ESPN Did An Amazing Job In An Impossible Situation
“While it seems counter intuitive to say that several of the commentators were ‘stars’ of this sporting event turned news event, they were.”
We always talk about going into a game broadcast prepared so that if something happens out of the ordinary, you are ready. There are exceptions to every rule. Case in point, January 2, 2023, in Cincinnati when the Bills and the Bengals met on Monday Night Football on ESPN. Late in the first quarter Bills player Damar Hamlin made what looked like a routine tackle. He got up from the hit and then collapsed. You could tell right away that something was seriously wrong by the way the players on the field reacted. The scene was eerie.
We found out later that first responders administered CPR. After what seemed like days, Hamlin was transported to the hospital in critical condition. This all played out in front of a stunned crowd and on national television. It was hard to watch.
You can’t possibly prepare for something like this. I wrote last year about my experience covering a Cubs/Cardinals game in 2002. Daryl Kile had passed away in his hotel room, we all knew, but his wife hadn’t been notified. We had to keep our pregame broadcast going with this unimaginable knowledge that we couldn’t share.
We didn’t speculate. We stuck to what we knew and did the best we could. It was emotional. I couldn’t help but think of his family and teammates. It sounds cold but we had a job to do.
As I wrote in June of 2021: There is no guidebook for how to broadcast under these circumstances. You have to rely on common sense and decency to get it done when it comes to tragedy. As much as athletes have a bit of celebrity to them, at the end of the day, they’re human beings with families, kids. When horrific injuries, or even death occur, remember that fact and treat the moment with the respect and dignity it deserves.
Monday night was that worst case scenario for a broadcaster. Every reporter, announcer and host were looking forward to this ‘match up of the year’ and then tragedy stuck. As I watched the events unfold, I was absolutely impressed with the way ESPN handled itself. The broadcasters at the stadium were shaken and it sounded that way. The sideline reporter Lisa Salters refused to speculate on what happened. That is commendable. The studio panel could not have handled things any better, from rushing to the set, to the off the cuff commentary.
I give ESPN producers a ton of credit. They could have easily used their ‘skycam’ to look in on the medical personnel administering CPR on Hamlin. They chose not to. Instead, there were poignant shots, of players openly weeping and praying, coaches, and fans that accurately captured the emotions of the situation. ESPN also chose not to show replays of the ‘hit’ once the gravity of the situation was realized. They didn’t go the route of sensationalism and I applaud that. After all, a man’s life was at stake.
The worst thing from the broadcast standpoint is, you just don’t know what is happening. In the 60 or so minutes from the time of Hamlin collapsing to the NFL postponing the game, information was scarce. In those moments of air time, I was struck by the tone that pretty much everyone that appeared on the air at ESPN used. It was somber, yet the professionals working at the highest level of their field, were just human beings, reporting on another human being. There was emotion in all of their voices and frankly who could blame them?
In the early moments after Hamlin collapsed, ESPN used sideline reporter Lisa Salters to set the scene as to what was happening on the field. She said that medical personnel were ‘working on’ Hamlin. It was later revealed by Joe Buck that in fact CPR was being performed. Pertinent information was being provided, while again not being intrusive in the moment. In those early minutes, Buck, not wanting to ramble on with speculative words, simply stated, “there is nothing more to say at this point.”
Buck after the game Monday night did a phone interview with the New York Post and said the whole thing was a ‘blur’ to him. Here’s how he was thinking in the moment.
“My natural instinct at that moment is not to talk,” Buck said on the phone to the Post. “That’s the last thing I want to do is to put my words to this serious situation. It’s very counterintuitive as the football play-by-play guy about somebody having CPR administered to him in the center of a stadium with 65,000 people in it and a national television audience. It’s just a weird place to be.
“I think being quiet is OK. Having it being reverent and quiet is OK because the stadium was stone cold quiet and the players were in utter shock.”
He made the right choice. Less was certainly more in this situation.
Now ESPN had a dilemma on its hands. This wasn’t the kind of thing that you could completely ‘cut away’ from. It wasn’t like a rain delay, where you could start showing highlights of the 1975 Super Bowl. They had to stick with it and make the best of this horrific situation. ESPN leaned on its studio crew and SportsCenter talent to bridge the gap when information was not flowing.
Suzie Kolber anchored the studio coverage along with former NFL player Booger McFarland and NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Kolber took command immediately. Providing a recap in a voice that mirrored the serious nature of what was going on in Cincinnati.
“The emotion that we’re experiencing tonight is really hard to describe,” Kolber said. “We cannot and will not speculate. What we do know is he needed CPR, and that in itself is terrifying.”
McFarland had a long playing career and has been covering the league for about 10 years. He was adamant that the NFL postpone the game, many minutes before it was actually done. He was compassionate, empathetic and emotional. The perspective he offered was spot on.
“Football is played as entertainment. I don’t think anybody is in the mood, nor the spirit to be entertained tonight. The only thing we’re concerned about is that young man, his family, what’s going on with him, making sure he’s OK. That’s it. We’ll figure out the football game at some other point in time … we’re done playing football tonight.” McFarland said seemingly fighting back tears. He then turned to what was really important in the moment, the player’s family.
“I’m sure he has family out there, hopefully the Bills and the doctors are communicating with the family. I can only imagine what my family would [be thinking]. They’d want updates of what’s going on, just to make sure in real-time. That’s somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s father. They want to know what’s going on.”
Kolber concluded one of the studio segments saying, “let’s candidly say, this is what we do for a living, is we sit here and have to discuss this and talk about it, it’s really tough. All we want, just like everyone in this world, is to know that Damar Hamlin is going to be okay. That’s it.”
While the game was only temporarily suspended, Salters was providing updates from the tunnels of the stadium. She learned that two head coaches talked outside the Bills’ locker room. Salters said the meeting between the coaches also involved the NFL in an effort to figure out how to proceed. She never stuttered, or waivered. No um’s, just straight forward information. That’s what the audience was craving at that point.
While it seems counter intuitive to say that several of the commentators were ‘stars’ of this sporting event turned news event, they were. That’s not taking anything away from the magnitude of what was going on. It’s simply to state that they took their reporting, commentating and emotions to another level, without providing too much opinion or speculation. I bring this up, because once the game was officially suspended, ESPN went to its SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt.
Van Pelt in so many words told the audience that his show would be dealing in facts and ‘what we know’. He showed great empathy toward Hamlin. Van Pelt did a great job of keeping the focus on Hamiln’s health. He brought in reaction from the social media world and also had both Buck and Aikman on, as well as Salters. Even though the information they provided wasn’t new, the way he asked for the updates was unique. It was less interview and more conversation, acting as a facilitator of information and a concerned colleague. He could sense the emotion and understood how to handle it.
Joining Van Pelt from time to time on set, was analyst Ryan Clark. He was really the only one uniquely qualified to talk about the situation, because he lived it. He offered up his own personal experience about how he almost died following a game in Denver in 2007.
The former NFL veteran, who was with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, suffered a splenic infarction because of a hereditary sickle cell anemia while at Mile High Stadium in Denver. After having his spleen and gall bladder removed, he missed the rest of the 2007 season before rejoining the Steelers in 2008.
Clark, who was visibly shaken when first on camera, wanted to make sure that everyone’s attention should be focused on Hamlin’s health.
“I think the first thing: This is about Damar Hamlin,” he said. “It’s about a young man at 24 years old that was living his dream. That, a few hours ago, was getting ready to play the biggest game of his NFL career. And there’s probably nowhere else in the world he wanted to be. And now, he fights for his life.”
Clark continued, explaining the situation with a tone that was fact based and firm.
“When Damar Hamlin falls to the turf, and when you see the medical staff rush to the field, and both teams are on the field, you realize this isn’t normal. You realize this isn’t just football.”
He knew how Hamiln’s teammates were feeling as well, from his own personal experience.
“I dealt with this before, and I watched my teammates, for days, come to my hospital bed and just cry. I had them call me and tell me that they didn’t think I was gonna make it. And now this team has to deal with that, and they have no answers.”
Clark then delivered a message to those fans that have become blinded by stats and outcomes of games. He perfectly humanized the situation.
“So, the next time that we get upset at our favorite fantasy player, or we’re upset that the guy on our team doesn’t make the play, and we’re saying he’s worthless and we’re saying ‘you get to make all this money,’ we should remember that these guys are putting their lives on the line to live this dream.”
Remember, there is no handbook for any of this. There is no way to know how long a delay might be. There is no way to prepare. In the moment, broadcasters have to put things into proper perspective. Understanding the gravity of what they are seeing. Realizing the human aspect. Relaying that information to the audience in a fact-based type of manner. There’s no room for speculation or rumor. Your viewers are depending on you. It’s a daunting task that can overwhelm some, through no fault of their own. You do the best you can. These are situations you don’t wish on anyone. But I think we can all learn a thing or two from the way these professionals handled a very tough moment, with class and dignity.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at Andy@Andy-Masur.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.