Monday, January 28, 2013

Super Bowl Week Really Begins with Media Day, When NFL Network Adds PR Insider to Its Team

Team arrivals have been chronicled and the initial news conferences have been completed.

Sports-talk radio shows broadcast all day long Monday from New Orleans -- with ESPN and CBS Sports Radio Network housed in separate areas while some smaller networks and stations from across the country made their home at a sparse Radio Row.

Business picks up Tuesday, though. That's when the teams, media members covering the Super Bowl and the usual mix of the unusual takes center stage for Media Day.

While the on-field sessions for coaches and players have been somewhat unproductive for working media members for years, the circus-like atmosphere works for the NFL because it makes news and provides a spectacle. It even attracts a crowd, with the general public again having access to watch from the stands this year.

Longtime NFL reporters might complain about the process, but they'll be there. They'll be joined by small pools or reporters (among them many from network TV affiliates across the country making the trek to New Orleans just for the week, especially Media Day). Of course, they'll be joined by correspondents from late-night television shows and reporters from across the world. All told during Super Bowl week, from the days leading up to the game to the game itself, the league will issue more than 5,200 media credentials.

So, Tuesday kicks things into high gear for news organizations of any size and whatever focus.

Not surprisingly, NFL Network plans four-and-a-half hours of live coverage, including what might be a sports TV first -- an NFL PR pro's perspective on Media Day and the week leading up to the game.

NFL Network has added Rich Dalyrmple, the Dallas Cowboys' vice president of public relations/communications, who has more than 20 years of experience, to its on-air team for the day to provide analysis and insight into what the public relations staffs, coaches and players are facing during the week leading up to the Super Bowl.

Amid the loud mess of media madness that happens on Media Day, the move to add the accomplished and respected Dalyrmple might get overlooked, and he might not get a lot of airtime. Still, he should provide in interesting and welcome behind-the-scenes perspective.

It's a nice move that will not take away from NFL Network's proven Media Day process that includes hosts Rich Eisen and Melissa Stark, along with Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp and roving reporter Deion Sanders.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Super Bowl Week 1 Offers Usually Unusual News

Some people think it's too much. Two weeks. Fourteen days. And dozens of football-related stories about the NFL and the Super Bowl but not really about the game itself.

That's how media members pass the time while coaches and players involved in the Feb. 3 game finalize their ticket requests and handle travel plans to New Orleans.

All that blather, all that anything-but-the-game focus seems too much for some people.

Not for me.

Already this week we've had ...

  • a he said-he said soap opera about a Super Bowl from 10 years ago, when both Tim Brown and Jerry Rice accused then-Raiders coach Bill Callahan of sabotaging the team's game plan against the Buccaneers;
  • the reinstatement of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, two weeks sooner than many expected and enabling him to do his job evaluating talent at the Senior Bowl;
  • an update on the post-career plans of just-retired tight end Tony Gonzalez;
  • a hopeful (depending on who relayed it) story about failed No. 1 draft pick JaMarcus Russell hoping to rekindle his NFL career; and
  • the NFL issuing a $10,000 fine to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his legs up slide during the AFC Championship Game.
It's a mix of stories that shows the breadth and depth of the NFL on a daily basis. With 32 teams, hundreds of current and former players and all kinds of on- and off-field stories developing at any time, the NFL drives the sports news cycle every day -- from the meaningful to the mundane.

During what remains of these two weeks, the NFL gets the kind of attention it deserves. Perhaps not because it has always earned that attention, but certainly because people want to know what's happening. They're interested in those stories and media members are doing their jobs.

Because of that, these two weeks of NFL coverage are always enjoyable -- a trip that mixes the planned and staged with the unexpected and unpredictable. This first week usually produces most of the things nobody expected. Next week, we get the paint-by-the-numbers predictability, from Media Day to Radio Row silliness and even Hall of Fame voting.

Sure, two weeks can be a long time. But it's not too much time.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Not All of Best Teams Remain in NFL Playoffs

While the eight teams alive entering this weekend's Divisional Playoffs represent the best the NFL has to offer on the field, the same might not be true of all the broadcast pairings at this point of the season.

Six games remain in the the NFL season -- four this weekend, two next and, of course, the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. One broadcast tandem,  Jim Nantz and Phil Simms of CBS Sports, will cover half of those games.

They might be, at best, the second-best broadcast team remaining in the playoffs, though. And the NFL's two best color commentators will not draw another assignment this season.

Here's the weekend lineup:
Baltimore at Denver (4:30 p.m., CBS) / Greg Gumbel-Dan Dierdorf
Green Bay at San Francisco (8 p.m., Fox) / Joe Buck-Troy Aikman
Seattle at Atlanta (1 p.m., Fox) / Thom Brennaman-Brian Billick
Houston at New England (4:30 p.m., CBS) / Jim Nantz-Phil Simms

All four TV tandems have strengths, with the Brennaman-Billick duo deservedly getting its first playoff assignment. And you could make a fairly strong case that that team is better than Nantz-Simms.

Overall, the four play-by-play men are solid pros who avoid hype and keep game broadcasts moving. Of the four, Buck's the best with Brennaman next and Nantz and Gumble behind them on my personal list.

Among the color commentators, an alphabetical list summarizes what they bring on gameday. That means top to bottom it's Aikman, Billick, Diedorf and Simms. As Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach, has toned down his smartest-man-in-the-room routine, his work has steadily improved.

Still, NFL fans will miss Chris Collinsworth and Mike Mayock of NBC Sports during the most important games of the season. Collinsworth is the best in the league at what he does, and Mayock is not far behind. They're always prepared, and both have opinions based on reporting and research. They do not just rant.

Next week, Buck-Aikman and Nantz-Simms get the conference championship game assignments, and Nantz-Simms will complete the season at the Super Bowl.

After 14 standout years as quarterback for the New York Giants, including an MVP performance in Super Bowl XXI, Simms has been the lead color commentator for CBS Sports' coverage of the NFL since 1998 and this season's assignment will mark his seventh Super Bowl assignment. (It's his fifth with CBS after working two for NBC Sports earlier in his career.) Still, his penchant for not offering an opinion or waffling sometimes offsets his wonderful experience and knowledge.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Appropriate Moves Start the Year for ESPN

Two personnel decisions by ESPN that became public Tuesday were the right moves for the individuals and for the network.

ESPN offered an apology for Brent Musburger's over-the-top comments about a female fan in the stands during the BCS National Championship Game. The network also refused to renew the contract of commentator Rob Parker for inappropriate comments he made in mid-December that prompted a suspension.

With 26 million viewers watching Alabama pummel Notre Dame, many more people heard Musburger's comments. And they were hard to miss because they simply should not have been part of the broadcast.

While ESPN had planned on mentioning Katherine Webb, the girlfriend of Alabama QB AJ McCarron and the reigning Miss Alabama, Musburger sounded more like a dirty old man than a veteran play-by-play talent with his comments. Color commentator Kirk Herbstreit chimed in a bit, but not nearly as much as Musburger.

To ESPN's credit, production personnel on site knew what was happening right away. According to a report in The New York Times, ESPN's executive vice president of production, John Wildhack, quickly told Musburger through his earpiece to "move on."

Social media reaction was swift and steady, though. Everyone heard, and they all thought the opinions that had nothing to do with the game were wrong.

Appropriately, ESPN offered a statement about the topic Tuesday: "We always try to capture interesting storylines and the relationship between an Auburn grad who is Miss Alabama and the current Alabama quarterback certainly et that test. However, we apologize that the commentary in this instance went too far and Brent understands that."

Perhaps the brouhaha and resulting statement might help remind on-air game talent, at least in some small way, to stay focused on the action on the field in the future.

Also appropriately, if overdue, ESPN confirmed Tuesday that it would not renew Parker's contract. The commentator was suspended in December for comments he made on "First Take" in which he questioned the "blackness" of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.

ESPN said Parker's contract expired at the end of the year and after the network evaluated its needs and Parker's work -- including the RG III comments -- a decision was made not to renew Parker's contract.

The "First Take" episode where Parker went analytically out of bounds aired Dec. 13. Although Parker issued an apology on Twitter a few days after the show, what was a 30-day suspension by ESPN simply was not enough. To its credit, ESPN listened to the reaction from viewers and made the separation between the parties permanent.

Of course, to its discredit, it's the format of "First Take" in particular -- and too many ESPN shows in general -- that encourage debate and ranting over content, context and conversation. In this instance, though, Parker went overboard.

While "First Take" regulars Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith get attention for their loud and firm opinions, they seem to have perfected an ability (thanks in large part to their ability to draw daytime ratings) to stop without going too far. Sure, they bother and even offend some people, and have done so repeatedly, but they have done a better job in recent months to keep from overstepping the bounds of rational discussion.

Unfortunately for Parker, he did not get it -- and still does not. During an TV interview in Detroit that aired Sunday, he said his comments were taken out of context and that he was shocked by the reaction to his comments.

While ESPN officials said Parker's TV interview was unrelated to its action, it's OK if that had been part of the decision. Without it, if that's true, the move to part company made sense. With it, the move made even more sense.

If ESPN repeated the action it took in both instances with all other matters of the same ilk as it moves forward, it would be a step toward enhanced on air products and increased respect and trust from viewers.