WEEI’s Greg Hill Is a Team Player
“I think you should do the laughing at yourself, and then you should be encouraging everybody else to laugh at you.”
It’s easy to like Greg Hill. The Boston sports radio host is not a me guy. Hill just won a Marconi Award for Major Market Personality of the Year, but he’s more eager to talk about his WEEI cast members than himself. He prefers to highlight Jermaine Wiggins, Courtney Cox and Chris Curtis. Hill is like a star quarterback that would rather talk about his teammates during the postgame interview.
It goes beyond his current cast as well. Hill has roots in rock radio and attributes a lot of his current success to the people that once surrounded him at WAAF. People like Lyndon Byers, Danielle Murr, Mike Hsu and Spaz all played major roles in his achievements. Hill is like a humble MVP that says he couldn’t have won the award without his teammates, the training staff, the secretary or the custodian.
At the risk of making Hill sound like a modern-day prophet, the greatest example of being team-oriented is Hill’s foundation. At the end of the year, “The Greg Hill Foundation” will have donated $25 million to help people in need.
It’s an interesting blend; a major part of Hill’s success is to make people laugh and do zany things. Then Hill turns around, puts his grown-up pants on and thinks about how he can assist others. He isn’t worried about his stardom or how many Twitter followers he can accumulate as much as he’s focused on using his platform to help other people. Again, Greg Hill is easy to like.
We chat about the single greatest thing about the Boston area and waking up before the crack of dawn for 33 years. We also talk about developing chemistry, blatant disregard for traffic laws, and possibly the greatest Bill Belichick catchphrase of all time. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: I don’t know if I should call you Greg Hill or Mr. Marconi. What do you think?
Greg Hill: [Laughs] I think Greg is fine.
BN: [Laughs] Okay, that works. Have you been tempted to tell your crew, it’s Mr. Marconi from now on?
GH: [Laughs] No, because I hear it every day from Chris Curtis and Wiggy and everybody else who has no problem taking a shot at me on the show about it. I hear it an awful lot during the day.
BN: That’s a major deal to win that award. What does it mean to you?
GH: Yeah, it’s amazing and it’s a really cool thing. It’s something that I never thought would happen to me in this business. When you go to that event and there’s so many talented people in this business and so many talented people that are in these categories, it’s a really cool thing.
BN: How would you describe what it felt like to be there? Did it feel cool, or kind of stuffy and ritzy? How did it feel to be there?
GH: We all work in radio so when they do these dinners some of us just show up for the free chicken or whatever. It was a really cool group of people and it was a lot of people. It was great to reconnect with some people that I haven’t seen in a long time that I worked together with in the past. Nick Cannon was there and I don’t think he got anybody pregnant during the ceremony. It was a really cool thing to be a part of and a really amazing night.
BN: You’ve talked about how much your old show cast at AAF has meant to your success at EEI. What conversations have you had with your former co-workers since winning a Marconi?
GH: Yeah, it was really cool. I worked with Lyndon Byers and with Danielle and with Mike Hsu and with Spaz for — in a lot of cases — well over 20 years. They all immediately sent me a text about it. I was so happy for them too because the way I look at it, every single person that I’ve ever worked with has in most cases been more talented than I am, so for all of those people and everybody who has — and that’s not only on air — like everybody that we get to work with traffic-wise, marketing-wise, promotions-wise, all those people, without them there’d be no finished product. To me, it’s their award. No bullshit, it belongs to everybody that I ever worked with.
BN: If you hear a sports radio host, can you tell that they once did rock radio? Is there something in their approach or the way they sound that lets you know they’ve done more than just sports talk?
GH: I don’t know. I think radio people are radio people. I think in sports radio, there’s a lot of former athletes, and they know their sport and other sports really well. Then I think there’s radio people who are really great at being on the radio and know radio well. I don’t know if I could hear the difference based on somebody who’s been in rock radio. You mean like, do they sound stoned or something?
BN: [Laughs] Yeah, like they start talking about the Patriots and then say here’s some Depeche Mode or something. No, just kind of like their delivery. Is there a different vibe? Can you tell if someone had more than just a strictly sports hosting background?
GH: Yeah, I think you can because I think maybe the nuances. They’re less numbers and stats and more trying to find some unique way of talking about it.
BN: What have you been able to grab from your rock background that has helped you flourish as a sports radio host?
GH: Well, for a long time I did a talk show on a rock station. For the last, whatever it was, 15 years or 12 years that I was there, we didn’t play music. I think music appeals to everybody universally, so we still found a way to work music and other things into a discussion. I guess from my perspective, that’s what I try to do here is to find ways to approach talking sports differently at times in a way that sometimes appeals to everybody.
BN: Are you happy you made the transition over to sports radio?
GH: Yeah, I love it. I never would’ve thought going into this that we would end up with a similar group of people who have great chemistry together as on the AAF show. I’m just so lucky that we have that same or better chemistry, me and Wiggy and Curtis and Courtney. Anytime you make the change, you’re nervous about it and you wonder what it’s going to be like, and I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s gone for almost four years now believe it or not.
BN: Do you think there’s anything that you can do to strengthen chemistry, or is it just one of those it’s there or it’s not type things?
GH: I think doing things together as a group away from the radio show can somewhat help strengthen it, but I think it’s something that is either there or not. And if it’s not there, then it’s glaring when you listen on the radio, or when you see it elsewhere.
BN: What’s something that Jermaine does well, as an ex-athlete, that would work well for other ex-athletes who are now hosting shows?
GH: I think he’s fearless. I think he’ll say anything without thinking before he says it. [Laughs] I think he’s really good at talking sports, talking Patriots. He’s really good at breaking it down so that everybody understands it. I think he’s great at doing that with everything. There’s no topic that you can’t bring up with him that he doesn’t have immediate input on every single day.
BN: How about Courtney, what would you say is her biggest strength?
GH: I think one thing that Courtney really brings to the show is that she’s way, way younger than all of us. She brings a different perspective from kind of where she is in life. A lot of the listeners are there, so I think that’s really important. She also loves this business. This is her first radio job, but loves the business, and has a really unique perspective when it comes to the way she looks at sports in this city.
BN: How does Curtis fit in with you guys and what does he provide that gives you the most value?
GH: He’s the most cynical and normally spot-on-with-his-cynicism person that I’ve ever worked with. He probably is arguably the wittiest person that I’ve ever worked with and that we have on the show. There’s probably nobody who’s better at making fun of me and having a lot of laughs at my expense than he is. He’s indispensable.
BN: What would you say to hosts that don’t want to be the butt of the joke and can’t laugh at themselves?
GH: I would say this would not be the business for you. I think you should do the laughing at yourself, and then you should be encouraging everybody else to laugh at you because it’s the greatest common denominator that there is.
BN: With the interviews you do with Bill Belichick, when it’s the commercial break right before the interview begins, what’s going through your mind and how are you feeling about the upcoming interview?
GH: [Laughs] I am always wondering which question that we’re going to ask will elicit the longest pause. I kind of have a little bit of internal fun with myself in trying to come up with the most ridiculous question for him, the one that will finally send him into a complete tailspin and make him leave radio for good. We’ve actually been able to, I don’t know, a handful of times get a legitimate laugh out of him, which I think is probably a victory for us.
BN: What’s your favorite memory or story from all of the interviews you’ve done with him?
GH: Just because it’s so Bill, I think that we asked him a dumb question about Thanksgiving sides last year. There was no pause and his immediate answer was basically a 20-second run-through on every kind of way in which potatoes could be prepared. Then at the end of it, he said, starch me up, which is like the least Bill Belichick thing I think Bill Belichick has ever said. And again, I’m on a sports station and that was my favorite Bill Belichick moment, so that explains me in a nutshell.
BN: Aww man, I love that story. How would you describe what it’s like doing radio in Boston to someone who doesn’t do radio in Boston?
GH: I’ve never done radio anywhere else, so I don’t know; I would imagine that it’s not that different. There’s so much passion for sports here, and I’m sure it’s like other cities where the fan base is passionate, Philadelphia, New York, those cities where people are so into it that you literally can get 10 calls on a preseason game for the Bruins because people are so into sports here. They also can turn on a dime. They can be miserable one minute, Patriots lose and that’s it, the season’s done. Then you turn around and Bailey Zappe’s going to save the franchise. It’s a great city to do radio in general, having not been anywhere else.
BN: For the longest time, I always thought Boston was just so hardcore about sports, they didn’t want to be bothered with anything that wasn’t sports. But now I don’t think that’s the case. Is it more that they’re open-minded to have a laugh and talk about something non-sports for a little while, as long as you get back to sports eventually?
GH: Yeah, I think we basically want to bitch about sports and then bitch about the weather. In the winter, it’s too cold and miserable. Then in the summer, it’s too hot. Then everybody wants to bitch about traffic and bitch about why the politicians are doing what they’re doing. It’s kind of like a non-stop thing. The topic that people are complaining about just changes every day.
BN: Is there anything like politics or something else that you have a big interest in, that you really don’t spend a whole lot of time on during your show?
GH: No, I mean I think we try to talk about everything. My intent is that what we’re going to talk about on any given day is what is on the mind of 65% of the people that might listen. It doesn’t matter to me what the topic is as long as people are interested in it, and we can try to find a way to laugh about it.
BN: It says on the WEEI website that “The Greg Hill Foundation” has donated over $10 million since 2010. That’s amazing, man. What does that mean to you considering everybody that you’ve been able to help through the foundation?
GH: We will actually, at the end of this year, we will have donated $25 million. That, to me, is like — all kidding aside about people here, complaining and being Massholes — that, to me, is the single greatest thing about this region, where I grew up and where I get to live, is how generous people are. Not only our foundation, but so many incredible charities that are here, whether it’s the Jimmy Fund. The listeners of this radio station come out every year and without fail, donate over $3 million to the Jimmy Fund during our radio telethon. It’s amazing to me how much people give here, how they do it over and over again, and how important it is to them to give within the community. It’s an amazing thing.
BN: That’s awesome. It’s a random comparison, but it makes me think of my girlfriend. She’s from Mexico City. How things are shown on TV, you might have this image in your mind that the cartel is on every block there. It’s not like that. If you apply that to Boston, the way that it’s portrayed is that everybody’s crotchety. Would generosity be the thing that exists but most people don’t see?
GH: Yeah, for sure. And zero respect for any kind of traffic laws whatsoever. I think those are the two things.
BN: [Laughs] So they do have respect for the traffic laws?
GH: [Laughs] No, absolutely not. There’s blatant disregard. It’s everybody for themselves when you hit the roads around here. But I think people here, they don’t waste a lot of time walking down the street, pleasantries. I think people are on their way to do something and busy, and maybe that’s the impression that you get from the outside. But we are the most generous people; I’d put us up against anybody in the country when it comes to how much we care about other people.
BN: I’m not jinxing it, but if today ended up being your last radio show, what would you miss most about it?
GH: Probably the opportunity to be able to use the radio audience to help other people. We’re given this incredible platform. It’s a privilege to be able to be on the radio or beyond, the social media platform or whatever, it’s a privilege to be able to have people who are interested in what you do. For me, if I wasn’t on the radio anymore, I’d missed the opportunity to be able to help other people through the foundation or just in talking about things that people need, things that people are doing to change what’s going on around us. That, to me, would be the biggest thing I think I’d miss.
BN: What do you think you wouldn’t miss?
GH: Did you think I was gonna say free food?
BN: [Laughs] No, it’s a blank canvas for me. I have no preconceived, ohh, he’s probably gonna say this. Wherever it goes, it goes, man. It’s radio. What would you miss the least about it?
GH: Definitely the hours I think.
BN: What’s the alarm clock set on?
GH: 4:30. And only for like the last 33 years. So I wouldn’t mind sleeping in at some point in my life.
BN: Can you sleep in on the weekends?
GH: Yeah, if you call like 8:30 sleeping in. Yes, I guess.
BN: In terms of the future, let’s say over the next five years, what would you want it to look like?
GH: Radio is my passion. I can’t see not working in this business probably ever. I think the place that I’m at now, where the radio station is, is really exciting. The fact that we have the chemistry that we have on the show, and that we all like going to work with each other, like being in there for 20 hours a week, and whatever we do afterwards. I think it’s a place that I’d like to be at for a while. There’s a lot of cool stuff that we are doing, and that we can do, and that we should keep doing.
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.