Warriors as NBA ratings gold, cricket on TV and more: Sports Media Mailbag, Part I

Warriors as NBA ratings gold, cricket on TV and more: Sports Media Mailbag, Part I

Welcome to the 31st Media Mailbag for The Athletic. Writing a mailbag — as egocentric as it is — is always a fun exercise. Thanks for sending in your questions via the website and app. There were nearly 200 questions, so this will be a two-parter. Part 2 will appear next week.

Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.

Will the Warriors spur a bump in the NBA Finals ratings? — Nick F.

I’ve been writing about sports media for a bit now (trust me, you are not alone in thinking it’s too long) and if you marinate in sports viewership long enough you learn the franchises (usually based on star power or tradition) across all sports that capture the imagination (and thus your eyeballs) beyond their city limits. The Warriors have been the NBA’s viewership standard-bearer for some time now (excluding injury-plagued years), and I recall this piece I wrote from Sports Illustrated in December 2015, which argued for the NBA to put Golden State in more national windows. Here’s a list, courtesy of Sports Business Journal assistant managing editor/digital Austin Karp, of the most-watched NBA regular season games in 2021-22:

I imagine you see the pattern. To answer your questions specifically, Nick, this handy chart from Sports Media Watch gives you perspective on how Golden State has impacted the viewership of the NBA Finals. It would be hard to assign a specific viewership number on the difference between a Warriors NBA Finals vs. a non-Warriors NBA Finals but the difference is millions of viewers. They could never admit it publicly but the NBA officials wants Steph Curry in the Finals again — and they are likely to get their wish.

The endless onslaught of sports betting commercial after commercial is going to drive me away from watching sports and I don’t like how it targets kids and the uneducated. Do you think sports leagues care or are they too busy counting the money from advertising and partnerships? — Greg M.

Let me be real with you: The Athletic has a partnership with a sports gaming company. The podcast company that distributes my sports media podcast takes sports gambling ads for some of its podcasts. While I’m not a big sports gambler by any means, I have gambled at Las Vegas sports books. For me to moralize against this would be ridiculous. I understand the annoyance of endless commercials — ask a Canadian sports fan living in Ontario what it’s like these days on Canadian television and sports radio if you want a referendum on endless commercials — but I’m also a realist. It’s not going away in the near-term. There is too much money and it’s been mainstreamed by companies, politicians and legislatures. Yes, it will undoubtably cause more gambling disorders. No, I don’t think sports leagues care beyond keeping the integrity of their games clean. As for a media outlet, I’m absolutely in a favor of sports gambling ads if the revenue brought in means keeping and adding reporters, writers and editors to work on quality editorial projects. That’s a tradeoff some would not make and I respect that.  But that’s how I view it.

Do you think CBS or TUDN will get higher ratings for the Champions League final? Also, will the WWE embrace gambling like so many other sports organizations have? — Brian G.

Last year’s Chelsea-Manchester City Champions League final averaged 3.65 million viewers across CBS, Paramount+ and Univision, up 24 percent from 2019, per Sports Media Watch. CBS brought in 2.10 million viewers alone. I think CBS will draw the most viewers this year but it will be close. As for the WWE and sports betting, ESPN wrote an interesting article a couple of years ago on WWE betting and how it was a growth play even with pre-determined outcomes. I think people will continue to bet on it but my guess is outside of sponsorship, the WWE and AEW will be judicious about pushing odds or anything such as that.

Do you think that sports leagues are alienating fans by spreading broadcasting over so many behind-a-paywall/subscription platforms? I am 59 and consumed sports over free broadcast TV growing up. Commercials were what subsidized the cost, so it was free to the viewer. But beyond that, a viewer always knew where to go to watch and blackouts were a rarity in most markets. Now, MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL are hardly on broadcast TV anymore. Being behind a paywall is bad enough, but there are just too many of them. — VJR

Thanks for the question. While major sports still appear on broadcast television — and I would not include the NFL in your example above because the majority of its product is still on broadcast television — we live in different times. The three-channel universe is akin to traveling to a general store on horseback. I do sympathize with you. When leagues say they are pro-fan when it comes to how they broadcast their product, they are full of a bunk. They are pro-finance, first and foremost, and forever. Leagues have made it much harder for fans to consume their product unless those fans want to extend further into their digital wallets. Money drives sports. It’s why MLB has opted to have an alphabet soup of broadcast partners. It has nothing to do with convenience and in many ways, little to do with technology. It’s about money. Soccer fans in the U.S. probably have it the worst given how much they have to pay in order to watch multiple international leagues.

During the NHL playoffs, many teams are being forced to start games at 8:45 p.m. local time in order to accommodate national broadcasts. What impact does this have on viewership in the local markets? Do the ratings increase significantly such that sacrificing the local fans’ goodwill for the national audience pays dividends? —  Timothy S.

The NHL and NBA postseasons are balancing acts for league and television programmers given all the constituents in the bucket. As a general rule, leagues and its broadcast partners want to maximize the best possible viewership number in the best viewership window. That often means start times between 8 and 9 p.m. ET on weekdays. Keep in mind the NHL is not the NFL. It’s a phenomenal regional sport but it has challenges drawing mass national audiences, especially if one of the teams in the Finals is a Canadian team (Nielsen does not count Canadian markets in U.S. viewership metrics). They need every broadcast advantage possible to generate a decent number. Start times as it relates to fans seem to be getting lower on a league’s priority list than ever before.

Where do you see cricket in the USA in the next few years? Stadiums are now being built. Major league cricket is on the upswing. The 2024 T20 world cup will be partially shown in USA. These games make the Super Bowl ratings look like Timberwolves–Pistons in late February. ESPN or Fox is definitely missing a trick by not jumping on it first and showing these games on terrestrial TV. Would love to hear your thoughts, particularly with the sports media aspect of it. Sky Sports Cricket (check out their YouTube page) does a really great job of showing quality content. — Babar A.

Not for nothing, but I’m bullish on the Pistons as a playoff team by 2025. I’m obviously not an expert on cricket but growing up around New York City I was aware of how many people who were new to America embraced it in their community. As for cricket’s broadcast future in the U.S., I think it’s certainly a niche sport in the near-term but one with growth potential given how many people are interested in it internationally. I’m not sure we will see it on broadcast television regularly anytime soon but last year ESPN+ signed a five-year deal with Cricket West Indies (CWI) for exclusive media and digital rights in the U.S. to all men’s and women’s international home matches and regional tournaments. I know this might surprise some of my American readers: The ESPNcricinfo Twitter feed has 6.6 million followers. Big-time following.

Do you think the NHL is pleased with the first year in their new TV deal with ESPN and TNT? Do you see any major changes to the coverage coming in year 2? — Phil S

I think the NHL was foremost pleased by the checks both companies wrote. But there’s no doubt the league is happy with how this first year has gone with ESPN and Turner. Objectively, the NHL has had a much bigger media spotlight this year than in years past with the increase of a second partner and ESPN’s 24/7 multimedia presence. Said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to NHL.com last week on this topic. “It is what we hoped and expected. The Walt Disney Company, ESPN, ABC, HULU, ESPN+, Turner, which is Warner Brothers/Discovery now, they have great platforms. They are doing a great job in promoting, they are doing a great job in production. … If you look at how the schedule was in the first round, it was sensational the way we had the games every night. We had four games, certainly at the beginning, until teams started dropping out or getting beaten. On every metric we can think about in terms of communication, enthusiasm, energy, the investments they have made, including talent, we couldn’t be more pleased with the treatment we are getting with these partners.”

With a good number of conferences working on new media deals, any chance that game times will be addressed? The current plan where many game times aren’t decided until six to 12 days before is one of the most annoying things about college football. Even an NFL model where games could occasionally be moved out of their original time would be a huge improvement. Fans should know the game times no later than a few months before the season starts. – Mike P.

Great question, Mike. I don’t see this changing. In fact, I would expect the start times to become less fan friendly as conferences look to cut the best deal financially with media partners who will schedule games when it best serves a television audience and not in-stadium attendance. Television fuels college football.

Now that there are two points of comparison (NBA and NHL), why is it that Turner studio shows are much more engaging and enjoyable to watch compared to ESPN, which seems to just want to get to the next commercial break? ESPN seems capable of decent programming (i.e. College GameDay) but it seems increasingly fewer and farther between. Is it just not a priority for them?  — Michael A

Richard: I get a sense when I watch Turner’s NHL coverage that it is trying to be innovative and get its analysts to say something insightful. Liam McHugh is an excellent host and the game calling is very good. At ESPN, I already get a sense the coverage is tired one year into it. It kept around too many has-beens (Barry Melrose and John Tortorella) and instead of making it interesting, ESPN’s attitude largely has been: “See, we’re showing hockey, so it finally must be a big deal. The NHL should be grateful.” Turner has been far better in my opinion. Your take? — Michael P

My question echoes this, but I’ll just add a couple observations on the NBA side (I haven’t watched much of the ESPN hockey.) It’s been mentioned before online but game analysis on the ESPN NBA halftime averages out to 2.5/3 minutes total. The Game 4 halftime of the Eastern Conference Finals, 30 seconds of the total time didn’t have some sort of visual sponsorship or commercial. It is staggering how much more TNT is devoted to focused game presentation/information/quality entertainment and fun while ESPN’s focus is on things like two commercial breaks before starts of 2nd/4th quarters, adding a 10-minute separate pregame show that airs after their principal pregame show like MNF, and cramming their analysts in the tiniest boxes possible on screen.  — Harry K.

All of this is subjective because we like who we like and dislike who we dislike. I’ve written this so many times but it’s always worth repeating: “Inside The NBA” is the greatest sports studio show in the history of television thanks to incredible casting and chemistry and presentation ethos. What do I mean by the last part? Turner Sports has an ethos of fostering free-flowing conversations with their studio shows and putting their talent in amusing or self-deprecating situations to create good television. They also are unafraid to talk about issues that transcend sports. Prior to Game 4 of the Warriors-Mavs Western Conference Finals game this week, “Inside The NBA” began its program with a discussion on the horrific massacre in Texas where at least 19 children and two teachers were killed. It’s not a case of ESPN not having talented producers. They do. And ESPN obviously can put on a great studio show as we have seen with College GameDay. But from my perspective, “Inside The NBA” remains head and shoulders better than ESPN’s NBA programming. While I’m more aligned with how Turner does its studio shows, I have found ESPN’s NHL studio shows watchable and Mark Messier, in particular, has been very good.

In how many years will the Premier League be bigger in America than hockey? — Anonymous U

That’s not going to happen in our lifetimes and that’s no shot on either league, which are both great. But the Premier League as an entity is not going to supersede the NHL in popularity in the United States. Is the World Cup more popular in the U.S. than the NHL? Of course. Different question.

Richard, who cuts your hair? — Evan S

Brutus Beefcake.

Longtime fan of your work. Has ESPN realized they have a gem of an analyst in JJ Redick and will they let him lead his own show? Also, regarding ESPN: With Joe Buck calling MNF, will he eventually be in the booth for any of the network’s baseball games? — Jermaine O.

I would expect Reddick’s ESPN profile to grow but he also has interests away from ESPN. As for Buck, he’s said he has no interest in calling baseball for ESPN.

Shad Khan recently came out with some pretty harsh comments regarding Urban Meyer. Do you think that gives Fox at least some pause before hiring Urban back into the seat, or is the decision signed and delivered? — Meng J.

I would bet big money that Meyer is on the set of Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” this fall.

Hey Richard, curious about the impact of Twitter on sports media. I figured I’d ask you since you recently decided to take a Twitter sabbatical. Have you noticed a difference in what you are writing/covering/interested in following? Also, has there been a difference in readership/listenership since you haven’t been promoting on Twitter the way you normally would? — Seth G.

Speaking of self-serving, Seth! Thanks for the question. I don’t think there has been any difference in what I’m covering, what I’m interested in, or what I’ve been writing about. But I definitely feel disconnected to what I would call the community of ideas and thought in sports. Twitter is a lot of things, and much of those things are toxic, but it’s an incredible information resource for bringing quality work into your orbit. I think it has some value on fan sentiment too. I am sure I will go back one day, and I occasionally check my timeline to see what writers I like are thinking about and producing. As for readership and viewership, it has definitely had an impact on my podcast numbers. I don’t use my best forum to promote that medium. That’s frustrating but life is about tradeoffs. It’s had less of an impact on my metrics at The Athletic, but I am sure I’d have more views if I was pushing my pieces as hard as I used to do. What I will say is I don’t miss being ticked off at the world by 8:30 a.m. after scrolling through my feed every morning. I don’t miss wasting hours on that service. I don’t miss interacting with bad faith brokers. I obviously control this, but I hope whenever I come back, the addiction and need for affirmation has been reduced. I think it will be. I am reminded that I had some very dumb moments and fights on that medium in addition to what I hope was providing quality content and things of value. The world will somehow survive if I remain on the sidelines for a bit.

1. I had a terrific podcast conversation this week with Tony Khan, the president, CEO and head of creative of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), a co-owner and the chief football strategy officer for the Jacksonville Jaguars, co-owner and GM of Fulham F.C., and owner and chairman of TruMedia Networks, an engineering firm used for data analytics. I think you’ll really enjoy it. In this podcast, Khan discussed among other topics:

• how the Discovery/WarnerMedia merger will impact AEW

• how he sees streaming as it relates to his product and the wrestling business heading forward

• the importance of getting mainstream sports media coverage versus wrestling media and crossover media

• how he consumes AEW’s television viewership metrics and what he considers to be the most important metric in his evaluation

• how he views the role of the announcers he has such as Jim Ross and Tony Schiavone and how hands-on he is with his announcers during shows

• acquiring talent in pro sports versus professional wrestling

• how he views success with AEW in the long-term; and much more.

1a. The NFL juggernaut continues: NBC said “Sunday Night Football” ranked as the No. 1 show in the advertiser-important 18-49 demographic for the 12th consecutive TV season. The show averaged 18.5 million TV viewers in 2021.

1b. CBS Sports announced its 2022 college football broadcast schedule and “SEC ON CBS” windows this week. The schedule will feature a total of 22 games on the CBS Television Network and will stream live on Paramount+. Keep your eye on Saturday, Oct. 8 where CBS will assuredly select Texas A&M-Alabama and likely slot that game at 8 p.m. ET.

1c. Sports Business Journal NFL writer Ben Fischer had some interesting reporting on the future of the Pro Bowl, which may undergo significant changes. This year’s Pro Bowl drew 6.7 million viewers across ABC and ESPN — the smallest audience since 2006 — but that is still a massive sports viewership number. I can’t see the event being cut entirely because that’s too much audience to give up. 

1d. Two of the women who accused Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct, Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes, gave their first national TV interviews to Soledad O’Brien of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

1e. NBC Sports said Al Michaels will continue to contribute to its properties, including calling a playoff game this year and working the next Olympics.

2. Per Austin Karp of Sports Business Journal: NBC averaged 5.3 million viewers for the race segment of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, a decline of 25 percent from last year’s Preakness (7.1 million) and outside 0f 2020 race, which was moved to October due to the pandemic, the least-watched Preakness since 2o00, when ABC drew 4.91 million for Red Bullet’s win. The Preakness averaged 5.41 million viewers in 2019.

2a. NBC Sports said its Premier League coverage averaged a Total Audience Delivery of 507,000 viewers per TV match window (includes NBC, USA Network, CNBC, and NBCSN), up 21 recent from last year (414,000) and the second-most watched season in U.S. TV history behind 2015-16. The final Sunday, which saw 10 Premier League matches presented live and simultaneously (11 a.m.-1 p.m. ET) across NBCUniversal networks and Peacock had a 2.2 million viewers across all platforms.

2b. Getting your games on a network makes a difference. The May 22 WNBA game between the Chicago Sky and Washington Mystics averaged 603,000 viewers and peaked at 790,000 viewers. The WNBA is up 15 percent on Disney networks over last year.

2c. CBS Sports will have its studio group at Saint-Denis’s Stade de France in Paris for the network’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League Final on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET. Liverpool-Real Madrid kicks off at 3:00 p.m. ET.

2d. Disney and ESPN reached an exclusive multiyear deal to broadcast XFL games

3. Episode 207 of the Sports Media Podcast features a conversation with Tom Verducci, the senior writer for Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports and MLB Network games, studio analyst and reporter. In this podcast Verducci discusses the life and times of Roger Angell, the brilliant baseball writer who died last week at age 101; Verducci’s piece on Angell in 2014 titled, “The Passion of Roger Angell: The best baseball writer in America is also a fan”; spending time with Angell at his home in Maine; why Angell can never be duplicated given he connected Babe Ruth to Shohei Ohtani; how Angell approached baseball writing in his later years; Angell’s late start to writing baseball at 41; the literary family Angell grew up in; the luxury Angell had in writing longform; Josh Donaldson’s comments on Tim Anderson; the Mets under owner Steven Cohen; Joe Davis replacing Joe Buck; the legend of Sandy Koufax, and more.

3a.  Episode 206 of the Sports Media Podcast features a conversation with Lesley Visser, the longtime broadcaster and sportswriter who this month will be the first woman to receive the Emmys’ Sports Lifetime Achievement Award. She is followed by Iliana Limón Romero who this month became the Los Angeles Times’ first female sports editor and the only Latina sports editor at a major U.S. newspaper. In this podcast, Visser discusses ice fishing with John Madden in Minneapolis and her relationship with Madden; being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award; her years at the Boston Globe as a writer; covering the fall of the Berlin Wall; working the Celtics–Lakers NBA Finals in 1984 and other memorable finals; coming up in an age prior to social media; not being allowed in clubhouses because of her gender; Al Michaels’ move to Amazon; if she misses sports television; her podcast with Sirius, and much more.

Romero discusses what a sports editor at a major metro daily like the L.A. Times does daily; how you cover Los Angeles given its large spread; whether she thinks digital-first or print first; who she envisions as the L.A. Times reader; being the only Latina sports editor at a major U.S. newspaper; what it’s like covering the Lakers; the most press-friendly in L.A.; how you staff high school sports coverage; the interest in USC football; how she looks at audio and much more.

• 1 Million Deaths, 13 Last Messages. By Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer of the New York Times.

• The massacre in Buffalo exposed not just violent racial hatred but the legacy of inequitable policies from years ago. By Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post.

•  The invaders destroyed the National Gene Bank of Plants of Ukraine. By The Odessa Journal.

• How Trump’s 2020 Election Lies Have Gripped State Legislatures. Nick Corasaniti, Karen Yourish and

• The harrowing, forgotten journey of the first transatlantic flight. By Dave Kindy of The Washington Post

• The coming food catastrophe. By The Economist.

• To Pine View School (Osprey, Fla.) senior class president Zander Moricz, much respect.

• Who owns Einstein? The battle for the world’s most famous face. By Simon Parkin of The Guardian

• The COVID Testing Company That Missed 96% of Cases. By Anjeanette Damon of ProPublica

• ‘Why Did You Do This?’ The Story Behind Ukraine’s First War-Crimes Trial. By Ian Lovett of The Wall Street Journal.

• The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers. By Catherine Porter, Constant Méheut, Matt Apuzzo and Selam Gebrekidan.

• Replacement theory’: The view from an immigration-wary Georgia district. ByPatrik Jonsson and Noah Robertson of the Christian Science Monitor.

• A Crypto Emperor’s Vision: No Pants, His Rules. By 

• The rise of the Strangler. By Dick Lehr of The Boston Globe

• No parent should have to live like this. By Clint Smith of The Atlantic.

Sports pieces of note

• I’ve watched this video of Steve Kerr so many times over the last two days. The first 50 seconds of this captures how I feel and I imagine many other Americans as well. (On this note: I’ve been doing pieces of note for more than a decade over two publications. As always, this section reflects the pieces that I read each week that impact me. I don’t expect anyone to read or watch them, nor do they reflect anyone here but me.)

• NBA owners, mum on China relationship, have more than $10 billion invested there. By Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru of ESPN.

• In the course of a well-lived century, Roger Angell established himself as the most exacting of editors, the most agile of stylists, a mentor to generations of writers, and baseball’s finest, fondest chronicler. By David Remnick of The New Yorker.

Roger Angell was the personification of baseball history. By Lindsey Adler of The Athletic.

• A Search for Family, a Love for Horses and How It All Led to Kentucky Derby Glory. By Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated.

• How Slava Medvedenko found himself armed with an AK-47 fighting a war against Russia. By Bill Oram of The Athletic.

• The young Yankees fan who lost his autographs. By Ryan Hockensmith of ESPN.com.

• The secret philanthropist: Coach Popovich’s gruff persona belies his acts of generosity. By Ken Rodriguez of San Antonio Report. 

• Wagatha Christie uncovered: Rebekah Vardy vs Coleen Rooney. By Adam Crafton and The Athletic staff

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