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The Broadcast World Remembers 3/12/2020

“On an off day in Arizona the news came down: no baseball for a while. Wow, this is really happening! A virus that seemed so far away several weeks ago came close to home.”

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I will always remember March 12, 2020. It started off simply as my mom’s birthday, a normal day in Arizona covering the White Sox. What it turned into was the day sports went silent.

You can actually trace it back to the night before, when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the Coronavirus, aka COVID-19. The NBA acted quickly in suspending its season and the NHL soon followed. The NCAA canceled conference tournaments and then in a stunning turn of events, called off March Madness.

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On an off day in Arizona the news came down: no baseball for a while. Wow, this is really happening! A virus that seemed so far away several weeks ago came close to home. There was a feeling of “ok, what now?”. I scrambled to get a flight back to Chicago and when I got home, it already felt like the off-season.

I was curious about what some of my fellow broadcasters, beat writers and even a few media relations folks were thinking about that day. What was their initial reaction to finding out your season was either postponed or cancelled? Here are some of their reactions.

Brian Anderson, play-by-play, Milwaukee Brewers TV, Turner Sports:  I worked an NBA game on a Tuesday in front of a sellout crowd. Wednesday, I was shocked to learn about NBA players testing positive for COVID19, then expected the NBA to postpone games. Postponing the season surprised me and it was sobering to grasp what this virus was doing to our way of life.

Thursday morning, I was sitting court side ready to call the Big Ten Tournament in front of no fans. Minutes before tip, they cancelled the tournament. A few hours after that the NCAA Tournament was cancelled, then MLB suspended play and delayed opening of the season. In a flash, everything I do was no longer. My only thought was to get home and get to my family. 

Wayne Randazzo, play-by-play, New York Mets:  To me, it was the worst day as a baseball fan since the beginning of the 1994 strike and eventual cancellation of that year’s World Series (I was 10). I understand all the reasons for this, and safety is obviously the most important thing, but it still hurts to see baseball, which has always endured, not being played right now.

It’s wild how quickly things turned. I don’t even think Howie (Rose, Randazzo’s partner on Mets’ broadcasts) and I really discussed the virus on the air. It went from being something to sort of keep an eye on to a monster problem with extreme speed. I also broadcast a decent amount of Big East and Big Ten basketball over the winter, and I’m sad to see a bunch of great stories from those two conferences won’t ever get to be completed.

Mike Ferrin, pre/post game and play-by-play, Arizona Diamondbacks, co-host MLB Network Radio “Power Alley”: I follow the news pretty closely, and, even while the league and players association worked to come up with concepts of what “might” happen early in the week, with no recommendations of a shut down, it certainly felt inevitable. My professional passion is baseball, so while it was a disappointment to see college leagues, then MLB, then Minor League Baseball shutdown in rapid succession, I also knew that it was 100% the right thing to do. Listening to the NIH and CDC talk about what we need to get through this, the idea of continuing to play in front of crowds of people was dangerous.

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Joe Brand, play-by-play Kane County Cougars (Class A), sportscaster WGN Radio Chicago: I didn’t take it seriously at first. Once the NBA season was suspended, I came to an understanding it was only a matter of time before the NHL, MLB (along with MiLB) would follow.  That day I felt disbelief, helplessness, awkwardness and misunderstanding. 

The past couple of days have just opened my eyes to what type of global experience we are dealing with. Aside from rain during baseball season, it’s very difficult to suspend/cancel any games at the professional level, let alone multiple sports’ entire seasons.  This is definitely a historic time we’re living and working in.  I’m trying to soak in the responsibility of being in the media during this time.

I’ve been searching for things to try and keep me sharp and ready to go during this hiatus. I wanted to see what these guys are doing to keep their minds in it. 

Anderson: I call 150 games per year and spend half of every year on the road. I am not thinking about staying sharp. I am using this time to rest and spend time with my wife and daughter. To be fully present with them. 

Randazzo: I am voicing over some things including a passion project that will probably never see the light of day, so I suppose that’s my way of staying sharp. I have a bunch of books, baseball and otherwise, that I want to read or reread so this will give me some time to do that. Perhaps I’ll do something for WCBS or WFAN in the meantime, but that hasn’t been determined yet. 

Ferrin: Well, fortunately I still work every day, though it’s with our programming being altered to ensure the safety of our studio staff, so that makes it easier. Hosting a baseball talk show with no baseball is a challenge, but, a fun one. Jim Duquette and our producers, Hunter Reiser & Brady Gardiner, have some ideas on what we want to do. Deeper player breakdowns, a few goofy things to lighten the mood, maybe looking at some random baseball games or matchups to create some fun baseball-reference inspired worm holes.

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We realize we have to cover the news as it pertains to COVID-19 and how it impacts baseball, but we also need to give people a distraction. Something they can get lost in for 30-45 minutes at a time that give them a mental release. 

Brand: Clearly, I can’t call any games, so I’m planning on updating my reel and website.  One fun thing I’ve done to make light of the situation is ask Chicagoland coaches and PE teachers to share their scores from games on Friday or student athletes to recognize.  I’ve been using them in my weekend sports updates.  We’ve had people texting in YMCA basketball scores, kindergarten gym class stories, and plenty spotlights on HS seniors that had abrupt endings to their seasons.

Something most of us have in common now is a little downtime. What are you actually doing with this unexpected time to yourself?

Anderson: I’ve been doing a few projects around the house every day. I cleaned out the garage, cleaned up the floors, ran some Cat5 cable to various spots from the router, cooked a bunch of meals, worked out, read, and organized some accounting projects. But mostly I’ve been hanging with my family doing all the things I can’t do when I’m on the road.

Randazzo: It is always nice to spend as much time with my 6-year old daughter as possible, and she’s off school too so this will give us more time than usual. Even during the season, I’ll fly home on off days to be with her as close to 100% of my free time as I can. That’s certainly a great thing even under these dubious circumstances. Otherwise, I’ll do a few things around the house and constantly check the news for updates on flattening the curve and when I can call the curve again. 

Ferrin: Cooking. Lots of cooking. My wife is working from home too, so, we’ll cook, walk the dogs, I’ll ride my Peloton and just try to weather the storm. Our hatches are battened, so we’re ready for it. I assure you though, I’ll be ready when baseball is back. I miss it, but, it ain’t going away. It’ll be back and I’m excited for that.

(Writer’s Note: Mike is a very good cook, grilling out is a specialty of his. He forced me to eat lots of BBQ one night recently in Arizona.)

Brand: Making sure my mom is okay.  Cleaning my apartment.  Catching up on some shows/movies.  Updating my website will be a big one.  I’m comfortable with the free time now, but I know I’ll get pretty restless eventually.  So, keeping my mentality in check will definitely be something to keep in mind too.

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Things of this nature really put sports into perspective. There are bigger things to worry about like the health and safety of family, friends and strangers around the world. The only down side to there being no sports is we can’t provide a much-needed escape from all that is going on today.

I’m reminded about how sports can bring people together in a time of need as well. This is a time of need. Right now, as the diamonds, courts and links are empty let’s think of better days to come, that should be helpful in getting as all through this awful time. 

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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