Since 1979, ESPN has sought to be the worldwide leader in sports coverage and media innovation, remaining at the forefront of changing consumer habits and emerging technologies. One year ago, the company introduced the ESPN Edge Innovation Center, effectuating a new standard to power sports media innovation through robust partnerships with companies centered around connectivity, technology and consulting. In conjunction with this new branch of the company, the ESPN Edge Conference was created to inform sports media professionals and partners about the work the company is doing to fulfill its mission of serving the sports fan anytime and anywhere.
“We’re on to year two, and I’m here to guarantee no sophomore slump this time,” said Around the Horn and conference host Tony Reali. “I have no doubt you’ll feel the impact when you see the ways we can unleash technology to power content; the way we can partner in cultivating our minds to championing innovation.”
ESPN Head of Sports Business and Innovation Mark L. Walker shared some of the company’s achievements over the last year in the “Powering the Future of Sports Media Innovation” session of the conference. The ESPN Edge Virtual Lab, for example, was created to test new technologies with internal stakeholders and implement them on programming. Around the Horn was the first half-hour program to implement augmented reality.
The company experimented with volumetric video broadcasting technology in a matchup between the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets last season, allowing fans to see the game in 3D and from more camera angles than were previously realistic. The network’s broadcast of the NBA Finals also utilized innovative technology and hardware to change the way the game is presented, virtually placing elements and video around venues to be captured by drones and other cameras.
“As innovation across infrastructure, networking and computing enable more immersive digital experiences than previously possible, ESPN is utilizing the breadth of its rights and partnerships… to create future-state experiences that enable the most immersive, connected communities for our fans,” Walker said.
Accenture partnered with ESPN to help transform the fan experience. The company has over 721,000 employees and maintains two schools of thought regarding innovation known as “Big I” and “Little I.” While the latter relates to continuous levels of improvement every day, the former refers to transforming a space and doing something never before seen. In order to do that though, diversity within the company is an essential part to ensure different perspectives and backgrounds are considered relating to company decisions.
“You can’t innovate unless you are diverse,” said Julie Sweet, chair and chief executive officer of Accenture in a panel moderated by Mike Greenberg. “As you look across what’s happening now, there’s so much opportunity with technology, the use of data, AI and there are so many challenges and opportunities so companies are taking much more seriously not just the words, but moving to action. They believe they cannot serve these new markets and take care of these challenges unless they have different thought at the table.”
The ESPN network of platforms spans across traditional and modern approaches to content dissemination and aims to meet the fan where they are. As an example, Formula One Racing, a sport quickly rising in popularity, is being used by the company and its partners as a case study of creating multiplatform content engaging and informative to consumers.
StatusPRO Technology is one of the companies looking to reach consumers, but it also has positioned its product to appeal to those within the National Football League as a training mechanism. Started by former NFL wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and Division I quarterback Troy Jones, the company launched NFL Pro Era, the first ever fully-licensed NFL virtual reality game. Moving from being football players to founders of a technology company, the duo seeks to implement augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality into the game experience for both athletes and fans. Andrew Hawkins, co-founder and president of StatusPRO, found himself interested in the technology after he saw a hologram of Tupac at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival; the challenge was how to apply it.
“I started building a mobile application that will connect anybody with relevant experience with the people who would value it,” Hawkins said in a panel moderated by Molly Qerim. “If you wanted to have a sports media sector of it, people who want to be in Molly’s shoes could subscribe to get feedback [and] mentorship.”
After being approached by two non-athletes about this type of technology potentially being able to shift the sports landscape, Jones analyzed it more thoroughly and came to the conclusion to try to revolutionize the space as well.
“I said, ‘Hey, this can really disrupt sports [and] help athletes get better, but also helps and gives them experiences they’ve never had,’” Jones expressed. “We believe this is the future of computing and how people will interact with the internet and content.”
The Baltimore Ravens were the pilot team for the technology developed by Howard and Jones’ team, and utilized its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, to produce a special experience centered around his versatility and athleticism. Aside from that though, he is indicative of authenticity to the consumer base and gives the platform to market its mission of pioneering gaming and training in ways never before realized. The challenge comes in getting people to realize that what they perceive to be in the future is actually here in the present.
Through its 5G technology, large bandwidth and low latency, Verizon has helped ESPN transform fan experiences around the world in addition to broadcast production. The company figures to accelerate the speed at which changes can be made and presented to consumers and seek to use the technology to immerse fans within the game instead of having them passively observe the action. An example of such integration is the 2022 X Games Aspen mobile application where the company was able to exploit second-screen technology and alternate viewing experiences to transform the viewing experience for fans.
Verizon’s 5G technology allowed for ESPN to place unique types of cameras in locations never before accessible along with those with 180° and 360° degree capabilities. Upon analysis of application data, the average session length was found to be 20 minutes and two-thirds of users returned for a second time. The network surmises experiences like these could alter the direct-to-consumer approach to media innovation for years to come.
“There was so much work that had to be done [and] it just doesn’t happen without a lot of coordination and a lot of teamwork. I think that has been what’s made this partnership, at least from my perspective, really special,” Tim Reed, vice president of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, said. “At the end of the day, we all wanted to work towards creating something really unique for our fans and an experience that we all could be really proud of.”
One way audiences are becoming more engaged in sporting events is by having a stake in the game through betting. As more states move to legalize the activity following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Murphy v. NCAA (2018) delegating the regulatory power to the states, content providers such as ESPN have observed its proliferation in popularity and subsequently built studios in Las Vegas while implementing betting segments within studio and live game programming.
“ESPN is the number one, most trusted brand in sports,” said Mike Morrison, vice president of sports betting and fantasy at ESPN. “We’re setting records on digital with the ESPN App, on streaming and social media as a sports publisher and [as an] editorial journalism platform. ESPN’s brand and the trust people have in it offers ESPN the opportunity to further lean into sports betting.”
The outcome of games and performance of athletes can change in an instant and, subsequently, the outcome for bets whether they be props, parlays or teasers. Just as it is difficult to accurately predict the outcome of a sporting event, it is also hard to project the growth of certain industry trends – part of the reason why ESPN decided to view the growth of sports betting and be ready to assimilate into the space if they deemed it as a place for future growth. Once the network saw sports fans migrating to betting platforms and the success they were experiencing, it decided to more heavily migrate into the space and now continues to do so as both analysts and storytellers.
“We are the most trusted brand in sports media,” repeated Laura Gentile, executive vice president of commercial marketing at ESPN and Disney Networks. “That is why we’ve taken this patient, methodical approach to sort of vetting the opportunity and being there in a responsible way. Trust for us is always going to be paramount. When we have partners; when we have odds, we need to feel good about that and give it to fans in the proper way.”
Both sports betting and fantasy sports have blurred the lines when it comes to following specific teams; instead, fans are following athletes and/or certain occurrences in games with the prospect of winning or losing money at hand. Part of the value proposition of sports betting to ESPN aside from telling stories that relate to the interests of fans is using its platform to make it more accessible, part of the reason why many sportsbooks have looked to partner with them to sponsor segments, statistics or other parts of their multifaceted broadcasts. ESPN is aiming to emulate how it was able to help grow fantasy sports to sports betting, the latest innovation in a dynamic content landscape.
“We’ve almost doubled the number of fantasy players in the last 10 years,” Gentile said. “We’re breaking records every single year when it comes to sign ups and how people are playing on multiple teams and multiple leagues. Fantasy is much more accessible; it used to be this strange, rotisserie type of thing [but now it is] more mainstream. Now you’re sitting there watching games that you would never watch before because your team hinges on it. It’s very, very similar [to sports betting] and I think we’ve made fantasy football much more understandable and much more successful.”
Coinciding with new technologies and viewer experiences, sports fans crave information and listen to experts decipher statistics and trends that enhance their knowledge and understanding of the game both on the playing surface and in the front office. Dr. André Snellings always had an interest in sports but attended the University of Michigan to receive his PhD in biomedical engineering. The dissertation he crafted and successfully defended in order to earn his PhD related to deep brain stimulation as a form of treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, assisting neurosurgeons to locate the most optimal location for electrode implants and neural recordings to be placed to help eliminate the disease.
Snellings discovered fantasy sports while waiting for a colleague in a laboratory one day and instantly became captivated by the practice after creating a fantasy basketball team. He got into the industry by means of necessity though, as he looked to augment his own knowledge about the practice but did not have the means to do so.
“One day I heard a guy on the radio giving fantasy sports advice and when I went to sign up for his website, I volunteered doing analysis for them to gain access,” he said. “It turns out that the same tools that made me good at bioengineering lent themselves to sports analysis.”
Following a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, he worked to build his career in sports media which eventually led him to become a senior writer at RotoWire. Once he signed on with ESPN as a senior writer and on-air talent, he began applying his expertise to the world of professional sports. In fact, he suggested trades during the 2017-18 and 2020-21 seasons in columns for the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively, to make in order to contend for a championship. Whether or not there was any correlation between his suggestions and the team’s strategy, both franchises ended up executing the suggested trades and went on to win league championships.
“I utilized the same analytical toolbox in both careers,” he said. “These days, I apply it to the NBA, the WNBA, the NFL and the tennis tours in addition to the nervous system.”
ESPN Edge has also partnered with Microsoft to help leverage innovations in data and artificial intelligence to transform the sports media landscape. Referencing surfing, the panel discussed how technology can assist in familiarizing fans with sports with which they may not be as familiar while also genuinely eliminating biases to allow for objective scoring.
Akin to the intersection between training and gaming, the technology that gives fans insights about statistics is also desired by sports franchises looking to optimize their performance and prevent injuries to move into the future. It serves a dual purpose which is marketable and usable for those on the field and in the stands.
“It was the athletes, coaches and people involved in the sport [who were] coming to us and asking us to bring this technology to the field,” Kevin Ashley, principal engineer at Microsoft, said. “We have this magic; we have this technology that can tell them how to improve performance and reduce the number of injuries on the field.”
Social media remains vitally important in content strategy and distribution, but part of the expertise of teams comes in identifying which opportunities could help the growth of a brand as compared to hindering it. Vice President of Social Media at ESPN Katiee Daley and her team recognized the growth of TikTok, joining the platform in 2015 and creating specialized, digestible content for consumers. Today, ESPN as a brand is in the top five in terms of following and engagement on the platform following its launch in 2015.
BeReal, a social network centered around authenticity, alerts users once per day of the commencement of a two-minute window to take a photo and post it to the platform. The application has surged in popularity since its inception in 2020 and has been installed over 53 million times globally; however, ESPN has yet to create an account on the platform despite considering joining it.
“We’ve talked about ‘Can we show up as authentically ESPN there or is it going to come across as us trying too hard?,’” Daley said. “I think it’s smart to pick your spots [and] pick the playgrounds that you want to be testing in.”
In appealing to consumers, ESPN has focused on the growth of alternate broadcasts, most notably Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli – colloquially-referred to as the Manningcast. Featuring former NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, the program presents viewers with an alternate perspective of the action on the gridiron broadcast in quasi-studios built in their respective homes.
According to Ed Placey, who serves as vice president of production at ESPN, Peyton Manning declined the use of a telestrator because it is indicative of a normal broadcast but is engrossed by viewing various different camera angles and videos of plays. As a result, the network recently installed a large LED wall with television screens showing different feeds of the game at his home, giving him the opportunity to analyze plays from multiple angles. Conversely, Eli Manning watches the game and enjoys using the Microsoft tablets provided on the sidelines to look at the special coaches feeds of plays and will sometimes use them as a type of telestrator as well. Nonetheless, the key to the broadcasts is relatability, and despite them having storied careers on the field, have been successful thus far in their pursuit to revolutionize the way football is presented across multiple platforms.
“We’ve found that Peyton and Eli’s broadcast and many other second-screen experiences that we do are for folks that aren’t as avid in that game at that time and want something different,” Placey said. “People who are just casual on that night love tuning in to Peyton and Eli because they’re kind of watching it the same way they are. It’s Monday; it’s fun; it’s not serious all the time with them.”
Whether it be alternate broadcasts, evolutions in augmented reality or fan engagement, the ESPN Edge conference exhibited the network’s innovations and areas of development and future growth. The company will look to continue to embrace movements in the digital space and the proclivities of its viewers and sports fans at large as it looks to serve the sports time anytime and anywhere for years to come.
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Marty Smith Loves The ‘Pinch Me’ Moments
“I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have.”
I tell this story all the time. It is told for laughs, but it is absolutely true. Marty Smith once gave me a giant box of beef jerky.
I was in Charlotte visiting him and Ryan McGee on the set of Marty & McGee as part of a larger feature I was doing on the SEC Network. We spent probably 3 hours together that day. It was a lot of fun. The last thing I watched the duo shoot was a promo for Old Trapper Beef Jerky, the presenting sponsor of their show.
As they finished, I shook their hands and told them I had to get on the road. That is when Smith presented me with a box of twelve bags of Old Trapper and told me, in as sincere a voice as you can imagine, that he wanted me to have it.
“I mean, listen, if you give a man beef jerky, by God, you like him,” Smith said to me when I reminded him of that story earlier this week. “That’s redneck currency right there, bud.”
There just aren’t a lot of people in this business like Marty Smith. ESPN definitely knows it too. That is why the network finds every opportunity it can to use him to tell the stories of the events and people it covers.
Last week, he spent Monday and Tuesday with the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. He got a day back home in Charlotte before he headed to Atlanta for the SEC Network’s coverage of the SEC Championship Game on Thursday. Saturday, after his duties for SEC Nation and College GameDay were done, he hit the road for Tuscaloosa to interview Nick Saban and be ready for ESPN’s coverage of the reveal of the final College Football Playoff rankings.
As if that isn’t enough, this week he heads to New York. It will be the second time ESPN will use him to conduct interviews and tell stories during the telecast of the Heisman Trophy presentation. It’s an assignment that Marty Smith still cannot believe is his.
“I’ve had a ton of pinch-me moments, but in the last five, six years, seven years, there are two that kind of stand out above the rest. One was when Mike McQuaid asked me to be part of his team to cover The Masters. The other was last year when my dear longtime friend Kate Jackson, who is the coordinating producer over the Heisman broadcast, asked me to be a part of her Heisman broadcast team and interview the coaches, players and families of the finalists,” Smith says. “You know, brother, I’ve been watching the Heisman Trophy my whole life.”
We talk about what the broadcast around the Heisman Trophy presentation is and how it differs from being on the sideline for a game. He is quick to point out that on a game day, the old adage “brevity is king” is a reality. In New York though, he will have more time to work with. He plans not to just fill it, but to use it.
Marty’s interest in his subjects’ backgrounds and their emotions is sincere. It is part of a larger philosophy. He respects that everyone has a story to tell and appreciates the opportunity to be the one that gets to tell it, so he is going to do all he can to make sure the people he is talking to know it and know that they matter to him. That means putting in the time to be respectful of his subject’s time.
“When I’m interviewing these players or coaches before a game, I want to interview them, and I’m saying not on camera, but when I’m doing the record. I want to get as thorough as I can get. Then you take all of that and you try to pare it down into a very small window. It’s not easy. I mean, look, most of the time you come home with reams of notes that never even sniff air.”
Marty Smith has always been a unique presence. As his profile has grown and he shows up on TV more often and in more places, more people question who this guy really is.
That is par for the course though, right? Someone with a unique presence sees their star rise and out come the naysayers ready to question how authentic the new object of our affections really is.
For me, there is a moment that defines Marty Smith, at least in this aspect. I cannot remember the year or the situation, but he was on The Dan Le Batard Show, back when it was on ESPN Radio. Smith was telling Dan about friends of his that are stars in the country music world and Dan asked what it is like when they are hanging out backstage before one of these guys goes out to perform.
I cannot remember Smith’s exact answer, but a word he used stood out to me. He said it was just buddies having a cold beer and “fellowshippin'”.
I told Marty about this memory of him and said that I am not accusing him of being inauthentic or his persona on television being an act, but I was curious if he was concious of the words he chooses. Even if the version we get of Marty Smith on TV is the same one we would get if we were part of the fellowshippin’, does he think about how he wants people to think about him?
He is quick to note that is isn’t an act at all. What you see when you see Marty Smith isn’t a persona he cooked up when he decided he was going into television. That is just his personality.
“It is a lifelong field from where I’m from to where I am,” he says of what we see on TV. “It is relationships made that pinched my clay and remolded who I was to who I am and reshaped me as a person.”
Anyone from The South can tell you that there is no one monolithic “South”. The gregarious, larger-than-life personalities in Louisiana may not always feel real to people from the more reserved and anglo-influenced South Carolina. The Southern accent I got from growing up in Alabama sounds nothing like the Southern accents I live near now in North Carolina.
Marty Smith is from Pearisburg, Virginia just outside of Blacksburg. Surely that informs who he is, but he is also shaped by the wealth of conversations he has had and the characters he has met from his professional life.
“At our company, you have to work really hard to not only make it, but to sustain it. I try hard to do that every day,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve said it before, man. I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have. You piece all of those different things together, and along with opportunity you can do something special, and I’m trying to do that every day.”
The Marty Smith you see on TV is the guy that will hand you a box of beef jerky just because you had a great conversation. He is the guy you see in that viral video from a few years back giving a young reporter advice and encouragement.
You can be confused by Marty Smith. You can have your questions about him and his motivations. They aren’t going to change him though. It took too long for him to become who he is to start second-guessing it now.
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.
Another World Cup Run Ends And There’s Still No Soccer Fever In The USA
“We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.”
Soccer fever? Hardly. Not in the United States at least. The US Men’s National Team lost in the round of 16 against the Netherlands 3-1 last Saturday. The ratings are in. And the ratings are revealing.
An average of 12.97 million viewers tuned in to see the Netherlands-United States World Cup match on FOX. Before you say, “Hey, not bad,” consider the fact that the ratings are down from eight years ago when 13.44 million viewers watched the USMNT lose to Belgium in the knockout stage on ESPN.
Even more damning are the ratings of the USMNT’s initial match in the 2022 World Cup against Wales, an unhealthy 8.31 million viewers.
Let me get this straight; fans waited, waited, and waited some more to finally see the USMNT in World Cup action, and the first game in eight years drew 8.31 million viewers? Really?
There were 5.5 million viewers across TV and digital that watched the NFL Network’s telecast of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game in London. That was a Week 5 game in the NFL compared to the World freaking Cup. Network television (FOX) compared to cable TV (NFL Network). And the ratings are comparable? Come on, US Soccer. Y’all gotta do better than this.
*Mini rant alert — it drives me crazy when soccer in this country is consistently compared to soccer in this country. The promoters of the sport paint an obnoxiously rosy picture of the growing popularity by comparing US soccer now to US soccer then. It’s a joke.
It would be like comparing Nebraska’s 4-8 record in college football this year, to Nebraska’s 3-9 record last year. “Hey, things are looking up!” Never mind the fact that the Cornhuskers are significantly trailing several teams in its conference and many other teams across the country. That’s US soccer in a nutshell. Don’t compare it to other leagues and sports that are crushing it, just say we’re up 10% from last year. Ridiculous.
*Mini rant continuing alert — the Michigan-Ohio State game drew 17 million viewers last month. The New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving drew 42 million viewers. Those are regular-season matchups compared to the biggest stage soccer has to offer. But go ahead and just compare US soccer to itself.
And no, the edge you might feel in my words isn’t born out of fear that soccer will somehow surpass the popularity of football. That would be like Mike Tyson being scared that the Stanford Tree mascot could beat him up. US soccer isn’t a threat, it’s a light breeze. I just hate a bad argument. And many soccer apologists have been making bad arguments on the behalf of US soccer for years. *Mini rant over
The World Cup didn’t prove that American fans are invested in soccer. It proved that we love a big event. It’s the same recipe every four years with the Olympics.
During the 2016 summer games in Rio, when swimmer Michael Phelps was in the pool for what turned out to be his final outing in an Olympic competition, the ratings peaked at 32.7 million viewers. Phelps helped Team USA win gold in the men’s 100-meter relay and then rode off into the sunset.
We don’t really care about swimming. When’s the last time you asked a friend, “You heading out tonight?” and the response was, “Are you crazy? The Pan Pacific Championships are on.”
Whether it’s the Olympics or World Cup, Americans care about the overall event much more than the individual sport. We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.
Ask yourself this, at the height of US swimming’s popularity, would you have paid $14.99 per month to watch non-Olympic events? Me either. US soccer isn’t exactly on fire following its showing in the 2022 World Cup, so the timing isn’t awesome to introduce a paywall for the sport’s top league in this country.
Apple and Major League Soccer have announced that MLS Season Pass will launch soon. I know you’re excited, but try to stay composed. Yes, MLS Season Pass will launch on February 1, 2023. It’s a 10-year partnership between MLS and Apple that features every live MLS regular-season match, the playoffs, and the League’s Cup.
Have I died and gone to heaven?
It’ll run you $14.99 per month or $99 per season on the Apple TV app. For Apple TV+ subscribers — make sure you’re sitting down for this, you lucky people — it’s $12.99 per month or $79 per season. If you don’t have US soccer fever right now, I doubt you’re running out to throw down cash on a product you aren’t passionate about.
Now if the USMNT won the 2022 World Cup, cha-ching. The popularity of US soccer would definitely grow in a major way. Even if they had a strong showing while reaching the quarterfinals, the momentum would be much greater. But a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the group of 16? Nope. This isn’t it. I don’t expect much more than some tumbleweed rolling by instead of cash registers heating up for MLS Season Pass.
Colorado Hiring Deion Sanders Will Be Constant Gift for College Football Media
“If Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers, he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor.”
Deion Sanders quickly made it clear why the University of Colorado chose him to be its next head football coach.
Coming off a weekend in which the four College Football Playoff teams were announced and all of the other bowl-eligible teams accepted their invitations, Colorado — which went 1-11 this past season — made news for hiring Sanders, the former NFL star who was phenomenally successful at Jackson State.
The media that covers college football and sports as a whole should be thrilled that the Buffaloes program decided to take a big leap for attention and notoriety. Sanders is a bold, risky hire. But he’s also been successful in virtually every venture he’s taken. “Primetime” had a Hall of Fame NFL career and also played Major League Baseball. And he’s a master at drawing attention to himself.
During his first meeting with his new team, Sanders made sure to mention that he has Louis Vuitton luggage to make the point that some of his Jackson State players are coming with him to Boulder — including his son, quarterback Shadeur Sanders. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart probably don’t cite luxury fashion when explaining to their players that they’ll have to compete for starting positions.
Coach Prime will not be boring to cover. (That self-appointed “Coach Prime” title, which was on his name plate at his introductory press conference, is a big clue there.) He never has been. This is a man who said during the 1989 NFL Draft, after being selected No. 5 overall by the Atlanta Falcons, that if the Detroit Lions had selected him at No. 3, he “would’ve asked for so much money, they’d have had to put me on layaway.”
Even if he doesn’t win as much as Colorado hopes, Sanders will pursue top talent — players who want to perform on a larger stage than the FCS-level Jackson State allows — and impact athletes will be attracted to him. He got the No. 1 recruit in the nation, cornerback and wide receiver Travis Hunter, to play for him. (Hunter is following his coach to Boulder.) Now that Sanders is at an FBS school in a Power 5 conference, more stars will surely come.
But if Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers — going 27-5 in three seasons, including a 12-0 campaign in 2022 — he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor. And he’ll get the attention that such figures typically draw from media and fans. According to the Denver Post‘s Sean Keeler, at least 400 people attended what felt more like a celebration than a press conference.
Coach Prime wasn’t going to just win the press conference, which is what any school and fanbase want when a new coach is introduced.
If Colorado wanted someone to sit at a podium, and give platitudes like “We want to win the Pac-12 and get to the College Football Playoff,” “We’re going to build a program with young men you’ll be proud of,” or “It’s time to restore Colorado to the football glory we remember,” Sanders isn’t the guy for that.
“Do I look like a man that worries about anything? Did you see the way I walked in here? Did you see the swagger that was with me?” Sanders said during his introductory presser. “Worry? Baby, I am too blessed to be stressed. I have never been one for peer pressure. I put pressure on peers. I never wanted to worry, I make people worry. I don’t get down like that. I am too darn confident. That is my natural odor.”
To no surprise, Sanders announced his presence in Boulder with authority. He had cameras following him as he met with Colorado players for the first time. How many other coaches would have recorded what many would see as a private moment for posterity and post it online?
Sanders caused a stir by putting his players on notice. He warned them he was coming, telling them they’ll be pushed so hard they might quit. He told them to enter the transfer portal and go someplace else if they don’t like what he and his staff are going to do.
That candor, that brutal honesty surprised many fans and media when they saw it Monday morning. For some, that message might have felt too familiar. How many in media — or many other industries — have worried about their job status when a new boss takes over? What may have seemed secure days earlier is now uncertain.
But how do we know other coaches haven’t said something similar when taking over at a new job and addressing their team? We just hadn’t seen it before. But Sanders has been in the media. He knows social media. He understands controlling his own message and telling his story.
Sanders also knows what kind of value he brings to any venture he takes on. How many people would have left an NFL Network gig for Barstool Sports? But Sanders went to where his star would shine, where he was the main show, where he could be Deion Sanders. Maybe he’ll have to turn that down just a bit at Colorado. But athletic director Rick George knows who he hired.
Colorado could have made a safer choice, including previous head coaches Tom Herman, Bronco Mendenhall, or Gary Patterson. A top assistant from one of this year’s Playoff contenders — such as Georgia’s Todd Monken, USC’s Alex Grinch, Alabama’s Bill O’Brien, or Michigan’s Sherrone Moore — could also have been an option.
But what fun would that have been? What kind of tremor would Colorado have created in the college football news cycle? How much attention would a more conventional hire have received? Yes, Sanders has to recruit and win. However, if the objective was to make Colorado football a talking point again, that’s been accomplished.
There could be some friction too. Sanders has already been criticized for being a champion of HBCUs, only to bolt for a mainstream Power 5 program when the opportunity opened. (To be fair, other columnists have defended the move.)
At Jackson State, Sanders tried to control local media when he didn’t like how reporters were addressing him or covering a story. Last year during Southwestern Athletic Conference Media Day, he balked at a Clarion-Ledger reporter addressing him as “Deion,” not “Coach,” insisting that Nick Saban would’ve been shown that respect. Earlier this season, Sanders admonished a school broadcaster (and assistant athletic director) for speaking to him more formally on camera than he did off-camera.
Will that fly among Boulder and Denver media, or the national college football press? It’s difficult to imagine. Maybe Sanders will ease back on his efforts to control reporters within a larger university environment, metropolitan area, and media market. But we’re also talking about Deion Sanders here. He doesn’t bend to outside forces. He makes them bend to him.
Sanders’ stint in Boulder — whether it lasts the five years of his contract and beyond, or less than that — will not be dull. There could be no better gift for the media covering Colorado football. Or college football, a sport already full of bold personalities, eccentric to unhinged fanbases, and outsized expectations. Coach Prime will fit right in.
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.