Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
Gene Steratore is ready for more. Fresh off a successful debut as CBS’s NFL rules analyst this season, Steratore now turns around to perform the same role during March Madness. In addition to 15 years as an NFL game official, Steratore spent two decades reffing college basketball. “You take his experiences in both of those realms, I mean he’s the perfect hire for us,” Jim Nantz said. “We need him.”
Steratore will provide insight from a centralized studio to start the tournament, before joining Nantz and company on-site for the Final Four. As it happens, that will mean a return to Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium, where Steratore called his final game when the Eagles beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
During his first playoff run as a broadcaster, Steratore smoothly handled an AFC Championship Game that hinged on a series of controversial calls, criticizing when warranted and explaining when necessary.
But basketball presents new challenges. For one, NFL fans have grown used to rules analysts chiming in since Mike Pereira joined FOX in 2010. Steratore has fewer predecessors in the hoops world, though Steve Javie has provided a former referee’s perspective on ESPN’s NBA telecasts since 2012. Injecting analysis into a basketball telecast is also tougher given the continuous action, not to mention the number of subjective could-be foul calls that can pile up in a single possession. Plus, with most fouls coming on the ball, viewers are more aware of every decision a ref makes. “You start to realize the portions that are different [than football], and that’s why I’m really excited,” Steratore said Tuesday. “This is kind of the unknown.”
Beyond all that, Steratore hopes to highlight the more subtle role officials play. “There are times when I think it would really be beneficial for the public to know how well they're doing, maybe handling coaches or handling emotions,” he said. He has no hesitation calling officiating an “art.” Maybe he’ll be able to explain that, too.
Steratore will join Nantz, analysts Grant Hill and Bill Raftery, and reporter Tracy Wolfson in their fifth year as the lead broadcast team. A cliché this time of year is that freshmen like Zion Williamson aren’t really freshmen anymore given the experience they’ve accrued to this point. Heading into his first tournament, the same can be said for CBS’ new rules analyst, especially given the familiarity he already has with Nantz and Wolfson. “He's so comfortable and it makes the transition really easy,” Wolfson said. “It's like nothing's ever changed.”
Here are three other NCAA tournament-related thoughts:
• Several media members were surprised to see CNN President Jeff Zucker at a tournament media event in New York on Tuesday. Even Zucker was clear that he hadn’t had the date on his calendar until taking over Turner Sports earlier this month.
At CNN, Zucker has made a habit of making headlines. Most recently he’s … [checks Google] … called FOX News a “propaganda outlet,” reflected on suing the White House, and accused Donald Trump of “quite literally” endangering journalists.
Zucker was quiet Tuesday, though, saying that he would observe Turner’s handling of the NCAA tournament and then the NBA playoffs before instituting any significant changes. “I’m just going to stand back, let them do their jobs and try to support,” Zucker said.
Still, Zucker was ready to discuss the future of sports under AT&T and WarnerMedia. In particular, he highlighted gambling as “a tremendous growth area” and said the company will continue investing in emerging sports as it builds its streaming product, BR Live. “The opportunities are exciting if you think about digital, if you think about technology, and you think about that kind of growth,” he said. “That’s what we should be focused on.”
As for last year’s Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson pay-per-view event, Zucker said, “I think it was a fantastic idea and the kind of thing that interests me a lot.” Experimentation aside, Zucker’s biggest impact in his new role will come from any success he has managing the next generation of rights deals with the NFL, NBA and MLB, something he has experience with from his time leading NBC Universal in the late 2000s. “I’ve done that before and I’m excited to do that again,” Zucker said of the negotiation process.
• March Madness Live, managed by Turner Sports, returns this year with a couple new features. A BracketIQ Tool helps users make their picks, while a RedZone-style Fast Break stream will be available throughout the first weekend to help viewers keep up with the action. Presented across 17 platforms, many games are still limited to cable subscribers. If you’re looking to buy a streaming cable package for the month, thestreamable.com stacked up the offerings for tournament viewers.
Understanding that viewers will be coming in and out throughout the tournament, the app is designed to get you to the live video as quickly as possible. However, even if you’re pulling up a stream on your phone or at your desk, Turner Sports senior vice president Hania Poole hopes you’ll keep the sound on. “We always hope there is sound, we never want it to be muted,” she said. “Our advertisers don’t like that.”
• Earlier this week, CBS announced that it is returning to its old selection show formula of quickly releasing the bracket before breaking it down. The move should please viewers upset by experimentation over the last couple years. It’s probably a smart move, and yet it strikes me as odd. So many other shows predicated on sharing information have blossomed into events-in-themselves. The NFL draft is now a multi-day affair, the NBA lottery consistently produces meme’d moments, the Oscars have a whole season. Given the interest in “bracketology” over the season’s final weeks, you’d think there would be an appetite for something beyond a well-produced PDF bump.
Selection Sunday is already full of championship games earlier in the afternoon, but maybe someone could have success with a pre-selection show highlighting the season’s drama, elevating the biggest storylines entering the tournament, and analyzing the field. I’d think bracket-fillers would be ready to hear about potential Cinderellas without knowing their first-round opponents. It would also provide a deeper connection with the teams, making the moments of selection tension to come even more accessible.
BACKLOADED SCHEDULE BOOSTS ESPN
College basketball’s center of gravity continues to shift towards March. Every year there seems to be talk about the sport’s slow start during football season and possible fixes for it, but conferences and TV partners are already moving to take better advantage of the post-Super Bowl window.
This year, the first Duke-UNC game was on Feb. 20, the latest first meeting between the two in rivalry history. Virginia played two of its three Duke and UNC games after the Super Bowl after having a pair in January last year. Both ends of Tennessee and Kentucky’s home-and-home came after the Super Bowl for just the second time since 2011. Michigan and Michigan State, meanwhile, played each other twice in the season’s final 13 days. The rematch, along with Duke-UNC II, came as ESPN prioritized its final regular season Saturday.
Coincidence or not, the net result was a 15% boost in ratings for college basketball on ESPN. In addition to a series of well-timed marquee rivalries, ESPN had more flexibility this year regarding which games it would put on its biggest channel rather than having to lock in matchups based on preseason projections. That’s particularly helpful late in the year when it’s clear which teams are having notable seasons. “I would say that the conferences and the teams are as flexible now as they’ve ever been when it comes to TV,” ESPN director of college basketball programming Dan Ochs said. “We did a lot this year which we feel was partially responsible for some of our increases.”
Many of the networks top games featured Duke, but even excluding the Blue Devils, ESPN hoops games were up 6%. That’s in line with a 5% gain for college basketball across all networks, broadcast and cable, according to FOX’s Michael Mulvihill.
END OF AN ERA FOR ACC BROADCASTING
Talking before this week’s ACC Tournament, Raycom Sports COO Jimmy Rayburn explained the mood at work. “This our Super Bowl every year,” he said. “We put a lot of effort into it. Right now the attitude is we’ve got a lot to do, we’ve got to work, work, work.”
Then he changed tone.
“I’m misleading you a little bit. There’s a little melancholy. We’re still focused on the task at hand—we’re very up for it—but by the time Saturday comes and then towards the end of the game, there will be melancholy then, a feeling of melancholy.”
After 37 years under one name or another (Rayburn has been there for 34), this will be the final Raycom Sports over-the-air broadcast of the ACC tournament. ESPN will launch the ACC Network this summer as the games move exclusively onto cable, satellite and digital platforms. Raycom went through a similar transition a decade ago after ESPN took over SEC rights ahead of the launch of its SEC Network.
Weekly over-the-air college basketball telecasts through the 1970s and ’80s boosted college sports and particularly ACC basketball. “To give our sport that exposure at that time has led to the exposure we have today and kept us ahead,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Certainly Raycom has been an integral part of that.”
Next year, Raycom will produce games for ESPN in addition to several other ventures. “Part of our legacy will end on Saturday but we’ll fine,” Rayburn said, adding that he doesn’t see any layoffs on the horizon. “This is the last Raycom branded over-the-air telecast,” he said, “but this ain’t the obituary. We’re not dead.”
• Fired ESPN host Adnan Virk will reportedly join DAZN as the streaming platform launches an MLB show this season.
• If you’ve ever wondered where your favorite player gets all of his flashy outfits, the answer could be a teen he or she found on Instagram.
• Billy Haisley is not a fan of LeBron’s The Shop.
• Following an acquisition, Overtime is launching a women’s basketball vertical, OvertimeWBB.
• Here’s a powerful story of Sharks broadcaster Jamie Baker’s struggle with depression.
• Bleacher Report will debut interview series Take It There with Taylor Rooks in April.
• Ira Boudway checked in with The Action Network ahead of a pivotal March Madness for nascent gambling organizations.
• USA Today parent company Gannett has sold The Big Lead, according to Mark J. Burns.