SBJ/April 7-13, 2014/Media

Five strategies for building a winning MLB broadcast team

One of the complaints I always hear about TV sports is that the same old people are in the same old broadcast booths calling the same old games. When somebody like Tim McCarver retires after more than three decades as MLB’s top analyst, Fox replaced him with Harold Reynolds, who’s been a TV studio analyst for nearly two decades.

Why is it so hard for networks to find a good, young broadcaster to become their new TV face for the game? Apparently, it’s a lot easier said than done.

I expected to find a sympathetic ear when I brought this topic up to Boomer Esiason last week. In 1998, Esiason joined ABC’s “Monday Night Football” booth as a game analyst, choosing TV over an offer to stay in the NFL for another season or two. Esiason said the transition to the broadcast booth was tougher than he expected, and he wished he was able to cut his teeth in a lower-profile environment.

“I wish I got that job today as opposed to when I got it,” he said. “It takes time to understand the mechanisms of television.”

Production executives were unanimous in saying that networks need patience to develop younger broadcasters so they can be ready for a national spotlight. “It’s a matter of investing in new talent,” one said. “We’re making decisions about people in five seconds. We need to invest money and time into this process.”

If I had to staff an MLB broadcast booth, I’d focus my search on several areas.

> Players at the end of their career: Esiason created this blueprint when he ended his career early to join “Monday Night Football.” He says such a transition might not be as easy today, for the simple reason that today’s players are better paid.

“It depends on the players’ financial situation,” he said. “It was easier for me to jump to TV because I would make more money and have a longer career in the media.”

When asked which players would make good TV analysts, Esiason highlighted two with the New York Mets: Curtis Granderson and David Wright. “The problem is that they will each make more than $100 million in career earnings,” he said. “Why would they want to spend time and effort talking about the sport on TV when they don’t have to?”

Another name that I’ve been told to keep an eye on is Red Sox catcher David Ross, who at least one TV executive describes as funny, engaging and opinionated. Sean Casey, 39, is a rising star at MLB Network.

> Look beyond ex-athletes: Is there a rule that says all TV analysts have to be ex-athletes? There are plenty of knowledgeable reporters who can discuss game strategy as well as anyone.

I don’t think Fox is getting enough credit for putting a reporter, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, on its MLB “A” team. This is a bold move. I have not seen Verducci call a game yet, but I’m willing to bet his grasp of in-game tactics will be top notch.

> Court the Hispanic audience: Turner made one of MLB’s best on-air hires last year when it brought in Pedro Martinez as a studio analyst. I wasn’t expecting much when Turner announced his hiring last September, but I found him to be engaging and opinionated. At just 42 years old, he has a long future in a baseball broadcast booth if he wants it.

Manny Acta does a nice job for ESPN in the studio. Ozzie Guillen is entertaining. Right now, there are too few Hispanic broadcasters on English-language games. This is an area where networks should become more diverse.

> Back a Brinks truck up to Terry Francona’s house: Hiring a 54-year-old white guy does not achieve my goals for youth or diversity. But Terry Francona was fantastic as a game analyst for ESPN. It would be worth a conversation to see whether he would be willing to take the long-term security of a broadcast deal over trying to bring Cleveland its first World Series title since 1948. I recognize that any deal would be a long shot: Francona took the Indians to the playoffs last year, and the team is set up to contend for the next several seasons.

> Chemistry: I expect Fox’s booth to get positive reviews this season. That’s because its executives say Joe Buck, Reynolds and Verducci meshed immediately during an audition last summer. “The hardest thing to do in a booth or on a studio show is find chemistry,” said Fox Sports President Eric Shanks. “There’s a rapport, an energy. Tom’s insight and connection to the game is different from Harold’s and different from Joe’s. They all bring something unique and special. There’s a chemistry that immediately leapt off the screen.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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