Will Jim Rome Be a Game-Changer for CBS Sports?

With appearances across its platforms and a Showtime series, the network is banking on the acerbic host to help it close the gap with ESPN and Fox

Jim Rome, the notorious radio and TV talker – he of the acerbic rants and intentional provocation – has switched networks again, going from ESPN to CBS Sports per an announcement by the network Wednesday.

Rome will participate across the CBS networks, contributing to CBS Sports and hosting a show on the CBS-owned Showtime.

But his first show to launch — and the real experiment in all of this — is his daily show with the CBS Sports Network, “Rome.” The show will debut on April 3.

“CBS Sports Network is an increasingly high priority here at CBS,” David Berson, President of CBS Sports Network and EVP of CBS Sports, told TheWrap. “We’ve identified live daily programming as a very big priority within that and upon setting that priority, Jim was at the top of the list.”

So that begs the question: Will Rome make the CBS Sports Network more relevant?

The network has gone through a series of iterations, debuting as the National College Sports Network in June of 2002, changing its name to College Sports Television in 2003 and joining the CBS family in 2005. It adopted its current name in 2011, as part of a rebranding — much like NBC did in rebranding Versus as the NBC Sports Network. Notice the similarity?

Both changes signal efforts to counter the sports broadcasting heft of ESPN and Fox Sports.

While CBS still holds the rights to many of sports’ premiere events – the NFL, the Masters and college basketball's March Madness come to mind – it doesn’t have the breadth of sports coverage of either Fox or ESPN. 

ESPN owns rights galore and has a devoted fan base while Fox’s local coverage has filled in gaps left vacant by ESPN.

Now CBS and NBC, often more focused on their prime time entertainment programming, are trying to get in on that game, and in lieu of securing a big event, CBS has made a splash with Rome.

Rome is undoubtedly a recognizable name. He has one of the 25 most popular radio shows in the nation — drawing 2 million listeners on average — and also boasts more than 600,000 Twitter followers.

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus cited those numbers in announcing the deal, calling it a no-brainer for the network since it won’t have to develop his personality or any buzz.

But the CBS Sports Network is still far from being a sports destination. Looking to add to its wealth of college sports programming in the past year, it has locked up deals with professional lacrosse and bull riding leagues – not exactly the crème de la crème in terms of fan interest.

Berson was quick to note bull riding’s popularity is growing – and that may be true – but it’s still bull riding.

So is a talk show going to be a game changer? Can Rome really lure millions or even hundreds of thousands of viewers to the smallish network?

At the moment, the CBS Sports Network, though available to 98 millions homes, is seen in 45 million homes.

“I’m a big believer in creating an environment on your network, an expectation for fans on what they are coming to you for,” Berson said. “There’s a great need to have destination programming outside of live events. Jim is a perfect example of that. He has a loyal, built-in following and fans who will follow him here.”

CBS will use its flagship network and Showtime to promote Rome on its sister channel -– an example of the corporate synergy it will employ to boost the channel as a whole.

CBS will help launch his weekday show, which will be quite similar to his former ESPN 2 show “Jim Rome is Burning,” by using him during the Final Four for interviews and features. 

In the fall, Rome will start an interview series on the CBS-owned Showtime, and he will also contribute to coverage of sports like football and college basketball for CBS.

“There’s an insatiable appetite amongst sports fans for content; they don’t want one voice but multiple voices,” Berson said. “We see ourselves being one of those voices to satisfy the appetite of sports fans. CBS Sports itself has the best of the best and to have a cable partner with that, and a cable home, there are tons of opportunities to maximize those events.”

Berson said you’d see Rome on NFL Today, around the NCAA Tournament and the U.S. Open tennis tournament doing interviews, features, profiles and commentary.

Still, when pressed he did acknowledge that Rome is “one element of the larger strategy.”

He can’t be a game changer all on his own.