July 19, 2024

College football vs. Taylor Swift, Turner’s future and more: Sports Media Mailbag, Part 2


Welcome to the 38th Media Mailbag for The Athletic. Thanks for sending in your questions via the website and app. There were more than 170 questions, so this is Part 2 of a two-parter. Part 1 is here. (Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.)


I have a two-part college football postseason question. What kind of ratings do you foresee the two TNT first-round games getting considering they will be going up against two high-profile NFL games possibly with a Taylor Swift effect audience (the Kansas City Chiefs play in one of the games). It would likely include one game between a Group of Five squad and a Bama/Georgia/Texas/Ohio State/Oregon/SEC or Big Ten runner-up. Will there be a ratings decline for the non-CFP bowl games? — Dan. K.

It depends on your expectations of what viewership you think is worthy of a CFP opening-round game. The sports schedule on Dec. 21 is loaded given the NFL games. But there will be interest for the CFP given the newness of the playoff format.

The viewership number will be totally matchup-driven. If they don’t have a brand name, I think it will tank given the comp, and you’ll see a brief storyline around that. But if a real television power school, like Alabama or Ohio State, is in the game, I think those can average 10 million viewers if it remains relatively close after halftime. If you want some interesting benchmarks: The Ohio State-Missouri Cotton Bowl game averaged 9.72 million viewers last Dec. 29 while Oregon-Liberty drew 4.67 million on New Year’s Day in the Fiesta Bowl.

UFC is coming on like gangbusters. How do you see the next media rights deal shaking out for this exploding franchise. My guess is that Disney won’t let it go easily. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Netflix or Apple got in on the bidding and drove the price up past $5B/year. — Susie B.

I recently asked ESPN president of content Burke Magnus how aggressive ESPN will be regarding the UFC, which obviously has its renewal coming up. Here is what he said: “The UFC has been instrumental in our course down this direct-to-consumer road. … I think a lot of it depends on where we’re going to be in 2025 as a company, our continued DTC aspirations as we go through that process and figure out how the existing ESPN+ product fits into that plan and to that strategy.

“Not just for the UFC, but for all future rights acquisitions, it’s going to be not about just how is it going to do on linear television. It’s most certainly going to be what is going to contribute to our overall proposition to consumers across platform. The UFC already has a leg up in that regard because they’ve already been presenting their product in that way, a combination of pay-per-view with the highest level, linear preliminaries, and then fight nights done both direct-to-consumer and linear They have a great array of multi-platform content and a strategy designed around what I think is the way that modern media companies are going to look to express sports content already.”

Cub Swanson


UFC’s current media deal with ESPN runs through 2025. ESPN president of content Burke Magnus says the sport has been “instrumental” to their strategy. (Ian Maule / Getty Images)

Why do you think so many people care about sports media and ratings? I get it for people in the business, but why has it been a successful product for fans? — Mitch E.

People care about sports media because it’s how they consume sports. Think of it in these simple terms: Are you more familiar with Al Michaels or the starting guard on the Minnesota Vikings? It’s not even close. As for ratings: It’s a mainstream marker of popularity for a sport. I think there is a niche group of fans who are curious about viewership — by no means the majority — and they are interested in how many people are viewing sports.

With rumors of ESPN opting out of their MLB package and TNT gobbling up everything they can now that they are almost certainly out of the NBA, could you see WBD getting the rights to “Sunday Night Baseball?” It always seemed weird to me that TBS has such a footprint in the playoffs, but during the regular season they only have one game a week that is blacked out in the local market. I am a big fan of TBS’ postseason coverage and would love if they took over SNB from ESPN. — Brian W.

My colleague Andrew Marchand has reported that ESPN has an out clause in its MLB contract at the end of next season. I think they take advantage of that. Now, that doesn’t mean ESPN will give up “Sunday Night Baseball,” but I think they clearly want to renegotiate the current deal. ESPN pays $550 million per year, with SNB making up the bulk of that expenditure. ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro is a big baseball fan, so he is fond of the sport. I’d guess ESPN stays in baseball, but with less inventory. I could see WBD and ESPN splitting SNB in the future.

Why have so many national broadcasting first-crew play-by-play jobs in recent years been going to milquetoast announcers like Brian Anderson, Kevin Burkhardt, Joe Davis and the like after generations of incredible, distinctive talents like Mike Breen, Al Michaels, Marv Albert and Vin Scully. Are the leagues behind this drive to blandness? — Alex O.

Different strokes for different folks. I don’t think any of the announcers you mentioned above are bland by any means. You are comparing them to some all-time voices. Anderson, Burkhardt and Davis are all quality broadcasters from this perspective.

With the WNBA exploding in ratings (thanks, Caitlin) what is the current contract status? Is the WNBA tied to the NBA contracts? If so, should it be that way? — Brandon M.

There was an excellent piece from Ben Strauss of The Washington Post that delved deep into this question. The league is clearly going to get a major increase for its broadcast rights, though it’s important to note the WNBA has different partners (Disney/ESPN, ION, CBS, and Amazon) than the NBA. Strauss reported that the NBA is soliciting one total bid from media companies that does not separate the values of the NBA and the WNBA rights. I think the WNBA benefits from being part of the NBA’s media rights for this negotiation and NBC/Peacock, Amazon and ESPN will all be part of the new deal.

How do you see Turner’s production of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament changing (or not changing) in 2026 assuming it does not renew its contract with the NBA? Do (Charles Barkley) and Kenny (Smith) stick around for this or will it be more Seth Davis/Jay Wright? — Karl T.

Very hard to speculate, but WBD’s sports rights spending spree of late makes me think they remain committed to their current deals. If they lose the NBA, I don’t see Barkley being there in 2026. Kenny is a tougher question.


An AI version of Al Michaels’ voice is coming to Peacock for the Olympics. Is it a sign of things to come in the profession? (Cooper Neill / Getty Images)

How should we all feel about the AI version of Al Michaels at the Olympics? Will AI eventually cost some broadcasters their jobs? What would you tell a communications/broadcasting major (in sports specifically, or more broadly too)? — Kris A.

Having watched a demonstration of the AI version of Al Michaels, I wouldn’t freak out too much about it. It’s akin to choosing settings for a dynasty video game. Now, the larger question about AI costing broadcasters jobs is interesting. I’d be more worried about AI costing production and editorial staffers jobs — this I am nearly certain will happen. I don’t think with how sports networks are currently set up you would have some sort of AI broadcaster, but AI is going to change how sports television does business.

I have had the NFL Sunday Ticket almost since its (inception). Am I about to receive a massive rebate check from the NFL? — Don D.

I would hold off on buying a mansion at the moment. You have a long way to go before check time.

How can the WNBA capitalize on its huge viewership jump? More content? Netflix documentaries? Pre- and post-game revamp? New teams? Since media rights deals drive the profits of the league, what is the best play for the WNBA? — John R.

All of these are good suggestions. The best long-term driver for the league will be to focus on ticket sales and getting the product in front of the biggest reach possible.

From a UK fan perspective, the disappointing disappearance of “Around the NFL” seems bizarre. One of the true successes of NFL Media has been to provide broadcast content for international audiences, piquing and sustaining interest in the sport beyond the borders of the USA. Is the axing of ATN with no explanation a harbinger of things to come for international fan engagement once ESPN swallows what remains of NFL Media? — Christopher W.

I received a number of questions about the future of this popular podcast, and we do have an update: Gregg Rosenthal is staying with the NFL and will host a new daily podcast titled “NFL Daily.” Beginning July 15, new episodes will be released five days a week. An NFL spokesperson said various NFL Media talent will appear regularly on the show, including Colleen Wolfe, Patrick Claybon, Steve Wyche, and Nick Shook. The former “Around the NFL” co-hosts — Dan Hanzus and Marc Sessler — have indicated on social media that something is next, so the devoted listeners of the pod should be happy about that.

It’s a terrible way for a popular podcast to end no matter what happens next. The NFL has been reducing NFL Media properties, with many believing it’s a primer to get leaner so someone can buy the asset. (“Good Morning Football” was moved from New York to Los Angeles — a total cost-savings play that upended many lives.) To your specific question about international content, I think the opposite. The NFL has grand global designs so you won’t see a reduction of content there. Global viewing is a big growth play.

I wanted your thoughts on Peacock as they just acquired some Big East basketball rights. They already have Notre Dame along with Big Ten football and basketball, “Sunday Night Football” and perhaps the new NBA contract. Will Peacock’s sports media rights acquisitions make them a major player? Is WBD just grasping for straws with their Mountain West football and other recent acquisitions since they appear to be losing the NBA? — Scott R.

I’d say Peacock is already a major sports rights player given the properties you mentioned along with the streamer having access to the Olympics, Premier League, Tour de France, U.S. Open and other properties. They become an even bigger player, per Andrew Marchand’s reporting, given they will air exclusive NBA telecasts on Mondays and simulcast all the NBC NBA games. It remains to be seen whether Peacock will ever turn a profit, but they are a big sports player. As for WBD, I think their recent rights purchases are the signal that they will move on from the NBA.

Any insight on what’s going to happen to “Inside the NBA?” If TNT keeps it, do you think Charles Barkley stays? I get the impression that his pending “retirement” is a (ploy) to keep the show with TNT intact as-is. — Matthew R.

I wrote a piece on June 19 on Barkley predicting that he would not retire from broadcasting. I don’t think this is a negotiating ploy because he’d have no problem getting paid $15 million to $20 million annually in a future deal. I also think he legitimately meant what he said. But I think he will change his mind; he loves it too much. There are also people at WBD who believe something can be worked out with Barkley with or without NBA media rights. We’ll see.

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(Top photo of music legend Taylor Swift and her boyfriend after the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl in February: Erick W. Rasco / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)



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