FOX Sports Radio host Jason Smith is a smart dude. It dawned on me during my discussion with him that he’s not just playing chess or checkers, he’s actually playing both games on the air each night. The checkers approach is simple; find ways to entertain listeners and make them laugh. We aren’t splitting atoms and solving the world’s problems. Let’s loosen the collar and enjoy some figurative dessert together. That’s the easy part.
Due to Jason’s timeslot — 7-11pm PT — it would be foolish to discuss the biggest stories of the day while using the same angles as daytime hosts. He and co-host Mike Harmon have to figure out new ways of approaching the top stories. That isn’t easy. Daytime shows can afford to be like pop music while taking a straightforward approach. A nighttime show is more advanced like jazz with key changes midsong. Straightforward becomes repetitive and stale. Fresh and unpredictable is king.
It takes a special talent to blend checkers and chess together. Jason is one of the few that is up for the challenge. An emmy-award winning producer and author, Jason talks about the best piece of sports radio advice he’s received, which is actually quite funny. The worst piece of advice he’s gotten is a great lesson for everybody in the industry. Jason also shares an awesome story about how wood, yes wood, played a major role in his radio career. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: How did your path unfold to where you are now?
Jason Smith: I don’t recommend my path for anybody. [Laughs] I don’t know that it works anywhere but in Los Angeles. I did radio in college at Syracuse. I got out of college and I got a job at ESPN. I was a production assistant, associate producer and I was really enjoying life. It was a great job and I loved it. Then I became a producer at FOX when my wife and I moved to Los Angeles. Everything was awesome. I was going to be a TV person, producer, executive and do all this stuff.
Then something happened — this was the moment where I realized I have to get back and I have to do radio. I was producing Monday Night Live, which was a TV show that aired in Los Angeles after the Monday Night Football games. This was back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. It was a variety show. Bill Weir was the host. We were doing the first show that night and Bill’s co-host was Ellen K who was on with Ryan Seacrest and before that was on with Rick Dees. This is when she was on with Rick Dees. Bill was going out doing these appearances and as a producer of the show I was there with him to help with the talking points.
We go to — back then it was 1150 in Los Angeles, the only sports talk station I think at the time. We walk in there and Bill does a hit with the people on the air there. Then we go and do a hit on Rick Dees’ show. I’m like wow this is cool. Rick Dees is doing a national morning show. We walked into the studio and I met Rick Dees. I think radio people will understand this, but the smell of the studio — the wood, the equipment, took me all the way back to everything I did in college. At that moment I said to myself I’ve got to get back into radio.
All the things that happened after that, it was the smell of the control room and specifically the wood and seeing the carts, which is what they used to play songs off of. It was just one of those epiphany moments where I knew okay what I’m doing now, I’ve got to stop doing this. Within the next year, I segued from doing that. I was filling in doing sports talk radio in L.A. Ellen K helped me get an introduction with the program director at 1150. That’s where my career went from there. If I don’t walk into Rick Dees’ studio and smell the studio, I’m on a different career path.
BN: Wow, that’s crazy, man. Were you married at the time?
JS: No, my wife and I have been together since the mid-‘90s. We met in Connecticut and we moved out to L.A. together. Then we got married in 2007. We had been together for like 12 years before we got married. We were just lazy.
BN: [Laughs] Okay but you were together when you had this radio epiphany. How did your now-wife take that?
JS: She was incredibly supportive because she knew it was going to mean me quitting my job. Right away she said to me okay well then you have to quit. I said really? She said yeah. I said wow; I was expecting more of a conversation. She said well the first thing I’m going to tell you is your mood is going to change because you seem much happier.
She said producing and what you were doing, you just don’t seem as happy. You’re a little bit shorter with your comments. I can tell at times the way you talk you’re not the happy-go-lucky person that you were.
She was so incredibly supportive because she knew if I was going to leave and do this I had to be open at any time they could call me to fill in. I needed to say yes every single time. They couldn’t call me to fill in and I say, I can’t, I have to work, because they’re going to call somebody else and somebody else is going to get that. So I had to quit. I had to go with no job and just hope that when I was filling in they would keep calling me. They called me enough to fill in where we were able to stay afloat for a while.
Then FOX Sports Radio started and I got in there as a part-time update anchor overnight on the weekends. That was at least a steady paycheck. She was really supportive. Without that I don’t know if I would have been able to do it. Right away there was no conversation. It was okay good. You want to do this? Let’s do it. Without that, I don’t know.
BN: Were you listening to the hosts as an update anchor thinking, ‘This guy stinks. I could do a way better job’?
JS: [Laughs.] I knew I could do it. I had to bide my time because I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was like okay I have to pay my dues. I have to be an update anchor. I was doing what I wanted to do so I was okay with that. I would get chances here and there to co-host. It was good.
As I noticed what was going on, I was like okay; I’m not seeing anybody reinvent the wheel here. I think I can be pretty good at this and start to figure out my own personality. I knew that I would have my own path. Everybody has their own personality and their own way they do the show. I knew the way I was going to do it, my interests, I had a feeling it was going to hit and it was going to resonate.
BN: Are there things you’re incorporating in your show during the pandemic that you anticipate continuing once more sports return?
JS: Absolutely. I think that we saw the landscape change a bit when it comes to where we’re going to be after COVID-19. Everybody still wants the hits, but you don’t have to play all the hits. You can get outside the box and do something that is fun, that is entertaining, that may be something that everybody is talking about that’s outside of sports because it’s still a hit.
I look at it this way; I did radio as a DJ in college. There were different stickers on all the songs you played. There was a red sticker that was on the hottest songs. Every two hours you played a red. Then every four hours you played a song with a white sticker on it because that was a song that was either on the way up to being popular, or it was popular and now it’s on the way down. I think in sports talk radio it used to be where we’ve got to play all the reds and we’ve got to play the whites. But really you just have to play the reds.
The reds can be all the big sports stuff going on and outside of it because the more time goes on, the more the line is blurred between sports and other topics. I’d rather spend two minutes talking about how it’s the big 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back than if I’m doing a story about something that Dwight Howard may have said earlier in the day. I think that appeals to more people. It’s more fun for me and I think it’s something that is a little bit outside the box that gets a little unpredictable.
BN: The “stick to sports” crowd used to be a lot more vocal in the past. Now that we’re unbuttoning the top button and straying outside of sports during the pandemic, do you anticipate listener habits changing where they might want hosts to loosen up if sports conversations get too serious in the future?
JS: Oh yeah. That top button, then the next button, then the next button, and suddenly it’s chest hair, and it’s a big medallion. What’s going to happen is we’re going to see when sports returns there’s going to be that initial rush just to get back to what people are used to and that is the breaking down of games. Obviously with the NBA playoffs coming up really quick it’s going to be okay, what do we think about that? But once we get past that it’s going to be you know, I kind of like sometimes when it’s not so serious and every topic is not life or death.
I think people deal with a lot of negative stuff now and everybody’s lives have changed forever. Can you still listen to people screaming at each other for three hours? I don’t think you can.
I think you can listen to people doing that for a little while, but eventually you’re going to say okay I’m ready for something else. I think that something else is going to be much more in the form of entertainment and doing things that are going to make people laugh. I’m glad about that because I know we can do that well. I don’t know that everybody can, but I think that’s going to be the way that sports talk radio kind of segues. A morning show type atmosphere might permeate itself into a midday show, an afternoon show, a night show. I think you might see the tone of shows change.
BN: In what ways does your approach differ between your normal nighttime show and when you fill in on daytime shows?
JS: The biggest thing is that when I’m doing the show during the day — if I’m in for Dan Patrick let’s just say — the big stories are there. It’s meat and potatoes and we’re eating. We’re driving opinions and entertaining and you’re not really thinking as much. When I do the show at night, I have to sit back and think what’s a way to talk about something that’s still a big story, that everybody wants to hear, that is 10 hours old? While I can’t just go completely off the deep end and talk about something that really doesn’t relate, I have to find different ways to bring up the same big story. I’ve got to give you more at night to make you think about it and do it a little bit different.
BN: What’s some of the best advice you’ve gotten over the years?
JS: Oh, I’ll tell you the best piece of advice I got was from JT the Brick. We were at FOX together. This is when I was coming up and I was trying to get opportunities. One thing I couldn’t figure out was how could I get myself in the position to get an opportunity to succeed. How can I go from part-time update anchor to fill-in show host? How do I go from fill-in show host to weekend show host? How do I go from weekend show host to five-day-a-week show host? How do I do these things?
He said let me tell you something, you will get more opportunities because people in front of you blow up and can’t handle success than you will on your own merit. I said you’re kidding. He goes no, trust me; you will get more opportunities because of that.
This advice he gave me was probably 15 years ago. Sure enough I look up and I go yep I got that job because a host and a co-host got in a fistfight and I got a job the next day. I got the next job because the host of the show didn’t want to do the whole show live and put the whole show on tape and they didn’t like that, so okay I get it. That has been true for 15 years is that people will blow up in front of you and that’s the opportunity you get to move up more so than hey, this guy’s doing a really good job, what can we do for him?
BN: What was the worst advice you’ve received?
JS: One of my managers at ESPN. ESPN was tough because when I was there they really only wanted to promote three shows. They wanted to promote Mike and Mike, Colin, and Dan Patrick. That was it. I understand that these are the moneymaker shows, but I still wanted a chance. I wanted to move up and I wanted people to know what we were doing. Being on overnight I wanted to make sure people knew hey we did this. We had this interview on. This is doing really well. We would send down information to our bosses. Here’s what we did last night and just let people know what our show was doing.
I had a manager tell me listen I understand that but don’t do that. Let me praise you. Let me go into meetings and praise you because that’s what’s going to cut through is if I go in and say something good about you. I said okay.
After that my career just stalled at ESPN. It absolutely stalled. I didn’t really know where to go from there. It was tough. I was at the point where I’m like okay I’ve been doing AllNight for a long time and I can’t light myself on fire. It was very difficult to get noticed. I said okay let me back off. I backed off and nothing happened. That was the worst advice ever.
Whenever I talk to someone and they ask me a question about hey what’s a piece of advice, one of the things I tell them is you have to make sure people know what you’re doing. You can’t trust anybody else. You’re going to be the best champion of yourself and you have to make sure that you’re the one in charge of that. If you want to make sure people know something you’re doing, you have to make sure to tell them. That was just horrible advice. It really hurt and it stalled me out of ESPN.
BN: Is there anything in the future that you want to do specifically or is your mindset more about the next show, the next day, the future will take care of itself?
JS: Well I kind of have a short-term and a long-term. I think mainly toward the next show. I’m a content guy and I concern myself with what are we doing tonight. How are we going to cut through? What are we doing in this next segment? What are we doing in the next hour? That’s the main thing. I know because of that a lot of other things take care of themselves. We’ve been on a very good run the past few years. It’s been a really great ride.
In the future, there are a couple of things I think about. At some point I think I would love to do mornings. Whether it’s locally here in L.A., I’d like to do that, but I’m having so much fun with what I’m doing now. It’s terrific. It’s really fun doing this at night. I’ve done nights most of my life.
Outside of that, I’ve been writing a lot. I love to blog about TV. That’s another big passion of mine and something I would really like to be able to do. I’d like to get my second novel published too. Those are the things that I look at in the future.
Mainly it’s every day what are we doing with the show and obviously now how we’re going to navigate COVID-19 and post COVID-19 realities. Down the road those are a couple of things I’m thinking about. I kind of wonder what that would be like. It’s not something that actively I’m looking at and going okay what are we going to do to make this happen? Where I’m at right now I really enjoy it and just enjoy the day to day.
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.