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Bonta Hill Never Thought He’d Be Hosting Mornings on 95.7 the Game

“If I’m not good enough to make it here, then what the hell am I doing this for? I’m going to make it here.’”

Derek Futterman

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Bonta Hill grew up a fan of San Francisco’s sports teams – albeit before the dominance of the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants – and was always willing to talk about the teams at the drop of a hat. Reading about sports from the local newspapers was representative of an escape for Hill, as he grew up in an unstable home and in a high crime area. At the age of 10, he was placed into foster care and struggled to balance maintaining financial stability with his academic performance.

Nearly 15 years later, Hill was working as a supervisor at United Parcel Service (UPS), but was let go by the company for what he referred to as minor errors. Shortly thereafter, he began working at a local Peet’s Coffee to pay his bills, but continued to watch sports from afar. Recognizing his love and passion for the local teams, a friend of his suggested he try to go back to school to pursue a career in sports journalism.

“I went back to school at the age of 26, walked into the journalism department and asked the department chair at the time, Juan Gonzales, ‘Hey man, I like to write; I’d like to try to be a sports writer,’” Hill recollected. “I did a story for him. A few months later, I won this award at the Journalism Association of Community Colleges, and he offered me the sports editor position the next semester.”

From his early days at the City College of San Francisco writing and editing sports stories for The Guardian, Hill possessed a determination to try to differentiate himself from his competition by taking advantage of any opportunities that would help him diversify and/or sharpen his skills, along with networking with those across sports and media.

He transferred to San Francisco State University in 2011 to obtain his bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and continued his public address announcing duties at the City College of San Francisco. Furthermore, he continued his writing by starting as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner in February 2011, covering sports on deadline at the college and professional level. Once he completed his stint as a public address announcer in early 2013, he worked simultaneously in a similar writing role with the San Francisco Chronicle, trying to continue to garner as much experience as possible in media.

While Hill thought he was going to be a writer from the time he entered school, making the move to San Francisco State University gave him his first exposure to working in sports talk radio – and he found to prefer the medium because of his nascent ability to discuss sports. In May 2013, Hill began working as an intern for SportsPhone 680 at KNBR where he operated radio consoles, wrote broadcast copy and screened phone calls from listeners. Aside from refining his interpersonal communication skills, he also grasped another valuable lesson applicable to all areas of sports media and something that would prove to be valuable years later.

“I learned what not to do in sports – and that’s burn bridges,” said Hill. “I thought that was very, very important. I saw a lot of people burn bridges; I saw a lot of people quit. There was a lot of turnover obviously. Some people were unhappy with the money they were making [or] the role they had. I just learned not to burn bridges, and learned to be patient [as well].”

Hill was hired in a full-time role after completing his internship, continuing to work behind the scenes; however, he ultimately knew that his place was behind the microphone in the main studio. To achieve this goal and prove himself in one of the top markets in the United States though, he needed to mature his “raw” talent and prove himself in other areas. He always knew that he would succeed in his hometown if he remained focused on his ultimate goal, which is why he was offended when he was told that he would need to follow an industry archetype by a colleague.

During graveyard shifts in which Hill would engineer San Francisco Giants games, Hill envisioned himself talking sports to an audience on the air despite the station having its lineup set. One morning at the end of a shift, he spoke to a former producer for NBC Sports Bay Area, and suggested that it was almost his time to receive a chance to be on the airwaves.

“He said, ‘Bro, you really think you’re going to be able to get a job in this market? You’re going to have to go to Bakersfield; you’re going to have to go to Eureka.’ And I went off on him,” recalled Hill, “and I said, ‘I’m good enough to run with the big dogs. If I’m not good enough to make it here, then what the hell am I doing this for? I’m going to make it here.’”

Confident in his knowledge of the Bay Area’s sports teams while procuring a naïve yet calculated hubris, Hill began working with radio host and baseball historian Marty Lurie, who would host Weekends in the Park and Giants Post-Game Talk at the station. As Lurie began to see Hill’s potential as a radio host, he gradually gave him the opportunity to appear on-air during his shows and interact with callers.

“Marty would make me stay after my shift where I was making no money to take calls with him and do a show with him,” Hill remembered. “When I didn’t have work on the weekend, he was like, ‘Hey, come down to do a show with me. Let’s go.’”

Hill continued to hone his craft working with Lurie and the belief that he would be able to build a sustainable career in the Bay Area was becoming more lucid and less improbable in scope. Nonetheless, there are never any guarantees in media, and Hill knew that the feasibility of him succeeding in a market with fixated lineups was still quite implausible. He never stopped having confidence in himself and his abilities throughout this time though, resolute in his commitment to realize his ultimate aspiration.

“I didn’t know if something was going to open up – I had no idea what was going on – but I had the self-confidence that one day I would do it even though it wasn’t realistic in this market with the lineups being so set,” said Hill. “I had the belief, although it may have been delusional, [that] I would one day be on the air in the Bay Area.”

By the time 2016 came around, Hill’s profile had gained prestige in the industry and word of his talent was circulating among industry professionals. One day, legendary radio host and play-by-play announcer Greg Papa was listening to the Giants postgame show, and contacted Lurie to tell him that he liked Hill’s voice and to contact him. In short order, Hill met Papa one night in the press box at Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, and quickly grasped that he wanted him to join his show on KNBR’s competitor: 95.7 The Game.

“I had never met Papa; I just knew about him doing Raiders games [and] obviously doing Niners games,” said Hill. “He’s a legend – just untouchable. You don’t even think about working [with him] when you’re growing up in the business.”

Following his conversation with Greg Papa, then-program director Don Kollins hired Hill to join Papa on his midday show, replacing previous show co-host John Lund who had been hired by KNBR. It was surreal to Hill, who just months earlier was engineering shows and working overnight shifts, along with doing shows for no pay on the weekends to gain experience. Now a broadcast entity in one of the largest broadcast markets in the country had taken a chance on him at the request of one of their hosts, which put immense pressure on Hill to flourish.

“A lot of people thought I was going to shrink,” said Hill, “and some of that kind of spurred me to keep me motivated because a lot of people didn’t think that I would last.”

Papa’s midday show did not implement any callers into the programming, deviating from a more congenial, interactive style of radio he had experienced with Lurie at KNBR. Moreover, it was essential that Hill worked to establish a working chemistry between him and Papa and try to make the most of what he considers to be a lucky break.

“I did a bunch of studying because I knew Papa was going to be watching everything,” said Hill. “I watched everything anyway, but you had to watch it a bit differently knowing that you’re working with a guy like Greg Papa.”

Throughout each show, Papa and Hill would analyze the action of the previous day and talk about the upcoming games set to take place. As they approached three years on the air together though, Papa abruptly left the station to take the radio play-by-play job with the San Francisco 49ers. It was a move that surprised many, including Hill, and left his future with the station in jeopardy if not for station program director Matt Nahigan.

“Matt’s been everything, and I think he helped save the station at 95.7 The Game when we were kind of going through some low moments – and here we are now still ticking,” said Hill. “He’s given me an opportunity – he could have let me go after Papa left.”

An aspect of what makes Nahigan the “best boss” Hill has had in the radio industry is his perpetual ambition to generate favorable ratings and revenue for the station and those involved. Superior performance comes with establishing good habits in a productive work environment, and Nahigan does that by meeting with his employees on a weekly basis to discuss their strengths and shortcomings.

“Sometimes we need to be coached; we all fall into bad habits,” said Hill. “I don’t care how old you are or how long you’ve been in the game. There’s always somebody to be there to have constructive criticism, and Matt Nahigan [has] provided that.”

Nahigan moved Hill to work with Matt Steinmetz and Daryle Johnson to form a new midday show called Bonta, Steiny & Guru. While there was undoubtedly an adjustment period for Hill to familiarize himself with his colleagues and the show’s audience, he felt comfortable in the direction and format of the show. Being able to take calls from listeners again was something always indicative of sports radio to him that had been missing for the time he had worked with Papa, and he was elated to once again foster that unique connection.

“I loved working with Greg Papa, but I did miss taking phone calls from the audience because that’s sports talk radio – hearing from crazy fans,” Hill stated. “They’re going to say some wild things; they’re going to say some great things. That’s sports talk radio.”

To Hill, the style of conversation between him and his co-hosts was more laid back and easygoing, but the show quickly culminated nearly a year after its launch when Joe Fortenbaugh left the station to pursue a new opportunity with ESPN in Las Vegas. As a result, the station revamped its lineup to appeal to the listening audience and to compete with KNBR, especially in the mornings with the longstanding duo Murph & Mac.

Once the opportunity came up, Hill wanted to host in the morning daypart, and Nahigan gave him the opportunity to do so with Joe Shasky and Kate Scott (who departed the show after the first year) on their new program The Morning Roast with Bonta & Shasky. For nearly the last two years, the two Bay Area natives have talked sports each morning on 95.7 The Game, having the first chance to react to the prior night’s action on the air.

“Morning shows set the tone for the station every single day,” remarked Hill. “That’s something that I think we both take pride in. You can be a little lighter – people want to laugh in the morning. They don’t want to get hit with all the X’s and O’s…. You can do a little bit of that, but you have to remind yourself that people are just waking up.”

Hill enjoys being able to determine the direction of the show with his co-host, a sense of ownership that he had never felt during his radio career up until that point. While he does not seek to be domineering in his authority, having a share of the final say on key facets of the show has augmented his impetus to produce the most entertaining show possible. This year, the show has seen success in its ratings, becoming the first morning program to win the winter book in the history of the station, along with topping KNBR’s Murph & Mac in the month of May.

“It’s been a lot of fun and for the first time to be honest with you, I feel like it’s my show,” said Hill. “….I didn’t think I’d do morning drive; I didn’t think I was capable of waking up every single day [to get] to the studio, and it’s been a grind at times. It’s been a great adjustment. Yes, it’s different – but it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been life-changing.”

Not all radio personalities decide to try to find a role on television, no less perform it at the same time. Yet there is a growing number of personalities seeking to establish themselves on multiple platforms, and Hill, with his ambition and determination to succeed, sought after an opportunity – one that ironically involved his former co-host Greg Papa.

Aside from working at KNBR as the 49ers’ radio play-by-play announcer and co-host of a midday show with John Lund, Papa had also been working on television with NBC Sports Bay Area to host Warriors Pre/Postgame Live for the last several years. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the network decided to change up the talent by moving Papa back to Giants Pre/Postgame Live, a show he had previously hosted from 2010 to 2016. Subsequently, Hill was named as the new host of Warriors Pre/Postgame Live, his first television role. Being seen has only enhanced the standing of his radio show, and it is a multi-platform presence he seeks to maintain as the years go on.

“Now that I’m on TV and they see me at night [and] they wake up with me in the morning, it’s been huge for our station; I think it’s been huge for our show; and I think it’s been huge for NBC as well kind of cross-promoting,” said Hill. “….I had to do multiple things. I get antsy if I’m just doing one thing and I get bored and what-not.”

In this role, Hill’s notoriety among sports fans in the Bay Area has elevated, and his profile among media personalities is trending in the same direction. From covering a championship team this season on multiple platforms, he has learned to balance coverage of the franchise with other sports, such as football and baseball.

“The priority was simple – Warriors in the playoffs; four championships in eight years,” Hill reflected. “The Giants will get a mention, but we’re not the flagship for them, [and] the A’s have just been an afterthought in this market. It’s unfortunate. We carried the A’s, we tried to talk about them, but there’s a business side to everything.”

His presence around the team and in the arena is something that some sports radio hosts neglect because they are either unable or unwilling to be present at sporting events. Being seen has helped move his career in the right direction, and as a result, he always seeks to make time to interact with players, team personnel and fans of the show – whether that be in-person or by another means of dissemination.

“I’ve definitely entered a different stratosphere in my career, a stratosphere that I never thought was possible,” said Hill. “I kind of keep that same perspective though that at the end of the day, I’m still the same dude as when I first picked up a pen and wrote for the City College of San Francisco as I am today, and I try to keep that same perspective on my life and this career. It could be over tomorrow, so treat people with respect and just be gracious.”

Hill’s media career has risen expeditiously since his early days working to be a team beat reporter thanks to his adaptability to try new things and yearning to succeed. Simply by remaining a fan in the sense that he continues to interact with his audience and attend sporting events as a radio host, Hill has established himself as a bonafide professional with the conviction to constantly improve and attain unrealized heights in the industry. After all, the reason he went back to school in the first place was to attempt to earn a college degree, but doing so ultimately gave him much more than that, stimulating his journey to work in sports media. Anything else for him is, as he puts it, “icing on the cake.”

“It’s an overused cliché, but we really work a kid’s job,” said Hill. “This is the toy department of life. If I wasn’t working in sports, I’d be watching it anyway.”

BSM Writers

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.

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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.

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BSM Writers

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.”

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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.

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BSM Writers

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.”

Derek Futterman

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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+.

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