Sports, Media And Gambling: Where Is Congress?
Three mega-industries that should be ethically separated have jumped into business bed together, a devil’s triangle that should be addressed on Capitol Hill amid the likelihood of scandals and a lack of investigative watchdogs.
My friend covered the Detroit Pistons. He called me in distress one day, asking to borrow money. His gambling habit was so toxic, he said, that he’d broached the topic with Isiah Thomas, the team’s star player and a hard-ass not to be messed with. Aghast, I told him to make an appointment with the editor, beg for mercy and seek help for his problem if he wanted to save his writing career. He took my advice and moved on to a college beat.
This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.
The public relations director of the Chicago Bears, Bryan Harlan, was privy to inside information on a daily basis. He was fired after federal investigators found his phone number in a bookmaker’s records and concluded he had bet on NFL games, including those involving the Bears. His father, Bob, was president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers at the time, and his brother, Kevin, has been broadcasting NFL and NBA games for years. The feds also linked calls made to a bookie from team-assigned portable phones belonging to Ken Valdiserri, the Bears’ vice president of marketing and broadcasting, who claimed never to have called a bookie but that he often allowed — ready? — Bears players and Chicago media people to use his phones.
Said Paul Tagliabue, then the NFL commissioner: “Harlan acknowledged he violated our league policy on gambling. It’s the integrity of the game. When we have the kind of competition we have and competition that features integrity, we have to enforce it strictly.” The setback didn’t stop Harlan from becoming a sports agent — and to this day, according to his agency website, he represents “coaches at all levels of collegiate and professional football, as well as sports broadcasters at major outlets in Chicago and across the country.”
This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.
My colleague covered the Denver Broncos. During one of those Super Bowl losses that got ugly early, he began to pound the table where he was working in the main press box. He wasn’t doing so because he was a fan of the team. Days later, another Denver sportswriter, Teri Thompson, was busted by police in a bookie’s house with cocaine in her purse. Suddenly, it made more sense why her tone had been over-the-top savage in certain game columns.
This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.
My former radio boss, who had moved on to sales at a TV station, asked to borrow $3,000. He didn’t say why, but did I have to ask? Reluctantly, I gave him the money and issued a one-month deadline. Many months later, my attorney confronted him at their country club in Chicago’s northern suburbs, demanding the money be repaid in increments. Later, I discovered he’d made similar loan requests of another radio host and a producer.
This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.
I could go on. Instead, I choose to look ahead in mortified fear, wondering how many other scandals await — uglier, larger and of a more damaging scope — now that the $300 billion U.S. sports industry has opened the devil’s door to a gambling free-for-all. When the Supreme Court authorized states in 2018 to legalize sports wagering, the justices couldn’t have envisioned the immediate, untamed threat to the very integrity of which Tagliabue spoke. In one swoop, the NFL, the NBA and other leagues that long had viewed gambling as sinful and corrupt embraced the new financial possibilities, less concerned about game-fixing and inside-information-sharing amid their greedy, insidious money grabs. In the all-time hypocritical stinkbomb, Major League Baseball is all-in on gambling, too, even as Pete Rose remains banned for life. The NFL, which once routinely suspended players for gambling associations, now has a partnership with FanDuel and a stadium and future Super Bowls in Las Vegas.
The leagues have dirtied down, you see, striking deals with casinos and companies that include the omnipresent DraftKings, which has encountered issues with the law. And with furious, slobbering zeal, powerhouse media enterprises such as ESPN, Fox and Turner followed the money and jumped right into bed with their league partners, also inviting the gambling bigwigs onto the mattress for a mass wagering orgy. Next thing you knew, so-called journalists were leaving crumbling mainstream outlets for betting information sites while John Skipper, dumped as ESPN president after a cocaine scandal, was teaming with another deposed Bristol personality, the once-esteemed columnist Dan Le Batard, to form a media company that signed a lucrative sponsorship agreement with DraftKings.
Suddenly, sports is not sports anymore. It’s a gambling-centric feast that has reduced the actual result of a game — the sacred competition between athletes who are expected to remain honest and above-board — to a sidebar. The fact the Milwaukee Bucks might beat the Boston Celtics, 113-111, doesn’t mean as much anymore as the Celtics covering the point spread, or Jayson Tatum winning the prop bet. The sports industry has allowed this freak-show collaboration to create a tawdry alternate universe that, by and large, reduces a legitimate championship season to background noise.
All of which invites the likelihood of rampant manipulation of games — and an inability to investigate the wrongdoing because many elite reporters work for the very media companies that, directly or indirectly, are attached to the leagues and gambling initiatives. The leagues and odds shops say otherwise, claiming sophisticated monitoring apparatus is in place, but they’ve yet to explain any security plans in elaborate detail. It reminds me of Big Tobacco. In this case, the objective is to induce bettors — at least 15 million of whom are problem gamblers in America — to spend their money without any warning of consequences. The betting lines are nicotine, and cancer is diagnosed when people lose jobs and families and end up broke. Have the leagues, media and gambling companies at all considered the lives they’re putting at risk? Do they care that they’re contributing to the demise of society?
Nah. They’re too busy bidding up, cashing out and bastardizing the purity of athletic competition. Never mind that there are many more sports observers in America who don’t gamble — such as me — than those who do. Every sports visual, from a game broadcast to an ESPN “SportsCenter” update to a stadium advertisement, must include references to gambling. Inevitably, this alliance will lead to sweeping in-house scandals. The more prevalent gambling is, the more likely an athlete, coach or referee will be tempted to fix a game or a prop bet. What prevents a talk-show personality with a gambling-house relationship from devising a scheme, via an active athlete, to throw a point spread? What if the personality’s producers get wind and spread the word?
And we might never know it’s happening. That’s because too many former journalists already are on the payroll at gambling sites or eager to work for them. Ask DraftKings and FanDuel. Ask Barstool Sports. Ask Action Network and Vegas Stats & Information Network. They already view themselves as mainstream media companies, with FanDuel executive Mike Raffensperger telling Front Office Sports that he’s seeking to poach content creators from mainstream outlets. “We are looking to evaluate ways to improve our portfolio through pulling people into the fold,” he said. “We’re actively looking into the marketplace now. It is absolutely part of the strategy if we want to continue to grow the No. 1 sports book in the country.”
Meaning, the media people he hires must be gambling experts more than traditional sportswriters, as seen at VSiN and even The Athletic, which ask writers to break down games against spreads while ignoring the basics of who might win or lose a game. Just as Le Batard, while apparently maintaining his editorial freedom on political issues, will relinquish his journalistic values by reading relentless gambling spots during commercial breaks, as required by Skipper’s $50 million DraftKings deal. I’m still flummoxed by a recent remark by VSiN chairman Brian Musburger — whose famous sportscasting uncle, Brent, has sold out as a grinning front-man tout holding $100 bills on the company website — that legitimate journalists can be hired by gambling sites to dish inside info about athletes, teams and games to readers. My God, how poisonous could this Bermuda triangle become?
Uncle Brent and South Beach Dan used to investigate sports stories and break news. Now, they’re taking gambling fortunes and leaving themselves vulnerable to investigations. Clay Travis once had journalism in his blood, then opted to lean conservative even when his Nashville-based site, Outkick, was covering sports. Fox acquired his anti-woke site last week amid a flurry of media-meets-gambling transactions, with Fox executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch sounding thrilled to have found a brand aligned politically with Fox News. Travis has bigger ideas, writing of the gambling craze, “Over the past several months many companies put in bids to buy Outkick. That’s because our business is thriving, particularly our sports gambling business, where we are one of the largest affiliate sites in the country, signing up customers in all ten states where online gambling is legal. Sports gambling is poised to explode in the years ahead and I wanted to make sure whichever partner we picked fit our company’s direction.”
You could say sports is run by The Mob, a new sort of organized crime.
And if you think that’s an overstatement, just wait for the fallout. Congress is busy, but the last time it was asked to clean up a historic moral unraveling in sports — baseball’s steroids scandals — the 2005 hearings were successful in embarrassing the likes of Bud Selig, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, which led to the Mitchell Report and a cleansing of the game. Given the staggering amounts of money in this triad, the responsibility of sports as a public trust and the potential bilking of gamblers, damn right a committee should prepare another spectacle and grill Roger Goodell and other commissioners, ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro and broadcast executives and whoever represents the gambling companies. Could you imagine Dave Portnoy, the bad-boy face of Barstool, being interrogated on Capitol Hill?
We’ve already seen a naked conflict-of-interest on display at the NFL Draft. When the San Francisco 49ers played a guessing game with the No. 3 pick, I wondered if a week of indecision would spark a flurry of prop-bet activity. Of course, it did. Trey Lance, once a 15-1 underdog to be drafted third, improved to 3-1 on the morning of the draft and to a -180 favorite as the show began. Most of the action at No. 3 was bet on Mac Jones, and when FanDuel and other sportsbooks say the 49ers’ mystery produced the Draft’s highest betting numbers … how do we know the NFL, to appease its gambling partner, doesn’t encourage a team or two to inject doubt throughout the day and keep the casino cash flowing?
And what planet has Colin Cowherd relocated to? Among the national talk-show hosts now immersed in gambling, he revealed in March that Lance, a friend of Cowherd’s 20-year-old daughter, had been hanging out at the family home. That wasn’t an issue … until Cowherd contacted 49ers general manager John Lynch and suggested he draft Lance, the details of which were sent by Cowherd’s publicist to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio in an email titled, “Did Colin Cowherd help 49ers draft Trey Lance?”
Spilling the details on his podcast, Cowherd said, “So, long story short, I live in L.A. Trey Lance was working out in L.A. about three weeks ago for the draft. Ran into Trey Lance. Really, really impressed with him as a kid — good size, looks you in the eye, really humble, really thoughtful. And after meeting him, it’s funny. I sent a text to a couple of GMs that I thought may have the chance to get him, one of them John Lynch. So I text John, I said `Hey, I just met Trey Lance … I don’t know what you’re doing with the No. 3 pick, but totally impressed, so humble, what a great kid.’ And John’s like `Thanks, Colin!’
I don’t hear anything. Then after the third pick, I get a couple of fist bumps texted to me by John Lynch. So I know I had no influence, but nonetheless, it made me laugh. John’s a great guy and I actually think it’s the right pick.”
Problem No. 1: Cowherd, now a gambling-influenced host, texted an NFL executive with draft suggestions.
Problem No. 2: The same NFL executive texted fist-bump emojis to a gambling-influenced host after the pick, fully recalling his advice about Lance.
Problem No. 3: Cowherd’s team took credit for the pick, as if it was some valiant deed.
As one of the biggest names in sports media, Cowherd should steer clear of such conflicts. But in this emerging Wild Wild West climate, all semblance of independence is lost. Any reliable, self-governed watchdogs out there? ESPN, NBC, Fox, CBS, Turner — LOL, all bedfellows, forget it. Legacy media? The Boston Globe is owned by John Henry, who owns the Red Sox; the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, who wants to own an NFL franchise; the Los Angeles Times is owned by Patrick Soon-Shiong, a part-owner of the Lakers; the Wall Street Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose son acquired Outkick; and the New York Times reportedly is examining whether to invest in The Athletic, a struggling sports site that openly promotes a sports gambling component.
With nine of 10 sports media employees worried for their jobs these days, how many will follow the money and bail to gambling sites? How many league insiders, such as Adam Schefter and Jay Glazer, will bolt for bigger money now that the NFL is directly linked to gambling? Beat writers, columnists, editors — will everyone jump to the dark side and focus on over-unders? We’re just now emerging from the worst of the pandemic. People are desperate. Anticipate musical-chairs madness.
In that vein, how many more Bryan Harlans are out there, ready to exploit information? How many media professionals will use such information to bet themselves, recalling my Detroit, Chicago and Denver stories? You might ask, what’s the big deal about a media person gambling legally? Answer: It will skew his/her coverage of a game and taint objectivity, along with the prospect of becoming addicted. As for executives, Skipper once stood up to Goodell when ESPN broke exposes about concussions and rallied to the side of Colin Kaepernick. Now, they are partners in gambling smut.
More than ever, investigative reporters are needed to keep three mega-industries honest in their new sandbox. Unfortunately, most sleuths work for ESPN or other aforementioned outlets. So when a betting scandal happens, who will dare probe it and risk being railroaded from a job? Jeremy Schaap is too comfortable in his gig to pound on C-suite doors, preferring easier stories on mascots these days.
I am fortunate. I’ve made a great living as a columnist while battling editors who didn’t want me immersed in the Rose scandal in Cincinnati, or didn’t want me explaining to a Chicago audience why Michael Jordan’s gambling problem left him exposed to extortion. I usually found a way to get necessary columns into print and commentary onto radio airwaves.
Today, you’re reading one of the few industry sites that would publish this column. We are covering sports here, not trying to make bushels of money off sports. I used to appear regularly on “Around The Horn,” ESPN’s banter show. There’s a better chance now of ATH debating the color of Pitaro’s underwear than discussing the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies.
At least I still have my bullhorn, prepared for the oncoming shitstorms. In gambling parlance, I’m the longest of longshots, but I’m also the rarest of rarities. No one can call me a sellout.
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.