Meet The Market Managers: Joe Bell, Beasley Media Philadelphia
“I don’t consider myself a sales guy. I have always considered myself a radio guy who could sell.”
Philadelphia loves its sports and is devoted to sports talk radio. The ratings battle between 94 WIP and 97.5 The Fanatic is certainly never boring. It is the perfect market to start the new season of Meet the Market Managers.
Joe Bell oversees Beasley’s Philadelphia cluster. He isn’t just making decisions for The Fanatic. He is in charge of one of the market’s most successful clusters.
He came to Philadelphia from Miami, where he was in charge of a cluster that included WQAM. Those are two very different sports and sports radio cultures.
The radio business has taken Joe Bell all over the place. His last two stops have been major markets, but his 50 year career has seen him lead groups in small markets across Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina. That’s not too bad for a guy that started at 19 because a friend told him radio was a great way “to get chicks to call you.”
In our conversation, Joe Bell talks about why the Philadelphia Flyers don’t mind not being on the Fanatic when their games conflict with a Sixers game. It is a real testament to the powers of the brands he runs. He also talks about how relationships are changing as the pandemic subsides and why it isn’t impossible for outsiders to succeed in Philadelphia.
Demetri Ravanos: You were part of a panel at the BSM Summit last month where you talked a bit about surviving the pandemic and being in a good position coming out of it. You pointed out that you were the only one on the stage talking about it from a sales perspective because everyone else was a programmer.
So, The Fanatic has made some programming changes since you’ve been the leader there. When you have conversations like with Chuck Damico, when you’re thinking of making him the program director, with John Kincade, when you’re thinking about bringing him in for mornings, what do programming candidates need to know about The Fanatic’s sales goals when you start talking with them?
Joe Bell: Well, first of all, I don’t consider myself a sales guy. I have always considered myself a radio guy who could sell. I got in the business through programming. If I did it better, that’s what I would still be doing. I look at it a little bit different. I am excited that folks like Mike Thomas and, Chris Olivero get the shot to be market managers. For a long time, everybody came from sales, right? This is such a programing driven business. It’s all about content.
I manage eight radio stations here, and while ratings are important, sports radio is a much more emotional buy. There are so many opportunities to attach your clients to programming for them to get direct results. So it’s a lot different than selling ads on a music station. There are just so many ways to involve a client through sponsorships, whether that’s attachment to the teams, personalities, and/or live endorsements.
Our sales effort is so closely aligned with our programming that sometimes it’s hard to separate them. Kincade is the best I think I’ve ever seen at being able to weave a liner into content to where you really don’t realize that’s what he did.
To me, sports radio is reality radio. It’s like reality TV before reality TV. It changes every day. It’s live every day. I mean, things happen and you’re on it. So it’s been a lot of fun. I did sports radio in Miami with WQAM, so it’s been a big part of what I’ve done my whole career.
DR: So I do want to come back to a couple of different things you said in there, but you mentioned some of the guys that have gone from programing into the market manager side of things. And I wonder, as somebody that is a market manager right now, how do you scout talent for future management? You mentioned this. It would be so easy to say, “Oh, well, that seller has the best numbers. They should be leading and teaching everyone else.” But you need more than that. So what are you looking for in either sellers or programmers that makes you think it is worth investing your time in helping them take the next step?
JB: That’s a great question, because first of all, they have to want to do that, not everybody does. I work with some sales people who have no interest in doing anything other than their doing. They’re awesome salespeople. They make a lot of money.
Same thing with talent. A lot of talent does not want to be management. They’re really good at being on the air. They enjoy it.
I think the first thing is identifying what somebody’s goals are longterm and how can we help them get there. But we’ve got two or three people that work here right now that I’d be shocked if I opened the trades in 10 years and they weren’t market managers.
DR: You mentioned your history running a cluster in Miami that included WQAM. Obviously, that is night and day as a sports market compared to Philadelphia. Did you have enough of a background in sports radio coming into Philadelphia that it didn’t necessarily change your expectations for what sports radio could do in a marketplace, do you come in, see the how much the city revolves around sports conversations and immediately raise your expectations?
JB: Yeah, absolutely. If I were to pick my favorite radio station of all time that I did not manage. It’s probably WLW in Cincinnati. They did a lot of play-by-play and sports talk. I mean, going back to Bob Trumpy and people like that. So I’ve always been a huge consumer of the format.
You’re right, Miami is a great place to live, but it doesn’t have the passion for sports that exists here in Philly. So many people are not from Miami, they’re transplants. They’re interested, but they don’t live and die with as we say here, four-for-four.
DR: I really like that term. I’ve never heard that before.
JB: That’s big here. Our guys ask all the time, are you four-for-four? And you know, Philly is not unlike Boston and New York in a couple of markets that support more than one very successful sports talk radio station.
DR: Very true. That brings me back to something else you said at the Summit. You talked about how important it is to build and service relationships with the teams you broadcast. For you guys, it is the Sixers and the Flyers.
I want to talk specifically about the Sixers here because I do wonder how you capitalize on something like this. I mean, the never-ending story around that team this year from a sales perspective, is that just pitching to clients that they want to be a part of the excitement? They want to be a part of everything Sixers in the 2021-2022 season? Or do you start to talk to them about how you can make moments like the Harden trade special specifically for them?
JB: It’s more of what we do around the team. We’ve got a tremendous relationship with the Sixers and the Flyers. My whole theory is that your partners are partners. If one of the teams asks me to do something and we can do it, we do it. I think the teams pretty much do the same thing.
You’re at the mercy sometimes of the momentum the team has. And right now, I mean, the Sixers have been red hot. It’s been a great ride the last few years, but it just gets better and better.
We are always brainstorming about how we can take what we do and take it to the next level. We do a shoot-out, a knockout tournament, every year. It turned out that this year it was on the night of Harden’s first game. We have a hundred listeners on the court after the game trying to win a prize in a knockout tournament. And so, we look at all different kinds of things.
The other thing is our hosts are very embedded in the marketplace, and with the teams. Gargano, Kincade, those were local guys. It’s not an act. They grew up here, they’re big fans, and I think it comes across on the air.
DR: When you are doing both the NBA and NHL, they’re both the top league in their sport and they play at the exact same time. So, what are the negotiations like between the two? How do you make them understand, “Hey, they’re going to be nights you’re playing on the same night and here’s how that’s going to work.”?
JB: The Sixers are always on the Fanatic. Oddly enough, and this deal was already in place when I got here, we carry the conflict games for hockey on WMMR, which is the number-one-rated station in Philadelphia. When you take a look at the audience of MMR, as a rock and roll station, a lot of males are in the audience, and it hasn’t hurt the ratings at all. As a matter of fact, I know the Flyers like the fact that when they can’t be on The Fanatic they are on MMR. So it’s a really good combination. There’s about 20 games a year, I would guess, that we have to put on MMR, but it’s been a good situation for everybody.
DR: A legendary station to be associated with too. That’s not a bad consolation prize when the sports signal isn’t available.
JB: Absolutely! In terms of play by play, unless the team is really hot at the moment, your numbers at night probably aren’t going to be as good as your daytime numbers. What it does is it fuels conversation and interest and passion. The Sixers have been driving content on The Fanatic. It’s all people want to talk about in a city where they usually just want to talk about the Eagles.
DR: When you talk about capturing the moment for partners and teams, I think about Anthony Gargano. I can’t tell you how much mileage we got out of that video of him learning live on air about the James Harden trade. That was that was such an authentic kind of moment.
JB: That’s who he is. You know, each of our guys are that way. Kincade is pretty slick and comes across different. I mean, he’s a Philly guy. I ask him how many cousins he has because everybody that calls the station says they’re related to him in some way.
I tried to hire John for a couple of years when he was in Atlanta. Every time I talked to him, he’d say, “You know, I’m going to end up back in Philly, but today’s not the day.” He had a daughter in high school but when they blew up his former station, I called him the next day and I said, “Is today a good day?” He starts laughing and says “Today would be a great time to talk.”
He’s been a huge addition to the station. Gargano and Mike Missanelli were both newspaper guys. That generation of sports talk talent, so many of them came from print locally. You know, that means they’re so invested in the area and well know. It makes us a lot of fun.
DR: You mentioned that on-air, listeners really crave that authenticity. I think that is part of the reputation of Philly being kind of a tough sports market, right? They want to hear from their own Who are you to talk about the Eagles if you didn’t grow up in Jenkintown, right? You know what I mean?
JB: Oh, that’s right on. Listen, Anthony Gargano is more Philly than a good cheesesteak.
DR: So what about the clients? Why do local voices matter when you are going out to sell The Fanatic?
JB: Well, the first thing is our guys get results for people. I think that’s one of the real attributes of spoken word. If done right, whether it’s sports or political or whatever, people develop such a close relationship with the talent and believe what they say. It works really well at generating results for the client. You can spot phony a mile away and our guys are really authentic and love what they do and it comes across.
DR: So what about with your sellers? Can a seller from outside the market come to Philadelphia and find success?
JB: I think so. Somebody told me when I came here that your talent all had to be from Philly. Preston and Steve are doing 20 shares in the morning on MMR. Neither one of them are from Philly, but they’ve been here for 100 years. I think the key, if you’re coming in from outside of the market is to understand what makes the market unique and what people love about it.
What people don’t want to have is somebody to come here and tell them what’s wrong with it. That’s the thing here. If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.
I think it’s a great market. I love it. Growing up in southern Ohio, around Dayton and Cincinnati, I see the same kind of people and same work ethic. People love it here. Very few people leave Philly, and if they do, they oftentimes come back. It’s very provincial.
DR: So you mentioned MMR several times, I want to talk a little bit about the fact that you have Chuck Damico involved with both The Fanatic and WMMR. Maybe you have already given me the answer to this with how much crossover there is, but why is it important to you to have someone involved with The Fanatic who also has experience with WMMR?
JB: The reason that I made Chuck just the PD of The Fanatic is he was instrumental in the development of Preston and Steve. He still does some producing for them. He gets storytelling and understands how to build talent. I think those are two attributes he really has. When you get right down to it, that’s what we do, right? We tell stories.
I tell our guys all the time that it’s not about the scores. You can get your scores on the phone, and once you know the score, what more is there to know about that game?
What they want to know is what happened. What’s going to happen? What do you think might happen? That’s storytelling and Chuck is really good at developing talent and teaching them to do that. So, when I saw what he had done with Preston and Steve, I thought ” you know, we have a tremendous PD at MMR in Bill Weston. Hopefully Bill’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So Chuck was in the number two spot and did a great job with talent. And we talked and I said, “could you handle both?” and he said, Absolutely.
We have a really strong APD on The Fanatic in Eric “Coach” Camille, who also executive produces the morning show. So it’s about having really good people and making sure you get him in the right spot in the lineup.
DR: So how much of an asset is it to have somebody that has so much influence on both brands when you are putting together these big multi-station campaigns? Because MMR and the Fanatic like that Venn diagram seems like it should be a perfect circle of listeners.
JB: Even though we have some people involved in both, we operate them totally separate. In the last monthly ratings, we have four of the top six stations in the market, 25-54 primetime. So we’ve got strong brands and we do try to keep them what we call “wingtip to wingtip”. You want them not getting in each other’s way. We want all of them to be as strong as possible.
DR: At the Summit, you talked about coming through the pandemic that it was a real opportunity to strengthen the relationship with local clients and to reach out and say, “How can we help you right now?” So here we are, we’ve passed the two year anniversary of the world turning upside down and you go out and it looks like we’ve either learned to live with it or at the very least, COVID 19 has faded into the background in a lot of people’s lives. I wonder if the same thing has happened with the strength of those relationships at all. As that uncertainty and that threat subsides, do you wonder if the memories of how you helped those clients, whether it was keep their doors open or just make one specific thing happen, do you worry that those are going to start to do the same? Time just seems to have that effect on everything.
JB: That’s a really good question. I think this cluster, even when it was Greater Media, before we bought it, had a very, I guess you would call it, “servant style” sales operation. What can we do to help you? We’ve carried that through. The pandemic intensified that.
Our whole thing has always been creating partnerships and programs with clients that goes a lot further than selling spots for a specific timeframe.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pac-12 Pushing Enhanced Access, Deion Sanders Reeks of Desperation
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Coach Prime if those game telecasts aren’t seen?
Getting experimental has drawn some attention to USFL and XFL broadcasts during each league’s seasons. The Pac-12 is apparently hoping the same approach will draw viewers to its football telecasts beginning this fall.
Last week, the conference announced that its broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Pac-12 Networks would feature enhanced access for viewers. Head coaches will be interviewed during games. Players and coaches will be mic’d up during pregame warm-ups. Cameras will have pregame and halftime access to team locker rooms. And handheld camera operators will be allowed to film parts of the field and game experience which were previously prohibited.
Those familiar with USFL and XFL telecasts will likely see some similarities to the greater access that those leagues allow their TV partners. Coaches are mic’d up on the sidelines, giving viewers insight into play calls and strategy. Players are interviewed during the game, providing near-instant reactions to success or failure. Cameras in the replay booth show how officials decide to either overturn or uphold calls on the field.
What the Pac-12 intends to do with its broadcasts won’t go as far as the USFL and XFL. Access to coaches and players is being expanded but will still have limits. The conference doesn’t have to demonstrate familiarity, credibility, and legitimacy to fans and media.
Spring pro football leagues are a tough sell to mainstream sports fans accustomed to college football and the NFL from September through January. Especially when the level of play is subpar and rosters are filled with unfamiliar names, the USFL and XFL have to give fans more reasons to watch.
USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are established national brands and regularly compete with the top teams in college football. Utah has played in the past two Rose Bowls, seen on millions of televisions during the New Year’s Day holiday. All five of those schools finished among the final AP Top 25 rankings of the 2022-23 season. USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.
Yet the Pac-12 is promoting the gimmick of enhanced access because it needs to attract positive fan and media attention. Right now, most of the headlines the conference is generating aren’t flattering.
Notably, the Pac-12 needs a new media rights deal. Losing two of its most prominent schools, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten in 2024 certainly isn’t helping with that. Rumors have persisted that Washington and Oregon could soon follow. Additionally, the Big 12 is reportedly eyeing Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah as possible expansion targets.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is left to tout Colorado’s new head coach, Deion Sanders, as a selling point in a new media rights deal. Never mind that Sanders hasn’t coached a game in Boulder yet. The Buffaloes are also coming off a 1-11 season and have won more than five games only once since 2007.
If Coach Prime is as successful as Colorado hopes, how likely is he to jump to a better program and stronger conference? And as mentioned in a previous paragraph, even if Sanders sticks around, Colorado could be poached by the Big 12. How much value would Coach Prime provide for the Pac-12 then?
ESPN’s deal with the conference expires in July 2024, shortly before USC and UCLA defect, and reportedly has no intention of renewing. (ESPN could still agree to a package of lower-tier games for late-night broadcast windows, but Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that doesn’t appear likely.) Fox’s agreement is up at the same time, though prospects of a renewal seem more optimistic. The network needs Pac-12 games to fill its college football Saturday inventory.
The options from there aren’t promising. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports that current speculation has USA Network, part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate, as a possible landing spot. According to The Athletic, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff believes that the conference’s next media rights deal will have a large streaming component with Amazon and Apple TV+ mentioned as potential partners.
A streaming partner might be good from a financial standpoint, helping produce some of the revenue that ESPN has cut off. But forcing fans to find your product and asking them to pay for another TV platform isn’t a good way to draw interest. It may well be a path to irrelevance and obscurity. That’s not going to compete with the Big Ten and SEC, or even the Big 12.
And as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, how can streaming be expected to save a conference like the Pac-12 when it isn’t even helping TV networks (or standalone providers) right now? Disney is losing money with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. NBCUniversal has lost billions on Peacock, as has CBS with Paramount+. Maybe the Pac-12 won’t care about that because it got paid. But there’s little chance for growth.
OK, Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly, Dan Lanning, and Kyle Whittingham could be interviewed during games. But they probably won’t say much interesting during a game. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. will be mic’d up during warm-ups. Maybe we’ll see coaches and players going crazy in the locker room at halftime. Just remember that Peyton Manning said most players only have time to use the bathroom and have a snack. There’s your compelling television.
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Deion Sanders if those game telecasts aren’t seen by large audiences? To say otherwise is desperate. That’s exactly where the Pac-12 is.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But
It was April 19, 1775 when the first shots of war were fired on battlefields in Lexington and Concord that would send shockwaves across the world. Some brave soul among a group of rebel farmers and blacksmiths, doctors and lawyers literally pulled the trigger on what would become known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Indeed, the world would never be the same.
The college athletics version of that event was June 11, 2010. On that day, regents at the University of Nebraska officially applied for Big Ten membership and were unanimously approved by the other eleven schools (if the number in the conference name not matching the number of schools in that conference is something that bothers you, this column may not be for you). From that day forward, we have never really exited the “expansion era”.
One conference that has gone largely untouched in that time is the ACC. Only Maryland has left the ACC since 2010, heading to the Big Ten, and the conference has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in that same window. That is significant when you consider only the SEC and Big Ten have avoided any departures in this era. Every other major conference has seen great turbulence while those three conferences have primarily seen only growth.
That trend may actually continue for the ACC and that may not be a net positive for the conference or the ACC members. This is thanks to the long term grant of rights deal the conference schools negotiated with ESPN. The grant of rights means ESPN holds the broadcast rights to all home games of the current ACC schools, and do so for the next 13 years.
When the deal was signed in 2016, the 20 year media rights deal seemed like a win for the ACC, creating stability in a time of great instability. Now, what seemed like a “must have purchase” may be the impulse buy that the league schools regret for decades.
Put simply, the ACC has been lapped in the media rights race by the Big Ten, SEC and even the Big 12. At best, the ACC schools are working at a $10-15 Million per year deficit when compared to Big 12 schools. At worst, they are operating at a much larger $30-$40 Million annual deficit when compared to Big Ten and SEC programs. It would be a battle of monumental proportions for the ACC to compete on the same level as those other conferences at that large of a disadvantage.
The conference’s options are slim. ESPN has a deal that is locked for 13 more years, what benefit would it be to them to renegotiate just so the ACC can compete? For instance, it would require $140 Million annually from ESPN just to place the ACC in the same financial neighborhood as the Big 12 Conference. What would be the benefit to ESPN in doing that?
The other option for ACC schools would be to bang the departure drum. Almost all legal analysts have painted a very grim picture for the schools that would be itching to leave. The exit fee is $120 million and may get the schools some nice parting gifts but does not give them their media rights. Their home game broadcast rights will still be a part of the ESPN deal with ACC. That greatly reduces a departing school’s value to any other conference.
Maybe ESPN is willing to broker a deal for a departing school if it is going to a conference, such as the SEC, that has a large rights deal with ESPN. If one of the schools desires a departure to the Big Ten, who has large deals with networks not named ESPN, one would have to think The Worldwide Leader would be in less of a deal-making mood.
Some league athletics directors, led by Florida State’s Michael Alford, are suggesting teams be incentivized for success. Breaking the code; rather than equal distribution, the power schools want a bigger share of the money. This is where Wake Forest points out that it is all they can do to exceed football expectations on their current stipend, what will become of them if that money shrinks? It seems that conferences and leagues that steer away from an equally shared revenue model have had a difficult time making that work long term.
Maybe the ACC teams that are ready to punch out could flash back to the period of time our country was in with the events we started this column remembering. They have a team in Boston, go throw some tea in the harbor and revolt, have a modern day Boston Tea Party. As it stands now, there are several ACC members that want to leave the party they are part of. Their only problem is they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.