By Richard Deitsch
April 12, 2011

Jay Rothman calls them "the wow guys," the trio of broadcasters headlining the now downscaled main set for ESPN's coverage of the first and second round of the NFL Draft on April 28-29.

In a major distribution shift of its on-air talent, ESPN has dramatically reduced the number of front-facing (TV term!) staffers who will work the first two days of the NFL Draft. Chris Berman, Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper will be on the main set for the network's Thursday (Round 1) and Friday night (Round 2) coverage. And that's it.

"These are the guys to me, no disrespect to any of the other analysts, these are the wow guys," said Rothman, the senior coordinating producer for Monday Night Football and the ESPN executive in charge of producing the draft. "Chris is the face of the NFL studio shows. He has a passion for the draft; he's done it for 30 years. It means a lot to him. I don't have to sell you on Mel, and Jon is more dialed in than any analyst I have worked with."

The main set talent for coverage of Rounds 3-7 on Saturday (April 30) will consist of host Trey Wingo and analysts Trent Dilfer, Kiper and Todd McShay. Adam Schefter and Chris Mortenson will serve as reporters on a separate set at New York City's Radio City Music Hall for Rounds 1-7, while Suzy Kolber will do Green Room interviews for Rounds 1 and 2 and then move to Bristol to anchor a set consisting of Herm Edwards, Tedy Bruschi and Ron Jaworski.

"We're lean and mean this year," said Rothman "I've done enough of these where philosophically you want to get in front of the picks. When we are reacting to the picks, it's not as compelling a show. The more talent you have and the more analysts you have, the heavier the show is. The biggest challenge for television at the draft is the 10-minute clock, which is not really a 10-minute clock. The truth of the matter is teams don't use all that clock time."

Rothman said coverage of the first and second rounds will not be bogged down with post-pick interviews. ESPN's Saturday coverage will focus heavily on team evaluations, so expect plenty of coaches and executives to pop on. The network will have 8 to 10 reporters deployed at team sites and Rothman said he also plans to be in the homes of 25 draft prospects, featuring reaction shots and interviews .The network will also have a presence at whatever event the NFLPA holds. Jeremy Schaap will report from the NFLPA site.

Few television producers are more enthusiastic about talent than Rothman, and he has long championed Gruden the way Bundini Brown hyped Muhammad Ali. He also, not surprisingly, has nothing but great things to say about Berman.

This column has noted often -- and will continue to note -- that it views Berman as an agent of the NFL, an auxiliary public relations person for Camp Goodell and Co. (I wholeheartedly recommend public relations professors at universities show students Berman's previous draft interviews with the NFL Commissioner). The draft at its core is a news show, and would be better served by a host with journalistic instincts.

I consistently hear from readers and sports bloggers about how the show would improve with Wingo as the lead host. These people are entirely correct, and the hope is that ESPN management will one day see the sweet light. (I'll also note here that I received a ton of reader e-mails last year praising the NFL Network's draft coverage, featuring the incomparable Mike Mayock.)

"I feel between Mel and Jon, fans will get the complete comprehensive positive and negatives of these players," Rothman said. "Between Adam and Mort, I feel we are dialed into the league. I can tell you Chris has been working his ass off. These guys are not fillbusters. What they have to say is meaningful and it matters."

Here's Rothman on a couple of other interesting draft-related items. How will ESPN's draft coverage address the labor situation?

Rothman: I think it is fair game in this manner: First of all, I hope whatever the NFLPA has going on in New York, we will have a presence there. If they do, we will have a reporter there.

We all want football and fans are fatigued by the legalities, and those legalities are also complicated. I think where it is fair game is how it affects the draft. If there is no free agency, teams that were filling spots with free agents now have to draft with that in mind. The latter rounds become that much more important. There is more pressure on the teams to get it right. So in terms of all the machinations regarding how it affects the draft is where we want to go. To bog fans down in the technicalities of labor talk would slow down the draft. I think our pre-draft shows will relate to that as well. ESPN is a partner of the league. Do you feel that the coverage can be independent when it comes to analyzing the labor strife?

Rothman: We will shoot from the hip, whatever that is. Our opinion is our opinion. These guys are not going to hold back. Obviously, they are our league partners, but none of my guys will be restricted. This could be the last football-centric event for some time. What kind of audience to you predict the draft will get?

Rothman: I think it gets a huge number. I think people are dying for football. Without any other NFL talk, the talk has been all draft. There is nothing else to talk about except labor. We will come hot and heavy between SportsCenter specials and Gruden's QB Camp. We're going to blitz the airwaves very shortly. I think fans are dying for football, and they want to hear about these players and teams. It's going to be a big and positive effect for us.

The MLB Network is in the midst of an ambitious series featuring a countdown of the top 20 baseball games of the past 50 years. The series, "MLB's 20 Greatest Games," features replays of the games on the original network it aired, as well as discussions with a panel of players who took part in each selected games. Bob Costas and SI's Tom Verducci have co-hosted the series.

On Sunday (7 p.m.) MLB Network will examine Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series between the Mets and Astros. Jesse Orosco, Darryl Strawberry, and Bob Knepper will be the in-studio guests.

The following week's show (April 24) highlights Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series between the Braves and Pirates. Sid Bream, Mark Lemke and Andy Van Slyke are the guests. (As part of the conversation, Van Slyke told MLB Network that on the Francisco Cabrera game-winning hit, he motioned to Barry Bonds to move in. Bonds responded by giving him the finger, and the ball ended up landing exactly where Van Slyke said to play).

Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson will get together for a conversation that airs May 1 on Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. MLB Network officials believe it is the first time Buckner and Wilson have sat together for a taped interview. The final game of the 1991 World Series -- featuring the Game 7 duel between Minnesota's Jack Morris and Atlanta's John Smoltz -- will air on May 8. Morris and Smoltz join Costas for the telecast.

The final show of the series, which will be taped this week in Boston, features a fantastic panel (Invites have gone out to Reds icons Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan and Red Sox star Carlton Fisk; Fred Lynn is confirmed) on Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. That two-hour show will air May 15.

"What we tried to do was to make it more interactive like a Director's Cut on a DVD," said Bruce Cornblatt, the producer of "20 Greatest Games" and a senior coordinating producer at MLB Network. "Our vision was akin to we're in the kitchen, the game is in the living room, the sound is down, and you have people that played in that game talking over and through the game. That seemed different to me than playing a section of the game and then coming back to the studio to talk about what we just saw. We wanted to have these people in the game stop remembering it and start reliving it. When I know we have something is when the guests start talking in the present tense rather than the past. And that's happened a bunch of times."

St. Petersburg Times sports media critic Tom Jones this week perceptively hit on one of the more infuriating aspects of golf coverage: the excuse-making and cheerleading for Tiger Woods. CBS's coverage of the Masters was the latest example, from David Feherty waxing on about "all he's been through this week!" to Bill Macactee's asking about the golfer's lunch plans following his final round. (The ever-gracious Woods responded to Macatee's questions by hitting him over the head with a 2 x 4 of condescension).

Viewers have come to accept that sports such as golf and tennis tend toward advocacy and cheerleading (I'll note here that I would normally not include the professional Macatee in this crowd) than hard-edged coverage, but the Masters offered fawning over Woods at its silliness. (That said, the production of the event itself was excellent.) Sports divisions clearly run scared of Woods freezing them out after a match -- Woods famously refused to do interviews with Peter Kostis for some time -- but if the golfer is going to give you attitude and non-answers, what exactly are you losing?

Comedian Norm Macdonald's "Sports Show With Norm MacDonald," premieres on Comedy Central April 12 at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT. The show will offer Macdonald's weekly observations on the sports world. I interviewed the comedian for the magazine this week. Here are some extras from the interview: People think this will be The Daily Show for sport, but you say it's not. So what is it?

Macdonald: Well, the Daily Show has a lot of correspondents and it's sort of a mock news show. This will definitely not be that. It will be sports jokes. But there are comparisons in that we'll be super-topical. Will any athlete or team be off limits?

Macdonald: We are no beholden to any teams or anything else. For instance, everyone in the country gambles on sports and it's never mentioned on sporting events. We can talk about that; ESPN can't. Will we see the NFL play this year?

Macdonald: For my sake, I pray the NFL and NBA don't go on strike. Hockey goes on strike every time they get a foothold in America. The NFL could not be more popular. The owners are crazy. The teams make so much money but these guys are so greedy. It drives me crazy. I'm definitely on the side of the millionaires on this one. Would you pay college athletes?

Macdonald: Yeah, I would play them for sure. It's just crazy when I go to college games and 100,000 people in the crowd and the players get nothing and I guess they graduate. They should make a fortune. You were born and raised in Quebec City. What is your hockey team?

Macdonald: I grew up in Quebec City but my Dad would not let me root for Canadians because he didn't like French people. So I had to choose another team. I chose Boston because of No. 4 Bobby Orr. I love the Bruins. Who will win the World Series?

Macdonald: I would have said the Red Sox but right now they are on pace for 0 and 162. But I'll stick with the Red Sox. Will you be doing any Burt Reynolds impressions on the show?

Macdonald: I'm trying to get Burt to come on during the NFL lockout and give a rousing speech. I hope he comes on the show because that would be awesome. What kind of athletes will you follow on Twitter?

Macdonald: I've looked through a lot of the athlete feeds and a lot of them are like, "Hey, I'm thinking of going to get a hamburger." Then a half-hour they'll be like: "Hey, I'm eating hamburger now." Maybe I'll follow LeBron. You've said you are addicted to sport-talk radio. Why do you like the medium?

Macdonald: Even though I love sports, I have no memory of anything. If you asked me who won the Super Bowl six years ago, I'd probably have no idea. I love sports radio because the hosts have to know everything and the listeners know more. I love waiting for the host to make a mistake and then the viewers phoning in. I love people getting angry about stuff, but only about sports.

Broadcaster Chris Carrino, the longtime play-by-play voice of the Nets and a basketball announcer for NBC at the Beijing Olympics, revealed this week that he has suffered from facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD, the most common form of MD, for the past two decades. In an effort to raise money for this disease, Carrino has launched The Chris Carrino Foundation for FSHD. You can learn about the foundation here.

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