Sports Media Watch presents 20 notable sports media stories of the year 2011. Today, #10-#6, including an overhaul at one of the major networks, legal troubles for several sports media personalities, TV rights extensions for two of the four major sports, and an auto racing tragedy.
#10: Comcast Acquires NBC
Comcast officially acquired a majority stake in NBC Universal in January, turning NBC Sports and Comcast’s sports properties — Versus, The Golf Channel, and the various Comcast SportsNet RSNs — into corporate siblings. The move led to a slew of changes both on-air and behind the scenes.
In the first few weeks after the deal was completed, Versus president Jamie Davis was ousted in favor of Jon Litner, NBC Sports executives Sam Flood and Jon Miller added Versus responsibilities, and fellow NBC executive Mike McClarley was named president of The Golf Channel. Longtime NBC Sports leader Dick Ebersol was named chairman of the new NBC Sports Group, but would not last long. Ebersol abruptly resigned from NBC Sports Group in May and was replaced by Mark Lazarus, a longtime Turner executive who had only joined Comcast/NBC months earlier. The stunning departure of Ebersol was followed a week later by the announced retirement of longtime NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer.
In addition to the major changes in leadership, the Comcast-NBC deal resulted in on-air changes as well. Versus received a new name — NBC Sports Network — which will go into effect January 2. Even before the name change, Versus had begun airing a nightly NBC Sports Talk programming block. NBC, meanwhile, began using graphics and logos from The Golf Channel on golf telecasts.
#9: Death of Dan Wheldon
Every effort was made to have the 2011 IndyCar season finale from Las Vegas generate attention for the sport. As part of the GoDaddy Challenge, reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon would compete for a potential $5 million prize. Danica Patrick would race in her final IndyCar event before heading to NASCAR. The 34 drivers scheduled to compete would hold a parade down the Las Vegas strip to generate interest. This was not an ordinary season finale, and the expectations were understandably high. IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said earlier in the year that if the race drew less than a 0.8 rating, he would resign (USA Today, 10/25).
The race did attract attention, but the worst kind. Eleven laps into the race, a massive, fifteen-car crash killed Wheldon. IndyCar’s most glamorous non-Indy event in several years ended in tragedy. In the wake of Wheldon’s death, Bernard faced media scrutiny over the GoDaddy Challenge and the danger of having a season-high 34 car field race on a banked oval. As ESPN.com explained in December, “IndyCar, with open wheels and an open cockpit, is not suited for the pack racing that develops on ovals … any contact in an IndyCar results in either a crash or a slew of broken parts” (12/15). IndyCar announced in December that it would not return to Las Vegas next season.
#8: Legal Problems For Sports Media Personalities
The sports media is quick to brand entire sports leagues as havens for thugs based on the actions of a few. So what to say of the sports media based on the actions of several writers and broadcasters in 2011?
From DUI and domestic violence to the recent allegations regarding Bill Conlin, it was not a good year for the sports media. ESPN NHL analyst Matthew Barnaby was fired after being arrested for drunken driving earlier in the month, just months after he received probation for a domestic violence incident. NBC NHL analyst Mike Milbury nearly faced charges of assault and battery on a child after an altercation involving a twelve-year old. Earlier in the year, former ESPN pundit Jay Mariotti was sentenced to five years probation in his second domestic violence incident in less than a year, and current ESPN writer Howard Bryant received probation in exchange for having domestic violence charges against him dropped. While domestic violence apparently no longer results in jailtime, ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose was incarcerated for two weeks after being arrested for DUI over the summer. Knicks radio voice Spero Dedes was also busted for drunken driving. To top off a terrible year, Philadelphia Daily News writer Bill Conlin retired abruptly in December after being accused of molesting at least four children in the 1970s.
#7: NHL Agrees to Ten-Year Extension with NBC
Once unable to attract a rights fee from NBC, the NHL was at the center of yet another bidding war this year, as NBC Sports Group, ESPN and Fox Sports and Turner Sports each expressed interest in the league. In the end, it came down to incumbent NBC and former partner ESPN, with NBC coming out ahead. The NHL and NBC agreed to a ten-year television deal worth approximately $200 million per year — up significantly from the $75 million per year the league received from Versus under the previous deal, and comfortably surpassing the previous record of $120 per year ESPN/ABC paid from 1999 to 2004.
Under the deal, which went into effect this season, both NBC and NBC Sports Network (currently Versus) have ramped up their NHL coverage. NBC has added an annual telecast on the day after Thanksgiving (this year’s game between the Bruins and Red Wings drew a 0.9 rating), and NBCSN added an extra 40 regular season games. Arguably the most notable aspect of the deal is that every NHL playoff game will be televised on NBC, NBCSN or another NBC Universal cable channel – a stark contrast from the previous deal, when several playoff games were not televised nationally.
#6: NFL Agrees to Extensions with TV Partners
The NFL will also be staying put for the next decade, having agreed to lengthy extensions with ESPN, NBC, FOX and CBS. The NBC, FOX and CBS deals will run through the 2022-23 season, with the networks contributing a combined $3.1 billion per year (latimes.com, 12/15). The ESPN extension runs through the 2021-22 season, and is worth $1.9 billion per year (nytimes.com, 9/8). Each of the deals will go into effect with the 2014-15 NFL season.
While the television partners will stay the same, the new deals have some intriguing changes. Beginning next season, NBC will start televising the annual Thanksgiving night game, which had previously aired on NFL Network. NBC will also begin televising a Divisional Round playoff game starting in 2014-15, giving up one of its two Wild Card games (likely to ESPN). Flexible scheduling will expand to allow CBS to air NFC games and FOX to air AFC games. Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that the NFL will retain the option to expand the Thursday night slate, potentially opening the door to a long-rumored television deal for a new Thursday night package.
The #5-#1 stories of 2011 will be posted on Thursday, December 29.