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Michael Jordan Isn’t The Only One Full of Bull

“Columnist Jay Mariotti says the truth has been twisted by many characters of “The Last Dance” era, including the tag team of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and writer Sam Smith.”

Jay Mariotti

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 Just when it seemed Michael Jordan was finished making history, with his savage conquests of sports and sneakers and even the eerie genre of pandemic TV, we find him caught in swirling crossfire that frames him as a threat to another life legend.

Pinocchio.

Since the final credits rolled on “The Last Dance’’ documentary series, Jordan has been called a liar by Jerry Reinsdorf, a liar and a snitch by Horace Grant and a liar by a Utah pizza maker. And he has been caught contradicting himself by a reporter, Jack McCallum, who released a 2011 taped interview in which Jordan indeed confirmed that he froze nemesis Isiah Thomas from the 1992 Dream Team, which he repeatedly has denied. All of which is fitting in the aftermath of a production — a Jordan vanity project and hagiographical romp — that portrayed him as a triumphant dictator, left many of his servants crumpled in his reinvigorated legacy dust and reminded us how the Chicago Bulls reign was as much about manipulation and infighting as winning.

Yet let’s not assume, simply because some are bitter about how they were portrayed in the Jordan-lorded series, that they’re all telling the truth and he isn’t. A whole lot of people have lied in this decades-old piss pot — then and now — which explains why the dynasty became a travesty that died nasty. What should have been a joyride, wrapped around the miracle of Jordan, too often deteriorated into dysfunction and finger-pointing that leaves me asking, to this day, how the Bulls won six NBA championships. And now Jordan’s detractors, after watching a film that couldn’t have made him look better, want him also to be remembered as a fraud so obsessed with control that he’ll tell fantastic lies to protect his narrative, a lonely man in his leather chair with a cigar and mixed drink.

Be careful before you let them.

Adam Martin (@adamuiowa) | Twitter

Because just as Jordan has his rules, there are The Reinsdorf Rules — and, by extension, The Sam Smith Rules, those of an ethically conflicted sportswriter and not the ballad singer or brewmaster of the same name. Yes, Jordan is all over the map on Isiah and needs to come clean. And I don’t really care whether he fell ill because of pizza poisoning, altitude sickness or a long night of partying; whatever, the man was mortally sick the next night and still scored 38 points in 44 minutes. But having covered the Jordan era as a Chicago columnist, I am compelled today to detail the machinations of a Bulls management dynamic that, quite often, oozed of more deception than a political backroom filled with aldermen.

And Reinsdorf and Smith always were in the smoky room together, as partners in slime.

On any list of essential occupations, sadly, a sports beat writer is no more vital now than a toenail painter or nightclub bouncer. That said, if and when seasons resume, there is a proper, professional way to cover a team. The process generally is defined as reporting for one’s core readers with tunnel vision — disseminating information and insight without selling out to sources as sugar daddies and slanting “news’’ in their favor.

Which is why Smith committed a flagrant foul, worthy of expulsion from whatever bogus media game he’s playing, when he claimed last week that Jordan “made up’’ and “lied about’’ why the era ended after the sixth title. See, Smith works for team chairman Reinsdorf — literally, as a staff writer for the Bulls.com website — after years of tickling Reinsdorf’s scrotum as the Chicago Tribune’s lead basketball writer. And his attack on Jordan’s integrity came only days (shocking!) after Reinsdorf testily emerged from his reclusive cave, saying he’s miffed at how Jordan characterized him in the final scene of the docu-series: as the owner who chose to dismantle the dynasty instead of prolonging it. “Maddening,’’ as Jordan put it.

Said Reinsdorf to NBC Sports Chicago, his broadcast-rights partner: “I was not pleased. How’s that? He knew better. Michael and I had some private conversations at that time that I won’t go into detail on. But there’s no question in my mind that Michael’s feeling at the time was we could not put together a championship team the next year.’’

Tone at the top - Chicago Bulls Confidential

He was calling Jordan a liar without actually using the L-word, a legal reflex as an attorney by trade. But he wasn’t done. In slippery Reinsdorfian fashion, as I witnessed often during 17 years at the Sun-Times, he relied on a henchman, Smith, to do his dirtiest work for him. Never mind that Jordan, after smirking and raising his eyebrows, reminded director Jason Hehir of the irrefutable timetable: Reinsdorf never interceded in the eight months after general manager Jerry Krause told Phil Jackson that he wouldn’t return as coach even if the Bulls went “82 and oh,’’ the eruption that prompted Jackson to coin the phrase “The Last Dance’’ and Jordan to vow he wouldn’t return without Jackson. Never mind how Reinsdorf used shifty semantics to say he made a last-gasp effort to keep Jordan and Jackson when, in fact, the damage had been done long before amid the owner’s insistence on backing Krause. Typically, Reinsdorf is trying a Hail Mary to sway public opinion that has been almost universally against him since then. Twenty-two years later, only his servant is buying in, making sure to spread the boss’ gospel during a quickie media tour.

“That was a complete and blatant lie by Michael,’’ Smith told 95.7 The Game, a San Francisco sports station. “There were several things in the documentary that I saw, I would know, that he made up or he lied about.’’

Later, Smith appeared on the Dan Patrick Show and elaborated: “He didn’t want to play that next year. He could have, in any number of ways. So he made that up too at the end: that `I wish I could have come back, I wanted to come back.’ He didn’t want to come back. … If he wanted that one (additional) year and the $40 million, he could have gotten it. He just didn’t want to play. … But it was a better story to end it that way. To say, `Hey, one more chance. Going for seven. We could have done that.’ Nah, he didn’t want to do that.’’

This isn’t professional reporting. It’s obedient, yes-sir, blame-deflecting trolling for the boss who employs him at the team website. The least Smith could have done was present Jordan’s side, but as Reinsdorf’s mouthpiece, he made the radio rounds for one purpose: To defend the owner, as he did for decades at the Tribune when Reinsdorf wasn’t signing his paychecks. As I wrote recently about the bleak future of independent sports media, I’m concerned that most aspiring writers will have to work directly as public-relations valets for leagues, teams and programs, or for outlets in bed with Big Sports. When young people see Smith operate in “The Last Dance’’ — as author of “The Jordan Rules,’’ the 1991 book — they might view Smith as a role model.

If so, don’t major in journalism. What Sam Smith does isn’t journalism.

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When I arrived in town after the first title, I was startled by the smarmy landscape of the Bulls beat. Smith was attached to the hips and lips of Jackson and Reinsdorf … and Jordan didn’t trust him, gravitating to other beat writers. Nor was it cool that one of our Sun-Times beat reporters, Lacy J. Banks, regularly played poker with Jordan. Reinsdorf didn’t like Banks, who had a lengthy newspaper career before passing away in 2012, and sometimes called Banks a liar to discredit him (seeing a trend here?). Uncomfortably driving past Sun-Times billboards across Chicagoland that heralded my arrival with my headshot and a menacing slogan — “Sports With An Attitude!’’ — I was compelled to drive an immediate stake into the politicking. And if I’ve told this story before, it’s worth telling here.

I’d heard rumblings about “The Jordan Rules,’’ yet to be released, and how Jordan wasn’t going to like it. So I called Smith’s book publicist and requested an advance copy. Indeed, for the first time in a mass-readership context, Jordan’s dictatorial side would be revealed in the book. Knowing the Tribune had invested thousands of dollars to publish Smith’s excerpts — yes, the Tribune paid for information from its own reporter — I quickly published a column about some of the book’s controversial contents, as provided by Smith’s publicist. This caused a furor; was a championship team going to be disrupted by a book? It also embarrassed the Tribune and landed Smith in hot water with his editors, who couldn’t believe his publicist had helped the rival paper beat the Tribune with its own, paid-for material. The Sun-Times was an underdog tabloid with financial problems. Already dealing with the recent demise of my previous employer, the great National Sports Daily, I had no time for Machiavellian sports-beat b.s. I was in the mood to brawl.

Amid the book ruckus, Bulls training camp started. Visiting the team’s suburban facility for the first time, I heard a voice: “Are you Jay?’’ It was Jackson, not pleased. Now, why would he be rankled? Ohhhhh, he was close with Smith, who often would write soft, lengthy features about him. Around the same time, as covered in “The Last Dance,’’ Krause had circled book excerpts that weren’t flattering to him and summoned Jackson to his office, wondering what was up. Hmmmm.

So when Jordan pinpointed ex-teammate Grant in the docu-series as the principal book leak, prompting Grant to brand Jordan’s claim as an “downright, outright, (complete) lie,’’ it’s curious how Jordan protected Jackson. Because it’s obvious Jackson was involved in the book. And if Smith already had Reinsdorf locked in as a major source, well, draw your own conclusions. I’m sure Grant provided a few stories, as did other team members and franchise personnel. And Smith does have a reporter’s eyes and ears, having been trained on the news side of the print industry.

Sam Smith Bulls – BlackSportsOnline

Unfortunately, to this day, he is ensconced in business bed with Reinsdorf, the ultimate reporting no-no. You scratch my back; I’ll advance your agenda. You pay me a salary; I’ll go on radio shows defending you and calling Jordan a liar. And Smith wasn’t alone in the Jerry-rigging. Any time Reinsdorf’s baseball team, the Chicago White Sox, thought a critic was too harsh, out came hillbilly homer Hawk Harrelson, who would interrupt a broadcast in Anaheim and, oh, rip me for two innings. Don’t make the mistake of confusing Chicago as a hardass hub of sports media. It’s a cartoon show and favor-fest, filled with its share of media fanboys and suck-ups. For every beat writer who did a standup job of covering the title-era Bulls, there was the creepy, accompanying constant of Smith being fed stories by the same suspects year after year.

To the point where here in 2020, after tens of millions watched “The Last Dance,’’ Smith is still performing his deeds and calling out Jordan to appease Reinsdorf.

Smith’s backers will accuse me of sour grapes. Sorry, I was a columnist covering the entire sports world, not just the Bulls, and I didn’t enter the media business to kiss up to owners for information and money. Reinsdorf tried to woo me in my first year, inviting me to his ballpark perch in Sarasota for a come-to-papa talk during Sox spring training. Not long after, in the wake of a column he must not have liked, I was told by his office assistant to not contact him again. I never did. And once you’re on the guy’s bad side, it becomes a real-life version of “The Godfather’’ — his baseball manager called me “a (bleeping) fag,’’ his top baseball executive confronted me in a Chicago rooftop bar while I was entertaining friends, his p.r. director waged an Internet smear campaign. And, oh, there was Hawkeroo again, slamming into the back of my chair in a Minneapolis press-box dining area, prompting me to quietly tell him to knock if off or I’d remove his prominent nose from his face.

Sometimes, Reinsdorf resorted to desperate measures, once with Smith in the middle. I’d criticized the owner for attempting to lowball yet another Bulls coach, Scott Skiles, before they finally agreed to terms on a new deal. The contract numbers provided to the Sun-Times, from Skiles’ agent to our beat reporter, were volunteered to me by phone by an editor who now works at ESPN.com. Meaning, the numbers appeared in my column AND in our news story. Two places.

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Not surprisingly, they were a slight fraction off the Tribune’s numbers for Skiles, as supplied to Smith by Bulls management. Next day, Reinsdorf and his lawyers contacted the Sun-Times. And next thing I knew, the same editor was calling me with bizarre news: The paper was running several retractions because of the “erroneous’’ numbers in my column. Again, I’d been given the numbers by an editor who called me with the info — the very numbers that appeared in our news story. Didn’t matter. The Sun-Times often buckled to whatever Reinsdorf wanted. And, of course, the Tribune ran a blurb about all of my retractions.

Two words: Dirty pool. Is it any wonder both papers have deteriorated to the point both could die any day?

The docu-series succeeded wildly in bringing back the Jordan years in their high-voltage entirety, including the discord that constantly seeped into the dominance and dampened the fun. But I tell these stories not to do my own “snitching’’ — amid a flood of post-documentary backlash that finds Reinsdorf, Grant, Scottie Pippen, Craig Hodges, Thomas and Krause’s widow among those upset with Jordan. My purpose is to establish a how-not-to manual for young beat reporters. It’s one thing to have important sources, quite another to sell out and serve as a lackey for life. Reinsdorf had his media lackeys, none bigger than Smith. Jordan had his — namely, close pal Ahmad Rashad. Krause had his in the national writing media. Jackson had his. And all the while, some of us were trying to maintain a semblance of professional independence and neutrality, wanting to avoid appearances of selling out or making money off the people we cover. I never was in anybody’s camp. Early on, at the old Chicago Stadium, I felt a nudge in my back as Bulls players jogged past press row before a game; it was Jordan, appreciative of a column where I wondered why the team media guide had strangely underplayed his importance with only a few pages devoted to him. It was proof of the farcical Krause mantra that eventually would break up the team: organizations win championships. 

But when I visited Jordan at a country club two summers later, wanting to know the truth about his gambling problems amid an NBA investigation, he threw an ice cube at me. I was in business bed with no one.

Smith isn’t the only guilty party in sports media. Sirius XM talk host Chris Russo always has been a shill for Major League Baseball owners, which explains why he told players to “go to hell’’ last week in a long, biting rant about ongoing labor negotiations, which seem particularly appalling during a pandemic. In the same vein as Smith works for Reinsdorf, Russo works for a network that has a long-term business arrangement with, yup, MLB.

NBA Star Joe Smith raps about Donald Sterling (Video)

At least Smith didn’t take money from Donald Sterling, the disgraced former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who once suggested Smith become his general manager. But like commissioner David Stern, Smith was among those who continued to associate with Sterling even as he spewed racism for years. Why not use that relationship and his reporting platform to reveal Sterling as a racist years before a TMZ tape became the impetus for Adam Silver, Stern’s successor, to expel him from the league?

Funny, but the biggest story of my Jordan-coverage career came from simple, pound-the-pavement persistence. I made numerous excursions in the summer of 2001 to Hoops The Gym, a facility on Chicago’s west side, where Jordan was plotting his return to the NBA. He would see me waiting in the parking lot, yell at me for writing that he shouldn’t be trying another comeback, then give me another meaty column. Finally, on Sept. 10, one day before Jordan suddenly didn’t matter on Planet Earth, he stood in the parking lot and announced his Washington Wizards comeback to me and Jim Litke of the Associated Press.

That forced Smith, without the owner in his back pocket, to play catch-up in his belated news story. Every media outlet credited the Sun-Times and the AP — except one.

The Tribune credited the AP and another newspaper.

The Smith Rules, call them.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’ Compensation for this column is donated to ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom emphasizing investigative journalism.

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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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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