Monday August 9th, 2010

1. Mike Mayock, Notre Dame Football analyst: You know what you can't fake in broadcasting? Preparation. Ron Jaworski is often praised in this space because when he says he's watched every throw a quarterback made in college, he backs it up through his analysis.

Mayock doesn't own the cachet of a former Super Bowl quarterback or the over-the-top personalities we find hawking products for Applebee's and Hooters. What he does have is a mountain of credibility as a draft analyst.

Instead of hopping on the carousel of mediocrity by opting for Joe Theismann, Lou Holtz or any other broadcaster who once dressed in the same locker room as Rudy Ruettiger, NBC eschewed conventional wisdom for a broadcaster with a maniacal devotion to film study. It's a terrific outside-the-box selection, and Mayock now gets a national platform to show his stuff. "I'll be the first one to tell you that I have a healthy chip on my shoulder in this industry," Mayock said. "I was a 10th-round pick out of college, and I was always somebody that had to try harder and work harder to get the jobs that I wanted."

Mayock recently signed his fourth contract with the NFL Network -- he joined in 2005 -- and remains the network's NFL Draft expert and analyst on "Playbook," among other shows. His NBC deal is for multiple years, and he'll work with longtime Notre Dame playcaller Tom Hammond. "I'm sure the majority of people out there never thought of me for the job," Mayock said.

Well, there were some. NBC Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli reached out to Sam Flood, the network's new executive producer, to recommend Mayock for the job. The analyst met with Flood in Providence two weeks ago, and following a two-hour getting-to-know-you meeting, Mayock had the job. (The details of the courtship are detailed nicely here by AOL Fanhouse's John Walters.) "I've been teasing my father about this," Mayock said. "A bunch of years ago we were both upset that Notre Dame did not recruit the Catholic kid out of Philadelphia with the last name Mayock. It took a long time, but they finally got me."

2. Eric Shanks, Fox Sports president: The Fox Sports communication department has been selling Shanks as a new-jack programmer with a 21st century skill set, and indeed every story I've read on Terry Bradshaw's new boss offered the following tidbit: At 38, he is believed to be the youngest president of a broadcast network sports division.

Asked about the biggest challenge he faces in his new gig, Shanks mentioned the increasing cost of sports rights and differentiating his brand from his competitors. "The biggest thing facing anybody is the ever-continuing rising costs of rights and what you get for those rights," said Shanks. "I think there has to be some reconciliation between the escalating price and what you are getting in return. You can't just pay for a broadcasting rights package and not get mobile and not get Internet and be able to exploit your top-line revenue. Right now a lot of the packages peel off broadcast and peel off mobile and that just can't happen.

"I also think, for all of us, the question is, how do you continue to set yourself apart? When Fox Sports first started in 1994, they set the bar as far as attitude and had a great marketing campaign. One of my main priorities is, 'How do you differentiate ourselves even more than we have done in the past?'"

One possibility is college football, which Fox seems very interested in getting back into. Shanks made the rounds with Pac-10 officials last week, and there's growing talk that the network wants back into the sport in a big way. (ESPN has the Bowl Championship Series games from 2011 through 2014.) "I would categorize the interest as high," Shanks said. "I think college football fits well with where Fox wants to go. We have a unique set of outlets to maximize a relationship with a conference or with the BCS, and I believe college football fits with our overall sports strategy."

3. Trevor Pilling, executive producer, Hockey Night In Canada, CBC: Does Hockey Night in Canada still resonate with its audience? Better to let my colleague Michael Farber, who lives in Montreal as well as the writers wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, weigh in: "Hockey Night remains the gold standard, whether out of habit or tradition or inertia," said Farber. "TSN does a superb job, but Hockey Night has a certain allure that is timeless."

Last month Pilling was named the new executive producer of the program, replacing Sherali Najak. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I have some nerves, but excitement is the overriding emotion," says Pilling, who has been with CBC since 1994. "To be the executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada is a dream job for many of us who have worked in Canadian sports television."

Certainly, people care deeply about the program. Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey recently wrote an impassionate post on the subject, arguing that HNIC hosts Don Cherry and Ron MacLean "have been allowed to have too much influence over the content and direction of the remainder of the coverage." Toronto Star sports television columnist Chris Zelkovich called the production "too predictable and too staid."

Asked about the influence of his two stars, Pilling said, "Ron and Don are arguably two of the biggest stars in the Canadian television entertainment industry. I'm looking forward to working with these guys. They generate interest, and people enjoy watching them. People talk on Monday morning about what Don Cherry said on Saturday night. As a show producer, what more could you want than people on your program that Canadians are engaged by? They may not agree with his opinion, but they are interested in what he has to say. How can you change that?"

Based on Pilling's conversation with SI.com, it doesn't seem like wholesale changes, at least on the talent end, are coming. HNIC's first preseason game comes Sept. 25. "We are not looking to make any drastic changes in the immediate future," said Pilling.

4. Leah Siegel, 1967-2010: Hard to read this without crying.

5. Michael Loftus and Lisa Salters, E: 60 staffers: Deep inside ESPN's empire, somewhere north of Brett Favre's Mississippi home and east of LeBron's Vegas debauchery, there's remarkable work being done that doesn't involve the Big Four sports. Last week the E:60 news magazine show updated a story from an earlier broadcast that focused on the plight of the Haitian U17 women's national soccer team, a group that had suffered unfathomable tragedy as a result of the massive earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince last January. It was terrific broadcast journalism, and the story had a profound effect on those who reported it.

"I can't speak for Lisa, but I have never been around or seen devastation or destruction like that in my life," said Loftus. "The smells, the raw sewage, the total chaos, and just the sadness all around. It took everything not to just start crying. In telling the story, you just hope that others will see it and find a way to help these people."

This was the first feature Loftus, an associate producer, did for E:60 from conception to completion. During the course of the story, he and Salters traveled to Panama (where the team trained), Costa Rica (where they played in a tournament) and finally Haiti, where he and Salters spent five days reporting the story. The follow-up piece centered on Bryane Heaberlin, a member of an American U-17 team that beat Haiti 9-0. Inspired by the courage of the Haitians, Heaberlin started a foundation, "Many Hearts One Goal," that resulted in bringing the Haiti girls to Disney World last month to participate in a soccer tournament.

Loftus said he received dozens of e-mails from people asking how they could help, including viewers offering to adopt one of the Haitian players who lost her parents in the earthquake. "I went to Haiti for five days, and on the sixth day I was back in my bed," said Loftus, who worked for ABC News prior to joining ESPN in 2005. "That was the hardest part. You feel guilty. You want to do so much but how do you decide who you help and you don't help?"

6. Ira Winderman, (South Florida) Sun Sentinel, Heat reporter: With James and Chris Bosh taking their talents to South Beach, the stakes for reporters who cover the Heat have risen significantly. If you're looking for the early favorite on the go-to guy for all things LCD (LeBron, Chris and Dwyane Wade) the bet is Winderman, who has covered the team for all 22 years the Heat has been in existence. Said Winderman: "The irony in doing this for all 22 years the Heat has been in existence, is I've found myself competing more with Dolphins coverage than outside media."

That will change. (Indeed, the Palm Beach Post recently announced it was searching for a reporter to cover the Heat this season after not having a full-time presence last year.)

Asked in what specific ways the arrival of James and Bosh has affected his job, Winderman said, "It has become about so much more than about the game. When I broke into this beat, I remember going to the NBA meetings in La Quinta, Calif., in 1988 and sitting at a table with David Stern and Bob Ryan. I was asking Bob about agents and salaries and such off-the-court matters and his face just grew redder and redder. Finally, he turns to me and says, 'It's the game! Cover the game! It's about the game!'

How I wish that still was the case. Now it's about Las Vegas parties, appearances on Entourage, endorsements and Twitter and Facebook and everything that's not about the game. It's almost as if the game will be a respite from it all. Those first nine days of July might have been nine of the worst of my life. I know they were for my wife, who basically slid two slices of bread beneath the door of my office every six hours. I emerged with a Saddam-like beard."

7. Judd Zulgad, Minneapolis Star-Tribune Vikings reporter: How does a local guy compete against national writers and TV reporters when it comes to news about Favre? "It's very difficult," said Zulgad, who broke the news last week that Favre sent messages to Vikings personnel and team officials telling them that he planned to retire. "If Brett Favre and his camp decide to release news, it's usually going to go to one of a handful of people, and local beat writers aren't on that radar. The Favre camp is very savvy about getting their message out. Obviously, the primary source of Favre news is ESPN. In this case, Favre didn't want it out that he had texted teammates and team officials saying he was going to retire, and thus I was able to get it by doing some digging. If Favre had wanted it out, however, I don't think I would have been the first."

The well-respected Zulgad has covered the Vikings since 2003 and said he received plenty of feedback -- mostly negative -- from readers after he wrote Favre told teammates he planned to retire. Along with the usual boldfaced names (Jay Glazer, Peter King, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter and Ed Werder), Zulgad will be a player in the race for Favre news.

"No matter what you might think of Favre, he helps to sell newspapers and generate page views," Zulgad said. "Many people are sick of Favre coverage, but I know in my gut that if I get any solid information on Favre, I'd be a fool to say, 'Well, I'm not going to write that today because people are sick of Favre.' Like I said, he's more like a rock star or Hollywood actor than a football player, and people who don't care about football care about Brett Favre. As long as I'm covering him, I need to care that much, too, because in the end I'm doing the best job I can to get information -- and truth -- to readers. Sometimes they don't like it, but it's still the job."

8. Marc Kestecher, ESPN Radio: If you listen to ESPN Radio on a regular basis, you've definitely heard Kestecher's voice. He's worked for the network since 1999 and has clocked thousands of hours as a weekly update anchor (His current shift is 4-10 p.m. ET from Wednesday-Friday; he also hosts college football, MLB and NBA studio shows on the weekend and each June hosts the network's NBA Finals coverage.)

I've long admired Kestecher's work -- he's prepared, professional and engaged in his subject -- and wondered what it was like to do something exceptional well on a daily basis without getting the kind of attention others in his field get. "I'm sure at some level everybody wants to be recognized for doing a good job," he said. "But I'm pretty sure I'd give the same high effort whether I was working at ESPN or if I was back in Albany, New York, working a split shift. Most importantly, I know my bosses have recognized my work because they've kept me around for the last 11 years."

Prior to working at ESPN Radio, Kestecher was the play-by-play voice of the CBA's Albany Patroons. He said it took him five years to get a play-by-play opportunity at ESPN Radio. "Unfortunately for me, but very fortunate for our network, we regularly use Jim Durham and Kevin Calabro for NBA games, two of the best in the business," Kestecher said. "I usually get 5-10 games a year between ESPN Radio and ESPN TV."

Every sports-talk station in the country has update people, and it's not easy to do well. I asked Kestecher to break down a regular shift.

"I arrive to work two hours before my first sportscast," he said. "The first hour is dedicated to prep. I scan the wire services for the big stories of the day and then I put together my charts for the games that will be played that night. The second hour is dedicated to writing scripts. My goal is to have two scripts completed and a third underway before my first update. The next six hours are a blur between writing and editing scripts, watching 10 games at once while also doing two-minute updates every 20 minutes. I have 12 monitors in my studio to watch every game as it happens, and I also have colleagues in the 'screening area,' where they record every game and press conference and turn that audio into sound bites, which I can turn around and use in an update virtually as soon as it happens. It's a challenging and wonderful job."

9. Jay Glazer, NFL Network and Fox NFL Sunday insider: Glazer recently added the NFL Network to an already fat resume that includes the delicate dance of training NFL players in mixed martial arts he also covers as a reporter. His next challenge is to figure out how to take care of both Fox and NFLN, who announced last week that Glazer would appear on the network's daily NFL Total Access and other shows and specials throughout the year. "You don't see information guys or insiders shared among networks," said Shanks, the Fox Sports president. "This was something that Jay and [Fox Sports chairman] David Hill had a conversation on before I got here. Obviously, I'm supportive of having Jay get more exposure out there. I think Jay will have to figure out how he couches some of the information he has for them during the week. He is still going to have the best inside information held for Fox NFL Sunday."

Glazer does have one big chit going for him: He's currently training his new boss: "I've worked out with Jay a couple of times," Shanks said. "I'm getting bigger so I can thump him if he does screw up."

10. Rogue ESPN servers: In the history of Internet servers, few have been more aggressive to publish than the one that went rogue regarding former SI.com writer Arash Markazi's examination of James in Vegas. Much has been written on this topic -- which you can read here, here and here -- but none yet by the network's ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, whom we urge once again to speed up his glacial timeframe when it comes to analyzing all things Bristol.

If the writer did not announce himself as a reporter to James's group, I'd call it a violation of the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics, which states that journalists should "avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story." Other journalists will no doubt disagree with me, arguing that exposing James's lifestyle outweighed the above guide (which, it should be noted, is not a set of rules but a resource for ethical decision-making). But the one thing most will agree on is that ESPN faces a major quandary when it comes to covering James.

The perception exists -- and ESPN officials know it -- that the network is no longer an objective newsgathering source on the Heat star. Last week, an ESPN staffer suggested to me that the network invite James for a "Sunday Conversation" type of interview. Sure, it's doubtful James would accept, but the ask should be made. The network would greatly benefit from an aggressive interview with James to clear the air on topics from the fallout over "The Decision" to what actually happened at his party in Vegas. It would go far in convincing the sports public that the network isn't a shareholder of LeBron Inc.

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