Q&A: Richard Deitsch on world junior ratings, U.S. sports coverage and more


Team Canada, front, and Team USA watch the raising of the flag after Canada defeated the United States 5-3 in preliminary round hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Championship on Wednesday, December 31, 2014 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

If you’re intrigued about the coverage of sports media you’re probably familiar with Richard Deitsch. Deitsch is a writer, editor and reporter for Sports Illustrated and SI.com.

Of late he’s become the go-to guy when it comes to covering sports journalism. When not teaching the craft as an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University, Deitsch is critiquing and reporting on those in sports who are paid to critique and report. He’s also built a brand around canvassing the best journalism pieces. That’s something he routinely does at the end of his weekly “Media Circus” columns and does at the end of the year.

If you haven’t seen his best journalism accumulation of 2016 it’s a must read.

As he built up his name originally covering the Olympics and women’s sports issues, how those those relate to journalism coverage have been his bread and butter. But he’s also gotten lots of traction covering media dynamics north of the border of late. He routinely has Canadian guests on his SI Media Podcast.

The World Juniors and their ratings were a recent subject he was interested in.

He’s also a frequent guest on Canadian media outlets.

While taking a break from his radio schedule in Toronto I sat down with Deitsch to garner his insight on the differences between the Canadian and American media landscape and how Canadian teams resonate with American outlets.

You can catch Deitsch on Sportsnet 590 The Fan this week co-hosting on The Jeff Blair Show everyday 10:00 AM-noon EST. He’s also co-hosting on Prime Time Sports Tuesday-Thursday 4:00-5:00 PM EST. To end the week he’s on the Prime Time Sports Roundtable Friday from 5:00-7:00 PM EST.

Donnovan Bennett – How much of your audience is comprised of Canadians?

Richard Deitsch – Undoubtedly, I have a pretty good Canadian audience both from the Twitter feed and the podcast. When I have a Canadian guest on the Canadian-based podcasts the Canadian downloads are almost equal to the States. But I think my association with the Fan 590 and the fact that I’m interested in the market has helped me gain an audience in Canada. I think Toronto, or Vancouver, or Fort Erie; towns that are close to the American border are interested in what I write because they get the American television stations. I’m not sure how many people in a Canadian market who are watching strictly Canadian television would be interested in what I do.

Also I like interacting with Canadians just to be blunt. They are thoughtful when it comes to sports media. It’s not as knee-jerk as it is in the States. That’s what I like the most about 590. It’s long segments and it’s not always hot take.

DB – Fans of Canadian teams often feel aggrieved because their teams aren’t on major U.S. networks in prime time. Is the anti-Canadian bias by networks and leagues a conspiracy theory or merit driven?

RD – There is a real business element to it. If you have the Blue Jays in the playoffs you’re not getting that market. It’s not counting towards your rating. So they are going to factor that in, in terms of choosing times for that game. So if it is a choice between the Blue Jays vs. Tigers and Yankees vs. Red Sox; they are going to want Yankees vs. Red Sox in prime time because they are getting credit for those ratings in both of those American markets. I don’t think it is a bias against the teams.

I think the Raptors are eminently marketable and watchable as a product. Same thing with the Blue Jays but American television networks are not getting credit for the audience in those Canadian markets so they are losing a big city. They make a business decision in more of a prime time spot. I understand why Toronto sports fans feel they are getting short shrift from American networks because to an extent they are.

If teams are good you are going to see them on in the States. You’ll see the Maple Leafs on NBC more. You’re certainly seeing the Raptors on ESPN and TNT in the States. If teams are good, American networks can’t avoid them, but yes they have a preference for American markets.

Richard Deitsch on Jeff Blair Show Monday – Hour One

DB – You seemed intrigued with the most recent world junior tournament and how it was rating in the States. What did you learn?

RD – The NHL network isn’t rated. You can’t get their numbers publicly. Through sources I was able to report that the final turned out to be the most watched program in their network’s history. What it did tell me is that the World Juniors are absolutely growing in the States. Even if it’s not a gigantic growth.

It is very clear that this generation of American players that are young — Matthews, Eichel, that group — probably have a chance to attract more American casual sports fans to hockey than any other American hockey generation. That is what I would look for as a marker. This interest in the World Junior championships in the States; five years from now what will that mean for NHL ratings in the States?

I think there will be a co-relation especially as the young, good American players continue to succeed. It was incredible to me on Twitter it was blowing up. They’ve played a lot of junior championships before, it has never got that much attention. I think part of it is because they won. The U.S. is very much a country that celebrates its own success. If it is Canada-Russia there would be no interest to be blunt. I’ll be curious to see what the number is next year if it is not the U.S. in the final.

DB – Next year it’s in your beloved Buffalo.

RD – Which is a great hockey town. That is one town that will always watch the world juniors, regardless.

DB – The IIHF is betting on it playing an outdoor game between Canada and the U.S.A. What do you project with the tournament being played in the U.S.A?

RD – That will draw great. Buffalo as a hockey market along with Detroit are the top two hockey markets in the States. The one way you can tell that is the Buffalo market always over-indexes on NBC Sports Network games even when the Sabres aren’t playing.

It will always be a top-five market even if it’s Penguins-Capitals. The Buffalo market is hockey mad probably because it is close to the border. Probably because kids grow up playing and skating. They’ve marketed hockey pretty good in that town and the Bills haven’t been great.

Richard Deitsch on Jeff Blair Show Monday – Hour Two

DB – What do you make of the increase in Canadian on-air talent landing marquee jobs in the South?

RD – I do think that America is seen as a destination place for a lot of sports media. ESPN, FOX, NBC, these are major companies. So if you are Canadian and have gotten American television, whether it is Bob Costas, or Vin Scully, or Al Michaels these are faces you have seen throughout your whole life. I think it is inevitable you might want to aspire to join those networks.

I do think there is more opportunity in the States just based on size. A country of 310 million versus a country of 35 million. I think the other thing that sucks is we have seen the consolidation and lay offs among Canadian sports media companies because of economics. With that I think you’ve seen some talent head to the States more out of job security than anything else.

I’m not someone who subscribes to somehow you have to work in the States to prove yourself. I’m a New York kid so I see Toronto as a destination city. If you are working in Toronto in sports media you have made it. But I look at it in reverse. But I think the reason people leave Canada is first and foremost economics and secondly money.

In the case of Jay [Onrait] and Dan [O’Toole] they were paid a ton of money to come to FS1. They would have been foolish to turn that down. One, it was a chance to go to a new network. Two, it was far more money than they were going to get in Canada. It is interesting you don’t see more people do the reverse. That you don’t see more American media explore big Canadian cities.

DB – Why do you think that is?

RD – Americans are less mobile as a country in comparison to Canada or Europeans. We aren’t as used to taking jobs abroad as some other countries are.

DB – The gold standard for Canadian journalists who have gone down south is John Saunders? In Canada his legacy is for never forgetting his Canadian roots. What is his legacy among Americans?

RD – I was lucky enough to spend some time with him. About a year before he died he came to Columba and he was interested in the journalism program where I adjunct. His legacy to me is not about his broadcasting career — which is fantastic — it is about the mentoring he did at ESPN. He is one of the people who took an interest in people’s careers both people of colour and non-people of colour.

For the last five years or so he would sit down with people and help them plot out a career path because he is someone who worked in every part of the company. So wether it was Adnan Virk or others you can find a lot of people at ESPN who John Saunders made introductions for within the company, talked to them about where you want to be in five years and how to get there. That for me is his legacy as an internal mentor at ESPN.

Externally, his legacy is one of the great studio hosts of all-time, taking over for Dick Schaap on The Sports Reporters and one of the guys who paved a way for other Canadians to make it big in the USA in sports media.

DB – Chris Berman is about to finish his final season hosting NFL countdown. What is his legacy?

RD – I will always give him credit for helping popularize the NFL at ESPN. His countdown show with Tom Jackson was revolutionary at the time both in how they approach highlights and the enthusiasm that they showed.

I do think as Berman’s career went on he became less of a sportscaster and more of a public relations agent for the NFL. He was in a position where he could’ve asked tough questions of NFL officials and coaches and challenged things in the league. Instead he decided to be someone who pushed league agendas.

That is certainly his right. It is something he became famous from and made millions of dollars for it, but his career is ultimately disappointing for it because of the power he had and what he could’ve used that power for editorially.

That said, there is a total other way to look at it. It is entertainment. He entertained millions of fans for years and that’s fine. I totally respect people who think of Berman as an icon and I would never not give him his credit for popularizing ESPN but to me it is not a singular legacy.

DB – Your job is to critique and report on those in sports who are the very best at critiquing and reporting. Do you struggle evaluating those who have done as much if not more in the industry than you have?

RD – I think the best thing is you are as objective and as accurate as possible with the facts and then when it comes to opinion be as passionate and honest with the reader as you can. Those are tricky worlds to navigate because there are times when I am a columnist or opinionist and there are other times where I am a reporter. I’m also a lot of times reporting or opining on people who do the exact same thing and lord knows sports media people can be as narcissistic as presidential candidates.

It’s interesting to write about reporters, writers, editors, producers, television people because sometimes the audience doesn’t see them as worthy of being covered like a team or franchise. But that’s how I look at it. I look at ESPN the same way that the beat reporter at the Toronto Star looks at the Toronto Maple Leafs. Covering management and talent and criticizing when criticism is deserved and praising when praise is deserved.

The reason why I think it’s interesting is often an anchor at ESPN is more popular than the third starting pitcher on a Major League Baseball team. You interact with them on a daily basis. They are in your home more than a lot of athletes and so I think they should be covered. It is a billion dollar business but more than that we interact with them more than a lot of athletes we watch. It’s a fun job.

It makes you cynical at times because you have to watch all of the hot-take television that is crappy and gets rewarded and I want work with reporting that is thoughtful to get rewarded and that’s not always the case.

DB – Do you hear that you aren’t qualified to lay criticism from those in the industry?

RD – Of course. There is always going to be criticism from people who I write about who aren’t happy with what I write about them and there are always going to be readers that say, “Who are you to write this?”

I’ve been covering this for about a decade. I’ve always tried to base my opinions in reporting. I’ve tried to be thoughtful. I’ve tried not to do hot takes even in sports media commentary and I just hope that after doing it for a long time people see that I take the deed very seriously. I try to praise and highlight behind-the-scenes people as much as anything else.

If you read me and your honest you are seeing all sorts of people who you have never heard of written about in my column. Whether it is producers or camera-persons or directors. That is the part I enjoy most, highlighting someone that you have never heard of.

I obviously have to write about the Bill Simmons and Al Michaels of the world because that is going to drive the most audience. I’d like to think that is why many people give me the benefit of the doubt because they know I’m not writing “here is five ways Bill Simmons can fix his career.” It’s about here is this cameraperson in an NFL game who got this incredible shot and here’s how they did it.

DB – Have you had to change the way you do your job over the years?

RD – What’s changed my job more than anything is social media. You have to react much faster in 2016 than the people who were writing about TV and print 20 or 50 years ago. So much of the conversation about sports media is driven on Twitter and Facebook.

If Chris Berman announces that he is taking a reduced role at ESPN you can’t wait a week anymore to write it. You have to write it that day. The technology and the speed of distribution has changed what I’ve done dramatically.

DB – What do you foresee the disruptors will be that will change the sports media landscape moving forward?

RD – If we all knew what the disruptors were we’d be millionaires. I think one thing that is very clear is that cable television in the States is going to continue to go down. Millennials as a whole have opted out of cable. If they have a cable subscription they probably take their parents password and use it. So that’s the story to watch. Where are those numbers going? Where is the apex?

Cable will still be a business in the next five years for sure. ESPN and Fox own too many rights. The question is what kind of audience are they going to get and will they ever have to market directly to consumer?

DB – We have started to see a paywall and subscription service model for print content. Is that a frightening or exciting development?

RD – I think it’s neither until we know if people are going to pay. The Athletic is a great experiment and I really hope it works. The big question is can you convince 20-40 year olds to pay for high-end writing and reporting when they are used to getting everything free. James Mirtle told me they need 10,000 people to break even which is not a big number. The reality is it is hard to find 10,000 people who are used to not paying for something and convince them to pay for it. Can you change people’s behaviour who want journalism and editorial to pay for it even if it is great?

When they began the web they decided not to charge so they could shape behaviour for the next generations. That’s where the mistake obviously was made. All of these places should be charging. You’re giving away for free your product. No other business in the world does that but that’s where this business is.

I’m rooting for the Athletic to work. I’m just skeptical because generationally no one has done it yet.

DB – As athletes have become more political that has opened up an avenue for the coverage of them to become more political. Is this a trend you expect to continue?

RD – It gets into a larger discussion. Are you a citizen first or a sports person first? I think you’re a citizen first. But athletics are intertwined with politics and they always have been. Whether it’s gender issues of race and chemistry in a locker room, or wether it’s economics and college players being paid or not. Politics is everywhere in sports. I don’t know how you can escape it.

Colin Kaepernick, that’s just an obvious one, but should college players be paid or not is a political question. I don’t think you can avoid it but there is always a risk and I’ve seen this. The second you opine about politics on Twitter you get a lot of feedback and a lot of negative feedback so you have to have some thick skin on that because there are people who just don’t believe sports media should weigh in on politics and if they disagree with your politics they are coming at you. It is very hard to avoid politics with such a divisive political season.

DB – Politics might be intertwined with sports but so is advertisement and sponsorship. What happens when Proctor and Gamble calls up ESPN president John Skipper and weighs in on what Curt Schilling’s talking about?

RD – That’s a line many of these networks have to play by. ESPN gets tagged by being a left-leaning network. If they do a show that is politically oriented it’s up to their business department to find sponsors that are comfortable with that show. There is no doubt there could be advertisers that are unhappy with what an on air person says.

You just hope, as a general rule, the ESPNs and Sports Illustrateds defend their on air talent. You hire people for a reason and you should defend their right to speak unless of course they go over the lines of what your policy is. Talking politics is tricky for sports networks because their job is to get as many people to listen and you are inevitably being polarizing by talking politics. It’s a risk proposition for places that want mass.

DB – Sports gets its model from news coverage. One of the biggest political news stories now is Buzzfeed unapologetically publishing memo documents that weren’t fully vetted. Will the relaxing of journalistic rules as the culture changes effect reporting practices in sports?

RD – There are places that are very liberal about what they publish in sports. Deadspin will publish something that the Washington Post won’t. I think sports has passed that rubicon already. I think there are a lot of things that are published in sports in 2016 that would have never been published in 2000.

I think independent sites like Deadspin and others have pushed the envelope where they have given cover for mainstream places to report or re-report. In some cases sports are ahead of traditional media in terms of what they would publish or not publish.

DB – What is the biggest story you are monitoring in 2017?

RD – The bigger story for me is always in terms of economics. Will we ever see growth in the market or will it always be trickling of layoffs left and right year after year.

Away from that, which always for me seems to be the story; I will be very curious next year in September and October what happens with the NFL ratings. It will be far away from the election cycle. It will be interesting to see if it was indeed the political season and the over-heated dialogue that causes a drop in the NFL ratings or was it something else? Because if the ratings are flat or go down next year than there is an issue with the NFL and broadcasting. Whether it is the quality of the game, wether there are too many national windows, wether it is quarterback play; but it is going to be something.

If it is October and the ratings are down or flat that whole election thesis is done. And then you gotta think to yourself, “All right what does this mean for the most popular sport in America and what do we take away?”

DB – What can the Canadian sports media learn from American coverage and what can the American sports media learn from Canadians?

RD – Certainly the U.S. can learn from Canada on thoughtful discourse and dialogue and longer segments. It is not necessarily a contest to see who has the best take. It is not a contest to see who is going to get the most points. It is giving the reader some depth, some thought, some reporting.

I think the U.S. is a great laboratory for finding new distribution places and finding new websites. There is a great entrepreneurialism in the websites in the U.S. and I think that is something Canada can try and emulate and learn from. But the countries are uniquely different. Inevitably Canada is going to be doing things on a smaller scale because it has 10 times less people. The U.S. sports media is sports media on steroids.

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