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Q&A with Will West

Tyler McComas

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Sports radio wasn’t on Will West’s mind during his mid-20’s. That time period tends to be critical for most in the business, West was more concerned about surviving the day, instead of what the local programming in his hometown of Knoxville had in store. Sure, sports radio had been his dream job while growing up, and he even chased that passion into college. But instead of starting at the bottom of a sports radio station, West was at a different bottom in his life – rock bottom.

For five years, a drug addiction sent West’s life to the streets, where the pondering of ‘how to stop the bleeding in life,’ was frequent. What he would eat and where he would sleep, was the daily dilemma he found himself in throughout the course of each day. Sports radio wasn’t exactly a high priority for the future star in Knoxville, but survival surely was.

Through the grace of God, West got saved and then got clean. For the first time in a long time, there was a positive outlook on how things were going to play out in his life. Drug addiction may have taken a lot from him during that dark and difficult time, however, one thing it didn’t touch, was his beautiful voice.

By the time he was 28, he was back in school chasing his dream. This time, he would double major in communications and communications management. His thought process was simple: If he brought something to the table on the sales side, it would serve him a better opportunity to get his foot in the door at a local station. He was right. Almost two years after giving his dream a second try, West was hired at a local station that quickly took notice of his skills with sound production. From there, he was asked to voice a commercial that was a hit piece for a local election. West’s voice was heard on every news station in Knoxville. Soon after, he was asked to voice more commercials and even did the traffic reports at his station.

After all he had been through, West’s life and career were heading in the right direction. While producing a show on Saturday’s, his career would take a complete turn for the best, when he was asked the simple question of: “Hey, have you ever wanted to do sports radio?”

Sports radio WNML in Knoxville gave West his first opportunity at his childhood dream as a morning show producer. Mostly, they wanted his voice to be featured during the updates of the show on morning drive. Six months into his new gig, he was given a Saturday show that showed off his talents as a host. For the next 18 more months, he would produce the morning show during the week and host his show on Saturday, until finally receiving the news that every young person in the business dreams of, being awarded his own weekday show with Josh Ward.

In span of a few years, West had rebounded and gone from being homeless to the host seat. You can hear now him every week day on WMNL with his show Sports 180.

TM: So is it fair to say your dream of doing sports radio was long forgotten during your drug addiction?

WW: Oh yeah. At the time, I just thought about how I was going to eat for the day. Like, how do I get off the streets? It’s hard to stop the bleeding, that’s something you learn when you’re homeless. It wasn’t about getting back on track or into sports radio, it was just, this was my dream when I was 16 years old. It was cool to see how I got back into God’s game and how everything turned around when I got an opportunity to do this later in life.

TM: Do you think going through all of that in your younger years makes you more appreciative of your role now?

WW: I’m playing with house money, Tyler. Every day I just look at this as a blessing, it’s awesome. What we do for a living, and it’s so funny when I talk to other people in the business that complain about this or that, I’m thinking, I’ve worked day labor pouring concrete. This is a lot easier. I also try to look at it this way: There’s somebody out there who’s going through something that’s listening to this radio show and just wants to get through their day. How can I help them just get through their day the best that I can? So, we always try to have a good time. We don’t dodge tough topics but we never take ourselves too seriously. No matter how bad of a day that I’ve had, I’m never going to mail it in because there may be a person out there that might need just three hours of a reprieve from their lives. If I can give that to them, then I’ve had a good day.

TM: Was the Tennessee coaching search the craziest story you’ve ever covered? And was it a dream or a nightmare for a sports radio host?

WW: I wouldn’t really say it was a dream or a nightmare, it was just chaos. What you’re trying to do day in and day out of the coaching search, was try to make sense of the chaos. A lot of people don’t know this, but the coaching search at Tennessee that landed on Derek Dooley was almost as insane as this one. The only difference, is this one played out publicly. They hired Derek Dooley and then went and did an interview with Kevin Sumlin after they had already hired Dooley, just because they planned on doing it. When it comes to football, coaching searches at Tennessee have always been kind of a train wreck. Some of them were because of the big boosters and how many they have, this one was because of how publicly it all played out. The tough part for us, was that so many people were leaking information to us. The key, was deciding which information was good enough to go on the air with, versus, a particular booster or administrator with the university trying to get their way and plant the athletic director into a corner to make a decision. But it was kind of fun, because each day you’re going on the air and waiting for how nuts it’s was going to get that particular day. Each day, you’re thinking it can’t get any worse than it did yesterday. And then sure enough, it would.

TM: Tennessee football is always going to be the lead topic in Knoxville, so how do you give the Titans their due credit, especially when they’re in the playoffs like last season?

WW: NFL gets great ratings in Knoxville. In the viewership figures that ESPN releases, it seems like they’re always in the Top 15 or 20 of major sporting events. People watch all sports in Knoxville. So, the one thing we did differently than any other show, was that we realized you can walk into any bar on Sunday afternoon and see people eating wings and watching Sunday Ticket. People like the NFL here. So, instead of doing 70-80 percent of Tennessee football and 20 percent of everything else, all packed into one day, what we would do is 50-60 percent Tennessee stuff and 40-50 percent national sports, to give people that live in this market an outlet and venue to talk about what’s going on with Lebron James or what’s going on with the Titans. Even the Predators, when they made the run to the Stanley Cup last year, we had 6,000 people in Knoxville packed in a bar and watching on a big screen television here in downtown. We looked and realized the strong television ratings for the NFL, which means people are watching it. So we’ve given people an outlet to talk about those things locally, where they might not want to call into ESPN or CBS Radio. We’ve given them an outlet to discuss it. Tennessee football still drives the bus, but we don’t need to completely ignore the fact that people locally care about the national sports stories.

TM: The Vols are big, but how much do you make a point to cover Florida, Alabama, Georgia and other SEC schools that Tennessee fans hate?

WW: The SEC always moves the needle in east Tennessee. It’s a large university town, but it’s also very transient with thousands of workers that have allegiances to a number of schools. Locally, in terms of the Tennessee fan base, you can always talk Vols, but especially the teams they hate. People hate Alabama here, they hate Georgia, they hate Florida, and you can always talk about those things. But also, you’ll get alums from those schools that call in and want to talk about their school. It makes it tough from a show prep perspective, because not only do I have to have a working knowledge of Tennessee, I have to have one of Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and every other working in the conference. I also need to pick about seven schools nationally that I have a working knowledge of and what they’re doing during football season. OU is one of those schools, Texas, Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and Clemson, I at least need to know how they run, because people do care about those schools, too. Especially if they dislike them, they seem to really care about them.

TM: What would you classify Knoxville as? Mid-market?

WW: Yeah, mid-market. Knoxville proper doesn’t have a massive population base, but if you look at who we hit with our listener base, we’re both AM and FM, and there’s over 700,000 people. So, we need to make sure we’re servicing not just the areas around Knoxville proper, even though the majority of our advertisers are from that area. So, if we talk high school football, we need to talk about all the surrounding counties.

TM: Why do you think doing sports radio in a mid-market could be more enjoyable than a large market?

WW: Relationships. That’s the one thing I still like. There’s still a relationship game that’s harder in a large market, but one part that’s fun, is that I can just roll into any high school game, because I have the time. I would love to cover a major sports team, but it’s cool to be able to roll in on a Friday night and talk to coaches, players and fans about a small town team that’s doing well and give a little bit of coverage to them. That’s the fun part, is that relationship, because at the end of the day, what we do on air is about relationships you have with the listener. That’s what keeps them coming back.

TM: There seemed to a mob mentality last year with Tennessee fans on why it took Butch Jones so long to get fired. In that situation, was it hard not to just join on that thought and pile on like everyone else?

WW:  You never want to get caught up in the emotion of things. For me, I thought after the Georgia game last year Butch Jones should have been fired. When you know someone is not going to be the guy, to me in business, you always pull the trigger, because it’s only going to create a toxic environment. Everyone around him knew he wasn’t going to make it after that point, why you keep him around I don’t know. It got worse and worse and kept getting that way. By the time Tennessee played South Carolina and lost, it was almost comical when we came back on Monday because people would call in and ask why Butch was still there. I would just have to say, I got to be honest with you, I don’t know. I’m shocked they keep rolling this guy out here, too. You don’t want to be what Jay Mariotti used to be in Chicago, just chucking grenades at everybody and calling for jobs multiple times in a five-day period. What you want to do is to be able to have reason. For me, the key was to never be disrespectful, always empathetic, but I’m also not going to lie for anyone or sugarcoat it. That’s how I decided to handle it.

TM: Ratings wise, was it better when Tennessee was showing improvement with 8-9 wins a year, or when the Vols were tanking and everyone wanted the head coach fired?

WW: It’s very similar. The key is to avoid mediocrity. If it’s going to be bad, let it be really bad. Just go ahead and let this thing tank. With ratings, It doesn’t matter whether people are mad or people are happy, but the one thing you don’t want them to be is apathetic. The moment that happens, you will begin to lose some portion of your audience. If Tennessee is consistently cycling through 6,7,8 wins, that’s when I get concerned that the ratings might take a hit.

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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