Sports Hoards Virus Tests While America Waits In Line
With NBA boss Adam Silver having the most to gain — or lose — leagues are using tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests and unproven protocols at a time when hospitals are slammed and Americans are struggling to secure tests at overwhelmed sites.
We’ve entered the infection phase of this ill-advised, money-grabbing, Ghostbusters-like battle to resume sports amid a pandemic, as a familiar soundtrack hums ominously: “I ain’t afraid of no COVID.’’ I wasn’t shocked to hear from an agent friend confirming that one of his NBA players had tested positive for the coronavirus, which, I assumed, would prompt the league or the player’s team to immediately test the agent and any family members and friends who’d been in close contact.
I assumed wrongly.
“Those of us who have been around him haven’t been tested yet,’’ he texted Thursday, saying it was difficult “to get in anywhere’’ in a virus-pounded state.
A day passed. “Still haven’t been tested yet,’’ he wrote.
Another day passed. Finally, he decided to proceed urgently without the team’s help. “Pulled up to (a public testing site) and got lucky. 30-minute wait. (The team) was taking too long,’’ he wrote, adding that the player’s girlfriend and others also were tested and nervously awaiting results.
My thoughts turned to Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner. He’s the one league boss positioned to be remembered as a miracle-worker … or the madman who oversaw a colossal disaster in his Let’s Save Society Bubble at Disney World. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL and college football — whose seasons are imperiled by too much human interaction with the outside world — Silver has created an isolated environment that seemingly gives his league a chance to complete its postseason in early October. Yet already, before players arrive in the Orlando area, there is a crack in the plan, concurrent with a 65 percent rise in U.S. coronavirus cases over the last two weeks.
Why couldn’t the NBA or the team secure tests for an infected player’s inner circle? According to league protocol, a player who tests positive “will remain in self isolation until he satisfie(s) public health protocols for discontinuing isolation and has been cleared by a physician.’’ Understood. But what about loved ones, their health and the health of those with whom they’ve been in contact? It’s disturbing they had to wait days before finding their own pathway to tests, increasing their risk of spreading COVID-19 to others.
As it is, the $200 billion sports industry is hoarding medical resources — including tens of thousands of tests — as surges overwhelm hospitals, strain laboratories and force desperate test-seekers in hard-hit Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states to wait for hours in chaotic car lines, often to no avail. The ongoing fear is that the country’s health-care systems will implode, and, in an ideal world, sports would set aside its zeal to recoup lost fortunes and use its influence to help America get well. But hey, the commissioners keep telling us, the White House has urged sports to play on, never mind that some of those leagues — hello, NBA — have excoriated President Trump for years. For that matter, consider the protests of Texas Rangers employees who say they fear for their health — “We are terrified for our safety,’’ one told ESPN — and feel pressured to report to work at new Globe Life Field in an organization blitzed by the virus.
Those are glaring examples of how a fraught, delusional venture into the unknown represents a daunting whack-a-mole game for sports, a dam that could burst at any moment in coming weeks. In what feels like only Round 2 of a 15-round brawl, these houses of cards depend entirely on testing protocols that will determine whether seasons are miraculously finished or collapse in an avalanche of infections and spreads. Yet with preseason training set to begin, the NBA and MLB appear to be viewing coronavirus infections — which can cause victims to become violently ill or die; have the potential to spread wildly through teams, leagues and communities; and do particular damage statistically within Black America — as no less severe on a diagnosis scale than a sprained ankle.
Test positive, self-quarantine for at least seven days and no longer than 14 days, then return to your NBA team.
Test positive, self-quarantine, produce two negative tests at least 24 hours apart, show no symptoms for 72 hours, then return to your MLB club.
Suck it up, get your ass back out there and risk your life because — to paraphrase the immortal Mike Gundy — we need to run money through the leagues and broadcast networks.
Sports reflects a divided America, split politically and geographically about the dangers of the pandemic, with leagues bullrushing back to a desired new normalcy. Are the owners and commissioners any different than the Mask Truthers who create the cultural disconnect? “It appears America isn’t just dealing with a deadly strain of coronavirus — it’s also dealing with a deadly strain of stupidity,’’ said the social commentator, Trevor Noah. It’s still difficult to wrap my brain around the lunacy that baseball and basketball seasons are starting, soon to be joined by football camps, while infection numbers are exploding, states are backtracking on reopenings and people continue to die in large numbers.
In one corner, we have Malcolm Jenkins, the activist and NFL Players Association committeeman, speaking the truth: “Until we get to the point where we have protocols in place, and until we get to a place as a country where we all feel safe doing it, we have to understand that football is a nonessential business. And so we don’t need to do it. And so the risk has to be really eliminated before … I would feel comfortable with going back.” In the opposite corner is Tom Brady, idolized by millions as the greatest quarterback ever, recklessly disregarding virus-related orders in ravaged Florida by continuing to hold workouts in public settings with Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates. Apparently believing that his TB12 wellness plan is bigger than All Things COVID-19, Brady — now a month from his 43rd birthday — used Instagram to post a photo of himself drinking water beside a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’’
Tell that to the families of at least 123,000 dead Americans, who might want the NFL to call out Brady and another COVIDiot, Russell Wilson. It was good to see DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, strike first. “They’re not in the best interest of protecting our players heading into training camp, and I don’t think they are in the best interest of us getting through an entire season,” Smith told USA Today.
It’s one thing to test perilous waters, quite another to attack COVID-19 as some sort of heroic war mission. If so, the leagues are kamikaze pilots venturing into a harrowing air raid. Emboldened by business and athletic egos that have pushed them to become massive successes, the leaders of this resumption movement are striving to somehow be larger than the health crisis of our time, as if they’re action figures trying to take down Godzilla, King King and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They actually think they can pull off the historic upset, in the tradition of major sports upsets such as Miracle On Ice, which suggests their audacity to proceed with live games involves more than financial interests. Never mind that competitive integrity will be shredded. The traditional purpose of sports — crowning a champion — has been blown out by the overriding goal of finishing a season, making back lost money and conquering the virus.
In Silver’s case, legacy is largely at play. Aware that he was the first commissioner to shut down a league, after Rudy Gobert’s positive test on March 11, Silver and his messengers aren’t afraid to send a bold message: The NBA’s plan is too big to fail, which sounds much like, “I ain’t afraid of no COVID.’’ But when they say that, are they aware Gobert says he hasn’t fully recovered? The Utah Jazz center told the French sports publication L’Equipe, “The taste has returned, but the smell is still not 100 percent. I can smell the smells, but not from afar. I spoke to specialists, who told me that it could take up to a year.’’
A year, he said. How is that newsflash going to fly among teammates — including Donovan Mitchell, who still thinks he caught the virus from Gobert — and opposing players inside Silver’s Magic Kingdom? And how about rumors that LeBron James and Los Angeles Lakers players have been secretly scrimmaging at a billionaire’s Bel-Air mansion? If athletes can be so dismissive of a government quarantine, do we really expect hundreds of players and support staff members — most in the category of millennials and Gen Zers who don’t grasp COVID-19’s inherent seriousness — to faithfully stay in the bubble for weeks and months? Should I bring up abstinence, the implausibility of NBA players not having sex for extended periods? When family members are allowed in the bubble after the first playoff round, will they follow orders? And what about Disney employees, those who cook and clean and maintain the bubble, who currently aren’t required to test in the bubble? If this pipedream has any chance in hell of working, every detail must be airtight. Isn’t that impossible, when human behavior can’t be controlled?
I’m just being real. Silver prefers to think hopefully.
“We believe we’ve developed a safe and responsible way to restart the season,” he said on a media conference call. “We are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus. No options are risk-free right now. We can’t sit on the sidelines indefinitely. We must adapt. We’re coming back because sports matter in a society. They bring people together when we need it the most.”
His thoughts are echoed by MLB, which wrote this to union members in a 101-page operations manual concerning health and safety: “This is a challenging time, but we will meet the challenge by continuing to work together. Adherence to the health and safety protocols described in this manual will increase our likelihood of being successful. We hope that resuming baseball will, in its own small way, return a sense of normalcy and aid in recovery.”
Sports doesn’t matter to society any more than Hollywood matters, Broadway matters, music matters. So why have those entertainment industries shut down for the calendar year while sports marches on? Why have Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Guns N’ Roses and all other musical acts canceled 2020 events at new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles — where one construction worker died in a fall and 18 others have tested positive for COVID-19 — while two NFL exhibition games remain on schedule for Aug. 14-15? Because sports is powered by television and the assumption that game-starved fans will watch in record numbers, even in buildings without spectators, regardless of predictable obstacles: coronavirus victims, defections by athletes who decide they don’t trust the risks, injuries caused by long layoffs and short preseasons, and the lack of energy without fans whose importance to the live sports experience is taken for granted.
The anticipated TV ratings, backed by advertisers also anxious to energize their brands, is why the risks are worthwhile for leagues. Silver knows a crash is possible, which would leave a permanent stain on the league and how he is remembered. Already, several prominent players — Nikola Jokic, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick Jones Jr. — are among the most recent roll call of 16 who tested positive, meaning at least 30 players have been infected and probably many more. Which poses another problem: Will leagues be transparent about who tests positive during the season, such as if a superstar is infected? Face it, if James or Giannis Anteteokounmpo failed a test, it would create a public outcry to shut down the NBA. Same goes for the other leagues. Wouldn’t it be convenient for everyone involved — including ESPN, which has abandoned all pretenses of independent journalism concerning its business partners — to call the injury an ankle sprain? If so, Silver and other commissioners better be watchful of the gaming industry they’ve been eagerly courting. If you want gamblers to bet on games during a pandemic, you’d better be honest with them about COVID-19. Or else, you’re committing consumer fraud.
Privacy laws might protect leagues and teams when they decline to identify names. So they want fans to watch and gamble — and, technically, pay for TV sports packages — without knowing who has tested positive. Is that ethical? No. Said Andrew Friedman, baseball operations president of the Los Angeles Dodgers: “We’ve had some people in our organization test positive, none that have resulted in symptoms that have been problematic. It’s very much a personal thing that if any want to share, it’s up to them.”
It’s another reason to pause and wonder: Why are they doing this?
Allow the imagination to wander. Just as there are billions of reasons for leagues and networks to resume, there are billions of reasons why the plan might not succeed. At least Silver knows that, saying, “If we were to have significant spread of coronavirus throughout the community, that ultimately might lead us to stopping. We’re not saying full steam ahead no matter what happens, but we feel very comfortable right now with where we are. We’re working closely with the Players Association, Disney and public health officials in Florida as to what that line should be. It hasn’t been precisely designed. I think we want to get down on the ground and start to see how our test is working and how protocols are working, and then we’ll make decisions as we go.’’
When examining the four major sports leagues and college football, the NBA does have the best shot. There is no faith that MLB boss Rob Manfred, who has failed at labor talks and game pace and sign-stealing justice and pretty much everything else, will pull off a 60-game regular season and postseason without disruptions and an eventual crash. Tests are being administered only every other day, unlike the NBA’s every-day procedure, further jeopardizing players and support staff as virus carriers who will be in contact with family members after long days at local ballparks, not to mention road trips and hotels. Baseball players, by nature, are the least likely to abide by protocols. “What happens when we all get it?’’ tweeted Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brett Anderson, speaking for many.
The NFL has the advantage of a regular season that doesn’t begin until early September, allowing commissioner Roger Goodell to take notes and adapt. But football, as a collision sport played by sweating and breathing warriors, is the riskiest of all coronavirus challenges. “The NBA is a lot different than the NFL because they can actually quarantine all of their players or whoever is going to participate. We have over 2,000 players, even more coaches and staff. We can’t do that,” Jenkins said. “So we’ll end up being on this trust system, the honor system, where we just have to hope that guys are social distancing and things like that. And that puts all of us at risk, not only us as players and who’s in the building, but when you go home to your families. You know, I have parents that I don’t want to get sick.’’ In that vein, college football has zero chance as long as reckless young people jam into bars and spread the virus among themselves and fellow students, with an elite program, Clemson, shaming itself with 37 coronavirus cases. Hockey, like basketball and football, is defined by non-stop contact and in-your-face proximity, giving commissioner Gary Bettman time to study the NBA bubble. And golf? We’d have thought the one socially distanced sport would have few problems, but the COVID-19 dramas build by the day, with Brooks Koepka among players dropping out of the Travelers Championship after caddies tested positive.
“It’s pretty clear this virus isn’t going anywhere,’’ said PGA Tour boss Jay Monahan, warning of “serious repercussions’’ for those not obeying policies. That didn’t stop CBS analyst Nick Faldo, who should know better, from mocking Koepka’s absence. Faldo, ticked off about Koepka’s remark that golf announcers should “shut up and listen’’ in his opposition toward networks placing live microphones on players, said this on the broadcast: “I was looking forward to hearing some more fascinating stuff from him, but unfortunately he wasn’t around this week. I know he’s watching at home, because he loves listening to we analysts and our scintillating insights. He’s probably poolside in his thong, you know, enjoying himself.’’
No, that animal would be tennis king Novak Djokovic, throwing a dance party and infecting himself and others. Koepka actually was taking the responsible approach.
All of which makes me ask once more: Does someone have to die before sports is shut down? Actually, the baseball and football seasons could be canceled by one statewide order in, say California, where five MLB clubs and three NFL teams would have to scramble — to where? — to play home games. If governor Gavin Newsom was forced to close bars in Los Angeles County this past weekend, why would he open stadiums for even spectator-less games? The public health chief in Houston, Dr. David Persse, says he won’t hesitate to shut down Minute Maid Park, which would put the cheating Astros out of their misery. Here is where Silver has another edge: No way Florida governor Ron DeSantis, father of America’s second coronavirus wave, would cancel the NBA season.
Even when it reaches the point where he should, to save lives.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pac-12 Pushing Enhanced Access, Deion Sanders Reeks of Desperation
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Coach Prime if those game telecasts aren’t seen?
Getting experimental has drawn some attention to USFL and XFL broadcasts during each league’s seasons. The Pac-12 is apparently hoping the same approach will draw viewers to its football telecasts beginning this fall.
Last week, the conference announced that its broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Pac-12 Networks would feature enhanced access for viewers. Head coaches will be interviewed during games. Players and coaches will be mic’d up during pregame warm-ups. Cameras will have pregame and halftime access to team locker rooms. And handheld camera operators will be allowed to film parts of the field and game experience which were previously prohibited.
Those familiar with USFL and XFL telecasts will likely see some similarities to the greater access that those leagues allow their TV partners. Coaches are mic’d up on the sidelines, giving viewers insight into play calls and strategy. Players are interviewed during the game, providing near-instant reactions to success or failure. Cameras in the replay booth show how officials decide to either overturn or uphold calls on the field.
What the Pac-12 intends to do with its broadcasts won’t go as far as the USFL and XFL. Access to coaches and players is being expanded but will still have limits. The conference doesn’t have to demonstrate familiarity, credibility, and legitimacy to fans and media.
Spring pro football leagues are a tough sell to mainstream sports fans accustomed to college football and the NFL from September through January. Especially when the level of play is subpar and rosters are filled with unfamiliar names, the USFL and XFL have to give fans more reasons to watch.
USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are established national brands and regularly compete with the top teams in college football. Utah has played in the past two Rose Bowls, seen on millions of televisions during the New Year’s Day holiday. All five of those schools finished among the final AP Top 25 rankings of the 2022-23 season. USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.
Yet the Pac-12 is promoting the gimmick of enhanced access because it needs to attract positive fan and media attention. Right now, most of the headlines the conference is generating aren’t flattering.
Notably, the Pac-12 needs a new media rights deal. Losing two of its most prominent schools, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten in 2024 certainly isn’t helping with that. Rumors have persisted that Washington and Oregon could soon follow. Additionally, the Big 12 is reportedly eyeing Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah as possible expansion targets.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is left to tout Colorado’s new head coach, Deion Sanders, as a selling point in a new media rights deal. Never mind that Sanders hasn’t coached a game in Boulder yet. The Buffaloes are also coming off a 1-11 season and have won more than five games only once since 2007.
If Coach Prime is as successful as Colorado hopes, how likely is he to jump to a better program and stronger conference? And as mentioned in a previous paragraph, even if Sanders sticks around, Colorado could be poached by the Big 12. How much value would Coach Prime provide for the Pac-12 then?
ESPN’s deal with the conference expires in July 2024, shortly before USC and UCLA defect, and reportedly has no intention of renewing. (ESPN could still agree to a package of lower-tier games for late-night broadcast windows, but Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that doesn’t appear likely.) Fox’s agreement is up at the same time, though prospects of a renewal seem more optimistic. The network needs Pac-12 games to fill its college football Saturday inventory.
The options from there aren’t promising. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports that current speculation has USA Network, part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate, as a possible landing spot. According to The Athletic, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff believes that the conference’s next media rights deal will have a large streaming component with Amazon and Apple TV+ mentioned as potential partners.
A streaming partner might be good from a financial standpoint, helping produce some of the revenue that ESPN has cut off. But forcing fans to find your product and asking them to pay for another TV platform isn’t a good way to draw interest. It may well be a path to irrelevance and obscurity. That’s not going to compete with the Big Ten and SEC, or even the Big 12.
And as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, how can streaming be expected to save a conference like the Pac-12 when it isn’t even helping TV networks (or standalone providers) right now? Disney is losing money with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. NBCUniversal has lost billions on Peacock, as has CBS with Paramount+. Maybe the Pac-12 won’t care about that because it got paid. But there’s little chance for growth.
OK, Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly, Dan Lanning, and Kyle Whittingham could be interviewed during games. But they probably won’t say much interesting during a game. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. will be mic’d up during warm-ups. Maybe we’ll see coaches and players going crazy in the locker room at halftime. Just remember that Peyton Manning said most players only have time to use the bathroom and have a snack. There’s your compelling television.
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Deion Sanders if those game telecasts aren’t seen by large audiences? To say otherwise is desperate. That’s exactly where the Pac-12 is.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But
It was April 19, 1775 when the first shots of war were fired on battlefields in Lexington and Concord that would send shockwaves across the world. Some brave soul among a group of rebel farmers and blacksmiths, doctors and lawyers literally pulled the trigger on what would become known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Indeed, the world would never be the same.
The college athletics version of that event was June 11, 2010. On that day, regents at the University of Nebraska officially applied for Big Ten membership and were unanimously approved by the other eleven schools (if the number in the conference name not matching the number of schools in that conference is something that bothers you, this column may not be for you). From that day forward, we have never really exited the “expansion era”.
One conference that has gone largely untouched in that time is the ACC. Only Maryland has left the ACC since 2010, heading to the Big Ten, and the conference has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in that same window. That is significant when you consider only the SEC and Big Ten have avoided any departures in this era. Every other major conference has seen great turbulence while those three conferences have primarily seen only growth.
That trend may actually continue for the ACC and that may not be a net positive for the conference or the ACC members. This is thanks to the long term grant of rights deal the conference schools negotiated with ESPN. The grant of rights means ESPN holds the broadcast rights to all home games of the current ACC schools, and do so for the next 13 years.
When the deal was signed in 2016, the 20 year media rights deal seemed like a win for the ACC, creating stability in a time of great instability. Now, what seemed like a “must have purchase” may be the impulse buy that the league schools regret for decades.
Put simply, the ACC has been lapped in the media rights race by the Big Ten, SEC and even the Big 12. At best, the ACC schools are working at a $10-15 Million per year deficit when compared to Big 12 schools. At worst, they are operating at a much larger $30-$40 Million annual deficit when compared to Big Ten and SEC programs. It would be a battle of monumental proportions for the ACC to compete on the same level as those other conferences at that large of a disadvantage.
The conference’s options are slim. ESPN has a deal that is locked for 13 more years, what benefit would it be to them to renegotiate just so the ACC can compete? For instance, it would require $140 Million annually from ESPN just to place the ACC in the same financial neighborhood as the Big 12 Conference. What would be the benefit to ESPN in doing that?
The other option for ACC schools would be to bang the departure drum. Almost all legal analysts have painted a very grim picture for the schools that would be itching to leave. The exit fee is $120 million and may get the schools some nice parting gifts but does not give them their media rights. Their home game broadcast rights will still be a part of the ESPN deal with ACC. That greatly reduces a departing school’s value to any other conference.
Maybe ESPN is willing to broker a deal for a departing school if it is going to a conference, such as the SEC, that has a large rights deal with ESPN. If one of the schools desires a departure to the Big Ten, who has large deals with networks not named ESPN, one would have to think The Worldwide Leader would be in less of a deal-making mood.
Some league athletics directors, led by Florida State’s Michael Alford, are suggesting teams be incentivized for success. Breaking the code; rather than equal distribution, the power schools want a bigger share of the money. This is where Wake Forest points out that it is all they can do to exceed football expectations on their current stipend, what will become of them if that money shrinks? It seems that conferences and leagues that steer away from an equally shared revenue model have had a difficult time making that work long term.
Maybe the ACC teams that are ready to punch out could flash back to the period of time our country was in with the events we started this column remembering. They have a team in Boston, go throw some tea in the harbor and revolt, have a modern day Boston Tea Party. As it stands now, there are several ACC members that want to leave the party they are part of. Their only problem is they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.