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Unhappy Anniversary, Everyone!

“We were more aware of the stresses that were being placed on the ‘behind the scenes” folks, those in the television trucks and the camera folks that provided our pictures. That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate them before, because we did. This pandemic just made it much more obvious.”

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It was one year ago today that Major League Baseball followed several other sports leagues in shutting things down. COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic caused panic, chaos and closed facilities across the country. It’s a day that many of us will not forget. Now, a year later with signs of hope that things will get back to normal, so much has changed in sports, broadcasting and life. 

The word normal seems weird to say. Zoom calls have replaced actual time in locker rooms and clubhouses. Limited access has become a way of life for broadcasters and journalists, almost getting used to what is happening. Mainly it all comes down to just doing the best you possibly can under the current circumstances.

Ross, Happ on approach to camp | 02/24/2021 | Seattle Mariners

The challenges were immeasurable from the broadcast side, yet the good ones knew how to overcome the obstacles. Kevin Kugler, who calls games on Fox, The Big Ten Network and Westwood One, shared one of those hurdles he and some others needed to jump over. 

“The biggest challenge has been giving the viewer or listener everything they need for a quality broadcast.” Kugler told me. “We’ve lost a little of the ‘relationship’ aspect of calling the games this year without actually being in practice or shoot arounds and having a chance to interact one on one with players and coaches. Doing video calls has helped some, but it’s not the same as actually developing those in person relationships. We’ve all done the best we can, but I do think the audience is missing out on some of the info we might glean in person.”

I can relate. Without that real one-on-one time with athletes or coaches, you do lose a little touch with the team you’re covering. 

Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster, Eric Nadel who handles the radio broadcast for the Texas Rangers agreed with Kugler.

“There is so much time to fill and the best, most interesting information is the stuff we get from those interactions with the people in uniform,” Nadel said via email. “The inability to talk to players, get to know them so they trust me and tell me stuff that the average fan can’t find on line, has been devastating.”

Another play-by-play guy that agrees with the assessment is Judd Sirott who handles the radio call for the Boston Bruins.

“First off, we are incredibly fortunate to be working this season. The pandemic has wreaked havoc: hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives, and many more have seen their livelihoods disappear.” Sirott told me. “To survive, businesses have had to be agile and adapt.  Calling Boston Bruins games is no different. The biggest challenge is not being able to “be there”, that’s not just the games (road games now), but morning skates, dressing room scrums, the coach’s office and everything we’d normally have access to.”  

Access is clearly a roadblock during this time, something unavoidable for the safety of the players, coaches and media members. Chicago Bears radio play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak points out it isn’t easy to replace actually being on site. What you lose is more than just access to players. It is the ability to set the tone and feel of game day for your audience.

“I would say like all play-by-play announcers and analysts, we want to be where the action is, and there is nothing entering the stadium on game day that can replace that.” Says Joniak. “From the smells of the tailgates, to walking into the booth and seeing the green grass, and the anticipation of what is to come. It revs the engine in a way nothing else comes close to matching in my life. I love gameday and all that comes with it. From kickoff to the final whistle, it’s an adrenaline rush and it’s something I crave. I feel we as a crew did the best we could, given the circumstances.” 

What's the best and the worst thing about being a Bears fan? - Windy City  Gridiron

Kugler agrees that atmosphere matters to the audience and fans in the seats matter for atmosphere.

“I cannot wait until everyone is back, because the art of doing a broadcast hinges so much, in my opinion, on the fans.  Playing off the emotions, the highs and lows, the music of the crowd.  I miss that so much, and had really just been delving into that more when the shutdown came along.”

Professional broadcasters want to get their calls right. That’s a fact. That was much harder to do when looking at a game on a monitor not even in the same building as the game that was being called. Sirott says this is where patience had to rule the day. 

“Accuracy is king. Trying to decipher tipped pucks in front; altercations behind the play; injured players hobbling off the ice; coaches barking at something on the bench when you can’t see the game from the perch you normally occupy is difficult.”, he said. “Taking some extra time for the picture to develop on screen and working with my partner Bob Beers (who’s keenly aware and has a great feel for the game) has helped. The conditions lead to more mistakes.  You have roll with it.  And when the time is right, have some fun with it.”

He even took the route of tailoring and refining his approach to these broadcasts. “To get the content, meant being more resourceful. I’ve jumped on the phone, sent an email, fired off texts or delved into some different sites online to collect material for our broadcast.” 

The highest compliment a broadcaster can get during these crazy times is from the fans, is when they can’t tell the difference. 

“Many listeners didn’t realize we were not at the road games”, said Joniak. “So, the payoff is that we maintained the integrity of our broadcasts and reliably served our listeners with the same thoroughness and passion as we’ve also delivered over the past two decades.”

Even those that knew what was actually going on, gave the broadcasters the benefit of the doubt.

“I will say this, fans have been very forgiving with the broadcast hiccups. I really have been pleasantly surprised with how little people have yelled at us for some of those things.”, said Kugler. “I think that everyone has just been so happy to have the events on TV or radio that they have been able to overlook some of the things that would have created angry tweets a couple of years ago!”

Here's an outside-the-box idea for Cubs TV: Kevin Kugler - Bleed Cubbie Blue

So, did anything positive, other than the fact the games were actually played? I know from my perspective working baseball, I became acutely more aware of what I was doing as a play-by-play announcer. Lessons to myself about slowing down and other details that I feel made me a little better under the circumstances. I’m a harsh critic of my own work, so that’s saying something. Seems like everybody figured out something along the way here. 

“I think I’ve learned a little bit about what’s important and what’s not.  I’ve really worked this year on trying to provide what is most crucial for the viewer or listener,” said Kugler. “Sometimes, I think we all get wrapped up in our prep and we can forget that we are doing this broadcast for someone else.  Not for us, but for the fans.  I have started to go into each game prep really thinking more about that, what would I want to see or hear as I’m tuning into this game?  Sounds simple, but it’s something I’ve become really aware of over the past year.”

Joniak found some things that made him a better announcer under tough conditions.

“My senses were keener, my concentration deeper. The circumstances force you to pay deeper attention.”, he said. “There were times in games, and I think back to the Bears-Falcons game in Atlanta, where it was so dramatic of a finish it felt like I was there even though I wasn’t. I got absorbed in the moments. I also had crowd noise pumped in my headset by our engineer Paul Zerang so that was significant. I thrive in a loud stadium and calibrate my emotions accordingly with the rise and fall of the chatter.”

Sirott on the other hand found he could change things up and still have a successful broadcast.

“I’ve been more flexible with my time. Hockey players are creatures of habit.  Lots of broadcasters are the same.  We like a routine.  To keep everyone safe and healthy, we’ve all had to change our schedules.” 

For Nadel, who’s been at this a long time, he learned something too, don’t take the simple things for granted. “It (the result of the pandemic) hasn’t made me a better broadcaster. It has made me a broadcaster just trying to survive and do the best possible job given the current conditions.” Nadel told me. “But when and if we ever have access again to the people in uniform, I will be sure to use that access even more than I did before. If there is any way that I am better, it’s that I have to lean more on personality, perhaps making the broadcasts more entertaining even though I am less informative.”

The common theme, these conditions were not ideal, but in the grand scheme of things, we learned a little about ourselves. We learned to adapt to an ever-changing environment and provided fans with a quality broadcast under the circumstances. It was actually quite remarkable to see all the different “set ups”. Where the monitors were placed and so on. 

Detroit Lions radio team calls matchup at Lambeau from empty Ford Field

I also think along the way, many of us, including those that I talked to for this column, appreciated things a little more. We were more aware of the stresses that were being placed on the ‘behind the scenes” folks, those in the television trucks and the camera folks that provided our pictures. That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate them before, because we did. This pandemic just made it much more obvious. 

Unhappy Anniversary pandemic, we won’t miss you one bit, but thank you for helping all of us to see what was important through these crazy tough times. 

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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