Monday, February 20, 2017

A morning without "Mike & Mike" provides a preview of what's to come for ESPN Radio ... and that's not good

With the Presidents Day holiday, ESPN Radio listeners got a preview, of sorts, of what lies ahead for them in terms of morning drive sports talk. Specifically that's no "Mike & Mike" -- as both had the day off this morning. 

Overall, news (and even new rumors) out of ESPN has been almost nonexistent as the supposed breakup of “Mike & Mike” nears.

Sports Illustrated first reported the program might end, but no timetable has been specified since that initial report weeks ago. Still, the report seems logical and it’s probably just a matter of the all-sports network finding the right timing.

Maybe it’ll happen around the Final Four, or maybe it’ll be in the somewhat slower summer months when a replacement program makes its debut.

Whenever it happens, what’s next for Mike Greenberg might be a New York City-based morning program that airs in ESPN, perhaps a rebranded “SportsCenter” in the way the network turned its late-night show into a vehicle for Scott Van Pelt and, more recently, its approach to the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” featuring Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.

What’s next for Mike Golic might be another morning partner on radio or some combination of partners.

Greenberg, who recently earned a big contract from ESPN, has seemingly sparked any potential changes to the show. The most recent was an ill-fated move to the Big Apple a couple of years ago. That was to include an additional host, with the show possibly emanating from Times Square. It never happened.

For more than a decade and half, “Mike and Mike” has been the flag bearer for ESPN. The odd couple chemistry of the two hosts might be a bit contrived at times, but it works. Still, with demographics changing, ESPN has been trying to find ways to broaden the show’s audience even while the hosts age a bit.

The show is rarely intentionally controversial and never mean spirited. For the most part, it’s good talk radio.

ESPN often uses “Mike and Mike” to test out talent, too. A good performance by guests in that safe environment can often lead to bigger opportunities.

Here’s the thing, though: “Mike and Mike” might be better as a sum than in individual pieces. Greenberg’s anti-germ sensibilities and lack of athletic experience, despite his journalism chops, still need a personality to play against. He has that in spades with self-deprecating Golic, the former NFL veteran who invariably puts his college career at Notre Dame front and center as well.

Together, they’re fun and informative. Separately, they might be nearly as good.
No matter what happens, they will be missed if the breakup occurs. From a program some thought might not last more than a few months, “Mike and Mike” has grown and earned a spot in the sports media landscape. The hosts and the show have earned respect throughout the industry.

For example, when Rich Russo, the Penn State alum who directed the Super Bowl for Fox Sports (so that’s a pretty heady job), was told his name was mentioned on “Mike and Mike” before the big game he sounded genuinely thrilled.

“Mike and Mike” is not take-a-side talk just for kicks. It’s not a schtick, and that might be the biggest reason it’ll be a loss if the show ends. Its heart is in the fact that it’s genuine -- a rare find in sports-talk related programming anymore.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Fox's final Super Bowl prep includes high school teams

A practice run with a pair of high school teams Thursday will determine, in part, how Super Bowl LI looks Sunday on TV.

Three days before kickoff Fox plans to conduct the annual network run-through for the big game using two Houston area high school teams as stand-ins for the Falcons and Patriots. With players practicing pregame introductions, entering the stadium and some other situations, the network gets a sense of what certain camera angles will look like for viewers.

Think of it as "blocking" for any staged production. While game action is not staged, preparation for what could happen can only lead to a better production.

For the Fox team -- which might the best of any covering the NFL -- a little more preparation can only enhance a season's worth of work.

Every part of the Fox team contributes to its success. From the producer-director combination of Richie Zyontz and Rich Russo to the core on-air duo (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman), a strong supporting cast (rules analyst Mike Pereira is unrivaled in his role) and dozens of camera operators and production personnel, the network has a good plan for how it wants to approach its NFL coverage.

"We focus on visual storytelling, and we've worked together so long that we have a good sense of each other. Sometimes the guys in the booth might start with a story and we follow their lead. Sometimes it's the other way," said Russo, who will be directing his third Super Bowl. He's worked 14 games since making his debut as a broadcast associate with CBS in 1986. He's directed the international broadcast of the Super Bowl six times.

For a normal NFL game Fox uses about a dozen cameras. On Sunday, there will be more than four times that number. Counting small cameras focused on the game clock and embedded in end zone pylons, Fox will have more than 90 cameras in the stadium.

Russo likes close-up reaction shots, often in slow motion if it’s a player who made a mistake, to help tell stories for viewers. He also likes traditional angles for game action. So, high-sideline shots making viewers feel like they have the best seat in the house will be appropriately common.

"You want to give the viewer the best seat in the house," said Russo, who has earned 10 Emmy Awards for his work. Each week before a game he crafts a detailed camera plan that he shares with camera operators. It outlines which cameras focus on which players in specific down-and-distance situations. It also offers numerous if-then options based on game situation -- meaning the TV team enters the game with a storytelling approach specific to the teams involved and players on the field.

While video games have influenced how football games look on TV, especially with camera angles, Russo said the Super Bowl broadcast will use Skycam shots live on some kickoffs and for replays. “We’ve talked about that a lot,” Russo said. “Those shots can be interesting but for game action people expect the sideline shots.”

Russo knows the biggest expectation some viewers bring to this year's game, too. As a result, he promises not to miss it -- if it happens. If the Patriots win, he'll make sure viewers see all of the Lombardi Trophy presentation. The tension between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the Patriots organization in the wake of the “deflategate” controversy means it could produce compelling interaction.

“I promise I will stay on them and won’t go anywhere else. I know that's a moment people are curious about if New England wins,” Russo said.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

TV legend Musburger ready to retire, and will be missed

Another TV sports legend ends his career this week, and peaking in at his last game might be worth the time.

Brent Musburger announced Wednesday that the Georgia-Kentucky men’s basketball game Tuesday (9 p.m., ESPN) would be his final assignment in a career on national TV that stretches to the 1970s.

Musburger, 77, first came to prominence with CBS Sports, handling some play-by-play duties before moving into the studio as host of the highly rated and trend-setting “NFL Today.” That’s where his familiar “You are looking live …” scene setter was created as the show -- which was the precursor to studio shows as we know them -- took viewers from game to game.

He spent 15 years with CBS Sports, working the NCAA Final Four, the NBA, the Masters, U.S. Open tennis, the Belmont Stakes, the College World Series and NASCAR races, among many assignments. He also worked MLB playoffs for CBS Radio.

In 1990, he was surprisingly fired on the eve of the NCAA men’s basketball championship game between Duke and UNLV. He worked the game, offered a more-than-kind on-air farewell with partner Billy Packer and joined ABC Sports a few months later.

One of his first prominent assignments came at the Little League World Series.

Then, as ABC was engulfed by ESPN, Musburger crafted a stellar second half of his career -- becoming the voice of the network’s top college football game each week and working seven BCS national championship games. He was versatile as a host or play-by-play man for the NBA (including the NBA Finals), golf, auto racing and more.

He was never afraid to share an opinion, which made him interesting -- even if it sometimes made him more of the show than necessary or prompted controversy in play-by-play situations. He always enjoyed offering a subtle reference or wink and nod to betting lines and odds during game, something that endeared him to some portion of viewers and might’ve seemed out of place to others.

Perhaps not surprisingly the Associated Press reported Musburger, who lives in Las Vegas, did have some retirement plans in place. He will help his family start a sports handicapping business and use some of the millions of airline miles he earned for work for some fun travel.

He also created a Twitter account (@brentmusburger) for the first time last week, portending more commentary from him in retirement. It grew to thousands of followers in the first few hours.

In part because of his opinions and certainly because of his longevity (a direct result of his talent), Musburger brought gravitas to events he worked. His voice allowed casual and die-hard fans alike to know what they were watching was a big game -- or at least the biggest game the network had offer.

His departure represents the latest in a list of high-profile TV sports retirements (Dick Enberg, Vin Scully) in the past few months. With the continued fragmentation of TV viewing habits, he might also be one of the last people that everyone seems to know. A few successors to that status remain, but they are getting fewer every year and every time a different network works a different deal with another conference or league.

Musburger will be missed for many reasons. His role as an on-air leader for the sports viewing community at big events ranks among the most important of those reasons.

Friday, January 13, 2017

For Steelers playoff game, listen before you watch

Planning to watch the Steelers-Chiefs playoff Sunday afternoon?

Before you do, listen. Seriously, find the Steelers pregame show on radio, about 45 minutes before kickoff if you can, and listen to the question-and-answer session with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and reporter Bob Labriola.

While the coach’s pregame Q-and-A session was long the province of play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove, Labriola has been handling the assignment more often this season. Both are proven veterans covering the team, but Labriola somehow elicits a little more from the coach.

Last week’s best example came when Labriola himself shunned an easy storyline. He asked Tomlin if cold weather was less a factor in games anymore because of better athletic apparel.

To his credit, and with a dose of honesty, Tomlin agreed that was the case and added another caveat. He said almost all stadiums have heating systems under the turf these days, so that makes cold weather even less of a factor.

The give and take was good. Not earth shattering, but at least honest, getting away from a cold weather cliché. It was good radio.

In fairness, Labriola misses sometimes, as he did on a different question last week. That was when he asked how the Steelers’ 5-1 record in division play would translate to the playoffs. Well, since the division includes the hapless Browns and underachieving Bengals, it was hard to believe 5-1 meant as much as he intimated. The question sounded like a softball.

Still, that’s nit-picky and rare. For folks who want to “see” the Steelers better, listening first is a good idea.