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Views From the Pit Box: NBC Sports Gives NASCAR Fans a New Perspective

Kraig Doremus

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NBC Sports’ Peacock Pit Box is complete with its own pit board sign just like ones used by the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams each weekend. Image from Jon Schwartz (NASCAR).

With former driver and two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the newest addition to its broadcast team, and his former crew chief Steve Letarte calling races from the Peacock Pit Box starting with the Daytona broadcasts last weekend, NBC Sports has amped up its NASCAR coverage to allow viewers even more unique views and access to information during its broadcasts.

For four seasons, Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte teamed up on the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, and once again the two are linked together, but this time they’ve traded in their fire suits for jackets and ties in the broadcasting industry. Earnhardt Jr. joined the NASCAR on NBC team after retiring in 2017, while Letarte is in his fourth season.

“It’s been nice,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I’ve got nothing negative to say about it. Even if I try to think of something on the negative side, everything has been positive. I’d be watching the races anyway and want to be at the track, so NBC is sending me to all the tracks, and they’re going to pay me to talk about it. It’s a dream come true. I’m going to try hard to do a great job. I’m asking a lot of questions and trying to deliver and play my role in the booth.”

In NBC’s traditional broadcast booth above the start-finish line, Earnhardt Jr. is joined by lead NASCAR on NBC announcer Rick Allen, and “The Mayor” of NASCAR, Jeff Burton.

Despite a positive reaction, he knows there is a learning curve.

“The produced segment is the most nerve-wracking part,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Rehearsals help knock off the nerves, but I think the hardest things for me to do are those structured, produced segments. Anytime you’re not on camera watching the action on the track, it’s easy to react to that. When you’re on camera either at the start of the show and at the close it’s the toughest part because you’re having to sum up your opinion of how the race is going to start, what to look for or your reaction of the race afterwards.”

While Earnhardt Jr. admits he’s having fun and always trying to learn, his former crew chief couldn’t hide his excitement about working with the 15-time Most Popular Driver again.  

“I knew it was going to be a lot of fun working with Dale Jr. again,” Letarte said. “It really is no different than sitting down with a beer and watching racing. In my opinion, a great broadcast should be one where you feel like you’re just hanging out with your buddies and having a good time. That’s what we’re trying to do with Dale Jr.

“Hearing Dale describe what the drivers are trying to do helps bring things to a new level. He’s a guy who was the most popular driver and a successful driver, but he’s also a huge historian of the sport. He understands all the different decades of the sport — ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s — that helps him because he can relate to all the fans and viewers.”

Steve Letarte, former crew chief of Dale Earnhardt Jr., will call races from the Peacock Pit Box on pit road, enhancing NBC and NBCSN’s NASCAR coverage for the 2018 season. The pit box officially debuted during the race weekend at Daytona International Speedway, July 6-7. Image from Jon Schwartz (NASCAR).

This season, Letarte has spent time on the Peacock Pit Box, which was officially unveiled earlier in the year. The new, state-of-the-art pit box is a remote studio situated along pit road, bringing viewers even closer to the heart-pounding on-track action during the 2018 season.

“In the broadcast booth, while it’s a great view, you’re somewhat removed from the action, often times six, seven, eight stories up, and you lose some of the intensity that the fans can experience themselves,” Letarte said. “What the pit box does is put me back where I lived (as a crew chief) on pit road for many years. Taking the fan to the action is the key. There is nothing like being in the action and that’s what the Peacock Pit Box does. We hope the sound, the feel, the noise, the things that make TV difficult but being a fan awesome really play into the pit box.”

The Peacock Pit Box is located in an empty pit box along pit road but is often times sandwiched between a pit box used by a team during a race, allowing Letarte to tell viewers even more about the different scenes and emotions that arise during a race.

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“I covered qualifying at Chicagoland from the Peacock Pit Box and being able to see the emotion on team members’ faces adds another layer of coverage,” Letarte said. “Having Dale Jr. join (the team) allowed me to take a different location. With all the talent we have, we have the opportunity to cover every race differently.”

With Letarte on the Peacock Pit Box and Dale Jr. in the booth, NBC Sports has certainly enhanced its coverage, but in the end, it’s all about telling NASCAR fans the most pressing stories.

“Those 40 drivers that strap the helmets on, they are the ones that tell the stories,” Letarte said. “Our job as broadcasters is simply to bring this awesome sport home to the NASCAR fan base.”

Kraig Doremus is a content writer for Front Office Sports with a focus on NASCAR. He holds a B.S. in Sport Studies from Reinhardt University and is currently pursuing his M.A in Sport Education from Gardner-Webb University. He can be reached at kraig@frntofficesport.com

Broadcasting

WNBA Targets Broader National Reach With CBS Sports Deal

CBS joins ESPN, NBA TV and Twitter as WNBA broadcasters as the league works to broaden its in-season viewing audience on a national level.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The WNBA continues to expand its national broadcast footprint, with Monday’s fast-moving deal with CBS Sports being the latest statement of intent regarding the league’s upward trajectory.

“They were immediately receptive once we initiated the conversation,” said David Denenberg, NBA senior vice president of global media distribution and business affairs. “It’s a powerful brand, and that’s great messaging for our fans.”

The pact calls for CBS Sports to air 40 games this season, which upped the number of nationally televised WNBA games from 67 to 97, including the league’s all-star game on ABC. ESPN Networks are slated to broadcast 16 games, including 11 on ESPN2, three on ABC and two on ESPN. NBA TV will match CBS’ total with 40 games, while 20 more will be broadcast on Twitter.

READ MORE: AT&T’s Logo Deal With WNBA Represents Deeper Strategy With NBA

Denenberg says the impetus for the deal on the league’s behalf came from its ESPN viewership growing 35 percent over the course of the 2017 season. It became a metric they could take to other potential partners, as well as one that spurred them to target further growth opportunities. CBS Sports made for an attractive partner because of its brand, Denenberg said, one which not only serves existing fans but opens the doorway to new audiences, too.

“The thought was to broaden our national scope,” Denenberg said. “That’s really the emphasis. We made good strides and we need to double down and serve the desire to consume more.”

CBS Sports looks at several factors when evaluating potential programming, according to Dan Weinberg, CBS Sports executive vice president of programming. The first is live events, as they draw more viewers. Likewise, the network is attracted to properties with elite athletes competing at the highest level. The season is also of interest, and the WNBA’s late spring and summer schedule fit nicely into CBS Sports’ programming.

“Under those guidelines, this deal becomes a no-brainer,” Weinberg said. “It’s advantageous for our organization. It’s high-quality programming with some of the best basketball played in the world by some of the best players in the world.”

Beyond the expansion of televised live games, CBS Sports also gains rights to some “ancillary, storytelling aspects” that both Denenberg and Weinberg said will help grow the two properties through the multi-year partnership. The extra content could be as simple as highlights but can stretch to short-form and long-form storytelling off the court, Weinberg said.

While the extra content is still to be fleshed out as the deal evolves, both sides see the benefits of sharing WNBA player stories to help attract new fans irrespective of which party produces it.

READ MORE: WNBA Star Sue Bird Makes Leap to NBA Front Office With Denver Nuggets

“We’re just getting our feet off the ground,” Denenberg said. “We hope as we move forward to tell the stories of these great players. We really want people to learn about the players and get fans to identify with them.”

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus called the deal “one of the biggest and most impactful women’s sports programming arrangements ever at CBS Sports” upon its completion. Weinberg emphasized McManus’ comments and said it’s a tremendous arrangement for CBS, WNBA and women’s sports.

“It’s not only a premier women’s league, it’s one of the premier sports leagues in the world,” Weinberg said. “There’s a lot of excitement.”

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Ernie Johnson Talks March Madness, Sports Media and More

Every spring, Ernie Johnson changes from an NBA bow tie into a March Madness one. FOS caught up with him to discuss the transition, sports media and more.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

For the ninth year in a row, Ernie Johnson is pulling double duty for Turner Sports. The 62-year-old is midway through his annual three-week stint covering March Madness on top of his usual NBA on TNT duties, the sort of transition between sports that has become almost second nature throughout three decades at Turner.

Earlier in March, Johnson talked to Front Office Sports about his March Madness studio work, his advice for college students looking to get into sports business and the one event he’d love to broadcast, among other things. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

 

Front Office Sports: It’s been nine years of Turner Sports’ March Madness partnership with CBS. When you first got into it, was there some concern about how you would be able to cover the college game while covering the NBA all season?

Ernie Johnson: I don’t know if there was really concern. I just kind of wondered how it would play out. Will the preparation that I had done be sufficient to what I’ll need on a day-to-day basis? It was more uncertainty about how this whole thing would play out than anything else. I’ve kind of got it into a rhythm now. How I prepare, when I start really focusing on the college game while still doing the NBA. So yeah, all systems go. Everything is on schedule. I love this time of year, and I just think it’s just one of the greatest times in the sports world all year long.

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

FOS: What have you learned about the aura around the college game?

EJ: It’s different than the NBA. I think the emotional tie-in between player and coach and some things that you see in the college game, you don’t see as much in the NBA. The finality of when you lose a game in the Tournament and that’s maybe the last time you ever put a uniform on if your college career is coming to a close. You can see laid open the bonds that coaches and player feel. When I’m on a team gets knocked out and the coach says ‘I’ll never coach this kid again’… You can see it on Senior Day. I was watching Michigan State on TV and it’s Senior Day and Michigan State’s going to the tournament, but Tom Izzo had tears in his eyes because he’s watching one of the seniors walk off their floor for the last time. That’s powerful stuff.

FOS: You wrote “Unscripted” two years ago, and you really opened up to people. How have people opened up to you after reading that and feeling comfortable and talking about their own lives with you?

EJ: I didn’t really know what to expect when I wrote it, but what’s cool is I’ll get spotted in an airport and it won’t be somebody saying, “Hey, where’s Charles?” It will be, “Hey, my dad was just starting chemotherapy, and I gave him your book.” Because that’s the thing, what I wrote about in the book was about things that we’ve experienced, whether that’s adoption or raising handicapped children or going through something like cancer or just the relationship between father and son. The real gratifying part about it has just been hearing from people who have read it and have had different parts of the book impact their lives or help them through a difficult time. I had a guy come up to me, and he said, “My dad and I hadn’t spoken in about 10 years and he gave me your book for Father’s Day and it opened up our relationship again. And I said, “You couldn’t have said anything more impactful to me.” That’s the reason I wrote the book in the first place is because I hoped it would speak to somebody on some level.

FOS: So many people are trying to get into sports business, sports media and whatnot. What is your advice to people trying to start a life in sports?

EJ: Well, persevere. Be the hardest-working person in the classroom or at the work site. My dad’s best advice to me was be yourself. I think you can never change that. You have to be who you are. You can’t just be who you think somebody wants you to be. Being yourself is important. I also think your work ethic has to be unbelievable. You can’t think you’re going to bluff your way through. I’ve tried to always realize that, even now at 30 years here, I know that the world is filled with college graduates who look at me on that show and say, ‘I could do that now. Why has he been there for 30 years?’ Well, that keeps me working hard. That keeps me looking at tapes of our show and saying, “I could’ve done this better.”

FOS: Why do you think you’ve been there so long?

EJ: That’s an excellent question. I want to think that I’m working hard and knowing my role and being able to facilitate conversations and not taking myself too seriously and not trying to make the show about me. I think those all help. You’d have to ask the first person who hired me and the subsequent bosses who didn’t fire me why they wanted me there. That’s not my decision. But it’s been 30 years and I’m not close to wanting to stop.

FOS: You’ve done so much in sports. People don’t know things like you did studio work for the 1990 World Cup. If there is one sporting event that you still wish you could cover that you haven’t covered what would it be?

EJ: It’d be fun to do The Masters. But I never focus on what I haven’t done. I just count the blessing it’s been to do all the things that we have done from the British Open to Wimbledon to the PGA Championship to baseball, you name it. I’ve gotten to do everything a guy who loves sports would want to do. But, yeah, calling the action at Augusta National, that might be fun. But it’s not going to break my heart if it never happens.

READ MORE: How a Camera System Helped Yale Make the Big Dance

FOS: Have you been to a Masters before?

EJ: Yeah, I used go down there and cover the practice rounds and that kind of thing, and I played the course once with my dad back in 1998. It was the most awesome day of golf of all time. That was the one time you play a round of golf that you wish would go slower. Most of the time, you say, “Come on, speed up.” But that day, it was like, “Slow down. Let’s enjoy this.”

FOS: What’d you shoot?

EJ: I broke 100. I think it was like 97. My dad shot 95 or something like that, but it was awesome.

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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.

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