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ESPN Planning ‘Futuristic Look’ For MLB Home Run Derby

“Despite the network planning to display advanced renderings and interpretations of sports data into the broadcast, the top priority remains showing the viewer each pitch as it happens, along with giving viewers unrivaled access to the field, players and spectators.”

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As the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” ESPN continues to pioneer the future of sports event production through its partnership with various properties, including the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The decades-old staple of the entertainment and sports industry plans to amplify its coverage of Major League Baseball All-Star Week in a contemporary, progressive manner not yet seen in sports television.

According to the network, it will “provide expansive coverage of the 2021 MLB All-Star festivities from July 11-13 in Denver,” including the first round of the 2021 Major League Baseball Draft, the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Celebrity Softball Game.

The Major League Baseball Draft was exclusively presented on MLB Network beginning in 2009 when Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder and American League all-star starter Mike Trout was taken with the 25th pick in the first round. Since then, the MLB Draft has grown into an event that interests baseball fanatics, and has become an opportune time for other events to be cross-promoted. ESPN and MLB Network simulcast the Draft for the first time in 2020, with the event taking place out of ESPN’s studios in Bristol. For the first time in its history, the Major League Baseball Draft will take place during Major League Baseball All-Star Week, after plans to hold it in conjunction with the College World Series in Omaha fell through due to health and safety concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had already been pushing to add simultaneous coverage of the Draft with MLB Network,” said Phil Orlins, who serves as the senior coordinating producer of Major League Baseball, Little League and College Baseball for ESPN. “When the draft happened around early July last year, we were super eager to do it because, at that time, we didn’t have many live sports. We wanted to do it again this year, but it’s just not in the construction of our deal with Major League Baseball. I think we were fairly confident that it would work out, [as] it optimizes the visibility of the event for [both] ESPN and MLB Network to cover it.”

When Major League Baseball made the decision to move 2021 All-Star festivities from Atlanta to Denver in early April, logistical challenges were presented to Orlins and his team, who generally start preparing for these slate of events in the early autumn of the previous year. Unlike Truist Park in Atlanta, Coors Field in Denver does not have a connecting venue with the capability to host the Draft, coercing the network to find alternate ways to transmit the event from the new venue, the Bellco Theatre, to the ballpark, venues that are 1.4 miles away from each other.

The move also impacted the planning of the Home Run Derby, an event that has engendered much interest since its inception in 1985. While the original nine-month timetable was quickly compressed down to three due to the decision by the league to relocate the festivities, Orlins knew that his team would be able to handle the challenge.

“We’ve been doing this for a lot of years,” said Orlins. “[The move] caused a little bit of extra urgency and speed to the work, [but] I don’t think it has any real impact as to how the event will be covered.”

Orlins produced the first Home Run Derby broadcast on television in 1993, in which Seattle Mariners superstar and National Baseball Hall of Fame member Ken Griffey, Jr., crushed a home run off of the B&O Warehouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Originally a 30-minute taped show, the veteran producer considers the impact he had in the event’s evolution as one of the signature moments of his career.

“I remember back in the day the seats were free for fans,” reminisced Orlins. “Then, it grew to a $5 charity donation per seat, and now it is a jewel event. It’s been amazing seeing that event capture the public’s fancy.”

ESPN is set to exclusively telecast the Home Run Derby on both the primary ESPN channel and ESPN-2, with each broadcast targeted for different segments of the viewing audience. The parent network, ESPN, will be taking a conventional approach, featuring a broadcast team of Karl Ravech, Eduardo Perez, Buster Olney and Marley Rivera calling the action and giving viewers an entertaining, traditional viewing experience. Conversely on ESPN-2, Jason Bennetti, Jessica Mendoza and Mike Petriello will explore the contest from an analytics-driven perspective, relying on Statcast technology to examine metrics such as launch angle, distance, exit velocity and barrel percentage to name a few, implementing them into the broadcast. This style of broadcast, which first debuted on ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball just prior to the turn of the century, is designed for the astute, perspicacious viewer, and will use graphics and groundbreaking technology to envision these data-powered metrics in an elucidatory, provocative mode.

“The pervasiveness and the capability of what Major League Baseball has been able to do through Statcast is unbelievable,” affirmed Orlins. “We felt [this broadcast] was a chance to more aggressively-serve… diehards who absorb sports and want all the information in every way [it can be presented]… without alienating more casual viewers.”

Since the Home Run Derby began its utilization of an alternative presentation in 2018, the network has watched the proliferation of its viability, and plans to take the broadcast to new heights this year. Even though the Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be exclusively broadcast on Fox as normal, the networks will share equipment to ensure that both their broadcasts eclipse the status quo.

“We have a really aggressive plan to differentiate the visual coverage of the at-bats with significant augmented reality,” said Orlins. “I think it’s going to be a very futuristic look.”

Despite the network planning to display advanced renderings and interpretations of sports data into the broadcast, the top priority remains showing the viewer each pitch as it happens, along with giving viewers unrivaled access to the field, players and spectators. With these concomitant objectives, broadcasting the event to serve all of them was something that presented a challenge to ESPN prior to the advent of the split-screen coverage box.

“We keep a pretty comfortable portrait-style type shot of the batter and pitcher, and we [have an approximately] 4 x 3 coverage box on the right side of the screen,” explained Orlins. “We have a constant shot of the pitch and the swing on one side, and we’re able to track the balls and reactions on the bigger box on the other side. Until we made that move, we were just in an uphill battle at all times; in the worst-case scenario, pitches were being thrown before home runs were landing. There’s a comfort in never losing track of when the pitch is coming.”

Something different from previous years, however, is the highly-saturated marketplace that exists for live sports. The Home Run Derby, usually a showcase, professional sporting event leading up to the Midsummer Classic, has to compete with the N.B.A. Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, along with the buildup towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which are set to begin later this month after a year-long delay. These premium events notwithstanding do not take away from the appeal of the Home Run Derby, as the setting for this year’s event is the high-altitude Coors Field, which, on average, yields the longest home run distances out of any ballpark in the major leagues. Moreover, its showcase participant is the man who is being called the closest thing to Babe Ruth since, well, Babe Ruth himself: the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way phenom, Shohei Ohtani.

“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this,” expressed Orlins, “but the Babe Ruth comparisons actually almost fall short at this point because, while Ruth was an excellent pitcher and the greatest hitter of all-time, he really never did them both at the same time to this degree, and he certainly wasn’t being measured on Statcast either. [Ohtani] is going to be the number one seed, [and] he’s positioned to bat in the spot that will lead our audience to there. I think there is a mystique and intrigue as to what will happen.”

The rest of the field for the Home Run Derby, which includes New York Mets’ slugger and reigning event-champion Pete Alonso, Texas Rangers’ outfielder Joey Gallo and the prolific Washington Nationals’ all-star Juan Soto, is sure to generate peak ratings and cultivate feats worthy of awe and incredulousness among fans and analysts alike.

“We promote the event extremely-aggressively,” said Orlins. “We are very fortunate to have one of the strongest possible promotional stand-out elements of the event, which is holding a home-run hitting contest at a high altitude.”

Following the Home Run Derby, ESPN will feature the All-Star Celebrity Softball Game, which will be broadcast by father-son duo Tim and Jeff Kurkjian. The event will feature notable celebrities including The Miz, Kane Brown, JoJo Siwa and Quavo, along with athletes Larry Walker, Jenny Finch and CC Sabathia.

“It’s an event that probably takes 75 minutes in the ballpark,” Orlins explained, “but gets cut down to about 46 minutes on television. The main thing is [being[ fun and clever [about] things to do with the various participants [at an] aggressive-pace. It’s how you quickly, effectively trim it down, making your commentary make sense when you are trying to eliminate all of the balls not swung at.”

Lastly, on Tuesday night, Jon “Boog” Sciambi and Chris Singleton will be on the call for the Major League Baseball All-Star Gameon ESPN Radio, the 23rd year it has been the national radio home for the midsummer classic. Additionally, Sciambi and Singleton will provide listeners with all the action from the Home Run Derby on the air Monday night.

ESPN’s multimedia coverage of the Major League Baseball All-Star festivities is also available to be streamed on the ESPN App, and will be the first Major League Baseball All-Star Week to occur since July 2019.

BSM Writers

Imagine If Sports Media Had To Justify Its Own Tucker Carlson

“Of course Tucker Carlson lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies.”

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Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Last week, our partners in the news media department posted a story about Tucker Carlson. It was about a recent interview the FOX News host did with some guy on YouTube. In the interview, Carlson admits that there are times he blatantly lies on his show – the most popular show that is broadcast by what is ostensibly a news channel.

“I guess I would ask myself, like, I mean I lie if I’m really cornered or something. I lie,” Carlson told Dave Rubin. “I really try not to. I try never to lie on TV. I just don’t – I don’t like lying. I certainly do it, you know, out of weakness or whatever.”

When I first read this story, I just dismissed it. Of course this jackass lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies. There is just no way he is actually as stupid as he pretends to be when he makes that “I am shocked by what I just heard” face. You know the one. It looks like he just discovered there’s a Batman movie where the suit has nipples.

born miserable on Twitter: "Tucker Carlson always looks like someone's just  shown him a picture of a vagina… "
Courtesy: FOX News

I tried to dismiss it, but then later in the week came his impassioned plea to Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend to come on TV to discuss his balls after the rapper tweeted a story about how the Covid vaccine made this guy’s testicles swell and thus ruined his potential wedding.

It is a clip that was passed around Twitter thousands of times. It showed up in my feed over and over with comments like “This is THE NEWS in 2021” and “I never want this man to stop talking about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls.”

Can you imagine if Carlson’s bullshit was acceptable in sports media? I could write the same thing about FOX News in general, but let’s keep this focused on Tucker, because this past week he crossed the rubicon into a special category of absurd.

There are plenty of people in sports media that will go on TV and explain to you why a loss is actually good for a team or why undeniable greatness is actually unimpressive. This is someone going on TV and telling you that it doesn’t matter what you saw with your own two eyes on Thursday night, the Giants actually beat Washington or that the Brooklyn Nets can be dismissed as title contenders because there is no proof that anyone on their roster has even been to the All-Star Game.

I have written in the past that news commenters, be they on radio or television, do not impress me. Those people are not original or interesting at all. They aren’t even talented. I’m only bringing up that opinion to be completely transparent.

Sports Tucker Carlson would be a totally different animal. In fact, such a thing would be unacceptable.

Now, I am sure some of you are out there shouting that sports media does have a Tucker Carlson. In fact, the sports Tucker Carlson works for the same company that the real Tucker Carlson does. His name is Skip Bayless.

Llia L Retweeted This Skip Bayless LeBron Is Tired AGAIN??? Has Looked a  Little Lethargic All Night Isn't He Supposed to Be the World's Finest  Conditioned Athlete? MJ Never Got Tired MJ

Look, I hear you. Skip brings no sincerity to anything, but I also don’t think Skip has any values he is trying to push. His takes are ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. ALL HAIL THEM CLICKS!

Besides, the great thing about sports broadcasting in general is that the stakes of what we are talking about are pretty low. Creativity and absurdity are welcome. None of this is important, nor is there any illusion that it may be. No one is showing up at the Capital with zip ties and bear mace demanding the Chiefs be re-instated as Super Bowl champions or screaming at doctors that the Covid vaccine is a scheme to return Miami to relevance in the college football world.

Putting on my programmer hat for a second, I just cannot imagine how to justify a Tucker Carlson. Then again, my programmer hat was not made and fitted by people trying to pass performance art off as news. So, maybe me not getting it is the strategy.

Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Either way, this, to me, feels like very good information to take to advertisers next time they question the desirability of a sports radio audience versus a news audience. Our listeners are passionate, intelligent people looking to be entertained and engaged by conversations about their favorite teams and they’re willing to support the people that do that for them. The most popular name in news talk admits that he lies when the facts don’t match up to the story he wants to tell. The reaction from the public is “well of course he does.” Which one would you rather have your brand associated with?

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Back To Basics

Back To Basics: Teases

“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”

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I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands. 

2,622 BEST Fingers Crossed Kid IMAGES, STOCK PHOTOS & VECTORS | Adobe Stock
Courtesy: Adobe Stock

I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether.  To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.  

If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break? 

Example 1: “More football talk, next!” 

Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”  

We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.

The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for. 

Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host. 

I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle. 

Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?” 

Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?” 

Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about. 

Photo by: iStockPhoto

The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you. 

Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice. 

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BSM Writers

Athletes Are Making Their Money In Content

“Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.”

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In many ways, the voice of athletes started its exponential growth with the introduction of social media, where every human being has access to a personal broadcast channel to express themselves, their passions, stories, and ideas.  The athlete as an artist immediately expanded from highlight reel to Hollywood film and television reel as a content producer.  However, it was The Players’ Tribune, founded by Derek Jeter in 2014, that jumpstarted the athlete-driven voice of content, first in writing, and later in video, polls, and podcasts.  

On the Line: Derek Jeter | By The Players' Tribune
Courtesy: The Players’ Tribune

Michael Jordan was the first international athlete that made millions in sponsorship money—selling his name or attaching his name to products for the purpose of endorsing them for a profit.  He also starred in the Warner Bros. live-action/animated film Space Jam.  Jordan turned those partnerships into ownership of an NBA basketball team and a partner and focus of one of the most iconic athletic brands in the world, Jordan/Jumpman (Nike).  More recently, Jordan was the focus of the Emmy award-winning The Last Dance docuseries about the NBA Chicago Bulls six championships and more specifically the sixth and final trophy for Air Jordan his Bulls team.  He also co-owns a NASCAR team with Joe Gibbs.  

Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.  However, that is the point—the mentee should always outperform the mentor with proper, training, guidance, and a little luck too.  Where many athletes have pursued broadcasting work as color analysts during and after their professional careers in sports, Jordan did not pursue these avenues or seek to open a television or film production studio to develop entertainment, media, and sports content.  

The direct-to-consumer approach of Hollywood and sports networks through streaming platforms, combined with the introduction of athlete voices through social media and podcasts has led to more opportunities.  Los Angeles Laker LeBron James launched his SpringHill Company in 2020 not long after joining showtime in Tinseltown.  SpringHill is a content studio that develops and looks to other studios for major production and distribution.  LeBron has the sponsorship advertising prowess, but can also add documentaries and feature film content to his resume.  

Kevin Durant launched a podcast titled “The Boardroom” through his company, Thirty-Five Ventures.  With YouTube on par with Netflix in revenue (minus the paywall), it provides another direct-to-consumer platform for everyone and more opportunities.  Steph Curry launched Unanimous Media in 2018 as a content and production studio, originally in partnership with Sony Entertainment, now the studio is partnered with Comcast owned NBCUniversal in the $10 million dollar range.  

The media has deemed the Curry deal a first, which is noteworthy, but so is the faith and family focus of Curry’s programming that will span many brands in the NBCUniversal entertainment family.  Curry will join the NBC broadcast for the Ryder Cup as an analyst and host and interview guests for an educational series, which does not include film projects and the second $200 million dollar basketball contract Curry signed in 2021.  Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Dwayne Wade have been involved with film projects of their own.  Tim Tebow is a nationwide celebrity and motivational speaker, not to mention a world-renown athlete and person with a big heart towards faith and philanthropy.    

Peyton and Eli Manning also have their own broadcast for Monday Night Football.  Peyton also starred in the very successful “Peyton’s Places” that will have season two launched soon on ESPN+.  Both are produced by Peyton’s Omaha Productions.

Speaking of Disney brands, the company’s 30 for 30 is still one of the main catalysts for highlighting the struggles and triumphs of athletes.  Hard Knocks, Ballers, and Jerry Maguire also gave insight into the world of sports beyond the field, statistics, and championships.   

The growth of entertainment, media, and sports has been and continues to be exponential.  Some additional areas to watch include development of series and docuseries in baseball, hockey, soccer, and in other popular, but not the big five sports in America (e.g., lacrosse, cricket, etc.).  With women’s sports receiving more attention on television, there are tremendous opportunities for growth in entertainment production particularly in women’s soccer. 

LFG (2021) - IMDb
Courtesy: WarnerMedia

To date, NBA players have dominated the entertainment, media, and sports landscape for Hollywood production.  However, to each their own, because some stars love developing content, others love speaking about content, and still others love to own content (particularly in the form of brands and franchises) (see Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter).  Indeed, the era of athlete as Hollywood producer is upon us.      

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