Media Circus: Fox Sports' revolutionary broadcast; What's next for Berman, ESPN?
- Fox sports mic'ed up a pair of women's basketball coaches and offered viewers rarely seen access in the process. Also: Chris Berman's departure from Sunday NFL Countdown and notes on the World Junior Championships broadcast.
Statistically, nearly all of you missed the women’s basketball broadcast between Seton Hall and St. John’s on FS2 the night of Dec. 30. The game drew just 9,000 viewers, according to Nielsen, miles below 11.5 million viewers who were watching Florida State beat Michigan in college football on ESPN at the same time.
But something remarkable happened during that game, the rare time a sports broadcast feels revolutionary. Fox Sports producers placed microphones on both women’s basketball coaches for the entire game and offered access viewers rarely seen—including full speeches by the coaches at halftime, the coaches’ interactions with officials for all 40 minutes, and unlimited access to the huddles during timeouts and between quarters. There was one live shot at halftime that I’ve never seen before on a live sports broadcast—the cameras showed Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella and his staff sitting on the steps outside of the locker rooms discussing how they were going to get one of their players to set better screens. As a viewer, you were privy to all of this.
What does this mean heading forward? Well, it opens up infinite possibilities for sports that normally do not draw big television viewership but would likely get more to tune-in because of the ability to go this deep under the roof. Here is a three-minute reel of how the broadcast looked:
Imagine if this concept was a regular feature of college basketball or other college sports such as lacrosse, volleyball, softball, wrestling etc…? What about pro sports that struggle for viewership such as MLS? Could it raise awareness for those sports? I think it could. At a minimum, if women’s basketball officials (conference commissioners and athletic departments) do not follow up with this idea, they are crazy.
Bozzella, the Seton Hall coach, said he was approached about the idea a year ago by Steve Scheer, a senior coordinating producer for college basketball at Fox Sports and a 37-year veteran of sports television.
“I’m thinking they are just going to mic me in the locker room or during the game and take snippets from it,” Bozzella said after the game. “I didn’t realize all access meant all access. But it is a great way to grow the game and showcase my program. I was 100% into it but I will be honest: The morning of the game I got a little nervous. Not because of me saying a colorful word, which I do often, but talking about one of my players in a non-complimentary way. But little by little I had to get through that fear.”
Throughout the broadcast, Bozzella was particularly vocal. He went hard at the refs—one wonders if he was overplaying for the cameras—but Bozzella said that was just him. He said he did not feel the cameras were invasive. “I think if we are going to do something like this, I’m all in,” Bozzella said. “I’m a very transparent coach and it is what it is. I think it was important that if we are going to have all access, it is all access. Those were strategies and the things we talked about. If we are going to make this work, we have to let the fans have access.”
Scheer said he had no idea what to expect for the broadcast but the access stunned him. He was in a production truck outside the court producing the game. During the broadcast, officials from Seton Hall and the Big East watched the game next to him. The New York Times reported that Val Ackerman, the commissioner of the Big East, needed to receive endorsements from Bozzella and St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella before approving the initiative.
“To be in the huddles for each timeout and to hear everything at the same time as the players was sensational,” Scheer said. “In the truck, we learned a lot on the fly. For instance, just how vocal the Seton Hall coach was. To have the game go down to the wire added even more intrigue. In general terms, I believe the broadcast was a success, particularly with our ability to give the audience a different perspective of what goes on during a game. It’s one thing to report on what was said in the huddle or to record and play back a 15-second segment, but to hear the huddles live was truly eye-opening. We obviously pulled back on replays and graphics during game play, hoping to hear as much chatter from the coaches as possible. During timeouts and breaks, I decided which huddle to go in first and when to cut to the other and back again. There was one huddle which I felt I left too soon—but it was an experiment, the first time—and as I said, we learned a great deal as the game went on.”
The game was broadcast with a five-second delay to censor language. Scheer said he thought his announcers, Lisa Byington and LaChina Robinson, did an excellent job of navigating between play-by-play and letting the coaches’ dialogue carry the broadcast. There was a triple box on the screen that took some getting used to, but eventually as a viewer you adjusted.
“We had a few technical issues early with the audio and our clock/scoreboard crashed,” Scheer said. “Other than that, I thought everything was as I envisioned. After the game, since I was so adamant about everything being live and not on tape, we caught only a brief bit of the St. John’s post-game speech—that was my biggest regret. Once we straightened out those couple technical issues at the beginning, we got into a groove. The more the clock ticked down, the more comfortable we became.”
“The biggest challenge for me was figuring out when to analyze the game without stepping on the best live sound from the coaches,” said Robinson. “In advance of the broadcast, Steve communicated to Lisa and me that we would have limited roles compared to what we were used to. My opportunities to talk about what was happening were out of the coaches' huddles (which was really translating what the coaches were saying, not my own analysis necessarily), during replays, and a few other spotty times here and there. Leading up to the game I would jokingly tell people that the two head coaches would be our play-by-play and analyst for the night.”
Bozzella said he would absolutely do such a broadcast again and believed both women’s and men’s basketball could benefit from the all-access because it would differentiate those sports from others in a competitive TV landscape.
“Some people felt I yelled at the officials too much, some people thought I was too transparent and that every other coach might know my play calls now,” Bozzella said. “But it’s about growing the game. Why would you watch N.C. State-Pitt as opposed to Duke-Virginia? Well I would watch NC State-Pitt if I got a different view of the game as we did here.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable stories of the week in sports media)
1. It’s remarkable to think that Monday night will be the fourth time ESPN has done a Megacast for the college football national championship. As with years past, the traditional game telecast airs on ESPN with alternative productions on ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPNEWS, SEC Network, ESPN Classic, ESPN Goal Line and ESPN3. ESPN Deportes has the Spanish-language telecast of the game, while ESPN Radio and ESPN Deportes Radio provide audio in English and Spanish.
ESPN said there will be 14 variations this year on the Megacast, including:
• Homers Telecast (ESPN2): This option features Clemson’s all-time leading passer Tajh Boyd and former Alabama center Barrett Jones offering game analysis with a decidedly partisan view. They’ll be joined by play-by-play broadcasters Joe Tessitore and Adam Amin. All four will work from field level of Raymond James Stadium.
• The Coaches Film Room (ESPNEWS): This option features Dino Babers (Syracuse), Steve Addazzio (Boston College), Kalani Sataki (BYU), Mike MacIntrye (Colorado) and Matt Rhule (Baylor) discussing the live action. Brian Griese will serve as the moderator.
• Finebaum Film Room (SEC Network): This option features Paul Finebaum and SEC Network analysts Greg McElroy and Booger McFarland, along with Florida head coach Jim McElwain, analyzing the game at a location near Raymond James Stadium. They will also take live calls throughout the game.
•·Sounds of the Game (ESPN Classic and ESPN3): This choice will air all the pre-game activities including the bands. The presentation’s audio will be amplified with dozens of microphones positioned throughout the stadium in addition to the public address announcer and referee calls to simulate the in-stadium fan experience.
• ESPN Voices (ESPNU): This choice features ESPN personalities Michelle Beadle, Keyshawn Johnson, Bill Walton and Marcellus Wiley watching the game together.
• Command Center (ESPN Goal Line): From ESPN: “A split-screen with simultaneous multiple camera views, which could include the main ESPN camera angle, the SkyCam view and isolated camera feeds of both Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Enhanced statistics and real time drive charts supplement the game action. The Command Center was utilized during this year’s College Football Playoff semifinals.”
• The Home Town Radio (ESPN3) option offers Alabama and Clemson home radio broadcasts serving as the commentary (separate feeds).
• Data Center (ESPN3): This is an on-screen graphic including analytics, real time drive charts, win probability updates, curated social media reaction and more. ESPN Radio’s call will be part of the presentation.
• The Sky Cam (ESPN3) feature is a continuous feed of the camera that maneuvers above the field of play and often provides a behind-the-offense look at game action.
1a. ESPN Radio features Sean McDonough on play-by-play, Todd Blackledge as the game analyst, Holly Rowe on the Alabama sideline and Ian Fitzsimmons on the Clemson sideline. Rules expert Bill LeMonnier will also be available for the broadcast.
1b. Samantha Ponder has been assigned Clemson for the broadcast while Tom Rinaldi reports on Alabama. Rules expert Dave Cutaia will be available and Dr. Jerry Punch provides medical advisement on a serious injury that is potentially game-changing.
2. ESPN executives have known for some time that Chris Berman would not be returning as the host of Sunday NFL Countdown and ESPN’s NFL draft coverage, coinciding with the end of his current contract. That was management’s decision but what had been unclear until a couple of weeks ago was whether Berman would continue with ESPN in some sort of emeritus role.
On Thursday the network formally announced Berman and ESPN had come to an agreement on a limited schedule in 2017 that includes hosting ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime highlights show from the field after the Super Bowl as well as the NFL conference championship games. (The news was first reported by John Ourand of Sports Business Daily.) According to an ESPN release, Berman will also offer “opinion and perspective on historical events in the NFL, including still appearing weekly on Monday Night Countdown.” Away from football, ESPN said Berman will do play-by-play for ESPN Radio during the MLB Divisional Playoffs and participate in ESPN’s annual ESPYS Awards. There was an 1,100 word press release that offered corporate types including Disney Chairman Bob Iger saying nice things about the broadcaster. Many of Berman’s colleagues amplified that with warm thoughts on Twitter.
This was handled very cleanly by ESPN management, particularly Senior Vice President of Event & Studio Production Stephanie Druley and senior coordinating producer Seth Markman. Such talent transitions can go ugly when a network moves on from a longtime talent, but this new deal gives Berman a chance to gracefully go out at a later date (not much heavy lifting with these assignments so he could last some time) and also gave him a day (last Thursday) where he received more positive press than he had in years.
Berman’s impact on ESPN’s NFL coverage cannot be understated. The NFL Primetime show he did with Tom Jackson was a revelation and he deserves all the plaudits for helping make ESPN the most well-known sports brand in the U.S. But as I have written many times before and nothing changes, Berman ultimately chose the path of being NFL PR over sports journalism. It made him rich and famous but also a delivery clerk, bringing Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell’s messages up the river and into your living room.
Said Druley to Ourand : “It’s always been about finding the best fit, and Chris has had a say in every part of that. By no means are we pushing him out the door, or even easing him out the door.”
Berman joined ESPN in October 1979, one month after the company’s inception, at the age of 24. The 2016 season is his 32nd consecutive as studio host of Sunday NFL Countdown, having doubled Brent Musburger’s 15-year record as the longest-running host of a weekly pro football studio show, according to ESPN. He and Jackson teamed together from 1987 to 2005 to host the critically acclaimed NFL PrimeTime. Berman anchored ESPN’s annual NFL draft telecast since 1987 and has taken part in the overall coverage of the draft since ’81. Among his non-NFL assignments: Berman served as a play-by-play commentator for ESPN Major League Baseball games, including division playoff coverage from 1996 to 2006 (He called Cal Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive game on Sept. 6, 1995). He has also hosted Baseball Tonight and the Home Run Derby, and 2016 marked his 30th World Series for ESPN, including the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Berman covered the U.S. Open golf tournament from 1986 to 2014 as well as the 2002–03 and 2003–04 Stanley Cup Playoffs for ESPN and ABC.
Sources at ESPN say no decision has yet been made on who will replace Berman on its flagship Sunday morning NFL show or for the halftime highlights of Monday Night Football, but the jockeying for Berman’s roles have already started with talent agents pitching the highest levels of ESPN management (John Skipper) on their clients. The one lock as far as a previous job: Trey Wingo is expected to take over as the host of ESPN’s opening night NFL Draft coverage. One other thing to bet on: An expanded role for Suzy Kolber on Monday nights.
As I wrote in-depth last August, and in November, ESPN announcer Beth Mowins has now called the Raiders’ exhibition games for the past two seasons in addition to her college football schedule. Unlike Berman or Mike Greenberg, two broadcasters who have called the back end of the Monday Night Football opening doubleheader, she’s an actual full-time football game-caller. Skipper should step up and tell his NFL people that Mowins is doing next year’s MNF doubleheader game. He says there’s no reason for a women not to be calling the NFL now, and he’s in a position to do it now. So do it.
2a. Ourand interviewed Berman on the day of the announcement.
2b. Here’s Scott Van Pelt interviewing Berman on Van Pelt’s SportsCenter.
2c. ESPN PR put together a series of tributes for Berman.
2d. Former ESPN colleague and current NFL Network host Rich Eisen paid tribute to Berman on Eisen’s Audience Network talk show.
2e. Nice work by NBC Sports producers Charlie Vanacore, and Tim Nelson and writer Aaron Cohen for the opening tease prior to the start of the Seahawks-Lions game on Saturday night. The piece featured Roger Staubach and Jerry Kramer, among other all-timers, talking about the playoffs.
2f. NBC said it drew 26.9 million viewers for the Lions-Seahawks NFC wild-card game. That was down from the 31.2 million who watched Steelers-Bengals on CBS in the same window last year.
2g. ESPN said its Texans-Raiders wild-card game on ABC drew 25.3 million viewers, up from last year’s 25.2 million that watched the Chiefs-Texans in the same wild-card window.
2h. Overnight NFL ratings:
Seahawks-Lions (NBC): 16.5 (Down from 19.2 for the equivalent Saturday wildcard game a year ago on CBS).
Raiders-Texans (ABC): 16.6 (Up from last year’s 16.2 wildcard game on ABC)
3. Episode 97 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features three guests who are prominent voices in MMA media: Ariel Helwani, a writer and broadcaster for MMAfighting.com and the host of The MMA Hour; Luke Thomas, who writes and broadcasts for MMAFighting.com and SB Nation, and is the host of SiriusXM's The Luke Thomas Show on SiriusXM RUSH; and Jonathan Snowden, a senior writer for Bleacher Report who covers MMA and boxing and pro wrestling. Snowden is also the author of The MMA Encyclopedia.
In this podcast, the three guests discuss Ronda Rousey’s relationship with the media; how they viewed Rousey not doing any press or open workouts prior to UFC 207; whether this opens the door for other fighters to avoid press prior to pay per view events; why Rousey was more accessible to non-MMA media; the canard from those in the sports media who called Rousey a fraud or media creation; the relationship between Dana White and the MMA press; whether MMA media will form some kind of membership union to raise awareness of issues; why MMA media must think digital-first; what social media is like for each of them; how to start covering the sport; whether MMA media has a diversity issue among its ranks; how Helwani feels about Fox Sports six months after the network let him go at the behest of UFC; and much more.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
• This might be the best piece I’ve read on the Russia-U.S. dynamic: How We Fool Ourselves on Russia.
• Via Outside: When a creature mysteriously turns up dead in Alaska—be it a sea otter, polar bear, or humpback whale—veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek gets the call.
• From Marie Claire: Rockette Management Tells Dancers to “Tolerate Intolerance.”
• CJR spoke with opinion editors at more than 20 newspapers across the country.
• Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.
• You’ll be interested if you are a parent.
• Via Politico: How an 89-year-old cold warrior became America’s nuclear conscience.
• Russell Adams of The Wall Street Journal: Americans Eat 554 Million Jack in the Box Tacos a Year, and No One Knows Why.
• From The Washington Post: How a week of Trump tweets stoked anxiety, moved markets and altered plans.
• One Man’s Quest To Change The Way We Die.
• What TV says about race and money.
• From Bill McGraw of the Detroit Free Press: He helped start 1967 Detroit riot, now his son struggles with the legacy.
Sports pieces of note:
• From John Gonzalez of The Ringer: The oral history of the Eagles ejecting a beat writer from the press box.
• Via SI’s Tim Layden: How Tom Brady helped a family cope with unspeakable loss.
• Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal on the world’s fastest woman.
• Via Ray Glier: How do college football players spend their stipend money?
• Titanic Hoops offered the collected NBA Finals predictions of Stephen A. Smith, set to Celine Dion:
• Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star on the U.S.-Canada World Junior Championships final.
• Where Do MLB Front Office Workers Come From? By Kate Morrison and Russell A. Carleton.
• Bergan Record sports columnist Tara Sullivan on the bond between Eric LeGrand and Greg Schiano.
• From SI’s Greg Bishop and Ben Baskin: An oral history of the 2007 NFC Championship Game.
5. The fledgling MLS franchise coming to Minnesota has hired Kyndra de St. Aubin to do color commentary. St. Aubin, who has done games for Fox Sports, is a former University of Minnesota soccer player.
5a. Barstool Sports will make its cable TV debut on Jan. 30 with the The Barstool Rundown: Live from Houston on Comedy Central. The show, airing from the site of the Super Bowl, will air that Monday through Thursday at midnight.
5b. Anthony Crupi of Ad Age reported on the 2016 NFL Team Ratings per viewership, and the Dallas Cowboys averaged 24.4 million viewers and a 13.4 household rating over the course of its 12 national windows, tops among all teams. The story.
5c. I’m going to be writing a lot on SportsCenter come 2017 and what some of the moves have meant regarding that product. Something worth reading is this analysis from the Sports TV Ratings site following ESPN management’s decision to move First Take to ESPN and SportsCenter AM to ESPN2.
5d. Last Thursday (Jan. 6), the Skip Bayless-led Undisputed outdrew the 11:00 a.m. to noon ET edition of SportsCenter (on ESPN2) both in overall viewership (116,000 to 109,000) as well as total viewers 18 to 49 (71,000 to 43,000). A Fox Sports source said this is the first time Undisputed has beaten SportsCenter head-to-head.
5e. Former Tennessee All-American, WNBA All-Star and multiple Olympic champion Tamika Catchings will serve as an analyst on SEC Network, calling several women’s basketball games during the remainder of the season.
5f. Steve Mears, a broadcaster for the NHL Network and MLB Network, has been the voice of the IIHF World Junior Championships since 2013. The tournament aired on NHL Network in the States and if you watched the final between the U.S. and Canada Thursday night, you were treated to one of the best hockey games in years. Mears, analyst Dave Starman and reporter Jill Savage called eight games in 11 days. Below, Mears and I exchanged an email about the experience.
SI.com: What challenges exist calling the World Junior Championships, and why?
Mears: It always seems like the hardest part is stepping out of the NHL world that we live in (where the teams, players, story lines, etc. are very familiar) and picking up and landing in an entirely new "league" in the middle of the hockey season for three weeks. Many are players that we've never seen before and there are the obvious challenges of trying to get familiar with their names and backgrounds. But that's one of the things that I've always loved about doing the tournament. The homework that goes into it is such a fun challenge and we try to sprinkle in some of those foreign notes throughout the broadcasts. I don't think the average US hockey fan knows much about the Czech Extra League or the Swedish Hockey League, so I try to work a few of those sidebars in. Along those lines, another challenge would be trying to weave the backstories of each U.S. player into a broadcast that doesn't allow much time for storytelling. Especially once you get to like the gold medal game that ends up as close and intense as it was. A great game like that just doesn't have much down time, so a lot of the interesting background stories of the American players are left to sit in my notebook.
SI.com: Where do you rate calling Thursday night's game professionally?
Mears: It's definitely at the top of my list when you consider the circumstances (USA vs. CAN, game in Montreal, single game for a championship) and the fact that it was such an entertaining and dramatic game. I've done Stanley Cup Final games, outdoor games and one previous World Junior gold medal win for the U.S in 2013. But when you add up those factors and consider the increasing popularity of the tournament in the U.S., it will probably end up being one of the most memorable sporting events that I've ever covered in my life. It's even more special when you look at it as a two-year culmination of following many of the U.S. players. I've covered these same kids for the last two years at All-American prospects games, NHL draft combines, NHL drafts, World Junior camps, etc., so to get to know them and to see them progress and have success like that is really special.
SI.com: What was the most interesting thing that happened for you behind the scenes on Thursday?
Mears: A couple of things postgame come to mind. First was the moment that we were officially off the air and the feeling of exhaustion. Once we were clear and they flipped off the booth lights, Dave Starman and I looked at each other like we had just run a marathon. I guess it was just the intensity of the game, which we all felt, but being mentally locked in like that for three hours. It's the same focus that's always necessary doing hockey play-by-play with the speed of the game, but it's magnified when you're hanging on every stride and every shot in a close winner-take-all game like that. The other thing was a postgame reception, which we were invited to by Team USA, with the players, staff and families in the hotel. It was seeing the emotions of the parents and then trying to imagine what it was like to watch that game in their shoes. Some were well-known like Tom Fitzgerald and Brian Bellows. Others were just hockey moms and dads that all had combined looks of joy, relief, pride and fatigue on their faces. We all watched that game so nervously, but imagine if that was your kid on the ice. Not a 28-year old NHL pro. A kid, as in a teenager. I couldn't even imagine. But there were a lot of smiles and seeing them gave me an appreciation for the time and emotion that the families put into it.
5g. How did the game draw in the U.S.? Well, the NHL Network is not rated by Nielsen so there is no public data on viewership. An NHL Network spokesperson declined to share the network’s internal data. Industry sources say the game will end up as the NHL Network’s highest-rated program ever as well as NHL Network's most-watched day ever.
5h. TSN of Canada said they averaged 5.2 million between TSN and RDS for the IIHF World Junior Championships gold medal game. The game drew a 40.2% share, meaning more than 40% of people watching television across Canada on Thursday night were tuned to the game. The peaked at 7.2 million viewers on TSN during the shootout, which would be more than 25% of Canada’s population.