Bullpen carts could provide a trip back through time

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about baseball from the 1960s through the 1980s. A lot of this is because of my new Twitter page, Vintage Scoreboards (shameless plug). I’ve remembered that there was a lot of kitsch in the stadiums back then. After all, as Ken Burns told us, baseball has always been a reflection of American life.

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The scoreboard at Municipal Stadium promotes a softball game between Playboy bunnies and radio disc jockeys, sponsored by the Kansas City Athletics.
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In Oakland, the A’s sponsored Hotpants Day.

Tackiness abounded as teams did everything they could to draw people into the stands. Former Athletics owner Charlie Finley, when the team was still in Kansas City, held a pregame softball contest between local disc jockeys and Playboy bunnies. When the team moved to Oakland, he held Hotpants Day, with all women dressed in the short shorts admitted free. Apparently, the idea was that men would pay to gawk at the ladies — and maybe the baseball, too.

Long hair, mullets, afros and mustaches were popular among players, who, off the field, enjoyed wearing bell bottoms, big collars and wide neckties.

One element that just about every ballpark had in the ’70s was a bullpen cart, essentially a golf cart outfitted with an oversized baseball cap as the roof that would bring relief pitchers in from the bullpen.

It was a gimmick, something for fans to enjoy and maybe laugh at. Advertising soon followed, of course, with teams like the Yankees and Dodgers using Datsuns (it’s what we used to call Nissans; look it up) or Toyotas to bring their pitchers in instead of golf carts.

Team owners like Finley or Bill Veeck were showmen and loved the idea. No one is exactly sure when or why the carts died out. The Dodgers still have their old cart on display on the Club level. It may just have been that relief pitchers, especially those who might pitch to just one or two batters, wanted to show people they could actually run from the bullpen to the mound.

But now, it sounds like bullpen carts are coming back. The Arizona Diamondbacks are blazing old ground with their announcement that they will use bullpen carts this season. Soon after that, the Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres said they would study the idea, although perhaps not for this upcoming season. The Tampa Bay Rays say they won’t, mostly because of space limitations at Tropicana Field.

The Diamondbacks said the last team to motor their pitchers in from the bullpen were the Milwaukee Brewers in 1995, who used a motorcycle with a sidecar at County Stadium. That was three years before the Diamondbacks even came into existence.

What will the reaction be of the relievers to this rather outrageous throwback idea? Will they love it? Hate it? Use it? Abuse it? Some of each, I’m sure, but I’m betting many will like it a lot. There are some who use their walk or run from the pen to psych themselves up; some have even made it into a trademark, much like hitters and walk-up music.

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The Dodgers’ old bullpen cart is now on display near the suites on the Club level.

Some pitchers may also see using the bullpen cart as a show of weakness, something that might be best avoided in a ninth-inning, base-loaded save situation. But some may come to see it as a good-luck charm if using the cart turns out well for them.

Neither the D-Backs nor anyone else are forcing pitchers to use the carts; if they choose not to be chauffeured in, the cart will still appear to deliver the pitcher’s jacket to the dugout — and also to display the advertiser’s logo, of course.

Some are even suggesting bullpen carts could speed up the pace of play. But by what? A few seconds? Don’t count on that making much of a dent in game time. The cart must be offered to both teams and does not give a pitcher any extra warmup time.

But nostalgia has always been big in baseball and could use more of it, not less. Nearly anything that dampens things like analytics, high-priced tickets and higher-priced free agents and enhances the family ballpark experience is a good thing.

PRIME-TIME PLAYERS

Monday Night Football is getting a complete overhaul in the ESPN broadcast booth. Not only is Jon Gruden leaving as analyst to become coach of the Oakland Raiders, Sean McDonough is being reassigned, moving back to college football play-by-play.

“Sources” are saying Joe Tessitore will be tabbed to do MNF play-by-play, but that ESPN has not yet made an announcement about either that or about an analyst.

MNF is not the franchise it used to be and hasn’t been since ABC deemed to let it slip to cable TV.

Meanwhile, there are rumors about Peyton Manning’s interest in broadcasting. The New York Post reported Manning has passed on Monday Night Football, but the NFL says it would love to have Mike Tirico and Manning on its new Thursday night package. The only problem with that is that Tirico is under contract to NBC and Manning isn’t under contract to anybody.

Tirico used to be ESPN’s MNF voice, but Al Michaels is NBC’s No. 1 (and usually only) NFL voice. Tirico has been involved on Sunday Night Football pregame and halftime coverage and was sensational as prime-time host for the recent Winter Olympics. It would be rather ludicrous for NBC to allow Fox to use him for the NFL. It makes very little sense.

Of course, things that make little sense happen with eyebrow-raising regularity in both network TV and in the NFL, so stay tuned.

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NBC’s Winter Olympics will be largely live to all time zones

If you’re watching the Winter Olympics from your sofa here in sunny Southern California, here are two things to remember: First, it may be warm here, but it’s cold there. It won’t be above freezing for the first week in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Second, nearly all of the prime-time events you’ll see on TV here will be live. And even if it isn’t, you still could watch it live online.

Winter OlympicsThere is a 17-hour time difference between South Korea and the U.S. West Coast, so when a daytime event is going on there, say at 1 p.m. their time, it would be 6 p.m. in Los Angeles. NBC plans to run its prime-time show live in all time zones — 8 p.m. in the East and 5 p.m. in the West — so, when you get home from work, the Olympics will be waiting for you, live.

And even if you can’t get to it live, it’ll be replayed at a more traditional West Coast prime-time hour at 8, and even then there will be live updates. These figure to be the most West Coast-friendly Olympics from another continent ever shown on TV.

For the first time, NBC will stream the Opening Ceremonies live in the overnight hours of Thursday/Friday before showing them Friday night in prime time. Mike Tirico, who replaces Bob Costas as prime-time host, will be joined by Katie Couric for the ceremonies.

There will be many veterans among NBC’s commentators, such as Mary Carillo and Jimmy Roberts. But along with Tirico, there will be some newcomers, too. On figure skating, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who have captured a following at recent Games, will take over as top analysts, replacing Scott Hamilton and Sandra Bezic. Terry Gannon returns on play-by-play.

Weir said this week he and Lipinski won’t be afraid to criticize skaters — or judges.

“The great thing there is that the American audience has Tara and I to call the judges out if it’s the wrong call,” he said.

Former Olympic skier Bode Miller will be an analyst, as will speedskater Joey Cheek.

NBC also has some fairly off-the-wall talent to give the audience their view of the Games, such as Leslie Jones of Saturday Night Live, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and restaurateur David Chang.

However, popular NBC hockey announcer Mike Emrick, with the NHL not participating, will not make the trip.

NBC isn’t expecting as many viewers as the Olympics have been known to draw in the past; there are just too many other TV offerings available. At the same time, other networks aren’t exactly surrendering unconditionally.

While many weekly TV programs will put reruns up against the Winter Games, there are ways to present alternatives. CBS will premiere Big Brother: Celebrity Edition (although the word “Celebrity” is dubious) and ABC will have The Bachelor Winter Games, which features winter sports-themed contests between members of the Bachelor franchise.

“At a certain point, everyone gets a little bit of Olympics fatigue, so this is a nice alternative to that,” ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey told Adweek.

FLY, EAGLES, FLY

NBC earned a 47.4 big-market overnight rating and a 70% share of the audience for Super Bowl LII. That figure was 3% lower than last season, but still the lowest for the event since 2010. The game was No. 9 all-time among Super Bowls, according to the network.

SB52_Primary_RGBThe game peaked at 52.2/74 during the fourth quarter (7-7:15 p.m. PST). The halftime performance by Justin Timberlake (5:15-5:30 p.m.) had a 48.1/70 overnight rating.

The game averaged 103.4 million viewers, marking the 10th best audience for any program in TV history. The 41-33 victory by the Philadelphia Eagles over the New England Patriots ranks behind the 1983 M*A*S*H series finale among all U.S. shows.

This will be the first time a TV network has broadcast both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in the same year since CBS in 1992.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, 27 million viewers saw the This is Us episode that followed the game, the highest number for an NBC scripted show in 27 years. The Super Bowl edition of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon was seen by 8.4 million, for Fallon’s fourth most-watched Tonight Show.

UP & DOWN THE DIAL

The NCAA Selection Show will move from CBS to TBS on March 11, the networks announced. Their contract states that whichever network carries the national semifinals and final can also show the Selection Show. TBS did not exercise that right two years ago, but will this year. The semifinals and final return to CBS in 2019. … Former Yankees manager Joe Girardi has joined MLB Network as a studio commentator. It’s not his first time as an analyst. Following his career as a player, Girardi was part of ESPN Radio’s coverage of the 2003 National League Division Series and later worked for the YES Network in 2004 and 2007 as well as with Fox Sports in 2007.

At 4 p.m. Thursday (an hour before NBC’s first night of Winter Olympics coverage), NBCSN will show Calgary ’88, a documentary on the figure skating competition from that year. Rob Lowe narrates the film, featuring Brian Boitano of the U.S. and Brian Orser of Canada for the men, and Katarina Witt of East Germany and Debi Thomas of the U.S. for the women. … Atlanta Rules: The Story of the ’90s Braves, another documentary, will be on MLB Network at 6 p.m. Tuesday. …

Another Winter Olympics alternative this weekend is the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at 1-4 p.m. Saturday and noon-3:30 p.m. Sunday on CBS. Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Robert Iger told CNBC the forthcoming ESPN+ streaming service will cost $4.99 a month.

Dungy: Eagles in fine hands with Nick Foles

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Dan Patrick, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison (left to right) will be the primary faces seen on the Super Bowl LII pregame show Sunday on NBC. (Jeffrey Beall photo)

There may have been some people worried when stellar Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was lost for the season with an injury and had to be replaced by Nick Foles, but Tony Dungy was not among them.

Dungy, the former NFL coach and NBC analyst, will be on the network’s Super Bowl pregame show starting at 9 a.m. PST Sunday. The Eagles will play the New England Patriots at Minneapolis. Game time is at 3:30 p.m.

When Wentz tore knee ligaments in a game against the Rams in Los Angeles, Dungy quickly said on the air that Eagles fans shouldn’t give up hope.

“There were two things for me,” Dungy said this week in a call with reporters. “No. 1, the Eagles have a very good football team and everyone was focused in on Carson Wentz because he was having a great year, but they had defensive stats that were at the top of the league. They had four running backs that could go in there and do different things. They had three tight ends that were making plays for them. They had wide receivers that were making plays. It was a talented team.

“And then I look at Nick Foles. I had the chance, my son played at Oregon, so I saw him play in the Pac-12 [for Arizona]. I saw him play under Chip Kelly because I’m good friends with Chip and I watched him, and I know Nick Foles’ character. He was not a rookie that was going to be afraid. He’s a strong Christian young man who had plenty of belief that he was there for the right reasons and I just thought he would play well. I thought with their team, they would do well and I’m not surprised they’re here.”

Foles has shined in the playoffs, completing 49 of 63 passes (78%) for three touchdowns with no interceptions. Still, the quarterback has little postseason experience.

SB52_Primary_RGB“That will be the key and I think that’s what everyone wants to watch,” Dungy said. “Is this going to be the Nick Foles that we saw in a couple of end-of-the-regular-season games or the Nick Foles that we saw in the two playoff games? I think he has a lot of confidence. I think the fact that he has played some now and has a rhythm with his receivers is going to help, and I think he’s going to play very, very well.”

Dungy’s pregame partner, Rodney Harrison, played 15 years in the NFL, six with the Patriots. He says he’s impressed — and surprised — by the way New England coach Bill Belichick has managed to adapt to younger players.

“I think the thing that gets me excited,” Harrison said, “is I didn’t think that coach Belichick could change his personality to be able to adapt to this kind of new kind of generation of kids, and he’s done that.

“You see him, he’s a lot happier and he smiles a lot more. Maybe you don’t see it, but when I see him, he smiles a lot more and he knows how to relate to the players. I thought he would have a difficult time relating to the players because they’re so different. And when I say different, maybe I mean they’re not as tough as the old-school guys. But just the personalities and with the technology and everything, I thought Belichick has done a wonderful job of adapting to all the new players and their personalities.”

One pregame feature worth watching will be host Dan Patrick’s interview with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, expected to air in the final 40 minutes of the show.

“I sat down with Tom Brady on Monday,” Patrick said. “Got a chance to spend 30 minutes with him talking about a variety of things, from his summers spent here in Minnesota, to his mother’s health, to his legacy, to his relationship with Belichick, a variety of things that came out that I was proud of what we were able to do, and his willingness to open up.”

SUPER BOWL NOTES

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh will be part of NBC’s pregame, halftime and postgame Super Bowl coverage. It’s the second time the network has utilized Harbaugh; he worked Super Bowl XLIX when the Patriots defeated Seattle.

“John was a natural on our Super Bowl coverage three years ago in Arizona,” executive producer Sam Flood said. “We are excited to have him back to provide viewers with his insight and analysis as a Super Bowl-winning coach.”

NBC’s coverage will also have a strong NASCAR influence. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who will join the network’s NASCAR coverage next season), Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney will be involved in features, along with U.S. Olympic skier Bode Miller, Telemundo soccer announcer Andres Cantor and The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore.

All synergy, all the time.

SiriusXM Radio will once again offer a plethora of Super Bowl broadcasts. In addition to the Westwood One national feed, the Patriots broadcast and the Eagles broadcast, there will be feeds in Spanish, Chinese, German, French, Japanese and Hungarian.

UP & DOWN THE DIAL

Fox captured the rights to Thursday Night Football in a five-year deal beginning next season. The deal is worth a reported $550 million annually. Instead of two networks (previously CBS and NBC) splitting the schedule, Fox will be the only broadcast network, along with NFL Network simulcasts. According to The Hollywood Reporter, CBS and NBC paid $45 million per game for a deal valued at a combined $450 million annually for 10 games also simulcast on NFL Network. … Variety reports YouTube TV has a deal for exclusive rights to Los Angeles Football Club MLS games. It’s the first time a streaming service of any kind has made such a deal with a U.S. pro sports team. The deal is for approximately 18 LAFC games. The rest will be nationally televised on ESPN or Fox Sports 1.

A great alternative to Super Bowl pregame coverage is the Phoenix Open on CBS (noon-3 p.m. Sunday). It’s the rowdiest crowd in golf. … With Tiger Woods’ return, the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines earned a 2.6 rating and 4.1 million viewers on CBS, according to Sports Media Watch. The numbers were up 30% and 32% respectively over last year and were the highest since 2013. … The NFL Pro Bowl took a 5.3 rating on ABC and ESPN on Sunday, up 25% from the 4.2 when the game was only on ESPN. … Meanwhile, the NHL All-Star Game had a 1.2 rating on NBC, according to SMW, down 8% from last year’s 1.3, despite go head to head against the Pro Bowl. … Saturday night’s Celtics-Warriors NBA game on ABC was seen by 4.7 million viewers, up 44% from the comparable Warriors-Clippers game last year. …

Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones will be part of NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage, much as she was for the Rio Summer Games in 2016.

NBC would enjoy another close Super Bowl, please

NBC would absolutely love it if Super Bowl LII turned out as well as the last three it has televised.

nbcsports11In Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, Pittsburgh defeated Arizona 27-23. In Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, the New York Giants beat New England 21-17. In Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, New England topped Seattle 28-24.

Three games, each decided by four points.

For those of us who remember the Super Bowls of the 1970s and ’80s, when nearly every game was decided by a blowout, this has been a welcome trend. And the ultimate was achieved in last year’s game, where the New England defeated Atlanta 34-28 in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.

With the Patriots once again playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis against the Philadelphia Eagles (and favored by 4½ points), NBC would be ecstatic if something similar happened this time around.

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Al Michaels will be calling his 10th Super Bowl. (NBC photo)

Play-by-play man Al Michaels, who will call his 10th Super Bowl, understands he has been blessed by his recent assignments.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said Tuesday in a call with reporters. “We had Arizona-Pittsburgh, which featured two of the most iconic plays in the history of the Super Bowl: James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return — and ironically, he will be in the game on Sunday — and Santonio Holmes’ catch in the end zone to win it. And then we did the Giants against the Patriots three years later and that game ended with [Tom] Brady launching one to the end zone for [Rob] Gronkowski that fell incomplete as the Giants beat them for the second time in four years. And the last time out we had the Seattle-New England game three years ago and that featured the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of that game to seal it, and he’s in the game [Sunday]. So we have Harrison and we have Butler, probably the two most iconic defensive plays in the history of the Super Bowl.”

Michaels had one of his bucket-list items taken away last year, so he’s replaced it with another.

“We always had hoped to do the first overtime Super Bowl, but the Patriots took care of that last year [with a 34-28 win over Atlanta], so the only thing I’m rooting for this year is triple overtime and the longest game in the history of football.”

HE HATE US

Speaking of rooting, network announcers never root for anything other than a good game and big ratings. No matter what you may think, they are not pulling for one team over another. It just doesn’t happen. No way, no how.

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Objectivity in his analysis has led many viewers to think that Cris Collinsworth hates their team. (NBC photo)

But some people just don’t believe that. Eagles fans on Sunday completely expect NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth to not only be pulling for the Patriots, but to be hating the Eagles.

“It’s probably the most asked question I get in every city,” Collinsworth said. “I know the Eagles fans think they’re unique by asking that question. I think the Patriots fans think they’re unique, the Cowboys fans think they’re unique. Even the Bengals fans think they’re unique [Collinsworth played eight years for Cincinnati] by asking me that question. I have probably heard that question, I’m going to guess, in my lifetime, about 1,500 times.

“Usually, I just give a traditional answer, you know: ‘It’s my job to critique the players and I really don’t hate these guys, blah, blah, blah,’ just go down the list. And then sometimes, if a guy is particularly obnoxious, I’ll just turn to him and go, ‘I don’t know. I just hate ’em.’ It’s a bizarre world. I think I spend 98% of my time saying glowing, nice things about people in a broadcast and yet I know there’s another 2% [where I say] ‘They stink.’

“I’ve had my son play college football. I’ve heard him be critiqued on the air and it’s no fun. And obviously with these two [Super Bowl] teams, they’re so good and they’ve come so far, they become a bit of the family for the neighborhood of the local team, but I really, honestly expect my next question to be why do I hate the Patriots so much?”

HOME GAME

For NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, Super Bowl LII is a home game; she lives in Minneapolis (where the high for Sunday is expected to be 11 degrees and the low to be zero). Tafoya says that even though the hometown Vikings just missed playing, Minnesota is still ready to be a gracious host.

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Michele Tafoya is enjoying having the Super Bowl in her hometown of Minneapolis. (NBC photo)

“It’s neat having the Super Bowl in your hometown,” said Tafoya, who grew up in California and has lived in Minnesota since 1994. “… I can tell you that the state and the cities have been preparing for it since they’ve known it was going to be here. There was all kinds of Minnesota nice and Minnesota excitement. They love the winter here in Minnesota. They embrace everything about it and so there’s a lot of fun going on around town. Even though the Vikings came really close and it’s been a major disappointment, I think still the fans here are ready to embrace the game as it stands.”

There are critics who think sideline reporters are a waste of time, that nothing good ever comes from them. But Tafoya may well be the absolute best of all.

“There’s nobody better than Michele,” Michaels said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with her in basketball as well with the NBA [on ABC] about 14 years ago. You can always count on her and sometimes she’s in a very difficult spot. I know we were doing a game in Houston about four years ago. Gary Kubiak was the [Texans] coach and he suffered what appeared to be a heart attack and collapsed on the sideline. And there was Michele right there. I mean, that’s as tough as it gets, to get the information in the craziness going on all around you.

“… I’ve also watched her in a situation where a player’s brother had died earlier that day in a motorcycle accident and able to do it both journalistically and with a great deal of compassion. No matter what the situation is, she is up to it. She has never missed a beat.”

Tafoya and her husband Mark Vandersall have two children and she says she is pulling double duty this week as reporter and as mom.

“It kind of cuts both ways,” she said. “It’s a luxury in that I get to spend extra time at home and that is a premium to all of us who are on the road all season long. We miss a lot of stuff. … I have a hired assistant. His name is Mark Vandersall; I married him about 17 years ago. He has always held down the fort when I have to go to work. This week is no different in that regard, but we are going to try to enjoy it, too.”

Super Bowl storylines are already wearisome

SB52_Primary_RGBWe’re more than a week out from Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis and already I’m sick of the storylines we’re going to hear on TV and radio.

I don’t care about whether players kneel for the national anthem or not and neither should you. It’s not the law, it’s not even a rule, it has nothing to do with the military and the players who choose to kneel as a sign of protest are within their rights to do so.

While I disagree with this form of protest and wouldn’t do it myself, I support their right to do it.

Next will be how the TV ratings for the Super Bowl are down 9% this season and last week’s conference championship games were down 8%. Some of this may have to do with the whole kneeling thing, some of it may have to do with the continuing concussion controversy (which is still the NFL’s elephant in the room). But be that as it may, the NFL is in fine health, especially when it comes to TV. NFL games are still the highest rated and most watched programs on television and the price for a 30-second commercial is still north of $5 million.

Finally, it’s going to be cold in Minneapolis. The high is predicted to be 11 and the low minus-2. It doesn’t matter! You’re not going! You’re going to be in your mancave (or at least what will serve as your mancave for the day), cozy warm and stuffed with nachos. And besides, it’s an indoor stadium. The game won’t be affected at all. You’re not going to be tailgating outside the stadium, so hush.

PLENTY TO SEE

The conference championships were seen by an average of 43.2 million viewers, according to SportsBusiness Daily. The AFC title game with New England defeating Jacksonville was seen by 44.1 million on CBS, while the NFC game with Philadelphia downing Minnesota had an audience of 42.3 million. It’s impressive when your numbers can be down 8% and you’re still averaging 43.2 million viewers.

NBC plans to show an unprecedented 11 hours of unauthenticated Super Bowl streaming (“unauthenticated” meaning viewers won’t have to be subscribers of a cable or satellite TV provider). Streaming will begin at 9 a.m. PST with pregame, followed by game, halftime and postgame coverage, and even the This Is Us episode scheduled for afterward. However, contractual restrictions prohibit mobile streaming.

Rather surprisingly, NBC’s coverage plans do not include Bob Costas, and he’s just fine with that. He told SBD his enthusiasm for football has been waning.

“The decision was mutually agreeable, and not only do I not have a problem with it, I am actually happy about it,” he told the website in an email. “I have long had ambivalent feelings about football, so at this point, it’s better to leave the hosting to those who are more enthusiastic about it.”

In addition, Costas has been vocal about the league’s concussion problem in the past couple of seasons.

Dan Patrick and Liam McHugh will host the pregame show with Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison, Mike Florio and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“The broadcast is in good hands, and they don’t have an appropriate role for me, or compelling reason to use me,” Costas said. “All involved are fine with that.”

As usual, the network showing the Super Bowl will originate many of its regular programming from the host site. NBCSN will even show its NHL Live pregame and postgame show from Minneapolis next week. The Feb. 2 Vegas-Minnesota game will be shown on NBCSN.

While NBC plans to have “nearly 100 hours” of TV and radio coverage from Minneapolis, ESPN is set to originate more than 60 hours.

Meanwhile, the Pro Bowl, the all-star game no one asked for, will be at 11:50 a.m. on ESPN and ABC from Orlando, Fla.

OTHER ALL-STAR GALAXIES

The NBA All-Star Game isn’t until Feb. 18, but the event made news when the starters and reserves were announced on TNT. The Clippers are the host team at Staples Center, but there are no Clippers on the team. No Lakers, for that matter. Many particularly thought Lou Williams of the Clippers would make the West team.

“The Clippers, all of their best players have been out,” TNT’s Baron Davis said. “[Williams] is the best player on the team. He’s a playmaker, he evolved, he put up 50-point games … I think he deserved it.”

Coming sooner is the NHL All-Star Game, running head to head with the Pro Bowl, at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC from Tampa Bay. The network plans to use “4DReplay,” a system with 100 high-speed cameras mounted in the arena — 50 placed on each side of the ice — to provide immediate replays of the action from a 360-degree perspective. Also utilized will be “JitaCam,” a 360-degree jib camera, mounted on a truss 40 feet above the ice.

UP & DOWN THE DIAL

Alex Rodriguez will take Aaron Boone’s place and Matt Vasgersian will take over for Dan Shulman on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball next season, joining holdover Jessica Mendoza. Rodriguez will remain as a postseason studio analyst for Fox while Vasgersian will continue as a studio host and announcer for MLB Network. … Speaking of MLB Network, a documentary on Tony Gwynn, MLB Network Presents: Mr. Padre, will premiere at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. … HBO’s Real Sports (10 p.m. Tuesday) will include segments on tennis legend Margaret Court and the St. Brown family of Southern California, whose three football-playing sons are everything basketball’s Ball family is not. …

The Southern California Sports Broadcasters presented former Kings announcer Bob Miller with its Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted Lakers analyst Stu Lantz and race announcer Trevor Denman into its Hall of Fame. … Tiger Woods’ return to Torrey Pines should give CBS good ratings for the Farmers Insurance Open this weekend — provided he makes the cut. Golf Channel has the first two rounds. … Golf Channel, incidentally, reached an agreement with International Alliance of Theatrical & Stage Employees technicians after a 1½-week strike. …

Tom Hoffarth, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Southern California News Group, was one of many laid off this week. Hoffarth is a great writer and as good as they come in the newspaper business. He has been second to none in covering L.A. sports media for decades.

NFL conference championships are a great show for underdogs

On one hand, this should be a very interesting NFL playoff Sunday. Three of the four teams involved in the conference championships have almost completely unknown quarterbacks. If you’re a fan who consistently enjoys rooting for underdogs, these two games were meant for you.

Playoffs_rgbAt 12:05 p.m. PST Sunday, the AFC championship game features the Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars visiting Tom Brady’s New England Patriots on CBS and at 3:40 p.m., Fox will have the NFC championship with Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings at the Philadelphia Eagles and Nick Foles.

Sure, everybody knows Brady and there’s always the likelihood that the Patriots will not only win Sunday, but go on to win Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4. That’s just the Patriots. That’s who they are. But Sunday’s conference championships give us the opportunity to dream a little bit and wonder what it would be like to have the Jaguars in the Super Bowl, or to have the Vikings being the first team to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium.

CBS analyst Tony Romo — who has been brilliant in his first season as the network’s No. 1 booth analyst, working with Jim Nantz — says anything could happen, but New England is the team to beat.

“Whether it’s Jacksonville, Minnesota or Philadelphia, New England will be prepared and they’ll be ready,” Romo said this week. “… To win this thing, they’re going to have to go through two dynamic defenses and that’s a lot of hits on the quarterback. That’s a lot of throws under duress.

“… If anyone can do it, it’s Brady. If anyone can get their team ready, it’s [coach Bill] Belichick. We’ve seen it. But, it’s definitely a challenge and I would say whoever comes out of the NFC is a very formidable opponent. And they’re going to be in the mix. All four of these teams can win a Super Bowl. And you can’t say that every year.”

On the NFC side, the Eagles have taken an us-against-the-world approach that CBS’ Bill Cowher says has worked to their advantage.

“I don’t think they are [underdogs], but don’t tell them,” Cowher said. “I think they are playing the underdog role pretty well right now. … Last week being the underdog at home kind of fueled them to play that card to take them to the Super Bowl.”

The Vikings, however, will be a formidable opponent for Philadelphia, especially after their amazing, last-second 29-24 win last week over New Orleans. Cowher said much of the Vikings’ success falls directly on coach Mike Zimmer.

“Mike, in my opinion, does a good job of keeping everyone on edge,” Cowher said. “… What really speaks volumes about Mike, he doesn’t let people get comfortable.  I think there is a lot to be said for that. And they have had a lot of success, but they are still playing with an edge. … I give a lot of credit to Mike Zimmer for having the no-nonsense approach he is taking to this team. They have adopted that and they are a reflection of their head coach.”

DIGG-ING THAT CALL

The most amazing moment of the weekend was how the Vikings beat the Saints on a 61-yard pass play from Keenum to Stefon Diggs with no time left.

Just as impressive were the calls of the play on TV and radio. Fox’s Joe Buck, not particularly known for emotion, screamed his head off:

“Keenum steps into it. Pass is caught! DIGGS … SIDELINE … TOUCHDOWN! UNBELIEVABLE! VIKINGS WIN IT!

Kevin Harlan on Westwood One radio, who is known for emotion (even on unemotional plays), had a great call, too:

“Shotgun snap. He moves up, he throws a long line drive on the near side. Leaping to it, catch made! My goodness! IT’S GOING TO GO IN FOR THE TOUCHDOWN! GRAB BY DIGGS! He broke a tackle, 61-yard touchdown throw! The Vikings have won! The Minnesota Vikings have won!”

Of course, the Vikings’ radio broadcast on the team’s 68-station network was loud and proud. Paul Allen and Pete Bercich were astonished:

Allen: “Case on the deep drop, steps up in the pocket, he’ll fire to the right side, CAUGHT BY DIGGS! STAY IN BOUNDS!”

Bercich: “OH, MY GOD! OH, MY GOD! NO WAY!”

Allen: “HE GOT LOOSE! AT THE 30, THE 10, TOUCHDOWN! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

Bercich: “WHAT A MIRACLE FINISH!”

Allen: “IT’S A MINNEAPOLIS MIRACLE!”

Bercich: “NO WAY!”

Allen: “STEFON DIGGS AND THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS HAVE WALKED OFF ON THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS!”

AT THIS RATE …

Ratings for the NFL’s divisional games last Sunday were bleak. SportsBusiness Daily reported that the contests had their “lowest figures in at least a decade, despite three of the four games coming down to the wire.”

As might be expected, the thrilling Saints-Vikings game had the best mark, with a 21.8 big-market overnight rating for Fox. Anything over 20.0 is a big rating for any program, but it was the lowest figure for a Sunday afternoon divisional game since the 2009 Chargers-Steelers game had a 21.4 on CBS. The first game Sunday, Jaguars-Steelers, pulled in a 20.4, the lowest mark in that spot in at least 15 years.

The two Saturday games fared worse. NBC had a 17.4 for Eagles-Falcons and CBS had a 16.6 for Titans-Patriots. Those were the lowest ratings for Saturday divisional games since 2009.

UP & DOWN THE DIAL

Chris Berman and Tom Jackson will reunite on ESPN after this weekend’s NFL conference championship games to host a special edition of NFL PrimeTime at 7 p.m. Sunday. The two worked together for 29 years on various studio shows. Berman will also host the show following Super Bowl LII. Matt Hasselbeck will be the ESPN analyst for the Jan. 28 Pro Bowl alongside play-by-play man Sean McDonough. Several reports speculate this will be an audition for Hasselbeck to replace Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football next season. … SportsBusiness Journal sources say ABC “has emerged as a surprise bidder” for the NFL Thursday Night Football package. Other than playoff simulcasts with Disney sister network ESPN, ABC hasn’t shown NFL games since Monday Night Football was shifted over to ESPN in 2006. CBS and NBC are the incumbents for the TNF package and have submitted bids along with Fox.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not only join NBC’s NASCAR coverage this season, he will also be part of the network’s Super Bowl and Winter Olympics programming. … Katie Couric has been tabbed to co-host the Winter Olympics opening ceremony with Mike Tirico. The former Today host (as well as anchor for the CBS Evening News) hosted opening ceremonies at the Sydney, Salt Lake City and Athens Games. NBC’s most recent Olympics, at Rio de Janeiro, was hosted by Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera. Lauer was fired by NBC in November after sexual harassment allegations. … NBC plans to stream the opening ceremony live (it would start at 3 a.m. PT), then show its curated version on TV in prime time. …

Golf Channel is struggling to show live golf events while technicians belonging to the International Alliance of Theatrical & Stage Employees are on strike. … Nicole Briscoe has signed a new contract with ESPN. A new duty will include being host of ABC’s Indianapolis 500 telecast. … The first telecast of this season’s ABC’s NBA Saturday Prtimetime package starts this weekend with Warriors-Rockets at 5:30 p.m. The network will also show a “matinee,” Thunder-Cavaliers, at 12:30. … NBCSN will show the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony at 5 p.m. Friday. … MLB Network will reveal the Baseball Hall of Fame election results at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Overtime pays off for ESPN, College Football Playoff

Overtime turned out to be a good time for the College Football Playoff.

cfpThe CFP championship game as well as the Rose Bowl semifinal went into extra time and produced big TV viewership numbers.

Monday’s title game, won 26-23 in OT by Alabama over Georgia, was seen by an average of 28.4 million viewers on ESPN (which had 27.4 million itself), as well as on “MegaCast” networks ESPN2 and ESPNU.

It’s the No. 2 most watched cable TV telecast in history and 11% more than last year’s Clemson-Alabama title game (25.3 million). The inaugural CFP game — Ohio State-Oregon in 2015 — is still No. 1 at 33.9 million.

Monday’s game was, understandably, a huge draw in the South. Nine of the top 10 markets to watch the game were from the region with Birmingham topping the list with a 57.6 rating (meaning 57.6% of all TVs in the market were tuned to the game). The big-market overnight rating was 16.7.

For the Rose Bowl (a double-overtime victory by Georgia over Oklahoma), the overnight rating was a 14.8, the second best mark for a CFP semifinal behind Oregon-Florida State in 2016 (15.5). The Alabama-Clemson semifinal at the Sugar Bowl had a 12.5 overnight rating.

All this had ESPN smiling broadly.

“The record-breaking audiences, over the course of multiple years, clearly reinforce how the College Football Playoff has quickly established itself as an elite event on the sports calendar,” ESPN executive vice president Burke Magnus said in a statement. “[Monday’s] thrilling finish coupled with ESPN’s innovative MegaCast presentation showcased the incredible strength of college football and the deep connection live sports have with fans.”

PLAYOFFS? PLAYOFFS!

SportsBusiness Daily reported all four NFL networks had double-digit declines for the wild-card round of the playoffs last weekend. The Rams’ Saturday night loss to the Falcons on NBC earned a 14.9 overnight rating, down 10% from the 16.5 for the Seahawks-Lions matchup last year.

Wild Card_rgbFox had the most watched game, with Saints-Panthers drawing a 20.4. However, that was still down 15% the 24.0 for Packers-Giants last season. CBS had a 17.2 mark for Bills-Jaguars, down 10% from the Steelers-Dolphins’ 19.2 in 2017. The Titans-Chiefs game on ABC and ESPN had a 14.7 rating, down 11% from a 16.6 for Texans-Raiders in ’17.

Whatever you may think about the NFL right now, between national anthem kneelings and concussion issues, it is still golden for TV networks. Nothing beats it and nothing will.

“We always want ratings to go up, but we’re 37 of the top 50 shows, which is higher than ever,” Goodell told reporters Sunday. “We’re likely to be the No. 1 show … on all of television, the Fox Sunday afternoon game. Sunday night prime time is for the seventh year in a row the No. 1 show. Thursday night football is No. 2.

“I think dominance of the NFL in television is still very clear.”

For this weekend’s divisional round, the two Saturday games are Falcons-Eagles at 1:35 p.m. PST on NBC, followed by Titans-Patriots at 5:15 on CBS. CBS gets two games this weekend. On Sunday it has Jaguars-Steelers at 10:05 a.m. and Fox gets Saints-Vikings at 1:40 p.m.

HOCKEY DAY SOCAL

image005The Kings and Ducks play at Staples Center on Saturday night and they’ve declared it Hockey Day SoCal with all kinds of Southern California events, but as far as I’m concerned, the real star of the day will be Bob Miller.

The former Kings broadcaster, who retired after last season after 44 years, will be honored Saturday with a statue outside Staples Center and a permanent banner inside. It’ll be the third hockey statue at Staples’ Star Plaza, joining Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille. Miller’s will be the first statue of a broadcaster at any current NHL arena. The banner will join those for Gretzky, Robitaille, Rob Blake, Dave Taylor, Marcel Dionne and Rogie Vachon. Fans will receive a Bob Miller “BOBblehead.”

As part of the event, Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket, as well as Fox Sports San Diego, will each offer 6½ continuous hours of hockey-themed programming beginning with two Kings vs. Ducks classic games at 4:30 p.m. and concluding with Ducks-Kings pregame and ceremony coverage at 7. Game time is 7:30.

FS West’s classic game will be the first ever played between the Kings and Ducks on Dec. 2, 1993. Prime Ticket’s will be a Ducks comeback win from Jan. 22, 2003.

UP & DOWN THE DIAL

CBS Sports Network will air a documentary that should be worth watching. History in the Astrodome: UCLA vs. Houston 1968 looks back at the classic college basketball game — the first to be televised nationally in prime time — and how it changed the sport. CBS Sports announcer — and Houston alumnus — Jim Nantz interviews the late Dick Enberg (who called the game), Elvin Hayes, Don Chaney and Seth Davis.NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, according to USA Today, but he expects to return in time to be involved with next month’s Winter Olympics. McGuire’s diagnosis comes five months after fellow NBC analyst Ed Olczyk was told he had colon cancer. … Fox Sports named Mark Silverman as president of its national networks. He’ll oversee Fox Sports, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and retain his role as president of the Big Ten Network.

TNT will show three games Monday on Martin Luther King Day: Lakers-Grizzlies at 2:30 p.m., Warriors-Cavaliers at 5 and Rockets-Clippers at 7:30. Also, NBA TV will have Hornets-Pistons at 9:30 a.m. and Spurs-Hawks at noon. … Australian Open coverage begins at 4 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2. NBC announced it will provide more than 50 hours of Winter Olympic virtual reality coverage to authenticated users via the NBC Sports VR app.