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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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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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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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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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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.

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