Sports Media Watch presents 20 notable sports media stories of the year 2011. Today, #5-#2, including the departure of high profile executives, TV rights negotiations for one of the biggest events in sports, labor-management strife in two of the four major leagues, and an unprecedented scandal.
#5: Ebersol, Bodenheimer and Greenberg Exit
The leaders of NBC Sports, ESPN and HBO Sports each left their posts – or announced their intention to do so – in 2011. The highest profile departure was, without question, the abrupt resignation of Dick Ebersol from NBC Sports in May. After running NBC Sports since 1989, Ebersol stepped down after he was unable to agree to a new contract. While he denied any conflicts publicly, reports indicated that Ebersol’s larger-than-life stature was not wholeheartedly embraced by his new Comcast bosses. As the New York Times reported in May, while Ebersol had many loyalists at NBC, “Comcast had no such loyalty to him and was unwilling or unprepared to accept his penchant for behaving like a corporate king with the sort of freewheeling portfolio he had had under [General Electric]” (5/20). Indeed, replacement Mark Lazarus has been notably more understated than Ebersol. As NBC’s Bob Costas – no shrinking violet himself – told the New York Times in December, Lazarus “doesn’t need to be acknowledged as a big cheese” (12/18). Case in point, Lazarus ended the frankly bizarre practice of putting NBC executives’ names in the Sunday Night Football credits.
Ebersol was not the only leader to step aside in 2011. ESPN announced in November that George Bodenheimer will leave his position as ESPN/ABC Sports president effective January 1. Bodenheimer will stay on as ESPN executive chairman, and current ESPN EVP/content John Skipper will replace him as president. In July, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg resigned his position amid reports that he had been fired by the network. Greenburg denied those reports, saying his departure had been months in the making.
#4: The NFL owners’ lockout
The NFL owners’ lockout was a mere blip on the radar compared to the NBA’s labor-management strife later in the year. Still, the lockout was the longest work stoppage in NFL history, and resulted in the cancellation of the Hall of Fame Game.
Like so many labor-management conflicts in sports, the NFL owners’ lockout was an attempt by the owners to take back money from the players. Despite being far and away the most successful sports league in the country, NFL owners argued that the players received too large a percentage of the league’s $9 billion in annual revenue, and sought $1 billion in annual givebacks over the life of the deal – in addition to the $1 billion ‘expense credit’ they already took off the top. Not surprisingly skeptical of the league’s apparent financial needs, the NFL Players’ Association decertified in March, with a group of players filing a class action antitrust suit against the league. Though the players obtained an injunction in District Court to halt the lockout in April, the decision was eventually overturned on appeal and the lockout continued.
With the lockout starting to endanger the start of the regular season, the owners and players reached agreement on a ten-year deal in July. The players’ original percentage of revenue was around 60%, or approximately 53% when the owners’ $1 billion expense credit was included. Under the new deal, the players would receive 48% of revenue, with the expense credit eliminated (nydailynews.com, 7/26).
#3: NBC Retains Rights to the Olympics
Since the ratings success NBC Sports had during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there had been great speculation surrounding U.S. TV rights for the 2014 and 2016 Games. Indeed, in a year filled with battles between NBC, ESPN and Fox Sports, the Olympics provided the biggest stage, and the biggest stakes. The World Cup is nice, but it does not come close to the Olympics – at least in the United States. Meanwhile, the NHL, MLS and Wimbledon were mere trinkets in comparison to the grand prize that was the Olympics.
Weeks before bidding began, NBC Sports Group chairman Dick Ebersol suddenly resigned. The move added uncertainty to the proceedings, with some doubt that NBC would retain rights without their longtime leader. In June, however, the network not only acquired rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympics, but the 2018 and 2020 Games as well. The deal was worth a whopping $4.38 billion, easily topping the offers made by FOX ($3.4 billion for four Olympics) and ESPN ($1.4 billion for two Olympics). In particular, the 2014 Olympics will cost $775 million, the 2016 games $1.226 billion, the 2018 games $963 million and the 2020 games $1.418 billion (Associated Press, 6/7). Keep in mind that the previous record for an Olympics rights fee was $1.18 billion for next year’s London Games, and that NBC lost a whopping $223 million on the 2010 Vancouver Games (New York Times, 5/20). Whether NBC will come to regret it later financially, the deal was arguably the biggest win for any network this year.
#2: The NBA owners’ lockout
The 2011 NBA lockout was the continuation of a decades-long effort by NBA owners to restrict the earnings and mobility of their employees, an effort that will likely result in the cancellation of more NBA games six years from now. It was not enough for the owners to institute an unprecedented salary cap in 1983, nor was it enough to get an unprecedented maximum limit for player salaries in 1999. Despite all of the checks the owners have put in place to ensure profitability, they maintained in 2011 that they were in the same dire straits as in decades past — most teams were supposedly losing money and the league was in danger. Of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of NBA history would cast an aside glance at such claims. Owners claimed the same in 1998 and 1982, and indeed had been pleading poverty for the preceding half-century — at least when it suited them. As is typical of labor-management conflicts, the media staked out comfortable ground in the supposed middle, taking great pains to pander to put-upon consumers. The lockout was a battle between billionaire owners and millionaire players, and therefore inherently ridiculous. As a result, outside of a few NBA writers and bloggers, the mainstream media portrayed the issues in the lockout as being immaterial. That all seems well and good on its face; after all, why should anyone care about greedy, ungrateful millionaires and their even richer bosses? However, one imagines that collective bargaining negotiations involving one of the few powerful labor unions in the country would have some resonance beyond the mere cancellation of games.
Beyond the handwringing over “millionaires and billionaires,” the mainstream media was also quick to take David Stern’s cues to cast the players as unintelligent dupes being taken advantage of by scheming lawyers and agents. Indeed, lawyers and agents often have ulterior motives, but it would be folly to assume that Stern somehow had the players’ best interests at heart instead of the people hired specifically to represent said players. Stern put out the same vibes in 1995 and again in 1998, and it worked both times. It worked again in 2011, with self-appointed basketball booster Bill Simmons suggesting the players had “limited intellectual capital” (iamagm.com, 10/20) and NBPA lead negotiator Jeff Kessler becoming a scapegoat for any and all setbacks in negotiations.
The owners’ lockout lasted until December 8 (a tentative agreement was reached on November 26) and resulted in the formal cancellation of the first six weeks of the season. The owners got what they wanted, reducing the players’ percentage of basketball related income from 57 to approximately 50 percent. For what its worth, the union briefly showed some rare muscle during the negotiations, filing a disclaimer of interest in November that paved the way for short-lived antitrust lawsuits against the league. Even so, like so many labor-management disputes in the NBA, this was hardly a fair fight. Stern’s greatest accomplishment is not that he has dominated the media so thoroughly — although many CEOs and politicians must be jealous — but that he has indeed dominated the players as well. One common thread throughout NBA negotiations in the past two decades is that the players have bought into Stern’s tactics, believing that their agents can’t be trusted, that they should just take whatever they can get, or that their union is only working for the biggest stars. Stern has sowed the seeds of discord and watched the union fracture each time.
The abbreviated 2011-12* NBA regular season began on December 25. Proving that actions in fact do not have consequences, overnight ratings increased for four of the five Opening Day games.
The top sports media story of 2011 will be available later today.