Debating the value of sideline reporters; networks bash Tom Brady
For an NPR column she wrote earlier this month, Andrea Kremer, the NFL Network's chief correspondent for player health and safety, reflected on some advice Al Michaels gave her in 2006 when she was hired by NBC's Sunday Night Football as a sideline reporter.
"You are somewhere we are not," Michaels told her. "Be our eyes and ears."
When sideline reporters perform that task with prescience and smarts, they provide an essential resource for sports viewers. The opposite paradigm is asking vapid questions and delivering sis boom bah platitudes for coaches (e.g. "Great job. Now go celebrate with your team, Coach!") and players. (Bad sideline reporting is also gender-neutral.)
I've thought a lot about sideline reporters this week because it's one of the questions I asked of our sports media panel below. While the quality of sideline reporting talent is wildly uneven (CBS has gone as far as eliminating the position during the NFL regular season), I support, as a philosophy, the more reporters on the field, the better.
"If I was a network president I would assign a reporter to every game because the 'high profile-ness' of a game has nothing to do with what happens during the game," Kremer said, in an email Sunday. "The fifth best game on a network can still have a catastrophic injury or a blackout or a weather delay."
"What do you want the role to be --- eye candy, a former player with a field level vantage point, or a real reporter who knows how to get information, especially when it's not easily forthcoming? Perhaps most importantly, what value does the individual game producer put on the role, reflecting the network philosophy on this position. On many broadcasts, 'sideline reporter' is an oxymoron because the bosses really don't want reporting. In addition, the reporter must understand how to be integrated into the broadcast. When you have Al Michaels, the greatest play-by-play man, in my mind, who has the unique ability to seamlessly weave stories into his broadcast, why would you leave him to go to the field for something 'feature-y?' I think that Sunday Night Football uses a strong sideline reporter [Michelle Tafoya] with no apologies and she flows in the broadcast. In addition, remember that the best sideline reporters, like [Fox's] Pam Oliver, are constantly communicating info to the booth even if she doesn't get on."
On this note I once again paneled a mix of sports writers and bloggers to answer a series of questions on NFL broadcasting. The panel adds two new voices this week -- Jessica Danielle and Reeta Hubbard -- for questions on the value of sideline reporters, concussion reporting, and what elements are missing from pregame shows. We'll bring some of this group back again throughout the season.
The panel was asked questions with the only requirement to keep the answers tight. They were free to pass on any questions. For those on Twitter, you can follow any of the panelists by clicking on their names above. The questions:
A. If you were running a sports network, would you employ sideline reporters? Why or why not?
Danielle: Absolutely. Although I don't expect much from sideline reporters, during the Seahawks-Niners game on Sept. 15, [NBC's] Michelle Tafoya showed the value of having a skilled reporter provide context for the game, in addition to injury and general broadcast updates. I'd probably also look to have sideline reporters handle more of the pre-recorded interviews currently conducted by guys like Bob Costas.
Hubbard: Absolutely! As a woman whose dream is to be a respected voice of the NFL, I've always viewed sideline reporting as one of the introductory platforms to have a voice in sports broadcasting. Taking that away would take away one less opportunity for women, even in a small role. Another thing I believe that keeps sideline reporting relevant is fantasy football. Folks want to know the skinny on their starting players and sideline reporting gives folks the updates they are looking for. Fantasy football is way too popular to be ignored.
Koblin: Yes, but only when absolutely necessary, i.e. the exact opposite of how Fox used Erin Andrews two weeks ago where we got report after report about absolutely nothing. In fact, I'd just hire an insanely good reporter. The less telegenic the better! I'd hire someone who's tenaciously good at getting scoops. If there's a player coming off the field all woozy, I'd want a sideline reporter in everyone's face asking questions. If there's a Super Bowl blackout, I want that reporter chasing down every suit in the stadium to find out what's happening.
Lepore: Yeah. They wouldn't be required to appear every week or do the awkward "I spoke to coach a few minutes ago" hit, but the Super Bowl blackout showed us that you need somebody working down there who can relay special information to the viewers.
Littal: I think they are useless. It isn't anything personal against them, but at this point sideline reporters are more for comic relief than getting anything useful. It is more about how uncomfortable their interviews are than actual relevant information.
Ourand: Absolutely. A good sideline reporter enhances any telecast. The best ones report — get good information and conduct intelligent interviews.
Traina: I'd employ a person to report on news -- injury updates, insight into what's taking place on a team's sidelines/bench and weather issues. During the lightning delay in the Ravens-Broncos season opener, Michelle Tafoya showed you someone in this role who can bring you information. However, the one thing I'd ban sideline reporters from doing is interviewing coaches before a game, before halftime and after halftime. These exchanges are completely useless. "Coach, what do you have to do differently in the second half?" "Not turn the ball over." "Thanks, Coach. Joe, back to you." Riveting stuff.
Yoder: Yes. We're only talking something like two percent of the entire game broadcast. Injury updates from the sidelines alone are worth that kind of limited airtime in this age of fantasy football and the importance of individual players to fans.
B. What element should be added to NFL pregame shows?
Danielle: There should be more interviews and profiles of active players to better acquaint fans with the guys under the helmets. Those of us who work in sports have an awareness of individual players. However, the average fan doesn't consume nearly as much information. I'm reminded of the Bleacher Report segment where Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman interviewed folks on the street who had very strong opinions about him but zero clue what he even looked like.
Hubbard: I'd like to see more live tapings with fan interactions. Fox Sports did a live broadcast in Times Square for Week 1, with Erin Andrews in the crowd. I thought it was very fitting (minus the creepy bearded guy in the background). Football is about the fans as much as it is about the game. Why not include them in some way? Pregame shows have become so impersonal and looooong. Make fans feel like they're a part of something great.
Koblin: I don't even know where to start. I liked your idea about introducing more reporters. If they cut every single sepia-toned one-on-one interview and every single fluff piece, maybe I'd be more inclined to watch one for more than 20 minutes.
Lepore: You'll never see it, but a qualified, competent doctor with a focus in neurology. Can someone get me the Mike Pereira of brain surgeons on Line 1?
Littal: Since they have already started to implement fantasy football segments, they might as well bring back the gambling segments. We need a new Jimmy The Greek (minus the comments that got him fired) on every show.
Ourand: I'm drowning in analysis and yuks. I want more news.
Traina: Can I go with addition by subtraction here and say that fewer people on set should be the way all shows go? There is no need for more than four guys on a set. Ever. The amount of people on NFL Network and ESPN is just flat-out comical.
Yoder: The detonator.
C. What is your confidence level that CBS/ESPN/Fox/NBC/NFL Network will report on concussions with significance?
Danielle: I look at any reports on concussions produced by sports networks with a critical eye due to their relationship with the NFL. That being said, I've been impressed with how the media overall -- sports networks included — have handled reporting on health and financial issues that impact players, and concussions are no different. I do think the coverage of concussions specifically has been handled better on network websites than the television programming.
Hubbard: Not that confident they can/will. We've already seen ESPN's concussion documentary get canned, largely because the NFL didn't want them to run it (allegedly). I'd expect more of the same with the other major networks because they're under the NFL umbrella. The only way people will get significant information will be from sites that aren't directly under the NFL's thumb. People that don't have to answer to the league will give folks the real information.
Koblin: I was really interested in what Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli said earlier two weeks ago: It's time to quit glorifying big time hits. He said he's hesitant to show repeated replays of rough hits that, as recently as five years ago, he used to go nuts for. I think broadcasters will be far more conscious of this. As far as reporting? This won't be a Frontline investigation, but I'm confident that it won't be a whitewash.
Lepore: Even after the Frontline controversy and the dumping of Outside the Lines to much worse time slots, I think I trust ESPN as much as any network to get the job done. NFL Network has Andrea Kremer doing solid work, but she doesn't have a set daily/weekly outlet to just discuss and report on this topic. Fox, CBS and NBC all have sports networks that could make this a priority, but we have yet to see that.
Littal: If I had to give you a percentage, I would say five percent. We have seen many times (recently with the ESPN/PBS fiasco) that the NFL is the Boss and the networks are the Underboss.
Ourand: Despite the Frontline controversy, ESPN has done more to report on concussions than most. Surprisingly, it seems like NFL Network is not shying away from the topic, hiring Andrea Kremer to report on player health and safety. I haven't seen the other networks do as much on this topic, though with brands like "60 Minutes" and NBC News, I expect that they would report on concussions in a smart way.
Traina: Not very high. For starters, they don't want to anger the NFL. The other issue, which isn't pretty but is reality, is this: Fans want fantasy information and injury reports more than stories on concussions. If ESPN runs a story on concussions, while Fox is giving you a rundown on who you should start in fantasy, you'd actually be able to hear all the people changing channels throughout the country.
Yoder: Low, very low. The key word is significance. I'm sure reporting will continue on concussions, but whenever anyone gets to close to the truth, the NFL will step in and squash the reporting of their network partners like a bug. It's a shame what happened to ESPN/OTL and the Frontline project, one of the more unfortunate moments for sports reporting in this or any year.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.)
1. ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown insiders Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter won Sunday's pregame with a report that Broncos linebacker Von Miller attempted to corrupt the NFL's drug-testing program with the help of a urine collector. Here's the clip and story -- including very strong words from ESPN NFL analyst Tom Jackson.
1a. Fox Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver always impressively keeps her cool amid chaos, and she did it again this week during her Packers-Bengals assignment. Props to Oliver for also not doing a butt-smooching interview with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
1b. Schefter also took one for the team in a segment featuring ESPN staffers Cris Carter and Keyshawn Johnson catching footballs from a machine.
1c. If you listen to NFL games on the radio, you'll be interested in this piece I wrote for The MMQB.com. I spoke with Ian Eagle, Bob Papa and Gerry Sandusky among other NFL radio figures on whether they think the sport has a future on the radio.
1d. Through two games of its 13-game schedule, the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football telecasts have averaged 9.1 million viewers, up 42 percent from 2012. The broadcast is currently on pace to be the most-watched Thursday Night Football season ever. Last Thursday's Chiefs-Eagles game drew an average of 9.4 million viewers, the fourth-most viewed game on NFL Network behind Niners-Ravens in 2011 (10.7 million), Cowboys-Saints in 2009 (10.5 million) and Packers-Cowboys in 2007 (10.1 million). The Jets and Patriots drew 8.8 million viewers for NFL Net's opener.
1e. The top markets for the Chiefs-Eagles: 1. Kansas City; 2. Philadelphia; 3. Richmond-Petersburg; 4. Baltimore; 5. New Orleans; 6. Norfolk-Portsmouth-Newport News; 7. Sacramento; 8. Dayton; 9. Washington D.C.; 10. Nashville.
1f. Through the start of Sunday's games, Fox's NFL coverage had averaged 21.8 million viewers, up eight percent over last year (19.6 million viewers). It ranks as the NFL on Fox's best start ever. As for Fox's pregame coverage, Fox NFL Sunday has averaged 5.1 million viewers, up six percent over last year (4.7 million viewers).
1g. NBC has averaged 23.9 million viewers for its three NFL telecasts (includes ratings prior to Sunday's night game).
1h. Strong words from NFL Today analyst Boomer Esiason on Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, prior to Detroit's win over Washington. "He shouldn't be recovering in front of us. He should not be playing in an NFL game...He should not have played the first two games, I don't believe. Secondly you remember the Adidas ad campaign? All summer long we heard, 'Week One, Week One, I'm all in. I'm going to be back.' So the pressure is on the young man to put himself back on to the football field. The adults in the room have got to stand up. I don't think Coach [Mike] Shanahan, Dan Snyder or Dr. James Andrews have handled this perfectly. They screwed it up at the end of last year in the playoff game. He shouldn't have played against Seattle, and also here."
1i: ESPN's Carter disagreed: "He's [RGIII] not going to get healthy in practice because there is no contact. The only way he's going to get used to running in traffic is being in traffic."
1j. Esiason's colleague, Shannon Sharpe, did something we rarely see on national television: He criticized Patriots quarterback Tom Brady: "I played with a guy in John Elway who was every bit of Tom Brady's equal in his prime, and he never disrespected me and showed that kind of outward emotion even when I ran the wrong route and missed blocks and got sacked," Sharpe said. "There is a right and wrong way to handle everything. And that is clearly the wrong way."
1k. ESPN's Tom Jackson also weighed in on Brady: "I thought that Tom Brady's behavior was deplorable. If he didn't have three Super Bowl rings and wasn't a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, none of us would feel comfortable with what we saw."
1l. Good work from NFL GameDay Morning analysts Ian Rapoport and Mike Silver, who reported Brady had called and texted former teammates Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd about New England's lack of passing offense.
1m. Rare to see a Hall of Fame broadcaster get crushed on social media but there was a lot of Twitter criticism on Sunday for Marv Albert for his call of the Bills-Jets, from sportswriters such as Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News to New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov.
2. The Sept. 14 broadcast of ESPN's College GameDay from College Station drew 1.874 million viewers. The competing Fox College Saturday morning broadcast drew 68,000 people. Once again, we reiterate how badly Fox College Saturday needs a college football reporter with bona fides. Breaking news is at least a starting place to try to siphon viewers from GameDay.
2a. Great line from GameDay host Chris Fowler upon the show airing an audio excerpt from the tape of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini being critical of the fans: "That was like the back room in the Bada Bing," Fowler said.
3. Bleacher Report made a splash last week with the formal announcement that the sports site had hired four longtime NBA journalists to bolster their coverage. Howard Beck (New York Times) will serve as the site's national NBA lead writer, Kevin Ding (Orange County Register) will cover the Lakers, Ethan Skolnick (Palm Beach Post) will cover the Heat and other national stories, and Jared Zwerling (ESPN.com) will be a national NBA analyst. Ding, Skolnick and Zwerling started with the site last week. Beck begins this week.
Not surprisingly, the Beck hire received significant attention within the sports blogosphere given the reputation of the New York Times as a destination job. "I've spent the last nine years at the most established news outlet on Earth," Beck said, in an email. "I loved working for the Times, and I considered it an honor to work alongside so many amazing journalists. Working for Bleacher Report presents a different kind of challenge, and it was too intriguing to pass up. It's like going to work for a start-up, except one that happens to be owned and run by a major media company. Opportunities like that don't come around very often."
What assurances was Beck given by Bleacher Report management that he could do the same kind of reporting that he previously did at the Times?
"I raised those questions during the recruitment process," Beck said. "We talked a lot about editorial philosophy. Their message was unambiguous: This is going to be a journalistic enterprise. I have absolute confidence that I'll be able to cover the beat with the same level of aggression, skepticism and independence that I have for the last 16 years. I wouldn't have taken the job otherwise."
I asked Beck how he currently saw Bleacher Report's editorial reputation? "Slide shows and top-10 lists," Beck said.
"That's how they built their following. But I'm more concerned with how people view Bleacher Report a year from now than how they view it today. This is the start of something new. A decade ago, Yahoo! was a search engine whose only sports content was fantasy sports. Now it's one of the best sites out there, period. I'm sure that Tim Brown, Dan Wetzel and Adrian Wojnarowski fielded all of the same questions when they made the move to Yahoo! that I'm getting now."
3a. Beck described his job as a multimedia gig -- parts writing, online video and television work. It also includes less travel during the NBA's regular season, which gives him more time with his wife and daughter. "It will be a mix of news, analysis, features and commentary -- basically the same job description I had at the Times, except I'll be adding the video element to my writing duties," Beck said. "I'm the lead national writer on the NBA, so my responsibilities will be pretty broad. I'll write about players, teams, trends, league business, the usual mix. If there's a big game, I'll probably be there. There is no specific commitment with regard to television, but I think you'll see my shining face on NBATV a bit."
3b. We've seen sports franchises previously hire journalists to cover their franchise, and the latest move has the Brooklyn Nets adding former New York Post sports writer Lenn Robbins to cover the Nets, Islanders, college basketball and boxing at Barclays Center for barclayscenter.com. Barry Baum, the chief communications officer for the Nets, said Robbins will cover home and away games and team practices for the Nets in addition to other events at the Barclays Center. This makes Robbins perhaps the country's first sportswriter assigned full time to an arena, regardless of sport. Robbins will also do weekly segments on Barclays Center Television, the arena's in-house and online television network. As always, the hope is the Nets organization allows Robbins to cover the team without editorial interference. It's a progressive move for both entities, and here's hoping the marriage works out.
4. It was a great week for notable sports pieces:
• New York Times reporter Mary Pilon delivered a fantastic piece on an MMA fighter faking his own death.
• CBS Sports columnist Bruce Feldman spent a week with Texas A&M prior to its loss against Alabama. The behind-the-scenes access is remarkable.
• New York Times writer Andrew Keh examined the efforts of MLS to eliminate vulgar chants.
• David J. Roth of The Classical, on Bleacher Report founder Bryan Goldberg and the future soul of the sports site.
• The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas sat in on the anterior cruciate ligament surgery for Giants cornerback Stevie Brown. A fascinating piece.
• Sports on Earth writer Leigh Montville wrote a beautiful tribute to Ken Norton.
• Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason profiled a man with 20 percent vision attempting to visit all 125 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Plenty of non-sports pieces of note, too:
• Esquire's Chris Jones wrote a sensational piece on what happened in the crowded cabin of Air Force One on Nov. 22, 1963 after President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas.
• The Atlantic reported on a study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology that showed athletes perform better under pressure when they made a fist with their left hand.
• This Economist obit on Robert Capon, priest, theologian and food writer, is a clinic in beautiful writing.
• Pro Publica reported there are at least 7,795 bridges in the U.S. at significant risk of collapsing.
• Writer Jeff Pearlman on the best lede he ever wrote.
5. The WNBA said its regular season games on ESPN2 averaged 231,000 viewers, up 28 percent over last season (180,000). The regular-season's most viewed telecast was the Chicago-Phoenix season-opener on ESPN2, which averaged 455,000 viewers. That game was the most-viewed regular season game on ESPN2 since 2004.
5a. Al Michaels called his 25th primetime Steelers game Sunday night.
5b. ESPN will air "The Book of Manning" at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday. The film, narrated by actor John Goodman, explores the personal and professional life of Archie Manning and the rearing of his quarterback-playing sons.
5c. The most recent Sports Media Weekly podcast featured guest Michelle Beadle talking candidly about what she perceived as a lack of promotion for her daily NBC Sports Network show.
5e. The NFL Network has a strong edition of "A Football Life" at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday. The subject is Derrick Thomas, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the Chiefs who died at age 33 in 2000, less than a month after being paralyzed in a car crash on an icy road. Former Sports Illustrated writer Michael Silver wrote a tribute to Thomas shortly after his death.
5f. Lyman Bostock died 35 years ago today and MLB Network has produced a 30-minute examination (The Lyman Bostock Story) on the Twins and Angels outfielder who was murdered four seasons into his career at the age of 27. The show is narrated by MLB Network's Bob Costas and features the first on-camera interview with Bostock's widow, Yuovene Whistler, since the night her husband died. Here's a clip of the show, which will air at 1:00 p.m. ET Monday on MLB Network.
5g. We continue to see the results of ESPN management burying Outside The Lines. The Sept. 15 broadcast of OTL on ESPN2 (8-8:30 am) averaged 273,000 viewers. The final Sunday show on ESPN (9-9:30 am) averaged 846,000 viewers.