SBJ/Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2013/Opinion

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  • Cleaning out the notebook on NFL and sports media

    There was a great discussion at our recent Sports Media & Technology conference about today’s NFL programming and ways in which networks and properties can work together to mutually benefit. During the session, team and network officials outlined areas for enhancements — the first, obviously, being more access to players and coaches.
     
    It was clear from the responses that one of the biggest reasons there hasn’t been more adoption of locker-room content and exclusive footage this season has been resistance from coaches. Team officials outlined how coaches have to be convinced of the benefit before agreeing to any changes. Kansas City Chiefs President Mark Donovan showed the team’s new player introduction video that includes some locker-room footage, and he said that it so fired up the home crowd at Arrowhead Stadium that new coach Andy Reid immediately saw the benefit of it. That’s the payoff business-side executives are counting on for buy in.

    Network executives outlined steps taken to gain access — specifically, the live shots of players getting off the team bus and entering stadiums before games — as effective and popular forms of content. All agreed the biggest area for enhancement is with audio; getting the sounds of the game and between coaches and players is clearly on the wish list of teams, networks and even viewers. But the “unintended consequences” of presenting such audio — language, strategy, game-planning — is preventing more widespread use.

    It was also informative to hear the delicate balance teams have in mixing up their in-stadium video programming. Most are showing the NFL Network’s RedZone Channel but doing it selectively for not wanting to take away focus from the game on the field. Donovan said the Chiefs show it at breaks, but “received a lot of feedback from fans that said, ‘Don’t mess with the game. I want to see the game.’” New York Jets President Neil Glat said that RedZone is “terrific to show in-stadium before a [4 p.m. ET kickoff]. … Fans are clamoring for it. You want to offer it in one shape or another. We do offer it from time to time on the big screen and the app. But you want to continue to have the excitement around the game.”

    We’re right in the midst of the NFL’s flex scheduling, and we can expect to see even more aggressive scheduling changes in the future. But while many markets clamor for the high-profile visibility and buzz around late-afternoon or prime-time slots, team officials cited fans’ wish for regularity. I’ve heard from many team officials over the years who, for example, love a schedule of consistent 1 p.m. ET starts, and Donovan echoed that, as he warned of “fatigue from season-ticket holders” toward prime-time games. He said so many fans are “used to that Sunday afternoon experience. Then, all of a sudden, you’re playing almost every game in prime time. There’s a clamoring for a balance.”

    > ON THE AIR: We write how the sports consumer is in control, and that was clearly evident in a TV viewer focus group we put together for the sports media conference. We vetted four hard-core sports fans about their viewership habits, and they appeared on a panel with three veteran sports media executives. My takeaway: how unforgivingly difficult it is to select on-air talent. Everyone’s a critic, everyone has an opinion, and there’s no consensus.

    Take this fan panel for instance: One viewer loved ESPN’s Jon Gruden, one couldn’t stand him (“All he says is, ‘I like this guy!’”), and a third merely wanted to be entertained. Same with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. One young man called him the biggest blowhard on the air, while the young man sitting next to him called him the most “refreshingly authentic voice on sports TV today.”

    Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, was immediately asked how analysts are chosen and evaluated, with the difficult task of pleasing an audience impossible to satisfy. “There is no real science to this,” he said. “It’s more art. … There is a fair bit of research and focus-group work, but in the end, you have to go with your gut. That’s how we ended up with Jon Gruden. … And when you have the sort of natural magnetism that he has, I think that draws people in.”

    Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research, also a panelist, chimed in, “In all cases, we’re looking for people who are dynamic, who are storytellers and can be informative and concise. They’ve got to be people that you want to hang out with. I think we can lose sight of the fact that people are inviting us into their homes. We’ve got to make sure we’re putting people into their living rooms that they would want to have in their own house.”

    Another example of the challenges these executives face: Look at the results of this week’s SBJ/SBD Reader Survey when it comes to the top play-by-play announcer. No one received more than 17 percent support. If you go down that list — Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, Gus Johnson, Joe Buck, etc. — each also has a pack of detractors; in political parlance, “high negatives.” So the point of going with one’s gut, with an eye on fit, balance and trust, seems like a smart approach with the lack of analytical data indicating strong consumer preference.

    > RADIO WAVES: During a discussion with sports radio executives, soccer was named the sport most underserved by today’s radio programmers. In another interesting point, Chris Oliviero, CBS Sports Radio executive vice president of programming, touted the influence local sports talk radio hosts have to shape local opinion: “If you talk to teams, in their markets, it’s the sports talk radio host that is a key influencer, not necessarily the guy on the 11 p.m. TV news or the local newspaper columnist.”

    > MY PET PEEVE: During the NFL session, I asked about my pet peeve when it comes to watching football: Can the league improve the accuracy of where the ball is spotted after a play? It strikes me as so arbitrary and inconsistent, especially on the closest plays. Am I the only one thinking this? One side judge runs up toward the play on one side of the first down marker; the other side judge runs up about two feet in the other direction, both with conviction, yet the ball is moved and the call of first down or no progress is made. Forward progress, knee down, spot of the ball, where the chains are placed — it all adds to the angst of the action. But most of the team officials felt the opposite, that the refs are solid with the consistency and accuracy of their placement. One network executive suggested more of an actual “laserlike” technology that could show exactly the 10 yards in question and where the ball needs to get to. Another said that, except for putting in chips inside the game balls, little more could be done to ensure greater accuracy. So it looks like I’ll continue to be frustrated for the foreseeable future.

    > QUICK HITS: Two additional results from our Reader Survey particularly caught my eye. First, when asked if college athletes should be paid, the more than 1,000 respondents produced an exact tie, with 48 percent each saying yes and no. It mirrors the split I hear on the campus level. And second, while most of the top leagues had a clear favorite when it came to the face of their respective sport, I was struck that Major League Baseball didn’t have any one player with more than 20 percent of the vote and had five players with double-digit support. Yes, other leagues (NHL and NFL) have players who play under the helmet, and baseball benefits from the frequency of 162 games a season. While some believe not having a runway star as the face of your league may impede it from being part of the pop culture, mainstream conversation, I think it shows a healthy mix of diverse talent — both youth and veteran — that MLB can use in segmenting its marketing mix.

    Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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