Media Circus: How Fox fared with Thursday Night Football, the Baker Mayfield market, NBA insider Chris Haynes, and more (2024)

Can you rebrand Thursday Night Football? Well, Fox is spending $650 million a year on the proposition that a rebrand of the product is possible. Last January, the network announced it had signed a five-year deal with the NFL to air TNF (plus other NFL events) as part of a broader strategy to move away from scripted television. The company also took a gamble on allocating its NFL inventory: Fox asked NFL officials this year to take some of their quality Sunday afternoon games that would normally air in the 4:25 p.m. ET window and place them on its new Thursday Night Football package. The goal for Fox was to improve the TNF schedule (which they did on paper) while making sure they could still protect the 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday window as the most-watched window on television. The NFL also relaxed rules from previous seasons that had Thursday night games made up of teams from the same time zone.


So let’s examine where things stand after Fox’s debut TNF broadcast last week, a 38-31 victory for the Los Angeles Rams over the Minnesota Vikings. The game averaged a robust 14.5 million viewers on Fox, up 5 percent versus the 2017 10-game Thursday Night Football average on NBC/CBS and NFL Network. If you include all platforms including Fox, NFL Network, Fox Deportes, NFL digital, Fox Sports digital, Amazon, and Yahoo! Sports, the number grew to 15.1 million. When you think about the viewership number, keep in mind that earlier in the day was the extraordinary Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and that coverage obviously continued on cable news later into the night, drawing away some viewers.

The numbers I saw indicated an average viewership of 21 million for the hearing itself, followed by primetime viewership being up by about 75 percent for the cable news networks,” said Mike Mulvihill, the executive vice president for research, league operations and strategy at Fox Sports and that company’s point person on viewer metrics.

“In that context, I was really pleased that we were able to average over 14 million viewers and post the biggest audience for Fox on aThursdayin five years. I think it hints at what we can do in a more typicalThursdayenvironment.

“Another number that really jumped out to me was +106 percent. That’s how much Fox was up in the overnights (ratings) on Fridaynight, which demonstrates the value of being able to promoteFriday programming in Thursday Night Football. WWE SmackDown will take over thatFridaynight real estate a year from now, and it’s exciting to think about what we’ll be able to do when we are able to hopefully drive audience from TNF toFridayWWE toSaturdayCFB toSundayNFL.”

I was curious if Mulvihill believed one week of strong ratings was enough to declare his company’s strategy to move4:25 pm ETgames to TNF a successful one?


“It’s a little early to feel validated but I think the indications so far are all pretty positive,” he said. “OurSunday4:25games have been the most-watched show in all of television for nine years and after two Fox doubleheaders we feel pretty confident we’re on our way to a tenth straight year at No 1. Just as a fan, Thursday’sgame felt to me like a playoff game. It felt special.”

Obviously, it’s going to feel special to a Fox Sports exec but that leads to the second part of the examination —the presentation of the broadcast. Was Fox’s broadcast unique versus the NBC or CBS presentation last year? Did it feel different? Does a different look and feel even matter to viewers outside of the matchup?

In a conference call last week, Fox’s lead NFL broadcaster Joe Buck said something I thought was interesting on the topic. He said Fox officials were encouraging he and game analyst Troy Aikman to have a less rigid broadcast on Thursdays in terms of the conversation between the on-air talent.

“Someone comes to you from ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and they flip on this game, I don’t think you can be textbook, cut-and-dry talking about two-deep zones,” Buck said. “You have to bring other stuff in and have fun and interact as a group. It does have a little bit different feel to it but at that the same time once they kick off and score touchdowns it does get back to football.”

“(On Sunday) a lot of the time (we) would have to talk is taken up by game breaks. While we are on Sunday, something big could happen in our game but we’ve got a game break loaded up and we’re going to tell you what happened in another location and in another stadium. That’s not there anymore, so it gives you a little more room to play with. I think you can play with that room in a lot of different ways. You can do straight football or you can have a little fun with it. I think we’ve come up with a pretty good balance of football and fun. That’s the silver lining in all of this for us is it gives us a little bit more room to breathe.”


Did Rams-Vikings feel bigger to me? Slightly, but that was a product of a fantastic, high-scoring game and not anything unique to Fox. CBS and NBC also offered massive resources for their TNF productions, including using top broadcasters and A-level production teams. One element Fox does highlight more than other NFL broadcaster is field audio (crowd noise always sounds louder on Fox), which can either pay huge dividends or impede a broadcast. I did think Buck and Aikman were a little more free-flowing with their in-game conversation (e.g. “Life was good as Troy Aikman in the mid-80s,” said Buck after Aikman said he spent much of 1986 at the beach while at UCLA.) It also felt like they had more time to discuss things compared to a Sunday afternoon game.

Something that I think will be a factor for Thursday Night Football heading forward is the direction of certain teams (Cardinals, Raiders and Texans) that have started slowly. For example, viewership for the Nov. 29 game between the Saints and Cowboys will pass 20 million easily if both teams are in contention.

Here is the remaining Fox Thursday Night Football schedule:

  • Oct. 4: Colts at Patriots
  • Oct. 11: Eagles at Giants
  • Oct. 18: Broncos at Cardinals
  • Oct. 25: Dolphins at Texans
  • Nov. 1: Raiders at Niners
  • Nov. 8: Panthers at Steelers
  • Nov. 15: Packers at Seahawks
  • Nov. 29: Saints at Cowboys
  • Dec. 6: Jaguars at Titans
  • Dec. 13: Chargers at Chiefs

Mulvihill said he was not overly concerned with the win-loss records of teams coming into the game. (Personally, I would be.)

“Wins and losses league-wide are zero-sum,” Mulvihill said. “For every team that gets a bad break or falls short of expectations, someone else is exceeding expectations. The Jimmy Garoppolo injury is obviously terribly disappointing for Niners fans and it will affect all the primetime packages, but when you look at our schedule you also have to look at teams that are exceeding expectations, like Kansas City. A game like Jaguars-Titans has upside. Chargers-Chiefs wasn’t a game that was mentioned a lot when our schedule was announced; it may turn out to be one of the most appealingThursdaygames of the year. On balance I feel just as good about our schedule today as I did the day it was released.”

It’s one of the interesting stories to watch this year in NFL media and if Fox’s bet pays off, it’s also going to help the league’s overall viewership narrative. We’ll see.

The Ink Report

1. Some NFL media notes for Week 4:

— How will Fox navigate the very real issue of announcer and production staffer burnout given the increased amount of games and travel for its top team because of the additional Thursday Night assignments?


“There’s been a lot of talk about that, like this is a crazy notion of doing two games in one week,” said Buck. “I can tell you from personal experience, having done 162 baseball games a year when I was 21, granted I’m not 21 anymore, but doing two games a week is fun. I find it invigorating. I think it’s been good for our group. Ithink it has brought out different sides of our personalities on the air. I think we have been able to loosen up a little and a little off the cuff.

“Sometimes when you do the NFL, and you go week to week, and you’ve got six days, in essence, to stew about one game, by the time you get to Sunday, in your mind, the game is kind of worn out. You’ve got so many notes and so much stuff piled up, you end up burying yourself in what’s already happened and not really looking at what’s going on in front of you … Doing two games in one week is something that is manageable. As far as how many years or how long it takes to where it becomes untenable? I can’t answer that.”

— On Sunday, Fox featured the Browns-Raiders as part of the league’s cross-flex scheduling. Mulvihilltold Sports Business Daily that a Browns-Raiders matchup a year ago might normally go to 6 percent of the country, but with Baker Mayfield starting at the quarterback and the renewed interest in the Browns, the overtime win for Oakland went to 25 percent of Fox markets.

— For those with NFL Red Zone, the reason the channel did not show the final plays of Oakland’s overtime win was NBC has exclusive rights for that time window as per their Sunday Night Football contract.

— ESPN NFL reporter Jac Collinsworth and producer Luis Aldea traveled with Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and a crew from Operation Underground Railroad to the Dominican Republic and Haiti this summer. The piece ran on Sunday and is worth viewing.

— Loved Kevin Burkhardt dropping a “Kent Tekulve” reference on a sidearm throw by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the third quarter of Dallas’ win over the Detroit Lions. And nice work by analyst Charles Davis to let everyone watching under 30 know Tekulve was “a great submariner for the Pittsburgh Pirates.”That duo calls an excellent game.

— The Athletic’s Lindsay Jones has a with Andrea Kremer and Hannah Storm, who were named by Amazon last week as the broadcast team for its Thursday Night Football stream.


— Kristina Pink has worked for Fox Sports since 2012 as a sideline reporter on college football and other NFL teams. I asked her what are the specific differences working for Fox’s top NFL team versus others?

“I approach the game the same way in terms of I’m still going to do my homework,” she said. “There’s obviously a much bigger audience, but I always think about every broadcast I am approaching as if it was like covering a Super Bowl. But you do get a sense that this is ‘The Game.’ It’s a large audience, more resources, bigger crew, bigger feel and they’ve been incredible in welcoming me. I think Erin (Andrews) called me two minutes after the news broke and was like, ‘Hey, girl! Welcome to the crew!’ That camaraderie has been awesome. Coming in you wonder how are these guys going to be and they have been fantastic.”

— Fox NFL Sunday NFL co-host Terry Bradshaw is already all-in on Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Said Bradshaw on Sunday: “This guy will be phenomenal his entire career.”

— Lot of unhappy fans with CBS after they cut away from the Bengals-Falcons game with 12 seconds left and the Bengals driving for a score. Those incensed included an NBA Hall of Famerand aCNBC reporter.

— On the digital side, streaming across Amazon Prime Video, Twitch, NFL digital platforms, Fox Sports’ digital platforms, and Yahoo Sports drew an average minute audience of 816,000, the highest digital viewership ever for Thursday Night Football. The league said the average worldwide audience watching Amazon Prime Video and Twitch for at least 30 seconds was 527,000.

— Does Fox have a philosophy when it comes to producing NFL games? “We try to always the say the game comes first and allow the game to breathe and that’s the reason that people come,” said John Entz, president of production. “And then we augment it with what we feel is the best talent in the business. There are other ways we feel we certainly enhance it and audio has been a point of concern over the years. I feel like we have always tried to get the best audio that you can and as close to the field as possible.”

— This weekend, Courtney Bostic, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Michigan who hopes to work in sports broadcasting following graduation, shadowed Fox NFL sideline reporter Pam Oliver for Oliver’s assignment on the Cowboys-Lions game. Bostic said she was able to contact a Fox Sports PR staffer (Eddie Motl) about her interest in Oliver’s career and Motl forwarded the note to Oliver, who invited Bostic to pick a game where she could watch Oliver work.

“Pam Oliver is someone I admire because when I first started to gain interest in sports broadcasting, she was someone who looked like me and someone I could see myself being,” Bostic wrote in an email. “Watching television, I would always envision myself being in her position. … The experience was incredible. Pam was great and I learned so much in the two days being with her. It was an incredible and almost surreal experience getting to work with Pam. She has so much knowledge and is highly respected. After this experience, I am even more driven to get into the industry and I am extremely grateful for what Fox and Pam did for me.”

1a. Ohio State’s thrilling 27-26 victory over Penn State on Saturday night drew a 6.1 overnight rating, the highest overnight for any college football game this season. ESPN said it was ABC’s highest rated regular-season game since kickoff weekend in 2017.

1b. ABC’s noon telecast of Syracuse-Clemson (noon) delivered a 3.3 overnight, the network’s best in that timeslot since 2016 and up 65 percent from the same game window last year.

1c. The SEC on CBS’s coverage of Georgia’s victory over Tennessee drew a 2.6 overnight.

2. Episode 22 of the Sports Media Podcast features Yahoo! Sports senior NBA insider Chris Haynes. In this podcast, Hayes discussed why he ended up leaving ESPN; what he expects at Yahoo!; how ESPN wanted him to remain a local Bay Area as opposed to a national reporter; what it was like covering LeBron James for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer; what LeBron James discusses with reporters; what it’s like to have multiple employers over the past six years; whether he feels the pressure to break news as previous Yahoo! staffers Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania did; addressing charges that he is too close to Kevin Durant; how reporters of color are seen in the league; graduating from Fresno State at 27 and trying to break into journalism; working as a security guard during the day and covering Trail Blazers games at night; why the Raptors might be the most interesting NBA story this year, and much more.

You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and more.


1:00: Why Haynes left ESPN after just two years.

7:30: Why Haynes was not be willing to be just a local reporter and decided to bet on himself.

13:00: How Damian Lillard broke the story of Haynes signing with Yahoo!


15:40: His new job responsibilities at Yahoo!

19:30: Whether he feels pressure to be a news-breaker at Yahoo! because of previous staffers.

25:00: The challenges of covering LeBron James and Kevin Durant firsthand.

35:30: His philosophy on interacting with NBA players.

38:00: How the NBA is covered in Cleveland, Portland and the Bay Area.

45:00: Graduating from Fresno State at 27 and trying to make it covering the NBA.

52:00: The stories that interest him the most heading into the season.

3. ESPN is exclusively televising both Major League Baseball National League tiebreaker games today including the Brewers at Cubs (1 p.m. ET) and Rockies at Dodgers (4:00 p.m. ET). The teams that do not win their respective divisions will meet Tuesday at 8 p.m. in the National League Wild Card Game on ESPN.

ESPN said it will offer an alternative viewing experience for the Tuesday night game– a Statcast-driven telecast — on ESPN2. The Sunday Night Baseball team of Matt Vasgersian, analysts Jessica Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez and reporter Buster Olney will call the NL Wild Card Game on ESPN; Jason Benetti, Eduardo Perez and Statcast writer Mike Petriello will call the Statcast-driven alternative viewing experience on ESPN2. Dan Shulman and analyst Chris Singleton have the NL Wild Card game for ESPN Radio.

4. Sports pieces of note:

  • Great work via Mary Ormsby of the Toronto Star: Ben Johnson’s 1988 Olympic drug test contains altered lab codes and hand-scrawled revisions. And almost no one has seen it until now.
  • From Ken Belson of NYT: A Football Player’s Descent Into Pain and Paranoia.
  • From SI’s Stephanie Apstein: Nobody Is Struggling With the Modern Game More Than Chris Davis.
  • Boston Globe columnist Tara Sullivan on Melissa Ludtke, who backed by her then-employer Sports Illustrated, successfully sued the New York Yankees and won the right for female reporters to have access to professional sports locker rooms 40 years ago this week.
  • ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill on the life and death of Celia Barquin Arozamena.
  • From Bloomberg Buinessweek’s Max Abelson and Felix Gillette: Insider Trading’s Odd Couple: The Goldman Banker and the NFL Linebacker.
  • The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler interviewed David Cone on analytics and broadcasting.
  • B/R’s David Gardner, on one pro baseball player, two perfect strangers and a mass shooting.
  • Via Der Spiegel: The Woman Who Accuses Ronaldo of Rape.

Non-sports links of note:

  • From Michael Mooney of Texas Monthly: How prosecutors tied a brazen murder in an upscale Dallas suburb to one of Mexico’s most violent criminal organizations.
  • Via Scaachi Koul of Buzzfeed: Pickup Artists Are Still A Thing. And They Want You To Know They’ve Evolved.
  • Diana Moskovitz, for Jezebel, on the Cosby coverage.
  • Billionaires, Buyouts, and a Newspaper Empire in the Balance: The Continuing Saga of Tronc. From Kate Knibbs of The Ringer.
  • Via Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic: A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come.
  • From Jessica Testa of Buzzfeed News: Nobody Was Going To Solve These Cold Cases. Then Came The DNA Crime Solvers.
  • From’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie: The Dead Beneath London’s Streets.
  • From Boston Globe’s Spotlight team: Inside the darkest corner of the Massachusetts criminal justice system where there are few rules, fewer records, and private hearings. Call it our secret court. No other state in the country has anything like it.
  • From The New York Times: The Most Important Least-Noticed Economic Event of the Decade.

5. HBO announced it will move away from boxing in 2019, ending one of the longest relationships between a sport and a television provider. “Going forward in 2019, we will be pivoting away from programming live boxing on HBO,” an HBO Sports spokesperson said in a statement. “As always, we will remain open to looking at events that fit our programming mix. This could include boxing, just not for the foreseeable future.”

HBO Sports said its immediate future will include unscripted series, long-form documentary films, and reality programming. In 2019, they will air a multi-part documentary presentation “What’s My Name|Muhammad Ali” from director Antoine Fuqua in conjunction with executive producers LeBron James and Maverick Carter of SpringHill Entertainment.


5a The Tiger Woods golf economy: NBC’s final round coverage of the Tour Championship (from 3 p.m. ET to finish) two Sundays ago drew 7.184 million viewers and a Total Audience Delivery (including streaming) of 7.8 million average viewers.

Last year’s final round: 2.46 million viewers.

Television viewership was up 192 percent and was the most-watched telecast in the history of the FedExCup Playoffs (2007-2018) and the most-watched PGA TOUR telecast in 2018 (excludes majors). NBC said its coverage peaked from 5:45-6 p.m. ET with 10.84 million average viewers as Tiger Woods completed his victory.

Final Ryder Cup numbers will come out Tuesday.

5b. David J. Halberstam, the former play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat and St. John’s University and now the founder and editor of the Sports Broadcast Journal website, watched 27 college football broadcasts last week and graded the announcers.

5c. ESPN announced it has re-signed Todd Blackledge to a new multi-year deal. Blackledge has worked for ESPN/ABC since 2006 and previously worked at CBS (1999-2005) among other outlets. This is his 28th season calling college football. The company also announced it had re-signed senior writer Mina Kimes to a multiyear extension. She’ll debut an NFL-themed podcast – Bootleg with Mina Kimes — and maintain a presence across a variety of programming.

5d. NBA League Pass will now offer fans the ability to purchase a single game on NBA League Pass from the end of the third quarter to the conclusion of the game for $1.99. The league said that starting in early December fans will have the additional option to buy a single game at reduced prices at the beginning of each quarter. The base price for an entire single game will remain at $6.99, with pricing for the additional options to be announced later. Sports Business Daily writer Eric Fisher said another offering in development will be an option to buy 10 minutes of real-time game access.


5e. TNT’s preseason NBA coverage tips off Oct. 2, with a preseason doubleheader featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Boston Celtics (8 p.m. ET.) followed by the Los Angeles Lakers hosting the Denver Nuggets. This is the Staples Center debut for LeBron James.

5f. Longtime Outside The Lines host Bob Ley will begin his six-month sabbatical away from ESPN this week. Here’s how signed off last week:

I'll catch you on the flip side.

— Bob Ley (@BobLeyESPN) September 28, 2018

5g. ESPN investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winner and likely the company’s most accomplished journalist based on resume, is expanding his role. In 2019, he’ll be the host and co-executive producer of a new docu-series and a new podcast. The docu-series, Backstory, will attempt to bring fresh reporting and perspective to some of the biggest scandals and controversies in sports. The new podcast (The Triangle) will feature a three-way conversation with Van Natta and two people who share a common bond. I emailed Van Natta Jr. this week for more details on his new projects.

How will Backstory be presented?

Backstory will be a docu-series featuring multiple episodes per season, each running one hour on TV. We’ll dive deeply into the stories behind the biggest headlines, scandals, controversies and debates in sports. Our goal is to take viewers behind the story and bring fresh reporting and deep context to each one. We’re exploring stories with layers to them and a sense that there’s some unfinished business. The first episode will focus on the curious catfishing of Manti Te’o because we believe there was more to explore about what was going on behind that scandal. I’m thrilled about the opportunity to partner with John Dahl, who’s been an executive producer on the acclaimed 30 for 30 series from the beginning and has been heavily involved in creating and producing other big documentary projects over the years for ESPN. We’re putting together an All-Star team to work on Backstory, which will debut in 2019.

What do you envision The Triangle to be and when will it debut?

The vision is to have a three-way conversation each time, with me interviewing two people from sports—and, sometimes, one from sports and one from outside of sports—who share a common bond. I’ll try to get each of the paired guests to open up about their shared histories, which could include a level of tension or something that hasn’t quite been resolved. The plan is to debut The Triangle in 2019.

You are well aware of ESPN’s re-set of its relationship with the NFL. As a lead investigative reporter there, how confident are you that you will continue to get the freedom you need to pursue stories the NFL might not like?

Extremely confident. While working on these two projects, I’ll continue to write for ESPN’s magazine and contribute to “Outside the Lines,” and that will include investigative projects about the NFL. No one here has said a word to me about laying off or slowing down, for these two series or the investigative work that I’m doing, and I have no reason to believe anyone will.

(Top photo: Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Media Circus: How Fox fared with Thursday Night Football, the Baker Mayfield market, NBA insider Chris Haynes, and more (2024)
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