New sport: personality contests

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On this fall's first telecast of Fox Sports Net's "NFL This Morning," the host, introducing former lineman Deacon Jones, recalled how Mr. Jones once told him "a sack was better than sex." The banter then moved to fellow commentator Jay Mohr, a comedian and actor, who stared at Mr. Jones and quipped: "I'm still a little tripped out that a sack is better than sex. What do you do after you get the guy on the ground?"

Welcome to the changing world of sports commentary. While the mission is still to provide insight, it also now includes spicing up the broadcast with humor, wit and outlandishness. And not much is out of bounds.

With every ratings point increasingly valuable in a slumping ad market, TV sports executives have turned to charismatic personalities-many from outside the sports world. The goal is to boost ratings among the young men which advertisers covet but often find hard to reach. Although it's hard to tell if its strategy is playing a role, Nielsen Media Research figures show Fox Sports Net's ratings for the male 18-49 demographic from April through September of this year are up 16% over the same period last year.

Comedians are particularly popular among that group, especially if they already have a following. There's Mr. Mohr, a co-star in the 1996 film "Jerry Maguire," who'll be on News Corp.'s Fox until a new deal with Walt Disney Co. for his own ESPN variety show begins in February. News Corp. this month expands its nightly "Best Damn Sports Show Period" with Tom Arnold on Fox Sports Net to two hours and moves it to prime time. ESPN sidelined its 17-year-old "Up Close"-where athletes were interviewed primarily about their life on the field-and replaced it with "Unscripted," a show that has athletes weighing in on music, movies and popular culture hosted by Chris Connelly, just over from MTV. And despite lingering questions about his appeal, ABC continues with Dennis Miller in its "Monday Night Football" booth where his shtick is a mix of jokes, obscure historical and pop culture references and attempts to get co-commentators Al Michaels and Dan Fouts to loosen up. "There's a perception within the sports industry that the public is looking for, and accepting, a lighter delivery of sports than in the past," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and an industry consultant.

Media buyers, however, claim to be unswayed by the new faces, insisting buying decisions are based on programming that brings the targeted demographic and desired ratings. Buyers also express concern a commentator could generate advertiser uneasiness, as comedian Bill Maher did recently on ABC's "Politically Incorrect." "If it helps the ratings you could say we buy personalities," said Chris Geraci, director of national TV buying at Omnicom Group's OMD USA, New York. "If it doesn't, it doesn't really matter to us, just as long as the content isn't objectionable."

higher threshold

Even ex-jocks and former coaches appear to have to meet a higher threshold for charisma and humor these days. Former player Charles Barkley, back for a second season on Turner Sports NBA coverage, is immensely popular because he offers critiques of players' hairdos and yarns about locker room pranks, and seems to adhere to no script. Outshined by Mr. Barkley, NBC replaced its NBA studio team of buttoned-up Kevin Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo to bring in a trio that includes ex-player Jayson Williams, a frequent guest on "Late Night with David Letterman," and Pat Croce, ex-president of the Philadelphia 76ers who once scaled a bridge to hang a banner for his team. CBS continues to give an increasingly prominent role to the provocative recently retired Deion Sanders, newly hired for "NFL Today" where he can serve as a foil to often staid host, Jim Nantz.

"The last thing in the world that you want is what you have with most of the people who are on sports television right now," said Don Ohlmeyer, the producer of "Monday Night Football" during its 1970s heyday, who then returned and hired Mr. Miller last year. "That is if you ask people, `What do you think about so and so?' They say, `He's all right,' They have no reaction to him."

Outsized personalities are not entirely new in this arena. Howard Cosell, in the "MNF" booth in the 1970s, is perhaps the most famous example. Others include Dick Vitale and John Madden. But the fusion between sports and entertainment-whether its Shaquille O'Neal making rap albums or appearing as himself on HBO's comedy "Arliss"-means viewers expect more.

"Obviously, the entertainment factor seems to be more and more important," said Craig Foster, an agent who represents broadcasters such as CBS's Billy Packer, a college basketball analyst known more for his knowledge than his persona. "The content can be found anywhere, so I guess there's a current belief that what's most important is finding personalities that will resonate with viewers."

The bulk of the new wave of personalities are in-studio commentators, not color commentators during games. Mr. Miller is an exception and the jury is still out on his impact on "Monday Night Football" ratings-down since his arrival, but so are NFL ratings in general. Questions also persist whether in-studio personalities can do enough to capture viewers during a pre-game show to make them stay tuned for the ensuing game. "The philosophy is if the commentary is more entertaining, humorous and varied, then people will enjoy it more," said Aaron Cohen, exec VP-director of broadcast, Horizon Media, New York. "I still think it comes down to the quality of the games themselves."

Others, however, believe in this age of so much sports content and audience fragmentation, personalities can provide a helpful identity. "The level of charisma, if you will, has to be higher than it used to be just because the competition for viewers is that much tougher," CBS Sports President Sean McManus said.

Networks, however, must strike a balance. Dennis Miller comparing a coach's policy of prohibiting players from talking to the press to the behavior of U.S. Congressman Gary Condit (D., Calif.) carries a risk. "You have the purists who don't want shtick and you have viewers who want to be informed and entertained," said Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Sports, who hired Mr. Barkley. "I think you can go too far and have too much shtick."

So does Mr. McManus, who did hire Mr. Sanders, but has not delved into the pool of comedians or non ex-jocks.


Mr. McManus's polar opposite might be Fox Sports Chairman-CEO David Hill. In 1994, Mr. Hill put ex-player Terry Bradshaw and ex-coach Jimmy Johnson, two thick-accented Southerners, on the NFL pre-game show and unleashed them to engage in folksy and funny exchanges. "Television presented sports largely as a requiem mass and it was always treated as the Holy of Holies," Mr. Hill said. "It was diametrically opposed to the experience the fan would get at the game."

Mr. Hill later became the first executive to put a comedian on a regular sports show, hiring Comedy Central's "The Man Show" host Jimmy Kimmel to do a stand-up-type segment predicting NFL game outcomes in 1999. He later hired Mr. Mohr and this summer paired Mr. Arnold with a group of ex-athletes on "Best Damn Sports Show Period" where they hold a round-table discussion about sports.

The outside-the-box commentators can function as a fan on the air and offer a perspective an ex-jock or coach might not. At their best, comedians can mirror the cynicism, frustration and enthusiasm of fans in the living room or bleacher seats. "Dennis appealed to me because if I was sitting at home watching the game with the sound turned off, I knew he would be fun to watch it with," said Mr. Ohlmeyer of "Monday Night Football."

And even though Larry Kravitz, an executive at buying agency Carat USA, New York, said personalities don't directly affect purchasing decisions, he concedes a personal preference. "If Jerry Seinfeld came into the booth in the sixth inning of every Mets game," he said, "I'd probably try to tune in."

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