One need not be Nancy Drew or Philip Marlowe to deduce that there was creative tension on the set of ESPN’s NBA Countdown last year.
“"I will admit that last season wasn't always easy",” said Sage Steele, the host of the show.
And why was that?
“It's just not worth going into detail about the reasons why --- mainly because it's all water under the bridge,” Steele said. “And, by the way, I actually wouldn't change a thing. I learned so much and I'm better for it.”
Along the same lines, in an interview last week with Sports Illustrated, Mark Gross, an ESPN senior vice president for production and remote events and the senior executive in charge of Countdown, admitted that the show’s staffers (Steele, Doug Collins, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons) struggled at times with their roles. Simmons has since moved on to his own project, The Grantland Basketball Hour, while the ever-changing Countdown now forges on with Steele as the host, and Collins and Rose as the analysts. A Wednesday edition of the show features Doris Burke as host with Rose and Avery Johnson.
For the first time, at least publicly, Gross said there was no guarantee Simmons would have returned to Countdown this season if his Grantland show, which debuted last Tuesday, did not exist.
“Good question, I don't know,” said Gross. “I would have to have that conversation with him. My honest answer is I’m not sure because honestly I’d want to have that conversation. If he was interested in coming back, we would certainly have that conversation about how he thinks the show could be better or how he should be better positioned if he thought he was not positioned the way he should be positioned.
“I think [Simmons] felt pretty good about the show in pockets,” Gross continued. “I think there were moments where he thought, ‘This is pretty special,’ and I think there were times where he thought, ‘Boy, I wish we could be better.’ At the end of the day when you cut through all the things that have been written and said about this show, our goal is just to make the show great. We don't want to ignore what people are saying. We love the feedback. How are we going to better inform people? How can we entertain and have a good time on the set? It never is going to be College GameDay. We know that. That's okay. There’s only one GameDay. So how can we do what we do best for our fans? If that included Bill, great. In this case, it doesn't because he has a better opportunity for himself to grow his platform for Grantland. There certainly is no ill will. I hope his show is great and rates. That’s only good for the company.”
Asked specifically if there was creative or editorial tension between Steele and Simmons, Gross’s answer was revealing in its own way.
“I don't think it was creative tension. I think it was trying to understand what everybody’s role was,” Gross said. “How could everybody do their role the best? Doug Collins has this saying: Know your role, believe in your role and star in your role. I think at times we weren't 100 percent sure of what everybody's role was and when that happens you are not sure what to believe. It sounds like an easy thing but those three things -- believe, know and star -- if we follow those things this season, we will be in great shape. We have people who can all get along and people who are passionate about the NBA.”
Simmons declined to comment when reached on Sunday but he has made it very clear through others how happy he is having control of his own television product.
As I’ve written before, the only constant about Countdown lately has been change. The host role over the last six years has morphed from Dan Patrick to Stuart Scott to Hannah Storm to Michael Wilbon (who was more of a facilitator than host) to Steele. The revolving door of analysts includes Jon Barry, Chris Broussard, Magic Johnson and Bill Walton. The show has traditionally had four people on set. This year it will have three. Gross said Countdown will occasionally host in-house staffers such as Broussard, management analyst Tom Penn and game analyst Jeff Van Gundy when news dictates.
“I think honestly having more than three folks on the set when you have a 30-minute show, which is the bulk of our shows, so it is really just 22 minutes of content, makes it really hard for people make their point, to follow up, because you are just up against the clock.” Gross said. “I don't think you get everyone to make the points they want to make when there are so many people there.”
This is a big year for Steele in her second season as the show’s host. How would Gross evaluate her Countdown work in her first year?
“I thought she did a good job last year; I know she will do a significantly better job this year,” Gross said. “Why? Because anchoring SportsCenter and hosting NBA Countdown are just different jobs. Nether one is less hard than the other. It's just different. The flow of the shows are different, the personalities are different, the way you interact with people on and off the air is different. I think she learned a ton and I just think she has a better feel for how the show operates and how she can best prepare for anything that comes her way.”
“My mother has always preached to me that everything happens for a reason so I try not to question too many things, as difficult as that can be sometimes,” Steele said. “That's why I'm not sure that I have ever been more excited about a season tipping off. First, on a personal note, I won't be commuting from Hartford to Los Angeles every week because I moved my family west as soon as the [NBA] Finals ended. That has been life-changing. Countdown will also be a better show with three people on the set versus four. I don't care if you're in a boardroom or at a bar -- the fewer people, the better, the easier the conversation. We did our first show last Wednesday for a preseason doubleheader and it felt great. I can't wait to have some really good, in-depth basketball conversations with Doug and Jalen, two people who have lived and breathed the NBA for their entire adult lives. They are all-in, I’m all-in and the producers are all-in.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week’s top sports media stories
1. The CBS/NFL Network Thursday Night Football package has averaged 16.5 million viewers after seven games. Last Thursday’s game (Broncos-Chargers) airing on CBS -- the package now moves exclusively to the NFL Network -- averaged 20.2 million viewers, the second most-watched TNF game of the season behind only Pittsburgh-Baltimore on Sept. 11 (20.8 million viewers). CBS said when compared to last year’s primetime non-NFL programming on Thursday nights, TNF was up 81 percent in viewers (18.8 million from 10.4 million) and 92 percent in Adults 25-54 (7.1M from 3.7).
1a. Bill Murray is not the easiest celebrity to wrangle even when he is promoting a movie, like the upcoming St. Vincent, so props to Fox NFL Sunday for getting the actor to tape an intro prior to its early morning (6:30 a.m. PT) Lions-Falcons game on Sunday. How did it happen?
“Both [Fox NFL Sunday host] Curt Menefee and I are huge fans; I could literally recite Stripes from beginning to end,” said Fox Sports executive producer Bill Richards. “Bill has a little bit of a relationship with Fox because of his friendship with Chris Myers and he spent time with some of us at this year’s Super Bowl. Laura Marcus, who runs our talent relations department, kept on the movie people and we were almost set to shoot it last week in New York but Bill told us to 'save the money for the Christmas party' and that he’d be in LA the following week. Many veteran producers are big fans and went to the shoot.”
“One of our writers, Bernie Kim, gave a shot at the script but as expected, Bill pretty much went his own way. Our segment producer, Gina Mazzella, who was in charge of the shooting, is great but she was born in 1989. After the shoot I asked to her to name as many of Bill’s movies as possible. She got to five.”
1b. Fox NFL Sunday host Terry Bradshaw had a message for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler: “Jay, honest to God. Life is good, brother. You’re making a great living, having fun and playing the game you’ve looked forward to playing since you were a little kid. Act like you enjoy it, man! Put a smile on your face for once in your life.”
1c. So did NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner: “He may not be the only problem but I believe he’s the biggest problem with this team. When he plays well, this team wins. When he doesn’t play well, this team loses because they’re based on offense … The problem with Jay Cutler for me is the lack of consistency. He has only put together one game all year long where he’s been consistent first half to second.”
1d. Add ESPN’s Keyshawn Johnson to those looking to weigh in on Cutler: “Lovie Smith in my opinion is not the Chicago Bears head coach today because of that quarterback.”
1e. CBS NFL Today analyst Boomer Esiason is not a fan of new Jets wideout Percy Harvin: “Who is Percy Harvin? He says he's not going to change. I'm going to tell you who he is: he's a malcontent. He drops passes. He's not a great wide receiver, he's underdeveloped, and this just in time for Halloween here in New York for the Jets.
"Stick him in that Jet locker room and see what happens. It's going to be absolutely insane here in New York for this young man. His third team in three years.”
2. I had a long interview with a candid Jalen Rose, the ESPN NBA analyst, on his relationships with Michigan and Chris Webber, why NBA Countdown keeps changing and his desire to work on a political show in the future.
2a. Turner analyst Greg Anthony on the pressure facing new Cavaliers head coach David Blatt: “If they don’t get to the [Eastern] Conference finals it will be a disappointing season. No doubt about it. The guy who is going to have the most pressure on them is their head coach. He hasn’t even coached an NBA game yet so he’s going to have a tremendous challenge in putting together a system that compliments all of their talent.”
2b. Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder reviewed The Grantland Basketball Hour.
2c. ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy says the No. 1 thing that needs to be addressed for NBA players and fans is the elimination -- or a drastic reduction -- of back-to-back games.
“I think it starts with the owners giving up preseason games,” Van Gundy said. “I'll tell you how you know there's no need for these preseason games: it’s because no one plays in them and yet we charge the same prices. So let's stop with the ruse that we need seven preseason games or eight preseason games to get a team ready. Let's play two games, three games, and start the regular season two weeks earlier so we can eliminate some back-to-back games. Let's not have as long a period at the All-Star break for back-to-back games. And let's extend the season a week or two in the regular season so that we can drastically reduce -- or the goal should be to totally eliminate back-to-back games.
“I think that more so than the number of games or the length of a game of the 48 minutes needs to be changed. You never want to give your players excuses but to expect them to play great after playing the night before and flying three hours to a different time zone to have the same energy I think is a stretch. I think it leads to a lot of bad basketball and doesn't give the product that we should be giving our fans.”
2d. Amina Hussein returns for her third year as Countdown’s coordinating producer. She’ll be joined by Lisa James (who joins this year as a producer on Friday and Sunday) and Kim Belton, who will produce on Wednesdays.
3. 2014 World Series ratings:
Game 1: 12.2 million viewers (15.0M in 2013 for the Red Sox-Cardinals)
Game 2: 12.9 million viewers (14.5M in ‘13)
Game 3: 12.1 million viewers (13.4M in ‘13)
3a. Through the first three games, Fox’s coverage of the World Series had averaged 12.4 million viewers, up four percent over the Giants-Tigers World Series in 2012 but down significantly from 2013. Fox will be helped by getting a sixth game of this series, especially with Kansas City (No. 31) being the smallest television market among MLB franchises.
3b. NBC Sports named Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir as analysts -- and Terry Gannon for play by play -- as its new lead figure skating broadcast team. Scott Hamilton, who provided commentary for NBC Sports Group since 2002, will remain at the company as a special contributor at figure skating’s biggest events, including the U.S. Championships and the Winter Olympics. Lipinski and Weir had a star turn in Sochi thanks to their chemistry, humor and honesty.
“When I first became acquainted with figure skating as a little boy in rural Pennsylvania, the voice that stuck out to me the most was Verne Lundquist, whose voice and presence over the air so impressed me,” Weir said. “Every time I look at figure skating I can almost hear his voice. These voices help create the moments for people, and I hope that Tara and I and Mr. Gannon can really make that for somebody watching in rural Pennsylvania that remembers that moment when that little girl won the Olympics, and it was our voices.
“As commentators we have a responsibility to teach people what they’re seeing and what that actually means. These aren’t people that necessarily know the difference between a triple and a quad, and how that takes its toll on your body. So we have that responsibility to inform while giving an opinion and critiquing the way the judges might. It can be a bit of a hairy position to be in, because you can be harsh. You have to call it like you see it.”
4. Sports pieces of note:
• The pregame ceremony from the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Saturday night is really worth watching:
•Where is Penn State three years later? SI’s Tim Layden reports in State College three years after Jerry Sandusky.
•This is excellent from TSN’s James Duthie on a terrible day in Ottawa.
•The PBS NewsHour on whether youth soccer is safe for kids.
•Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur says goodbye to Steve Nash.
•Via Extra Mustard: The best pro wrestling documentaries of all time.
•How the Royals got their name.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•A powerful, devastating, must-read on what the ISIS hostages endured.
•Powerful, personal piece by Jeff Benedict on his sister's experience with domestic violence.
•Highly recommend via New York Times Magazine: What If Age Is Nothing But A Mindset?
•The story of the people who tried to save Cpl. Nathan Cirillo is lovely and devastating.
•Dave McKinney resigns from the Chicago Sun-Times after 19 years, with this remarkable resignation letter.
•In praise of Secret Service dogs.
•Time Magazine’s David Von Drehle wrote a brilliant obit on Ben Bradlee.
•A a remarkable piece by Jeff Pearlman on the death of a 9-year-old girl.
•Ben Bradlee on liars.
•This Esquire Magazine feature on Michael Keaton is illuminating on many levels.
•Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Twitter game.
• Russell Brand has lunch with Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times.
• A teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns. Really interesting piece in the Washington Post.
5a. UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma will be the subject of three-part documentary, “The Geno Auriemma Project,” on ESPN2. The series, presented by espnW, debuts Nov. 16 and will offer behind-the-scenes access of the nine-time national championship winning coach.
5b. NBC’s Breeders Cup coverage next Saturday includes Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, and the fast-rising Shared Belief (owned by CBS Sports talk-show host Jim Rome) running on NBC (8-9 p.m. ET) in the Cup Classic. There will also be 7.5 hours of Breeders’ Cup coverage on NBCSN on Friday and Saturday. As part of the coverage, NHL analyst Eddie Olczyk makes his Breeders’ Cup debut as an analyst/handicapper.
5c. NBC Sports Premier League analysts Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe are getting a digital-only show called The 2 Robbies Football Show. The show will focus on the Premier League and air Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. on NBCSportsRadio.com and the NBC Sports Radio Mobile App.
5d. ESPN’s 30 for 30 doc this week features former Oklahoma and NFL linebacker Brian Bosworth looking back on the mistakes he made in his life. It airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET. Here’s Newsday’s Neil Best on Bosworth today.
5e. Mashable’s Sam Laird profiled Bryan Srabian, who runs the San Francisco Giants’ excellent social media channels.
5f. Terrific move by ESPN management to retain Marty Smith, who has been the company’s lead NASCAR reporter since 2007. Smith will remain with ESPN as a bureau reporter based in Charlotte and cover a variety of sports.