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Chicago Media Enjoys The Last Dance As Much As You Do

“Covering the Bulls in the ’90s provided a full buffet of stories for sportswriters. Drama, conflict, triumph…never a dull moment.”

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I can’t get enough. I need more and I need it now. Forget that, WE need more and WE need it now.

ESPN’s The Last Dance has been a savior during this COVID-19 pandemic. I’m craving sports and action, and the 10-part documentary directed by Jason Hehir is delivering big time. It’s been a ratings winner for the network (last week’s episodes averaged 5.9 million viewers in the time slot) and its certainly been filling a void, left by the suspension of live sports. 

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For me, growing up in Chicago and actually covering parts (back up reporter for a Chicago radio station) of the last 3 Bulls Championships, it’s been a fun trip down memory lane. I’m into it. I was on my couch last Sunday yelling things at the TV, when the director took us back to the Bulls/Pistons Eastern Conference Finals in 1991. I can’t tell you exactly what I was screaming, but suffice it to say, it felt like I was watching this event live for the second time.

The behind the scenes access is unprecedented. Michael Jordan dealing with Dennis Rodman’s request for an in-season vacation was priceless in the moment and after the fact. All the subplots to that entire era of Bulls basketball are covered. It’s a sports fan’s dream to be taken behind that curtain to experience what those that were there experienced first-hand. 

Fortunately for me, I’ve remained friends with many of those TV, radio and newspaper reporters and thought, I wondered what they think of all of this. Is it accurate? Is it fun to look back? Just what was the circus like? 

To answer the latter, I posed that question to 3 guys that were there for every bounce of the ball and every media scrum. David Schuster, a Chicago sports veteran, was working for ESPN at the time of what Phil Jackson dubbed “the Last Dance.”

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“It was crazy for sure but I loved every minute of it.  How could you not? We were on the front lines of some of the best sports history ever”, says Schuster. “Being a basketball junkie only made it that much better. I said it then and have said it ever since that Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete I’ll ever hope to be around and I saw him from the best seat in the house almost every game.” 

Fred Mitchell is a fixture in Chicago media as well, working for the Chicago Tribune for decades. He sums it all up pretty simply. “Covering the Bulls in the ’90s provided a full buffet of stories for sportswriters. Drama, conflict, triumph…never a dull moment.”

Chris Boden is another veteran of the Chicago sports scene, having worked in radio and television at the time. He was there, representing CBS Radio and TV. He marveled at the sheer size of the media gatherings each and every night in 1997-98.

“Covering the team was nuts. You see a wide shot of Michael’s postgame scrums at home.  That’s what it was like for EVERY home game, several years leading up to that particular season,” says Boden. “I believe it’d take him 30-45 minutes after every game to get treatment, shower, & fully, impeccably dressed. His locker was just outside the door to the shower/training area, so with the mass of humanity crowded into that space, positioning was key.  You had to be ready to attach the mic to a pole if you weren’t within arm’s reach.  Practices weren’t quite that busy, but you’d occasionally have to jockey for position.”

I remember at times literally hanging out in the empty locker to one side of Jordan to have one hand on my microphone and one on the clothes rod in the empty stall. Occasionally, I’d get that look from him. I’m sure I looked a bit foolish, but I had to get the audio. I wish I knew what he was actually thinking. 

Sometimes documentaries don’t exactly live up to the advanced hype. Once in a while the outcome of the video is arranged in a way that the point is missed. This is not the case with The Last Dance.

“I think the documentary has been fantastic and has become must watch television. I envision numerous Emmy’s on the horizon”, says Schuster. “As one who was on the front lines of the entire Bulls dynasty it is so much fun to re-live it again but also nice to see some footage of things that we were not privy to at the time.” 

Boden agrees, “I’ve been really impressed. They’ve circled back to some of the details in the bigger storylines I’d completely forgotten about.” Boden continued, “though I and other sports media may be familiar with the ‘back stories’ they flash back & flash forward to, at times I’m looking for them to get on with the main story since we’ve heard it before.”

Boden thinks this documentary will serve a young crowd well. “I have to remind myself that there’s an entire generation that never saw Michael during his playing career, and the highlights prove to those 20-and-unders that he’d be just as great in today’s game.”

Chris Boden (sports reporter) - Wikipedia

All three members of my media panel agree, that the director is portraying things correctly. 

“To my best recollection, the documentary is accurately portraying facts and sentiments of that time period,” says Mitchell.

Boden is on board too, “I think it’s an accurate portrayal.  I don’t remember this all-access, behind-the-scenes, season-long filming going on for this eventual purpose,” he said. “The fact that the footage is proof and they got EVERYONE to talk confirms it’s an accurate portrayal.”

It got me wondering when Boden mentioned how the ESPN crew got everyone to talk, if this was the “norm” for everyday on the Bulls beat.  Mitchell may have summed it up best: “Michael Jordan was perhaps the most accessible superstar athlete I encountered during my 41-year career at the Chicago Tribune.”

Schuster echoed the sentiment, “I thought he was a super star both on and off the court. He would be available to the media after every game for a ridiculous amount of time. Wave after wave of reporters would ask the same questions and he would answer them all. Pippen was also pretty good but didn’t go through as much as Jordan.” 

Dennis Rodman presented his own challenges to the media covering the team. “Interviewing Dennis Rodman usually meant walking briskly alongside him with a horde of other reporters as he headed out of the United Center en route to a night on the town,” recalled Mitchell.

Tribune sportswriter Fred Mitchell ending 'terrific run'

Schuster remembers that walk down the hallway, “The reporters would have to walk backwards and try and keep up with his pace. I felt like Michael Jackson doing the moon walk”.

Boden felt bad for the cameramen trying to get to Rodman for the newscasts. “It required cameramen to walk backwards if you wanted to see his face, and while some were better at it than others, there would be an occasional tumble.”

Sometimes in sports, you get too close to the situation to actually appreciate what you are experiencing. It is a job after all. With the magnitude of what the Bulls did in the 90’s I wondered if my media panel is enjoying the look back through the lens of the ESPN documentary. 

“At times, so many games, athletes and events become a blur in the moment. Given the benefit of time and perspective,” waxed Mitchell.  “This documentary neatly packages those memories in an organized video scrapbook.” 

Schuster is enjoying the look back. “It’s great fun and I constantly am looking to see if I can find myself in one of the reporter’s scrums or sitting at court side but mostly it’s just fun to re-live the greatest sports dynasty I’ll ever witness personally.”

Boden appreciates the comfortable seat in which he’s watching the documentary from, after being in the epicenter of the live drama. “It’s almost like an ‘I Survived The Last Dance Circus.’  There was never a shortage of storylines but being & staying on top of it all, covering all the bases as best as you could (especially when it came to Rodman), was a grind,” he says. “But at the same time, you realized you were covering Jordan, the bid for a second three-peat, and that’s what you want to do when you sign up for this career.  And amidst whatever frustration you might feel from time to time, you know there are thousands of others in the business who’d love to be in your shoes.”

It was a special time to be covering a special team for these media veterans. By all accounts the folks behind The Last Dance are getting the job done, telling the stories within the stories to shed some new light on the team.

The Last Dance' Episodes 3 and 4: The Jazz show up, Rodman goes ...

I keep asking, is it Sunday yet? I can’t wait for Episodes 5 and 6. 

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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