Thursday, February 25, 2010

Here We Go Again ...

The incident this week involving ESPN personality Tony Kornheiser and fellow ESPN anchor Hannah Storm was a predictable reminder of how the sports media still have a 'boys club' mentality.

On his radio show, Kornheiser criticized an outfit that Storm had worn on ESPN, calling it "horrifying." "She’s got on red go-go boots and a catholic school plaid skirt," said Kornheiser. "Way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now."

I call this a predictable event for several reasons. One, that Kornheiser made the comments to begin with. For someone that's been in the business for many years, Kornheiser should have known better, but the guys who work in the "boys club" of sports media still don't get it. Kornheiser honestly didn't think he said anything offensive, and to his credit offered an apology which Storm graciously accepted. But it's an obvious double-standard in the sports media when women are measured by their appearance or dress and men are not. Older guys like Kornheiser have a little more trouble with this because they grew up and began working in an era when the sports media were almost completely male, but that's still no excuse.

Secondly, ESPN suspended him from his radio and TV duties for two weeks. In the grand scheme of things, what Kornheiser said certainly doesn't rank with the most offensive comments ever made against women in the sports media. But while it may have seemed innocuous, in today's day and age you simply cannot say stuff like that on the air. People in the sports media lose jobs for sexist comments, a fact Kornheiser knows well by now.

The last point is the reaction from female sports reporters and anchors across the country. Because they've seen this so many times before their reaction is tinged more with resignation that outrage. Every time an incident like this occurs the pattern is the same: male sports person says something sexist, criticism mounts, male sports person apologizes, incident blows over. The point is that nothing ever changes. The attitudes are the same; it's just that males in the sports media industry (with the exception of Kornheiser) have learned to keep their mouths shut. It would be nice to think that this incident is going to lead us all into a new age of gender enlightenment, but history tells us something different. Sadly, it will probably happen again soon, and we'll once again play out this old, familiar script.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Still Angry

Just as a follow-up on the Olympic hockey mess NBC has created for itself ...

Fans in the U.S. are still angry over the way NBC relegated the U.S.-Canada game to MSNBC rather than showing it live on the big network. (MSNBC did not have the game in HD, and viewers on the west coast saw a replay of the Russia-Czech game). Ratings for the game were huge for MSNBC, making it the 2nd-highest rated program in the network's history, behind only election night 2008. NBC will counter that ice dancing had better ratings than the hockey, but it would be interesting to see how the numbers would have looked if the game was on NBC and the ice dancing on MSNBC.

Simply put, NBC dropped the ball (or puck, in this case).

Monday, February 22, 2010

N-B-"See" it? Not hockey

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice," undoubtedly the most important hockey game in U.S. history. One could argue that last night's 5-3 U.S. win over Canada was the 2nd most important. After all, the U.S. had not beaten the Canadians in the Olympics since 1960, and had not beaten them at all since the 1996 World Cup. Add that the heavily-favored Canadians had home-ice advantage and you have a win of monumental proportions. (Something similar to the CFL champions coming here and beating the Super Bowl champs).

On top of everything else, it was a terrific game, which at one point featured back-to-back-to-back breakaways in the second period. Broadcaster Mike Emrick (himself a gold medal performer) called it "mesmerizing;" parter Ed Olyczyk enthused it was "tremendously tremendous." The game was part of what many in Vancouver called "Super Sunday"-- a triple-header of international hockey rivalries that also included Russia vs. the Czechs (Russia won 4-2), and Finland vs. Sweden (won by Sweden, 3-0).

But on a Sunday that should have showcased the best of Olympic hockey, the games were seen by ... almost no one outside the arena. With the exception of the final few seconds of the U.S. and Canada, NBC chose not to put any of the games on its big network, instead shunting them off to poorly-watched sister station MSNBC. While Canada virtually shut down last night to watch the game, NBC figured it could get better ratings by showing taped-delayed alpine skiing and ice dancing.

It's a sad testament to the state of the NHL that ice dancing is now considered a bigger television draw than hockey, which is why, despite the presence of NHL superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, hockey has been virtually invisible in these Olympics. Since the NHL's disastrous decision to move games from ESPN to the Versus network, the league has almost disappeared from American television. The NHL also continues to suffer from lack of support for several teams, most notably those in southern climates like Miami, Tampa and Phoenix; in other words, cities that had no business getting a hockey franchise.

But there are signs that hockey is making a bit of a comeback. The "Winter Classic" game on New Year's Day has become a popular tradition; ratings are up for the Sunday network games (on the very same NBC), and attendance is also up for most of the NHL. Young stars like Crosby and Ovechkin (who could meet in the Olympics if Canada plays Russia) have helped revitalize interest in the league.

30 years ago the "Miracle on Ice" (with major assists from Gretzky and Lemieux) helped rekindle American interest in hockey and led to a decade of prosperity for the NHL. The same could happen today, but only if NBC has the wisdom to put more of the games on the big network. The U.S. win has now sparked the interest; it's up to NBC to fan the flame.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tiger's sorry ... so are we

Today's Tiger Woods event was an interesting lesson in the modern realities of celebrity-sports journalism.

Woods read a 13-minute prepared statement, but otherwise allowed no other coverage and took no questions. He selected who could cover the event and how they could cover it. Sports journalists rankled at the conditions (the Golf Writers Association of America 'boycotted' the event), but as expected, just about everyone with a pad, pen or microphone tuned in and many carried it live. (In his live blog of the statement, Cameron Morfit of wonderfully called it a "non-boycott boycott of this non-press conference press conference"). Immediately after the statement ended, the speculation, gossip and opinion started popping up in sports media across the world.

It would have shown some real guts (and some say real stupidity) for sports journalists to turn their backs like the GWAA wanted to do and ignore the event. Yes, journalists shouldn't cover press conferences with all those stipulations, and yes, Woods didn't tell us anything we probably already didn't know (except the ONE thing people were most interested in--when he might return to golf).

But if you're in the sports media you MUST (underline, exclamation point) cover the thing, which means giving in and doing it Tiger's way. It's not pleasant being held hostage by overpaid, self-gratifying athletes and coaches who have a very deep rooted sense of entitlement (as Tiger thankfully acknowledged was part of his problem). But at the same time, the sports media have aided and abetted in this process. By hanging on every word, televising every image, and blogging every moment, they simply add more fuel to the fire that is celebrity sports journalism. The sports media turn an athlete or coach into a household name, talk endlessly about him/her, then wait for the (usually inevitable) crash and burn. Then we wring hands, become indignant and wonder how someone like Woods could be so ... human.

I'm not trying to let Tiger off the hook, but rather suggest that he didn't do it alone. Athletes and the sports media seemed to be trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle: 1) athlete becomes good 2) sports media build him/her up 3) athlete becomes uber-celebrity 4) athlete proves human and falls 5) sports media tear him/her down. That's the way it works in today's 365/24/7 sports media world.

I'm not suggesting that things are going to change nor do I have any suggestions as to how they could. But as I sit today and watch Tiger repeat the same words over and over on almost every sports media outlet in existence, it sure makes me wish for the good ol' days when athletes' private lives were private and they were measure solely by what they did in the arena.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Wacky, *&#% World of Snowboarding

When it comes to the Olympics (or just athletics in general), snowboarders have always been considered a breed apart thanks to their laid-back, surfer-dude mentality. Americans were shocked when Lindsay Jacobellis blew a gold medal in the 2006 games by trying a hot-dogging move toward the end of a race, then refusing to apologize for it. (With a shot at redemption in Vancouver, Jacobellis unfortunately failed to qualify for the finals).

Snowboarding icon Shaun White has no such problems. Wednesday night, White blew away the competition in the half-pipe to win yet another gold medal. White already had the gold medal clinched and could have taken it easy for his 2nd run, but decided to do something spectacular ... and did he ever--landing a move that included 2 complete flips and 3-1/2 twists.

The only down side of the whole thing was listening to White and coach Bud Keene right before the final effort. As is quite common in a variety of sports, motivation came in the form of several profanities. Not to be prudish, but do we really need to hear that in prime-time? Kudos to NBC for having a camera and microphone to capture the moment, but what's wrong with running a delay for a few seconds? By now, we've all seen the dangers of putting a live microphone into such situations. (Audio from NBA coaches during TV games is taped-delayed and never live).

The NBC announcers quickly apologized, but it was certainly a situation that could have been prevented. Again, not a huge deal ... it's all part of the game in sports, and especially snowboarding, and it certainly doesn't detract from all those gold-medal performances Wednesday night. But it's another black eye for NBC, which despite some good early ratings, has made plenty of mistakes in covering these games.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Omnipresent Eye

The omnipresent eye means that nothing, nothing, escapes video recording these days. Whether it's on the world stage in the Olympics in Vancouver or at the backyard birthday party, it's all recorded for posterity. We were all reminded of that again this week when video of the horrific crash and death of the Georgian luger appeared on CNN. (WARNING--it is graphic).

There are lots of ethical and privacy issues in play here. Are there any rules, or should there be any rules, regarding how far is too far? The First Amendment keeps the Internet relatively regulation-free, leaving policing mainly to the content providers. History tells us that system doesn't always work very well. (For example, although YouTube says the crash video is too graphic and has tried to remove it, new versions keep periodically popping up).

Newer, cheaper technology has armed the 6+ billion people on the planet with the ability to shoot and upload almost anything. What does that mean to the concept of personal privacy? Imagine your most _____ moment (fill in the blank: embarrassing, dangerous, unseemly, etc.) captured on video and beamed around the globe. We marvel at the Internet's ability to make famous people like Susan Boyle (87+ million YouTube hits and counting), but don't pay near as much attention to people like these girls who were secretly taped working out to Wii Fit and became embarrassed (and unwitting) celebrities.

There are not easy answers to any of these questions, but the questions need to be asked just the same.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Peacock Crows

NBC has every right to be concerned about the ongoing Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Some suggested before the games even began that the combination of a bad economy and NBC's own internal problems would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the network to recoup its $820 million investment. Then things got off to a rocky start, with an athlete killed in an Olympic practice run and a technical malfunction at the opening ceremonies.

But NBC can breathe a little easier after the weekend. Ratings turned out much better than expected, leading the network to believe that these games can become a money-maker. Experts say a strong showing over the next two weeks can help NBC reverse a difficult year and get it back on financial track.

As with most Olympics, the U.S. ratings are mostly about time zones. It was difficult for audiences to see any events in U.S. prime time when the games were in Torino, Italy in 2006. Just having events that can be broadcast live and in prime-time (especially in on the west coast) has already given NBC a larger audience for these Olympics than it ever had in Torino. Things should only get better for the network as the signature Olympics events (figure skating, hockey and downhill skiing) get underway.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The ABC's of broadcast sports

We've seen more and more sports content show up on cable outlets, specifically ESPN, TNT and TBS. For the first time in its long history, the Rose Bowl will be broadcast on ESPN in 2011 rather than on ABC. Cable and satellite have become so ubiquitous, audiences don't seem to care much, except when their outlet does not offer the game they want to see (such as the lack of availability of NFL Sunday Ticket on cable outlets and the much-discussed problems with the NFL Network).

But what about the broadcast outlets that now lose these valuable sports properties? This week, ABC network affiliates complained loud and long about losing more sports to Disney-partner ESPN. Not only the Rose Bowl will move, but also the 2011 British Open and perhaps even more important to many affiliates in the south, eight NASCAR races this fall. It's a double whammy for the affiliates--not only do they lose the sports programming and the ad revenue that goes with it, but now they have to compete with a corporately-owned sibling to attract viewers in those time slots.

Such actions make sense at the corporate level, but may eventually sound the death-knell of sports on broadcast television. And although it sounds rather apocalyptic, perhaps even the death of broadcast TV itself. Two of the main revenue generators at affiliates are local news and sports. The problems of local television news have been well documented, and now sports is slowly shifting from free network TV to cable. As penetration rates for cable and satellite continue to increase, and technology offers new platforms to distribute the content, is there any reason to show sports content on broadcast TV? Other than the FCC's desire to keep free TV alive, what is now stopping broadcast television from simply slipping down the slope into oblivion?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To start your morning ...

A couple of quick hits this morning ...

Bradley University has an opening for an Assistant Professor in Sports Communication. More information on the job and how to apply can be found here.

And the University of Memphis and the University of Maryland are once again offering the "Sport, Commerce & Culture in the Global Marketplace" study abroad program in London. The course will take place July 4-17, 2010. Students can earn either 3 or 6 credits for participating in the program and can sign up through either the University of Memphis or the University of Maryland. The course is NOT limited to students just from those universities. For more information you can contact John Amis (Memphis),; Michael Silk (University of Bath),

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Not So Fast, Super Bowl

By now, you've probably heard all about the huge audience for Sunday's Super Bowl between the Saints and Colts. The game attracted an audience of 106.5 million viewers, which makes it the most-watched show in television history. The previous record belonged to M*A*S*H, which had 106 million viewers for its 2-1/2 hour finale in 1983.

But when you look a little closer, the numbers don't seem quite as impressive. First of all, keep in mind that audiences are higher for all shows today because the population keeps growing. (In the U.S., around 234 million in 1983 compared to about 315 million today). It's the same reason newer movies hold all the box office records--ticket prices continue to increase.

A better measure of audience is probably the rating/share, the comparison of those watching television vs. those watching the game. Sunday's game had a 45 rating and 68 share, which is terrific, but doesn't even put it in the top 5 of all Super Bowl games. And it doesn't come close to the 60 rating/77 share for the final episode of M*A*S*H.

This isn't to bash the ratings for the game. The Super Bowl continues to defy the trend of declining audiences for other sports events, as the game audience went up 8% from last year. (Bill Gorman has an excellent analysis of historical Super Bowl ratings). But, it's like the old NBC public service announcement used to say ... "The more you know ..."

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Signing Day--Followup

Just a quick addendum to our story about National Signing Day ...

Apparently, USC has now received a verbal commitment from Delaware schoolboy quarterback David Sills ... who is in middle school and all of 13 years old. That's right ... Sills accepted an offer from USC and gave the Trojans a verbal commitment to play when he graduates in 2015.

As Sills' father is quick to point out (several times, in fact) there is nothing about this that is against the rules. But it still looks and smells pretty bad. It probably also has much to say about pushy parents, USC coach Lane Kiffin (who in the past year has solidified his reputation as an oil-slick opportunist) and about a youth sports culture that has run amok.

And where do the sports media fit in to all this? It's not hard to connect the dots. The media have made college (and now high school) athletics big-time money-making operations. Internet sites, fan message boards and recruiting services feed the demand on a 24/7/365 basis. So now a kid who should be worrying about his freshman year of high school is thrust (or thrust himself) into the glare of the media spotlight (complete with an interview on Good Morning America). Just Google David Sills' name and see how many hits come up ... just from the past 48 hours.

David Sills may turn out to be the next Dan Marino; he may turn out to be the next Todd Marinovich. Either way, couldn't his recruitment waited at least a few more years? Not everyone has unanimously condemned what's going on here, but that doesn't lessen the tragedy. Truly sad.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Signing off on Signing Day

Every February, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of time and attention the sports media give to national signing day (or is it National Signing Day?). The day when high school seniors can officially sign their letters of intent for college football has become almost as big as the Super Bowl (wait, isn't that coming up this weekend?), and in fact, has pushed the big game off the front pages of the sports newspapers, magazines and websites. It would be virtually impossible to catalog the reams of NSD information coming from Sports Illustrated, ESPN, etc.

A couple of quick points here, one of them patently obvious. The growth in media interest related to NSD (much like the NFL Draft) is directly related to the explosion of sports media. Internet sites, blogs, fan message boards have seemingly done nothing the past few months (at least since the end of the college season) but talk about who's going where in college recruiting. An entire cottage industry exclusively devoted to high school recruiting has emerged at such places as Rivals and Max Preps. Such sites have turned recruiting into a 24/7 topic of conversation.

The big question then becomes ... is this a good thing? Sometimes we fail to remember that these are 17- and 18-year-old kids we're talking about, even if they can run fast, hit hard and jump high. It's both incredible and pathetic to troll through comments posted on fan message boards when a recruit decides to change commitments at the last minute. SI's Andy Staples reported on this sampling of tweets from a Georgia fan aimed at receiver Da'rick Rogers after Rogers switched from the Bulldogs to Tennessee:

"You're nothing! you (sic) need to put some meat on that 14 yr. old body if you want to play in the SEC!"

"lol... when you were a dawg???? you were never a dawg.. maybe a @#$%& but not a dawg! good luck at tennersee (sic)"

"lol i love to hear you respond b/c your ignorance amazes me!! People told me how stupid you were i just had to see it!"

Then there are the kids who revel in the attention and self-gratification. In many cases, the signing of the letter of intent turns into a side-show, complete with the now-overdone surprise announcement by selecting one college hat from a competing group.

In JSM Volume 3, No. 2 (Falls 2008) Marie Hardin and Thomas Corrigan discussed the increasing focus in the sports media on high school athletics. Hardin and Corrigan argued that such a focus need more scrutiny, especially within an ethical context. I would wholeheartedly agree and encourage much more discussion of these issues. Such discussions need to take place before "National Signing Day--Junior High Edition" appears in our newspapers, websites and television stations.