NFL players try a different training camp: the broadcast booth

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Sebastian Joseph-Day, a former defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, wrinkled his face as he admitted his mistake.

Moments earlier, before Joseph-Day’s practice rep as an analyst during last week’s NFL broadcaster training camp, an instructor reminded him to be impartial and not say “we or “we” as he described the action in a taped Rams game.

But staying neutral may have been difficult for Joseph-Day, who spent three seasons with the team. Midway through the exercise, a “we” slipped out, but Joseph-Day, now a loader from Los Angeles, recovered and finished the exercise cleanly.

The NFL created the workshop 15 years ago, in part because players repeatedly asked for opportunities to grow as broadcasters, network and goof off in a controlled setting.

This year’s camp, held at the league’s West Coast headquarters, came at an opportune time in the media landscape, shortly after several commentators from the NFL’s major broadcast partners changed jobs. , most signing multimillion-dollar contracts. Troy Aikman and Joe Buck left Fox after two decades for ESPN, and Al Michaels left NBC after 15 years to call Thursday Night Games for Amazon. All would earn eight figures a year.

The inflated salaries are a product of the NFL’s growing popularity: League games accounted for 48 of the 50 most-watched shows of the 2021 regular season, and February’s Super Bowl saw the game’s highest ratings in five years. Players are noticing the trend and its benefits, said Larry Fitzgerald, a former Arizona Cardinals catcher who participated in the program.

“Fan watching at an unprecedented rate is NFL games, and I think that’s been seen by organizations paying top dollar for top talent,” he said.

Richard Sherman, free agent cornerback and camp attendee, added: “It definitely motivates a lot of guys, and it’s one of those places that I think is going to start to get crowded.”

But none of the networks’ major play-by-play duos include a black person and a single black play-by-play announcer, Greg Gumbel for CBS in 2001 and 2004, called a Super Bowl on television. Mike Tirico, who will replace Michaels at NBC, identifies as mixed-race.

The lack of diversity among talent working prime time at NFL games isn’t ideal, said JA Adande, director of sports journalism at Northwestern University.

“That’s a lot of money and you wonder who gets it and which broadcasters have those opportunities and those avenues available to them,” Adande said.

Tracy Perlman, senior vice president of football operations for the NFL, said she’s optimistic about the camp’s ability to expand the pipeline. Media companies have long recruited ex-players as analysts because of their knowledge of the game and reputation, but the list of ex-pros who failed to make it to broadcast is long and star-studded. .

Hall of Famers including quarterback Joe Montana and running back Emmitt Smith have stumbled with microphones in hand, a fate the camp is meant to prevent.

“Most people can’t just walk off the field and be on camera,” Perlman said. “So we thought about what we could do, especially with the partnerships we have, to create a program that would give them those skills.”

With demand high and a goal of keeping instruction sessions small, the NFL was more selective of attendees than in previous years. The league sent personal invitations and received recommendations from teams to contact their players. Of approximately 40 applicants, the NFL chose 24 players — mostly black — based on their past experience on camera and in podcasts, and their declarations of interest. Faculty members included producers and hiring managers from NBC, CBS, Fox Sports and NFL Network.

Nate Burleson, who played 11 seasons in the NFL before retiring in 2014, is perhaps the camp’s most high-profile alumnus. Burleson is nearly ubiquitous on television as co-anchor of “CBS Mornings,” the network’s flagship morning news show, and host of “The NFL Today,” its weekly pre-game show.

But back when he attended camp in 2011, Burleson said he struggled in the play-by-play drill. Although he said the leaders complimented him throughout the week, his performance in this exercise continually irritated him.

“As many reasons as camp helped me improve who I was as a media personality, it was also honestly a slap in the face,” Burleson said.

The camp, he said, broadened his interests and made him want to become more versatile.

“It was like knowing what you wanted to do, but not having a full battery,” said Burleson, who won an Emmy award last year and was nominated for another last week. “Once you got there, you were fully charged and you had direction.”

This year’s class of players spent an entire day last week in classroom sessions learning the day-to-day broadcaster workflow and interview techniques. The next day, they rotated through exercises that included on-camera debates against each other. Sandy Nunez, vice president of on-air talent management at NFL Network, said she contacted a player’s agent about a possible job offer and smiled in the control room while a player was finishing an interview on camera.

“I can get a lot of important information here,” Nunez said, “so there’s definitely a lot of value there.”

Drew Kaliski, a coordinating producer for CBS, said he loves hearing smart questions from players, and the brew this offseason, he said, has provided good conversation for the networks to be more inclusive.

“We definitely need to diversify our teams of announcers at all levels,” Kaliski said. “I think having a number of people to work with will make everyone better, stronger, smarter and ultimately the shows will be better.”

Due to low turnover in network positions, faculty have advised players to continue training on their own to stay prepared, suggesting they try to appear on air in their local markets or on podcasts. because they have a lower barrier to entry compared to domestic emissions. .

Brandon Marshall, an NFL wide receiver for 13 seasons, echoed their advice. Marshall never attended camp, but secured contracts with Fox Sports and Showtime and created the “I AM ATHLETE” podcast, where he and other former players debate current topics with guests such as Deion Sanders and Antonio Brown.

Many episodes, which are also filmed for streaming, have garnered millions of views on YouTube. Marshall said he thinks podcasting is a non-traditional avenue that his peers can capitalize on, whether or not they have received formal training like the camp attendees.

“There are only a limited number of seats at ESPN, but what’s great about this space is that there are no rules,” Marshall said. “People win here because they think outside the box.”

Sherman, for his part, has followed a similar path — trying to secure journalistic reps outside of national broadcast opportunities — even as he navigates his free agency. In March, he announced that his former Seattle teammate, linebacker Bobby Wagner, would join the Rams in free agency via his Twitter account and used his eponymous podcast as a platform to discuss everything from draft prospects to his mental health. after his 2021 arrest. Sherman, who represents himself in place of an agent, is still training, but he is also preparing for options after his playing career.

For him, talking about football is a natural extension of the players’ overall work, “like walking, talking and breathing”.

He added: “It’s one of those things where you just like to be around the game and still be a part of it in some way.”

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