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Gene Steratore Wants To Show Fans The Human Side Of Officials

Once a rare two-sport official, Steratore is now the even more seldom-seen two-sport official rules expert. Here’s how he plans to take on March Madness.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Gene Steratore grew up in an officiating household. His father, Gene Sr., was a college basketball and college football official, notably working for the Eastern 8 (precursor to Atlantic 10) in basketball and Big East in football.

“I was fortunate enough as a child to be around watching college basketball and college football at a very high level,” Steratore says. “And my father was the official that I was watching all of those years.”

Steratore ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps — and then some. Just like Gene Sr., Steratore broke into officiating NCAA basketball in the A-10, later working throughout college basketball in an officiating career that lasted from 1995 until 2018. But in 2003, he began to work the NFL, too, eventually becoming a crossover success story. He served as a referee for both the Super Bowl (LII) and the NCAA Tournament (2008 and 2009), as well as the Atlantic 10, Big East and Big Ten Conference Tournaments. Steratore’s retirement from officiating leaves only Bill Vinovich officiating in both the NFL as well as NCAA Basketball.

READ MORE: Despite Exit, David Levy’s Presence Looms Large Over March Madness

All the while, Steratore and older brother Tony, a current NFL official since 1999, have run Steratore Sanitary Supply, a janitorial paper supply distribution company, out of Western Pennsylvania since 1988.

Steratore traded in his zebra shirts for a suit last summer and promptly signed on with CBS Sports to serve as an on-air rules analyst for both NFL and NCAA Basketball coverage. This month’s NCAA Tournament is his first on the media side. Fans watching the First Four and first weekend of March Madness probably saw Steratore pop in to offer his analysis from a CBS studio. He will carry the same role during the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight before being on-site at the Final Four in Minneapolis.

“Now, a lot of people on social media, seeing me on this platform are saying, ‘Wow, why is he doing basketball?” Steratore laughs. “It means the 20-plus years of Division I basketball I did, I obviously wasn’t recognized as much, which is the ultimate compliment to an official. When you’re not seen, that means you did a great job.”

Now, Steratore is seen. His name and headshot pop across the screen every time he breaks down a call.

Just like with football, Steratore’s March Madness plan with CBS is to jump in for every possible questionable call, especially those being reviewed. He also wants to follow the teaching model he established this NFL season.

“With this position, what I think I did in some ways this year [in the NFL], was at least take the viewer into the mind and the eyes of that official and to try to humanize a little bit of the speed of this game and how quickly decisions are being made.” Steratore says. “I want to put a human element on what these unbelievably talented officials are doing without the luxury of slow motion and, really, how many more times they’re really right than they’re wrong.”

CBS gave Steratore a few warm-ups for March Madness. He contributed his analysis to the network’s college basketball broadcasts in the weeks leading up to the NCAA Tournament. Those few games alone were enough to introduce Steratore to the differences between basketball and football broadcast production.

“Basketball is so fast,” Steratore says. “In football, in the fall, when we have a review or a challenge play, the majority of the time, we break for commercial, I would have a two-and-a-half-minute sequence of time there to get multiple angles of a play to look at what the official was viewing or reviewing. And then, when we would come back from commercial, I had two minutes to digest what I think happened and put my thoughts and my words into my opinion.”

“Basketball, my goodness, they blow the whistle and the next thing you know, they’re walking to the table. We don’t get an announcement as to what they may be doing right away. We can have maybe two or three minutes of air time there.”

While fans may have been oblivious to Steratore’s grind as a working official, certain players saw Steratore as a multi-sport athlete. He notes he had the chance to referee stars like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger for much of their primes.

“I would have some talk on an NFL field from Aaron Rodgers about how well I was or how well I wasn’t working Wisconsin basketball games,” Steratore chuckles.

At the NFL level, the consistency of the players and teams made these relationships easier to form while college is more sporadic. Still, Steratore was able to develop a rapport with some future college basketball stars.

“I had a great affinity for Draymond Green, being the personality he was,” Steratore says. “He was always fun to officiate. He had a great personality, and I’m kind of a talker anyway, so, I think those kinds of personality guys, I enjoyed having a little back and forth. I had good relationships with the Wisconsin group that went through to the Final Four with [Frank] Kaminsky and [Sam] Decker.”

READ MORE: New In March Madness Media For 2019: More VR, Alexa And Familiar NFL Analyst

Steratore’s road to the Final Four will end in Minneapolis at U.S. Bank Stadium, the same venue he officiated his final NFL game, when Tom Brady fumbled away the Patriots’ chances in Super Bowl LII. He was only 55 when he retired, right in the middle of the 51-to-59 range that he calls an official’s prime. But, for him, the timing felt right. He has the opportunity to take on a new endeavor with his “health in good standing.”

“I spent a lot of years on the road,” Steratore says. “I spent a lot of days away from my family. I have three children. I’ve been a single father for the last 15 years. I’m happily engaged at this point, but I also was away a long time.”

At least for this month, Steratore is traveling again. This time, thankfully, he won’t have coaches yelling at his face.

But through a TV Screen? Maybe.

Jeff Eisenband is a broadcaster and writer based in New York City. He previously served as senior editor of ThePostGame and has contributed to the NBA 2K League, NBA Twitch channel, DraftKings, Tennis Hall of Fame, Golfweek, Big Ten Network, Cheddar and Heads Up Daily. A graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Jeff truly believes Northwestern will win national championships in football and basketball.

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NBA, Instagram and New Era to Deliver Shoppable Championship Moment

As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear.

Michael McCarthy

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Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sports fans are most likely to open their wallets and make an impulse purchase after their team wins a championship. As Instagram expands into e-commerce, it’s teaming up with the NBA and New Era to offer either Golden State Warriors or Toronto Raptors fans the opportunity to buy officially licensed championship gear as they’re popping champagne.

Here’s how the digital “tap to shop” promotion will work: The minute the buzzer sounds ending the 2019 NBA Finals, Instagram will instantly offer a $50 cap/t-shirt bundle for the winning team via New Era. The combo will be exclusively available on Instagram for 24 hours after the game’s conclusion. After that, the gear may go on sale at NewEraCap.com.

The 37.7 million followers of Instagram’s NBA account just have to tap on the post for details, then tap again to buy. Instead of being sent elsewhere they can handle the entire purchase within the app.

As the “authentic cap” of the NBA, New Era is currently selling Warriors/Raptors hats emblazoned with the gold “2019 NBA Finals” logo. The NBA, Instagram and Fanatics offered a similar “shoppable moment” after the Warriors won the Western Conference Finals.

“As the Authentic Cap of the NBA, we’re excited to honor the championship team with the official New Era Authentics: Championship Series Cap and Team Celebratory Tee Bundle exclusively available through the NBA’s Instagram,” says John Connors, New Era’s director of basketball. “This partnership gives us an opportunity to reach fans and provide them with product that helps them celebrate their team’s NBA championship.”

Paige Cohen, a spokeswoman for Instagram’s tech communications, notes fans “want to be part of” the winning team’s celebration. “They shop the gear, they get all decked out,” Cohen says. 

Cohen has a point, according to sports retail expert Mike May. Capitalizing on the thrill of victory can create a “financial windfall for those who have the right product at the right time.”

It can even inspire couch potatoes to put down the clicker and play the sport they’re watching on TV.

“When (fans) emotions are high there’s often a disconnect between common sense and spending — and spending just takes over,” says May, who consults for PHIT America. “It’s an interesting day and age that we live in. It gets faster. The immediacy of Instagram just adds to the festivities — and the spending.”

READ MORE: Canadian Craze Carrying NBA Finals Viewership

Instagram and New Era previously partnered with the NFL to offer a digital shopping experience during the 2019 Draft in Nashville.

The ceremonial act of young college football stars putting on the cap of their new NFL teams has become part of the NFL Draft day ritual. A photographer shot photos of the players in their New Era caps. The photos were shared to the NFL’s Instagram account, complete with shopping tags, driving fans to NFLShop.com. The caps sold for $30 to $38.

The NBA can tap into a huge pool of hoops fans on social media. The NBA’s Instagram account boasts the most followers of any pro league account. The account has drawn 11.8 billion views, and 1.3 billion engagements, this season alone. And Instagram’s new role as a digital mall keeps growing.

In March, the social media giant launched a “Checkout on Instagram” button that enables users to shop and buy products without leaving the app. Users enter their name, email, billing information and shipping address.

Over 1 billion people use Instagram every month, according to Hootsuite, with 500 million on the platform every day. Roughly 60% utilize Instagram to discover new products.

READ MORE: NBA and Twitter Team Up to Bring “Virtual Sports Bar” to Life

Sam Farber, the NBA’s vice president of digital media, said the Finals offer the league an opportunity to “test innovative initiatives” during its biggest event of the year.

With the Raptors leading the Warriors 3-2 in the NBA Finals, the series returns to Oakland for Game 6 Thursday night. If the Warriors survive, the Finals moves to Toronto for Game 7 Sunday night.

“We’re excited to partner with both Instagram and New Era to bring exclusive merchandise to fans in a new way.”

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Stanley Pup Correspondent Fetches New Fans for NBC Sports & NHL

According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason.

Ian Thomas

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Photo Credit: NHL

The multiple-month grueling road to the Stanley Cup Final annually catches the attention of the sports world. This year, one of the most dogged chroniclers of that journey has helped the league gain even more traction – Sunny, the Stanley Pup correspondent.

The idea for a Stanley Pup correspondent was the brainchild of Matt Ziance, manager of consumer engagement at NBC Sports. After seeing the way that Sunny, a labrador and guide dog in training, had captivated audiences as the official Today Show puppy, the idea of having a dog being a continued part of the network’s coverage of the NHL playoffs was spawned.

“Each year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we’re always searching for new, organic ways to stand out in our overall marketing messaging,” Ziance said. “While looking at successful campaigns across our properties, we saw a strong connection between our fan base and utilizing puppies in our campaigns.”

That led NBC Sports to incorporate the Stanley Pup across its broadcasts and social posts on a weekly basis. Across the playoffs, Sunny traveled more than 10,000 miles across the country while attending games in Boston, Denver, San Jose and St. Louis, as well as appearing at the network’s studios in Stamford, Connecticut – creating unique content while also finalizing his guide dog training by working in high-volume areas and new surroundings.

That content has been a boon for NBC Sports, the NHL and the reach of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. According to NBC Sports, the Stanley Pup campaign has had more than 18 million impressions this postseason across collaborations with The TODAY Show, the NHL, the We Rate Dogs Twitter account and the Guide Dog Foundation – an audience that includes many who are connecting to the Stanley Cup and the NHL in a new way.

Dan Palla, director of consumer engagement marketing at NBC Sports, said the network spends significant time in the build up to the launch of the playoffs each year thinking of “every single way we can make the Stanley Cup Playoffs bigger than it has been before.”

“The tagline we use is ‘there is nothing like playoff hockey’ – there is an inherent truth to that and every hockey fan knows that,” Palla said. “It’s also about growing the game and making the Stanley Cup Playoffs resonate off the ice, and thinking of new ways to draw people into the compelling games and the culture.”

Palla said when he first heard of the idea of bringing Sunny onto the hockey team, he said “it’s hard not to smile when you think of a Stanley Pup correspondent – we knew it was an opportunity to bring hockey to audiences in a different way that felt like a shot worth taking.”

The NBC Sports team worked with the Today Show staff to understand what worked well with Sunny in terms of content, as well as with the Guide Dog Foundation to ensure that the experience would also be beneficial to Sunny’s training.

READ MORE: Like Novak Djokovic’s Outfit? NBCUniversal Wants To Help You Buy It

The ability to capture hockey-related content with Sunny has allowed the two NBCUniversal programs to have cross-company promotion on-air as well as on social media, while also having hockey content reach new audiences. For example, the Stanley Pup correspondent was featured on the popular We Rate Dogs Twitter account, which has more than eight million followers. That also helped spark user-generated content coming from hockey fans and dog lovers alike on how their own ‘Stanley Pups’ were enjoying the playoffs.

Palla said NBC Sports has made it “mission critical” to help raise awareness of the sport and the NHL outside of the traditional ways of marketing hockey, something that he thinks has helped viewership. The NHL 2018-2019 regular season averaged 424,000 viewers across NBC Sports’ TV and digital platforms, up 2% from the previous year.

Both Palla and Ziance said the network has been thrilled with Sunny’s contribution to this year’s playoffs. While Sunny is now leaving the NBCUniversal family to become a full-time guide dog, Ziance said the idea of another future Stanley Pup Correspondent is something the network will consider not only for the 2020 playoffs, but potentially for the regular season as well.

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Twitter Doesn’t Want Sports Rights

Front Office Sports

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

You can count out at least one social media company from the TV sports rights game. 

According to Max Mason of The Australian Financial Review, the company is not interested in battling for major sports rights, but wants to partner with rights holders, such as TV broadcasters, to extend their audiences and bring in more money.

Friend, not foe…

While Twitter does have deals to broadcast games on its platform with leagues like the WNBA, NWHL and more, the goal for the platform is not to be a linear TV broadcaster.

“The way that we’re approaching our business and our partnerships in the space is not to compete with rights holders. I don’t want to be a linear television broadcaster.” – Kay Madati, Twitter’s vice-president and global head of content partnerships

Bigger together…

Instead of competing with one another, Madati and Twitter want to serve as a way for traditional linear broadcasters to be able to amplify their content and drive new revenue.

“We’re here to make those events bigger by marrying the conversation that happens on our platform around those things. We’re here to actually come to them and say ‘we can make your event, your investment in this property that much bigger and that much better’.” – Kay Madati

More video is good for Twitter…

According to Mason, video has become the dominant source of revenue for Twitter, comprising 50% of money coming in.

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