Media Circus: Previewing this season's NBA broadcast landscape
- With a new NBA season about to get underway, here's what's new and notable from various networks' broadcasts.
If you are reading this column, you are well aware that the NFL has suffered double-digit percentage viewership declines this season among its primetime games. What remains unknown are the causes of those declines, whether it be viewers flipping to cable news because of the presidential election, too much product available, a glut of bad games, a decline of star quarterbacks, a statement against players not standing for the national anthem, or something entirely different. Or maybe it’s due to a larger decline of sports consumption on television due to cord-cutting and other factors.
This is the environment that awaits the start of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of viewership the league gets early on. Logically, it should be a great year for the NBA. Sports television networks love super teams and star power—and they particularly like polarizing teams. As they made a run toward regular-season history last year, the Golden State Warriors were far and away the league’s most popular television draw. Of the 10 most-watched regular season games last year, the Warriors were involved in seven of them. This year they’ve added former MVP Kevin Durant, a transaction that will be discussed, debated and dissected throughout the season. Last year the Warriors made 30 appearances combined across ABC, ESPN, and TNT (NBA TV also aired 12 games), exceeding the contractual 25-game cap for those networks. Look for more of the same this year.
This year is the start of a nine-year media-rights extension that the NBA signed with ESPN and Turner in 2014 (The average annual combined payment to the NBA between the two entities is reported to be $2.6 billion). The biggest TV change in the deal was the addition of more game for both networks, and that in turn leads to more studio programming. Below, we offer you a guide to following the NBA on television this season.
The ESPN and ABC telecast schedule features more than 100 regular-season games, the most ever for the network. ESPN will air 82 games (up from 70), including doubleheaders on Wednesday and Friday nights. ABC will air 19 games as part of an NBA Saturday Primetime show in addition to its Sunday Showcase. From January to April, ABC and ESPN will combine to televise NBA games four days per week. ESPN Deportes will also carry a 50-game regular-season NBA schedule.
• As per one of the annual traditions in sports broadcasting, ESPN underwent extensive changes to its NBA studio show. Michelle Beadle will now host NBA Countdown on Wednesdays and Fridays. Chauncey Billups, Jalen Rose and newcomer Tracy McGrady will be the analysts on Wednesday; Rose and Billups will be the analysts on Fridays. ESPN said NBA Countdown will expand to mostly one-hour shows on Wednesdays and Fridays, starting at 7 p.m. ET prior to ESPN NBA doubleheaders.
• Doris Burke will no longer host Countdown but instead will work more games as in-game analyst. She will also remain as a sideline reporter for major games including the postseason.
• Doug Collins has transitioned to a full-time game analyst role. He had primarily served as an NBA Countdown studio analyst for the past three years. Collins will regularly appear alongside play-by-play commentator Dave Pasch on ESPN’s No. 3 team. This is a more natural fit for Collins.
• Mark Jones replaces Mike Tirico as ESPN’s No. 2 NBA announcer. He’ll partner with Hubie Brown during the season.
• Rachel Nichols and Zach Lowe will make contributions to NBA Countdown throughout the season. Lowe recently signed a new deal with ESPN and this assignment was obviously a large incentive.
• Sage Steele will continue to host the Saturday and Sunday versions of NBA Countdown on ABC, which begin in January.
• The Jump, a daily NBA studio show hosted by Nichols, will air Monday through Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2, before moving to ESPN after the Super Bowl. ESPN said the show will now be a season-long show. The network signed NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen to be an analyst for The Jump.
• ESPN re-signed NBA senior writer Marc Stein while longtime insider Chris Broussard has moved on to FS1.
• ESPN and ABC own the two most-anticipated regular-season games this season. First, on Christmas Day, the Warriors travel to Cleveland to play the Cavs in a rematch of the last two finals The game will air at 2:30 p.m. ET. On Feb. 11 Durant returns to Oklahoma City for the first time since leaving the Thunder, a matchup that airs at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
• ESPN/ABC is very deep on quality game talent including play-by-play announcers (Mike Breen, Mark Jones, Dave Pasch, Ryan Ruocco), analysts (Burke, Hubie Brown, Collins, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy) and sideline reporters (J.A. Adande, Burke, Israel Gutierrez, Cassidy Hubbarth, Lisa Salters, Holly Rowe).
• Speaking of Brown, he’s a national treasure and recently re-signed with ESPN. It’s a pleasure listening to him explain the game on-air. A cool note for me: Hubie Brown’s first-ever podcast was the SI Media Podcast:
• Van Gundy has become the best game analyst in the sport thanks to his willingness to go to places most analysts would not when it comes to league-wide issues.
• Beadle has roots in the NBA and will be a good fit in the host chair.
• The Jump offers a nice refuge from ESPN’s morning NBA hot-take brigade, which has recently included Stephen A. Smith threatening Durant. Smith, I assume, was given a raise for this because he certainly wasn’t reprimanded.
What needs work:
• Inexplicably, ESPN/ABC often lets SportsCenter anchor the post-game coverage of NBA postseason games as opposed to the Countdown crew who have been with the sport all season. The network also historically pulls out of press conference to get their opinionists (Smith, etc.) air time. Whenever this happens, go on social media and ESPN’s viewers will let you know how they feel, at least the ones not already watching NBA TV. It’s also counter-productive: The message to the audience is that ESPN execs don’t trust Countdown talent for the biggest spots of the season. Is it any surprise why ESPN can’t get long-term traction for this show?
TNT will increase the number of regular season games to 64 from 52 while NBA TV will air over 100 regular-season games, an increase from 96.
• Turner has a new Monday night package, which is expected to be in the neighborhood of 12 games. The package will start in January. The Inside The NBA team of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith will be part of those nights, which is great.
• NBA Hall of Famer and former coach Kevin McHale returns to Turner Sports to provide analysis for NBA TV’s Fan Night, along with select NBA on TNT game telecasts. McHale worked for Turner Sports from 2009 to 2011. Fan Night (which airs on Tuesday nights throughout the season) has a studio team of Johnson, Greg Anthony, McHale and Webber.
• Casey Stern, the host of TBS’s MLB postseason studio coverage on TBS, will do some NBA hosting for NBA TV.
• Inside The NBA is the best sports studio show in history. Obviously, Turner is unlikely to change the main cast anytime soon but network executives say they’d be willing to add another studio analyst to the mix if it was the right person. “If someone like Kobe Bryant came along, who would be fantastic on TV with great name recognition, a student of the game, and from what we have seen, no filter, we’d figure out a way,” said Scooter Vertino, general manager of NBA digital and senior vice president of programming at Turner Sports: “Yes, those guys [Barkley, Smith and O’Neal] are pretty much set but throughout the year our guys are off sometimes, whether being honored somewhere or working the NCAA tournament. If there is someone we feel can add or someone who can help us, we would look to partner with them.”
•Turner has a lot of strength with its on-air talent including play-by-play voices Marv Albert and Kevin Harlan, analyst Chris Webber and reporters Craig Sager, David Aldridge and Kristen Ledlow.
• TNT gets Dwyane Wade’s first trip back to Miami on Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. ET, Durant’s first game as a Warrior on Tuesday night (10:30 p.m. ET) against the Spurs, and Durant’s first game against Oklahoma City on Nov. 3 (10:30 p.m. ET).
• Inside The NBA never runs away from social issues and often their most interesting segments are when they stray away from basketball.
• The Starters (Leigh Ellis, J.E. Skeets (Phil Elder), Tas Melas and Trey Kerby) continue to expand their brand which includes a daily TV show (on NBATV, usually at 7 p.m. ET), podcast (the audio from the TV show gets turned into a podcast that can be found on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher) and a live Twitter show (The Starters Twitter Show, which will be streamed via Twitter every Tuesday at 11 a.m. ET.)
• As part of the team's opening night game against the Spurs on Oct. 25, the Golden State Warriors have created a “Sager Strong” T-shirt that will be given to all fans attending the game.
What needs work:
• Turner can improve the depth of its game analysts. Reggie Miller is polarizing in terms of how viewers feel about him (myself included) and Mike Fratello would be better served with a second analyst who is just coming off retirement as a player or coach. I would love to see Turner go after someone like Paul Pierce.
SiriusXM NBA Radio has live play-by-play of every game from opening night through the NBA Finals, plus daily talk and analysis. The channel airs nationwide on satellite radios (XM channel 86, Sirius channel 207) and on the SiriusXM app. Among the roster of former players and coaches: Antonio Daniels, Antonio Davis, Brendan Haywood, Eddie Johnson, Tim Legler, Rick Mahorn, Sam Mitchell , Brian Scalabrine and Jason Terry. The hosts: Mark Boyle, Gerald Brown, Ric Bucher, Tom Byrne, Noah Coslov, Howie Cowart, Brian Geltzeiler, Jared Greenberg, Jonathan Hood, Frank Isola, Jason Jackson, Mitch Lawrence, Joel Meyers, Mark Morgan, Jeff Rickard and Justin Termine.
ESPN Radio will carry 28 regular-season games, in addition to extensive playoff and NBA Finals coverage. Marc Kestecher will make his debut this season as ESPN Radio’s primary play-by-play voice, alongside analyst Jon Barry, with P.J. Carlesimo (analyst) and Kara Lawson (analyst) returning for select games.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Fox Sports vice president of production Bardia Shah-Rais checked his email after midnight recently and found a familiar name in his inbox: Alex Rodriguez.
This has been going on for the past two weeks.
“He’ll email me at midnight sometimes and say something like, ‘You know what? I re-watched [Cubs first baseman] Anthony Rizzo’s at-bat and here’s what I’m thinking as a demo,’ said Shah-Rais. “He’s vested into owning the content. He loves baseball. He is a true baseball nerd.”
For years Fox had struggled to find a compelling baseball pregame and postgame show but they have found something special with host Kevin Burkhardt and analysts Rodriguez, Pete Rose and Frank Thomas. The producers of the show, Jon Kaplan and Royce Dickerson, plan discussions for the program but ultimately let the group go where they want to go, which is in the spirit of Turner’s Inside The NBA and ESPN’s College GameDay. That free-form approach has helped the show find its voice. Obviously, you also need chemistry and an ego-free host who has enough knowledge about the sport to keep things on track. Fox has that with Burkhardt.
Said Shah-Rais: “We try not to build the shows super tight where it’s like Kevin asks a question, Alex answers, Pete answers, then Frank answers, and then we go to break. It’s also the chemistry. These guys generally like each other. I am not bulls------- you. I don’t think anyone would have thought Pete Rose and Alex Rodriguez would make for good TV and like each other but they really do. And Frank’s selfless ego allows Alex and Pete to mix it up. He’s the most humble and low maintenance Hall of Famer I’ve ever worked with.”
Rodriguez has done about 15 studio shows since joining Fox last year and Shah-Rais said he’s becoming and more and more comfortable in meetings and suggesting ideas. Landing Rodriguez—which was the result of former Fox talent head Laura Marcus having a relationship with Rodriguez’s PR reps—has been a huge get for Fox’s baseball coverage. (Clearly, it will also help Rodriguez as a PR play with his Hall of Fame candidacy coming up over the next few years.) If Rodriguez wants to do this long-term, Fox Sports would hire him in a minute.
“I think he gets a certain fix doing this,” Shah-Rais said. “Only Alex can answer if he wants to do this full time but I can say after getting to know him over the past two years is that this is not a hobby for him. It’s not a parachute in. He’s invested. If we have a noon meeting, he’s there at 11:30 a.m. He’s emailing story ideas in the morning. He wants research. He’s almost all-in to the point where it’s annoying. I tell him sometimes to trust himself and not worry so much about all his notes. Alex is probably over-prepared and Pete makes fun of the fact that Alex has a binder of notes where Pete just comes in and says whatever. Sometimes Pete will bring up a B-Block discussion in the A-Block and we just have to go with it.”
Sports network executives are not moralists and history has shown they will hire bad actors as long as those actions did not occur during their broadcasting tenure. I asked Shah-Rais what he would say to viewers who don’t believe Rodriguez and Rose, given their many past baseball transgressions, should have a forum on the World Series broadcast.
“I’d say they know baseball better than anyone or just as good as anyone else,” Shah-Rais said. “They love the game. They are passionate about it. And they communicate it well. I think they do baseball good. People are interested in what they have to say, people care about what they have to say. They are promoting the sport. Neither of those two guys say anything disparaging about the sport. To a fault they love it. And they are good, compelling television.”
1a. For years I’ve written that Joe Buck is unappreciated as a baseball game-caller. On Saturday he did what the best game broadcasters do—he gave you a memorable out and then let the crowd noise tell the story:
1b. FS1's broadcast of the Cubs’ NLCS Game 6 clincher over the Dodgers drew 9,706,000 viewers and a 7.17 overnight rating, the most-watched and highest-rated telecast in FS1 history. It was the most-watched LCS telecast on any network since 2010 (Giants-Phillies on Fox which drew 11.6 million viewers). The game peaked at 12.2 million viewers between 10:30 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. ET.
1c. According to FS1, the 2016 NLCS averaged 6,953,000 viewers over six games, up 80% from last year’s ALCS and +56 percent from the NLCS on FS1 in 2014.
1d. I happened to watch Fox NFL Sunday this week—perennially the most-watched NFL pregame show prior to the afternoon games. There’s a reason this show has enjoyed extended success, from strong on-air chemistry to owning the NFC rights (which gives Fox bigger TV markets than CBS).
On Sunday, at the start of the show, I saw a lot of promos for Fox’s sponsors, promos for Fox’s talent, promos for Fox’s upcoming sports programs, watched laughter on the set and saw a couple of quick football points. Some nine minutes in, Fox NFL Sunday went to insider Jay Glazer for a 90-second or so update on Josh Brown, the Giants kicker who police documents released Wednesday revealed had been “physically, verbally and emotionally” abusive to his wife.
After Glazer’s segment, there was no talk from the panel, no examination of how Giants management handled things (the panel includes a very famous former Giant in Michael Strahan), no discussion on whether the NFL is serious about domestic violence, and no woman on the panel. By 12:11 p.m. ET, the show had moved on.
I don’t mention this to knock Fox NFL Sunday. There’s a larger issue. The Fox producers made a decision, as all producers do, on how much to discuss Brown, when to discuss Brown, and whether any discussion of the issue should be part of a pregame show, where no doubt many fans go to get a preview of games. And I’ll note that Fox’s pregame show that aired an hour earlier did more on the topic.
But if you want to know why things will never change on domestic violence in the NFL, you got a small sense of it with Fox’s coverage. This is the most-watched pregame show prior to Sunday’s early slate of games. It carries weight. It has reach. It has the rights to many Giants games. 90 seconds.
1e. ESPN’s NFL Countdown went to a discussion on Brown eight minutes into its show. After updating where things stood with Brown’s NFL eligibility, host Wendi Nix led a five-minute, 13-second long discussion with Randy Moss, Charles Woodson and Adam Schefter. Moss called Giants owner John Mara “a joke” and later was very critical of Roger Goodell. This group was very strong.
1f. ESPN’s Sunday NFL Insiders had a four-minute, 30-second segment on Brown with host Trey Wingo and analysts Mark Dominik, Louis Riddick and Schefter. Said Riddick: "As if there are levels when it comes to DV, that you can somehow, some way then use that to gauge how you should punish someone. That’s kind of ridiculous. The other thing that really starts to annoy me about this—talking about Josh Brown as a kicker, like, as if with kickers they automatically should be kicked out of the league. But if it was a quarterback or wide receiver or running back, well then, you could see where maybe you could give a guy a second chance. DV is what it is. This is something that should be treated heavy-handed right from the beginning, and then maybe you start to walk it back as you find out more information. You don’t go the other way with it and give him a little soft punishment and then we’ll ratchet it up as we find out more in order to cover our rear end. That’s why over and over again it seems like the league is getting this wrong, teams are getting this wrong, because you’re starting off too lenient and then, kind of like, cover your end on the back side of it.”
1g. CBS’s The NFL Today had a five-minute, 40-second segment on Brown including a multiple-minute conversation with its analysts. Said Bill Cowher: “It is a bad optic because of the time line of information released. I understand the legalities that are involved but for the New York Giants: How much information did you have? When did you get that information? And why did you not share this with the National Football League office? I would say to them, do the right thing. Josh Brown, by his own admission to repeated offenses, should be cut tomorrow and he should lose the privilege of playing in the National Football League again. I commend him for getting counseling, but he should not be in the National Football League again.”
1h. CBS Sports Network NFL analyst London Fletcher, appearing on That Other Pregame Show, on the NFL and Brown: “This is another example of the incompetence by the NFL when it comes to handling domestic violence situations. Every year, the NFL hosts security meetings with every single team. They parade one guy after another and talk about their 25-year law enforcement history. They have worked with the FBI. They have worked with the Sheriff's Department. Yet through all these resources and connections that you have as the National Football League, you couldn’t get anyone in the King County Sheriff's Department to tell you off-the-record that Josh Brown admitted to beating his wife for years? That’s unacceptable. That’s unacceptable by the National Football League. And it’s lazy.
1i. Fox NFL Kickoff ran a four-minute, 37-second segment on Brown featuring a discussion with host Charissa Thompson and analysts Colin Cowherd, Mike Lombardi, Charles Tillman and Dave Wannstedt.
1j. The NFL Network during its morning coverage ran multiple pieces on Brown on TNF GameDay that totaled a little under nine minutes including reporter Steve Wyche explaining where Brown’s status was currently. Here’s a four-minute, 31-second conversation between host Rich Eisen and analysts Michael Irvin, Steve Mariucci, and Kurt Warner.
1k. Football Night In America addressed the Brown story via a two-minute, 44-second conversation between co-host Dan Patrick and insider Mike Florio.
1l. One thing I noticed on all these shows: There was very little discussion of Molly Brown, the ex-wife of Josh Brown.
2. Great job by CBS Sports and ESPN execs to allow Verne Lundquist to serve as the celebrity guest picker for College GameDay this weekend. Lundquist, who will retire from calling college football at the end of the SEC season and is one of the truly good people in sports media, had long been on the radar of Lee Fitting, now a senior coordinating producer for ESPN's college studio shows and the longtime producer of College GameDay. Earlier this year Fitting reached out to Craig Silver, who produces CBS’s SEC Game of the Week, with the idea. Eventually, it made it’s way to CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who gave the green light. Props to all.
2a. Most watched college football games of the weekend (overnight ratings):
Alabama-Texas A&M: 5.4 rating (CBS)
Penn State-Ohio State: 4.2 (ABC)
Wisconsin-Iowa: 2.0 (ESPN)
Alabama-Texas A&M peaked at 6.7 between 6 and 6:30 p.m. ET while Penn State’s upset of Ohio State on ABC peaked from 11:30 to 11:45 p.m. ET with a 5.8 rating.
2b. Via Austin Karp: CBS’s SEC Game of the Week had increased 12% over last year through Week 7, averaging 5.31 million viewers compared to 4.72 million viewers at the same point last season.
3. Episode 83 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold, who most notably has covered Donald Trump’s charitable giving through his Donald J. Trump Foundation, and broke the story of Trump bragging about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation with Access Hollywood caught on a hot microphone.
In this hour-long episode, Fahrenthold discusses the parallels between political reporting and sports reporting; how he and his Post colleagues reported the Access Hollywood tape story; why he will not reveal the source to that story; how the Post verified the authenticity of the video; what it was like knowing he had a story that would have a seismic impact on an election; and much, much more.
A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3a. Episode 84 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast will feature Elliotte Friedman, the NHL insider for Hockey Night in Canada and NHL Network, and a columnist for Sportsnet’s (Canada) website. The podcast debuts Thursday.
Topics include: The biggest storylines in hockey, how the game is covered in Canada, what Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews mean for the league, the changes at Hockey Night In Canada, the relationship between the Canadian media and the NHL, how Friedman puts together his 30 Thoughts column, mixing up Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte while calling the Rio Olympics for CBC, and more.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• This profile of Kevin Love by Lee Jenkins is the best NBA piece I've read in SI this year.
• From Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer: The boy Rae Carruth wanted dead plans to be at the prison gates when Carruth—his father—is released.
• What happened when two ex-Kansas rowers accused a football player of sexual assault? From SI’s Scooby Axson.
• ESPN’s Wayne Drehs went to an Illinois nursing home to watch a Cubs playoff game.
• Annie Apple, on why she couldn't “shut up” about Giants owner John Mara's callous stance on domestic violence.
• SI’s Tom Verducci on the Cubs going to the World Series.
• A soccer team emerges through tragedy, via Austin Danforth of the Burlington Free Press.
• ESPN’s Ethan Strauss on Draymond Green.
• Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck goes behind-the-scenes on how the rest of the NBA is coping with Golden State’s superteam:
Non-sports pieces of note:
• This piece by Jayson Greene on losing his 2-year-old daughter —she was killed when a piece of masonry fell eight stories from an improperly maintained building and struck her in the head while she sat on a bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother—will not leave you anytime soon.
• Great piece by NYT reporter Julie Bosman on how seventh graders in a social studies class at DeLong Middle School in Eau Claire, Wis. are dealing with the election.
• Klara Bowman became infamous for being Tacoma's drunken teacher. Three months later she was dead.
• From Outside’s Peter Frick-Wright: What happened to Eastern Airlines Flight 980.
• From Michael J. Socolow of Inside Higher Ed: How I got scooped.
• Good L.A. Times piece on Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday, who did a great job as a presidential debate moderator.
• From Elle’s Alice Robb: The Afterlife of a Ballerina.
• Greenland is melting, by Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker.
From The Atlantic: How social media is being weaponized across the world.
• Via the NYT: Should We See Everything a Cop Sees?
5. Word came down last week that Richard Sandomir, the longtime sports business and sports media writer for the New York Times, was moving to the obit section of the paper. He will be missed, though he is moving to a position that has much more prominence given the historical importance of NYT obits. I had many conversations with Richard over the years and respected him always, even when I disagreed with something he wrote. Along with SI’s William Taaffe and others, he provided a blueprint on how to cover sports media nationally with a writer’s touch as opposed to the rat-tat-tat musings of Rudy Martzke. I lost count on how many times I would do research on a subject and find a Sandomir column. He asked tough questions on conference calls and press conferences, which helped others do the same. People thought I considered him a competitor but that wasn’t the case for me. That the New York Times invested in sports media—and invested with a quality journalist—was always helpful. I wish him only the best.
5a. Vice Sports profiled women’s basketball broadcaster LaChina Robinson.
5b. This a great sports photo by Nathan Denette of The Canadian Press
5c. NHL fans: I asked nine media members to discuss the league’s biggest topics, including its young stars, players as hockey analysts and potential rule changes.
5d. Awful Announcing assigned my former colleague Jimmy Traina to watch sports debate television all day. Here's his report.
5e. SportsCenter’s a.m. show has tough competition in its time slot (as all SportsCenters now do), but it did have one of its best days in some time on Oct. 10. The show drew 580,000 viewers between 9 and 10 a.m., topping all but seven cable shows during that slot.
5f. On Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel profiles Australian runner Peter Norman, the third man on the podium during the 200-meter final medal ceremony (with Tommie Smith and John Carlos) at the 1968 Olympic Games.
5g. Per New York Magazine, Curt Schilling, who was dismissed by ESPN six months ago, will begin hosting a daily online radio show for Breitbart News featuring political commentary and calls from listeners.
5h. Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand had a podcast with Around The Horn host Tony Reali.
5i. Toronto Globe and Mail writer David Shoalts wrote a piece on Ron Maclean returning to Hockey Night In Canada as host following two years of exile.
5j. Drew Sharp, the longtime Detroit Free Press sports columnist, passed away at the too-young age of 56. Here are some memories from his colleagues.