Now hear this: Leagues, players can only win by taking TV viewers behind the scenes
The most compelling piece of live sports television in recent memory was captured by cameras and microphones last fall in a hallway in Switzerland. It was the deciding moment of the Laver Cup, a relatively young invention of the tennis calendar that almost shamelessly tries to mimic the team-oriented intensity and nationalistic bent of golf’s Ryder Cup.
Though it doesn’t have the cachet of a grand slam, the Laver Cup has carved out a niche among tennis die-hards, largely because it leans all the way into its personality as a slick, made-for-television event that gives fans fairly remarkable access to on-court conversations.
In fact, as Alexander Zverev prepared to play Milos Ranoic in a tiebreaker that would decide which team got the trophy, the stars of the moment were undoubtedly Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as they chased him down a hallway, offering an unscripted side of their personality as the cameras followed.
Federer: “I want a fist pump or a ‘let’s go’ every (expletive) point you win. And every point you lose? You (expletive) take it like a man.”
Nadal: “Doesn’t matter. Not one negative face.
Federer: “The problem is, when you (lose a point), it’s always like ‘Ahh, I knew it. Ahh, (expletive, expletive).’ ”
As television producers, pro athletes and league executives contemplate how their product might look different as sports come back this summer — likely without fans — let’s hope something like the Laver Cup or last weekend’s “The Match II” featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will provide a roadmap.
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Put cameras everywhere. Let microphones pick up the trash talk and strategy sessions that usually get hidden from viewers. Learn to live with unflattering language. Offer fans something they’ve never seen before.
It’s a concept that Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s executive vice president for event and studio production, would love to import to broadcasts that will inevitably look and feel different without fans in the stands.
“As much as we can get. I find it fascinating,” she said. “It’s totally interesting for the viewer to go inside in that way."
ESPN and other networks, however, face a formidable obstacle in reimagining their broadcasts to give fans more access: The players and coaches.
Though the NFL and NBA allow a certain degree of being mic’d up during games, the leagues have to approve any sound byte that goes out onto a broadcast. That’s why you never hear Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers say anything more interesting than “get back on defense” when they’re in a timeout huddle.
And to a certain degree, that’s completely justifiable. Real coaching and authentic player-to-player interactions can be raw and even offensive. Comedian George Carlin used to do a bit on the seven dirty words you can’t say on television, which is only about half as many as you’d hear if you were on the floor for a normal sporting event.
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Coaches would also be concerned about hurt feelings coming back to bite them. If Nick Nurse, for instance, is imploring his team to pick on an opposing player during a playoff series and the clip goes viral, does it create unnecessary complications for the Toronto Raptors down the road when that player is a free agent?
As sports attempt to come back under these highly unusual circumstances, however, the leagues should embrace authenticity as a way to re-engage their existing fans and perhaps reach new ones.
Whether it was the short-lived XFL experiment where lots of on-field communications were part of the broadcast on a slight delay to behind-the-scenes footage of Michael Jordan in “The Last Dance” documentary series, presenting the games in a more unfiltered way is a marketing opportunity that has largely gone untapped.
But ultimately, the leagues have the final say about how they’re presented to a TV audience.
“You can’t put a mic on someone if they won’t agree to it,” Druley said. “We’re having conversations to think about how we work together but we learned a lot with the XFL, we really did in terms of audio and we think there are things that can be brought over. There was a delay on it, but to the viewer at home, a non-recognizable delay and I think we’d have to think about doing the same if we were given the kind of audio we’d like to have.”
As MLB and NBA games get going this summer without fans, ESPN knows it will have to be creative and take some risks in how it presents the product. You might see different kinds of camera angles. You might hear crowd noise piped in, as the German Bundesliga experimented with last weekend. Can you virtually involve real fans somehow? It’s potentially a huge challenge to make it interesting for the viewer.
“We have to get there first but there’s a ton of stuff we’re thinking about,” Druley said. “Some of it will add value and fans will appreciate that, and other things we’ll try and people may want their regular game angle back that they’ve had for 20 years.”
But the Laver Cup example is one that should resonate for leagues, in the sense that showing real dialogue between players elevated the product rather than distracted from it. And nobody liked Federer any less because he used a string of curse words on television during a tense moment of competition. It only made him seem more real.
Even NBA players such as Steph Curry and Andre Igoudala were commenting on social media during “The Match” about how much fun it was to hear Mickelson coaching Brady through various shots and the back-and-forth barbs between the teams.
Is it possible they’d allow that same level of access to be turned on themselves under the glaring lights of playoff pressure? It would sure make for some compelling TV.
“Competition changes everything,” Druley said. “They’re all super competitive and you watch 'The Match' on Sunday and you’re never going to get that kind of candidness. They’re loose. There’s nothing on the line … that’s why you get people that are hesitant to take the first step toward putting on a microphone or just access in general, letting a camera in some where they don’t normally get to go.”
It might be hard to convince leagues it’s in their best interest to allow that kind of access, but all you can do is ask.
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