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How Will ESPN Deliver Sunday Night Baseball in 2021?

“It’s not my place to get deep on the pandemic and lifestyle and all that kind of stuff, but we’re closer to normal. 162 games is normal and April 1st Opening Day is normal. Having some degree of crowd in the ballpark is not quite as normal as sellouts on Opening Day, but it’s a lot closer than it was last year.”

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There’s something nostalgic about ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for a sports nerd like me. Maybe it’s because my baseball heyday was spent routinely watching Jon Miller and Joe Morgan in the booth each Sunday night. Maybe it’s the theme music, which is playing in my head as I write this article. Regardless, it was a treat when Ben Cafardo at ESPN invited me to be BSM’s Zoom call representative with Senior Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins to discuss the network’s production approach to the 2021 MLB season. 

Go inside ESPN's production truck during President Obama's stadium entrance  in Havana, Cuba - ESPN Front Row

ESPN will begin its coverage of the season on Opening Day this Thursday April 1st. 11 games will air on the network in the first week, but things will look especially different in the booth this season. 

“We will still be in a workflow that is centralized, primarily Bristol-based from a product approach standpoint,” said Orlins. “We do probably 20 percent of our games out of our Charlotte hub, but for the most part things connect through Bristol and out of the Bristol hub.”

That means ESPN will start most of it’s Sunday Night Baseball crew in studio. Buster Olney, who will serve as a reporter, is expected to be on-site at every single game. However, Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez will start the year in Bristol. 

“I don’t know that I have any guarantees, predictions on when that would change or if that will change,” added Orlins. “I think there are a lot of circumstances that will go into that, and some of them are to be determined, including the COVID pandemic as one of them.”

ESPN’s view on putting Olney at the ballpark is that it will increase the essential value of the reporter. Especially since it means Buster will be the lone one on site. But Olney’s job won’t likely be as easy as it used to be. He’s on site for the game which is the positive, but anyone who’s covered events during the past year knows that it also means no face-to-face interactions with players or coaches. Olney has done a tremendous job over the years gathering and reporting information, some of it picked up on the field during practice or even inside the clubhouse. He won’t have that same access though this season. 

That’s a key reason why ESPN isn’t rushing to put crews inside of booths all across the stadium. If Vasgersian and Rodriguez are only allowed in the booth and have no other access, is it critical then to have them on the road? Most broadcasters would tell you it’s easier to call a game when you can see the action in person, but ESPN is confident that its Bristol studios and/or home studios will work out well for the upcoming season. 

Just like ESPN’s coverage of college basketball this season, there will be broadcasters calling games from inside their homes. It’s nothing new. We saw it with the network’s coverage of the KBO last year, the first live games to feature live broadcasts from home during the pandemic. 

“One thing we experimented with on KBO last year and will do again this year is having Eduardo Perez transmit his own video files into our switcher and telestrate his own stuff from his home,” said Orlins. “The more you challenge yourselves on what you can do with technology, the more these things are accessible and available to be done.”

Many fans have been critical of Major League Baseball’s inability to market it’s biggest stars. A debate on how many people would recognize Mike Trout if he walked into a mall comes to mind. ESPN isn’t single handedly solving the issue, but it’s trying to pull more personality out of both the players and it’s broadcast by mic’ing up players during games. It’s a unique and fun feature to any game that really only works during baseball, seeing as it’s slower pace and a better fit than most other sports. ESPN really pushed it during Spring Training in order to highlight more personality driven content with players. It was seen as a big success, and something the network will consider more throughout the season. 

“We had a lot of success last year in the regular season with that type of access material,” said Orlins. “Bryce Harper was a great participant. Obviously there were a couple in the postseason, as well, Paul DeJong with the Cardinals, Ian Happ was tremendous with the Cubs, along with a few others. The answer to that though is to be determined, as it requires an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association. We hope that we once again get there, but having said that, those things do not necessarily travel a quick path, as I think most of us are aware.”

THIS IS GREAT: PHILS BRUCE HARPER MIC'D UP FOR THE ACTION! | Fast Philly  Sports

A lot of technical aspects will be the same from last year, but a glaring difference will be the added element of fans at the games. Every team in baseball will have fans on Opening Day, ranging from the Texas Rangers having 100 percent capacity to the Toronto Blue Jays hosting around 1,275 fans at its spring training facility in Florida. Capacity numbers differ, but fans will be in the stands this season. After going through a year without crowd noise or in person reactions, that has to be a giant relief for ESPN’s production team.

“I know it’s a controversial topic, but I’ll tell you the first thing I learned on KBO was I’m not big on what I’d call necessarily full-force fake crowd sound,” said Orlins. “But I’m not big on no crowd sound, either.”

“As far as the way the game is cut, there’s not a whole lot you can do in the sense of — you’re not going to not show the pitch from center field because it shows empty seats behind the plate. Do we miss the crowd reaction shots? Yes. Would I ever prioritize the crowd reaction shots over the player reactions? Probably not.

“I miss the sound and I miss the authentic sound, but I also miss the personality. I mean, that’s a real element, especially to baseball. I just miss the kid or father catching the home run and the fun in the stands. I don’t lose much sleep over whether our reactions to a home run are more focused on the dugout versus fans. I think those shots are to be expected. They’re fairly normal or replaceable to some degree. But I miss the entertainment of kids and parents, and the odd moments when a guy falls over trying to catch a foul ball or gives it to the kid or refuses to give it to the kid or throws it back on the field, all of those things.”

Hopefully the sight of fans in the stands on Opening Day gives the country a renewed sense of optimism that life will get back to normal. Who knows, maybe as things continue to improve, A-Rod will be back in Boston or New York to call Sunday Night Baseball this summer. Maybe baseball can be the sport that signifies the full normalcy of life returning to pre-pandemic levels. If that happens, you can bet ESPN will be there to show it. 

Baseball in Empty Stadiums Is Weird. How Will It Affect Outcomes? - The New  York Times

“My sense is that people want normal,” said Orlins. “It’s not my place to get deep on the pandemic and lifestyle and all that kind of stuff, but we’re closer to normal. 162 games is normal and April 1st Opening Day is normal. Having some degree of crowd in the ballpark is not quite as normal as sellouts on Opening Day, but it’s a lot closer than it was last year.

“I think there’s no other sport that quite occupies, wherever you want to compare baseball with other sports in terms of its popularity and how you measure, I don’t think there’s anything like baseball that exists within the daily rhythm of American lifestyle. I think that’s really important right now.”

BSM Writers

Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content

Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.

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USA Today

When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.

“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.

Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:

1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”

2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.

The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.

I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.

Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”

There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.

First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.

The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.

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BSM Writers

The Client Just Said YES, Now What?

We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.

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One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!

We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.

When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.

They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.

A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 74

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This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.

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