Headlines from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet including Thursday Night Football on Fox, Hannah Storm on her debut, a live win probability tool from The Action Network and more.

By Jacob Feldman
September 27, 2018

Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.

WHY FOX HAS BET BIG ON IMPROVING THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

For Thursday Night Football on FOX, it’s all about the games. Each conversation about the network’s first season broadcasting TNF (after offering $3 billion over five years for the honor) starts or ends with the slate its been given. On Sept. 27, two reigning division champs face off when the Vikings visit the Rams. Half of the remaining 10 games feature either geographic or division rivalries, which should keep things lively even if the matchups aren’t as competitive as they appeared to be in the spring. (Titans-Jaguars is the only current couple with two winning records.)

This spring, Fox Sports executive Bill Wanger decried past Thursday night “gimmicks” like Color Rush uniforms, and the focus on the action will carry-over to the presentation. “The one thing that we’ve been hammering from day one is: The game comes first,” president of production John Entz said earlier this week. (TNF ads stick to the theme, proclaiming “What did FOX do to get these games?” The $3 billion is left unsaid.)

But FOX’s TNF is also aiming to be big. As the only game on, being in primetime against quality shows on the other channels, “you feel like you have to be a little more entertaining,” Joe Buck said. A new pregame and halftime show hosted by Michael Strahan in New York City will help the evenings feel like events. There will also be an additional cameraman running along the sidelines hunting shots of emotion and a special camera with what field operations SVP Michael Davies described as “a film look,” all in search of “epic cinematic appeal.”

OK. So we’ve got the games themselves, and a desire for grandiosity. Watching the team produce games the last two Thursdays for NFL Network, Entz noticed something else, too. “Something that organically happened … the broadcast has been looser,” he says. “If you take that the wrong way it can be viewed negatively, but as the viewer sitting there, it feels like there’s a breath of fresh air that’s been put in.”

No concurrent games means no game breaks to highlight action from around the league, giving Buck and Troy Aikman more downtime to play with, especially if a game isn’t close in the fourth quarter. “I think you can play with that room a lot of different way,” Buck said. They can talk about the last week of games or preview the upcoming weekend, or they can have some fun. After the crew called Cleveland’s first win in over a year last Thursday, Buck, Aikman, Mike Pereira, Erin Andrews and Kristina Pink, who joined the team this year as a sideline reporter, found themselves at their hotel bar, still talking about the game. Hopefully that camaraderie comes through on the broadcast.

Then there’s the business side. Ratings have been up and down so far this season, but industry insiders expect Thursday Night Football to get a bump now that it has a consistent home and a strong lineup of games. Meanwhile, TNF is the centerpiece of a larger pivot at Fox towards live entertainment after the company sold much of its dramatic production arm to Disney.

As for the NFL, it still has to convince a swath of doubters that it isn’t overextended and that it can offer quality entertainment on a short week. If a renewed focus on a stronger slate of games, captured with epic cameras, and broadcast with a fun vibe isn’t enough to do that, what is?

HANNAH STORM TALKS BEFORE AMAZON DEBUT

“Football and sports are not the purview of one specific group of people. It’s not a secret language. It’s not brain surgery. And sometimes it can seem intimidating. Hopefully what we’ll do is keep it simple, keep it entertaining, keep people engaged and make people feel welcome. It’s for everybody.”

10-year ESPN vet Hannah Storm has teamed up with Pro Football Hall of Fame honoree Andrea Kremer to call Thursday Night Football as an alternative audio feed for Amazon Prime viewers, becoming the first all-female NFL announcing team. Storm has not called games regularly since the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997 but said she’s always enjoyed the feel of a live event while sitting behind CNN or ESPN anchor desks and has long wanted to get more involved in the NFL. 

She and Kremer have done a series of test games before calling Thursday’s game from a facility in Stamford, Conn. “It’s exhilarating and daunting all at once,” Storm says. [You can find more details on what the feed will sound like, the two other women involved in production, and Amazon’s other new Thursday Night Football features here.]

Here are a few other (slightly edited) comments from our conversation:

On the pair’s mindset going into their first game: “The first thing Amazon said to us, right off the bat was, this is not a gimmick. The cool thing was, because this is an 11-game commitment on their part, not just a one-game thing, Andrea and I have the ability to go out there like a rookie quarterback and throw some interceptions. That’s definitely going to happen, we’re totally prepared for that. We’re actually going to be growing, and we’re going to have some good moments too.”

On how they will complement what Buck and Aikman provide on FOX: “We’re not going to be like Troy and Joe. That’s not what this is. It’s not traditional play-by-play, X’s and O’s, the way we are all used to watching football. If you want that, it gets no better than with those guys. They’re the best in the business. How we think about it is using conversations we’ve had, our sensibility as veteran broadcasters who have done a lot of preparation, talking to players and coaches from both teams—we want to have a conversational feel with a storytelling bent.

Amazon wanted us to bring ourselves to the table. It’s going to sound and be different.”

On the negative reactions to the announcement of her new gig: “There are people out there who already don’t like the idea. We’re certainly not doing it for them. Unfortunately there’s always going to be a segment of people that feel that women don’t belong.

We live in a world of choices, now more than ever, and you can choose this. It’s an option. It’s your choice. Just like you can choose kindness and acceptance over hatred. You can choose it. You don’t have to sit down and tweet something negative and hateful, just like you can choose not to watch.”

On dealing with that negativity: “It’s easy to get caught up in the vitriol, but we have all these incredible people supporting us. And no one is going to be a harder critic on us than ourselves. No one is perfect, we’re not perfect, and this isn’t going to be either.

It’s like the old sports adage: You don’t play scared. This is risky but it’s the right thing to do. Somebody has to be the first. Why not us?”

MOVING ON TO PARIS

NBC golf producer Tommy Roy likes to go back and review each broadcast he helps lead, but he’s hardly had time to watch Tiger Woods’s stirring Tour Championship victory from Sunday, given Roy and his team had to turn around and fly to Paris for the 2018 Ryder Cup, which begins Friday at 2:10 a.m. eastern time.

Still, he had time to watch the final hour of coverage. “It was an amazing scene,” Roy says. “Good for golf.” But now it presents an interesting challenge for his team. They’ve been planning coverage for the biennial Europe vs. U.S. event since last year, when they traveled to the Albatros Course of Le Golf National to scout the location.

Normally, what makes the event special is that, after spending so long playing for themselves, each golfer must handle the pressure of playing for their team, their captain, and their country. The team aspect makes for compelling drama. But it’s going to have to be pretty darn compelling to make people forget that Woods has rediscovered his form and that they could be watching every single one of his swings.

Roy said Tiger’s resurgence does slightly affect how he will present the action, but ultimately, he will be more focused on showing close matches (the Ryder Cup features two days of two vs. two contests before switching to singles competition on Sunday).

Roy will also have to combat a dramatic time difference. Until 2014, Ryder Cup competitions in Europe were shown in the states on tape delay. But that doesn’t fly anymore. Now it’ll be shown live, starting in the wee hours of the morning in America, with replays available in the afternoon and a live stream option on RyderCup.com.

The earliest Friday tee time will be worth staying up for, though (or at least set your DVR so you can watch over your morning coffee). A grandstand holding 6,500—four times the size of the one we saw two years ago at Hazeltine—will greet the golfers as they kick off the international competition.

Elsewhere on the course, Roy will have the ability to use shots from a cable camera that runs diagonally over top of the driving range and a pair of greens, as well as a camera placed on a boat in the lake that is surrounded by the final four holes.

REVIEWING THE CLIMB OF A LIFETIME

Why do we push ourselves? Are we driven by inspiration? By boredom? By fear? That’s the question at the heart of Free Solo, which opens in theaters Friday. If it sounds too lofty a topic for a sports doc, then you likely haven’t seen Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s work before. The married filmmakers’ last movie, Meru, was as much meditative as the core 4,000-foot climb was maniacal.

This time, the two focus on a single athlete and a single conquest. When they heard about Alex Honnold’s desire to scale Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan mountain without ropes (called “free soloing”), and his interest in having the ascent filmed, their first reaction was concern. “We were freaked out,” Vasarhelyi says. Most famous free soloists have perished on a mountain, and during the film, a fellow climber directly states that Honnold could likely be next. That concern remained throughout months of training and, even during Honnold’s final climb, it’s evident in Chin’s voice as he radios to his camera crew, asking for updates. But Chin is also concerned earlier in the film, when Honnold considers climbing the mountain without giving the filmmakers a heads up, potentially negating the months of work they’ve put into planning how best to capture his ascent and eliminating their chance to leave a mark.

Stunning shots of El Capitan’s imposing face emphasize—and at times justify—the level of obsession that both Honnold and his filmers bring to the task before them. Speaking the morning after a screening in New York City, Chin and Vasarhelyi said there’s not a single change they would’ve made to the way they captured Honnold’s climactic climb. Without giving too much away, the bird’s eye view is unforgettable.

But, again, this is more than just adrenaline fodder. “I hope teenagers see it; they are going to be able to relate,” Chin says. “It’s the geeky kid that goes on to dominate … but also doing it step by step by step, through discipline and perseverance, all these qualities you can aspire to.”

“The film is about living with intention,” Vasarhelyi adds. “Alex lives each day the way he wants to live it. If anything this film raises that question, like, are we living the lives that we want to live? I think we don’t ask that question enough.”

Ultimately, Free Solo pushes viewers a step further, too. What motivates those intentions? During the film Honnold admits that he wouldn’t choose a relationship over climbing, and that even happiness itself is a distraction from achieving greatness.

After Honnold delays his timetable for scaling El Capitan, he speaks with another free soloist, who states the obvious: “You never have to go for it.” Honnold drops his head. He knows better.

ONE TOOL WORTH CHECKING OUT

Honestly, I’m a little sad to report this, because I have long had on my to-do list: Create a live win probability tool for spread bets. The concept is fairly obvious. Though they remain controversial, formulas to calculate a team’s chance of winning given the score, time remaining, and possession situation are now nearly ubiquitous. But, as you know, there is large collection of viewers who not only care who wins, but also by how much. If you bet on the Dolphins +7 (meaning they either have to win, or lose by less than seven) in New England this Sunday, for instance, it would be great to know what your chances are if they trail by six at halftime. Now, The Action Network will tell you.

Senior director of data science Colin Davy said the tool takes roughly a month to build per sport. The MLB and NFL versions are currently live, with NBA compatibility expected by the start of the regular season. “We’ve seen the proliferation of general game win probability graphs; everyone and their mother has one of the those,” he says. “It’s kind of shocking no one had done this before.” Thanks a lot, Colin.

For now, the implementation is pretty limited. If you save a bet in The Action Network app, a small red or green dot will show up below it on the Today tab with a percentage indicating your (fairly accurate) chance of getting the bet right. But it’s a clear sign of the type of service the sports gambling startup wants to provide. (If you want more background on The Action Network, I recommend this profile from Ben Strauss.)

Next, I’d love to see the site’s content team use some of this data to mathematically tell us each week what actually was the baddest beat, the bet that came closest to cashing in before crashing out. Then I’ve got a couple other items on my to-do list that maybe they can handle as well.

(Do you or someone you know need help with a gambling problem? The National Problem Gambling Helpline can help).

SIGHTLINES

News and notes from across the sports media landscape

• The NBA will reportedly allow fans to buy streaming access to the fourth quarter of any game for $1.99. That feels like an exceptionally fair price, and a decision I hope every league follows. More price points are supposedly coming soon, too.

• The NHL season starts Wednesday (really!), and NBC has released its announcer lineup. The company is airing 109 games this season, up from 99 a year ago.

• Debate around Barstool Sports’ role in stoking hate online flared up again this week after the Daily Beast published a story from Robert Silverman. “The online harassment by (founder Dave) Portnoy and in turn by Barstool’s most devoted fans—largely young, white men or ‘Stoolies,’ as they’re known—is a feature of the site, not a bug,” Silverman writes. Deadspin founder Will Leitch then reckoned with the Boston-born company’s rise, while Barstool employee Liz Gonzales penned a defense of the workplace.

• This was the week for sports media personalities to go on podcasts, I guess. For your listening pleasure: Joe Tessitore on the SI Media Podcast, Joe Buck on Dual Threat, Sam Ponder on The Football Girl Podcast, and Matt Vasgersian on the Glass Half Empty Podcast.

• ESPN announced a multiyear contract extension with senior writer Mina Kimes Thursday.

• The New Yorker has taken notice of Lee Jenkins’s move from Sports Illustrated to the Los Angeles Clippers.

• Baseball fans will enjoy Devin Gordon’s profile of “Gary Keith and Ron, the Magi of Mets Nation.”

• Online broadcaster Cheddar is launching an eSports highlights show on Twitch.

• Sports Video Group has an in-depth look at Sunday Night Football’s audio production, and I think a lot of fans will commiserate with submixer Ryan Outcalt’s complaint about stadiums’ increasingly loud public-address systems. “Fighting with the PA has become the single biggest challenge more often now,” he said. From what I understand, other leagues have instituted rules about how loud those systems can go in order to improve how the broadcast sounds at home, but the NFL is still letting its teams pump up the noise to improve the in-stadium experience.

• Friend of the column Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written for ESPN, so I can include her “How I Get It Done” interview with The Cut, full of advice for aspiring writers.

• In The New York Times, the story of how Nike Nearly Dropped Colin Kaepernick Before Embracing Him.

• Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard finally explained why he suddenly started breaking media news, graduating from reporter to critic.

• The Jaguars became a punchline on NBC sitcom, “The Good Place,” (which returns Thursday and is a must-watch). But what will the show do now that they are good?

THANK YOU, INTERNET…

...for one of my favorite creators, @KofieYeboah, and one of his latest creations.

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