How is former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians adjusting to life in the booth? Plus Candace Parker's new analyst role, a new football drama on The CW and more from the world of sports media.
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Were you nervous before calling your first game Week 1? “Not really, it was fun.” How about the rest of the crew, did they seem anxious? “Yeah, probably.” And so began the Bruce Arians Experience. For what it’s worth, producer Ken Mack said he wasn’t concerned before the opening kickoff, and neither was CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus back in New York.
The colorful, quotable former Cardinals coach’s only real blunder came a quarter later, when Ben Roethlisberger hit tight end Jesse James to move the Steelers into the red zone. “A little RPO in their offense—good job here,” Arians said. “[Ben Roethlisberger] saw the tight end backside wide-ass open and, uh, got it to him.” During the next commercial break, Arians remembered: “They said, ‘You can’t really say that.’”
“That was a little moment of surprise,” Mack said, “But it was Bruce being genuine. That’s what most everyone said: ‘Let’s not do that again.’ Obviously, you want it somewhat filtered, but you want to see him have that natural kind of reaction.” Watching live, McManus wasn’t exactly sure what Arians had uttered, but after playing it back, he had a similar feeling. “It’s just an indication he’s speaking his mind,” McManus said. “And he learned a valuable lesson.” The New Jersey native has been clean on-air ever since.
Arians returns to Jersey Sunday for Jets vs. Colts, giving the New York market its introduction to a unique booth before the crew heads to London for its nationwide debut. After retiring this January, Arians met with FOX and the NFL Network before signing with CBS, joining fellow analyst Trent Green, play-by-play man Greg Gumbel and field reporter Melanie Collins. Arians is the only former coach regularly calling games this year, and his team is the only three-man booth on air each Sunday. Given how they’ve done so far, that shouldn’t be the case.
“Don’t bite on the cheese in front of you” was Arians’s advice to a Falcons corner who let A.J. Green get behind him for a game-winning score in Week 4. So yes, the 66-year-old has managed to retain his folksiness while cutting the vulgarities. (Last week, he explained that some of Philip Rivers’s more verbose pre-snap comments were “just sugar.”)
But what makes Arians more valuable to CBS is his wealth of experience, which was on display after that Green score. He immediately said the Bengals should run on the two-point conversion, lest they give up an interception return for two points that would swing the game. He also is uniquely able to discuss some of the league’s more controversial rules, having spent two seasons on the NFL rules committee.
Then there are his connections. Arians’s Week 1 commentary on Roethlisberger came after spending eight years in Pittsburgh. Sunday, he’ll cover Andrew Luck, who he coached during the QB’s rookie season, and Jets coach Todd Bowles, who spent two years as Arians’s defensive coordinator in Arizona. When he calls coaches each week while preparing, Arians starts the conversation by saying, “I’m not going to take too much of your time—I know these are the only 10 minutes you have free tonight.”
He’ll still be critical on Sundays, though. Last week, that meant regularly criticizing Jon Gruden and the Raiders for not going faster when they trailed in the fourth quarter.
Having said all of that, why aren’t there other former coaches giving us that perspective? Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman, who worked with Gruden for years before auditioning just one coach this offseason to be Gruden’s replacement, explained that the scarcity comes from a lack of supply rather than demand.
Given there are no home games for a broadcaster, the travel schedule can be even more grueling than a coach’s, and many retired play-callers are ready to spend more time with their families. Plus, Rothman said, younger coaches out of a job are often itching to get back into the league, making a network’s investment in them riskier than signing up a former player. As McManus put it, “We just haven’t had a lot of coaches who seem to want to make this a second career.
“Generally speaking, they do have a really good perspective, given they’ve been involved in the offense, the defense, the special teams, play-calling and dealing with players. They really have an ideal background to be an analyst. It’s just a question of how many want to do this and work hard enough in the later stages of their life.”
So appreciate Arians’s insights; his voice during games might continue to represent a rarity. As for why Arians opted for a booth gig rather than a studio show like Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy and others, he said he wanted to stay more closely connected to the league, watching practices and talking to teams on a weekly basis. Sidenote: No, he says he still doesn’t have any itch to coach again.
Going forward, Arians has to work on projecting his voice and his enthusiasm, feedback he has also received in CBS’s internal weekly progress reports. During the Bengals’ final possession in Week 4, Arians saying “this is a huge drive” came across as evenly as him explaining what a bear defense was. “I’m not a loud talker unless I’m cussing out a referee,” Arians said. Being in the rare three-man booth helps, as Green and Gumbel are able to imbue the broadcast with energy when Arians doesn’t. Still, viewers tuning in Sunday shouldn’t expect Tony Romo 2.0.
Which brings me to the Romo effect. Ever since the former Cowboy burst into the CBS booth last season, predicting plays and practically bouncing with excitement, other analysts have been held up to his standard. “Tony Romo was an aberration with respect to being incredibly good right out of the box,” McManus said. “He’s still going to be the exception rather than rule.” At ESPN, Rothman says, “Nobody should feel they need to compete against that,” adding that his network hired Jason Witten based as much on a longterm projection as a desire to make a splash in the opening month. “The media reaction to newbies getting into the game is unfair and overblown.”
Rothman likes to call Witten, “Captain America.” Extending the analogy, that would make Romo the confident, competent (and trend-launching) Iron Man, while Arians, with his professorial perspective and occasional outbursts, would be Hulk. You can fill out the rest of the MCU-broadcaster depth chart on your own time, but I make the comparison here for two reasons.
One, it’s absurd to compare these men, just like it would be silly to hold up Josh Rosen against Patrick Mahomes. And two, we need new superheroes.
The NFL is changing, rapidly. The rules are different, the practices are different, the offenses are different, the personalities are different. So the broadcasts ought to be as well. Last year as a coach, Arians placed right between Sean McVay and Bill Belichick in Football Outsiders’ Aggressiveness Index. That’s the kind of perspective fans should be getting more during games. Arians might still be getting acclimated, but it’s the broadcasting vets that have to catch up.
THE ‘ALL AMERICAN’ STORY BEHIND CW’S NEW FOOTBALL DRAMA
Friday Night Lights plus The O.C. sounds like the perfect pitch for a broadcast drama. It also happens to be Spencer Paysinger’s life. The South Central Los Angeles native commuted every day to Beverly Hills High School, where he captained the football team before attending Oregon and going pro. Paysinger lasted seven years in the league, winning a Super Bowl with the Giants. Here’s a three-minute version of the story. Or you can watch a dramatized version over hours on CW, which premiered All American Wednesday night.
After going to the high school that produced Lenny Kravitz, Nora Ephron, Jamie Lee Curtis, and dozens of other stars, Paysinger kept his sights set on Hollywood, even while playing in New York, Carolina, and Miami. He went to the movies every Tuesday during the season and began writing to unwind. A friend of a friend eventually convinced him that his own life was worth pitching in 2016.
While Paysinger was a free agent for most of 2017, getting cut by the Giants in September before signing with the Panthers in December, he was already well on his way to securing his next gig with CW. Paysinger is officially listed as an executive consultant on the show, having played a role in everything from writing to filming to editing. Still, he’s let star Daniel Ezra create “a whole new version of Spencer.” The show takes place in the present day, meaning it will touch on current events—both on and off the field—that weren’t at the center of Friday Night Lights.
"I feel where we are today as a country has changed,” co-star Taye Diggs told USA Today. “A lot of the issues we are dealing with mean something a lot different than when the other shows were on the air: identity, race, sexuality … all that stuff we're forced to look at differently."
Paysinger said he’s already working on his next projects, both scripted and unscripted ideas. “I don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” he said. “I want this to be my career.” And he thinks other football players will follow his lead. Paysinger has talked about production with a number of current players, including 49ers linebacker Malcolm Smith and Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan.
NBA stars LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant have all launched content ventures, using their current marketability to build long-term businesses. “But with football we are hidden behind helmets,” Paysinger said. “We really have to push and get stories made. If I can be some sort of catalyst for that, I’d love it.” Sounds like a story worth telling in its own right.
TAKING A TOUR OF ESPORTS U
Two years ago, Olivia Stomski didn’t quite know what to think about esports. The current director of Syracuse’s Newhouse Sports Media Center knew the growing world of digital gaming was worth paying attention to, but “I don’t know if I bought in as a fan,” she said. Now look at her. Two weeks ago, Stomski took her “Esports and Media” class to ESL One New York, a competition at Barclays Center, and noticed herself cheering, feeling as emotionally attached as she would watching a basketball game. “Esports and Media” is a new class at Syracuse, and one of many examples nationwide of Universities beginning to train a generation of esports broadcasters.
After years of teens training individually or in student-run groups, the number of gaming scholarship increased nearly 500% in a year, and support in the media space is growing too.
Mark “Garvey” Candella is in charge of college partnerships at Twitch, which now works with 20 schools developing esports curriculums. In 2017, Candella was still pitching schools on teaching “entertainment in digital media as applied to gaming.” Esports was a dirty word. “Last year, we were still trying to have administrators understand what this space was,” he said. “Then something happened and it clicked.” Now, Candella said, schools are reaching out to him, looking to build programs. Many use esports to provide students with experience in business, marketing, and event planning, but it also makes an exciting platform for discussing the future of digital content. On Twitch, a streamer is a player, broadcaster, cameraman and producer at the same time, all while directly interacting with the audience. “It’s completely changing the landscape,” Stomski said.
At Ohio State, 30 faculty members from across the university are currently building a holistic esports program, with plans to open a practice facility, launch medical research into gamers’ lifestyles, and offer classes regarding various components of the industry, including broadcasting.
Deborah M. Grzybowski, co-director of the game studies and esports curriculum development initiative, still hears from doubters—that the school is encouraging students to waste their time playing video games and so on. She responds by saying that esports is projected to become a billion dollar industry, and then when she meets with professionals at esports companies, they all say they have open job positions that current graduates aren’t being prepared for.
As much as colleges are using gaming to attract students and engage them, esports needs schools too. A student of Stomski’s could be the one to figure out how to successfully take the genre mainstream.
IT’S TIME FOR THE UFC TO SHOW US WHAT IT IS
UFC President Dana White has a fascinating media decision on his hands. Is his brand of MMA a sport or a show?
Saturday night, Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Conor McGregor to become the undefeated lightweight UFC champion. But what everyone talked about instead was what happened immediately after the fight, when Nurmagomedov climbed out of the octagon to engage a member of McGregor’s team in the crowd. The brawl then spilled back into the cage, with McGregor swinging at multiple people.
Nearly a week later, that storyline continues to dominate UFC conversation, with new video angles, statements, and interviews fueling the narrative fire. Along the way, White has repeatedly expressed embarrassed by the incident. “I promise you this is not what a mixed martial arts event is normally like,” White said. “This is not what we’re about.” By Monday though, White said, “The pay-per-view numbers are starting to roll in, so I’m in a much better mood.”
In attracting an audience, every popular sport balances soap opera with athletic artistry. Boxing walked that line during its heyday. Now, it’s the NBA that is booming by fostering graduate-level schematic deep dives while also supplying a steady stream of social media slights and sports tabloid fodder.
The UFC is still working towards finding a stable mixture. Since sparking a moral panic in the 1990s, MMA has spent much of this century standardizing itself, becoming a mainstream product with matches worthy of frame-by-frame dissection and lengthy strategy debate. The sport has been packaged as an after-school outlet for kids and an empowering option for women.
But Conor McGregor has the power to change that. While past UFC stars Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey have turned to the WWE when they wanted to become entertainers rather than fighters, McGregor has profited off of bringing scripted entertainment’s drama and controversy into his current league. Saturday’s fight drew the attention it did in part because McGregor disparaged his opponent for months and attacked his bus in April. A rematch of Saturday’s fight would likely draw more viewers than a new, more stylistically compelling matchup for Nurmagomedov. So, what will it be?
For his part, the man who leapt into the crowd to defend his honor Saturday wants UFC to uphold the well-mannered traditions of the martial arts it claims to represent. “This is respect sport. This is not trash-talking sport,” Nurmagomedov said this weekend. “I want to change this game.” And we already know he’s willing to fight to get his wish.
• While still a star in the WNBA, Candace Parker will spend her offseason covering the NBA for TNT and NBA TV, serving as a studio analyst. “She’s a trailblazer in every sense of the word, and we can’t wait to further showcase her talents as a commentator,” Tara August, Turner Sports' vice president of talent relations and special projects, said in a statement. Parker will also provide perspective during the NCAA tournament, as she did last year.
“I had a lot of fun last year when I joined at the end of the year and did a couple shows with March Madness,” the 32-year-old said. “It’s a dream come true for me now to work with these guys who I truly respect and to learn from them…. As the ball stops bouncing at some point, to be able to figure out what I want to do going out of basketball and transitioning into life, this is a good step for me.” Signing off on the call, fellow analyst Reggie Miller said, "Welcome Candace! I cannot wait to work with you, girl.”
• ESPN+ turns six months old Friday. Last month, the company announced its $5/month service had attracted a million subscribers. I asked executive vice president for programming Burke Magnus how the first half-year has been. “It’s going great,” he said. “I wasn’t sure at this point we’d already have released some subscriber numbers…. We have a long way to go. So far I’ve been happy with the industry response as we talk to rights holders about getting involved in ESPN+. And I’m very happy about adoption from a subscription perspective. We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s very encouraging.”
• ESPN began airing its 20-hour documentary, “Basketball: A Love Story” Tuesday. The project is made up of 62 short films, which can all be watched on the ESPN app, or watched in five, four-hour chunks on the cable channel. Rather than try to capture the chronological history of the sport, director Dan Klores instead highlights the emotion attached to the game, mixing men and women as well as stars and storylines across multiple generations during a single 10-minute clip. For more, he discussed the project on The Woj Pod.
• NBC Sports is looking to further serve automotive fans with a new show, Proving Grounds, set to debut a week from Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Starring NASCAR driver Parker Klingerman, the 30-minute show will push everything from minivans to muscle cars on a test track.
• It’s rare that a broadcaster points out a referee in the run-up to a game, but for this Sunday’s Steelers-Bengals matchup, it makes sense. After the two played a brutal Monday Night Football game last December, CBS’ Ian Eagle said this week, “How referee Clete Blakeman and his crew handle all of that will be a huge storyline.” I’m interested to see how much they’re discussed during the telecast. Next week, the Bengals will play in primetime.
• Props to Rachel Nichols and her crew for quickly conducting and turning around a Jimmy Butler sitdown interview on the same day the disgruntled Timberwolves wing went after his teammates during practice. An edited transcript of the conversation was up by 12:30 a.m. while the video and news both sat atop ESPN.com on Thursday morning.
Got the call last night that @JimmyButler was ready to talk. Jumped on a plane this morning, and wow - turns out he certainly was. We’ll have lots more on @SportsCenter tonight and then you know we’ll have evvvvvvvverything on #TheJump at 3p ET tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/C89gpLdTUa— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) October 10, 2018
• “We finally have objective individual stats for linemen for their most critical tasks—defending and attacking the passer,” ESPN’s Brian Burke wrote this week. Here are the details.
• SB Nation and ESPN came up with near-identical themes for their NBA season preview packages. ESPN “paired each team with a TV drama, then the NBA Forecast panel ranked how central each subplot will be to this season,” while SB Nation created NBAFLIX. For what it’s worth, I think these comparison say more about how we watch television shows as if they were sports rather than the other way around, but that’s a topic for another time. As part of its preview, SB Nation explained “how social media turned the NBA into a made-for-tv drama.”
• “I was starting to feel toxic, and I didn’t like that feeling,” Jemele Hill said of the end of her time at ESPN while speaking on the Sports Media with Richard Deitsch podcast. While executives wanted to her to stay, she said, “I chose another direction because i thought frankly it was best for both of us.”
• If you wanted a catch-me-up on everything that’s happened to the sports journalism industry over the last 10 years, J. Brady McCullough has you covered.
• HBO’s The Shop returns Friday with Drake, Ben Simmons, Elena Delle Donne and others joining LeBron James.