Is XFL Pushing Broadcasting Boundaries Far Enough?
“You don’t have to get all gimmicky but maybe try a few new things.”
“Let’s ball out baby!”
With that the XFL was back. League owner Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s four-word exclamation got this incarnation of the league left behind by Vince McMahon underway again. Johnson, along with chairwoman Dany Garcia and Gerry Cardinale’s RedBird Capital Partners, bought the league out of bankruptcy in 2020 from McMahon.
I kept hearing how well the XFL’s first week was received by fans and those in the industry. The presentation by ESPN is what is getting most of the praise after Week 1 of the relaunched league. I watched the replay of the Arlington and Las Vegas game to see what it was all about. No offense to the new Spring leagues like the USFL and now the XFL, but I usually come in with low expectations. What gimmicky thing that doesn’t work are you going to shove down my throat this time? They try to differentiate themselves from a traditional NFL broadcast, thinking ‘we have to give our audience something new’, but how much is too much?
The open to the broadcast was impressive. Like a hype video for the XFL. There’s “The Rock” and Garcia, telling us what to expect. The video served a couple of purposes to me. One, to feature Johnson and his absolute involvement in this new league. Second, it was a good explanation about what to expect from this edition of the XFL. From seeing which former NFL players are involved to getting the names of all the coaches that will be leading teams. Most of the names are recognizable, from Rod Woodson and Hines Ward to Bob Stoops and Wade Phillips. The open says “this thing is credible, look at all the people we have buying in.”
Before the telecast went to the booth, each team’s locker room was featured. Coaches giving teams final instructions before heading out onto the field. On camera, this open provides another good explanation on the importance of these games for players trying to get back to, or get to the NFL. Veteran broadcaster Tom Hart provided the play-by-play, while former Alabama QB Greg McElroy provided the commentary. The two set the storylines well and it was time to start playing.
I’m not going to provide a critique of the broadcasters or broadcast. Instead, I’m going to get into what I thought worked and didn’t during the telecast.
Inside the replay system. Wow, this was the best part of the telecast to me. I was hoping for a few more challenges to watch the system work. I don’t think I was alone in loving this feature. Fans get a real ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the process with full transparency. Dean Blandino, the rules analyst on Fox, is serving as the XFL’s VP of Officiating and Rules Innovation. He reviews plays in the ‘XFL Command Center’, which looks like something that NASA might use with its multiple screens and a futuristic look.
Blandino reviews a play and relays his ruling to the referee on the field, who then announces the ruling. After about 30 seconds of elapsed time, Blandino radios to the referee, that “I’ve got control, I’ve got the left foot down in bounds.” After a check of the new “spot” for the ball, Blandino goes through it all again for the official. “So, we’re going to go to the 46 (yard line), it’s going to be 1st and 10, it’s going to be on the right hash, and we’re going to go on the ready for play.” All of those commands were repeated by the referee to make sure the information was correct. It took no time at all to get that call corrected. The audience now gets to understand what is in question, how they determine what happened and a result in less than a minute. Are you watching NFL? Because you clearly weren’t a few years ago when the AAF tried something similar.
The Scorebug. I liked how it extended from edge to edge of the screen. It stood out because of how plain it was. A white background with a black font for most of it and the opposite for the down and distance portion of the bug. The point spread and over/under are included in the information as is the number of time outs and challenges remaining for each team. The logos for each team seem to stand out more, over a black square, with the crisp white background.
Mic’d up. I know we’ve been over this before, but the access viewers get when a player is mic’d up is excellent. In these cases, during the XFL broadcast, the quarterbacks both wore microphones and we were privy to the actual play call as it happens on the field. At one point, we even got to hear the offensive coordinator radio in the play call to the QB. Pretty interesting to hear the intricacies in each play and how its relayed to the players in the huddle. Kudos to the broadcasters for allowing the secondary audio to be heard. They stepped out to allow us to hear the calls.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Clutter on my screen and in my ears. It was nice to get the play call from the offensive coordinator as I mentioned earlier, but this telecast went into overload mode. At a few points, they had both the offensive coordinator for the Vegas team and the defensive coordinator for Arlington on the screen at the same time. Ok, I can deal with that. But the sound was up full and each were calling their plays into the huddles. There was a lot to take in and a whole lot of chatter that really ruined the experience. Too much. Even McElroy, the analyst said, “this feels like organized chaos.” It didn’t seem too organized to me, just chaos.
Sideline interviews were weak. It was really nice to be able to hear from a player right after scoring a touchdown, or making a big defensive play. But the interviews were rather hollow. At one point they were asking a player about his weight. It was all fun and games, but why do I as a viewer care? I really can’t blame the reporters, I mean, what do you ask a player in such instances? All you can ask are the standard, “what worked on that play?”, “how does it feel to score?” Enough of that. I don’t think it enhances the experience.
SO, WHAT NEXT?
If “The Rock” turned to me and said, “what would you do to make this broadcast better and sustainable for more than a year?” I would tell him a few things.
Don’t change what’s working. The XFL is on to something with the ‘replay booth’ and its transparency. I think a casual fan of the league might just tune in because they are intrigued by this aspect of the game. So many people are already talking about it, so, it’s only natural to be curious if you haven’t seen it.
Be innovative. Besides the scorebug, the mic’d up QB’s and replay, it looked like another football game. You don’t have to get all gimmicky but maybe try a few new things.
How about superimposing the actual routes that receivers are supposed to run? Show me the patterns. Maybe show them over a replay so if there’s an interception, we know whose fault it was. Did the QB throw a bad ball or did the receiver run the wrong route? I wish the NFL would do this. I think it would also be a good way to encourage younger viewers to tune in, especially those trying to learn the game. It would take a very good analyst in the booth to break these plays down, but that should be the goal of every booth, right?
Mic up different on-field officials. Especially those that are working the sidelines and may be taking abuse from a coach about a call. All these other broadcasts are wiring up the players and coaches, but how about the game from the officials’ perspective as well? Could be interesting hearing the discussions with the referee when a penalty is called.
There needs to be a bigger presence of gambling lines and the like. With as many gambling apps as there are now, why couldn’t fans live bet? Show us the ‘run or pass probability’ in certain plays. Maybe limit it to 3rd downs to start? Field goal attempts, bet on ‘make or miss’. There is certainly room on the ‘Bottom Line” under the scorebug for this information.
How about trying out some different announcers? Nothing against the folks doing the game now, but wouldn’t this be a great training ground for the next crop of talent? An injection of fresh takes and perspectives might be welcomed by the audience.
Develop storylines better? Don’t make it like wrestling, but give the viewer someone to root for by telling his story. They are there, the league needs to feature them a little better. It might help jersey sales too?
“The Rock” must be involved in all of the broadcasts somehow, some way. He’s invested not only monetarily, but also as a guy that dreamt of the NFL but didn’t make it. He can shed light on the struggle. He’d have an interesting perspective on the players’ mindset.
Give him a segment while the game is going on by ‘squeezing’ the game action to the background while speaks. Have him feature an aspect of the XFL that can take fans inside the decisions made about rules and the rebirth of the league.
The Rock has to be heavily involved early, for this league to roll past an interesting first season.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at Andy@Andy-Masur.com.
Julie Stewart-Binks Is Going to Be Everywhere At Once
“The industry has changed so much from when I first started and I was first in journalism school. We were learning right then what Twitter was.”
Oftentimes, personalities around the world of sports media are former athletes themselves – whether or not at the professional level notwithstanding. The lessons one can take away from suiting up on a playing surface and being in a team setting are extensive and can serve as guiding principles in other professions. Having an understanding of this, Julie Stewart-Binks initially pursued working in sports psychology after playing intramural hockey, running varsity track and field and competing in figure skating.
Growing up in Toronto, hockey was naturally imbued into the fabric of her being, and her nascent passion for the game on the ice was evident. At the suggestion of her mother, Georgie Binks, who worked for various radio and television outlets as a reporter and anchor, Stewart-Binks inquired about volunteering at her university’s radio station, but was turned down due to a lack of opportunities. Resolute in trying to foster a career, she took a chance to work in television as a reporter for Queen’s University TV in nearby Kingston and began gaining repetitions in the field.
“I just loved that adrenaline,” Stewart-Binks said. “The preparation to the execution felt a lot like sports. That was sort of the mirroring of my athletic career as well.”
Although Stewart-Binks graduated the university with a dual degree in psychology and drama, she had cultivated opportunities to work in journalism as a student with some of the school’s media outlets. Upon her graduation, she worked as a reporter during summer 2009 at CKWS Newswatch and, with her focus set on building a journalism career, attended graduate school shortly thereafter in London.
“The industry has changed so much from when I first started and I was first in journalism school,” Stewart-Binks said. “We were learning right then what Twitter was. A journalism master’s, if anyone ever still does that, would be completely different from what it would be now.”
From the beginning, much of Stewart-Binks’ career has been predicated on developing and demonstrating widespread versatility across sports media. In her formative years, she worked as a hockey host and reporter on TV Cogeco and a co-host on Sports Night Radio, getting her accustomed with the multiplatform nature of the business. She then worked for TV Cogeco Niagara as a reporter and host on The OHL Tonight, producing and disseminating information about the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs.
Not only was she appearing on the visual medium of television, but she was also working as a sports writer for the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s website and as a program assistant for its signature show: Hockey Night in Canada. Essentially, it was her way of ingratiating herself into the world of hockey, a sport she continues to play recreationally today at Chelsea Piers in New York, N.Y.
“It’s just been in my blood since I was a kid,” Stewart-Binks said. “….Getting to know these guys and watch them grow into NHL stars has been such a cool experience.”
Stewart-Binks had her mother to look to as inspiration in the broadcast industry, and as time went on, she discovered other mentors and role models to supplement her career. Michelle Beadle, who has worked for a variety of outlets in the industry, is someone who in particular stands out to her. In watching her report and simultaneously contend with the misogyny she faces as a woman working in sports media, Stewart-Binks views her as a “guiding light.”
“I think she just is a pillar and a huge role model of being not only authentic,” Stewart-Binks said, “but paving the way for women to straddle so many different avenues of being able to use personality; being able to use analysis; and [to] be serious and be funny, but be professional.”
As a native of Canada, Stewart-Binks moved to the United States and gradually assimilated herself into the culture. On one hand, she worked on losing her Canadian accent by writing words phonetically into teleprompters to ensure she would pronounce them in the American style.
Moreover, she recognized the broad array of sports consumed in the United States, and tailored her reporting to reflect the levels of interest. In exuviating senses of bonafide ethnocentrism, Stewart-Binks found a way to appeal to her audience while covering events both at the local and national level for FOX Sports.
Stewart-Binks regularly reported on regional broadcasts for the Anaheim Ducks, closely following the team throughout its season and reporting on pertinent storylines. Nationally, she contributed to studio and game coverage for baseball, football and soccer, along with being afforded the chance to cover the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
The amalgamation of countries and cultural diffusion was exhilarating to her– in addition to having the chance to learn the unique stories about the athletes. She believes those stories work to create a formidable connection between Olympians and spectators, communicated and gathered through deft reporting.
“We can all relate to athletes at the Olympics because they’ve all gone through having a dream and getting to celebrate and have this incredible moment,” Stewart-Binks said. “We’ve all kind of had to go through adversity as people. You hear their stories and [how they] go through adversity and they fail, and it relates to every single person on any level of their life.”
Maintaining persistence and confidence in oneself can seem insurmountable to those in any profession, and it is fundamental to eliminate the stigma around prioritizing mental health. In many ways, Stewart-Binks’ career as a journalist better informs people watching that there are a countless number of others enduring challenges and finding ways to overcome obstacles. “Seeing people train for years and years and years to get to that moment and it doesn’t go the way they expect it [is] real life for a lot of people,” Stewart-Binks remarked.
After several years with FOX Sports, Stewart-Binks signed a deal to work as a sideline reporter for Major League Soccer and on games for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team with ESPN. During her time at FOX Sports, she had always had a hand in its soccer coverage, even making her United States national television debut anchoring FOX Soccer Report.
In 2013, she officially moved to Los Angeles to help launch FOX Sports 1 as host of FOX Soccer Daily, a studio-based show featuring news, opinion and analysis from around the sport. Furthermore, she reported from a multitude of on-site events, including the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which took place across various Canadian provinces, giving her increased exposure to an international audience.
In being ubiquitous, however, came a strenuous travel schedule resulting in road trips spanning not days, but rather weeks. It was a continuous cycle of preparing, traveling and executing, often juggling various tasks at once, demanding synergy and collaboration while maintaining a level of understanding about the grind of the soccer season. Reflecting on that time period, Stewart-Binks is in disbelief over what she achieved and ascertained that it would be considerably more difficult to do now considering much of her work has been from home over the last several years.
“The biggest thing is learning how to pack efficiently and keeping yourself physically and mentally sound,” Stewart-Binks said. “Mostly eating right and being on the road is the hardest thing. You’re in different time zones or you’re in hotel rooms and you’re not sleeping right…. [It is] important to just maintain your health and to eat right; to bring supplements; [and] to sort of plan ahead.”
Early in her tenure at ESPN, Stewart-Binks participated in an interview course which assidiously explored the craft and gave reporters insight into how to best elicit compendious answers from their subjects.
Whether it is actively listening; following up; or removing one’s ego from the conversation, she worked to develop comfortability and a distinctive style that relaxes guests and renders them interesting to hear from. To this day, she equips the esoteric knowledge gained from that course and applies it to her roles and responsibilities across different forms of media.
“People are always, in any answer, giving you Easter eggs; little nuggets – they’re dropping hints on something,” Stewart-Binks said. “The interviewer has to be able to pick those things up, see that open door and go through it…. Sideline reporting is different because you only have a certain amount of time, but if a coach or a player says something, you have to be willing to abandon whatever question you have next [and adapt].”
Up until this point, Stewart-Binks had been reporting for traditional media outlets and on typical platforms of dissemination, primarily television but also radio. While she was still working with ESPN, Stewart-Binks began hosting morning radio alongside Willie Colon and Francis Ellis on SiriusXM as part of Barstool Breakfast.
The program, which was under the auspices of Barstool Sports, allowed Stewart-Binks to diversify her digital portfolio and cement herself as a regular voice on matters pertaining to all sports. The job demanded having a passion for the work and fastidiously preparing to establish and meet expectations held by listeners and consumers of the brand at large.
Although she was working with two co-hosts, she was cognizant of the importance of being proficient in many different areas to the degree that she could talk about them by herself if need be. Additionally, possessing an understanding of the audience and how to produce content that keeps them informed, engaged and entertained was critical to allow her to stand out.
“Morning radio is one of the hardest things that you could possibly do and I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone, especially morning sports talk radio,” Stewart-Binks expressed. “I enjoyed it. I was able to show a lot of my personality and bring my insight and background from a lot of different sports.”
Upon her exit from Barstool Sports eight months later, her co-hosts loosely addressed the matter on the air, with Colon calling the company “a unique animal” and Ellis suggesting an ostensible initiation process for its employees. The time period also marked the end of her career at ESPN, signifying the start of something new with an increased emphasis on demonstrating her skills and utilizing her foresight. It brought her to the world of standup comedy.
Akin to appearing on camera in some ways, standup comedy is based on one’s ability to connect with and eloquently speak in front of an audience. Her original impetus in pursuing the endeavor was to accentuate her broadcast skills; however, it ended up leading her to find a unique niche in sports media and a chance to reset her career.
“It was horrifying to do,” Stewart-Binks said of taking a standup comedy class, “but I also really enjoyed getting up there on stage and getting instant feedback which you don’t get in broadcasting. I did that, and I was able to transfer that over; I was bit by that type of bug.”
Following a stint with the Upright Citizens’ Brigade comedy group where she performed improvisation and standup comedy routines, Stewart-Binks gained self-confidence and took on a plethora of new jobs – including with SportsNet New York on its daily show The Thread and as an anchor for CBS Sports HQ broadcasts. Her previous experience, combined with getting out of her comfort zone and exploring new approaches to cut through in the industry, allowed her to find her strong suits and emphasize them as a host.
“It’s about bringing my experience and my background and the perspective I’ve gained over the last 12 years in the industry by being Julie Stewart-Binks and remembering who I am,” she said. “That’s how you take your power back in any situation – knowing who you are.”
With a renewed sense of self-identity and aplomb, Stewart-Binks directly utilized the skills she had learned in becoming her own production team for two late-night shows through fuboTV, named Call It a Night and Drinks with Binks, respectively. Both shows were initially filmed in studios in Manhattan, but once the COVID-19 pandemic struck the country, transitioned to a remote production format. It gave Stewart-Binks the ability to book guests outside of the New York-metropolitan area and continue to communicate with her audience amid an abeyance of daily sports contests.
“I got to talk with so many people, really flex my interview skills, learn a lot, break news and kind of get below the levels and layers that we see on a normal, national scale and just get to know the people behind what they do,” Stewart-Binks said. “That’s what I think is the biggest thing. All these people that we see as athletes or entertainers – they’re actually just like all of us… and have their own fascinating stories or quirks; their highs or lows; and I love learning that and showing that to an audience.”
Now being immersed in the industry for over a decade, Stewart-Binks calls upon key figures and executives to give women opportunities to work and grow in sports media. From her standpoint, developing a culture that encourages women rather than acting aloof towards them will ensure entities continue to flourish and relate to changing demographics. The media ecosystem is dynamic in and of itself, and keeping pace with its shifts necessitates exigently adjusting and innovating to emergent technologies and the next generation of talent without prejudice.
“The more women there are in this industry, the less it is about our gender and the more it is about the work we do and the abilities we have and what we can do to be on the same playing field as men,” Stewart-Binks said. “….Because of sports being so masculine and male-dominated, it kind of leads to sports broadcasting itself being that way. I feel it’s kind of a better time for women to get involved right now, and there’s so many young women I watch doing everything.”
When Stewart-Binks sees women being criticized because of their gender, she has no qualms about speaking up and defending others, refusing to be a bystander in these types of situations. Not everyone thinks this way though, instead navigating the space and tolerating injustice displayed towards their colleagues and competitors.
She ponders how women do not always work in solidarity towards their common goal, instead reclusively focusing on their competition and scheming how to bring each other down. A particular phrase that stuck with her and transcended the bounds of her thought stated: “The greatest gift you can do is give something to someone else that you would want.” Displaying selflessness and a sense of altruism keeps her motivated to strive for more in sports media beyond wholly individualistic gains and hopeful to catalyze congeniality.
“We all can’t do this by ourselves,” Stewart-Binks said. “We all have to help one another. We’ve also been conditioned to sort of fight for that one spot at the table because of the world that’s been created for us by men. We [need to] realize, ‘Hey, we can create our own table,’ or ‘We can create more spots.’”
Today, Stewart-Binks is working in a variety of different freelance roles spanning traditional and digital visual media. She has remained with SportsNet New York as a host and reporter, and also carries out roles with Turner Sports and NBC Sports pertaining to hockey and fantasy football, respectively.
She recently inked a deal with BetRivers to evolve Drinks with Binks and also create a travel-based show with the intent of exposing viewers to different locales around the world of sports. Both are still in development and are projects she has been able to lend her voice and knowledge to ensure they are stellar and augment its content offerings.
“I get to bring my passion, my skills, my credibility and my background to a place that is really working, in real-time, as the next step in sports, which is what everyone is trying to be a part of,” Stewart-Binks said. “Especially with how we look at the economy and how we look at so many different industries, sports gambling and betting is just taking off beyond belief, whereas a lot of other places are cutting or aren’t really sure of their future. It’s really interesting to be a part of it.”
Following the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, states were given regulatory power regarding the legality of sports betting. Regardless of the speed at which different states moved to legalize the practice, the presence of concomitant programming and content simply is too much to ignore.
Various sportsbooks have started to produce their own content rather than outsourcing material, including BetRivers – owned and operated by Rush Street Interactive – which signed Mike Francesa to a multi-year deal to host an exclusive podcast and serve as a brand ambassador. The augmentation of these platforms further impugns traditionalist views of the media, encouraging laggards within the diffusion of innovation to adopt an updated and refined outlook.
“A quote from one of my good friends is, ‘You’re either in or in the way,’” Stewart-Binks said. “You’ve got to be in sports gambling, and if not, you’re kind of going to get left behind. Regardless of where you work right now, that’s where the entire industry is going.”
As her career in the industry continues to evolve, Stewart-Binks looks forward to the challenge of having multiple responsibilities and amassing repetitions on both traditional and digital mediums. She is not afraid to take risks, recognizing that she will be told ‘No’ many more times than ‘Yes’ in her life, but never willing to give up trying and embracing the response of ‘Maybe’ to an inquiry. Sports media is undoubtedly a competitive field, and it genuinely takes an indefatigable, unrelenting work ethic combined with talent and a professional network to build and maintain a formidable career.
No one succeeds in this industry alone, underscoring the importance of developing professional relationships and never burning bridges or slamming doors. From her time as an athlete to this point in her career, Stewart-Binks appreciates the opportunities she has had and will continue to have to express herself on the air to a supportive and engaged audience. As she embarks on the next frontier of her career as a trailblazer, she aims to inspire prospective broadcasters and embolden hopefuls to chase their dreams.
“For you to have success in this industry, you almost have to have a delusional belief in yourself,” Stewart-Binks said. “If you don’t, why would anyone else buy into you if you don’t buy into yourself?’”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Anatomy of an Analyst – Grant Hill
“I mean, think about his credentials, he checks all the boxes. NCAA Champion and Hall of Fame NBA Player. Credibility was never an issue. Fitting in was the only challenge.”
It’s hard for Grant Hill to escape history. Every time someone sees the former Duke forward in his role as a CBS/Turner analyst for the NCAA Tournament I’ll bet they are thinking about “The Shot.” The 1992 Elite 8 classic between Duke and Kentucky that ended with Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beating game winner in overtime. Hill delivered the pass from under his own basket and Laettner hit the game winner sending the Blue Devils to the Final Four. Now it’s Hill’s job to analyze passes, shots and buzzer beaters on what will be Jim Nantz’s last Final Four broadcasts.
Hill had a decorated career at Duke and in the NBA. He was the 1994 ACC Player of the Year, a two-time NCAA All-American and a two-time National Champion. His number 33 hangs in the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Upon graduating, Hill was selected by the Pistons with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft. He shared the 1995 NBA Rookie of the Year Award with Jason Kidd. Hill was a 7-time NBA All-Star. He scored just over 17-thousand NBA points and averaged 16.7 points a game during his career.
Injuries probably prevented him from being even better than he was. In 2013 he retired from the NBA after an 18-year career. and in 2018 he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Before his induction, Hill got involved in ownership of an NBA Franchise. Hill and Tony Ressler were a part of a group that bought the Atlanta Hawks in 2015. He is the Vice Chairman of the Board with the Hawks.
ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR WITH CBS/TURNER
Hill began his broadcasting career in 2013, by co-hosting the relaunch of NBA Inside Stuff on NBA-TV from 2013-18, alongside Kristen Ledlow. Hill was also part of the TNT broadcast of the NCAA Tournament and their coverage of the NBA Playoffs, before his current role. As part of the Turner family, Hill was an NBA-TV studio analyst on NBA Game Time and on TNT’s Inside the NBA.
His rise to the top broadcast team on CBS/Turner’s NCAA Final Four games, came as a big surprise to the Hall of Fame player. He recalled the story about his ascension in an interview with Yahoo Sports in 2017. Hill was a rookie all over again, and was very young in the broadcasting game, when he received a message from his boss, who wanted to see him.
“I’m thinking I have to go to the principal’s office and they’re going to tell me how bad I am,” Hill told Yahoo. “Instead, he’s like, ‘Hey, we want you to do the Final Four with Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery.’”
The stars aligned for him after a series of events gave him the break. Steve Kerr left to coach the Golden State Warriors in May 2014 and Greg Anthony was arrested on a charge of soliciting a prostitute eight months later. CBS/Turner was in a mad scramble to find replacements to put on the broadcast with Jim Nantz. The network decided to use former coach Bill Raftery and Hill because they could come at the games from different perspectives.
All of this was happening in early 2015, just a couple of years after Hill retired from the NBA. He had only called a few NBA games for Turner and had some experience with the NCAA Tournament as a studio analyst. The thing was, Hill wasn’t even sure that broadcasting was something he wanted to pursue as a long-term post NBA career.
“Honestly, full disclosure, I didn’t think I was ready at the time,” Hill told Yahoo in 2017. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no clue. But I also was smart enough to realize this opportunity may not come along again when I think I’m ready, so I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
AS AN ANALYST
He was certainly ‘green’ at the beginning. How could anyone really have expected more? In his early games as part of the trio, Hill seemed very passive. He was only comfortable jumping in after Raftery made a point or when either Raftery or Nantz asked him a question. Hill sometimes sounded more like a guest in the booth. Nantz and Raftery had to incorporate Hill into the broadcast by symbolically pushing him to talk. Hill was the rookie joining a veteran team and was respecting the established players a little too much.
“I think he deferred a lot more at the beginning because he’s a gentleman,” Raftery told Yahoo. “Now he’s really ready to jump in when he has a good thought without feeling like he offended Jim or I. That’s a normal progression for anyone.”
I mean, think about his credentials, he checks all the boxes. NCAA Champion and Hall of Fame NBA Player. Credibility was never an issue. Fitting in was the only challenge.
It didn’t take long for Hill to assimilate himself into that established broadcast. Getting some games with the guys certainly helped and developing a stronger relationship with Nantz and Raftery on and off the air was essential. The progression was pretty quick. The confidence Hill had in himself was on full display in just his second Final Four broadcast. In the Championship Game between Villanova and North Carolina, the game was on the line in the final seconds. Hill had no trouble jumping in when he noticed how the Villanova play was developing in front of him.
Nantz: Villanova trying to go the length of the court, with Arcidiacono. Three seconds at midcourt!
Hill: Watch Jenkins.
Nantz: Gives it to Jenkins! [time expires] For the championship… YES!
Raftery: [overlapping Nantz, voice breaking] OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
Nantz: Villanova! Phenomenal! The national champions, with Jenkins hitting the winner at the buzzer!
That’s what Hill is there for. He was an intelligent player in both college and the NBA and can see things that not many in the audience can in those instances. He jumped in at the correct moment, not getting in the way of the shot or the final call. That only happens when you feel confident and comfortable within the framework of a network telecast. He’s playing off both Nantz and Raftery from time to time. They now sound like three good friends.
Not only has Hill sounded more authoritative on air, he’s also allowing some of his personality to show. He’s much more at ease on the broadcast and able to just do his thing and he’s doing it quite well.
DID YOU KNOW?
There is a story behind an infamous haircut that was ruined by an alcoholic barber just before the 1991 Final Four would be televised to the nation. Hill recalled the story to basketballnetwork.net in January. Hill and his roommate at the time, Antonio “Tony” Lang, went to get themselves “right” at the barber they regularly visited who happened to have a drinking problem.
“I get in the chair, so the mirror is behind me, so my back is to the mirror while he is cutting me and Lang is sitting in front of me. Lang is trying to give me that look – dude is messing you up! I don’t know what happened. I’m mad now, I am about to go on national TV with this head.”
Before the ‘makeover’ he had a clean high-top hairstyle, and after that he was almost completely bald. The haircut was so bad it was a topic before the game even tipped off. Coach K did not want that incident to disrupt the winning rhythm as the Blue Devils began the Final Four.
“He (Coach K) said before the game, look, I don’t want y’all doing anything crazy, like going bald or do something different than you would normally do. Now I would just cut it down and bald it, but back then, it was 1991, it was a different time.”
Hill listened and didn’t do anything to jeopardize a win. He played 28 minutes and notched 10 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. Hill also made an iconic alley-oop at the beginning of the game. However, to this day, he can’t watch the highlights of those games, thanks to the botched haircut.
“I go out in one of the most historic Final Fours, and have some iconic moments with the worst haircut. I can’t even watch those games, I just think of that story. My head was terrible, man!”
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at Andy@Andy-Masur.com.
Ken LaVicka Waited For His Elite Eight Moment…Then The Internet Went Out
“It crossed my mind that, after 17 years of doing this, this is the ultimate moment and it’s not even going to happen. It was a stomach churning, awful low point feeling.”
17.9 seconds flash across the scoreboard and ribbon boards in Madison Square Garden as FAU’s Michael Forrest headed to the free throw line with his team up a point. It’s Saturday Night in the East Regional Final with a trip to the Final Four on the line and FAU was just seconds away from doing the unthinkable. The college basketball world stood still. Things were about to stand still for Owls radio voice Ken LaVicka, too.
The first attempt from Forrest went in easily, barely even touching the rim. The second attempt was just as smooth. 17.9 seconds is left with FAU up three on Kansas State. Everyone in The Garden is on their feet as K-State brings the ball up the floor on the next possession.
Everyone, except for one person. Instead of being glued to the final seconds like everyone else in the building, LaVicka is frantically searching for an ethernet cord underneath his seat on press row.
Full panic mode had set in for LaVicka. He’s off the air because all of the internet has gone out in his row of media seating. He’s scrambling to find a way, any way, back on the air. Amidst digging through wires from the TBS television broadcast, he hears a loud cheer from underneath the table on press row. K-State just made a layup. The score is 77-76 with 8.6 seconds left. A sinking feeling then overcomes LaVicka which he’ll never forget.
“It crossed my mind that, after 17 years of doing this, this is the ultimate moment and it’s not even going to happen,” LaVicka said. “It was a stomach churning, awful low point feeling.”
Just when that feeling was settling in, Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang called a timeout immediately after the made layup. It couldn’t have come at a better time for LaVicka. The situation allowed him to mentally reset for a second and figure out another option to get back on the air.
“It was only 45 seconds where the game was stopped at that point, but that gave me enough time to think ‘Wait a minute, we’re in a big arena, there’s no way the second or third row of this media setup is being fed by the same internet source that this first row is’,” LaVicka said. “The problem was, as I started to grab for the ethernet cord above me on the second row behind me, there’s no way there was enough slack to reach my equipment.”
At this point, LaVicka is calling the game from his cell phone. He tried this last resort option when the problems initially began, but his in-studio producer didn’t know the phone number for the call-in line. He’s an employee at the radio station, but not during live weekday programming, more weekends and after hours. Not being able to immediately call in was the moment the full-on panic set in for LaVicka.
But after finally getting the call-in number a few minutes later, LaVicka stood there with his phone in one hand explaining the technical difficulties and updating the game to the best of his abilities and holding the Comrex in the other hand. All the while, his headset is still on. It’s complete broadcasting chaos.
The ethernet cord he finds on the table behind him is taped to the table. Maybe he doesn’t realize it in that instance, but if this cord also doesn’t work, there’s a high likelihood his call of FAU reaching the Final Four will be from his cell phone.
“I’m ripping and ripping and ripping,” said LaVicka. “I finally got it loose and I have the Comrex in my arm. I turn around, plug it in, and sure enough I see the green and yellow flashing lights and there’s internet connection. It was a wave of relief and also a bit of urgency, like ‘Alright, let’s go’.
“I sort of tried, in the most professional way possible, just making up broadcast terms and saying, if we could have the main feed on the FAU Basketball Radio Network from Learfield. I don’t know what that means, I’m just making it up to make it sound as professional as possible, so I can avoid saying ‘Turn the phone down and turn me back up’!”
LaVicka was connected and back on the air. His heart was racing because he just pulled off a massive hail mary. Everything sounds good and clear, but there’s another problem. LaVicka couldn’t bring the equipment back to his spot on press row, because there wasn’t enough length on the ethernet cord.
That’s when a teammate of his at ESPN West Palm stepped in. Along with calling games at FAU, LaVicka hosts Ken LaVicka Live from noon to 2 PM every weekday on the station. His partner on the show is Theo Dorsey, who was also at Madison Square Garden covering the game for a local TV station in West Palm Beach.
Dorsey saw LaVicka scrambling to get back on the air and offered his assistance to help in any way he could. LaVicka just didn’t initially see any way his ESPN West Palm partner could help. That was until LaVicka found an ethernet connection that worked. This was Dorsey’s chance. When his partner needed help more than ever, he held the Comrex in place so LaVicka could walk back to his seat and call the final seconds of the game.
“I said ‘Don’t move this or wiggle the cords’, because I didn’t know how good our connection was,” said LaVicka. “He was cradling that thing like a baby.”
LaVicka got back on the air and was situated in time to call the ensuing possession after the Kansas State timeout. FAU hit another pair of free throws to go up by three with 6.9 seconds left. After KSU couldn’t get a shot off on its final possession, LaVicka gave the call he’d been waiting 17 years for.
“Florida Atlantic! Florida Atlantic is going to the Final Four! One of the most improbable stories in college basketball history has just played out in New York City! Houston you have a problem. Florida Atlantic is coming to town looking for a trophy!”
It was clear, itt was concise, it was perfect. Amidst the craziest and most stressful moment of his broadcast career, LaVicka was able to deliver the call of a lifetime just a few seconds later.
There’s something to be said for how he handled that moment. Not only his ability to get back on the air, but to compose himself enough to deliver the call that college basketball fans will never forget. Making all of that happen just might be a bigger Cinderella story than FAU reaching the Final Four.
“As much as I didn’t want to, I went back and listened to the final four game minutes and I was off the air for a total of about three and a half minutes but missed about 12 seconds of actual game time,” said LaVicka. “It was 18 and six-tenths of a second. I will have looking at the scoreboard etched into my brain for the rest of eternity.”
LaVicka has a few people to thank for their assistance, either directly or indirectly, for his completion of a broadcasting hail mary. There’s Matt Norlander and Andy Katz, who were both sitting next to LaVicka on press row and let him try their ethernet cord, unfortunately to no success. There’s Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang who indirectly helped by taking a timeout, which allowed LaVicka to collect his thoughts and find a solution.
There’s also his producer, who isn’t a full-time employee at the flagship, who notified LaVicka he was initially off the air. And then there’s Dorsey, who held the Comrex so his colleague could be in a position to make the best final call possible.
“I told him that night I owe him the expensive steakhouse dinner,” laughed LaVicka. “I felt bad because the whole time he was asking what he could do to help and I’m like ‘Buddy, there’s nothing you can do’. But then he definitely came in handy and allowed me to turn around and do the call.”
It’s a moment the two will never forget and the fact they do a radio show together at ESPN West Palm is poetic. It’s a story that’s gone viral and it absolutely made the radio show on Monday when the duo was back on the air together for the first time.
“We did the first half hour on it,” said LaVicka.
Media requests have flooded LaVicka’s inbox since Saturday night to talk about the moment. Sure, LaVicka is proud he found a way back on the air and delivered the final call, but not so much for himself. He believes FAU and its fans deserved that moment. In fact, he feels even a little embarrassed for being such a big part of what happened in the Elite Eight.
“I want to emphasize, I feel so unbelievably silly for being a part of this Final Four story with FAU,” LaVicka said. “I know FAU fans appreciate I’ve been there for a long time, my passion for the school and how I call games, because I like to think it’s very elite level for a school like Florida Atlantic, at least in its basketball history. Now I’ve sort of become a side story. I don’t love it because I don’t want to take away from what actually matters here.”
This story relates to so many play-by-play broadcasters, regardless of status. Just about every broadcaster, if not every single one, has dealt with in-game issues that knocked them off the air. It’s the single-most stressful thing that can happen doing play-by-play. This was far from the first time LaVicka experienced a situation like this. The only thing that makes this case unique, was because of the timing of the incident.
“In the broadcast realm, so many can relate to what I’ve gone through before,” said LaVicka. “But this happens at UTSA, or East Tennessee State, it never happens at Madison Square Garden in the final moments of the Elite Eight. If this happened at the 12:05 mark of the first half, who cares. The fact it happened with 18 seconds left and FAU up 1, I can’t believe how terrible the timing was.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.