Jay Bilas first worked on ESPN’s NBA draft coverage the year an 18-year-old from Akron, Ohio went first in the 2003 NBA draft. “In a shocking development, I had LeBron James going No. 1,” Bilas said this week, laughing. Twelve years later he’s now the longest-tenured ESPN NBA draft employee, a run that has seen him work with a litany of broadcasting colleagues including Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott, Bill Simmons, Stephen A. Smith, Tom Tolbert and Jeff Van Gundy, among many others.
Bilas, in an interview on Friday, said he was excited about this year’s NBA draft because he saw a lot of a potential risk and reward in the lottery picks. “There is a legitimate argument at No. 1 between Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor,” Bilas said. “That’s legit. Then there is a legitimate argument after that because of how the game is now. Do you go big or do you take [Ohio State guard] D'Angelo Russell or [China’s] Emmanuel Mudiay? There is also a case to be made that you might look at Kristaps Porzingis–a seven-footer from Latvia who can really shoot it. Reasonable minds can differ and there are legitimate disagreements, and that goes far down the draft. I think it is really an interesting thing and it will hold my attention.”
ESPN, of course, is hoping its show holds your attention. The draft will air Thursday at 7 p.m. ET, the 13th consecutive year the network has hosted the event, which this year comes from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The main set group has changed from last year. Holdovers Bilas, host Rece Davis and Jalen Rose will be joined by college basketball analyst Jay Williams, who replaces the former ESPN commentator Bill Simmons. ESPN NBA analyst Tom Penn will once again offer a front office perspective, while the always-excellent Fran Fraschilla is the point person on the international players. Heather Cox will work as a green room reporter while college basketball insiders Andy Katz and Jeff Goodman will report news and information on site. Last year Williams interviewed players after they were selected. This year that role shifts to Shannon Spake. The coverage will include three remote reporters embedded with different teams, including Brian Windhorst with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ramona Shelburne with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Broussard with the New York Knicks. The Knicks and Lakers holding high picks should help viewership early given the size of those markets. There are also a lot of players slated for the first 15 section from elite college programs with large fan bases.
“These are players our fan bases have seen,” said ESPN coordinating producer Jay Levy, working his fourth NBA draft for ESPN. “When Steph Curry came out, for instance, people kind of knew but they didn’t really know who he was despite the fact that he had a good tournament [the year before].”
The decision to move Williams to the main set, Levy said, was made collectively by a number of ESPN execs including Levy and Mark Gross, a senior vice president of production and remote events. One of the factors was that Williams had worked previously with the other on-air members.
“We talked about all the potential options but in the end the decision came down to what Jay could add,” Levy said. “Jay is not only dialed in to college but also he stays in touch with a lot of guys in the NBA. Plus he brings the knowledge of what it was like to be drafted early in the draft. What we learned last year and built off two years ago from this coverage was to be more conversational as opposed to this person talks and now they are done, and that person talks. We want to make it a free-flowing conversation from the main set and we were able to do that.”
Give credit to Levy for being the rare ESPN executive to dare mention the name ‘Simmons’ publicly. He said the former ESPN-er brought an NBA fan’s perspective to the broadcast. (Certainly, he brought a Celtics fan’s perspective.) “I think his love of the NBA and the sport came out,” Levy said. “Going into this we are not asking Jay to play that role or looking for that. That worked the last couple of years but now we are heading in a new direction. I think it will be an easy transition and one that will work.”
Last year’s draft averaged 3.451 million viewers, the most-watched NBA draft across all networks since 1995 (3.626 million). I asked Bilas how he could help in his role make for a successful draft broadcast. He said preparation, being honest with viewers, and understanding that you will ultimately overestimate and underestimate players.
“You want to give an honest evaluation of where you think the player is and will be,” Bilas said. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear nothing but bouquets for players, but at the same time I don’t think anyone wants to hear only dire predictions and the negatives. There is a balance you have to strike and in some instances you learn that the hard way.”
Bilas said his preparation ultimately starts when the players are in high school. Most of the NBA draftees played at an elite prep level so he has already seen most of them before they get to college. But Bilas said he really starts digging into the study come April 15 when the early-entry decisions are made. He used to watch individual draft workouts and use them as part of his evaluation process but he is now apt to pass on those. Why? He was particularly burned by Darko Miličić, a workout wonder who was drafted No. 2 behind LeBron James in 2003. “I watched him work out and he was amazing–I was blown away,” Bilas said. “In a 5-on-5 game, it is different story. I think you have to be cognizant that you can be seduced by a workout or a players athleticism or something like that.”
Bilas said he made a big mistake in 2004 during an on-air evaluation of Josh Smith regarding the tone of his comments (Smith went No. 17 to the Hawks.) “If you go back and look at what I said, everything I said I believe I was right,” Bilas said. “I do not second guess what I said, but the tone in which I said it was the problem. I think my job as a broadcaster is to say the right thing at the right time in the right tone. Often times the tone is what has gotten me over the years and I think I have improved there…My tone sounded angry. I said of all the players, he was the most likely to fail. I didn’t say he would fail but I said he could. What I said because of my tone, I don’t people heard. That’s not on them. That’s on me. My fault. I learned a valuable lesson about tone there. I always look back on that as being a valuable lesson."
If you are looking for a late first round sleeper, Bilas said viewers should keep an eye on [6'6" small forward] Justin Anderson of Virginia. “A left-handed kid, big, strong, athletic,” he said. “I think he can shoot it, and I think he is going to be a very good NBA player. He’s rated down in No. 25 range and I have him ranked at No. 20. I think he has a real chance to be very good in the NBA.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. Of all the major and minor sports–and those tags are obviously subjective–golf is the one I probably watch the least. I tune into the majors because I find those events compelling, but I am not a week-to-week consumer of the product. Any thoughts from me on a golf telecast should always be considered under that framework.
Over the past four days I tuned in and out of Fox’s coverage of the 115th U.S. Open, the network’s first-ever airing of a golf major. Heading in, after I previewed Fox’s plans, my sense was that Fox would face some viewer criticism given that golf viewers are as tough as soccer viewers when it comes to broadcast changes in their sport. Like many of you who expressed this sentiment on social media, I too was surprised how often Fox abdicated live golf for features and conversations between the commentators. I thought the Protracer technology was incredibly cool and helpful, and a must for future tournaments for Fox. I liked the perpetual leader board on screen, though I wished Fox showed the extended leader board more. The Chambers Bay links-style course didn’t do Fox any favors on aesthetics. Oakmont should be better for that next year.
Fox found its best moments in the final 40 minutes of Sunday’s play thanks to a thrilling finish between winner Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. The production thankfully let natural sound carry the broadcast over the final minutes. The coverage was also commercial free, which kept the tension and drama high. Of note: The on-course audio with Spieth and his caddy on No. 18 was great, as was immediately getting Spieth (and his family’s reaction) after Johnson’s three-putt on 18. I liked Fox getting a camera on Johnson carrying his baby son (on Father’s Day) after the finish. This was Fox finding its groove.
Which made the next 30 minutes all the more frustrating. The immediate post-game coverage–an initial two-question interview with Spieth was spectacularly useless and viewers waited for what seemed like forever for a replay of Johnson’s shots–was disjointed and odd and killed much of the momentum of the sensational coverage of the final two holes. I must have had 50 people on Twitter ask me why Greg Norman wasn’t cued immediately to talk eloquently about disappointments in majors. (I had no answer.) Read the comments below this from golf watchers.
Host Joe Buck finally asked Norman the Q some nearly 40 minutes after the finish. Given that Johnson’s runner-up finish was nearly as big a story (maybe even bigger) than Spieth’s win, Fox owed it to viewers to let them know why he never appeared on their air afterward. If you invest in a broadcast, you want to know what happened to the characters. The Golf Channel addressed the issue with its audience and Johnson, to his credit, did talk to the Tacoma News Tribune and some other reporters. No one would blame Fox if Johnson refused to be interviewed but if you invest in a tournament for four days as a viewer, you need to know why Johnson isn’t talking and that you made the attempt to interview him. (Which is what Buck did with Tiger Woods on Friday.) If Fox’s executive producers are being honest with themselves, they will dissect the post-game show like forensic scientists, learn from it, and make changes for 2016.
As far as the broadcasting talent, I enjoyed Greg Norman specifically, and was not as bothered by the other voices as much of Golf Twitter was. As is usual the case with golf broadcasters, there was far too much simpering for golf officials when being interviewed. It was also hard to tell at times which broadcaster was speaking and I am sure I wasn’t alone trying to distinguish between Brad Faxon, Scott McCarron and Corey Pavin etc.. given a lack of fonting/IDs. Tom Weiskopf had a very rough post-game.
Given the significance of Fox covering a major for the first time, I thought readers of this column deserved an in-depth review from someone with years of experience writing about the sport on television. So I enlisted Dick Friedman, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated (for years he edited SI’s television coverage) who now contributes to SI Golf Plus and SI Golf Plus Digital, which appears every Wednesday and can be accessed for free at GOLF.com. Friedman is a contributing editor at Harvard Magazine and author of the forthcoming Crimson Autumns, about Harvard's early-day champion football teams. Below, his Media Circus review of Fox’s U.S. Open coverage:
Fox’s much-anticipated (and, in some quarters, dreaded) inaugural telecast of the U.S. Open had as many severe ups and downs (and humps and bumps) as Chambers Bay, the crazy-quilt and thus seemingly telegenic course it was displaying. There was tantalizing technology: a rolling camera that “chased” the golfers as they strode down the first fairway, shrewdly placed on-course mics, a tracer to track drives, schematics and arrows to show where balls would funnel, superimposed numbers to indicate how far shots needed to carry. There was even a drone. And there was a fresh squadron of announcers, headed by All-Pro anchor Joe Buck and lead analyst Greg Norman, one of the sport’s most charismatic figures.
But did it work? Only sometimes. The Open upstart will have to go some to match the crisp standard set by NBC (and especially its famously blunt analyst Johnny Miller) during its 20-year run.
Possibly revealing rookie nerves, there were glitches aplenty. On the first day, the network apologized when it was unable to display its leader board graphics. (The equivalent of being called for delay of game on the opening kickoff.) Out of nowhere and apropos of nothing, a squiggly red telestrator line popped up on the screen.
However, when things worked, they really worked. On Friday the on-course mics caught Jordan Spieth saying that No. 18 was “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played.” The shot-carry graphics were useful; we wish they had been applied more.
The larger problems were more fundamental. Even with the shot tracer, the ball often was hard to locate against the background of the bleached-out terrain. Announcers did not automatically provide yardage and club selection, or distance and break on putts (the way Miller and Roger Maltbie do on NBC). These were major miscues.
The booth, especially Buck, found its rhythm as the event went on. Others could and did rip the course and the USGA’s setup, but the Fox folk either gave their consent or advised whining players to suck it up. Norman clearly is more comfortable (and very good) talking about spine angles and poa annua grass than in doling out Miller-style critiques. (Do not automatically expect the Shark to bite.) The most trenchant insights came from the infantry: the pros, understated Corey Pavin, feisty Steve Flesch, declarative Brad Faxon and sharp-eyed Scott McCarron; savvy architect Gil Hanse; and special guest Michael Bamberger, my SI colleague, who on Saturday was an energizer booth bunny. (Next time, boychick, put on a tie!)
The good news is that during Sunday's improbable, leader board-blinking climax, Fox mostly (and wisely) let the action speak for itself. You do have to wonder, though, if when Dustin Johnson three-putted on 18 to hand Spieth the victory, Buck missed an opportunity to invoke the most famous call of his late Father, Jack: "I don't believe what I just saw."
Fox is in the first year of a 12-year deal with the USGA. Next year’s Open will be at venerable Oakmont, a known commodity. That should help the network’s planning, as should having an Open under its belt—and, probably, lower expectations.
1b. The feature that aired near the end of the second round on Friday comparing this current iteration of 39-year-old Tiger Woods to 39-year-old Michael Jordan was one of the oddest I’ve seen on a broadcast. (Worth noting is Jordan averaged 20.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his final year as a pro.) Upon watching that feature, Golf Digest global golf director Stina Steinberg shared her thoughts:
This Menefee Tiger/MJ package might be the dumbest thing I've seen on a golf telecast.— Stina Sternberg (@StinaSternberg) June 20, 2015
I’m not sure I’d go that far but, man, it was a strange.
1c. Fox said its third-round coverage of the U.S. Open averaged 4.2 million viewers, a 33 percent increase over NBC’s third-round broadcast last year. The primetime portion of the coverage averaged 4.8 million viewers. For some perspective, here are the viewership totals for the third round of the U.S. Open, all airing on NBC, over the last five years:
2015: 4.2 million viewers
2014: 3.2 million
2013 5.4 million
2012 7.6 million (played on the West Coast at Olympic Club in San Francisco)
2011: 4.6 million
1d. The highest-rated TV markets for Fox's third round coverage of the U.S. Open: 1. Seattle; 2. Portland; 3. Louisville; 4. Columbus; 5. Austin.
1e. The first three rounds of the U.S. Open had averaged a combined 2.6 million viewers per day on Fox and Fox Sports 1.
1f. Much respect for the behind the scenes workers at Fox Sports – production associates, technical managers, video and audio staffers, camera people, engineers, graphic designers, PR staffers etc…– for their deep hours of work this month. Lot of people working long shifts with two mega-events being aired (U.S. Open, Women’s World Cup) by the division.
2. The seventh episode of the SI Media Podcast features ESPN broadcaster Bob Ley, the longest-serving commentator at ESPN (he started work as a SportsCenter anchor on September 9, 1979, the third day of operation for ESPN), the host of Outside The Lines and the lead host for its World Cup coverage for ABC and ESPN. In the podcast Ley discusses how OTL chooses its topic, why ESPN has repeatedly changed the show’s time slot, the future of soccer on ESPN, why OTL dropped a Hope Solo story on the eve of the Women’s World Cup, how long he wants to work at ESPN, just how important his golden blazer is to him and more.
3a. Bilas said he considers his two biggest draft misses pumping up Greg Oden at No. 1 in 2007 and suggesting Orlando take UConn’s Emeka Okafor over Dwight Howard as the safer pick in 2004.
3b. On working with Bill Simmons, Bilas said, “I love Bill. It’s not like we have been best friends for a million years. I’ve only known him for the past five but he just has a way about him that I appreciate. He was a blast to be around. His wit and opinions; I loved the way he looked at the game. I really appreciate him.”
4. Sports piece of note:
•ESPN’s Marc Stein on his father, Reuven Vasile Stein.
•The Guardian, on how women's soccer is viewed in England.
•Grantland’s Brian Phillips on Abby Wambach, and the weight of expectations.
•From Kansas City Star sports columnist Vahe Gregorian: 120 miles from KC, Caitlyn Jenner’s former college coaches are happy for her.
•SI’s Lee Jenkins wrote a terrific piece from the Warriors’ post-game party.
•Boston Globe writer Chad Finn on his daughter and her love of basketball.
• Huffington Post writer Lucy McCalmont had an oral history of the film Love & Basketball.
•ESPN’s Ramona Shelborne on the Warriors’ dream season.
Non sports pieces of note:
•In an hour, a church changes forever. Brilliant and griping reporting from Doug Pardue and Jennifer Berry Hawes of the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C.
•I wish every U.S. high school and college showed this clip of Jon Stewart talking about Charleston.
•The Story of a Hate Crime: What led to the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill?
•Via The Washington Post: Why is Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill? The answer may be lost to history.
•The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the argument why South Carolina lawmakers need to take down the Confederate flag.
•Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote a beautiful and honest piece on his heroin-addicted son.
•The Life and Death of Steven Sotloff, Part 1.
•Mercy and a manifesto in Charleston, from David Remnick.
•Via The New York Times Magazine: Comedy Central in the Post-TV Era.
5. In a story broken by The Wrap, the favorite Hollywood publication for some in ESPN PR, ESPN2 First Take host/moderator Cari Champion is leaving that show to be part of the SportsCenter rotation. With a new charter from Disney management to morph ABC’s Good Morning America with ESPN and ESPN2 shows, Champion will work on morning segments of SportsCenter beginning in mid-July, including a series of upcoming “interactions” about sports and entertainment.
So who will replace Champion for the sports broadcasting equivalent of serving at Shawshank Prison? The professional bloviators who work that show will be taking some time off over the next couple of weeks so ESPN will have guest hosts and panelists. As for a long term replacement for Champion, an ESPN spokesperson on Sunday said, "The decision has yet to be made on a new host."
5a. The NBA Finals drew its best TV ratings since Michael Jordan was in them.
5b. The Stanley Cup Final averaged 5.51 million viewers, the second most-watched Final on record. Here’s some viewership numbers on this year’s NHL playoffs.
5c. Here’s an animated short featuring Bill Simmons settling scores at ESPN (with a Charles Barkley cameo).
5d. SportsCenter anchors Jay Harris and Robert Flores offered a nice tribute to the late Dusty Rhodes.
5e The former Notre Dame basketball player Danielle Green will receive the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2015 ESPYS. Green lost her left arm to a rocket-propelled grenade explosion while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004.
5f. The David Glenn Show, a North Carolina-based sports radio show, interviewed longtime sportscaster and writer Lesley Visser about entering the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame.
5g. The Hollywood Reporter’s Lacey Rose wrote a long feature on HBO that included news that the network was making a serious run at Simmons.
5h. ESPN producer Justine Gubar has written a book on extreme sports fanaticism titled Fanaticus: Mischief and Madness in the Modern Sports Fan.
5i. Very sad news out of Oklahoma City: The longtime sports broadcaster Bob Barry Jr. died on Saturday afternoon on the way to the hospital following a motorcycle accident. He was 58. Prayers to his family and friends.