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A Peak Behind The Curtain & Inside the Booth In An Empty Stadium

“We are sitting here in the dark. Guarantee Rate Field is normally lit up so brightly during a game that you can see it from an airplane 40-thousand feet above it. The team wasn’t even here.”

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It’s a warm July Sunday night in Chicago. I’m headed to the ballpark to call a White Sox and Cubs exhibition game. The two teams will play on the Northside this night at Wrigley Field. There’s a bit of excitement around this one, even if it doesn’t count in the standings, because well, it’s the Sox and Cubs. While that is normal, there are many things on this evening that are certainly not.

Chicago Cubs, White Sox face off at Wrigley Field in adjusted exhibition  games - ABC7 Chicago

Normal is a word we used to use for a lot of things. Now we say, “this is the NEW normal,” right? Coronavirus and this pandemic have changed everything. Even the way we broadcast games. 

What was so different you might ask? I mentioned that the White Sox/Cubs game was played at Wrigley, yet I was driving to Guaranteed Rate Field on the Southside to do this game. That’s right. No traveling, not even 8.1 miles up the road, for the broadcast teams. We will be calling “road” games from a booth, facing a field with nobody on it. More on that in a moment. 

Pulling up to the parking lot I head into Lot D, which is right near the entrance to the ballpark. The first thing I noticed was that it’s empty, a ghost town, almost what it looks like when I’d normally leave after a game when things were normal. Also noticeable is the signage. The lot designated for those in “Tier 1” and then spots for those in “Tier 2” and then a section for “Tier 2/3”. I pull into the Tier 3 area to park my car. It’s a bit of a longer walk than usual, but hey that’s the price to play baseball in this pandemic stricken world. I’m good with it.

Time to put on my mask. 

Now, as I walk from the car to the entrance, there’s a large white tent greeting me. This is the medical tent. I check in with the attendant and then face a screen that looks like an iPad. There is an outline of a face. I am instructed to fit my face in the outline, so this screen can take my temperature. You almost get the feeling of the old days of metal detectors at the airport, a little uneasiness.

Am I going to have a fever? Will I be able to get into the park?

Thankfully, the digital display reads 98.2 as in no fever. I’ve cleared the second hurdle. 

Next up on gameday is entering the lobby to get my bag scanned and to pick up my credential for the day. The door is locked and I’m trying to read the security guard’s lips, but he’s got a mask on, as do I. We finally sync up and the door is opened. I apologize to him for causing a bit of angst for him, he’s very cool about it and offers some kind words to break the ice. Seems even with my mask on he knew that I was coming to broadcast the ‘game’ there tonight. Another hurdle cleared. 

Normally on a gameday, the lobby is bustling with activity and various friendly faces greet me. Not today. There are exactly three people in the lobby. Me, my friend the security guard and the gentleman handing out credentials.

U.S. Cellular Field Guide – Where to Park, Eat, and Get Cheap Tickets

I walk toward the elevator to go to the broadcast level. On a typical day, there’s an elevator attendant, who is a great guy. Always saying hello and talking about the last game the Sox played, but not this day. I push the button and head to the 3rd floor. Usually there is another friendly face waiting as the door opens to say hello and make sure those that are from the visiting team know where they’re going. She is also absent today. I turn the corner push open the double doors and make my way down to the broadcast booth. 

This is where my day is supposed to be familiar. I really don’t know what to expect. The narrow corridor leading to the booth is always filled with television equipment, people and activity. Today it’s just another sparsely occupied space.

I enter the booth and greet my partner. We haven’t seen each other in 4 and a half months. We’ve talked, texted and emailed during the shutdown. We spend some time catching up, finding out how each other’s families are doing, some of the highlights of the times leading up to this moment. It’s great to see him and finally things are starting to feel as they once were. 

The feeling is fleeting though, because as I mentioned earlier, we’re doing a game tonight, but there will be no game on the field in front of us. Quite an unusual circumstance, but one that all of us understand is for our safety, the safety of the players and the game itself. How are we going to do this? We are going to be watching this game from 8.1 miles away on a television monitor, basically calling our game off of the television feed. There is supposed to be a secondary screen near me that would continuously show me the “high home” camera.

It’s not there.

“Ok, no problem. We’ll make it work,” seemed to be the theme of the night. The circumstances are less than ideal, but what can we do about it?

Remember, normal went out the window in March, now the only thing out of our window as the game starts is an empty field. We start the broadcast reminding fans where the game is and where we are. It feels strange.

That feeling went away as soon as the first pitch was thrown though. Finally, some normalcy. A game that I’ve called for the better part of 2 decades is still the same game. Yeah, there were a few issues here and there. The sound was ahead of our picture. We’d hear the crack of the bat before seeing it. Ok, we have a little laugh about it and then adjust. My partner and I agree to pause our comments a little earlier, to kind of synch it up. All good.  This felt great.

Baseball in Chicago: White Sox beat Cubs 7-3 in an exhibition game at Wrigley  Field - Chicago Tribune

Then strange entered the building again. 

As the innings wore on, I got more and more comfortable looking at the 2 monitors (thankfully the TV folks brought it in during the 4th inning of the game). But, seemingly at the same time, both my partner and I looked out at the field in front of us and saw nothing.

I don’t mean just no activity, I mean truly nothing. It was pitch dark inside the stadium. Not a light to be seen shining down on it, only the lights from the broadcast level. We made eye contact and relayed our thoughts to the audience about the darkness descending upon the empty field. It was a pretty incredible sight to behold, even though we couldn’t see a thing.

Remember the line from the Wizard of Oz? “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” It rang true in so many ways for us that night. 

We are sitting here in the dark. Guarantee Rate Field is normally lit up so brightly during a game that you can see it from an airplane 40-thousand feet above it. The team wasn’t even here. Not even a grounds crew member left inside. It was kind of eerie. Alas, this is the way it’s going to be and we can do nothing to change it.

Why worry about it? 

This was a unique opportunity to, in a way, take the audience behind the curtain. Numerous times we’d describe not only what we were seeing on the monitor, but what we were seeing, as mentioned in the park. We let them in on how we had our booth set up. How we were angling our monitors so that my partner and I could see each other. To feed off of one another just like we always do. Stories were told, like I’m telling you, how we got into the ballpark, what we saw and didn’t see along the way, how weird it was to be in an empty ballpark.

It was all done in an attempt to say, “yes, we know this is not typical, but it is baseball and we’re grateful to have you listening and to be bringing you this game. I felt like it was extremely important to relate with people in the sense of we’re all going through this together. 

At the end of the day it’s just a baseball broadcast. We aren’t solving any of the world’s problems, especially COVID-19. What we could do though, is to have as much fun as possible. Let’s make it as normal for those listening as we can and let’s approach this with a positive attitude. Hopefully, it will translate to our audience.

Let’s be that distraction we all couldn’t wait for. Live sports. Live baseball. Forget about all the abnormal things in getting there, the weirdness of the booth. If they would have told me, ‘go broadcast this game from the top of the John Hancock Building’, I would have been there. If that’s what it would take, count me in. 

John Hancock Center (Chicago, 1969) | Structurae

Abnormal is our normal now. Again, if that means sports is back with a few tweaks here and there, I’m in. 

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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