Nineteen hours before the kickoff of Super Bowl LI, Fox announcer Joe Buck was at his Houston hotel feeling like most of America: He believed the Falcons-Patriots matchup was going to be a terrific game. “I’m of the opinion that these are the two best teams that are left and it’s not always that way,” Buck told SI. “I think it’s going to be a hell of a game. But we’ll see.”
What we saw was the greatest comeback in championship game history including the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. You’ll wake up tomorrow and still won’t believe it, a 34-28 New England win after trailing 28-3 late in the third quarter. It was a game that looked forever like a blowout – and a ratings nightmare for Fox Sports—before Tom Brady solidified his standing as the greatest quarterback in league history.
NFL producers will tell you that while you aim to document every play in the Super Bowl to perfection, the play you truly must document to perfection is the one that people will be talking about years later. This was a game where people will be talking about a number of plays, including a 27-yard reception from Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones with 4:47 left that might be the best catch I’ve ever seen in the Super Bowl. But Patriots wideout Julian Edelman’s David Tyree-like catch with 2:28 left in regulation is the one that will be played on NFL highlight reels forever.
Game producer Richie Zyontz and director Rich Russo had a very strong fourth quarter and overtime and were at their best when they needed to be—on Edelman’s incomprehensible catch.
It started with Buck’s play call. “Here’s Edelman . . . broken up . . . no sign yet . . . Edelman comes down with the football . . . and they are saying it’s a catch.” Then there was an immediate replay which was so spot-on and sharp that the announcers were able to determine it was a catch right there.
“Oh, my God!” said Aikman.
“That’s incredible,” Buck said.
“That’s amazing concentration by Julian Edelman to be able to make a play,” Aikman continued.
Then came three more replays at close quarters followed by a replay that showed Falcons cornerback Robert Alford nearly picking the Brady pass off. Then the production gave us a reaction shot—Falcons cornerback Brian Poole shaking his head in disbelief.
That was followed by rules analyst Mike Pereira who cogently (as usual) explained that Edelman maintained control of the ball on the play. “Every look we have had makes it look like a catch,” Buck said.
The officials ultimately confirmed it. It was a great sequence and Fox even gave you multiple replays of the Tyree play in Super Bowl XLII as well a shot of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan waving “no catch” with his hands.
Buck and Aikman delivered in that moment, and Buck also recognized that America needed to catch its breath with Atlanta hanging on to a 28-20 lead. “We are at the two minute warning,” Buck said, “which will allow everybody including the two guys talking throughout all of this to catch their breath. 1:57. Wow.”
Some might think Fox went overboard on shots of Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Falcons owner Arthur Blank (who had moved to the field) but that added to the drama. Buck also called in real time that New England wide receiver Danny Amendola had crossed the goal line for the game-tying two point conversion—a very good moment for the broadcaster. On the game-tying touchdown, Aikman declared again that Brady was the best quarterback he had ever watched. The announcers also called out the Patriots for a dangerous throw from Tom Brady on the play before the game-winning score. On James White’s game-winning score, here was Buck’s call: “Toss to White. He’s in. Patriots win the Super Bowl! Brady has his fifth! What a comeback!” If that call wasn’t an all-timer, the slo-mo camera on the goal line showing White had crossed was.
You can argue Fox Sports was due for some Super Bowl magic. The last Super Bowl call by Buck and Aikman – Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb 2, 2014 -- was a 43-8 blowout win for Seattle over Denver. After the game, I texted Buck to ask him if that’s the greatest game he’s ever called. He texted back.
Some additional thoughts:
• Not that you’d expect it—especially from Fox’s NFL on-air studio talent—but it was a gaping hole of Terry Bradshaw not to ask Kraft or Brady on the podium about Brady’s suspension at the beginning of the year.
• But, and I give him a ton of credit, sideline reporter Chris Myers did a great job in a crazy postgame scene informing the audience who Brady was speaking with (assistant Falcons GM Scott Pioli, a former Patriots executive) before asking him three questions about the game including whether he felt redemption at the moment, which most viewers would understand related to his suspension. I also loved the producers sticking with the shot of Myers desperately fighting through the scrum at 10:28 PM ET to get to Brady.
• Fox kept a camera on Brady immediately after the game and got Brady hugging Belichick, as well as New England running back LeGarrette Blount saying on air, You are the f---ing greatest, bro.”
• Great shot by the production of Brady and Roger Goodell shaking hands after the game before the trophy ceremony, as well as Tom Brady Sr. crying upon seeing his family.
• Buck had a rough first quarter, mistaking wide receiver Danny Amendola for Julian Edelman.
• Great visuals of George H.W. Bush coming out in a wheelchair (to sustained applause) for the ceremonial coin toss.
• Fox had 70 cameras for the game presentation and such coverage can pay off in small ways. For example, the network had a terrific angle of Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett holding on pass play to White with 18 seconds left in the first half. The same with Jones’s incredible fourth quarter catch and Edelman stepping out of bounds with 2:28 left in regulation.
• At 9:38PM ET a ton of users on Twitter indicated the Fox Sports Go English-language streaming video of the game had gone down. It was back a couple of minutes later but that’s a killer for a pro championship game. Users said the Spanish-language feed was available for the entire game:
• The pre-kick of the game featured a very cool ceremony for Pro Football Hall of Famers from historically black colleges.
• The use of the “Be the Player” technology from Intel—featuring nearly 40 cameras working together to create an image of what a play looked like from a specific player’s perspective on the field without having a camera on the player made an appearance on a passing play from Matt Ryan.
It didn’t blow me away but no doubt we’ll see it again.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports stories of the week)
1. Last week ESPN NBA writer Dave McMenamin landed one of the most talked about sports interviews of 2017—LeBron James going public about the criticism TNT Sports commentator Charles Barkley has made of James over the years. Here is McMenamin’s story, which got pickup beyond America.
The public often never learns of how such stories come about, so I emailed McMenamin to find out the back story of how the story came to be. Below is our email exchange.
Richard Deitsch: How did this interview come about?
Dave McMenamin: A bunch of things fell into place. It started at the Cavs' home game the Friday night before when I initially brought up Barkley's "don't want to compete" quotes to LeBron in the postgame scrum after the Cavs' win over the Nets. At the time, LeBron claimed he hadn't heard them yet and I was telling him about them for the first time with all the cameras rolling. He had a very diplomatic answer about Barkley needing to say stuff like that and it being good for ratings but after the scrum dispersed he and I spoke briefly about the full context of Barkley's quotes and he expressed some displeasure with them. Mind you, last week felt like old times on the Cavs beat with suddenly all this doubt swirling around the team, which had been mostly absent since June following their epic championship comeback over the Warriors.
After LeBron put the organization on blast, it wasn't just Barkley taking aim at him. I even spoke to a team source that questioned where he was coming from and said that the Cavs were in the "top-heavy" predicament that James described by his own doing since he got "his boys" paid in J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, with the background being all three of them share the same agent in longtime James friend and business partner, Rich Paul. It was a notion that was touched on by Barkley in his rant against James (he mentioned Smith and Iman Shumpert by name, likely by accident when meaning to say Thompson) as well as by Kristine Leahy in a clip from The Herd on FS1, which happened to come across my Twitter timeline.
Wanting to follow up on this sentiment that was out there from a different angle, this idea that James made his own bed so now he has to sleep in it, I approached Thompson after the Cavs' win on Sunday against the Thunder to get his take on it. After all, to suggest that James was pulling all the strings behind the scenes for Thompson and Smith and thus limiting the Cavs' spending flexibility was to say that A) Paul's savvy work in advising Thompson to turn down a $45 million extension offer in October 2014 to bet on himself and eventually sign an $82 million extension following a contentious holdout in October 2015 was inconsequential because James was in charge all along and B) Thompson's deal wasn't worth every penny, because why else would it be suddenly called into question when Cleveland was struggling? Thompson, coming off his best game of the season, gave the type of direct, boastful answer I thought he might. I consider my working relationship with Tristan to be really good. I appreciate the man he is as a son and an older brother (he was the oldest of four boys in his family, I was the oldest of three boys in mine). He is also fiercely loyal and a good quote when he wants to be, so I knew I had the potential to move the story forward if I got his take on it.
He did not disappoint, giving me a strong quote to build the story around ("LeBron is not my agent") while also providing keen insight about the recent history of NBA free agency starting to provide lucrative deals to indispensable workers such as himself, the way the NFL has long rewarded star offensive linemen. I wrote the story Monday morning to give ESPN some Cavs content during the day, because there would be no shootaround content coming since the team doesn't have any availability on the second night of a back-to-back until the pregame window. And I hopped on a flight to Dallas to cover the game.
When I landed, I heard from Paul who had some concerns about the fairness of the story and I spent my cab ride from DFW to the Marriott Suites near American Airlines Center explaining the sentiment that I was asking Thompson to respond to—not that it was my own sentiment, but that it was one between Barkley, my team source and Leahy (not to mention any other media pundits I may have missed) that was clearly out there. Fast forward to postgame in Dallas and I approached Thompson to clear the air in case he had any problems with the story. Thompson's locker was next to James's and eventually James, hearing the conversation, joined in. Eventually, that conversation led to James making his comments about Barkley to me.
RD: Where did the interview take place?
DM: In the visitor's locker room at American Airlines Center. Most of the Cavs' team had already made their way to the bus. I was the only reporter left in the locker room as well. This was a bit of a fortuitous circumstance also because two of my ESPN colleagues who under normal circumstances would probably be looking for some 1-on-1 time with James in his lone regular season trip to Dallas, Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon, were not at the game; the other two excellent traveling beat writers for the Cavs that I work alongside and compete with every day, Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com and Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, did not make the trip and thus were not there to play defense.
RD: How did LeBron broach these topics?
DM: It began as an assumed off the record conversation. James has made himself exceptionally accessible to me for these types of chats the last 2 1/2 seasons where I can gauge the temperature of where he feels like the team is and where he is personally without him worrying about being quoted with some "gotcha" headline. Sometimes, during these chats, I will ask him if I can use something he says for a story. Sometimes I will ask him, once it becomes clear that he has a lot to say on a certain issue we're discussing, if he wants me to put that out there. In Monday's case, at some point when LeBron was rolling off the cuff about Barkley and said "print that" to me, he made the decision without my prompting to take the conversation from off the record to on the record, at which point I began concentrating on memorizing what he was telling me and retaining it as much as I was thinking about asking follow-up questions. I didn't want to whip out my phone and start recording him and compromise the eye contact we had and the flow of the conversation.
RD: How much did you make clear prior to the interview that you wanted to talk about Barkley's comments?
DM: As I explained, the interview began as a conversation about the Thompson story I wrote earlier in the day. James said he had gotten wind of it, but he hadn't read it. So in explaining the background to the Thompson story, I rehashed Barkley's comments. James wondered why I would feel compelled to follow up on anything Barkley says, because giving a platform to someone with little credibility like Barkley, in his opinion, would only hurt my own credibility. I countered that Barkley has one of the most influential voices in the sport of basketball, for better or worse, and the conversation ensued from there.
RD: How long was the interview?
DM: I spoke to Tristan for about five minutes, then LeBron for about 15–20 minutes. Maybe halfway through the interview with LeBron he made it clear he was speaking on the record.
RD: What did you do immediately after he made the comments in relation to what LeBron said?
DM: I checked a final time with James to make sure he understood I would be writing the story that night before I left the locker room and then I took out my iPhone, opened up the voice recorder app, and started dictating all the quotes that James had just said to me in the last 5–10 minutes that I saw fit to print in the story. I had been saying them to myself over and over again in my head the way someone tries to remember a phone number, so when I started recording, it was just verbal diarrhea as I regurgitated everything I could recall.
The funny thing is, as I was making the walk from the visitor's locker room to the media room mumbling to myself into my phone, I ended up walking virtually step by step next to Mavs owner Mark Cuban. I've interviewed Mark dozens of times over the years and have even been in some social situations with him, so we know each other a bit. He looked over to me, making eye contact, and I just shot him a glance and went right back to talking into my phone because I didn't want to lose my train of thought.
When I got to the media room I had an audio file about four minutes long of me dictating everything I could remember that LeBron said on the record. I sent an email to the ESPN universal news desk to alert them of what I had, transcribed the audio file and wrote the story, finishing around 12:45 a.m. CT.
RD: Add anything else you wish.
DM: On a personal note, Barkley has always been great with me. During the 2015 playoffs when the Cavs were playing the Hawks in Atlanta, I was going into an elevator as Barkley was coming out and he looked me in the face, grabbed me by the side and told me what a good job he thought I was doing with my TV reporting and to keep it up. That was really the first time at ESPN when I was doing steady television work, so that meant a lot as I tried to muster the confidence to share air time with all the incredible broadcasters we have at our network. It still means a lot. He also stopped by our ESPN.com writers dinner in Cleveland during the Finals last June and held court for about 30 minutes, entertaining us all the way Charles is so capable of. That said, I fully understand where James is coming from. Much like the Phil Jackson "posse" story from earlier in the season, he felt like he and his inner circle were being unfairly targeted when all they've done as young, successful, black businessmen is provide an example for others to look up to and see how to do things the right way. As James explained after the Jackson story, he is also showing people who look up to him that it is O.K. to speak up when you feel you've been wronged.
1a. Exhibit 4567 why TNT’s Inside The NBAis the best studio show ever.
2. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that Fox drew a 48.8 overnight rating for Super Bowl LI , down slightly from the Broncos-Panthers (49.0) and Pats-Seahawks (49.7). The rating topped all Super Bowl overnights from 2005 to 2014.
2a. Per Fox Sports executive president of research and strategy Mike Mulvihill, here are the top overnight ratings by market for Super Bowl LI:
1. Pittsburgh — 57.9
2. Buffalo — 57.2
3. Atlanta — 57.0
4. Norfolk — 55.9
5. Richmond — 55.7
6. Milwaukee — 54.8
7. Providence — 54.6
8. Boston — 54.3
9. Indianapolis — 54.1
10. Minneapolis/Hartford — 54.0
2b. Mulvihill said Super Bowl halftime drew a 50.0 overnight, the fourth straight year halftime outrated the game.
2c. I thought the best pregame interview was Jimmy Johnson interviewing Belichick around 5:15 pm. ET. First, any live footage of Belichick on a power boat is a winner. But Johnson, amid the obvious friendly questioning, got Belichick to reveal two interesting things. The kind of player he wants (“Love of football, hard work, unselfish”) and that Tom Brady was a very hard player for him to coach because Brady is very prepared.
2d. Asked if there was anything unique about his broadcast setup at Houston’s NRG Stadium, Buck said, “Yeah, there’s a bathroom in it,” Buck said. “Believe me, that is the first thing I check when I go into any booth across this great land of ours. It is a huge plus because I basically pulled a hamstring running back and forth from the bathroom to the booth in Cleveland during the World Series. Plus, the breaks are longer so you can really go in there and relax.”
2e. Here’s CBS NFL Today host James Brown talking about being a minister for Christianity Today.
2f. Rex Ryan made his post-firing broadcasting debut Sunday on ESPN’s Postseason NFL Sunday, on an set with host Suzy Kolber, analyst Steve Young and fellow guest analyst Odell Beckham Jr. That was a much better group to start with than ESPN’s main NFL group given Kolber is a superior host and Young is always willing to share the mic. I judge sports analysts on two things: 1. Did they inform/educate me on something I didn’t know? 2. Did I believe their loyalty was to viewers as opposed to a future job? Note: I also don’t believe you can judge much from anyone’s first time in the studio.
Ryan was certainly personable but he didn’t offer anything memorable as far as analysis. He was at his best in his third segment of the show when he offered some cogent points on defending Atlanta star receiver Julio Jones. He told viewers where he believed the Patriots defenders would be on Jones as well as when New England would roll to a zone to give Jones a different look. If he continues on with broadcasting, his personal insights on players (such as describing Brady’s “mean mug” on the field before games) is the way for him to go. That’s the stuff that would make him unique compared to other ex-coaches.
As for Beckham: He impressed me with his answer on the Giants receivers' trip to Miami as well as his analysis defending Jones. It will be interesting to see if broadcasting is something he continues to do amid his playing career.
2d. The front page of Monday’s Boston Globe:
2e. Erin Andrews sent out on Instagram Sunday morning the pregame rundown for Fox. That’s a cool thing for fans and an excellent use of social media for TV talent. Well done.
2f. From Fox Sports executive vice president of research and league strategy Michael Mulvihill, Super Bowl viewership by decade:
1970s: 58.1 million
2d. ESPN Radio’s Ryen Russillo offered an interesting perspective on why he feels uncomfortable offering commentary on Tom Brady and Donald Trump.
2f. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had received interest from TV networks, though he doesn’t have plans to retire. Given Schefter is tight with the decision-makers at ESPN and other places, he’d be well sourced on this.
3. Episode 101 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN broadcasters Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. Beginning Feb. 6, Hill and Smith will co-host the 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter. The show is being called SC6.
On this 70-minute podcast, Hill and Smith discuss how ESPN management came to them to host SportsCenter; why they accepted the job; how long ESPN has committed to them as a SportsCenter duo; how politically savvy one has to be to move up at ESPN as talent; what kind of viewership expectations management has put on them; whether SportsCenter is a post-racial show in terms of who is watching; whether race or gender of talent impacts sports ratings; why they believe sports and politics intersect; the false perception that their audience is only people of color; how they dealt with external comparisons to First Take; what it means to have people of color in executive positions on their show; and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• The Ringer’s Kevin Clark profiled Patriots secondary coach Steve Belichick, son of Bill.
• Via Will Hobson of the Washington Post: Baylor rape scandal involves recruiting ‘hostess’ program. These things still exist?
• Via Christine Brennan of USA Today: How I made a pen pal in Bill Belichick.
• The New York Times Magazineprofiled Russell Westbrook.
• From SI’s Michael McKnight: Seeking justice for alleged abuse, victim of Colorado assistant confronts big-time college football.
• Sportsnet’s Faizal Khamisa on being Muslim and in Quebec City.
• The Washington Post’s Rick Maese looks back at 2007's top recruits, which shows anything can happen from there.
• Beautiful piece by Mike Sielski on Inquirer sports columnist emeritus Bill Lyon, was diagnosed three years ago with Alzheimer's Disease.
Non sports pieces of note:
• This Mark Leibovich piece on the bond between Donald Trump and the Patriots had some remarkable quotes.
• The story behind the amazing viral photo of Muslim and Jewish children protesting at Chicago’s O'Hare Airport.
• From Racked’s Adam Rhew: Why Local News Anchors All Have the Same Look.
• From OR Books: What It’s Like to Grow Up Gay in Russia.
• Sean Blanda, on the reason you can’t stand the news anymore.
• “Why nobody cares the President is lying." By Charlie Sykes.
• From Tom Nichols, in the Washington Post: Chill, America. Not every Trump outrage is outrageous.
• From Helene Cooper: A Washington Correspondent’s Own Refugee Experience.
• An activist is mysteriously ill in Russia, and the U.S. needs to speak up.
• The New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson on the desperate battle to destroy ISIS.
• Breaking the race line in the New York Times wedding vows page.
• Via David Frum: How to Build an Autocracy.
• New York Times sports writer Marc Tracy ran into Steve Bannon at an Atlanta airport, and they discussed what he was reading. Interesting piece.
5. Here’s ESPN’s 2017 NCAA Division I softball schedule.
5a. The NBC-only broadcast of the NHL All-Star Game averaged 2.262 million viewers. Given the switch from NBCSN to NBC, the game was up 42% vs. the 2016 NHL All-Star Game on NBCSN (1.595 million). NBC said this was the most-watched NHL All-Star Game since 2004.
5b. ESPN said its total audience for the women’s and men’s championships at the Australian Open was the largest since each event moved to a 3 a.m. ET time slot from prime time (2005 for the men, 2009 for the women). Roger Federer’s win over Rafa Nadal drew 1,085,000 (based on a 0.7 rating), the most since the match aired in prime time on Saturday nights, and more than double the 2016 audience. The women’s match between Serena and Venus Williams drew 926,000 viewers, up 36% from 2016.
5c. Peter Kakfa of Recode had an interesting 5,700-word interview with Bill Simmons on The Ringer’s first year, his canceled HBO show and much more.
5d. ESPN hired longtime major league catcher David Ross to provide analysis on studio shows, SportsCenter and select games.
5e.Here’s a cool SI Now video featuring Joe Namath, Brent Musburger and Sports Illustrated photographers Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss looking back at Super Bowl III.
5f. Here’s ESPN 2017 NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse schedule.
5g.Some stick to sports pieces:
Benjamin Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, wrote a thoughtful piece on politics staying out of sports coverage. I disagree with it, but it’s worth reading.
Simmons and Bryan Curtis had an interesting discussion on the topic on Simmons's podcast.
5h. The Golf Channel said last Sunday's coverage of the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic drew 524,000 viewers, the most-watched LPGA regular season telecast in Golf Channel history.
5i. This is inside baseball but two of the most well-known sports media talent agencies recently merged into one business. The Montag Group (60 clients, including Mike Tirico and Sean McDonough) and IF Management (150 clients, including Jessica Mendoza and Clarissa Ward) have merged talent operations to form a broadcast representation business with more than 200 clients. Per John Ourand of the Sports Business Daily, who broke the story, Montag also owns a media consulting business and a crisis management business in partnership with Ari Fleischer Communications.
5k. Cool of the New York Post to profile 96-year-old sports broadcaster Bob Wolff, who had the radio call of the famed Colts’ 23–17 overtime win over the Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game.