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

From tech changes to broadcast booth reshuffling to a new boss at Turner, here’s what to know as NCAA Tournament kicks off.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In March 2011, CBS Sports and Turner Sports changed the landscape of March Madness consumption. The brands took a one-channel product on CBS and blew it out into a four-channel extravaganza spanning CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV. Gone were the years of watching only one NCAA Tournament game at a time.

Over the past decade, CBS Sports and Turner Sports have expanded their platforms well beyond TV, especially in the digital world. Every year since 2011, a little more progress has been made. It’s time to check in on what’s new for 2019 as the Big Dance gets underway.

The Digital Madness

March Madness Live is that app on your phone you download this week every March (or, if you’re like me, you just realized you never deleted it after last year’s tournament). Technically, March Madness Live is not just an app. It is the “exclusive live stream suite of products” managed by Turner Sports in partnership with CBS and the NCAA.

READ MORE: Big Ten Network Elevating Digital Game During Conference Tournament

For 2019, March Madness Live has expanded to 17 platforms with two new additions this year: Android TV and Oculus Go. These two platforms join the following in streaming all 67 March Madness games: iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Apple Watch, Android handset, Android tablet, Amazon Echo family of devices, Amazon Fire tablets, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Samsung Gear VR, mobile web, Roku players and TV models, desktop web and Xbox One.

“It’s distributed pretty much everywhere you can distribute a signal today,” says CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus.

For traditionalists, or just people on the go, there is still a way to follow the most interesting action without changing the channel or changing the stream. March Madness Live’s “Fast Break” feature, available for the first time in 2018 on the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament, will now be available from Thursday through Sunday on the first weekend. Fast Break provides live streaming whip-around coverage, switching from game to game while providing live look-ins and instant highlights. In a way, this is a modern take on CBS’ classic single-channel coverage, which toggled between games on one home station.

Then, for third year in a row, there’s VR. This year’s main tweak is the addition of Oculus Go as a compatible platform to view 21 selected NCAA Tournament games in virtual reality, including the Final Four and National Championship Game.

“What the reaction from the viewer is, how much viewership it gets, how much usage it gets,” says McManus, when asked how he will judge the VR statistics. “We’ll be watching it very carefully, seeing if we want to expand it. The main broadcast on the four channels is the priority, but it’s experimental to see if it’s something we want to do more of.”

McManus also says two sites will include 4K cameras this year.

Musical Broadcast Chairs

Most of the usual crew is back, with only one new broadcaster being added to on-site teams for the first two rounds. Jim Jackson, who currently commentates for Fox Sports and spent time at the Big Ten Network, will join Brad Nessler, Steve Lavin and Evan Washburn’s team. He will also be part of the First Four cast, with Spero Dedes, Steve Smith and Ros Gold-Onwude. Jackson, who played in the NBA from 1992-2006, was Big Ten Player of the Year twice, in 1991 and 1992, during his three-year career at Ohio State.

The real changes lie in how those familiar faces are configured. Three on-air announcers have been reassigned, with Jamie Erdahl now working with Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel; Lisa Byington working with Andrew Catalon and Steve Lappas; and Allie LaForce joining Brian Anderson and Chris Webber. Last year, Erdahl was with Catalon and Lappas; Byington with Anderson and Webber; and LaForce with Eagle and Spanarkel.

The 2019 broadcast teams look like this:

  • Jim Nantz / Bill Raftery / Grant Hill // Tracy Wolfson**
  • Brian Anderson / Chris Webber // Allie LaForce*
  • Ian Eagle / Jim Spanarkel // Jamie Erdahl*
  • Kevin Harlan / Reggie Miller / Dan Bonner // Dana Jacobson*
  • Brad Nessler / Steve Lavin / Jim Jackson // Evan Washburn
  • Spero Dedes / Len Elmore / Steve Smith // Ros Gold-Onwude
  • Andrew Catalon / Steve Lappas // Lisa Byington
  • Carter Blackburn / Debbie Antonelli // John Schriffen

*Weekend regional team

**Weekend regional and Final Four team

Sports fans will also see a familiar face pop in and out of broadcasts, although, they may not have expected to see him talking basketball. Gene Steratore will serve as CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ rules analyst for the 2019 NCAA Tournament, broadcasting in-studio for the First Four through the Elite Eight. Steratore will then be on-site for the Final in Minneapolis. Steratore served as rules analyst for the NFL on CBS this past fall after 15 years as an NFL official, getting promoted to referee in 2006. Steratore was also an NCAA Basketball official for 22 years before retiring his zebra stripes. Adding to the narrative is that Steratore’s last NFL game was Super Bowl LII, played at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2018, the site of the 2019 Final Four.

“Alexa, How Can I Win My Bracket?”

While untold numbers of websites provide fans the opportunity to fill out a bracket, only CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ Capital One NCAA March Madness Bracket Challenge has the capability to be synced with March Madness Live, allowing fans to follow their bracket and the live games in one virtual location.

Bracket Challenge and March Madness Live are now also allowing fans to communicate with Alexa about the bracket. Starting this year, Alexa has the capability to answer questions about a user’s bracket, their position in a particular group and their National Championship pick.

No-Nonsense Selection Show

From a broadcast standpoint, the biggest change may have already occurred in the Selection Show. After years of releasing the bracket incrementally, and only after heavy analysis to lead off the show, this year’s broadcast had barely gotten underway before the bracket was revealed in its entirety.

McManus says it was a deliberate strategy driven by audience feedback.

READ MORE: HERE TO STAY — GENERATION Z’S IMPACT ON SPORTS STRATEGY

“A lot of it was fan reaction,” McManus says of the decision. “I think for two years we did more analysis as we released the brackets and I think that frustrated people. It was an honest effort on our part and on Turner’s part to do that. But the feedback that we got is give us the brackets as quickly as we can. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Adds Jeff Zucker, Chairman of WarnerMedia, News & Sports: “Yeah, I’m a fan, too. I think we’re all fans. I don’t think there’s any ever any harm in trying. And if you don’t try things, you’ll never evolve. But I think it’s also the sign of understanding that when things don’t necessarily go as well as you would hope, you change it. And so there’s no shame in that.”

Zucker’s responsibilities include WarnerMedia’s new sports division, which includes overseeing Turner Sports, Bleacher Report and AT&T SportsNet. With Turner president David Levy stepping down after 32 years with the company, expect to see Zucker’s name early and often ahead of next year’s updates to the Tournament.

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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Rachel Nichols and ‘The Jump’ Lead the Way in Daily NBA Coverage

With the NBA playoffs reaching their peak, Rachel Nichols and “The Jump” are ramping up coverage, bringing the latest news to the growing NBA community.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

One afternoon, in the middle of his appearance as a panelist on ESPN’s “The Jump,” Scottie Pippen received a text from Michael Jordan letting Pippen know MJ was watching the show. Another time, Bill Russell tweeted at host Rachel Nichols about that day’s episode.

“It’s the ultimate compliment because growing up, we idolized these players,” says Danny Corrales, ‘The Jump’ producer. “To know current and former players are looking at our show as a credible source of NBA news and information is really flattering.”

In its three and a half years on the air, “The Jump” has made a name for itself as the go-to show for daily basketball news, even for the sport’s biggest stars.

“The show is on at practice facilities, training facilities and hotels, so we’ll get texts and hear from players, GMs and front office people, talking about rumors we address on the show,” Nichols says.

It’s not just Hall of Famers and NBA team personnel that tune in. “The Jump” averages around 300,000 viewers per day and is regularly one of the most-watched ESPN shows on-demand.

The common thread between those who watch? A deep love for the NBA and all of its drama, on and off the court.

“That’s what we’re striving for, that everyone from NBA fans to players to team owners can come hang out with us,” Nichols says. “It’s a centralized hub or hangout.”

READ MORE: ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

With the playoffs in full swing, the Emmy-nominated crew is now out of the studio and on the road, providing on-site coverage for the remainder of the season.

“To me, being where the game is has always been an important part of my coverage,” Nichols says. “I feel like I need to be here, going to practice and talking to guys, going to games, going into the locker room and talking about what’s going on…It brings an immediacy, a currency, and that helps viewers be there with us.”

A prime-time version of the show has also been added for the NBA Finals, airing on ESPN from 8 to 8:30 p.m. ET ahead of weekday Finals games.

“Every time we hit the road, we try to replicate our daily show as best as we can, and it’s not easy being on the road because there’s a comfort level you gain in the studio,” Corrales says. “Our goal for this year is to continue to do the show the way we do the normal show, with the same topics, same guests and same passionate energy.”

READ NOW: Ernie Johnson Talks March Madness, Sports Media and More

When she created “The Jump,” Nichols pushed for it to feel like a casual basketball discussion with friends. The show features media members and former players conversing around a table, and the studio is set up more like a living room than a traditional anchor desk.

“That’s what I’m doing on my weekend afternoon—sitting around, talking about basketball with friends, and that transferred into everything about the show,” Nichols says. “It’s not a big, huge set, and there are no big monitors, because I don’t have big monitors in my living room, so why would we have that here?”

Rather than showing highlights or going in-depth on Xs and Os, Nichols and her panelists dive into the quirky, peripheral side of the sport.

“We’re having an educated basketball conversation and telling you things you don’t know, so if you’re a diehard, you’re still learning, but we hope it’s accessible for other people, too,” Nichols says.

It’s not all about the fun, lighthearted side of the NBA, though. An experienced journalist, Nichols does not shy away from heavy topics in her introductory monologues and interviews, such as the Dallas Mavericks’ sexual misconduct investigation in 2018.

“In a way, I’ve been prepping my whole career,” says Nichols, who has covered major controversies involving sports figures like Roger Goodell and Floyd Mayweather. “I’ve done investigative pieces, and I’ve covered serious league issues for months at a time. I feel good that if something serious comes up, I can steer the conversation.”

Nichols and her crew have made an effort to balance those serious topics with the NBA’s goofier stories, though. For example, they recently discussed a Milwaukee-based radio station that refuses to play Drake songs during the Bucks’ playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

“We’re giving good weight to both [serious and fun] topics, and we’re staying true to the character of the show and who I am, too,” Nichols said.

The NBA is rarely bereft of topics to discuss, so Nichols leans on fans and NBA Twitter to find fresh content and drive the conversation. She says social media has “helped with that communal feel, like we’re all in this together.”

With the Finals around the corner, that community will embrace the drama, with Nichols and her crew leading the discussion every step of the way.

“The NBA is a celebrity league, and the players are superstars,” Nichols says. “People feel like they know these guys, so the whole thing feels like a high school cafeteria, where we know what table everybody is sitting at. We also have a table in the cafeteria, and now we have a yearbook.”

When she first pitched “The Jump,” Nichols took a risk, hoping to find an audience for a daily afternoon basketball show. Now, just a few years later, “The Jump” has become the preferred NBA show for basketball junkies—regular fans to NBA legends alike.

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ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

Front Office Sports

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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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Mike Yam Pac-12
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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