Sampsell: Sports ushering in the new year

When it comes to TV and sports, most fans just want to know what time to watch and which channel to select to watch their favorite team play from game to game or week to week.

It’s not always that simple anymore, though. And, as 2013 winds to a close, it’s certain it will not be that simple moving forward.

With so many sports networks out there, the audience has become more splintered than ever.

On a positive note, that means viewers have abundant options and most games featuring their favorite teams (Penn State, the Steelers, the Pirates, the Penguins, or whomever) are televised somewhere. At worst, they’re probably streaming online.

In addition, live sports on TV continue to draw ratings than do better than much of what appears on the tube.

Regular season NFL games dominate the list of the fall television season’s most-watched programs and some four million people (at a minimum) will watch the less-interesting Bowl Championship Series games in the coming week.

For the BCS national championship game between Auburn and Florida State on Jan. 6, the number of people watching could easily surpass 10 million. That’s the kind of response TV network officials – and advertisers – really like.

As we move into 2014, that splintering audience, the variety of options and the power of a few big events will remain among the biggest stories.

That means certain big events (especially the BCS title game, Super Bowl and Olympics in the next couple of months) will in some ways get even bigger. Ads for the Super Bowl at Met Life Stadium sold out a bit earlier than in previous years and the possibility of winter weather impacting that game on Feb. 2 should only bolster viewership.

A more divided audience moving forward will provide more options for success for polarizing or powerful personalities, too.

We saw that in 2013 with the return of Keith Olbermann, who landed a weeknight ESPN show that bears his name, and with the launch of specific websites led by Peter King, ( and Nate Silver ( Of course, Bill Simmons ( provided the template for such an approach.

Still, sports on TV remain appealing and powerful. That’s why Fox Sports 1 was launched four months ago, and the all-sports network continues to grow and secure some measure of an audience. Over time, it might not rival ESPN but it (as well as CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network) will find a niche.

That’s a good thing in terms of more options for viewers, and it’s even a good thing for ESPN, which will focus more on the things that make it profitable and successful while providing an aspirational measure for its fledgling rivals.

A fabulous feature

When it first aired on “SportsCenter” in late summer, a feel-good feature about a two high school wrestling teammates from Cleveland (it was and remains much more than that) was the longest segment of its kind to ever air on ESPN’s flagship program.

Then, “Carry On” went viral online, giving the story that had a life of its own even more power.

So many stories exist in the busy world of sports on TV, and professionals across all networks produce quality work. That said, a search for “Carry On” and ESPN online produces several links to the story that merits the investment of nearly 20 minutes.

Simply put, it’s the best, most compelling piece of sports-related storytelling of the year.

Tuner tidbits

n Before New Year’s Eve celebrations kick into high gear, Penn State men’s basketball fans can watch the Nittany Lions play at Michigan State. The game tips at 5 p.m. Tuesday on the Big Ten Network.

n Former Penn State standouts and proven TV analysts Todd Blackledge and Matt Millen will work the Sugar Bowl (Oklahoma-Alabama) on Jan. 2 and the Orange Bowl (Clemson-Ohio State) on Jan. 3, respectively.

n ESPN’s top on-air tandem of Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will work both the Rose Bowl (Stanford-Michigan State) on Jan. 1 and the BCS final on Jan. 6.

n CBS Sports has Spero Dedes on play-by-play and Steve Beuerlein on color for today’s still-meaningful matchup between the Steelers and Cleveland.

Steve Sampsell may be contacted at