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NFL’S Covid Chill Warmed By Lebron’s Gift

“As a coronavirus crisis threatens the NFL season, the NBA Bubble brings joy and hope in the form of LeBron James’ latest and most impressive triumph, one that is being cursed in the White House.”

Jay Mariotti

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You are excused for oscillating between the primal urge to emit sudden noises — a gasp when LeBron James wins for Kobe Bryant, a howl when another Tampa Bay lab clone rocks Aroldis Chapman, a groan when Tom Brady wants a fifth down — and the unavoidable disgust that the NFL is treating players like medical rats. Celebration is what sports does best, whisking us from whatever’s bothering us to crown champions and pity also-rans, but there remains a pandemic-era awkwardness of placing too much importance on winners and losers.     

Yes, James has won the Bubble, conquering the most arduous mental challenge ever faced by an all-time athlete with a Lakers team that wasn’t all that great. In the process, he made Our President seethe, lifting a trophy days after Donald Trump eviscerated James as “a hater and “a spokesman for the Democratic party, a very nasty spokesman.’’ Might this be the first of many losses for Trump, courtesy of an all-time sports great and activist who heard the critics last year and ached to quiet them? Didn’t this bring honor and finality to the late Bryant and respect for an embattled, family-feuding franchise?     

“We just want our respect. … And I want my damn respect, too,’’ James declared in a mostly empty building at Walt Disney World, home of a weird but fulfilled dream.     

Baseball is a story, too, with the Rays ready to wow America as low-revenue savants who just might hit a historic trifecta: trolling the fallen behemoth Yankees with “New York, New York’’ lyrics, teaching the cheatin’ Houston Asterisks about ethics, then beating the blueblood Dodgers in the World Series. Still, amid the cigars and confetti and restrained revelry, we should have guilty pangs.     

That’s because the NFL doesn’t give two snot swabs about the players’ wellness and safety amid its COVID-19 crisis, outbreaks be damned. This is not only my opinion, as stated often here. Now, players are echoing it. “I think outside of here, the people that don’t have to walk in our building — whether it is the league office, whether it is the NFLPA — they don’t care,” said the Patriots’ Jason McCourty, also leery of the players’ union. “For them, it is not about our best interest, or our health and safety. It’s about, `What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good and looks good? How can we go out there and play games?’ ‘’     

“My true opinion,’’ said the Eagles’ Darius Slay, “is we shouldn’t have even had (a season) because of what’s going on. It’s a difficult time.’’     

And yet, even as the NFL again closes facilities in Tennessee and New England as new positive coronavirus results inevitably pop up, the same corporate defiance prevails: The games are coldly rescheduled, protocols continue to be violated, the league and networks remain fixated on money, and mindless masculinity continues to march on — to the point in college football where a caveman coach, Dan Mullen, wants Florida fans to ignore the infection rates and “pack The Swamp for LSU next week’’ because “I know our governor passed that rule.’’ Jay Z had 99 problems. Gainesville was about to have 90,000 problems, until the school athletic director said otherwise.     

The NFL has COVID problems 24/7, with new cases in the Titans’ and Patriots’ camps requiring the league to move around games like ant traps and making me ask again: Why even attempt this madness? It’s stupefying enough that dozens of players have self-isolated, facilities and practices are routinely shut down, and the league suddenly has no idea when or if a $17 billion season will be completed. It’s an absolute mind-blur when every new headline should be accompanied by a scorching Eddie Van Halen riff. But you know what’s most troubling only a month into what will be a long, excruciating slog likely to include a Week 18, if not more weeks?     

No one is telling us about the children, the wives, the significant others, the parents, the grandparents, the friends, the people out and about in the community — the potential collateral damage when NFL players, coaches and team personnel don’t take the coronavirus seriously and act as super- spreaders. We know that the Titans have been egregious, with a stunning 24 positive cases. We know that a superstar double whammy, Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore, has tested positive in New England. We know Patrick Mahomes, face of the league, shared a post-game bro hug with Gilmore hours before his positive test — “like, I have all my career and not even thinking about it … a mental lapse,’’ Mahomes called it — and since has been sleeping in a bedroom apart from his pregnant girlfriend.     

We know teams have positive tests every day, whether they are fully transparent about the results or not. We know competitive integrity and fairness is a sham, that quality of play will suffer and defenses will be non-existent as attrition and rescheduling exacts a toll. We know this is not a season to take seriously unless one is an owner, a player or a broadcast executive with a deep financial interest. “Unfortunately, Covid is running rampant in our community,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of life in Wisconsin. “All it takes is one guy to infect everyone else.’’     

“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “We know there’s a challenge because of how easily this thing spreads.’’     

The bigger question is, what don’t we know?     

How many other people in this country have been infected — and will continue to be infected — because the NFL Insists on bulldozing through a season of games during a pandemic? Has anyone checked in on Gilmore’s wife and their two children? At what point does the urge to recoup billions, and feed networks with the programming inventory they need to stay afloat, verge on the criminal as Roger Goodell and the owners force-feed a season down America’s throat like cyanide? I, for one, was listening closely when the Patriots’ Matthew Slater described his mindset after his team was forced to fly to Kansas City during an incubation period and play the Chiefs. “A lot of us just wanted to make sure we were healthy and not passing anything along to our families,’’ he said.     

So we’re just going to keep doing this dance through October, November, December, January and Super Bowl week in party-minded and pirate-happy Tampa, in a state that largely thinks the coronavirus is a hoax?     

Yes, we are, regrettably. Rather than copy the successful NBA and NHL blueprints of Bubbles — in this case, enveloping each of the 32 franchises, including mandatory hotel stays until seasons conclude — the NFL office is locked in a stubborn ego-and-hubris trip. Goodell and his lieutenants are sticking to a flawed plan that could backfire at any time in any facility. They are convinced the protocols are sound and are pointing fingers at players and coaches for the violations, refusing to acknowledge that the league relaxed, too, and reveled in a God complex when September revealed few COVID-19 positive tests. In the Titans’ case, it’s undeniable that players flouted a league edict by working out at a school — and the organization surely was complicit, which should have warranted a forfeiture of at least one game for a 3-0 team dreaming of a Super Bowl. That is, if we believed Goodell’s memo to teams last week: “Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game.’’     

But rather than hammer the Titans where it hurts, in the standings, the league sided with money and ratings by simply moving the much-awaited Titans-Bills game to next weekend, though a large fine is expected. By continuing to punish teams financially and not competitively, the NFL maintains leverage to keep teams out of Bubbles — oh, think of the huge costs! — and places the entire onus on players, coaches and personnel to avoid COVID-19. The demand, of course, is far from failsafe; as witnessed throughout the league, the comprehensive testing system is imperfect, even on a daily basis, such as when Gilmore tested negative before the game in Kansas City when he likely was infected already, leaving dozens of human beings vulnerable to a spread on the field and inside the Patriots’ two planes. That didn’t stop Goodell from being more bullish, now able to play Big Brother with a new league-wide video system that effectively spies on each facility to see if protocols are followed. Can you imagine this Park Avenue conversation …     

Goodell: “I’ve got Tennessee duty again today. I hear through sources that players were at a honky-tonk last night.’’     

Lieutenant A: “I don’t trust Adam Gase with his shoelaces, much less protocol adherence. I’m watching the Jets.’’     

Lieutenant B: “Gruden is a madman who refuses to wear his mask, so Raiders for me.’’     

They can play gotcha all they want. Why would anyone of sound or sane mind think the Tennessee outbreak is an aberration in a league of 2,200-plus players and some 1,500 coaches and support staff? “It takes one guy to go to the grocery store and it’s as simple as that,” said Bills quarterback and early MVP candidate Josh Allen. “You’ve got to hope that guys are wearing their masks and the contact tracers are working.’’ But Goodell is flying blind, and considering he’s capable of bad decisions when he can see, the season ahead is a scary proposition. The virtual Bubbles have a much better chance of working than the status quo. Ask Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, who wouldn’t be pulling off what has become a compelling postseason without forcing teams into Bubbles this month in Texas and California. The NFLPA would need extra incentives, but the Titans’ outbreak might have changed players’ minds about restrictive confinement. Said Mahomes: “If it happened, for me, I love the game and I know how special this team is, so I’d be willing.’’     

In truth, the NFL and college football’s Power Five conferences aren’t receiving enough public backlash about exposing players to danger. When much of America isn’t treating the coronavirus with appropriate concern — starting with the continuing follies of the COVIDiot-in-Chief, football’s powers-that-be can afford to be cavalier and keep playing the games so the billions roll in. Then they trot out their versions of Tony Fauci — in the NFL’s case, Dr. Allen Sills, who says, “It’s critically important that we do not grow complacent in our rigorous application of measures proven to be impactful. This 2020 season, our common opponent is COVID — it’s all of us together versus the virus.”     

Unless you’re the Titans, who have adopted a bizarre us-versus-the-media stance when they should be thankful those infected are recovering. “It’s a snap-to-judgment society that we live in today,’’ said quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who also doesn’t trust the testing system. “People feel empowered to have strong opinions and go to extremes without knowing the details of how things went down. I’m of the opinion that you should find out details before you jump down someone’s throat.’’     

Though pandemic sports viewership is significantly gutted — even the almighty NFL was down 10 percent heading into Week 5 — enough people are watching to more than keep the lights on at the leagues and networks. If Trump and Joe Biden are the main entertainment on the phalanx of news channels, sports continues to be an effective sideshow. And the games have delivered, whether it’s a close finish or the return of Washington’s Alex Smith from his grotesque broken leg, a glorious scene tarnished when Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury. This is why the NFL and college football ramble on, figuring enough people are interested — look, Nick Saban thinks Lane Kiffin knew his defensive signals — to keep pushing a dangerous envelope. As I’ve said at least 99 times, football is not played in a Bubble. The NBA season was.     

Which allowed James to win his fourth championship — for Kobe, for a Lakers franchise not long ago in disarray, for social justice and, of course, for himself. This one will not make him the greatest basketball player ever, but it will give him peace, going on age 36, that he overcame attrition and emotional fatigue when his younger rivals did not. What are Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo thinking when they weren’t good enough to even reach the Finals? When twice-fired head coach Frank Vogel, who was supposed to be knifed in the back by assistant Jason Kidd, earned James’ respect — and won a title that rescued the slumping reputations of owner Jeanie Buss and basketball boss Rob Pelinka? Jimmy Butler was LeBron’s equal for five games, but he and the Heat ran out of juice.     

“There were times I questioned whether I should be here,’’ James said. “Is it worth sacrificing my family? I’ve never been away from my family for so long. Shout out here to the late, great Steve Jobs. Without him, those FaceTime calls wouldn’t have happened.     

“Our ballclub got here back on July 9. It’s October 11 now. This was very challenging and difficult. It played with your mind and your body. You were away from the things that made you successful.’’     

But he kept hearing the voices of doom. “There were still rumblings of doubt when comparing me in the history of the game: `Has he done this, has he done that?’ Having that in my mind fueled me,’’ he said.     

He also knew that a divided America needed his voice. “Social injustice, voter suppression, police brutality — to have this platform, it’s something you will miss and think back on,’’ James said. “We also had zero positive tests for as long as we were down here — 95 days for myself. I had a little calendar I was checking off. But seriously, zero positive tests. That is an accomplishment.’’     

There will be no parades in Los Angeles, where, unlike Florida, the city is too fixated on COVID to issue special event permits. But the Dodgers are inviting fans to Chavez Ravine for a drive-in watch party in the parking lot. Price per car for each game of the National League championship series in Arlington, Texas: $75, with fans allowed to bring food and non-alcoholic beverages. The Dodgers require masks if fans want to use restrooms, which is more prudent than what they’re doing in Arlington, where MLB is only defeating the Bubble purpose by permitting 11,500 fans per game. Are Manfred and Dan Mullen sharing notes?      

The dream World Series in L.A. — and for America, really — would be Dodgers-Astros. That way, after three years of organizational and fan-base anger about Houston scamming to win the 2017 Series, the Dodgers would have a legitimate revenge shot, not having to settle for Joe Kelly throwing at Houston batters and making pouty faces. Imagine, Dodger Blue beating the unrepentant liars days before the election. But baseball operations president Andrew Friedman may have been premature in saying this on Sirius XM radio: ““Like, I get that it’s been a difficult year for them, but to play the victim card, I think, has been, you know, a curious strategy.’’ See, loaded as the lineup is, the Dodgers still have Kenley Jansen issues. And not having an established closer could be trouble against the Braves and their mashers, accompanied by a pitching staff that has thrown four postseason shutouts.     

Inside quiet ballparks such as San Diego, site of the American League championship series, at least the Astros can say they don’t need to steal signs and bang trash cans to win. A formidable lineup makes contact and puts pressure on pitchers, with Carlos Correa in MVP form. And they aren’t gloating as much, refusing to rip critics like before. “Absolutely not. We’re motivated because we want to win,’’ Correa said. “We want to bring another championship to Houston. We know what it feels like, so we want have that feeling once again. 2017 was such a special year celebrating with the fans in Houston. The thing that motivates is to get to feel that again.’’     

Ugh. No longer armed with Gerrit Cole and the injured Justin Verlander, the Astros will be underdogs against the Rays, who manufacture victories with skilled starting pitching, a fireballing bullpen and typical Tampa creations such as Cardinals castoff Randy Arozarena, a Cuban defector who spent his own COVID quarantine doing 300 daily pushups and adding 15 pounds of muscle. The result has been a Mr. October transformation, his power bat spooking the Yankees. The conquering hero is Mike Brosseau, an undrafted find who symbolizes the Rays Way. Remember when the snarling Chapman almost beheaded him in September with a 101-mph heater, which led to counter threats by manager Kevin Cash? On the 10th pitch of an all-time at-bat, Brosseau sent a 100-mph pitch over the fence, giving the small-market Rays their latest triumph over the pinstriped colossus.     

As the celebration continued in fan-vacant Petco Park, first baseman Ji-Man Choi was kicking over and stomping on a recycling bin. Hello, Houston. You have a problem. Might the Rays join the NHL’s Lightning in a Tampa Bay title perfecta, pandemic style? Brady and the Buccaneers would love to join the fun, but last we saw our ageless wonder in Chicago, he was raising four fingers after his final incompletion, trying to trick the officials into giving him another try. Is that how desperate he has become with a team battling penalties and injuries? “When you’re 43 years old, as you start to get older, it becomes harder to come back from these types of games,” Fox analyst Troy Aikman said. Brady says he doesn’t miss the cold weather of New England, calling himself “a Floridian for as long as I can envision now.’’ At this point, with Brady throwing clipboards and Newton recovering from COVID, the Great Brady-Belichick 2020 comparison debate is on hold.

It could be our grandest sports memory of 2020 is Rafael Nadal in Paris. Not because he won his 13th French Open title and 20th Grand Slam event, which places him a tie with Roger Federer for most all-time, but because he provided precious dignity. He beat Novak Djokovic, the ugly man who threw a summer COVID party and infected himself and others, then was tossed from the U.S. Open when he whacked a ball in frustration and struck a linesperson in the throat. But it was Nadal’s commentary on the global mood that will stick.     

“The feeling is more sad than usual,” the Spaniard said. “Maybe that’s what it needs to feel like. It needs to be sad. Many people in the world are suffering.’’     

Perspective. Why must we cross an ocean to find it?

BSM Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BSM Writers

Chris Fowler Knows You Know He Isn’t In Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BSM Writers

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

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

Derek Futterman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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