Like many of you, I have found myself gravitating to the Red Zone Channel over the past few years for my Sunday NFL viewing. The breakneck channel has plenty of allure if you have fantasy football or gambling interests, but mine are usually more simple: I like scoring and I dislike commercials, unless it’s the Super Bowl or a commercial in which I’m starring.
So as a world soccer fan and flag-waver for the Red Zone concept for viewers, I was interested to see how NBC Sports fared on New Year's Day when it aired a Red Zone-like program for the eight Premier League fixtures kicking off at 10 a.m. ET. The show (Premier League Breakaway) featured whip-around coverage of the games, including live look-ins and coverage of all the goals (and near-goals). Smartly, NBC made all the games available on its Extra Time and Live Extra platforms for those with access.
I watched the second half of the coverage and while soccer doesn’t work nearly as well as football for Red Zone coverage -- part of the attraction of soccer is the build-up play from back to front and the constant involvement of the supporters -- I found it compelling television. World Soccer Talk had an interesting take on what worked and what didn’t and Soccer Gods.com compiled some Twitter reaction on the experiment.
What the NFL has taught is that in order to pull off a successful Red Zone broadcast, you have to have a talented host. Readers of this column know how I feel about the on-air work of Rebecca Lowe, but this was a particularly tough assignment. How do you walk the fine line of setting up video without giving away too much for viewers? In an interview this week from England, where she is on vacation, Lowe spoke on the difficulty of navigating the spoiler line. She admitted NBC changed its approach after halftime when they saw viewers (via social media) saying Lowe was giving away too much ahead of time.
“Never in my career have I changed an approach to a show while live on-air doing it,” said Lowe. "[NBC Sports coordinating producer] Pierre Moossa and I had a conversation a couple of months ago and it was our opinion that we should direct the viewers, giving them an idea of what they were about to see but not giving away the identity of which team had scored or had a man sent off, etc. We felt this would heighten the drama. The reason we felt this way was the only similar format I have experienced to this is in the U.K. with a show called Soccer Saturday where they can't show action but they have former footballers watching games and calling out "Goal at Anfield" and then you hear the details. I have grown up with this and it's part of the English football culture so we assumed that it would work over here as it's adored back home.
“We were wrong and at halftime that was being made plain by our viewers so we changed it," added Lowe. "It was actually I would say the most exciting thing we could have done. I can't think of many shows that can change on the hop and for that I give great credit to Pierre and our show producer Adam Littlefield, not to mention all those others in our crew who had prepared one way and instantaneously adapted to change.”
Moosa echoed those thoughts and amplified what guided him as a producer for the overall coverage.
“Ultimately, the play on the pitch was going to determine the flow of our show but we did have a couple core principles for Breakaway,” Moosa said. “We were going to show every goal. We were going be live as much as possible. We weren’t going to jump to other matches for the sake of it. Rebecca was going to be quick with her leads in order to provide minimal interruption to the match commentary and lastly, we shouldn’t feel obligated to show every event, just the key ones. After reviewing the show, we accomplished all of our goals. As with every show there are areas of improvement. The obvious one is spoilers: We talked in detail prior to our show about what information we would give. We wanted to give the audience a tease of what is to come but not give away everything. We found out immediately that the viewers preferred no information at all and we changed our approach at halftime.”
How viable is such a Red Zone-like program for the EPL on a regular, long-term basis? I’d be surprised if NBC offered it with any regularity on NBC Sports Network but its soccer production group should definitely consider it as a series of one-offs on days when the fixture list is brimming with games.
“Our goal was to provide the soccer fan with an alternate viewing experience similar to how we watch the games in the control room or in the studio,” Moosa said. “Everyone is glued to the monitors and when a key event or goal happens, someone screams out and we all look at that screen. It’s really a lot of fun. We wanted to capture that excitement and share it with our audience. We have tremendous respect for our viewers and understand that some people prefer to watch a single game uninterrupted so we still provided all games in their entirety on Extra Time or via livestream at NBC Sports Live Extra. Overall, you can’t be afraid to try something new and what I’m most pleased about is that we provided our audience with a new, exciting experience by which to enjoy the Barclays Premier League.”
I asked Lowe, who anchors a lot of soccer hours for NBC, how tiring it was compared to a regular studio soccer broadcast.
“It’s hard to say if it was more than a normal show because our New Year's Day show was a culmination of such a crazy run of live shows that I was probably already getting toward needing a little break in any case,” Lowe said. “I certainly felt like my brain had been at full tilt for that 90 minutes and the intensity was something I'd not experienced before. I still had five hours of live broadcasting to go afterwards so it was a long day anyway. Let's just say a few days in England is doing me the world of good!”
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable stories of the week in sports media.
1. I’ve written on a number of occasions that I consider First Take the worst on-air product ESPN has aired in its 35-year-history. But even I winced at the comments from co-host Skip Bayless last week when he called Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel an “alcoholic.” (USA Today transcribed the segment here). It was a remarkable charge to make of someone, especially on television, and it got the desired result: The quotes were picked up everywhere. There was no discipline for Bayless as he has since made multiple on-air appearances following his comments.
I was curious how ESPN management felt about the comments, especially in light of Bill Simmons being suspended for three weeks for calling Roger Goodell “a liar” based on his opinion and presumably experiences with liars. Here is what an ESPN spokesperson sent over:
“When discussing the widely reported public behavior, Skip based his comments on information he has from sources within and around the Browns’ organization with knowledge of Manziel's continued pattern of behavior, as well as Skip's personal family experiences with alcoholism.”
I’m won’t go as far as Awful Announcing in pondering whether Bayless is “the most powerful person at ESPN,” but the rules for others clearly don’t apply for him. And that is power.
2. They all talked about what it would mean if the piece ever aired. It meant their friend was dead. But the small group of ESPN staffers who worked on the feature honoring the life of Stuart Scott believed they owed it to their colleague to produce something with love and care if that awful day ever came.
On Sunday the awful day did come when ESPN anchor Stuart Scott passed away from cancer at age of 49. As part of my Monday column, I wrote about how a small group of ESPN feature producers put together a 14-minute feature on Scott’s life and career.
2a. Here’s Keith Olbermann on Scott. Also worth checking out is Scott’s first ESPN broadcast, which came on the launch day for ESPN2 (Oct. 1, 1993). Olbermann re-aired a clip from that show on Monday.
3. The NFL’s most popular (and polarizing) television team, the Dallas Cowboys, helped Fox draw 42.3 million viewers on Sunday with its coverage of the team’s controversial win over the Lions. Fox said it was the second most-watched NFC wild-card game ever and peaked at 48.7 million viewers between 7-7:30 p.m. ET. The game was the most-watched television program since the Academy Awards last March.
3a. Fox said that game drew a 43.9 rating in Detroit -- the highest-ever rating for an NFL playoff game in that city.
4. ESPN reporter Jeannine Edwards, one of ESPN’s pros whether on horse racing or college football, has re-signed with the network as part of a multi-year deal. Edwards will now work as a full-time bureau reporter for SportsCenter and other shows, and will be based in Stillwater, Okla.
5. ESPN NBA analyst Hubie Brown recently addressed second-guessing LeBron James.
“If people are second-guessing what LeBron James is doing at Cleveland at this moment, I would like to know who are the people that are second-guessing the production and whether they have any credibility because you have to understand that there are so many new pieces that are there," Brown said. "Two of your three pieces are two new people, LeBron and [Kevin] Love, and then [Kyrie] Irving had naturally made major contributions on a losing team. So all of a sudden, not only do you have that to contend with, but you have a two guard situation where you get night in and night out the same performance at the two guard. Well, LeBron James is making a lot of things happen because of the assists. If people are trying to challenge LeBron now in regards to what he's doing point wise, how about the fact he's in the top six, I do believe, in assists? So that means he's ahead of 24 point guards in the league, and I don't think any of them are scoring 24 or 25 points, and also getting his six rebounds.
"So when you step back from LeBron, you have to understand the mentality. The mentality is to get everybody to play together. He'll sacrifice shots and sacrifice production to make other people get involved. Then defensively he will anchor your defense as your group adheres to the new defensive philosophies. Let's face it, the second unit has been extremely questionable up until now of their consistent production. You could say that's because we have too many new people and that's because maybe guys are not accustomed to the new offensive and defensive theories of coach [David] Blatt. All of that will improve as you get to the All-Star Game.
"Once the All-Star Game comes, all teams that have good coaching, the production of the team, the chemistry, you'll start to see in March and in April, and then it will continue to get better as you get into the playoffs. Also, the production of the star players will get better. They'll shoot better percentages because of the recognition of the new areas that they're being put in, and then defensively the team will get much better because there are a couple of guys there that, let's face it, they need coaching defense on a daily basis, and then also put them in a five man structure so that they function and they're not a weak link night in and night out against a plus .500 teams."
5a. The family of Junior Seau told Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports they will pursue a lawsuit against the NFL rather than accept a $4 million payment offered under the NFL’s proposed concussion settlement. Showtime is boldly billing correspondent Armen Keteyian’s upcoming 15-minute segment on Seau as the most significant television report on the concussion issue in the NFL since the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial." Viewers can judge if the segment lives up to the tag (I have yet to see it). The episode premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.
5b. SiriusXM has added former England and NASL star Rodney Marsh and veteran soccer commentator Tommy Smyth to its lineup. The duo will host a new show on SiriusXM’s 24/7 soccer channel (appropriately titled “Grumpy Pundits”) airing every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM FC, channel 94.