HBO’s Hard Knocks returns this month, with the show featuring the Houston Texans this season. Fans generally love watching the all-access program, but how does Hard Knocks’s presence affect the jobs of local media?
Miami Herald sports columnist Armando Salguero admits he’s the competitive type, so prior to HBO’s Hard Knocks arriving in Davie, Fla., to cover the Dolphins’ training camp in the summer of 2012, Salguero let the Dolphins organization know he wasn’t pleased with the special access HBO staffers were getting. “I made my case to the Dolphins, and coach Joe Philbin specifically, that it is patently unfair to give one media entity unlimited access, injury information—access to the training room—and other perks while at the same time declining to address injuries in press conferences or speak on issues otherwise discussed in front of national TV cameras,” Salguero said. “So that caused a little tension for me, even though as a columnist and not the beat writer, it wasn't entirely my fight.”
Joe Reedy, who expertly covered the Bengals for years with the Cincinnati Enquirer, has gone through the Hard Knocks process as well, twice in fact, in 2009 and 2013. “The first year it impacted me a lot because my bosses at the newspaper wanted to make a big deal about it,” Reedy said. “There was a lot of trying to track what the film crew did, trying to track who they were interviewing and coming up with an angle every day. The second time the NFL Films crew was here I had a better idea what to expect and how it shouldn’t be a major focus of our coverage.”
Arguably the best reality show in television history, Hard Knocks returns on August 11 (10 p.m. ET/PST) with the first of its five-episode run featuring the Houston Texans. Having profiled the Hard Knocks crew for the MMQB.com in 2013, it was remarkable how professional they were about being present but not intrusive. But I’ve always wanted to write a piece on how the filming impacted local reporters.
“The Hard Knocks people are pros and they don't really diminish the ability to interview players or coaches,” said Salguero. “My advice to Texans reporters is, firstly, to grin and bear it. It's not about you. It's not personal. Secondly, I found myself incorporating information and anecdotes I saw on the show into my coverage. Look at it as a way to improve your work. The Hard Knocks people are excellent at what they do and one of the things they do is blend into the scenery. After a while players and others forget they're there. So did I. They do not interfere with interviews. They do not take players away from me. I have no complaints about those guys.”
Houston Chronicle sports columnist Brian T. Smith is one of the principal writers covering the Texans this training camp. I asked him what his expectations were in terms of how the Hard Knocks filming would impact (or not impact) his job.
“The local media briefly dealt with Hard Knocks up close last season when the Atlanta Falcons practiced and played a preseason game against the Texans in Houston,” Smith said. “It confirmed what I already thought about the show and how it would affect covering a team that was being filmed. The real value of Hard Knocks occurs inside an organization's operational facilities, not on the practice field. The local media would never have access to a training room while a player was being taped up or a general manager’s office during cut day, so anything that Hard Knocks captured on film would technically be off limits to us, anyway.
“The cameras and white ‘HBO: Hard Knocks’ shirts are everywhere, but the crew has been respectful and professional while mostly fading into the background. If you scan the huddle, they're there. If you watch a defensive lineman in a passing drill or observe [head coach] Bill O'Brien coaching up [quarterback] Ryan Mallett, the cameras and microphones are always hovering around. But the crew’s allowed to cross access boundaries the media never is, so we rarely run into them unless the Texans are changing practice fields. It's like watching a movie being filmed. They're shooting the picture. We're anonymous background actors who never speak. The NFL's media policies—increasingly restricted access, total control over everything—have much more impact on writers than Hard Knocks does.”
Houston Chronicle NFL columnist John McClain, who is in his 37th season covering the league, echoed some of Salguero’s thought about the competitive disadvantage.
“I’ve watched every Hard Knocks for the exact reason I didn’t want the series showing the team I cover: They get access I don’t, so they get storylines I don’t get,” McClain said. “They get information I don’t have a chance to get before they do. As a reporter, I don’t like it when anybody gets something I don’t have, but Hard Knocks gets access that isn’t fair to media who cover a team. That being said, it’s fun for fans. I’ve always been fascinated by the show because it takes me where I can never go—behind the scenes, into the inner sanctum of an NFL team. I’m envious … The Hard Knocks impact is behind the scenes, when the cameras shoot injuries and players being released. That’s where Hard Knocks will impact my job, and I won’t know it until I watch the series, which I would never miss, anyway. Watching in the past, I’ve always felt bad for the media who regularly cover the team.”
Sara Eckert, a reporter for Houston-based SportsRadio 610 (the flagship station for the Texans), also covered the Cowboys in 2008 when Hard Knocks was filming in Oxnard, Calif. She said her Houston station did not want to overdo Hard Knocks-related content but did want players’ reactions to having the crew around.
“Other than seeing crew members with Hard Knocks t-shirts on, I barely paid attention to them,” Eckert said. “The only thing is sometimes they're in the way when you're trying to watch something on the field, but it's usually only one person in the way, so it's not that big of a deal. The crews will definitely be more noticeable when practices aren't open to the public, but I'm sure they still won't affect our jobs.”
The one thing Hard Knocks often does is make reporters bit players in the series. Reedy said his most memorable moment came 10 minutes into the first episode in 2013 when the NFL Films crew caught him walking behind Marvin Lewis and put its trademark slow motion and music over it.
“The only thing missing was explosions in the background,” Reedy said. “The other thing was just getting to talk to the late Steve Sabol throughout the 2009 preseason about how the show was being put together and learning from him why certain things were used or why some things did not run. In 2009, Muhammad Ali came to visit the Bengals in Georgetown on one of the last days of training camp. It was promoted for a future episode but didn’t run. I asked Sabol about it and he said after looking at the footage he didn’t like seeing Ali there in just a golf cart and looking frail. He remembers Ali as his boisterous self and thought that the footage didn’t add anything.”
Both McClain and Smith said they expected Chronicle sports media writer David Barron to handle most of the Hard Knocks-related issues for their paper, but that could change dramatically—as other media have found out—once the show starts airing. Smith said the Chronicle ran a big feature on Hard Knocks prior to the first practice and each day after practice they have a Hard Knocks Moment that runs down an inside page of the Chronicle’s Texans’ coverage.
“As writers, we covered the initial news and will report on minor daily mentions,” Smith said. “But until the episodes air, there's really not much to say. It'll be interesting to see what Hard Knocks is able to reveal about the inner workings of the Texans, since they've become increasingly secretive since O'Brien's hire. That said, the normal ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ moments on Hard Knocks are usually better fitted for the entertainment media, not a sports writer.”
Something that’s always debated by local media is whether the show is ultimately good for an NFL franchise.
“I think it depends on what the team chosen or volunteer wants to get out of it,” Reedy said. “If you have a first-year staff, like Miami had in 2012, I think it can be bad. However, that year produced one of the best moments, showing the release of Chad Johnson. It wasn’t theatrical, it wasn’t toned down. That was a real as it gets. In 2009 the Bengals went on to change perceptions about their franchise because the perception at that time was not good because of the off-the-field incidents. There were a couple head-scratching moments from Mike Brown, but it put the franchise in a good light. In 2013, the Bengals knew they were going to be one of the teams to watch and Marvin Lewis used it as a way to get his team used to the media attention. In both cases I think it had a good result. I also think seeing the evolution of Hard Knocks since Sabol’s death is it’s harder to get teams to participate, which is why the current rules were put in place. Sabol had a way of going to teams and selling them on the benefits of the show because he had such a trust factor with the owners and coaches throughout the league. I also think his impact on the show is greatly missed. While the human emotion is still there it just feels like there are some things missing.”
Salguero made it clear he doesn’t think the pros outweigh the cons.
“When I see Bill Belichick allowing the Hard Knocks cameras into his organization, then I'll believe the experience might be a good thing for the team,” Salguero said. “I do not think it serves the teams and I do not think it helped the Dolphins. Indeed, it made multiple players upset with coaches when they heard how some coaches spoke about them in private. It created some embarrassment for the players and fostered some distrust of the coaches. This from what players told me.”
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week’s biggest sports media stories.
1. On Monday Sports Business Daily writers Daniel Kaplan and John Ourand reported that ESPN is giving up its rights to the French Open. The network told SBD that the decision was related to ratings and not cost-cutting in Bristol. The SBD reporters said that ESPN’s inventory would likely to move over to NBC Sports Network, though they reported NBC has not begun talks with Tennis Channel, which holds the event’s rights through 2023. NBC has owned the U.S. broadcast rights to the French Open since 1975. ESPN2 had carried French Open matches since 2003.
2. Yesterday’s media column focused on the Oakland Raiders hiring ESPN announcer Beth Mowins to call the team’s preseason games for television. Mowins said she will call Oakland’s opening preseason game against the Rams, the second game (Vikings) and the fourth game (Seahawks). NBC will air the third game. She’ll be joined in the broadcast booth by Tim Brown, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015, and former Raider and longtime television commentator Matt Millen. The Raiders have previously used a radio-television simulcast for their preseason games but Vittorio De Bartolo, the executive producer of broadcasting for Oakland, said Mark Davis, the Raiders’ owner, wanted to change things up this season.
The move was a long time coming. The last, and only, women to call NFL play by play was Gayle Sierens, who recently retired after a long career as a news anchor in Tampa, Fla. Sierens was the announcer for the Seahawks-Chiefs game for NBC on Dec. 27, 1987, the final week of the regular season that year. Following that broadcast, then-NBC Sports executive producer Mike Weisman offered Sierens six more game games for the following season but her local NBC station did not want her to call more games and miss work. So Sierens never called another NFL game. Lesley Visser served as an analyst alongside play-by-play announcer Howard David and analyst Boomer Esiason for a Westwood One/CBS Radio game in 2001 and eight years later became the first woman to do color for a televised NFL game, a preseason game between the Dolphins and the Saints. That’s essentially the whole list of women who have done NFL play by play or color analysis.
3. SI.com reporter Zac Ellis was in Atlanta on Monday to take in a panel discussion at Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame featuring some College GameDay staffers. Below, he filed a report for this column.
ESPN’s Rece Davis will be ready for the spotlight when the 2015 college football season kicks off. “I’m the oldest rookie in the history of television,” Davis said on Monday.
Davis, the new host of ESPN’s College GameDay, joined analyst Lee Corso and GameDay senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting in a panel discussion at Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame, an event sponsored by the Atlanta Sports Council. ESPN announced Davis’s move to GameDay in February, where he’ll replace Chris Fowler, who had hosted the traveling show since 1990 and now moves to call ESPN’s Saturday night primetime game.
Fitting admitted Davis will bring “his own tone and feel” to GameDay. But Davis is hardly an unfamiliar face at ESPN. That’s why Fitting said viewers shouldn’t expect monumental shifts in GameDay’s dynamic.
“People continue to bring up Chris and Rece, Chris and Rece,” Fitting said. “If it were anyone else but Rece sitting in that chair, we’d be having a serious conversation. But it’s Joe Montana and Steve Young. It’s two Hall-of-Famers. I worked with Rece for a long time on College GameDay basketball, and he is awesome.”
On Monday Fitting officially announced GameDay will open the 2015 season on Sept. 5 from Alabama-Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The crew also announced a return trip to Army-Navy on Dec. 12. Fitting said ESPN wants to make the season’s final Saturday, which features only Army-Navy, FCS games and the Heisman Trophy ceremony, feel like any other week of college football.
As for the broadcast itself, viewers can expect a few minor tweaks in 2015. Fitting said ESPN updated the virtual graphics they used during last season. Moreover, the network will utilize what Fitting calls a “tower cam” to provide a 360-degree view of the sign-wielding fans. GameDay will also have aerial coverage at each of its weekly stops in 2015. “The tech side of things is something that we’ve pushed hard, and those three things will make us better,” said Fitting.
Don't expect a change on Corso’s side of the set, however. The longtime GameDay analyst has been with ESPN since 1987, but he turns 80 on Friday and suffered a stroke in 2009 that periodically affected his speech. On Monday Corso admitted his health problems initially made him question his longevity. Still, the former coach also said he isn’t ready to hang it up.
“I’m going to do this as long as I physically can add something to the broadcast,” Corso said. “And I want to do it with passion.”
4. The 13th episode of the SI Media Podcast features ESPN's lead soccer broadcaster Ian Darke. In the podcast, Darke discusses his preparation to call matches for different leagues, what makes for a good soccer analyst, why soccer viewers are tough markers, the difference between calling a soccer match in England versus the U.S., his most harrowing travel story, how he started in the business, why the Men In Blazers call him Sir Ian, why Gus Johnson had such a tough challenge and much more.
5. ESPN announced that senior news correspondent Jeremy Schaap has reached a long-term extension to remain with the company.
5a. NBC posted a 1.44 overnight rating for American Pharoah’s return Sunday in Haskell, the network’s best rating for a summer horse race since 2011. The top TV markets: 1. Louisville; 2. New York; 3. Orlando; T4. West Palm Beach & Tampa; 6. Tulsa; T7. Knoxville, Fort Myers & Richmond; 10. Greensboro.
5b. For Roddy Piper (RIP) fans, start at 4:15 of his interview here with HBO’s Armen Keteyian. Chilling words in retrospect.
5c: Here's NBC's one-year out promo for the Rio Olympics.