By Alan Pergament
If I had a nickel for the number of times a reader told me over the years that they didn’t read my regular TV columns all that much but they did look forward to Sports on the Air in the Saturday Sports pages, I probably could afford a Buffalo Sabres ticket in the 200 level of the First Niagara Center. OK, maybe the 300 level.
So this is the first of what will be some occasional Sports On the Air blogs when the spirit moves me on a Saturday morning.
The Buffalo Sabres are winning in one area this season: TV ratings.
Over their first 25 games in this strike-shortened season, the Sabres were averaging about a 10.5 rating on MSG, NBC and the NBC Sports Network, which was about 30 percent higher than the 8.1 average for the season in 2011-12.
Imagine if the team was any good going into today’s 3 p.m. game with Ottawa on MSG.
To put the ratings in perspective, when the Sabres play on most nights of the week their ratings are higher than any network or cable show in prime time. That includes “The Walking Dead,” which they resemble on many nights and afternoons.
Why have the ratings improved when the team has fallen on such hard times that it cost Lindy Ruff his coaching job?
Beats me. I suspect the cancellation of 34 regular season games made Sabres fans long for the game when the season finally started in late January. But it is hard to fathom why those fans are suffering through all the losses since then.
I doubt it has anything to do with the announcers. In his new role as a solo game analyst, Rob Ray has hardly distinguished himself. He praises the team’s performance and efforts after losses and frequently criticizes them in generalities rather than naming names. He should take the gloves off, as he used to do when he played.
Legendary play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret is practically immune to criticism. He still has a high energy level, but he hasn’t been at the top of his game on some nights this season.
New intermission host Brian Duff isn’t the most exciting TV personality to come along but at least he is very professional and tends to put things in proper perspective on the post-game shows omore often than Ray, especially after losses. However, the guy he replaced, Kevin Sylvester, was fine in that role, too.
Shameless plug of my alma mater. As I have written somewhat facetiously over the past few days, Syracuse University basketball is my religion. I should also note that SU grad Sean McDonough is one of my favorite play-by-play guys. He had a magnificent game in SU’s six-overtime win over Connecticut in 2009. He also was on top of his game on ESPN Friday night during SU’s 58-55 upset of Georgetown in the semifinal of the Big East tournament alongside entertaining analysts Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery. As far as I am concerned, they should call every NCAA tournament game together.
McDonough’s best moment Friday came after SU’s struggling freshman guard Trevor Cooney scored 10 points in the first half in Madison Square Garden. “As so often happens on Broadway, an understudy gets his chance. Tonight it is Trevor Cooney,” exclaimed McDonough. After SU won in overtime, McDonough said, “Syracuse’s stint in the Big East will last one more night.” Syracuse plays Louisville tonight in the championship game before heading to the ACC next season.
By no means is McDonough a Syracuse homer. He also praised Georgetown’s “understudies” Friday and noted that Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim is a “complex man” who can lash out at the media one moment and be sentimental the next.
Speaking of Boeheim’s complexity, ESPN had to enlist Bilas to interview him after Friday’s victory, presumably because the coach won’t speak with ESPN sideline reporter Andy Katz, who interviewed every other coach in Friday night’s doubleheader.
Channel 2 sports anchor Ed Kilgore took a shot at the website Deadspin for its reporting on the prank call that embarrassed Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix. Kilgore derisively said Deadspin is the same outlet that brought up the Manti Te’o mess. That was unfair.
Deadspin deserved praise for doing a helluva job reporting on how easy it was for traditional media outlets to buy the Notre Dame star’s heartwarming tale involving a fictional girlfriend. Similarly, Deadspin wasn’t behind the Nix prank. It just carried the audio of the conversation recorded by a couple of pranksters between Nix and Tampa Bay GM Mark Dominik that included disparaging comments on former Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
I was sorry to see the University at Buffalo basketball team’s run in the Mid-American Conference Tournament end but at least there is a silver lining for Channel 4 viewers. My first thought was they would no longer have to hear backup sports anchor Lauren Brill try to pronounce the name of UB Coach Reggie Witherspoon. I replayed her report on UB’s win over Ball State three times Wednesday to try and understand what she was calling Witherspoon. Someone over at Channel 4 should tell Brill to slow down so viewers can try to understand what she is saying.
Witherspoon’s firing Friday should eliminate the pronunciation problem. Channel 2 sports anchor Stu Boyar said it was a surprise Friday, as did Channel 4’s Steve Vesey. That was probably because there was no media speculation this year that the extremely well-liked and well-respected WNY native was coaching for his job as there had been about other recent coaching changes, and Witherspoon apparently didn’t realize it, either. The media saw the firing of Buffalo Bills Coach Chan Gailey coming and Ruff practically fired himself in a press conference the night before the Sabres did. There also was widespread speculation about the job status of UB football Coach Jeff Quinn before he was somewhat surprisingly given a new deal.
With 20-20 hindsight, there were signs. Witherspoon’s 14-year coaching record was under .500, UB lost 20 games this season, he has never taken a team to the NCAA tournament, Alumni Arena crowds weren’t high for home games and the university has a new athletic director looking to make his mark so one might have thought the coach could be in trouble. But Witherspoon is considered such a good, principled guy by the media that it might have made it harder for anchors, reporters and fellow coaches (who often tip off the media) to consider the possibility with three years reportedly left on his contract in a university program that isn't known for spending money.
If Witherspoon is as good a coach as many people in the coaching fraternity say he is (you really shouldn't expect any coach to say otherwise on the record), this story should have a happy ending if and when he gets another job.
One more thing: There is always one more thing after I read my own blog. I forgot to mention that it was nice to see ESPN catch Boeheim and former Georgetown Coach John Thompson (the present Georgetown coach's father) share a laugh after the game ended. Boeheim also shook the hand of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on his way to the locker room. Christie has Big East ties -- he graduated from Seton Hall Law School.
Well, I should have written two more things. I absolutely hate the idea of Syracuse heading to the ACC and never playing Georgetown again in a Big East game. I might change my mind if it helps me get a ticket into a SU game at Duke. Watching a game from Cameron Indoor Stadium is on my bucket list.