Let’s get this out of the way at the top: Jay Bilas is ESPN’s top college basketball analyst and should be assigned to the network’s biggest games. In fact, it’s a move that should have happened a couple of years ago.
As a commentator, Bilas is prepared, thoughtful and decisive. But what separates him from other analysts—and it’s one of the reasons Bilas has rightfully been praised by viewers and writers—is his willingness to challenge his sport’s establishment. He’s been a public advocate for student-athletes, and was particularly outstanding when he used his large forum to shame the University of Alabama’s athletic department for its handling of women’s basketball player Daisha Simmons.
Last October Bilas entered a long-term marriage with ESPN when the network announced the commentator had signed a contact extension through the 2022-23 men’s college basketball season. As part of that extension, ESPN assigned Bilas to work with Dan Shulman on the top college basketball team.
That gets us to the man Bilas ostensibly replaced: Richard John Vitale. ESPN announced on the same day it extended Bilas that it had also extended Dick Vitale’s contract through 2016-17. The press release came with the usual plaudits and back-patting for Vitale but the subtext was clear: The 75-year-old Vitale was being replaced by the 51-year-old Bilas.
Should one feel bad for Vitale? No. Few networks have championed a broadcaster as ESPN has championed Vitale. He essentially has the network’s top PR managers on speed dial and has been promoted as hard as any talent in the history of the company. ESPN has also let Vitale take every commercial endorsement this side of Chico’s Bails Bond. He’s had a great life, and let’s not forget he still has a great sports broadcasting gig.
But this isn’t a one-way street, either. Vitale was a major figure in building ESPN’s college basketball brand into a powerhouse. His enthusiasm and passion for the game is infectious, and plenty of people tuned into ESPN in the 1980s and 1990s to hear Vitale do his thing. While Vitale’s too often looked the other way when his coaching pals have acted like numbskulls (see Knight, Bob), I appreciated (and continue to do so today) his genuine love of being with fans at the arena. Part of that is Vitale loves his ego being stroked, but a bigger part is that, like Charles Barkley, Vitale genuinely loves people. His work with the V Foundation is also to be commended.
Given that Duke-North Carolina games are generally ESPN’s most-watched regular-season games every year, it was clear Bilas was going to get that assignment this season. Bilas, Vitale and Shulman have been a three-headed booth for that game for the past couple of years. If there’s one college game that Vitale has a historic connection with it's the rivalry between Duke and North Carolina. He has called nearly every such game since ESPN’s inception in 1979, but when it came to this year’s series, he was pulled. Why?
"Jay Bilas was assigned to call ESPN's coverage of Duke-North Carolina before the season started,” an ESPN spokesperson told SI.com this week. “Dick Vitale is an integral part of our college basketball coverage, calling high-profile games throughout the season and bringing his incredible Hall of Fame presence and passion to the sport."
[daily_cut]Vitale was deeply bummed about the decision. He knew that Bilas would get some games that used to fall to him but he has long believed the Duke-UNC game defined him and told friends he wanted to do it until he retired. Vitale told me, and he was correct on this, that there is a perception that 70-something broadcasters must always fight about losing a step compared to their younger counterparts. While he knew prior to the season that he was not assigned to Duke-North Carolina, the reality really hit a couple of days before the teams' Feb. 18 game, a 92-90 overtime thriller won by Duke. The game drew 4.1 million viewers, the most for a college basketball game on ESPN this season and the best audience for a Duke-Carolina game since March 2012.
The teams play again in Chapel Hill on March 7 and here’s a request for ESPN to assign Vitale to the game along with Shulman and Bilas. First, it would be a terrific gesture for a longtime employee who helped turn that game into a national watch. Second, the network would get great publicity for giving Vitale a final swan song for the game that defined him. Third, the game is being played on the least-watched night of the week (Saturday) and a stunt (if you want to call it that) could get some extra viewers. It’s also guaranteed to produce some fun pre-game material if you send Vitale into the crowd to talk to students. Adding Vitale to the GameDay coverage would be a nice gesture but would not mean nearly as much as a game assignment.
The truth is there is zero downside for ESPN management changing course. Bilas declined comment for this piece but I can assure you he is fond of Vitale. Same with Shulman. There would be no ego issues or hurt feelings among the on-air people, and Vitale wants to do the game.
“Heck, I'd crawl to Chapel Hill if my bosses assigned me the game,” Vitale told me last week.
The best executives in sports television are the ones willing to change up for the good of consumers. This is a one-off with only positive results for the network. The ball is in ESPN’s court. Do it, baby.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable stories of the week in sports media.
1. There are sports TV viewers of a certain age who are unaware that Turner Sports broadcaster Marv Albert worked at NBC for much of his career. He was that network's lead NBA play-by-play voice in both the 1990s and 2000s until it lost the league's broadcast rights to ABC/ESPN after the 2001-02 season. One of the events Albert called for NBC was boxing, and earlier this month the network announced that Albert will serve as lead blow-by-blow announcer for its new "Premier Boxing Champions" series premiering March 7. Albert will work all 11 of NBC's broadcasts of the PBC in 2015.
In an interview last week, Albert said he was thrilled to be back at NBC, and also excited about working on-air for the first time with Al Michaels, a longtime friend who will host the boxing coverage when PBC premiers March 7. “I have always loved boxing and I still watch it on HBO and Showtime,” Albert said. “There’s always an electric feeling with a big fight.”
Albert called boxing for three Olympic Games, including Roy Jones criminally getting robbed of a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Games. He also called the famed Hagler-Hearns fight in 1985 (though for a replay that aired later) and traveled throughout the globe for bouts including John Tate fighting Gerrie Coetzee on Oct. 20, 1979 in Pretoria, South Africa, the first time black South Africans were allowed into Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
NBC said Albert will work alongside Sugar Ray Leonard. The two recently called a practice fight together in New York when NBC brought in real boxers and labeled them as Adrien Broner and John Molina Jr., the super lightweight boxers who headline NBC’s first card.
1a. Albert’s son, Kenny, was recently announced as one of NBC’s boxing blow-by-blow announcers. NBC said that Kenny Albert is the only national play-by-play broadcaster who calls football (for Fox), basketball (various networks), baseball (Fox) and hockey (NBC).
1c. As TNT’s lead NBA announcer, Marv Albert began the year working with a rotation of NBA analysts that included Greg Anthony, Grant Hill and Chris Webber. At this point, it’s mostly Webber. “I think Chris is terrific,” Albert said. “He understands the rhythm of the game, he’s not afraid to say something, and he gets in and out at proper times. He is a pro.”
Turner has not made any announcement as to who will be the No. 1 analyst heading forward but that’s a pretty strong endorsement of Webber by Albert.
2. Vince Doria, ESPN’s longtime senior vice president and director of news, retired last week after 23 years with the company. A former assistant managing editor of sports and photo for the Boston Globe, Doria’s impact on ESPN’s news-gathering operation during two stints (including the last 15 years) was immense. He was often the point person on the network’s most challenging news stories and was an ardent supporter of Outside The Lines. (OTL host Bob Ley called him “an editorial and journalistic lodestar.”) I asked Jeremy Schaap, who worked with Doria for two decades, to offer some words on what Doria meant to ESPN:
Throughout his two decades at ESPN, Vince was a relentless advocate for both journalism and journalists, which isn't the same thing. He cared about the craft and he also cared about the people, which is why he was so beloved around here. It also helped that in any conversation about the right way to tackle a story, about the right thing to do, Vince was always the smartest guy in the room—but also the most fair, the most reasonable, the most decent.
Anybody who's been around this business for more than a week knows that even some of the biggest talents are undermined by their own insecurities, which can make them petty and ungenerous. Vince was that rare big talent who was totally secure. He didn't need to hear anybody tell him, "Attaboy." But when he said it to you, it was gold.
3. I paneled seven women in the sports media (all 30-and-under) on the highs and lows of the job.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Really liked how Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck examined the analytics debate (if there even is one) in the NBA.
• MLB.com’s Jon Weisman on clubhouse reporting.
• Terrific column by the New York Times writer Harvey Araton on Anthony Mason.
• Brandon Bostick wrote a terrific first-person column for The MMQB.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• You want to read the obit of an incredible life? Read this from the New York Times on Eugenie Clark.
• Banned since end of WWII, “Mein Kampf” will soon return to German bookstores.
• Impressive reporting from The Marshall Project and the New York Times: A Prison, Infamous for Bloodshed, Faces a Reckoning as Guards Go on Trial.
• The Los Angeles Times examined the L.A. foster care system.
• This from Malia Wollan is short but very helpful: How to Remember People’s Names.
• Via Julia Ioffe: What's next for the Russian opposition after Nemtsov’s murder?
5. Last week Fox Sports announced that Rob Stone would be the prime-time studio host for the network’s Women’s World Cup coverage in Canada later this year. Stone will anchor studio shows, including pre-game, halftime and post-game coverage, and other related programming throughout the month-long tournament from the network’s studio on Coal Harbor in Vancouver.
5a. Fox’s coverage of the Daytona 500 drew 13.36 million viewers, the second-least watched Daytona since Fox started airing the race in 2007.
5c. ESPN management should be very concerned when agents contact broadcasters about dictating coverage. Props to ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy for addressing this issue with Ed Sherman of the Chicago Tribune, and on this note, Van Gundy’s first allegiance should be to the audience when he’s on the air.
5d. Major League Soccer has partnered with British sports broadcaster Sky Sports to televise league matches live in the United Kingdom, the first time Sky Sports will own MLS broadcast rights. The four-year multimedia deal begins this March with the kickoff of MLS’ landmark 20th season.
5e. With Bill Raftery working the Big Ten tournament for CBS, analyst Jim Jackson will now work the Big East semis and final for Fox Sports 1.
5f. Last week ESPN susp...removed commentator Keith Olbermann from his show and Twitter for a series of tweets Olbermann sent to Penn State University students. Said the network in a statement that, perhaps as homage to the film “Fight Club”, never used the word suspended: “It was completely inappropriate and does not reflect the views of ESPN. We have discussed it with Keith, who recognizes he was wrong. ESPN and Keith have agreed that he will not host his show for the remainder of this week.”
Independent of Olbermann’s comments, which were mean-spirited and wholly unnecessary, the incident represented yet another example of ESPN’s selective punishment for talent. If you can figure out the how and why and for how long, submit it as a paper to next year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, sponsored by ESPN. What is clear is that the company has made a renewed effort to make faster decisions on discipline, as senior management have reacted more quickly in 2015 when employees have gotten involved in social media scraps. (A big part of that is to avoid a longer news cycle.) In my opinion, the length of the Olbermann suspension, like the ones given to Keith Law and Bill Simmons last year, was excessive. Others may disagree, and so it goes.