NBA Players Only TNT

Beginning on Monday, Turner’s trying something very different for some of their NBA broadcasts; a Players Only franchise. For five consecutive weeks of Monday night doubleheaders, former NBA players will fill all roles on the broadcast. That includes play-by-play, studio host and reporter roles, as well as the more standard color commentator and studio analyst roles. Turner Sports executive vice president and chief content officer Craig Barry spoke to Awful Announcing Wednesday about how this came about, saying it came from Turner picking up more NBA games and trying to differentiate them from its regular NBA on TNT broadcasts.

“We had an opportunity through our new deal with the NBA, where we acquired 12 new games,” Barry said. “We were thinking through the possibilities around a more creative, innovative approach, a differentiating brand opportunity, and since we spent so much time in and around the NBA, whether that’s NBA TV,, and obviously the NBA on TNT, we have this relatively large talent pool. We’re always trying to create new shows, whether that’s Open Court or Dunk Kings, we’re always trying to innovate around the content and tell rich narratives.”

Barry said changing who’s filling these roles provides a chance to partly shake up a broadcast while still keeping the camera angles and some of the format that’s been proven to work.

“There’s been a lot of people trying different ways to innovate around sports broadcasts in general, but there’s a reason it’s been kind of done the same way for the last 40 or 50 years,” he said. “Obviously there’s new technology, new innovation, but there’s still the camera at the midcourt line or the 50-yard line and the extension cameras around the court. The coverage has been similar, and that’s because that’s generally the best way to consume the game, specifically on a linear device, a television.”

He said the goal is to make it a comfortable shift for viewers.

“We didn’t necessarily want to innovate just to innovate. We wanted to create a platform or an opportunity where we thought it would create real value for the viewer. And as we’ve gone through this process of creating shows and working through and collaborating with the NBA digital side of our business, we figured there’s a lot of relevant conversation going on.”

Barry said the broadcasts will be highly focused on conversations that can make use of the players’ experiences.

“The traditional way of watching a broadcast, whether you’re getting it through play-by-play and the color guy or whether you’re paying attention to social, or whether you’re watching news shows or editorial shows, all of these narratives are bubbling up and all of these conversations are relevant,” he said. “So we wanted to create a platform where we eliminated the host, with the prerequisite being you have to have played the game in order to participate.”

He said that should help enhance the conversational side of the broadcast.

“We eliminate the traditional host and the traditional play-by-play guy, and we expect it to be much more conversational, almost like you’re sitting on the couch watching the game with NBA players who can talk about their expertise and their experience while making sure they’re creating a narrative around what’s going on on the court,” he said. “Although it seems like kind of a small innovation or a small pivot, it’s never really been done before, where we’ve eliminated the middleman if you will and put the players front and center to be experts around the game they’ve played their entire lives.”

The first week’s game crews involve Greg Anthony (doing play-by-play), Kevin McHale and Richard Hamilton (analysts) and Dennis Scott (reporter) for Bucks-Cavaliers (7 p.m. Eastern), with Brent Barry (play-by-play), Grant Hill and Derek Fisher (analysts) and Lisa Leslie (reporter) covering Pacers-Rockets (9:30 p.m. Eastern). The toughest adjustment might be around those play-by-play roles, but Barry said the two guys picked for that have the perfect skillset for it.

“They’re both conversationalists, they both like to talk about the game,”Barry said. “We talk about television and production and specifically formatting of the game, I thought they had a strong working knowledge of that part of the broadcasting portion of what we do. And they’re charismatic, and I think they can keep the conversation continuous. And they get what we’re trying to do. I’m sure that there’s many players that are capable of doing that, but we felt for us, we obviously have relationships with both of them and we felt like they were a good fit. And then it’s matching them with teams and trying to create some chemistry, which is obviously one of the most important parts of making good television.”

Barry said the end balance of traditional play-by-play versus conversations about the game will largely be up to the former players involved.

“We’re not trying to regulate it,” he said. “This is the first time we’re doing this, so we’re going to go ahead and kind of let them feel their way through what they think is the best way to approach this. They understand that they have to kind of straddle that line of the hardcore sports fan and the casual fan. They can’t assume that everybody knows everything about the game, so there is an expository approach that needs to take place in order for it be dynamic enough and diverse enough for it to be consumable by the entire audience. On the other hand, I feel like that traditional play-by-play model…this will be kind of like more ‘talk with you’ instead of ‘talk at you,’ and there’s a platform for that.”

Barry said feedback for other shows Turner has done like NBA TV’s Open Court helped inspire this approach, and they’ll be flexible enough to work with whatever’s working for the players involved.

“From some of our other experiences like Open Court, we’ve seen these conversations taken place, we’ve seen people getting connected to them on an emotional level, so we feel like this is a platform people will appreciate, fans specifically will appreciate. And we’re flexible and nimble enough to be able to pivot, whether that’s around subject matter or approach. But I think at first, much like our studio show, we don’t filter those guys, so we’re not going into this with a filter turned up.”

He said even standard broadcast elements like throws to breaks will reflect the individuals involved.

“We’re going to make them understand the format and the business that needs to take place, because we are still running a business, and help educate them on how to get in and out of breaks, but it will be stylized to their own approach. Kevin Harlan does it one way, and Marv Albert does it one way, and Brent Barry and Greg Anthony are going to do it two other ways. We want them to make it their own. They’ve played the game, they’ve watched enough games that I think they have a pretty good handle on what might be interesting to the fan and viewer. And we’re going to kind of go from there.”

Meanwhile, the studio show Monday will feature Chris Webber hosting with Baron Davis and Isiah Thomas.  Barry said he thinks the chemistry of those three will be a real asset.

“I feel that Chris is really charismatic and has a high basketball IQ, and he has a great support cast. Obviously Baron is a character in his own right, Isiah is a legend and a Hall of Famer, and I think that the three of them and then we have an additional seat, which could be guests or whatnot, but I think that from what we’ve seen so far there’s going to be some real chemistry there. One of the beauties of Chris is he is super ambitious and watches the game as a fan and as an analyst, and he has this great sense of humor and doesn’t take himself that seriously. He makes for that perfect host prototype. And I think that one day he could just throw it over to Baron like ‘Baron, you host tonight!’ We’re going to let them figure it out on their own.”

As per that additional seat, Turner announced Thursday that Chris Bosh will be contributing to the Players Only broadcasts as a studio analyst, so he can be worked in there too. And as for the long-term future of Players Only, Barry said it’s five weeks for now, but if it goes well, it could become a regular franchise for TNT.

“For now, it’s the first five weeks after All-Star. And Players Only is its own brand, Players Only on TNT, there’s no crossover with The NBA on TNT other than the network it’s on. So we’re looking to build a new franchise on Monday nights, and this franchise differentiates itself with the players’ participation.”

This will also see added use of Kevin Garnett and his Area 21 show and set, with him particularly contributing in spots that would normally be used for commercial breaks thanks to the new single-advertiser superpod strategy. Barry said Garnett may contribute beyond that, too, as the broadcast will have the flexibility to reach out to whatever players’ experience might be relevant at the time.

“Area 21 obviously has a bigger role with Kevin Garnett, as we’re eliminating some commercial breaks and inserting Kevin into the break spots,” Barry said. “At any given time, the players, whether that’s remote or in the studio or at Area 21, can interact with each other. If they’re talking about big men and we want to pull Kevin into the conversation, or they’re talking about point guards and we want to pull Isiah into the conversation. We have a lot of players who stepped off the court not too long ago in Rip and specifically Derek. So we have that dynamic range of players and talent who have played the game recently, played the game in the past, in between there, and they have this great myriad of experience through multiple decades of the game.”

As for that ad strategy, Barry said reducing the commercials and throwing in more content with Garnett is done in hopes of keeping the viewer engaged.

“We wanted to make as much content in this show as possible,” he said. “We wanted to be innovative around ultimately the viewing experience. If I had my way as a content purist, I’d remove all the commercials, but I’m walking before I can run. So we had an opportunity to keep the viewer engaged instead of going to commercial break and create a better viewing experience, bring in Kevin Garnett, who is super charismatic and a Hall of Famer in his own right and brings a different dynamic and a different lens to the game in his own right, and for me, it was just another asset we could leverage. I wanted it to be the best possible and most innovative experience for the viewers.”

Barry said he’s hopeful the broadcast will involve stories and relevant personal experiences from all the contributors.

“If all goes to plan and the stars align, so to speak, then suddenly we’ve got these three to four players in the studio, talking about the game, talking about what it means at this time in the season, talking about matching up with certain players, all with certain experiences, all telling stories. Because that’s what we do at our core, we tell stories. Then they seamlessly throw to the guys at remote, they interact together, and the guys take it and they’re telling their stories and experiences, specific to what’s happening on the court.”

He said the overall Players Only goal is to bring fans closer to the game.

“At the end of the day, when we talk about our philosophy at Turner Sports, the primary philosophy we have is creating more access. Access is obviously to get the fan as close to the player, to the court, to the game as possible, but it also can be seen as access to the experience of the game, to the psychology of the game. So this becomes a really important part for kind of a deeper dive through the lens of all these ex-players. We’re really excited to go forward and build this brand and create something really special. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re just trying to create a different experience for the fan.”

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.