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How Will ESPN Deliver Sunday Night Baseball in 2021?

“It’s not my place to get deep on the pandemic and lifestyle and all that kind of stuff, but we’re closer to normal. 162 games is normal and April 1st Opening Day is normal. Having some degree of crowd in the ballpark is not quite as normal as sellouts on Opening Day, but it’s a lot closer than it was last year.”

Tyler McComas

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There’s something nostalgic about ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for a sports nerd like me. Maybe it’s because my baseball heyday was spent routinely watching Jon Miller and Joe Morgan in the booth each Sunday night. Maybe it’s the theme music, which is playing in my head as I write this article. Regardless, it was a treat when Ben Cafardo at ESPN invited me to be BSM’s Zoom call representative with Senior Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins to discuss the network’s production approach to the 2021 MLB season. 

Go inside ESPN's production truck during President Obama's stadium entrance  in Havana, Cuba - ESPN Front Row

ESPN will begin its coverage of the season on Opening Day this Thursday April 1st. 11 games will air on the network in the first week, but things will look especially different in the booth this season. 

“We will still be in a workflow that is centralized, primarily Bristol-based from a product approach standpoint,” said Orlins. “We do probably 20 percent of our games out of our Charlotte hub, but for the most part things connect through Bristol and out of the Bristol hub.”

That means ESPN will start most of it’s Sunday Night Baseball crew in studio. Buster Olney, who will serve as a reporter, is expected to be on-site at every single game. However, Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez will start the year in Bristol. 

“I don’t know that I have any guarantees, predictions on when that would change or if that will change,” added Orlins. “I think there are a lot of circumstances that will go into that, and some of them are to be determined, including the COVID pandemic as one of them.”

ESPN’s view on putting Olney at the ballpark is that it will increase the essential value of the reporter. Especially since it means Buster will be the lone one on site. But Olney’s job won’t likely be as easy as it used to be. He’s on site for the game which is the positive, but anyone who’s covered events during the past year knows that it also means no face-to-face interactions with players or coaches. Olney has done a tremendous job over the years gathering and reporting information, some of it picked up on the field during practice or even inside the clubhouse. He won’t have that same access though this season. 

That’s a key reason why ESPN isn’t rushing to put crews inside of booths all across the stadium. If Vasgersian and Rodriguez are only allowed in the booth and have no other access, is it critical then to have them on the road? Most broadcasters would tell you it’s easier to call a game when you can see the action in person, but ESPN is confident that its Bristol studios and/or home studios will work out well for the upcoming season. 

Just like ESPN’s coverage of college basketball this season, there will be broadcasters calling games from inside their homes. It’s nothing new. We saw it with the network’s coverage of the KBO last year, the first live games to feature live broadcasts from home during the pandemic. 

“One thing we experimented with on KBO last year and will do again this year is having Eduardo Perez transmit his own video files into our switcher and telestrate his own stuff from his home,” said Orlins. “The more you challenge yourselves on what you can do with technology, the more these things are accessible and available to be done.”

Many fans have been critical of Major League Baseball’s inability to market it’s biggest stars. A debate on how many people would recognize Mike Trout if he walked into a mall comes to mind. ESPN isn’t single handedly solving the issue, but it’s trying to pull more personality out of both the players and it’s broadcast by mic’ing up players during games. It’s a unique and fun feature to any game that really only works during baseball, seeing as it’s slower pace and a better fit than most other sports. ESPN really pushed it during Spring Training in order to highlight more personality driven content with players. It was seen as a big success, and something the network will consider more throughout the season. 

“We had a lot of success last year in the regular season with that type of access material,” said Orlins. “Bryce Harper was a great participant. Obviously there were a couple in the postseason, as well, Paul DeJong with the Cardinals, Ian Happ was tremendous with the Cubs, along with a few others. The answer to that though is to be determined, as it requires an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association. We hope that we once again get there, but having said that, those things do not necessarily travel a quick path, as I think most of us are aware.”

THIS IS GREAT: PHILS BRUCE HARPER MIC'D UP FOR THE ACTION! | Fast Philly  Sports

A lot of technical aspects will be the same from last year, but a glaring difference will be the added element of fans at the games. Every team in baseball will have fans on Opening Day, ranging from the Texas Rangers having 100 percent capacity to the Toronto Blue Jays hosting around 1,275 fans at its spring training facility in Florida. Capacity numbers differ, but fans will be in the stands this season. After going through a year without crowd noise or in person reactions, that has to be a giant relief for ESPN’s production team.

“I know it’s a controversial topic, but I’ll tell you the first thing I learned on KBO was I’m not big on what I’d call necessarily full-force fake crowd sound,” said Orlins. “But I’m not big on no crowd sound, either.”

“As far as the way the game is cut, there’s not a whole lot you can do in the sense of — you’re not going to not show the pitch from center field because it shows empty seats behind the plate. Do we miss the crowd reaction shots? Yes. Would I ever prioritize the crowd reaction shots over the player reactions? Probably not.

“I miss the sound and I miss the authentic sound, but I also miss the personality. I mean, that’s a real element, especially to baseball. I just miss the kid or father catching the home run and the fun in the stands. I don’t lose much sleep over whether our reactions to a home run are more focused on the dugout versus fans. I think those shots are to be expected. They’re fairly normal or replaceable to some degree. But I miss the entertainment of kids and parents, and the odd moments when a guy falls over trying to catch a foul ball or gives it to the kid or refuses to give it to the kid or throws it back on the field, all of those things.”

Hopefully the sight of fans in the stands on Opening Day gives the country a renewed sense of optimism that life will get back to normal. Who knows, maybe as things continue to improve, A-Rod will be back in Boston or New York to call Sunday Night Baseball this summer. Maybe baseball can be the sport that signifies the full normalcy of life returning to pre-pandemic levels. If that happens, you can bet ESPN will be there to show it. 

Baseball in Empty Stadiums Is Weird. How Will It Affect Outcomes? - The New  York Times

“My sense is that people want normal,” said Orlins. “It’s not my place to get deep on the pandemic and lifestyle and all that kind of stuff, but we’re closer to normal. 162 games is normal and April 1st Opening Day is normal. Having some degree of crowd in the ballpark is not quite as normal as sellouts on Opening Day, but it’s a lot closer than it was last year.

“I think there’s no other sport that quite occupies, wherever you want to compare baseball with other sports in terms of its popularity and how you measure, I don’t think there’s anything like baseball that exists within the daily rhythm of American lifestyle. I think that’s really important right now.”

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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