Meet The Market Managers: Marsha Landess, Radio One Charlotte
“Sales may technically have the clients, but we are a revenue culture.”
If you want to get technical, it is 287 miles from the front door of Radio One’s headquarters on Julian Price Place in Charlotte to the company’s headquarters on Emerywood Parkway in Richmond. Marsha Landess doesn’t have the luxury of distance though. Neither cluster can ever be too far from her mind.
Landess leads both buildings as Radio One’s Regional Vice President. Her position in this industry is less unique than it used to be. A lot of companies ask market managers to add leadership of a second building to their duties. In order to do it successfully, she says you have to know which values are universal and which situations require their own unique solutions.
In the latest piece in our Meet the Market Managers series presented by Point-to-Point Marketing, Marsha Landess talks about how running a gospel station prepared her to run a sports station, what a revenue culture is, and why programming and sales candidates have to know and be ready to do more than ever before to be hireable.
Demetri Ravanos: I guess we’ll start in the obvious place. You run two very different markets in Richmond and Charlotte. Is there any philosophy or strategy you can carry from one to the other or because of the difference in size and the way they are growing and the makeup of the population, do both buildings kind of require their own bespoke management styles?
Marsha Landess: You would be surprised how similar they are. Really, for me, it’s about the people, the philosophy, and what we try to accomplish every day. So, I try to create a larger mission and instill that and then hire people that believe in that mission.
Obviously in Charlotte, I’ve got six radio stations and the Dog House, so it’s very different as it relates to everybody looking to merge our two cultures together when Radio One bought the iconic stations here that they did. But it’s all about the people.
We talk about this in all of our meetings. It’s creating great content on the air, which is entertaining and informative, we create great campaigns for our advertisers that bring them results, and we take care of our community. If we focus on those three pillars, the money will follow.
DR: You hit on two things that perfectly combine for my next question, which are the campaigns and the community. In both buildings, you have what would be defined as niche formats – gospel in Richmond and sports in Charlotte. Those are smaller, very dedicated audiences.
What is it that you would say to advertisers that may dismiss both of them or any format that might fall into that so-called passion category? What would you say to people that just, at the snap of a finger will say, “Oh, that’s not my audience”?
ML: Oh, my gosh! Passion is the keyword because the listeners in those two formats are so passionate about each of them. The time spent listening is longer. Actually, prior to having a sports station under my responsibility, I used to say that inspiration and gospel were the most responsive audience I’d ever worked with in all of my years of radio. They listened to the station, they listened to the on-air personalities, and they’re very, very loyal. It’s like hearing a friend tell them to go do something. I feel that about our urban formats all the way around very passionately. Honestly, I say that about all of my formats. That’s probably not a good answer for you.
But look those two formats, they’re not going to be ratings leaders. An agency may not come down about a cost per point on that radio station. But customer points don’t buy products, right? People buy products. And the people that listen to those two particular formats love their radio stations and they listen to what’s on them. And what I mean is THEY LISTEN! It’s not background noise to them. That means that the advertisers are getting results.
DR: In addition to WFNZ, you’ve got WBT in Charlotte. Sports and news seem like a natural pairing. So, I wonder if you have an expectation, or is there always a game plan that if a seller goes out and gets a client, particularly a local client for one station, you’re always thinking about how they work on getting that client on the other station, too?
ML: Whatever client we go to, we’re trying to really deliver the marketing campaign. So we look at all of our properties and we say, ‘Okay, who are they trying to reach, what are they trying to accomplish, and which of our brands is going to be best with them?’ I’m including digital and including our Dog House. So what’s going to get that client the result the quickest way that we can and most efficiently?
There’s absolutely no question that sports and news talk just merge beautifully together. But also, if someone is really trying to reach females, then we’ve got our music stations that compliment them really beautifully as well. So it really depends on the client and the age demographics that they’re trying to reach.
When endorsements come through, I think that’s the most powerful tool that we have. Especially on news talk and sports. We’re really trying to have a commitment to local and we do very well in endorsements with our local clients.
DR: Stereotype is probably the wrong word because it’s more of an old joke of radio. Especially if you go back to the eighties and nineties, it was always programming and sales butting heads – two different departments completely siloed off from one another with two very different goals. I would imagine that is not at all what you see inside of a building these days.
ML: No, and especially not with the clusters that I run. The department heads over the years that I’ve hired, that ability to work together is part of my interview process with them because we are one.
We all have listeners, we all have clients, and obviously, we live in our community. Sales may technically have the clients, but we are a revenue culture. Everybody in our building sells, and we sell our listeners as well. We’re not going to ask our programming department to give away something on the air that we know is not appealing to our listeners. That’s not a win-win for anybody.
Here’s a perfect example. We were asked to give away a jar of mayonnaise in Richmond. We had Hellman’s mayonnaise and they wanted us to give away jars of mayonnaise. I was like, “No one is going to drive to the radio station to pick up a jar of mayonnaise. We’re not going to ask programming to put it on the air, right? So what are we going to do?”
So, we tied it into a tailgate. NASCAR is very big in Richmond as it is in Charlotte. We tied it into a NASCAR campaign and gave away NASCAR tickets. So now all of a sudden, that became a prize around recipes, around the tailgate. That became something that people really wanted to get. It was much better for the client and much better for the listener.
We try to always work that way and our sales department and our programming department, in both markets, get along really, really well, because they all see the big vision. So yeah, I don’t think radio stations could operate like that anymore. It’s too tough out there.
DR: Explain that idea of being a revenue culture to me a little more. I’m guessing it is not as simple as “everything is for sale all the time”. There’s got to be a more detailed idea to it in your mind.
ML: Yes. Everything is definitely not for sale. I guess where I’m going with that is that our program directors recognize that it’s not sales’ clients. They’re in meetings with us. They’re brainstorming marketing campaigns. They’re generating ideas to help our clients. It’s not just about sales. We all want to win, and we know that if we do the right things together, it happens and it can be very magical.
Now, there are growing pains that go with that at times. Everything is not always for sale. And you know what? The sale is not always a good thing sometimes. I don’t want anyone to take money from a client that we don’t feel we can really help.
DR: I want to talk about the program directors themselves. You took the reins in Charlotte and after the first year passed you had to find new program directors for WFNZ and The Mix. Terry Foxx handled a lot there. So, I’m guessing you went through that knowing it’s going to be almost impossible to find a one-for-one replacement when he left. So what qualities did you see in Jeff Rickard that made you say, “This guy gets us, maybe not the one for one, but he gets us and where we want to go”?
ML: Jeff and I met in New York last March, actually, Jason and Terry introduced us at the BSM Summit. Also, Terry helped me find Neal Sharpe who is our new PD for Mix as well.
He was great as he knew my management style and the expectations I had for these positions. He helped in the transition with both Program Directors.
Anyway, Jeff and I sat down for an initial meeting and immediately clicked. He has a passion and knowledge for this format. He wants to win. He’s competitive. He’s a good leader. He cares about people, the product, and where he is. He meets with people. He goes out on sales calls. He just fits the philosophy.
I think when you meet people, you either know it or you don’t. So after that breakfast, we went to meetings and then we met for lunch and stayed for coffee. So he and I ended up spending a lot of time together.
It’s funny, I interview a lot of people for these positions in my history because it’s so important to have that chemistry between two people that really understand it, and he just did. It wasn’t something he faked. It genuinely is who he is and he has done a fantastic job for us and he’s hired great people.
We have very similar management styles and we don’t settle for mediocrity. Excellence is really my only standard. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to take time to get there. We have to have patience, but I want someone who wants to win because I’m really competitive.
DR: I don’t know that our industry has ever changed so much in as short a period of time as it has since, you have been in the role you are now, leading buildings. So, when you’re going through that process talking to potential sports program directors, are there things that now, or in 2022, that you needed to know that you never thought would be imperative to that job in the past?
ML: Well, no question the digital aspect. If we think that we’re just radio, we’re crazy, we’re audio and we have to be everywhere that our listeners are. I need someone that is just constantly learning and not set in their ways.
We’re different. It’s not just “Let me walk into a car dealership and talk to you about sports and you sign a contract”. It just doesn’t work that way anymore. We’re so much more evolved about being able to understand it’s not just what’s over the airwaves, but also what’s on our digital, mobile, everywhere. You have to be everywhere.
DR: You’ve been with Radio One for a long time. You have advanced through the company, so as you move from one position to another, eventually ending up as a regional vice president, what kind of management did you have to do with your personal relationships in the building to establish new normals with familiar people?
ML: It’s about integrity and honesty, doing the right things, working, and caring about the people you work with, and challenging them. I didn’t really start in sales and become their manager. I have done that at a different company, and that was interesting as well.
My belief is you always have to be the best you can be at the current role you are in and always looking and acting the role that you want. Take on more responsibilities, find a mentor, ask for advice, and shadow people. I was always very much a part of our budgeting process. And I include our manager in our budgeting process because I want them to learn how to do it. I want them to understand the big picture.
I love the company I work for. Cathy Hughes is our founder. The foundation of this company was built on community service. Alfred Liggins and David Kantor really make sure that we know the importance of that as well as being fiscally responsible as we’re doing it.
I guess I’ve been very lucky because I work my tail off. I really do. Running two markets is a challenge, but I have a really great team in those markets, and that’s the only way I can do it. So my goal is to train the next me, the person that can grow into my role so that we keep it going.
DR: I do want to talk a little bit about the Panthers because play-by-play rights are more expensive than they’ve ever been before. Can you tell me a little bit about the factors that you were considering when you decided what the limit was that you were willing to pay for those rights to retain them and those factors that got you to that point of deciding “We’re just not in this business anymore”?
ML: You know, with that I’m not going to release too much of the information just out of respect for them because we still work with them on Charlotte FC. Agreeing to the new terms of the Panthers’ rights deal was just not a sound business decision for WBT or our cluster at that time. We value our relationship with Tepper Sports Management and their team and not carrying the Panthers was purely a business decision.
DR: Obviously the economy is hard for anyone to get a handle on right now, and plenty has been written about what it means for ad dollars. What about for ad reps? What is it like trying to recruit sellers in 2023?
ML: It is hard to recruit sellers in 2023. I think, first of all, I feel like I’m repeating myself. It’s really not just sellers. You’re in marketing and you have to have someone that understands marketing, not just sales. And that’s different than it was way back when.
DR: Let me interrupt, because I think that that’s a very interesting thing. Does that mean, then, that the pool of people that would be viable for you in 2023 is smaller or does it mean that you are still viable if you can sell, but you need to come in with an understanding that the job is much bigger now?
ML: Yes, you’re still viable if you can sell, but you absolutely have to understand that the job is much bigger. And I think different people have different philosophies on this. Some people feel like if you can sell, you can sell anything. I don’t believe that.
I think you have to understand marketing and be able to sell at the same time. We have a really seasoned sales team in both markets and they really understand marketing and getting results for our clients. I have a newer AE in Richmond and she’s a rock star, but she had an advertising and marketing degree and so she understands how to go in and really help a person grow their business. She’s just doing amazing. I’ve hired someone else who had sales experience, but not marketing experience. We thought they were going to be fantastic, but it was just too much for them.
You go in thinking, “I have all these radio stations with all these different demographics, and then I have all these websites, and then we sell events, and then we do community service!” I mean, they can’t handle it. You have to get someone who moves fast, is really competitive, has a desire to keep growing, and is not afraid to pick up the phone and walk into a business and have a real business-to-business conversation. And that’s not everybody.
DR: Is that in large part getting harder to find?
ML: It’s getting much harder to find. Yes, it’s a challenge, I think, in our industry for sure.
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.