Every NBA broadcast needs a Cory Jez. The Portland Trail Blazers’ on-air analytics insider plays a role similar to the ex-refs who now populate NFL announcer booths, except instead of explaining byzantine rule books, he breaks down the complex numbers that drive basketball decision making today.
A few times each game, Jez pops up on screen to discuss metrics like effective field-goal percentage, offensive rating, and assist percentage, putting Portland performances in better context than classical counting stats can.
Ultimately, Jez hopes fans understand that “just because something is in the box score does not mean it’s the most important,” he said in an interview. “The box score exists because it’s the easiest thing to count.”
But he has a second mission, too. “Analytics is this term that’s become … very, very polarizing,” said Jez, who previously worked with Utah’s and Washington’s analytics departments. “Sometimes there’s a perception that analytics people don’t love the game. … We’re hoops junkies as much as everybody else.”
This goal comes across in Jez’s segments. He’s not there to correct team broadcasters Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd or studio hosts. Instead, Jez talks ball—often with a smile, even as the Trail Blazers have slipped out of playoff positioning of late. Jez does many of his hits from his Austin, Texas, home. He watches the live game, plus a delayed version that gives him a second look at each play. Two other screens are full of real-time data. TV timeouts give him a chance to dig into the info, preparing insights to share with viewers. Over time, he’s also seen his preferred data sources and numbers filter into the rest of the broadcast’s prep work as well.
“He has a unique ability to make it interesting and accessible for fans,” Trail Blazers CMO Kevin Kinghorn said. “He’s not so stuck in the analytics that he’s talking about models constantly and our casual fan isn’t able to get it.”
The Trail Blazers, one of five NBA teams that produce live games in-house, have shown how local broadcasts can evolve to succeed in today’s competition for attention. The franchise is currently fifth in household ratings (among the 20 teams whose networks subscribe to Nielsen ratings), trailing only four teams with winning records: the Warriors, Cavaliers, Celtics and Kings. Last season they finished in the top 10 in ratings despite a 27-55 record.
“Every sport is looking at data and trying to use that to gain an edge, and why wouldn’t you bring that to the fans and use that to engage fans?” Kinghorn said. “There’s just such a huge core community who’s so interested in that space that you’d be kind of crazy if you weren’t leaning into that.”
Along with Jez’s addition, the team partnered with Second Spectrum this year to add advanced stats like expected shot percentage to its live feed. It also worked with Vizrt to evolve the pop-up graphics that show not only players stats, but what percentile those stats place each guy in for their position. Portland has also invested in player mics and behind-the-scenes cameras, plus interactive trivia and polling during games.
“We’re trying to innovate,” Kinghorn said. “It’s not all going to work. We know that.” Already, the broadcast has tweaked the analytics aspect, cutting down the number of graphs it shows and generally making sure not to disrupt the experience of watching a basketball game.
Many regional sports networks are in a moment of crisis right now, headlined by Bally Sports’ looming bankruptcy. But their issues are not limited to a decaying distribution model built on the cable bundle. The core presentations need to evolve as well.
Today’s fans are not merely going to watch a game to find out what happens. They can do other things (stream Netflix, FaceTime friends, read Sportico) and catch the important highlights. But if broadcasts offered more than just the action—if they could promise to make fans smarter or help them feel more connected to their favorite teams—then viewers would offer more of their attention in return.
IN OTHER ALTCAST NEWS…
ESPN director Jeff Nelson has an interesting job Tuesday night. He’ll call the shots for a next-generation hockey broadcast using the old-school tools of paper and tape.
While the Capitals and Rangers face off on ESPN, a completely animated version of the game will air on Disney Channel and Disney+. Past broadcasts have won plaudits for using augmented reality technology to add kid-friendly elements. The so-called “NHL Big City Greens Classic” will go further, using the league’s live tracking data to track every player’s position in real time and recreate each as a cartoon figure.
A couple of players will be represented as characters from “Big City Greens” who will speak during the event using motion capture technology. An official will even be represented as a chicken, a choice that will surely make sense to the show’s young viewers and the broadcast’s intended audience. Tech providers at Beyond Sports and Silver Spoon are contributing to the transformation of positional data into animated scenes. ESPN VP, production Ed Placey is producing the show, having led previous AltCast efforts for the company.
The setup creates a good news/bad news situation for Nelson.
Good news: The broadcast can put “cameras” basically anywhere it wants in the rendered environment, like directly in front of the goalie or inside the puck.
Bad news: The “cameras” aren’t real, which means Nelson won’t have his typical panel full of every available angle to choose shots from. Instead, he’s printed out a numbered guide of all 49 angles and the type of view they offer, which he’ll use to direct the action Tuesday. “I’m going to try to memorize as much as I can,” Nelson said.
A floor above Nelson, announcers Drew Carter and Kevin Weekes will go through a transformation similar to that of the players. Wearing bodysuits pocked with trackers and a headset featuring a facial-monitoring camera, they’ll be converted into cartoon figures themselves. Once again, no normal cameras needed. Their set consists of some carpet covered with marked locations and a pair of typical folding tables, with their positional data being used to render them as characters behind a desk created using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. ESPN Creative Studio, led by senior director Michael “Spike” Szykowny, managed the development of the virtualized broadcast booth.
Carter stopped by the space Friday to calibrate his suit and check out the tech. “This could be pretty useful for golf coaching,” he said, swinging and watching his digital avatar make the same motion.
In the final days before the game, the production team was still discussing how it might handle certain edge cases, like an unforeseen delay in action. The crew was also thinking about sounds it could add to its presentation to make its presence in the titular “Big City” feel more authentic. They’ve asked the music department for motorcycle noises, truck exhaust, whooshing sounds—and yes, chicken calls.