Root Sports hits, misses with array of ideas
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Shawn McClintock, the energetic 39-year-old general manager of Root Sports, is one of those business types open to all kinds of ideas. And many of those already have been put in motion since the network was rebranded April 1, from a strike-zone graphic that helps baseball viewers track pitches to a telestrator that tracks the hockey puck.
But not every pitch is pinpoint, and not every shot brings a goal, as McClintock readily acknowledges in relation to the idea stream.
"It's an evolutionary process," he said. "We're six weeks into this, and I'm extremely pleased with how it's come along. But tweaks can be made."
One of those tweaks, from the sound of it, will involve maybe the most conspicuous aspect of Root's rebranding: The voiceover guy with the thick -- some say phony -- Pittsburgh accent is going to be phased out.
"I applaud everybody for attempts to make this work, but we're probably going to dial that back," McClintock said.
The "Yinzer Guy," as some have derisively dubbed him on Facebook and Twitter, was part of Root's broader plan to embrace the dual role as an insider for the Penguins and Pirates, the two teams whose rights they control, and as Pittsburgh sports fans.
"We didn't want the big, booming voice-of-God type for our voiceovers," McClintock said. "So, one of our ideas was that our promos would be done by actual fans. But the volume of stuff we have made that impractical, so we went with one voice that was intended to be like your neighbor, the guy you talk to the next day about the Pens or Buccos. ... It's an area we're still looking at."
Root did not divulge the voiceover man's name, but he is a professional from Pennsylvania, though not Pittsburgh.
The former FSN Pittsburgh was rebranded on opening day for the Pirates, along with the two other subsidiaries of DirecTV Sports in Denver and Seattle. That followed more than a year of planning, McClintock said, aimed primarily at creating a network that both displayed its ties to the community and support of the teams it covers.
Hence, the network's double-meaning name.
"We didn't just want to change the logo and the microphone flags," McClintock said. "We're fans, and we make no apologies for that. We're not ESPN, which has to play it neutral between two teams. The Penguins and Pirates are our oxygen, just like our viewers. And our goal is to give the fan what they'd want to see if they had our access."
Any changes in the hockey broadcasts will be seen next season, as Root took hold with three games left in the Penguins' regular season and, as McClintock said, "We didn't want to change too much in midstream."
Two that came into play right away were televising all of the national anthems, U.S. and Canadian -- "That's a really big deal at Consol, obviously," McClintock said -- and having the cameras pan around for crowd shots.
The latter has become, along with the voiceover guy, Root's signature. Beginning with the Penguins, nearly every pause between whistles was accompanied by crowd shots. And, with the Pirates, it has become almost like WGN, Chicago's famed carrier of Cubs games from Wrigley Field, where the fans are as much a part of the broadcasts as the baseball.
That has not come without hiccups, either. Two weeks ago in Miami, where fans are even more sparse than at PNC Park, cameras caught Billy the Marlin, Florida's mascot, doing pretty much nothing near a couple of fans.
Announcer: "There's Billy the Marlin."
Other announcer: "Yeah, he's quite a character."
Longer pause, then mercifully back to the action.
McClintock acknowledged that the crowd shots might have gone a bit too far at times, but he stood firmly behind the concept.
"The ballpark and arena are where the excitement is, and we want to bring the guy off the couch into that," he said. "Sports is the ultimate reality TV, and fans' emotions and reactions are part of that, right down to a dad explaining the game to his son. But there's a balance there with how often we do it."
Root did not add reporters -- Rob King, Stan Savran, Paul Alexander, Dan Potash and Lacee Collins are the only ones full-time -- but those reporters are spending more time on the scene: King and baseball analyst Kent Tekulve began broadcasting the Pirates' postgame shows from the main concourse at PNC Park for home games. Even the team's announcers have begun doing pregame segments from an entrance on Federal Street, with fans entering the stadium around them.
For the Pirates' game Wednesday night, Savran anchored the broadcast from Section 101, Potash was in the Pirates' dugout, King was near third base, and Collins was roaming the stands. There also was a cameraman doing nothing other than walking through the crowd.
"We're not always going to have that many, but that's the idea," McClintock said. "We can show you Manny Sanguillen's barbecue, or we can show you a dugout view of Garrett Jones in the on-deck circle."
As with the national anthems for hockey, Root now stays with each singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
"That's a point of pride for us, a generational thing I think all fans can appreciate," McClintock said. "We'll do that for all games, home and road."
Root also has added robot cameras for PNC Park and Consol Energy Center. Those come into play more for hockey, which can be a challenge to broadcast because of its fast, unpredictable action. At Consol, there is a robot camera near Club 66 to watch the players coming to the ice -- "That's also where we get Marc-Andre Fleury and Max Talbot getting each other pumped," McClintock said -- plus one in the dasher boards, another above the penalty-box glass, another looking down from the scoreboard, and a human handheld in the corners.
Too much of that can be a negative, too, as Root found out when it missed one of the Penguins' goals in the playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning because the director switched to the handheld in the corner as the puck quickly went to the slot for the Jordan Staal goal.
"Even the most skilled director is going to miss a goal once in a while," McClintock said. "I still think there's a way to bring other angles to the game."
Ask most diehard hockey fans, and they would prefer simply watching the game from the standard center-ice camera, in the conservative tradition of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "Hockey Night in Canada." In high-definition, the thinking goes, the camera barely needs to move to the left and right to show a full zone at any given time.
"I've heard that more than once, and I know we have a lot of diehards in Pittsburgh," McClintock said. "But I also don't see Pittsburgh as the traditional CBC market. Their fan base is younger, more tech-savvy, and I think they appreciate some of the different angles we bring to the game. I think that applies to the casual, moderate fan, too. We're always trying to educate and grow our audience."
Root approaches that, he said, through asking announcers to explain inside terms or instructional segments such as those done by Penguins analyst Bob Errey or some of the Pirates' players.
Other prominent additions have been upgraded and more localized graphics than those used by FSN, the AGH Cam that shows replays with enough slow-motion frames and resolution that splinters can be seen flying off a broken bat, and the "StrikeZone" graphic that shows balls and strikes on a computerized grid.
That, too, has a human touch.
"We have a person by our truck who adjusts the box depending on the height of the batter," McClintock said.
Root owns the Penguins' rights through the 2028-29 season, and the Pirates' rights for a "long term," McClintock said, both of those deals done in the past 13 months.