In 2010, ESPN pulled back the curtain on some of the behind the scenes scrambling that sports broadcasters endure when unexpected yet monumental news breaks during a live sporting event. Tonight Dan Shulman and ESPN were pressed into action again on this front as millions watching Sunday Night Baseball were informed of the news of Osama Bin Laden's death. Many people have praised how the matter was handled and it is in fact how I caught wind of the historic news.
While Twitter, text messages, IM, news channels, and the web also played a pivotal role in spreading the news, Sunday Night Baseball was probably one of a handful of programs that were being broadcast live and to an audience of millions. Looking back at somewhat similar moments in time when unexpected news and a major sporting event clashed, we know it's quite stressful to scramble to inform the American public that something unexpected and riveting has happened.
For the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon, ESPN had a a great special on Howard Cosell's famous late game Monday Night Football announcement of the star's unfortunate passing. I highly recommend you check it out as it's on Youtube here.
1980 is ages ago, way before all things internet and the explosion of cable television. Cosell's announcement of the news which was an ABC scoop that no other network had, was the first announcement on the matter and one that millions watched. Below is that now famous call.
This special about the back-story of this moment was extremely telling, especially for those too young to have any connection to that moment in history. The news came in the final moments of the game, a game that was hotly contested all the way to the final seconds. Once Cosell had Lennon's death confirmed by ABC news, they had about a minute before going back on live air for the final seconds of regulation to determine if and how to break the news.
Cosell initially leaned towards just letting the close game wrap up and then having ABC news most likely make the announcement. Frank Gifford thought otherwise and after some discussion Cosell made a plan of action to squeeze it in between the final plays in regulation. It's now a moment that millions of American can vividly remember. Oddly enough the game then went into overtime, similar to tonight's ballgame that went into extra innings.
ESPN also had a great 30 for 30 that touched on NBC's handling of the OJ Simpson chase during the NBA finals. Until that special, I was unaware that the millions who watched NBC nationally watched that game via split screen that also showed the OJ chase and that most were given the audio of the chase and not the game. My local market in the Bay Area along with those in Los Angeles were affiliates who just chose to ignore the game entirely which irked me as I was going through a real big Hakeem Olujawon phase at the time.
What stood out in that ESPN special was Bob Costas wrestling with how to announce the news. Oddly enough, Simpson actually worked with Costas at the time for NBC's football coverage (I think we all miss NBC having conference rights for NFL and NBA) and was probably a lot more frazzled by the news than someone removed a bit from the situation.
In footage only seen in that 30 for 30, Costas ran through questions like "Do I make the announcement or send it to NBC news without saying what the breaking news is". Thinking through details like that, especially on the fly opens up a big can of worms:
- Do you just scroll the news first?
- Do local or national news affiliates make the announcement or does someone doing a live event do it first?
- Do you cut away from the live program in question?
- How much detail do you give?
Even before OJ's chase and Lennon's death, sports broadcasts were pivotal roles in breaking major news as Jim McKay had the horrible task of covering the 1972 Munich Massacre while covering the Olympics for ABC. Early reports that ran all over the world provided inaccurate optimism that the Israeli Olympic team hostages were saved by a dangerous rescue mission at the airport. Unfortunately though, faulty reporting was followed up by a series of heavy hearted announcements that McKay is remembered for doing a tremendous job handling.
I don't think announcers can train for these type of moments. They're too monumental in nature for you to not have a strong personal reaction yet in a matter of seconds you're responsible for relaying the news to millions who will be shocked. For many, it will be a defining moment in their legacy.
Shulman and the Sunday Night Baseball team today were put into that pressure situation and did a commendable job making the announcement. No footage is available now but here is some footage from after the game.
I don't remember specifics of the exact call, but remember he set the tone that he was about to say something serious and gave you a couple of seconds to pay attention, quiet people down, or turn the volume up. His announcement was concise, informative, and with a call to action to flip to another channel. In my opinion he really did a great job urging the public to turn the channel despite that the showdown between the Mets and the Phillies was tied and about to go into extras.
You also have to credit the crew and production team for giving those who continued to watch, this great moment. No words needed.
Unexpected announcements are not easy, especially when you know it will stir up a lot of people. Dan Shulman's moment was tonight and it was done with class and grace that joins him with names like McKay and Cosell. Certainly a tip of cap to him and ESPN for a job well done. The AA team has always been keen on Shulman and believed him to be a very under-appreciated personality for The Worldwide Leader. Today he had his moment and I am glad it was part of a positive announcement and one he handled with great poise.