Monday, January 31, 2011

ESPN Research Means Fans Get What They Want

Television sports legend Don Ohlmeyer ended his stint as ESPN's ombudsman last week, and somehow some observers seem to be missing the major point of his farewell column.

Sure, he argued (as he did in columns throughout his brief 18-month tenure that was limited and ultimately shortened by health issues) that ESPN should listen to its readers and viewers.

More importantly, though, he pointed out how much the four-letter network invests in research -- and that information seemed to indicate that ESPN already listens and reacts to its customers.

According to the Ohlmeyer column, research is a multimillion dollar commitment for ESPN. That includes 50 staff members in five offices across the world (in Buenos Aires and London as well as three U.S. cities) who analyze data, conduct interviews and gauge reaction on an almost daily basis. There are "conflict groups" (of those who dislike and like ESPN), focus groups, in-person interviews and studies -- all part of an effort to pin down what consumers read, watch and want in their sports coverage.

Along with those studies of people, ESPN also invests in technology research, including investigating the effects of watching 3-D coverage of events.

What's most interesting about what Ohlmeyer related, if you step back and think about it, is that sports fans are getting exactly what they want from ESPN.

Too much Brett Favre or some other personality for you? That's interesting, because the ratings (on almost every platform -- Internet, radio, TV) invariably prove people consume information about mega-star personalities.

Too little women's sports for your taste? Too bad, because those same ratings show that a majority of sports fans have other interests.

Because ESPN conducts so much research and because it's in business to succeed, it's not a matter of what you see is what you get. No, that would be poor business and simply shortsighted.

Instead, what you see (or read online or in ESPN the Magazine) is what you want. So it's not the all-powerful, four-letter monolith to blame when your conference is not on TV or your sport of choice gets ignored during "SportsCenter."

There are no plots afoot against people or types of sports, either.

Nope, it's just a matter of business. Reasonable people might agree or disagree about the business practices but ultimately it's the people in charge -- in this case the consumers that ESPN regularly studies and questions -- that determine what happens.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Best Sports Speaches Ever? Bleacher Report, YouTube Provide Some Standout Selections

Which coach delivered the best pre-game speech ever?

Was is some old-school orator like Knute Rockne? Or maybe someone a little more modern?

Was the best sports speech a real speech, before a team took the field and triumphed? Or maybe something from a movie, that was either made for the screen or at least a punched-up version of actual events?

Credit Bleacher Report for taking a swipe and ranking what it considers the best of all-time, with accompanying links to YouTube for each.

For me? An easy top three of movie, movie and oh-so real would be Herb Brooks, Norman Dale and Jim Valvano.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Aftermath of AFC, NFC Championship Games ... TV Shapes Perception, Allows Personality to Shine

Credit television for shaping two of the biggest stories that emerged from the NFL's conference championship weekend -- although one of those stories clearly overshadowed the other and remains a hot-button topic.

Because TV cameras found Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler seemingly disinterested on the sideline when he exited the NFC Championship Game with the knee injury, it has been much easier for former players and pundits to pummel the dour-faced Cutler with criticism. He's been called soft, categorized as a quitter who let his team down by not performing while hurt.

Never mind that his teammates immediately supported him after the game and praised his commitment and toughness. Thanks to a social media onslaught that started during the game, Cutler has been buried.

Even information about the specifics of the injury has been questioned. As a result, measured or reasonable voices in the discussion have been rare. And those repeated TV shots of Cutler isolating himself on the sideline and not initially staying engaged with play calling were just as damning as the criticisms of former players.

In fact, when you consider some of the players questioning Cutler's toughness (especially Hall-of-Fame caliber but legendarily light-hitting cornerback Deion Sanders), the TV shots might have more credibility than the criticisms themselves. Still, that's the power of TV.

Ironically, another championship game loser, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, played extremely well on TV. In his case, there was no perception, just reality, because he was not just caught on camera -- he was able to speak his mind.

Despite his team losing the AFC Championship Game, Ryan represented his organization better during the brief post-game interview than he had at many more highly publicized moments of the season. Credit Steve Tasker of CBS Sports with asking soft but strong questions. And credit Ryan for answering completely and honestly, coming across as determined, human and proud. In those moments, if you were not a Jets fan, you could be jealous of them because of the way their coach represented them.

What made Ryan's performance even better was that it came in a forum -- the post-game interview with the losing coach -- that usually produces grunts, groans and stand-pat answers to softball questions. This time it was different. It was better TV, too.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Marvelous Monday for 'Mike & Mike'

Personalities make good sports radio, and two engaging and informed personalities (Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic) regularly power ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning."

Bolstered by the power and reach of ESPN, which means access to experts and guests, the show produces entertaining sports-talk radio almost every day.

On this Monday after the NFL's conference championship games, though, those things were just part of what helped the show to again be at its best. Familiarity, personality and opinions took the show to a higher level.

Because listeners know of Greenberg's love of the New York Jets, his frank, fan-focused perspectives were good to hear.

Plus, the show's producers displayed a great, somewhat mean-spirited sense of humor. Last week, when the Jets beat the Patriots, Greenberg said he heard this song on the way to work -- and that he could not think of a better song to hear the morning after a big victory. So, Monday, with the show regularly coming out of breaks on the day after a Jets loss, the producers played "Build Me Up Buttercup" coming out of commercials.

Regular listeners just had to laugh at the inside-joke swipe, and feel for Greenberg a big (even if they were Steelers fans). Still, that knowledge and sense of community, that shared perspective and knowledge, makes good radio.

Additionally, the expertise and opinions of Golic, a former NFL player -- as discussion focused on whether Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler was or was not hurt Sunday when he did not complete the game after a knee injury against the Green Back Packers -- were worth hearing and reasoned. Those were complemented by several visits (in-person and on-the-phone) from former NFL players who had their own opinions on the matter.

No matter who was talking, the show did not diminish to no-nonsense, over-the-top rants and it was stronger as a result.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Conscientious Viewer Gets Golfer DQ'd

Another golf tournament, another at-home rules official/viewer who turns the tournament into his personal Zapruder film.

Thanks to that oh-so-diligent viewer, Padraig Harrington was DQ'd at the Abu Dhabi Championship when his hand brushed a ball on the green when removing his mark.

Paul Mahoney of Golf Magazine, provides this account of what happened and Harrington's measured, professional and even self-deprecating response to the incident on the European Tour.

And, of course, here's the video:

While I appreciate that the ruling was correct, and appreciate even more Harrington's response, the annual accounts (and it's more often than that with some that never get reported) of golf viewers calling in to report violations just seem misdirected. Sometimes, it would be nice if fans could simply watch the sporting events on TV.

Then again, it's always impressive that those fans who are so concerned somehow find a way to track down the right place to call or email. (How often do you try to call your cable provider only to get a recorded voice with an endless amount of unhelpful options?) And it's even more interesting that those in power eventually respond and take action in these situations.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Turn Down TV, Take in the Emotions of the NFL

Television coverage usually conveys everything about NFL games almost perfectly, but a good radio broadcast can often relate that same action even better in some ways.

One of pro football's best radio broadcast teams -- the Pittsburgh Steelers' trio of Bill Hillgrove, Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley -- makes things better with regularity. Sure, they provide a pro-Pittsburgh, primarily parochial perspective, but that's the job and they're not so much homers as heavily invested informants who connect fans to the action and entertain at the same time.

Hillgrove, the team's play-by-play voice and a Pittsburgh sports fixture for years, provides consistent (if sometimes not-all-that-accurate) descriptions of action on the field. Fans generally know what's happened when they're listening to him, but it might look a little bit different when they go back and actually watch the highlights.

Last weekend's game against the Baltimore Ravens provided several examples, including the game's last meaningful play, when the Ravens passed on a fourth-and-18 situation and T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped a potential first-down reception. Listeners on radio were told the pass was broken up, only to find it was an obvious drop when they watched the highlights.

Still, that's nit-picking. Hillgrove's strength comes in his ability and willingness to give Ilkin and Wolfley room to shine, and his own obvious concern about what's happening on the field.

For fans with a black-and-gold passion, imagination can help fill in the play-by-play blanks.

The expertise and interactions the former offensive linemen (Ilkin and Wolfley) really make the broadcasts shine, though. With Ilkin next to Hillgrove in the broadcast booth and Wolfley working the sideline, they provide complementary perspectives. And the regularly two play off each other by asking each other what they saw from their respective spots on meaningful plays.

They also have their own language, nicknames for each other and offhand shorthand such as "habius grabus" for holding penalties and the like. As a result, they produce and entertaining and informative broadcast -- and they've been especially strong during the latter part of the season and playoffs.

The know all the team's personalities, but it never seems as if they're holding back information from fans. They offer opinions that prompt a better appreciation of what's happening on the field and why it happened without going about it in a mean-spirited manner.

It's simply good radio. It's the kind of broadcast (available this Sunday during the AFC Championship Game on the team's network of affiliates or on Sirius 123 or XM 103) that makes listening to the game truly fun.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TV Weilds Power, But Not Enough at Right Times

Television partners pay rights fees, schedule game times and shape on-field action by determining the length of timeouts depending on when they happen during a contest -- but even for all that control TV broadcasts often remain frustratingly at arm's length away from information or totally uninformed during key moments of the action.

For all they pay, and for their role as the most important conduit for fans to the action, those TV partners deserve better from their league partners. Fans deserve better, too.

Viewers experienced a frustrating example during the Seahawks-Bears game this past weekend.

Fox Sports had the NFC game and its situation late in the first quarter, when the Bears were facing a fourth-down situation, was troublesome. It looked like Bears coach Lovie Smith wanted a measurement to determine just how much of a yard the team needed to convert to gain a first down.

The measurement never came, and Fox rules expert Mike Pereira (the best NFL newcomer on TV this past year) offered only the insights that if a coach requested a measurement he should get one. So, maybe Smith never asked. Maybe the officials missed the request. But nobody ever seemed to know what did or did not happen in a timely manner.

Sure, the moment ended up being meaningless in a lopsided game, but the disconnect between the onfield action and the conduit of that action to multiple millions of fans seems silly. And it happens repeatedly with NFL games.

In no way should the networks get control of the game action (they're close enough already), but for all they invest and pay, there should be a way for them to be more informed. Accurate and timely access to such information would enhance broadcasts, and help differentiate what viewers get at home from what they get at the stadium.

It's one thing for the folks at the stadium not to know such information and nuances, they're getting a different kind of the emotional and visceral in person, but viewers should expect -- and receive -- better access.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Divisional Round Eventful ... But Uneven on TV

What was arguably one of the better NFL weekends of the season -- which put four teams just one step away from the Super Bowl after two great games, one average game and one clunker -- was generally good on TV, but none of the network's on-air teams produced consistent postseason quality this past weekend.

Oh, they were typically steady, but nobody on TV raised the level of their game to rival the postseason action on the field.

At least one play-by-play man tried, but instead sounded more biased, grumpy and perturbed as a result. That's probably why some New York Jets fans though Jim Nantz was rooting against them.

At least one color commentator tried, but simply talked more without imparting information. That's probably why some Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers fans turned down the volume on Dan Dierdorf.

Even worse, at least one producer-and-director tandem tried but lost viewers with unconventional camera angles. That's probably why so many of us were wondering what was happening for a few brief seconds late in the Jets-Patriots game. At a time of the year when familiar coverage would be best, the director and producer in that game tried some low-angle, behind-the-kicker shots on kicks and it was difficult for viewers to have a perspective on the action.

In each of those cases (just as with the teams on the field), it was a matter of people altering what had a been a proven game plan and doing something different for the postseason than the regular season.

Plus, when the broadcasters had a seemingly special bit of information, it was used incorrectly. What sounded like a wonderful stat about the Jets provided the weekend's prime example as it was repeatedly overused and provided without perspective.

CBS Sports was the first to inform us that the Jets were the first team since 2001 to beat the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots in back to back weeks. Sounds good, right? Impressive even. But nobody ever told us how many teams had actually had the opportunity to pull off the back-to-back accomplishment. That would've made the information much stronger.

But it was especially bad when ESPN Radio, thanks to Mike Greenberg (with his unabashed support of the Jets, part of what makes him great on radio and a fun daily listen), parroted the stat some 12-plus hours later ... and still without the necessary perspective.

That was really the story of the weekend on TV and radio -- a bunch of good but nothing great. For example ...

-- Fox Sports had no venue for rules expert Mike Pereira to make an impact, in part because the NFC games were lopsided. He's the best NFL newcomer on TV and the network should find some role for him, even an informational/rules/safety piece in case the game action does not lend itself to explaining a controversial call, which is where he usually shines. Unfortunately, Pereira was mentioned in one of the worst moments of the weekend, when Kenny Albert almost breathlessly congratulated Pereira for joining the broadcast team in Chicago on Sunday after working the other NFC game in Atlanta the night before. Great. He arrived to do his job. What else did we expect? That mention was just silly.

-- Nantz and Phil Simms on CBS Sports sounded unusually argumentative with each other, at times. It was fun to hear Nantz make a pronouncement and Simms disgree, but they did sound like they were on separate pages at times.

With just two games this coming weekend, it'll be each network's A-list tandem: Joe Buck-Troy Aikman calling the NFC Championship Game for Fox Sports at 3 p.m. Sunday and Nantz-Simms on the AFC Championship Game for CBS Sports at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wild Week ... From Hall of Fame to High Fives

So much happens with TV sports on any given week -- especially a week with a sporting event that draws more viewers than any program in cable history -- that even some important things can get overlooked.

Still, many of those things are worth noting. So here goes ...

-- That heavily watched program was the BCS Championship Game that drew 27.3 million viewers on Monday. While those numbers might be down from previous years, when all Bowl Championship Series games aired on broadcast TV, the bowl season was generally positive for ESPN. Yes, ratings were down for most games, but the big games drew well and ESPN remains in great position as the home for the games because of its ability to double dip, pulling in revenues from advertisers and from monthly cable subscribes. Best of all, ESPN's ability to commit to usually entertining pre-game programming, such as "College GameDay," better serves sports fans.

-- As usual, ESPN provided good coverage of the BCS Championship Game. Hall of Fame play-by-play man Brent Musburger promised to go about things in a more low key, even quiet, manner and that worked for about a half. He reverted to form in the second half, though, and the problems associated with that were compounded when he made mistakes and missed calls, including declaring one play a touchdown only to have the runner who was apparently on his way to the end zone pulled down from behind. That's a rookie mistake, calling action before it happens, that a veteran should not make.

-- Still, Musburger's election to the Hall of Fame this week was deserved. He has been the voice of sports for a generation, defining NFL and NCAA basketball for CBS Sports for years before rebuilding his career after moving to ESPN/ABC. He remains one of the best in the business, a Hall of Famer based on his body of work. He's no longer the person who should be doing the national championship-level games, though. Ironically, the Sportscaster of the Year honoree, Mike Tirico, handled the BCS Championship Game on radio and was strong. He deserved his honor as well. With his versatility ("Monday Night Football," golf and other sports), Tirico had a good year and consistently does his job without drawing an inordinate amount of attention to himself.

-- The most aggregious moment of the past few days was the combined action of "SportsCenter" anchors Hannah Storm and NFL reporter Adam Schefter. While on live TV, they found out that Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini has been relieved of their duties ... and they high-fived the fact that the news had broken while they were on air. It looked briefly like they were celebrating the fact that Mangini had been fired, and even though they corrected themselves just after it had happened, they should have been punished by ESPN for the action. Such instances or insinuations are an insult to viewers, and damaging that relationship is worse than any spat between two employees (such as the Ron Franklin-Jeannine Edwards blow up).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Top Talents with Rare Huh? Moments

Two of the best in the TV sports business prompted separate huh? moments in the past 24 hours.

First, "Sunday Night Football" play-by-play man Al Michaels noted at the start of the game between the Jets and Colts from Lucas Oil Stadium that "hydration could be a problem at Lucas Oil Stadium, it usually is." Huh? After that, no context or follow-up, either.

When the roof is closed in Indianapolis, does the air get unusually dry in the stadium? Just what did he mean? There were never any specifics. Had their been substance to that story, that would've been a great place for a sideline reporter to offer information and insights.

Second, not long before the kickoff of the BCS Championship Game on Monday night, "College GameDay" host Chris Fowler, the best studio host on TV, referenced "this very unlikely national championship matchup." Huh? Again, no context or details.

Especially because the comment seemed so out of place before a game between the nation's two top-ranked teams. Who else would we expect to play in such a game? And the game had individual stars as well, with Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn and standout running back LaMichael James of Oregon.

Fallout from Edwards-Franklin Spat Puts Sideline Reporters Uncomfortably Front and Center

In the two-plus weeks since a spat between veteran play-by-play man Ron Franklin and sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards cost Franklin his job and again thrust all sideline reporters into the spotlight, the accompanying scrutiny of those who handle the most difficult and job in sports television has not been pleasant.

Proven and talented sideline reporter Andrea Kramer, who has a high-profile assignment with NBC Sports, complained about the vitriol to USA Today, and several of her colleagues agreed that they have been unfairly criticized, with their abundance of preparation and work regularly overlooked.

Perhaps, they’re right. They have the most unappreciated assignments in sports, doing a job anyone at home believes they can do just as well because those viewers do not see the hours of preparation, and because those viewers believe the amount of time a person appears on air constitutes their value to the broadcast.

For sideline reporters, who might appear on TV just a handful of minutes during a three-hour broadcast, that makes justifying their existence difficult -- although every major sports broadcast (except the top NFL team on CBS Sports) includes a sideline reporter.

Many negative generalities exist about those who handle the toughest job in sports television. They do prepare, though. They do work hard. And, as this solid (if one-sided) story presents, sideline reporters have many tricks to the trade.

In general, they deserve respect and usually merit a place on the broadcast.

BUT, sideline reporters sometimes hurt themselves with stereotypical silliness.

While the Edwards-Franklin incident was unrelated to their game duties, the fact that the play-by-play veteran got a lot of public support and the sideline reporter became a face for complaints simply reflects the dissatisfaction of fans (and bloggers) with sideline reporters.

This past weekend, Alex Flanagan on NBC Sports did a disservice to the profession with some of her work on the NFL wild-card game between the Saints and Seahawks. And it was just one moment – the always dangerous post-game interview.

While the Seahawks basked in the glow of the victory and coach Pete Carroll told Flanagan the team expected to win, she asked “Relly?” Yes, really. Of course the coach expects his team to win. To ask otherwise was either disrespectful or silly.

Minutes later, she asked Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselback: “Quickly Matt, can you rank how big of an upset this is?” C’mon, he doesn’t think it’s an upset. And it’s not his job to rank them either. How about asking him about his effort on a downfield block during Marshawn Lynch’s 67-yard touchdown run? Or, ask him about anything else really. But please do not disrespect him moments after a victory with a question like that.

While it’s NOT disrespectful for reporters to ask Jim Harbaugh about his future moments after a bowl game, when he’s clearly headed for another job (and Harbaugh was wrong to play the respect card against the media in that instance), it is disrespectful to belittle a team’s belief that it could win a game. And that’s the kind of thing that leads to disrespect for sideline reporters.

Some final thoughts on the Franklin-Edwards incidents: There was not enough context, before or after the case, for those not very close to the situation to pass judgment. Specifically, what was the topic that initially prompted Franklin to jump into the conversation with Edwards? Had there been problems, with either one of them with colleagues, in the past? … It just seems that it would’ve been better for all involved if ESPN had been handled it in house and a bit less publicly. … Smart move by Franklin early this week to decline comment on the aftermath when asked by The New York Times.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

NFL 'Tournament' Now Has its Cinderella

With the over-use of tournament references by on-air TV types in regard to the NFL playoffs (a commonplace approach by many leagues and media members to piggy back on the popularity of the NCAA Tournament with talk of "brackets," "seeds" and even "the tournament"), it's appropriate that the Seattle Seahawks have grabbed the role as Cinderella.

What many thought would be an uninteresting game instead was entertaining and eventful from start to finish Saturday -- and the NBC Sports crew of Tom Hammonds and Mike Mayock did a wonderful job with the game. It will be hard for any game, or any broadcast tandem, to match what happened during the first NFL game of the weekend.

Hammond, ever steady and understated, probably uttered fewer words than any other NFL play-by-play man will this weekend. He either got his work done quickly or let the action speak for itself -- as was the case during Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard run in the fourth-quarter, the highlight-reel effort that saved the game for the Seahawks.

Granted, Hammond and Mayock might have been simply surprised by what was happening (as were all those who were watching), but the way they handled that play spoke volumes about the success of their broadcast.

Sure, the telecast had early stumbles, especially when noting five times (five times!) after Julius Jones' first touchdown that he was the first player in NFL playoff history to score a touchdown against a team that had traded him during the season. But those stumbles were rare.

And, as much as the Seahawks took the opportunity to shine at the right time, so too did Mayock. The bookish-looking, well-prepared analyst parlayed his preparation and understanding of the game into an impressive performance. Then again, whether on the NFL Network or Notre Dame football, he rarely disappoints. When Hammond was not speaking Mayock was -- and that was a good thing.

OK, Mayock missed on a couple of calls, including a dropped pass he thought was tipped, but the discussed "personnel groupings" and strategy with accuracy at appropriate times. He even gushed appropriately after Lynch's run. "That's as good an effort from a running back as I've ever seen in my life. ... Are you kidding me?"

Seattle's victory means the team advances and gets to play again next week. Hopefully, it will also end complaints about division champions hosting playoff games or re-seeding the playoffs, because the Seahawks clearly showed they deserved the spot.

Despite his performance, Mayock is done calling NFL game action this season, but he can still be found on the NFL Network. And he might deserve more prominent opportunities in the future.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Outlook for 2011? Increased Ratings, Viewership

After a record year for TV viewing in 2010, sports-related viewership seems set to increase again in 2011.

In 2010, "Sunday Night Football" finished as the most-watched prime-time TV show, attracting an average of 21.8 million viewers and marking the first time a sports program had finished as the most-watched program. Additionally, NFL games accounted for more than half of the top-10 highest rated programs during the fall season.

Ratings for college football fell a bit (in part because of the proliferation of games on TV and the limited success of some traditional powers), but on the whole sports on TV had a great year, and TV viewership in general rose.

According to the Nielsen Company, U.S. residents averaged 34 hours a week watching TV in 2010. That was a 1 percent increase over 2009, and with separate experts predicting $5 per gallon gas prices in the next two years, more and more people may take a stay-at-home approach and watch TV in 2011 and beyond.

That could be especially true for sports on TV because sports broadcasts might benefit most from technology (HD, 3D) that makes the game experience at home more enjoyable for some than the in-person experience at arenas and stadiums.

Even if sports does not attract more viewers -- as has been the case in the first week of this year with the BCS bowls -- those broadcast remain positive, profitable opportunities for broadcast partners. Specifically, although the number of people watching BCS games has dropped this year because of the move from broadcast partners to ESPN, officials at ESPN remain thrilled with the ratings the games have drawn (which are at near-record levels for the all-sports broadcasting giant).