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How Will ESPN Deliver Sunday Night Baseball in 2021?

“It’s not my place to get deep on the pandemic and lifestyle and all that kind of stuff, but we’re closer to normal. 162 games is normal and April 1st Opening Day is normal. Having some degree of crowd in the ballpark is not quite as normal as sellouts on Opening Day, but it’s a lot closer than it was last year.”

Tyler McComas

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There’s something nostalgic about ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for a sports nerd like me. Maybe it’s because my baseball heyday was spent routinely watching Jon Miller and Joe Morgan in the booth each Sunday night. Maybe it’s the theme music, which is playing in my head as I write this article. Regardless, it was a treat when Ben Cafardo at ESPN invited me to be BSM’s Zoom call representative with Senior Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins to discuss the network’s production approach to the 2021 MLB season. 

Go inside ESPN's production truck during President Obama's stadium entrance  in Havana, Cuba - ESPN Front Row

ESPN will begin its coverage of the season on Opening Day this Thursday April 1st. 11 games will air on the network in the first week, but things will look especially different in the booth this season. 

“We will still be in a workflow that is centralized, primarily Bristol-based from a product approach standpoint,” said Orlins. “We do probably 20 percent of our games out of our Charlotte hub, but for the most part things connect through Bristol and out of the Bristol hub.”

That means ESPN will start most of it’s Sunday Night Baseball crew in studio. Buster Olney, who will serve as a reporter, is expected to be on-site at every single game. However, Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez will start the year in Bristol. 

“I don’t know that I have any guarantees, predictions on when that would change or if that will change,” added Orlins. “I think there are a lot of circumstances that will go into that, and some of them are to be determined, including the COVID pandemic as one of them.”

ESPN’s view on putting Olney at the ballpark is that it will increase the essential value of the reporter. Especially since it means Buster will be the lone one on site. But Olney’s job won’t likely be as easy as it used to be. He’s on site for the game which is the positive, but anyone who’s covered events during the past year knows that it also means no face-to-face interactions with players or coaches. Olney has done a tremendous job over the years gathering and reporting information, some of it picked up on the field during practice or even inside the clubhouse. He won’t have that same access though this season. 

That’s a key reason why ESPN isn’t rushing to put crews inside of booths all across the stadium. If Vasgersian and Rodriguez are only allowed in the booth and have no other access, is it critical then to have them on the road? Most broadcasters would tell you it’s easier to call a game when you can see the action in person, but ESPN is confident that its Bristol studios and/or home studios will work out well for the upcoming season. 

Just like ESPN’s coverage of college basketball this season, there will be broadcasters calling games from inside their homes. It’s nothing new. We saw it with the network’s coverage of the KBO last year, the first live games to feature live broadcasts from home during the pandemic. 

“One thing we experimented with on KBO last year and will do again this year is having Eduardo Perez transmit his own video files into our switcher and telestrate his own stuff from his home,” said Orlins. “The more you challenge yourselves on what you can do with technology, the more these things are accessible and available to be done.”

Many fans have been critical of Major League Baseball’s inability to market it’s biggest stars. A debate on how many people would recognize Mike Trout if he walked into a mall comes to mind. ESPN isn’t single handedly solving the issue, but it’s trying to pull more personality out of both the players and it’s broadcast by mic’ing up players during games. It’s a unique and fun feature to any game that really only works during baseball, seeing as it’s slower pace and a better fit than most other sports. ESPN really pushed it during Spring Training in order to highlight more personality driven content with players. It was seen as a big success, and something the network will consider more throughout the season. 

“We had a lot of success last year in the regular season with that type of access material,” said Orlins. “Bryce Harper was a great participant. Obviously there were a couple in the postseason, as well, Paul DeJong with the Cardinals, Ian Happ was tremendous with the Cubs, along with a few others. The answer to that though is to be determined, as it requires an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association. We hope that we once again get there, but having said that, those things do not necessarily travel a quick path, as I think most of us are aware.”

THIS IS GREAT: PHILS BRUCE HARPER MIC'D UP FOR THE ACTION! | Fast Philly  Sports

A lot of technical aspects will be the same from last year, but a glaring difference will be the added element of fans at the games. Every team in baseball will have fans on Opening Day, ranging from the Texas Rangers having 100 percent capacity to the Toronto Blue Jays hosting around 1,275 fans at its spring training facility in Florida. Capacity numbers differ, but fans will be in the stands this season. After going through a year without crowd noise or in person reactions, that has to be a giant relief for ESPN’s production team.

“I know it’s a controversial topic, but I’ll tell you the first thing I learned on KBO was I’m not big on what I’d call necessarily full-force fake crowd sound,” said Orlins. “But I’m not big on no crowd sound, either.”

“As far as the way the game is cut, there’s not a whole lot you can do in the sense of — you’re not going to not show the pitch from center field because it shows empty seats behind the plate. Do we miss the crowd reaction shots? Yes. Would I ever prioritize the crowd reaction shots over the player reactions? Probably not.

“I miss the sound and I miss the authentic sound, but I also miss the personality. I mean, that’s a real element, especially to baseball. I just miss the kid or father catching the home run and the fun in the stands. I don’t lose much sleep over whether our reactions to a home run are more focused on the dugout versus fans. I think those shots are to be expected. They’re fairly normal or replaceable to some degree. But I miss the entertainment of kids and parents, and the odd moments when a guy falls over trying to catch a foul ball or gives it to the kid or refuses to give it to the kid or throws it back on the field, all of those things.”

Hopefully the sight of fans in the stands on Opening Day gives the country a renewed sense of optimism that life will get back to normal. Who knows, maybe as things continue to improve, A-Rod will be back in Boston or New York to call Sunday Night Baseball this summer. Maybe baseball can be the sport that signifies the full normalcy of life returning to pre-pandemic levels. If that happens, you can bet ESPN will be there to show it. 

Baseball in Empty Stadiums Is Weird. How Will It Affect Outcomes? - The New  York Times

“My sense is that people want normal,” said Orlins. “It’s not my place to get deep on the pandemic and lifestyle and all that kind of stuff, but we’re closer to normal. 162 games is normal and April 1st Opening Day is normal. Having some degree of crowd in the ballpark is not quite as normal as sellouts on Opening Day, but it’s a lot closer than it was last year.

“I think there’s no other sport that quite occupies, wherever you want to compare baseball with other sports in terms of its popularity and how you measure, I don’t think there’s anything like baseball that exists within the daily rhythm of American lifestyle. I think that’s really important right now.”

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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