SI.com annually highlights a select group in the sports media who were newsworthy, both for positive and negative reasons. Below are the selections for 2017:
MEDIA PERSON OF THE YEAR
THE PICK: Tony Romo
The best sports television analysts educate, entertain and inform, and when someone who can deliver those on-air attributes arrives on the landscape, they should be rewarded with both audience and praise. CBS Sports gambled heavily last April by naming former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as its lead NFL game analyst. Romo had zero network broadcasting experience at the time, which meant he would be learning the mechanics of broadcasting on the fly while doing the network’s most significant NFL game every week—and sometimes two games per week given CBS’s “Thursday Night Football” schedule. It was a high-wire tightrope to walk no matter how bright or prepared Romo was in an era where social media opinions about broadcasters are impossible to ignore. But Romo exceeded all expectations as a rookie analyst. Having currency (Romo was on the Cowboys’ roster until April) does not always translate into astute analysis but Romo’s knowledge of the league—specifically the formations and fronts of teams and how an offense attacks a defense—made him an invaluable resource for NFL viewers. His natural enthusiasm and love for football translated for audiences and he has rightly received praise from fans and the NFL establishment. The best thing about Romo is that he will only get better as sports television becomes more familiar. Here, he discusses in-depth how he approaches sports broadcasting.
Honorable Mention: Joe Buck (Fox); Kevin Burkhardt (Fox), Doris Burke (ESPN); Andrés Cantor (Telemundo); Jemele Hill (ESPN); Rich Lerner (Golf Channel); Beth Mowins (CBS and ESPN), Louis Riddick (ESPN), Shea Serrano (The Ringer).
BROADCAST TEAM OF THE YEAR
THE PICK: Joe Buck and John Smoltz (Fox)
In the post-Tim McCarver era, Fox invested in a three-person booth that had one too many Harold Reynolds. But give senior management at Fox Sports credit. They tinkered with their product until they found a booth that soared. The result for viewers in 2017 was an announcing team that was a terrific listen over the seven World Series games between the Astros and Dodgers. Buck has always been underrated as a baseball broadcaster, a terrific voice in big games who leads his analyst into smart places. Smoltz teaches viewers about pitching every broadcast. Throughout the entire series, I found myself learning about pitcher and batter approach. It would be hard to find a better in-game baseball analyst. For as long as this group does the World Series, the broadcast will be piloted well.
Honorable Mention: Buck and Troy Aikman (Fox); Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson (ABC and ESPN); Tim Brando and Spencer Tillman (Fox); Kevin Burkhardt and Charles Davis (Fox); Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir (NBC); Chris Fowler, John McEnroe and Patrick McEnroe (ESPN); Chris Fowler and Chris Evert (ESPN); Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth (NBC); Jim Nantz and Romo (CBS); Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson (CBS); Dave Pasch and Bill Walton (ESPN); Joe Tessitore and Todd Blackledge (ESPN).
ANALYST OF THE YEAR
THE PICK: Hubie Brown (ESPN)
Brown coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1972. Forty-five years later he's calling games featuring LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is 84-years-old and has taught the NBA to multiple generations of fans through his four decades of broadcasting for various networks including CBS, TNT and ESPN, where he has been since 2004. Is Brown the same broadcaster he was in the 1990s? Of course not, and I imagine he would concede that, too. But he remains a high-caliber analyst, sharp as hell and I’ve never watched a game called by Brown where I don’t say to myself at multiple points: “That’s interesting.” I particularly love Brown on radio (he calls the NBA Finals for ESPN Radio) where he gets more descriptive in his analysis given the lack of images. When Hubie starts a sentence with “Now …,” I get excited. Here’s hoping he sticks around as long he wants. (I excluded Romo given he won the big award.)
Honorable Mention: Aikman (Fox); Debbie Antonelli (CBS and ESPN); Jerry Bailey (NBC); Jay Bilas (ESPN); Blackledge (ESPN); Fran Fraschilla (ESPN); Kirk Herbstreit (ESPN); Kara Lawson (ESPN); Lipinski and Weir (NBC); Riddick (ESPN); Smoltz (MLB Network and Fox).
BEST STUDIO SHOW
THE PICK: Inside The NBA (TNT)
There are many reasons why I consider TNT’s Inside the NBA the best studio show in history—apologies to the College GameDay lovers out there—and at the top of that list is the show’s ability to morph between fearlessness and fun. One of the things I think sports viewers particularly appreciate about Inside the NBA is that the on-air talent and producers have never shied away from issues beyond basketball, particularly those on race. The Ernie Johnson-Charles Barkley-Kenny Smith-Shaquille O’Neal group also has no problem mocking each other over NBA titles or other topics. Smith, in particular, has been a tremendous voice on the nexus of race and sports.
Honorable Mention: College GameDay (ESPN), Golf Central Live (Golf Channel); MLB Postseason Show (Fox/FS1), Premier League Live (NBCSN and NBC); Real Sports (HBO).
BEST FEATURE ON A SPORTS PROGRAM
THE PICK: “The Strongman” (HBO’s Real Sports)
HBO correspondent David Scott and producer Jordan Kronick traveled to Chechnya to conduct a rare interview with Chechen president and Akhmat MMA leader Ramzan Kadyrov; the interview was Kadyrov’s first with a Western journalist since 2014. HBO had an eight-person crew (Kronick, Scott, two cameramen, one soundman, an HBO production associate, a journalist from Moscow who was assisting with bookings and translations and a security person with medical training) who traveled to Chechen capital city Grozny for a story on how Kadyrov is using mixed martial arts to spread his political message overseas. The interview took place on June 30 at about 2 a.m. local time and his comments denying that gay men had been detained and tortured in the Russian republic have were picked up globally.
“I’m not sure why he agreed to the interview,” Kronick told SI in July. "It took two trips there to get it. On the first trip, we waited nine days before we had to leave empty handed as our Russian visas were set to expire. During that trip, as we were waiting and climbing the hotel’s walls, we had lots of time to speculate about why the interview wasn’t happening. He has a history of making journalists wait days and days before summoning them to the palace. He seems to have disdain for the West and its media. Maybe he was just messing with us. Or maybe the reason was more basic—that Ramadan was fast approaching and he was too busy. We needed to do a return trip to Russia after Ramadan to get more elements for the story. So, while we were in Moscow, we proposed to them that if they would reiterate their agreement to the interview, we would come back to Grozny for no longer than 24 hours. This time around we got summoned to the palace on our first night there. First, we were told to go to the palace’s private soccer field to watch Kadyrov play. Then we were sent to the palace stateroom to set up the interview. Then, a few hours later, he showed up at around 2 a.m. to start the interview. Back to your question, why did he agree and end up doing it? Maybe our persistence in going there twice persuaded him.”
Honorable Mention: Truly exceptional work by producer Charlie Bloom on Bill Johnston, who left his communications job with the Chargers after 38 seasons to care for his wife, Ramona who is battling Huntington's Disease.
THE HALBERSTAM AWARD
THE PICK: Rebecca R. Ruiz (New York Times)
This award cites a member of sports media for sticking it to power as David Halberstam did as a young Vietnam War correspondent for the New York Times. (On this topic: Once Upon A Distant War by William Prochnau is one of the best books on journalism.) Ruiz has broken story after story on Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. Read this ProPublica piece on how Ruiz did it.
Honorable Mention: ESPNers Steve Fainaru, Greg Amante: Bill Roach, Logan Cascia, Chris Buckle, Horgan Tonya Malinowski and Michael Baltierra did remarkable reporting on Syria's national soccer team.
BEST SIDELINE REPORTER
THE PICK: Doris Burke (ESPN)
At this point, this category should really be called the Burke Award. Along with her continued excellence and commitment to in-game reporting, Burke gets the award this year for how she handled the Golden State Warriors trophy celebration last June. It should (no lie) be shown in broadcasting schools across the country, a clinic on how one can get something interesting for viewers amid the madness of that scene.
Honorable Mention: David Aldridge (TNT), Darren Cahill (ESPN), Heather Cox (NBC), Jamie Little (Fox); Allie LaForce (CBS); Pam Oliver (Fox); Tom Rinaldi (ESPN); Ken Rosenthal (Fox); Holly Rowe (ESPN); Lisa Salters (ESPN), Pam Shriver (ESPN), Michele Tafoya (NBC Sports), Tracey Wolfson (CBS).
BEST SPORTS DOCUMENTARY
THE PICK: Icarus (Netflix)
SI’s Dan Greene offered up in detail why Bryan Fogel’s doc on the vast Russian doping conspiracy deserved all the plaudits it has received. Amazing work.
Honorable Mention: 89 Blocks (Fox Sports) and Nature Boy (ESPN).
SPORTS PODCAST OF THE YEAR
THE PICK: Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard
The pro wrestling space has a number of great podcasts but this pod is at the top. Hosted by Bruce Prichard (a longtime wrestling producer and personality, most notably as Brother Love in the then-WWF) and Alabama mortgage broker/podcaster Conrad Thompson take a singular episode or person from wrestling’s past (such as The Montreal Screw Job or The Rock’s beginnings in 1996 and 1997) and examine it over the course of multiple hours. Thompson is a mortgage broker by trade but he approaches his research on each topic with a historian’s zeal. Prichard was WWE Chairman Vince McMahon’s right-hand man for many years and was in the middle of so many behind-the-scenes episodes of the pro wrestling business. He’s a natural storyteller and though he clearly has his biases and POVs, his recall for things that happened two or three decades ago is exceptional. The show had great episodes all year including a 4-hour and 10-minute podcast on Randy (Macho Man) Savage in September but the pod of the year for me came in March when Something To Wrestle With profiled Roddy Piper, one of the most charismatic pro wrestling stars and a crossover figure into popular culture. Prichard was particularly close with Piper at the end of his life (Piper died in 2015) and the last 20 minutes of the show—with Prichard breaking down multiple times—was remarkably honest audio.
Honorable Mention: Around The Rim with LaChina Robinson (ESPN); ESPN 30 for 30 (ESPN): Pardon My Take (Barstool Sports)
We leave this award annually (at least as of 2015) to the readers. Earlier this week I asked on Twitter who readers believed was the most improved in sports media in 2017. CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz received the most votes.
Here are were some of the other responses: Adam Amin (ESPN); Jon Anik (UFC, Fox, FS1); Brian Baldinger (NFL Network); Kyle Brandt (NFL Network); Kevin Burkhardt (Fox); Nate Burleson (CBS and NFL Network); Will Cain (ESPN); PFT Commenter (Barstool Sports); Charles Davis (Fox Sports); Joe Davis (Fox Sports); Britney Eurton (TVG); Domonque Foxworth (ESPN); Tate Frazier (The Ringer); Jeff Gluck (independent); Stu Holden (FS1); Lisa Kerney (ESPN); Joel Klatt (Fox Sports); Mina Kimes (ESPN); Jim Mackay (NBC); Brady Quinn (Fox); Jerry Recco (WFAN-AM); Alex Rodriguez (Fox Sports); Taylor Rooks (SNY); Laura Rutledge (ESPN); Russillo (ESPN); Peter Schrager (NFL Network and Fox); Maria Taylor (ESPN); Mark Titus (The Ringer); Taylor Twellman (ESPN); Mike Wise (ESPN); Nick Wright (FS1).
STUDS OF THE YEAR
(CULLED, IN PART, FROM THIS YEAR’S MEDIA COLUMN)
• Incredible work by Andrés Cantor of Telemundo last Oct. 10 as he simultaneously called three World Cup qualifying games of meaning: Honduras-Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago-United States and Panama-Costa Rica. Telemundo showed a triple box in the second half and Cantor morphed between them. “I mainly tried to focus on the three teams that—if they scored—changed the entire equation,” Cantor said. “We had decided in pre-production that if two games had implications, we would show those. As it happened all three had everyone’s chances on the line until the final whistle. I mainly focused on the attacks of the teams that needed a goal and on the defensive plays of the teams that needed not to concede. It was challenging to say the least but a great way to show all the drama at once.”
• The CBS camera operators—John Lawrence, John Lorusso, Mike Mathews, Don Miller, Mike Serio, Dave Swaine, Tony Toste (the handheld) and Bob Wishnie—were the unsung heroes of the network’s coverage of the snowpocalypse-like conditions in Buffalo for the Bills’ 13–7 overtime win over the Colts on Dec. 10.
• The Pro Football Hall of Fame released a fantastic piece of rare audio: A recording of the Super Bowl I postgame press conference. The 27:53-minute tape features a Vince Lombardi press conference (he comes off very Belichickian) as well as Pat Summerall conducting interviews throughout the locker room. Here’s the recording and a piece on how the Hall procured it.
• FS1’s Shannon Sharpe has become a thoughtful voice on NFL protests. This topic is the best television work he's done in my opinion.
•This photo from Buffalo News photographer Bill Wippert:
• Doris Burke became a regular ESPN NBA game analyst, serving as an analyst for ESPN regular-season NBA telecasts as well as the NBA playoffs, making her the first woman at the national level to be assigned a full season rotation of games as an NBA game analyst. On that same pioneering end, Sarah Kustok became the first woman to serve as a full-time solo analyst on an NBA regional broadcast (for the Nets). In Washington, Kara Lawson was hired to be a solo analyst for 60+ games this season for the Washington Wizards’ TV coverage.
• Kudos to ESPN producer William Weinbaum for his dedication to the Magomed Abdusalamov story.
• Kate Scott became the first woman to call a football game on the Pac-12 Networks.
• Lisa Byington became the first woman to call play-by-play for a football game on the Big Ten Network.
• Great idea from a quartet of ESPN producers (Features Unit Coordinating Producer Gregg Jewell; Coordinating Producer Matt Garrett Sunday NFL Countdown producer Chad Minutillo and associate producer Gavin Cote) on a feature that ran during Sunday NFL Countdown in September on Patriots fans who left last year’s Super Bowl early. (Props to the Patriots fans—Matt Moran, Tim Ruffini and Joel and Zak Kornbliet—to put themselves out there on every NFL fan’s nightmare.) Cote said the story was conceived at an NFL features idea meeting last June after the group had read about celebrities leaving the game early. The producers believed there had to be some diehard Patriots fans who had left as well. That started Cote and reporter Jeff Darlington on the trail of finding them.
• ESPN soccer analyst and former USMNT member Taylor Twellman delivered a memorable postmortem of the U.S. loss.
• Fox Sports used a crew of current NASCAR Cup Series drivers for its broadcast team for a live broadcast of the Nascar Xfinity Series race from Pocono Raceway. Kevin Harvick served as the play-by-play announcer alongside analysts Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin hosted the race coverage from the Hollywood Hotel mobile studio while Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. served as the cover pit road reporters. The broadcast didn’t flow as smooth as a regular broadcast but that actually made it far more interesting. They should try to make this an annual thing.
• The World Series once again provided tremendous ratings for Fox:
2017: 18.909 million viewers over seven games (Astros-Dodgers)
2016: 23.388 million over seven games (Cubs-Indians)
2015: 14.699 million over five games (Royals-Mets)
2014: 13.825 million over seven games (Giants-Royals)
2013: 14.940 million over six games (Red Sox-Cardinals)
• Terrific feature from ESPN producer Michael O'Connor and reporter Jen Lada on 14-year-old Jarren Jasper, the son of a Navy football coach.
• Tiffany Greene became the first African-American woman to call a nationally-televised college football game when she called Alcorn St-Alabama State on ESPNU on Oct. 5. Her thoughts on what that week’s assignment meant to her.
• Sunday NFL Countdown opened its show on Sept. 24 with 22 minutes of conversation on President Donald Trump comments and tweets urging NFL owners to fire players who do not stand for the national anthem. It was honest television and the best discussion of the issue I saw on Sunday. All of the football networks addressed what Trump said in some form and gave legitimate time to the issue. None avoided it. Nor should they have. It was a very good week for a genre that too often feels like a bro-rally.
• Ed Cunningham encouraged some thoughtful dialogue with his decision to walk away from college football broadcasting.
• On Sept. 11 Beth Mowins became the first woman in 30 years to serve as the play-by-play voice for an NFL game. Mowins called the Broncos-Chargers as part of ESPN's "Monday Night Football"opening-night doubleheader.
• Former NFL lineman Ryan O’Callaghan revealed on Outsports.com that he had planned to commit suicide after playing professional football, a result of living life as a closeted gay man. The piece, written by Cyd Zeigler, was a deeply honest and thoughtful account of O’Callaghan’s coming out story.
• NBA television ratings were up more than double digits from 2016 (for ESPN and TNT) to start the season, a continuation of a remarkable offseason. Per Sports Media Watch: NBA regular season games had averaged 1.9 million viewers on ESPN and TNT through Dec. 14, up 18% from last year (1.6 million) and up 13% from 2015 (1.7 million).
• The Peabody Awards honored the Just Not Sports group (Brad Burke, Adam Woullard, Joe Reed, Gareth Hughes; One Tree Forest Films and director Chad Cooper shot the video) for their remarkable video featuring ESPN’s Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro, a Chicago-based update anchor and host for 670TheScore, listening to men reading harassing and threatening tweets they had received online. The video cost just $300.00 to produce.
• ESPN’s exhaustive documentary on O.J. Simpson—O.J.: Made In America—is the best content the company has ever produced. The film was thrilling and uncompromising filmmaking—clocking in at seven hours and 43 minutes—and it made you look at the most famous murder case in United States history with fresh eyes and under a larger prism. In 2017 the film won the Academy Award for best documentary feature.
• The National Baseball Hall of Fame awarded Bob Costas with the Ford C. Frick Award, the highest award for any baseball announcer.
• In the same manner Mike Pereira significantly enhanced Fox Sports’s NFL broadcasts in Pereira’s first year as a rules analyst, Jim (Bones) MacKay, the former caddy for Phil Mickelson, had a major impact for NBC and the Golf Channel as he walked the course and reported.
• Fox Sports soccer host Kate Abdo—one of the network’s best hires—asked questions in English (for the crowd & FS1 audience) and Spanish (for Real Madrid players) during the postgame coverage of the 2017 MLS All-Star Game. Damn impressive. She also is fluent in German.
DUDS OF THE YEAR
(CULLED, IN PART, FROM THIS YEAR’S MEDIA COLUMN)
• The NFL ratings keep falling: Per AdAge reporter Anthony Crupi: Through Week 14, all NFL TV windows had averaged 15.1 million viewers, down 8 percent versus 2016. Household ratings were down 7 percent to an 8.8 rating
• Ray Lewis, while working for FS1 and Showtime Sports as an NFL analyst, was on the sidelines for the Ravens-Jags games in London in Sept, 24 as the team’s honorary captain for that game. As a viewer, I become more suspicious of an analyst’s opinion when they take an active role with a team while in theory working as an independent observer of the league.
• Hyperbole is the drug of choice these days in the sports media but the U.S. Men's National Team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was a disaster for Fox Sports. The World Cup is a momentum tournament over its 64 broadcasts and the U.S. broadcaster needs the national team in the tournament because it establishes a huge audience early on for those games.
• NBC Sunday Night Football announcer Al Michaels made a brutal Harvey Weinstein reference during a Giants-Broncos game in October.
• This was an annus horribilis for ESPN employees. Company president John Skipper announced in November that approximately 150 staffers had lost their jobs in positions across the company including producers, executives and digital and technology staffers. That followed the layoffs of roughly 100 front-facing staffers last April including many well-known names in sports journalism such as Ed Werder, Jane McManus and Jayson Stark. The network dealt with controversy after controversy—some of it self-inflicted, some of it out of its control.
• The sports announcer Robert Lee, best known as the radio and television play-by-play voice of the Siena College (Loudonville, N.Y.) men’s basketball program, found himself at the center of a major sports controversy on perceived political correctness run amok. In what ESPN says was a joint decision between the broadcaster and the company, Lee was removed from broadcasting Virginia’s season-opening football game on Sept. 2 against William & Mary because of the similarity of his name to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. He was re-assigned to call Youngstown State at Pittsburgh on ESPN3 on the same day.
• ESPN suspended commentator Jemele Hill for two weeks for a series of tweets she made calling for an advertiser boycott of the Cowboys following Dallas owner and GM Jerry Jones saying his players will stand for the national anthem and not disrespect the flag, and if they do, the player or players will not play. Hill said that a more powerful protest than Cowboys players Dez Bryant and Dak Prescott personally boycotting would be to stop watching and buying Cowboys merchandise. Of all its selective discipline for on-air talent over the years, ESPN management has made it very clear that the subject where it offers little flexibility for employees is when management believes an employee has said something that could impact the company’s bottom line. Skipper said as much in his statement to employees following Hill’s series of tweets on Trump. He never publicly supported Hill in the statement. He did, however, sound like Triple H of the WWE in one of his sentences. “We had a violation of those standards in recent days and our handling of this is a private matter,” Skipper wrote. “As always, in each circumstance we look to do what is best for our business.”
• ESPN Radio host Ryen Russillo was found naked in a stranger’s condo in Jackson, Wyoming around 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 23. He was charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. To his credit, Russillo owned it in full when he appeared back on air.
• Sergio Dipp garnered national attention on Sept. 11 for his awkward first quarter report on Broncos coach Vance Joseph "having the time of his life" during a Monday Night Football broadcast between the Broncos and Chargers. His report instantly went viral, with Dipp becoming the top trending topic on Twitter that night and a human meme. But that’s not why we list it here. In my opinion had ESPN returned to him during the game, he would have been able to re-shape some of the narrative that we saw on social media. The broadcast should have put him back on in multiple spots.
• Hall of Fame boxing commentator Al Bernstein is not a man prone to regularly go off on other sports commentators but the longtime boxing analyst says he felt compelled to jot some thoughts on ESPN (and to a specific extent, the producers who made the assignment) using Stephen A. Smith on commentary prior to the Manny Pacquiao-Jeff Horn fight. “I'm not saying Horn has faced super tough competition, but don't sit there with your co-host and laugh and mock their names after you have admitted you didn't even do any homework on one of the fighters who is in the main event, let alone his opponents,” Bernstein wrote. “When I have covered other sports beyond boxing I make it my business to NOT overreach and make statements based on no knowledge. Instead I actually prepare, so that I can stay in my lane, be factual and do the job I'm being paid for. When I covered major league baseball or the NBA on SportsCenter when I was at ESPN, I didn't offer unfounded opinions on players who I did not cover on a regular basis. … Boxers deserve respect and accuracy when they are reported on.”
• The roughest ESPN story I heard regarding layoffs involved SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh. According to multiple ESPN staffers, Walsh flew from Florida to Connecticut with her three-month-old twins under the working presumption that because she was scheduled to work that week, she’d be fine. But the morning after she landed in Connecticut with her twins, the anchor learned she was part of the layoffs. She made public via Instagram that she had been laid off following her maternity leave. Walsh was part of a Boston Globe story in December that examined the environment for women at ESPN.
• Former ESPN college football reporter Brett McMurphy found himself in the middle of a bizarre television moment on in November when ESPN announcer Steve Levy credited McMurphy as “our own Brett McMurphy” regarding McMurphy’s news break that Scott Frost would be the next coach of Nebraska. McMurphy, rather inexplicably given ESPN’s investment in college football, was eliminated from his position by ESPN in a round of layoffs in April.
• Pete Rose’s two-year broadcasting career at Fox Sports ended after he was accused of having a sexual relationship with a woman in the 1970s before she turned 16, according to court documents obtained by ESPN.com. In testimony as part of a federal lawsuit Rose filed last year against John Dowd, the woman alleged the relationship started when she was 14 or 15 years old. Rose has admitted to having a sexual relationship with the woman but said she was 16. Rose was 34 at the time and married with two children.
• The St. Louis Cardinals denied Outsports a credential for its Christian Day event, the first time the LGBT-focused sports blog had been denied a professional sports credential in its 17 years.
• Fox Sports fired Fox Sports National president Jamie Horowitz as a result of a sexual harassment probe by the company’s human resources department. (He denied the claims.) Prior to being jettisoned, Horowitz, who was hired by Fox Sports in May 2015, let go of more than 20 digital staffers including executives brought over from USA Today with years of digital experience.