The start of MLB playoffs also kicks off an important month for FOX and Turner. Plus NBC's new approach to hockey, Jemele Hill's next move and more.
Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
Major League Baseball’s playoffs begin in earnest Thursday night with a pair of Game 1s, kicking off an important month for two media companies betting big on sports.
Fox gets things going with Brewers vs. Rockies at 5:07 p.m. ET on FS1. In the midst of airing a record number of NFL games between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, the broadcaster will stretch its sports talent to the limit (just look at Joe Buck’s schedule!) and is already looking to reap the financial rewards of its new live entertainment strategy (see below in this column). In addition to the NFL and baseball, Fox also has college football, UFC, and women’s national soccer action lined up. Over the weekend, FS1 will air the big-market Dodgers vs. Braves battle, though Game 1 belongs to MLB Network Thursday at 8:37 p.m. At the end of the month, Fox is the home of the World Series for a 19th straight season.
Friday will be TBS’ time to shine, with the reigning champion Astros hosting the Indians on the channel at 2:05 p.m. eastern, followed by Yankees-Sox at 7:32 p.m. The Turner Sports empire has already shown its recently acquired Champions League soccer matches this week, and next week it will air the first of 66 NBA games on TNT. Altogether, the events make October the second biggest sports month for the company, behind only March Madness. This will be the first marquee month since Turner was acquired by AT&T, and a good test of how well the conglomerate’s brands, from HBO to Bleacher Report, can synchronize around sports properties.
Here’s a lineup card’s worth of other media thoughts entering the MLB Playoffs.
1. Tuesday’s Rockies-Cubs wild card game gave ESPN the opportunity to experiment with a StatCast version of the broadcast on ESPN2. Play-by-play man Jason Benetti was joined by former 13-year pro Eduardo Perez and MLB.com analytics expert Mike Petriello. The show featured stats beyond batting average or home runs for each player as they stepped to the plate and smartly used graphics to discuss complicated issues like fielder positioning. Leaning into where baseball is heading, the result was an elevated broadcast. I hope we see more like it going forward (and I don’t think I’m alone). In the meantime, it will be worth tracking how TBS and Fox broadcasts incorporate the numbers that are driving baseball decision making these days.
Talking Wednesday afternoon (on two hours of sleep), Perez was so giddy about how the trial telecast went that he didn’t even need to be asked about it before launching in. Conversation about the alternative style started less than a month ago, he said, and the trio didn’t do any dress rehearsals before Tuesday’s game. “We were just doing it the way front offices see the game.” His favorite moments came when the gang demonstrated how much better batters perform each time they face a starter over the course of a game, and similarly, when they explained why Chicago manager Joe Maddon pulled Jon Lester after six innings. “You have to get him out, totally the right call,” Petriello said at the time. Meanwhile, on the significantly more watched ESPN broadcast, analyst Jessica Mendoza said, “I just … wanted to see Jon Lester come back out there in the seventh, the way that he was going.”
2. The entire baseball world (outside of Oakland) ought to be celebrating the Yankees’ wild card victory over the Athletics Wednesday night. TBS in particular hit the jackpot. It will air the series Friday, Saturday, Monday, and if necessary, Tuesday and Thursday. Sure, Yankees-Red Sox will suck much of the air from the three other divisional round matchups, but it will also introduce casual fans to 2018 baseball, featuring some young stars and—hopefully—some exciting games. Boston and New York enter the postseason first and second in runs scored. Looking down the road, all else being equal I’d imagine Yankees-Dodgers would be the highest drawing World Series matchup.
3. “Blood clots are nothing to be messed with,” Turner host and play-by-play caller Ernie Johnson told fans on Twitter, “so as tough as it is for me to miss baseball’s postseason, it is the thing to do.” Advised against flying while on blood thinners, the 62-year-old followed up to say he feels fine and that he will be in the studio for the start of the NBA season next week. In Johnson’s absence, Padres announcer Don Orsillo will be reunited with Dennis Eckersley. After calling dozens of Red Sox games together during Orsillo’s time at NESN, the two will be in Houston for Indians-Astros along with Hazel Mae.
4. While we’re talking Turner… The company’s B/R Live streaming service is going to include streams of batting practice before TBS games, but the games themselves will only be streamable on www.tbs.com and the Watch TBS app with a TV provider log-in. (Both Fox and Turner signed playoff rights deals in 2012 that last through 2021.) I’ll also be keeping an eye on how much baseball material makes its way to the Turner-owned House of Highlights Instagram page, which has more than twice as many followers as MLB itself can boast. HoH has traditionally been almost exclusively focused on basketball, but the company wants to use it to promote other content too. As the bio reads, “I get everything you need to see in sports.”
5. Rarely are league marketing campaigns as notable as MLB’s postseason slogan: Rewrite the rules. In the accompanying ad, the message is even more clear, as some of the sport’s biggest young personalities are highlighted before Ken Griffey Jr. delivers the final words, “Let the kids play.” MLB is embracing its energetic rising stars. But what’s most interesting to me is that the ad is ostensibly directed at the sport’s old-guard fans—they’re who Griffey is speaking to, telling them they should quit trying to limit player emotion. It’s a pretty dynamic stance for America’s pastime.
6. MLB still has a long way to go if it wants to catch the NBA in online engagement. That was obvious Tuesday night, when a clip of the Rockies’ go-ahead run had one-third as many views on Instagram as a Lance Stephenson assist. It also must sting the league that four of its top five most mentioned players on Twitter are no longer in contention.
7. Joe Buck will be working nonstop this month, anchoring Fox’s baseball and football coverage. The two shouldn’t overlap, but if weather forces them to, “We’ll do a football schedule that makes sense around baseball,” Buck said earlier this year. “I know I’m not going to miss any baseball.” In such a scenario, Thursday Night Football would reportedly move to FS1. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, Buck will call Game 3 of the World Series, followed by Dolphins at Texans on Thursday, with Game 4 coming Friday. So if you catch him rooting for the Astros to advance to a second straight title matchup, you know why.
8. It’s pretty rare that a fanbase gets to hear its regular season announcer call playoff games, but that’s what Dodgers fans will enjoy as Fox tapped Joe Davis to call their divisional series. He’ll be joined in the booth for Los Angeles-Atlanta by John Smoltz, who spent 21 years as a Brave. Two other quick Fox notes...
8a. Fox got MLB’s permission to attach streaming cameras to base coaches and bullpen catchers for the World Series, though either team can decline to participate. The technology has only previously been used in baseball during this year’s All-Star Game.
8b. FS1’s new gambling show, Lock It In, will air live shows after the games on Thursday and Friday. In advance, the cast has been talking more baseball on the show (two of the three experts picked the A’s to win Wednesday).
9. In between all of Fox’s live sports this month, the network is also debuting a trio of one-hour baseball documentaries, each based around historic playoff moments from Kirk Gibson, Jim Abbott, and Aaron Boone. The Gibson doc airs on FS1 after Sunday’s Dodgers-Braves game, while the other two premiere in Sunday afternoon time slots (Abbott on the 14th and Boone on the 21st) on FOX, varying based on when your area is not receiving a Fox NFL telecast. A spokesman explained that Fox reached out to three production companies and then worked with each to develop an individual topic. Seems like a different way to bring a nonfiction film into the world, so I’m curious to see what they’re like and how similar they end up looking.
NBC Takes New Approach with Wednesday Night Hockey
In between the start of the baseball playoffs, the meat of the NFL schedule, and the beginning of the NBA season, the NHL dropped the puck on its 2018-19 slate Wednesday night. The season-opening national game featured the Capitals beginning their championship defense by thrashing Boston. With two east coast teams, it was a classic NHL on NBCSN matchup, and Washington will play on the network during three of the next four Wednesdays as well. The other Wednesday, though, includes a different look, as Toronto heads to Winnipeg for an all-Canada matchup. You can still guess which teams will appear most on NBCSN (in order: Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York Rangers) but the network is featuring more Western Conference and Canadian teams this year. And after ratings hit a low point last season, NBC Sports has dropped its “rivalry night” branding in favor of Wednesday Night Hockey.
The “new” show will put an increased emphasis on “local hockeydom,” according to producer Sam Flood, with the pregame cast appearing on-site for at least 10 games this year. During the action, look for more focus on the sport’s young stars. “It’s a conscious decision to have these teams and have these players, and really celebrate them,” Flood said. “We know that hockey players always say it’s about the name on the front of the jersey, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the name on the back of the jersey, and we will.”
How are they going to do it? “We will go into each game with an agenda for the players, that if it’s the right time and if it’s appropriate, will be able to give the backstory, give visuals of why that person matters,” Flood said, “whether it’s great moments from when the player was a kid first starting out in the game, or a great goal in Juniors, or a great play in college, whatever it might be. We’re going to have the production ammo to showcase these stars and build them up.”
Meanwhile, this will be the first full regular season for NHL on ESPN+, which comes with access to 180 games over the course of the year. And many will be blockbusters, including Thursday night’s Capitals at Penguins tilt. (Worth noting: Unlike national broadcasts on NBCSN or NHLN, ESPN+ games are not blacked out on NHL.TV. Enough acronyms for you?)
“We feel like we’re back in the live NHL business,” said John Lasker, vice president, digital media programming. ESPN+’s daily exclusive hockey show, In The Crease with Linda Cohn and Barry Melrose, returned to air Wednesday night, and the service will also stream Ivy League and ECAC hockey this winter. “This is the tip of the spear of our NHL strategy,” Lasker said. ESPN+ will choose the games it airs on a month-by-month basis, and could use trend data from NHL.TV, which is also operated by Disney streaming services, to see which teams hockey fans are most interested in seeing.
Lasker also suggested the company could marry its programming with its editorial arm—featuring a Predators game the day a profile of P.K. Subban runs online, for instance. The ultimate scheduling flexibility afforded to his team is the ability to broadcast two games at once, if for instance there’s a standings battle down the stretch. “We saw this as … a way to better serve the NHL fan than we are today,” Lasker says. “We know they come to us on TV and ESPN.com. They are looking for highlights from us, news, analysis, scores. So this was a no-brainer.”
P.S. If you’re interested in cutting the cord but keeping up with this hockey season, FOMOPOP has the guide for you. A couple notable things in there:
• NHL.TV, the easiest way to watch almost every out-of-market game, is offering 35% off for students and military members.
• Three U.S. teams, the Avalanche, Knights, and Penguins, play most of their games on regional sports networks, Altitude and AT&T SportsNets, that aren’t available on any online streaming bundle service.
Jemele Hill Explains Why She Left ESPN
Anybody who has followed Jemele Hill’s saga since the reporter called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” last September ought to read The Hollywood Reporter’s full story from James Andrew Miller, one of the best-sourced reporters covering ESPN, who spoke to Hill about leaving ESPN and joining The Atlantic.
The most memorable quote from Hill came when speaking about why she wanted to leave the sports network. “It was about the fact that I can’t commit to something that I know isn’t right for me,” she said, “that I know isn’t going to bring out the best in me and that I know is going to be kind of a waste of time.”
Hill is replacing her ESPN responsibilities with a wide array of endeavors, as Miller laid out in the story—which, again, you should read, it’s not that long. She’s joining The Atlantic as a staff writer on Tuesday, developing a “sports and politics show for LeBron James and Maverick Carter,” launching a twice-weekly podcast, and preparing to pitch a halfhour show based around a pair of “accomplished women of color.”
The Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg and TheAtlantic.com editor Adrienne LaFrance sent a staff memo announcing Hill’s addition. In part, it read, “There are a million stories to be uncovered at the intersection of sports, race, gender, politics, and money. Jemele is the exact right person to do this uncovering, and The Atlantic is the exact right home for this sort of journalism.”
What the Altice-Fox fight means for sports fans
The real value of premier sports content is being debated this week in the New York area as Fox negotiates a contract renewal with cable provider Altice. Fox is reportedly asking for a higher per-subscriber fee now that the network has bulked up on premium live events including Thursday Night Football and WWE. Getting a bigger cut from cable providers is a pivotal component of the company’s focus on those expensive pieces of content. And to win that price increase, the broadcaster is often going to have to play hardball. As for the stakes? “If New Fox fails,” analyst Richard Greenfield wrote recently, “their entire strategy is flawed as they cannot possibly generate enough advertising revenues to cover the cost of their stepped-up investment in sports/live entertainment.”
Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand reported that the two sides came to a short-term agreement to keep Fox channels available after the previous contract ran out Sunday. However, he told SI that Fox could pull its channels Thursday before TNF. “Over the past two decades, networks have always depended on sports for leverage,” he said. “To date, every single cable operator has decided it’s worth it to pay the increased fee. I expect that’s the same here. But it’s interesting. At some point, the worm is going to turn.”
Booming salary caps and luxurious locker rooms have largely come as the result of rising TV rights contracts, which have grown as networks demand more from customers each month (ESPN now accounts for roughly $8 of the average cable bill). The cable company business is generally strong for now, Ourand says, but a breaking point still seems to loom. Forecasters expect cable providers to one day find themselves stuck, losing cord cutters on one end and yet being told to pay more for the content on the other, leading to higher costs and even fewer customers. Eventually, they’ll have to say no, at which point the sports industry will be stuck with a big question: Now what?
• Amazon is trying out yet another viewing option during Thursday night’s Colts-Patriots game. FS1’s Shannon Sharpe will be “co-streaming” the game on Twitch, meaning viewers will be able to hear Joe Buck and Troy Aikman’s commentary, with Sharpe speaking on top of them. Full-time streamer TimTheTatman is also hosting a stream. Lastly, Twitch will be debuting its TNF Live Extension, which allows users to “project how drives will end, who will win, and more.” You can see what that looks like here.
• CBS Sports launched an improved Google Assistant integration for fantasy owners. Beyond asking the virtual assistant for the score of a fantasy matchup, players can get advice on who to pick up from their waiver wire and get updates on their injury statuses. The next step is letting Google make moves for you automatically. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that level of integration by next season. After all, most real owners have somebody handling personnel decisions, right?
• While hockey players have been told to stop talking about Fortnite, NFL players are going in the opposite direction, launching a weekly series on Twitch in which two teams, each boasting one NFLer and one Twitch personality, battle to score more points playing the video game. In the debut episode, Eagles running back Jay Ajayi and 14-year-old Sceptic bested Giants tight end Evan Engram and his partner. Each matchup will pit two players from the next week’s Thursday Night Football game against each other. The contest, sponsored by Fanatics, is worth checking out, but be warned: the production is much more geared towards Fortnite fans than football followers. I left wanting to hear more from the NFL players and less video game strategy talk.
• NASCAR showed off a new “roval” racetrack in Charlotte Sunday and was rewarded with nearly twice as many viewers as it got last week for a Saturday night race in Richmond. By the way, you can check out the last-lap dramatics from winner Ryan Blaney’s view thanks to a 360-degree camera embedded in his car (the action starts around 4:00).
• For Bleacher Report, Tom Haberstroh chronicled the NBA’s (but really all of our) social media addiction.
• Speaking of basketball and social media, NBA Twitter is spending its time before the season starts by tearing down a pillar of Kobe Bryant’s legacy—that moment he didn’t flinch in front of Matt Barnes. Turns out, maybe he wasn’t truly “in front” of him at all.
• In his weekly football column, Peter King made a note to say he “won’t be appearing on any more of the programming in the Barstool empire” after reading about the company’s culture and its effect on women.
THANK YOU, INTERNET…
...for reminding me I’m not special.