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Jeff Carpenter Takes Us Into the Last Chance U Booth

Tyler McComas

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Have you watched Season 3 of Last Chance U yet? If not, go ahead and plan a binge night of watching every episode on Netflix, you won’t be disappointed.

In the newly released series, cameras follow around the Independence Community College football program in southeast Kansas during the 2017 season, showcasing just what junior college is all about on the gridiron. 

If head coach Jason Brown’s eccentric behavior doesn’t draw you in, then guys like linebacker Bobby Bruce and his rough childhood in Florida certainly will. If even that doesn’t do it for you, then the compassion and care that English professor LaTonya Pinkard shows her students, will undoubtedly will. Truly, Last Chance U has outdone itself with the latest season. 

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However, there is an element of sports radio that makes its way into the new season, via play-by-play voice Jeff Carpenter. A long-time resident of southeast Kansas, Carpenter plays a large role in the series and makes several on camera appearances. Throughout each game, his play-by-play calls set the scene for the highest and lowest moments of the season for the Pirates. If you’ve seen the series, you more than likely came away impressed with Carpenter’s high energy style that came across as smooth and informative. But as skilled as he may be now, his career calling football games all started by a dare from his friends. 

In the year 2003, Carpenter had no play-by-play experience, but that didn’t stop his friends from thinking he was capable at the craft. One night, while sitting around with his buddies and listening to an Independence High School football game on the radio, Carpenter’s friends made it clear they didn’t like what was coming through the speakers. In fact, they were positive their friend could do a much better job and urged him to give to a try. Carpenter chalked it up as an off night for that particular play-by-play guy, but still took his friends’ advice and made his way to the local radio station to try his luck.

After meeting with general manager Patty McCormick, he was honest about his lack of any experience in the business. Though most people would probably be turned away at that instant, McCormick instead told Carpenter to record his call of that night’s basketball game between the Kansas Jayhawks and Missouri Tigers. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Soon after, Carpenter was in the booth and calling games for the first time in his career. Though it meant doing play-by-play for local high school football games, he didn’t care. Even though it was more of something he stumbled into it, rather than something he sought out, the experience and enjoyment alone was worth every second. 

After proving his worth calling both football and basketball games for Independence High School, Carpenter was asked to be the voice of the Independence Pirates, a title he’s kept for the last 14 years. Through his years with the ICC football program, Carpenter can honestly say he’s seen both sides of the equation. During the lowest of times with the program, he was a witness to a 21-game losing streak with the Pirates. At the same time, he was also calling high school football games, where his team had a 38-game losing streak. So, not to ruin the entire season of the latest Last Chance U, but you’ll now have a better idea why Carpenter was so happy in several scenes after finally being able to call games for a winning football team. 

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Though a bit of fame and recognition has now come his way after the recent season of Last Chance U, it’s never been the reason why Carpenter wanted to call games. Like most JUCO play-by-play guys, it’s just a hobby on the side that will probably never pay all the bills. Along with working at a hospital, Carpenter’s source of income comes from being a personal fitness trainer at a gym he runs in southeast Kansas. 

You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the ICC Pirates than Carpenter. That’s evident many times throughout the series. What essentially started as a dare, Carpenter’s name and voice is now recognizable by millions after the Netflix documentary. But that new fame isn’t going to his head. No, instead, it’s all about the upcoming 2018 season and the new ventures that ICC football radio will explore. 

TM: Until I watched season 3 of Last Chance U, I didn’t realize how much ICC football meant to the town of Independence. As the play-by-play guy of the team, do you feel like you need to be a big part of the small community? 

JC: A lot of people come up to me and they’re like, well you’re the backbone of what’s Independence in this season of Last Chance U. If they feel that way, that’s great, I mean I don’t really feel I need to be so pro-biased for the Pirates or that I have to be the ‘rah rah guy.’ I don’t look at it like that.

What I do on the radio when I call play-by-play is high energy and high emotion. Anybody will see it that’s watched the show, but that’s just how I call the game. Of course you’re going to be leaning towards the team you’re representing, but at the same time, in terms of the town of Independence, I mean, born and raised here, I know a lot of the history and naturally it’s going to be something that’s held close to my heart.

TM: Other that the actual game itself, what are your other duties with the team during the week?

JC: We have a one-hour show on Thursday nights at a sports bar in downtown Independence called Turbo’s. Coach Jason Brown and some of his assistants will come in, we’ll have a one-on-one interview with each of them. We’re operating primarily off three headsets. Netflix and Last Chance U are there and filming it. Basically, the show is me re-capping what went on from the game before, bringing the fans up to speed on how the coach felt everything went and then what’s coming up for the next game on Saturday. It also gives the staff an opportunity to bring in players that were a big part of the previous game so people can find out more about them as well.

TM: Coach Brown’s antics certainly drew a lot of response from the series. Is it difficult working with someone that’s as tough as he is? 

JC: It’s really not. I’m actually pretty good friends with Coach Brown. What we have is a working relationship on the mic and that’s just an added bonus to us. It’s a real natural conversation that we have. It’s not forced, there’s nothing that’s jaded or a tough thing for either one of us to be able to hold a conversation.

What he does on the field, to some people, maybe it’s something they have a hard time understanding and accepting. Let’s face it, in the Midwest as we are, the plains states, we’re still in the Bible Belt. It’s kind of tough for people to really resonate with that sometimes.

To be real honest with you, it’s a results oriented business and that’s what all coaching is. In the Jayhawk Conference, which is arguably the toughest in the nation, it’s an extremely cutthroat business. You have to recruit the best players, you have to bring the best players in any way you can and need to. A lot of these players are coming in from really tough family backgrounds. Coach Brown’s language may be tough and gruff to some people, but the reality is that for some of these kids, that’s all they know and that’s how they respond. I think the folks that come into it open minded and not with their arms crossed and mind already made up, they’re probably going to understand it a little better. Some people you’re just not going to win over.

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TM: How do you handle it if he slips up and cusses on air? It seems like that happened a couple of times in the series?

JC: (Laughs) I try to beep it with my voice but sometimes I’m not quick enough. We really only had a couple of incidents where that’s happened. Quite honestly, it happened both times on the Thursday night show at Turbo’s.  It was a minor slip up but I quickly gave him the look with my eyes along with a head nod. He kind of rolled his eyes, it was that kind of thing.

He’s just such a compassionate guy and really passionate when it comes to football, his eyes just glare with fire. I think sometimes even when he’s just talking about, he ends up going over the edge and doesn’t realize it.

I think most coaches that are real passionate and fiery guys, it’s just going to come out sometimes. He certainly doesn’t do it on purpose or to put me in a bad spot, but I think it’s a situation that presents itself in the conversation sometimes.

TM: How much do you think the exposure of Last Chance U is going to positively affect the radio broadcast this year?

JC: I think it’s going to be pretty big. Already, we’re receiving a lot of online sales in merchandise and even a huge number of people all around the globe that want to buy tickets for this year’s home games. It’s going to be big, I think all the way around, including the ICC Coaches Show at Turbo’s.

I foresee us having a greater number of people, not only coming to the games, but listening to it as well. This year, thankfully, one of our local radio stations is going to provide the coverage here in Independence. They’re going to make sure the games are streamed live with audio and video, so it’s going to be a big upgrade for us. I do think that will help the popularity and it’s certainly going to help the exposure.

As you know, we’re a nationwide recruiting conference now. These kids live all over the country and we have to have that exposure online. That’s going to be provided this year and we’re excited about that.

TM: This gig isn’t your full-time job but you’re still around the program a ton. Do you get attached to certain players like so many of us watching did with guys like Bobby Bruce during the series? 

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JC: Oh yeah, I certainly do. I mean, there’s no way, as a human being, you’re going to get attached to these guys. Let’s face it, they’re young men anywhere from 18-21 years old that are a ways away from home. Some of them even for the first time and trying to find their way.

You live their life with them while they’re here in Independence. It’s a tough transition and sometimes even a culture shock. You see the trials and tribulations that these guys go through on a daily basis and you can’t help but have compassion for them. Obviously, I watched the series on Netflix and there’s certain episodes that are favorites of mine. There’s also certain guys that are favorites of mine. I definitely resonated with several of them and there’s some that we’ll be friends for the rest of our lives.

TM: You’re doing play-by-play for a 2-year school, which means a ton of new faces are coming into the program every year. How are you getting to know each guy, understanding their background story and everything else before the first game?

JC: That’s the difficult thing about anyone that does play-by-play. Especially when you’re talking about the junior college level. You have these guys, most of them for one year. They’re here roughly from 8 months to 18 months, depending on what their status is academically. It’s really difficult to try to figure out where they went to high school, what they accomplished and what they bring to the table. Pronunciations of names can even be difficult to figure out. But I think that’s one of the challenges that I really like about it. That’s what separates high school football from the junior college game.

It’s by far and large a big step up and a faster game. In my opinion, we’re in the Jayhawk Conference and that’s the SEC of junior college football. We have guys that are not only going to play D1 football, but they’re going to be playing on Sunday. It is a great challenge, but the best way to answer is that you do the best you can and every week is a learning experience. You learn more and more about each of these players.

TM: With that being said, I’m guessing you have to rely on other play-by-play guys to help out with name pronunciations, stats, info and more since it’s not as readily available at the JUCO level? 

JC: Oh yeah, no doubt. You really hope you can have a good relationship with each of them and be able to talk to them. Even though there’s going to be rivalries to where you’re really pulling for you team, you want to have a working relationship.

One of my really good friends is the play-by-play guy for Dodge City, his name is Damon Post. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s been calling games for Dodge City since I started at Independence. You do rely on the other sportscasters, I think it’s really an unspoken rule that guys help out each other. There’s always going to be those names and pronunciations that you’re going to need help with.

BSM Writers

Why Do NFL Fans Want More Greg Olsen and Less Tony Romo?

Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down film of offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast.

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Five years ago, Tony Romo retired as an active NFL player, jumped into the CBS broadcast booth, and immediately became the darling of fans and media for the excitement he brought to his telecasts. Romo’s enthusiasm for the game and understanding of modern offense allowed him to predict plays successfully, making him an instant sensation.

Greg Olsen will finish his second season as a full-time broadcaster on Feb. 12 from the NFL’s biggest stage, calling Super Bowl LVI for Fox with play-by-play partner Kevin Burkhardt. Olsen hasn’t drawn the must-see buzz that Romo did early in his TV career. No fan likely tuned into Fox’s top NFL telecast, “America’s Game of the Week,” to listen to Olsen’s analysis. His work doesn’t draw nearly the same amount of acclaim.

But the shine has worn off Romo with viewers during the past couple of NFL seasons. Watching a game with Romo in the booth previously felt like sitting alongside a fellow fan, jubilant at fantastic plays or clever strategy, and disappointed at performances that fell short. His energy also elevated Jim Nantz as a play-by-play announcer, bringing him back to life after 13 seasons alongside Phil Simms.

Now, however, Romo’s outbursts — noises in place of words, or outright yelling — seem like a crutch when coherent thoughts can’t be articulated. Where there was once fascinating insight from the analyst position, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback often resorts to clichés and platitudes that don’t add to a fan’s understanding of what’s happening on the field.

Worst of all, Romo sometimes talks merely to talk, filling a quiet space when a broadcast needs to breathe or the images are saying enough on their own. That’s especially awkward when paired with a veteran like Nantz, who’s a master at letting the moment speak for itself rather than trying to punctuate it with unnecessary narration.

On Fox’s telecast of the 49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game, Olsen explained how play-calling changes when an offense intends to go for it on fourth down. He showed an awareness of the strategies that each coach employed to gain an advantage or neutralize what the opponent was doing well.

Early on, he highlighted San Francisco defensive end Joey Bosa holding back on his natural impulse to pursue the quarterback at all costs. Instead, he maintained a position that prevented Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts from running to gain yardage when pass plays weren’t available.

With analysis like this, Olsen creates the perception that he studies each team, breaking down the film of their respective offenses and defenses, in preparation for the telecast. He doesn’t appear to be surprised by what he sees because that prep work — watching film, talking to coaches and players — informs him of the eventualities and possibilities that could arise during a game.

The hardcore football fan, those who repeatedly watch highlights and replays, loves that kind of analysis. Such attention to detail feels gratifying because it demonstrates that the person calling the broadcast is as serious about this stuff as the viewer who’s waited all week for the big game.

Yet a more casual fan is also drawn in because of Olsen’s amiable personality and ability to explain things simply and clearly. It’s similar to what viewers enjoy about ESPN’s “ManningCast” for Monday Night Football. Yes, there are jokes and funny moments. But Peyton and Eli Manning both explain strategy and preparation very well.

By comparison, Romo comes off like a broadcaster who’s winging it, letting his personality and enthusiasm fill gaps created by a lack of preparation. That might be a completely unfair criticism. We don’t know what kind of work Romo puts in leading up to a telecast. Maybe he watches as much film as Olsen. Perhaps he talks to everyone available to the broadcast crew in production meetings.

If so, however, that doesn’t show itself on the CBS telecast. Romo’s work on Sunday’s Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game telecast was an improvement over his call of the Bengals-Bills divisional playoff clash. During the previous week, Romo acted as if he didn’t have to provide any insight because this was the match-up fans had anticipated all season and already knew everything about the two teams.

Perhaps in response to that criticism, Romo made a point of highlighting the importance of each team’s defensive coordinator — Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo and Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo, respectively — in disrupting the performance of quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow. But rather than demonstrate an actual strategy during a replay, he stated that each defense would come after the opposing QB and create pressure.

Ultimately, the difference between Romo and Olsen seems to be schtick versus knowledge. But it’s also a product of how each analyst reached their position. Romo joined CBS’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team without previously calling any games. (As BSM’s Garrett Searight points out, that immediacy and recent connection to the game fueled what felt like fresh analysis.)

Meanwhile, Olsen called games during bye weeks while he was still an active player and was on Fox’s No. 2 crew with Burkhardt before being elevated to top status following the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ESPN. He’s had to get better out of necessity. Even now, as Olsen establishes himself as his network’s top analyst, he faces the possibility of being bumped from that position when Tom Brady retires and cashes in on the massive contract Fox offered him.

Compare that to Romo, who’s the highest-paid NFL analyst on television. His $18 million annual salary set the bar other top broadcasters are trying to reach. And he has seven years remaining on the 10-year contract he signed with CBS. That is significant job security. Even if network executives (or Nantz) lean on Romo to improve his flaws, how much motivation is there when he’s already been anointed a broadcasting king?

However, NFL fans and sports media are making it clear what they prefer from their football broadcasters. They want insight and substance. They want to learn something from the commentary, rather than just be told what they can see for themselves.

Olsen is providing that and is being rightly lauded as a broadcaster living up to his status. Romo is suffering a fall from acclaim and has become a weekly punching bag. If he and CBS want to change that, he’ll have to bring more to the booth each week. In the meantime, Fox should consider appreciating what it already has, rather than welcome a glitzy name.

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BSM Writers

Chris Fowler Knows You Know He Isn’t In Australia

“I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know.”

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I can tell you my exact whereabouts when 2015 became 2016 in the Central Time Zone. I was in a media shuttle outside of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas awaiting my transport to the Omni Hotel in Dallas. It was kind of a sad scene, not just because Alabama had picked Michigan State’s bones 36-0. Nope, it was sad when the clock struck midnight and a tired, cracking voice from the back of the bus said, “Happy New Year” with all the excitement of a man facing execution. 

I, too, was tired. I had just spent a week doing shows in Dallas and was headed back to Birmingham for a pit stop before flying to Phoenix for what would be an epic Alabama v. Clemson National Championship Game. I am not complaining, mind you, but the thought of the end of the football season being near was very comforting. It’s a bittersweet thought, I love college football, but I also love being home with my family.

ESPN’s Chris Fowler was at Jerry World that night, as well. He had been on my show earlier in the week and we had joked with him about how good he had it; two College Football Playoff games then a flight halfway around the world for the Australian Open. I had bumped into him leaving the stadium that night and we laughed, again, at his good fortune.

As I sat on the bus for the saddest of New Year’s celebrations, I reflected on the conversation with Fowler and thought about how overwhelming that travel seemed. I could never have imagined then that type of travel assignment would one day become a luxury rather than a necessity. 

There are numerous things COVID ended. Many of them were more important than announcing crews actually at the events, but that was one casualty. It has even continued to impact the top level crews like Fowler and John McEnroe who did their 2023 Australian Open work a world away in Bristol, Connecticut.

The fact that the majority of ESPN talent was actually stateside had already been painfully obvious to anyone watching. The studio show had made no effort to hide that fact but the actual match announcers were part of a little more of an attempt to appear they were Down Under. It was abundantly clear, though, that the match announcers were simply standing in front of images of the Melbourne stadiums superimposed behind them.

It was Chris Fowler who finally revealed the man behind the curtain when he removed the mystery and made it clear they were not in Australia. After Darren Cahill, who was actually on site, relayed the weather conditions to Fowler and McEnroe, Fowler commented that the Bristol weather was in the 30’s. 

I applaud Fowler for not playing the game and allowing even a hint of the illusion he was in Australia. I think the viewer deserves to know. I also think most viewers have seen enough of the low-energy, disjointed remote announcing that they can spot it without being informed. Thankfully, Fowler and McEnroe are pros enough (and in the same room) that they can still do their job well from 10,000 miles away.

I just can’t believe we are still playing this game in 2023. I think history will show that, in many cases, remote broadcasts were unnecessary in 2020 but that was a complete unknown at the time. One has to assume the desire to save on travel expenses is a large motivation in 2023. I can only imagine how much is saved by ESPN in airfare and lodging by keeping announcers in Bristol rather than sending them to Melbourne. Tennis is also one of the sports in which the difference isn’t as noticeable.

The feedback I get from the fans in other sports, where remote announcers are far more noticeable, is that the network clearly doesn’t value my team or me as a fan. While that may not be true, if that perception is held by a large enough group of fans, it becomes true. What the networks know is this: we are addicted to our teams. They can have bad announcers from their living rooms but what am I going to do about it? I get a limited number of times to watch my team each season. I’m not missing that chance because a network wants to squeeze dimes.

As most people have learned more about COVID, most unnecessary precautions have faded away. Remote announcers have been tougher to extinguish and may never go away entirely.

In the meantime, I’m rested now and I’ll take that trip to Australia anytime someone is ready to send me.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Ready To Go Back To The NHL All-Star Game

“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about.”

Derek Futterman

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The NHL is approaching a break leading up to the festivities at the All-Star Weekend taking place from FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida: the home of the Florida Panthers. Saturday’s 2023 NHL All-Star Game will be broadcast on ABC and simulcast on ESPN+ for the second consecutive year under the seven-year media rights deal which brought live game broadcasts back to The Walt Disney Company’s platforms for the first time since 2005.

On hand to call the action and provide fans with exclusive access will be the NHL on ESPN lineup of experienced commentators, versatile journalists, and knowledgeable analysts, including the studio team of Steve Levy, Mark Messier, Chris Chelios, and P.K. Subban. The group is looking forward to making the trip to South Florida to catch up with former teammates and colleagues, as well as finding reprieve from the colder temperatures outside their regular Bristol studios.

“You just look at the graphics of the commercials out there with the surfboards and the beach and the warm weather and [see that] hockey can thrive anywhere,” Messier expressed. “…It’s a great time to pause and break and celebrate what’s happened in the first 40 games of the season until everybody starts to buckle down for the stretch drive.”

Messier signed on with the NHL on ESPN team before the 2021-2022 season as a studio analyst, utilizing his vast experience and championship pedigree to intuitively decipher the game of hockey and provide cogent reasoning about the action. He is a six-time Stanley Cup champion – five with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the New York Rangers – and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Furthermore, Messier is third all-time in points and ninth in goals, and he was the captain of both of his championship teams – making him the only player in league history to garner that accolade. His presence on its hockey coverage gives ESPN added ethos and someone who remains a student of the game, closely following the league to craft informed opinions.

“Seeing the amount of talent in the game now and the emergence of these players is just incredible,” Messier said. “Of course, it’s what it’s all about – just trying to get yourself. Once you’ve established yourself as an NHL player, the next step is to figure out how to win.”

Chris Chelios joined Messier on the studio panel from the launch of the NHL on ESPN last season and is also a Hockey Hall of Fame member who played professionally for 26 years, retiring at the age of 48. He recognizes the changes in the game of hockey, especially since his 1983-84 rookie campaign, and tries to accentuate them while promulgating classic aspects of the sport demonstrated through its young talent.

“Just when you think you’ve seen everything, they come up with something else; some new move,” Chelios said. “….There have been some unbelievable highlights and every night, especially working with ESPN, [we have been] able to see all that. We’re in an entertainment business and these guys aren’t letting anybody down. It’s great; it’s a great product.”

Steve Levy has worked with ESPN since 1993 where he has broadcast countless different sports and hosted various types of studio programming. Whether it is calling football games, sitting behind the desk on SportsCenter, or making movie cameos, he is an anomaly within the industry in that he has had a long and storied career primarily with one company. Through his versatility, he can continue seamlessly assimilating into a wide foray of roles and, in the process, enhance the broadcast skills of his colleagues.

Last season, Levy, Messier, and Chelios broadcast coverage of NHL All-Star Weekend from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The trio was situated in a suite at “The Fortress”. It contrasts the regular-season mindset of gathering two points per night; contrarily, this weekend is, in essence, a celebration of the game and its people.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase besides their skills, I think their personalities,” Levy said. “I really look forward to that.”

Levy has worked with Messier and Chelios for the last year on ESPN’s studio coverage and is now joined by P.K. Subban, who played in the NHL as recently as this past April as a member of the New Jersey Devils. A three-time All-Star selection and 2014 Olympic gold medalist, Subban inked a multi-year contract with ESPN this past November to regularly serve as a studio analyst and also work as a live game broadcast analyst for select regular season matchups.

Implementing a player who is closely removed from playing professional hockey brings fresh perspectives to the show, offering different perspectives, and appealing to a wider segment of viewers.

“We were sitting next to him on the set the other night and he’s talking about Jack Hughes and it’s like, ‘Who’s going to have a more educated opinion than a guy who was lockering next to him the last three seasons?,’” Levy said of Subban. “It’s easy to forget he was in the league in April; he’s fresh out of it.”

Subban grew up watching Messier and Chelios in the NHL and now works alongside them, holding them in high regard. Aside from their play on the ice, Subban remembers Messier in Lay’s commercials in the late-1990s and early-2000s advertising its products. Although he brings more contemporary perspectives by being removed from the league for less than a year, Subban embraces the traditional style of the game and delivers analysis based on multiple eras.

“I think keeping it fresh is also being able to educate some of these young players and the audience about guys like Mess and Chelios,” Subban said. “I think that’s also very important because we have a luxury [in] having these two on the broadcast…. It’s just really cool for me this year. I’m super excited to do this for the first time; to sit next to these guys.”

All three NHL on ESPN studio analysts participated in at least one aspect of the skills competition during their playing careers, with Messier winning the shooting accuracy challenge in both 1991 and 1996 and Subban winning the breakaway challenge in 2016. Watching the players compete from a new vantage point and evincing their ethereal abilities on the ice underscores what the weekend is genuinely about.

According to Levy, the 2023 All-Star Skills would be the event he would attend if he had to choose between it and the game. This sentiment has permeated itself in the linear television ratings, as the 2022 All-Star Game was the least-watched (1.15 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2009, while the corresponding skills competition was the most-watched (1.09 million viewers; 0.6 share) since 2012.

It is important to note, however, that last year’s all-star game aired just before the first night of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, broadcast in the United States by NBC, USA, and CNBC. Despite last year’s Olympic Games drawing the lowest U.S. ratings in the history of the international sporting event and cultural phenomenon, the first night still drew 13.2 million total viewers across the three networks, accounting for a 6.8 share.

The format of the NHL All-Star Game was changed starting in 2016 to contain four teams (one per division) playing three-on-three games split into 10-minute halves in a single-elimination tournament. The winning of the tournament’s championship game splits a prize pool of $1 million, ostensibly incentivizing more realistic play as the allure of the windfall profit is aggrandized.

Nonetheless, the weekend is all about appealing to the fans and demonstrating the star power of the league through the depiction of vivid imagery, as well as chronicling stories to engross viewers in the product.

“You highlight fun and entertainment through the skills, and the three-on-three was a great concept because it’s exciting to the fans,” Messier said. “….I think the NHL, the NHLPA and ESPN and everybody involved has worked diligently to make this weekend really fun and to highlight the great talent we have on the ice and the great people we have off the ice.”

“What ESPN does [better] than anyone else is tell stories, and there will be hundreds of small stories told over those few days, and I think that’s what it’s all about,” Subban added. “For these players, a lot of times, they’re buttoned into the game and focused on the ice. This is an opportunity for [the] fans to get to know the players in a fun way; get to know them through their skill set and what they’re able to do on the ice.”

The All-Star Skills will feature the return of events including the Breakaway Challenge, Fastest Skater, Accuracy Shooting, and Hardest Shot. In addition to these classics, there will be the debut of the Tendy Tandem where goalies will face off in a shootout, along with two new geo-focused events – the Splash Shot (pre-taped from Fort Lauderdale Beach Park); and the Pitch ‘n Puck (from a par-4 golf hole).

“I know each market tries to do something specific to the local area,” Levy said. “I do know ESPN has worked really hard with the NHL to try to enhance the best events and make them even better… and better for television.”

The league continues to adapt and find new ways to engage fans with the launch of the 2023 NHL Fan Skills at Home, a social media-based competition urging fans to submit videos performing their hockey abilities focused in different areas. Various hockey content creators, including Pavel Barber and Kane Van Gate, will make the trip to Sunrise, Fla. to promote the contest and implore fans to participate.

Additionally, the NHL will host the All-Star Beach Festival at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, a free fan fest-style event featuring appearances from NHL all-stars and alumni, a photo opportunity with the Stanley Cup, and interactive games for the whole family.

Surrounding it all on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+ will be a concentrated effort to emphasize the dispositions of regular all-star selections  – such as Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid; Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin; and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar – while contextualizing what is going on through experience and astute foresight.

At the same time, the broadcast will aim to espouse awareness towards younger stars, many of whom are first-time selections such as 20-year-old Seattle Kraken forward Matty Beniers; 24-year-old New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox; and 25-year-old Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Logan Thompson.

“Our job is to really highlight these players and make it a fun telecast,” Messier said, “and really talk about the players as people and what great, incredible talent they possess.”

“You have to be able to tell stories about the players,” Subban said. “They’re the product on the ice and there’s no better way to tell stories about players than getting ESPN. They are the best at it, so it should make for a fun couple of days.”

The NHL on ESPN studio team thoroughly enjoyed their time at last year’s All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, as it led them to become accustomed to working together and set them up to put on quality broadcasts through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, the Stanley Cup Finals are set to be broadcast by Turner Sports this year (as part of its seven-year media rights agreement) with its regular studio crew of Liam McHugh, Paul Bissonnette, Anson Carter, and Wayne Gretzky.

Messier and Gretzky, each serving as studio analysts on ESPN and TNT, respectively, starred in an NHL on FOX commercial together back when they were teammates on the New York Rangers in 1996.

This season, the NHL on ESPN studio crew has not worked together regularly because of the network’s obligations to the NFL and NBA. The group will soon be on the air regularly though to break down the top plays, interview stars before they hit the ice and foster a congenial atmosphere for sports fans everywhere.

“I look forward to working with these three guys together,” Levy said. “We haven’t had a lot of run together [because] it’s just the way the schedule works [during] the first half of the season.”

“I’m looking forward to kicking this off,” Chelios added. “It’s like a playoff run [for us] now; this All-Star Game is the start of working and grinding and doing a couple of games a week and getting into a rhythm here.”

The 2023 NHL All-Star Skills will be broadcast on Friday, Feb. 3 on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. EST and is available to stream live on ESPN+. Then on Saturday, Feb. 4, the 2023 NHL All-Star Game, featuring teams representing the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, and Pacific divisions, commences at 3 p.m. EST on ABC and can be streamed live on ESPN+.

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