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Thanks to the emergence of NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, ESPN finally has cable competition with actual money to spend.
It’s been a long time coming.
Television talent is celebrating like never before because multiple bidders drives up sports media salaries. Instead of ESPN being able to tell you to take its offer or leave for the cable hinterlands, there’s the potential that sports media success can come from cable off the ESPN networks.
As I’ve watched the Jim Rome promotions air a billion times a day during the NCAA Tournament, it got me thinking, who are the most valuable commodities in sports media today? That is, if you made every sports media figure a free agent and allowed ESPN, CBS, and NBC to hire away talent, what would my first round draft look like?
Basically, who would you hire if you could stock a new network?
There are a couple of preliminaries — I’m eliminating anyone 65 or over. That means no Al Michaels (67), Marv Albert (70), Brent Musburger (72) or, be still my heart, Uncle Verne Lundquist (71).
Why am I doing this?
Because I’m trying to draft for the next ten years of the network.
So age is going to factor in to my rankings. Just like you wouldn’t value a running back who was 29 the same as one that’s 22, I’m factoring in age and eliminating those 65 and over. The other primary attribute I want is versatility. That is, you can do more than one thing well. As we move in to a new media environment I want guys and gals who can do TV, I want talent who can do radio, I want really smart people who can adjust on the fly and tell me why something matters before others have realized why something matters.
And I want talent who is active in social media.
And if they can write too?
That’s a five tool media player.
Those are truly rare talents.
The other thing that needs to be readily noted is that all of these talents are less important than the actual sports rights that these networks have. I get it, you’d rather watch the NFL being called by Roseanne Barr than Bob Costas calling the MLS.
Finally, I solicited y’all’s opinions on my Twitter account and got thousands of suggestions. I used those suggestions to refine the list I’d already made and to ensure that there were no glaring omissions.
I’ll write more about television properties going forward, but for now, here’s my first round sports media draft:
1. Scott Van Pelt
Van Pelt is in his early 40’s and he’s anchored SportsCenter for a decade. Toss in the daily radio show, his background at the Golf Channel, and his social media savvy and it’s no surprise that many in sports media expect for Van Pelt to cash in big time when his contract comes up this year.
The top contenders?
ESPN and NBC.
Will Van Pelt leave behind the friendly confines of ESPN for NBC’s new cable experiment?
But his contract sure is coming on to the market at the perfect time.
2. Dan Patrick
DP has the best national radio show in the country right now. He’s an outstanding interviewer, he’s got several decades of time in front of a television camera, and he’s managed to create a persona around himself that gives him creative freedom to take some risks.
Plus here’s why I love DP so much: he’s as free and independent of a major media figure as exists today.
That means you can trust his actual opinions.
The only reason I don’t have him number one is because he’s 55 years old.
Does that shock anyone?
It did me.
3. Bob Costas
Speaking of age, did you know Bob Costas is 60?
I had no idea.
He’s looked the exact same for the past 25 years and he’s brilliant. One of the truly smart people involved in the world of sports who doesn’t just happen to look smart because they’re involved in the world of sports.
If you had to pick anyone in sports media to conduct an interview and Costas wasn’t your first choice, you’re a damn fool. (He destroyed Jerry Sandusky this fall).
But, at 60, does Costas really fit within the modern media era? He’ll be great on the Olympics, but what events does Costas work otherwise? Does his occasional hectoring and moralizing work in today’s era? I have my doubts.
4. Jon Gruden
This may be way too high, but what if Gruden never returns to coaching?
Then you could lock in the best analyst for the most important sport in America for the next twenty years.
Gruden’s only 48 years old and has the potential to be the next John Madden, a Super Bowl winning coach who leaves behind the game and makes his last name synonymous with the sport for a generation of football fans. Plus, Gruden’s quarterback camp, for instance, offers tantalizing clues that he might be able to expand his NFL role beyond the booth.
5. Colin Cowherd
Admit it, you’re not indifferent to him.
You either love this guy or you hate him.
I respect Cowherd’s ability to be successful across multiple platforms. His radio show does well, SportsNation has been a rousing success, and you get the sense that Cowherd expects to be king of all sports media one day.
I doubt it.
Does he expect to be?
At 48 years old you can lock in a solid decade of value for Cowherd and you can use him across multiple media-platforms.
6. Jim Rome
Again, love him or hate him, Rome has established a leading national radio show and a successful television presence.
The CBS Sports Network believes he’s the figure that will bring its network in for a nation-wide close-up.
Rome is 47, but he’s a guy that I thought would be older than that. Put simply, he’s been around on the national scene for nearly two decades now. That’s pretty impressive staying power.
(Full disclosure: I will be a sometimes panelist on Rome’s new CBS show when it debuts.)
7. Mike Tirico
Tirico is this generation’s Jim Nantz, an unthreatening play-by-play man who is completely flawless and can call any major event without ever offending a single person. (This is incredibly difficult to pull off).
That was my opening sentence for Tirico. But then I looked up Nantz and Tirico’s ages.
Did you know that they’re only six years apart? Tirico is 46 and Nantz is 52. So these guys are actually the same generation.
This is the first time I’ve been blown away by my age research.
Nantz has been doing this for so long I figured he had to be at least 60.
8. Kirk Herbstreit
He owns college football, the nation’s second most popular sport.
Oh, and he’s only 42.
Herbstreit is so popular he can do as much or as little outside college football as he wants. Given his background in sports talk radio, he’s actually able to talk about all sports pretty intelligently.
But is he happy sticking to college football for the next generation?
9. Jim Nantz
The least likely to ever offend an advertiser, league, or athlete on this list. (Believe me, that has a big value to networks).
At 52, you still have at least a generation of Jim Nantz calling major sporting events.
That longevity is simply amazing.
By the time Nantz retires, he’s going to have a play-by-play resume that will probably never be equaled again.
And based on the ages of some announcers you can probably still have him for twenty more years.
10. Chris Fowler
Fowler is incredibly underrated when it comes to television.
Give him tennis, college football, or the X-Games and he executes flawlessly. He’s also more subversive and a bit darker than most of the guys on this list.
The only real question I have is this, does he have a personality that you could build a radio show or other entertainment property around? Would he be interested in these things? If not, he’s the perfect utility broadcaster, he can handle any sport and make it sing.
11. Gus Johnson
Internet era sports fans love Gus, but could he, say, call the Masters?
Really, could Gus Johnson call anything other than football or basketball?
I think the answer is no.
Which is why I think there’s a pretty substantial drop-off from Tirico and Nantz to Gus.
12. Charles Barkley
You’ll own the NBA if you have Barkley.
But what can Barkley do outside the NBA? His NCAA tournament analysis hasn’t been as entertaining as his NBA takes.
Is he disciplined enough to do a regular radio show? Can it pay enough to get him to do it?
I love Barkley because he’s got the most creative freedom in sports today. This is a guy who has carved out so much space for himself that he can get arrested for driving drunk while going to pay a prostitute for sex and no one even cares.
Think about how crazy this is.
Jim Nantz got crushed because his wife wouldn’t hang an oil portrait of him.
Barkley can get away with anything. Talk about double standards.
But does Barkley have interest in moving outside the NBA and committing to a more regular gig?
I doubt it.
That’s why he’s here.
13. Bill Simmons
I can make a strong case that Bill Simmons is the single most valuable talent that ESPN employs today.
In fact, I’ll do it right now.
Clearly Simmons understands the Internet, he’s wildly popular in social media, his podcasts are incredibly successful, the 30 for 30 series is genius, his column and books have been wildly popular, and Grantland represents a true creative risk. The kind of risk that ESPN doesn’t typically take.
If Simmons isn’t the highest paid talent at ESPN, he should be.
And all that’s without actually appearing on television much at all.
So, at 42 years old, what does Simmons want from here?
I have no idea.
But ESPN should let him have it.
14. Erin Andrews
Erin Andrews is still just 33 years old.
Having recently moved to New York City from Atlanta, what does she want to do as her contract nears expiration?
Active in social media — she has over a million followers — and a bona fide crossing over sports celebrity since her turn on Dancing With the Stars, does she stay in sports?
I have no idea.
15. Nick Faldo
The best golf analyst on television.
He’s simply outstanding.
At 54, he has a solid 15 more years of analysis if he so desires.
16. Rich Eisen
There’s a strong collection of 42 year olds in sports media today — Simmons, Eisen, Jay Glazer.
Eisen is near the top of this list because he made a risky move to the NFL Network and it paid off. The NFL has skyrocketed in popularity since he left ESPN. He’s capable of crossing over outside the NFL, is young enough to have a solid generation and more of analysis. Basically, Eisen is very well positioned to broaden his scope at some point if he so desires.
17. Mike Wilbon
Wilbon is 53 now, but he’s our first five tool sports media performer on the list.
If you grew up reading his columns in the Washington Post you know that he’s incisive, penetrating, and smart. If you watch PTI, you know he’s really funny. And if you watch the NBA on ESPN you know that he’s capable of really detailed analysis of the NBA.
18. Michelle Beadle
Another ESPN’er with a contract that’s up, what does Beadle want in her future?
SportsNation is successful, but does she want to stay in sports?
Rumors are out that she might bail on sports for a show on E!.
She’s only 36 and has the ability to cross over outside of sports.
So what’s she after and does she make that move now?
19. Jay Glazer
Some might gripe about why a guy like Adam Schefter or Chris Mortensen isn’t a first rounder.
The reason is simple — Glazer has proven that he can do something other than report on the NFL.
For lack of a better term, his brand works when he gives opinion too.
Can you picture Schefter or Mortensen in an MMA ring? On a tour with troops overseas?
That’s why Glazer is inside the top twenty.
20. Mel Kiper
The NFL Draft is bigger than just about every major sport in America.
And no one owns the NFL Draft like Kiper.
You have to grab him here in the first round.
What’s more, Kiper is opinionated and brash enough that he can cover other sports. You don’t value his opinion as much, but he’s created a brand for himself that reaches beyond the draft.
21. Marcellus Wiley
I’m making a run on younger sports media here.
Marcellus Wiley is headed for tremendous things.
He’s outstanding in television and radio, smart, and a former NFL athlete.
Plus, he’s only 37.
If I could buy stock in Wiley, I’d buy it right now.
22. Tony Reali
Did you know Tony Reali is only 33?
Given his longevity on Around the Horn, that surprised me.
I’m not sure what Reali will be doing for the next thirty years, but I’m sure that he’s going to be in the mix somehow.
(FYI, in looking at these ages, I’m going to do an under 45 year old list at some point too. Lots of the guys on this list are really up there in age. Who will be the next generation of sports media stars?)
23. Tony Kornheiser
Kornheiser is 63 years old.
He’s the only sports media personality I don’t know that would make me weep if he died.
Occasionally in the OKTC comments people toss around Paul Finebaum as my role model. I like Paul, but that’s not accurate at all. If I had to point to one person in sports media who I’d use a role model, it would be Kornheiser. That’s because first and foremost he’s an outstanding and witty writer. His columns in the Washington Post — both sports and the style section — were absolute must reads for the four years I spent in college.
In many ways Kornheiser came too soon, if he’d written in an Internet age, he’d have been infinitely more popular before PTI started.
But most of America became exposed to Kornheiser through television. Which he’s also amazingly good at.
In fact, PTI is the best show ESPN has done since SportsCenter. Thanks in a large part to Kornheiser.
Given his success in writing, radio, and television, he’s the rarest of all attributes, a true five tool sports media star.
I absolutely love TK.
24. Cris Collinsworth
If Gruden leaves the booth, then Collinsworth becomes the best NFL analyst out there.
Given the NFL’s popularity, you have to lock Collinsworth down if you can.
I don’t think he can do more, but the NFL is that big.
25. Mike Florio
Florio has crafted a brand for himself that works, he owns the NFL online.
But he’s also really damn good on television.
Does he ever want to break outside of the NFL and would he be successful at that move? I’m not sure. But right now is he the most successful Internet writer to move to television?
There’s no doubt at all.
26. Jason Whitlock
Whitlock is abrasive, often ill-informed, and frequently firing wild verbal salvoes that don’t seem to have any particular aim at all.
But he’s entertaining.
And often writes truly fascinating columns that don’t pull punches.
Those traits are hard to find today.
Should Fox be building a show around him?
I think so.
27. Jay Bilas
The best college basketball analyst out there today.
Funny, smart, and not afraid to throw elbows at the NCAA’s inconsistency and illogical bouts of fancy.
I love Bilas.
But did you know he’s almost fifty?
Where have you been for all these years, Jay?
28. Peter King
He writes the most read column about America’s most popular sport and he’s pretty damn good on television too.
Plus, King branches well outside of the NFL.
His riffs on other subjects may not be as entertaining, but unlike Schefter or Mortensen, he actually has a personality outside of his reporting. I understand why old school media would prefer that reporters not have personalities, but in this era just being a reporter isn’t enough. You’ve got to have some sizzle with your steak. (Insert Peter King eating lots of steaks joke here).
29. Jemele Hill
Smart, opinionated, really active in social media circles, an interesting columnist, who is also great on television and just 36.
She’s the youngest five tool sports media player on this list.
And she’s going to get paid before all is said and done.
30. Rece Davis
Davis is the only one who keeps Lou Holtz and Mark May — the most inexplicably bad duo on sports television today — from descending into complete disaster. (And it may be disaster anyway. How Holtz and May are employed is one of the great mysteries of sports on television. The fact that Holtz and May are both employed and paired together is enough to get a television executive guillotined.)
Davis is completely underrated in his college football role and he’s also shown a great deal of dexterity calling games.
The only thing holding him back on this list is the fact that he’s a surprising 46.
31. Gary Danielson
Second only to Herbstreit in college football coverage, Danielson is really damn good on the CBS weekly broadcasts.
Does he bring anything outside of college football?
But college football is important enough that he needs to be on this list because there’s a big space between Herbstreit, Danielson and whoever is in third place on this list.
32. David Feherty
I absolutely love Feherty.
He owns golf, but his scope should be bigger than that.
He’s an edgier, much funnier Rick Reilly and deserves so much more promotion than he gets.
The first-round flier that everyone is shocked by: Samantha Steele
She’s going to be a bona fide star.
Just 26, she’ll move into the Erin Andrews role when Erin leaves behind sideline reporting and moves on to bigger things.
Agree or disagree with my first round? Let me know in the comments.
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