The Portland Trail Blazers have had an up and down start to the 2023-24 season, with high points leavened by botched plays and occasionally spotty effort. They seem to be headed in a good direction, but they’re not quite there yet.
Having watched six games on NBA League Pass so far this year, all home feeds from the Trail Blazers, the same thing can be said about their broadcasts of the games, in my view. There’s some good material there, but the shakedown cruise needs to be extended.
Last spring, the team let go several veteran members of their broadcast staff. This fall, they brought on several new members. Without being inside the organization, it’s impossible to tell how the transition is going. From an outsider’s view, the vibe is different—credit for trying—but not necessarily better.
The Biggest Issue isn’t Local
Before we dive into the local product, a side note: the biggest issue I’ve found with the product has nothing to do with the Blazers themselves. Out-of-area viewers depend on NBA League Pass to carry local broadcasts to viewers. Four out of the six games I’ve viewed so far—66% of the total—have had issues. Most of these have been repeated dropped connections, but I’ve also experienced audio issues and (of course) missed timing going into and coming back from commercial breaks.
The interruptions appear to be provider-based. They persist regardless of device or connection speed. If I had an old machine trying to stream a new product, I’d understand. Not working consistently on PC’s or the latest consoles at various locations is a sign that maybe it’s not the consumer at fault.
The league has been offering streaming since 2012, over a decade now. The service should be in a better state of operation than it is.
In a similar way, let me preface my thoughts about the local broadcast by saying clearly that it’s hard to pull off any broadcast, period. Like many people, I was forced, semi-unwillingly, into video work by the advent of COVID. It took years to get comfortable. The product only looks good because of the skill and expertise of the camera person and video editor. Even then, it’s still mid compared to real, professional productions.
I have the utmost respect for everyone who works in Blazers Broadcasting, or who tries to put anything out for public consumption. Yahoos like me who don’t have a tenth of the knowledge needed to do it right are going to make comments on work it took you decades to get ready for. That stinks.
Since broadcasts speak to viewers, however, there might be a place for a bit of critique, or at least sharing of impressions. I have a couple.
A New Vibe?
This seasons, Blazer Broadcasting seems to be going for a new vibe: more casual and interactive perhaps? They project more like folks, like “everypersons” behind the mic.
Play-by-play broadcaster Kevin Calabro and analyst Lamar Hurd are immune to this effect. Calabro has been at it for too many years to be anything but himself. A little extra mustard on the description might accompany a young team that needs boosting. That’s about it. Hurd, as usual, fits seamlessly beside him. They’re by far the most traditional pair on the broadcast.
The rest of the crew—pregame, postgame, and halftime—seems almost joking and jovial. Long-time television personality Neil Everett almost stumbles and bumbles through his conversations. Francis Williams and Michael Holton almost seem lost, trying to connect actual analysis to the banter, doing serious talk in a super-friendly way. Everybody seems loose, like they’re talking to you in your living room instead of behind a professional desk.
If this impression is true, there are two possibilities why. It could be an intentional pivot. It could also be because of a lack of unified focus or vision, leaving everybody to fend for themselves. Either would be understandable, given the circumstances.
I’m probably old-school in that I prefer more professionalism in my presentation. That’s what I grew up with.
I’m also able to admit that I’m probably not the core target audience for the broadcasts. Evolving for different generations and customs is fine, even if that means loosening up the banter and looking a bit more like TikTok than your grandpa’s NBA.
This evolution has come at a cost, though. When everybody else was a little more buttoned up and official, Brooke Olzendam’s personal connection with the audience stood out. She was the bridge, the most relatable member of the crew, the person inviting you off of the couch, onto the sidelines or court, into the world of the players.
There’s less need for a bridge when every member of the broadcast crew seems to be leaping the moat, trying to get right beside you in your den. Olzendam now seems like one of many, and not the most pronounced. She, and in some ways the players she used to connect us with, have receded farther into the background in favor of banter about the team.
Again, there may be intention to this. Damian Lillard is gone. No player on the current roster even comes close to Lillard’s ability to connect with the audience. Many of the overt interactions between player, microphone, and viewer have seemed awkward this season. Personnel is certainly part of that.
At the same time, we can point to an on-bench interview segment during the Memphis Grizzlies game on Friday. The audience could hear every member of the broadcast crew clearly before, during, and after the game. When they threw to Anfernee Simons on the bench, the volume was so low that his responses were barely audible. That nobody had the foresight to guess that a player might not use a full, broadcast-level voice is a little head-scratching. That nobody was able to cope and, say, turn his gain up was even more so. Theoretically Simons’ voice should have been the most unique and important we heard that evening. As it was, we barely even heard it.
Part of this is technical, of course. But it also speaks of experience, emphasis, and focus. It just doesn’t feel like those three things are there in full force yet this season. Blazers broadcasts seem a bit homespun, and not in the complimentary way, because of it.
I find myself repeating a the question as I watch: Is bringing the product to viewers still the emphasis of the broadcast team, or is the broadcast team itself now the product?
I think the former is still true, but I’m not sure the broadcasts are conveying it as strongly, especially when compared to the days of Mike Barrett and Mike Rice, let alone heading back to Bill Schonely and Steve Jones. All of them became strong, memorable personalities while keeping the game at the center. Now it feels like we have a bunch of people trying to establish their personalities, and I’m not sure I’ll remember any of them...or the game.
The Big Ugh
Even with all of the above said, one sore spot in the broadcast outstrips them all.
The Blazers brought on veteran analyst Tom Haberstroh this year to replace Corey Jez, bringing insight and tidbits of knowledge during games.
Haberstroh’s main background is as a writer, not a broadcaster. He projects just fine on camera, though he doesn’t seem to have a public speaker’s gift for instant replies. Either that or the broadcast is suffering from the inevitable lag associated with having him in front of a green screen wherever he does broadcasts from. Either way, Haberstroh’s replies are two beats too slow, which is the only critique we’ll make of him for now. He deserves half a season, at least, to get into the groove before receiving serious evaluation.
But the Blazers aren’t doing him any favors either. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The whole point of an analytics expert is to be an EXPERT. You supposedly pay big bucks to this guy for knowledge and insight that nobody else has. If he’s not the smartest guy in the room, he should at least sound like he could be. That happens when he delivers, confidently and clearly, information or angles that most other people wouldn’t think of.
Instead, Blazers Broadcasting has stuck Haberstroh in an awkward do-si-do with Calabro and Hurd, some version of “Stump the Expert” wherein the broadcasters ask a question and Haberstroh tries to answer. The problems with this are legion.
The setup cuts the legs right out from under the expert, putting him in the dark. Instead of delivering information, he’s trying to find it or remember it correctly. Would you film Shaedon Sharpe’s vertical leap by sticking him in a field of wet cement? Then why are you confusing poor Tom before asking him to share his knowledge?
Haberstroh is brand new to the broadcast. He’s not been established as any kind of reliable authority yet. Now viewers see him struggling every night in a question-answer process that intentionally starts him in the dark and seldom lets him out of it. In six games, we’ve gone from, “Oooh! What’s this guy going to say?” to, “Oh, him again? Wonder if he’ll get it right this time? Or maybe half right?”
The questions chosen aren’t even particular to Haberstroh’s field of expertise. They’re not asking, “Tom, can you explain true shooting percentage in layman’s terms?” It’s, “Name all the sets of brothers in the NBA.” That’s more appropriate to a morning radio call-in show where listeners try to win a $50 gift card than an informative analytics segment. It’s like asking someone with a PhD in nutritional chemistry to name all the Blizzard flavors at Dairy Queen. Why the heck did you need a professor for that?
Because of the time format, Haberstroh still gets the answers wrong, or at least answers incompletely. A guy with decent sports bar knowledge could do better. That’s not making him look like any more of an expert.
It doesn’t help that, upon hearing the question, Haberstroh turns to his laptop and begins typing. Shall we presume he’s Googling? Hey, that’s exactly what you and I would do and we don’t know squat. The exercise has now morphed from “Stump [presumed expert] Tom Haberstroh” to “How Fast Can Tom Haberstroh Use a Search Engine?” Might as well get a random 14-year-old to fill that slot. They’ve grown up on camera and they can type faster.
During this exercise, Haberstroh is silent—getting laptop results—and he’s turned away from camera into profile. Technically he’s still on TV but he’s not looking at us anymore. We’re not hearing a word from him either. It wouldn’t matter if he were the smartest analytics guy in the whole universe, carrying the Philosopher’s Stone of Basketball Knowledge that spins second-round picks into NBA All-Stars. From our point of view, he’s just some dude with a cheekbone, saying nothing. Until he turns back to camera and gets the answer wrong, that is.
That they shrink Haberstroh to a picture-in-picture box and run an ad over the top of him during this exercise seems wholly appropriate. “Hey guys, how could we make Tom Haberstroh seem smaller and less relevant? I know!!!” In addition, Calabro and Hurd often talk over everything and needle their “expert” in even more of the banter mentioned above.
The whole exercise buries the guy the Blazers hired specifically as their Analytics Insider. It’s the opposite of everything they should be doing to help him look good and establish him as a valuable—if not indispensable—member of the broadcast crew.
None of this is Haberstroh’s fault, or at least not his alone. (He may have helped come up with the segment? I don’t know.) If Haberstroh were fantastic at his job, with witty banter and astonishing insight to burn, we wouldn’t see it. It’s like watching a supposedly-great chef being handed a store-bought cake and told to pound railroad spikes with it. The whole idea is bonkers. It shows nothing about how he can cook.
The intent here isn’t do bag on the broadcast team..though admittedly some of the above sounds harsh. All of the personnel are likable! The vast majority we’ve seen before and we know they can do a great job. Something’s just getting lost in translation right now.
It’s possible that the crew needs to do a bit of self-assessment and inventory. What’s the role of each person on the broadcast? How can we convey that clearly, distinguishing a clear purpose and employing the right talent for each segment? How do we translate something we’re all watching together to the viewers without getting in the way of the central focus? Are we letting the players and the game shine through us or are we just talking about the game, no different than the voices you hear on airwaves or around water coolers every day?
Portland broadcasts aren’t bad, but they used to be upper echelon. They still have the talent to be. Tightening up a couple things, refocusing on the mission, making distinctions in roles and voices, and un-burying poor Tom Haberstroh would go a long way towards upping the quality of what we’re seeing on a nightly basis.
The best way to sum up might be this. Right now, Blazers Broadcasting isn’t making anybody look their best. They need to fix that, as it’s literally the purpose of a broadcast to begin with.
As we said at the top, this is not just a new season, but a new leadership group piloting through it. Let’s see how things evolve over the next few months. Hopefully broadcasts will get smoother as we go along through the year.