Sunday, May 28Welcome

NBA rights suitors, Bob Iger’s ESPN plans, the volleyball boom and more: Sports Media Mailbag, Part I

Welcome to the 34th Media Mailbag for The Athletic. Writing a mailbag — as egocentric as it is — is always a fun exercise. Thanks for sending in your questions via the website and app. There were nearly 100 questions, so this will be a two-parter. Part II will appear later this week.

Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.

How do you see the NBA media rights shaking out? Assuming ESPN and TNT remain rightsholders, is it safe to say that a package of regular-season games and early playoff games will be set aside for Apple or Amazon? Will NBC or CBS kick the tires on a broadcast/streaming package? Also, do you think that ESPN shifts some of its inventory to ESPN+, even if another streamer joins the fray? — Mike S.

I think your analysis here is very smart, Mike. First, the NBA is in a great leverage position. They have a ton of inventory and a popular game that appeals to a younger demo than many other top sports. If I’m guessing today, I think both ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports retain parts of the package — and I’d predict ESPN will get whatever the ‘A’ package is. WBDS should tread lightly — I think plenty of places would pick up their inventory if they are trying to negotiate the NBA down in price. I also think a streamer — either Apple or Amazon — will get some sort of NBA rights in the upcoming deal. Finally, yes, I do think NBC/Peacock will kick the tires and at least hold some talks with the NBA. Same with CBS and Fox.

Undoubtedly, ESPN will place significant inventory on ESPN+ and Warner Bros. Discovery Sports would do the same with HBO Max. I think the conference finals and NBA Finals are a lock to stay on linear cable and a network. But I could see some of the opening round of the playoffs make its way to a streamer in much the same way we have seen MLB games air on its own network. The NBA in-season tournament also offers the league some creativity when it comes to rights deals.

ESPN has made what looks like a decent-sized investment into covering the World Cup from Qatar, even though they’re not a rightsholder. They have a lot of English-language personnel on site, a set, daily on-location analysis broadcasts. Any insight on how they’re making this work? I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen overall (and it makes me long for the golden days of 2010/2014 with ESPN rights-holding.) — Emily H.

Global soccer is part of the company’s DNA. They also have a big desire to get the World Cup back should it come back up for market. ESPN has a lot of global soccer on ESPN+, and I think they see the sport as part of their editorial mission. It’s a smart investment to have people there, even if they are not a rightsholder.

Really enjoy your writing and podcast, Richard. Gus Johnson begins his call by saying, “It’s the Michigan Wolverines against the World Famous Ohio State Buckeyes.” Not the first time he has said this and I am sure he’d say he’s just kidding around by saying it. However, isn’t he opening himself up to criticism by appearing to show favoritism? Why put yourself in that position? Moreover, why aren’t the Fox production executives putting an end to it? With Urban Meyer on staff regardless of his inexcusable behavior, Fox really does appear to be The Ohio State Football network. — Adam V.

First, thanks for the nice words. This isn’t a big deal for me. Johnson is doing the game at Ohio Stadium and I think just having some fun. There is no doubt Fox Sports has a close relationship with Ohio State, but that’s to be expected given they have the Big Ten rights and are part owners of the Big Ten Network. They do a ton of games with Ohio State. I recently did a podcast with Chuck McDonald and Rich Dewey, who produce and direct the Gus broadcast, and you may find that interesting. As for Meyer, nothing has changed for me. I don’t believe a word he says outside of the segments where he explains plays or football concepts.

Hello there, who’s your favorite player ever in any sport? — Colin J.

That’s a tough one. It’s some combination of Pele, Guy Lafleur, Jimmy Connors, Maya Moore, Usain Bolt, Becky Lynch, and Pascal Siakam.

With NBC’s success with the Premier League, why do you think it didn’t bid on the Champions League rights? — Stuart D. 

Money. At some point, you have to prioritize what you will bid on, and NBC (as we now know) wanted to go in on the Big Ten. The Champions League deal ended up as a six-year deal worth $1.5 billion. That’s not cheap. If you asked, “Would I rather have the entire Premier League inventory or Champions League?” — that’s not even close. Same with a piece of the Big Ten.

What do you think of the practice of broadcasters calling a game from a studio without letting the audience know? I had to find out on Twitter midway through Fox Sports 1’s recent Iowa-Wisconsin football matchup that the announcers were in Los Angeles and immediately switched to the radio call of the game with an in-stadium crew, which made a world of difference in the analysis. — Chris B.

I didn’t see that broadcast, but a network should always let the audience know if their broadcasters are not on-site.

Can you update us on the success of Sinclair’s launch of its Bally Sports+ streaming service? — Robert K.

Our Daniel Kaplan had an update last week on Bally Sports’ subscriber losses and lower cash flow.

What are the Spanish-language numbers in the World Cup compared to the English-language broadcasts? Without a doubt, I prefer the Spanish-language broadcasts simply for the goal calls. Is there any thought (in the NFL) to Tuesday or Wednesday games? I have to think that a compelling matchup would own those nights as there are so many fans that eat and drink football. I am wondering what your thoughts are on what sport will grow the most in the next year. I see the potential for tremendous growth women’s sports, especially basketball and volleyball. — John R.

What are your thoughts on NCAA women’s volleyball as a televised sport? The matches are incredibly popular on conference stations (especially BTN), and more are showing up on FS1 and ESPNU. — Mari M.

Good Qs. This link from Twitter will give you all the World Cup viewership updates for Telemundo Deportes. I don’t think we will see Tuesday or Wednesday NFL games anytime soon, but we will see a Friday afternoon game next year on Black Friday. I like all of your picks for growth. I’ve been bullish on women’s softball and volleyball for some time and you are starting to see some immense viewership numbers. Plenty of room to grow as well for women’s college basketball. As for the men, I’d bet big on the major U.S. sports gaining popularity abroad.

Volleyball, in particular, is worth highlighting. The Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Bachman recently wrote a piece on how the sport is booming across America among women and girls. The viewership numbers on ESPN and Big Ten Network are really strong for a niche property. The athleticism for the sport is crazy good (see below). Women’s college volleyball has all the signs for a major growth play heading forward.

It appears that Joe Buck and Troy Aikman have finally — finally — stabilized the MNF booth. While I really like Steve Levy, Joe Buck is a tremendous (play-by-play) caller. Since they’ve worked together so long, he and Aikman are in complete sync. Is ESPN pleased with their investment? Are numbers showing any stability? And, what of the ManningCast? It appears to this regular viewer that they are kinda bored after an initial good first season? Is the end near? — Mark H.

I think the ESPN brass is very pleased. Buck and Aikman cost them a ton, but executives at ESPN believe they have an announcing booth that feels big — as subjective as that is. That also matters to the NFL. MNF viewership is flat versus last year. The games are averaging 13 million viewers including the Week 2 doubleheader. As for the ManningCast, keep in mind this is essentially additive viewing for ESPN. The company is happy to be in business with Peyton and Eli Manning. The second season of any alternative broadcast is always going to feel less special since you’ve seen it. The numbers are down a tick from last year but that was to be expected.

When I was younger — 1970s — CBS had a small NHL contract. The playoffs started live and then very likely were done on tape delay after the opening puck drop. At end of each game, you’d see Wyn Elliott giving a recap and player interviews, with the arena completely empty behind him. This is why I think it was tape delay. How viable would this be for American football games and certain other sports today? In this age of digital everything, you can just tell those arriving in person that the game will go with few stoppages, but you in stands do not get to see yourselves on live, TV, etc. Fans at home get told game will continue on slight tape delay since you at home do not have to sit through extended times of heat, cold, rain, snow, etc. What say you? — Wayne B.

Given how much companies pay for live sports, I don’t see anything like this happening. The power of sports is live. It’s the only piece of entertainment content today that can’t be saved for later due to the prospect of finding out the result. I think tape-delayed sports would have very little value.

Why do networks pay such big money for play-by-play and analysts? Do you think fans would actually tune in or out of a game because (of a particular announcer)? Seems highly unlikely to me. — Thomas T.

You get paid what the market dictates. Announcers have essentially no impact on viewership, but they have a massive impact on how a viewer processes the game. Networks want broadcasters who provide you with a positive experience so you will keep coming back to the product. There is certainly some corporate ego involved. For instance, I have no doubt ESPN executives were impacted by social media and other forms of commentary being critical of their “Monday Night Football” booth in the post-Mike Tirico/Jon Gruden era.

Some of your colleagues have suggested that Bob Iger retaking his role at Disney would have a significant impact on college sports, whereas other media insiders have posited that Iger’s return will have no impact outside of possibly a push for ESPN to create a standalone OTT service. What are your thoughts on this change and its impact on the sports world? — Dan K.

First, Iger has always had a long and prosperous relationship with ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro and will give Pitaro plenty of autonomy. Pitaro worked directly for Iger at Disney. They are very close. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, some first guesses: Iger will be helpful when it comes to ESPN’s desire for a long-term relationship with the NBA. Those rights are up after the 2024-25 season. The same with the upcoming CFP television deal and college sports rights. I think Iger goes big on CFP. Iger is all-in on streaming, so it could accelerate ESPN going faster on direct-to-consumer. With Iger, it is less likely ESPN is sold or spun off.

Why does Canada get to see the American broadcast of sports but Americans can’t see TSN or Sportsnet in the States? — Avi B.

The simple explanation is that American broadcasters (and leagues) want to protect the inventory they have. Those rights are worth millions/billions and American broadcasters want exclusivity for their distribution. You can see some TSN and SN broadcasts if you have packages such as Center Ice or League Pass and obviously with a VPN. On the reverse, U.S. programing is usually acquired either directly from the producing company or via a Canadian firm that represents (such as TSN for ESPN) and sells the program. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission also has limits on content airing on Canadian outlets that originate in the U.S.

With eventually three major college conferences renewing media rights deals this year, is there a reason why TNT didn’t get too involved with the bidding? I would think that a college basketball package or even some form of broadcasting Big Ten college hockey either on TNT itself or the WBD streaming platform fits in well with the other sports media rights that TNT has. — Dan K.

Pure guesswork by me, but any kind of in-season college package would be an outlier with WBD’s signature properties (NBA, MLB, NHL, U.S. soccer). I know they have a big part of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with CBS, but that’s really a special attraction for them. I think college properties are much more aligned with other companies (ESPN, Fox Sports, etc.).

The Ink Report

1. Telemundo, Universo, Peacock and Telemundo streaming platforms averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 2.07 million viewers over the 48 World Cup group stage matches. The network said that was up 5 percent versus 2018. Telemundo is the exclusive Spanish-language rightsholder to the World Cup in the U.S. The top five most-watched match windows for Telemundo:

1a. Fox Sports said Saturday morning’s U.S.-Netherlands knockout game averaged 12.966 million viewers. The match peaked at 16.368 million. The top-rated markets were Cincinnati, St. Louis, Washington D.C., Kansas City and Austin.

The previous game against Iran (on a Tuesday morning) averaged 12.013 million viewers and peaked at 15.6 million viewers. The top markets were Washington D.C., Providence, Boston, Baltimore and Kansas City.

Fox said the U.S. group stage matches averaged 11.710 million viewers on Fox and Fox Sports streaming. It’s the most-watched USMNT group stage in history for a World Cup on U.S. English-language television, but that’s to be expected given the pump of out-of-home metrics that started in 2020.

1b. Worth watching is this segment from ESPN “NFL Countdown” host Sam Ponder on the return of Deshaun Watson.

2. Episode 260 of the Sports Media Podcast features two guests. First up is Renee Paquette, who was recently hired by AEW (All Elite Wrestling) as a host, interviewer and producer. She also hosts her own podcast — “The Sessions with Renée Paquette” — and does video content for the Cincinnati Bengals. She is followed by Grant Wahl, the longtime soccer journalist who is covering the World Cup in Qatar. In this podcast, Paquette discusses how she ended up at AEW after her long run with WWE; what her responsibilities are at AEW; how she anticipates she’ll be used in the next few months and how that role will evolve; working as a producer at AEW; her fandom for the Bengals; the differences in how segments are done in AEW versus WWE; how she feels about any potential storyline with her husband, Jon Moxley; the importance of providing the audience with a visual response during interviews; the genius of Paul Heyman and Sami Zayn; what she hopes to accomplish with her podcast and how she chooses guests; maintaining friendships with WWE people, including Seth Rollins and Becky Lynch, and much more. Wahl discusses how his access has been during the World Cup; being stopped by Qatari officials for wearing a pride shirt; how much of Fox’s coverage he has seen; what he expects for the rest of the World Cup and more.

You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and more.

2a. Episode 259 of the Sports Media Podcast features a conversation with Tom Rinaldi, the Fox Sports reporter, host and producer who has had a busy travel schedule in November. In this podcast, Rinaldi discusses the 10-day stretch that saw him travel from Doha to New Jersey to Dallas to Columbus to Kansas City and then back to Qatar; covering the Cowboys-Giants Thanksgiving Day game; Michigan-Ohio State; Rams-Chiefs and U.S-Iran in a two-week stretch; how to prepare for so many different assignments; the access he has received from the U.S. men’s national team; profiling Tyler Adams and Harry Kane; Fox’s mandate on sticking to the pitch when it comes to covering this World Cup; what he will be doing for the final weeks of the World Cup; the prospect of being assigned a WWE event and more.

3. Ben Koo of Awful Announcing reported that longtime “College GameDay” staffer Chris Fallica will leave ESPN for Fox Sports. Fallica will focus on sports betting as well as college football. One Fox Sports source said look for him to appear on the Belmont Stakes coverage as well.

3a. The Amazon-owned Audible and Joy Road Entertainment have launched a new eight-part audio docu-series on the bizarre and inspirational history of the NFL called “The League.” The pod is narrated by Prime Video “Thursday Night Football” staffer Richard Sherman and features reporter Taylor Rooks. Here is one of the episodes.

3b. Episode 258 of the Sports Media Podcast features a roundtable sports media discussion with Boston Globe sports media writer Chad Finn and Sports Business Journal managing editor/digital Austin Karp. In this podcast, we discuss Fox’s World Cup coverage; the viewership totals for the World Cup so far; the NFL’s massive Thanksgiving Day ratings and what it means for future Thanksgiving games; next year’s Black Friday game; the Michigan-Ohio State viewership; Bob Iger replacing Bob Chapek at Disney and what happens if ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro left ESPN; this year’s ManningCast; what could replace Twitter for sports media; our thoughts on Kirk Herbstreit as an NFL analyst; Amazon’s viewership so far, why we love “Andor” and more.

4. Sports pieces of note:

• How Kia Nurse became the face of women’s basketball in Canada. By Dan Robson of The Athletic.

• The Washington Post’s “Black Out” series.

• NBA broadcasters and the search for the next great statistician: A love story. By Daniel Brown of The Athletic.

• World Cup villain Luis Suárez won’t get taste of knockout stage after rematch with Ghana goes sour. By Bruce Arthur of The Toronto Star.

• From a Vegas casino to a London pub — how Americans watched USA vs. Netherlands. By The Athletic Staff.

• How NASCAR Turned This Lakefront Community Into One of America’s Hottest Luxury Housing Markets. By Libertina Brandt and Katherine Clarke of The Wall Street Journal.

• Adweek’s Rafael Canton examined the Drew Brees lightning marketing stunt.

The Athletic’s Stephen J. Nesbitt profiled ESPN “Around The Horn” host Tony Reali.

• Deshaun Watson’s Return Is Met With Boos, and a Win. By Jenny Vrentas of The New York Times.

• Life, Death, and Total Football. By Rosecrans Baldwin for GQ.

• Via Meg Linehan of The Athletic: Rhian Wilkinson resigns from Portland Thorns amidst concerns over player relationship cleared by investigation.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• We looked at 1,200 possibilities for the planet’s future. These are our best hope. By Chris Mooney, Naema Ahmed and John Muskens of The Washington Post.

• Decades of abuse, then years in prison: Inside Helen Naslund’s fight for her life — and justice. By Jana Pruden of The Globe and Mail.

• Elon Musk’s ‘Twitter Files’ ignite divisions, but haven’t changed minds. By Cat Zakrzewski and Faiz Siddiqui of The Washington Post.

• When Visiting Michelangelo’s David, She Brings a Duster. Elisabetta Povoledo of The New York Times.

• Why were three Afghan women brutally murdered at the edge of Europe? A journey from Mazar-i-Sharif to Istanbul to Athens in search of answers. By Sarah Souli of The Atavist.

• Hate Speech’s Rise on Twitter Is Unprecedented, Researchers Find. By Sheera Frenkel and Kate Conger of The New York Times.

• How Ukrainians cope without electricity. By The Economist.

(Photo of Stephen Curry and Warriors fans: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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