Meet The Market Managers: Keith Williams, Good Karma Brands Chicago
“I think we just love being creative. It stands out and it does amazing things for our partners.”
Week 2 of Season 2! Today, the Meet the Market Managers series takes us to Chicago. My conversation with Keith Williams of Good Karma is an interesting one.
Keith is a lifer with GKB, having worked in multiple markets, leading multiple brands for the company. Part of working for Craig Karmazin’s group though is not being married to any ways of doing business. Even lifers aren’t allowed to lean on the idea that “this is how we’ve always done it.”
In our conversation, presented by our outstanding partners at Point-to-Point Marketing, Keith shares why that approach works for him, and why it was part of guiding his search for the station’s new Director of Content. We also talked about competition between Good Karma markets, how Mike Thomas left his mark on the station in a short time, and how to explain the changing media landscape to clients.
Demetri Ravanos: One of the first things you had to do in Chicago after taking the reigns of ESPN 1000 was hire a PD. That search was largely internal. What were you prioritizing as you were looking for a new leader on the programming side?
Keith Williams: Just having the vision to pivot quickly to create new opportunities for our team, for our sales and marketing teams, and increase the diversity of our hosts. Those were three things that we really talked about looking to expand. Yes, we had some good internal candidates. We had a few external as well. Danny (Zederman) is obviously who I went with and Ryan Maguire, who you know as he wrote for BSM, we found a spot for in Milwaukee so that he was still with Good Karma.
It was something that obviously my predecessor was very focused on, and he did amazing things with this radio station, moving some of the pieces around, adding Twitch and an app, and of course, the White Sox rights. I thought Danny could really help us get to that next level. He’s added a number of shows already, some specialty things and things specifically on the app. We’re having some fun.
DR: This is a really big stage. Market number three is a big one to step into for your first programming role. That said, Danny has spent a lot of time with that radio station during his career. You mentioned part of the way ESPN 1000 presented itself while under Mike Thomas’ leadership, so what was it about what Danny that made you say, “I don’t care that he doesn’t have the prior PD experience. He’s the guy!”?
KW: Well, first, he’s really creative. He’s an activator. I knew he was going to move quickly and get things done. He’s got a high capacity to work fast, to work smart, and he’s a really good communicator, and we need that. We need someone that can communicate the vision, the ideas for marketing, for our sales team, and obviously to set the vision for our content team.
We want to be fun. We want to be fast. Obviously, the Bears are always going to be the big team in town, but we also want to continue to bring that personal level of entertainment to our fans.
I think Danny has the ability, and his relationships here with the team, having pretty much worked with almost every single person. This was a great move for him to get the opportunity to prove himself.
DR: So as a new boss coming in, and immediately having to pick a leader of the programming side when you have multiple guys internally interested in the job, how do you go through the process and make sure to build relationships with the people that didn’t get the job? How did you show them that they still have a lot of value to you and the brand?
KW: That was important. I mean, everybody doesn’t have the exact skill set to manage, to lead and to work quickly and have the ability to communicate across departments. At the same time, everyone that did apply had unbelievable ideas on how to make us better, and we want people’s feedback. We’re not trying to shove things down everyone’s throat. It’s all about listening, communicating, and hearing everybody’s opinions.
We’re a small company. We can pivot on a dime and listen to people’s ideas and feedback and take it, run with it, and make a change. If it doesn’t work, we’ll switch back. So, that’s the beauty of it.
For the people that did apply internally, we took their feedback. We are involving them in the process and hearing their voices. We’re allowing them to help us, because they have a passion for this radio station and market, and deep relationships in the building. Danny and I are both all ears for every single idea that comes across our table.
DR: You mentioned that the company is still relatively small, particularly in terms of media operations. You’ve been with them for a long time across a number of markets in a variety of roles. I always wonder when I talk to people inside Good Karma, what are the standards that are expected across each market? Also, how does the company give the VP/Market Manager an opportunity to establish their own identity and do things their own way?
KW: Craig [Karmazin] gives us a ton of freedom. I do a one-on-one with him each week and I’ve got a list of things I’ll go over, and his usual question back to me is, “was this the right thing to do?” “Does it fit our core values?”.
We look at it like it’s our own business. We are in charge of the revenue. We’re in charge of the expenses and everything left over is cash flow profit that we can then invest in our own people and equipment. So it’s up to us to choose our own path within what Good Karma’s core values and culture are, right?
I think one of the things that I have prided my career on is my communication and follow-through. If I hear somebody wanting something, and maybe we don’t choose to go that direction or we do, we always try to explain the why and follow through. So really, listening to our teammates is key to the growth of how to make this place the best it can be.
DR: So what sort of information were you trying to gather to make the decision about whether Chicago was the right move for you or not? Was it as simple as “It’s bigger than Madison and I want a new challenge”? Or was there something specific you were looking for before you would say yes?
KW: I told Craig 20-something years ago when I joined the company, wherever you need me, I am willing to go. So I started off in Madison and had no knowledge of sales, marketing or radio. But I just worked hard and did things the right way, always figuring out a way to hit budget or overdeliver on whatever the key needs were.
Then he gave me an opportunity to run some radio stations in Janesville, which I did for about four or five years. He asked me then to join forces with Sam Pines, who is now running our ESPN LA property. Sam and I worked together in Cleveland for ten years.
I was ready to do something different. So we had the big picture conversation, and I was commuting for a period of time to D.C. and Baltimore, running our ESPN digital sales offices there. We redid the structure of the sales team and then Craig said, would you be willing to go back to Wisconsin? And I said, you know, if that’s where the team needs me, we’ll go. We completely rebuilt the team in my three years there, a year and a half of which, we were probably working from home during the pandemic.
Then when Mike left. It became an opportunity when Craig called and said, “would you be interested in this?”. I said I have to talk to my family first, obviously. My wife was super supportive and asked all the right questions.
This is my passion. I love being in a market. Yes, it’s a bigger market, but the principles are all the same. It’s about the people. It’s about doing the right thing for our partners, and giving our fans the opportunity to consume whatever content we’re putting out there on as many platforms as we possibly can.
DR: So let’s talk about the people and the partners, because that goes to a question about what happened earlier this month when you guys announced that Carmen and Jurko were moving back to noon to 2 pm. The guys on air mentioned that one of the things they liked is that it meant five days a week they’d get to interact with Waddle and Silvy.
I wonder, as somebody that is looking out for the entire brand, how can something as simple as a casual five or six-minute conversation between two shows, groups of guys that don’t normally have a chance to interact with each other on-air, how does that elevate a brand? Why is an element like that important for getting a station to the next level?
KW: I mean, we see it behind the scenes. Even just yesterday walking around the halls, those guys were talking and hanging out. So, it was a behind-the-scenes conversation, and our whole thing is “let’s bring it to the forefront”.
They have such good chemistry, all four of them. I don’t know if you’ve listened to their crosstalk, Unhinged. Not on the radio. It’s their podcast. Those guys really just absolutely love each other. They respect each other and they can poke and prod just like you do with your friends. I mean, it really is great camaraderie, so why not give it a chance to shine?
You could see some of the feedback on social media. People are really excited to hear that again. So we’re listening to our fans. We’re listening to our teammates. Danny made a great decision.
DR: The other side of that move is it puts Greeny back to 10 to noon. It’s interesting to me that as big of a market as Chicago is, the station is not an O&O for ESPN anymore. It seems from the outside that dropping Greeny for more local programing would make sense, but I know his show had solid ratings in that slot before and GKB has a strong partnership with ESPN Radio which is important. I guess I just wonder why it’s important to keep that connection to the network on air when fans prefer local.
KW: We want the connection. Obviously with ESPN, they are our biggest partner. Plus, you know, Greeny does have a Chicago connection.
Our vision with Danny is to get it as close to all-live as we possibly can, but we love Greeny. We are happy with what he’s doing for us. I know it’s not local, but it sounds local when there’s big news for the market because he has that Chicago background.
DR: I want to go back and combine two things we talked about earlier. You mentioned the idea that this is a small company and I want to tie that to what Mike Thomas accomplished while he was in your seat there.
He pulled off some really cool promotions. He gave away two cars to fans when the White Sox threw a no-hitter. He gave away multiple ad campaigns to local businesses. That sort of creativity and headline-grabbing nature of promotions seems to be standard across all of Good Karma’s properties. Can you take me behind the curtain a little bit here? Is there competition among the local market managers for who can pull off the biggest ideas like that?
KW: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. We want to one-up each other, for sure. Creativity sells, right? So I think the weirder, the more out there a promotion can be, within the legal guidelines, which are always interesting to figure out, the better.
I think we just love being creative. It stands out and it does amazing things for our partners. I mean, when we did that, Nissan No-Hitter, think of all the earned media exposure that Nissan got from that! And who knew that it was going to happen twice? It was just incredible!
Yes, we definitely have competition for ideas. Our teammates love talking about weird and fun promotions. Our partners love it because they get exposure beyond a radio spot schedule, and our fans like it too because they get to participate and win free stuff, especially when it’s a huge prize like a car. We’re always looking for that type of idea, so we have internal brainstorming meetings on how to do these things all the time.
DR: How do the partners and clients that have been with you for a long time view a promotion like giving away an ad campaign to another business during the pandemic?
KW: If you think about the partners that we have, some are big businesses, most of them probably are, and some are small. So when we were doing that particular promotion, it was in conjunction with First Midwest Bank, which is now going to be changing to Old National Bank. It was an opportunity for them, right? It was a chance to team up with us to give back to the community. So it was a true partnership. We explain that to our other partners. “Hey, this is something that we’re going to be executing for First Midwest Bank. We’re going to give light to a small business that’s deserving and may not be able to afford a radio schedule in Chicago, Illinois.”
DR: Chicago, in terms of being a radio market, is not Boston, where even if WEEI does good numbers, the trend right now is that The Sports Hub is going to come out on top. ESPN 1000 and The Score have gone back and forth over the years although The Score has had a better run in recent times. When you’re talking to, whether it’s the sales staff or clients, what is it you tell them about the unpredictability and volatility of radio ratings?
KW: I tell them radio sales and marketing, in my opinion, is all about listening to our partners and their needs, and solving their problems in the most creative and effective way that you can. A ratings point never bought a cheeseburger. Now, I’m definitely quoting one of our teammates on that.
It’s all about the idea and the relationship. Advertising is a real simple formula: audience, frequency and message. If you have all three of those and you’re truly listening to the partner’s objectives, whatever you end up coming up with is going to be the right idea for them, and it’s going to work. That’s why so many of our advertising partners have been with us for so long.
It’s not just in Chicago. That’s everywhere GKB is because we truly listen to what our partners need, and try to get their message out as many times as we can. Radio commercials, promotions, endorsements, appearances, events. Whatever that is, our goal is to sell more hamburgers or cars or windows the next day and the day after that. And you know, if we’re truly listening to people, then we have the ability to grow anyone’s business.
DR: I think, within the business, it is easy to explain and understand the problems with Nielsen ratings, because we all speak the same language and have the same background knowledge. When you’re talking to a business though, so many of them still put value in that number no matter how often you explain that it doesn’t tell the accurate story anymore because listening shifted or because there isn’t a large enough sample. What is that struggle like?
KW: It’s all about, are we going to move product, right? At the end of the day, if you have a million listeners and only ten are going to buy a car, that’s the ten that matter.
Our focus is just entirely different. It’s all about how do you help somebody’s business grow with our loyal audience that listens as often as they do for as long as they do. If your message is good enough, it’s going to stand out and it’s going to ring at the cash register.
DR: Chicago, in radio terms, is becoming more and more unique. You guys are still an AM market. You have a partnership with Hubbard that gives you an HD2 signal, but 1000, The Score, WBBM, WGN, all of the big talk properties, are still on the AM dial and finding success.
Could you see that changing as the generations spending money and leading the charge change? Do you have designs on someday seeing ESPN 1000 become ESPN one-hundred-point-whatever on the FM dial r are you comfortable with the position and habits of Chicago radio?
KW: We’re very comfortable with our position because I think our mobile app is one tap and you’re already into live programming. We have the ability to promote that and you’re right there. Obviously, with smart devices and smart cars and Twitch, there are plenty of ways to get the content.
If we can just continue to promote not only AM 1000, but the ease of the ESPN Chicago app, you can get content right at your fingertips with seriously, one tap on your phone. I don’t think it matters if you’re on an AM or FM. I would just say the more places you can be, the better.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
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.