Willie Colon Fits Into Media Roles He Never Expected
“Evan and Babs already had a fanbase. They were already established in the radio world. People know them. A lot of celebrities and entertainers are well aware of who they are.”
The careers of professional athletes are finite in that there is only so much the human body can withstand until time eventually expires. Some athletes are given the fortune of being able to choose when to retire, but for others, injuries and other internal and external factors often play a hand in the decision. For former offensive guard Willie Colon, his career ended after his age-32 season due to a sprained MCL that landed him on injured reserve, limiting him to just six games.
Before suffering the knee injury as a member of the New York Jets, Colon was playing for the team that drafted him – the Pittsburgh Steelers – where he put together productive seasons but battled through other ailments. Those included a torn Achilles prior to the start of the 2010 season and a torn triceps muscle in his first game returning to action in 2011, meaning he only played one game in two years.
Colon, who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., experienced various highs and lows throughout his decade-long stint in the National Football League. Broadcasting was not initially in the playbook for Colon, as he had never collected experience in the field nor did he think he would be forced to officially hang up his spikes in 2017.
As an interdisciplinary studies major at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Colon split his time between attending classes and playing on a scholarship on the school’s now-defunct football team. During his final injury as a professional athlete, Colon contributed to local sports coverage on SportsNet New York, a regional sports network in the New York metropolitan area. While he was not earnest about working in sports media, his wife persuaded him to take broadcasting more seriously once retirement became a legitimate possibility.
“I was still very bitter about how I left the field. If it was up to me, I’d still be playing but my knees had other plans if you will so I was forced to walk away from the game,” Colon said. “Nevertheless, I was meeting a lot of important and successful people in media who… kind of put that battery in my back and it was like ‘Hey man, if you just start working at it, start doing things, be willing to do spots, be willing to dive into the business, you can make a career out of this.’”
Colon got his start in the business in San Francisco, when he and Julie Stewart-Binks auditioned to appear on Fox Sports’ network programming alongside Jason Whitlock. Neither Colon nor Stewart-Binks received the role and both returned to New York City to progress in their careers and pursue other opportunities. During his early days in sports media, Colon appeared on 98.7 ESPN New York, a traditional sports talk radio station, to discuss football and other sports throughout the day, and also did live hits for other west coast stations.
After some time had passed, Stewart-Binks called Colon to tell him about her new job with Barstool Sports, a digital media company with content spanning both the worlds of sports and entertainment, and persuaded him to audition to join. While he had no prior knowledge about the company, he felt joining a digital media platform would give him the ability to be more authentic with his audience.
“I had never heard of it,” Colon said. “For me, it just sounded like an opportunity for me to kind of be more ‘me,’ because when you’re doing ESPN, you’re doing more traditional radio [and are] kind of boxed in. Yeah, you can have a personality, but there’s only so far you can go with your commentary or what you want to say or how you want to go about things.”
Following an audition that took place with Stewart-Binks and Francis Ellis, Barstool Sports President Dave Portnoy extended an offer to Colon to join the brand. By mid-January 2018, Colon was officially added on a brand new morning show called Barstool Breakfast, airing across Barstool Media’s broadcast platforms and SiriusXM Channel 85.
Colon took a leap of faith joining Barstool Sports and was a fixture on the morning show during the three years it was on the air, along with show producer Kevin Rafferty (“Wayne Jetski”) and newer co-hosts Patrick McAuliffe (“Pat”), Michael McCarthy (“Large”) and Peterson Zaha (“Zah”). In fact, signing on with the brand was something that people around him were not completely sold on, questioning its premise and the overall prudence of the decision.
“I just jumped at the chance,” Colon said. “It came with a warning label. A lot of people who knew Barstool and how Barstool went about its business were telling me to approach with caution…. We had a really, really good nucleus of fun, in-your-face [and] opinionated [talk] – and it was just great all-around and I loved it.”
While he was a member of Barstool Sports, Colon and McCarthy shared a close relationship based on the similarities in their backgrounds. They are both natives of New York City born in the Bronx who went to Catholic high schools and consider family among their core values. The chemistry Colon was able to kindle with McCarthy on the air enhanced the sound of the show and made it more relatable and casual for listeners, especially those aligned with the company’s target demographics.
“One of the greatest compliments I got working with ‘Large’ on Barstool Breakfast was ‘Every time we listen to you guys, we feel like we’re tapping into a conversation between two best friends,’” Colon said, “and it felt like that, honestly. We had our ups and downs, and we went through things together, but I honestly believe we had each other’s backs.”
Joining Barstool was indicative of a liberating feeling for Colon in terms of topic selection, as he escaped to a form of aural content creation and dissemination free of Federal Communications Commission regulation. During the time he was on traditional radio, Colon was cognizant of the effects his words could have on the station and made sure to carefully express his opinions on certain topics.
“You can have a personality, you just can’t piss off the sponsors,” Colon expressed. “There’s people who are paying the bills. Disney… owns ESPN, so you have to walk a fine line. They want you to cut onions, but they also don’t want you to go to the point where you’ll jeopardize any sponsorships or say anything that’s really going to stir up some stuff.”
While with Barstool Sports, Colon participated in a variety of podcasts, some of which were focused on football and sports while others were more centered around commentary centered around larger cultural issues. He left the company in 2021 and eventually signed on with SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio to join a bonafide duo in Evan Cohen and Mike Babchik on Morning Men. Since his start on the show in September 2021, Colon has sought to seamlessly slot in as a co-host without disrupting the previous chemistry between veterans Cohen and Babchik.
“Evan and Babs already had a fanbase. They were already established in the radio world. People know them. A lot of celebrities and entertainers are well aware of who they are,” Colon said. “Me getting the nod to be a part of their show, I was only apprehensive because it wasn’t a matter of ‘How do I fit in?’, it was a matter of ‘Do I fit in to where I don’t want to hold these guys back?’ because they had so many things going on for themselves.”
Cohen is a traditionalist who is more erudite in nature with profound sports knowledge and the ability to rapidly perform calculated analyses to formulate a cohesive opinion. Conversely, Babchik is, according to Colon, a “sex, drums, rock ‘n’ roll” type of personality with a great sense of humor and high level of showmanship he brings to the air each show. Finding the medium to which Colon could slot in and avoid disrupting the engrossing divergence imbued within the show was essential for his assimilation and the program’s sustained success.
“If anything, my mindset was like, ‘Alright, I’m the jock/dude. I’m a man’s man, I’m a guy’s guy,’” Colon said. “That’s pretty much my angle. I’m obviously a former Super Bowl champion [who] played for two great organizations, but I’m a man’s man… and I’m a family man. I have two children now and I’m married. I’m the all-American male, if you will, on top of being a guy who had a hell of a career in the NFL.”
A common criticism of some former athletes beginning careers in sports media is in their inability to relate to the average fan, sometimes disclosing esoteric knowledge not understandable to consumers. Having played professional sports and expressing one’s opinions on such topics usually heightens the credibility of a program or media outlet though, and it is an asset Colon brought to Morning Men that was previously absent from the show.
The challenge for a preponderance of newer sports media personalities is in being able to relate to an audience composed of a broad range of listeners with varying levels of investment in the program. For Colon though, playing professional sports has given him the confidence and determination to adapt under pressure in the number one media market in the country.
“I think what sports has done for me is [being able] to be fearless in the moment,” he said. “When you’re on-air and when you’re in front of the camera, there’s a big sense of vulnerability because once you open your mouth, you’re telling people who you are. I try to be conscious of that and not try to be somewhat bullish in my approach.”
One particular criticism that has come from some sectors of listeners of the show is Colon’s sporadic use of foul language. Although it bothers certain listeners, he believes that talking in this manner sometimes is the most optimal means to get his point across, something he would not be able to do if he were broadcasting on federally-regulated airwaves.
“I’ve always been told [that] people who are honest curse,” Colon explained. “They tell you exactly what it is and they tell you exactly how they feel. However, you have to be mindful that there are people who are listening to you who may have loved ones in the car and they don’t want their four-year-old to develop a curse word. If they don’t want to digest that, then they’re turning you off – so now, they’re not listening to you.”
As a former professional athlete, Colon has friends still playing in the NFL and those who are retired, along with relationships with other coaches and team personnel. In his role now though, it occasionally becomes necessary to criticize someone with whom he has a connection, and it was an aspect of the industry that initially dismayed him from pursuing a post-playing career in the industry.
Jerome Bettis, a former member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back currently hosting an eponymously-named television show on WPXI in Pittsburgh was asked for advice by Colon on discussing situations with some players and personnel. It changed Colon’s outlook and espoused to him a new way of thinking about this type of commentary.
“One of the things [he said] that I thought was very true and trite was… ‘You never talk about the player. You talk about the situation and you talk about how you would respond in that situation or how they should have handled the situation,’” Colon said of Bettis’ advice to him. “Any time you directly talk about a player – especially when somebody’s close to you who you know is going to get back to it and they may have some hard feelings about it – you don’t want to necessarily dig at them about their character or anything about them.”
Some media programs today, whether they be in television or radio, remain focused on discussing players individually and it has led certain athletes still actively playing to strive for their own voices to be heard. In response, they have launched podcasts and other multimedia content that allows them to rewrite the narratives being propagated about them, whether they are true or false. This “new media” movement, especially popularized among athletes within the National Basketball Association, gives fans primary sources regarding certain information and demonstrates the revolution technology and frequent intersociality has instantiated among consumers.
“Now [there are] a lot of programs [that] kind of want you to say, ‘Hey Player A, this is how I directly feel about them.’ You have to be careful or you can just be bold,” Colon articulated. “….It’s all about what you’re comfortable with at the end of the day. I try to do both – I have no problems talking about a player individually. However, I understand that sometimes it’s more about the situation and context that has to be explained rather than who he is as a person.”
Colon had a positive relationship with the media throughout his NFL career, understanding their job and his own role in supplying them answers. Now being on the other side of the microphone, he knows of the difficulties professional athletes face when being faced with questions, some of which they are hesitant to answer. Yet just because the media may be undertaking a task with which one may not be comfortable, it does not mean they should behave towards them in an adverse way.
“I tried to tell a lot of young ball players that you shouldn’t treat the media like the enemy,” Colon said. “If anything, when you treat anyone like the enemy, you give them the power. I feel especially in the New York market even with my own team in the New York Jets, we put so much attention [on] what the media is going to say and how they’re going to react to certain things that happened within or around the building or even on the field.”
Nonetheless, there are occasions where interactions with the media can have the opposite effect they are intended to by the players, making the unintentional creation of embellished and superficial headlines all the more feasible. Colon was aware of the consequences his words could have on him and his team during his playing days and avoided falling into those traps. Instead, he opted to focus more on his play on the field, as he thought if it was exceeding expectations, there would be little if any negative commentary towards him overall.
“Too many times young athletes, because they’re asked a question or if they’re confronted with a trap question that could become a nugget or something viral for them to say… feel like they need to say something,” Colon said. “The player always has the power because the person trying to get the report is literally asking for you to say something, and you can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”
Colon’s sports media career quickly took him beyond the radio studio when he joined SportsNet New York in 2017, the regional sports network he contributed to towards the end of his playing career and official television home of the New York Jets. He is a frequent analyst appearing across studio programming such as Jets Game Plan and Jets Post Game Live, providing his insight on upcoming matchups and completed games. Radio and television, while they are both traditional platforms of content creation and subsequent dissemination, possess stark differences in terms of the workflow of hosts, analysts and on-air talent in general.
“[In] TV… you talk in sound bites. You just have to deliver the meat and potatoes of whatever you’re trying to say – and it has to be quick because there’s obviously commercial breaks and segments that cut up everything,” Colon said. “You have to know what you’re trying to say and get it out as real and clearly as possible.”
Radio is more difficult than working in television, Colon affirms, because on-air hosts rely on their voices as the primary form of entertainment they transmit to the audience. As a result, it is essential one has a certain aural presence about them in order to captivate listeners and keep them coming back for more.
“You can be as animated as you want to, but if you can’t necessarily get that out via words coming out of your mouth, then it makes for bad radio,” Colon said. “There’s a lot of tricks to the trade that you have to learn and there’s a lot of things that come with radio other than just picking up a mic and just talking about what you’re willing to talk about.”
Outside of sports media, Colon is involved in numerous other projects that are keeping him busy since he exited the playing field for the final time. For example, Colon is the owner and operator of the Bricks & Hops beer garden in the Bronx, N.Y. and also enjoys golfing and fishing in his free time.
Moreover, he hopes to become fluent in Spanish, learn a form of martial arts, lose weight and focus on being both a good father and good husband. On top of that, he wants to continue to work in both radio and television and is looking to become a gameshow host similar to Michael Strahan, who currently hosts The $100,000 Pyramid on ABC, or Steve Harvey, longtime host of the syndicated program Family Feud.
“When you talk to people about how they evolve, they can only address their bank account,” Colon said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you changed, that means you earned a lot more money. I want to evolve.”
Former athletes entering into the world of sports media garner credibility to large sectors of the viewing audience because they have firsthand experience playing professional sports. However, that ethos can quickly diminish if they are not able to effectively express their knowledge to an audience.
Colon often thinks about Tedy Bruschi, a three-time Super Bowl champion and current NFL analyst on ESPN and how he was able to assimilate himself into the industry. Reflecting back on his first year on the air, Bruschi was not satisfied with his performance and decided to act more resolutely towards the profession so he would be able to deliver viewers the best product possible.
“He said, ‘You know what? If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this,’” Colon said of Bruschi. “He showed up with a briefcase. He showed up with a suit and tie and he took on the craft and he attacked it. That’s why he’s good on-air and that’s why he’s good at what he does right now – because he took the role seriously.”
Willie Colon is willing to put in the time and effort that it takes to make a name for himself in sports media and he has no plans of slowing down. Improving on a daily basis in both television and radio is on the front page of his playbook, and he knows that operating off of his résumé will only take him so far. Instead, it takes establishing legitimacy within the sports media industry itself to genuinely succeed in a post-playing career no matter the medium.
“If you’ve been blessed enough to wear a gold jacket, meaning the Hall of Fame, they love you in the beginning,” Colon said regarding large sports media networks. “After a while, you’ve got to understand that you… probably [have] a two to three-year period where you can ride off your name and then it becomes: ‘Okay, what else do you have?’ They’re kind of over the allure and over the mystique of you [and] you’ve got to put in the work.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he interns in video production with the New York Islanders and formerly worked as production manager for the team’s radio broadcasts. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?
“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”
Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career.
Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN boss Mark Chernoff.
Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.
Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.
Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country.
Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids. Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and actively shunning the sport.
Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.
Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!
A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.
FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan. MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team. I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”
JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions.
“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).
“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”
MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”
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.
Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?
The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.
Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.
But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.
The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.
As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.
Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.
The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.
Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!
But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)
That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?
We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!
The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.
Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.
Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)
Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.
We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.
When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?
If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.
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.
There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle
“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”
Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.
The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.
Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark.
It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.
Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.
Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.
One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.
It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.
It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.
One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.
Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”
There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.
We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.
The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.
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.