2020 Sports Media Awards

The Big Lead
Dec 7, 2020, 2:55 PM EST
facebooktwitter

This year brought unprecedented challenges to the sports media industry. Nearly everyone rose to the occasion. Content assembly lines kept humming. Reporters kept reporting. Entertaining personalities continued to entertain. Hot-takers continued to hot take.

In all sincerity, there was plenty to inspire. And celebrate. Here are our 2020 Sports Media Awards, honoring those who stood out in a year we wish we could all forget, but will forever be burned in our memories.

Sports Personality of the Year -- Bill Simmons

On a recent podcast under The Ringer umbrella, conversation drifted to the ideal of cultural phenomena and how hacky it would be if they identified the Bill Simmons empire as one of them. But the truth of the matter is that what the Sports Guy has done for sports and pop culture is truly impossible to calculate. Starting what is the most mainstream and encompassing lens through which the zeitgeist is explored is no small feat. Neither is leveraging it into a $200 million payday from Spotify.

Simmons' second act as an executive is every bit as subversive as his initial rise. He is both a keen and savvy collector of talent and seemingly incapable of keeping that talent happy. The Ringer Union has been vocal and aggressive in laying out its grievances and has largely won in the court of public opinion. Things are a bit messy and could get messier.

It is absolutely fascinating to see the upstart become "The Man" and then grapple with that publicly. This, of course, is only a chapter in Simmons' story. Because he's still producing relevant audio content at a blistering pace. He's the central star in the most complete and thoughtful podcasting network out there. He still has the ability to drive conversation, especially in the NBA sphere, and can still cause a dustup, as he did on the plainly problematic episode of his show titled A Truly Sad Week in America, Plus the 2005 NBA Redraftables With Ryen Russillo.

All of this to say that Simmons remains the straw that stirs what is still a touchstone, even if it's one we've grown accustomed to and is branching off in new and unexpected ways. And not always smoothly.

Honorable mention: Stephen A. Smith, Mike Greenberg, Dan Le Batard, Pat McAfee

Game Analyst of the Year -- Doris Burke

Doris Burke has been a trailblazer for years. ESPN wisely moved her into an NBA game analyst position in 2017, and she’s been phenomenal ever since. In 2020 she took things to the next level as she became the first female analyst to work the NBA Finals, taking over the role for ESPN Radio.

Burke is a crisp broadcaster who is entertaining while also bringing an incredible depth of knowledge to the table as an analyst. She’s as good as anyone in the business and, if anything, continues to improve. She was excellent as always during the NBA’s Orlando bubble. Every game she broadcasts is made better by her presence. Burke has developed a large and devoted following over the years and has earned every one of her fans. She’s become a difference-maker in the analyst world.

She told The Big Lead about an epiphany she had when it comes to processing criticism, which naturally comes with the job.

Honorable mention: Daniel Cormier, Tony Romo, Kirk Herbstreit

Play-by-Play Announcer of the Year -- Ian Eagle

In a sports year ravaged by rescheduling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ian Eagle was afforded prominent opportunities to provide play-by-play coverage of some of the biggest events of the year. He shined bright under the spotlight.

From calling doubleheaders for TNT in the NBA bubble, to calling NFL games for CBS, college basketball, Brooklyn Nets games, radio, and (believe it or not) even more, Eagle brought his customary unique diction, high energy, and interesting insight to every broadcast he was a part of this year.

The most recent example of his greatness might be the highlight of the year. Just listen to his call of DeAndre Hopkins’ Hail Mary touchdown catch against the Bills. Eagle’s setup (counting down the seconds, then, “Murray heaves it”) and payoff line (“It’s Murray magic”) were perfect for the moment, done in the moment.

Other standout performances include calling the Tennessee Titans' upset of the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs, calling much of Damian Lillard’s unbelievable run during the NBA bubble, keeping his composure when Daniel Jones tripped over his own feet on a breakaway run against the Eagles and, on a personal level, the privilege of calling an NBA game with his son, Noah.

Despite being teamed with new analysts during both the NFL (Charles Davis) and NBA (Stan Van Gundy) seasons, it was another standout year from Eagle amidst an inconsistent backdrop that never fazed him.

Eagle told The Big Lead about what brings him the most pride.

Honorable mention: Joe Buck, Jim Nantz, Al Michaels, Kevin Harlan

Newcomer of the Year -- Malika Andrews

Malika Andrews is not technically a newcomer -- heck, last year we named her “Surprise of the Year.” It’s just that when you go from editing a college newspaper to being the face of ESPN's NBA coverage inside the Orlando bubble in fewer than five years, well, you deserve an award. Every single day, she was in Orlando, reporting, interviewing, and tweeting. There aren’t many people who were inside the bubble as long as Andrews. Aside from the Lakers, no one was as effective or successful.

Then she turned right around and played an integral role in ESPN’s NBA Draft coverage. Andrews did ESPN’s exclusive sit down with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and helped craft some of the draft’s most powerful moments as she interviewed pick after pick. She had a phenomenal 2020 and her profile continues to rise.

Andrews spoke about her viral moment with Scott Van Pelt and how she sees it fitting into her approaching going forward.

Colin Cowherd
Colin Cowherd | Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

Radio Show of the Year -- The Herd with Colin Cowherd

Colin Cowherd may be the last of the former staple: a national radio host who leans into being a larger-than-life, often cartoonish voice. The next metaphor he hears and doesn’t use will be the first. But make no mistake: Cowherd is a survivor. He has outlasted most of his competition and is still churning out relevant and reactionary takes day after day after day.

There may be some winks and nods to the performative nature of such a big top-friendly show. Yet Cowherd always sells his points, makes you believe he believes them, and does not fear being wrong. As a result, he still moves narratives miles where other voices barely push them a yard. Look no further by how often he’s aggregated on this here website. The man still knows how to serve up catnip to blogging masses -- truly a disappearing skill.

A year of tumult at ESPN Radio saw major shifts and Dan Le Batard’s show inexplicably losing real estate. The bizarre decision spawned increased but unpaid content and essentially eliminated the show from contention here. This time next year, Pat McAfee and all his boundless enthusiasm and authentic connectivity may be the title holder. For now, though, it’s Colin Cowherd.

Honorable mention: The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, The Dan Patrick Show, The Pat McAfee Show

Podcast of the Year -- Pardon My Take

Commenters lie, hot take artists lie, numbers don’t. Big Cat and PFT Commenter host the top sports podcast in the world for a reason. Barstool Sports has built a formidable podcast network and Pardon My Take is its crown jewel. PFT and Big Cat are bigger than Bill Simmons. Heck, they’re probably even bigger than Barstool.

The pair has been together since 2016 and the only thing that has changed is the podcast artwork. The two men show up with their lunchpails and takes three days a week to give their rabid and massive fanbase what it wants. The show makes news and even got Anthony Fauci early on in the pandemic. Their interview with Arian Foster about the Black Lives Matter movement also showed PFT and Big Cat can take things seriously when it's needed. In a remarkable year with a lot of new content, PMT remained firmly atop the podcast heap.

Honorable mention: The Bill Simmons Podcast, Titus & Tate, 10 Questions with Kyle Brandt

Insider of the Year -- Shams Charania

The biggest story of the sports season, and one of the biggest stories in the entire country, was Rudy Gobert contracting COVID-19. The event led to the NBA shutting down immediately and eventually postponing the season, with all other sports rapidly following suit.

Shams Charania broke that story along with a ton of other major news: Kevin Durant testing positive for coronavirus, Kyrie Irving calling on players to sit out the season, LeBron James signing an extension with the Lakers, the NBA player boycott and several other free-agent signings and draft picks. He was also, inexplicably, the first to report President Trump had coronavirus, though it did come seconds after Trump tweeted the news himself.

Adrian Wojnarowski is arguably the most dominant breaking news reporter in sports history, and he broke plenty of news around the trade deadline, draft and free agency (as usual). He also reported heavily on the player boycott and the NBA shut down. But the fact that Shams reported one of the biggest NBA stories in the last decade (plus plenty of other notable stories) speaks to the impressive year he had.

Ultimately, this award came down to impact. Charania's reports impacted the NBA, and the sports world as a whole, at a level never seen before. That he did it while going toe-to-toe with the GOAT breaking news reporter only enhanced that.

Honorable mention: Adrian Wojnarowski, Adam Schefter, Jeff Passan

Sports Media Reporter of the Year -- Andrew Marchand

Andrew Marchand posted another Mike Trout-like year, widening his lead in an extremely niche field. Whether it was news, transactions or opinions, Marchand owned the world of sports media. He treats Twitter like a normal person treats Slack with updates on his work product others only send their immediate supervisor, laying the groundwork of anticipation and helping his scoops land with more force.

As with Cowherd above, the true mark of Marchand’s market share and relevance to the largely irrelevant thing we do over here is the remarkable frequency with which he’s cited as a primary source of something snapping into focus or opening up the doors of conversation.

When he reports Jim Nantz wants Tony Romo money, that immediately permeates to 100 percent saturation among those who care about such stuff. When he reads the tea leaves and predicts Trey Wingo’s eventual ESPN departure, it predictably pans out. In short, when Marchand reports something, that’s the gold standard. The conversation starter. One in which he’s usually at the forefront of, from New York radio wars to the never-ending Monday Night Football news cycles.

He told The Big Lead that his kids remain slightly unimpressed.

Honorable mention: John Ourand, Kevin Draper, Richard Deitsch

Media Reporting Website of the Year -- The Daily Beast

The Daily Beast has long done interesting things, but it took a gigantic leap in 2020. An explosion of incredibly well-executed Extremely Online beats yielded copious scoops and palace intrigue about Barstool, Zombie Deadspin, and any number of administration-friendly outlets. More than that, though, is the eclectic answer to the ever-changing and nebulous question of what constitutes news. And yeah, this is a niche observation, but once you notice it, it’s tough not to earnestly appreciate it.

Whether it’s Ezra Klein jumping to the New York Times, internal tensions at NBC News, the warring factions at Sports Illustrated, or a disastrous internal meeting at LinkedIn, Max Tani has been at the forefront of illuminating and elevating stories that titillate the portion of the media brain that so desperately yearns to be stimulated.

There has also been dogged and revealing reporting on the Trump administration and its tentacles in right-wing circles, of the type that actually matters. For both depth and scope, The Daily Beast hasn’t only established itself as a major player, it’s established itself as the primary player.

Honorable mention: Front Office Sports, Sports Business Journal, Outkick the Coverage

Columnist of the Year -- Jeff Passan

Jeff Passan’s profile within the MLB world has skyrocketed over the last year because of his breaking news reporting on ESPN. However, this wordsmith's talent goes far beyond the who, what, when, where, why, how of baseball. He wrote nearly a dozen stories during the six-game World Series but never compromised quality for quantity. His lede following the Los Angeles Dodgers' World Series win was one of the most poignant of the season. That he was able to craft it on deadline is incredible and is only one of many memorable pieces Passan penned this year:

"In this oddest of years, this most peculiar of baseball seasons, there was perhaps no more telling snapshot of the United States, circa 2020, than a COVID-19-positive man sitting on the ground, maskless, next to a cancer survivor, maskless as well, with indelible grins spread across their faces. Sports is and always will be a metaphor for society."

Passan is one of the most versatile media members out there and this season proved a coming-out party for arguably the most go-to reporter in the MLB today.

Honorable mention: Sally Jenkins, Bill Plaschke, Steve Politi

Biggest Media Acquisition of the Year -- Emmanuel Acho

Acho is a rocket ship, going from a mid-level football analyst at ESPN to a cultural force in record time. Surveying the entire media landscape, there may not be another member with as high of a cross-platform ceiling. His "Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man" series was illuminating, much-needed and will continue to be essential. Fox brought him in to co-chair Speak For Yourself and be another pigskin mind. But one gets the sense that we’re not looking at the next Cris Collinsworth, we’re looking at the next Oprah.

That could mean important things for the world. It also means a tremendous opportunity for other verticals at Fox to explore. His career will not follow an existing trajectory. It will stake his own path. Whether that morphs into a Michael Strahan-like Swss Army Knife role or the accumulation of, like, six different jobs, no one knows. It’s not too early, though, to know it was a savvy move to bring him under the tent.

Honorable mention: Adam Amin, Jason Whitlock, Charles Davis

Sports Television Studio Show of the Year -- Inside the NBA

Inside the NBA has become a staple for sports fans for two decades, but it went above and beyond in 2020. The show, known for goofy banter between host Ernie Johnson and panelists Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith, also proved it had an immense amount of heart.

Inside the NBA’s special following the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, was as poignant as anything on television this year. The way the show handled the NBA’s shutdown for COVID-19 was brilliant, as was the moment when Smith walked off the set in solidarity with the league’s players following the shooting of Jacob Blake in late August. All through the year, the show proved it was an irreplaceable piece of the sports landscape. It provided much-needed laughs, along with amazing, heartfelt moments we’ll be looking back on years from now.

Inside the NBA has continued to grow and evolve over the years. It was at its best in 2020.

Honorable mention: Get Up, Fox NFL Sunday

Michael Jordan after the 1998 NBA Finals
Michael Jordan after the 1998 NBA Finals | MIKE NELSON/Getty Images

Sports Television Series of the Year -- The Last Dance

The Last Dance was hotly anticipated for months, but once the coronavirus pandemic hit, the excitement only increased as ESPN pushed the release date forward. The docuseries following Michael Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls was culturally relevant and may have been the last true appointment viewing in television history. With everything moving to streaming platforms we may never again all be focused on one station at the same time.

Directed by Jason Hehir, the series showed a breadth and depth that was staggering to behold. It seemed everyone even tangentially related to Jordan’s career participated and was interviewed -- they even got Dennis Rodman to sit still for an interview. Sure, there was a bit of hero worship and it may have been irreparably biased, but the footage Hehir & Co. uncovered and the interviews they conducted were incredible. On top of it all, the soundtrack was instantly legendary. It truly was an incredible month-long event released at the perfect time. The show had a captive audience and viewers ate up every single minute.

Honorable mention: Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Last Chance U, Cheer

Special Quarantine Content Award* -- Coach Duggs, Barstool Sports

Coach Duggs, aka Gus Duggerton, quite literally came out of nowhere when people needed entertainment most. Barstool Sports’ Dan Katz, aka Big Cat, was (like the rest of us) rather bored during the COVID-19 pandemic where no sports were being broadcast. He bought an Xbox 360, the a copy of NCAA football 14 and took to Twitch, the online streaming platform, to broadcast his adventures as created coach Gus Duggerton. Duggs was (virtually) hired by the University of Toledo as offensive coordinator in April. Broadcasting his games on Twitch, Duggs proved his coaching prowess was unmatched and was hired by several different big-name programs before heading to Texas Tech to become a head coach for the first time. 

From there, Katz guided Duggs as he blew up as a coach for hire who found a new program every few seasons. College football insider Brett McMurphy reported on his moves and the University of Tennessee welcomed him with open arms. Even Lane Kiffin was fond enough of Duggs to offer him a word of advice ahead of one of his coaching gigs. Fans loved his refusal to kneel at the end of games, cheered for "50 Burgers" and lived and died with every play. From April 9 to June 16, Duggs amassed 1.5 million total views on Twitch. More than 100,000 viewers tuned in to watch Duggs and his Tennessee Vols battle Virginia Tech in the national title game one season. 

Most importantly, Duggs gave us all a taste of sports when we had nothing to feast upon during the darkest days of a global pandemic. His bubbling personality kept us all laughing and feeling good even during a loss. Duggs set an example for any aspiring college football coach, and was a beacon of light when sports were on hold. The ride may have ended why Katz got a bit bored with the dominating the game, but for a time, Duggs was the only coach anyone could care about. Thank you, Duggs, for your service.

Honorable mention: Roger Goodell in his basement, ESPN H-O-R-S-E

*Hopefully this is a one-time award

Sports Meme of the Year -- Laughing Jordan

When Michael Jordan emitted a guttural laugh during Episode 8 of ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary, a star was born in the meme community. Will it have the staying power “Crying Jordan”? Only time will tell. In 2020, amidst the coronavirus pandemic and with more people watching that documentary than any other in ESPN history, no meme captured the internet’s attention like “Laughing Jordan” in terms of notoriety, use, and hilarity.

Documentary director Jason Hehir created the meme when he handed Jordan a tablet playing a video of Gary Payton saying he slowed Jordan down in the 1996 NBA Finals. It was a genius move to get Jordan’s real-time reaction and his bug-eyes-to-uncontrolled-laugh instantly became a social media hit.

Athlete Generated Content of the Year -- All the Smoke

If you’re someone who needs content — and aren’t we all — you need to listen to All The Smoke because there is just something about hosts Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes that makes people want to say stuff. In February they had Kevin Durant explaining why he chose the Brooklyn Nets and what really happened with Draymond Green. Two months later they got Green’s side of the story.

Jackson and Barnes are former teammates that have nearly three decades of NBA experience between them and an immeasurable amount of respect and credibility around the league. That allows them to get things out of guests normal interviewers can't.

As the podcast was really taking off earlier this year, Jackson found himself in the middle of the George Floyd situation, making the show even more culturally relevant. They continue to get big-name guests to speak freely while pulling off a show that works as a television show on Showtime or simply as a podcast.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Most Polarizing Sports Personality of the Year -- Dave Portnoy

Dave Portnoy doesn’t care whether you love him or hate him. As long as you’re talking about him, he’s winning. In 2020, he won a lot, both in a positive and negative light.

It started in January when Penn National Gaming invested $163 million in Barstool for a 36 percent equity stake. It continued with his ongoing foray into day trading, which ruffled established Wall Street feathers and proved Portnoy’s profile translates beyond sports. Portnoy also interviewed President Donald Trump and created headlines by winning a charity auction to watch a football game with his nemesis, Roger Goodell. That one never came to pass.

The biggest backlash Portnoy faced this year, however, was video surfacing of him using racist language, which led to universal outrage. But, as is his MO, Portnoy didn’t back down, saying “I’m uncancellable.” Backed by his merry band of devoted Stoolies, who are always willing to fight battles alongside him, Portnoy proved prophetic by plowing ahead with his normally-scheduled programming that continued to drive viewership, engagement and interest. Meanwhile, Penn stock is trading at record highs on seemingly a weekly basis.

No one in sports media evokes a visceral reaction quite like Portnoy. And that’s just the way he wants it.

Honorable mention: Max Kellerman, Clay Travis, Skip Bayless

Citizen of the Year -- Shea Serrano

Shea Serrano stands out as a particularly good-natured person, one who constantly uses his huge social media reach to improve the lives of complete strangers. His most recent charitable endeavor began when he wrote a book and released it for free, yet received nearly $100,000 in donations anyway. Instead of keeping the money from a project he himself called a joke, Shea and his wife Laramie used the money to pay off a year’s worth of tuition for two undocumented immigrant students at the University of Texas at San Antonio and donated the rest to various nonprofits in the San Antonio area.

Serrano and his Twitter followers, who refer to themselves as the FOH Army, regularly donate to GoFundMes for all sorts of different causes. Defined by Serrano as a "guerrilla philanthropy organization," the FOH Army has raised $379,000 for various causes since March 12. And that's just this year. He recently launched The Shea Serrano Scholarship with the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists aimed at helping aspiring Latino journalists. Over the summer, he started a project called Halfway Books, where he hired five writers to write 3,000 words about a rap subject of their choosing and is paying them $3,000 each. And these are just a handful of examples. From Hurricane Harvey to pandemic relief, Serrano always helps those in need, any way he can. His efforts to aid anybody who needs it is inspirational, and why he’s being highlighted as the Citizen of the Year in sports media.

Serrano, after being sure to note that he feels "wildly inadequate" to receive this award, told The Big Lead why he wanted to fund his own scholarship for Latino college students to pursue journalism.

Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Lifetime Achievement Award -- Mike Golic

For the first time in more than two decades, Mike Golic is not on radio airwaves in the morning. ESPN Radio’s shakeup this year saw Golic’s time as the co-cornerstone of the company’s flagship show end. And, oh, what a ride it was. The former Eagles defensive tackle is a trailblazer, becoming the first former athlete to successfully pivot and transform himself into a major radio personality, not just an analyst. That simply didn’t happen back in 1998 when he joined Tony Bruno to create the Bruno-Golic Morning Show in 1998. Golic changed the game for athletes in broadcasting.

After Bruno’s resignation from ESPN, Golic worked with a few co-hosts before finally finding his sweet spot with partner Mike Greenberg on Mike & Mike starting in 2000. His odd couple routine with Greenberg withstood the test of time and spawned a veritable army of copycats nationwide as the duo owned mornings on ESPN for nearly 18 years. He finished off his radio run partnering with Trey Wingo from 2017 until their show was cancelled in mid-2020. Through it all, Golic has set a standard that will be difficult for any former player-turned-broadcaster to live up to.

Golic isn’t just a goofy former player, he has developed into a fantastic broadcaster who isn’t only in the room for color. He didn’t need someone to host for him, his timing was impeccable, and his sense of humor could warm even the coldest critic. He honed his craft for years with the strongest possible spotlight on him. From his first day on air to his final sign-off, Golic never lost his fastball. Such was his impact that tributes to the role he played poured in when ESPN announced he was leaving the airwaves. We still miss hearing Mike in the morning.

facebooktwitter