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Can Sports Teams Use Animation in Content Plans to Stop Thumbs?

Publishers and leagues among the entities using 2Tall Animation to create thumb-stopping content to differentiate in an ever-flowing stream.

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Photo Credit: 2Tall Animation

Greg Walter sees animation catching on in a big way with professional sports organizations — and soon.

Walter has a vested interest in the prognostication coming true because he’s the founder of 2Tall Animation, a studio that’s created vibrant drawn work for organizations such as MLS and Bleacher Report.

As a career animator, most of his work had been with children’s programming and corporate explainers, but 2Tall started six years ago as a way to pursue more celebratory and expressive work, with a target on sports.

“Sports is an area where a couple of things are happening,” Walter said. “There is a great need for content, especially quick, snackable content to throw out there for fans that want to hang on to every word and see something different.

“People are coming around to the idea there are a lot of different things you can do to branch off the fact sports is a fun thing and also a myth-making vehicle.”

The myth-making of athletes and memorable moments makes animation an easy idea to help bring them to larger-than-life  context, Walter said.

READ MORE: Bleacher Report Flexes Original Content Muscles With ‘The Champions’

He has watched as overseas soccer leagues, specifically mentioning the Premier League, utilize animation in content and has wondered why U.S. leagues aren’t as adventurous. Walter hopes animators can help teams become less stagnant and formula following, believing animations can draw more fan engagement than photos and highlight videos.

“There aren’t a whole lot of teams that use their own social media to do interesting things artistically,” he said. “There is a tremendous opportunity.”

Walter is extremely happy with the animation usage of Bleacher Report, but hopes animation can stretch further than the media side.

2Tall has done work for several MLS teams and the league itself, which he said sometimes has more room to experiment with new and innovative ideas like the use of animation in digital content.

Among the pieces for the MLS included a Halloween piece with players dressed up. MLS Vice President of Content Greg Lalas said it’s important to be in the moment, whether that means thinking quickly on the fly or thinking ahead to a moment that is known to happen to provide a unique conversation piece, like Halloween.

Sparking a conversation by being different is all about what MLS wanted to do with the animations it has done with 2Tall.

“On social, you want to stop thumbs, if you will,” Lalas said. “Most people’s feeds are filled with photos and videos and GIFs. Illustrations stand out. It’s not super unique, but it represents the kind of perspective we constantly push ourselves to experiment with.”

Lalas said it was 2Tall’s ability to capture the definitive characteristics of players — be it physical, personality or even a nickname — and transition them to ink.

Animations can be done in quick “snackable” content or full-length series. One hurdle for teams has been cost, as Walter said he believes most people are shocked at the price. He is, however, working hard at finding a way to make the prices work out and make sense for organizations by packaging content and building content so even teams with smaller budgets can make it work.

“Return on investment is all about clicks, engagements and building the brand,” he said. “If I have an example of doing something interesting and not just because it’s fun and shows a return on fan base engagement and its affinity to players, they can take notice in the currency of creative content.”

Working with an illustrator like 2Tall can be a hearty endeavor, but the differentiation the content can offer helps propel those at MLS to keep coming back. Lalas said there’s another big illustration to hit in a few weeks.

READ MORE: A New Approach to Branded Content Benefits NFL Players and Partners

“Illustration and animation is a really good way to mix things up,” he said. “It takes time to plan and produce a big one like the Halloween illustration, or the #MLSisBack illustrations we’ve commissioned from Elliot Gerard for several years now.

“Despite the big effort, we believe they’re worth it because they stop thumbs and they can give a little something to fans across the league.”

To get animation into a more mainstream accepted form of content and to make a leap from a digital media organization and into more established organizations, it will take a few more experimenters like MLS.

“I’m hoping there are some adventurous teams, maybe they’re doing it and I don’t know, but that we can convince to try to do some different things and it can take off,” Walter said. “If you do it with the right amount of care, you can surprise fans a little bit in an interesting way.

“Surprising people is very important when they’re used to this glut of consumable content. People can appreciate it if it’s a little bit different, as long as it’s in sync with their vision for their team.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

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May 20, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) passes the ball past Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and forward Meyers Leonard (11) during the second half in game four of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Warriors won 119-117 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

During this year’s Western Conference Finals, you may have seen graphics that made you feel like you were playing an NBA 2K game instead of watching the Warriors sweep the Trail Blazers. 

Why? Because ESPN and Second Spectrum teamed up to deliver real-time AR graphics to provide viewers with advanced stats and engagement opportunities. 

What do you need to know?

‘ESPN Mode’, as it is called, is part of the network’s push to provide more differentiated viewing opportunities for fans through its digital offerings.

Outside of AR, ESPN has been offering a feed from a robotic camera above the rim, as well as one for pre-game layup lines, and during warmups for both teams.

They also rolled out a new NBA Twitter and YouTube pre-game show, Hoop Streams, as well as At The Mic, a show that covers post-game press conferences.

Why does Second Spectrum sound familiar? 

That’s because they are the company behind Clippers CourtVision, the technology that allows fans of the team to choose different streams that show different AR graphics during the broadcast of a game, similar to what ESPN was providing its fans. 

With CourtVision, fans get to choose from three streams, whereas with ESPN, the best of each different mode was combined into one. 

What did fans have to say?

The reaction to the graphics was mixed. Below is a look at what a few Twitter users had to say about them. 

– “Bruh. Wtf are these ridiculous graphics ESPN is forcing on us?!? Stop it.” – @vasu

– “I’m all sorts of excited for this.” – @iDontHoldHouses

–  “I like the idea here. A little too much going on IMO, but interested to see if this (hopefully in moderation) becomes more common.” – @declancmurray

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Mike Yam Helping Set a Path For Future Asian-American Broadcasters

Growing up, Mike Yam didn’t see many broadcasters that looked like him, so he didn’t figure it was a career option. He hopes to help change that perception.

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Yam was going to be a pediatrician.

However, at Fordham University,  he realized chemistry wasn’t his thing. In his dorm, he saw a classmate in a suit, headed to cover a New Jersey Nets game for the school radio station. The brief conversation resonated with Yam, as he realized he could turn his passion for sports into a career option and joined the radio station. He spent the next four years honing his craft.

“It didn’t click when I was younger, but you don’t see a heavy representation of Asian male broadcasters,” says Yam, now a lead anchor for the Pac-12 Network.

“I didn’t think being a sportscaster was an option. It was that iconic American dream to be a doctor or lawyer my parents wanted for me.”

READ MORE: Bartending, Country Music and Kay Adams’ Relentless Path to Success

Washington State Athletic Director Patrick Chun, himself the son of South Korean immigrants, can relate to the academic stresses Yam faced growing up. Chun became the first Asian-American athletic director of a Power 5 school in 2018.

“When Asian immigrants come to the U.S., their dreams manifest themselves in who their children become,” Chun says. “The biggest ideology difference in cultures are Asian-American kids are there for their parents and American parents are there for their kids. They put a premium on education and a premium on work ethic.”

Growing up, Yam noticed that other than Michael Kim, there were few sports broadcasters that looked like him. This is still a rarity today. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 5 percent of announcers, in any industry, are Asian, while 73.5% are white and 17.3% are black.

Yam believes diversity is an imperative need in newsrooms, and the sharing of cultures and stories is important in making these places more worldly.

 Yam is sometimes discouraged when he speaks at universities to big groups and sees a lack of Asian-Americans in the crowd. He said the lack of representation can potentially prevent children from imagining their dreams. But it’s improving.

“From the on-air side, I get legitimately excited when I see other Asian Americans on air,” Yam says. “What’s next is continuing to develop younger students who have a passion for this and see a pathway in an industry that’s really cool. It’s so crucial and important for younger people to see someone who looks like them doing this.”

For Chun, it was less about who he saw in positions and more about who he surrounded himself with. He credits people like Washington State President Kirk Schulz and Ohio State University athletic directors Andy Geiger and Gene Smith, who helped him while in the Buckeyes’ athletic department.

“They opened my eyes that this could be a goal,” Chun says. “Gene Smith was the guy who planted the seed in my head and gave me a road map. Even though there was no one that looked like me, it never crossed my mind I might the first.”

Chun believes it will take some time for stereotypes and stigmas to be eliminated, but people like Schulz help.

“We were focused on finding a leader with the right blend of experience, vision, and passion to lead Cougar athletics to the next level of success,” Schulz said at the time of Chun’s hiring. “In Pat, we’re confident we found that person. His achievements in fundraising, boosting the academic success rate of student-athletes, and building strong relationships with the community – on and off-campus – are exemplary.”

Yam doesn’t blame discrimination for the lack of Asian Americans in sports media, but he does believe it’s the Asian-American immigrant mentality that has partly held the industry in check. His grandfather essentially snuck into the U.S. and worked for years to bring his family to America. Yam’s father isn’t a sports fan, but the father and son were able to chat about sports during Jeremy Lin’s breakout season with the New York Knicks.

READ MORE: Inside Julianne Viani’s Whirlwind of a Broadcasting Career

“That’s when I knew it was big, when non-sports fans were talking about it,” Yam says. “I never really think about the lack of representation at a professional level until you see someone. Sports is the great equalizer. Either you can do it, or you can’t.”

Yam was not blessed with athletic skills, but he did find a path to be involved in sports in life. Now he gets to facilitate conversations with great athletes and coaches and hopes more find a similar path.

“Who wouldn’t want to do this?” he asks. “What kid wouldn’t want to be in this situation? People just need to know it’s possible.”

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Steve Javie Leans on Referee Experience to Provide Insight for ESPN

A 25-year NBA officiating veteran, Steve Javie has transitioned to ESPN, where he offers in-game analysis on referee rulings from the NBA Replay Center.

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Photo Credit: Bailey Knecht

During Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and the Trail Blazers, the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, is relatively quiet.

On any given night in the regular season, current and former officials converge to watch multiple live games on the room’s more than 100 TV screens and computer monitors. With only four teams remaining in the playoffs, all eyes are on the Warriors and Blazers.

One of those observers is Steve Javie, a former NBA referee of 25 years and current ESPN officiating analyst since 2012. Front Office Sports has a front row seat for his process.

Throughout the playoffs and select regular season games, Javie is on-call in Secaucus. When on-court officials are reviewing a controversial call, Javie jumps on ESPN, offering explanations and rule clarifications.

READ MORE: ESPN Reasserting Commitment to Baseball through Revamped Baseball Tonight

“It’s a good thing with ESPN because it gives another perspective, and I know the [broadcasters] I work with like Mike Breen and Jeff [Van Gundy] and Mark [Jackson], they’re knowledgeable, but you still want an opinion of someone who’s been on the floor,” Javie says. “They might disagree with me, and they do at times, but at least I can give that opinion or how it feels to be on the floor or what the officials are thinking or looking at right now in order to make this crucial call.”

The Replay Center is used to provide different camera angles to the on-site officials for courtside reviews. With a twist of a knob and a push of a button, operators can select the best angles and queue up any sequence from  game action.

Just like the referees and operators in the room, Javie sits at one of the room’s 20 stations where he rewinds and rewatches plays from nine different angles. At his station, he keeps Altoids, a cup of water, a notepad and a current NBA rulebook. He preps by writing down talking points, relevant rules and potentially controversial calls.

When the ESPN crew wants his opinion, he’ll get word from on-site producer Tim Corrigan. Javie then spins around in his chair to face the camera. Most calls that require explanations are subjective, such as the severity of a flagrant foul or judging between a block or charge.

“Steve’s officiating experience and knowledge brings yet another layer of expertise to our broadcasts as we document the biggest NBA games for fans,” Corrigan, officially senior coordinating producer for ESPN NBA, says. “We always try to entertain and inform our audience, and Steve helps us achieve that goal.”

READ MORE: WNBA Targets Broader National Reach With CBS Sports Deal

Javie started working out of the Replay Center when it opened in 2014. Although he is one of a few media members with regular access to the Replay Center, Javie considers himself more of a referee than reporter. A quarter-century in officiating made him an eternal part of the refereeing fraternity.

“Once an official, always an official,” he says.“That doesn’t mean I won’t comment on situations I believe I would handle it this way, which may be differently than the way they handled it on the floor, because it is really subjective.

“It’s almost like a father watching their kids because a lot of the guys I mentored are refereeing now, and you want them to do well, so when things go a little off, my insides turn,” he adds. “If that was me on the court, I wouldn’t care because I know I could handle it, but when you see your kids, as I call it, that you’ve raised, and you see them get into situations, you just hope they get out of it okay.”

This year, Javie’s role with ESPN may be even more useful than before. The season has been full of debate regarding officiating and the tumultuous relationship between referees and players.

Take the Western Conference Semifinals, for example, when everyone from fans to players to GMs chimed in on James Harden’s foul-drawing playing style.

But Javie embraces the opportunity to be a voice of reason and provide clarification to viewers, who otherwise have no access to the officiating thought process.

“I think it’s really good for the league and for the referees, that the referee has a voice there that can explain it because so many times, I think the fans can be misled,” he says.

Although Game 2 featured a tight, three-point win by the Warriors, the matchup was clean and uncontentious. As a result, Javie wasn’t called on by ESPN to share his input, but he stayed focused and alert throughout the evening.

For Javie, the rest of the playoffs will be no different, as he remains ready to share his expertise at a moment’s notice, notepad, rulebook and Altoids on call.

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