Travis Thomas and Reese Waters Help Team 980 Break New Ground
“People need to have an open mind about a potential pool of applicants and look at it in terms of skill set, because the skill set that applies to this profession, might also be apparent in another profession.”
Earlier this month, Entercom’s The Team 980 in Washington D.C. announced a revamped weekday lineup, airing Travis Thomas from 9am – noon and Reese Waters from noon – 3pm. In a somewhat groundbreaking move, The Team 980’s weekday schedule now features two solo Black hosts back-to-back, with neither being a retired professional athlete.
The pipeline to full-time sports radio jobs in major markets has traditionally provided roadblocks for Black hosts. Sports radio has acknowledged the problem in recent years, but most stations still fail to offer a diverse lineup reflecting the cultural representation of its community.
Challenging the odds, both hosts arrived at 980 through very different paths. Thomas experienced the more traditional sports media grind, working various jobs behind-the-scenes and behind-the-mic on TV and radio. For Waters, the grunt work began as a comedian. His stand-up led him to provide sports commentary on television and his extensive TV work earned a full-time radio opportunity.
But for both hosts, the opportunity with The Team 980 is a culmination of their own tireless work, and a program director in Chris Kinard who broadened his talent search.
Brandon Contes: When did both of you take an interest in broadcasting?
Reese Waters: Honestly, I didn’t really consider it a potential career until I was in it. I was working as a comedian and I had a lot of sports in my stand-up material, but the first opportunity I had in broadcasting came because the people at Versus found my comedy. They were looking to cast a comedian on The Daily Line and I didn’t even have representation yet, but they found my stand-up on YouTube and my sportscasting career kind of started by happenstance.
Travis Thomas: I played sports my whole life growing up in a small rural town in Maryland and like many kids, I had dreams of going pro one day. I wanted to go to the NBA and I used to tell my mom, ‘I’m going to get drafted and I’m going to buy you a Jaguar.’ That didn’t happen [Laughs], and I would say early teenage years, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. But I knew I wanted to work in sports, I was never shy, I was never nervous to be in front of a class, I thought I could be a broadcaster, I went to school for it and the rest is history.
BC: Travis, since you knew you wanted to make this a career at a younger age, was there anyone you watched and listened to that became an inspiration, or someone you aspired to be?
TT: Just one. When I tell you I grew up in a rural town, I lived in the sticks, literally. So right around the time I realized I wasn’t going pro, my parents finally got cable and I discovered a channel called ESPN. Stuart Scott – not only looked like me, but he talked like me. He was hip-hop. He was cool. It was an eye-opening, life-changing, career-directional event that still inspires me today.
BC: Was Stuart instrumental in shaping your career path? Because we talk a lot about the lack of diversity in sports media, it was significantly less diverse 20-30 years ago, was it important for you to have someone that looked like you that you could look up to?
TT: It was more than that. I definitely would have gone down this career path regardless, but for me personally, Stuart made it OK for me to be myself. Without Stuart, I would have tried to talk like every other broadcaster. I would’ve been cookie-cutter and we have enough of that in this business. I have no idea if I’m liked, loved or hated in this business, but the only thing I can hang my hat on is there’s only one me and Stuart allowed for me to be unapologetic about being myself.
BC: Do you strive to be that person for other young Black Americans who might not be thinking about sports media as a career path, but then they look at The Team 980, they see you and Reese, and it becomes a more realistic option.
TT: I hope so. But I feel like I’m failing young Black, minority, and young women broadcasters because I’m not doing as much as I can be. I can do more. Yes, I represent us, I’m not going to do anything to embarrass us, but they need to know who I am or stumble upon me to find me. I want to go to them and show that you can have a career in this. I will do a better job of reaching out and finding them. I don’t want them to have to find me, that’s my fault.
BC: The sports radio industry talks a lot about its diversity problem, and like you just mentioned, this goes for minorities and for women as well. It would be great if this wasn’t a story. I think progress will be when it is no longer noteworthy that a city adds a Black sports radio host or that a female broadcaster is covering a male sport. But two Black hosts, in weekday lineups on a major market station and neither of them are a former athlete, do both of you recognize that as a big deal?
TT: I do, and you have to give props to CK (Chris Kinard) for having the vision and guts to make it happen. The early returns have been fantastic. I can’t tell you how many people have called me just to say what it means to them to have us in this position. People of color and minorities are used to dealing with discrimination, we’ve done it our whole lives and for me to be in this position, a position I’ve earned, for me it’s just validation for all the hard work and all the racist BS I’ve dealt with in my 39 years on earth.
RW: The non-athlete part resonates with me because a lot of the ways in which places fill their diversity quota is by finding former athletes. For us to be able to ascend to this without being former athletes, it feels legitimate. Because this hasn’t been the prerequisite for many of the people sitting in this chair that looks like us.
BC: Executives used to blame the lack of diversity more on a lack of diverse applicants rather than a hiring issue on their part. I think that’s changed, there’s more accountability, but how important is it for executives to look beyond a pool of applicants for job candidates?
RW: It’s exceptionally important and I think there are a lot of people who can and will thrive in positions that they may not be seeking. People need to have an open mind about a potential pool of applicants and look at it in terms of skill set, because the skill set that applies to this profession, might also be apparent in another profession.
I happen to think stand-up is one of the most underappreciated disciplines we have in America. The idea that I was expected to come into a TV studio initially and have something funny to ad, four or five times in an hour – are you kidding me? That’s easy! I was used to filling a full hour by myself. And now going to radio from TV, it brings me back to comedy. To be able to speak confidently, be funny and engaging for that amount of time, is more like stand-up.
TT: I think smart executives like CK are already doing it and have been doing it for a long time. The issue is bigger than that. Smart executives are doing it, but those don’t grow on trees. I want to continue to ride this broadcasting wave, but my long-term goal is to be an executive. To me, that’s where real change will happen. We need more minority executives, we need more people of color making those decisions, we need more women making those decisions and being part of executive teams. That’s my ultimate goal and that’s when you’ll see change because the majority of executive teams are misrepresented in my opinion.
BC: Have you mentioned that interest to Chris Kinard?
TT: I’ve been very careful to talk to my bosses in radio and TV about that right now. I’ve probably mentioned it in passing, but I don’t make a big deal about it because I don’t want them to think I’m not focused on the task at hand. And I want to be clear, I’m having a blast as a broadcaster, so if I start talking to my bosses about wanting the corner office to run the world, they might think I’m not focused.
BC: What’s interesting is there are a lot of radio executives that didn’t have the ability to be entertaining enough or have the personality to be successful on-air, but they understood the business, they went behind the scenes and worked their way up to become an executive. It’s interesting to see someone who has the personality and creativity to be on-air, but has aspirations to be an executive to better the industry. It would serve executives well to seek your ideas to help the industry grow.
TT: I really appreciate that. My aspirations were always to be a broadcaster and become an all-time great. I never thought of management. It was last summer, 2020 changed my life just like it did for a lot of people. The pandemic, civil unrest, racial injustice. I was laid off due to COVID-19 budget cuts. It was a low point for me just like many Americans.
I was looking at my resume and saw all the behind-the-scenes experience, I saw all my on-air experience, the only thing I never did is something I was born to do. And that’s be a leader. I’ve never led in this business and that’s what really gave me the first inclination that I want to do this. Then you go deeper and see there’s not a lot of representation in leadership roles, it feels like the perfect fit, but it’s just not my time yet. I have more to do on the broadcasting side and I’m going to kick ass doing it, but eventually – I want a seat at the table and I believe I can bring a lot to it.
BC: Reese, what about your other aspiration, are you the type of comedian who has a lot of natural wit and instantly commands a room or are you someone who is more meticulously writing and editing, practicing and perfecting?
RW: I would love to say I’m one of the naturals, but then you see guys like Chappelle where it literally just oozes out of his body. I don’t walk in and command a room the way a lot of other people do in that class, but there are a lot of great comedians in the other class. I’m a little bit more planned and meticulous in how I go about it.
BC: What about building a radio show? Is your show more planned and organized, or is it off the cuff?
RW: I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how much I have to plan. I’m still learning and going through that process because I don’t want to be so scripted for a three-hour show, I want some freedom, but I also want to make sure I have material to work with. Right now we’re in the process of figuring out how it works and that’s probably what occupies most of my time right now, figuring out that formula.
BC: Do you feel extra pressure to add comedy and be funny on your radio show because of your background?
RW: Yea, I would say there is. I also feel extra responsibility to service the sports fans. If I didn’t have this background, I might indulge a tangent longer, but I probably give myself a shorter leash because I don’t want to be perceived as lacking in sports content. I want to get to the point where these are things I’m not thinking about and we’re just doing what is the best radio. But right now, it’s all on my mind during a show.
BC: Do you have a preference, television or radio?
RW: TV is a completely different animal. I can take 15 minutes to talk about something on the radio, but on TV, I get 45 seconds and if I misspeak, that counts in those 45 seconds. You have to hit TV aggressively, and that’s been a challenge for me. Being able to know that really funny minute you did on TV, I can turn that into five or 10 minutes on radio. It’s a completely different animal and I’m just getting used to the freedom radio offers, but I think radio is going to be something that I’m able to have a lot of fun with once I figure out the speed of the content.
BC: You were on Letterman, which has got to be an amazing opportunity for any comedian. How were your nerves for that experience?
RW: The Tonight Show with Johnny is the greatest credit a comedian could have, but I still think Letterman is second. It feels like a badge of honor and I was bummed when the show went away, but now it’s something that nobody else can get.
Ray Romano was the guest that night, so I had not one but two comedians watching me. It was a divine moment, I don’t remember it at all, I blacked out, I’ve watched it, but I don’t remember it. I’m very picky with my work, but I watch that performance and I wouldn’t change anything about it.
BC: What about the aspect of being in DC, the heartbeat of our country’s political scene which is such a divisive issue right now, do either of you have a policy on mixing sports with politics or social issues?
RW: Sports and social issues have been mixing for a very long time. I will try to be as honest and truthful as I can with any injustices I see, whether on the field, off the field or tangential on the field. The reality is, most times, there are very few things that go on off the field that don’t affect what goes on the field in some way and I’ll continue to try and be a light for those situations. It’s been a long time that I’ve had to be a fan while ignoring a lot of injustices I see. It’s been a long time, it’s been long enough quite frankly. But I want to hit a note that’s also inviting for people who don’t agree, to feel like they have an opportunity to weigh in and have their thoughts be heard because if I’m preaching to the choir every day, then I’m not changing anything. The ability to have open dialogue and exchange, that’s the highest aim you can have for any enterprise and hopefully we can be that.
TT: My policy is be honest, open, and allow every voice to be heard. When Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee a few years ago, I was doing weekends on The Fan at 106.7. I opened the phone lines with a generic statement, I acknowledged it was happening and said ‘I’m taking all calls on it, just keep it clean.’ I don’t know if I even gave my stance on it.
I welcomed both sides of the aisle and to be honest, a lot of the conservative views would thank me because they didn’t feel they had a platform to discuss it. People would hang up on them, but I didn’t. I don’t want sports to be divisive, sports should bring us together. As long as we’re being respectful and honest, when social issues or politics crosses into sports, let’s just have an open conversation and learn from one another.
BC: You mentioned doing weekends at The Fan, do you view them as competition now? I know Entercom did this in Miami as well, but it’s kind of strange for one company to own two sports stations in the same market.
TT: I’m a unique hire in that I view both as family because I was doing TV work full-time, radio was freelance until recently, so I was basically a mercenary. I would take work with The Fan and I would take work with The Team 980. Whoever called me, I would say yes. This merger is beautiful for me because now it’s one family and I don’t have to view it as competition, I can like both.
BC: How do you help keep this industry from getting old, stale. Younger generations demand content that moves fast. Can sports radio keep up?
TT: I graduated from college in 2005. I remember professors telling me radio was a dying medium! ‘Put all your eggs in the TV basket, because radio won’t be around.’ That was 2005! And here we are, 2021 and I just got a radio gig!
There’s a lot of content right now and it’s premature to say what’s going to die and what’s going to be the bigger medium, the bottom line is we don’t know. We’re all trying to figure this out. One thing’s for certain, you can get robots to do a lot of jobs in this country, but being opinionated and passionate about sports is not one of them. The demise of radio is a bunch of hogwash. If you’re entertaining and knowledgeable, you’re going to survive anything. That’s a fact.
RW: Digital content and podcasts are obviously doing well, but the advantage radio has is being able to act with immediacy to things. That’s our advantage. And we have the best of both worlds by giving live commentary and reactions, but also have the ability to get into the digital space by offering our shows as podcasts as well.
Brandon Contes is a former reporter for BSM, now working for Awful Announcing. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonContes or reach him by email at Brandon.Contes@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.