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When People Aren’t Safe, Sports Can’t Resume

“Jay Mariotti says the UFC now stands for Unabashedly Flouting Coronavirus, and calls for leagues to shut down sports before someone dies.”

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Do we need sledgehammers to blast away the ignorance? Blowtorches to thaw the collective brainfreeze? Simple medical logic cannot be repeated enough: It’s unconscionable, if not criminal, to resume contact/close-quarter sports amid a pandemic until athletes know they’re safe beyond doubt. And with testing capacity still woefully inadequate, and no vaccine or cure in sight, they will NOT be safe — does everyone grasp this? — regardless of flim-flam assurances from sports leaders who’ve suddenly become infectious disease experts, armed with overnight degrees from the University of Phoenix.

For every realistic soul such as NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who told players that resuming the season is increasingly unlikely amid perhaps “the single greatest challenge of our lives,’’ America remains vexed by an obnoxious wave of empathy-challenged snakes such as Dana White, who said not long ago, “I don’t give a sh-t about the coronavirus.’’

The mixed-martial-arts maniac thinks he’s a conquering hero after staging UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Fla., the first live U.S. sports event of magnitude since the outbreak. I would call him a rogue so obsessed with making money, turning itchy gamblers loose and promoting his violent sport — at $65 a pop, for a card without spectators in a nation where nearly half the adult population is jobless — that he abandoned all cogent concern for human life in what only can be called a debacle. In a sane world, White would be apprehended for putting lives at risk, proceeding with the event after a fighter, Ronaldo “Jacare’’ Souza, and two of his cornermen tested positive for the virus. This after White and UFC owner Endeavor, a Hollywood agency rocked by the crisis, angered the health community by using 1,200 antigen and antibody kits that should have been directed to states and municipalities lacking tests.

The mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, says her virus-gripped city can test only 1,500 people a day. But White can use 1,200 tests, damned the dying. See, he wanted to be “the first’’ to carry out President Trump’s reckless desire to resume live sports, convinced that his hotel-to-studio quarantine plan provides the playbook for other leagues when, in truth, it’s a cautionary tale for why sports shouldn’t resume. Let’s see if White gives “a sh-t’’ should the virus spread through his kingdom, cancel two more fan-free events this week in the same building and, I don’t know, maybe infect him.

“It’s not unexpected one person would test positive. The system works,’’ said White, whose count was off by two, if not more to come. You will hear not even the slightest condemnation of White on any news platform attached to ESPN, which greeted app users hours before UFC 249 with an eyeball blitz: a large ad hawking the ESPN+ exclusive pay-per-view stream. Remember, ESPN is owned by Disney, purveyor of hopes and dreams, and run by Bob Iger, who said during an earnings call reporting the company’s $1.4 billion bloodbath: “People find comfort in our messages of hope and optimism.’’

If Iger thinks hope and optimism ooze from sweaty cage fighters who might be spreading a deadly virus, I invite him to climb into the Octagon. Or listen to Zachary Binney, an Atlanta-based epidemiologist who used his Twitter page to torch White as “negligent’’ for mishandling safety protocols and restarting the event too soon. “If this was your system working as designed,’’ wrote Binney, “your system is bogus.’’

But then, this is what happens when the UFC president worships Trump. He thinks the White House is named for him. “I want to congratulate Dana White and the UFC. We love it,” Trump said on the broadcast. “We think it’s important. Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back.”

It’s enough to make one hurl — and puts into perspective a story that normally would elicit contempt, the possibility that Mike Krzyzewski’s imperial reign at Duke will be sullied if Zion Williamson was paid in the latest chapter of the sneaker scandals. Does paying a college basketball player, even at pious Duke, compare to jeopardizing lives? If it struck you as odd that no fighters criticized UFC for proceeding with the event after Souza was sent home, well, it seems Dana The Megalomaniac threatened their livelihoods. As tweeted by Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza, they were required to sign documents agreeing to accept possible losses of purses and bonuses. Responded White: “What (expletive) law school did he go to? I can’t stand that (expletive) creep if you couldn’t tell. He’s just a (expletive) — look at him, that creepy, little dude. What the (expletive) does he know about our contracts?”

After which White declared, somehow, that his life-and-death-farce was an unequivocal success, providing a blueprint — gulp! — for other U.S. businesses to resume. “The whole world is weird right now. Everything is weird. This whole event is weird,’’ he said. “We live in a different world than we did two months ago. The bottom line is, the system worked. What you don’t want to do is two days after the fight say, `Oh (expletive), Jacare tested positive.’ The system worked that we put in place.

“Without sounding like a jackass, we’re really good at what we do. We’re very, very good at what we do. We’ll just get better. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology will get and the faster it will get. We’re going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.”

Or, that he can put several of his employees on ventilators. Never mind that White, while waiting for the test results Friday, not only staged a weigh-in with Souza but wasn’t wearing a mask as he fist-bumped the fighter. And never mind that UFC bagged its original safety-first plan and held post-fight interviews in the Octagon, which placed color commentator Joe Rogan in virus peril when he was to have conducted remote interviews as fighters wore sanitized headsets in isolation. Yep, this is how we do it, Dana.

What frightens me is that too many power players in sports, a $200-billion industry teetering on the brink, share White’s hellbent view about the health catastrophe of our time. Of course, millions worldwide want sports to return — the owners losing billions, the networks dying with Korean baseball, the fans who need entertainment and self-identity joyrides, the gamblers who would rather contract Covid-19 than go another day without real action. But athletes are not automatons or slaves in this fraught, unprecedented equation. They are human beings with loved ones who shouldn’t be subjected to wealth-over-health pressures just because live events are “essential’’ to the American psyche, the crumbling sports and broadcast economies and Trump’s nighttime La-Z-Boy diversions. The smart play for Big Sports is to wait, until 2021, and then move forward after assessing the fallout and reimagining the industry.

Once again, with emphasis: Why resume games and events if the people in uniform — players, coaches, officials — aren’t safe?

“I think 2020 has been practically lost,’’ said tennis icon Rafael Nadal, speaking for many athletes. “I’m hopeful of being able to start next year. Sadly, I’m not going to lie to you, the feeling is that we are losing a year of our lives.’’

“I am worried like the rest of the world,’’ NBA star C.J. McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “You have to think at some point when there are drastic measures that need to be taken, `Is it really worth it?’ It’s either safe or not.’’

Yet the stench of self-interest continues to share the air with zillions of coronavirus particles. Don’t confuse the cautious reopening of businesses — or even attempts to re-establish the PGA Tour, the ultimate solo sport — with the ill-devised concept of team sports returning while defying physical distancing mandates and mass-gatherings bans. Leagues and broadcast networks would like to play ball as soon as this summer while people continue to die in large numbers, maybe right next door. And if you dare to oppose the resumption of games, well, you must be a negative nabob or germophobic dweeb who hates sports, as I’ve been called.

In the rush to resume — Major League Baseball wishful-inching toward a July 4 start, the NFL releasing its schedule and expecting a September start with fans in the stands, the NBA clinging to a pipedream within a quarantined Walt Disney World and Las Vegas casino hotel — it’s inhumane to be planning games, even on television with empty seats, until every commissioner, pushy owner and sneaky operative with a political or financial agenda can state the following without flunking a lie-detector test: Sports Bubbles will not be petri dishes for contagion.

BUZZZZZZZ!!!

They might hope for the best, but hoping is not knowing when it comes to the pandemic. I shouldn’t have to issue updates: the death count hasn’t slowed, with the virus killing nearly 300,000 worldwide and 80,000-plus in the U.S.; at least 1,000 Americans have died and 25,000 have been infected each day since early April; and the U.S. leads the world with almost 1.4 million cases. But Big Sports continues to shrug and wear blinders, dedicated to ignoring the blight in the interest of money. It’s one thing to resume sports after 9/11, or during wartime when the battles are overseas. But this virus is a ghostly, unsolvable evil that has locked us all in a toxic grip, capable of striking anyone at any time despite inane views that it afflicts only the elderly and the poor. Sports, with or without spectators, is just asking for a mass breakout. This is no time to come off as greedy and arrogant in a nation overwhelmed by two horrors: Covid-19 and rampant unemployment. The leagues can curry the favor of politicians and doctors who downplay the health risks, yet isn’t that a blatant disregard for life, especially if they use tests still lacking in some hospitals and laboratories? And if sports leaders do hoard resources like White, do they realize how many tests would have to be regularly administered? How difficult and maddening it would be just to stage one nine-inning ballgame or 60-minute football game?

Is anyone out there thinking? Not MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who is proposing a season of 80 games or so in geographical pods, with expanded playoffs, while asking players to take pay cuts — and assume health risks. This reeks of a typical attempt by owners to paint players as bad guys in a brewing labor dispute, and right now, no one is in the mood for mud-slinging between billionaires and millionaires. Shame on the owners for not pausing their selfish desires and waiting for credible medical answers, assuming any are coming.

“The coronavirus will establish the timetable for sports. … We will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that,’’ said Dr. Anthony Fauci, in quarantine himself after possible contact with a Trump administration staffer who tested positive.

Actually, Silver is thinking. As NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal calls for the season to be canceled and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers admits he’s “worried’’ about reopening practice facilities, Silver is confronting the truths that other commissioners prefer to disregard, telling players gloomily on a conference call, “Until there is a vaccine or some magical cocktail that prevents people from dying from this virus, we are going to be dealing with it, collectively.’’ Meaning, players will assume health risks to resume play and draw ample salaries sure to shrink. That’s because spectators aren’t expected until next season at the earliest, if then, in a league that generates 40 percent of revenues via paying customers. According to The Athletic, Silver told players the NBA “couldn’t start now even if we wanted to,’’ even as franchises are “crushed’’ financially by the pandemic.

And California governor Gavin Newsom is thinking. His state is home to 15 franchises in the four major sports leagues and numerous big-time college facilities, yet he is the anti-White, refusing to consider sports without live audiences, let alone with fans in the stands. Asked about the NFL’s schedule release, Newsom could have played a smooth political hand, knowing that a $6 billion stadium for the L.A. Rams and Chargers is nearing completion. Instead, he posed a hard question for commissioner Roger Goodell and owners.

“Imagine what the league — broadly, leagues — do when one or two of their key personnel or players are tested positive,’’ he said. “Do they quarantine the rest of the team if an offensive lineman is practicing with a defensive lineman, and they (have) tested positive? What happens to the rest of the line? What happens for the game coming up next weekend? It’s inconceivable to me that that’s not a likely scenario, so it’s a very challenging question you’re asking.”

As for fans in stadiums and arenas, it’s impractical until 2021 in a state that has topped 2,700 deaths. “It’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity and until we have a vaccine,” Newsom said. “it’s a very tough question for these leagues to answer, because they must have a safety-first, health-first mindset, and there are conditions that persist in this state and this nation that make reopening very, very challenging.”

It’s also good to see Mark Cuban, who still hasn’t ruled out a presidential run, finally emphasizing health-first after once leading the charge for sports to resume. “Seriously, if you’re a player, who do you trust with your life?’’ Cuban told ESPN Radio. “If you’re a coach or a trainer or, anybody for that matter, that’s essential personnel for getting something back together, do you trust the hotel that we’re going to stay at to keep everything safe — the technology they’re using, the protocols they’re using? … The problem, obviously, is because we can’t test people, then we can’t assure anybody’s safety, whether they’re basketball players or anybody else.’’

How long will it take for sound judgment to cut through the self-centered delusion? Stop to consider the Real Real. We’re actually going to abandon distancing and masks so football players can tackle each other, basketball players can drip sweat beads on each other and baseball players can breathe on each other? We’re really going to proceed with seasons when one positive test — among hundreds of essential personnel who would be tested daily — might shut down the league? The NBA is weighing whether to allow children, wives and girlfriends inside its Quarantine Bubble, which could prompt Vegas to set at least one over-under in its empty casinos: How many people catch the virus on the first day of testing? God forbid if a league copies the UFC strategy of not creating a lockdown perimeter around the hotel and arena, asking 300 workers to be responsible when entering the outside world during an eight-day period of events. MLB wants teams to play in home ballparks within areas less infected by the virus, but wouldn’t players risk bringing strains back to their families each night? And does Manfred, an attorney by trade, realize legions of lawyers are ready to pounce if the virus spreads? MLB has political support from Trump and some governors, but what about other officials in states, cities, counties and one Canadian province? How can baseball start in July when five ballparks in California are shut down? They’re going to make the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, A’s and Padres play only road games for months? Has Manfred called the wives and kids of affected players, telling them Dad won’t be around for a while … and might bring home the virus, too?

Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, two of baseball’s biggest names, already have said no. How can MLB stage a legitimate season without superstars who don’t want to take risks? And I don’t need to tell athletes that a second wave of the pandemic could be in the on-deck circle, preparing another wicked blast. All of these proposals, these hopeful stories disseminated by ESPN and other sports media ventures whose survival depends on the resumption of sports — has anyone asked the athletes what they think? Sports cannot happen unless the athletes say yes. Don’t presume they will.

“We’re in a situation where you can’t make this mandatory. You can’t tell a guy you have to come play or else your roster spot is not going to be here when you come back. You can’t tell a guy to risk his life and the life of his family and the lives of anyone he chooses to be around to come play this game,’’ Boston Red Sox pitcher Collin McHugh told Mass Live. “I’m a husband, I’m a father. There are many guys in the league with underlying conditions, with preexisting conditions like diabetes and heart arrhythmias. You look at our coaching staffs, there’s tons of guys over 65. Umpires, there’s a lot of guys over 65. When you’re talking about the risk factors, there are going to be guys who sincerely have to weigh the risks of coming back versus staying at home.”

Said St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller, in an ESPN interview: “I don’t think anything can be done until (safety) can be guaranteed and we feel comfortable with it. It’s not hard to get one degree of separation away from players who have kids who may have conditions, or other family members that live with them.’’

Don’t tell that to some sports executives who are pressuring athletes to return … or else. ESPN quoted two NBA general managers — unnamed — who expect athletes to cave in and play when faced with no paychecks. This is not the time, obviously, for meat-on-the-hoof demands.

Yet the NFL marches on, convinced a gladiator sport will proceed with fans and expecting players to be ready for tackling warfare in September. Hopefully, this is more a grandstand play ahead of lucrative broadcasting negotiations than an actual firm plan, because how did the virus spread in Italy? Oh, when tens of thousands of fans, packed together in a soccer stadium, simultaneously released untold amounts of saliva when goals were scored. Let the Miami Dolphins present a vision for physical distancing and 20-point cleansing while reducing Hard Rock Stadium to a 15,000-seat venue; it’s still a petri dish. And if local governments, such as California, don’t allow fans inside stadiums, the NFL insists it will play in states and cities that do — the same strategy proposed by MLB. Is this not absolute lunacy? In a matter of weeks, we’re casually going to assume regular seasons will happen, with no concern for consequences if, say, a star player fails a temperature check and must be removed for immediate testing? Imagine the panic, the preposterousness of it all, just so rich leagues and networks can salvage billions.

That is to assume Americans even want sports without bodies in the seats. What begins as a unique experience inevitably will devolve into a creepy reminder of lost normalcy. Imagine an NBA playoff game with no fans, Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees with no fans, SoFi Stadium debuting with no fans for Rams-Cowboys. People who say they’re ready aren’t giving themselves enough credit for their roles in the total experience. Fox Sports has talked of creating virtual fans and piping in a crowd-noise track that ebbs and flows depending on game developments. Look, the essence of sports is palpable human energy. And it’s gone until people come back to stadiums and arenas. And most aren’t coming back, as several surveys have indicated, without a vaccine.

Sports continues to stay somewhat relevant in the news cycle. LeBron James is among those outraged by the fatal Georgia shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man gunned down while jogging by two white men. Charles Barkley still bemoans his frayed friendship with Michael Jordan, whose 10-part docu-series hit a creative peak Sunday night with a chronicling of his father’s murder and his subsequent decision to play minor-league baseball — though still failing, in a production controlled by Jordan, to investigate his unavoidable gambling habits during a still-murky 1993. The college basketball cesspool gurgles, with the NCAA referring to Kansas and coach Bill Self as “egregious’’ rules-breakers, while Giannis Antetokounmpo says his social-media accounts were hacked and that he doesn’t ache to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Oh, and the Baltimore Ravens want to dump safety Earl Thomas after his wife, allegedly pointing a gun at his head, found him in bed with other women … and his brother Seth.

Still, I can’t help but fixate on the fool in Jacksonville and his two encore events this week. UFC now stands for Unabashedly Flouting Coronavirus.

The athletes aren’t safe.

So, please, shut down sports before someone dies.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’

BSM Writers

On Sunday Night, Everyone Is Watching Karl Ravech

“What I like about my story over the years at ESPN from 1993 to the present is that it’s constantly changing and evolving.”

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Karl Ravech injured his knee while playing soccer at Needham High School and needed to make a decision on what he wanted to pursue as a career. Always having an interest in both sports and writing, Ravech made the decision to attend Ithaca College as a communications major. Throughout his time in upstate New York, he worked hard to take the next step in his career by quickly immersing himself in the professional world, serving as the sports director at NewsCenter 7 in Ithaca, N.Y. and a freelance producer for WCVB-TV in Boston, Mass. – all while attending classes.

Upon his graduation, Ravech attended SUNY Binghamton to earn his master’s degree in management and leadership. Just as he had done previously, Ravech worked in the professional world as he pursued this degree, now as a sports anchor and reporter at WBNG-TV in Binghamton, N.Y.. In 1990, Ravech earned his degree and relocated to Harrisburg, Pa. and was nominated for two local Sports Emmy awards for his reporting on baseball and golf.

Ravech was hired as an anchor by ESPN in May 1993 and has been a fixture at the network since, working in a variety of different on-air roles. He is now the primary play-by-play announcer for Sunday Night Baseball, occupying the seat behind the microphone for Major League Baseball’s biggest matchups every week. Getting to this point in his career has been a journey that has required Ravech to consistently adapt and develop, and, in turn, has augmented his versatility.

“What I like about my story over the years at ESPN from 1993 to the present is that it’s constantly changing and evolving,” said Ravech. “I think the fact that it hasn’t stayed stagnant is what’s wonderful, and the Sunday Night Baseball booth is sort of the next iteration in [my] career.”

Ravech began hosting the overnight edition of SportsCenter with Mike Tirico and Craig Kilborn upon his being hired, and became the primary host of Baseball Tonight and postseason baseball studio coverage starting in 1995. After recovering from a heart attack he suffered while playing pickup basketball with colleagues in 1998, Ravech hosted golf coverage for the network as Tiger Woods became the youngest golf pro to ever win a Grand Slam, and also continued his baseball duties.

Starting in 2006, Ravech began his immersion into the broadcast booth when he became a commentator for Little League World Series broadcasts. Each year, he makes the trip to Williamsport, Pa. to call the action on ESPN and ABC showcasing young, talented baseball players while also telling their stories off the field. Additionally, Ravech has served as the voice of the College World Series on ESPN since 2011, calling the championship action each year from the Charles Schwab Field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

The style of both of these broadcasts differ from calling a Major League game in that there is more time to delve into the backgrounds of each of the players and tell the unique stories they bring – especially for those participating in the Little League World Series.

“I’d love to be able to bring that same level of joy to a college game or a Major League game, but I think it’s obvious that it’s a little more serious,” said Ravech. “You’re talking about, in the professional ranks, people that are getting paid; and there’s a lot of pressure on the college kids and their fan bases are very passionate.”

Much like a performer, one of the roles of a broadcaster is understanding and catering to their audience; that is, to understand exactly why a person may be watching or listening to a game and what they seek to gain from it. When a broadcaster is able to pull back the curtain and see the game from the perspective of an audience member, it allows them to foster a deeper connection with the audience as a whole and modify the broadcast accordingly.

“The little league crowd that’s on TV is very different than the one that you get for a College World Series game and certainly for a Major League Baseball game,” explained Ravech. “They have baseball in common, but I don’t think that the expectation when you watch the Little League World Series is to dive too deep into Xs and Os… It’s really about why most people came to the game, which is to enjoy it and have fun with it.”

Being aware of the viewing audience has been central to Ravech’s early success as the new primary voice of Sunday Night Baseball, as it differs from the viewers he had previously been communicating with on Monday Night Baseball, a role he took on in 2016. Yes, calling games on Mondays and Wednesdays undoubtedly required ample preparation; however, Ravech’s new gig has required a shift into how he applies his preparation to the broadcast.

“On Sunday night, [everyone is] watching, which means you have got to be as prepared by talking to the players and coaches as you possibly can be because the people who are consuming it know as much about the team as you do,” said Ravech. “It’s not as if we are preparing any differently, but you’re certainly paying a great deal of attention to just the two teams.”

Throughout his time at ESPN, Ravech had worked extensively with Eduardo Pérez: a former Major League player and experienced analyst. Whether it was in the booth at the College World Series or calling Korean Baseball Organization games remotely in the middle of the night during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the duo has developed a synergy on the broadcast.

Pérez is able to extrapolate unique storylines during the game because of his profound ability to communicate with those around him.

“As we walk through the stadiums, he is talking to people who are doing everything in the building – whether they are operating an elevator; whether they are the general manager; whether they are a player; whether they are welcoming people into a clubhouse,” Ravech said of Pérez. “He knows everyone, and those connections make him so valuable.”

Someone Ravech has been familiar with over his years living in New England is former all-star pitcher and YES Network analyst David Cone, albeit from covering him as a player and watching him on television. Ravech called ESPN being able to land Cone this offseason “the last piece” to assembling the new booth, all while Cone is still slated to call 50 Yankees games on the YES Network this season. Prior to the 2022 campaign, Ravech and Cone had not worked together; yet just a few games into his new job, Ravech has been impressed with his colleague.

“He recognizes that in order to communicate properly we, collectively, have to understand what it is that we’re talking about – so you’re not just throwing terms out there that may sound good but you don’t know what they are – and he’s very aware of that,” Ravech said of Cone. “He’s the complete package when it comes to an analyst in 2022.”

Along with being the voice of Sunday Night Baseball, the College World Series and the Little League World Series on ESPN, Ravech has also served as the voice of the SEC basketball tournament since 2017. Being on the call for high-stakes matchups, such as the Kentucky Wildcats against the Tennessee Volunteers, or on Sunday Night Baseball, the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox, is an exciting part of Ravech’s job throughout the calendar year. But no matter the sport; no matter the league; no matter the game – there is a consistent aspect of Ravech’s vernacular he is cognizant of every time he steps behind the microphone.

“I think my style, whether it’s in the studio or in the booth, is to really engage with the analyst,” said Ravech. “That part of it is, I think, a common trait through all of my broadcasts and I want to continue to do that.”

Having the ability to engage in genuine conversation with his analyst comes in actively listening and molding the conversation to fit most optimally with what is being discussed, even if it means departing from what he had originally planned. In this sense, he sets his partners up for success during the broadcast, part of the reason why he has been adept in working with different personalities in varying atmospheres across different sports.

“If you listen, then your follow-up questions will not necessarily be ones that you have written down already,” explained Ravech. “[Your analyst] has opened up this door, and you better be able to be willing to walk through it with them because they’re trying to say something and you’ve got to get it out of them.”

While Ravech, Cone and Pérez call Sunday Night Baseball games in the style of a traditional broadcast, there are several elements of the entire viewing presentation that demonstrate ESPN’s willingness to adapt to changing media consumption trends. One of these elements includes the addition of the new KayRod Cast, which became the most viewed alternate broadcast during a Major League Baseball game during the season debut of Sunday Night Baseball. The broadcast, featuring New York Yankees play-by-play announcer and 98.7 ESPN New York host Michael Kay, along with all-star third baseman Álex Rodríguez, diverts from the traditional style of broadcast through longform conversation, special guests and commodifying the act of watching a live baseball game.

“Baseball to me is an ideal platform for things like the KayRod Cast,” Ravech opined. “I think David, Eduardo and I spend a great deal of time focused on the game, but I think there are times where you can veer off and get into some entertaining conversations, and I certainly know that the guests that are on the KayRod Cast offer opportunities like that as well. Baseball lends itself to things like ESPN is doing right now, and I’m grateful to be in one of those booths.”

One of the elements within the traditional Sunday Night Baseball broadcast that lends to the commodification of the sport is putting mics on players. It’s a new element in Sunday Night Baseball this year. Fans have been given a firsthand perspective, essentially divulging the in-game mindset of a Major League player. Occasionally though, the action finds the interviewee mid-sentence during a game, as it did Francisco Lindor recently – and those are moments where all the broadcasters can do is watch and hope for the best.

“You’re kind of holding your breath that he makes the play instead of his being, in some way, distracted by the conversation,” said Ravech. “We’re incredibly sensitive to that. We try to, for the most part, stay out of when they are at the plate; there’s no talking to them. But in the field, they understand that this is an opportunity for them to share with the consumer at home a real on-the-field view that people would not otherwise get.”

Appearing as the featured player on Sunday Night Baseball garners plenty of significance and gives players the opportunity to connect with their fans and the larger viewing public. Having the chance to share your perspectives on national television during a game has become a badge of honor, and players from each week’s matchup have nominated a player for the next week’s game to wear the microphone. So far, ESPN is batting 1.000 in that department, as everyone who has been nominated has appeared on the following week’s broadcast.

“Joey Votto was very different than Ozzie Albies [who] was very different than Kike Hernandez and Francisco Lindor,” explained Ravech. “The list is great, and every one of them has provided unique looks into the game and their positions and their communication styles and skills while they’re on the field and in the dugout.”

Occasionally, a player will opt to stay on the microphone for an extended period of time as Phillies outfielder and reigning National League Most Valuable Player award-winner Bryce Harper did a few weeks ago. Harper was the designated hitter for that night’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers and stayed on the microphone for four innings of the contest.

“It was incredible,” recalled Ravech. “We got a chance to talk to one of the biggest names in the game for four innings; he almost became a quasi-analyst with us. It was really neat, and I think the viewer benefits from it.”

As Ravech’s career continues, he seeks to improve in all areas of his work and try new things if the opportunities arise within ESPN’s broadcast portfolio. While there is always the chance of opportunities presenting themselves at different media outlets, Ravech affirms that since the network continues to innovate and remains the leader in coverage, he wishes to continue working with them.

“I think [ESPN] is going to continue to evolve for sure,” said Ravech, “and I feel very comfortable about the direction they’re going to go in and continue to ride along with them.”

Any additional career endeavors that Ravech desires to pursue will be because he had actively pursued them, and he is excited to discover what lies ahead in his career.

“I’m not one of those who looks at it and says, ‘I want to call a World Series. I want to call a Final Four,’” said Ravech. “If that all happens, then there will be a reason. I’ll have sought those out, as opposed to the way this has happened – which is you kind of just keep moving around and finding your lane like water does down the sidewalk. That’s the beauty of it; it’s organic – there’s nothing linear about it.”

Ravech has worked with a wide array of broadcasters throughout his career at ESPN, including Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Stuart Scott and Chris Fowler, and has spoken to aspiring broadcasters on numerous occasions as well. One broadcaster he has had the opportunity to mentor firsthand is his son Sam, who has grown to become a play-by-play announcer on the SEC Network, ACC Network and ESPN, making his debut for the latter at 22 years of age.

Through mentoring his son and other young broadcasters, Ravech has learned that having authenticity in the on-air work that you do allows for one’s true personality to shine through no matter the sport being played or medium on which the broadcast is being disseminated.

“I always encourage Sam to be himself. Don’t try to be somebody else; don’t use somebody else’s voice; don’t try to speak the way they do,” said Ravech. “Be you, and hopefully over the course of a long time, people will come to respect you [and] your work.”

Sometimes, getting opportunities in sports media comes in being uncomfortable; that is, broadcasting or talking about a sport with which you may be unfamiliar or having to relocate outside your home market to accept a job. By working to transform feelings of discomfort into those evoking contentment, sports media professionals can successfully learn to grapple with change, and be prepared for it the next time it happens.

ESPN saw potential in Karl Ravech in his early years at the network and has been open and receptive to giving him opportunities both inside and outside of baseball as time goes on. In order for Ravech to grow as a broadcaster though, he had to work to enhance his craft – but none of that would have been possible had it not been for Ravech being open to and embracing change.

“Be malleable. Be flexible,” said Ravech. “That’s what I would tell anyone, whether it’s my son Sam who I’m incredibly proud of, or anybody getting into it. You just never know which way this career is going to go and the things it’s going to expose you to. You just don’t.”

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BSM Writers

The Big Ten Could Change The College Football TV Landscape Forever

“It appears the Big Ten could be the first major conference to embrace major streaming services carrying its top games.”

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The college football world, and the college football Twitterverse, was lit the night of September 22, 2018. The fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners were being taken to the wire by Army, a team that still runs the triple option in an age when offenses routinely throw the ball 40+ times per game. The National Championship picture was already going to be blurred a bit and we’d barely even started the season. We all left our games of choice in search of the end of regulation and the eventual overtime only to find a relic of days gone by, the game was only available on a pay-per-view telecast.

In the days before massive conference media deals, the pay-per-view games were a regular occurrence, normally reserved for the Southwest Louisianas and Pacifics of the world visiting town. For you kids, Southwest Louisiana is now The University of Louisiana and Pacific once played football, sort of. Not even regional telecasts had an interest in those games, so you called your local cable company and shelled out $39.95 to watch a poorly produced telecast of an absolute bludgeoning. 

Incidentally, one other way you could watch these pay-per-view games was if you had access to one of those C band satellites. In my youth, it was a sure sign of wealth. It looked like your neighbor had raided a NASA facility and stolen a satellite at gunpoint. You couldn’t hide them, either. They would sit out in the middle of your lawn like you were trying to communicate with beings from a neighboring solar system.

My friend had one of these satellites and we spent hours watching random things like Spanish language shopping networks. Where else can you buy an authentic matador cape for four easy payments of $39.95? We also found news analysts awaiting their live shot window while applying one more coat of make-up or adjusting their toupee. It occasionally kept us out of real trouble, even if it wasn’t the height of entertainment. But, I digress.

The concept of the stand-alone pay-per-view game seemed to have been dealt a near fatal blow with the massive ESPN and FOX deals with the major conferences. It was finished off and buried with the launches of the conference television networks. Technically, almost all the games are “pay-per-view” in that I pay my provider each month for the sports channels but I no longer have to find a channel I otherwise never use and watch color bars in anticipation of an announcer I never see trying to sell me on the importance of a game in which the home team is favored by five touchdowns.

The imminent Big Ten Conference media deal is going to be a big one but, according to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, it may include something many college fans have never encountered, major games only available on streaming.

Warren told ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg that Amazon and Apple will be potential major players in the future deal. It would be a departure from the normal business plan for the two streaming giants to settle for games featuring a directional school playing a Big Ten power. That means the real possibility of a meaningful Top 25 Big Ten game being available only on a streaming service.

The NFL is already in this bed with Amazon. Notre Dame has also dipped their toe in this pool with a 2021 game exclusively available on Peacock. There has yet to be a conference go all-in to this degree. It appears the Big Ten could be the first major conference to embrace major streaming services carrying its top games. Somebody had to be first, as the Big Ten was with the Big Ten Network, and you can be sure every conference commissioner is watching.

There is a certain comfort to finding games in the way you always have. I imagine dialing up Amazon Prime for the big Wisconsin at Penn State game will have the same feel as dialing up the random channel for the old school pay-per-view.

My family is uniquely prepared for this as we have, apparently, chosen to purchase our streaming services like we are buying them in a Sam’s Club family pack. The Amazon deliveryman visits my house so often I asked my accountant if I could declare him a dependent on my taxes. The Big Ten won’t be sneaking a streaming game past me!

This will come with a certain amount of criticism, no doubt. Many fans pay for their satellite or cable packages primarily for their favorite team’s games. Now, my conference of choice will ask me to add a streaming service on top of this. It’s a smart move by Amazon or Apple. Big Ten fans will sign right up and promptly forget to cancel as soon as the season ends and the $14.95 will keep being drafted whether you watch Severance, or not. My wife and I gave the first Severance episode 15 minutes and moved on to Bridgerton. For your information, I only watch Bridgerton for the well-written dialogue.

This feels like a seminal moment in sports TV, not unlike the 1995 Duke-North Carolina game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. That was the night ESPN chose to televise college basketball’s most-watched rivalry on ESPN2. It forced cable providers, and viewers, to say: “Wait, big games will be there too? It’s not just Jim Rome and Jim Everette fighting?” In the length of a two-overtime classic Tar Heel win, ESPN2 became a necessity for any true sports fan. 

Now, you’ll have to pry the Michigan-Ohio State game out of FOX’s cold dead hands but, if Amazon or Apple wants this to work, they’ll pay the money that would put any other Big Ten game in play for them. That is the only way you convince the average fan to pay more for the services they don’t already have. Money obviously isn’t an issue for Amazon and Apple, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook could realistically be under the impression they are actually buying the physical states that make up the Big Ten.

If Amazon is the winning bid, their football profile is off to an impressive start. The Sports Business Journal reports they are among the leaders for NFL Sunday Ticket to pair with their current national games, a deal believed to be worth $2 billion per year. Add major Big Ten games to the mix and it won’t be long until other conferences are interested in joining the platform.

For Apple, it would be a new sporting venture to pair with their national MLB games, giving them an extended profile. Not shockingly, they are also in the mix for the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package according to Sports Business Journal. All of this means I could eventually watch one of these games on my watch. We truly are living in the time of The Jetsons.

If not now, soon. Amazon and Apple don’t just go away. Clearly, they are interested in being major players in sports streaming and have the money necessary to get a seat at that table. If not the Big Ten, another college conference will be on board, but make no mistake – the Big Ten would be a major pelt on the wall for either company. Speaking of walls, this news may mean it is time to add another TV to yours. Amazon has some great deals right now.

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BSM Writers

Peacock’s ‘MLB Sunday Leadoff’ Hits Baseball Broadcast Sweet Spot

‘MLB Sunday Leadoff’ feels like meeting up with an old friend while ‘Friday Night Baseball’ has been more like going on a blind date.

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@JasonBenetti on Twitter

Sunday was Mother’s Day, so it probably already felt like a special day for many families and households. But for baseball fans, the late morning felt particularly warm and festive with the debut of MLB Sunday Leadoff on Peacock and NBC Sports.

Breakfast and baseball? (Maybe “brunch and baseball” is more appropriate with the pregame show beginning at 11 a.m. ET, followed by the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox playing at 11:30 a.m.) Who might have guessed the two would blend together so wonderfully until Peacock showed us?

Yes, sports fans have woken up with tennis, soccer, the Olympics, and the NFL in London for many years now. But as the Sunday Leadoff broadcasters mentioned a few times, a morning start time felt like getting up early to play a Little League game, reviving a happy memory for so many fans.

And though baseball has endured criticism for its slow pace and idyllic vibe in recent years, those aspects seemed to fit with a Sunday morning — when some might be waking up, returning from quiet early errands, or coming home from church — just perfectly.

The Peacock broadcast certainly embraced comfortable nostalgia with its presentation, with Vin Scully narrating the introduction, reminding (or informing) viewers that NBC was once the home for Major League Baseball for more than 40 years with Saturday’s Game of the Week. Baseball returned to the network for six years, from 1994 to 2000, but had been elsewhere for 22 years.

To younger generations, that may not matter. Baseball has been readily available on Fox, ESPN, TBS, and more importantly, regional sports networks. But NBC always felt like home for the sport with voices including Scully, Mel Allen, Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, and Bob Costas. Even on a streaming platform, with Sunday’s debut simulcast on a linear broadcast network, baseball being back on NBC (or an NBC product) just felt right.

However, promoting the game’s past and tradition isn’t the best way to appeal to younger fans. MLB Sunday Leadoff seemed entirely aware of that, bringing an energy and excitement to its presentation that made baseball feel vital. Host Ahmad Fareed and analyst Nick Swisher made the broadcast feel like an event, informing viewers of the White Sox and Red Sox and which players were worth watching.

Bringing on popular online baseball personalities like Rob Friedman (aka @PitchingNinja on Twitter) to break down the starting pitching match-up between Chicago’s Dallas Keuchel and Boston’s Tanner Houck was also a nice touch.

A highlights package of Saturday night’s action opened its arms to fans of all ages. Fareed and Swisher narrated the action enthusiastically, making the footage feel as if it had to be seen. (Swisher may have been too enthusiastic for 11:30 in the morning — 8:30 a.m. on the West Coast — but those familiar with him shouldn’t be surprised that he came across as very caffeinated. He’s a high-energy dude.)

Even better, the theme from This Week in Baseball played with the highlights. More specifically, the theme song is titled “Gathering Crowds,” composed by John Scott, and played over the closing credits of the show with a montage of baseball action. Want to get an older baseball fan excited? Play that theme song.

The actual game broadcast was smooth as well. Those who didn’t know otherwise might guess that play-by-play announcer Jason Benetti and analysts Steve Stone and Kevin Youkilis have often called games together. They sounded comfortable with each other in a three-man booth setup that doesn’t always work.

Of course, Benetti and Stone work together on NBC Sports Chicago’s White Sox broadcasts so there was obviously familiarity there. With the plan for Benetti to work with rotating analysts associated with the two teams playing each Sunday, it was a fortunate circumstance to have Stone in the booth. That made a more welcoming environment for Youkilis, who’s new to broadcasting this season on NESN’s Red Sox coverage.

Benetti certainly helped with making Youkilis comfortable, asking him questions about playing at Fenway Park (as a batter and fielder), his approach to hitting, and how he strategized against opposing pitchers. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering how many different analysts Benetti works with while calling basketball and football. He’s an utter professional who elevates his partners and makes broadcasts fun.

Sunday’s telecast also benefited from some luck. During the fourth inning, Peacock had Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo mic’ed up, a feature that’s worked well on many baseball broadcasts so far this season. Verdugo provided good insight on how he handles playing in front of Fenway Park’s iconic Green Monster, dealing with fly balls, caroms, and throws in a setting unlike any other in MLB.

But the game was delayed when home plate umpire Ron Kulpa was hit by a foul ball off his mask. Kulpa seemed stunned by the impact and was checked by trainers before leaving the game to be examined further. That resulted in a 20-minute delay while first base umpire Marty Foster changed into proper gear to take over behind home plate.

Yet for viewers watching on Peacock or NBC, the stoppage may not have felt so long because the broadcast crew and Verdugo engaged in an extended interview that felt more like a conversation, covering topics ranging from being traded for Mookie Betts, dealing with the wind as an outfielder, and favorite restaurants in Boston. It surely helped that Verdugo has been mic’ed up for broadcasts before and was already comfortable with such a situation. But the timing of it all worked out fortunately for Peacock.

MLB’s new streaming ventures with Peacock and Apple TV+ received heavy attention going into the season. Fans and media weren’t sure of what to expect, while exclusive telecasts meant viewers had to sign up for these services to watch. Of the two thus far, MLB Sunday Leadoff feels like meeting up with an old friend while Friday Night Baseball has been more like going on a blind date.

To be fair, maybe too much was expected of Apple TV+ from the outset. A tech innovator streaming live sports for the first time would surely bring something new to a baseball telecast, maybe even reinvent parts of it. Instead, the game broadcasts — incorporating some who have never called a baseball game before — have felt like everyone involved is still trying to figure out what works best.

Meanwhile, Peacock just produced a solid baseball broadcast, sprinkling in elements that may have been familiar, but also felt fresh. Leaning on nostalgia doesn’t hurt, either. But there’s also less of an uphill climb by not trying so hard to be new and innovative. Comfort is a nice thing, especially on a Sunday morning.

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