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NBA Countdown Crew Crossing Fingers For Christmas Day

“The one obligation we have [as broadcasters] is to make sure that come hell or high water, 99 times out of 100, we’re there,” said Smith.

Derek Futterman



ESPN Images

Things just seem to feel different this year as we near December 25. A surge of new COVID-19 cases driven by the spread of the omicron variant has fostered feelings of apprehension and uncertainty around the world. People are adjusting and/or canceling their holiday plans while remaining vigilant during this winter surge. 

CDC data indicate Omicron is starting to eat into Delta's U.S. dominance
Courtesy: Getty Images

One of the institutions embarking in this battle is the National Basketball Association, a league that has seen 115 players enter its COVID-19 health and safety protocols this month alone. Currently,  those testing positive for COVID-19 have to remain in the protocols for a minimum of 10 days, or if a player registers two negative COVID-19 PCR tests from samples obtained in a span of more than 24 hours. Many of the league’s superstar players have entered the protocols, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić and Trae Young, all of whose teams are scheduled to take the floor Saturday. The NBA, however, has no plans to pause the 2021-22 season for now, instead opting to adjust to live with the threat of COVID-19 looming large.

ESPN and ABC will mark its 20th season bringing viewers exclusive coverage of all the action around the NBA on Christmas Day Saturday, broadcasting 13 hours of studio and game programming. The game action begins with a First Round rematch between the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks from Madison Square Garden. The day continues on with the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks hosting the Boston Celtics at 2:30 p.m. E.S.T., followed by a showdown between the two best teams in the Western Conference – the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns – at 5 p.m. E.S.T. Shortly thereafter, the primetime game takes place on both ABC and ESPN at 8 p.m. E.S.T. between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers from the newly-renamed Arena in Los Angeles, Calif., with the statuses of stars Kevin Durant and LeBron James in question due to health and safety protocols and an ankle injury, respectively. Finally, the day concludes from Salt Lake City, Utah as the Dallas Mavericks visit the Utah Jazz at 10:30 p.m. E.S.T.

Throughout the game coverage, ESPN analysts Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Jalen Rose, joined by host Mike Greenberg, will provide their knowledge, expertise and opinions to fans on NBA Countdown. The cast of the show was reconstructed prior to the tipoff of the NBA season, and is up 51% in its ratings as compared to last season, consistent with the 26% increase in NBA regular season game viewership on ESPN.

“In a very short period of time, the NBA Countdown team has delivered a very consistent product based on what I believe to be their strong knowledge of the sport, their relentless commitment to working around the clock if necessary, and the commitment to just the sports fans in general,” said Dave Roberts. “We all know that this show has been the subject of press in the past, and I just want to underscore that point [and the ratings increase] because I think it’s relevant as we head into the most important day [of the season] besides the NBA Finals.”

Throughout the year, protocols have been put in place at ESPN to ensure the health and safety of on-air talent and other staff and personnel both in studio and for broadcasts on the road. Additionally, media members have had to follow enhanced protocols at various NBA arenas, including TD Garden in Boston, Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and Madison Square Garden in New York.

“We’ve been in arenas, and we have followed some new and really fascinating protocols in order to be on the floor unmasked,” explained Mike Greenberg, host of NBA Countdown. “[Additionally], the protocols at our studios at the Seaport are stringent and have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, and ESPN has done a great job seeing to it that those are enforced.”

Mike Greenberg didn't realize NBA Countdown was still on the air
Courtesy: ESPN

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary goal of television programs and broadcasts on ESPN was to be as close to perfection as possible. As circumstances have changed across the globe however, the nature of broadcast production has fundamentally shifted to ensure networks can continue to bring their viewers compelling and engaging content each day, albeit its presentation may not be up to par to what it had been within a lone studio environment in the past.

“I think the idea that it’s not going to always be perfect is now accepted,” said former NBA player and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. “The idea of bringing people on with FaceTime or remotes – that wasn’t necessarily encouraged. It was tolerated. Now not only do multimedia personalities accept that [as] the way it is, but also fans accept the way it is. So if somebody was doing an interview now on TV and their television screen starts buffering, two years ago the television world would freak out because we are all about perfection, but now we understand that that’s going to happen, and it’s the new climate that we live in.”

While NBA coaches and team personnel were required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before the start of the season, NBA players were not – since they are under the aegis of the National Basketball Players Association. Nonetheless, 97% of NBA players have been vaccinated, with 65% of those players receiving a booster shot, something that has been scientifically proven to be advantageous in diminishing severe effects of the omicron variant. Yet there have been some notable players who have opted not to get vaccinated, including Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic and Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets.

As he battles a COVID-19 diagnosis himself, ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith, who is vaccinated, believes NBA Commissioner Adam Silver needs to invoke the “Best Interest of the Game Clause” and mandate players be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to maintain the competitive integrity of the game and allow for the completion of the season, something integral to media outlets covering the league.

“The only time a pause should take place is for the NBA to conduct a meeting with all the players in attendance and say: ‘Okay – either you all accept this vaccine mandate, or we’re going into a bubble. Those are your two choices,’” said Smith. “‘Pick one because what we’re not going to do is let the season come to a halt. We’re not doing it.’”

Due to New York City mandates put into place by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Irving, along with any other players on teams within New York City, is unable to enter an indoor arena without proof of vaccination, making him ineligible to play home games at Barclays Center, and across the East River at Madison Square Garden when the Nets visit the Knicks. Wherefore Irving’s limited availability as a result of his objection in getting vaccinated against COVID-19, the Nets decided not to allow him to play in any of its games this season, despite him being eligible to play games in all other cities outside of The Big Apple.

Kyrie Irving talks about the world and basketball ... and the balance  between - NetsDaily

Since that decision was made in October though, the Nets, despite holding the best record in the Eastern Conference, have been decimated by injuries, causing star players Kevin Durant and James Harden to consistently play heavier minutes. Because of this and the organization’s championship aspirations, the team made the controversial move to allow the unvaccinated Irving to rejoin the team. During the intake process, though, Irving reportedly registered either an inconclusive or positive COVID-19 test, thus placing him in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

The story has garnered much media attention throughout the first quarter of the NBA season, with Smith frequently voicing his opinion on the matter on First Take and Stephen A.’s World. As the saga has unfolded, a consistent point of emphasis articulated by Smith is that despite his “box office” talent, Irving is often not available or willing to play for various non-basketball related reasons. A core principle of Smith in his work ethic is to be available when called upon at ESPN, hence why he fully intends to be on the air, albeit remotely, on Saturday.

“The one obligation we have [as broadcasters] is to make sure that come hell or high water, 99 times out of 100, we’re there,” said Smith. “And the one time we ain’t there, it’s a damn good reason for us not to be there. Guess what? The same is applicable to any professional athlete; any professional coach; any professional team because you’re asking the audience to take time out of their busy schedule and to ingratiate themselves with whatever it is that you are offering… You [have] got to show up to work, or there needs to be a damn good reason why you’re not.”

“The loyalty that the fans used to have to teams, they don’t have anymore,” Rose said in response to Smith’s point. “Like Stephen A. was talking about, they now follow the players. What ends up happening is, yes, these same fans during the regular season are now conditioned that they know the best players might not be playing anyway because of load management.”

While football is the number one sport in the United States, Rose expressed that NBA players are simply more famous than National Football League players.

“You can go by any metric,” said Rose. “You can go by social media. You can go by commercials. You can go by the Forbes list. You can go by whatever you want. Basketball players are more famous than football players.”

For that reason, along with the sheer intrigue it would undoubtedly cultivate across the basketball landscape, Irving returning is a scenario that could resurrect some disappointment among fans amid a flurry of absent NBA players in health and safety protocols.

“I only root for the most interesting possible things to happen,” opined Greenberg, “and so with that in mind, I would love nothing more than to see [Kyrie Irving] go running out there on Saturday. I have no idea, literally none, whether he will or he won’t, but it sure would help us make this Christmas Day as memorable as any that I can think of in recent NBA years.”

All major media networks have adapted to producing and disseminating content across multiple platforms to align with consumption trends and meet consumer demand, a process that has been expedited because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout Christmas Day, every one of the five matchups, along with telecasts of NBA Countdown, will be able to stream on the ESPN App. The prime-time game between the Nets and the Lakers will be broadcast on ESPN Radio with Marc Kestecher on the play-by-play and P.J. Carlesimo providing color commentary, along with the preceding game between the Warriors and the Suns with Sean Kelley and Ros Gold-Onwude on the call. Additionally, fans can watch the digital pregame show Hoop Streams, featuring Chiney Ogwumike and Christine Williamson, on the ESPN App, plus its simulcasts on the social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

NBA on Twitter: "🎄 The NBA will feature five games on Christmas Day with  ESPN or ABC televising each matchup! #NBAXMas #NBA75" / Twitter

Everyone covering games on those platforms are optimistic for the future of this NBA season. But for now, they understand the fluidity and precariousness of a surge that everyone hopes is ephemeral in scope through a holiday season of disquiet and a dearth of quotidian ways of life.

“My mentality is that… the NBA [and] the networks themselves [are] putting forth their due diligence,” said Smith. “It’s a global pandemic that we’re talking about here, and everybody is acting like everybody is supposed to know the answers. Well, even the scientists don’t have all the answers. They’re figuring it out as we go along. We have to understand that, respect that, and come together as best as we possibly can to put forth our due diligence to make sure that we insulate ourselves.”

BSM Writers

Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?

“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”

Demetri Ravanos




Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career. 

Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN programmer Mark Chernoff. 

Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.

Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.

Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country. 

Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids.

Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and active shunning.

Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance. 

Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!

A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.

FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan.  MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team.  I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”

JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions. 

“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).

“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”

MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”

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BSM Writers

Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?

The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.

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As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.

Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.

But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.

The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.

As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.

Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.


The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.

Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!

But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)

That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?

We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!

The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.

Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.

If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.

Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)

Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.

We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.

When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?

If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.

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BSM Writers

There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle

“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”

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Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.

The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.

Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark. 

It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.

Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.

Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.

One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.

It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.

It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.

One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.

Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”

There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.

We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.

The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.

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