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How Access Has Changed The Conversation Around Digital Storytelling

Athletes share more of their lives than ever before, leaving content creators to grapple with how to deepen the message in the stories they tell.

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Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Athletes are sharing more of themselves than ever before, putting the onus on sports content producers to develop thoughtful stories to better connect with audiences. A South by Southwest panel on storytelling in sports discussed how to cut through the noise as a documentary filmmaker and sports storyteller.

“Athletes now have their own crews, cameras constantly around documenting their own lives,” said Gotham Chopra, co-founder and chief creative officer of Religion of Sports, who is currently finishing up a documentary on Stephen Curry entitled “Stephen vs. the Game. “For us, we try to cut through the clutter. It’s not about the access, not just a commodity, but what am I trying to say? Why are we doing this? Unless there’s clarity around that, I don’t think it’s worth doing.”

When linear television networks ruled the roost, almost any sort of athlete-related access motivated viewers to tune in to see a slice of an unknowable world. Social media opened the floodgates, however. Now that visibility has exploded, and fans can connect directly with athletes, there’s a need to tell bigger, bolder stories.

READ MORE: ‘We Are LAFC’ Shows Off Exclusive Content Opportunity for MLS, ESPN

“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of access,” said Libby Geist, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films & Original Content. “That’s just not enough anymore. There has to be stakes. The bar has to get higher and higher. We need to stay in our lane and not get stars in our eyes. A big name isn’t enough anymore.”

For ESPN, one of the biggest answers has come by way of longform documentaries, most notably its 30 for 30 series. Today, it ranks as one of the network’s most critically acclaimed imprints. But Geist remembers a time, not too long ago, when stakeholders were wary of viewers making time to watch hour-plus-long programming that sometimes strays off the beaten path.

“It was a risk to commission 30, hour-long docs,” she said. “Now we know they can sit for a long time. Not just for sports stories, but director-driven. Not just moments in time, not just a Super Bowl or big game, but much more layered cultural stories.”

The culmination of those efforts came in 2016 with ESPN’s Academy Award-winning, five-part miniseries on O.J. Simpson, “O.J.: Made In America.”

“The conversation around that was a ‘step back moment,’” Geist said. “People were not just talking about sports, the buzz around the level of discussion.”

That buoyed a new wave of production. Not only does ESPN have 15 to 20 new 30 for 30 projects in the works, according to Geist, but many of them are “big tentpole films,” like an upcoming 10-hour Michael Jordan project.

In addition, Geist and ESPN also have another platform to work through and deploy new content on thanks to the introduction of ESPN+. Though still less than a year old, ESPN+ is already paying dividends by providing new avenues to tell stories. Geist used the example of the docuseries, a medium she was once loath to push due to the headache of scheduling against billion-dollar live sports rights on ESPN. Now, though, they can be uploaded and binged at a viewer’s leisure.

The number of media platforms like ESPN+ and the plethora of other streaming services have posed the question to independent filmmakers like Chopra of how to make compelling content and draw in viewers. He said he’d prefer a small audience deeply engaged in the message of the project rather than a larger, passive one.

“The new platforms have really raised the game of accountability,” he said. “How do I invest? Whether [in subscriptions] or time, you have to earn that. It’s pushed us as creators.”

Ultimately, however, access does matter in the sense of finding subjects willing to offer up more substantial parts of themselves. Dexton Deboree, co-founder of Los York Entertainment, credits the NBA, in particular, for being a forerunner among organizations within sports that push a coherent message and let players tell meaningful stories. That encourages storytellers like Deboree to embrace athletes’ narratives as a microcosm of humanity to spur serious discussions and connect with like-minded people. Last year, Deboree released “Unbanned: The Story of AJ1,” which tracked the cultural influence of Air Jordan shoes.

READ MORE: Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

“If I’m not into basketball, but I realize there’s a connection, suddenly, there might be something to that community,” Deboree said of how a personal story can create new fans. “I don’t know that we’re changing minds. We just strive to stir the pot and get people to talk about stuff [that] maybe they weren’t.”

From Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell to today’s athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, athletes have always had the power to spark social dialogue. Chopra recently finished “Shut Up and Dribble” with James, the title taken from a Tweet James received from Fox News personality Laura Ingraham.

“What an amazing time to be alive in this political climate,” Chopra said. “It was conceived from the most popular player in the world literally getting into a social media war with the president of the United States. We went back to the 1950s, and this isn’t new.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

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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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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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Steve Javie Leans on Referee Experience to Provide Insight for ESPN

A 25-year NBA officiating veteran, Steve Javie has transitioned to ESPN, where he offers in-game analysis on referee rulings from the NBA Replay Center.

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Photo Credit: Bailey Knecht

During Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and the Trail Blazers, the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, is relatively quiet.

On any given night in the regular season, current and former officials converge to watch multiple live games on the room’s more than 100 TV screens and computer monitors. With only four teams remaining in the playoffs, all eyes are on the Warriors and Blazers.

One of those observers is Steve Javie, a former NBA referee of 25 years and current ESPN officiating analyst since 2012. Front Office Sports has a front row seat for his process.

Throughout the playoffs and select regular season games, Javie is on-call in Secaucus. When on-court officials are reviewing a controversial call, Javie jumps on ESPN, offering explanations and rule clarifications.

READ MORE: ESPN Reasserting Commitment to Baseball through Revamped Baseball Tonight

“It’s a good thing with ESPN because it gives another perspective, and I know the [broadcasters] I work with like Mike Breen and Jeff [Van Gundy] and Mark [Jackson], they’re knowledgeable, but you still want an opinion of someone who’s been on the floor,” Javie says. “They might disagree with me, and they do at times, but at least I can give that opinion or how it feels to be on the floor or what the officials are thinking or looking at right now in order to make this crucial call.”

The Replay Center is used to provide different camera angles to the on-site officials for courtside reviews. With a twist of a knob and a push of a button, operators can select the best angles and queue up any sequence from  game action.

Just like the referees and operators in the room, Javie sits at one of the room’s 20 stations where he rewinds and rewatches plays from nine different angles. At his station, he keeps Altoids, a cup of water, a notepad and a current NBA rulebook. He preps by writing down talking points, relevant rules and potentially controversial calls.

When the ESPN crew wants his opinion, he’ll get word from on-site producer Tim Corrigan. Javie then spins around in his chair to face the camera. Most calls that require explanations are subjective, such as the severity of a flagrant foul or judging between a block or charge.

“Steve’s officiating experience and knowledge brings yet another layer of expertise to our broadcasts as we document the biggest NBA games for fans,” Corrigan, officially senior coordinating producer for ESPN NBA, says. “We always try to entertain and inform our audience, and Steve helps us achieve that goal.”

READ MORE: WNBA Targets Broader National Reach With CBS Sports Deal

Javie started working out of the Replay Center when it opened in 2014. Although he is one of a few media members with regular access to the Replay Center, Javie considers himself more of a referee than reporter. A quarter-century in officiating made him an eternal part of the refereeing fraternity.

“Once an official, always an official,” he says.“That doesn’t mean I won’t comment on situations I believe I would handle it this way, which may be differently than the way they handled it on the floor, because it is really subjective.

“It’s almost like a father watching their kids because a lot of the guys I mentored are refereeing now, and you want them to do well, so when things go a little off, my insides turn,” he adds. “If that was me on the court, I wouldn’t care because I know I could handle it, but when you see your kids, as I call it, that you’ve raised, and you see them get into situations, you just hope they get out of it okay.”

This year, Javie’s role with ESPN may be even more useful than before. The season has been full of debate regarding officiating and the tumultuous relationship between referees and players.

Take the Western Conference Semifinals, for example, when everyone from fans to players to GMs chimed in on James Harden’s foul-drawing playing style.

But Javie embraces the opportunity to be a voice of reason and provide clarification to viewers, who otherwise have no access to the officiating thought process.

“I think it’s really good for the league and for the referees, that the referee has a voice there that can explain it because so many times, I think the fans can be misled,” he says.

Although Game 2 featured a tight, three-point win by the Warriors, the matchup was clean and uncontentious. As a result, Javie wasn’t called on by ESPN to share his input, but he stayed focused and alert throughout the evening.

For Javie, the rest of the playoffs will be no different, as he remains ready to share his expertise at a moment’s notice, notepad, rulebook and Altoids on call.

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