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The year in sports media: Incomplete for Fox Sports 1; Up for Olbermann, down for Beadle

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University reviews the year in sports media. It never was dull.

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Wow, that was fast. At this time a year ago, we had no idea Manti Te’o was mourning a fake girlfriend; that Keith Olbermann would be in again at ESPN and Michelle Beadle out at NBC; and that a new sports cable network would trot out an 81-year-old Regis Philbin as an example of new and innovative programming.

Yes, 2013 has been quite a year for sports media. Some ups, more than a few downs, and many in-betweens. Here’s my review.

Fox Sports 1: Easily, the biggest story of the year in sports media, and it figures to have an effect on the landscape for many years to come. As you would expect, Fox came out blazing for its new sports cable operation with a big promotion campaign, promising a fun alternative to that stale bunch in Bristol. Some of the new stuff looks promising (Canadaian import anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole) and some was just puzzling. (Regis in a scattershot afternoon show?)

However, given ESPN’s 35-year head start, Fox Sports 1 faces quite a climb. Not surprisingly, early ratings lag far, far behind.

Fox, though, didn’t get into this as a short-term play. It signaled its intentions by boldly stealing away golf’s U.S. Open from NBC/ESPN, beginning in 2015. Expect more to come from the network. This story is only beginning to be told.

Olbermann: The presence of Fox Sports 1 proved beneficial to Keith Olbermann. He became a prime ESPN counterpunch to the new network. Old is new, and you can come home again. Despite “napalming” those bridges with his messy exit many years ago, Olbermann found his way back with a lively and compelling new show on ESPN2.

Michelle Beadle: Things looked promising for the big hire for NBC Sports Network with the debut of a new show, “The Crossover,” during Super Bowl week. The first attempt with a partner was a disaster, and Beadle going solo also didn’t work. The show was cancelled in September, and she looks done at NBC SN.

Deadspin: The edgy site produced the scoop of the year with the Manti Te’o story. It beat ESPN to the punch by working the nuances of social media. The story also raised questions about whether reporters should have done more to verify if Te’o’s late girlfriend actually existed.

While the “80-percent” source quote (alleging Te’o was in on the conspiracy) was a major flaw in its initial story, landing me on the site’s enemy list for my critique, Deadspin, for better or worse, showed how a non-traditional outlet can become a player for big news in the new media age.

Jason Collins: Sports Illustrated, though, still is capable of delivering. Its coverage of Jason Collins’ coming out as the first gay player in a major professional sport not only dominated the news cycle for several days, it also showed the magazine making a more dramatic shift to digital by releasing the package initially at SI.com.

League of Denial: The groundbreaking work on concussions by brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru became a source of controversy for ESPN. The network abruptly decided to pull out of a PBS “Frontline” documentary based on the book, which portrayed the NFL going to great lengths to deny that there is a problem. ESPN president John Skipper cited a lack of editorial control, but the lingering and damaging sentiment is that the network caved to pressure from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Regardless of what ESPN says, perception is reality for many people in this case.

World Series: Despite a stellar match-up between Boston and St. Louis, and several terrific finishes, the Red Sox’s victory in six games failed to break a 9 rating (8.9), let alone get into double digits. The ratings showed the continuing decline in appeal for baseball’s biggest October games. Meanwhile, baseball fails to address the prime factor; mind-numbing slow games that seem to go on forever.

Tim McCarver: He ended his long run as the lead analyst for Major League Baseball for several networks with this year’s World Series. He went out with class with some understated comments in his final telecast.

NFL Ratings: The league has ratings for preseason games that rival some for baseball’s postseason. Despite all the significant concerns about the concussion issue, viewers are able to compartmentalize, as they continue to tune into the games in huge numbers.

Super Bowl: The lights went out in New Orleans and for CBS. It wasn’t the best moment for either, as CBS was pounded for the lack of a true sideline reporter to cover the news. A few weeks later, Tracy Wolfson showed the value of sideline reporters when she covered Kevin Ware’s horrifying broken leg in the Louisville-Duke game.

NBC Sports Network: On the plus side, ratings are strong and growing for the NHL, and its coverage of the Premier League has received high praise. However, the Beadle show was a big disappointment, and the network still lacks a strong studio presence, especially after 7 p.m. NBC SN needs to do its version of “SportsCenter.”

FiveThirtyEight: ESPN made a big hire by snaring Nate Silver. He currently is developing a new version of FiveThirtyEight that will cover many areas, including sports.

Jason Whitlock: Speaking of big hires and going home again, ESPN bought Whitlock back into the fold. He is helping to develop a new ESPN.com site geared toward African-American sports fans.

It didn’t take long for Whitlock to get in hot water at ESPN. The network gave him a public rebuke after he slammed Sports Illustrated’s Thayer Evans for his reporting in the Oklahoma State investigation.

Bleacher Report: The site has undergone a major transformation since being purchased by Turner in 2012. With high profile hires of Mike Freeman and Howard Beck, it appears to be veering into a site that will compete with ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports and the rest.

MMQB: In order to entice Peter King to stay on, Sports Illustrated gave him his own branded NFL site. Following in the footsteps of Bill Simmons’ Grantland, this could be a trend of big-names in the business getting their own sites.

Amy Trask: The former CEO of the Oakland Raiders became the first woman to be an analyst on a pregame show, joining CBS Sports Network’s new, “The Other Pregame Show.” She quickly excelled with her candor.

Verne Lundquist: The veteran CBS announcer celebrated his 50th year in the business. As a present, he got to call the incredible finish to the Alabama-Auburn game. Another one for Lundquist’s vast highlight package.

Nine for IX: ESPN highlighted women sports with a series of documentaries during the summer. A film on the struggle of women sportswriters, “Let Them Wear Towels,” should be shown in every sports journalism class from this moment forward. Hopefully, ESPN will continue this series in 2014.

Farewell: Pat Summerall and Ken Venturi died within days of each other. Both men spent years together covering golf for CBS.

Summerall arguably was the voice of sports for his generation. Nobody did play-by-play on more Super Bowls, and he excelled on golf and tennis.

Summerall succeeded because of two main assets: A wonderful deep voice that punctuated his wonderful sense of brevity. He didn’t overwhelm a telecast. Rather, he melted into it, providing the ideal sound track to accompany the hum of the venue and the pulse of the action taking place down below. Many thanks, Pat, for a job well done.

 

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