The NBA’s best players play out west—late, late at night. But ESPN doesn’t think it’s an issue for viewers.  

By Jacob Feldman
October 18, 2018

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

The NBA’s marquee opening-night game—Thunder at Warriors—ended at 1:21 a.m. Wednesday morning eastern time. A day later, ESPN’s first doubleheader concluded at 12:56 am.

With the return of the basketball season comes a lot of late late night drama. And with LeBron James now in Los Angeles, memorable early morning moments will be even more common. By ESPN’s ranking, the league’s top four players and six of its top seven all play in the Western Conference. Going by Instagram followings, eight of the sport’s 10 most popular personalities also represent western teams.

But, for the most part, the league and its TV partners are content keeping the bulk of those teams’ games in primetime locally. While the Dodgers game started just after 5 p.m. eastern Wednesday, and the Rams played at 5:30 p.m. local time when they appeared on Thursday Night Football, the Lakers’ first three games—all nationally televised—begin at 10:30 eastern, starting Thursday night on TNT. (Close to 80 percent of Americans live in the eastern and central time zones.)

“To me, it’s not a big concern,” said ESPN’s vice president for programming and scheduling, Burke Magnus. “Everybody understands how time zones work and the sports fan knows where and when to find the Lakers. There are plenty of good stories in the East which will lead into the second half of the doubleheader.”

ESPN is so unconcerned about the late games that it has added original programming to the end of its productions, launching a 15-minute “After the Buzzer” show, the company’s first NBA postgame program.

Wednesday night, ESPN squeezed in four Western teams, showing New Orleans at Houston and Dallas at Phoenix. Thursday, TNT has Bulls-76ers followed by Lakers-Trail Blazers. After another doubleheader Friday, ESPN will air a rare Saturday night telecast for LeBron’s home opener against the Rockets.

“The league is very, very progressive in the way they build their TV schedule both for us and for Turner to make sure the highest profile games are in the best possible places,” Magnus said.

NBA data suggests that the league’s young fan base is willing to stay up. “The best way to talk about it is to look at Twitter,” NBA executive vice president for digital media Melissa Brenner says. “Over the course of an 8:30 game and a 10:30 game, we see an almost identical volume of tweets. There’s no material difference.” Of course, the later game might have generated more conversation had it been played earlier, but the general point stands.

Either way, that still leaves the question of those who aren’t actively seeking out—or staying up for—elite basketball, particularly the next generation of fans. That’s something else Brenner thinks a lot about. The NBA has developed a strong relationship with Snapchat, for instance. The league is also pushing technology’s limits when it comes to highlights, using computer vision and advanced algorithms to generate custom highlight packages at a variety of durations for fans that missed last night’s game. Brenner said the benefits are often seen internationally, where games are played even closer to the middle of the night. But hey, if computers can show me in five minutes what would have cost multiple hours of sleep, I’m interested.

Before the season, ESPN, The Ringer, and SB Nation all compared NBA teams to TV shows in one way or another. And the league certainly knows how to create compelling drama, building up stars and storylines. If only its best episodes were on in primetime.

Three more NBA media topics of note…

• Turner Sports and the NBA have a unique relationship among major leagues and media companies. Turner shows games on TNT and operates NBA TV while helping to run NBA League Pass and NBA.com. But Turner is also part of WarnerMedia, which boasts HBO, home to LeBron’s The Shop; House of Highlights, a basketball-driven social media empire with as many Instagram followers as ESPN; and Warner Bros., which is planning to fund Space Jam 2. With all of those businesses now a part of AT&T, it will be worth watching how the new conglomerate works with the NBA going forward.

This year, Turner helped redesign the NBA app, highlighting NBA TV content and other video on the homepage. Internationally, the NBA is using its app to experiment with influencers offering an alternative audio feed at least once a week, similar to what Amazon has created with Thursday Night Football.

• Debuting in 2016, NBA Saturday Primetime enters year four with a clear mission: show the compelling teams on ABC, and only the most compelling teams. Across nine contests this year, six teams are represented: the Warriors (five appearances), Lakers (three), Thunder (three), Rockets (three), 76ers (two), and Celtics (two).

“That’s what the NBA is interested in doing, creating their version of what NBC has in Sunday Night Football where the best teams make multiple appearances,” Magnus said. “That’s music to our ears.”

• The NBA became the first major league to partner with a sportsbook operator when it announced a deal with MGM Resorts in August. The first marketing component of that cooperation is a branded pick’em game based on teams’ season-long win totals.

Does John Smoltz Love Baseball?

“My mic works,” John Smoltz told viewers midway through the first inning of the Dodgers 5-2 win over the Brewers Wednesday. “I’m just trying to process.”

Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell had just pulled ‘starter’ Wade Miley after a single at-bat. Ken Rosenthal later revealed on the broadcast that the visiting team planned the move to throw off the Dodgers, who had built their lineup expecting a left-hander but instead would be dealing with righty reliever Brandon Woodruff. Woodruff ultimately gave up two earned runs over 5 ⅓ innings in the latest instance of what Smoltz referred to as “baseball in a new age.”

The 51-year-old Hall-of-Fame pitcher often expresses cynicism about some of the sport’s newest tactics, believing that what makes sense over the aggregate of a long season doesn’t necessarily produce playoff victories. And his on-air doubts have raised questions about the role of a postseason broadcaster, who must appease a diehard segment of the fanbase that is used to a local production during the regular season as well as casual viewers who are turning in for the first time all year. Smoltz talked to SI Wednesday about his philosophy. Here are his thoughts (edited for clarity and concision).

How do you think about being critical during a playoff broadcast—balancing explaining why a team is shifting with your thoughts on that decision, for instance?

I’m just stating facts that exist. I try to explain why a defense is shifting, and over the course of 162 games, you pile up numbers and have your numbers that matter. But my point is, in a seven-game series, it’s not the same as averaging all those numbers. It’s the style of baseball that we have. It is part of our game that has quantified the successes of doing it this way. But in the most important time of the year, I still maintain you are going to see that the teams that are able to do the little things will go on to win the World Series.

Imagine if we just conceded that everything is already predetermined and you just—what you are watching is just a byproduct of a computer output. I can’t. I don’t know what everybody else thinks about it. My job is to give my opinion. That might change. I will look at the game differently when teams are able to be successful differently, but when you sit and see as many games as I do from the booth, you see it differently than a player caught in the wave going on. There’s a blend that works—there’s a blend that applies information, analytics, gut feel, and strategy.

What do you hear from folks within the game about your stance?

You’d be surprised how many people actually feel in a similar way but don’t really have a voice. I’d ask you this question: What do you think of the state of the game when you are watching it. Do you think, Wow, there is a ton of action?

I think some people misread that as I’m completely against the way the game is played today. I’m just explaining to the fan at home who sits there and goes, How is this happening? Why is this team not scoring. Well all these averages are compiled over a 162-game season. That’s not the same context as facing the best pitchers in an elite tournament. With great arms coming at you every single time, your strikeout rate goes way up and you are going to start setting records. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t have an agenda one way or the other. I’m not stuck in an era. I’m not stuck in 1995.

This is a game filled with tremendous athletes but this is a game filled with athletes brought up in the game a different way.

Do you love baseball the way it’s played today?

I love baseball. I don’t love everything that baseball is trending to and through. I want to see great players play as long as they can. I don’t want to have things be determined artificially or by a computer. If there’s one pet peeve I have, our game is so great and our players are so good, but our injury rate is so rampant. Guys’ careers are getting cut short.

I’m not asked to run a team or give my opinion on behalf of any team—I just want to see the game flourish. I think it’s still the greatest sport we have.

Changing gears, how has it gone with Joe Buck calling Thursday Night Football between playoff games?

It’s amazing—it really is. He’s doing it on a level no one understands, transitioning sport to sport on the fly. So far, the geography has lined up. (Last week, Buck called Eagles at Giants Thursday and Game 1 in Milwaukee Friday. This week he’s going from L.A. Wednesday to Broncos at Cardinals Thursday to Milwaukee Friday. Next Thursday’s game is in Houston.) I couldn’t imagine jumping over after tomorrow’s game and doing an NBA game. I’ve never seen him at any point not be 100 percent prepared. It’s unreal.

So are you going to watch Thursday?

Oh yeah. I watch just about as much sports as I can. I love watching guys compete.

A note about baseball ads

While baseball might retain the oldest TV audiences among the major sports, the internet has still radically altered the way the game is consumed. And it’s having a physical impact on what fans see at the ballpark too.

A recent study from GumGum, an analytics company that uses computer vision to track sports clips online (and particularly the advertisements shown in those clips), found that social media delivered 30 percent more value for in-stadium advertisements than national broadcasts did. In other words, the possibility of having a Chevy placard in the background of a viral moment brought even more exposure on average than consistently showing up now and again on TV.

“You think of a sign at the game as being a very traditional marketing thing, but it’s actually a very highly sophisticated multichannel asset now,” GumGum Sports general manager Jeff Katz said. “Social is no longer viewed as a separate bucket. It truly is a part of the sponsorship equation.”

That’s valuable information for marketers and teams selling those physical ad locations. But as that data is better tracked, it will also affect the way the game looks on TV. You can expect heavier advertising inside clubhouses for example, where celebrations and fights made for social media are more likely to occur.

“We are analyzing our game film every night, looking at the different areas of the ballpark that show up and how often they show up,” said Mets corporate partnerships senior director Brian Fling. Baseball presents particularly interesting applications, given the parks have more architectural variety than stadiums in other sports.

Which brings me to the green screens behind home plate during national broadcasts, including the playoffs. On TV, replays at home plate generally leave those screens blank rather than showing the ads that appear during live action. But third parties pulling live clips and posting them online, to be watched over and over again, will obviously include the ads, meaning their social value represents an even larger portion of their overall worth.

Google is marketing its Assistant product heavily this postseason, with hosts “asking” for weather and historical information coming out of ad breaks, and with the logo plastered behind home plate almost always. That sight had me thinking two things.

1. How weird is it going to be to explain Google Assistant to folks watching highlights of this year’s World Series 50 years from now? Or maybe the assistant will be writing this column by then, and the logo will be the only part of the moving image that makes sense to my grandkids.

2. We’re still clearly in step 1 of advanced advertising at sporting events. It’s easy to imagine those green screen ads being targeted based on my viewing device, my age, my location, and who knows what else in the coming years. The real benefit in networks developing personalized broadcasts is the possibility of pairing them with personalized ads. I could also see those spots become more dynamic, maybe with a three-second animation between pitches. It would be annoying, but I’d take that in exchange for two fewer commercial breaks.

SIGHTLINES

News and notes from across the sports media landscape

• With playoff baseball and college football in full swing as well, October can produce some unique NFL broadcasting teams when FOX and CBS fill out their weekly lineups. Sunday, that meant the first game together for Brian Custer and Greg Jennings, who drew attention as an African-American NFL booth duo. Gus Johnson and Charles Davis have done a number of college games together, but there isn’t an every-week pair on the NFL side. In 1987, CBS’ James Brown and Dan Jiggetts were considered the first black combination to call an NFL game. Custer and Jennings ended up with a wild game, calling the Dolphins’ overtime victory against Chicago.

• ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro spoke Wednesday at the annual Sports Media & Technology Conference. Discussing his philosophy on the intersection of sports and politics, he pointed to research ESPN has done finding that, “The more we lean into politically charged commentary, the more we are alienating not just our core fan but our casual fan.”

Pitaro also announced that the network was launching a new ESPN+ show featuring Peyton Manning breaking down NFL action. “I've always enjoyed talking football with coaches, players and passionate fans, and that's at the core of this show,” Manning said in a statement.

• This was the week for NFL true crime podcasts, evidently. Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler has a seven-part story and podcast on former Panther Rae Carruth, who will soon be released from jail after conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend in 1999. Fowler talked to The Washington Post about the project, and this line stuck with me. “If you’re lucky in journalism, you have one story in your lifetime that you remember more than any other,” he said. “I feel like this has got to be mine.”

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team is telling Aaron Hernandez’s story in a six-part “Gladiator” series, with new details, particularly about his upbringing and youth. The series concludes Friday.

Sports Illustrated is releasing a podcast re-examining the death of Steve McNair over a series of weeks. Episode 1 is out now.

• Candace Buckner spoke with Meghan McPeak, who joined the short but growing list of women to call play-by-play for an NBA game. At the same time, Britni de la Cretaz wondered “Where Are All the Women in Play-by-Play Broadcasting?” for The Ringer.

• Richard Jefferson is returning to the Nets as a studio and game analyst.

• On Monday, CBS Sports’ “Four Sides of the Story” series turns its attention to McGregor-Mayweather.

• The Athletic has a new five-part video series on Gordon Hayward’s return from injury.

• Golfweek reported that Johnny Miller is retiring after 29 years as NBC’s lead golf announcer.

• Redskins reporter Rich Tandler, 63, died Tuesday night. The team announced that it would honor him Sunday.

• Good work by Andrew Bucholtz piecing together how that false rumor of Deontay Wilder breaking someone’s jaw on live television came to be.

• Sports-focused streaming TV service FuboTV says it has doubled its subscribers since last year and is nearing 250,000. The service also became the first of its kind to offer MLB playoff games in 4k this year. DirecTV also has 4k playoff action, having introduced the option last year.

• John Ourand has some new details on who might buy the 22 regional sports networks up for sale.

• To get fans to attend local games, English soccer has pretty strict rules preventing matches from being aired on TV during Saturday afternoons. A streaming service is trying to change that.

• HBO has released a new trailer for its upcoming surfing documentary, Momentum Generation.

Thank you, Internet...

...for this video (from Tim Hortons!) that will put a smile on your face.

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