Arky Shea is one of my favorite people in sports radio. He’s a guy that always strives to put entertainment above information. That doesn’t mean he has bad information. It’s just less important to him to be the guy breaking news than it is to be the one with the best joke about it.
When he was partnered with Cole Cubelic on WUMP’s morning show, they had two of my favorite regular bits. One, Arky Reads Rap, had Shea giving his spoken word interpretations of some of Cubelic’s favorite rhymes. The other, True Southern Gentlemen, saw the two put on very fancy, southern affectations to discuss the issues of the day. In one episode Cubelic referred to fans rushing the field after Auburn beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl by saying “there they go jumping around like a bunch of new money again.” It is a line that still makes me laugh whenever I think of it.
It shouldn’t be a surprise really that the guy has a track record of funny, memorable bits. Arky has one of the most entertaining Twitter feeds you could come across. Plus, he spent time as a stand-up comedian.
Last month I had to go to Alabama to pick up my kids, who had just spent the last week with my mother, who lives in Birmingham. I decided to drive the hour and twenty minutes north to Huntsville to sit down with Arky.
His studios at WUMP are mostly empty. The station will soon launch a new morning show with Arky and former NFL defensive bark Jerraud Powers. For now though, the station syndicates morning and midday shows from its sister station, Jox 94.5 in Birmingham, and its afternoon host Thom Abraham actually lives in Tennessee and does his show over a Comrex. Arky, who is the station’s PD, will serve as Thom’s producer until next week when the new morning show launches.
The WUMP studios look like a very fancy fallout shelter. There’s red soundproof foam on the walls, but those walls are made out of cinderblocks. My initial idea was to do this interview while modeling western wear for each other, but time got in the way, so we are here.
Thom is ranting about how baseball players wear their socks when I walk in. Arky isn’t having it and calling Thom old and crotchety. They seem to like each other, but my first thought is that maybe it’s a relationship that is strengthened by knowing they won’t be working together much longer.
After a little basketball talk (Arky is a Knicks fan. I love the Celtics.) we dive into a conversation that touched on Arky’s hatred of other cities, the Three Stooges, minor league baseball, and why Arky never wants to leave Huntsville.
Did you always want to be in sports radio or was it just media of some sort?
It was always sports radio. When I first went into college, I wanted to be a high school English teacher, but then I got into college and the reading list was impressively bad.
Bad, like you couldn’t believe what they were making you read?
Oh no. I mean like too many books.
So I thought “well, then what do I want to do most?”. First it was writing and then sports. I still do a little writing if I’m asked, but mainly I realized I wanted to talk about sports. I was doing this college show, where we were being filmed by the mass communications department, and I was the guy that was at all the games anyway, so I was being asked my professional opinion, at 20 years old, about these games.
The University of Montevallo. The show was called Falcon Fever, and we had it! I would just give my opinions on the baseball and basketball team. One day I got a call from the sports information director at the time, Alfred Kojima. He said “I want you to audition to be the play-by-play guy for the baseball team.” I thought that was great, so I came out that next Sunday. It was February. It was very cold.
The guy who was doing it at the time, would let me call an inning or two. It was great! I thought this could be really fun. He says “Why don’t you just come back tomorrow and we can do it all again.” So I came out the next day and the other guy was not there. I got the job not knowing I would be doing the whole series and then the whole season and then for a few years after that.
I kinda walked into this backwards. Even though I kinda knew where I was going, I didn’t really have the path or the destination figured out. I just knew that if I stayed in the woods of sports and talking, eventually I’d find the campfire I wanted to sit down at.
So we talked a little bit about your passion for the market. I know you’re from this area originally, did you always feel that way, or was it a matter of finding the right situation for you to feel like you could be here for a long time?
I definitely didn’t always feel that way. I always thought I wanted to be regional. My ultimate, big goal was to be sort of be a regional sports radio guy, so to do something in Birmingham, Charlotte, or Nashville would probably have been the most ideal.
I came back home to Huntsville after college and really thought I was outgrowing it after high school. I thought I was over it, but I was really just outgrowing some of the more country parts of the market. That’s just not the kind of personality I am. I started to really fall in love with the city itself. Then I met my wife. My wife has family here.
I had done a little bit of traveling with radio before. I thought Huntsville is a big enough market for me where I can make enough money, I can accomplish what I want, and I can reach a big enough fanbase. I can be happy here. Plus there are enough play-by-play gigs around for me.
The market I think is like 106 or something right now, but it won’t be that in ten years. By the time I retire, there’s a real chance it could be a top 50 market. I don’t know if it will ever get there, but I don’t want to be…Like SEC Media Days were in Atlanta and I fucking hated it. I never want to go to Atlanta if I don’t have to.
My wife and I went to DC. I hated DC. Never want to go back. That one’s mainly a traffic thing, but like look, I come back to Huntsville and people complain about traffic here and I’m like “What? Come on!” Highway 72 and University Drive are nothing compared to the interchange in Atlanta or what people in DC go through every single day.
When did you become PD of the station?
What has that experience been like? Thom Abraham has always been remote and is kind of his own deal. Cole was just starting to really establish his national identity at that point. What sort of credit do you take for those guys on air? How frustrating can the set up like that be? Give me the overall feeling of what you have accomplished in these two and a half years.
I take all the credit for Cole. I also should be getting a percentage of whatever he makes. He’s late this month, by the way.
For Thom especially, I take some credit for Thom being more open to ideas. I think I’ve been able to open his eyes to different…It’s weird, because he’s 58. I’m not.
I’m technically his boss, but in a way I’m not because he really advocated for me to get the PD spot. It can be weird. I try to caress him and push him in certain directions, but I can’t take away from Thom who he is, so I don’t want to take a lot of credit for Thom.
For Cole, I think I brought a lot of good out of Cole. I think I brought out fun, radio Cole, because when he started, I was an intern and it felt like Cole was talking at people. It felt like he was just trying to get through a show.
When we started doing a show together, we had a show. We started having fun, and we figured out the silly parts of sports radio that some people gloss over to get in more numbers and facts. For us, it was morning radio. We wanted to make it fun, so to be able to let his silly side come out and let him be who he is and is capable of being in that space, I take credit for making him comfortable there.
I…you know, I don’t really want to take credit for anything with them. That’s just sort of the way you phrased it. My job is to be a brick wall for you to play handball off of. I want you to be able bounce stuff off me and go back and forth, because if you’re playing handball against the curtain, you’re not getting anything back, and it’s awful to listen to.
I want to be the brick wall that gives you just enough. I want you to bounce something to me and I get it back to you to set you up to bounce it again. That’s my role as the PD and as a co-host.
It sounds like from a show perspective you realize you might be better as a number 2, that that is where your strength is.
Well, it depends on who it is. When I had my own show, I thought I did fine. If I ever get the chance in the future, I would have no problem running a show again.
The guys I was dealing with, Cole and Thom, those are dominant personalities. Those guys were brought here to make it their show. So, I was brought on with Cole because Cole wanted someone he trusted. At first it was the Cole Cubelic Show, but because of who we are and our relationship it became the Cube Show. With Thom, it may be the Thom Abraham Show with Arky Shea, but it’s really just Thom. He is the one getting the talent salary in that slot, so I have to be his number two.
It’s not about being comfortable being a number two. It’s about being comfortable in my environment. I’m comfortable with being a number one, but I am comfortable with number 2 too.
Beyond just the fact that your friend isn’t here every morning, was there ever a worry for the station in losing Cole? I know technically he is still on in the midday (Cubelic is part of 3 Man Front, which is syndicated from WUMP’s sister station Jox 94.5 in Birmingham), but you don’t have that kind of presence in mornings now. So when he says “hey, I’ve been offered this thing in Birmingham and I am going to take it,” what were your first thoughts not from the show standpoint, but from a PD standpoint?
Ratings-wise and financially we had built something pretty good. We built something where Jason Barrett recognizes our little show as a top 25 mid-market show. I even got a plaque printed for Cole. Jason doesn’t send them. I went and got one made. I mean, it is a huge honor that in little Huntsville, we could accomplish something like that.
I was proud for Cole because that was his dream, so I can’t be mad. Cole is my guy and he got his dream and I want him to be able to chase it.
From a station standpoint it was sad, because we had built a good following. We just had people start buying t-shirts with our show logo and some sayings on it. We had won two Alabama Broadcasters Association awards for best morning show in the state. We were doing something really special. It was kind of hard to see that the end of that special thing was there.
It was hard from a station standpoint too. I have nothing against anyone in Birmingham. Ryan Haney (Jox 94.5 PD) has been very good to me. I like The Roundtable (Jox 94.5’s morning show, which is also syndicated to WUMP) guys a lot. But it sort of felt like that we were becoming a satellite station and I thought that could really hurt us.
Just so I understand, you are talking about feeling like a satellite station after Cole left and your first two daypaerts are coming from Jox, right?
With that being the case right now, do you ever feel the right or ability, as a PD carrying that programming on his station, if you hear something that you think is detrimental to The Ump, can you pick up the phone and call Ryan Haney?
I have before. Especially trying to figure out technical things that allow a station in Birmingham to play a local spot on our airwaves.
I wouldn’t have a problem going to Ryan if there were an issue, but there has never been an issue. The only issue I have ever had is on the technical side.
Is Alabama and Auburn fandom so overwhelming across the state that you can pretty much count on that programming coming from Birmingham matching what your listeners want to hear?
Not completely. This area is so transient. We have so many people from so many different places.
I was at a big Fourth of July fireworks show. There were a couple thousand people there. Everybody is in their lawn chairs, and so many of them had some kind of team logo on them. I was at this dinner, which was overlooking the field where all these chairs were, so I watched all the people walking in and saw all the people set up their chairs and blankets. You would be surprised by how many of those people coming through had hats or logos on their chairs that were not Alabama and Auburn – that weren’t even Tennessee. They were Iowa and Michigan State and Florida State.
Our listenership, I feel, gets a discredit done to it if the hosts are only catering to Alabama and Auburn. That’s not what those Jox shows are doing all the time. Their hosts have done a better job covering the Braves. We have tons of Braves fans here.
Hockey is big for us here. The minor league team here sells out regularly. People like to hear some talk about hockey, especially too with the Predators being right up the road.
Huntsville is a much different city than Birmingham. The county might be Alabama and Auburn die hards, and there’s plenty of that in the city too. The metro just cares a lot about other things. We have opinions on other sports.
In football season though, does the SEC still blanket everything, or are there enough people here that care about the Titans that make it so their games will be a big part of a Monday morning show too?
Alabama and Auburn are still number one for us, but absolutely the Titans get a lot of coverage. During football season it will be almost all football. Basketball doesn’t really show up until January or late December. It is better now that those two teams with the most fans are better.
It will be Alabama first, Auburn second, and probably Tennessee third. College always comes before pro, but people here love the NFL. We have a lot of Cowboys fans and Steelers fans to go along with the Titans fans. Trying to cater to all of that is difficult, but it is also a challenge that can be met.
A good reflection of how much you want to focus on the market instead of doing all Alabama and Auburn talk all the time is this new double-A team coming to town. I think 70% of what I have seen you post on Twitter over the last few weeks has been about the team’s naming contest. Did they come to you with that, or is that something that, as the PD, you recognized an opportunity for your station to get involved and throw your arms around this?
I was doing a little bit of reporting. I broke the story that we were going to get a new team. The Baybears were moving here (the Baybears are the Dodgers’ double-A affiliate and currently play at the other end of the state in my hometown of Mobile).
Did you have on a fedora with a piece of paper that said “press” sticking out of it while you were breaking the story?
Ol’ Scoops Shea
It was that old Three Stooges joke with the three hats that said “Press,” “Press,” “Pull”.
I started with that story and I just kept following up and following up to put a timeline together. When is the stadium going to be voted on? When will we vote on a tax to put funding together? That eventually got me in contact with the CEO of the ownership group that had just bought the Baybears.
We set up a partnership where they saw value with being associated with us and our cluster. Cumulus Huntsville covers every format you’d want. We struck things up from there.
We broke the news about the top ten teams for the team. That took some work, but it was a situation that turned from me reporting on them to them seeing the value of our reach and saying “let’s see if we can work together on some things.”
I don’t consider myself a reporter. I am a radio entertainer. I am prideful of the area. I want the baseball team to succeed. I am not going to hold my tongue if they make bad decisions, but I’m not out to submarine the team.
Very selfishly, I want baseball back in North Alabama. It’s coming. I think it makes our area look better and is more family friendly.
And the name you want to win the contest is?
The Madison Moon Possums. It’s alliteration. The stadium will be in Madison, but I picked Moon Possums first.
When you are sampling other shows, what is it you think sports radio is getting wrong about guys in their 20s and 30s?
Fun. So much of it is missing any sense of fun. I think we lecture too much. I think it is good to go on rants. Passion is always good, but there are still too many hosts that want to lecture you about their opinion.
Look, it’s fine for Joe Simpson to go on TV and complain about the Dodgers taking batting practice in shorts and a t-shirt, but don’t come on and talk about it the next day if all you are going to do is tell me why you agree or disagree. It’s the laziest kind of radio to do – someone gives an opinion and then asks the listeners if they agree or disagree. I hate that.
Do something with it. Ask listeners to give you ideas of what you want to see them wear. I don’t care. I hate to hear hosts read an article on air and go line by line and telling me if you agree or disagre. I hate lecture radio.
One of my favorite shows is Toucher and Rich in Boston. They’re what radio is supposed to be. We’re passionate about our team. We’re going to scream about Gronk retiring and joining the WWE. We’ll also do funny bits about Guy Fieri, and then we’ll all go home and live our lives.
What else do you listen to?
Really other than those guys it’s mostly just podcasts.
Do you see their influence on radio? Like do you look at podcasts and take away something that other program directors should be paying attention to?
Hmm…I don’t think there is a lot radio can learn from podcasting right now, because until podcasting gets past the point where so many of those shows are long discussions, we are just so different. I really don’t know the answer there.
Maybe it is not a content lesson other than you’ve gotta always be thinking about how to innovate.
Yeah. You’ve gotta innovate, but podcasts have to deal with that. Sometimes you get a guy you like but he is just talking forever. There’s nothing radio can really do with that.
But radio has to embrace podcasting. You have to put up everything. It is almost ridiculous not to at this point. I have fought with people about this before because their mentality is “Well, sponsors pay for the show. Why put it somewhere that sponsors aren’t paying for it.”
Look, that’s not a crazy mentality to have, but I have…what? Maybe 2 listeners that will stay with all four hours of a show? Maybe one that listens to the station the entire day?
People work. They want to go back and find what they missed. People want interviews. They want to hear your best bits.
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.
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.
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.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”
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.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.
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.”
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+.
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.