Sam Ravech’s debut appearance on ESPN likely came during the 2004 World Series. His dad, Karl Ravech, was hosting Baseball Tonight from the right field bleachers at Fenway Park and nine-year-old Sam pleaded to tag along for the night. His wish was granted but a cold Fall evening in Boston meant young Sam was underneath the set of Baseball Tonight, lying by his father’s feet and hugging a space heater to stay warm. Unbeknownst to both Sam and Karl, his right shoe was sticking out of the bottom of the set while the show was live.
“I’m sure the producer or director was losing their mind,” laughed Sam. “Whenever I wanted his attention, I wouldn’t do it when he was live, when he was at commercial, I would tug on the little ISB earpiece that goes into his ear and he would look down.”
Karl is one of the longest tenured broadcasters at ESPN, starting back in 1993, but one of his favorite days with the network came last Saturday when both he and his son were calling college basketball games at the same time on different ESPN channels. Sam was broadcasting the Manhattan vs. Saint Peter’s women’s game on ESPNU, while Karl was calling Alabama vs. Missouri on ESPN.
It’s unknown if a father-son duo has ever called different games at the same time on different ESPN platforms, but there’s a good chance the Ravechs accomplished something this past weekend that’s never happened during the illustrious history of the Worldwide Leader.
“I think it’s fascinating and unique,” said Karl. “First, thankfully, ESPN has multiple channels and platforms so the possibility exists. It was my producer from my basketball games, Scott Matthews, another Ithaca guy, that said I think I saw that your son is doing the game opposite you. I said, he usually does games on Sunday, are you sure? I went and looked and said, ‘Oh my gosh, he is!’ The greatest part for Sam and myself is that his grandparents get a chance to watch their son, and more importantly, their grandson. It’ll be a really neat thing for them.”
“When I found out we were doing a game at the same time I thought it was interesting,” said Sam. “The question is who’s going to get more viewers (laughs).”
Regardless of who got more viewers, Saturday was a proud moment for the entire Ravech family. For Sam, there had to be a level of validation, seeing he was broadcasting a game on ESPNU at just 25 years old, opposite of the man he respects the most. For Karl, there had to be an overwhelming sense of joy to see his son follow in his footsteps and make a name for himself in the business so quickly.
“Saturday was interesting for sure,” said Karl. “Technical challenges prevented me from actually being on for the start of my game but they were quickly rectified.”
“I got a text from Pat Lowry, our Coordinating Producer for basketball, saying my dad’s camera wasn’t working so Jimmy Dykes had to broadcast the first half,” said Sam. “I found it funny but I’m sure pops didn’t.”
“We did speak after the game,” said Sam. “There was definitely a mutual understanding that what we just did was rare and could likely only happen once, but hopefully many more times.”
“It was incredibly gratifying to see him recognized for his abilities and not his last name,” said Karl. “He was asked to call a game with an analyst who was making her debut. He was trusted to make the analyst comfortable and successful. That faith was rewarded with a broadcaster who was confident, clear and conversational. It was a great day to be a Ravech and even better to be a dad.”
Sam is a rapid up-and-coming broadcaster at ESPN with a ton of success in his future. But unfortunately he has to constantly battle doubters that claim he’s only in this position because of his father’s success at the network. It’s not exactly fair, given Sam’s excellent work calling Double A baseball games for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, but he also knew that by getting into the business it meant putting himself into these type of situations.
“I deal with that every day, man,” said Sam. “That’s nothing new. It sucks. But I asked for it and it’s something you have to expect and deal with. What I always tell people is that if it was really because of that, I wouldn’t have re-signed and gotten more games with ESPN. If you’re good, you’re good. ESPN is not in the business of making bad deals. But I deal with it. My wife is supportive and she’s right there with me when something really crazy happens. It’s part of Noah Eagle’s life, the son of Ian Eagle, who’s doing the same thing. I’m sure it’s part of Golic’s life, but it’s worth it because we love to do it.”
“The unfairness exists for sure,” said Karl. “But I don’t think that’s just because your last name is Ravech or if it was Levy or Van Pelt or Buccigross, that they’re going to give you a free pass. It doesn’t work that way when you get to this level. The one thing I learned a long time ago when I got to ESPN in 1993, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, and if you don’t have credibility, the great part about the sports audience is, they more than likely know just as much as you. That means you can get exposed. To his credit, he hasn’t had to experience a lot of that in the games I’ve listened to. He’s extremely well prepared.”
Though Saturday was a monumental day, this likely won’t be the last time both Karl and Sam are calling games on different ESPN networks at the same time. Perhaps, they’ll even call a game together. But until then, Sam will continue to use his father as his biggest mentor in the business. That’s smart, considering half of Karl’s life has been spent working at ESPN.
“There’s nobody better,” said Sam. “He’s the best. Besides talking to my wife after a game, he’s the next person I talk to. When I first started he would say, don’t talk too much, slow down, stop talking so fast, let it breathe, those were all common phrases he would use. Now, it feels like we’re more on the same level, not that I’m there, because he’s one of the best in the game, but it feels like we’re more on the same plane.”
“When I give feedback to one of his games, it’s usually more encouraging,” said Karl. “Such as, here’s an opportunity where you can ask your analyst a question. You’re trying to elicit conversation and you’re trying to have them share their experience and sometimes that’s the role that you have to do as a play-by-play guy, along with describing the action. You have to make them better. I hope when I’m done with my career, people will say that I always made my analyst better.”
A Ravech has been at ESPN since 1993. With Sam’s potential on full display, a smart man would bet on a Ravech being at ESPN for many more years to come. Karl is proud of his son, not because he chose this particular career path, but because he worked extremely hard and developed his own style the right way. Sure, Sam has taken several things from his dad’s arsenal, such as how to have fun, tell stories and let the analyst shine, but just because they share a last name doesn’t mean they’re mirror images of each other on a broadcast. Sam knows that he’s the youngest broadcaster at ESPN, but he wants to use that to his advantage, rather than view it as a detriment.
“One difference may be obvious, but he’s old,” laughed Sam. “I try to incorporate some of the younger things, especially in interviews. I might bring up who has the most followers on TikTok, just fun stuff that he may not understand. I’m 25 years old but not much older than these kids so I like to think I can relate a little bit better, but he is still a cool guy.”
Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards
“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”
I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.
While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.
Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.
This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.
I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.
Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.
I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.
A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.
There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.
It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.
It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.
Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.
More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.
If Netflix Wants Live Sports, F1 May Be Just The Beginning
“Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.”
In the past, Hollywood dealmakers and stockbrokers wondered whether another studio or streamer would catch Netflix. Its dominance stemmed from being a first-mover and not having a serious competitor until Amazon and Disney ten or more years after their launch. However, Netflix would eventually have to compete for content, original and licensed, other platforms that offered less expansive ad-based options, and additional content like live sports or a very popular series or movie premiere.
Arguably, the pandemic accelerated the move to digital and it allowed competitors to gain subscribers because people were spending more time at home. More subscribers and additional streaming options for consumers has not caused Netflix to faulter, but it has caused Netflix to rethink its sports strategy. For years, Netflix was dead set again streaming live sports because of their cost and commercials—Netflix does not have advertisements on its platform currently.
Netflix’s popular Drive to Survive docuseries about the Formula 1 (or “F1”) racing circuit, which was renewed for a fourth season, and the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls The Last Dance represents a golden era and renaissance of sports documentaries. As much as fans of feature films and television series enjoy learning about actors during and off camera they similarly want to know about sports stars, their coaches, and franchises. In other words, the business of sports is booming in valuation and behind-the-scenes content.
Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated that the popularity of Drive to Survive has caused the company to rethink its stance on purchasing live sports content. The broadcast and streaming rights to Formula 1 will become available via ESPN and Sky Sports in 2022 and 2024. Netflix, will have some competition to secure F1 rights, which will drive up the cost. It was also reported by Front Office Sports that the Netflix CEO would require a level of exclusivity for sports rights that other platforms do not normally require. The exclusivity is likely required because Netflix will want to justify the purchase price and to keep-in-line with what Netflix customers expect—exclusive content on the platform.
With Premier League club Manchester United looking to secure a broadcast deal for selling its rights outside of the traditional league format, it might be the perfect acquisition for Netflix. An exclusive team vs. an entire league would also be less expensive and more targeted. One aspect of uncertainty for all streamers is their subscribers overseas, particularly in untapped China. The international market is far from settled or established. Netflix also has a large operation in India so possibly cricket via the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) could be a rights purchase to consider.
In 2018, the original content on Netflix only accounted for 8%. This means that 92% of the content on the platform just a few years ago was all owned (at least partially) by someone else. That statistic has changed because Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple+, and many others have since been created and stocked or restocked with content. Controlling interest in Hulu was even purchased from FOX by Disney. Disney and Amazon now both rival Netflix in terms of subscribers. Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.
As Comcast-owned NBCUniversal CEO Brian Roberts recently said, purchasing sports rights can be difficult. Sports rights are expensive. Exclusive sports rights are even more expensive. Sports rights only become available every five to ten years. Networks and streamers are highly competitive to secure those rights with the hope of landing viewers, subscribers, and advertising dollars.
Will Netflix get into sports rights bidding? In the past, the digital entertainment giant has been steadfast is its non-sports approach. However, the market has changed and is flooded with more competitors now. Netflix has to change to meet its customer and the market needs.
Formula 1 presents an interesting scenario for Netflix as a buyer and partner. F1 is a popular league internationally and growing in the United States. Two new F1 races in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, in addition to season four of the Drive to Survive Netflix series are sure to drive traffic, pun intended, and interest in the racing sport.
Formula 1 is a sports league that will cost less to purchase streaming rights than a traditional American “Big 4” like the NBA, NFL, or MLB. Formula 1’s structure is also centered at the top so it would be easier to make an exclusive deal that Netflix seeks. The remaining questions being, will Netflix pursue Formula 1 sports rights to increase its streaming platform subscribers and compete with others? Second, will Netflix be the first to offer commercial free live sports programming—for a premium price—or offer in-screen ads and additional during-break inside looks, content, and analysis? Or will Netflix act more like a traditional broadcaster and offer advertisements to pay down its purchase price? One will know more after a few laps around the sun.
Manningcast Is Best Experienced As A Fan, Not As A Broadcaster
“I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat.”
Much has been written on this site already about the ESPN alternative to a traditional Monday Night Football broadcast, the Manningcast. Andy Masur asked if it worked and questioned the network pulling its audience in two different directions. Mark Madden said the concept undoubtedly works, but the content is poor.
Both articles are good reads. Both provide another level of insight from those in the industry and how they view this unique/high-profile concept. Industry views provide solid insight to the success and quality of the show itself, what works – what doesn’t. But if we can’t sit back and take our industry glasses off, and just look at this broadcast as sports fans, I feel we’ll never see it in clear view.
I’ll admit, for me, it took me no more than 5 minutes of watching week 1’s Ravens vs Raiders game to say “yeah, this isn’t meant for me”. I didn’t like the non-traditional approach of the broadcast, it felt like it lacked the energy of a traditional sportscast. The stadium volume was turned way down, the excitement was more in the conversation they were having with each other, rather than the game itself. It took me out of the moment of the game, rather than allowing me to get sucked in.
Now, in fairness, I kind of went into it with a narrow mind, thinking that would be the case. I am not someone who has the desire to flip around during the College Football Playoff broadcasts and catch the coaches corner or studio chatter, I want the game.
Bottom line is, I hated the Manningcast when I watched it in Week 1. I even went on the air the next day and trolled members of my audience that were effusive in their praise of it. In the limited sample I provided for myself, I had come to the conclusion that this broadcast wasn’t made for REAL football fans (insert caveman sound effect here) and that only the most casual viewer would want to watch this SNL wanna be of a football broadcast.
However, week 2, I decided I was going to be more open minded to it. I made it a point to break away from the traditional Packers vs Lions broadcast and watch the Manningcast, no matter how painful. I was completely wrong in my initial opinion.
Was Peyton Manning wearing a helmet and acting a little too zany for my taste in week 1? Yes. Is the guest connection quality well below what we should find acceptable in broadcasting? Yes. But that’s where I made the mistake. I was looking at this broadcast through the eyes of a broadcaster and not as a sports fan.
Peyton Manning’s charisma jumps off the screen, he is elite at describing what he sees on the field in a way that no one else can. Eli can be a little dry, but he’s low key funny. And they have real chemistry together, as they should. They are family after all.
The thing that hooked me the most was just how invested Peyton was in the plays on the field, he really gets into the game, truly invested in the success and failure of the quarterbacks. There was a moment in week 2 when Jared Goff threw the ball to an empty patch of grass 15 yards down the field and was subsequently called for intentional grounding. You could see Goff yelling at the referee, pleading his case. Peyton surmised, probably accurately, that Goff was telling the ref that the ball was thrown to the right place and that its not his fault the receiver didn’t run the correct route. Peyton then carried on and told stories of when this type of thing would happen to him when he played for Indianapolis and Denver. I was hooked.
I realized that I was far more invested in week 1 as a stand alone football game, I’m from Baltimore, I have a lot of love for the Ravens. Being invested in the game itself doesn’t lend as much flexibility. As a fan, you to want to hear about anything else but the action on the field. However, when watching two teams that I have no personal interest in, the Manning broadcast took on this new life. It created a level of interest for me as a REAL football fan that I otherwise would not have had. I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat. I felt like I had a front row view to a football clinic, held by two of the most accomplished players in league history.
Personally, I could live without the guests. I am not as entertained by the back and forth with Rob Gronksowski or Pat McAfee as it seems the majority of social media is, but the Manningcast does a brilliant job of bridging the gap between the hardcore football fan and the casual observer. It’s an absolute hit and I’ll be locked in for the next one.
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