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A Conversation With Justin Acri

Demetri Ravanos

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Justin Acri came to sports radio from TV. That isn’t odd in itself. A lot of guys make their name on TV and then either add a radio show to their portfolio or transition into radio. Look at Jim Dunaway in Birmingham or the late CS Keys in San Diego.

It is hard to name a lot of guys though that came up in TV, gave it up for radio, and then went on to become their station’s program director. That is the path that Acri has taken since arriving in Little Rock, Arkansas from Duluth, MN where he was working as a reporter. 

Acri is a busy guy in Little Rock too. Not only is he the the boss at 103.7 the Buzz, but he also hosts his own midday show each weekday starting at 10 am and makes time to serve as the radio voice of the University of Central Arkansas. 

I called Justin Acri the morning after the Arkansas Razorbacks let the College World Series slip through their fingers as a foul ball was lost in the lights by three fielders. His listeners may have been down, but Justin was in good spirits, having just come from a live broadcast where he was set up next to a grill at a meat packing plant.

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We talked about his station’s relationship with the Razorbacks, why he wants cup stacking champions on his show, and the controversial Bracket With No Name, a yearly tradition around the NCAA Tournament that some in the media called sexist. 

D: How did what happened last night in the College World Series change show prep for today for you?

J: The Razorbacks move the needle more than anything else in this state. So, we were going to talk about the game regardless of the outcome. I think everyone in the sports media in this state has a little bit of a fandom that they wear on their sleeve, probably to a little bit of the chagrin of the old head print guys, but there’s definitely an element of fandom to the broadcast here. 

We carry Razorback football, basketball, and baseball so we’re very Razorback-centric here at The Buzz, but our hosts are also critical. So again, it’s disappointing and we’ll point out what went wrong. The role we kinda played today on our show was to pick everybody up and say “hey, you’ve got another game”. We pep-talked our way through three hours today.

D: How critical can you be before you’re going to hear about it? I know you’re not going out of your way to bash the Razorbacks, but they’ve had some lean years in football and basketball, so how critical can you be before you hear from the network or advertisers?

J: What’s good is unless we are infringing on their sales side and sponsorships at the University, they never talk to us about what was said on the air. There is a perception from our listenership, I think, that we are beholden to the Razorbacks because they are going to pull our credentials. They aren’t going to pull our credentials, so we don’t care about that.

Different hosts are more critical than others. During the (football coach Bret) Beilema years, you’re right. There were a number of our hosts that were very harsh and critical. I wouldn’t say calling for his head, but it was just shy of that. I try to be a little more level-headed and take an even-keel approach. I’m certainly invested in games and I will be pulling for the Razorbacks tonight, but I’ll do my best to keep it even keel. 

There were certainly a lot of things wrong with the program the last few years and you point those things out. You hang your hat on offensive line play, and the offensive line isn’t good. The running game isn’t very good, and that is what your bread and butter is. Defense hasn’t been good for a whbile, so as long as you aren’t reveling in it, I think it’s fine. We don’t get any pushback for the most part.

D: I have always heard from people that cover Arkansas that Bret Beilema was a great guy and a lot of fun to be around. What are the mental exercises you go through to turn off your feelings about the guy you enjoy having in for an interview and be critical when you have to be critical?

J: Oh, I did. I liked him a lot. I look at that a different way. I like (Arkansas baseball coach) Dave van Horn a lot. He’s not the most gregarious guy to have on the air. Now, I’m sure if they win tonight he will be tomorrow. 

I loved being around Bret Beilema. He’s the kind of guy you would want to go grab a beer with. I love (Arkansas men’s basketball coach) Mike Anderson. He’s just so full of joy and a great guy to be around. Dave’s just really serious.

All the coaches have their own personality and you just have to separate that out when you talk about them. But yeah, Beilema was a great, great guy.

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D: So when you are doing your show, do you try to turn off your program director brain, or is that something you know will just never turn off?

J: Oh, I don’t ever turn it off. I’ve always got…I don’t want to call it an ulterior motive…I’ve always got a plan, let’s say, for what I want to say. Some of it you script out, but usually those are just some bullet points so I know what I want to get in, like if a particular guy is playing great. I think you have to be real pointed on that when fans aren’t going to take it that far. 

Again, we’re all disappointed when they lose. I want to see all the Arkansas teams do well, especially Central Arkansas since I am connected there. Arkansas State has had some good years in football too. We’re very much a cheerleader for the state. I want us to take a positive approach.

I know some bigger markets in the Northeast, their whole thing is to be critical and cranky. That’s just not our way. I want us to be positive. 

That’s why I got into sports in the first place. There are so many positive stories to tell. I don’t care if it is a cup stacking championship. If it is an Arkansan doing well nationally we’re going to praise him. We had a guy on not too long ago that is trying to break into the WWE. He lives up in the Northeast now, but he is from Arkansas. We had him on and he talked about the road there. He is doing great on the smaller circuits. We just try to celebrate success regardless of whether it is high school all the way up to the pros. As long as there’s an Arkansas connection.

D: So you’ll always give time on air to local stories over national stories no matter how big the national story might be? 

J: Yeah. We have a very local approach. I think you’d be hard pressed, and you would know better than I do, but we’re a small market, a reasonably mid-sized market, doing live 6a to 7p. Most markets and stations our size are going to have at least one national show on during the day.

Our philosophy has been to be ultra-hyper-local. The Razorbacks are obviously a big part of that. It’s a Cowboys state. It’s a Cardinals state. But we do try to talk about everything.

I think our listeners have come to understand that we don’t have an agenda. We just want to talk about positive stories. I think that is more pleasant to listen to than a guy that is grousing about something all the time.

D: So when you say that it is a Cardinals state, let’s say the team goes to the World Series, on a Monday morning in mid-October is the Razorback age from the weekend still the A-block for all your shows?

J: It would be, but we would still talk about the World Series, and we would probably talk about it regardless of who’s in it. I think most guys in our industry wear their fandom on their sleevses. So, I am a Cubs guy. I am an Iowa State grad. I realize I can get away with talking about the Cubs, if only to pick at the Cardinal fans. I’m a Packers fan. I know I can talk about Aaron Rodgers, because he is a star. People will tolerate that.

I know that nobody in our listening area cares about Iowa State. It is very very rare, unless they do something like upset Oklahoma, that I can talk about that.

D: I would imagine fans were paying attention last year after the Beilema firing. Some of them had to think that (Iowa State coach) Matt Campbell would be a candidate for the Arkansas job, right?

J: Yeah, but that would be the only reason for sure.

D: With how local you and your staff focus on content being, could you hear tape of someone who is really good but from…say Des Moines and think “that guy would be great on The Buzz” or do they have to have an Arkansas connection in your mind?

J: No, last time we did a search to build a show, we brought in a kid from Seattle that I liked a lot. He was really really good and was right there at the end, but we had two guys that were probably overqualified. One had done TV in the market before. The other had done radio here for a long time. 

All things being equal, sure you want a guy that is familiar with the market or at least the Southeast and the way things are here. If you’re a good broadcaster, you’re a good broadcaster. I’d be open to anyone from anywhere as long as it is the right fit.

D: During your day how do you balance show prep versus time you have to spend as the program director?

J: I try to be up everyday by 4:30 or 5, read the paper, and go to the gym. That way I can head into the office around 6:30 and knock out the administrative stuff early. Then I’ll prep for a coupe of hours. Sometimes though, like today, I was gathering all the info from last night’s game. Of course, too, you have the stuff from the night before you were already planning on talking about. 

Then it just depends. Sometimes I am out pretty quickly after my show ends at 1. Sometimes I am there until 6pm. 

I try to get most of it done early in the morning. Plus, that way I’m there if my morning guys need me. That’s the real battleground time slot for us. I assume it is that way in most markets. Other stations, that’s where most of their resources are poured into. Our afternoon show doesn’t have a whole lot of competition.

In the middle of the day you’re somewhat hamstrung, because it is an active listening format. People are either going to make it a point to listen at work if they can or wherever they are. But we’re always going to put most of our resources into the morning, because that is where the hardest fight has been.

D: I would guess your next big event broadcast is SEC Media Days, right?

J: That’s exactly right.

D: So as a programmer and then also as a show host, what needs to happen there for you to say “That was a win for us! Going there was a good use of time for The Buzz.”?

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J: There’s really two functions there. You’re getting stories and sounds for the day, but you’re also making relationships with other reporters and coaches and ADs and of course sports information guys. Most of our guys have good experience, the ones that go. They don’t really need to do it, but it is always good to have it, you know? 

There’s typically a live show going on from there while another guy is off gathering sound. There are always stories to find too. We’ll send three guys: 2 hosts and a reporter. So, it’s a guy from the morning show, a guy from the afternoon show, and then a reporter goes along to fill in the gaps. 

From a programmer’s side, you want to make sure we are getting everything and benefitting from those face-to-face meetings and touching all opportunities with people we are going to be covering or people we need to pick their brains for content for later. 

From a host’s standpoint, I want the headlines. Does a coach answer a question in a funny way? Does a coach answer a question in an irritated way as Saban has a tendency to do? Obviously Beilema was gold for SEC Media Days. I am typically looking for what is entertaining, because there typically isn’t a lot of substance coming out of there. 

D: What is the overall reaction to (Arkansas’ new football coach) Chad Morris from a fan standpoint? 

J: I would call it cautious optimism. At least, that’s how I feel. I don’t think I have any reason to doubt the guy per se, but I don’t have any reason to be over the moon right now. 

Look, he says the right things. He’s very energetic. He’s obviously great at engaging with high school coaches and players, so it’s exciting. He’s got a great background being a part of championship programs and building from scratch where he was (SMU) before coming to Arkansas. I’m just trying not to be too over-the-moon about it.

I was really excited about Beilema when he came, because I like his sort of chip-on-the shoulder approach. It worked briefly. They couldn’t keep it trending in the right direction. I grew up watching him play in Iowa, so I have a different connection. Then when Paul Rhodes came down to join the staff, as an Iowa State grad, that was great.

As far as Morris goes, I think he has been really well received. The bottom line is, man, everybody in this fanbase was starving for something different. Something new. And it wasn’t just Beilema. I’ve never seen the kind of outcry or groundswell for a change at the athletic director position. It’s not like Jeff Long didn’t do a lot of good things. He did, but he was just never embraced by the fanbase. He was looked at very much as a CEO guy. 

Hunter Yurachek has been fantastic. For us, it gives fans something to be positive about. Being negative pretty quick. That was all the time with Long and Beilema, but it really picked up during the last 18 months of his time there.

D: The University of Arkansas was in a weird situation where the SEC sort of legislated that the University of Missouri would be your new hated rival. What is coverage of that game like for you guys? Has the fanbase taken to the rivalry?

J: I don’t mind it as much, because it is a regional game and that is good. Making it a rivalry and a trophy game right out of the gate I thought was a little silly, but it is a natural rival. The LSU game is still big. Playing them every year and beating them is a big deal. 

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It did feel a little forced, and I am sure the (Texas) A&M rivalry feels forced to LSU. I don’t think it is a negative though, because it will grow. And by the way, Arkansas hasn’t faired to well in that game. It’s funny too, because when Missouri was coming in, and A&M was coming in, there was a lot of disregard for Missouri in this fanbase.

I don’t know if anyone was paying attention to what they did in football or men’s basketball, and look at them now. They have won their division a couple of times and I am over here saying “yeah, I tried to tell ya” and now Mizzou basketball looks like it is going to be really good this year.

D: I know that when Arkansas came into the conference, what? Like 25 years ago? Anyway, they were forced into this rivalry with South Carolina that only made sense because they were the two new teams, but Arkansas developed this rivalry with LSU that was really fun and always seemed to have a really wacky ending. Losing that from the Thanksgiving weekend has to be weird for the listeners. 

J: Yeah, it was. The other thing too is when the game is in Little Rock, the tailgating here is so exponentially better than what it is in Fayetteville. So that was a really fun way to spend Thanksgiving weekend and of course the LSU fans come up.

Look, it was a really fun rivalry, but it is good natured. LSU fans love to party. Razorback fans like to party. It was this great, fun thing. Every other year it was in Little Rock and then that changed, so it kinda lost its luster despite the fact that it wasn’t the last game of the year.

D: Baton Rouge is the only place I’ve ever been as an opposing fan where I feared for my life.

J: That’s what I’ve heard. I have never had the pleasure. 

D: Can you give me the history of how the Bracket With No Name thing unfolded? Not the start of the promotion, but how did the controversy surrounding it unfold?

J: It’s funny, because every couple of years someone would raise a stink about it in a local magazine or in the newspaper. They would write something about it and then it would go away. The difference this time is the news director at a TV station said something that took hold. His reporters started following along and then other reporters started following along. You know how things go viral?

We were talking about changing it long before the guy ever said anything about it. The host, Tommy Smith, that had done it every year was getting tired of it anyway. 

D: It was called “The Babe Bracket” initially, right?

J: Right. That ran its course. We just sort of tweaked it this year and made it into sort of an all star thing. 

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For a lot of guys 35-55, they don’t pay real close attention to Hollywood, particularly if they are real, giant sports fans like most of our listeners. So it served two purposes. There was a national side and a local side. It exposed some of these listeners to attractive actresses they had never heard of and the other side had us plugged in with local female anchors. It took off and it continued on for years.

Look, I’m very sensitive to that kind of thing. I used to work in TV, so I try to be very respectful and sensitive to the women that work in local media. I want to put a spotlight on them for their work and professional integrity, but let’s be honest. Men and women, if they work in TV they are typically very attractive. 

I never thought it was done in a demeaning way. I can’t tell you that a caller never said something in appropriate or called in to talk about a physical trait of a woman that we didn’t want to become part of the conversation, but you can’t really control it. It’s live radio.

I thought the hosts always handled it in an appropriate way. It was always fun. The local women came on air and played along. We’ve had past winners that were overjoyed to win just like, a sash and a crown. 

It was a fun thing. It really was. We’re in such a hyper-sensitive environment right now. If it was done in a mean way or in a way that was misogynistic, which I guess you can say it inherently is. Some people feel that way and won’t hear any different, but truly if I thought it was done in a disrespectful way I would have shut it down before it got to that point.

D: Is there a lesson in this for you or for other sports stations about the way the culture moves? Is this a situation of these controversial promotions are not worth it anymore because the downside is always worse than the upside is good?

J: Well, you gotta look at it this way and this is how I look at everything. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s right and just because it is unpopular doesn’t mean it’s wrong. So, the popular thing to do and the easy thing to do would have been to walk away from it and just shut it down, but again, I don’t think anyone was doing anything wrong. The participants never felt like it was a negative thing, at least the ones that came back and participated over and over again. So, we continued it.

D: When you have conversations with your other hosts about where they can make improvements or things you need them to do, is that ever uncomfortable or do you ever feel added pressure because you are on air?

J: You know, there is the element of trying to practice what I preach. I wouldn’t ask the guys to do anything or try anything I wouldn’t do myself, but at the end of the day that’s what I get paid to do. 

I make suggestions. I make recommendations, and it may just be little things. Be sure to reintroduce your guest. Don’t eat on the air. My guys have been doing this a long time. I’m lucky. I have a lot of experienced guys. There aren’t a lot of young guys here that need coaching on a daily basis. 

We still talk. We still strategize to some degree. I think the guys respect me enough that we can talk and they don’t take it personally, like I think I am better than them or that I think I am doing it right and they are wrong. Look, there are certain things that guys on my own show do that I do not like, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I would never tell them to stop because it’s just a taste thing. 

The other thing too is doing four local shows in a market this size with no local teams, you have to find a way to differentiate and stand out from the other shows. We all have to be different. Everyone needs to come to work with a different approach. 

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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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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