ESPN’s all-in approach to NFL free agency looks familiar

Adam Schefter, shown at the Pro Bowl in January, was a key contributor on ESPN’s free agency coverage. –Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini

Until Wednesday, I thought the local network affiliates set an unsurpassable standard for overkill on television with the way they deploy their reporting staffs during a snowstorm.

I’m not sure what the record is for the most talking heads crammed on to a single screen at one time, but I’d bet it’s around 20 – five faces across, four down, right? And 19 of them would be on location somewhere with a snowplow roaring in the background.

It makes for a cool visual, and a less-than-subtle way for the stations to show off their resources. But there’s a not a lot of value added there unless it’s the rare occasion in which a storm exceeds the hype.

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I bring up this weather-reporting interlude for one reason: ESPN made its own run at the talking-head record during Wednesday’s programming. During its coverage of NFL free agency, which formally began at 4 p.m., the network had nine hosts or analysts shoehorned onto its set at once – 10 if you count Adam Schefter’s phone as a living organism.

Among them were news-breakers Schefter and Chris Mortensen, hosts Wendi Nix and Trey Wingo, and analysts Tedy Bruschi and Louis Riddick.

The show ran surprisingly smoothly, with Wingo in particular directing traffic adeptly enough that all of the analysts seemed to get enough time to have their say. Then again, a smaller cast would have allowed for more input from analysts you want to hear from, such as the exceptional Riddick, rather than, say, Bill Polian.

The show, which was flipped over to ESPN2 at 5 p.m. for a second hour, worked well enough, especially when unexpected transaction news came in, such as the Packers signing of Jimmy Graham, which was broken by Schefter.

It had the vibe of ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage, with graphics of the best players available at each position (Tom Savage and Matt Moore were ranked the ninth- and 10th-best quarterbacks on the market, which made me think the lists should be culled to five) and immediate reaction to the various moves.

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The longer I watched, the more I became convinced the ESPN views the official beginning of free agency as an event it can own – and in a way that it can no longer own the draft.

In a story in Tuesday’s Sports Business Journal titled “ESPN’s Tricky NFL Problem,’’ reporter John Ourand detailed the tension between the league and ESPN, a broadcast partner that pays $1.9 billion annually for Monday Night Football rights.

Ourand wrote that the NFL hasn’t been pleased with some of ESPN’s journalism when it comes to covering the league, especially in regard to how the NFL has handled concussions. But ESPN was still caught by surprise when the league agreed to jointly produce draft coverage with Fox Sports that would compete with ESPN’s long-running draft programming.

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“ESPN created the NFL draft as a TV show 38 years ago and popularized it to unprecedented heights over the years,’’ wrote Ourand. “It was one thing when the NFL Network started covering it. But when the NFL brought in a competitive broadcast network, it was seen as a slap in the face.’’

The NFL Network’s draft coverage, which features analyst Mike Mayock, has received positive reviews in recent years. But the draft has still seemed like primarily an ESPN event, with Mel Kiper Jr. still the biggest star among hyper-informed draftniks. With the NFL allowing Fox Sports, always a wild-card in terms of approach, into the mix, that could change.

Wednesday’s coverage of free agency felt an awful lot like ESPN’s attempt to have as much ownership of an NFL offseason event as it still can.

What a mess

TBS’s Selection Sunday show, in which the automatic bids and at-large selections for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were announced before the anticipated bracket reveal, was much maligned, including in this space. I received one email from someone who said they liked the show, and dozens who were annoyed at TBS’s approach.

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Part of the reason TBS did it that way was to stretch out the program a bit in terms of suspense. If the bracket is revealed right away, the second half of the 2-hour show can be anticlimactic and repetitive in terms of analysis. As it was, TBS still fully revealed the bracket 40 minutes into the show, which still left 80 minutes for analysis. Maybe the solution is to shorten the show, rather than delay the sharing of information fans and viewers really want.

I suspect something will change next year to appease the core audience. This was the first time Selection Sunday has aired on TBS – it had been CBS before – and ratings were dismal. Per Sports Media Watch, the selection show drew a 1.6 overnight rating on TBS, down from its 3.3 last year on CBS. The switch to a cable network that is in fewer households was going to have some effect on the ratings. But a drop this large is untenable.

The least TBS can do next year, provided the show doesn’t end up back on CBS, is give the viewers what they want. It now has no excuse for not knowing exactly what that is.

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