Friday, February 22, 2013

Debating Danica's Importance, Role a Good Thing

Driver Danica Patrick, better known for her relationship with sponsor Go Daddy than for her accomplishments on the racetrack, starts from the pole Sunday during the Daytona 500.

It's a big deal, one that has gotten both NASCAR and Patrick and abundance of media attention since she sealed the top spot with her qualifying run last Sunday. Her accomplishment has been the focus of generally breathless, first-woman-ever, momentum-changing-moment-for-the-gender coverage.

That's just part of the story, though. It's also interesting to look and those telling the story ... and those not.

Patrick's success in NASCAR has been limited at best, and during her open-wheel racing career the high points were leading the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 (a first for a female driver) and finishing third in 2009. Yes, she won a race in Japan, but the Indy 500 efforts invariably get more notice.

In addition, the pole position for the Daytona 500 means little. In 54 previous races, just nine drivers have won after starting from the first spot.

Those facts and pervious performances should not take way from Patrick's accomplishment, though. She turned the fastest qualifying effort and deserves the spot. Drivers prove themselves on the track, and that's what she's done in this instance. Plus, few drivers jump into the Sprint Cup Series and make an immediate impact.

Still, the accompanying, mostly fawning, media attention for Patrick this week has been dizzying -- exploding well beyond the usually yawning response for most Daytona 500 pole winners. As a result, she has been positioned as a champion for women's sports, and a role model for young sports fans, for girls in general and for anyone who has ever been overlooked and undervalued.

While those might be interesting storylines, they're probably incorrect in her case.

Because of her looks and ability (although it's certainly weighted more in favor of the former than the later), Patrick has had opportunities to race on a regular basis during her career. Her success rate in open-wheel racing would've made it hard to continually find sponsors had she not been the Go Daddy girl. Still, she always had a ride.

Even in NASCAR this year, Patrick's team has its sponsorships set for the entire season -- something Hendrick Motorsports has not been able to do for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver 10 years in a row and has 19 career victories and more than $74 million in career earnings.

Patrick might be the face of an up-and-coming, well-funded racer, but it seems abrupt -- like an unexpected right turn while going 190 miles an hour at Daytona International Speedway -- for her to become the face of women's sports.

After all, many perceive her in a style-over-substance manner, auto racing's version of Anna Kournikova. While Patrick has battled that stereotype throughout her career and some might find it unfair because she has worked hard to improve as a racer, critics will either proclaim that standing criticism or whisper it (depending on who they are and the forum they have) until Patrick finds victory lane.

At the same time, it's not as if all others who champion the cause of women's sports have formed a consensus of support behind Patrick. For example, while ABC News was airing a segment on "World News Tonight" about Patrick to start the week and has had the Daytona 500 and Patrick featured prominently online all week, sources such as espnW have been silent by comparison.

Although ESPN's women's focused outlet champions many causes and competitors, Patrick has not been one of them. Perhaps that group best of all understands how incongruent it seems to have the woman who has spent much of her career building her image on semi-sexy Super Bowl commercials to all of a sudden become the face of women's competition.

For all she is, and all she might become, Patrick is not  Billy Jean King for a new generation -- and some members of the media seem to get that. At the same time, some media members want to chastise those who do not jump on Patrick's NASCAR bandwagon. And others simply want to hype a story that seems different.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Olympic Decision Overlooks TV Impact

So much for TV's all-powerful, decision-driving role in sports.

A decision by the executive committee of the International Olympic Committee ousted wrestling from the 2020 Summer Games based more on politics than anything else.

The Olympics, always driven by political motives and especially so in regard to decision making at the international level, decided to keep modern pentathlon instead of wrestling -- at least in part because of the lobbying of Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., the son of the former IOC president and the vice president of the governing body for modern pentathlon. Junior also serves on the executive committee that made the decision to pin wrestling.

In viewership alone were considered, though, the decision would merit a reversal.

According to The Associated Press, citing global TV numbers, wrestling pulled an average of 23 million viewers and a maximum of 58.5 million during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. At the same time, modern pentathlon averaged 12.5 million viewers, with a maximum of 33.5 million.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Report: Lee, 'OTL' Provide Balance on Paterno

Some supporters of Penn State and former football Joe Paterno have complained about bias by ESPN and other news organizations since the Jerry Sandusky scandal first broke in November 2011.

Those folks believe, and in some cases rightfully, that the media failed in its job while covering the scandal -- easily following hype without much balance in their reports. It was a rush to judgement, they have said loudly and repeatedly, and the media played a major role.

At the same time, some fans and news consumers continually generalize about the media, including ESPN. They see one report, or more than a handful in this case, where a news organization offers negative information about something they feel differently about and they believe that means the organization is biased. The possibility that the organization is just doing its job never becomes a consideration.

As a result, any opportunity for gray areas, nuance or perspective is lost. Only yes and no, right and wrong, them and us remain. For many supporters of the late Penn State coach, that has been the case with ESPN for the past 15 months.

With that backdrop, it was interesting that the Paterno family worked with ESPN's "Outside the Lines" to reveal their own report, which can be found at online, Sunday. Perhaps the family, in its dealings, had a different perspective. Or perhaps they felt the best outlet for sports journalism on TV, "Outside the Lines," was just the proper place for their side of the story to get its first airing.

Not surprisingly, the family-issued report finds abundant flaws with the Freeh Report, which was commissioned by the Penn State board of trustees and subsequently became the basis for the NCAA's historic punishment of the university's athletic program. Along with a record fine and scholarship reduction, that report led the NCAA to impugn Paterno's legacy and strip him of 111 coaching victories.

With veteran sports journalist Bob Ley at the helm Sunday, "OTL" provided a forum and perspective for the Paterno family's formal rebuttal to the situation.

To his credit, Ley allowed room for the Paterno family's advisers and investigators to state their case while asking appropriate, balanced questions about their efforts and ultimate goals. The responses were a mix of generalities (a query about legal eventual action was nicely sidestepped) and somewhat specifics specifics (as a member of Team Paterno said the person at fault should be Jerry Sandusky, not Penn State or other individuals).

Overall, the report offered no smoking guns or surprise answers, just an elongated and formal response that had been months in the making -- proving experts such as Dick Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general and governor of Pennsylvania, the opportunity to reach the same conclusion that many laypeople had formulated months earlier.

Thanks largely to Ley, the coverage on 'OTL' was balanced and fair. It's only the beginning of another wave of action and reaction in the emotionally charged ongoing story, but -- from a media perspective, at least how it does its job, not the sure-fire reaction -- it was done well.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Memorable Super Bowl Plays Just OK on TV

Cameras captured every important moment of Super Bowl XLVII -- from the emotion of the coaches and players to the darkened Superdome lights during a 34-minute delay and even replays of every potentially controversial play (there was only one that was even challenged, and the decision was correct and obvious) -- but there was still something missing from the broadcast.

CBS Sports missed regularly with necessary context and, worst of all, with any sense of importance, timeliness or urgency.

As far as game broadcasts, the effort was solid. In general, that's a good thing because the broadcast did not take attention from the game itself.

Still, beyond the pictures -- and the production staff caught every important and necessary shot -- the broadcast never really reached a Super Bowl level.

In the end, sideline reporter Steve Tasker emerged as the breakout star of the game, with as-newsy-as-possible updates during the blackout. With CBS limited to just 11 of its 62 cameras during the blackout, Tasker rose to the occasion sharing what news their was about the situation and providing perspective from the field.

He shared what he knew, did not speculate and shone as a result. While other on-air types offered lame humor (said play-by-play man Jim Nantz to Phil Simms when they finally returned to air, "Let us know the next time you plan to plug in your cell phone") or sophomoric silliness (it seemed everyone wanted to talk about either BeyoncĂ© or the Ravens shutting down the power in the stadium), Tasker stood out because he did his job.

Luckily for viewers, it was Tasker and his cameraman, not Solomon Wilcots or Tracy Wolfson, who the production crew went to first and foremost. It was a good decision.

From a direction and production standpoint, the broadcast featured the just-right storytelling shots of everything from the 49ers' offensive alignment on the first play of the game (which drew a penalty) and the on-field emotions  throughout the game to players biding time during the blackout and the 49ers' final offensive play of the day (which did not draw a penalty).

In terms of content and context, Simms talked too much, and about things that did not matter or where he was just plain wrong -- and it started on that first play of the game, when the 49ers completed a big pass play but were whistled for an illegal formation.

"I saw that and said that's an illegal formation," Simms told viewers after the play. Well, if he saw it and said it, he did both to himself. Pointing it out after the fact misses the point, and saying you saw it after you never really said you saw it just compounds the problem.

That was an early example of where the Super Bowl broadcast, like so many others in sports, falters because someone (anyone please) does not encourage the on-air types to react to what viewers actually see on the screen. If they do so, it comes up late and sounds wanting.

CBS did it again when Ravens safety Ed Reed was injured. He clearly came up limping while defending a pass and the action was caught on camera, but nobody made mention of it until Reed was off the field.

Then, viewers saw him leaving the field and minutes later, Wilcots provided a no-information update that Reed had left the field and was being treated for an injury. Really? Viewers should expect more than what they already know -- and someone should help put the talent in a better position to succeed, or at least to prevent them from sharing the obvious.

For Nantz and Simms, the broadcast had a regular-season feel simply because they treated it as such. There were too many references to things "we" (that'd be Nantz and Simms) had seen earlier in the season or earlier in the playoffs, but the fact is that a normal playoff game draws some 20 million viewers and the Super Bowl 100 million. So the audience was probably unfamiliar with what they were talking about and a little more context would've helped.

Even for football-focused fans, things such as an early first-down pass to Baltimore fullback Vonta Leach seemed different on the first play from scrimmage for the Ravens, and the broadcast would've been stronger if viewers could have been told, for example, how many times Leach had caught a first-down pass this season. With just 27 receptions all season entering the game, you get a sense it was a relatively small number that could point to part of Baltimore's game plan.

Similarly, the chippy play and emotion of the game were obvious, but never referenced by Nantz and Simms or reigned in by officials ... until a skirmish led to offsetting penalties in the second quarter.

Nantz and Simms offered appropriate priase of the Ravens' offensive line and Simms was similarly spot-on about 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick never throwing a pass until he sees a receiver open, as opposed to before a receiver makes his break during a pass pattern. That was good information that helped viewers, and was repeatedly obvious as the game progressed.

Still, such things were the exception rather than the rule.

Great pictures of Ravens coach John Harbaugh on the sideline with his daughters before the game and during the blackout were accompanied by ... nothing. Similarly strong shots of Harbaugh (often less emotional than his brother Jim, the 49ers' coach) ranting at an NFL official during the blackout were accompanied by ... nothing. No context in either situation. That's a mistake, in both instances.

The blackout news itself never resulted in any on-air interview or input from an NFL official. Granted, those folks were probably busy, but CBS did not press enough to make it happen ... because it never happened.

At the end, Simms bookended the broadcast with indecision -- never a good thing for an analyst. On Kaepernick's pass into the end zone, intended for Michael Crabtree, the analyst was without an opinion.

"The more angles I see the more confused I get," he said. "It's hard to throw a flag in that situation."

To his credit, Nantz correctly raised the possibility of a Ravens safety to end their subsequent possession, even though Simms dismissed the possibility of such an approach. Of course, Simms was wrong.

Super shorts
-- Kudos to CBS production types for digging up that aerial footage of the power outage that impacted the Monday night game between the 49ers and Steelers from 2011.

-- Former coach Bill Cowher was the only one member of the CBS Sports studio team picked the Ravens to win, citing, at least in part, fate, so the power outage storyline played nicely to his logic.

-- The blackout probably helped drive a record for social comments about the game. According to Blue Fin Labs, an analytics company that connects advertisers, agencies and networks to real-time audiences, the game eclipsed the record of 12.2 million social media mentions set last year.

-- The NFL should examine its approach to televising kickoffs. For years it seems, the play has been under attack by the competition committee and league to make it either more entertaining or more safe, and with a record-tying kickoff return for a touchdown in the game the play certainly has an important role. Still, the process of commercial-kickoff-commercial needs to be examined in terms of the structure of broadcasts. It's just not an approach that's friendly for viewers.

About the ads
First, some math ... Bud Light > Black Crown. But, neither equals Budweiser and the Clydesdales.

As expected, humor scored (for Doritos and Taco Bell) and emotion proved powerful late in the game, with longer-form efforts by Dodge (farmers, Paul Harvey voiceover) and Jeep (Wounded Warrior Project, Oprah) touching a chord.

Still, ads in the first half rated higher in general than those later in the game, according to USA Today's AdMeter.

And a few ads that aired just before the game (giving advertisers good exposure but not at the same expense) were entertaining. That included efforts by, Wheat Thins and Volkswagen.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Trio of Pre-Game Super Bowl Media Winners

After two weeks of hype and with a full working day until kickoff for the Super Bowl -- when the commercials take center stage for many and CBS Sports focuses 62 cameras on the game action -- a small handful of sports media winners have emerged.

Even with hundreds of media members working to inform listeners and viewer, not much news emerges during the buildup for the game and one network's coverage invariable looks and sounds just like that of another. Still, there have been a handful of standouts.

Here's my short list:

  • "Mike and Mike in the Morning," thanks in large part to the show's standout production staff which landed Packers receiver Donald Driver as a guest in the middle of the week. With relatively nudging from the show's hosts, the veteran wideout announced his retirement. It was the biggest unstaged moment leading up to the Super Bowl. While Randy Moss's me-first moment, declaring himself the best receiver ever, made headlines, that was part of Media Day, when somebody always says something. Likewise, the NFL's made-for-TV "NFL Honors" revealed winners of season-long awards.
  • Rich Eisen, the host of record and face of NFL Network. His interview with NFL commissioner after the commish's state-of-the-league address was timely and touched on topics that needed clarified or were missed during the news conference itself. Plus, Eisen's absence during the Hall of Fame announcement Saturday evening made the even seem a little less special because the NFL Network's top host was missing. 
  • Rachel Nichols, who made the move to CNN and got a chance to co-host a show on site in New Orleans on Saturday. Many who leave ESPN for supposedly greener pastures do so with success, and others fail. For Nichols, bringing a sports presence to CNN could be a valuably visible experience.