It’s not often an ESPN conference call becomes a philosophical exercise, but NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy offered something to ponder for every sports broadcasting viewer on Monday.
“How forthright does the audience want the broadcasters to be?” said Van Gundy, who will call the NBA Finals on ABC beginning Thursday night with play by play announcer Mike Breen and fellow analyst Mark Jackson. “Because when you tell your truth, there’s a lot of anger that comes out. I think it’s a good question to ask TV people [executives] too. How much truth do they want to be told? How much truth does the league want told? Because the truth isn’t just a positive truth. If you’re going to tell the truth, you would be telling a lot of positive and some negative.”
Van Gundy was riffing off a question I posed to Jackson during the conference call. I asked Jackson to evaluate how forthcoming he was with the ESPN audience regarding the Warriors, the team he coached for three seasons before he was fired with one year on his contract last May.
“To me, it’s an assignment, and my job is to tell the story,” Jackson said. “To me, it’s easy. To me, it’s what I’m paid to do and what I’ve dreamt about doing from Day One. Sometimes people don’t like the stories, but it is what it is. I absolutely feel like no matter, if I’m calling a game between my brothers or my parents, the facts are the facts. The story dictates itself to me, and I relay the message to the viewers as well as I possibly can. That’s going to be my job whether it’s the Warriors or anybody else.
“I think the best thing going for guys like Jeff and I is when you look at a Warriors‑Houston series, any game that we call, both teams’ fan bases think that we’re being biased. So you get your people that think I’m against the Warriors, and then you get your people that think I’m rooting for the Houston Rockets. And I think at the end of the day, that’s what you’re looking for from people watching the game.”
Jackson’s appearance in the booth for Warriors games raised interesting questions, including one by my colleague Chris Ballard, who asked why ESPN would place Jackson on the call of the series. Ballard suggested it was an unnecessary distraction. It was a thought worth pursuing with ESPN execs and I wrote a column on it which you can find here. For the record, I would not have pulled Jackson from calling Golden State during the playoffs.
On Monday, Jackson dismissed any notion of being pulled from the assignment.
“To me, I’m calling games between two teams,” he said. “I read articles that I shouldn’t be doing it. To me, it was laughable. I’m absolutely winning and having the time of my life calling games with incredible friends and incredible people and working for an incredible organization. So it’s been a blast for me. I’m excited about having the opportunity to be part of an incredible group to call a spectacular Finals.”
Most networks have decided it’s not an issue when family members call the games of family members (e.g. Jon Gruden calling the Redskins, whose head coach is Jay Gruden) or when a broadcaster is assigned to analyze his former team or organization. As Van Gundy said, it’s often more about what the broadcaster does not say in those situations than what he or she does on a broadcast.
What bothers me most as a viewer isn’t bias but when an announcer doesn’t reveal information that he or she knows about the team because of loyalty to a team or player or owner over the viewer. That’s why I liked how Van Gundy handled the 2009 NBA Finals when the Lakers played the Orlando Magic (coached by Stan Van Gundy) in the NBA Finals. Jeff made no bones about saying he was overtly rooting for his brother. If nothing else, at least viewers knew where he stood.
“For me it was extremely challenging because I absolutely wanted the Magic to win,” Van Gundy said. “I wanted the shots for the Lakers to roll out. I wanted the shots to go for Orlando. But Mark made a good point. Those were my emotions going in, but the game dictates what you say. You don’t make up a story. The game plays out, and you tell what you see despite whatever bias I may have had in that series, wanting Stan’s team to win. The game tells itself.”
Near the end of the call, a reporter asked Jackson if he was rooting for the Warriors.
“As far as who I’m rooting for, I work for ESPN/ABC,” Jackson said. “I’m rooting for a great game, and that’s been consistent from the day I signed my name on the dotted line, and that’s not going to change…If my brother was the coach of one of these teams, I would be rooting for my brother to win. There’s no question about it. Unfortunately, neither one of them have given my brother a job. So I don’t have to worry about that.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the biggest sports media stories of the week)
1. Sports television executives root for length when it comes to televising the finals of a championship property with multiple games. With the NBA’s most dominant player (LeBron James) and its current MVP (Stephen Curry), this year’s matchup between the Cavs and Warriors offers great viewership potential. The Warriors also play an aesthetically pleasing brand of up-tempo basketball. In short, they make good TV.
Last year’s five-game series between the Spurs and Heat averaged 15.5 million viewers after averaging 17.7 million viewers in 2013, a series that extended to seven games. I thought it would be interesting to panel some professional colleagues who often write and tweet about sports television ratings to offer ratings predictions. (Me? I think this series will draw 17.5 million and go six games).
Neil Best, Newsday:
The NBA Finals will average a strong 18.15 million viewers, surpassing the 2010 Lakers-Celtics series, with a boost from the Cavs' overtime victory in Game 7. Unless somehow the Spurs sneak into it as the Western Conference rep when the Warriors are distracted, in which case the Finals will average 8.7 million viewers.
Chad Finn, Boston Globe:
The suits at ESPN/ABC should be optimistic about this one. Last year’s Spurs-Heat Finals matchup averaged 15.5 million viewers for a five-game series, a five-year low that was down from 17.7M for the seven-game set between the teams the previous season. Those Finals featured a matchup of markets ranked 16th (Miami) and 37th (San Antonio). This year, we have arguably the league’s two most compelling superstars in LeBron James and Stephen Curry dueling in what should be a deep series featuring the sixth and 17th-rated markets (Oakland-San Francisco-San Jose, Cleveland-Akron). I’d guess the average will be around 18.5 million, but it’s tempting to go higher.
Austin Karp, Sports Business Journal:
I’d guess an average of 17 million viewers for a six-game series. You’ve got LeBron for the fifth straight NBA Finals, but there’s a renewed sense of interest in whether he can deliver for Cleveland/Akron. In the Warriors, you’ve got the MVP and a team playing exciting basketball. Should easily top Spurs-Heat audience from last year.
Michael McCarthy, Sporting News
The heavyweight matchup of Steph Curry vs. LeBron James should blow past last year’s Heat vs. Spurs series, which averaged 15.5 million viewers and 9.3 TV rating. The baby-faced Curry is the young challenger to King James. The Spurs are great champs but ratings poison: last year’s Finals fell to the lowest viewers/ratings since Los Angeles Lakers vs. Orlando Magic in 2009. None of LeBron’s four consecutive trips to the Finals with the Heat from 2011-2014 topped the viewers/ratings for Lakers-Celtics in 2010. Prediction: If this series goes seven, Warriors-Cavs will out-draw Lakers’ seven-game victory over Celtics five years ago.
John Ourand, Sports Business Daily
Ratings for the Finals will be down around 10 percent this year and a 10 percent drop would mean about 14 million viewers, which would be the lowest number since 2007, which was the last time LeBron James led Cleveland to the Finals. Regular season ratings were off by 5-10 percent across all national networks and while basketball fans will find this series to be compelling, the Warriors don’t have a player that can attract non-NBA fans. Though Steph Curry shows potential to become a crossover star, he’s not there yet. James does have that star power, but this year’s Cavs don’t draw as well as last year’s Heat. Ultimately, this “step back” season will be good for the NBA, introducing new markets and new players that have the potential to lead the league over the next several years.
Sports TV Ratings.com editors:
Prediction: 17.9M for a seven game series, 15.5M if it’s a four-game sweep. Having the league’s two biggest stars facing off is a great recipe for drawing casual viewers. But even if the series goes seven games, we can’t see it bettering the 18.1 million viewers the Lakers/Celtics series averaged in 2010.
Matt Yoder, Awful Announcing
It has surprisingly been a down year nationally, but the Western Conference finals scored good numbers for ESPN in just five games suggesting Golden State is at least a decent draw moving forward. LeBron hasn't quite moved the needle as much as you would think in the Finals, but storylines don't get much better than the prodigal son returning to bring a title home. As always, it all depends on how far the series goes but I'm feeling optimistic that the stars are aligned just right for some big numbers. If it goes seven games, this series eclipses 2010's Celtics-Lakers (18.1 mil) as the most-viewed Finals for ABC.
1a. Breen will call his 10th NBA Finals for ESPN/ABC, including his sixth final involving LeBron James. Officiating expert Steve Javie will also contribute to coverage throughout the series.
1b. NBA Countdown will air on location from both arenas. Sage Steele will host the shows with analysts Doug Collins and Jalen Rose.
1c. As part of a new charter to send the show on location, SportsCenter will air on-site coverage throughout the NBA Finals. The postgame anchors will include John Anderson, John Buccigross, Kevin Connors, Jay Crawford, Neil Everett, Jay Harris and Stan Verrett on sets in Oakland and Cleveland.
1d. Mike Tirico will call the Finals for ESPN Radio with Hubie Brown and reporter Marc Stein. ESPN Radio pregame and halftime shows will be hosted by Marc Kestecher and feature analysis from Jon Barry.
1e. Van Gundy, on the Chicago Bulls parting with Tom Thibodeau, a close friend and former member of Van Gundy’s coaching staff:
"I’ve got a couple comments. One, I’m pulling my name out of the Chicago Bulls running for head coach. Nobody has a sense of humor anymore. To me, I think this is that the statement they put out when they let Tom go proves once again that every organization needs a vice president of common sense. Because when you have a high powered public relations business put that out, and then you have multiple people have to co‑sign it to put it out, and it just absolutely reeked of a lack of class. It shows that you just need somebody to say, 'Whoa.' Let’s just acknowledge his greatness, Thibodeau’s greatness, and let’s just move on. But it didn’t happen that way.
"In some ways, in an odd way, I think it was good because to me, that statement revealed exactly who each person was. It reveals who Jerry Reinsdorf is. It reveals who Gar Forman is. And Tom Thibodeau’s statement reveals who he is. Everybody had to put their name finally on who they were, and they did. I think that’s great."
1f. My Sunday column led with an extended roundtable discussion with five well-regarded NBA reporters. The panel: Howard Beck (Bleacher Report), Frank Isola (New York Daily News), Michael Lee (Washington Post), Brian Mahoney (AP), and Ramona Shelburne (ESPN). The group answered questions on a number of topics including access issues at the Finals, the most media-friendly players on the Cavs and Warriors, and how they felt about players bringing children on the podium with them during post-game press conferences. You can read the panel’s answers here.
1g. The NBA said it will issue roughly 1,800 media credentials for the NBA Finals. That number includes an estimated 190 domestic media outlets and approximately 80 international media outlets. Tim Frank, a senior vice president of communications for the NBA, said the league was expecting media from India and Afghanistan.
2. Last year’s Belmont Stakes on NBC, featuring California Chrome’s Triple Crown attempt, averaged 20.5 million viewers, the second-highest Belmont Stakes viewership on record. Whether this year’s race can match that viewership will likely depend on the advanced publicity the race gets this week and the weather around the country on Saturday. NBC ‘s coverage on Saturday begins at 4:30 p.m. ET and will include a look at American Pharoah’s road to the Triple Crown, and for the first time at the Belmont Stakes, a 4K super-slow-motion, reverse finish-line camera. The intro to the show will have sound from Secretariat owner Penny Chenery, Seattle Slew trainer Billy Turner, and Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen. Ourand reported that NBC will Periscope the draw for the Belmont Stakes post positions on June 3.
3. NBC Sports executives were likely overjoyed when the Blackhawks eliminated the Ducks in the Western Conference finals. Chicago has been a sensational TV market of late for the NHL and Game 7 of the WCF last Saturday drew 4.293 million viewers on NBC and was the number one show that night for adults 18-49. Locally, the Chicago market delivered a 26.6 overnight rating, its highest ever for a non-Stanley Cup finals Blackhawks game on NBC and its third-highest overall.
NBC begins its Stanley Cup coverage Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET with Game 1 of the Blackhawks-Lightning series.
The commentators for series are Mike Emrick, analyst Eddie Olczyk, and inside-the-glass analyst Pierre McGuire. One note: Olczyk will not call Game 2 as he is assigned to the Belmont Stakes that day as a handicapper. Liam McHugh will host NHL Live from inside the arena, with analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. Dave Briggs will anchor coverage from a set outside of the arena alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. NBC said Brian Boucher and NHL insiders Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger will join NBC Sports Group’s pre- and postgame studio coverage throughout the finals.
4. With Gus Johnson stepping down last September as Fox’s lead soccer broadcaster, the Champions League final will feature new announcers for the U.S. audience. The iconic broadcaster Martin Tyler will call Saturday’s final (Fox, 2 p.m. ET) between Italian giant Juventus and Spanish power Barcelona along with analyst Alan Smith and Brad Friedel. Fox’s pregame show from Los Angeles will feature Rob Stone, Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda and Warren Barton. Immediately following UEFA Champions League coverage, the four studio members will fly to Vancouver to appear on Women’s World Cup Tonight on FOX Sports 1 (2 a.m. ET) to recap the first day of the WWC.
4a. ESPN is no longer a World Cup rights-holder but it has a substantial group covering the WWC, including espnW’s original content on location for all 52 games of the tournament. On the television side: Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Kate Markgraf—all former U.S. national members—will serve as commentators for ESPN’s coverage. Antonietta “Toni” Collins will work as a digital anchor. ESPN reporter Bob Holtzman will follow the U.S. team throughout the tournament, providing updates for SportsCenter.
4b. The ‘Men In Blazers’ duo of Michael Davies and Roger Bennett will host Esquire Network’s “Running of the Bulls, 2015”—live from Pamplona, Spain—for eight straight nights starting on July 7th at 2:00 am EST.
5. The fourth episode of the SI Media Podcast features ESPN commentator Scott Van Pelt and The New York Times European sports correspondent Sam Borden. You can listen on Soundcloud here and via iTunes here.
5a. Via Chad Finn of the Boston Globe: NBC Sports gets into the 30 for 30 business.
5b. Trust me, here. This Mike McKnight piece on attempting to dunk will be one of the best pieces you read this week.
5c. Awful Announcing reported that Fox Sports has been laying off sports writers at its regional websites.
5d. Caitlyn Jenner will be honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award during The ESPYS on July 15, at 8 p.m. ET.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, and his daughter, Leah, will be awarded with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the same event. This year’s ESPYs airs on ABC.
5e. Condolences to the family of Merrell Noden, who worked as a writer at Sports Illustrated for many years and specialized in running. Here’s a piece Noden did in 1988 on Charles Dickens, who often logged 20 miles a day.