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NFL media roundtable: Picking top storylines as season goes forward

Media members pick the top NFL stories to follow the next few weeks. Plus items on NFL and MLB TV ratings, Skip Bayless’s FS1 show, the best journalism of the week and more.

If the NFL’s television ratings are to increase over the next month—item No. 1A provides the data on the double-digit percent declines for the NFL’s primetime windows—the league needs to ride some interesting storylines (as well as get some better games). With an eye toward what the next couple of weeks will look like for the NFL, I paneled eight high-profile NFL media members on what storyline most interests them in the near term. Not surprisingly, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Tony Romo and ratings were mentioned.

The panel:

Rich Eisen, host, NFL Network

This is an easy one. The most intriguing storyline is how the Cowboys quarterback situation plays out as Tony Romo’s convalescence nears a ready-to-return date. Will Dak Prescott keep playing nearly flawless football? What if he keeps winning? Dallas has one more game against a 2015 playoff team (the Packers) before its bye, after which Romo is expected to be healthy, necessitating a decision from Jason Garrett. What if Prescott pulls off a win at Green Bay and the Cowboys hit the bye at 5–1? Will Garrett still turn to Romo, even with the team’s post-bye game being a Sunday night home date with the other stellar rookie QB of 2016—Carson Wentz? Can’t wait to see this all play out. The popcorn is ready.

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Sam Farmer, NFL writer, L.A. Times

I’m really interested to see what happens in San Diego leading up to the Nov. 8 ballot initiative for a downtown stadium. It would be shocking if the Chargers got the requisite two-thirds majority they’re seeking to move forward on that, so the question becomes: Do they get enough votes to save face and keep working toward a stadium solution in San Diego, or do they cut bait and exercise their option to join the Rams in Los Angeles? There are no simple answers. If they lose the vote and stay in San Diego, they’ll need to reboot the process and work another stadium angle, and that could take years. If they join the Rams, they’ll be entering a market where they have no discernable fan base, and they’ll have so scalded the San Diego fans that… well, good luck trying to lure them up to watch games. The Chargers would be an afterthought in L.A. All of this comes against the backdrop of a horrible start for the Chargers, who have lost 10 consecutive AFC West games. Hard to rally support that way, no matter where you are.

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Mike Freeman, NFL columnist, Bleacher Report

I don't think there's any question the most intriguing story is Cam Newton. Does he rebound from this bad start or not? To me, that is just part of his story this season. Newton has been muted since he went to the Super Bowl. Some of that muting he's done to himself but all of it is in response, I believe, to the extensive and unfair criticism he's received over the years, and especially last season. I think a lot of that criticism has him playing a lot less free and more scared.

There are a lot of people that hated seeing a black quarterback dab and dance and have fun—while also winning. Before I'm inundated by tweets, I'm not saying all people. But there are clearly a significant number of people who despise him because he doesn't fit what their definition of a quarterback is. To a lot of people, still, quarterbacks should be white guys who would never dab, who vote for Ronald Reagan and promise tax cuts for the doers. Each time I even remotely say something positive about Newton on social media, the NFL's version of the alt-right checks in. Look at the message boards on stories about Newton from across social media. It's insane how much he's still hated because he's a black quarterback. Newton didn't help himself with that disastrous Super Bowl press conference. But what's happened since is that the people who claimed he was a one-season wonder, and hate the idea overall of a black man being a quarterback, are pounding their clubs in their caves in celebration of Carolina’s 1–3 start while roasting their Mastodons over an open fire.

These next few weeks, to some people, will be a referendum on Newton. That’s absurd but that’s how some will see it.

Kimberley A. Martin, Jets beat writer, Newsday

Being that I cover the Jets, I can’t lie—I’m curious to see how the Tom Brady saga unfolds. His four-game suspension was supposed to derail the Patriots and, finally, make the AFC East race interesting. At least, that’s what some people wrote. But instead, New England is atop the standings all because of the play of two backup quarterbacks and its genius head coach, Bill Belichick.

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Thankfully for us all, the Deflategate debacle is over. But Brady’s absence gave Pats fans a sneak peak into what life without him might look like. While I foolishly assumed New England might falter early, Belichick set out to prove that he can win even without a future Hall-of-Fame QB. But I have no doubt that the ultra-competitive Brady will play every game from here on out with added motivation. And whatever bitterness or resentment he harbored during the Deflategate drama may just propel him to a fifth Super Bowl championship.

Whether Brady rises to the occasion (which I assume he will) or stumbles in his return (I know that’s what you’re hoping for Jets fans!), it’ll make for epic TV.


Mike Reiss, ESPN NFL Nation reporter covering the Patriots and reporter/analyst for ESPN

This is right in the wheelhouse of a Patriots reporter: Will we be saying that Tom Brady didn't miss a beat, or will there be clear signs that a month away from the team is affecting his performance? To this point, Brady has successfully fought off Father Time at age 39, and we know he wants to play into his mid-40s. One line of thinking is that the four-game suspension he served could actually be a benefit to him in the big picture because it's less wear and tear. But seeing first-hand how Brady approaches his craft, and how much he craves routine, I do wonder if his re-entry won't be as smooth as some anticipate because he was knocked out of his normal rhythm for a month. While Brady's return is a fairly obvious answer, from a league-wide standpoint I am also intrigued by the declining television ratings and continue to follow that closely for more context. 

Adam Schefter, NFL insider for ESPN and

There are both professional and personal items for me. Professionally, it's the Raiders and their connection and potential move to Las Vegas. It's amazing how many NFL owners have come around to viewing Las Vegas as an ideal and attractive landing spot for the Raiders, including the team owner, Mark Davis, himself, who wants to make this move happen. It used to be taboo to consider, no less talk about, Las Vegas. But with the proliferation of fantasy football and daily fantasy games, ignoring Las Vegas would simply be a matter of not adjusting to the times. Some have described the Raiders’ potential move to Las Vegas not as an if, but a when. Because at this time, it certainly feels like they are bound for Las Vegas. And it could be in play as early as the 2017 season, though we should begin to learn more and more about this in the coming weeks. So that’s the professional item. Personally, our whole ESPN team can’t wait to get Chris Mortensen back off injured reserve. He's the soul of this place, and it has not been the same without him. That’s an item that has everyone here in Bristol excited.

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Amy Trask, football analyst, CBS Sports

This past off-season the NFL changed its kickoff rules in hopes of reducing the number of kickoffs which are returned. The rule has not yielded that desired result. In fact, the number of kickoffs has increased. Through four weeks this year, 38% have been returned, while through four weeks last year, 34% were returned. Although this isn’t an enormous jump, it is not the desired result. While this is an example of “the law of unintended consequences,” it is a result that I believe was foreseeable and predictable. Notwithstanding that the impact of the rule change is the opposite of that which was intended/hoped, the NFL has stated that it will not make an in-season rule change. While I understand the reasons why the NFL does not wish to implement a rule change in season, I believe it should give additional, serious consideration to doing so. The annual fall meeting is in October and while I don’t know to what extent, if any, this issue (the possibility of revisiting an in-season change) will be a story, I believe it should be a story, and I hope that it is. 

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Jenny Vrentas, senior writer, The MMQB

I'm very interested to see if the dip in TV ratings for NFL games persists, all the way past the Nov. 8 presidential election. For the last few years, we've been wondering if anything could make the NFL bubble burst, whether it be oversaturation of the product, fan distaste for on-field violence, the run of off-field incidents mishandled by teams or the league, etc. The dip in ratings so far this season is not insignificant, and very eyebrow-raising. The theory both you and the reporting of Sports Business Journal supported, that news coverage of an extremely polarizing and dramatic election cycle is drawing viewers away from sports, makes a lot of sense. But if ratings continue to sag after Nov. 8, that’s another story. How long can the NFL continue to be immune to bad PR hits? The TV ratings arc this fall will go a long way to answering that very important question.

The Noise Report

( examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)

1. Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck feared for his broadcasting career five years ago when he suffered a paralyzed left vocal cord. The ailment struck him a few weeks before the start of the 2011 baseball season, and it wasn’t until October of that year that he truly felt his voice was back. At the time, Buck told people that he had developed a virus in the laryngeal nerve of his left vocal cord.

But that was a lie.

The story of what really happened is revealed for the first time in the piece below, and explored in more detail in his upcoming memoir, Lucky Bastard: My Life, My Dad, And The Things I’m Not Allowed To Say On TVThe piece is here.

1a. Per Sports Business Daily, all of the broadcast networks that air NFL games had declined in ratings through Week 4:

• NBC had drawn 22.03 million viewers for its games, down 13% from 25.31 million viewers in 2015. SBD said NBC was at its lowest point through four weeks since the 2009 season (20.76 million viewers).

• Fox had averaged 19.33 million viewers through four weeks, down 3% from 19.9 million in 2015.

• CBS had averaged 17.25 million per week, down 3% from 17.83 million last year. SBD said CBS and the NFL Network had combined to average 16.37 million viewers for two Thursday Night Football games this season, down 15% from last year.

• The roughest network hit was ESPN. The network, per SBD, has averaged 11.31 million viewers through four weeks of Monday Night Football telecasts (five games), its lowest four-week mark since acquiring the rights to the package in 2006. This year’s average is down 17% from 13.62 million viewers in 2015.

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1b. As for studio shows, Sports TV Ratings recently provided the data for for two signature NFL studio shows that air on ESPN. Through four weeks of the season, the new cast of Sunday NFL Countdown had produced a 9.84% decline in viewers (1.5 million, down from 1.7M per show). NFL Insiders: Sunday Edition was down 10.74% (1.1. million viewers, from 1.2).

Interestingly, NFL Countdown started the year off by increasing viewers over last year’s Week 1, but has since sunk. The question is whether this is collateral damage as part of the slide on NFL game ratings, or an issue with the new cast on ESPN’s flagship NFL pregame show. I’d bet on mostly the former, with parts of the latter.

1c. Why are NFL TV ratings way down in 2016? Some thoughts, including the heated presidential election season taking viewers away 

1d. Rarely does the graphic package from a sports network become the topic of social media conversation but Turner was severely criticized on Twitter for not including a pitch count stat during its TBS coverage of the postseason, in addition to some factual mistakes. “Our graphics package was developed with a streamlined design this year to make it even more easily digestible for fans,” said Matt Mosteller, VP of Content, Turner Sports. “We’ve made reference to pitch count at relevant times during all of our telecasts, including the use of graphics. Listening closely to our viewers, we’ve decided to integrate pitch count into our TBS Strike Zone graphic at all times throughout the remainder of our postseason coverage."

The people’s voice was heard. This is a good thing and credit to Turner Sports for changing it up.

1e. College football overnight ratings:

Tennessee/Texas A&M (CBS): 4.0

FSU/Miami (ABC): 3.2

Alabama/Arkansas (ESPN): 2.4

Indiana/Ohio State (ESPN): 2.3

Oklahoma/Texas (FS1): 2.0

*Charlotte, Jacksonville, Norfolk, Orlando, Raleigh-Durham, and West Palm Beach were not included in the FSU/Miami ratting due to Hurricane Matthew.

*The 2.0 overnight for Texas-Oklahoma is the lowest overnight for a Longhorns-Sooners game since 2006.

Week 6 Takeaways: Eight biggest things we learned Saturday

1f. On Saturday ESPN’s College GameDay celebrated the 20th anniversary of analyst Lee Corso picking games using headgear. Reporter Tom Rinaldi fronted a thoughtful tribute to the 81-year-old.

The always helpful Rachel Siegal of ESPN PR sent over some Corso-headgear related stats:

Number of times Corso has worn headgear: 282

Overall record of picking Headgear games: 187–95

Cities Corso has made the headgear pick: 75

1g: Game 2 of the NLDS between the Cubs and Giants drew 4.6 million viewers on MLB Network, the most-watched telecast in MLB Network history. The telecast beat MLB Network’s prior record by 151% (1.8 million viewers) for the 2014 NLDS Game 3 between the Nationals and Giants.

2. NBC held a conference call this week to hype its upcoming NHL coverage. Among the new features: As part of what the network is calling “Star Nights,” NBC/NBCSN will highlight a star player from each team and follow him throughout the night, from arriving at the building to an on-ice interview with analyst Pierre Mcguire before the game, to a feature on the background of the player. They will also show every goal around the league each night they are on the air, as well as a top five saves feature as selected by Mark Bellotti, a hockey producer.

Asked about ESPN’s foray into hockey via its coverage of last month’s World Cup of Hockey, NBC executive producer Sam Flood could have been auditioning to be one of ESPN PR’s 50 staffers: “I think they did a nice job,” Flood said. “They hadn’t done hockey in a long time. To see them get out there and have the opportunity to do hockey was fun. They have plenty of people in their building that are passionate about this game, and I love that. I love the fact that the more people that love hockey, the better off it is for the entire sport. So it was great to see their passionate hockey people [get] to touch and be part of the sport they love.”

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2a. Here’s McGuire, analyst Eddie Olczyk, and play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick, on where they would rank Oilers center Connor McDavid right now among all NHL players.

McGuire: I was just on a poll for TSN that will be running soon. I had Connor McDavid rated at the second-best player in the league right behind Sidney Crosby.

Olczyk: I would not have him in my top five. As of right now, he’s only played 40-whatever amount of games. Obviously, the young man has incredible upside. We all understand that. Maybe have another conference call right around the All-Star game, and he might be the second leading scorer in the National Hockey League. You could see, I think, what Pierre is talking about, where he has him rated so high, whether it was to play in the World Cup or the flashes of brilliance this last season in Edmonton. I think there are a few guys in the league right now that would be a little bit ahead of Connor McDavid.

Emrick: Yeah, in terms of body of work, I agree with Eddie. Flashes of brilliance are two words I was going to use that Eddie has. And they do describe him. If you look at the highlight reels, why wouldn’t you describe him that way? But just for the flashes of brilliance, top 10, but, again, the body of work is so short. Pierre, of course, has a depth of his body of work that goes beyond what he’s done professionally, but I would say top 10, just based on that. In terms of pinning it down, it’s a little hard until we see one full season and then are able to evaluate him against the other players that are, year after year, top 10 players.

2b. The NHL Network expanded its live weekday studio programming by adding a new, daily show: NHL Now. The show (4 p.m. ET) will be co-hosted by E.J. Hradek, Steve Mears and new NHL Network host Michelle McMahon. NHL Network also announced that former NHL player Scott Gomez has joined the network as an on-air analyst.

2c. Emrick voiced-over an interesting piece on a hockey game from 1954 that featured the Red Wings and prisoners from the Marquette (Mich.) Branch Prison.

3. Episode 80 of the Sports Illustrated media podcast features Fox NFL on-field reporter Pam Oliver.

In this episode, Oliver discusses what the public often misses about the role and responsibilities of NFL sideline reporters; how executives (nearly all men) make hiring decisions for the position; how the Patriots are the least accessible teams for sideline reporters; how Fox executives nearly removed her from the NFL two years ago; her feelings on being replaced by Erin Andrews on Fox's top NFL team; what kind of opportunities she sees for young women of color who want to enter the business; why Troy Aikman considers her a sister, and much more.

A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me. Hope you enjoy.

3a. Episode 81 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Clinton Yates, a senior writer for The Undefeated. The episode will be out Monday afternoon.

In this episode, Yates discusses the journalism ethos of The Undefeated, an ESPN-housed site on the intersection of sports, race and culture; why he left the Washington Post to take a job at the site; what it was like to work at the Post as a young writer; why readers should invest in The Undefeated given ESPN shelved Grantland after a couple of years; why Michael Wilbon is a mentor for Yates; the success and failure of opinion-based sports shows on television; whether readers are interested in the intersection of sports and politics; working for the late George Michael at WRC-4 in Washington, D.C.; surviving a near-death car accident at 19, and much more.

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• Yisrael Kristal lived through both World Wars and survived Auschwitz. At the age of 113, he had his bar mitzvah. Great piece on a human survivor.

This New York Timesphoto series on African migrants attempting sea crossings is heartbreaking. 

• The Interceptexamined the Chicago Police Department. 

• Via NY Times Magazine: How to bluff at cards.

• From GQ: My Son, the Prince of Fashion.  

• From the NYT: The quest to make a blue M&M.

• This Twitter feed from Kelly Oxford is vital for people to read. 

• Via New York Times: How U.S. Torture Left Legacy of Damaged Minds.

• From Jason Fagone of The Washingtonian: The Gruesome November Night in One of Washington’s Wealthiest Suburbs. 

• Brilliant and Haunted: How One of L.A.’s Most Promising Writers Lost It All.

• The New Yorker examined the appeal of Donald Trump in West Virginia. Smart, non-judgmental piece.

Sports pieces of note:

• Via The Atlantic: The incomparable Sandy Koufax.

• Bleacher Report’s Jeff Pearlman examines why people hate Tom Brady. Well done piece, including quotes from Tom Brady Sr.

• How one fan invented a fake newspaper to get press passes to cover the Braves. 

• ESPN’s Mina Kimes and Mickey Duzyj on bat flips in South Korea.

Washington Post writers Will Hobson and Steven Rich on USA Track and Field CEO Max Siegel alarming some insiders with his spending and style. 

5. The Jays-Orioles wild-card game averaged 4.02 million viewers on Sportsnet (Canada) and peaked at 5.38 million viewers. Keep in mind this is a country of 35 million.

5a. Last Wednesday’s 2016 National League wild-card game on ESPN drew 7,420,000 viewers, the second-most watched MLB game on the network in 13 years.

5b. ESPN Sunday Night Baseball play-by-play commentator Dan Shulman and analyst Aaron Boone will call the World Series on ESPN Radio. Chris Singleton will provide pre- and post-game analysis and interviews during ESPN Radio’s World Series coverage. Here’s the full MLB postseason schedule for ESPN Radio.

5c. Fox announced its World Series studio show. The on-set talent includes host Kevin Burkhardt and analysts CJ Nitkowski, Alex Rodriguez, Pete Rose, Frank Thomas, Tom Verducci & Dontrelle Willis.

5d. Nice tribute to Vin Scully here from MLB Network. 

5e. Game 1 of the Cubs-Giants NLDS drew 5.7 million viewers on FS1, the second-most-watched broadcast in the network’s three-year history. The most watched program in FS1 history? Game 5 of the Astros-Royals ALDS last year (5,944,000 viewers).

5f. Thanks to the Toronto Sports Media website for asking me to part of this roundtable on Twitter and journalism.

5g. Ryan Ruocco and analyst Rebecca Lobo will call the WNBA Finals, with reporters Holly Rowe and LaChina Robinson rotating games on the sidelines.

5h. Dick Enberg was a recent guest on SI’s “Beyond The Baseline” podcast where he and SI’s Jon Wertheim talked about his 60 years in broadcasting. 

5i. Given the high-profile nature of Skip Bayless’s defection from ESPN to FS1, many entities that cover sports media have documented the viewership for Bayless’s former show (ESPN2’s First Take) versus his current show (FS1’s Undisputed), especially since they are competing against each other in the same time slot. Between Sept. 6 and Oct.6, for example, First Take averaged 325,000 viewers while Undisputed was sitting at 90,000 per show. Worth noting: First Take was down 29% in viewership versus last year from Labor Day to Oct. 3. is always a good place for updated ratings.

While FS1 executives are chirping that First Take’s drop is a victory for them—Bayless’s show has provided help to Colin Cowherd’s talk show which airs at noon ET on FS1 and has averaged around 90,000-100,000 viewers of late—it’s worth looking inside Undisputed’s numbers. According to industry sources, the show is drawing a 0.0 rating in 23 television markets, including big markets such as Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco and many other cities. The show’s top-rated markets are Orlando, Greensboro, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Richmond, where Undisputed is averaging a 0.2 rating. The combined metered market of the show is 0.08.

With the expenditure FS1 made on Bayless’s salary ($5.5 million per year plus signing bonuses) and the ubiquitous marketing for that show during Fox’s high-rated NFL afternoon games, it’s fair to ask whether a Bayless-led show drawing 40,000 fewer viewers than a practice session for the Malaysia Grand Prix airing on NBCSN last Friday at 6 a.m. ET should be deemed a bust at this point of its early tenure. If Bayless asks such questions about athletes living up to their contract, it’s certainly a fair question to ask of his bosses.

5j.Think good thoughts for USA Today NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt.