Examining what NBC should do in the post-Al Michaels era
The familiar voice of Al Michaels hit NBC’s airwaves at 8:07 p.m. ET on Saturday night, setting the scene for the Cardinals-Packers divisional playoff game. Over the next 3 1/2 hours, in a playoff game for the ages, Michaels did what he does every week during the pro football season: perform NFL play-by-play better than anyone currently working, and arguably better than anyone in history. It was a thrilling production to watch especially if you had no rooting interest, a broadcast crew living up to the magic of Aaron Rodgers and Larry Fitzgerald and repeated coin flips. At 11:48 p.m., finishing with the phrase “What a game!” Michaels signed off on his 30th year of calling NFL games, including the last 10 announcing Sunday Night Football.
The broadcast (and a conversation about this topic last week with colleague Peter Bukowski) had me thinking about what will happen for NBC’s NFL coverage following the Michaels Era. In 2014, when covering the Olympics in Sochi for SI, I interviewed Michaels in the lobby of the Radisson Blu Paradise Resort hotel where we were staying (he was on a much higher floor) and we talked about the inevitable retirement questions that one gets when they reach a certain age. At the time, he was 69 years old.
“In my brain, I feel 19,” he said. “I’m a rascal in my head. I like to have fun, I like to laugh. I have great pals and colleagues in the business. So a couple of things here: No. 1 is health, and knock on wood, I have stayed healthy. I don’t like to travel but that is part of the deal. Nothing is perfect. I still love the games. I have been a sports fan since I was six years old. I find them exciting. I love competition at the highest level in any sport, which is what the NFL is. I love strategy and drama, that still excites me. When a game is really good I am still excited as I ever was.”
Michaels is signed through the end of 2017 so he’s not going anywhere soon. Nor should he given his performance level. But the reality is there will come a day in the not-too-distant future when NBC Sports executives must think seriously about a replacement for Michaels for the Sunday Night Football package, the most important program for the entire NBC network. It will be a huge hire and there is no one in-house who is a logical successor. It’s a job neither Tom Hammond nor Dan Hicks, who have called NFL games for NBC, will likely be offered.
So while watching Saturday night’s thrilling overtime game, I thought about legitimate possibilities to replace Michaels and centered on three names. All are candidates at other networks: Mike Tirico (ESPN), Ian Eagle (CBS) and Sean McDonough (ESPN).
Tirico would be the overwhelming favorite if NBC could pry him from ESPN. He already calls a primetime NFL package, he’s an excellent game-caller, he’s worked with high-profile analysts and he’d be a logical fit for NBC’s other programming such as the Olympics. He would not come cheap, nor am I sure he’d ever leave ESPN, but he represents the most logical successor given his age (49) and experience. He and Cris Collinsworth would be a great fit together.
Eagle has many of the same characteristics as Tirico. Though they have different broadcasting styles, Eagle is also an exceptional football caller. He has called playoff games, including Saturday’s New England-Kansas City divisional game, and would provide Tirico-like versatility for NBC away from the football season. Given Jim Nantz (age 56) is unlikely to leave the No. 1 spot over the next decade, I’d guess Eagle (age 46) would be tempted if NBC were interested. They should be.
I consider McDonough the best working college football play-caller today; quality performances follow McDonough no matter the sport. He has limited experience in the NFL and ESPN is a great fit for him given his interests in college sports, but if I were NBC Sports, I would take a serious look at him. At 53, he has many quality years left.
There are other broadcasters one could make a long shot argument for including Fox’s Kevin Burkhardt (youth and potential), Fox and NBC’s Kenny Albert (experience and professionalism) and Westwood One’s Kevin Harlan (who has called multiple Super Bowls on radio).
I want to make crystal clear that no one from NBC or another network is using this column as a trial balloon. This was my idea and if I had my way, Michaels and Collinsworth would do these games for the next 15 years.
But my three candidates are listed above. I’m curious what you think. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section or find me on Twitter.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Aaron Boone says he knew ESPN’s on-air MLB coverage was in flux following last year’s late-season shifting booth assignments—most notably, Curt Schilling getting suspended from ESPN’s baseball coverage including the Sunday Night Baseball booth—but Boone had no idea he’d end up being assigned to ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball team in 2016 with play-by-play announcer Dan Shulman and fellow analyst Jessica Mendoza. That trio (along with returning reporter Buster Olney) will make its regular-season debut on April 3 as part of ESPN’s Opening Night coverage of the World Series rematch between the Mets and Royals.
While the trio has never called a game together, the three do have experience working with each other, including a long history between Boone and Shulman. That pair has called ESPN Radio’s coverage of the World Series the past two years and worked together in 2010 as part of ESPN’s Monday MLB game coverage. Boone estimated he and Shulman have called roughly 70 to 80 games together.
Boone and Mendoza have worked together at the College World Series the past two years, and last Sept. 6, Boone and Mendoza served as co-analysts with play-by-play announcer Jon Sciambi for a Sunday Night Baseball broadcast between Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Mendoza later made history in 2015 by becoming the first female analyst for a nationally televised MLB postseason game (AL wild-card game on ESPN).
“We have gotten to know each other the last two years because when you are at the College World Series, it is two weeks together where you go to dinner and hang out,” Boone said of Mendoza. “I feel like I have a leg up because I have gotten to know her personally.”
The traditional dynamic in a three-person baseball booth usually has one analyst focusing on pitching while the other offers more hitting assessments. One of the challenges for this booth will be that Boone and Mendoza (a U.S. Olympian in softball) were hitters as professionals.
“That is something we will have to find our way on and hopefully in short order we will have a rhythm to figure out what to tackle,” Boone said. “In time, you want it to be second nature and not step on someone.”
Boone said ESPN has not told him how long this team will be the permanent Sunday Night Baseball crew, but he believes ESPN management are optimistic for a long-term play.
“I don’t sense this is something they are just trying out,” Boone said. “That being said, the nature of the business is that if this is not working or we are not delivering from our end, then there will be a new team.”
Mendoza said on Friday she went to the winter meetings in Nashville this year on her own accord because she wanted to further her education in the game and increase her contacts.
“I ended up calling ESPN to tell them I was going on my own, and they paid for my flight and hotel,” she said. “It was important to me to be there, not working and with an agenda. I was able to more organically meet people, listen and learn. I was fine paying my own way, but was happy ESPN offered to send me even if I wasn't there to work for them.”
Mendoza knows, as do the rest of us, that she’s going to face vitriol on social media. She’s also going to hear time and time again from radio honks that ESPN is pandering to some PC cause by assigning her to the SNB booth (The irony of mouth-breathers accusing ESPN of pandering here while pandering to another crowd is rich). Boone thinks it’s nonsense.
“I think that is something that will go away within time, and I also believe those opinions are in the minority,” Boone said. “I don’t think there is any question that a handful of people have skepticism, and I have come across players that have been skeptical at times, but I would say the majority of the players and people in the game that I respect have at some point cited a specific example of where Jess really impressed them. I think that will be the case over time. I think this year knowing how smart she is, knowing the work ethic she has, her humility, she’s going to prove that she’s really good at this and I think people are going to be impressed.”
1a. Schilling, an ESPN MLB analyst since 2010, will be an analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball for the 2016 season. He’ll be joined in the booth by Eduardo Perez. Karl Ravech and Dave Flemming will split the Monday night play-by-play duties throughout the season. Schilling will also continue to contribute analysis to Baseball Tonight. John Kruk, an ESPN MLB analyst since 2004, will return to Baseball Tonight as studio analyst, a role he held from 2004 through ’12. As I’ve written and tweeted repeatedly: Schilling should not have been suspended, and I would have kept him as part of the rotation of analysts including Boone and Mendoza who floated to Sunday and Monday games. That would ease Mendoza into a full-time schedule and give ESPN a year to assess which combos worked best.
1b. ESPN has named Andy Reichwald as the new Sunday Night Baseball producer. Reichwald has produced Monday Night Baseball since 2002 and has served as associate director for Monday Night Football since ’06.
1c. There’s some understandable behind-the-scenes tension at ESPN given the upcoming schedule moves to ESPN’s day parts. Beginning Feb. 8, SportsNation will shift from its ESPN2 home to the 4 p.m. ET slot on ESPN. The show will also change into a 30-minute format. That means a shift for NFL Live and its production crew (to somewhere). Asked on Friday by SI.com where NFL Live is moving to, an ESPN spokesperson said, “We are in the process of finalizing our ESPN afternoon schedule.”
Looking at this from an objective numbers-based outlook, it’s a curious move for ESPN management to push NFL Live out of its slot given it is a proven winner in the afternoon. According to the editors at SportsTVRatings.com, who ran the numbers for SI.com, NFL Live averaged roughly 560,000 viewers on ESPN between Nov. 30 and Jan. 8. It hit a high during that time frame of 823,000 viewers on Jan. 4 of this year. For a show airing at 3:30 p.m., those are terrific numbers. The show also occasionally beats the 6 p.m. SportsCenter, which is saying something.
SportsNation, which currently airs on ESPN2, drew 311,000 last Friday and 251,000 last Tuesday as far as cherry-picking two airings in the last seven days. The move to ESPN will juice those numbers but pulling NFL programming for that show is a risk. Clearly, ESPN execs want opinion above all in the afternoon given Highly Questionable and Around The Horn will follow SportsNation. It would also be a shame if the network abandoned NFL Insiders, easily the best concept of any NFL information show that has debuted over the past two years.
As for more afternoon announcements, look for Rachel Nichols to land as the host in an early afternoon NBA show on ESPN. Hopefully, ESPN does not screw around with Outside The Lines once again and leaves OTL Daily on ESPN, but that’s not known at this time.
1d. ESPN announced last week that Michelle Beadle had reached a new, multi-year agreement to remain at ESPN. She will continue to co-host SportsNation alongside Max Kellerman and Marcellus Wiley. In addition to that role and something with great promise, Beadle and ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne will partner for a national radio show called Beadle & Shelburne. The new radio show will air Sundays between noon–2 p.m. ET from ESPNLA 710’s Los Angeles studios.
2. Arizona’s 26–20 overtime victory win over Green Bay averaged 33.7 million viewers, ranking as the second-most watched Saturday primetime divisional game ever behind the 34.2 million viewers for Broncos-Patriots on Jan. 14, 2012. Viewership peaked at 38.7 million during the game’s conclusion between 11:15 and 11:41 p.m. ET. NBC said it averaged 34.5 million viewers for its two January 2016 playoff games, up 11% in viewership from last year (31.2 million viewers).
2a.Chris Mortensen, the longtime NFL reporter and analyst for ESPN, is temporarily stepping down from his ESPN assignments because of Stage IV throat cancer.
“More than a week ago, I was diagnosed with a Stage IV throat cancer,” Mortensen said in a statement on Friday. “My focus shifted significantly to gathering information about the specifics of this cancer. The initial diagnosis was confirmed Friday and there is another test remaining that will determine the best possible treatment plan that will commence in the very immediate future. Consequently, with the support and encouragement from ESPN president John Skipper and many others at ESPN, I am temporarily stepping away from my normal NFL coverage duties to better engage this opportunity to fight the good fight that is projected to affect almost 1.7 million Americans with new cases in 2016.”
In an interview with SI.com on Friday afternoon, Adam Schefter, the longtime NFL colleague of Mortensen, said he and a core group of ESPN NFL staffers learned of the diagnosis last Friday in an email.
“It was jarring, a professional and personal whammy,” Schefter said. “I consider him one of my closest friends. If I have issues in my life, he knows everything. He keeps upbeat, grounded, a great friend, a great sounding board, I love the guy.... He’s very matter of fact about it, like he is working the details of the story. He has a positive attitude. He is convinced that he will beat this.”
2b. Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and Schefter shared stories of how Mortensen has impacted their lives.
2c. Classy move by Larry Fitzgerald to give on-air well wishes to Mortensen.
2d. A number of people on Twitter Saturday were curious about the main camera position for CBS during the Patriots’ win over the Chiefs. A CBS spokesperson said it was the third time this year the Fouts-Eagle production team had used the camera position in New England.
2e. For The MMQB, I examined Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s work as a television analyst.
3. Episode No. 38 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features guest PFT Commenter, the gritty NFL writer and chief political correspondent for SB Nation. He is also the host of The Steam Room podcast on SiriusXM.
In this episode, where PFT does not break character, PFT talks about how he got his start in the world of hot sports takes, which media outlets he reads daily, his thoughts on concussions in the NFL, how he sees the nexus of sports and politics, whether or not he thinks Peyton Manning used HGH, whether Twitter has become a liberal echo chamber, why Danny Woodhead is underrated, whether Donald Trump will get the GOP nomination, who will win the Super Bowl and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• From The Guardian: How a young woman from poverty-stricken Ohio fell victim to America’s addiction to incarceration, and what might still set her free.
• Via Azam Ahmed: The Manhunt For El Chapo.
• Terrific piece by New York Times’s Robert Draper, who takes a road trip around Iowa to find its political soul.
• Via The Toronto Star: The biggest scandal in America, staggering in its scope and impact, is in Flint, Mich., an hour from the Canadian border.
• Why I got fired six years ago today, and why it was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
• This is a clear-eyed view of the disaster of a Trump Presidency: From George W. Bush’s speechwriter.
• From Time: How winning the lottery made these lottery winners miserable.
Sports pieces of note:
• The DIY Scientist, the Olympian, and the Mutated Gene from David Epstein of ProPublica.
• From Mike Vorkunov of Vice Sports: Paul DePodesta’s first interview since joining the Cleveland Browns.
• Ryan Whitney, on playing hockey in Russia.
• Via Joe Nocera of the New York Times: St. Louis Should Be Glad It Lost the Rams
• BuzzFeed News and the BBC combined on a match-fixing story in professional tennis.
5. ESPN announced last week that The Undefeated, ESPN’s still-yet-to-launch site on the nexus of sports and race, has hired four writers, including former Washington Post NFL writer Jason Reid. Given the hires over the past four months, this site now looks like it will actually launch ... and soon.
5a. College football fans: Here's all the ratings data on the Alabama-Clemson title game.
5b. Former ESPN senior coordinating producer of planning and talent development Gerry Matalon was part of the ESPN layoffs last year and has since morphed into making the services he provided for ESPN (helping on-air talent improve their work) into a new business. Here’s Matalon on how to make the transition from a local market to a national market and performing on digital versus television. Matalon and other broadcast vets are hosting the Inside the World of Network Sports Broadcasting workshop on Jan. 30 at Bravo Studios New York City.
5c. ESPN.com recently launched a vertical on e-sports, a very smart idea given the growing numbers of gamers.
5d. LeBron James will soon debut a new reality show on CNBC called Cleveland Hustles, which will focus on struggling businesses in Ohio with James not only producing, but appearing on the show as a mentor for the show’s subjects, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
5e. Longtime NBC and ESPN broadcaster Jim Simpson died last week at age 88. Simpson did the play-by-play for Super Bowl I for NBC Radio. ESPN PR put together a nice tribute for him.
5f. Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand on media companies and leagues shifting more sports programming to broadcast television.
5f. Sports author Jeff Pearlman apologized for a dumb tweet.
5g. The White Sox announced last week they have hired ESPN announcer Jason Benetti to call play-by-play for all 2016 White Sox home games on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, WGN-TV and WPWR (the lone exception is the home opener and against the Cubs on July 25–26. The 32-year-old Benetti has an interesting back story including earning his Juris Doctor from Wake Forest University’s School of Law in 2011. He was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy which impacts his balance and ability to walk. He also has an eye condition that causes his left eye to drift. But his disabilities haven’t impacted his career arc as a broadcaster. He’s called a combination of high school and college football, college basketball, college baseball, lacrosse and the Special Olympics for ESPN. Prior to landing at ESPN full-time, Benetti was the play-by-play broadcaster for the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs, a Nationals affiliate, from 2009 to ’14.