DANA POINT, Calif. — The tension between ESPN and rival Fox Sports 1 is starting to resemble the old late-night TV wars. There was a flare-up Wednesday at the CAA World Congress of Sports, with ESPN executive Burke Magnus accusing FS1 boss Jamie Horowitz of taking “cheap shots” at the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
Things got testy in the morning when Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming, was asked about Horowitz’s observation that ESPN should be “worried” about its flagship “SportsCenter” franchise. “SportsCenter” had lost 30 percent of its audience over the previous five years, and 40 percent among younger viewers, Horowitz noted at last year’s conference. “That’s a staggering fall,” he said at the time.
Fast forward to Wednesday. Magnus called Horowitz’s comments a “cheap shot.” He told moderator Abe Madkour, executive editor of SportsBusiness Journal, the comments are as “ridiculous today as it was a year ago.”
ESPN’s Burke Magnus on Jamie Horowitz’s SportsCenter slam at the ’16 World Congress: “as ridiculous today as it was a year ago.” #sbjwcs
— SBJ/SBD (@sbjsbd) April 19, 2017
Magnus noted “SportsCenter” showed its worth with its all-hands coverage Wednesday morning of the reported suicide of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
“We’re the only ones in the business covering the story like that. We’re the only entity in sports media that’s heavily invested in journalism and project reporting,” Magnus said. “‘SportsCenter,’ first of all, is not a show. ‘SportsCenter’ is a brand.”
Horowitz was the ESPN wunderkind who created shows like “First Take” and “SportsNation.” A year after his comments at the World Congress, and after his interview with Sporting News, he looks prescient in many ways.
ESPN’s flagship “SportsCenter” franchise has lost nearly a third of its TV audience since 2010, according to industry sources. The drop is even worse among advertiser-coveted viewers aged 18-34 and 18-49.
As Madkour noted, ESPN is making major changes to reposition “SportsCenter” for a future in which fans are more likely to get the latest news and highlights on their phones instead of their TVs. The changes are also designed to fight back against FS1’s roster of “opinionists” such as Skip Bayless, Colin Cowherd and Jason Whitlock, all of whom previously worked at ESPN.
— ESPN is poised to announce a new “Greeny & Friends”-type show for Mike Greenberg in the early-morning ESPN time slot currently filled by “SportsCenter:AM” (6-10 a.m ET). Greenberg’s solo show will be opinion-driven. The show marks the end of Greenberg’s 17-year partnership with Mike Golic on ESPN2’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning.”
— “The Six” with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill (6 p.m. ET), a new version of “SportsCenter,” features as much opinion and personality from its co-hosts as traditional news and highlights.
— ESPN moved “First Take,” with Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Molly Qerim, up to ESPN from ESPN2 to beat down the challenge from FS1’s “Undisputed” with Bayless, Shannon Sharpe and Joy Taylor.
Horowitz, meanwhile, canceled the “Fox Sports Live” late-night show that was supposed to be FS1’s answer to “SportsCenter.”
Horowitz’s predictions about opinion replacing news and highlights have proven to be correct, said one TV executive attending the World Congress of Sports who declined to be named because he works with both ESPN and FS1.
“Was that a ‘cheap shot,’ or a mission statement on how ESPN should fix their lineup?” the executive asked.
This executive added it was “silly to believe that viewers had to turn to ‘SportsCenter’ for the Hernandez story when it was was everywhere on TV and social media.
“You don’t need ‘SportsCenter’ to tell you what happened,” he said.
There’s a sports media story here on how the changes ESPN made to bolster First Take really hurt them in these situations. https://t.co/d18QA0Dp9R
— Sports TV Ratings (@SportsTVRatings) April 19, 2017
Smith and the rest of the “First Take” crew naturally loved the promotion to “E1” from “E2.” The show’s ratings are up more than 10 percent from the same time last year, according to a TV source. It should be careful what it wishes for, however.
The absence of “First Take” has cratered ESPN2’s late-morning ratings. The falloff is so great that ESPN and ESPN2’s combined ratings are down double digits from 10 a.m. to noon ET this year, according to one TV expert.
In other news Wednesday at the World Congress:
— Turner president David Levy said the NBA’s TV partners, TNT and ESPN, are unhappy with the trend of healthy stars resting during regular-season games, especially when they take a seat during nationally televised games.
— Nate Smeltz (@Nate_TS) April 19, 2017
— David O’Connor of The Madison Square Garden Company said MSG is interested in buying an esports team.
— Mark King of Adidas reiterated the athletic company apologized for a dumb email congratulating runners on “surviving” the Boston Marathon, site of a terror attack in 2013.
— Michael Levine of CAA Sports and Michael Rubin of Fanatics engaged in a healthy debate over whether more pro athletes will engage in political protests after Colin Kaepernick’s campaign last year. Levine said NBA stars represented by CAA will continue to speak out, but Rubin noted Kaepernick is still looking for an NFL job after kneeling during the U.S. national anthem last season.
— Magnus predicted NFL TV ratings will be up across the board in 2017. They dropped by 8 percent last season. The prediction will be welcomed by NFL TV partners who pay billions annually in broadcast rights.