To me, the reason ESPN's draft coverage sucks is simple: ESPN decides the narrative in advance, plans its event coverage based on that narrative (shot selection, graphics package, everything), and sticks with their manufactured narrative rather than simply letting the event unfold and relying on their talented camera crews, producers, and wealth of on-camera talent to synthesize a narrative as the event (the draft) unfolds. That's the main reason. But there are other reasons.
Second, the talent package ESPN put together with Berman is suspect.
This guy, Mel Kiper, belongs on the set. He is “Mr. NFL Draft” and ESPN has established Kiper as the go-to guy for draft coverage. He’s knowledgeable, concise, “gets” how sports TV works, and makes great pithy comments and observations.
This guy is the Energizer Bunny. Jon Gruden has two modes: full tilt, and off. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the NFL, brings a huge amount of energy to the broadcast, is always ready with a cogent and insightful comment, and understands how TV works.
This guy – Ray Lewis - is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NFL. But when he’s up there on the anchor desk with Boomer, Mel, and Jon covering the draft, he’s way out of his league. He looks nervous and comes off as unprepared. His comments appear forced, as if he’s saying something because the producer is saying “say something, Ray” in his ear. He’s not Dandy Don Meredith’s down-to-earth foil to Howard Cosell’s smugness. He’s not John Madden’s loosey-goosey counterpoint to Pat Summerall’s buttoned-down control. Lewis is out of place, and it shows.
Then, there’s – at least to me – the fundamental reason ESPN’s draft coverage sucked last night: they forced the narrative.
They made it all about Johnny Football. The story line ESPN decided long before the draft actually began was that it was going to be all about Johnny Manziel, who would certainly be one of the first picks very early in the draft. They had three cameras – two from fixed positions, one mobile – focused on Manziel, and showed him at least once every three minutes for the first hour of the broadcast, until it became painfully – and I do mean painfully – apparent that Manziel was not going to be one of the first selected. Painful because the director or producer or whoever of the ESPN telecast insisted on showing Manziel constantly, and having the anchor crew talk about him.
Well over an hour into the broadcast, after Manziel had swilled about ten bottles of ice water (his throat must have been parched from the anxiety of not being chosen), ESPN finally backed off its constant exposure of and discussion about Manziel. The last few times they went to a shot of Manziel, Boomer, Mel, Jon, and Ray were hard-pressed to come up with anything to say. After Dallas passed on Manziel, there must have been suicides among the ESPN brain trust that decided it was going to be all Johnny, all night.
Last night’s draft telecast was a metaphor for the way the TV networks cover sports. They define a narrative for the event ahead of time, and have the announcers focus on that narrative, regardless of how the event unfolds.
For a few years in the 90’s, I had the pleasure of working every morning with the guy pictured above, the Voice of UW Hockey since ’73, Paul Braun. Paul worked out of the same big studio I did, giving morning sports reports on a couple of the radio stations in the building where we worked. We had similar routines, doing reports –Paul with sports, me with news – custom-tailored for the stations we were on. This was during a time when Badger hockey was in the process of moving from telecasts exclusively on the state’s public TV network to what has now become Fox Sports Wisconsin.
Paul did not thrive in the new Fox Sports environment. He would shake his head as he told me how he was being “coached” to do the hockey broadcasts by the Fox producers. In their pre-game meetings, the producers would establish the narrative of the contest. They would develop three main “talking points” for the game, and Braun was told to hammer home those three talking points and to follow the narrative during the entire broadcast.
Rather than describe the action as it unfolded – often, as sports fans know, unpredictably – with unexpected twists and turns that come from game situations like penalties, injuries, coaching decisions, officiating, and the myriad other things that can affect the outcome of a live sports event – Braun was told the stick with the pre-ordained script.
That’s why I’m so disappointed in ESPN’s draft coverage Thursday night. They hammered home their narrative – that it was going to be all about Johnny Manziel – and weren’t flexible enough to make the telecast compelling by playing up the unpredictable nature of so many of the elements of a live event like the draft.
Spoiler alert: if you plan to see the movie “Draft Day” you might not want to read the paragraph below.
The Johnny Manziel story, as pre-ordained by ESPN Thursday night, reminded me a great deal of one of the major plot elements of the Kevin Kostner movie “Draft Day”, which my wife and I saw together a few weeks ago and enjoyed a great deal. In that movie, which takes place entirely on NFL draft day, from early morning to late night in the first round of the draft, there is, as it turns out, somewhat of a parallel with the Manziel situation last night. Everyone thinks this particular quarterback – and, in the movie, it’s the quarterback of the UW Badgers – is going to be one of the first picks. But Costner’s character has some hard-earned inside information. It revolves around the fictional UW quarterback’s 21st birthday party, and who the Madison police did – and did not – arrest when the celebration got rowdy. Round after round of the draft goes by, and the Badgers quarterback is NOT taken, although the media keeps constantly focusing on him. That’s all I’ll say. The movie is fun, and worth seeing.
Anyway, I hope Ha Ha turns out to be a wise pick for the Pack, and I hope Manziel can suck up his ego, take some coaching, and learn to be a pro quarterback. And I hope ESPN learned something from its mistake, but I'm afraid the egos involved are too large to admit they did anything wrong.