Just when it seemed Michael Jordan was finished making history, with his savage conquests of sports and sneakers and even the eerie genre of pandemic TV, we find him caught in swirling crossfire that frames him as a threat to another life legend.
Since the final credits rolled on “The Last Dance’’ documentary series, Jordan has been called a liar by Jerry Reinsdorf, a liar and a snitch by Horace Grant and a liar by a Utah pizza maker. And he has been caught contradicting himself by a reporter, Jack McCallum, who released a 2011 taped interview in which Jordan indeed confirmed that he froze nemesis Isiah Thomas from the 1992 Dream Team, which he repeatedly has denied. All of which is fitting in the aftermath of a production — a Jordan vanity project and hagiographical romp — that portrayed him as a triumphant dictator, left many of his servants crumpled in his reinvigorated legacy dust and reminded us how the Chicago Bulls reign was as much about manipulation and infighting as winning.
Yet let’s not assume, simply because some are bitter about how they were portrayed in the Jordan-lorded series, that they’re all telling the truth and he isn’t. A whole lot of people have lied in this decades-old piss pot — then and now — which explains why the dynasty became a travesty that died nasty. What should have been a joyride, wrapped around the miracle of Jordan, too often deteriorated into dysfunction and finger-pointing that leaves me asking, to this day, how the Bulls won six NBA championships. And now Jordan’s detractors, after watching a film that couldn’t have made him look better, want him also to be remembered as a fraud so obsessed with control that he’ll tell fantastic lies to protect his narrative, a lonely man in his leather chair with a cigar and mixed drink.
Be careful before you let them.
Because just as Jordan has his rules, there are The Reinsdorf Rules — and, by extension, The Sam Smith Rules, those of an ethically conflicted sportswriter and not the ballad singer or brewmaster of the same name. Yes, Jordan is all over the map on Isiah and needs to come clean. And I don’t really care whether he fell ill because of pizza poisoning, altitude sickness or a long night of partying; whatever, the man was mortally sick the next night and still scored 38 points in 44 minutes. But having covered the Jordan era as a Chicago columnist, I am compelled today to detail the machinations of a Bulls management dynamic that, quite often, oozed of more deception than a political backroom filled with aldermen.
And Reinsdorf and Smith always were in the smoky room together, as partners in slime.
On any list of essential occupations, sadly, a sports beat writer is no more vital now than a toenail painter or nightclub bouncer. That said, if and when seasons resume, there is a proper, professional way to cover a team. The process generally is defined as reporting for one’s core readers with tunnel vision — disseminating information and insight without selling out to sources as sugar daddies and slanting “news’’ in their favor.
Which is why Smith committed a flagrant foul, worthy of expulsion from whatever bogus media game he’s playing, when he claimed last week that Jordan “made up’’ and “lied about’’ why the era ended after the sixth title. See, Smith works for team chairman Reinsdorf — literally, as a staff writer for the Bulls.com website — after years of tickling Reinsdorf’s scrotum as the Chicago Tribune’s lead basketball writer. And his attack on Jordan’s integrity came only days (shocking!) after Reinsdorf testily emerged from his reclusive cave, saying he’s miffed at how Jordan characterized him in the final scene of the docu-series: as the owner who chose to dismantle the dynasty instead of prolonging it. “Maddening,’’ as Jordan put it.
Said Reinsdorf to NBC Sports Chicago, his broadcast-rights partner: “I was not pleased. How’s that? He knew better. Michael and I had some private conversations at that time that I won’t go into detail on. But there’s no question in my mind that Michael’s feeling at the time was we could not put together a championship team the next year.’’
He was calling Jordan a liar without actually using the L-word, a legal reflex as an attorney by trade. But he wasn’t done. In slippery Reinsdorfian fashion, as I witnessed often during 17 years at the Sun-Times, he relied on a henchman, Smith, to do his dirtiest work for him. Never mind that Jordan, after smirking and raising his eyebrows, reminded director Jason Hehir of the irrefutable timetable: Reinsdorf never interceded in the eight months after general manager Jerry Krause told Phil Jackson that he wouldn’t return as coach even if the Bulls went “82 and oh,’’ the eruption that prompted Jackson to coin the phrase “The Last Dance’’ and Jordan to vow he wouldn’t return without Jackson. Never mind how Reinsdorf used shifty semantics to say he made a last-gasp effort to keep Jordan and Jackson when, in fact, the damage had been done long before amid the owner’s insistence on backing Krause. Typically, Reinsdorf is trying a Hail Mary to sway public opinion that has been almost universally against him since then. Twenty-two years later, only his servant is buying in, making sure to spread the boss’ gospel during a quickie media tour.
“That was a complete and blatant lie by Michael,’’ Smith told 95.7 The Game, a San Francisco sports station. “There were several things in the documentary that I saw, I would know, that he made up or he lied about.’’
Later, Smith appeared on the Dan Patrick Show and elaborated: “He didn’t want to play that next year. He could have, in any number of ways. So he made that up too at the end: that `I wish I could have come back, I wanted to come back.’ He didn’t want to come back. … If he wanted that one (additional) year and the $40 million, he could have gotten it. He just didn’t want to play. … But it was a better story to end it that way. To say, `Hey, one more chance. Going for seven. We could have done that.’ Nah, he didn’t want to do that.’’
This isn’t professional reporting. It’s obedient, yes-sir, blame-deflecting trolling for the boss who employs him at the team website. The least Smith could have done was present Jordan’s side, but as Reinsdorf’s mouthpiece, he made the radio rounds for one purpose: To defend the owner, as he did for decades at the Tribune when Reinsdorf wasn’t signing his paychecks. As I wrote recently about the bleak future of independent sports media, I’m concerned that most aspiring writers will have to work directly as public-relations valets for leagues, teams and programs, or for outlets in bed with Big Sports. When young people see Smith operate in “The Last Dance’’ — as author of “The Jordan Rules,’’ the 1991 book — they might view Smith as a role model.
If so, don’t major in journalism. What Sam Smith does isn’t journalism.
When I arrived in town after the first title, I was startled by the smarmy landscape of the Bulls beat. Smith was attached to the hips and lips of Jackson and Reinsdorf … and Jordan didn’t trust him, gravitating to other beat writers. Nor was it cool that one of our Sun-Times beat reporters, Lacy J. Banks, regularly played poker with Jordan. Reinsdorf didn’t like Banks, who had a lengthy newspaper career before passing away in 2012, and sometimes called Banks a liar to discredit him (seeing a trend here?). Uncomfortably driving past Sun-Times billboards across Chicagoland that heralded my arrival with my headshot and a menacing slogan — “Sports With An Attitude!’’ — I was compelled to drive an immediate stake into the politicking. And if I’ve told this story before, it’s worth telling here.
I’d heard rumblings about “The Jordan Rules,’’ yet to be released, and how Jordan wasn’t going to like it. So I called Smith’s book publicist and requested an advance copy. Indeed, for the first time in a mass-readership context, Jordan’s dictatorial side would be revealed in the book. Knowing the Tribune had invested thousands of dollars to publish Smith’s excerpts — yes, the Tribune paid for information from its own reporter — I quickly published a column about some of the book’s controversial contents, as provided by Smith’s publicist. This caused a furor; was a championship team going to be disrupted by a book? It also embarrassed the Tribune and landed Smith in hot water with his editors, who couldn’t believe his publicist had helped the rival paper beat the Tribune with its own, paid-for material. The Sun-Times was an underdog tabloid with financial problems. Already dealing with the recent demise of my previous employer, the great National Sports Daily, I had no time for Machiavellian sports-beat b.s. I was in the mood to brawl.
Amid the book ruckus, Bulls training camp started. Visiting the team’s suburban facility for the first time, I heard a voice: “Are you Jay?’’ It was Jackson, not pleased. Now, why would he be rankled? Ohhhhh, he was close with Smith, who often would write soft, lengthy features about him. Around the same time, as covered in “The Last Dance,’’ Krause had circled book excerpts that weren’t flattering to him and summoned Jackson to his office, wondering what was up. Hmmmm.
So when Jordan pinpointed ex-teammate Grant in the docu-series as the principal book leak, prompting Grant to brand Jordan’s claim as an “downright, outright, (complete) lie,’’ it’s curious how Jordan protected Jackson. Because it’s obvious Jackson was involved in the book. And if Smith already had Reinsdorf locked in as a major source, well, draw your own conclusions. I’m sure Grant provided a few stories, as did other team members and franchise personnel. And Smith does have a reporter’s eyes and ears, having been trained on the news side of the print industry.
Unfortunately, to this day, he is ensconced in business bed with Reinsdorf, the ultimate reporting no-no. You scratch my back; I’ll advance your agenda. You pay me a salary; I’ll go on radio shows defending you and calling Jordan a liar. And Smith wasn’t alone in the Jerry-rigging. Any time Reinsdorf’s baseball team, the Chicago White Sox, thought a critic was too harsh, out came hillbilly homer Hawk Harrelson, who would interrupt a broadcast in Anaheim and, oh, rip me for two innings. Don’t make the mistake of confusing Chicago as a hardass hub of sports media. It’s a cartoon show and favor-fest, filled with its share of media fanboys and suck-ups. For every beat writer who did a standup job of covering the title-era Bulls, there was the creepy, accompanying constant of Smith being fed stories by the same suspects year after year.
To the point where here in 2020, after tens of millions watched “The Last Dance,’’ Smith is still performing his deeds and calling out Jordan to appease Reinsdorf.
Smith’s backers will accuse me of sour grapes. Sorry, I was a columnist covering the entire sports world, not just the Bulls, and I didn’t enter the media business to kiss up to owners for information and money. Reinsdorf tried to woo me in my first year, inviting me to his ballpark perch in Sarasota for a come-to-papa talk during Sox spring training. Not long after, in the wake of a column he must not have liked, I was told by his office assistant to not contact him again. I never did. And once you’re on the guy’s bad side, it becomes a real-life version of “The Godfather’’ — his baseball manager called me “a (bleeping) fag,’’ his top baseball executive confronted me in a Chicago rooftop bar while I was entertaining friends, his p.r. director waged an Internet smear campaign. And, oh, there was Hawkeroo again, slamming into the back of my chair in a Minneapolis press-box dining area, prompting me to quietly tell him to knock if off or I’d remove his prominent nose from his face.
Sometimes, Reinsdorf resorted to desperate measures, once with Smith in the middle. I’d criticized the owner for attempting to lowball yet another Bulls coach, Scott Skiles, before they finally agreed to terms on a new deal. The contract numbers provided to the Sun-Times, from Skiles’ agent to our beat reporter, were volunteered to me by phone by an editor who now works at ESPN.com. Meaning, the numbers appeared in my column AND in our news story. Two places.
Not surprisingly, they were a slight fraction off the Tribune’s numbers for Skiles, as supplied to Smith by Bulls management. Next day, Reinsdorf and his lawyers contacted the Sun-Times. And next thing I knew, the same editor was calling me with bizarre news: The paper was running several retractions because of the “erroneous’’ numbers in my column. Again, I’d been given the numbers by an editor who called me with the info — the very numbers that appeared in our news story. Didn’t matter. The Sun-Times often buckled to whatever Reinsdorf wanted. And, of course, the Tribune ran a blurb about all of my retractions.
Two words: Dirty pool. Is it any wonder both papers have deteriorated to the point both could die any day?
The docu-series succeeded wildly in bringing back the Jordan years in their high-voltage entirety, including the discord that constantly seeped into the dominance and dampened the fun. But I tell these stories not to do my own “snitching’’ — amid a flood of post-documentary backlash that finds Reinsdorf, Grant, Scottie Pippen, Craig Hodges, Thomas and Krause’s widow among those upset with Jordan. My purpose is to establish a how-not-to manual for young beat reporters. It’s one thing to have important sources, quite another to sell out and serve as a lackey for life. Reinsdorf had his media lackeys, none bigger than Smith. Jordan had his — namely, close pal Ahmad Rashad. Krause had his in the national writing media. Jackson had his. And all the while, some of us were trying to maintain a semblance of professional independence and neutrality, wanting to avoid appearances of selling out or making money off the people we cover. I never was in anybody’s camp. Early on, at the old Chicago Stadium, I felt a nudge in my back as Bulls players jogged past press row before a game; it was Jordan, appreciative of a column where I wondered why the team media guide had strangely underplayed his importance with only a few pages devoted to him. It was proof of the farcical Krause mantra that eventually would break up the team: organizations win championships.
But when I visited Jordan at a country club two summers later, wanting to know the truth about his gambling problems amid an NBA investigation, he threw an ice cube at me. I was in business bed with no one.
Smith isn’t the only guilty party in sports media. Sirius XM talk host Chris Russo always has been a shill for Major League Baseball owners, which explains why he told players to “go to hell’’ last week in a long, biting rant about ongoing labor negotiations, which seem particularly appalling during a pandemic. In the same vein as Smith works for Reinsdorf, Russo works for a network that has a long-term business arrangement with, yup, MLB.
At least Smith didn’t take money from Donald Sterling, the disgraced former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who once suggested Smith become his general manager. But like commissioner David Stern, Smith was among those who continued to associate with Sterling even as he spewed racism for years. Why not use that relationship and his reporting platform to reveal Sterling as a racist years before a TMZ tape became the impetus for Adam Silver, Stern’s successor, to expel him from the league?
Funny, but the biggest story of my Jordan-coverage career came from simple, pound-the-pavement persistence. I made numerous excursions in the summer of 2001 to Hoops The Gym, a facility on Chicago’s west side, where Jordan was plotting his return to the NBA. He would see me waiting in the parking lot, yell at me for writing that he shouldn’t be trying another comeback, then give me another meaty column. Finally, on Sept. 10, one day before Jordan suddenly didn’t matter on Planet Earth, he stood in the parking lot and announced his Washington Wizards comeback to me and Jim Litke of the Associated Press.
That forced Smith, without the owner in his back pocket, to play catch-up in his belated news story. Every media outlet credited the Sun-Times and the AP — except one.
The Tribune credited the AP and another newspaper.
The Smith Rules, call them.
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.’’ Compensation for this column is donated to ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom emphasizing investigative journalism.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.