Friday, June 29, 2012

Bashing Berman an Exercise in Futiltiy

Since the rumor was first leaked earlier this week and confirmed not long after that, the Internet has been a-Twitter (and more) with some fans, sports media commentators and reliable contrarians complaining about Chris Berman's assignment to cover the second game of the "Monday Night Football" doubleheader Sept. 10 on ESPN.

He'll call the Chargers-Raiders matchup -- his first NFL play-by-play assignment -- with Trent Dilfer as the color commentator.

Because of his bombast, Berman has become a caricature of himself through the years. For example, his work on the mostly made-for-TV home run derby at the All-Star Game always draws criticism and his passion for the NFL invariably comes through on his studio work. Passion should not be confused with perspective, though.

Still, the rants about Berman remain somewhat without perspective as well.

Officials at ESPN have experimented with the on-air assignments for the second game of season-opening "MNF" doubleheader since its inception. Because of its late start, it's typically one of the least-watched NFL games of the season for ESPN, so cross promotion and experimentation have been the typical approach.

Others in the booth have included Mike Greenburg and Mike Golic, part of abundant cross promotion on ESPN Radio for a couple of years, and the on-air team has at times included two members and at times three.

Also, like almost every other NFL game -- or any sporting event on TV -- who's working the game does not drive viewership nearly as much as the importance or quality of the matchup.

So, while Berman might be exactly what certain critics claim -- a "disservice" or "insult" to hard-core football fans and fans of the Chargers and Raiders in particular -- he might be just what that particular 'MNF' game needs. Sure, he can be clownish, loud and unfocused but dozens of other potential play-by-play talents can bring those things to the booth as well.

Berman's presence might amp up interest in the game a little bit, which cannot hurt form the perspective of either ESPN or the league. Plus, the balanced, insightful and opinionated Dilfer should keep the broadcast from going far from football. With ESPN's talent in the directing and producing seats, the broadcast will be of expected quality there as well.

Berman, Dilfer and the production team will get a practice assignment. They'll complete a test run during the Aug. 23 Cardinals-Titans preseason game.

Complaints about Berman just seem to be much ado about nothing. He will work the game, unless he's stricken with some illness or injury before Sept. 10. He will be criticized. And he will (most likely) not impact the number of viewers in any significant manner.

So why should network officials care about the assignment or the criticism? Maybe they're giving Berman a chance he appreciates without it coming in a venue that will hurt the brand much at all.

Really, the worst-case scenario for those who dislike the assignment has to be the "what if" that more people watch the game. If Berman's debut, on a game featuring "the Raiders" (and you can hear him drawing the pronunciation of that game out right now), somehow attracts more viewers, the result might be something critics would really dislike -- another play-by-play assignment for Boomer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Passion, Profit Make Sports Talk Appealing

Twenty-five years ago when one all-sports radio station launched in New York City, it seemed like a laughable endeavor to some. These days, with several all-sports radio networks and their affiliates across the country, the only laughter might be coming from management and ownership as they make their way to the bank.

That's at least part of the reason CBS Sports Radio plans to join the crowded field of sports-talk radio as soon as this fall. A full-fledged launch of the network will come in January 2013.

The seemingly saturated market of syndicated sports talk includes ESPN Radio, Fox Sports Radio, Dial Global, Westwood One and many others. Along with CBS, NBC recently announced its own plans to move into sports-talk radio.

It's an exciting time for on-air talent because more networks mean more opportunities and more suitors for their work.

So, while ESPN Radio typically boasts great depth in terms of it's talent, the quality of people behind the network's main on-air teams might drop in the future -- especially if certain folks depart for other networks to showcase their work and earn a bigger paycheck and more prominent role.

Unfortunately, more sports-talk radio does not mean better sports-talk radio.

While many hosts and programs have crafted a national niche with loyal listeners (and while sports-talk radio success seems systematic at points), not all find the same support. Also, having a host move from one network or station to the next does does not guarantee listeners will follow. Putting a microphone in front of a host who has had success as a regular replacement does not always work, either.

Unfortunately, when hosts and networks start searching for a way to make an impact and remain viable, style and substance often take a backseat to entertainment and information. So, instead of commentary and context, listeners could get less than they expect as sports-talk outlets continue to grow across the county. That means less thoughtful discussion and more contrived debates, rants or uninhibited callers.

Sports-talk radio has grown because it can be profitable. People -- at least a fairly large male subset of the population -- listen. They're passionate. Plus, sports, and sports talk especially, can be cheap to produce. At the local level, that means a singe board operator might be one of the station's biggest personnel expenses. And that's not a bad option for a small station that can then rely on network shows to keep people the ad revenue of its larger counterparts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Unfairly Stern, Paul's Power and More

Why does one of the most powerful men in sports, and probably one of the smartest men in sports,  consistently display the thinnest skin and worst sense of timing in all of sports?

Maybe it's an ego thing. Maybe it's a never-ending need to be right.

No matter the reason, NBA commissioner David Stern almost invariably goes beyond explaining what's happening with his league or providing context -- especially in regard to potentially controversial topics -- when he deals with the media. As a result, he sounds mean and it reflects poorly on the league.

The most recent example came Wednesday during an appearance on "The Jim Rome Show" when the show's sometimes combative host asked Stern about rumors that the NBA Draft Lottery had been fixed in favor of the New Orleans Hornets, which had been owned by the league.

With all the rumors and speculation about the outcome of the NBA Draft Lottery since its inception, and especially so with this year's top pick going to the Hornets, the question had to be expected. It was not unfair, either. As is typical, Stern answered the question and then chastised the person asking it. It's his usual approach no matter the network or questioner in such situations.

Of course, because Rome has built is career in part on asking at least combative-sounding questions and portraying himself as edgy, the stage was set for something stupid to happen. Plus, Rome and Stern conduct this dog-and-pony show on at least an annual basis for the benefit of Rome's listeners.

Still, as Stern grew frustrated with the draft question, he tried to show what he believed to be the hypocrisy of Rome's line of questioning with a question of his own. So, Stern asked, "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?"

Unfortunately, Stern's example of an poisonous question about a matter that's clearly not true was just mean-spirited. It made him -- again, a powerful and smart man -- seem small. With the league in the midst of the NBA Finals, and additionally with NBA TV showing "The Dream Team," what should've been a great day for the league was marred in part because of its top administrator.

Stern's actions were just one example of some

Act: U.S. Open offers A-list pairing of Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods for first two rounds.
React: TV partner ESPN must anticipate the ratings bonanza this should produce during weekday early afternoon hours. It's probably good for the sport, just because it should generate some buzz during the first two rounds. At the same time, though, any added emphasis on this threesome could come at the expense of anyone else making an early run in the tournament.

Act: Friend of man accused in Auburn shootings calls the Paul Finebaum Show.
React: Only on the Finebaum Show. Seriously, only on that slice of Americana with a strong tinge of SEC partisanship could a nation of sports fans get a true taste of the fan-next-door, small-town vibe that pervades that region of the country. Only on show with such a deep cultural impact would someone so close to such a situation actually decide to call in and share his perspectives. Best of all, Finebaum provides a wonderful mix of deadpan inquisitiveness and honesty that sometimes make it hard to know if he cares or if it's part of his shtick. For all the inherent flaws in that approach, it does produce good radio.

Act: BCS partners consider several postseason options for college football, including a four-team playoff.
React: A playoff might be closer than ever before, powered in large part by potentially hefty payouts from TV partners as the BCS revamps its system. Still, on-air college football types rarely call out those involved -- especially when they utter silly generalizations. One of the most prevalent comes when BCS supporters talk about the benefit/importance of the existing system for student-athletes. In reality, it's the college presidents and other university bigwigs who benefit most from bowl-game related junkets but media members never point out that oh-so-evident contradiction.