Monday, January 27, 2014

Too much hype? Nah, Super Bowl Week shines, serves

To some, a week's worth, especially two weeks worth, can be too much of a good thing. Or, really, too much of anything.

When it comes to the Super Bowl, though, the two-week breather between conference championship games and the national holiday/made-for-TV spectacle that the Super Bowl has become works perfectly.

And this week, Super Bowl Week -- with radio stations from across the country hunkered down on Radio Row, Media Day and all its silliness on Tuesday, experts and talking heads from competing outlets crawling all over each other, and former players turned pitchmen making the rounds shilling everything from gambling sites to impotency drugs -- provides endless entertainment (and even some information).

It's a weeklong national holiday for sports media.

Too much? No way.

Still, there is a secret to following (or just trying to keep up) with all the overkill. It's moderation, picking your spots and, most importantly, picking your connections and storytellers for the week.

Trying to consume all or most of the week is a recipe for failure, so this is a great week to play favorites. My list begins with "Mike and Mike" on ESPN Radio and ESPN2. During the past decade or so, they've become my go-to morning (6-10 a.m.) sport talk outlet because they almost reliably connect with issues and topics that resonate with me. And, their perspectives make sense without too much silliness.

Plus, an added benefit for them and other ESPN shows is that they're not anchored along Radio Row. ESPN has its own stages in Herald Square. That makes the shows a bit more accessible to "atmosphere shots" with fans and it makes the offerings seem a little more special than the comparative cattle call at Radio Row.

On the downside, with this New York/New Jersey game having parts and pieces spread all over the place, any real atmosphere might be tough to capture, or even manufacture. Even worse, ESPN Radio does not have "Mike and Mike" live on gameday. So, instead of what was a short-lived tradition of an interview by them with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, listeners will get "The Mike Lupica Show" Sunday morning. (That's not on my must-listen list.)

My other radio/TV preference, "The Dan Patrick Show" overlaps a bit (9 a.m. to noon), but it connects and succeeds for many of the same reasons. It can be heard on Fox Sports Radio, satellite radio and simulcast on NBC Sports Network and Root Sports affiliates. It's good because it mixes culture and sports, and it stays away from every possible guest. They know more is not better. It's quality over quantity and it works as a result.

The key to these shows always rests behind the scenes with the producers who secure guests. In his latest column, Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated talked to those talented, behind-the-scenes standout about their approach to booking shows this week. LINK

TV options this week are just as plentiful, and my initial plan leads toward three outlets: ESPN, NFL Network and Fox Sports.

Specifically, that's ESPN (John Clayton, Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter) for news and information evenings later this week, the NFL Network as much as possible Saturday and Sunday (their coverage gives a sense of immediacy to Hall of Fame decisions an on-site action), and then Fox later on gameday -- maybe even as early as the obligatory Bill O'Reilly interview with President Obama.

Anything from Media Day will get overblown, so if anything does emerge you have to wonder how poorly prepared those involved are, or if they have an agenda and message they want to convey. There's rarely much in between. And we'll almost certainly get the media-on-media stories.

By later in the week, the experts that have gained my trust through the years might have some valuable info, which leads to watching ESPN, and then, subsequently, NFL Network (they also do team departures and arrivals with an intriguing combination of oh-so serious that it's almost silly).

Of course, the game has to be Fox. The guys in the booth, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are solid and the men behind them, producer Richie Zyontz and director Rich Russo, do their job as well as anyone in the business. Viewers should expect to get all the correct shots at all the right times without forays into the stands or things that are irrelevant. (Unless Fox has the stars of some mid-season replacement show strategically placed in MetLife Stadium.)

Breaking news, a semi-scandal or someone with a loose tongue could reshape things this week -- and a bit of news would make things even more enjoyable. Among broadcasters, the only potential wild card might be Fox Sports 1. Daytime programming on the channel has done little to distinguish itself, so the Super Bowl will be all about awareness. If FS1 gets lucky, more people will know about it at the end of this long week.

Unfortunately for FS1 and network officials, the biggest possible boost for Fox Sports 1 would've been something something similar to the megacast approach ESPN used for the final game of the college football season. Just image ... a handful of ex-NFL coaches and players with Fox Sports ties (Brian Billick, Shannon Sharpe) watching the game live and critiquing things as they happen. That's not possible under the TV contract, but it would've had as much a chance of delivering big ratings and viewership as anything else FS1 has offered since its inception in mid-August.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Erin Andrews does her job -- and well -- with five words

In a couple of seconds, before some 56 million viewers -- the most-watched, non-overtime NFC Championship Game since 1995 (Dallas-San Francisco) -- Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman added another chapter to his ever-evolving and somewhat complicated public persona.

And Erin Andrews did some of the best sideline reporting work of her career.

Sherman, who grew up in Compton, Calif., attended Stanford and draws much of his gameday and on-field motivation from a place full of anger and disrespect, made the big play of Sunday's matchup between the visiting San Franciso 49ers and his Seattle Seahawks.

With less than a half minute remaining in the game, 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree was in position to pull in a pass for a touchdown in the right corner of the end zone for what would have been the go-ahead score -- and which would have won the game for the 49ers with the ensuing PAT to follow.

Instead, Sherman tipped the ball away and teammate Malcolm Smith grabbed the interception, securing the victory for the Seahawks.

Predictably, the intelligent, outspoken and vocal Sherman -- who traded pre-game, on-field barbs and post-game barbs with Crabtree -- was the first player interviewed after the game. Andrews corralled him and did her job well. Exceedingly well.

Just as predictably, Sherman ranted and raved about his talent and those who had questioned his ability or talked about him.

Andrews was not intimidated or scared when Sherman went on his emotion-fueled and silly rant. Pundits and viewers who think that are just wrong.

At most, she looked bemused (perhaps thinking about how much more she enjoys studio work than sideline reporting). Best of all, though, she listened to what Sherman said during what sounded like a WWE promo and followed with the right question.

"Who was talking about you?" Five words. The five right words at the right time ... and they elicited an answer. Crabtree. Sherman was mad at Crabtree.

Then, because Fox Sports had cut away form the shot, it sounded like Andrews was ready with another question before Sherman apparently walked away. In the emotion of the moment, it seemed like typical post-game fare pumped up by a bit more emotion than usual because of the high stakes of the game.

Much emerged from the all-to-brief interview. Some, even Fox Sports colleague Michael Strahan on the network's post-game show, indicated Andrews was scared. Others thought she was unprepared.

She was neither. The most overlooked aspect of the brief encounter was that she did her job well. (She shared her perspective about the interview on "The Dan Patrick Show" Monday.)

She did not need help -- as some have hinted when they noted that the game's producers cut the interview short. (Producers always make that call, so there's no news there despite Sherman's outburst.)

Sideline reporters have the most difficult job in sports, but during the NFL playoffs Andrews has repeatedly done well in that role for Fox. She's been better than counterpart Pam Oliver on gamedays and consistently shown why she rose to a place of prominence at ESPN covering college football and other events.

She might be out of place, or at least in need of more growth as a college football studio host, but she does a consistently strong job as a football sideline reporter -- and the post-game interview Sunday was the latest example.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tebow's story about timing, career challenge

One college football game of meaning remains this season, Auburn vs. Florida State for the BCS National Championship on Monday night, and ESPN's multifaceted coverage -- they're calling it the "BCS Megacast" with coverage across almost every possible network platform with some 200 employees, 63 cameras, 16 trucks and four generators -- provides a glimpse at the future of sports on TV.

That means saturation coverage for major events such as the college football national championship.

It's the same thing NBC, NBC Sports Network and other NBC Universal properties will do for the Winter Olympics in February. Likewise, CBS and its broadcast partners (TNT/TruTV) announced their plan for the Final Four months ago. That includes team specific coverage of the Final Four among those outlets.

In this instance, the future also includes the launch of SEC Network and the on-air debut of former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.

Tebow's long-expected hiring was announced last week by ESPN, which plans to use him heavily on the SEC Network that becomes a reality next August. And, the timing of Tebow's debut Monday is more than curious.

Despite not having worked on TV before, he has a role on the most important and possibly most watched game of the season. Honestly, his debut comes in large part as an awareness and promotional effort for the fledgling SEC Network -- otherwise there's no logical reason for Tebow to work the game. Even if he's stellar (and nobody can reasonably expect that, ESPN just wants to put him in a position to succeed), that would be an extra benefit. He'll be part of the broadcast primarily to promote the SEC Network going forward.

Tebow's primary role next year will be as an analyst for "SEC Nation" the network's SEC-specific answer to "College GameDay." Oh, and he still plans to pursue his dream of being an NFL quarterback.

"I don't know what the future holds, but I know who holds my future. I will continue to train to be the best quarterback I can be, and I'm also looking forward to being a part of 'SEC Nation.' I don't think it will impact my training," Tebow said during a conference call last week. "I don’t think [TV work] will impact my training. Right now, I’ll only be doing one game. I don't think I’ll get too off by doing one game."

Finding focus -- despite Tebow's well chronicled work ethic -- remains the biggest potential problem for Tebow's broadcast career. From afar, his NFL dream seems unlikely. Pursuing a dream is an honorable and respectable approach, but being 100 percent invested might help his eventual career page. Numerous other busy, popular and respected on-air sports personalities have other interests but they are clearly that. Other interests.

For Tebow to be successful, TV must be his focus. Make no mistake, his looks, on-field experience, personality and Q rating can help him succeed. He relates well to people and he's generally likable. He's nice and respectful (using "Mr." and "Mrs." repeatedly in reference to ESPN higher-ups during that conference call), and that will play well in SEC country and beyond.

Nobody should expect Tebow to be an ultra-critical analyst, and not every former jock on TV needs to be a consistently loud or consistently negative voice. He dutifully offered the usual platitudes about being fair with his criticism and sharing his experiences with viewers.

Once he gets on TV, and even as soon as Monday, ESPN should wisely put Tebow in a position to succeed with features that allow him to share his experiences and what-players-are-thinking features. He can probably be good sooner rather than later with film-study segments and Xs and Os.

He'll probably be one of the initial faces of the ESPN-owned SEC Network, and that's a good thing. Potential viewers tune in to watch those they like, and those they do not. Across the conference, he certainly fits in both those categories. From that perspective, and with his experience, resume and work ethic, he's positioned to succeed on TV.

He'll be even better once it's clear to him that his future lies only on TV, though. After all, it seems some NFL team would've asked him for help at QB at some point this past season if they thought he could help them. ESPN officials seem more than kind with their patience, allowing Tebow to chase both careers, but they probably know just as well that TV is where he'll eventually build a longer career.