Tuesday, March 26, 2013

TV Teams Mirror Talent on the Tournament Courts

With a handful of unexpected teams in the Sweet 16, the NCAA Tournament has showcased the depth and talent that exists in college basketball. That's the case among broadcasters working the games, too.

And, just like the teams on the court, there are several good teams but not really one overpowering standout working for CBS Sports/Turner Sports during the tournament.

Here's a look at the four remaining broadcast teams who will work regional action this weekend:

Jim Nantz/Clark Kellogg/Tracey Wolfson
They're clearly the No. 1 team working the tournament, but they're also the most predictable, the personification of the CBS Sports tradition. They're not flashy, and when they're working games the NCAA clearly has a partner among its broadcast partners.

With Nantz, who knows how the process works after years of referring to "patrons" during The Masters, viewers get the company line. And when it comes to any sort of criticism, especially of the officials, Kellogg shies away from that topic like a basketball big man trying to avoid any necessary ballhandling.

They're a Final Four fixture, at least as long as the tournament's last three games remain on CBS. When those games move to TBS, though, do not be surprised to see a change behind the microphone. And that could happen as soon as next year.

Marv Albert/Steve Kerr/Craig Sager
When that move comes, the Albert-led group could be a strong candidate to get the assignment. Until then, Albert remains one of the best in the basketball business, and his away-from-work peccadilloes barely remain memories for most people.

Meanwhile, Kerr is honest and open while Sager (always hard to miss on the sideline with his sartorial skills) does his job well. Actually, among the top three broadcast teams the sideline reporters -- Wolfson, Sager, Nichols -- might be as strong as any trio in any sport in regard to those duties.

Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery/Rachel Nichols
Even with age, and occasional missed or slow calls, Lundquist and Raftery work well together. There's not a team farther down on the networks' depth chart that deserves to be elevated above them and they continue to relate the action on the court and surrounding the games they work well.

Nichols might be in a position to get bumped up in the near future. Among many ESPN expats, her move from the all-sports network could be one that pays off the best.

Kevin Harlan/Reggie Miller/Len Elmore/Lewis Johnson
They're enjoyable, but clearly fourth among the four. A proven bunch of pros, they provide the kind of depth and talent the networks need to capably cover the tournament. It's hard to imagine them, as a group, elevating above the others. If reconstituted, though, maybe Harlan could get a shot to move higher on the depth chart.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sweet 16 Start Times Scheduled

Start times, networks and announce teams for NCAA Tournament games in the Sweet 16.

Washington, D.C.
7:15 p.m.: Marquette vs. Miami
After: Syracuse vs. Indiana
Games on CBS with Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery/Rachel Nichols

Los Angeles
7:47 p.m.: Arizona vs. Ohio State
After: LaSalle vs. Wichita State
Games on TBS with Kevin Harlan/Reggie Miller/Len Elmore/Lewis Johnson

7:15 p.m.: Oregon vs. Louisville
After: Michigan State vs. Duke
Games on CBS with Jim Nantz/Clark Kellogg/Tracey Wolfson

North Texas
7:37 p.m.: Kansas vs. Michigan
After: Florida Gulf Coast vs. Florida
Games on TBS with Marv Albert/Steve Kerr/Craig Sager

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tone-y Tournament Truly Tips on Thursday

Although the First Four concludes Wednesday night, with the two remaining play-in games for the NCAA Tournament providing some sports programming for a broadcast partner, the tournament truly kicks into gear Thursday.

While the entities that make the NCAA Tournament possible (broadcast sugar daddies CBS/Turner the NCAA itself) talk about the importance of the midweek games, even those working the games seem to know what matters and what does not. That was clear from the opening game of the First Four.

While North Carolina A&T and Liberty played Tuesday night for the right to meet tournament top seed Louisville, what became a dramatic game seemed like an afterthought with a business-as-usual, no-need-to-question effort. That was the approach because the game did not matter, and the most glaring example game in the final seconds of the game.

Although Liberty's John Caleb Sanders drove the length of the floor for a last-second layup that missed, the near foul on the play was never reviewed by the on-air team working on truTV. Sure, a replay would not change the call, but viewers usually expect that analysis in such a situation. It never came. (And, honestly, the viewers themselves might not have cared because they were probably sneaking more regular peaks at Robert Morris vs. Kentucky.) Still, what could could confirm a game as meaningless any more than one of its decisive moments not being examined as part of the broadcast?

Again, though, we're talking broadcast "partners" with CBS/Turner when it comes to the tournament and that partnership, with an accompanying soft-glove treatment, bleeds through to viewers all too often at tournament time.

It's most often displayed in the tangible deference to coaches. Play-by-play men, analysts and sideline reporters seem to practice familiarity-and-friendship approach as opposed to a practical-and-professional approach. So, when truTV reporter Craig Sager interviewed North Carolina A&T coach Cy Alexander after the victory, he addressed him as "Coach Cy" as opposed to "Coach Alexander."

It's a small thing, but it matters.

Throughout the tournament, the on-air types -- and much more often it's the folks on site rather than those in the studio -- practice a too chummy, familiar tone. At its core the games are games, and they should be fun, but the result is an all-in-this-together approach, as opposed to anything that seems like just generally balanced or open-ended coverage.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Experienced, Proven Experts Ready for ESPN

Never mind the regulars who work all season long on ESPN, ESPN Radio and other platforms for the all-sports behemoth, the two most important voices on Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament might come for part timers.

All college basketball fans already appreciate the work of Joe Lunardi, the college basketball aficionado who has made the tournament his own in much the same way Mel Kiper Jr. has taken ownership of the NFL Draft through the years. Although Lunardi has not parlayed his expertise into the financial security ad year-round presence of Kiper, he's no less an expert.

And while Lunardi maintains his regular job as assistant vice president for marketing and communications at St. Joseph's University he rarely misses when predicting the tournament field because he understands the selection process quite well.

Still, ESPN has added someone even more versed in the workings of the tournament selection committee this year: Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA executive vice president for championships and alliances. He worked closely with the selection committee during his 11-year tenure from 2001-12.

The beauty and value Lunardi and Shaheen should provide for viewers comes with a start-to-finish perspective. While Lunardi  points out who's likely in the field and who's not, Shaheen can share insights about the process and timing of the selection committee's work.

They both do good work and ESPN's ongoing relationship with Lunardi as well as its decision to add Shaheen show the importance of adding the right talent at the right time -- even for broadcasters.

Expressing expansion
When the tournament went from 64 to 65 teams, it grew by one team but the impact was even greater. That's certainly true with the current field of 68 teams -- thanks in large part to how the media shapes its conversation about the selection process.

For example, when Lunardi talks about the tournament, the discussion has been parsed into segments, and the segments do not add up to 68. Here are the specifics ...
-- Last Four In, that means the group that gets the field to 68
-- First Four Out, pushing the discussion to 72
-- Next Four, expanding the conversation to 76.

And, in the buildup to Selection Sunday and the announcement of the backets much more time will be spent on the Last Four In and beyond than on any other regarding the makeup of the tournament field. Sure, debates will range a little bit about top seeds and who plays were but the most vocal debate will be about who's not in and why.

Quite honestly, though (and kudos to the experts who will point this out), who cares? We're talking about teams just barely making the field when the tournament exists to crown a winner.

That's not to say a team's inability to make the field does not come without casualties. Most notably that would include coaches whose teams miss the field, Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, for example, and Northwestern's Bill Carmody just this week.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Many Big Decisions Remain for Fox Sports 1

One of the worst-kept secrets in TV sports became official earlier this week with the announcement of the creation of Fox Sports 1, the latest entry into the crowded field of all-sports cable networks.

No such channel has ever been as well-positioned to succeed. By rebranding Speed Channel, FS1 will debut Aug. 17 in more than 90 million homes. That's a head start ESPN2 never had and a plateau to which CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network aspire.

In addition, FS1 has some of what matters most for success: content. Not enough, but some.

That initially includes college basketball (a likely deal with the restructured Big East basketball schools could mean extensive exposure for those schools) and football and the UFC. Coverage of Major League Baseball, NASCAR and soccer will follow.

In the world of sports networks, live events matter most. They're valuable because viewers watch rather than record, as they might with other TV programming. While viewers "time-shift" more and more content by recording and watching on their own schedule, that does not happen with sports.

Still, FS1 needs more content -- and it will work to wrestle that away from ESPN and other rights holders in the coming years. Thanks to the power and relationships of Fox Sports, FS1 might have a decent possibility to land some sort of NFL programming sooner rather than later. But, along with high-profile properties, the channel needs a lot of programming to fill 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

As a result, bigger decisions about what FS1 wants to be remain. Especially in its firsts few months and years.

With "Rush Hour," a panel discussion show to be hosted by Regis Philbin, channel leaders have already reached for a combination of entertainment and sports. They've also elected to invest in programming at a time of day -- the show will air at 5 p.m. weekdays -- that ESPN has shown can draw  advertisers, eyeballs and reaction. In lieu of more games, some solid, studio shows would provide important programming during the channel's infancy.

Deciding just who hosts those shows, and how they're structured really matters, though. Imitators of "Pardon the Interruption" and "Around the Horn" have been searching for years for formats that feel just enough to be different but somehow similar enough to keep people form changing the channel.

Because of that, FS1 officials must decide soon who will become the initial faces of the channel. Without a ton of "tonnage," some personality must define and drive the channel. It probably should not be Regis Philbin. Then again, if they're differentiating, mabye it will be.

Fox Sports has plenty of options on its roster (Erin Andrews, anyone?), and will probably do as NBC Sports Network has done with Bob Costas and try to find a forum for some of existing talent to create original content and utilize that work across several different distribution platforms. In addition, some high-profile free agent signings in the next few months, or beyond, would not be a surprise.

Either way, they're important decisions, and they're magnified by the fact that FS1 needs more content -- in the form of live games -- to make easier decisions on a more regular basis. After all, it's almost always easier, and smarter, to show a live sporting event than a studio show.

Monday, March 4, 2013

For Women: Failed Kicks, Overlooked Pass Lowlights That Garner Too Much Attention

All too often the media overemphasizes or overstates sports-related issues related to women or women in the media, and the past couple of weeks have provided some prime examples.

Although the best stories generate interest or resonate thanks to context and depth, stories with women in sports -- and especially those that seem to garner the most attention among national media -- get to that point with an easy, superficial approach rather than context and reporting.

With Danica Patrick at the Daytona 500, the story of her pole-qualifying run and strong race was appropriately about women's firsts. First to qualify on the pole. First to finish so high in the race itself.

Still, anything beyond that was haphazard at best. And the examples were numerous:

  • A story about her boyfriend who also races, and what might happen if they were racing for position during an event? Strictly gossipy stuff.
  • A story about her weight and any advantage being lighter might provide (even though NASCAR has rules in place to account for drivers' weight)? Somewhat serious, but still off base.
  • A story positioning Patrick as the face of women's sports, a champion for equality? Silly, just because that hardly seems to be Patrick's position on the matter. Especially so with her long-proven role pitching Go Daddy.
This week, former collegiate women's soccer player Luaren Silberman, who participated in a regional NFL tryout, the first woman to get such an opportunity, was the focus. Again, it was a matter of firsts, and everyone rallied around the story.

Instead of the typical handful of media members who show up for such NFL regional combines, nearly two dozen media members turned out for Silberman's tryout. Although she herself seemingly diminished the effort by talking about what might come from it beyond football (and that was before it happened, so you have to wonder about the ultimate goal), the tryout flop proved the media's inability to find context or truth beforehand. 

Honestly, when she exits the tryout after two kickoff attempts, the best of which reached four yards beyond midfield, the abundance of hype only seems to damage the efforts of women in sports.

Some media members know that, but they are among the minority. For example, NFL Network Aditi Kinkhabwala seemed to indicate her impatience with the process on Twitter during the tryout.

Instead, though, some women's media standouts and women's rights champions, notably Christine Brennan, stand behind any such effort. In this case, Silberman also was positioned as a pioneer and while the tryout opportunity was nice, she was hardly in a position to make an impact. For the media to advance the story beyond that, without context and without real reporting, borders on irresponsible.

At the same time, more important stories about women in sports and sports media have been overlooked or diminished.

Also at the Daytona 500, rapper 50 Cent tried (repeatedly and eventually successfully) to kiss reporter Erin Andrews on pit road before the race. While some national media types thought the TV moment was an unscripted highlight of the broadcast, it was really an affront to Andrews. It also diminishes the value and work of all sideline reporters, and especially those who are women because it objectifies their role.

Without an outcry about the moment, which had to be viewed by many more people than watch a regular season college football game or many other events when female sideline reporters get airtime, it becomes an acceptable approach. And it's not.

Meanwhile, all three of those stories get more attention than than the much-more-important move by Lesley Visser. According to a report by SI.com, Visser will move from duties as a sideline reporter to enterprise and features work for CBS Sports. 

An on-air pioneer for women in sports broadcasting, Visser started her career at the Boston Globe and later moved to TV. She has worked for CBS Sports, ABC and ESPN. She has covered the NBA, NFL, college football, horse racing and the Olympics while earning accolades from her peers as well as fans and viewers. When we find things to focus on, the accomplishments of Visser, and the legacy she leaves as well as the doors she opened, are much more important than a former soccer player trying a pair of kicks at a camp full of NFL hopefuls.