Week 2 of Season 2! Today, the Meet the Market Managers series takes us to Chicago. My conversation with Keith Williams of Good Karma is an interesting one.
Keith is a lifer with GKB, having worked in multiple markets, leading multiple brands for the company. Part of working for Craig Karmazin’s group though is not being married to any ways of doing business. Even lifers aren’t allowed to lean on the idea that “this is how we’ve always done it.”
In our conversation, presented by our outstanding partners at Point-to-Point Marketing, Keith shares why that approach works for him, and why it was part of guiding his search for the station’s new Director of Content. We also talked about competition between Good Karma markets, how Mike Thomas left his mark on the station in a short time, and how to explain the changing media landscape to clients.
Demetri Ravanos: One of the first things you had to do in Chicago after taking the reigns of ESPN 1000 was hire a PD. That search was largely internal. What were you prioritizing as you were looking for a new leader on the programming side?
Keith Williams: Just having the vision to pivot quickly to create new opportunities for our team, for our sales and marketing teams, and increase the diversity of our hosts. Those were three things that we really talked about looking to expand. Yes, we had some good internal candidates. We had a few external as well. Danny (Zederman) is obviously who I went with and Ryan Maguire, who you know as he wrote for BSM, we found a spot for in Milwaukee so that he was still with Good Karma.
It was something that obviously my predecessor was very focused on, and he did amazing things with this radio station, moving some of the pieces around, adding Twitch and an app, and of course, the White Sox rights. I thought Danny could really help us get to that next level. He’s added a number of shows already, some specialty things and things specifically on the app. We’re having some fun.
DR: This is a really big stage. Market number three is a big one to step into for your first programming role. That said, Danny has spent a lot of time with that radio station during his career. You mentioned part of the way ESPN 1000 presented itself while under Mike Thomas’ leadership, so what was it about what Danny that made you say, “I don’t care that he doesn’t have the prior PD experience. He’s the guy!”?
KW: Well, first, he’s really creative. He’s an activator. I knew he was going to move quickly and get things done. He’s got a high capacity to work fast, to work smart, and he’s a really good communicator, and we need that. We need someone that can communicate the vision, the ideas for marketing, for our sales team, and obviously to set the vision for our content team.
We want to be fun. We want to be fast. Obviously, the Bears are always going to be the big team in town, but we also want to continue to bring that personal level of entertainment to our fans.
I think Danny has the ability, and his relationships here with the team, having pretty much worked with almost every single person. This was a great move for him to get the opportunity to prove himself.
DR: So as a new boss coming in, and immediately having to pick a leader of the programming side when you have multiple guys internally interested in the job, how do you go through the process and make sure to build relationships with the people that didn’t get the job? How did you show them that they still have a lot of value to you and the brand?
KW: That was important. I mean, everybody doesn’t have the exact skill set to manage, to lead and to work quickly and have the ability to communicate across departments. At the same time, everyone that did apply had unbelievable ideas on how to make us better, and we want people’s feedback. We’re not trying to shove things down everyone’s throat. It’s all about listening, communicating, and hearing everybody’s opinions.
We’re a small company. We can pivot on a dime and listen to people’s ideas and feedback and take it, run with it, and make a change. If it doesn’t work, we’ll switch back. So, that’s the beauty of it.
For the people that did apply internally, we took their feedback. We are involving them in the process and hearing their voices. We’re allowing them to help us, because they have a passion for this radio station and market, and deep relationships in the building. Danny and I are both all ears for every single idea that comes across our table.
DR: You mentioned that the company is still relatively small, particularly in terms of media operations. You’ve been with them for a long time across a number of markets in a variety of roles. I always wonder when I talk to people inside Good Karma, what are the standards that are expected across each market? Also, how does the company give the VP/Market Manager an opportunity to establish their own identity and do things their own way?
KW: Craig [Karmazin] gives us a ton of freedom. I do a one-on-one with him each week and I’ve got a list of things I’ll go over, and his usual question back to me is, “was this the right thing to do?” “Does it fit our core values?”.
We look at it like it’s our own business. We are in charge of the revenue. We’re in charge of the expenses and everything left over is cash flow profit that we can then invest in our own people and equipment. So it’s up to us to choose our own path within what Good Karma’s core values and culture are, right?
I think one of the things that I have prided my career on is my communication and follow-through. If I hear somebody wanting something, and maybe we don’t choose to go that direction or we do, we always try to explain the why and follow through. So really, listening to our teammates is key to the growth of how to make this place the best it can be.
DR: So what sort of information were you trying to gather to make the decision about whether Chicago was the right move for you or not? Was it as simple as “It’s bigger than Madison and I want a new challenge”? Or was there something specific you were looking for before you would say yes?
KW: I told Craig 20-something years ago when I joined the company, wherever you need me, I am willing to go. So I started off in Madison and had no knowledge of sales, marketing or radio. But I just worked hard and did things the right way, always figuring out a way to hit budget or overdeliver on whatever the key needs were.
Then he gave me an opportunity to run some radio stations in Janesville, which I did for about four or five years. He asked me then to join forces with Sam Pines, who is now running our ESPN LA property. Sam and I worked together in Cleveland for ten years.
I was ready to do something different. So we had the big picture conversation, and I was commuting for a period of time to D.C. and Baltimore, running our ESPN digital sales offices there. We redid the structure of the sales team and then Craig said, would you be willing to go back to Wisconsin? And I said, you know, if that’s where the team needs me, we’ll go. We completely rebuilt the team in my three years there, a year and a half of which, we were probably working from home during the pandemic.
Then when Mike left. It became an opportunity when Craig called and said, “would you be interested in this?”. I said I have to talk to my family first, obviously. My wife was super supportive and asked all the right questions.
This is my passion. I love being in a market. Yes, it’s a bigger market, but the principles are all the same. It’s about the people. It’s about doing the right thing for our partners, and giving our fans the opportunity to consume whatever content we’re putting out there on as many platforms as we possibly can.
DR: So let’s talk about the people and the partners, because that goes to a question about what happened earlier this month when you guys announced that Carmen and Jurko were moving back to noon to 2 pm. The guys on air mentioned that one of the things they liked is that it meant five days a week they’d get to interact with Waddle and Silvy.
I wonder, as somebody that is looking out for the entire brand, how can something as simple as a casual five or six-minute conversation between two shows, groups of guys that don’t normally have a chance to interact with each other on-air, how does that elevate a brand? Why is an element like that important for getting a station to the next level?
KW: I mean, we see it behind the scenes. Even just yesterday walking around the halls, those guys were talking and hanging out. So, it was a behind-the-scenes conversation, and our whole thing is “let’s bring it to the forefront”.
They have such good chemistry, all four of them. I don’t know if you’ve listened to their crosstalk, Unhinged. Not on the radio. It’s their podcast. Those guys really just absolutely love each other. They respect each other and they can poke and prod just like you do with your friends. I mean, it really is great camaraderie, so why not give it a chance to shine?
You could see some of the feedback on social media. People are really excited to hear that again. So we’re listening to our fans. We’re listening to our teammates. Danny made a great decision.
DR: The other side of that move is it puts Greeny back to 10 to noon. It’s interesting to me that as big of a market as Chicago is, the station is not an O&O for ESPN anymore. It seems from the outside that dropping Greeny for more local programing would make sense, but I know his show had solid ratings in that slot before and GKB has a strong partnership with ESPN Radio which is important. I guess I just wonder why it’s important to keep that connection to the network on air when fans prefer local.
KW: We want the connection. Obviously with ESPN, they are our biggest partner. Plus, you know, Greeny does have a Chicago connection.
Our vision with Danny is to get it as close to all-live as we possibly can, but we love Greeny. We are happy with what he’s doing for us. I know it’s not local, but it sounds local when there’s big news for the market because he has that Chicago background.
DR: I want to go back and combine two things we talked about earlier. You mentioned the idea that this is a small company and I want to tie that to what Mike Thomas accomplished while he was in your seat there.
He pulled off some really cool promotions. He gave away two cars to fans when the White Sox threw a no-hitter. He gave away multiple ad campaigns to local businesses. That sort of creativity and headline-grabbing nature of promotions seems to be standard across all of Good Karma’s properties. Can you take me behind the curtain a little bit here? Is there competition among the local market managers for who can pull off the biggest ideas like that?
KW: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. We want to one-up each other, for sure. Creativity sells, right? So I think the weirder, the more out there a promotion can be, within the legal guidelines, which are always interesting to figure out, the better.
I think we just love being creative. It stands out and it does amazing things for our partners. I mean, when we did that, Nissan No-Hitter, think of all the earned media exposure that Nissan got from that! And who knew that it was going to happen twice? It was just incredible!
Yes, we definitely have competition for ideas. Our teammates love talking about weird and fun promotions. Our partners love it because they get exposure beyond a radio spot schedule, and our fans like it too because they get to participate and win free stuff, especially when it’s a huge prize like a car. We’re always looking for that type of idea, so we have internal brainstorming meetings on how to do these things all the time.
DR: How do the partners and clients that have been with you for a long time view a promotion like giving away an ad campaign to another business during the pandemic?
KW: If you think about the partners that we have, some are big businesses, most of them probably are, and some are small. So when we were doing that particular promotion, it was in conjunction with First Midwest Bank, which is now going to be changing to Old National Bank. It was an opportunity for them, right? It was a chance to team up with us to give back to the community. So it was a true partnership. We explain that to our other partners. “Hey, this is something that we’re going to be executing for First Midwest Bank. We’re going to give light to a small business that’s deserving and may not be able to afford a radio schedule in Chicago, Illinois.”
DR: Chicago, in terms of being a radio market, is not Boston, where even if WEEI does good numbers, the trend right now is that The Sports Hub is going to come out on top. ESPN 1000 and The Score have gone back and forth over the years although The Score has had a better run in recent times. When you’re talking to, whether it’s the sales staff or clients, what is it you tell them about the unpredictability and volatility of radio ratings?
KW: I tell them radio sales and marketing, in my opinion, is all about listening to our partners and their needs, and solving their problems in the most creative and effective way that you can. A ratings point never bought a cheeseburger. Now, I’m definitely quoting one of our teammates on that.
It’s all about the idea and the relationship. Advertising is a real simple formula: audience, frequency and message. If you have all three of those and you’re truly listening to the partner’s objectives, whatever you end up coming up with is going to be the right idea for them, and it’s going to work. That’s why so many of our advertising partners have been with us for so long.
It’s not just in Chicago. That’s everywhere GKB is because we truly listen to what our partners need, and try to get their message out as many times as we can. Radio commercials, promotions, endorsements, appearances, events. Whatever that is, our goal is to sell more hamburgers or cars or windows the next day and the day after that. And you know, if we’re truly listening to people, then we have the ability to grow anyone’s business.
DR: I think, within the business, it is easy to explain and understand the problems with Nielsen ratings, because we all speak the same language and have the same background knowledge. When you’re talking to a business though, so many of them still put value in that number no matter how often you explain that it doesn’t tell the accurate story anymore because listening shifted or because there isn’t a large enough sample. What is that struggle like?
KW: It’s all about, are we going to move product, right? At the end of the day, if you have a million listeners and only ten are going to buy a car, that’s the ten that matter.
Our focus is just entirely different. It’s all about how do you help somebody’s business grow with our loyal audience that listens as often as they do for as long as they do. If your message is good enough, it’s going to stand out and it’s going to ring at the cash register.
DR: Chicago, in radio terms, is becoming more and more unique. You guys are still an AM market. You have a partnership with Hubbard that gives you an HD2 signal, but 1000, The Score, WBBM, WGN, all of the big talk properties, are still on the AM dial and finding success.
Could you see that changing as the generations spending money and leading the charge change? Do you have designs on someday seeing ESPN 1000 become ESPN one-hundred-point-whatever on the FM dial r are you comfortable with the position and habits of Chicago radio?
KW: We’re very comfortable with our position because I think our mobile app is one tap and you’re already into live programming. We have the ability to promote that and you’re right there. Obviously, with smart devices and smart cars and Twitch, there are plenty of ways to get the content.
If we can just continue to promote not only AM 1000, but the ease of the ESPN Chicago app, you can get content right at your fingertips with seriously, one tap on your phone. I don’t think it matters if you’re on an AM or FM. I would just say the more places you can be, the better.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Why Do NFL Fans Want More Greg Olsen and Less Tony Romo?
Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down film of offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast.
Five years ago, Tony Romo retired as an active NFL player, jumped into the CBS broadcast booth, and immediately became the darling of fans and media for the excitement he brought to his telecasts. Romo’s enthusiasm for the game and understanding of modern offense allowed him to predict plays successfully, making him an instant sensation.
Greg Olsen will finish his second season as a full-time broadcaster on Feb. 12 from the NFL’s biggest stage, calling Super Bowl LVI for Fox with play-by-play partner Kevin Burkhardt. Olsen hasn’t drawn the must-see buzz that Romo did early in his TV career. No fan likely tuned into Fox’s top NFL telecast, “America’s Game of the Week,” to listen to Olsen’s analysis. His work doesn’t draw nearly the same amount of acclaim.
But the shine has worn off Romo with viewers during the past couple of NFL seasons. Watching a game with Romo in the booth previously felt like sitting alongside a fellow fan, jubilant at fantastic plays or clever strategy, and disappointed at performances that fell short. His energy also elevated Jim Nantz as a play-by-play announcer, bringing him back to life after 13 seasons alongside Phil Simms.
Now, however, Romo’s outbursts — noises in place of words, or outright yelling — seem like a crutch when coherent thoughts can’t be articulated. Where there was once fascinating insight from the analyst position, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback often resorts to clichés and platitudes that don’t add to a fan’s understanding of what’s happening on the field.
Worst of all, Romo sometimes talks merely to talk, filling a quiet space when a broadcast needs to breathe or the images are saying enough on their own. That’s especially awkward when paired with a veteran like Nantz, who’s a master at letting the moment speak for itself rather than trying to punctuate it with unnecessary narration.
On Fox’s telecast of the 49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game, Olsen explained how play-calling changes when an offense intends to go for it on fourth down. He showed an awareness of the strategies that each coach employed to gain an advantage or neutralize what the opponent was doing well.
Early on, he highlighted San Francisco defensive end Joey Bosa holding back on his natural impulse to pursue the quarterback at all costs. Instead, he maintained a position that prevented Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts from running to gain yardage when pass plays weren’t available.
With analysis like this, Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down the film of their respective offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast. He doesn’t appear to be surprised by what he sees because that prep work — watching film, talking to coaches and players — informs him of the eventualities and possibilities that could arise during a game.
The hardcore football fan, those who repeatedly watch highlights and replays, loves that kind of analysis. Such attention to detail feels gratifying because it demonstrates that the person calling the broadcast is as serious about this stuff as the viewer who’s waited all week for the big game.
Yet a more casual fan is also drawn in because of Olsen’s amiable personality and ability to explain things simply and clearly. It’s similar to what viewers enjoy about ESPN’s “ManningCast” for Monday Night Football. Yes, there are jokes and funny moments. But Peyton and Eli Manning both explain strategy and preparation very well.
By comparison, Romo comes off like a broadcaster who’s winging it, letting his personality and enthusiasm fill gaps created by a lack of preparation. That might be a completely unfair criticism. We don’t know what kind of work Romo puts in leading up to a telecast. Maybe he watches as much film as Olsen. Perhaps he talks to everyone available to the broadcast crew in production meetings.
If so, however, that doesn’t show itself on the CBS telecast. Romo’s work on Sunday’s Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game telecast was an improvement over his call of the Bengals-Bills divisional playoff clash. During the previous week, Romo acted as if he didn’t have to provide any insight because this was the match-up fans had anticipated all season and already knew everything about the two teams.
Perhaps in response to that criticism, Romo made a point of highlighting the importance of each team’s defensive coordinator — Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo and Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo, respectively — in disrupting the performance of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. But rather than demonstrate an actual strategy during a replay, he stated that each defense would come after the opposing QB and create pressure.
Ultimately, the difference between Romo and Olsen seems to be schtick versus knowledge. But it’s also a product of how each analyst reached their position. Romo joined CBS’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team without previously calling any games. (As BSM’s Garrett Searight points out, that immediacy and recent connection to the game fueled what felt like fresh analysis.)
Meanwhile, Olsen called games during bye weeks while he was still an active player and was on Fox’s No. 2 crew with Burkhardt before being elevated to top status following the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN. He’s had to get better out of necessity. Even now, as Olsen establishes himself as his network’s top analyst, he faces the possibility of being bumped from that position when Tom Brady retires and cashes in on the massive contract Fox offered him.
Compare that to Romo, who’s the highest-paid NFL analyst on television. His $18 million annual salary set the bar other top broadcasters are trying to reach. And he has seven years remaining on the 10-year contract he signed with CBS. That is significant job security. Even if network executives (or Nantz) lean on Romo to improve his flaws, how much motivation is there when he’s already been anointed a broadcasting king?
However, NFL fans and sports media are making it clear what they prefer from their football broadcasters. They want insight and substance. They want to learn something from the commentary, rather than just be told what they can see for themselves.
Olsen is providing that and is being rightly lauded as a broadcaster living up to his status. Romo is suffering a fall from acclaim and has become a weekly punching bag. If he and CBS want to change that, he’ll have to bring more to the booth each week. In the meantime, Fox should consider appreciating what it already has, rather than welcome a glitzy name.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Fowler Knows You Know He Isn’t In Australia
“I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know.”
I can tell you my exact whereabouts when 2015 became 2016 in the Central Time Zone. I was in a media shuttle outside of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas awaiting my transport to the Omni Hotel in Dallas. It was kind of a sad scene, not just because Alabama had picked Michigan State’s bones 36-0. Nope, it was sad when the clock struck midnight and a tired, cracking voice from the back of the bus said, “Happy New Year” with all the excitement of a man facing execution.
I, too, was tired. I had just spent a week doing shows in Dallas and was headed back to Birmingham for a pit stop before flying to Phoenix for what would be an epic Alabama v. Clemson National Championship Game. I am not complaining, mind you, but the thought of the end of the football season being near was very comforting. It’s a bittersweet thought, I love college football, but I also love being home with my family.
ESPN’s Chris Fowler was at Jerry World that night, as well. He had been on my show earlier in the week and we had joked with him about how good he had it; two College Football Playoff games then a flight halfway around the world for the Australian Open. I had bumped into him leaving the stadium that night and we laughed, again, at his good fortune.
As I sat on the bus for the saddest of New Year’s celebrations, I reflected on the conversation with Fowler and thought about how overwhelming that travel seemed. I could never have imagined then that type of travel assignment would one day become a luxury rather than a necessity.
There are numerous things COVID ended. Many of them were more important than announcing crews actually at the events, but that was one casualty. It has even continued to impact the top level crews like Fowler and John McEnroe who did their 2023 Australian Open work a world away in Bristol, Connecticut.
The fact that the majority of ESPN talent was actually stateside had already been painfully obvious to anyone watching. The studio show had made no effort to hide that fact but the actual match announcers were part of a little more of an attempt to appear they were Down Under. It was abundantly clear, though, that the match announcers were simply standing in front of images of the Melbourne stadiums superimposed behind them.
It was Chris Fowler who finally revealed the man behind the curtain when he removed the mystery and made it clear they were not in Australia. After Darren Cahill, who was actually on site, relayed the weather conditions to Fowler and McEnroe, Fowler commented that the Bristol weather was in the 30’s.
I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know. I also think most viewers have seen enough of the low-energy, disjointed remote announcing that they can spot it without being informed. Thankfully, Fowler and McEnroe are pros enough (and in the same room) that they can still do their job well from 10,000 miles away.
I just can’t believe we are still playing this game in 2023. I think history will show that, in many cases, remote broadcasts were unnecessary in 2020 but that was a complete unknown at the time. One has to assume the desire to save on travel expenses is a large motivation in 2023. I can only imagine how much is saved by ESPN in airfare and lodging by keeping announcers in Bristol rather than sending them to Melbourne. Tennis is also one of the sports in which the difference isn’t as noticeable.
The feedback I get from the fans in other sports, where remote announcers are far more noticeable, is that the network clearly doesn’t value my team or me as a fan. While that may not be true, if that perception is held by a large enough group of fans, it becomes true. What the networks know is this: we are addicted to our teams. They can have bad announcers from their living rooms but what am I going to do about it? I get a limited number of times to watch my team each season. I’m not missing that chance because a network wants to squeeze dimes.
As most people have learned more about COVID, most unnecessary precautions have faded away. Remote announcers have been tougher to extinguish and may never go away entirely.
In the meantime, I’m rested now and I’ll take that trip to Australia anytime someone is ready to send me.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.
ESPN Ready To Go Back To The NHL All-Star Game
“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about.”
The NHL is approaching a break leading up to the festivities at the All-Star Weekend taking place from FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida: the home of the Florida Panthers. Saturday’s 2023 NHL All-Star Game will be broadcast on ABC and simulcast on ESPN+ for the second consecutive year under the seven-year media rights deal which brought live game broadcasts back to The Walt Disney Company’s platforms for the first time since 2005.
On hand to call the action and provide fans with exclusive access will be the NHL on ESPN lineup of experienced commentators, versatile journalists, and knowledgeable analysts, including the studio team of Steve Levy, Mark Messier, Chris Chelios, and P.K. Subban. The group is looking forward to making the trip to South Florida to catch up with former teammates and colleagues, as well as finding reprieve from the colder temperatures outside their regular Bristol studios.
“You just look at the graphics of the commercials out there with the surfboards and the beach and the warm weather and [see that] hockey can thrive anywhere,” Messier expressed. “…It’s a great time to pause and break and celebrate what’s happened in the first 40 games of the season until everybody starts to buckle down for the stretch drive.”
Messier signed on with the NHL on ESPN team before the 2021-2022 season as a studio analyst, utilizing his vast experience and championship pedigree to intuitively decipher the game of hockey and provide cogent reasoning about the action. He is a six-time Stanley Cup champion – five with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the New York Rangers – and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Furthermore, Messier is third all-time in points and ninth in goals, and he was the captain of both of his championship teams – making him the only player in league history to garner that accolade. His presence on its hockey coverage gives ESPN added ethos and someone who remains a student of the game, closely following the league to craft informed opinions.
“Seeing the amount of talent in the game now and the emergence of these players is just incredible,” Messier said. “Of course, it’s what it’s all about – just trying to get yourself. Once you’ve established yourself as an NHL player, the next step is to figure out how to win.”
Chris Chelios joined Messier on the studio panel from the launch of the NHL on ESPN last season and is also a Hockey Hall of Fame member who played professionally for 26 years, retiring at the age of 48. He recognizes the changes in the game of hockey, especially since his 1983-84 rookie campaign, and tries to accentuate them while promulgating classic aspects of the sport demonstrated through its young talent.
“Just when you think you’ve seen everything, they come up with something else; some new move,” Chelios said. “….There have been some unbelievable highlights and every night, especially working with ESPN, [we have been] able to see all that. We’re in an entertainment business and these guys aren’t letting anybody down. It’s great; it’s a great product.”
Steve Levy has worked with ESPN since 1993 where he has broadcast countless different sports and hosted various types of studio programming. Whether it is calling football games, sitting behind the desk on SportsCenter, or making movie cameos, he is an anomaly within the industry in that he has had a long and storied career primarily with one company. Through his versatility, he can continue seamlessly assimilating into a wide foray of roles and, in the process, enhance the broadcast skills of his colleagues.
Last season, Levy, Messier, and Chelios broadcast coverage of NHL All-Star Weekend from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The trio was situated in a suite at “The Fortress”. It contrasts the regular-season mindset of gathering two points per night; contrarily, this weekend is, in essence, a celebration of the game and its people.
“It’s an opportunity to showcase besides their skills, I think their personalities,” Levy said. “I really look forward to that.”
Levy has worked with Messier and Chelios for the last year on ESPN’s studio coverage and is now joined by P.K. Subban, who played in the NHL as recently as this past April as a member of the New Jersey Devils. A three-time All-Star selection and 2014 Olympic gold medalist, Subban inked a multi-year contract with ESPN this past November to regularly serve as a studio analyst and also work as a live game broadcast analyst for select regular season matchups.
Implementing a player who is closely removed from playing professional hockey brings fresh perspectives to the show, offering different perspectives, and appealing to a wider segment of viewers.
“We were sitting next to him on the set the other night and he’s talking about Jack Hughes and it’s like, ‘Who’s going to have a more educated opinion than a guy who was lockering next to him the last three seasons?,’” Levy said of Subban. “It’s easy to forget he was in the league in April; he’s fresh out of it.”
Subban grew up watching Messier and Chelios in the NHL and now works alongside them, holding them in high regard. Aside from their play on the ice, Subban remembers Messier in Lay’s commercials in the late-1990s and early-2000s advertising its products. Although he brings more contemporary perspectives by being removed from the league for less than a year, Subban embraces the traditional style of the game and delivers analysis based on multiple eras.
“I think keeping it fresh is also being able to educate some of these young players and the audience about guys like Mess and Chelios,” Subban said. “I think that’s also very important because we have a luxury [in] having these two on the broadcast…. It’s just really cool for me this year. I’m super excited to do this for the first time; to sit next to these guys.”
All three NHL on ESPN studio analysts participated in at least one aspect of the skills competition during their playing careers, with Messier winning the shooting accuracy challenge in both 1991 and 1996 and Subban winning the breakaway challenge in 2016. Watching the players compete from a new vantage point and evincing their ethereal abilities on the ice underscores what the weekend is genuinely about.
According to Levy, the 2023 All-Star Skills would be the event he would attend if he had to choose between it and the game. This sentiment has permeated itself in the linear television ratings, as the 2022 All-Star Game was the least-watched (1.15 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2009, while the corresponding skills competition was the most-watched (1.09 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2012.
It is important to note, however, that last year’s all-star game aired just before the first night of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, broadcast in the United States by NBC, USA, and CNBC. Despite last year’s Olympic Games drawing the lowest U.S. ratings in the history of the international sporting event and cultural phenomenon, the first night still drew 13.2 million total viewers across the three networks, accounting for a 6.8 share.
The format of the NHL All-Star Game was changed starting in 2016 to contain four teams (one per division) playing three-on-three games split into 10-minute halves in a single-elimination tournament. The winning of the tournament’s championship game splits a prize pool of $1 million, ostensibly incentivizing more realistic play as the allure of the windfall profit is aggrandized.
Nonetheless, the weekend is all about appealing to the fans and demonstrating the star power of the league through the depiction of vivid imagery, as well as chronicling stories to engross viewers in the product.
“You highlight fun and entertainment through the skills, and the three-on-three was a great concept because it’s exciting to the fans,” Messier said. “….I think the NHL, the NHLPA and ESPN and everybody involved has worked diligently to make this weekend really fun and to highlight the great talent we have on the ice and the great people we have off the ice.”
“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about,” Subban added. “For these players, a lot of times, they’re buttoned into the game and focused on the ice. This is an opportunity for [the] fans to get to know the players in a fun way; get to know them through their skill set and what they’re able to do on the ice.”
The All-Star Skills will feature the return of events including the Breakaway Challenge, Fastest Skater, Accuracy Shooting, and Hardest Shot. In addition to these classics, there will be the debut of the Tendy Tandem where goalies will face off in a shootout, along with two new geo-focused events – the Splash Shot (pre-taped from Fort Lauderdale Beach Park); and the Pitch ‘n Puck (from a par-4 golf hole).
“I know each market tries to do something specific to the local area,” Levy said. “I do know ESPN has worked really hard with the NHL to try to enhance the best events and make them even better… and better for television.”
The league continues to adapt and find new ways to engage fans with the launch of the 2023 NHL Fan Skills at Home, a social media-based competition urging fans to submit videos performing their hockey abilities focused in different areas. Various hockey content creators, including Pavel Barber and Kane Van Gate, will make the trip to Sunrise, Fla. to promote the contest and implore fans to participate.
Additionally, the NHL will host the All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, a free fan fest-style event featuring appearances from NHL all-stars and alumni, a photo opportunity with the Stanley Cup, and interactive games for the whole family.
Surrounding it all on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+ will be a concentrated effort to emphasize the dispositions of regular all-star selections – such as Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid; Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin; and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar – while contextualizing what is going on through experience and astute foresight.
At the same time, the broadcast will aim to espouse awareness towards younger stars, many of whom are first-time selections such as 20-year-old Seattle Kraken forward Matty Beniers; 24-year-old New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox; and 25-year-old Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Logan Thompson.
“Our job is to really highlight these players and make it a fun telecast,” Messier said, “and really talk about the players as people and what great, incredible talent they possess.”
“You have to be able to tell stories about the players,” Subban said. “They’re the product on the ice and there’s no better way to tell stories about players than getting ESPN. They are the best at it, so it should make for a fun couple of days.”
The NHL on ESPN studio team thoroughly enjoyed their time at last year’s All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, as it led them to become accustomed to working together and set them up to put on quality broadcasts through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, the Stanley Cup Finals are set to be broadcast by Turner Sports this year (as part of its seven-year media rights agreement) with its regular studio crew of Liam McHugh, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter, and Wayne Gretzky.
Messier and Gretzky, each serving as studio analysts on ESPN and TNT, respectively, starred in an NHL on FOX commercial together back when they were teammates on the New York Rangers in 1996.
This season, the NHL on ESPN studio crew has not worked together regularly because of the network’s obligations to the NFL and NBA. The group will soon be on the air regularly though to break down the top plays, interview stars before they hit the ice and foster a congenial atmosphere for sports fans everywhere.
“I look forward to working with these three guys together,” Levy said. “We haven’t had a lot of run together [because] it’s just the way the schedule works [during] the first half of the season.”
“I’m looking forward to kicking this off,” Chelios added. “It’s like a playoff run [for us] now; this All-Star Game is the start of working and grinding and doing a couple of games a week and getting into a rhythm here.”
The 2023 NHL All-Star Skills will be broadcast on Friday, Feb. 3 on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. EST and is available to stream live on ESPN+. Then on Saturday, Feb. 4, the 2023 NHL All-Star Game, featuring teams representing the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, and Pacific divisions, commences at 3 p.m. EST on ABC and can be streamed live on ESPN+.
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.