ESPN takes a lot of grief, and justifiably so, for what it does wrong — shoehorning sponsors into segments (“Coors Light Cold Hard’’ facts, which often are neither cold nor hard nor very often factual), underplaying sports in which they are not rights-holders (FYI, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup), and most unconscionably of all, foisting Skip Bayless on an unwitting public (inexcusable and inexplicable).
Maybe it’s not as much fun to acknowledge all that ESPN gets right, but it is quite a lot. The positives begin with baseball coverage. Karl Ravech is a poised, informative studio host, and the “Sunday Night Baseball’’ team of Dan Shulman, Terry Francona, and Orel Hershiser is understated and insightful. Francona in particular has a knack for subtle one-liners. It’s almost as if this is the network’s way of apologizing for 21 years of Joe Morgan.
So Tuesday’s news that the network has extended its television rights deal with Major League Baseball through 2021 — reportedly with ESPN paying approximately $5.6 billion over eight years — must be considered a good thing (though regional networks such as NESN might not view it that way).
The extension, which begins in 2014, includes a provision to address a problem that has long vexed ESPN: local blackouts. The new deal allows the network to increase its number of “coexists,’’ meaning games that are on ESPN’s Monday and Wednesday schedule but are also airing in the local markets. So, for example, a Wednesday night Red Sox-Yankees game that ESPN is carrying won’t be blacked out in Boston because the game is also airing on NESN. With a few exceptions, those games will be shown on both networks in the market.
“We’re ESPN. We promote the game all day, we take ‘Baseball Tonight’ to the area, and then when the game starts, there’s a message that says, ‘Not carried in your area,’ ” ESPN president John Skipper said. “We are now out of that business. The coexist is very important to us.”
The network also adds the rights to a wild-card game that will alternate yearly between the American and National Leagues.
Exclusive rights to Sunday games still belong to ESPN, and the number of games of a particular team it can schedule that night over the course of a season increases from five to six. The natural inclination is to wonder if that means more Red Sox-Yankees matchups, but Skipper said that is not necessarily the case.
“We want to have a balance to maximize the teams that are most popular and drive the most ratings, but we also want to work with baseball to feature every team and help grow the game,” Skipper said.
Whatever grievances one may have with ESPN, it’s fair to say it has done a fine job doing that already.
Good deal for Russillo
There was a common reaction to my tweet Tuesday that Martha’s Vineyard native Ryen Russillo had casually spoken to WEEI about a role at the station before reupping for three years with ESPN: Imagine the crossover between morning drive cohost John Dennis and Russillo had the latter somehow ended up on the midday show. The two do have a contentious history (Google Russillo and that will get you started) and it would have been fascinating had it played out that way. But the conversations never got to the point where there was an offer. With leverage on his side — NBC Sports, which according to its website will launch the long-rumored radio affiliate on 1510 soon, coveted him — Russillo ended up getting an excellent deal to remain at ESPN, including his name on “The Scott Van Pelt Show” (of which he has been the de facto cohost), more travel to cover college football, and more time on NBA-related programming.
Pair is slipping
Local fans surely require no reminder that Don Criqui and Randy Cross have been fumble-prone during preseason Patriots broadcasts. There have been small gaffes (misidentifying Ron Brace as injured Myron Pryor) and larger ones (combining Justin Ebert and Nate Ebner into a single player who apparently played rugby at Northwestern), and they’ve been frequent. So it probably comes as no surprise that neither is among CBS’s seven primary NFL announcer pairings this year, though Criqui and Cross will do select games . . . The Patriots have drawn predictably big ratings for exhibition games on Channel 4. Last Friday’s matchup against Tampa Bay was the top-rated program in the Boston market (4.8 rating, 14 share) despite the drama going on with the Red Sox that night as news of the blockbuster deal with the Dodgers began trickling out. The numbers were even more pronounced during Wednesday night’s 6-3 snooze-fest of a loss to the Giants, with a 5.4 rating and a 16 share.
NESN acknowledges that its strong midseason ratings have essentially dropped in unison with the Red Sox’ place in the standings, but it saw a 20 percent boost in viewership during its pregame shows last weekend with the buzz surrounding the Dodgers deal . . . NESN Bruins reporter Douglas Flynn has left the network, after his contract was not renewed. Flynn, a well-regarded reporter with more than a dozen years of experience in the Boston market, was told the network is eliminating the beat writer position, which unfortunately falls in line with NESN’s online emphasis of search-engine-friendly content aggregation. Spokesman Gary Roy said NESN.com will continue to feature “broad sports content and deep local coverage for fans.’’ But one can’t help wonder whether NESN’s strategy would result in a headline something like the following for this particular story: “NESN Eliminates Bruins Beat Writer Position; Kate Upton, Justin Bieber, Tim Tebow Yet To Comment.”