Things just seem to feel different this year as we near December 25. A surge of new COVID-19 cases driven by the spread of the omicron variant has fostered feelings of apprehension and uncertainty around the world. People are adjusting and/or canceling their holiday plans while remaining vigilant during this winter surge.
One of the institutions embarking in this battle is the National Basketball Association, a league that has seen 115 players enter its COVID-19 health and safety protocols this month alone. Currently, those testing positive for COVID-19 have to remain in the protocols for a minimum of 10 days, or if a player registers two negative COVID-19 PCR tests from samples obtained in a span of more than 24 hours. Many of the league’s superstar players have entered the protocols, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Luka Dončić and Trae Young, all of whose teams are scheduled to take the floor Saturday. The NBA, however, has no plans to pause the 2021-22 season for now, instead opting to adjust to live with the threat of COVID-19 looming large.
ESPN and ABC will mark its 20th season bringing viewers exclusive coverage of all the action around the NBA on Christmas Day Saturday, broadcasting 13 hours of studio and game programming. The game action begins with a First Round rematch between the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks from Madison Square Garden. The day continues on with the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks hosting the Boston Celtics at 2:30 p.m. E.S.T., followed by a showdown between the two best teams in the Western Conference – the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns – at 5 p.m. E.S.T. Shortly thereafter, the primetime game takes place on both ABC and ESPN at 8 p.m. E.S.T. between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers from the newly-renamed Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, Calif., with the statuses of stars Kevin Durant and LeBron James in question due to health and safety protocols and an ankle injury, respectively. Finally, the day concludes from Salt Lake City, Utah as the Dallas Mavericks visit the Utah Jazz at 10:30 p.m. E.S.T.
Throughout the game coverage, ESPN analysts Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Jalen Rose, joined by host Mike Greenberg, will provide their knowledge, expertise and opinions to fans on NBA Countdown. The cast of the show was reconstructed prior to the tipoff of the NBA season, and is up 51% in its ratings as compared to last season, consistent with the 26% increase in NBA regular season game viewership on ESPN.
“In a very short period of time, the NBA Countdown team has delivered a very consistent product based on what I believe to be their strong knowledge of the sport, their relentless commitment to working around the clock if necessary, and the commitment to just the sports fans in general,” said Dave Roberts. “We all know that this show has been the subject of press in the past, and I just want to underscore that point [and the ratings increase] because I think it’s relevant as we head into the most important day [of the season] besides the NBA Finals.”
Throughout the year, protocols have been put in place at ESPN to ensure the health and safety of on-air talent and other staff and personnel both in studio and for broadcasts on the road. Additionally, media members have had to follow enhanced protocols at various NBA arenas, including TD Garden in Boston, Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and Madison Square Garden in New York.
“We’ve been in arenas, and we have followed some new and really fascinating protocols in order to be on the floor unmasked,” explained Mike Greenberg, host of NBA Countdown. “[Additionally], the protocols at our studios at the Seaport are stringent and have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, and ESPN has done a great job seeing to it that those are enforced.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary goal of television programs and broadcasts on ESPN was to be as close to perfection as possible. As circumstances have changed across the globe however, the nature of broadcast production has fundamentally shifted to ensure networks can continue to bring their viewers compelling and engaging content each day, albeit its presentation may not be up to par to what it had been within a lone studio environment in the past.
“I think the idea that it’s not going to always be perfect is now accepted,” said former NBA player and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. “The idea of bringing people on with FaceTime or remotes – that wasn’t necessarily encouraged. It was tolerated. Now not only do multimedia personalities accept that [as] the way it is, but also fans accept the way it is. So if somebody was doing an interview now on TV and their television screen starts buffering, two years ago the television world would freak out because we are all about perfection, but now we understand that that’s going to happen, and it’s the new climate that we live in.”
While NBA coaches and team personnel were required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before the start of the season, NBA players were not – since they are under the aegis of the National Basketball Players Association. Nonetheless, 97% of NBA players have been vaccinated, with 65% of those players receiving a booster shot, something that has been scientifically proven to be advantageous in diminishing severe effects of the omicron variant. Yet there have been some notable players who have opted not to get vaccinated, including Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic and Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets.
As he battles a COVID-19 diagnosis himself, ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith, who is vaccinated, believes NBA Commissioner Adam Silver needs to invoke the “Best Interest of the Game Clause” and mandate players be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to maintain the competitive integrity of the game and allow for the completion of the season, something integral to media outlets covering the league.
“The only time a pause should take place is for the NBA to conduct a meeting with all the players in attendance and say: ‘Okay – either you all accept this vaccine mandate, or we’re going into a bubble. Those are your two choices,’” said Smith. “‘Pick one because what we’re not going to do is let the season come to a halt. We’re not doing it.’”
Due to New York City mandates put into place by Mayor Bill de Blasio, Irving, along with any other players on teams within New York City, is unable to enter an indoor arena without proof of vaccination, making him ineligible to play home games at Barclays Center, and across the East River at Madison Square Garden when the Nets visit the Knicks. Wherefore Irving’s limited availability as a result of his objection in getting vaccinated against COVID-19, the Nets decided not to allow him to play in any of its games this season, despite him being eligible to play games in all other cities outside of The Big Apple.
Since that decision was made in October though, the Nets, despite holding the best record in the Eastern Conference, have been decimated by injuries, causing star players Kevin Durant and James Harden to consistently play heavier minutes. Because of this and the organization’s championship aspirations, the team made the controversial move to allow the unvaccinated Irving to rejoin the team. During the intake process, though, Irving reportedly registered either an inconclusive or positive COVID-19 test, thus placing him in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
The story has garnered much media attention throughout the first quarter of the NBA season, with Smith frequently voicing his opinion on the matter on First Take and Stephen A.’s World. As the saga has unfolded, a consistent point of emphasis articulated by Smith is that despite his “box office” talent, Irving is often not available or willing to play for various non-basketball related reasons. A core principle of Smith in his work ethic is to be available when called upon at ESPN, hence why he fully intends to be on the air, albeit remotely, on Saturday.
“The one obligation we have [as broadcasters] is to make sure that come hell or high water, 99 times out of 100, we’re there,” said Smith. “And the one time we ain’t there, it’s a damn good reason for us not to be there. Guess what? The same is applicable to any professional athlete; any professional coach; any professional team because you’re asking the audience to take time out of their busy schedule and to ingratiate themselves with whatever it is that you are offering… You [have] got to show up to work, or there needs to be a damn good reason why you’re not.”
“The loyalty that the fans used to have to teams, they don’t have anymore,” Rose said in response to Smith’s point. “Like Stephen A. was talking about, they now follow the players. What ends up happening is, yes, these same fans during the regular season are now conditioned that they know the best players might not be playing anyway because of load management.”
While football is the number one sport in the United States, Rose expressed that NBA players are simply more famous than National Football League players.
“You can go by any metric,” said Rose. “You can go by social media. You can go by commercials. You can go by the Forbes list. You can go by whatever you want. Basketball players are more famous than football players.”
For that reason, along with the sheer intrigue it would undoubtedly cultivate across the basketball landscape, Irving returning is a scenario that could resurrect some disappointment among fans amid a flurry of absent NBA players in health and safety protocols.
“I only root for the most interesting possible things to happen,” opined Greenberg, “and so with that in mind, I would love nothing more than to see [Kyrie Irving] go running out there on Saturday. I have no idea, literally none, whether he will or he won’t, but it sure would help us make this Christmas Day as memorable as any that I can think of in recent NBA years.”
All major media networks have adapted to producing and disseminating content across multiple platforms to align with consumption trends and meet consumer demand, a process that has been expedited because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout Christmas Day, every one of the five matchups, along with telecasts of NBA Countdown, will be able to stream on the ESPN App. The prime-time game between the Nets and the Lakers will be broadcast on ESPN Radio with Marc Kestecher on the play-by-play and P.J. Carlesimo providing color commentary, along with the preceding game between the Warriors and the Suns with Sean Kelley and Ros Gold-Onwude on the call. Additionally, fans can watch the digital pregame show Hoop Streams, featuring Chiney Ogwumike and Christine Williamson, on the ESPN App, plus its simulcasts on the social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Everyone covering games on those platforms are optimistic for the future of this NBA season. But for now, they understand the fluidity and precariousness of a surge that everyone hopes is ephemeral in scope through a holiday season of disquiet and a dearth of quotidian ways of life.
“My mentality is that… the NBA [and] the networks themselves [are] putting forth their due diligence,” said Smith. “It’s a global pandemic that we’re talking about here, and everybody is acting like everybody is supposed to know the answers. Well, even the scientists don’t have all the answers. They’re figuring it out as we go along. We have to understand that, respect that, and come together as best as we possibly can to put forth our due diligence to make sure that we insulate ourselves.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, Derek serves as a production manager, broadcaster, voiceover artist, technical director, audiovisual editor, and media engineer for Hofstra University’s WRHU. He has also worked on New York Islanders radio broadcasts. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @DerekFutterman.
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.
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.
- 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.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
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.
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.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
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.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.