“The Spring Game to be decided right here! Snap, rolling right, (Austin) Kendall looking end zone, looking, stops, looks back left, looks right, throws in the end zone and it’s incomplete! Adrian Peterson’s Team White has won it by the score of 10-9!”
That was just one of the many moments heard inside the Oklahoma football radio booth on Saturday afternoon, as play-by-play voice Toby Rowland gave the action during the OU Spring Game in Norman. But that moment didn’t come without a large amount of time and preparation. In fact, you have to rewind two days prior to Thursday afternoon, to see when the preparations for the broadcast actually began.
Inside an empty Gaylord Family Oklahoma Stadium, on-site engineer Michael Dean is inside the radio booth to start his game day set up. A process that usually takes close to two hours, Dean also needs to coordinate his wireless microphones with the Trace Adkins concert that’s to take place before the game on Saturday. Any interference, would cause his sideline analysts problems and leave them unable to participate in the pregame show.
Though Dean is used to spending several hours setting up a broadcast, he’s not the only member of the team that spends multiple days getting ready for the football game on Saturday. Spotter boards, audio drops and a detailed study of the roster, are just a few of the things that fill the week for the majority of the 8-man crew involved with the Sooner Sports Network.
Inside the booth on the bottom of the two level room, Greg Blackwood (spotter) occupies the seat on the far left. To his right, sits Rowland (play-by-play voice) followed by Dennis Kelly (statistician) and Merv Johnson (color analyst) in the seat furthest right. Up top, sits Dean (engineer) alongside all his equipment to keep the Sooner Radio Network on the air. Down on the sidelines, the remaining three members of the team stand as Teddy Lehman (sideline analyst) and Chris Plank (sideline analyst) are joined alongside Tom Shores (parabolic microphone).
Oklahoma football has never been a stranger to success. However, the same can also be said for the Sooner Radio Network. Legendary figures such as Walter Cronkite, Bob Barry and John Brooks, are just a few of the voices that have told the tale of OU football through the years. Though the names have changed, the success has not. During the 2017 season, the Sooner Radio Network was ranked as the No. 1 most listened to college sports broadcast via TuneIn on three separate weeks. In Learfield’s end of the season list of Most Listened to Teams via TuneIn, the Sooner Radio Network ranked No. 3, making it one of the most popular broadcasts during college football weekends.
But how does it all work? I went inside the booth and asked those questions to several members of the broadcast team.
On-Site engineer Michael Dean
TM: How early do you show up on a game day?
MD: On a normal game day, I try to get to the stadium about 6 hours before kickoff. For home games, I’ll come down Friday and do my set up. So when I get here Saturday morning, everything is already in place and it’s just a matter of turning stuff on.
MD: If I’m in a hurry, I can do it in a couple of hours. When we’re on the road, and we get to the stadium at 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning for a 2:00 kickoff, that gives me a couple of hours to put everything together, to where I’m not pushing it and ready to go. There’s two, great big cases that hold all the paraphernalia for the setup. It’s amazing how much the technology has changed with equipment. When I started in 1991, the technology seemed to change every 3 or 4 years. What we’re doing today, you couldn’t imagine doing that back then. It’s incredible.
Statistician Dennis Kelly
TM: Are you keeping a full stat sheet during each game?
DK: What we found is everyone has access to the game stats these days. So I tend to focus on trends. How many passes in a row have been thrown, how long the drive has been, how many yards or how close to a record someone is, that’s what I’ll focus on. We always have a stats monitor in front of us. When I have something, I write it down and pass it to Toby.
Spotter Greg Blackwood
TM: Since you’re pointing out every single tackle, run and catch, does that mean you have to be familiar with every single player that participates in a game?
GB: Normally, Toby will send me a picture of his spotter boards for that given week, around Thursday or Friday. I pretty much know everyone that plays for OU, but it’s getting to know the opposing team. What I like to do, like, for receivers, I put them on a Post It note, just their number and last name. So when the ball is in the air, I’m immediately able to find who it is and point it out on the spotter board.
TM: I also see an OU Band-Aid and a Band-Aid for the other team. What’s that for?
GB: It’s just something I came up with. Whenever there’s an injury, I point to the player as well as his team’s Band-Aid. That lets Toby know who’s hurt and what team he plays for.
TM: Do you and Toby have any special hand signals for communication?
GB: Oh yeah. I’ll just say, hey, for a substitution I’m going to do this (wiggles his thumb and pinky finger). A lot of the time, I’ll say a player’s name in the headset. That way he hears me, but it doesn’t go over the air.
Sideline analyst Teddy Lehman
TM: You’re one of two sideline analysts (Chris Plank being the other) and you’re usually standing away from each other on the field. Most broadcasts don’t have that. How are you guys able to coincide without stepping on each other?
TL: Toby has a certain rhythm with the way he calls the game. He sets up the play, describes it as it happens and then gives you the result and the upcoming down and distance. You wait for that pause and then jump in with a quick comment. A lot of times it can be difficult, because if you have something to say that’s relevant to that play, sometimes, the offense is going up-tempo and they’re right back up to the ball. You have to get the info out and let Toby get back to calling the next play. It’s just a feel. I kind of know when Plank is going to come in. It’s usually after an injury or in between a series. Usually, during an actual series, that’s when I feel more comfortable coming in with something without stepping over Plank. But it does happen. When you have all the live mics we have, we probably have more than any other broadcast, it’s going to happen.
Play-by-play voice Toby Rowland
TM: How long does it take you to make a spotter board every week?
TR: It’s kind of hard to say, because I work on it every day throughout the week. So, like on Monday, I’ll enter all the information and then as the week goes on, you kind of add info to it. The whole process is probably a few hours. I just work on it all week, keeping adding stuff to it and by the time Saturday gets here you hope it has everything that you need.
TM: Why two sideline analysts? You’re one of the few ones to do it, so why two?
TR: Plank is great at getting all the information like a sideline analyst should be. Injuries, interviews, and all the things you’d expect. So with Teddy, we basically have an extra analyst, except he’s on the field instead of the booth. A lot of times, he gets stuff that we wouldn’t get if he was in the booth, because he’s down there. We tried it a few years ago, just threw it against the wall to see if it would work, and after the first game, everybody looked at each other and said ‘holy cow that was pretty awesome.’ What you’re starting to see now is some other places around the country try it, which is flattering. What Teddy gives us down there is gold. We have an analyst that can see from the booth and another that can see from the sideline. Between those two, we pretty much have it covered. The only tricky part is figuring out when to talk and not step on each other. I think we’ve done it long enough now that everybody had figured out the cadence. During the commercial break, we’ll often work it out to where we’ll tee each other up. It’s a nice chemistry.
TM: Something came up today that sparked this question. There was a number switch to a particular guy that wore a different number last season. Is that tough when you go a whole season identifying a guy as a certain number and then he switches the next year?
TR: They should really call us and ask our approval before they do things like that (laughs). It would really be hard if the player that wore that number last year was still on the team. Thankfully, you have a Spring Game to work it out. A lot of that stuff is why you go to a practice or two before the season starts. Like, next year, we’ll catch a practice or two before the season starts and the only intention is to see body shapes and numbers. You can act like you’re calling a play and mumble to yourself on the sideline, so you get used to that player with his new number. From the radio booth, you can’t always see the number right away. Like if it’s a wide receiver and he’s turned weird. But I can tell if it’s a single digit jersey number. If that’s the case, you’re identifying the player based on body size and movement.
TR: Naturally, you get more excited if your team is making the big play. Everybody does it different. Some people are super depressed on the air. I think the natural thing for me, is wow that was a giant play to win the game. They need a call that fits winning the Rose Bowl. Even though it wasn’t us that was the decisive play of this event. So it should have a pretty big call to it. But look, if we had made that play to win the Rose Bowl, I would have pulled a hamstring. It didn’t match the level of call to what I would have sounded like if OU had won. That’s just a preference. Every guy does it differently.
TM: What kind of hand signals do you and your spotter use during a game?
TR: There’s a lot of non-verbal communication between us. He can talk in my ear, without it going over the broadcast. But we try to limit that as much as possible, just to make the distractions less. If I don’t immediately recognize a receiver, he may say in my ear “Brown.” Just one word. But most of the time we prefer to communicate non-verbally. He has a hand signal for who the lead blocker was, who applied the pressure, there’s a number of different signals that we have to be on the same page with. That’s just been developed over time over 7 years.
TM: The process to setting up a process can be long. Even for you, is it stressful on a game day until you know everything is up and working correctly?
TR: I don’t think I stress at all about any equipment or the setup process. My plate is full enough that I don’t have the time. I’m stressed enough that my spotter boards are ready and I’m about to call a game. I 100 percent trust Michael Dean and need to. I assume every time we show up at the stadium that everything is going to be ready to go. There’s a bunch to do. We have a bunch of people on the air, so there’s a lot that goes into it, but I’m not stressed about it at all.
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.
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.