Jason Barrett Is Doing It Big
“If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it big or don’t do it at all. It’s the same way I programmed a radio station; are we here just to talk and fill time, or are we here to maximize minutes?”
It’s funny, looking back now. I once had a role in putting together a small event at a local radio station. I thought it’d be easy. It didn’t take long to notice that all of the coordinating, communicating, and moving parts were far more in-depth than I ever anticipated.
With that in mind, I don’t even want to know how many grease fires need to be attended to while piecing together the latest BSM Summit. It has to be like an IKEA project on steroids and HGH at the same time.
That’s one of the things I respect most about Jason Barrett; the guy doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The president of Barrett Sports Media holds an event that benefits the entire sports radio industry, regardless of the workload. How can you not admire that? He truly has a passion and a genuine love for the industry. If sports radio were a car on the side of the road, JB would either be pushing it or changing a tire like a NASCAR pit crew member.
NFL Draft analyst Bucky Brooks has a great saying that quarterbacks are either trucks or trailers; some guys carry a team while others are carried by the squad. It works the same way in sports radio. JB isn’t a guy who is carried by the industry; he’s got a trucker hat on.
JB also represents what the industry needs; sports radio needs people that look beyond what they can get out of it and instead focus on what they can put into it. Sports radio improves when people look to boost the format, not just their bank accounts.
The purpose of this interview isn’t about highlighting JB as the All-American guy. It’s about focusing on how the Summit can impact the mission to make sports radio bigger and better. JB and I also chat about the biggest difficulty he faces while putting the conference together and the impact of COVID on this year’s event. He also shares a few thoughts on radio’s greatest challenges and opportunities going forward. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: First off, why do you choose to run the event?
Jason Barrett: That’s a good question to start. I would say first of all, one of the biggest holes our industry has had for a long time is that every company is focused on what their strategies are, what they think is the best for reaching an audience, selling advertising, all of that.
But I remember I would go to these workshops and people would be in the room and everybody spoke the same language. I bonded with some people who thought like me. Everyone would be saying the key to this is teasing, playing the hits, and all the same bullshit we’ve heard forever.
But then I just listened to Tom Tolbert talk for 25 minutes about barbecuing and playing badminton in the backyard, and he kicked the shit out of me for three quarter-hours doing something that all of us in the room would’ve said is not playing the hits. Then I would listen to Mike Francesa not play sound, not tease, take an interview 40 minutes, and he’d be number one. I’d say, but the room I’m in, everybody said this is the path to be successful.
As you get more and more of those examples you just start to realize, there’s so much information out there, and so many people who succeed doing it differently, that I think you become smarter and more successful as a professional the more you surround yourself with other smart professionals. If I can learn one thing from an iHeart guy, an Audacy guy, a Bonneville, Beasley, and Hubbard guy, I’ve got five keys now in my tool belt that’s going to make me better at what I do.
On top of that, let’s face it, if you work in the business, we’ve all read about each other. We follow a lot of each other’s brands and we go, oh yeah, I heard the Hub is really good. You know what? Do you know why they’re good outside of one time you hit a stream button? What if you met some of these people?
I just looked at it as hey, I’m fortunate that we’ve built this up pretty well over the last six-plus years. You’ve been a big part of that Brian. In doing so, if we can use this platform to bring an industry together, to share ideas and information so we all get out of there with some things that will help us, that’s the goal.
I don’t forget that 80% of the country still listens to music. When we think about, oh, I’ve got to knock this sports station out, I’m like, no, you need them to thrive too. We’ve got four out of five people listening to a music station. We need to pull some of that over so we all win in a bigger way. That’s really the motivation for it.
Then beyond that, look, we all personally like to meet each other, spend some time, and enjoy two days. I think right now, coming off of what we’ve all just went through for the last two years, I think the industry could use it.
BN: What do you hope people gain from the event when they walk away?
JB: I think if there are three things, it would be one — the first and foremost — I hope you come out of there with information. If you don’t leave there in 16 hours of being in that theater with a few things that make you better, then you probably haven’t been paying attention, or you were just hanging out at the after-party getting smashed. [Laughs] That’s number one; I want people to learn something about the business.
Number two, I think it’s great for people to make relationships because those extend beyond the two days. People lose sight of this, Bri, you go to an event and you go, oh yeah, that’s that PD over there. I have no connection to that market. Then a year later, I’ll give you a perfect example, at the last Summit, Rod Lakin is presenting on stage for Phoenix. I’m sure a lot of people were like, oh, West Coast PD, Rod’s really sharp but I’m on the East Coast. What does that have to do with me?
Then all of a sudden, the news comes out two years later Rod Lakin’s now running WIP. I go, did you take time to say hello at the event? It’s always better to build a face-to-face connection because you have no idea where this business is going to take you in five years. The more friends you have, the more likely you are to continue working and the more of a network you have, the better it is to serve you.
If there’s a last takeaway beyond information and making relationships, I think the last part would be celebrating. It’s honoring people at the awards ceremony. It’s shaking someone’s hand who was on stage for a session and saying, hey man, that was really good.
We are all so competitive and we spend 52 weeks in a year trying to stay ahead of competition. We’re battling so many damn choices for the ear these days — or the eyes, we’re not just audio anymore. Sometimes it’s okay to say, hey man, this is a pretty cool damn business to be in.
If you were in L.A., holy shit, I met Colin Cowherd. He’s cool as hell. I went to New York; I met Craig Carton and Fred Toucher. These guys are highly successful personalities in the business. I think if we could celebrate our industry, give people some information, and at the same time, make a few connections, that puts everybody in a good spot.
BN: What’s the biggest difficulty you deal with when you’re putting a conference together like this?
JB: The biggest difficulty is literally being the organizer, executive producer, and host of it. I’m also the lead sales person on it. I’m also the one who goes down to the theater to talk to the manager and make sure the tech is going to be okay. I’m the designer of every image that you’re going to see on that stage, aside from those that I ask to create things because it’s part of their session. It becomes a bear putting the show together.
One of the things I’m proud of is that people see the final agenda and they’ll say, that’s damn good. What they don’t see are the people that I talked to that couldn’t be here. I talked to people for nine months. When I started, I was having dialogue with Mark Cuban because I thought we were going to do a virtual conference. Then literally, the event pivoted to being live and virtual. I knew, okay, I’m not going to be able to get Mark to fly in for this. So okay, we’ll cross that bridge down the road.
You go through a lot of those things because ultimately I look at it as this: if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it big or don’t do it at all. It’s the same way I programmed a radio station; are we here just to talk and fill time, or are we here to maximize minutes and create unforgettable moments? It’s the same with an event. I want people to walk out of there and go, that guy did a damn good job. He’s got a great team around him.
I couldn’t focus on this Summit if our website wasn’t fresh and the social wasn’t on point. In the past, I had to do that too; it doesn’t work. Now I’ve got people like yourself writing content, Demetri is scheduling social. People forget I have to do the top 20 at this time too, the biggest thing we do of the year, next to the Summit. You’ve got all of this going on and there is a reason why I’m up at seven and I go to bed at two.
I’ve got clients to serve but at the same time, I’ve also got to put on a kick-ass show. Otherwise, people aren’t going to find it valuable. If someone’s getting on a plane to come spend two days in a theater, and especially coming off of COVID and all of the stuff we’ve dealt with, I owe them the best experience possible. That’s what my focus is.
BN: What are your concerns related to putting on an event when COVID is still a part of our lives?
JB: Look, I’ll be honest — early January, I was terrified. I thought there was a possibility this would have to get moved back because Omicron started to rear its ugly head and everybody rightfully so was worried about their health and safety. As much as I like getting people together and celebrating the business, I don’t want people to leave here sick, exposing their family to stuff, so that was very much a concern.
New York in general, if you’re going to go to an event, you’ve got to be vaccinated. I knew that was one part of this, but people are vaccinated and have still gotten COVID. I can’t control what the world does.
I think one thing that’s made it a lot easier and the way I’ve communicated this to some around me has been, look, I get it, there are going to be some concerns for some people that maybe they’re not comfortable being in a theater. My answer to them is, well, then buy the virtual ticket. Don’t come. It’s okay, you’re not going to hurt my feelings if you can’t make it because I respect that. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable being somewhere. If they feel that way, they should buy the virtual ticket and take it in that way.
I went to Madison Square Garden in January with my son. There were 15,000 people. Some had masks on, some had masks off. At some point you just say, look, as an adult I’m going to make a decision. I’m either okay being here or I’m not okay being here. I chose to go there. I wouldn’t have done that a year earlier. I did. I came out of it. I’ve been okay.
I flew out to Los Angeles for The Volume’s party. Shook hands, gave a few bro hugs, thought to myself, crap, this would be really bad if I came out of this party and got COVID a month before the Summit. But am I not going to support people who supported me? No, I have to do that. It’s the right thing for business. It’s the right thing for relationships.
I think if we can go to venues where there are 15,000 people and enjoy a sporting event, we should be able to go to a theater with 200 and get through it. I don’t promise anything because I know none of us are health experts. We’re trusting that the air around us is going to be okay and that we’re not in a bad spot. Everyone’s got to make that choice for themselves and if they choose to come or not come, I respect it either way.
There are different ways this time to enjoy the show. Those who are comfortable will be there, those who are not will go online and hopefully down the road, we’ll be in a spot where everyone’s comfortable being together.
BN: What’s the biggest fire you’ve had to put out in the past or just the craziest scenario you’ve encountered?
JB: Honestly, I’ve been lucky to dodge some major fires. Back in Los Angeles, we were scheduled to have Daryl Morey be part of the esports panel. I was really looking forward to that because I think he’s brilliant. He’s just got a really sharp mind for business.
On the morning of, I was notified that he couldn’t make it. They sent in his place their head of Clutch Gaming at the time when Daryl was with the Rockets, Sebastian Park. Now you know our audience, and Sebastian was great, but people want Daryl Morey.
Fortunately, that same morning I had connected with Eric Shanks. I hadn’t told people that Eric was going to be there because I wasn’t planning on him being there. He literally said I will come to the GRAMMY Museum to say a few words on behalf of Tony Bruno. When I took the stage to tell people I’ve got some good news and some bad news, Daryl Morey — and I heard the collective sigh — then I said but we’ve added FOX Sports President and CEO Eric Shanks, everyone went that’s pretty damn good.
I’ve been lucky to get through it but, look, it’s like when a band goes on stage, you can rehearse the songs, you could know what each other is supposed to do, what positions you’re supposed to be in, and then literally some roadie in the back knocks over a set of speakers that falls on the drummer and the whole show is changed. [Laughs] I’m lucky we haven’t had a roadie knock the speakers over yet.
But when you’re doing 16 hours of live programming, you’re always one step away from chaos. I pray that we’re not dealing with a major fire. It would be great if we could do this every year and not have one because once it happens, you just don’t want the building to burn down.
BN: What do you see as radio’s greatest challenges and opportunities going forward?
JB: First of all, the biggest opportunity is that audio listening is at a record high. Especially if you look over the last seven years, the growth of spoken word and listening is through the roof. There’s a lot of options out there for people.
I think that also presents the biggest obstacle. More people are creating content than ever before. More people are listening because of technology. We all have phones. We’ve got smart speakers. The opportunities to consume audio, everybody’s got earbuds in their ears, or they’ve got a phone nearby, or a computer, or if they’re in the car, the radio.
I think the real challenge — and what’s going to be interesting to follow in the next decade — is going to be the shift from the radio to streaming. We were already seeing it, but when you look at some of the rapid growth; I remember two years ago, and this is something I’m going to talk about at the show, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek had said radio is their biggest competitor. He’s interested in basically making sure linear dies. At the time — obviously as a radio guy, you’re a lifer like myself — you go, man, this is a great business, I don’t want to see linear die.
It’s not that it’s dying, it’s moving to different places. Whether it’s Pardon My Take being offered through podcasting platforms or through a terrestrial speaker, it’s still a show that we’re all going to enjoy and listen to. It’s just how you listen. The real challenge going forward is if that shifts, does the advertising shift with it? That’s going to be hard to replicate. We’ve been so dependent on the terrestrial model.
The other part of this is measuring it and finding it. Discovering where content lives is easy when you’re ESPN and you’ve got the world’s biggest reach and everyone knows they’ve got ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN+, or ESPN podcasts. You’re going to find them everywhere, but what do you do if you’re in a local market in Indianapolis, Kansas City, Salt Lake, how do you break through on the charts so people know your stuff?
At the same time, how do you turn those advertisers who’ve been spending money for the radio space and convince them to shift to a digital plan when you can’t even show the digital measurement the way you’ve shown radio measurement?
There’s a lot of things that are going to change. Who knows where we’re at in 20 years, Bri. Facebook became Meta. Pretty soon, we’re going to have artificial intelligence shows going on. This world is going to be crazy. I’m just glad that it’ll be my son’s problem to deal with in 20 years, not mine.
BN: I hear you, man. Do you have a final message you’d like to convey with the Summit set to begin?
JB: I’m grateful for everybody making the trip into New York. Especially thankful for the support we’ve had from our sponsors on it. This is the best year we’ve had with it and coming off of COVID, it’s really rejuvenated me to see that people care about their business enough to put their support behind It.
I just want people to come to New York, learn, laugh, have a good time, and ultimately walk out of there with some information to make their brands better. If we can accomplish that in 16 hours, I’ll feel we’ve done our job. Then we take a little reprieve before focusing on the next one.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide on FOX Sports Radio’s Countdown To Kickoff. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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.