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Meet The Market Managers: Ivy Savoy-Smith, Audacy Washington DC

“We’re just efficient and we can show you that. We can show you by the qualitative of our listeners. We can show you the research and I can show you who my listeners are, where they live, how much money they make, how smart they are, and what types of jobs they have.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Ivy Savoy-Smith has been leading Audacy’s Washington, DC cluster since December 2019. That doesn’t mean she is new to the seven-station cluster by any means. The Maryland native has spent virtually her whole life in the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) and the majority of her entire career inside the same building. 

Being a local is important in the nation’s capitol. It means something different to the people that grew up there than it does to those who relocate there to work in government, defense or the lobbyist industry. If you’re a transplant, DC is built on politics. If you grew up inside the Beltway though, you know shutting out politics is important to maintaining your sanity. 

A big part of the success of 106.7 The Fan has been due to the station’s ability to do just that – shut out politics. Ivy told me that it’s a big part of what’s helped the station remain strong when competing for advertising dollars against powerhouse news/talkers like WTOP and WMAL. As strong as The Fan has been, it’s no longer the lone brand inside Audacy DC headquarters. 2020 ended with Audacy adding another weapon to its sports radio arsenal when the company struck a deal with Radio One to acquire Team 980. With two familiar local brands operating under one roof in a city that loves sports and isn’t afraid to spend to be associated with it, Ivy and her team like their chances, even if politics occasionally cause a little chaos.   

Demetri Ravanos: You were born and raised in the DMV-area, right outside of DC. I think for those of us from the outside, it’s hard to understand what that is like, because politics is what keeps the town ticking to a certain extent. And because of that, it becomes part of people’s everyday life and everyday conversation because everybody knows somebody that works in that field. With that being the case, how important is it that your sports stations be a pure escape from those conversations? I would imagine that is a real selling point, not only for listeners, but also talking to advertisers too.  

Ivy Savoy-Smith: Absolutely it is. Our sports stations are just that. They are an escape from everything. We’re here to engage our listeners with great conversation about what’s going on, to have unbiased content that we’re talking about in the sports world, and to give them an opportunity to then engage with our talent over their thoughts and opinions. Obviously, we dive in sometimes when sports transcends, into other things. You have some athletes that maybe doing something in the music world or in the political world, so we will touch on it a bit, but at the end of the day, we are an escape for people. We want you to come to 106.7 The Fan or The Team 980 to listen and hear great content about your favorite and even your not-so-favorite teams here in the in the DMV.  

DR: With it being such a transient area, I would imagine that there are plenty of the hometown teams that some of your listeners hate as well.  

ISS: Exactly! I mean that is the awesome thing about sports. We have fans all over for the Junkies. I can’t tell you how many listeners that we have for the Sports Junkies who may have left the DMV and don’t live here anymore, but they have that option of listening to the station and still feeling like they’re right here. It’s just a great opportunity. People can still listen to their favorite sports teams wherever they live with streaming and with so many options that we have that are available now for people that weren’t available years ago.  

DR: Whether it’s you or people at various levels on your sales staff, when you’re talking to potential clients, WTOP is the highest billing station in America. It’s right there in your backyard. WMAL is also a legendary news/talk station that is very strong. How do you approach local businesses spending money on those stations and hammer home the idea that it benefits them to buy sports on The Fan or Team 980 in addition to News Talk?  

ISS: We’re just efficient and we can show you that. We can show you by the qualitative of our listeners. We can show you the research and I can show you who my listeners are, where they live, how much money they make, how smart they are, and what types of jobs they have. Our time spent listening with our sports stations is high. So again, it’s the quality of the listener and you have them engaged. That also goes a long way with a client’s commercial messaging on our stations. We have affluent listeners. Obviously they’re male-dominant stations that we have right there at that median age of the 48 or 49 year old man, who has been working, who has a disposable income.                 

So we’re able to deliver that more well-rounded buy than, I would say our competitors can. When you think about a TOP or an MAL, and not to take anything away from those two stations. They’re two good stations for news content, but they’re older-skewing stations. Our median age of who were reaching has disposable income and are spending and are engaged, versus some of our competition. They’re on the older end.  

Let’s talk about “qualified.” When I’m talking to clients about that, it’s like, “I’m giving you qualified leads. Who’s going to come into your business? Who has more propensity to purchase than someone who isn’t? Who is set in their way and doesn’t need to purchase your product? Who is already comfortable? Who already has these things? Or do you want the person who is going to buy, is looking to buy, is thinking about buying, and has the money to purchase?” We make sure that we’re having that conversation with each and every client that we’re talking to. It’s a different conversation every time based on, obviously, the client in the category. But yes, we are a viable talk station that has listeners who engage, who listen longer, who have the income to come into your locations, and who are in our key demographics. We’re right here to compete with those other stations, and we do a pretty good job of it – and more efficiently I’ll say.  

DR: You used the phrase “different conversations” and that feels like a good way to dive into the city’s two biggest sports radio brands now being inside the same building. Your group added Team 980 and the reconfigured lineup at the moment very much has its own identity. It’s not treated like an afterthought. I do wonder what the long term play is for the station or if you even have thought that far ahead yet. The Fan is such a powerhouse in the sports format, at some point I wonder if it just makes more sense to quit splitting the focus and devote all the resources to the top bread winner.  

ISS: Absolutely not. We are committed to Team 980 and we feel like it is a great complement to The Fan. Yes, The Fan is our powerhouse and we take nothing away from that, but The Team is also a viable radio station that is a heritage brand  and it has a very loyal base of listeners. We’ve made some changes because we want it to evolve with the marketplace right now and with our listener’s demands. 

We want The Team to be a complement to The Fan as a sports station, not a one dimensional station. The demographics are similar, but yet they are different in some key ways. The team has a higher comp of African-Americans. The station does very well in Prince Georges County, an area that is very affluent with African-American males. The Fan does very well in Fairfax County with their key demographics. The station’s mirror each other in the right way. You’re getting all men with both stations as opposed to one brand reaching one type of man and the other station reaching another type of man. By having them both, we’re able to deliver the total demographic with 106.7 the Fan and Team 980.                

I believe they’re efficient together and it’s a well-rounded buy. All of the games we carry, they’re going to transcend. So even though one station may carry it, we’re still going to talk about it on the other station. That’s what we’re doing with The Team that hasn’t been done. We’re giving Washingtonians and the DMV options and opportunities to listen to both stations. They’re going to get something different from both stations that we believe they’re going to enjoy.  

DR: Is that something that you and Chris Kinard had to talk about with candidates, be it for the hosting roles or producing roles? Did you have to make it crystal clear that Team 980 is important to Audacy because it serves a purpose that The Fan can’t or accomplishes a certain goal that The Fan can’t in order to assuage any fears they may have because it’s an AM signal versus an FM signal and it’s not going to be treated the same way in the building? 

ISS: Chris and I’ve known each other for 20 years. He’s been with the company as long as I have. So immediately we knew that we were going to make a few tweaks with the station. Overall, 980 is a heritage radio station. It is a brand that has done very, very well in the marketplace. We just wanted to continue that and also enhance it. But immediately we made sure that it was one team, because when you’ve been on opposite sides and you’ve been competing for years, obviously it’s going to be different that day when you make the announcement that your number one competitor is now in the building. So we wanted to make sure, with both teams, to be as transparent as possible. It is one team now. You both bring valuable assets to the table. It does not have to be one or the other. If we do this right, we complement each other.              

So the same conversation that we had with them internally is the same conversation I had with the buying community externally, because it is the same conversation. They complement each other. Does it have to be one or the other? It’s worked really well. I will tell you that I am proud of them. They have worked well together and we do a lot together with them. If The Fan hears of one thing, we immediately let The Team know and vice versa. And that’s because everyone knows their strengths. And when everyone knows their strengths and their value and you’re transparent, I think it goes a long way. That’s the difference maker.  

DR: We did a story not too long ago at the site about the uniqueness of 980’s lineup with Travis Thomas and Reese Waters airing back to back. I looked this up to confirm. It is the only station in America where you have solo hosts, both African-American, neither are former athletes, airing back to back anywhere in the country. Was that a conscious choice in terms of the positioning? Like you said, 980 has historically performed better with the African-American community. Or was it just a matter of this is where these two sort of fit in the overall lineup and by happy accident, we stumbled on something unique to sports radio? 

ISS: I wish I could take credit for that, but that is not the case. I have to give all credit to Chris Kinard, because he was the one who spearheaded this lineup and was adamant about Travis. We worked with Travis before and thought that he was a great talent and when it made sense we we’re going to put him somewhere. When 980 came up, it was just the perfect time. Reese, the same thing. We’ve worked with Reese Waters for years on different things. Chris has wanted him for some time, even when Reese was at ESPN. So Chris knew a lot of their strengths and the different things that they bring to the table. And he liked that. So those were really the reasons it worked out this way. I mean, it took a little creativity to rework the slots. It just so happened with the timing that when everything came about with Team, it was like, “OK, now we know where we can put these guys and bring them into the Audacy family.” 

DR: Speaking of Chris Kinard, he has spent his entire career with the company. You mentioned the two of you have worked together for a long time. What have you seen change in him as he has ascended up the ladder from starting out as a producer to now being considered one of the format’s very best programmers anywhere in the country? 

ISS: Oh, he definitely is! As I have evolved at the station, we’ve kind of evolved together. He also handles operations for the entire cluster. Chris is a creative genius, but he will also will get in the trenches with you. His guys respect him because he will work with them and he is very transparent. He does the work and gets in front of things. 

I will say from a market manager’s standpoint, he is the best. If he comes to me with an issue, he already has an answer for it. He doesn’t walk into the office and say “we’ve got this problem. What are we going to do, Ivy?”. It’s, “hey, we have this problem, Ivy. And I think I have the answer to the problem,” and that’s something that you don’t get all the time. He’s a team player and he listens, and that’s critical. 

Chris is not afraid to listen to what other brand managers and PDs are doing across the country at their sports stations. When he sees that they’re doing something great, he’ll reach out and say, “Hey Ivy, I just saw in Philly, they’re doing this, maybe it’s something we can tweak for DC”. He’s always looking and thinking about what else can he do next.               

It goes back to Travis and the Reese. He’s always looking at that bench too and thinking, “who are tomorrow’s up and coming star talents? Who’s going to bring that fresh new energy to the team and the talent that we need?” So, for instance, when all of this happened with Team 980, some of the things that we needed to do were already in his head. To me, Chris is the best in the business.  

DR: You mentioned before that you’ve been in the building together for a long time. I would imagine that both of you sort of shared major life moments with one another. But now that you are his boss, was there any sort of difficulty in the transition of the relationship? You know, we have this deep familiarity, we’re friends and peers, but now it’s become technically a boss/employee situation. How does the relationship make it easier to navigate thru that?  

ISS:  I can’t speak for Chris, but it may be easier for me. There’s a confidence at this level of knowing that I have someone that I can trust. I know his work ethic. I know he cares about what he does. He cares about his work. More importantly, he cares about his staff and he will run through a wall for them. I love that he is that way. 

Coming into this role and knowing that I had him as my brand manager over The Fan at the time, and since then promoted him to operations manager. Then of course, we acquired The Team, and I knew it’d work because again, I trust him. I know that I don’t have to worry about anything with Chris. 

So the transition has worked fine for us. We sat down and went over how does this role look for me, what are my expectations over what he’s doing? There really wasn’t much to change, but obviously we had a conversation and our relationship changed a little bit. But that’s okay, because guess what, I told him “you’ve been doing a good job even before I sat in this seat. So nothing’s really changing for you. You’re going to continue to do what you’re doing. And if anything, I hope me being in this position just empowers you to do more because, I support you and I have your back.  

DR: Audacy has certainly done a very good job of making sure that women are in charge of buildings across the entire landscape. From the smallest markets to the biggest, the company seems to have a real focus on putting women in positions of leadership. Being a black woman in that position, unfortunately, still is kind of a rare thing though. I wonder if that makes you willing and eager to be a mentor for the next generation of black women that want to reach the same spot or if it feels more important to advocate for changing minds and addressing biases that may exist at the top.  

ISS: I think it’s both. I would love to have more black women with a seat at the table. I would love more opportunity for that. I mentor women whenever I get a chance. I’m in a couple of women in sales advisory groups and councils where I mentor women as a whole and from all backgrounds. So I’m always excited to mentor and elevate women in any capacity that they want to be in, especially in sales, because it has always been a male dominated industry, not just radio, but just sales in general as well. So that’s important.              

I also want to make sure that we are recruiting and networking at historically black colleges and universities. If we’re trying to reach women of color, we’ve got to go where they are, right? I think we have done that in the office with Audacy. We do have a fellowship program that we have partnered with Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College in Atlanta. Part of that is so that we are having conversations and we’re inviting people who are interested in sales into our program so that we can mentor them and to help bring them into the industry because we do want that.          

It is very critical and very important because we have to have different voices and different opinions that bring about different conversations. And you have to have an open mind and hear things differently. That’s how you help to create change. 

DR: I do want to ask you about the departure of Chad Dukes. I know that had to be a tough situation to manage. You were pretty early in your tenure as market manager. It’s a tough call to make and due to the nature of the offense, you had to show some discretion. You didn’t want to damage anything regarding The Fan as a brand. I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about the conversations that you had with advertisers after you made that call. I’m sure that some get used to being in business with a particular host and when he’s gone and you can’t give all the answers they’re looking for, it leaves questions.  

ISS: Well, that was a very tough decision early on in my career. I mean, I’ve known Chad for years. I’ve known Chad since he started. No decision like that is easy, okay? Not with anyone and especially not one like that, but it was necessary and it’s a part of what we have to do as managers. We have no tolerance with that. Our company doesn’t. 

Having that conversation with clients actually wasn’t as difficult because most understand our policy. They have it as well in their workplace. It was just unfortunate because of the climate and because it’s happened in most companies, and it’s happened one too many times. Unfortunately, the familiarity with it was something that they had. So it wasn’t as tough a conversation as you might think with most clients. If anything, I got quite a few clients who reached out to me to say sorry, which there was no need for a client to do that. But I had quite a few clients who actually did.  

DR:  What about inside the building? Your team had to be looking for answers about their colleague, someone who was with them for a long time. How did you handle it with them? 

ISS : This is very personal for a lot of people in our building. I’m very transparent. Chad worked with us for quite a while. Over 12 years. Chad had a lot of friends in the building and still does, and rightfully so. Those are his relationships, and when you work with someone every day, you form friendships and bonds.           

It wasn’t something that I looked forward to doing, but again, it was necessary to have those conversations. Anyone who felt that they needed a separate conversation about it, my door was open so that we could talk about it. I will say that did not happen. I do think conversation is the first step to moving forward if you’re feeling any kind of way. That was what I asked of the staff. If you have any issues, please feel free to reach out to me separately and we will have a separate conversation.  

DR: I think it’s really interesting with 980 in the building now, because you have The Fan, which is a really strong brand. 980 is a heritage station that you guys have inherited and are trying to reinvent, and it is now on strong footing. If those two stations stayed what they were from now until the end of our existence, nobody would say boo about it because they are both successful. But that’s not our business. Right? So how do you figure out what the next evolution is in terms of overall health of a station? I mean business, programming, branding, everything. And for each one, how do you get there?  

ISS: With the Fan, I think we continue to do what we’re doing. We provide the best sports content, the best interviews, the best relationships that we have for our listeners, the best engagement, the best talent that continues to give it 110 percent. I think we continue to do that. We continue to have both stations cross promote each other and to help each other out across the table and listen to what our listeners want. Give our listeners what they want.             

They want information. They want content. They want breaking news. They want it first with us because they know that we’re going to give it to them. Our personalities are going to talk about it without any bias. We’re going to say exactly what’s going on in the sports world and with whomever did what. And I think that’s what we’ll continue to do. We just have to stick to that and, continue being first with news and information from the sports world and staying connected to our listeners.  

BSM Writers

Why Do NFL Fans Want More Greg Olsen and Less Tony Romo?

Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down film of offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast.

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Five years ago, Tony Romo retired as an active NFL player, jumped into the CBS broadcast booth, and immediately became the darling of fans and media for the excitement he brought to his telecasts. Romo’s enthusiasm for the game and understanding of modern offense allowed him to predict plays successfully, making him an instant sensation.

Greg Olsen will finish his second season as a full-time broadcaster on Feb. 12 from the NFL’s biggest stage, calling Super Bowl LVI for Fox with play-by-play partner Kevin Burkhardt. Olsen hasn’t drawn the must-see buzz that Romo did early in his TV career. No fan likely tuned into Fox’s top NFL telecast, “America’s Game of the Week,” to listen to Olsen’s analysis. His work doesn’t draw nearly the same amount of acclaim.

But the shine has worn off Romo with viewers during the past couple of NFL seasons. Watching a game with Romo in the booth previously felt like sitting alongside a fellow fan, jubilant at fantastic plays or clever strategy, and disappointed at performances that fell short. His energy also elevated Jim Nantz as a play-by-play announcer, bringing him back to life after 13 seasons alongside Phil Simms.

Now, however, Romo’s outbursts — noises in place of words, or outright yelling — seem like a crutch when coherent thoughts can’t be articulated. Where there was once fascinating insight from the analyst position, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback often resorts to clichés and platitudes that don’t add to a fan’s understanding of what’s happening on the field.

Worst of all, Romo sometimes talks merely to talk, filling a quiet space when a broadcast needs to breathe or the images are saying enough on their own. That’s especially awkward when paired with a veteran like Nantz, who’s a master at letting the moment speak for itself rather than trying to punctuate it with unnecessary narration.

On Fox’s telecast of the 49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game, Olsen explained how play-calling changes when an offense intends to go for it on fourth down. He showed an awareness of the strategies that each coach employed to gain an advantage or neutralize what the opponent was doing well.

Early on, he highlighted San Francisco defensive end Joey Bosa holding back on his natural impulse to pursue the quarterback at all costs. Instead, he maintained a position that prevented Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts from running to gain yardage when pass plays weren’t available.

With analysis like this, Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down the film of their respective offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast. He doesn’t appear to be surprised by what he sees because that prep work — watching film, talking to coaches and players — informs him of the eventualities and possibilities that could arise during a game.

The hardcore football fan, those who repeatedly watch highlights and replays, loves that kind of analysis. Such attention to detail feels gratifying because it demonstrates that the person calling the broadcast is as serious about this stuff as the viewer who’s waited all week for the big game.

Yet a more casual fan is also drawn in because of Olsen’s amiable personality and ability to explain things simply and clearly. It’s similar to what viewers enjoy about ESPN’s “ManningCast” for Monday Night Football. Yes, there are jokes and funny moments. But Peyton and Eli Manning both explain strategy and preparation very well.

By comparison, Romo comes off like a broadcaster who’s winging it, letting his personality and enthusiasm fill gaps created by a lack of preparation. That might be a completely unfair criticism. We don’t know what kind of work Romo puts in leading up to a telecast. Maybe he watches as much film as Olsen. Perhaps he talks to everyone available to the broadcast crew in production meetings.

If so, however, that doesn’t show itself on the CBS telecast. Romo’s work on Sunday’s Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game telecast was an improvement over his call of the Bengals-Bills divisional playoff clash. During the previous week, Romo acted as if he didn’t have to provide any insight because this was the match-up fans had anticipated all season and already knew everything about the two teams.

Perhaps in response to that criticism, Romo made a point of highlighting the importance of each team’s defensive coordinator — Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo and Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo, respectively — in disrupting the performance of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. But rather than demonstrate an actual strategy during a replay, he stated that each defense would come after the opposing QB and create pressure.

Ultimately, the difference between Romo and Olsen seems to be schtick versus knowledge. But it’s also a product of how each analyst reached their position. Romo joined CBS’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team without previously calling any games. (As BSM’s Garrett Searight points out, that immediacy and recent connection to the game fueled what felt like fresh analysis.)

Meanwhile, Olsen called games during bye weeks while he was still an active player and was on Fox’s No. 2 crew with Burkhardt before being elevated to top status following the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN. He’s had to get better out of necessity. Even now, as Olsen establishes himself as his network’s top analyst, he faces the possibility of being bumped from that position when Tom Brady retires and cashes in on the massive contract Fox offered him.

Compare that to Romo, who’s the highest-paid NFL analyst on television. His $18 million annual salary set the bar other top broadcasters are trying to reach. And he has seven years remaining on the 10-year contract he signed with CBS. That is significant job security. Even if network executives (or Nantz) lean on Romo to improve his flaws, how much motivation is there when he’s already been anointed a broadcasting king?

However, NFL fans and sports media are making it clear what they prefer from their football broadcasters. They want insight and substance. They want to learn something from the commentary, rather than just be told what they can see for themselves.

Olsen is providing that and is being rightly lauded as a broadcaster living up to his status. Romo is suffering a fall from acclaim and has become a weekly punching bag. If he and CBS want to change that, he’ll have to bring more to the booth each week. In the meantime, Fox should consider appreciating what it already has, rather than welcome a glitzy name.

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BSM Writers

Chris Fowler Knows You Know He Isn’t In Australia

“I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know.”

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I can tell you my exact whereabouts when 2015 became 2016 in the Central Time Zone. I was in a media shuttle outside of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas awaiting my transport to the Omni Hotel in Dallas. It was kind of a sad scene, not just because Alabama had picked Michigan State’s bones 36-0. Nope, it was sad when the clock struck midnight and a tired, cracking voice from the back of the bus said, “Happy New Year” with all the excitement of a man facing execution. 

I, too, was tired. I had just spent a week doing shows in Dallas and was headed back to Birmingham for a pit stop before flying to Phoenix for what would be an epic Alabama v. Clemson National Championship Game. I am not complaining, mind you, but the thought of the end of the football season being near was very comforting. It’s a bittersweet thought, I love college football, but I also love being home with my family.

ESPN’s Chris Fowler was at Jerry World that night, as well. He had been on my show earlier in the week and we had joked with him about how good he had it; two College Football Playoff games then a flight halfway around the world for the Australian Open. I had bumped into him leaving the stadium that night and we laughed, again, at his good fortune.

As I sat on the bus for the saddest of New Year’s celebrations, I reflected on the conversation with Fowler and thought about how overwhelming that travel seemed. I could never have imagined then that type of travel assignment would one day become a luxury rather than a necessity. 

There are numerous things COVID ended. Many of them were more important than announcing crews actually at the events, but that was one casualty. It has even continued to impact the top level crews like Fowler and John McEnroe who did their 2023 Australian Open work a world away in Bristol, Connecticut.

The fact that the majority of ESPN talent was actually stateside had already been painfully obvious to anyone watching. The studio show had made no effort to hide that fact but the actual match announcers were part of a little more of an attempt to appear they were Down Under. It was abundantly clear, though, that the match announcers were simply standing in front of images of the Melbourne stadiums superimposed behind them.

It was Chris Fowler who finally revealed the man behind the curtain when he removed the mystery and made it clear they were not in Australia. After Darren Cahill, who was actually on site, relayed the weather conditions to Fowler and McEnroe, Fowler commented that the Bristol weather was in the 30’s. 

I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know. I also think most viewers have seen enough of the low-energy, disjointed remote announcing that they can spot it without being informed. Thankfully, Fowler and McEnroe are pros enough (and in the same room) that they can still do their job well from 10,000 miles away.

I just can’t believe we are still playing this game in 2023. I think history will show that, in many cases, remote broadcasts were unnecessary in 2020 but that was a complete unknown at the time. One has to assume the desire to save on travel expenses is a large motivation in 2023. I can only imagine how much is saved by ESPN in airfare and lodging by keeping announcers in Bristol rather than sending them to Melbourne. Tennis is also one of the sports in which the difference isn’t as noticeable.

The feedback I get from the fans in other sports, where remote announcers are far more noticeable, is that the network clearly doesn’t value my team or me as a fan. While that may not be true, if that perception is held by a large enough group of fans, it becomes true. What the networks know is this: we are addicted to our teams. They can have bad announcers from their living rooms but what am I going to do about it? I get a limited number of times to watch my team each season. I’m not missing that chance because a network wants to squeeze dimes.

As most people have learned more about COVID, most unnecessary precautions have faded away. Remote announcers have been tougher to extinguish and may never go away entirely.

In the meantime, I’m rested now and I’ll take that trip to Australia anytime someone is ready to send me.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Ready To Go Back To The NHL All-Star Game

“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about.”

Derek Futterman

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The NHL is approaching a break leading up to the festivities at the All-Star Weekend taking place from FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida: the home of the Florida Panthers. Saturday’s 2023 NHL All-Star Game will be broadcast on ABC and simulcast on ESPN+ for the second consecutive year under the seven-year media rights deal which brought live game broadcasts back to The Walt Disney Company’s platforms for the first time since 2005.

On hand to call the action and provide fans with exclusive access will be the NHL on ESPN lineup of experienced commentators, versatile journalists, and knowledgeable analysts, including the studio team of Steve Levy, Mark Messier, Chris Chelios, and P.K. Subban. The group is looking forward to making the trip to South Florida to catch up with former teammates and colleagues, as well as finding reprieve from the colder temperatures outside their regular Bristol studios.

“You just look at the graphics of the commercials out there with the surfboards and the beach and the warm weather and [see that] hockey can thrive anywhere,” Messier expressed. “…It’s a great time to pause and break and celebrate what’s happened in the first 40 games of the season until everybody starts to buckle down for the stretch drive.”

Messier signed on with the NHL on ESPN team before the 2021-2022 season as a studio analyst, utilizing his vast experience and championship pedigree to intuitively decipher the game of hockey and provide cogent reasoning about the action. He is a six-time Stanley Cup champion – five with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the New York Rangers – and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Furthermore, Messier is third all-time in points and ninth in goals, and he was the captain of both of his championship teams – making him the only player in league history to garner that accolade. His presence on its hockey coverage gives ESPN added ethos and someone who remains a student of the game, closely following the league to craft informed opinions.

“Seeing the amount of talent in the game now and the emergence of these players is just incredible,” Messier said. “Of course, it’s what it’s all about – just trying to get yourself. Once you’ve established yourself as an NHL player, the next step is to figure out how to win.”

Chris Chelios joined Messier on the studio panel from the launch of the NHL on ESPN last season and is also a Hockey Hall of Fame member who played professionally for 26 years, retiring at the age of 48. He recognizes the changes in the game of hockey, especially since his 1983-84 rookie campaign, and tries to accentuate them while promulgating classic aspects of the sport demonstrated through its young talent.

“Just when you think you’ve seen everything, they come up with something else; some new move,” Chelios said. “….There have been some unbelievable highlights and every night, especially working with ESPN, [we have been] able to see all that. We’re in an entertainment business and these guys aren’t letting anybody down. It’s great; it’s a great product.”

Steve Levy has worked with ESPN since 1993 where he has broadcast countless different sports and hosted various types of studio programming. Whether it is calling football games, sitting behind the desk on SportsCenter, or making movie cameos, he is an anomaly within the industry in that he has had a long and storied career primarily with one company. Through his versatility, he can continue seamlessly assimilating into a wide foray of roles and, in the process, enhance the broadcast skills of his colleagues.

Last season, Levy, Messier, and Chelios broadcast coverage of NHL All-Star Weekend from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The trio was situated in a suite at “The Fortress”. It contrasts the regular-season mindset of gathering two points per night; contrarily, this weekend is, in essence, a celebration of the game and its people.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase besides their skills, I think their personalities,” Levy said. “I really look forward to that.”

Levy has worked with Messier and Chelios for the last year on ESPN’s studio coverage and is now joined by P.K. Subban, who played in the NHL as recently as this past April as a member of the New Jersey Devils. A three-time All-Star selection and 2014 Olympic gold medalist, Subban inked a multi-year contract with ESPN this past November to regularly serve as a studio analyst and also work as a live game broadcast analyst for select regular season matchups.

Implementing a player who is closely removed from playing professional hockey brings fresh perspectives to the show, offering different perspectives, and appealing to a wider segment of viewers.

“We were sitting next to him on the set the other night and he’s talking about Jack Hughes and it’s like, ‘Who’s going to have a more educated opinion than a guy who was lockering next to him the last three seasons?,’” Levy said of Subban. “It’s easy to forget he was in the league in April; he’s fresh out of it.”

Subban grew up watching Messier and Chelios in the NHL and now works alongside them, holding them in high regard. Aside from their play on the ice, Subban remembers Messier in Lay’s commercials in the late-1990s and early-2000s advertising its products. Although he brings more contemporary perspectives by being removed from the league for less than a year, Subban embraces the traditional style of the game and delivers analysis based on multiple eras.

“I think keeping it fresh is also being able to educate some of these young players and the audience about guys like Mess and Chelios,” Subban said. “I think that’s also very important because we have a luxury [in] having these two on the broadcast…. It’s just really cool for me this year. I’m super excited to do this for the first time; to sit next to these guys.”

All three NHL on ESPN studio analysts participated in at least one aspect of the skills competition during their playing careers, with Messier winning the shooting accuracy challenge in both 1991 and 1996 and Subban winning the breakaway challenge in 2016. Watching the players compete from a new vantage point and evincing their ethereal abilities on the ice underscores what the weekend is genuinely about.

According to Levy, the 2023 All-Star Skills would be the event he would attend if he had to choose between it and the game. This sentiment has permeated itself in the linear television ratings, as the 2022 All-Star Game was the least-watched (1.15 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2009, while the corresponding skills competition was the most-watched (1.09 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2012.

It is important to note, however, that last year’s all-star game aired just before the first night of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, broadcast in the United States by NBC, USA, and CNBC. Despite last year’s Olympic Games drawing the lowest U.S. ratings in the history of the international sporting event and cultural phenomenon, the first night still drew 13.2 million total viewers across the three networks, accounting for a 6.8 share.

The format of the NHL All-Star Game was changed starting in 2016 to contain four teams (one per division) playing three-on-three games split into 10-minute halves in a single-elimination tournament. The winning of the tournament’s championship game splits a prize pool of $1 million, ostensibly incentivizing more realistic play as the allure of the windfall profit is aggrandized.

Nonetheless, the weekend is all about appealing to the fans and demonstrating the star power of the league through the depiction of vivid imagery, as well as chronicling stories to engross viewers in the product.

“You highlight fun and entertainment through the skills, and the three-on-three was a great concept because it’s exciting to the fans,” Messier said. “….I think the NHL, the NHLPA and ESPN and everybody involved has worked diligently to make this weekend really fun and to highlight the great talent we have on the ice and the great people we have off the ice.”

“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about,” Subban added. “For these players, a lot of times, they’re buttoned into the game and focused on the ice. This is an opportunity for [the] fans to get to know the players in a fun way; get to know them through their skill set and what they’re able to do on the ice.”

The All-Star Skills will feature the return of events including the Breakaway Challenge, Fastest Skater, Accuracy Shooting, and Hardest Shot. In addition to these classics, there will be the debut of the Tendy Tandem where goalies will face off in a shootout, along with two new geo-focused events – the Splash Shot (pre-taped from Fort Lauderdale Beach Park); and the Pitch ‘n Puck (from a par-4 golf hole).

“I know each market tries to do something specific to the local area,” Levy said. “I do know ESPN has worked really hard with the NHL to try to enhance the best events and make them even better… and better for television.”

The league continues to adapt and find new ways to engage fans with the launch of the 2023 NHL Fan Skills at Home, a social media-based competition urging fans to submit videos performing their hockey abilities focused in different areas. Various hockey content creators, including Pavel Barber and Kane Van Gate, will make the trip to Sunrise, Fla. to promote the contest and implore fans to participate.

Additionally, the NHL will host the All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, a free fan fest-style event featuring appearances from NHL all-stars and alumni, a photo opportunity with the Stanley Cup, and interactive games for the whole family.

Surrounding it all on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+ will be a concentrated effort to emphasize the dispositions of regular all-star selections  – such as Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid; Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin; and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar – while contextualizing what is going on through experience and astute foresight.

At the same time, the broadcast will aim to espouse awareness towards younger stars, many of whom are first-time selections such as 20-year-old Seattle Kraken forward Matty Beniers; 24-year-old New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox; and 25-year-old Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Logan Thompson.

“Our job is to really highlight these players and make it a fun telecast,” Messier said, “and really talk about the players as people and what great, incredible talent they possess.”

“You have to be able to tell stories about the players,” Subban said. “They’re the product on the ice and there’s no better way to tell stories about players than getting ESPN. They are the best at it, so it should make for a fun couple of days.”

The NHL on ESPN studio team thoroughly enjoyed their time at last year’s All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, as it led them to become accustomed to working together and set them up to put on quality broadcasts through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, the Stanley Cup Finals are set to be broadcast by Turner Sports this year (as part of its seven-year media rights agreement) with its regular studio crew of Liam McHugh, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter, and Wayne Gretzky.

Messier and Gretzky, each serving as studio analysts on ESPN and TNT, respectively, starred in an NHL on FOX commercial together back when they were teammates on the New York Rangers in 1996.

This season, the NHL on ESPN studio crew has not worked together regularly because of the network’s obligations to the NFL and NBA. The group will soon be on the air regularly though to break down the top plays, interview stars before they hit the ice and foster a congenial atmosphere for sports fans everywhere.

“I look forward to working with these three guys together,” Levy said. “We haven’t had a lot of run together [because] it’s just the way the schedule works [during] the first half of the season.”

“I’m looking forward to kicking this off,” Chelios added. “It’s like a playoff run [for us] now; this All-Star Game is the start of working and grinding and doing a couple of games a week and getting into a rhythm here.”

The 2023 NHL All-Star Skills will be broadcast on Friday, Feb. 3 on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. EST and is available to stream live on ESPN+. Then on Saturday, Feb. 4, the 2023 NHL All-Star Game, featuring teams representing the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, and Pacific divisions, commences at 3 p.m. EST on ABC and can be streamed live on ESPN+.

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