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.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

ESPN's 'MegaCast' provides the best kind of excess

It’s excessive, overkill and way too much.

It’s also almost perfection in terms of a sports broadcast.

That’s the MegaCast -- ESPN’s all-hands-on-deck, every-outlet-possible approach to covering the College Football Playoff championship game.

When Alabama and Clemson meet again Monday night (a rematch of last season’s championship game), the MegaCast offers a little bit of everything for just about everybody who has an interest in the final game of the season.

Of course, ESPN provides the traditional game broadcast. The network’s No. 1 on-air team, play-by-play man Chris Fowler and color commentator Kirk Herbstreit, handle the coverage along with sideline reporters Samantha Ponder and Tom Rinaldi.

On ESPN2, there’s a “homers broadcast” with former Clemson QB Tajh Boyd and former Alabama center Barrett Jones. They’ll work the game from the sidelines, and be encouraged to show their bias/enthusiasm as Joe Tessitore handles play by play with contributions from Adam Amin.

Additional options include:
n  “Coaches Film Room” on ESPNEWS, which airs with limited commercial breaks. It’s exactly what it sounds like, coaches watching the game and offering comments. Contributors this year include: Dino Babers, Syracuse; PJ Fleck, Minnesota; Mark Helfrich, formerly at Oregon; Mike CacIntrye, Colorado; and Matt Rhule, Baylor. Analyst Brian Griese joins the coaches.
n  “ESPN Voices” on ESPNU, which has an interesting collection of ESPN analysts and contributors watching the game and commenting, including Michelle Beadle, Keyshawn Johnson, Bill Walton and Marcellus Wiley.
n  “Finebaum Film Room” on SEC Network, with again, more people watching and talking, notably Paul Finebaum and network analysts Greg McElroy and Booger McFarland.

Finally, several options exist on ESPN3 (online), including an announcer-less game, an outlet with up-to-the-minute statistics and data, and even a view from just the stadium SkyCam.

ESPN’s personnel and technological investment in the game is, in general, excessive. That means more than 1,000 staff members on location in Tampa. The network also has more than 90 cameras in the stadium, 35 replay machines and 70,000 feet of cable.

MegaCast is great because it allows fans to control how they consume the content, and more and more people expect and want that.

For ESPN, it’s pretty much a win-win scenario. There’s no counter programming that would work against the national championship game anyway, so it has wisely gone all-in with its approach. And with slightly different approaches to the same thing, there’s an appealing variety.

Sure, some viewers could be confused by the "homers broadcast" if they somehow think that’s the main offering, but the network usually dos a good job of differentiating. And the different options should serve those who consume on multiple screens well.

Really the only thing ESPN could do better would be to tap social media around the game. Consistent on-screen handles and hashtags would help people know how to contribute, feel a part of the conversation and multiply the game’s impact.

Overall, the MegaCast is nearly perfect -- seemingly gluttonous in some ways, but in other ways, so many ways, the future of sports television. This marks the fourth MegaCast. With it, ESPN was the originator of multi-platform offerings for big-time TV sports. It has been copied and grown as a result. Those are good things for sports fans.

So, enjoy the MegaCast on Monday. It’s worth watching, even if you only consume the traditional piece, because that it exists matters.

Maybe, someday, the NFL and the Super Bowl will notice, too.

And, if you're not watching TV, the all-sports network has the game covered on ESPN Radio, too. That's a normal game broadcast with as strong pairing of Sean McDonough and Todd Blackledge.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Finding room for 'retiring' Chris Berman an appropriate, savvy move by ESPN that benefits everyone involved

Everyone knew Chris Berman's role at ESPN would be reduced months ago, but what he would do when he "retired" was either avoided, because there was nothing to share, or speculated about, because the possibilities as a result of his departure at the all-sports network (and potentially at its competitors) was endless -- just too good to ignore.

On Thursday, ESPN ended all the speculation. Berman, 61, while nudged toward a reduced role, would remain with the network that he helped build and define.

A six-time National Sportscaster of the Year, Berman has been with ESPN since 1979. He arrived in Bristol, Conn., a month after the fledgling network launched. He was among the founding fathers of on-air talent for ESPN and his prominence grew as the network itself became a more powerful force in sports and society.

When the NFL season ends though, Berman will be done with consistent, high-profile assignments. He has hosted "Sunday NFL Countdown" for 31 years, and was the lead host for coverage of the NFL Draft and Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby. Along with that, older viewers knew him for "SportsCenter" assignments and his pervasive use of nicknames as well as a trademark "back, back, back" call for home runs in baseball highlights, and at the Derby.

His signature approach connected with fans, especially earlier in his career. To some that same approach later seemed dated, and as he continued with it some perceived him as tone deaf to criticism. Still, Berman seems mostly respected by colleagues and peers who publicly shared abundant praise after the ESPN announcement.

Also, criticisms of his approach and work have generally seemed like a faddish/media-only practice not parroted by regular fans who were comfortable with his schtick. Ultimately, it was not a made-for-TV thing. Berman was himself and it worked for more than three decades.

In retirement, he'll "make appearances on-air" and "serve in public-facing roles," according to the ESPN release. While he will not be involved with studio coverage of the NFL on a week-to-week basis, he will appear each week on "Monday Night Countdown" with opinion pieces and perspective on historical events. He'll also host "NFL PrimeTime" highlights after the NFL's conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

Along with those football duties, he'll handle play-by-play during the MLB Divisional Playoffs on ESPN Radio and participate in the annual ESPYS Awards.

In a timely and well done interview (above), Berman told John Ourand of Sports Business Journal that he never considered leaving ESPN, and that he wanted to end his career where it started. He said the lull from when it became public that he would be retiring until the announcement was due in large part because he was in the middle of his season. Just as athletes and teams often do not negotiate in the midst of a season, Berman said that was his approach the past few months as well.

 "I'm leaving, but I'm staying," he said. Berman said having the ability to pick his spots and spend more time with his wife at their home in Maui was appealing. "It'll be different, but I'm around."

Berman leaves ESPN at a time when the network, while much bigger and more pervasive than what it was in 1979, remains perhaps just as challenged as the start-up entity was three-plus decades ago. Back then, ESPN was seeking relevance. It built that, long before it could afford to spend for sports rights fees, on the personalities of its on-air talent -- people like Berman. In some ways especially Berman.

Now, with subscribers cutting their cable cords by the thousands on a regular basis, with so many more outlets for sports news and information available, and with bloggers, critics and Internet snarks ready to share an opinion about anything, the chances of a personality cutting through the clutter and making a difference (let alone a mark on ratings and viewership) seems much more unlikely.

Berman deserves a spot on any Mount Rushmore of ESPN talent. There's no doubt about that. He has been the face of the place for the lifetime of many sports fans. Sure, his approach might seem silly to some anymore, but he's passionate, solid and talented.

It was wise of him and the network for him to remain as some sort of elder statesman. That's much better than having him leave for someplace else. Even if it was unlikely, and even if he was not appreciated by some, that would've hurt everyone involved -- like an all-time player in any sport finishing his career in some other city.

So, while things like his "Swami" segments and "The Two Minute Drill" might no longer get airtime, and perhaps appropriately so, Berman, who received the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Pete Rozell Radio-Television Award for longtime exceptional contributions in 2010, will still be where he belongs -- on ESPN.