media, Politics and Grassroots, Sports

Hawk Harrelson: The Donald Trump of Sportscasting (in a good way)

On LinkedIn, I just put up a post about retiring White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, and what those in political communications can learn from him.

When I was 17, my birthday gift was the Major League Baseball package on Extra Innings. This was before the late-1990s Yankees dynasty and the run of World Series contenders that stretched into the early 2010s. It was also before YouTube, and I had never lived in an area where the local cable company carried WGN out of Chicago.

So when the Yankees played the White Sox that year and I first heard Harrelson calling a game, I wanted to throw things at the TV.

He was unprofessional. He openly rooted for the White Sox. He pathetically used terms like “us” and “we” as if he were part of the team and not just their announcer. It was like they let a fan into the booth.

More than two decades later, I appreciate Harrelson a little more. He’s part of a generation of sportscasters who got into the game exactly as the fans do. After all, it’s only a game; maybe a fan in the booth isn’t such a bad thing. (And yes, maybe it helped that shortly after my introduction to Harrelson, the powerhouse White Sox of the early 1990s became less dangerous while the Yankees’ run of excellence started.)

He wasn’t that much different than the likes of Phil Rizzuto, Harry Caray, and the Seattle Mariners’ Dave Niehaus, all of whom managed to echo the passion of the fans without taking the game (or themselves) too seriously.

Today, the sports media industry seems to reward bland, interchangeable announcers, When he hangs it up after 2018, Hawk Harrelson will be missed.

media, Sports

TV sportscasting is getting it wrong

Tony Romo is now the top color commentator for CBS football games, and Phil Simms is out.

The New York Daily News reminds us that Romo is getting this promotion despite no experience in sportscasting.

(Sidebar: It’s funny, isn’t it, that Romo had to toil as a little-known backup quarterback for years before taking on a job that generally goes to a top, high-profile draftee, but he walked right into a job that normally goes to someone who toils for a couple of years at a lower level?)

Romo might be good. He might suck. But he would have to suck awfully bad to get people to turn off the channel, wouldn’t he? People will tune into CBS to see football and tolerate the announcers. No one is turning the dial to figure skating on Sunday afternoon. So Romo’s “qualifications” and “abilities” are actually irrelevant. Unless he pulls a Jimmy the Greek, he’ll be fine.

Speaking of sportscasting, this week the Dodgers opened their season and will play the year sans Vin Scully for the first time since the 1940s. Scully’s style of calling television games was different, as anyone who watched Dodgers broadcasts will surely recall. Sitting alone on the microphone, Scully would talk and tell stories – like a talk radio host without the ferocious outrage – while incidentally mentioning the game action. It worked especially well on television.

To watch Scully succeed this way begs the question: Why do TV announcers spend so much time describing the action that viewers can see? Think about it next time you watch a game. Then, for extra fun, count how many times they read graphics to you. Michael Kay of the YES Network is particularly guilty of this sin (though I have probably watched so many of his games that my bias may be showing).

It makes sense why they do this – many sportscasters get their start in radio, where there is no visual support. But one would think that some media outlet would try something different. After all, television news programs stopped presenting the same way as radio news. We have had televised sports for something like seven decades, why do we still adhere to radio-era traditions? This is especially true for football, America’s made-for-television sport.

There might be a new model emerging from networks that use “whip around” coverage. The MLB Network does this particularly well with MLB Tonight, where a host and two in-studio analysts watch each night’s action and comment over teams’ local broadcast feeds. Their easy, joke-filled banter makes it fun to watch, mirroring conversations you might have watching games with a bunch of friends. And it’s different from most baseball broadcasts, where an announcer narrates events as you watch them.

This could work for a single team, as well. Wouldn’t that be more fun to watch than some former athlete rhythmically rattling off recaps of the obvious during breaks in the action as most color commentators do? Think of the familiarity and rapport fans could develop with the on-screen personalities.

Television sports is not a high-risk place to experiment – generally, ratings are driven by the games more than the broadcast. CBS gets that, which is why they’re willing to stick Tony Romo in a broadcasting booth with only a few postgame interviews under his belt. It’s time to try something even bolder. The radio era is over.

It’s time to try something even bolder. Sportscasting should evolve past where it was during Vin Scully’s rookie year.

Politics and Grassroots, Sports

Spike Lee is wrong about Colin Kaepernick… for now

Over the weekend, Capital One spokesman, Reggie Miller antagonist, and filmmaker Spike Lee mused publicly about quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who remains unsigned in a busy NFL free agency period. “How Is It That There Are 32 NFL Teams And Kap Is Still A Free Agent?” Lee wrote in a creatively capitalized post-brunch Instagram post, poetically implying that Kaepernick is considered radioactive for his race and outspoken politics.

He might be right, but it’s too early to say. Right now, NFL teams fall into four broad tiers in terms of quarterbacks:

  1. Teams who have their quarterback for next year, and are content with that person.
  2. Teams that are pretty sure they have a quarterback for next year but have some doubts about injury or effectiveness. An example here might be the Bills, who are still feeling out what they have in Tyrod Taylor, or the Steelers, who are rightly concerned about the getting-up-there Ben Roethlisberger missing a few games.
  3. Teams with a nominal starter who would probably upgrade if they could.
  4. Teams with no clear plan at quarterback. There are really only two teams here, and ironically they are the two who made the biggest offseason trade of a quarterback so far: the Browns and the Texans.

Looking at these groupings, the market gets tough for Kaepernick. He’s only 29 and has a Super Bowl run under his belt; his struggles in the years since that run mean he isn’t a clear upgrade over most established or nominal starters. If you are an NFL general manager, looking for an extra arm to throw in camp or a capable backup, there will be plenty of options as training camp approaches. There’s no need to sign a guy like Kaepernick yet.

The only market for him now are teams looking for a high-upside fallback option who would definitely start the season on the bench. For that reason, it might be in Kaepernick’s better interests to wait. If the Houston Texans can’t get Tony Romo, or the Raiders find Derek Carr isn’t all the way back from injury, or the Vikings’ Sam Bradford gets hurt in minicamp, Kaepernick might find himself in a better situation than becoming the next Browns quarterback whose career gets sacked into oblivion.

On the other hand, as training camps get closer and rosters take shape, someone really ought to sign Kaepernick, baggage and all. If the season kicks off and finds Kaepernick in a Tim Tebow-esque purgatory, we might find that Lee was right all along.

This assumes, of course, that Kaepernick wants to sign. He might find it more amenable to his long term health to use his experience as a social commenter and provocateur to craft a career more in the mold of his pal Spike Lee.

media, Sports

ESPN’s bad week

In a post at Medium, I reacted to Jayson Stark’s long piece assuming that America needed baseball players to speak out on politics. The short version: We disagree. More than that, his assumption – that political rifts have created wounds in need of healing – show disconnection from the broader public who, honestly, just doesn’t care about politics.

Then came this week’s news: ESPN expects to lay off a good on-air talent. The two stories have a common thread.

It would be tempting for anyone on the center right to point to ESPN’s socially progressive programming choices and blame that for alienating its core viewership, but the reasons are a bit more nuanced. ESPN’s tunnel vision and lack of self-awareness has prevented it from adapting to a new media environment. Once the sole source of 24 hour sports on TV, ESPN’s networks now compete with national sports channels run by Fox and NBC, regional sports networks, and – notably – networks run by sports leagues themselves. On top of that, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association all offer direct-to-consumer online packages.

That ESPN missed these changes suggests they overestimated their value in consumers’ minds. Like Jayson Stark, they’ve misread the public vibe.

Sports

“Choking” vs. “Getting Beat”

What a Super Bowl, huh? You don’t see 25-point comebacks every day, expecially in a game where both teams are supposed to be cool under fire. Most of the postgame talk, rightly, has covered the Patriots. But what a heartbreaker for Atlanta, made that much worse because the team choked away such a big lead.

And yes, this was a choke.

To start with, it’s worth noting that not every big comeback is a choke. A “choke” happens when the team with a big lead gets tight, gets out of their game plan, and gives the game back to the underdog. For example, the 2007 Patriots didn’t choke when they lost to the Giants, they played their game and got beaten by David Tyree’s helmet. Did Scott Norwood choke when he missed that field goal in Super Bowl XXIV? Maybe. But he also came into that kick one out of five on field goal attempts of 40 or more yards on grass, so he wasn’t exactly in a spot where he had succeeded before. The 1986 Red Sox didn’t necessarily choke as a team, but manager John McNamara sure did when deviated from his usual game plan of sending in a sub for his gimpy-legged first baseman.

Back to the Falcons.

You know the story by now: America watched Atlanta run up a big lead. Predictably, the Patriots clawed their way back in. They even got a little lucky when New England’s Trey Flowers scored a strip sack fumble recovery on an unblocked blind side rush. The Pats promptly scored and were within a single score, after being down 25 points.

Even at this point, you can’t fault  the Falcons – sometimes the protection doesn’t work, and Matt Ryan never saw Flowers. These things happen.

The choke happened on the next possession. When Atlanta’s next drive reached the New England 22 yard line, they didn’t run the ball two more times and settle for a field goal attempt. A sack, a holding penalty, and an incomplete pass later, the Falcons were punting.

This morning, America wonders why the Falcons didn’t run the ball, and it’s a valid question. If Matt Bryant could have made the 40-yard field goal (or even one a little bit longer) then why not drive down the clock and take the points? The panicked failures in play calling and execution gave the Patriots the ball back with 3:38 and trailing by eight; had the Falcons stayed within their game plan they could have kicked off with 2:30 or so left in the game and an 11-point lead. (Even if Bryant had missed the field goal, the Patriots would have had to worry about the clock as much as the yardage on their final drive.)

The Atlanta Falcons choked. It only in the space of three plays, where they went away from the offensive balance that had got them there, when they tried too hard for a touchdown when a field goal would have meant ticker tape instead of “what ifs.” The Falcons coaches and players let the game get away from them for three measly plays.

It’s not much, but sometimes that’s all it takes.

 

Sports

Revisiting the Rooney rule

The NFL is looking to diversify its front offices, and turning to a play that has worked before:

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday that the league will institute a Rooney Rule for women when it comes to all NFL executive positions

“You can see that progress is being made and our commitment is, we have something called the Rooney Rule, which requires us to make sure when we have an opening that on the team or the league level that we are going to interview a diverse slate of candidates.

“Well, we’re going to make that commitment and we’re going to formalize that we, as a league, are going to do that for women as well in all of our executive positions. Again, we’re going to keep making progress here and make a difference.”

Uh… Did anyone catch that? Maybe a female commissioner would know how to form a coherent sentence.

Let’s try again: The league is implementing a version of its “Rooney Rule” for front office searches, mandating that women are included in searches. When implemented in 2003, the rule required teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching vacancies and eventually front office jobs.

Surely, teams have brought in “check-the-box” candidates they had no intention of hiring just to keep on the sunny side of the rule. There is no mandate to hire minority coaches, only to interview candidates.

Yet, the rule has clearly worked – teams have hired more minority coaches in the past 13 years than they had in the previous eight decades. There is unmistakable progress.

Two possible reasons for this stand out.

First is the opportunity for media buzz. Coaching searches aren’t conducted in secret; as soon as an NFL coach is fired, local and national media speculate about who might be next. The candidates who make their way to team headquarters for an interview are duly documented. This puts even the minority candidates’ names out there as potential head coaches. Even if a would-be coach doesn’t get a job during one offseason, he strengthens his candidacy for the future. Hiring a first-time head coach isn’t easy for most notoriously risk-averse NFL front offices, but that option becomes more palatable if the candidate has been discussed as a head coach prospect.

Second, the Rooney Rule interviews may be dog-and-pony shows to the team executives, but they don’t have to be for the candidates. Thanks to the Rooney Rule, a minority candidate has a chance to prepare and endure the interview process. Again, it might not help him get the first job he interviews for, but go through a practice run can only help in future years, when his candidacy may be more serious.

Teams won’t hire unqualified candidates, but rules like this can help qualified candidates prepare. The ten minority coaches who have been hired since the Rooney Rule’s inception weren’t hired because their teams were forced to interview them, but the rule might have given them valuable experience or put them on teams’ radar when coaching vacancies popped up.

If the NFL is serious about getting more women in its front offices, this is probably a good place to start.

 

Crummy Little Podcast, Sports

Maybe all the teams should move to LA

The Rams are moving back to Los Angeles. The Chargers and Raiders want to move to L.A., too. Ron burgundy’s hometown could lose its football team, but might coax the ruffians from Oakland down to the southern end of the state. As the teams play musical chairs, local governments are trying to figure out what they’ll have to pony up for new stadiums.

Got all that? Me neither. Luckily, my old pal Vince Vasquez helps me figure it all out on this week’s Crummy Little Podcast.