Sports, it has often been noted, is an oasis of prosperity in a turbulent TV landscape. Despite well-earned angst on many fronts about eroding ad dollars, the wages of time-shifting and the wobbles of long-established properties such as the broadcast sitcom, live sports’ straightforward urgency thwarts DVRs and drives big ratings. Rights valuations—including for two major pacts set during 2014, NBC’s preemptive bid for the Olympics and Disney and Turner’s re-up with the NBA—have continued to climb. And viewership keeps setting records.
Even so, considerable savvy is required in order to win at sports on TV. In the pages that follow, we spotlight three of the savviest. Our Show of the Year, Thursday Night Football, reordered the broadcast primetime landscape on CBS; Network Executive of the Year Eric Shanks took the reins at Fox Sports and delivered huge numbers for the Super Bowl and the World Series while fostering newborn Fox Sports 1; and League Executive of the Year Rob Manfred, a veteran operator, inherited the reins from Bud Selig at a rejuvenated, labor-peaceful Major League Baseball.
HOST THAT BEST CONTAINS MULTITUDES: KEITH OLBERMANN
To many, Keith Olbermann is the Larry Brown of broadcasting, an oft-traveled, self-pleased eminence whose own Twitter profile quips, “Bridges burned? Take tunnel.” His ballyhooed mid-2013 return to ESPN, in a late-night weekday show on ESPN2, didn’t attract a large audience. It was significant, though, for reuniting Olbermann with the network where his long run on SportsCenter created the blueprint for studio sports TV. In 2014, Olbermann not only has lasted the full year at ESPN, defying skeptics, but moved up to 5 p.m., where his show leads in to Outside the Lines with an intelligent mix of candor and curiosity. Many of his opening “comments,” including ones blasting retiring Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, have gone viral. Other hosts may command larger fiefdoms than Olbermann, but few offer solo shows better attuned to the current Deadspin-ball era in sports media.
WORST PRESEASON HYPE: THE NFL
The NFL’s experiment with a coldweather Super Bowl—at New Jersey’s blessedly balmy MetLife Stadium— yielded the most-watched event in TV history. In the spring, another ratings gusher came when the league pushed its annual college draft back from April into May. But then came July, when commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Ravens running back Ray Rice two games for knocking out his then-fiancé. The outrage that greeted what Goodell later conceded was the equivalent of a wrist slap heralded a wave of off-field scandals before the season, including Viking Adrian Peterson’s child abuse case. For the first time, the most-dominant force in sports looked vulnerable. Even broadcast partners NBC, ESPN and CBS heaped scorn on the league. But a string of solid ratings has followed in a season notable for its parity. However tempting it is to think it may be another sport’s turn at the top, 2014 has proved it will take a lot more to usurp the NFL’s throne.
HOST WHO CAN’T CONTAIN HIMSELF: BILL SIMMONS
While Keith Olbermann was the unlikely angel in Bristol, Bill Simmons appears more than willing to sit on the other shoulder. The multi-hyphenate summoned his roots as an indie blogger in 2014, daring his bosses to suspend him after a rant on his podcast about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Having already left ESPN’s NBA studio team for his own solo TV gig, Simmons has ended up at a crossroads. His main power center is Grantland, the long-form online publishing venture that launched in 2011. With Simmons’ contract set to expire next year, events in 2014 could foretell an upcoming divorce from the Worldwide Leader.
BEST DO-OVER: LEBRON JAMES
After a mixed result from the original “Decision,” the televised debacle that catapulted LeBron James to Miami from his home turf in Cleveland, James faced a dilemma after the Heat got snuffed by the San Antonio Spurs in June’s NBA Finals. The Heat had won two titles but stumbled in two other trips to the championship series. James opted for the comforts of home, announcing his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a carefully orchestrated first-person piece in Sports Illustrated. Turner, ESPN and ABC instantly started counting the bonus ratings and the whole sports world was abuzz. Early returns are somewhat discouraging, but James has had plenty of slow starts before. And TV networks know even the struggles of James often trump the perfection of other players.
BEST RESURRECTION/ WORST TIMING: KANSAS CITY ROYALS
After 29 years of mediocrity, the Kansas City Royals returned to baseball relevancy in style—riding a record-breaking winning streak all the way to the World Series, giving TV execs hope for a revival of the formerly dominant Fall Classic. (In the Royals’ last trip to the Series, in 1985, viewership consistently topped 30 million per game.) Unfortunately, the American League champs ran headfirst into the San Francisco Giants and ace Madison Bumgarner, who turned in one of the best pitching performances in baseball history, setting up a memorable Game 7 that came down to the final pitch.
BEST PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE: NBC LOCKS UP OLYMPICS THROUGH 2032
Though we may not know how the Olympics will be delivered to viewers a decade from now, we know who will be behind those broadcasts. With three more Games left on its deal, NBC shocked the industry when it re-upped with the International Olympic Committee through 2032, holding on to one of the sports juggernaut’s key programming staples.
BEST SIGN-OFF: ESPN, UNIVISION GO OUT IN STYLE IN FINAL WORLD CUP
The rise of soccer’s popularity in the U.S. has made the World Cup must-see TV and this past summer from Brazil was no exception. Buoyed by Team USA’s unlikely advancement out of the “Group of Death” and goalkeeper Tim Howard’s herculean “Secretary of Defense” effort in the Americans’ elimination loss to Belgium—which spawned a slew of Internet memes—ESPN and Univision notched record ratings across the board and high praise for their coverage. As the World Cup shifts to new players Fox and Telemundo next year, the old guard left a bar that will be tough to clear.