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Sports Studs Enter the Reality TV Game

Their shows are airing on mainstream networks and featuring bigger names.

In the first episode of “The T.O. Show,” football star Terrell Owens moves to Los Angeles, where he goes clubbing, spends a “quiet night at home” with his female realtor and fights incessantly with his two publicists.

Oh … he was also fired by the Dallas Cowboys and then signed by the Buffalo Bills for $7.25 million — but that was just in the first few minutes. The show is not about football but having Owens “re-examine his personal life.”

While few athletes have gone Owens’ route — letting cameras follow them around everywhere — sports stars are increasingly joining the ranks of entertainment celebrities who participate in or create their own reality shows.

More importantly, these shows are airing on mainstream networks and featuring bigger names.

Owens’ show debuted on VH1 July 20. On Tuesday, ABC will air the season finale of “Superstars,” which this season, for the first time, brings in celebrity teammates for the athletes. And on Aug. 18, ABC will debut “Shaq Vs.,” in which Shaquille O’Neal challenges other athletes in the sports they play professionally.

Also this summer, Spike launched “4th & Long,” in which Hall of Famer Michael Irvin seeks a new wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, in the same way rock band Inxs looked for a lead singer a few years back. Irvin had previously participated on another of Spike’s shows, “Pros vs. Joes,” which pits pro athletes against Average Joes.

Even E! got in the act with “Kendra,” which follows the real-life escapades of Playboy playmate Kendra Wilkinson and her new husband, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Hank Baskett. (See accompanying article, "A Six-Pack of Athlete-Based Reality Shows.")

“It really changes the way athletes are viewed — and in a good way,” said Brian Samuels of Evolution Marketing and Management, who has placed every professional athlete on “Pros vs. Joes.” "It’s an opportunity to get in front of a lot of people. Some guys think it’s something that might be silly — but that’s short sighted.”

 

Thus far, the ratings performance of the shows has been anything but inspiring. “Kendra” has been an instant success, giving E! its biggest series debut and finale since 2002’s “The Anna Nicole Smith Show.” However, “Superstars” has never finished higher than third in its time slot and in just its second week “The T.O. Show” slumped to a 789th place tie with a 5 a.m. re-run of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

 

Still, in the same way washed-up entertainment celebrities have found new life on reality shows like "Dancing With the Stars" — which has, in fact, featured numerous sports stars — the exposure can help athletes — famous or forgotten — launch a post-sports career, bring in a little extra money or at least put an athlete’s name out there.

 

Former NBA star Kenny Anderson, who Samuels booked on “Pros,” told TheWrap the appeal for him was simple — exposure. “I’ve been retired for about four years, and I just thought it was a great situation,” he said. “You are trying to get into culture and stay relevant.”

“When the gun sounds and the game is over they still want that high of being center stage and those people cheering,” said Bob Horowitz, executive producer of “Superstars.”

The difference between the new crop of shows and shows like “Dancing” is that they revolve entirely around the athletes, and they star active players like Owens and O’Neal. And there are more of them.

“As the reality genre or unscripted genre changed — and certainly when celebreality hit an apex — more opportunities opened for athletes,” said Sharon Levy, senior vice president of original series at Spike.

Also up until now, most of shows have been contest-based. Competitive by nature, most athletes jump at any chance to participate — but they are resistant to broadcast their private lives. “We’re not actors, we’re not going to go on and do something random to get famous,” said Kristi Leskinen, an Olympic skier who appeared on “Superstars.”

But thanks in part to that competitive nature, that may all be changing.

“The minute the guy next door is doing that, it doesn’t seem so dangerous, ominous or scary,” Horowitz said. “You end up with those people in the NFL who see what [Owens] is doing and decide they want their own reality shows.”

Horowitz, who is also developing shows with ex-NFLers Junior Seau and Warren Sapp, actually sees noncompetitive shows as a better opportunity for athletes. “Quite honestly, I think the competitive side is more limiting because you have to really be at the level of Shaq or get the eight people he can get to make it on primetime on ABC,”  he told TheWrap.

Fueling the push for reality shows on mainstream channels is the ever-blurring line between sports and celebrity. “You watch a Lakers game at Staples, and there are 10 basketball players on the court and cutaways of 10 all-star celebrities who are around the court at that time,” Horowitz said.

 

Many athletes are wary of that line and try to remain reclusive, but for some the publicity and potential monetary reward may be too hard to resist as TV producers also want to take advantage of the visibility they’ve helped create.

“If you do a ratings analysis and look across all the sports – during the NBA season, during the NFL season — oh my God they are crushing,” Spike’s Levy said. “I don’t think there is another platform like there is with professional sports.”

“For any network in looking at casting a show, if we put an amazing athlete in, we are certainly going to get male viewers,” she said. “That’s incredibly helpful.”