonder that things are looking up for WWE compared to four years ago when their rights were last up for grabs.
Massive changes to Monday Night Football.
Monday Night Football this season has been, without question, a disaster. The new broadcast team of Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, Booger McFarland, and Lisa Salters just hasn’t clicked. A number of names were thrown around for the analyst role alongside Tessitore, including Peyton Manning, Louis Riddick, Brett Favre, Greg Olsen, and Kurt Warner, but the gig went to Witten, who retired from the Cowboys to take the job, and McFarland, who ESPN was so desperate to differentiate from other analysts that they put him in a damn crane on the field. ESPN also announced the creation of the “Genesis Halftime Show,” promising that it wouldn’t have commercial breaks (it did, but the first segment of the halftime show was longer) while also including musical performances (that were largely awful) and less talk of football than is expected during halftime of a football game.
Then, the booth debuted, and…holy shit, it was bad. It didn’t get better after a month or so. Witten wasn’t good. McFarland’s on-field crane was lambasted on a regular basis, and he was finally moved upstairs in the MNF finale on Monday because of poor weather. ESPN execs stubbornly backed the team. Our readers gave the MNF team the lowest score we’ve ever seen in any of our broadcaster rankings across any sport. But hey, aside from all of that…great year, gang!
The Zach Smith controversy and the questions that arose from it.
One of the major stories in the college football world this year came out of Ohio State, where former assistant coach Zach Smith was eventually fired when his ex-wife Courtney alleged that Urban Meyer knew about previous domestic violence incidents between the couple. AD Gene Smith did nothing at first while on vacation, before eventually being suspended (along with Meyer).
And then, shit started getting weird.
Brett McMurphy’s original report was widely praised (even though ESPN was widely criticized for ignoring it for hours), but later came under scrutiny. McMurphy himself made an appearance on ESPN (who laid him off back in 2017) to talk about the report. Smith went on ESPN to defend himself, and the mothers of both Zach and Courtney Smith alleged that Courtney’s allegations were part of a revenge plot. A small pro-Meyer rally took place at Ohio State, featuring people criticizing both McMurphy and ESPN, who hadn’t even employed him for more than a year at that point. The Ohio State report about the whole situation talked about Meyer deleting texts and suffering memory loss regarding the Smith incidents.
But wait, there’s more! Another McMurphy story about Ohio State was received far less favorably by the public, and further clouded the work he did with the first report. Smith continued to rant and rave on Twitter about anything and everyone, which led to Texas coach Tom Herman’s wife Michelle trolling Smith during a Saturday in November. Eventually, Meyer announced his retirement from Ohio State after the Rose Bowl, a return to the TV world was kicked around, and he was announced as the teacher of a “character and leadership” class at Ohio State.
Let’s quickly recap. The reputations of Zach Smith, Meyer, Gene Smith, and McMurphy have all been tarnished. Courtney Smith has had her life put under a microscope after her allegations, and her life will never be the same again. Stadium’s journalistic integrity has already taken a hit, which is not the best start for the company’s foray into journalism. This was simply an ugly situation for everyone involved, and is a prime example of just how messy things get when domestic violence is involved.
Mike Francesa’s return from retirement and launching of his app.
There are few topics that frustrate me more than Mike Francesa and his local radio show that receives far more attention than it warrants. Yet, Francesa was a major topic on this website in 2018 and there was plenty of interest in what he was doing this year. He retired at the end of 2017 after much praise and fanfare, and after less than three months away from the airwaves, he started chatting with CAA and The Athletic about a possible return. In April, the rumblings grew, and a return to long-time employer WFAN was rumored and eventually confirmed. Francesa was roundly trashed by his colleagues in the media, even more so when the news broke that he went over the head of his boss to get his job back.
His return coincided with the release of an app called Mike’s On, which was ludicrously priced at $8.99 a month. It took a little over a month for him to bail on his planned Yankees post-playoff game show, and he became very defensive over the app in the weeks following its launch. Francesa also dropped the possibility that he could soon leave WFAN in favor of focusing on his app, meaning we could be going through this whole stupid song and dance again. Throw in the usual moments of absurdity from Francesa, and that’s his year in a nutshell. Here’s hoping he buries his head in the sand in 2019 and we hear a lot less about him, but knowing how Mike Francesa operates, that won’t come close to happening.
SC6 getting dismantled and ESPN’s re-emphasis of the SportsCenter brand.
SC6 had many factors working against it from its launch in February of 2017, so it’s no surprise at all that the show was phased out in early 2018, first with Jemele Hill leaving the show to join The Undefeated in late January and then with Michael Smith departing from the show in early March. Smith admitted that both him and Hill felt frustrated and muted with their final months on the show, which led to the show going the way of the dodo. Hill eventually left ESPN in September and joined The Atlantic (not The Athletic, mind you) while Smith remained with the company and showed up on a variety of programming.
After the end of SC6, ESPN decided to take the 6 PM timeslot back to its roots. They eventually named Kevin Negandhi and Sage Steele as the hosts of the re-imagined, drab hour, pounded their chests over better ratings for a highlights show airing before primetime games started, inadvertently drove home a narrative that had been percolating online for quite awhile, and rolled out a new ad campaign that no one really seemed to enjoy at all.
The SportsCenter franchise also continued to turn the clock back in 2018 outside of the 6 PM timeslot, with the noon weekday SportsCenter returning (at the expense of SportsNation’s cancellation and High Noon being slashed to half an hour) and both Keith Olbermann and Chris Berman returning in limited capacities. Not coincidentally, Norby Williamson is also back in a position of significant power at ESPN (even in spite of reportedly celebrating when Hill opted to leave the show) and has been pushing for most of these changes in the first year of the Jimmy Pitaro regime.
Changes in the sports documentary landscape.
Most people who read this site know how we feel about sports documentaries. We can’t get enough. In 2018, the sports documentary landscape shifted, and we don’t know how to feel about it.
In April, ESPN announced that the entire 30 for 30 library would be housed on ESPN+, and that a number of future editions in the series would premiere exclusively on the service, including The Last Days of Knight. ESPN also dumped a six-part docuseries called Enhanced on ESPN+, but the flow of new editions of 30 for 30 had slowed to a historically low rate this year. ESPN (as expected) reaffirmed their commitment to the series and announced three more films (one of which would premiere in 2019, and one of which would premiere on ESPN+), but the year left us down on the future of 30 for 30 at ESPN, even with the announcement and trailer of a mammoth ten-part series about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Bulls, which we won’t see until 2020. This fall’s premiere of Basketball: A Love Story could serve as a warning for this Bulls doc, because while it gained critical acclaim, the 20 hour, 62 segment project seemingly fell under the radar on a national level because of the sheer scope of the coverage.
Meanwhile, other networks attempted to step up and fill the gap. Amazon rolled out All or Nothing series on Michigan football, the Dallas Cowboys, and Manchester City. Netflix produced plenty of sports content, including a Juventus documentary series. HBO finally released their long-awaited Andre the Giant doc, and it somehow exceeded expectations. The network also brought in the Zimbalist Brothers for a surfing history film called Momentum Generation, and announced a film about the life of Nick Buoniconti, coming in February.
2018 told us two things about sports documentaries – they are only growing and thriving, and ESPN is no longer the undisputed leader in the field.
LeBron James’ continued quest to be a media mogul.
LeBron James may have done more off the court than on the court in 2018. The first half of LeBron’s year was highlighted by yet another trip to the NBA Finals with the Cavaliers, and the second half was dominated by his decision to leave Cleveland for the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer.
Off the court, LeBron and his various business ventures were hard at work with plenty of projects this year, attempting to dominate the media world. LeBron and SpringHill Entertainment (his production company) decided to develop a House Party remake early in the year, and further news continued to roll out about Space Jam 2, which LeBron has been attached to for what seems like a few years at this point. James was thrust back into the spotlight before February was even up after Fox News talking head Laura Ingraham told him to “shut up and dribble.” That led to SpringHill’s creation of a docuseries called, of course, Shut Up and Dribble, with James being featured and Jemele Hill narrating.
LeBron also ran into some issues with a barbershop show. He got into copyright battle with Alabama, feuded with Nick Saban about the series, was sued by another barbershop, and after all that, the show debuted on HBO in August.
James also was tabbed as an executive producer on an HBO documentary about the NCAA called Student Athlete, another HBO doc about Muhammad Ali, and on a pilot about the life of Ben Simmons. He also has a WNBA-inspired drama in the works at NBC, and I think we’ve covered everything LeBron has done off the court this year. For the record, he’s fourth in the NBA with an average of 27.3 points per game this season, in case you wanted something sports-related up in here.
Jimmy Pitaro’s first year at ESPN.
Back in March, ESPN tabbed Jimmy Pitaro as its new president, replacing John Skipper. Pitaro’s first year (well, his first nine months) have been relatively low key so far, with most of the headlines about Pitaro dealing with him emphasizing that ESPN was not a political organization. Pitaro also stumped for the NFL and tried to repair ESPN’s relationship with the league, which many would consider a success because of the NFL’s decision to hand the broadcast TV rights to the NFL Draft to ABC next spring rather than Fox, which aired the Draft on broadcast television this year.
But overall, we don’t know much about Pitaro’s tenure so far. Following his appointment, we identified ten issues that would define his time as ESPN president. We’ve already covered a bunch of them earlier in this article (Fox RSNs, MNF, 6 PM SportsCenter), but some are more long-term (ESPN+, College Football Playoff, digital deals) and we’re going to need more time before the impact of Pitaro’s decisions, whatever they may be, come to light.
NBC’s changing of the guard.
It was a quiet year for NBC in 2018, so much so that their most significant moves came early in the year. Bob Costas stepped away from NBC’s Olympics coverage in 2018, and he was replaced by Mike Tirico as the lead host of the coverage from PyeongChang. Most of us expected Costas to play a part in NBC’s Super Bowl coverage this year, but he was absent, and later claimed it was a mutual decision based on “ambivalent feelings about football”. Later in the year, Costas and NBC went their separate ways.
But Costas wasn’t the only veteran NBC face to exit the airwaves this year. Dan Patrick stepped away from hosting Football Night in America, and eventually ended up taking over for Joe Buck as the host of DirecTV’s Undeniable. Patrick was replaced as FNIA host by Tirico, and Liam McHugh replaced Tirico as the on-site Sunday Night Football host. Given that Costas and Patrick have been two of NBC’s most recognizable faces for the last decade (and even longer, in the case of Costas), both of them departing in the span of a couple months comes as a pretty significant shock. Will Al Michaels or anyone else be following Costas and Patrick out of NBC in 2019, or have the high-profile departures at the network already ceased?
A rough MLB Postseason.
We end with the 2018 MLB Postseason, which was a disappointment for both Fox and Major League Baseball. Expectations for ratings and viewership were high, especially with a Red Sox-Yankees ALDS matchup and an eventual Red Sox-Dodgers World Series. But overall, ratings were a disappointment, the broadcasts were uninspiring, and the overall performance of many of the broadcasters turned off many fans. It just was not a good October for Major League Baseball, even with an awesome cameo by Bob Uecker in the NLCS.
What can baseball do to change turn things around? Well…that’s a tough question. Fox isn’t going to be getting rid of Joe Buck and John Smoltz any time soon, the World Series is staying on Fox for the next decade, and ESPN’s disappointing Sunday Night Baseball trio of Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza, and Alex Rodriguez will return for another year. I personally don’t think any of those three things are causes for a disappointing October, and that if the actual games were better this year, MLB, Fox, and Turner would be far more satisfied with their Postseason ratings. Furthermore, there weren’t that many great stories going into the playoffs this year – the Cubs and Astros broke their championship droughts in 2016 and 2017, the Dodgers won their first pennant since 1988 last year, and the Red Sox are no longer cursed (in case that’s your narrative of choice). What could the casual fan latch onto going into the LCS, aside from the small market Brewers?