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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.

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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