This is a special edition of the former Sports on the Air column:
With the Buffalo Bills a few weeks from their first preseason game and the Sabres two months away from preseason games, several broadcasting questions surround the teams.
Will WGR radio play-by-play announcer John Murphy and Eric Wood go to road games involving the Bills or call them from Highmark Stadium as Murphy and Steve Tasker did last season before the stadium’s name change?
Will the Sabres announcers go on the road to call games or do them from home?
What is the status of play-by-play announcers Dan Dunleavy and Rick Jeanneret?
Here are the answers in order.
According to sources, the plan is for Murphy and Wood to go on the road to call games this season, unless things change because of the spread of Covid-19. The Bills open the preseason on Aug. 13 at Detroit.
According to sources, unless there is a last-minute change of heart the Sabres announcers won’t be traveling to road games again this season, which is believed to be consistent with the plans of most NHL teams because of Covid and the cost savings.
“I’ve been led to believe we will not," said Dunleavy. “I’m not aware of any final decision.”
He said he has lobbied against doing the road games at home in conversations with Mark Preisler, the executive vice president of Pegula Sports and Entertainment.
Dunleavy believes announcers have to be there to see everything in play and away from camera range, as well as to soak up the atmosphere inside arenas.
“I feel we should be there, but it is not my decision to make,” he said. “There is a flatness" when the announcers aren’t there.
I agree with Dunleavy that it is much better for announcers to be there but realize the cost savings can be considerable.
Dunleavy recently agreed to call Sabres games for his ninth season. However, he doesn’t know how many games he will work in the upcoming season.
“I have a sense I’ll be calling more games than I’ve ever had,” said Dunleavy. He said his previous season-high is 42 games.
Dunleavy’s expectations don’t shed any light on Jeanneret’s future. He called 20 games of last season’s abbreviated schedule.
At the end of the Sabres final game in May carried by MSG, Jeanneret thanked the behind-the-scenes personnel who have worked with him before adding: “I hope to have the opportunity to work with them again.”
The 79-year-old Hall of Famer and Preisler haven’t talked since the end of the season, which is somewhat surprising since a deal with Dunleavy has been made.
I expect the Sabres will offer Jeanneret to call some games, if only because not to allow him to do so would be a terrible public relations move.
If that happens, the puck would be in Jeanneret’s corner whether to accept the terms offered.
Olympic Ratings: Like the country, Western New York is significantly less interested in watching the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in prime time than it was in the 2016 Rio Olympics for the first two nights of NBC’s coverage.
The Tokyo opening ceremonies in prime time received a 9.0 rating on WGRZ-TV, the local NBC affiliate. That was down 42% from the 15.4 rating for the Rio opening ceremony. However, there is one significant asterisk. The Tokyo ceremonies were also carried live on Friday morning. The four-hour Friday morning telecast averaged a 7.3 rating on WGRZ, which is about 30% higher than the 5.7 rating for the two-hour regular version of “Today” that aired the day before the Olympics started.
The second night of prime time on Saturday had an 8.1 rating, down 31% from the 11.8 rating in Rio.
Of course, it is rare for any prime-time entertainment program to get double-digit ratings these days with so many choices and Friday and Saturday are two of the lowest viewing nights of the week. But it would have been reasonable to expect the prime-time ratings for the Tokyo Games would hit double digits even if streaming numbers haven’t been included.
Gold Medal Coverage: NBC’s Terry Gannon, Tim Daggett, Nastia Liukin and Michael Phelps had gold medal coverage of the early story of the Games Tuesday night – the withdrawal of gymnastics superstar Simone Biles. The prime-time coverage was delayed but the announcers’ comments were made live as the situation happened in the morning. Gannon, Daggett and Liukin spoke to the pressure on Biles even before her withdrawal and noted they had never seen anything like it before. The network’s microphones also picked up Biles saying, “I don’t trust myself” after her performance on the pommel horse before she withdrew.
Liukin, the 2008 Olympic all-around champion, showed off her reporting skills by texting Biles’ coach and learning that it was a mental health issue and not a physical one. She also explained how important a competitor’s mental health is in competing in a sport that can be so dangerous because performers are in the air so often.
Phelps, the retired Olympic swimming superstar who is the best newcomer on NBC’s Olympic team, has spoken openly about his own depression and produced the 2020 HBO documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” about mental health challenges faced by Olympians. He did an exceptional job explaining the pressure that comes from being the face of the Games. He also added that Biles’ situation should advance the conversation about mental health in athletes that he started five years ago. It was an all-around great job by NBC.