Here is this week’s edition of SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
Believe it or not, the NFL Draft is getting bigger. In 1980, a newborn ESPN aired the Tuesday morning league procedural from a New York ballroom after convincing then-commissioner Pete Rozelle that people would actually watch. Forty years later, in April 2019, the event will be broadcast on ABC and ESPN (both owned by Disney) over three days from Nashville, inching closer to its destiny as the notecard World Cup.
Last year, the draft expanded onto broadcast television with FOX airing the first three rounds on Thursday and Friday and ABC showing the final four on Saturday. Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president in charge of programming and scheduling, said ABC already had entertainment commitments for the first two nights of last year’s draft. This year’s deal, signed earlier this week, gave the company plenty of time to clear out that bit of valuable scheduling real estate. NFL Network will also have a live show, as they have in the past. “We can really blow this thing out,” Magnus said.
College GameDay will anchor the ABC broadcast. While most of the details are yet to be sorted out, “The conceit here is it would be a big, authentic College GameDay environment with all the talent,” Magnus said. The show will also include live music. Offering the NFL perspective, vice president for media strategy and business development Amanda Herald said the league is looking to attract a new, casual audience to the event, including more female viewers. “The discussion on our side certainly has been how … to reach more fans with the biggest event we have in the offseason.”
GameDay makes sense for the role given the experience its analysts have with the college stars heading into the pros. But the vibe of the show also fits with what makes the draft special—and what makes it valuable for the sport. One of the biggest knocks against the NFL (besides complaints around endangering players, political grandstanding, economic bullying, and a lack of defense) is that it’s struggling to lure young fans, that it’s suffocating personality, that it’s the No Fun League. The NFL Draft though, regularly highlights compelling storylines, engages all 32 fan bases, and revolves around a series of life-changing moments. Yes, it boils down to an old man reading names off pieces of paper. But it’s fun!
ESPN was right all along: people do want to watch. Round 1 of last year’s draft drew 30% more viewers than the NFL Pro Bowl. More people watched that night than the average audience for either the NBA’s Eastern or Western Conference finals. If the league can continue growing the celebration without losing its material heart, there’s no reason more won’t tune in. And no program on television has managed to walk the corporate/authentic tightrope like College GameDayBuilt By The Home Depot.
Most of the logistics are still TBD, including how Monday Night Football analysts Booger McFarland and Jason Witten will factor in. Ultimately, Mel Kiper Jr. and the legacy ESPN broadcast likely will still out-rate its new in-house competition. Last year, ESPN drew 50% more eyeballs than FOX’s simulcast of the NFL Network presentation during the first round.
But I, for one, am ready to see something new. College GameDay broadcasting away from any college campus on a day without any games presents the same cognitive dissonance as NBC’s Sunday Night Football team presenting Thursday contests—so what. Let’s see draft silliness fully escape from its stuffy ballroom predict-listen-react-repeat roots. Besides, Twitter will be ahead of both broadcasts anyway, right?
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE MATCH: TIGER VS. PHIL
Nearly a week after Phil Mickelson won his $9 million match with Tiger Woods on the 22nd hole, The Match soldiers on. In a continued demonstration of WarnerMedia’s multiplatform might, TNT will air a two-hour special on the event at 5 p.m. Saturday, with golf highlights and behind-the-scenes sound from the two competitors along with a new voiceover from Mickelson. It’s being presented as something for both fans who missed the stream last Friday as well as diehards who could get more enjoyment out of the new perspective.
B/R Live’s technical glitch dominated the media narrative post-match. Servers failed to handle the influx of would-be purchasers as the competitors teed off, leading Turner to eliminate the paywall altogether and eventually refund everyone who was able to purchase access.
All that said, executives have expressed positivity about the undertaking as a whole. Bloomberg reported that the online stream drew 750,000 unique views with more than an hour average viewing time. “This was a huge success,” Turner president David Levy said. “We now know that formula works.” (Discussing the technical failure, Levy also mentioned the fact that the event aired on Black Friday, when heavy traffic in general took down other sites as well.)
Now, it’s only a matter of time before the next special event is announced. The Hollywood Reportercited a source saying that a second golf match could be coming, “teaming Woods and Mickelson each with a younger player on the rise.”
Growing the proceedings for The Match 2.0 is a good idea. While viewers got drama Friday evening, the afternoon passed slowly. We’ll see Saturday how much more microphones picked up over the course of the day, but in the moment, much of the promised banter and betting felt forced. Adding more competitors should up the opportunity for interaction, even if it makes the audio mixer’s task even more difficult. And while we’re talking about possible improvements, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who found the gambling references tedious rather than informative.
EMBRACING THE NUMBERS ON SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli decided to break out his new toy again for last week’s Packers-Vikings game. During the gameday editorial meeting, he explained that he wanted to use Pro Football Focus’ Predictive Analysis data to discuss Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to punt on fourth-and-two late in the team’s loss at Seattle the week prior. The numbers, gathered by traveling researcher George Chahrouri, suggested that going for it would have given the team a 30% chance of winning, while handing the ball to the Seahawks offered a 20% win probability (the Packers ultimately did lose, 27-24).
Wary of overloading viewers, the graphic has only been used a handful of times this year, starting with a Week 1 lookback to Doug Pederson’s decision to call Philly Special on fourth down in the Super Bowl. PFF showed off the stat’s capabilities during an offseason meeting before the production team worked through a half-dozen iterations of the design, eventually feeling comfortable with how the series of numbers would be presented.
“It’s a really new concept for probably 99.9% of our audience, so I think you have to be somewhat judicious about it and really explain it thoroughly,” Gaudelli said.
Complicated reads are normally the domain of the play-by-play caller—Al Michaels in this case—but since Cris Collinsworth is the analytics believer on set (and the owner of PFF), he has been tasked with explaining the calculations each time. Sunday, he rehearsed the package before the game, and then during the commercial break immediately preceding the segment. As it happened, McCarthy had just decided to punt on a fourth-and-four to end the previous possession.
Given the time crunch, Collinsworth isn’t able to explain all of the calculations involved, but Michaels often plays the role of the audience, questioning the math and supporting traditional logic. When a McCarthy-called run came up short on a third-quarter fourth-down, Michaels said, “And Mike McCarthy wants to shoot the analytics guys right now.” Collinsworth only offered a chuckle in response.
As someone who took a couple stats classes in college, maybe I’m biased, but I was left wondering what the numbers actually said in that scenario. Heck, I’d love to see a small pop-up with the relevant percentages before every fourth down call (information The New York Times’ fourth-down bot once provided online, may it rest in peace.)
Gaudelli isn’t sure that’s around the corner, though in a world of alternative feeds a la ESPN’s Statcast offering, he could see an opportunity.
“I certainly think it is a worthy secondary experience,” he said. “There is an audience for it—definitely a small one—but again, when you have 32 teams investing in these analytics, why shouldn’t you be on the same plane in terms of how you are going to present the game to your audience?” When that time comes, this crew will already have experience playing the numbers.
THE NCAA’S LATEST MESSAGING CRISIS
In other news of the analytical, the NCAA published its newly designed NET rankings for the first time last week and immediately received heavy criticism. Ohio State, ranked 16th by the AP, took the top spot with Belmont and Loyola Marymount standing on the fringe of the top 10.
“These are the worst rankings I've ever seen in any sport, ever,” Nate Silver wrote on Twitter, arguing that the system was worse than the 37-year-old RPI metric it replaced.
Senior vice president of NCAA men's basketball Dan Gavitt told Matt Norlander that he remains confident that the tool will garner trust when it has more data to use. The decision to publish the first edition despite the wonky early results was reportedly made to stay consistent with how the RPI was announced in years past, and to begin a year-long education process regarding the new numbers.
However, releasing the numbers like this risks a bad reputation sticking to the NET before it’s given a real chance, especially given that anything associated with the NCAA brand seems to have a public relations hurdle to leap out of the gates.
“It’s typical of the NCAA that they put something out there without fully considering the impact of it,” Jay Bilas said on Outside the Lines Wednesday. “Right now what we have is a brand new system that very few fans understand and when they look at the rankings they go, ‘I know that’s not right.’”
We won’t know whether college basketball has a math problem on its hands until the end of the season. But it’s already clear there is a messaging problem.
The truth is, the media uses the word “rankings” to mean three different things: (A) What a team has achieved, often indicated by record, (B) How good a team is, usually described by power rankings and polls, or (C) Which team is destined for future success, which is frequently left to oddsmakers and statistical analysts to sort out. To put it another way, rankings can reflect a team’s past, present, or future.
NET appears to be a muddled mix of the three, combined under a cute acronym. The NCAA needs to do a better job explaining, packaging, and selling it before it’s too late. For now, at least it’s got people talking. “I don't think it's a bad thing to have some discussion—good, bad or indifferent—about college basketball, the tournament, when it otherwise might get drowned out,” Gavitt told CBS.
• Vince Carter is the latest athlete to launch a podcast while playing, joining The Ringer along with teammate Kent Bazemore and Hawks employee Annie Finberg to create ‘Winging It.’
• Nick Greene took a detailed look at Jason Witten’s Monday Night Football struggles on Slate.
• Major League Baseball is reportedly considering bidding on the regional sports networks Disney is currently selling.
• Tiger Woods has agreed to a deal with the PGA Tour’s new online service, GOLFTV, giving fans access to his weekly practices and some instructional content.
• “Local team analysts have long tried to straddle the line between cheerleader and critic,” Leo Sepkowitz writes for Bleacher Report, “but as Bruce Bowen and an increasing number of veterans behind the mic are finding out, speaking your mind nowadays can kill your career.”
• ESPN business reporter Darren Rovell is leaving the company to join the Action Network, a gambling-focused media startup. “ESPN does a great job covering gambling, but winners in spaces today are the ones in the niches, not generalists,” Rovell told The Washington Post. “People aspire to go to organizations that are specialists. You feel good watching CNBC because all they do is business. All Action does is gambling.”
• DAZN’s next trick is implementing ads.
• According to an Awful Announcing poll, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo deserve this year’s Reader’s Choice Award among football broadcast teams.
• Depending on Saturday’s results, this year could present one of the most controversial College Football Playoff fields of all time, as Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State fight for three spots heading into their conference championship games. On a conference call Tuesday, CBS analyst Gary Danielson discussed how he and play-by-play caller Brad Nessler will balance the national discussion with the Bama-UGA game going on in front of them. “You can’t do the arguments justice. We don’t have a 30 minute show to talk about the issues and both sides,” he said. “We’re experienced but it’s a tough chore. Most people watching the game just want you to shut up and get to the next play … but we would also not be doing our job if we didn’t discuss it.” (Meanwhile, CBS Sports Network will air its first ever college football conference championship game Saturday at 1:30 p.m. as UAB and Middle Tennessee battle for the Conference USA crown.)
• The Oregonian has a worthwhile breakdown of why the Pac-12 continues “to lose ground in the college football arms race,” including the role of the conference’s TV network.
THANK YOU INTERNET…