Rights issues chill ESPN's Olympics coverage

Originally Published: February 27, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

Two major events, the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics, dominated the airwaves and sports news in February. The Super Bowl was an extension of ESPN's extensive coverage of the National Football League season, and -- with its ABC partner broadcasting the game -- the week-long event played to ESPN's strengths and synergy.

Coverage of the Olympics, meanwhile, was another story. With NBC holding the rights, ESPN had to cover the games with limitations, including how much footage it could use on SportsCenter or ESPNEWS, and when that footage could be used (after NBC's programming had ended on the West Coast).

ESPN's Olympic team consisted of three TV reporters (Lisa Salters, Jeremy Schaap, and Steve Cyphers) and four producers, with contributions from experts in a number of sports -- including USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, who specializes in figure skating.

In general, their work from Torino was solid, although some viewers, including Ryan Fickes, e-mailing from Guangzhou, China, felt the coverage was too negative. It's an assessment with which I do not agree, considering a number of the best news stories (Bode Miller's failure to win any medals or even finish three races, Sasha Cohen missing gold, and disappointing showings by the U.S. and Canadian hockey teams, etc.) simply were not positive.

ESPN had more opportunity to air highlights than from previous recent Olympics, by virtue of an agreement with NBC that also allowed Al Michaels out of his ESPN contract to work "Sunday Night Football" for NBC. Still, long-standing restrictions for non-rights holders hampered overall coverage.

"We were limited by highlights restrictions, as well as not having any camera access to the Olympic Village, venues, or most press conferences," explained Vince Doria, senior vice president and director of news for ESPN. "We understand the scope of the event and would like to have done more."

ESPN smartly saw an opportunity to report results of events on its news shows as they happened, while NBC held back the results of some competition for hours for its prime-time presentation. ESPN's "real-time, get it on the air" philosophy, while irritating to some fans, is the right way to go in this age of instant information. I was stunned to hear NBC News anchor Brian Williams tease an "upcoming" event that had been over for hours.

Doria said: "We understand that some viewers would prefer to watch taped sports events without knowing the outcome. But we wouldn't be doing our job as a news organization if we didn't report the news as it happens."

The next time it covers an event from "the outside," ESPN might consider broadening its scope and generating even more of the imagination it often displays. That imagination and breadth was evident during the two weeks leading up to the Feb. 5 Super Bowl, when ESPN used all of its resources and talent to provide a wide array of news shows, pre-game and post-game presentations and specials.

A six-hour countdown to the game on Sunday seemed a bit much, but the content was there, including Kenny Mayne's entertaining interview with Martha Stewart on the preparation of nachos. During the week, NFL commentators Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Sal Paolantonio, Stuart Scott, Linda Cohn, Darren Woodson, Mark Schlereth, Sean Salisbury, Mike Ditka, Steve Young, Andrea Kremer, Michael Irvin, Chris Mortensen, Michele Tafoya and Ron Jaworski were among those who contributed to the coverage.

But by the end of the week, fresh news was becoming scarce, as shown by what I considered the overplaying of Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter's derogatory comments about Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens. Also, I wondered why the well-worn Donovan McNabb-Terrell Owens feud was reborn during Super Bowl week. I also could have lived without seeing Chad Johnson again before the 2006 season.

In the aftermath of the game, everyone had their say about the controversial officiating, but I thought Jaworski's comment that the officiating "has been inconsistent all season, with need for full-time officials" was worthy of more reporting. So was Seattle coach Mike Holmgren's comment that he knew the Steelers would be tough, but "we didn't know we'd have to play the refs, too." This was stinging criticism from an important newsmaker not given to brash comments.

Surfing

  • Props to anchor Dana Jacobson, who kept her cool and asked Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight the right questions regarding Indiana during a Feb. 14 interview on "Cold Pizza." Knight, on the show to discuss his own ESPN reality show "Knight School," told Jacobson he would not talk about Indiana. However, Jacobson persisted -- and Knight abruptly walked off the set.

  • Another recent example of the pitfalls of ESPN entering into business relationships with newsmakers came from Barry Bonds, who has a pending deal with ESPN Original Entertainment to chronicle his upcoming Giants season. Bonds said he would seek agreement from baseball reporters covering the Giants for the right to use their images and words as they occur in the process of shooting footage for the show. Bonds intimated to reporters that he would only agree to interviews with those who signed the waiver. Doria said ESPN's news organization would not agree to such a request.

  • In that same vein, ESPN could do a better job of letting viewers know that it happens to own some of the events it covers -- such as the BassMasters tournament and X Games. Ethically, covering these events is a slippery slope that requires ESPN to be very clear to its viewers regarding its relationships.

  • Another touchy situation involves ESPN's "Bracketologist" Joe Lunardi, who with several assistants, has for the past four years rated the possibilities of at-large teams making the NCAA basketball tournament. In addition to his ratings, Lundardi writes columns for ESPN.com and interacts with readers. What creates the conflict is Lunardi is also St. Joseph's University's assistant vice president and the Hawks' basketball color commentator.

    Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com's executive editor, explains: "Though his role on ESPN.com is constrained to predicting the NCAA tournament field -- based on his expertise and the proven success of his formula -- we have and will continue to acknowledge his ties to St. Joseph's whenever pertinent. ... He and his team of bracketologists have replicated the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) used by the NCAA to help pick at-large teams and determine seeds for the NCAA tournament."

    My take: As long as Lunardi's work is based on records and strength of schedule computations, I do not see a major violation of ethics -- as long as ESPN makes it perfectly clear he works for St. Joseph's and he recuses himself in dealing with the Hawks.

  • Meanwhile, SportsCenter's Scott Van Pelt found himself in an awkward spot this month when some Penn State fans e-mailed to complain that Van Pelt, a Maryland graduate, was trying to guide a coveted high school football recruit to sign with the Terrapins. The prospect, offensive lineman Antonio Logan-el of Forestville, Md., announced earlier this month he would attend Penn State, resulting in a chorus of boos from Maryland fans gathered at Baltimore's ESPNZone.

    "He originally said he wanted to go to Maryland before we met," Van Pelt explained. "We became friendly, as I would with other young people who want to talk with me about their future. I never once told him to go to Maryland. In the end, I was a pawn in the recruiting game. Over the years, I've been able to distinguish the difference between being a Maryland fan and commentator. Still, I am going to have to rethink my situation because of viewer perceptions. I understand what I have to do. I get it."

    My take: Most journalists -- broadcast and print -- understand that, once they enter the business, they sacrifice the obvious passions of rooting for a favorite team in favor of being a professional observer. The long-standing rule -- "No cheering in the press box" -- has been in effect longer than the term "homer."

  • Finally, ESPN's reporting team at the Daytona 500, led by Mike Massaro, did a terrific job keeping even novices like me in the know regarding NASCAR's premier race. ... There were some complaints about Jim Gray's quizzing golfer John Daly on his personal life. Good reporters ask tough, even embarrassing questions at times. No one has to answer, though. ... In the coming weeks, I'd like to see fewer stories on the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox, and more coverage on other teams, as well as the World Baseball Classic. ... Hockey fans, eager for the resumption of the NHL, want more Barry Melrose on ESPN's air, as well as some attention paid to the college game.

    Personally, I'm eager to see where the New Jersey investigation of the alleged gambling scandal involving Rick Tocchet and others leads. More on that next month. ... Meanwhile, some viewers who subscribe to the ESPN FullCourt basketball package would like to strangle the Ombudsman because they can't figure out who gets what and when. What I do know is that March 4, everyone, including my e-mailing friend in China, will get to see the North Carolina-Duke game, on every ESPN outlet -- and maybe the NFL Network, too.

    Next column: A conversation with Dick Vitale.

    Ombudsman George Solomon is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's programming. The longtime Washington Post sports editor will critique ESPN's decision-making, coverage and presentation.