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ESPN Planning ‘Futuristic Look’ For MLB Home Run Derby

“Despite the network planning to display advanced renderings and interpretations of sports data into the broadcast, the top priority remains showing the viewer each pitch as it happens, along with giving viewers unrivaled access to the field, players and spectators.”

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As the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” ESPN continues to pioneer the future of sports event production through its partnership with various properties, including the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The decades-old staple of the entertainment and sports industry plans to amplify its coverage of Major League Baseball All-Star Week in a contemporary, progressive manner not yet seen in sports television.

According to the network, it will “provide expansive coverage of the 2021 MLB All-Star festivities from July 11-13 in Denver,” including the first round of the 2021 Major League Baseball Draft, the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Celebrity Softball Game.

The Major League Baseball Draft was exclusively presented on MLB Network beginning in 2009 when Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder and American League all-star starter Mike Trout was taken with the 25th pick in the first round. Since then, the MLB Draft has grown into an event that interests baseball fanatics, and has become an opportune time for other events to be cross-promoted. ESPN and MLB Network simulcast the Draft for the first time in 2020, with the event taking place out of ESPN’s studios in Bristol. For the first time in its history, the Major League Baseball Draft will take place during Major League Baseball All-Star Week, after plans to hold it in conjunction with the College World Series in Omaha fell through due to health and safety concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had already been pushing to add simultaneous coverage of the Draft with MLB Network,” said Phil Orlins, who serves as the senior coordinating producer of Major League Baseball, Little League and College Baseball for ESPN. “When the draft happened around early July last year, we were super eager to do it because, at that time, we didn’t have many live sports. We wanted to do it again this year, but it’s just not in the construction of our deal with Major League Baseball. I think we were fairly confident that it would work out, [as] it optimizes the visibility of the event for [both] ESPN and MLB Network to cover it.”

When Major League Baseball made the decision to move 2021 All-Star festivities from Atlanta to Denver in early April, logistical challenges were presented to Orlins and his team, who generally start preparing for these slate of events in the early autumn of the previous year. Unlike Truist Park in Atlanta, Coors Field in Denver does not have a connecting venue with the capability to host the Draft, coercing the network to find alternate ways to transmit the event from the new venue, the Bellco Theatre, to the ballpark, venues that are 1.4 miles away from each other.

The move also impacted the planning of the Home Run Derby, an event that has engendered much interest since its inception in 1985. While the original nine-month timetable was quickly compressed down to three due to the decision by the league to relocate the festivities, Orlins knew that his team would be able to handle the challenge.

“We’ve been doing this for a lot of years,” said Orlins. “[The move] caused a little bit of extra urgency and speed to the work, [but] I don’t think it has any real impact as to how the event will be covered.”

Orlins produced the first Home Run Derby broadcast on television in 1993, in which Seattle Mariners superstar and National Baseball Hall of Fame member Ken Griffey, Jr., crushed a home run off of the B&O Warehouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Originally a 30-minute taped show, the veteran producer considers the impact he had in the event’s evolution as one of the signature moments of his career.

“I remember back in the day the seats were free for fans,” reminisced Orlins. “Then, it grew to a $5 charity donation per seat, and now it is a jewel event. It’s been amazing seeing that event capture the public’s fancy.”

ESPN is set to exclusively telecast the Home Run Derby on both the primary ESPN channel and ESPN-2, with each broadcast targeted for different segments of the viewing audience. The parent network, ESPN, will be taking a conventional approach, featuring a broadcast team of Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez, Buster Olney and Marley Rivera calling the action and giving viewers an entertaining, traditional viewing experience. Conversely on ESPN-2, Jason Bennetti, Jessica Mendoza and Mike Petriello will explore the contest from an analytics-driven perspective, relying on Statcast technology to examine metrics such as launch angle, distance, exit velocity and barrel percentage to name a few, implementing them into the broadcast. This style of broadcast, which first debuted on ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball just prior to the turn of the century, is designed for the astute, perspicacious viewer, and will use graphics and groundbreaking technology to envision these data-powered metrics in an elucidatory, provocative mode.

“The pervasiveness and the capability of what Major League Baseball has been able to do through Statcast is unbelievable,” affirmed Orlins. “We felt [this broadcast] was a chance to more aggressively-serve… diehards who absorb sports and want all the information in every way [it can be presented]… without alienating more casual viewers.”

Since the Home Run Derby began its utilization of an alternative presentation in 2018, the network has watched the proliferation of its viability, and plans to take the broadcast to new heights this year. Even though the Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be exclusively broadcast on Fox as normal, the networks will share equipment to ensure that both their broadcasts eclipse the status quo.

“We have a really aggressive plan to differentiate the visual coverage of the at-bats with significant augmented reality,” said Orlins. “I think it’s going to be a very futuristic look.”

Despite the network planning to display advanced renderings and interpretations of sports data into the broadcast, the top priority remains showing the viewer each pitch as it happens, along with giving viewers unrivaled access to the field, players and spectators. With these concomitant objectives, broadcasting the event to serve all of them was something that presented a challenge to ESPN prior to the advent of the split-screen coverage box.

“We keep a pretty comfortable portrait-style type shot of the batter and pitcher, and we [have an approximately] 4 x 3 coverage box on the right side of the screen,” explained Orlins. “We have a constant shot of the pitch and the swing on one side, and we’re able to track the balls and reactions on the bigger box on the other side. Until we made that move, we were just in an uphill battle at all times; in the worst-case scenario, pitches were being thrown before home runs were landing. There’s a comfort in never losing track of when the pitch is coming.”

Something different from previous years, however, is the highly-saturated marketplace that exists for live sports. The Home Run Derby, usually a showcase, professional sporting event leading up to the Midsummer Classic, has to compete with the N.B.A. Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, along with the buildup towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which are set to begin later this month after a year-long delay. These premium events notwithstanding do not take away from the appeal of the Home Run Derby, as the setting for this year’s event is the high-altitude Coors Field, which, on average, yields the longest home run distances out of any ballpark in the major leagues. Moreover, its showcase participant is the man who is being called the closest thing to Babe Ruth since, well, Babe Ruth himself: the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way phenom, Shohei Ohtani.

“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this,” expressed Orlins, “but the Babe Ruth comparisons actually almost fall short at this point because, while Ruth was an excellent pitcher and the greatest hitter of all-time, he really never did them both at the same time to this degree, and he certainly wasn’t being measured on Statcast either. [Ohtani] is going to be the number one seed, [and] he’s positioned to bat in the spot that will lead our audience to there. I think there is a mystique and intrigue as to what will happen.”

The rest of the field for the Home Run Derby, which includes New York Mets’ slugger and reigning event-champion Pete Alonso, Texas Rangers’ outfielder Joey Gallo and the prolific Washington Nationals’ all-star Juan Soto, is sure to generate peak ratings and cultivate feats worthy of awe and incredulousness among fans and analysts alike.

“We promote the event extremely-aggressively,” said Orlins. “We are very fortunate to have one of the strongest possible promotional stand-out elements of the event, which is holding a home-run hitting contest at a high altitude.”

Following the Home Run Derby, ESPN will feature the All-Star Celebrity Softball Game, which will be broadcast by father-son duo Tim and Jeff Kurkjian. The event will feature notable celebrities including The Miz, Kane Brown, JoJo Siwa and Quavo, along with athletes Larry Walker, Jenny Finch and CC Sabathia.

“It’s an event that probably takes 75 minutes in the ballpark,” Orlins explained, “but gets cut down to about 46 minutes on television. The main thing is [being[ fun and clever [about] things to do with the various participants [at an] aggressive-pace. It’s how you quickly, effectively trim it down, making your commentary make sense when you are trying to eliminate all of the balls not swung at.”

Lastly, on Tuesday night, Jon “Boog” Sciambi and Chris Singleton will be on the call for the Major League Baseball All-Star Gameon ESPN Radio, the 23rd year it has been the national radio home for the midsummer classic. Additionally, Sciambi and Singleton will provide listeners with all the action from the Home Run Derby on the air Monday night.

ESPN’s multimedia coverage of the Major League Baseball All-Star festivities is also available to be streamed on the ESPN App, and will be the first Major League Baseball All-Star Week to occur since July 2019.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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