by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
I have been sitting on this topic for a few months but with spring training upon us the time seems right to ask the question. It will be another month until the team starts playing meaningful games, and we often see new faces and voices in front of the cameras and microphones in February and March. With that in mind, the question is: how satisfied are you with the current state of the Blue Jays TV and radio broadcasts on Sportsnet and FAN590? Here is a breakdown of the various components that make up the current line-up and what I’d like to see going forward. As always, this is one person’s opinion and I’m more interested in yours than I am in mine.
The Sportsnet Bundle
For context it’s important to remember that in Toronto one organization owns both the team and the networks that have the broadcast rights. That organization’s core business is selling telephone contracts and cable services, not sports. In other cities the usual set up is an individual owner whose team sells the rights to a sports network for a hefty fee, with the network then selling ads for all kinds of goods and services unrelated to the owner’s other business ventures. So you have a diversity of interests at work, some of which work to the benefit of the fan.
In Toronto, things are different since the entire ecosystem is organized around RCI’s share price. As we have seen many times over the last decade, this can lead to confusing and creative ways of talking about the Jays. Most recently there were the strange quotes about “surfacing value” in the team, and blaming earnings shortfalls in the media division on things like Troy Tulowitzki’s contract.
Because there is no bidding war for the radio or TV rights it also means there is little incentive for change. The status quo is all there is, and no other network can exert pressure on behalf of the audience. Sportsnet technically is separate from the Jays, but they are paid from the same bucket by Rogers, so the wall of separation is pretty thin. For further context, recall that Mark Shapiro and Scott Moore agreed to a reorganization of the media division under which one person would function as a bridge between the two units. Previously, the Jays handled media independently.
The current state of things is that there are great synergies for Rogers, but few of these lead to a benefit for viewers and listeners. To further illustrate the complexities of this issue, consider this passage from Jerry Howarth’s book. Here he is recounting his famous comments about SS Jose Reyes and his tendency to smile after making errors:
“In the big picture, I also learned a valuable lesson about honesty. That came from Alex Anthopoulos. “You sure made that trade of Reyes to the Rockies a lot more difficult for me because the Rockies kept asking what was going on with Reyes. That deal took a few more weeks than I expected, but we pulled it off.” I had never thought about that. My words could have negatively affected a transaction that was paramount to the Blue Jays’ future success in 2015, bringing Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins to the Blue Jays.”
Here you have a member of the broadcast team expressing regret at his comments because they potentially made life harder for the team’s GM. This gives you some insight into how he saw his role within the structure. Howarth is there to help the team win. I’m not drawing attention to this quote to mock him. Rather, it’s important for fans to know how to conceptualize the kind of information and analysis they can expect from Jays broadcasts. Even though Howarth is employed by Sportsnet, he see himself as on the same team as Alex. This works because Rogers pays both their salaries. Things might be different if they answered to different masters.
As the audience, this arrangement means that you will need to look elsewhere for critical commentary. On that point, John Ourand of Sports Biz Journal commented on Richard Deitsch’s media podcast that broadcast crew and commentators are not journalists and that the audience needs to keep that in mind when interpreting their comments. (Link – Episode 43, March 5th 2019, 32 minute mark).
What this means is that to thrive within the Rogers ecosystem you have to know how to root for the home team, or at least keep your negative opinions to yourself. This perception would be mitigated if there were a firewall between the role of Sportsnet journalist and the role of Sportsnet broadcast media. But no such wall exists. People like Stephen Brunt have a foot on both sides, which can be confusing for the audience. Similarly, when the Chris Colabello steroids story broke, his public interview went to … Jamie Campbell, rather than someone wholly unaffiliated with the team.
Not to say that any of this is easy. A network with a rights relationship with a team they cover will always find themselves facing difficult decisions about keeping the team happy while providing objective and credible journalism for the audience. Striking this balance comes with risks and costs. Arguably, CBC and TSN are on the outside looking in on NHL rights because they weren’t friendly enough to Gary Bettman. However, the public mandate at Sportsnet under Scott Moore never prioritized protecting the journalistic integrity of the network. His most famous comments were about partnership with the league around celebrating the game. That same approach can be seen at work with the Jays.
But Scott Moore has moved on and Bart Yabsley has been in charge for a year and is in a position to make changes to Sportsnet’s Jays coverage, if he so chooses. This is the guy who walked away from Bob McCown and a few months later fired Don Cherry, so he is not afraid of making difficult decisions.
The Current Roster
Trigger warning: discussion of race and gender and (lack of) diversity to follow. If that kind of thing upsets you then please position your fainting couch accordingly.
Speaking of Scott Moore, one defining feature of his tenure at Sportsnet was his love of white men. He presided over this legendary lineup at FAN590.
He also hired this guy:
And was in charge during this guy’s reign:
You might be tempted to dismiss these as cherry-picked examples that don’t tell an accurate story, but generally when people tell you who they are it’s a good idea to believe them:
It’s probably too soon to predict whether diversity will matter more to the new guy than it did to the old guy, but when you look at the Jays broadcast crew it’s notable how white and male it is. Here’s how the radio side looked for most of last year:
Here’s how the TV side looks while balls are in play:
Here’s how the pre and post game show looks:
And here’s how things sit in the extended Sportsnet baseball universe:
If you see nothing in need of change in the picture painted above then it’s unlikely anything you read here will convince you otherwise. But think about this in the context of a city as diverse as Toronto. Wouldn’t it make business sense to try to attract as many viewers as possible?
Internally, it’s hard to understand how a team managed by a Latino and with a core of young Hispanic players doesn’t see value in having a Spanish-speaking member of the broadcast crew. In fact, no one covering the team for Sportsnet can interview these individuals in their own language, and that seems like a willful missing of an opportunity.
These might be some of the considerations Yabsley takes into account as the Jays try to recapture the attention of the marketplace after losing 95 games in 2019, half of the ticket-buying audience over the last couple of seasons, and a significant amount of viewers on TV.
It is worth mentioning that things look a little more diverse in the role of sideline reporter.
Fixing the Radio Side
The biggest missing piece on the radio side is, in my opinion, the perspective of someone who has played the game and is excited to talk about the modern era of baseball. Jays fans were treated to a masterclass when the excellent Alan Ashby was partnered with Jerry Howarth from 2007-2012. To a lesser extent Jack Morris played this role well in 2013. Joe Siddall did a serviceable job from 2014-2017. In 2018 we were told that there would be a rotation of colour commentators but really it was just a lot of Wilner, who was eventually given a shot at carrying the load full-time in 2019.
The problem with the current duo is the lack of perspective. Wilner has only ever worked here, growing up as a lifelong Jays fan, and hosting the worst call in show in the history of radio for a decade. Wagner has done a nice job since being given the lead gig in 2018, after working in Buffalo for 11 years. Neither has worked in another MLB market. As a result the analysis is pretty thin, given that there is also no on the field experience from which to draw. This may or may not matter to you, but as someone who has lived in several MLB markets, I think there is a difference.
The easy solution would be to find a great ex-Jay who wants to be in broadcasting. It’s hard to believe that none of the legendary players from the 80s and 90s want to come back and work for Sportsnet. More recently JP Arencibia and Dirk Hayhurst made some noises before fading away. But where are the Barfields and Mosbeys and Carters? Or the Homer Bushes and Alex Rioses? A fallback solution would be to move Siddall back to radio alongside Wagner. This would be still too vanilla for my tastes, but would be an improvement over the current duo.
Fixing the TV Side
The return of Shulman has refreshed the TV broadcasts significantly. The three man booth of Tabler, Shulman, and Martinez is too crowded however. Shulman needs to be paired with someone who is comfortable taking a back seat. That does not describe either Tabler or Martinez. So long as Shulman is splitting his time with other commitments we will be stuck in limbo but all reports indicate this will change in the next year. Once that happens, the dominos should start to fall.
Personally I would like to see Shulman paired with a rotating cast of ex-players until the right chemistry emerges. He was quite good with John Kruk on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and there is no reason Sportsnet can’t find a comparable character willing to work in Canada.
I don’t spend much time on pre and post game shows, but until Jamie Campbell screws something up he owns that desk. He is well on the way to becoming baseball’s Ron MacLean. Kevin Barker is in the “love him or hate him” category, but since he and Hazel are a package deal I don’t see much change happening there.
As I have written many times before, I would love to see Hazel get a bigger role on Jays coverage. She has tons of experience working in many markets, and every time she is a guest on FAN590 she says something intelligent. I’m not sure where she would fit but she has earned the right to succeed or fail doing more meaningful work than getting showered in sports drink several times a month. Arash is a good broadcaster but his talents seem wasted in his current 50 game role with the Jays. He would be a better fit for a full-time radio show or podcast.
These are some of my thoughts, I might update this post with some further ones in the coming days. Here’s a poll to gauge what is the biggest priority for 2020.
Over to you: What changes would you like to see to Sportsnet’s baseball coverage? Do you care who hosts JaysTalk? How important is playing experience to your enjoyment of the radio call?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)