Monday, July 13, 2015

Opportunity exits in use of on-screen handles, hashtags

What looks like a missed opportunity to me represents either a best business practice or a small part of a bigger plan for some who work in TV sports.

Still, they just seem wrong -- especially the part-of-a-plan folks.

Here’s the situation: With social media more pervasive every day, it’s surprising that every live sporting event on TV does not include some overt encouragement for viewers to connect by social media.

While only a small percentage of people are actually active on Facebook and Twitter, many do react and watch games as part of a “second-screen experience,” meaning they have a smartphone in hand or are not far from a computer while watching. They might even be streaming the game online.

Despite that, few TV sports types feel the need to keep handles or hashtags on screen throughout a broadcast.

“We always want to have a second-screen experience. Facebook and Twitter are high-traffic places for live events, and we try to be in front of the conversation,” said Josh Baird, director of social media for Fox Sports. He adds a caveat, though. “The assumption that there is a huge overlap that are watching TV and the people on social channels is a bold one.”

Fox Sports concluded high-profile coverage of the U.S. Open and Women’s World Cup in recent weeks. Neither set of broadcasts included overt or regular on-screen social media signals. That’s just the usual plan for Fox Sports. Broadcasts exist as broadcasts, and social media is separate.

To its credit, ESPN takes a slightly more aggressive approach.

Dave Miller, a senior coordinating producer for remote production at ESPN, said his network consistently tries to brand shows or a series on social media. In addition, something like #PSUvsOSU is not unusual for a big game.

Like Baird, Miller framed social media as a complementary place for conversation. He said it can be a challenge for broadcasters to take part in that conversation. Still, ESPN boasts 19.9 million Twitter followers to 1.28 million for Fox Sports, and the approach to share on-screen handles and hastags could be at least a small part of that huge disparity.

It just seems wise to embrace on-screen social media signals, at least as a strong hint about where people should go to conduct their conversations. Miller said broadcast partners (a league or organization) often ask about finding a way to incorporate social media.

And making social media work with a live broadcast is not impossible. ESPN often rotates game locations, broadcaster names and social media in graphics, Miller said. Beyond that, a more engaged approach has been proven to work well, too.

Root Sports has shown that with its Pittsburgh Pirates coverage. Yes, baseball’s slower tempo allows for easier interaction, but Root’s use of #BucsBooth to encourage viewers to ask questions of broadcasters during a game works.

It’s one more thing for someone to do -- after all someone has to weed through individual tweets to see if a good question exits -- but it does unearth some gems, inform some conversation and, at the same time, provide a community, of sorts, for those invested in the game.

In that way, it seems like the people are embracing an opportunity. They’re correct to do so.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Addition to Cowherd's show a rare opportunity

Sports-talk radio listeners across the nation might hear something a little different in a few weeks from ESPN Radio.

Jen Lada
Starting in mid-August, “The Herd with Colin Cowherd,” which airs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the East Coast, will feature another contributor along with the namesake host.

While Jen Lada will not be a full-fledged co-host, she will hold a regular role. Along with what listeners hear, Lada will contribute on social media, provide some exclusive digital segments and, no doubt, serve as a sounding board for Cowherd. That’s a good thing because Cowherd better engages listeners when he has someone to talk to, as opposed to when he dives into a monologue or offers his opinions about sports and social matters with no context or counterbalance.

Lada, who comes to ESPN Radio from Comcast Sports Net Chicago, becomes a member of a rare group -- women with prominent or regular roles on national sports-talk radio. It’s an extremely small group.

He’s hoping Lada thrives, and opens the door for a few more similar voices on sports-talk radio.

And, to be clear, it’s not hope simply for hope’s sake. Sports-talk listeners want quality sports talk -- compelling, interesting information -- no matter the gender of the host. As we eventually move toward more of that, it’s reassuring that a woman who has both been on air nationally and who brings strong doses of common sense and professional responsibility to her job has a role in selecting who gets on air and who does not.

Amanda Gifford, who started as an intern at ESPN Radio, commuting on weekends from Penn State to Bristol, Connecticut, and back when she was a student, believes sports-talk radio has changed during her time with the company. Still, the medium remains young. The first acknowledged all-sports station, WFAN in New York City, launched July 1, 1987.

“I do feel there’s more opportunity,” said Gifford, senior director of daytime programming. In that role, she’s in charge of Cowherd’s show, “Mike and Mike,” “The Rusillo Show” and “The Dan Le Batard Show.” Within arms reach of her office desk are two lists -- one with the show schedules and regular hosts’ vacations and another of ESPN talent who serve as replacement hosts. Clearly, she plays a big role in who gets on the air for ESPN Radio. She knows what resonates with listeners, and what impacts ratings.

“Sports talk itself has changed,” Gifford said. “It’s not as much about games, stats and what happened. There are bigger discussions, things that are relatable to life.”

A few months ago, ESPN Radio seemed set to add another woman, Molly Qerim, to a prominent role -- joining “Mike and Mike” as that show itself changed greatly, moving from Bristol to New York City. All that changed in the past few weeks, though, when the NYC move was dumped. As a result, Qerim gets a different opportunity at ESPN.

She’ll host “First Take” on ESPN2 -- so more visibility on TV, but a fairly familiar role for women in general as a moderator amidst the rants of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. It’s officially and interim position, but do not be surprised if Qerim stretches it farther.

Those host or moderator positions seem to be the major safe haven for women in sports, and for those who hire women. But, while they’re prominent, they sometimes seem overly gender-specific -- with the women serving as on-air moderators or moms. Qerim follows Cari Champion, who is moving on to host “SportsCenter.” Before her, Dana Jacobson was a “First Take” host, and any number of studio shows or update segments are handled by women.

Driving a sports-talk show requires a different skill set, and maybe that’s part of why finding quality hosts provides such a challenge. Beyond Jemele Hill and Sarah Spain, it’s not a long list of people who’ve proven themselves on radio in recent years.

Still, Gifford continually seeks out talent.

“Finding a host, male or female, is the same. It’s about the content they produce. Is it thought provoking? Is it original?” Gifford said. “In terms of women, it comes down to the individual person. Can she hold her own with her male counterparts? And, most of all, it cannot be ‘Hey, I’m female, but I can also talk sports.’ They just need to talk. Doing it the other way they marginalize themselves.”