Saturday, November 25, 2006

NFL Network, Let’s all take a deep breath

The NFL Network’s first broadcast of an actual NFL game has come and gone. Thursday night, the fledging cable sports network offered the first of the eight Thursday/Saturday night games they’ll offer this year. The good news, everyone survived. The bad news, everyone associated with Thursday night’s broadcast has a great deal of work to do, starting with Bryant Gumbel.

Never one to be humbled, Gumbel was terribly (boring) in his debut. Given that he hadn’t been responsible for a play-by-play broadcasting opportunity since 1982, Gumbel’s rust was evident from the start of the broadcast. The last time Gumbel actually called the play by play of an NFL game was the 1982 AFC championship game between Cincinnati and San Diego.

How much rust did Gumbel show during the broadcast? The NFL has been very proactive in sending out their message in regard to the number of (or in this case), the lack thereof cable carriers not carrying Thursday night’s broadcast. While the ratings for Thursday night’s game are not yet available, the NFL’s dreams of being in 65 million homes by last night’s broadcast (the goal the NFL set during the summer) became a nightmare, with Time Warner, Comcast and Charter continuing their position of not offering the NFL Network refusing to meet the NFL’s demands for 70 cents from customer cable operators service. At one point Gumbel attempted to give out the NFL Network’s website that offers cable subscribers information as to how they can contact their cable provider that aren’t offering the NFL Network. (I want NFL Network). Gumbel fumbled the ball when he gave out the wrong web address.

Gumbel was a lot like a fish out of water Thursday night. Much of his sports broadcasting resume is as a host, not in the role the NFL Network put him in. He first worked for NBC Sports in the fall of 1975 as co-host of its National Football League pre-game show GrandStand with Jack Buck.

From 1975 until January 1982 (when Gumbel left to do The Today Show) Gumbel hosted numerous sporting events for NBC including of Major League Baseball, NCAA basketball, and the National Football League. Gumbel returned to sportscasting for NBC when he hosted the prime time coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics from Seoul and the PGA tour in 1990.

One of Bryant Gumbel's more memorable moments during his stint at NBC Sports occurred in 1982, when he was on site for the now legendary "Epic in Miami" NFL playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins. When the game was said and done, Gumbel told the viewing audience "If you didn't like this football game then you didn't like football!"

Gumbel served as co-host of NBC’s morning magazine program “The Today Show” from 1982 to 1997, leaving NBC for CBS’s morning magazine show in 1997, where he worked until 2002. Twenty years hosting morning magazine television hardly prepares one for the responsibilities of an NFL play-by-play man.

Working with HBO Gumbel developed the monthly HBO sports magazine show, “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” in 1995. According to Gumbel, the show was "spawned by the fact that sports have changed dramatically, that it's no longer just fun and games, and that what happens off the field, beyond the scores, is worthy of some serious reporting."

To suggest Gumbel was ill-equipped at handing the responsibilities of a play-by-play would be an understatement. Gumbel was ‘wordy’. He played the role he’s served for the last 24 years, a host. Gumbel has excelled as a host, controversial at times, but effective. Its likely Gumbel and Collinsworth did several ‘mock’ broadcasts before Thursday night (a mock broadcast where Gumbel and Collinsworth called a game live or via a TV monitor). Collinsworth played that day for the Bengals, who won in bitterly cold and icy conditions in Cincinnati, the last time Gumbel had actually handled a live play-by-play broadcast.

Along with being far too wordy, Gumbel throughout the broadcast was far too descriptive. The beauty of being a part of a television broadcast is the picture viewers have of the game a broadcaster is involved with. Radio play-by-play broadcasters have to be more descriptive. Was Bryant Gumbel trying to hard? Possibility, but Gumbel’s efforts Thursday night inadvertently put Chris Collinsworth (the commentator) off his game. It seemed Collinsworth wasn’t quite sure when it was his time to offer his opinions.

Technically the broadcast was fine, especially when you consider it was the first game broadcast for Mark Loomis and his crew. They used all the toys at their disposal, and it seemed relying at times a great deal on the infamous field-cam (ironically developed by Vince McMahon’s football mistake, between known as the XFL).

Last week Gumbel, Collinsworth, and company participated in a conference call. When asked whose advice, if any, Gumbel sought, and what was the best piece of advice that he’s received from someone, Gumbel (as wordy as ever) had an insightful response.

“I don't know if there is one single piece of advice. I have been fortunate enough to have tapped the brains of people who have been engaged a lot longer than I have from my brother through Cris and Bob Costas and everybody else. You could probably name the names as easily as I can.”
“I think Cris only touched on part of the difficulty. It is, in fact, finding a rhythm. And you know, our first effort is not going to be perfect and we are not going to be as good in November as we hope to be in December. That's the reality of it. And I'm not a very patient person, so I'm going to try to avoid not beating myself up a great deal. But there's an awful lot to learn, there's an awful lot to do, and it was interesting, I was just reading an article today on the Monday Night guys about still trying to find a rhythm and they are, what, ten weeks in.”
“So I think it is look, it is only football; that's true. But I think Cris is absolutely right. It is in today's age a very difficult thing to do properly and we want to do it right, we want to do it well, and we want to do it as well as out there and as better than anybody else out there. We have a long way to go to get to that point. This is going to be our first effort and it's not going to be without its bumps and bruises.”

The other challenge Gumbel faced was the backlash from the comments he made on HBO Real Sports on August 15.

"Before he cleans out his office," Gumbel said in an editorial that closed that edition of Real Sports. "Have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch."

The aftermath from Gumbel’s insensitive remarks nearly forced the NFL to end Gumbel’s return to the broadcast booth months before it began. Play-by-play TV broadcasters rarely if ever offer their comments, it’s not their role. Was Gumbel on his best behavior Thursday night, did that affect his on-air performance; unlikely. Thursday night was a new role for Bryant Gumbel, a world he hadn’t been a part of. The real question – where will Bryant Gumbel be on Saturday December 30, when the New York Giants visit the Washington Redskins? Likely a great deal better then he was on Thursday night.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: Wikipedia.

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