Tuesday, August 31, 2010

'Little Big Men' Latest Film in Strong Series

Another quality installment of ESPN's sports documentary series debuts at 8 Tuesday night.

"Little Big Men" follows the baseball team from Kirkland, Wash., which won the Little League World Series in 1982. The team, led by power-hitting pitcher Cody Webster, upended a team from Taiwan in the championship game -- but that's just part of the story.

Filmmaker Al Szymanski, with 11 Emmy Awards to his credit, capably recaps the team's upset victory in South Williamsport using game footage from ABC Sports (including TV sports legend Jim McKay) and goes beyond that to make the story more compelling and personal by following the team and its players after the victory.

Even two years removed from the U.S. hockey team in the Lake Placid Olympics, the Little League game did pack an nationalistic punch in 1982, which the film accurately conveys. Also, the general underdog story (teams from Taiwain had won five consecutive LLWS and 10 of of 12 before 1982) always makes for a good sports story.

As an added benefit, the film provides an interesting time capsule -- especially just two days after the latest Little League World Series concluded.

Specifically, the LLWS in 1982 included just one field, Lamade Stadium, and that was before the turf was so well manicured -- so viewers get a sense of the heat and dust that day 28 years ago.

Plus, the area around the ballpark was less commercialized and made-for-TV, but it was more cluttered than in recent years with fans. Back then, before the Internet, Twitter updates and even live broadcasts from the Series (it was tape delayed until the late 1980s), many baseball fans in central Pennsylvania were listening to the game on radio and as a victory for the U.S. team became more likely they did flock to the stadium.

To Szymanski's credit, the film feels right. It's not always easy to capture something like that years later, but that game that day was a remember-where-you-were moment for those involved and for many watching the game in person or on TV.

Emotional insights from Webster and his teammates about the aftermath of the victory only make the film more powerful -- because they touch on topics that always (unfortunately) remain timely, including how adults treat children and teenagers participating in sports.

Rebroadcasts of the film are scheduled: Sept. 1 (Midnight, ESPN2); Sept. 2 (11 p.m., ESPN Classic); Sept. 11 (1:30 a.m., ESPN2); Oct. 25 (Midnight, ESPN Classic); and Nov. 28 (1 a.m., ESPN Classic.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Musburger, Oliver Display Midseason Form

Two of the weekend's more visible sports broadcasts featured two on-air personalities in mid-season form -- but that's not necessarily a good thing.

Play-by-play man Brent Musburger, who has perfected that high-volume, over-the-top approach, was in many ways perfect for the Little League World Series. Working games with 11-, 12- and 13-year-old participants requires positive energy because nobody's a loser at the Series and he's the perfect man to deliver that message.

He can talk about the "youngsters" with a jovial, upbeat approach and his presence brings additional credibility to an event that has established itself as a late-summer TV staple and a ratings winner.

In addition, Musburger can pontificate about the state of the sport or the impact of replay on baseball (as he did during the championship game Sunday) and it sounds important, and like he's championing change (which he was for Major League Baseball) without it really making an impact. Likewise, the games provide interesting competition with an international flair but they hardly matter overall.

Ironically, while Musburger gives the Little League World Series additional star power, it was that assignment that helped resurrect his career. After he left CBS Sports in well-publicized maneuver on April 1, 1990 -- he was made aware of the move that morning and hosted the championship game of the Final Four that night -- Musburger's first visible assignment with ABC Sports came covering the Little League World Series four months later.

Since then, he's again established himself as ESPN's lead college football play-by-play man and has hosted numerous other highly visible events.

Still, sometimes he just tries too hard to be the conscious of an event, or a champion for a cause and he did so again Sunday.

First, there was a positive (and correct) nod to the impact of replay at the LLWS and its potential in the big leagues. "It is clear that it can be used, as it has been here, with very little time delay," he said.

But, he later incorrectly lobbied for a coach in the championship game to use a replay challenge in the bottom of the fifth inning on a possibly trapped catch (it was not) that was not able to be challenged. Undeterred, Musburger said: "Well, if they ever expand it, that should be something that's part of it."

Sometimes, he would be so much better if he would just call the action. He certainly deserves room after a stellar career, but that over-the-top approach remains an Achilles heel.

Likewise, Fox Sports sideline reporter Pam Oliver made a cliche a reality Sunday night working the Steelers-Broncos game. It was a display of going to a sideline reporter who was apparently close to the action and might have information but the report added nothing.

Specifically, after an injury to Steelers linebacker James Farrior early in the game opened a large cut on his right forehead (he lost his helmet and was hit by an opponent among a of pile of players while making a tackle), viewers waited nearly a quarter to get an update on his condition from the field.

When the report came, Oliver stated only the obvious -- that Farrior had a laceration and would not return to the game.

Really? That's something everyone knew from almost the moment it happened -- and the lack of information provided only the latest example of sideline reporters not actually reporting. While the guys in the broadcast booth had already provided necessary context by mentioning a similar injury to Giants quarterback earlier in the preseason, Oliver was left with little. Especially because the Steelers might not have been forthcoming about the situation.

If that was the case, she should've put off any report that shared nothing. Or the game's producer and director should've ignored the issue if they were not going to get good information. Instead, because the sideline reporter's presence had to be justified, viewers got the same old superficial effort they usually get.

It's not entirely Oliver's fault. All sideline reporters get stuck in the same situation. Maybe someday some broadcast will find a way for them to shine with regularity but that's just not typically the case.

Friday, August 27, 2010

'Exposure' Means Programming for ESPN

With eight games from five states in the next three days, ESPN and its family of networks help kick off high school football season aross the country.

With its "ESPN Rise High School Football Kickoff," the all-sports network presents games from California, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas. Games will air on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

According to the official news release: "ESPN RISE represents ESPN’s commitment to engage and elevate high school athletes by providing them with recognition, resources, information and inspiration that can motivate them to improve their skills and achieve their goals to be the best athletes they can."

Eight games in high definition on TV also mean something else for ESPN -- porgramming, which produces advertising revenue, and a chance to both self promote (which ESPN never avoids) and to create some media exposure loyalty with younger sports fans as well as top-notch competitors.

Eight of the teams competing in the televised this game fall in the top-50 rankings compiled by ESPN RISE. Also, seven individual players are ranked among the nation's top 150, according to ESPNU rankings. So, games brought to you by ESPN feature teams and players whose prowess has been verified by ESPN.

In its early years, ESPN did the same thing with its own separate college football rankings. The network eventually adopted Associated Press rankings like most other media outlets because it avoided confusion and was too transparent of an self-promoting act.

With high school football, though, there's no reason ESPN cannot position and promote itself as the authority. What other entity can compete nationally?

People watching the games might be inclined to visit online and check out ESPN's rating sytems or the other ESPN RISE assests -- which include ESPN RISE, GIRL, Hardwood and Gridiron magazines. There's also ESPNRISE.com and more than 160 high school events each year, including Elite 11, Elite 24, ESPN RISE Games, ESPN RISE National High School Invitational, Faster to First, Area Code Baseball and Nike Combines/Nike SPARQ Mini Camps.

Because ESPN televises the games, standout teams and student athletes then will know ESPN loves them and wants to promote them. Perhaps relationships will grow as a result.

Maybe when the recruits bound for Division I schools involved in this weekend's games declare their college intentions, they'll do so as part of a show on an ESPN network. Maybe they'll be featured on "SportsCentral" specials during their pro careers. Maybe they'll get a job as an analyst once their on-field careers end.

That's a big set of what-if dominoes and scenarios, though.

What if ESPN did not televise high school games (in any sport)? Would high school athletes not go to college? And the best of the best not advance beyond that? Or someday find a post-playing career job?

Of course not, on all counts. While ESPN and other outlets will not turn away from high school sports -- expect the growing trend to increase even more in coming years -- that does not mean it's a good thing.

Sure, the competitors get some measure of exposure, but any measurements about who truly benefits from such broadcasts invariably favors the all-sports network itself.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Little League Provides Cover for ESPN

At the start of an internally controversial week, with "Around the Horn" regular Jay Mariotti in trouble in Los Angelese because of a domestic disturbance charge involving his girlfriend, a little bit of Americana has provided at least some cover for ESPN.

With the Little League World Series already scheduled to preempt "Around the Horn," and with "Pardon the Interruption" on hiatus for the same reason, ESPN commentators and officials have been able to avoid the Mariotti matter (at least publicly) and keep it out of the limelight from two programs that would seem most likely to address the situation. Or at least shows, in the case of "Around the Horn," most impacted by the incident.

Granted, the World Series has some PR warts, especially in the eyes of people who want to argue against putting pre-teens (for the most part) in such high profile competitive situations, but it generally gets spun as a positive experience -- win or lose -- for participants. Plus, ESPN, with its vested interest in success makes judicious use of field microphones on coaches and managers, giving viewers plausibly live audio of the most encouraging and positive moments while avoiding inevitable harsh emotion or slips of the tongue.

Ironically, it's Mariotti's own tongue-lashing skills that might come back to bite him and his career depending on what happens with the charges in L.A. He's been a tough critic of athletes and sports types who put themselves in similar situations, so it'll be interesting to see how he reacts publicly, and it will happen at some point, and how ESPN handles the situation.

For at least a couple of days, though, the all-sports giant has some time to figure out its approach, though. And it can do who while Little League ballplayers get their annual moment in the spotlight.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Brewer's Tools Bring Tech Garage to Life

Amidst all the chatter about NASCAR racing, one of the best and most interesting experts works not in the press box or even in the pits. He has his own garage -- the Craftsman Tech Garage.

Former crew chief Tim Brewer provides the on-air personality for a traveling production team that produced in-race informational segments during Nationwide and Cup Series races. The enclosed studio includes a Chevrolet Cutaway Car as well as displays of engines, transmissions and shock absorbers.

Two tractor-trailer rigs, one with the studio and one as a support trailer, travel the country from race to race to make the Crafsman Tech Garage possible. Along with car parts, the moving garage and studio has mutiple plasma-screen televisions.

Still, it's most important element is Brewer -- who always shares his expertise in a manner that informs without insulting.
For more, see "In Depth: Craftsman Tech Garage" link on upper right of page.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Interesting Personnel Moves for TV Seats

While college and pro football teams move toward the regular season, working to make cuts and set their rosters, TV networks are doing the same with broadcast teams -- and this year it seems those TV teams have hardly any room for newcomers.

Plus, with the season just days away, most changes have already been made. For example, ESPN announced its shakeups to college football crews (including the addition of Brian Griese) and its iconic and important "College GameDay" studio show (a larger role for Erin Andrews) weeks ago.

Still, there were a few high-profile changes recently. They include:
-- NBC Sports adding NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock as color commentator on its package of Notre Dame games;
-- CBS College Sports naming former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach as a game analyst; and
-- Fox Sports adding both former NFL coach Jim Mora and Super Bowl winning quarterback Kurt Warner to its roster of NFL game analysts.

All of the moves could be winners, with Mayock perhaps set to be the most successful. He's already proven he knows what he's doing when working for NFL Network and the Notre Dame job will expose him, and his expertise, to a broader audience.

Plus the move should be a win-win -- with Mayock getting on-site exposure to a variety of college football teams that will enhance his base of knowledge to share draft expertise on the NFL Network.

Both Mora and Warner seem likely to transfer well to TV, too. Unfortunately, Mora (who previously coached the Seahawks and Falcons) will reportedly work in a three-man booth and he might be good enough to shine on his own without having to battle for airtime. Likewise, media darling Warner certainly haves the expertise and seems to have the ability to transfer that information easily.

The colorful (and deposed) Leach could be the wild card in the bunch. He certainly has the skill set that makes TV analysts strong -- he's entertaining and knowledgeable -- but he's also controversial before he even begins his work, and that's not always a good thing.

Still, he's going to work in front of the smallest TV audiences of the bunch (it's not as if CBS College Sports rivals a network in terms of distribution), which should give him time to hone his skills and find success. Plus, he's probably unlikely to jump back into coaching anytime soon, so the TV gig might be most important for him. If he works at it, he could be good.

And he should work at it, because it's probably his lifeline to remaining in football. That's because Mayock is a proven talent and both Mora and Warner could get another chance in front of the camera or as a coach or consultant (in Mora's case). With Leach, the fallout of his departure from Texas Tech, including a high-profile spat with ESPN analyst Craig James's son, make it hard to believe he'll have an abundance of coaching options.

He might be darn good at TV, though, and that would be OK.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

'Boys of Fall' Strikes the Right Chord

An interruption from radio and TV for a video ...

Maybe it's my anticipation for some football season -- it just cannot come soon enough -- or the pitch-perfect sentimentality (I'm a sucker for sappy stuff), but this recently released Kenny Chesney video certainly ranks as one of the best sports-related videos available. And it includes some classic TV sports images and voices.