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Jason Benetti Wants New Perspectives In The Booth

“I do want people to know that watching baseball through a different prism is a good thing. It’s always a good thing. Let different people comment on the game every once in a while.”

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People claim that baseball is boring – that there’s no fun in the game and it’s tough to watch. Well, the folks at NBC Sports Chicago dare you to say that now after several “guest analysts” joined Jason Benetti in the White Sox TV booth for a recent series in Anaheim. Steve Stone was off for the series so the network and its play-by-play man put their collective heads together to come up with some outside the box ideas.

It started with a game in Maui. Benetti and Basketball Hall of Famer, Bill Walton were paired together for the Maui Invitational around Christmas time. A few weeks later Benetti thought how cool it would be to have Walton join him on a baseball broadcast and extended an invitation. It was accepted and the rest was history.

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Walton, television producer Michael Schur and Saturday Night Live’s Mike O’Brien were tabbed to fill the analyst role during the three game series against the Angels. I recently sat down with Benetti to get his thoughts on the experience and some behind the scenes stories from the broadcasts. 

ANDY MASUR: What are your thoughts after the Bill Walton experience?

JASON BENETTI: It was like if the animals could talk. (laughs) I love Bill dearly.

What it was like is everything that you saw, but it was also just the understanding this guy wants to do a great job every night.  He was locked in energy wise for three hours. He had loads of stuff he wanted to talk about and loads of things he didn’t know he wanted to talk about and he did both and we did. And by the way what you didn’t see a whole lot of on the air was, he gave a rousing speech to the Sox pregame.

He was in the clubhouse at 4:40 and he gave about a 15-20-minute speech to the Sox that the coaches were still talking about the next day, without prompting. He was that good and that motivating and that interesting. His story, all of the injuries and sadness, and the mental darkness that comes with it and his ability to thrust himself out of that by seeking joy is something we all could use some of. I know he is blindingly crazy sometimes to the naked eye and to the well-trained Bill Walton eye, both.

He is also a wonderful soul, and I’m glad to be around him whenever I get the chance to, but on the air (pauses) buckle up! 

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AM: Did the broadcast put any extra pressure on you? Some were tuned in for the experience and yet some still were interested in the game. Can’t please everyone I guess, right? 

JB: No. People are going to hate stuff. I don’t even like talking about them because if they don’t understand Bill Walton, they kind of just…they don’t really care. They’re never going to care. They’re never going to have joy out of him. They’ll get their joy from somewhere else, and generally the joy will come from getting angry about something. 

Some people just derive joy from getting angry so you know what, frankly because Bill made them a little mad, I’m sure they got some joy out of sniping. So cool, have fun. But there’s a level of happy that he reaches that I would hope that everybody who has never been at that level of joy gets to attain at some point. 

AM:  If you had a blueprint as to how things would go, did it meet what you thought it would be, or did it go beyond your wildest expectations?

JB: The blueprint for Bill Walton is there is no blueprint. I mean if you try and build any specific house on that lot it will be haunted. The doors will swing open and start to creak. The rattling of the China in the cabinet will begin at about one in the morning, when you know, no one is down there (laughs). That’s how it works. That’s the fun of it.

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Sports is supposed to be different every time you watch it, he is different every time you encounter him, except for one constant he has a gloriously kind heart. I want that. I want that in the person next to me, following the paces of the game with me, whatever that is. That’s a key component. 

AM: What about the two days following Bill Walton night? Any drop off over the weekend? Both guys displayed some great knowledge of the White Sox and baseball in general. 

JB: I’ll start with Sunday. Mike O’Brien is a big Sox fan. He’s a really really funny guy. He’s like obliquely funny. His bit about Jay-Z on SNL is so funny, where he’s just like a white guy, who’s generic and he’s posing as Jay-Z and it’s pretty funny. 

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Michael Schur is such a big baseball fan and such a creative genius. I mean he created Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99 and the Good Place out of whole cloth. He just came up with these environments. The shows are so clever and so witty and so full of mirth, that I was thrilled to share a booth with him. I watched a little of it back and I laughed, quite hard, because by inning three he was just doing things that analysts typically do, like he’s watched so much baseball he was gliding from a story to an observation back to that story. I was like man, he is just such a smart dude, I cannot believe that was called a drop off.

Bill Walton is a high wire entertainer, Mike Schur is as creative of a human being as you’re possibly going to find in America right now, and Mike O’Brien is a really funny guy who evidently hates Betty White. Who knew?

AM: I enjoyed the Detwiler references when Mike Schur was with you. How did you discover that the White Sox pitcher’s name was in an episode of Parks and Rec

JB: So evidently, I found out via email, because I had emailed Mike Schur and I was like “hey Detwiler might pitch” (he ended up not pitching that day) so get your Missouri State anecdotes ready. He wrote me back saying, “well I actually named a place in Parks and Recs after Ross Detwiler.” So, my old college roommates and I scrambled to figure out where that was in the show, and one of them finally came up with it. My buddy David texted me and said “Season 4, Episode 21, The Bus Tour” and so I went back and watched it. Right at the beginning Leslie (one of the main characters in the show) is giving a stump speech and she says “I want to get rid of all the violent geese in Detwiler Square.”

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It’s the only mention of the place, I believe, in the series. Ross was so excited about it he and Mike ended up having like an 8-minute conversation in the clubhouse because Mike named a thing, a place after him.  

AM: Tell me about the experience as a whole, put it into perspective about how much fun you had and how successful it was? 

JB: It’s up to the audience (how successful it was), but I do want people to know that watching baseball through a different prism is a good thing. It’s always a good thing. Let different people comment on the game every once in a while. Let them be experts in observation, because that’s what we got, right?

We got some questions that the average fan never would ask because they’d be too afraid to ask because they’d be seen as dumb. But Bill Walton’s first question to James McCann (White Sox catcher) was “what’s that makeup you’re wearing under your eyes?”. Well it’s eye black. “How long does it take you to wipe it off?”. Well it’s pretty quick actually. If I’m a kid at home, I want to know that! I’m going to school and I’m like guess what I learned from crazy Bill Walton? 

NBC Sports Chicago put together a montage of some of Walton’s greatest lines from the game. I’ll share a few of them with you here. 

  • Walton to Jason Benetti, “I apologize to your family for ruining your career”
  • Yolmer Sanchez laid down a squeeze bunt to score Castillo, Walton exclaimed, “What offense! Brilliant,” Walton said. “This is a strategic victory.”
  • Mike Trout took Lucas Giolito deep, “That’s Trout? Swimming upstream, avoiding all the flies and sending one ricocheting through the universe.” 
  • Some of his comments were just a stream of words, “Woodstock. 50 years. ’79. Full moon. Waterfall. Exploding volcanoes. Baseball. White Sox. Angels. Summertime. No rain on the horizon. Greg Gumbel. Sam Smith. David Axelrod. Wow.”

It was a unique approach and seemed to be, with a few exceptions, received very well. It was a win for NBC Sports Chicago and a huge victory for Benetti, showing all who watched what tremendous talent he has. It couldn’t have been this good without him. 

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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