TVWeek's Deputy Editor Chris Pursell is exploring the billion dollar business of sports media. Every week he will deliver the latest insights as well as a fresh perspective along with interviews with the biggest personalities in the business.
With all the talk of football’s and baseball’s trials and tribulations in recent weeks, lost in the mix has been the success of X Games 13, held in Los Angeles earlier this month. The annual competition scored its highest television ratings as well as a record online audience this year.
Nearly 38 million fans tuned into the action sports games on television to watch their share of skateboarding, BMX and rally car, to name a few sports, with ratings up 7 percent from the 2006 competitions. Overall, X Games 13 averaged a 1.0 household coverage rating on ESPN, a 19 percent increase from 2006.
Online, EXPN.com earned its most overall traffic, ever with live webcasts for the first time on the outlet. Unique visitors more than doubled 2006 numbers, with more than half a million visiting the site and more than 3.2 million page views.
I sat down with X Games host Sal Masekela to discuss the state of the action-sports industry. We talked about everything from unions for professional X Games athletes to the chances of certain X Games events hitting the Olympics to the influence of his father, musician Hugh Masekela, on his career.
You worked your first X Games event in January 1999. Did you ever imagine nearly 10 years later that you would be described as the face and voice of action sports?
Sal: No, never in a million years did I think I’d be described that way. I never would have guessed it, 18 years ago, when I first started as an athlete.
How do you feel watching the entire category explode, even seeing international press at X Games?
Sal: It’s amazing. I got to be involved in action sports in my teen years at the perfect time when it was fringe and subculture. It was like punk rock was in the ’70s, or what hip-hop was in the early ’80s. That’s what action sports were in the late ’80s through the mid ’90s. When I look at the path of my career, the timing was perfect. I don’t think someone could just come along and get to do what I’m doing now out of the blue because of exactly what you mentioned. It is so huge now, the amount of attention that the X Games draws on an international level is just mind-blowing.
Where do you see these sports going in 10 years? What’s the next level?
Sal: In 10 years, I think we’ll be laughing at what we thought was possible now, which I’m sitting here witnessing thinking it’s impossible. But to be a 15-year-old kid now, sitting at home watching the level of what’s possible now and having that in your head that it’s reachable, I couldn’t comprehend what that’s like.
I think the sports as a whole will be better organized. The different unions for the athletes, I’d like to see them better organized so that the professionals that are these kids that are in their 20s now, that are putting themselves through, let’s face it, there is a 10-year career in this business that is exciting and exceptional. But unlike the NBA and MLB that have amazing pension programs for their athletes, those kinds of programs don’t exist right now in action sports. So you end up with a here today, gone today sort of thing. I definitely would like to think and hope that the sports have really grown on that level.
I know the summer sports would have broken the Olympic barrier by then, definitely—skateboarding and BMX I think would have broken the Olympic barrier by then a couple times over.
With NFL fever about to grip the country, the networks unleashed their coverage of the preseason last week, to generally negative results. Was it a case of fans dodging the preseason or something more? Hopefully, just preseason jitters as fans find their way back to the television set.
Fox had the highest rated of the telecasts on Thursday, Aug. 9, bolstered by a match up between defending champs the Indianapolis Colts against the always popular Dallas Cowboys. The network was the only one to improve year-to-year, in the ratings with a 4.9 score for the game, up 29 percent over the Indianapolis/St. Louis game in 2006.
NBC had the next best score, with a 4.1 on Sunday Aug. 12 featuring a game between the Seahawks and the Bears, however that number was down 29 percent compared to 2006. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” game between the Broncos and the 49ers, scored a 3.0 rating, down 19 percent year to year on Monday Aug. 13. CBS was right behind with a 2.9 household rating Fri. Aug. 10 with a game between the Bills and the Saints, down 17 percent. Of course, its preseason.
The NFL Network launched the season with its own game between the Redskins and the Titans, which drew a 0.5 for the game.
This week Pressbox sits down with new “MNF” play by play man Ron “Jaws” Jaworski who replaced Joe Theismann in the booth. Jaws played 17 years in the NFL as quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams (1973-76), Philadelphia Eagles (1977-86), Miami Dolphins (1987-88) and Kansas City Chiefs (1989) and led the Eagles to the Super Bowl in 1980.
He was in town for a Rams reunion and was candid about the importance of getting along in the broadcast booth as well as the problems with Arena Football.
There is so much history with MNF, what memories do you have from the broadcasts?
Jaws: I remember the very first game. I was in my dorm room at Youngstown St. University watching New York/Cleveland in the first Monday Night game. It was really the first thought that came to mind when they offered me the job. I thought “My God, I remember watching the first game of ‘Monday Night Football,’ and watched the history of it and played on it. I realized the importance and significance of it and I kind of pinched myself now that I’m going to be the guy breaking the game down. I consider it a privilege and look forward to it.
With Tony and Mike, you’ll be working with people who have been friends of yours for a long time. We’ve already seen your chemistry with Tony on “Pardon the Interruption.” How will it play out in the booth over the season?
Jaws: I think chemistry is the most important thing and really what the game is about. Michelle is going to do the sidelines, and Mike and Tony, we’ve all worked together for years. We all get along which is a great start. I think people will see that immediately, that we’re just people having fun. The game is great, we’re enjoying doing commentary and I think that’s what it’s going to be about. It’s not brain surgery. There’s no reason to complicate it.
Wow, that was a nice change of pace for the summer sports lineups recently with the homerun watch, the X games, a good NASCAR race, the NFL Hall of Fame ceremony as well as the start of preseason football.
The most telling part of it could be in the ratings. With a steroids scandal tainting it, Barry Bonds' chase for the all-time home run record in Major League Baseball -- long considered the ultimate pinnacle of American sports -- was watched by few. Saturday night’s ratings for the MLB telecast on ESPN2 in which Mr. Bonds tied Hank Aaron’s mark pulled a 0.9 national rating and 2 share for the night with 1.3 million viewers. (Although, to be fair, the game aired at night on the West Coast.) Meanwhile, his record-breaking shot on Tuesday matched that score. Both of those ratings are below the season-to-date score for MLB coverage on ESPN and ESPN2. In fact, the Saturday score was nearly matched by ABC’s broadcast of the X Games (0.8 rating) and bested by NASCAR’s Busch Series racing on the same channel (1.2).
As we undertake the yearlong countdown to the Olympic Games, NBC this week announced it plans an unprecedented 3,600 hours of coverage of the events in Beijing next year. My math may be fuzzy, but that seems to be the equivalent of 150 straight days of watching nothing but the Games, without sleep.
The key here, of course, will be in the broadband streaming of the competitions for the first time. You have to give credit to NBC Universal Sports and NBC Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol, who is taking every advantage possible of the company’s rights to the event -- which is set through the Summer 2012 Games -- which it spent $2.2 billion to get.
Of course, the rise of digital platform rights will make contract renewal talks a high-wire act, especially with dollar figures for digital rights soaring (just ask ESPN after its renewal with the NBA). Even more interesting will be China’s reaction to the bevy of press on the scene.
Speaking of Olympics, there are few memories more clear for most Americans than the U.S. win over the USSR in hockey during the Cold War era. One of our guests this week is none other than Al Michaels, who called that game.
Al has covered more major sports events than any other sportscaster, including 20 years as the play-by-play voice of “Monday Night Football,” and has appeared on live primetime broadcast network television more than any person in history. He made headlines last year after leaving his longtime home at ABC to take the job of play-by-play commentator for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” along with John Madden.
I met with Al and SNF producer Fred Gaudelli here in L.A. recently and had the chance to pick their brains about the new football season, their feeling toward ABC and the stadiums they absolutely hate to work in.
What makes good chemistry in the broadcast booth? Al: With John in particular, number one, we both love what we do. We’ve been doing it for a long time. I think we take a great deal of pride in getting things right, we both have a lot of passion for the game and John of course has shown that in manifest ways for a lot of years. I think we both feel that we’re pretty lucky and it’s an honor to be able to do something like this at this level.
People have forever been telling us that we have the best jobs in the world, I couldn’t dispute that.
I’ve listened to John obviously for a lot of years before we got to work together and that John would be on the bus and never miss a “Monday Night” game. When we were paired together it was, in our minds, never a question that this was going to work and work great.
The irony was when this happened I read a few stories that said these two guys both eat a lot of air time and they would never mesh. We both laughed at that. We knew that this was a pairing that couldn’t miss. The very first game we did, a Hall of Fame Game in 2002, by the time I got to the second commercial I looked at John and I knew what was on my mind and he said what was on his mind and it was like we’ve done this for 20 years even though we had only been on for 11 minutes. Right from the get-go we knew this was going to work.
My only regret is that instead of the sixth year we’ve been working together, it could have been the 20th.
What can we expect in season two on SNF? Fred: I think every year we come at it looking to do it better than the year before. We’re going to have some significant technical toys for lack of a better word this year, some advancements that are going to make the game easier to understand, that are going to provide more clarity to the controversial big plays of the game. We keep pushing the technology, but as it relates to Al and John, the director. The four of us have worked together for six years. It’s really just trying to do it better. Al said it, we all have a lot of passion for what we do. We all want to be the best at what we do. I go back and rewatch the season after the season is over and figure out ways we can be better.
You both came over from ABC, what would you say are the cultural difference between the two companies? Fred: There is an enormous cultural difference between the two families. Al was with ABC much longer than I was, I was only there for five years. I loved every second I was at ABC. Unfortunately, Disney decided that ABC Sports wasn’t anything they wanted to take care of any longer. So “Monday Night Football” was really kind of, as was the rest of the department, left to die on the vine. It was only a matter of time before they could work out the legal aspect of merging ABC Sports with ESPN.
At NBC, they are thrilled to have this property and they support it in more ways than I ever could imagine. Obviously, Dick Ebersol is a huge factor behind that and his presence and what he means to the company and what he means to the business in general. There are really two extremes from my viewpoint from what it was like at ABC compared to what it was like here.
Al: Freddy summed it up perfectly, One similarity was that we were able to bring a lot of people with us from “Monday Night.” There is that cultural difference at the top, but internally what we do production wise, we have a lot of the same people who are damn good at doing “Monday Night Football.” Freddy was able to bring a good many of them over here.
So we have a lot of the parts, supplemented by some great people who came to us from the NBC end. So in many ways, that made the transition pretty easy because we had a running start. We just needed to pull a few people in. In that sense, there has been a continuum of people here despite the fact that we are now on gone from Disney to GE.
Who would you say is the most underrated sports broadcast personality right now? Al: That’s tough, there are guys I think are pretty good that the critics blast. Fred: A guy who does it for me that really doesn’t get enough acclaim is John Miller, who does baseball. I love the way he makes it fun, he know the game inside and out. He knows the rules and is always on point. So for me, he’s the guy who doesn’t really get the acclaim for someone who is doing a national game.
I think Ernie Johnson from a studio perspective is probably one of the best studio shows out there with TNT’s NBA coverage. I think Ernie Johnson does a great job keeping those balls in the air with a total wild card like Charles Barkley. I would say those two guys probably don’t get the acclaim that I think they should.
Al: In a slightly different vein here, an old partner of mine is a guy that I think is the best baseball analyst out there and that’s Tim McCarver. And Tim I wouldn’t say is underrated, but he has been around so long that there are varying opinions of him. I’ll read some negative stuff about Tim but having worked with him and listened to him and knowing how hard he works, he brings a very fresh perspective to the game and comes in different doors like few others. I don’t think there is the appreciation of Tim that there should be.
What jumps out at you in terms of your favorite memory as a sportscaster? Al: Number one of course is the 1980 Winter Olympics, that’s number one by a thousand miles. I can’t even think of a scenario that could top that. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. Sports Illustrated named it the greatest sports event of the 20th Century and it was because it transcended sports and it meant so much to the country at that time.
It was hockey but it was more than hockey. It was a slice of the cold war at that point. So that would be number one by a lot and forever because I just can’t imagine anything like that happening again. It would have to be something on an international stage. It would have to be something that transcended sports. The world is different right now and there is no such thing as the iron curtain. Until the day comes when Al-Qaeda has an Olympic team and we beat the hell out of them, there is going to be nothing like that.
After football, what sports do you have you enjoyed calling the most? Al: I started my career and did a ton of baseball early on and when I stopped doing it I missed the hell out of it. We stopped in ‘89 and we got back into it in the mid ‘90s with the Baseball Network and they shared the world series with at that time Bob Costas on NBC. We went back and forth from NBC to ABC and that’s the last time I did baseball. So I don’t miss it nearly as much as I did at that point, I’ve learned to live without it obviously.
I did the NBA for a couple years recently, and went in with some trepidation, I hadn’t done basketball for so long and I really got to love it. Had ABC continued “MNF,” I would have been able to continue on the NBA if they wanted me to. When I first agreed to do the NBA I thought I don’t know how this is going to work out but by the end of the year, I was ready to reup for a while.
Hockey, I love the sport but it’s the toughest sport to do. I’m not anywhere close to the best guys that can do the NHL, the Mike Emmericks of the world. They are 85 million miles ahead of where I could ever be, but I was lucky enough to do Olympic hockey which was a different brand of hockey. When you’re doing Olympic hockey you are sort of teaching the audience about it along with the play by play. I felt comfortable doing that.
In the end though, football would be number one right now.
NFL ratings are still so strong compared to other sports. What’s the next step for the league? Fred: The NFL has to mind its own store and make sure that they keep everything in check and keep growing the game. As long as they keep the game front and center, which is what Roger Goodell says he wants to do, I think that they’ll be safe. If the eye ever comes off the game and drifts somewhere else, then they stand a chance of becoming vulnerable. But it’s tremendous and a better sport to watch on TV than to be at. As long as they keep there eye on the game, I don’t think anybody would overtake them.
Al: Absolutely, one of the things about football and why football has gotten past baseball, and why basketball and hockey I don’t think will ever catch up is that football is a perfect television sport. It is perfect.
You have a four or five second burst of action and then 30 to 40 seconds of inaction which is inaction if you are watching the game from the stadium but from home you might have four or five different angles and you have statistical information that can be presented. Any number of things can be done. Jimmy Johnson, former coach now with Fox, and I were talking about football on television once and I think he summed it up perfect when he said the difference between watching on TV and in the stadium is that if there was a four yard gain in the game and you are watching the game on television, we can make the gain seem like Armageddon. If you are in the stadium, a four yard gain is a four yard gain period.
On television we can show what the right guard did or watch the coach’s reaction. It’s an amazing thing to watch this collision that you can’t see from the stands. That’s why football benefits from the fact that it is made for television despite the fact that the guys wear helmets. The close angles and HD and all the stuff, even with those helmets and masks, you can get right in there and see the faces. It’s spectacular.
From a broadcaster and production point of view, what’s the best stadium to work in? Al: From the announcers’ point of view, the Meadowlands and Kansas City second because they were built at a time when the architects and the teams paid attention to the fact that the broadcast booth should be in a position where its easy to see the game because you are sitting at the 50 yard line and you’re close to the field.
Now they’ve built these gigantic stadiums where they would rather sell a luxury box in that general location. In San Francisco, you might as well be calling the game from a blimp. Even with 20/20 eyesight you still can’t read the numbers on the players’ jerseys when you look down.
That’s always frosted me when we spend as much money as we do and at Candlestick until maybe 20 years ago, the broadcast booth in the mezzanine was right at the 50 yard line. They took that away. One of the things that hurts us in this business is that while we’re all in competition with each other as networks, there’s a commonality of interest regarding things like that. I’ve always felt that once the contracts are all laid out, we should say ‘hey we need certain things to happen for us or be made available to us because it will help you to.
I feel a hell of a lot better announcing a game in New York City than I do in San Francisco because I can actually see the game in front of me.
Fred: From a production point of view, the most technologically advanced stadium is Qwest Field in Seattle, because they’ve thought of everything from a broadcast perspective. The booth is huge, maybe not as low as at Kansas City or at the Meadowlands but it’s in a pretty good spot. Any and every camera position you could ever want was accounted for and precabled.
Their Jumbotron is in high defenition, they work with you during the game so you can use it as an element during the telecast. Their fans are vastly underrated as is the football team. I really love Qwest Field in Seattle, I love Lambeau just for the tradition of it, and obviously being from New York I love the Meadowlands as well. But Qwest Field trumps any stadium when it comes to the technology.