One of the more interesting “sports fandom” stories this summer has been the tribulations of ESPN and especially ESPN’s morning show Get Up!. ESPN has long been the primary source of sports information and commentary for fans. If you asked sports fans to name a source for sports information, I suspect that the “top of mind” answer would be ESPN for a large percentage of sports fans. Similar to McDonald’s in fast food or Coca-Cola in soft drinks.
But ESPN has taken some hits. A dwindling subscriber base. Layoffs of talent. And stumbling into political controversies. And now a reworking of their new morning offering.
A big chunk of my research program is focused on fandom so I pay special attention to ESPN. It’s the “go to” sports source for many fans so it both reflects and drives the interests of fans. Or at least it used to be the go to source. Sports Center, in particular, was almost a ritual for those of us coming of age in the 80s, 90s and 00s. The current generation seems to be moving in a different direction. Streaming services and YouTube are replacing cable TV. So how is ESPN responding?
ESPN’s current morning show, “Get Up!”, is the best example of the sports channel’s efforts to reinvent itself. Get Up! was a shift from the traditional news show format of Sports Center (We’ll ignore the “Woke” Center issue for the moment) to something more like a conversational morning show such as Good Morning America. Get Up! even had much in common with the standard morning drive radio shows found in every market. The show was built around Mike Greenberg from the Mike and Mike programming, with Michelle Beadle and Jalen Rose playing the supporting co-host roles.
I’ve been watching it from the beginning and monitoring the media reports surrounding the show. This past week (I’m writing this on August 30th) I saw the announcement of major changes to the show. The major change being the reassignment of Michelle Beadle to host NBA Countdown.
So what went wrong?
The conventional wisdom seems to be that Greenberg and Beadle were mismatched and lacked “chemistry.” I think this is an easy answer. It’s easy because Mike Greenberg’s stardom was largely formed by the interactions between Greenberg and Mike Golic on the Mike & Mike show. The Mike and Mike show featured interplay between a gruff, self-deprecating former player in Golic and a prim, non-athletic grown up high school sports reporter in Greenberg. Two very different guys who were playing very different roles. But it was a classic buddy film kind of pairing of guys. In other words, the show worked largely because of the chemistry between the hosts.
I’ve watched the show. Not every day but pretty regularly and extensively. I don’t think it’s fair to blame Michelle Beadle. I think the blame falls on whoever conceived and designed the show. The lack of chemistry is because the show feels artificial and inauthentic. While Mike and Mike were a couple of opposites (The Odd Couple meets sports radio?) giving their perspectives on the day’s sporting events, Get Up! seems to be a show designed by a focus group. A sports journalist – check. A female co-host – check. A former player – check. One from column A, one from column B and one from column C.
The real point is that the casting felt forced. Unauthentic, pre-packaged, formulaic – take your pick. To be clear though, I’m not criticizing any of the talent. Michelle Beadle was actually my favorite part of the show. But, it’s a team effort and the casting needs to emphasize talent and synergies. The interactions between Golic and Greenberg were amusing and interesting – different perspectives and different sensibilities. On Get Up! Beadle was asked to provide the “irreverence”. A former defensive linemen teasing a sports reporter has a different vibe than a female anchor being snarky to a male anchor. It’s just a different vibe.
When the show was first launched much was made of the show’s costs. Greenberg was reported to be in the $6 million range, Beadle at about $5 million and Rose was at $4 million. How do these salaries make sense? The tough one was Beadle. I spend a lot of time working on analyses related to measuring “star power”. I have no idea how that type of salary could be justified. The question in celebrity salaries is whether the star is going to bring consumers to the program. You could argue that Greenberg would bring the Mike and Mike audience and that Rose has some cache. But how did Michelle Beadle merit that level?
The Get Up! salaries were a significant part of the press surrounding the launch of the show. Were they a negative factor in viewer response? Tough to say. I want to say that most viewers have no idea about the salaries but given the level of viewership I’m not sure that’s the case. News reports suggest that the show tends to reach fewer than 300,000 viewers. That is .1% of the population. While the general population has no idea what a celebrity talking head makes, this potential audience might be a bit different. It’s a very narrow audience. People watching a sports talk show at 8 am? Sports junkies or the unemployed?
There’s also a bit of background. ESPN has been shedding talent for a while. Laying off potentially well liked talent in the lead up to launching a new show with very highly paid hosts may not go over well with viewers. Maybe it’s not consumer backlash but shows don’t exist in isolation. Imagine an ESPN loyalist subjected to the following sequence. Someone watching Sports Center for years who has long-term favorites in terms of on-air talent. First, ESPN lays off talent. Second, they change the political tone of the show (Woke Center). Third, ESPN blows up your favorite morning radio show (Mike and Mike). Fourth, they then get rid of Sports Center (in the time slot). Finally, after all this they make headlines by paying a new cast in an unproven format a huge set of salaries. The branding version of death by a thousand cuts.
The “Analytics” person in me also wants to make a point about replacement value. The idea of replacement value pervades almost all sports these days. The basic issue is how a player compares to an alternative player (a replacement). What are the replacement values for the cast of Get Up!? What kind of ratings impact do the various hosts have versus how much they can demand in salary? This isn’t actually that difficult of a problem if you have the data. Minute by minute ratings data, a database of who was on screen at any given time and information on salaries would be enough to develop a pretty good analysis.
What’s next? At the time of this writing it seems like the plan is to keep Greenberg and Rose and bring in a rotation of female co-hosts. It also sounds like ESPN is trying to move further away from politics. Will this help? Time will tell. Maybe Rose and Greenberg will develop some synergies? Maybe the bump in baseline viewers that comes from the NFL season will help the show acquire an audience? Or maybe, nothing works and this is an expensive black eye for ESPN.
Postscript: We did this episode and the preceding article about a month ago. In the interim, we have had a chance to see how the program evolves. I haven’t seen much in the way of updated ratings and viewership so it’s unclear if the NFL season has provided a bump in viewership. But in terms of content, it appears that the program has evolved into more of a one-man show. Greenberg is the constant and the other co-hosts seem to come in and out of his orbit. If the original goal was to develop a vehicle driven by the interplay between co-hosts, the new goal seems to be very different. It appears that the plan is to leverage the appeal of Greenberg as the clear anchor of the show. The other co-hosts seem to be purely a supporting cast.
I think this is an interesting strategy. One of my interests these days is the idea of “star power.” The basic idea is that humans sometimes become brands and drive the success of entertainment and sporting events. Get Up! is now a live test of Mike Greenberg’s Star Power.
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