A look at how on-air analysts and commentators have handled the recent catastrophes in California, plus Thanksgiving week's sports cornucopia, the Rock and Tebow's new athletic reality shows and more.
Here is this week’s edition of SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
“You could hear a pin drop in the truck,” NFL on CBS lead game producer Jim Rikhoff said. “And that doesn’t happen very often.”
Rikhoff was already in Los Angeles last Wednesday preparing for Sunday’s Rams–Seahawks game when a gunman killed 12 people at the Borderline Bar and Grill, five miles from where the Rams practice in Thousand Oaks.
“The loss of 12 lives—it’s impossible to make sense of that,” Jim Nantz said on the afternoon broadcast, just after Seattle’s opening touchdown drive. “And then all of the sudden, Mother Nature breaks out these wildfires that are ravaging the state.” Twenty Rams coaches and players had to evacuate their homes a day after the shooting as the Woolsey Fire has endangered 57,000 structures in Southern California.
Responding to the dual destructions, the Rams held a moment of silence before the game that, as Rikhoff said, quieted the production truck. CBS could not broadcast that live though, because it occurred during the early game window. So the crew decided to show the tribute midway through the first quarter while keeping the ongoing live sound underneath Nantz’s explanation of what had transpired (the group had discussed finding music to play under the flashback but opted against it). Except, when the time came, Nantz fell silent himself doing the voice-over. For 11 seconds, all viewers could hear was stray crowd noise and a bit of the public address system. “I think he and Tony were touched,” Rikhoff said. “They felt quiet.”
“After it happens,” the producer added, “you almost have to smack yourself and say, ‘You’ve got to do this game now.’”
There is a protocol for these situations. There has to be. Twice a year, Michael Connelly, who oversees production for FOX’s regional sports networks, meets with local representatives and goes over how stations should handle news events.
“Our job is to cover the game,” Connelly said. “We won’t ignore it when news crosses over into sports—we want to cover it how it should be covered—but in sports you are supposed to take people away from their problems and that’s really our philosophy.” This fall, Connelly used FOX Sports Florida’s handling of the Parkland shooting as an example, pointing out how they put together a somber introduction that night and offered viewers a break.
Given the training, FOX Sports West executive producer Nick Davis knew what to do when he read the Borderline news. He knew the person in the Los Angeles Kings organization to coordinate with and he prepared his team to handle the topic on that night’s broadcast.
“It’s a fact of life in 2018—really for me personally ever since September 11th, 2001 … it’s been a different world,” Davis said. “Look at the paper. Listen to the radio. It seems like every day, this becomes more of a focus, it’s more intense, it’s closer to home. To go into what we do and not have a plan just doesn’t make sense.” As Davis coordinated with the Kings Thursday though, he found that they wanted to go slightly off-script.
Enough. When Los Angeles Kings executives met Thursday following the shooting, that was the message they decided to send. They also wanted to do more than send a message. “I’m so sick and tired of us doing a moment of silence, and then we’re going to get up tomorrow morning and we’re going to move on with our life,” team president Luc Robitaille said last week.
Thursday, Kings skaters wore “Enough.” decals on their helmets and held up placards with the word. The visiting Minnesota Wild did so as well. Before the game, team public address announcer Dave Joseph made a statement. “Moving forward and viewing this as a new reality is just not acceptable,” he said, voice wavering. “Each human life is precious.”
FOX Sports West covered it all, lending its airwaves to Joseph and having Robitaille on the pregame show to explain what the Kings hoped to accomplish. As a close partner with the franchise, Davis was happy to help them broadcast their message. “Whenever something major happens, whether it’s on a local or national scale, television entities and teams need to sit down and evaluate what the impact has been and what role they can play,” Davis said. “We consider ourselves members of the community … and we want to make sure we are doing something to serve the community.”
So far, the Kings have raised money for the victims, encouraged fans to donate blood, and committed to furthering an anti-violence message. As the Lakers and Clippers returned to Staples Center, they joined the initiative, with players wearing shirts that said ENOUGH on the front and listed the 12 victims’ names on the back. But that statement was only briefly mentioned on weekend broadcasts (FOX Sports West broadcasts Clippers games while the Lakers are on Spectrum SportsNet), in part because the efforts were not pushed as heavily by the franchises, in part because the tragic event was receding while fire spread. It was no longer top news. Connelly said that the mechanics of when and how a team opts to make a pregame homage can affect whether it gets shown during the live broadcast as well.
Before Saturday’s Clippers game, play-by-play man Ralph Lawler asked analyst Don MacLean how he was doing amid the shooting and flames. “I’m doing alright,” was all the California native could offer at first. “I’m doing alright.” Monday, MacLean went on the pregame set to say more. “I suppose I should have talked about it on Saturday, but to be truly honest, I was too shaken,” he said. “I was shaken and sad but now I’m mad. I’m mad now because I want people to come together … to come together to help, to give and then to help some more and give some more.”
What are we doing here? That question might feel like a hard left turn, or come across as a bit of existential angst slipping through the cracks and into this story. Maybe it is. But as California succumbs to an “endless fire season” and the country faces an unending spree of violent attacks, sports broadcasters ought to be asking themselves what role they play. Is it sufficient to acknowledge tragedy and serve as distraction? Is it right to help people feel OK amidst chaos? Is there more to be done? I wish I had answers. Societal issues obviously extend beyond organized athletics. But games are controlling an increasing share of our attention … and few others seem eager to step to the plate.
This week, a unique set of catastrophes provoking real emotion among broadcasters and sparking a team’s frustration revealed the sports commentator’s fluid position between objective reporter, trusted analyst, and vulnerable community member. The broadcast booth sits somewhere between the court and the couch. In times of need, that position comes with obligation—as well as opportunity. Perfunctory reflections aren’t enough. Kudos to those who showed as much this week.
Meanwhile, the fires rage on. Nationwide, FOX’s sports networks will be asking viewers to donate to the Red Cross for the rest of the week. Monday night, ESPN will broadcast Rams-Chiefs a week after covering the dangerous air quality in Santa Clara that affected the 49ers and Giants and forced some fans to wear protective masks. Heading into L.A., Monday Night Football’s lead producer, Jay Rothman, saw the still smoldering fires in Malibu.
“We are there to cover a game, but news trumps,” he said. “We are not blind to what happened.”
PREPARING FOR A SPORTS CORNUCOPIA
When ESPN submitted its priority dates to the NBA earlier this year, highlighting the days it wanted to feature marquee matchups, its top tier requests included Opening Week, Christmas Day, and the Saturdays when the company shows games on ABC. On the next tier was the night before Thanksgiving.
In return, the league scheduled LeBron James’ return to Cleveland for that night, as well as a Warriors-Thunder battle. The double-header is now one of several must-see events surrounding the NFL’s traditional Turkey Day tripleheader. Before the Lakers tip off, the Maui Invitational will conclude, potentially with a top-five matchup of Duke and Gonzaga. If you widen the scope, as ESPN’s vice president for programming and scheduling Ilan Ben-Hanan suggests, the week also includes the 9-1 Rams facing the 9-1 Chiefs Monday through the Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl Saturday. But the most heavily contested day is Black Friday.
All 30 NHL teams are in action, starting with the Rangers and Flyers playing the first NBC game of the year outdoors in the eighth annual Thanksgiving Showdown. The league also gets to promote itself the previous day with a float shown during NBC’s broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “When you’re looking to crack through the clutter and make a brand relevant, it’s an unbelievable opportunity,” NHL chief branding officer Brian Jennings said.
Twenty-eight NBA teams play Friday, including a Staples Center doubleheader with the Clippers and Lakers playing back-to-back at home. NBA senior vice president Tom Carelli manages the league’s broadcast schedule and said just about every team wants to play at home that weekend. Those that can’t often get rewarded with a home game around the Christmas holidays. The simple fact that the league takes Thanksgiving off also loads up the Friday schedule, SVP Evan Wasch added.
As many as five of the top 10 college basketball teams could be in action too, with college football offering a matchup of No. 6 Oklahoma at No. 9 West Virginia as well as a ranked battle in the Washington vs. Washington State Apple Cup.
And that’s all before mentioning the newest competitor for viewer attention: Turner Sports’ pay-per-view event, ‘The Match’ featuring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, which starts at 3 p.m.
“I was highlighting my programming guide and I ran out of ink,” Ben-Hanan says.
There’s no sign of slowing down. The events are great for venues looking to fill seats, sponsors launching holiday campaigns, and fans who have the day off. And in true Thanksgiving spirit, Ben-Hanan isn’t worried about oversupply. “We’ve always subscribed to the belief that you can never, ever, ever overestimate the appetite of a sports fan.”
THE ROCK AND TEBOW LEADING NEW ATHLETIC REALITY SHOWS
NBC’s three-time Emmy nominated American Ninja Warrior series is about to have some new company in the athletic reality show world. The network is launching a new show in January, The Titan Games, which “will offer everyday people the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in epic head-to-head challenges designed to test mind, body, and heart,” according to a press release. Dwayne Johnson will host, with the producers of ANW also working on the show.
Meanwhile, CBS announced this week that Tim Tebow will host its upcoming physical challenge show, Million Dollar Mile, which is partly being produced by LeBron James and his SpringHill Entertainment company. "Watching good people compete at their highest ability is always inspirational to me," Tebow said as part of the announcement. "Million Dollar Mile is a show that does just that—it motivates, thrills and is aspirational, and I'm excited to be hosting this show."
• SportsBusinessJournal has an update on Disney’s sale of 22 regional sports networks, but for now, there’s far more we don’t know about who will end up owning the channels. Meanwhile, one suitor has reportedly talked with LeBron James’ content company about becoming “a strategic partner.”
• During a media call Wednesday, the Monday Night Football team was asked to evaluate its performance so far. “We’re not close to where we want to be,” Joe Tessitore said, “but we know we’re headed in that direction little by little.” Neil Best has more.
• According to Sporttechie, Amazon has seen a sizable bump in its audience numbers for Thursday Night Football this season.
• “Kobe Bryant is a storyteller in search of perfection, and the most vexing tale is his own.” Kent Babb nailed this story.
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...in advance for all the .gifs that are going to come out of this Pikachu movie.