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ESPN Production Crews Gear Up for Five-Game Christmas Day Slate

With some of the NBA’s hottest teams facing off on Christmas, the ESPN production team has a full plate with 13 consecutive hours of coverage.

Bailey Knecht

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This Christmas, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers take on the star-studded Golden State Warriors in the teams’ first matchup of the season, making for one of the most highly-anticipated NBA games of the year. The NBA Christmas slate also features games between the Bucks and Knicks, Thunder and Rockets, 76ers and Celtics, and Blazers and Jazz.

“It’s a huge day for us,” said Tim Corrigan, senior coordinating producer at ESPN. “It will be our highest-rated day of the year for the NBA, so we always circle it on our calendar. We always want to be the best version we can, but it’s one of those days we’re just going to have more people watching.”

ESPN will produce all five games on Christmas, as it has done for 17 straight years. The 13-hour lineup will include games on both ESPN and ABC, with “NBA Countdown” holding things down during pregame and halftime.

“It’s the best,” Corrigan said. “This is what we’re passionate about — this sport — so it’s great to know you can sit down and transition from game to game to game regardless of network. We cross back from ESPN to ABC anyway, and we don’t treat one differently than the other. We put our best foot forward because, to us, we go and do our job, and we get to be part of what’s fun and entertaining for fans.”

LISTEN: Rob Perez’s Journey from Ticketing Entrepreneur to NBA Personality

ESPN pulls out all of the stops for its Christmas production, between the “NBA Countdown” crew of Michelle Beadle, Paul Pierce, Jalen Rose and Adrian Wojnarowski, and the broadcast crews featuring big names like Chauncey Billups, Doris Burke, Hubie Brown, Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and P.J. Carlesimo. The production will even feature a special performance by musician Daveed Diggs, who starred in Hamilton.

“It’s become a must-watch thing for folks, even those who don’t follow the NBA very closely,” Corrigan said of NBA Christmas. “We pick up a bunch of outside fans — as we like to say, we like to be kind to the accidental viewer and get them up to speed. We let players be stars and document it the best we can.”

Corrigan and his crew make it a point to plan their productions with the viewers in mind, especially on Christmas.

“It’s worked out great with the league and the programming, with team matchups you want to see and players who resonate,” Corrigan said. “This year, players in all five games will be wearing microphones. Fans want that access, so we know that to take advantage of the huge audience, we need to do something a little more special, so we’re doing it across all of our games, starting with the Bucks and Knicks.”

Thanks to a competitive, drama-filled start to the NBA regular season, ESPN is already in peak form when it comes to producing games.

“We’re coming in at a really good place,” Corrigan said. “The games we have, people are really interested in them, at the teams hitting their stride or fighting through challenges. I think we’re in a great spot to capitalize on interesting stories… The great thing is, we’re a couple months into the season. From production to talent to engineering to operations, we’re in our groove of covering the NBA right now.”

The Christmas slate is particularly special because it appeals to everyone, from NBA die-hards to casual fans, according to Corrigan.

“I think the best thing for us is that, certainly, there is part of our audience that only watches at Christmas — they may be big football fans and they’re starting to transition to the NBA now — but there’s also a large part of our audience that has been with us since October, during our preseason Lakers/Warriors games,” he said.

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Fans don’t have to wait until Christmas Day to enjoy the NBA festivities, though. ESPN’s “The Jump” will air a 90-minute Christmas preview special at 2 p.m. ET on Christmas Eve, hosted by Rachel Nichols with appearances by Scottie Pippen, Amin Elhassan, Nick Friedell and Marc Spears.

Between the preview special, five consecutive games, and pregame and halftime shows, the ESPN crew is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to pull it all off.

“I have to give a big shoutout to everybody — talent, producers, directors, associate staff, engineering, operations — everybody who makes this day special for us,” said Corrigan.

“It’s hundreds of people across the board, from production to operations to engineering, just because each game is fully staffed with anywhere from a dozen to 20 cameras,” he added. “It’s a huge undertaking, and anybody who works on production, operations or engineering is working that day. It’s a source of pride to be a part of this, and to be asked to be a part of this.”

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

Broadcasting

MSG Networks Partners With Overtime To Create A Unique Simulcast

Overtime will take over MSG+ in a bid to put a fresh spin on the traditional NBA broadcast and cater to younger audiences.

Mike Piellucci

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Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A single basketball game can cater to a wide variety of audiences but rarely will that ring truer than Sunday afternoon’s broadcast between the Knicks and Lakers.

Turn on MSG, and you’ll hear Kenny Albert and Clyde Frazier break down the battle of two of the league’s most storied franchises. Tune into MSG+, though, and the same action will instead be called by talent from Overtime.

The simulcast represents one of the first major collaborations between the legacy brand and the new media upstart after MSG Networks invested in the two-year-old company as part of a Series B funding round last month. It’s also the sort of experiment that could provide a glimpse into the future of sports broadcasting.

READ MORE: GENERATION Z’S IMPACT ON SPORTS CONTENT STRATEGY

“I think people still want to watch the game, they still want to understand what’s going on and those things ring true of traditional broadcasts,” says Zack Weiner, Overtime’s co-founder and president. “But they want the people on screen to maybe be a little bit more relatable, be able to incorporate more things about pop culture and ultimately, too, feel a little more like their friend.”

The melding point between tradition and innovation is a microcosm of MSG and Overtime’s budding partnership. Each has something the other wants. For MSG, it was better access to Generation Z, the elusive demographic that Overtime has been able to connect to like few other sports broadcast entities.

“It was not necessarily, ‘We need to do something for young people,’ but it was, ‘How do we start to engage this audience for the future?’” says Kevin Marotta, MSG Networks senior vice president of marketing and content. “There’s a recognition that there are some brands out there who do it really well. That sort of led us down the path with Overtime.”

For Overtime, it was MSG’s cache and assets, as well as the appeal of working with a legacy brand that Weiner credits for adapting well in the face of changes within the industry.

“There’s a lot of traditional media companies where I’ve walked into the room and talked about partnerships and it’s just very clear that the first step in any partnership with them is going to be them understanding that things have changed,” Weiner says. “I would say that’s either sort of inherent to companies or it’s not. And for MSG Networks, it felt very inherent. It felt like they understood that.”

All of that comes to a head on Sunday for game that will also make waves by becoming the first-ever regular season NBA game broadcast via FB Watch in the United States. MSG has prior experience with simulcasts thanks to a 2017 collaboration with Draft Kings that assessed the game through a fantasy-centric lens. They’ve decided to up the ante with this time around. The Overtime broadcast will be exclusively called by their own talent, including former Southern Illinois player Camron Smith, former Georgetown player Monica McNutt, Jesse “Filayyy” Jones and Laurence “Overtime Larry” Marsach. But MSG also has built out a custom graphics package to further differentiate the two broadcasts from one another.

“We really looked at this not as a ‘How do we tweak our broadcast with this new talent for a young audience?’ but, ‘How do we create a broadcast for this audience?’” Marotta says.

Both parties insist that Sunday is a test case, one they won’t judge by raw ratings nearly as much as metrics like watch time and social media engagement. Weiner, in particular, is optimistic about collaboration in a number of spaces moving forward, irrespective of how the simulcast is the start of something new or a one-off.

READ MORE: OVERTIME CAPITALIZES ON WOMEN’S BASKETBALL BUZZ WITH OVERTIMEWBB

“Our sort of laboratory to experiment in, I would make the case that it’s extremely unique,” he says. “I think what we’re doing with a younger audience is pretty singular, and I think MSG’s rights portfolio and their established brand is incredible. When you put those things together, you create a really interesting sort of laboratory to play with it.”

Nevertheless, he remains optimistic about the simulcast as a jumping off point for a new sort of sports broadcast, one which finds a common ground that can appeal to any sort of audience.

“Do I think that doing one broadcast between MSG and Overtime is going to completely change everything? No,” Weiner says. “But do I think it’s a huge step in the right direction? Absolutely. I think both parties are going to learn a lot and think that both of our audiences are going to be really pleased with the product and say, ‘Oh, I want to see even more of that.’

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SXSW Panel Forecasts Opportunities Galore For Broadcast Rights

A missed opportunity by established broadcast networks has set up a wild west when several major sports broadcast rights expire in coming years.

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The future of sports broadcast rights is about to change.

At least that’s the opinion of the panelists at South By Southwest’s “The Evolution of Rights Holders and Future of Sports” panel, a group which included Hillary Mandel, senior vice president for IMG Media; Seth Bacon, senior vice president of media at Major League Soccer; and moderator Mark Floreani, the COO and co-founder of FloSports.

The reason why? Mandel points to the expiration of as many as nine major-sport broadcast rights deals in the next 36 months. In years past, that might only have amounted to a renewal or minor reshuffling of television broadcasts among the same group of networks. But new, nontraditional players have gotten into the game, which could lead to a serious reshuffling in the marketplace.

“The opportunity came because linear broadcasters didn’t see it coming, stood there and we had contentious arguments about exclusivity and where’s the line of digital,” Mandel said. “We were starving fans. The world shifted; viewing shifted. The world lives in consumption buckets, had they recognized that 10 years ago, it would have been a different place and tougher barrier to entry, but the door is wide open.”

Bacon agreed. 

“To have more options is only beneficial to anyone and everyone in the end,” Bacon said. “Fans get more choice, better awareness for sponsors. It’s not a binary conversation anymore where people put their rights.”

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Leagues have taken notice, too. MLS executives informed its clubs this month not to have their rights extend beyond 2022 with local partners, so to remain flexible and have all options available as the landscape can change a lot in the next three years.

But a new paradigm comes with new challenges, too. Mandel tackled one of the primary ones near the end of the session when she was asked about the long-term viability of the current subscription-based service model.

“This notion of having a consumer add up in the grocery store this number of services,” she said. “When will all those points converge if the rest of the world still lives with investments in the linear world. Where’s the tipping point?”

One solution could be over-the-top networks like ESPN+ or FloSports and its verticals. They could eventually help solve and provide the outlet all the other individual outlets provide beyond the linear broadcasts. One MLS team, D.C. United already has partnered with FloSports for soccer coverage to create FloFC.com, and Bacon teased a second was on the verge of a similar announcement. 

Outside of event broadcasts, the panel discussed the importance of shoulder content on non-linear channels to fill the void. In 2019, a solid content portfolio that supports the channel’s core demographics also helps support the idea the channel is worth having.

“It’s about time, currency of time,” Bacon said. “There’s so much challenge to compete for people’s eyeballs and that’s what people need to address. You need to have a direct connection that people’s time investment is being respected.”

The round-the-clock coverage can also be an amalgam of similar sports. Mandel pointed to IMG Media’s parent company Endeavor’s Strive Channel in Scandinavia. The channel was created to circumvent the European region’s dominant sports channel for their Serie A broadcast partnership.

“The barrier of entry to market is greatly reduced,” Mandel said. “If you compare what it’s like to launch a cable network 20 years ago to an OTT, we took [Serie A and La Liga] and effectively in a six-week period launched a new service.

“Competition is a key driver for value. We assessed what was available and recognized we had the technology and enabled us to launch an OTT.”

The network has since added MLS to the mix, which Bacon lauded for the solution to sports’ so-called “leaky bucket” issue.

“How do you protect the live game?” Bacon asked. “Rather than hug tightly, they’re going to the biggest newspapers and digital platforms and partnering. The amount of coverage in Scandinavia is 100 times more than it would have been organically.

Both Bacon and Mandel believe that more nuanced changes will accompany the impending shift in who buys which rights. Bacon predicted global rights will become a focal point in future broadcast deals. Meanwhile, Mandel said she foresees the creation of more media entities like Endeavor, which provides multi-vertical cross-over interaction to streamline projects. Endeavor has made 32 acquisitions in the past few years stretched across various industries. Among those were two sports entities, Professional Bull Riders and UFC. The company also has content partnerships with companies entities like Euro League, European Tour and MLS.

“It’s not just an advertising agency, talent agency, sports marketing agency,” she said. “It’s a media company with a number of verticals and expertise. With businesses swimming in and out of the different verticals.”

READ MORE: Turner President Addresses the Future of TV and the ‘Three A’s’ Concept

Some of these changes may not be on the horizon had major operators not remained stagnant for several years. The future, however, is going to look very different now that they have. 

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NFL Viewership Growth Throughout Europe Exposes Opportunities in the US

The NFL is tapping into a different fan base in Europe — and lead marketing agency Two Circles hopes to merge marketing styles for U.S. clients.

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There’s a drastic difference in marketing tactics in the U.K. and the U.S. — and sports marketing company Two Circles is hoping it can continue to bridge the two.

Two Circles has helped grow NFL viewership in Europe with the NFL Game Pass product as the lead marketing agency for OverTier — the collaboration between Bruin Capital, owners of OTT tech platform Deltatre, and WPP, formed to grow Game Pass Europe.

Last season was the second straight year of subscriber growth, with 14.7 million hours of content viewed, including 6.5 million hours live. The United Kingdom saw a 75-percent increase, while Germany experienced a 69-percent increase, marking the two largest year-on-year viewership growth.

“As the NFL continues to prioritize Game Pass, we sought out key experts to unlock the significant potential across Europe,” NFL Executive Vice President of International & Events Mark Waller said when Game Pass relaunched in Europe in 2017. “Bruin and WPP have a proven track record of innovation and success, and we believe they are the best companies to help take Game Pass to the next level in Europe, technologically, operationally and in terms of growing the user base.”

The past few years has led to New York and Los Angeles offices for Two Circles as it begins to work with U.S. clients.

The success of the NFL in Europe — and the U.K., in particular — has a lot to do with the type of audience the sport is attracting, much like soccer in the U.S.

READ MORE: DC United’s Broadcast Deal Could Further Demonstrate Digital Media Potential

“The NFL tapped into something like MLS has in the U.S.,” said Sam Yardley, Two Circles senior vice president of consulting at the L.A. office. “There’s an audience out there a bit different than the mainstream. The type of fan is very different than the NFL fan here, less like a 55-year-old man drinking Bud Light and more like an alternative, younger fan more likely to drink craft beer.”

The NFL has been in the U.K. for years, as its afternoon time slots in the U.S. are good timing for evening and night games across the Atlantic. Still, football is the new kid in town in Europe and provides the viewers with more “glitz and glamour than hatred” like that found in soccer.

One of the most popular products on Game Pass is the 40-minute condensed game, Yardley said, so there is more concentration in providing fans with that sort of content rather than extra lifestyle documentary-type content, Yardley said.

Two Circles helps manage the NFL viewing rights in 60 European territories, while the NFL also has a separate deal encompassing Canada, Mexico, Australia and Brazil.

Yardley said one of the most important pieces of their offerings is providing a variety of ways to grow subscriber numbers, including an escalator of entry levels as not every fan wants to purchase a season-long pass. Providing single-game purchase options is important.

“It sounds very basic, but the reality is more complex,” he said. “The principals are straight forward. A lot of times, it’s personalized marketing. The NFL data set is rich, and we know who plays fantasy and who lives where. We can also start thinking about that with online behavioral patterns.”

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There are a lot of behavioral differences across the ocean when it comes to sports, Yardley said. In the U.K. there’s a reluctance for fans to support money-making endeavors by sports organizations. The British view sports as an antidote to a life of work versus the straight entertainment proposition professional sports offer in the U.S., Yardley said.

“It’s created a class of fandom that is very authentic and resistant to change,” he said.

Because of the general reluctance to spend money on sports, Yardley said U.K. sports marketing has excelled in soft selling, an aspect American-focused companies struggle with because fans are more likely to support the base offerings.

“Soft selling to fans are what leagues and teams are good at over there,” Yardley said. “Here, the model is stuck to offices, young grad students burning through phone lists, and selling tickets.”

Yardley said the NFL has been the most innovative league and its media rights strategy is structured in a way to maximize returns and is the most mature direct-to-consumer strategy, which will pave the way for other leagues.

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