It’s the definitive award for a normal sports calendar: Sportsperson of the Year. But this time, for reasons as overt as a six-inch swab shoved into one’s nasal cavity for 15 seconds, the title requires creativity. Survivor of the Year? Pummeler of the Pandemic? Braveheart of the Bubble? Crusher of the Covid? Sultan of Swab?
Whatever the description, it fits LeBron James like his snug Black Mamba jersey. Others are carving initials into this surreal moment, too, including mad scientist Bryson DeChambeau, the transformative carbs-and-weights android who gained 40 pounds, imposed his will and savage driver on Winged Foot and won golf’s U.S. Open. But there’s something about his Hans-and-Franz act that feels freakish, at least until he proves otherwise at Augusta National in November, bizarre as that sounds. And if you’re looking to the NFL for 2020 memories — see Russell Wilson — first ask this after a Sunday when injuries were rampant: Thanks to a coronavirus-shortened preseason, will anyone stay healthy?
As for LeBron, we know who he is and where he’s likely headed in the coming weeks. Even in wild and unrecognizable times, it’s still very much his sports world, like him or loathe him. He doesn’t have too much on his massive, mountain-range shoulders right now — parenting his namesake son through a weed-smoking drama from 2,500 miles away, fighting racial inequality and police brutality from a campus he can’t leave, chastising the media for dissing him in MVP voting and, oh, positioning the Los Angeles Lakers for renewed glory. We’ve entered the championship phase of our medical marathon and global mind-bleep — basketball, hockey, golf, tennis — and, clearly, James is among a sacred few separating themselves and leaving indelible sports footprints in the apocalyptic sand.
But for him, this is about more than outlasting the competition inside the NBA Bubble, winning a trophy and throwing a virtual parade, assuming that is possible amid the wildfire threats and Covid cases of southern California. Up 2-0 over scrappy Denver in the Western Conference finals, after Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beating three-pointer, James is nearing his ninth NBA Finals in 10 seasons. Bigger than all of that, he is accomplishing precisely what 2020 needed from an iconic athlete.
He is the consummate badass warrior, promoting Black Lives Matter, pushing Americans to vote (against President Trump) AND subduing all postseason comers while maintaining his mental equilibrium in restrictive confinement. He is pushing 36 and finishing his 17th year in the league, yet James is the one still standing after Giannis Antetokounmpo faded, Kawhi Leonard choked, Paul George battled demons and James Harden tripped on his beard again. LeBron never will be Michael Jordan, as “The Last Dance’’ docu-series reaffirmed, but I doubt Jordan would have lasted in the Bubble even with daily opportunities to golf and gamble. Nor would Jordan, at the time, have made any impact as an activist. To refer to James as multi-relevant this year is grossly understating his impact. A day doesn’t pass without him making a headline, and, over the weekend, he made at least three.
He ripped the judicial system — and rightfully so — for allowing actress Lori Loughlin and her husband to serve sentences in low-security prisons (yoga and pilates for Aunt Becky!) despite paying $500,000 in bribes in the college admissions scandal. Noting that a judge gave Loughlin a slammer of her choice, James responded on Instagram with five smiling/crying emojis: “Of her what!!??? I’m laughing cause sometimes you have to just to stop from crying! Don’t make no damn sense to me. We just want the same treatment if committed of same crime that’s all. Is that asking for to much??? Let me guess, it is huh. Yeah I know!! We’ll just keep pushing forward and not expecting the handouts! STRONG, BLACK & POWERFUL!’’ White privilege at work, wouldn’t you say?
Then he made news as a father. James didn’t want his three kids joining him and his wife in the Bubble this month because, in his words, “My kids are adventurous and they love to do so much stuff. There’s nothing to do here.’’ That left 15-year-old Bronny, the high-school hoops sensation, to be adventurous in California: He posted a video of himself smoking a blunt, a clip that went viral before it was removed from his Instagram account. While hardly a capital crime, this is a distressing episode for LeBron, who hasn’t seen his children since Father’s Day and admitted to “numerous nights and days thinking about leaving’’ the Bubble. Bronny’s full name, as you know, is LeBron James Jr. He has 5.6 million followers on Instagram, 4.3 million on TikTok. His dad has talked openly about playing at least one NBA season with him. Think there isn’t concern about the fishbowl that awaits him and how he’s handling it? This is a father-son talk best done in person, not on a Zoom call, but in the middle of the playoffs, what is a dad to do? Nor should he blame the evils of social media; after all, LeBron also is the king of networking.
Nor can he do anything but look in the mirror and recall his teenaged self. In his book, “Shooting Stars,’’ LeBron admitted to smoking marijuana as a high-school junior. With co-author Buzz Bissinger, James wrote, “We had become big-headed jerks, me in particular, and we are to blame for that, but so are adults who treated us that way and then sat back and smugly watched the self-destruction.’’ He learned back then about the scarcity of trust, and that’s what he seemed to convey when he tweeted, as his son was being crucified on social media: “Exactly why I have my close circle cause as soon as you try to expand to a square the people who you thought was in your corner as the exact opposite. #MyThoughts.’’ Please keep in mind that James, in almost two decades in the high-profile public eye, has avoided scandal. Hey, kids try weed. At least half the players in the NBA smoke weed. He’ll deal with it.
It was his rant about the MVP vote, though, that suggests James is so amped to prove a point that he can’t possibly lose what would be his fourth championship. Not only did Antetokounmpo win the award for the second consecutive year, he won in a landslide — an outcome that looks dubious after his latest playoff bust as James appears title-bound. After winning MVP honors four times between 2009 and 2013, LeBron hasn’t won since. He also has lost six times in his nine NBA Finals appearances, always an eyesore, especially when compared to Jordan’s 6-0 mark. Now, Giannis is the beloved freak after Leonard became the darling of June. When asked about the vote, James let loose with a torrent of P-words.
“Pissed me off. That’s my true answer,” he said. “It pissed me off, because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything. You know, not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP. But that pissed me off. And I’ve finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship (or) now four times as an MVP.
“I never came into this league to be MVP or to be a champion. I’ve always just wanted to get better and better every single day, and those things will take care of itself. But some things is just out of my hand and some things you can’t control. But it pissed me off.”
Not finished, he targeted the voters: 100 media members worldwide and one fan representative. It’s a strange system for such an important honor. “I don’t know how much we are really watching the game,” James said of the panel. “I’m not going to sit up here and talk about what the criteria should be or what it is. It’s changed over the years since I’ve gotten into the league. Sometimes it’s the best player on the best team. Sometimes it’s the guy with the best season statistically. I mean, you don’t know. I do know Giannis had a hell of a season.’’
But Antetokounmpo didn’t have a hell of a postseason. Nor did the Milwaukee Bucks, who never found their stride in the Bubble and wilted after boycotting a game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The Lakers also were among teams that subsequently boycotted games, but thanks to James’ leadership and considerable activism experience, they maintained clear focus. It never has made sense that MVP awards, which are supposed to pinpoint the best players in their leagues in a given year, are based entirely on regular seasons. James is in the process of making a mockery of the method.
“He locks in. I mean, he goes into a different mode,’’ said Davis, who is the second-best player remaining in the Bubble, with apologies to Jimmy Butler. “He’s already in that mode regardless, because we’re trying to win a championship. I know he’d rather win a ring than an MVP award, but it definitely sparks him like he’s got a chip on his shoulder, like he’s got something to prove. He’s the best player in the league. I mean, every headline is about LeBron James, and everybody talks about what he’s done. But you look at this year, what he’s able to accomplish in the regular season and playoffs — for me, it’s clear-cut he’s the MVP.’’
Some championships this year should be affixed with an asterisk — such as in Major League Baseball, which never should have attempted its Covid-wrecked farce of a shotgun season, and college football, which persists in attempting a disjointed campaign as the virus batters campuses and at least one big-time coach (Florida State’s Mike Norvell). But anyone who tries to downgrade LeBron’s would-be title is an Ass-terisk. The same applies to Naomi Osaka, who took over women’s tennis at the U.S. Open while wearing the names of shooting victims on her masks. And the team that survives the NHL Igloo up north, maybe the surprising Dallas Stars.
DeChambeau? Until a scandal proves otherwise, The Hulk is taking over golf with a counterintuitive mixture of science, protein shakes, painstaking hard work and just enough nuances, such as a short game and, yes, even a few fairway landings between constant saves from the rough. He vowed last year to change his body and swing — but who knew he’d change the sport? Asked Friday if his ethos was big enough to overcome the Winged Foot carnage, he invoked Tiger Woods, who missed the cut for the eighth time in his last 15 majors in a crash that suggested Augusta 2019 will be his famous final scene. “That’s a question for the gods. That’s a question for God,’’ DeChambeau said. “I mean, Tiger has been able to do something like that many times before, so I think there is something. But human scientific research does not say that there’s anything about that.’’
This is a man who vows to live to 130. Is he human? For his next trick, he’ll try a 48-inch driver. “Keep pushing the boundaries,’’ he said.
In a signature 2020 scene, DeChambeau stopped on his way to the trophy ceremony to speak to his family on a big-screen Zoom call.
“I did it!’’ he said.
“You did it! Love you, buddy!’’ his mother said.
“Thanks for sacrificing everything for me,’’ he said.
“We’re going to open up a bottle of champagne,’’ she said.
Golf never has seen anyone like him.
But then, we’ve never seen any year like 2020.
The NFL can’t afford to lose stars such as Nick Bosa and Saquon Barkley to serious injuries in a limping procession that included Christian McCaffrey and Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers’ season might have been sabotaged by evil turf at MetLife Stadium, where coach Kyle Shanahan blamed a new surface that was “sticky’’ — knowing his team returns next weekend to play the Giants. Quarterbacks continue to rule the Monday morning Zoom conversations — water coolers are long gone — with the Tom Brady/Cam Newton comparison game still in flux. Brady played better in a victory while Newton, while continuing to impress, was denied on the game’s final play in Seattle, with the Patriots lining 10 men on the line and alerting the Seahawks to a run. Elsewhere, Patrick Mahomes rallied the Chiefs again after nearly meeting his match in the Chargers’ defense and rookie QB Justin Herbert; Aaron Rodgers avenged turmoil to regain his MVP sheen; and Josh Allen, Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill hurled touchdown passes galore. We saw Wilson dominate the Patriots after declaring himself the league’s best QB, “without a doubt.’’ Bill Belichick agreed, saying he “doesn’t really see anybody better’’ in a dig at Brady, who isn’t in the conversation and might never be again.
And the fans? Little by little, they’re starting to return in increments, still not the sensible approach but unstoppable in a sports world that — as I’ve said and written repeatedly — still treats Covid like the common flu. In Dallas, 21,000 humans shrieked in joy — and spread saliva droplets — as the Cowboys staged an improbable comeback victory. (At least Jerry Jones wore a mask as he hugged people in his suite.) In Kansas City, a Chiefs fan tested positive after attending the season opener, forcing everyone who sat near him to quarantine. In Cleveland, only 6,000 fans were allowed, but that didn’t stop several from engaging in fisticuffs in a town that might not know what the coronavirus is. The league is weird enough this year — Green Bay players trying Lambeau Leaps with no fans to catch them, fake boos piped in over speakers in Philadelphia (natch) — to complicate matters with sick patients in hospitals.
At this stage, though, 2020 belongs to James. Which is astonishing, recalling how he looked “washed’’ last season, to use his media-mocking term. When the NBA season was halted March 11 and didn’t resume until July, he could have dismissed the Bubble as an absurd aberration and checked out. Instead, the King reinvented himself as Prince of the Pandemic. If the Lakers go on to play Butler and the Heat — an intriguing matchup of LeBron’s current and former teams … and Pat Riley’s former and current teams — it won’t be easy. Unlike, say, the dissension-torn Clippers, the Heat have created a closer bond inside the Bubble. In taking a 2-1 lead in the Eastern finals, they’ve rattled the Celtics into a screaming, chair-throwing scene in their locker room and returned to win twice from double-digit deficits.
“Man, we got grit,” Bam Adebayo said. “I’m happy to be on this team with these guys because everybody in here has a different story. We all come from nothing, and that’s what’s beautiful about this team, man. You put guys that come from nothing together, and they have a vision.’’
Said Butler, who finally seems to have found his happy place in NBA life: “We believe in one another. We know what we’re capable of. Yeah, we get down at times, but we never hang our heads, because we know if we play the right way, we give ourselves a chance to win. With this group of guys, man, it’s always smiles out there on the court.”
The Heat will win titles in the future, especially if Antetokounmpo takes his talents to South Beach. But no one can stop LeBron James when he is sensing a chance to finish first again, not second, in a career that often has been more grating than rewarding. Plenty of people in this country aren’t watching sports, glued to news channels weeks before the most important and potentially poisonous presidential election ever, even as athletes bust through the gloom to invent new ways to showcase preeminence.
But if there’s one sports figure who is polarizing enough to draw an audience in October, it’s the Braveheart of the Bubble. The title sticks.
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.