Inside the production of Turner Sports’s video obit for Craig Sager

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Turner Sports' Creative Director reflects on producing Craig Sager's obituary
0:59 | NBA
Turner Sports' Creative Director reflects on producing Craig Sager's obituary
Sunday December 18th, 2016

If the piece ever aired, it meant the worst.

It meant that Craig Sager had passed away.

The man who oversaw the piece remembers the exact day he was assigned it because he texted his wife afterward to tell her what had just happened. The text remains in his cell phone, forever a reminder. On June 23, 2015, Drew Watkins, the vice president creative director at Turner Sports, made the 30-foot walk from his desk to the office of Tim Kiely, the longtime producer of Inside The NBA. Meeting with Kiely was not an uncommon occurrence for Watkins, but the assignment he received that day was anything but ordinary.

“Tim called me into his office and said, “Look, when the time comes, when it looks like it is getting to that moment for Sages, [Turner Sports chief content officer] Craig [Barry] wants you to write the script for it.”

Watkins said he was quiet for about 10 seconds. Then he addressed Kiely​.

“I get it,” Watkins told him. “That was basically the end of the meeting. I had worked with Tim for many years and we did not have to talk about it. We understand what it meant.”

• A Moment Of Joy: The Perfect Send-Off For Craig Sager

What it meant was working on a piece no one at Turner Sports wanted to work on. After getting word from Barry, Watkins quietly assigned writer-producer Kyle Wells last summer to research and procure memorable video featuring Sager. The goal was to find on-air moments that represented what Sager was about. When Sager’s health improved, Watkins and Wells would stop working on the project. The work would continue when they learned Sager’s health had turned for the worse. A third staffer, writer-producer Tyler Lassiter, helped Wells with the video b-roll. The piece was completed last month. And then everyone waited, hoping against hope.

“It was with a lot of the expected reluctance and pain that we began the process,” Watkins said. “There is always a little bit of denial and nobody really wanted to work on such a piece because it makes it that much more of a reality. But being in the business, you have to do difficult things some time.”

Last Thursday the awful day finally arrived—Sager passed away at 65.  He died of acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive type of cancer first discovered in April 2014.

Turner Sports sent out a statement on Sager’s passing at 3:19 p.m. ET on Thursday. The video obit, featuring words by Watkins and narration by Ernie Johnson, aired on NBA TV 10 minutes later. It then went out on Turner’s social channels and aired on Inside The NBA later that night, which is where the majority of people saw it. The piece captured the essence of Sager, someone who brought immense joy to his life inside and outside basketball. The video is here:

“I wanted a person to watch it and feel like they could understand Craig Sager,” Watkins said. “I knew the guys on set would tell great stories and the fans would do moments of silence and joy. I had this little part of writing a script to put it in perspective.”

“Drew is one of the most insightful and passionate writers in our industry and his relationship with Craig made him uniquely qualified to write the obit.” Barry said. “I’m sure the piece meant different things to different people. For me, it was both reflective and emotional. I have known Craig for 27 years so it paid tribute to my fondest memories while capturing and celebrating his inspirational spirit that made him so special. It brought me to tears.”

Watkins said he had known Sager since Watkins started working at Turner Sports in 2000 as a production assistant. Back then, Sager owned a popular sports bar called “Jocks & Jills” in Atlanta and Watkins and Sager would often eat together at lunch. Though they saw each other often after Watkins got the assignment, he and Sager never spoke about the script. Barry said he believed that Sager was not aware of the video obit and that he also never discussed it with him.

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Watkins said Johnson providing the voice on the obit was the easiest decision he made. Johnson is the public face of Turner Sports and a longtime colleague of Sager’s. “If he lends his voices to it, it has a certain kind of authenticity,” Watkins said.  “When he speaks, he speaks for Turner Sports.”

A public memorial celebration for Sager will take place at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Ga. The piece Watkins wrote is scheduled to be played there.

Watkins said Johnson reached out to him the same night the piece aired on TNT and told him he was moved by it.

“That was a pretty cool moment,” Watkins said. “In the midst of all the sadness, it was nice to feel that the small role I had played had hit him and others in a meaningful way.”

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. In a Hollywood Reporter piece on how Hollywood talent agencies will fare in 2017, author James Andrew Miller reported that ESPN’s Mike Greenberg had recently signed a deal that makes him one of the highest-paid sports personalities at ESPN and beyond (reportedly north of $6.5 million a year).

This was notable for a number of reasons.

If Miller’s reporting is correct on the figure, and there’s no reason to doubt someone as plugged into ESPN and CAA (which reps Greenberg) as Miller, ESPN’s exploration of moving Greenberg—one half of the long-running Mike & Mike radio show on ESPN Radio—into a new role as the lead host of a television show that would air between 6–10 a.m on ESPN is clearly moving ahead.

SI.com first reported in September that a new Greenberg-led show would potentially have elements of SportsCenter—which currently airs at that time—as well as a traditional morning show. Such a move would put an end to Greenberg’s on-air partnership with Mike Golic, which began in October 1998. Mike & Mike currently airs weekdays on ESPN Radio from 6–10 a.m. ET and is simulcast on ESPN2. It seems very unlikely that ESPN would pay Greenberg that kind of money merely to continue his radio program and a simulcast on ESPN2.

• Student journalists discuss the future of sports media

How did Greenberg land such a contract? Well, one can speculate that CAA brought in another suitor (Greenberg is repped by the same agent who reps FS1’s Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd, and CAA Sports is tight with FS1 officials) to get ESPN to pay up. Bayless also set the market for morning talkers when he landed a contract in the neighborhood of $5.5 million per for four years, plus a $4 million signing bonus. Those numbers will obviously surprise some readers who value their sanity, but sports networks have always found money for on-air talent, even after laying off hundreds of producers and behind the scenes people. That is a difficult part of the sports media business to swallow—and one the heads of ESPN and Fox Sports PR won’t mention in a press release. But that is reality.

Greenberg gets criticized in many quarters for being vanilla, most famously by Bill Simmons in this 2015 podcast.

I’d suggest he’s not as vanilla as those who criticize him would suggest, but Mike & Mike is intentionally designed not to be controversial or dangerous. It’s a marketing vehicle above all for all things ESPN programming. (There is a reason why sports executives and their PR people consider it a soft landing spot.)

Also, keep in mind Greenberg—who is likable on air­­—has logged hundreds of thousands of quality hours for ESPN and the network has been good about repaying that loyalty back with cash and opportunity. At 49, this seems to be a moment where Greenberg would want to try something new. My bet is that sooner than later, we see an announcement that ESPN is building a morning show.

Will that show draw viewership? We’ll address that when the time comes.

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2. Here are some links on Sager I thought worth forwarding:

• The Inside The NBA cast remembers Craig Sager

• Craig Sager Jr., who also works in sports media, shared this video on Twitter after Turner Sports announced Sager's death. 

• HBO’s Real Sports profiled Sager earlier this year.

• SI’s Lee Jenkins wrote a cover story on Sager in April.

• Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr on his former TNT colleague.

3. Episode 93 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini.

In this episode, Nardini, a former AOL, Demand Media and Yahoo executive, explains how and why she took the Barstool CEO job; who the Barstool reader and viewer is in her mind; what the office atmosphere is like at Barstool and why they moved operations from Massachusetts to New York City; what the partnership with the Chernin Group means for the brand; why Pardon My Take has vaulted to the top of the iTunes rankings for sports podcasts; what Barstool's plans are when it comes to adding employees; her response to The Cauldron website saying Barstool staffers use social media as a weapon; what responsibility a brand has for the actions of its readers and listeners; her response on whether Barstool has become too professionalized since she arrived; what separates founder Dave Portnoy from other social media figures; how Barstool finds new talent; how she viewed the Emily Austen interview; how to appeal to new parts of the country including the South; how long she wants to stay in the job as CEO; the impact of the brand’s recent deal with Sirius XM; the potential for Barstool as a brand on television; the line between selling out and expanding the brand and much more.

A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

3a. Episode 94 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast will feature Teen Vogue weekend editor and freelance writer Lauren Duca.

In this episode, Duca discusses what compelled her to write the Teen Vogue piece (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) that, as of this writing, had passed one million page views; what it was like to have a piece cut through the noise and trend on social media; why Teen Vogue has more political coverage than you might think; what the freelance market is like for a 25-year-old writer; what the reaction has been to the piece including her appearances on CNN, Al-Jazeera America and Netflix's Chelsea, a half-hour series hosted by comedian Chelsea Handler and more.

A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

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4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• For the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Christina Frangou wrote a stunning piece on what’s it like to lose a spouse in your 30s.

•​ From Eli Saslow of The Washington Post: Three children confront America's opioid epidemic.

• From Ta-Nehisi Coates: My President Was Black.

• From Foreign Affairs: How Germany can counter Russian Hacking

The Gun Industry’s Lucrative Relationship With Hollywood.

• How U.S. journalists normalized the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

• Politico’s Isaac Dovere's fascinating look at how the Clinton campaign lost Michigan.

• From The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson: The Four-Letter Code to Selling Just About Anything.

• The New York Times obit on Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, famous for Antichoking Technique.

• Terrell J. Starr of the Daily Beast says if you want to understand Putin, watch The WireHe is, essentially, Marlo Stanfield.

Sports pieces of note:

• A 20-year toll: 368 gymnasts allege sexual assault.

Houston Chronicle columnist Jenny Dial Creech on Joe Mixon’s assault video and what it says about football culture.

The New York Times writer Andrew Keh on the crazy sport of ice swimming.

• SI’s Tom Verducci profiled Cubs team president Theo Epstein.

• espnW’s Impact 25.

• From Tom Richardson: Sports, Interrupted.

So you want to work for Bill Belichick? By Kevin Duffy of MassLive.com.

5. The MLS Cup had a tremendous television viewership story.

Fox: 1.411 million

Univision: 601,000

TSN (Canada): 1.43 million

RDS (Canada): 92,000

The U.S. and Canada combined audience: 3.534 million

The game was the most viewed MLS Cup since 2001 and drew a 9.9 household rating in Seattle, which won the title over Toronto.

5a. ESPN added former FS1 reporter Julie Stewart-Binks as a sideline reporter for MLS and U.S. men’s and women’s national team games. Stewart-Binks will make her ESPN debut in March 2017 during ESPN’s MLS season-opening telecast.

5b. Something I have never seen in sports television: KTVI, a Fox affiliate in St. Louis, ran a chyron on Dec. 12 that described Rams COO Kevin Demoff as “Rams COO and Professional Liar” as Demoff addressed the media after the firing of Jeff Fisher. The Rams moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles last January.

5c. The final episode of Religion of Sport, which airs on DirecTV’s Audience Network (Channel 239) is devoted to the passion of soccer around the world, with a focus on Celtic and Rangers FC in the Scottish Premiership.

5d. After 46 years, six months and 14 days, Mick McCabe is leaving the Detroit Free Press.

5e. Sean McDonough, Todd Blackledge, and reporters Holly Rowe and Ian Fitzsimmons will call the college football national championship game for ESPN Radio.

5f. Watch the concentration of the HBO cameraman Luis Vazquez here as Bernard Hopkins falls out of the ring.

An HBO Boxing spokesperson said vet Vazquez has shot boxing for 24 years.

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