There are very few absolutes in sports broadcasting but one of them is the changing cast of ESPN's NBA Countdown program. The roll call of hosts over the last decade includes Mike Tirico, Dan Patrick, John Saunders, Stuart Scott, Hannah Storm, Michael Wilbon, Sage Steele and Doris Burke. Michelle Beadle also took a spin this year as a fill-in. The roster of analysts is even longer.
Trying to find the right talent mix for a high-profile sports studio show is understandable for a network heavily invested in the NBA, and some of the changes to Countdown have improved the show over the years. But the lack of on-air continuity makes a sharp contrast to its more popular pre-and post-game counterpart: TNT's Inside The NBA. (Even a young Bill Simmons celebrated TNT's chemistry when he spent the day with the crew in 2002 as a Page 2 writer for ESPN.com).
Prior to this NBA season, ESPN installed Steele as Countdown's main host (and Burke as a secondary one) where Michael Wilbon previously served as a combo host/analyst. Former NBA coach Doug Collins was brought when Magic Johnson abruptly resigned from ESPN last October. Simmons and Jalen Rose were the holdover analysts from last year.
How did that mix shake out? Opinions are all over the map based on the NBA viewers I've conversed with this season. Some viewers like Steele. Some think she's lightweight on basketball. Some viewers like Simmons. Some think he comes off as entitled and whiny. Some viewers like Rose. Some think he desperately tries to be Charles Barkley. Some viewers like Collins. Some people think he looks miserable on set and is miscast as a studio analyst.
From my vantage point, ESPN management failed to nurture the show effectively. What was befuddling during this postseason was the insistence on providing an overload of NBA voices rather than trusting the Countdown team to carry postgames on its own. Think about how Inside The NBA works. While Turner shows live player press conferences and brings on guests (usually for great segments thanks to the byplay between Charles Barkley and current players), Inside never accedes airtime to other Turner analysts to comment. It believes in its cast and wants to brand it as the final authority on the game it just televised.
Strangely, Countdown's staff was buried Sunday night on the biggest NBA night of the year -- the final game of the NBA Finals. The Countdown group did two segments during SportsCenter (around postgame press conferences) for a total of maybe five minutes. They also taped two segments for SportsCenter later that night. Throughout the playoffs and on Sunday night, Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith received a ton of airtime including appearing on ESPN News before the Countdown crew (ESPN News had the first crack at NBA Finals postgame coverage due to MLB airing on ESPN and NHRA drag racing on ESPN2). Is that the sign of a deep bench or that management does not trust Countdown to handle the postgame on its own? Viewers notice this stuff and if I'm doing the assigning, Countdown is getting every bit of airtime so I can build them up with NBA fans against the Barkley-Kenny Smith-Ernie Johnson-Shaq juggernaut.
What happens next? I'd be stunned if the main cast remained the same. Steele signed a multi-year extension with ESPN and when I spoke with her earlier in the year, she was committed to Countdown for multiple years and management was with her as well. I see her back. Rose is likely back, too. Simmons is tough to predict. He worried last year about the travel away from his family and it's clear there were times this postseason he was not happy with the show's direction. (Take it to the bank that multiple staffers are frustrated by management's treatment of the show.) Collins is miscast significantly, in my opinion. He's easily the best basketball mind on that set but there's no on-air chemistry between he and his partners. In an ideal world, Collins would do games only (where he is great) and in a really ideal world, ESPN and TNT would negotiate an out so Collins could replace Steve Kerr on TNT's top team with Marv Albert. If you asked me today, I'd say Collins is not back with the main team.
Chemistry is always an X-factor for studio shows. Sometimes you get magic. Sometimes you get Matt Lauer and Ann Curry. Countdown's main group has an odd chemistry. It's not negative by any means, but they also don't celebrate each other the way Inside does -- or even mock each other enough good-naturedly. The only prediction I'd make for certain is change is coming again, which for this show isn't really a prediction at all.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. CBS Sports announced some significant changes last week for its NFL package. As first reported by SI.com, Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts have moved up to the No. 2 spot on its NFL roster. They will also call the network's top game on Sundays when Jim Nantz and Phil Simms do not call a Sunday game. (Nantz and Simms have a busy schedule this year with Thursday Night Football responsibilities.) The retirement of Dan Dierdorf also opened up an analyst spot and that role will be filled by Trent Green, the longtime NFL quarterback who is in his first year as an analyst. Marv Albert will no longer call NFL games so his usual partner, Rich Gannon, will now patner with Kevin Harlan.
The entire CBS roster looks as followed:
No. 1: Jim Nantz/Phil Simms//Tracy Wolfson
No. 2: Ian Eagle/Dan Fouts
No. 3: Greg Gumbel/Trent Green
No. 4: Kevin Harlan/Rich Gannon
No. 5: Spero Dedes/Solomon Wilcots
No. 6: Andrew Catalon/Steve Beuerlein/Steve Tasker
CBS said play-by-play announcers Brian Anderson and Tom McCarthy will be used as well as analysts Adam Archuleta and Chris Simms during busy weeks.
1a. CBS also announced Jenny Dell and Evan Washburn were hired as sideline reporters on NFL broadcasts. Tracy Wolfson will be the sideline reporter on the Thursday night game.
2. The final viewership numbers are in for the NBA Finals. The five-game series averaged 15,524,000 viewers on ABC, up from 15,120,000 viewers through the first five games of last year's Spurs-Heat series but well down from the final viewership average last year (17.7 million).
2a. Game 5 of the NBA Finals generated 17.8 million viewers. The top rated TV markets for that game: 1. San Antonio; 2. Miami; 3. Austin; 4. Oklahoma City; 5. West Palm Beach.
2b. How would an ESPN-er evaluate the network's coverage of LeBron James? I asked ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose prior to the start of the playoffs: "I think LeBron James is fairly covered by ESPN and by most national networks," Rose said. "He's universally recognized as the best player in the world. We've become a bottom-line business, fans and media types alike, and what I mean by that is Jerry West became the logo even though he made it to multiple NBA Finals and lost. Now we live in a bottom-line generation where we're only counting the championship rings. So if Jerry West would have come along at a time like now, he wouldn't be known as Mr. Clutch -- I'll tell you that. Because we rate and judge these players on how many championships they win when you're in elite status like a Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and now a LeBron James. So being a two-time champion, being the face of the league, on multiple commercials, he's done a terrific job of highlighting his brand, being a role model, being a leader of the Miami Heat. I think he deserves all of the accolades that he gets.... His body language in the fourth quarter of a meaningless game in March may get overblown, but that's just more so a function of the bottom-line, multimedia society and cycle that constantly needs something to talk about versus acknowledging that LeBron James has been a terrific ambassador for the league."
3. NBC/NBCSN averaged 5.0 million viewers for the Stanley Cup Final, down from last year's 5.76 million viewers and up from the 2012 series that featured the Kings-Devils (3 million). It was the fifth most-watched Stanley Cup Final since 1994. The entire Stanley Cup Playoffs across NBC/NBCSN/CNBC averaged 1.445 million viewers, the second-best audience for NBC Sports Group since the net began airing the entire playoffs in '06.
3a. The 77 NHL playoff games telecast on NBCSN and CNBC averaged 1.098 million viewers, ranking as the most-watched NHL playoffs on cable in 17 years.
4. ESPN's broadcast of the U.S.'s 2-1 World Cup win over Ghana averaged a 7.0 overnight rating, the highest overnight rating ever for a men's World Cup match on ESPN or ESPN2 (since 1998).
4a. The top-10 metered markets for the game: Washington, DC (11.8), New York (10.2), Hartford-New Haven (10.1), Boston (10.0), Columbus, Ohio (8.9), Baltimore (8.7), Providence (8.4), Orlando (8.3), San Francisco (8.0) and Norfolk (7.8). ESPN said Boston had its highest-ever overnight in that market for the men's World Cup.
4b. Through 14 matches, ESPN said its Top-10 highest-rated World Cup markets were: Washington (5.0), San Francisco (4.4), New York (4.1), Boston (3.8), Orlando (3.7), Los Angeles (3.7), Miami (3.7), Hartford (3.7), Atlanta (3.6) and (all tied) Seattle, West Palm Beach and San Diego (3.4).
4c. The network said USA-Ghana was biggest event ever on WatchESPN; it was viewed by 1.4 million people.
4d. ESPN is using the Brazilian artist Jambeiro to paint the story of the World Cup on a wall outside of its broadcast setup in Rio. ESPN spokesperson Bill Hofheimer said the idea came from senior production specialist Geoffrey Mason, who has had a 40-year career in sports broadcasting and is the former executive producer at ABC Sports. Mason said the idea is an offshoot of Leroy Neiman painting the story of the 1976 Montreal Games for ABC.
4e. Some of you have inquired about the pictures you are seeing from ESPN during the World Cup. ESPN and other rightsholders use the world feed and that includes replays. They do not get to choose which shots are used or the frequency of replays. That decision is made by HBS, the FIFA host broadcaster.
5. Tony Gwynn passed away on Monday at age 54. Here's SI senior writer Tom Verducci's 1997 cover story on the Hall of Fame baseball player and Verducci's obit for Gwynn.
5a. HBO's John Oliver goes all-in on Washington football owner Daniel Synder.
5b. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported NBC earned a 3.3 overnight rating for the final round of the U.S. Open, down 46 percent from a 6.1 overnight for last year's final round. (Obviously, Martin Kaymer's runaway win had a lot to do with the viewership number.) Via GolfDigest.com, here's how NBC signed off from the Open. Fox will take over the coverage for the next 12 years.
5c. Nice NYT profile here of NBC golf and Olympics producer Tommy Roy.
5d. On Sunday I wrote about the relationship between NBC NHL broadcaster Mike Emrick and the late Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Ernie Harwell. As a first-year doctoral student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1973, Emrick reached out to Harwell to be the de-facto adviser for his dissertation ("Major League Baseball Principal Play By Play Announcers: Their Occupation Background And Personal Life").