Sports Media Watch caught up with NBA Digital vice president, content Scooter Vertino Tuesday. Topics of conversation included the difference between his new role and his previous position as game producer for TNT, whether he would compare NBA TV to competitors MLB Network and NFL Network, and how one of his stories helped reunite Rasheed Wallace with his missing son.
SMW: You’re only a few months into your current position as NBA Digital VP of content. It’s been about seven months. What’s the big take-away from your first few months on the job?
Vertino: I guess the difference between my original job here and the more all-encompassing position I have now is the website, NBA.com. That is kind of something I try to work to create a balance, because as a quote, unquote TV veteran, working on NBA TV is more of a natural progression for me, a natural fit. It’s something that kind of plays to my – if I have strengths – plays to my strengths. Whereas dot com is a different way of thinking. You want to be more immediate, but the common thread is you need to be accurate across both platforms. So I think the take-away is, just trying to train myself to think ‘dot com and TV’, as opposed to my previous fifteen years of Turner, where it was ‘TV’.
SMW: There’s so much more detail [at NBA.com] now than there was just maybe five, six years ago. Really seems like there’s a lot more people writing, a lot more features. I guess that would be a concerted effort to try and boost some of the content there?
Vertino: Yeah, definitely. And I’d like to claim credit, but the gentlemen that have been running that – [NBA Digital executive interactive producer] Steve Quintana and [NBA Digital SVP and GM] Bryan Perez – are the folks who sought out those writers. Whether it’s Steve Aschburner or Sekou Smith or John Schuhmann – who was our stats guy, for lack of a better term – or even finding a proper way to showcase David Aldridge, who’s so ridiculously talented it’s not even funny, those guys are the ones behind that particular venture. I oversee it, but those are the guys who made those moves to make that work.
I may be more involved in some of the highlights and getting some of our platforms aligned with dot come and TV, but Bryan Perez and Quintana were in at the ground floor.
SMW: You’ve been a producer for TNT for so long. Anyone who’s watched the NBA on TNT has probably heard Marv Albert say “[producer] Scooter Vertino and director Renardo Lowe” a million times. How has it been to move away from doing that?
Vertino: It’s a little different. I’ll be perfectly honest with you. It’s a little strange to watch a game with Marv calling it and Steve [Kerr] or Mike [Fratello] or Reggie [Miller] doing color and know that was my regular gig for probably ten years. It’s a little different. Anyone who works in the media watches games on television differently than a fan. You’re constantly critiquing – ‘I would do it this way, I would use a graphic here, I wouldn’t have used that replay, I would get into break faster’ – my wife has explained to me many times that I’ve ruined TV for her.
It’s a little different, especially this time of year. You were privy to the 48 hours that was just incredible to start the NBA Playoffs. There’s such a rush being in the truck doing the game. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for hours afterward, because you really don’t come down from the adrenaline that’s still pumping after doing a game – especially a close game, especially a close playoff game. So it is different, and I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that a part of me doesn’t miss it. Cause I do. But I’ll say this, the guys and the gals that are doing the games for us are all kicking butt and taking names. So it’s not like they miss me. Those games are great whether I’m sitting around in the truck or not, and the people who are doing it are doing a fantastic job.
SMW: How would you compare NBA TV now to the other league-owned networks, MLB Network, NFL Network?
Vertino: I really wouldn’t necessarily compare us. I watch all those guys. I watch NFL, I watch MLB and I watch NHL – quite a bit. We’re all kind of grouped on DirecTV, in the same neighborhood, if you will. I think everyone in their own right does a tremendous job. We’re all dealing with different sports, different league entities, I’m assuming everyone deals with different budgets, so it’s not always apples to apples. I do look at some of the ideas they have and see if there aren’t ways we could use some of the things other networks do. I’m not above thinking somebody else has a great idea and trying to figure out a way to make it work for us, and I would imagine they’re the same way.
I may pay a little more attention to MLB Network, because their senior vice president John Entz – who I believe is the senior vice president in charge of production – he and I were roommates out of college. So I kind of keep an eye on what he’s doing these days. What are the odds, you know? We were randomly selected roommates right out of college, working our first jobs as production assistants at ESPN together.
SMW: Some people may not know, but you’re actually one of the ‘40 Under 40’ that Sports Business Journal put out earlier this year. How did you feel about getting that distinction? Was that an honor for you?
Vertino: Oh my God, yeah. When I got the letter I was floored. I thought maybe the Chicago precincts had all voted several times for me or something. I couldn’t believe it. I thought that for sure I was at best 41. The people on that list, and at that dinner, are just a fantastic bunch. To be mentioned in that same unit, that same list, is pretty incredible. I still can’t quite grasp how I made it, but certainly I’m honored and thrilled it came my way.
SMW: NBA TV kicks off its playoff coverage [Tuesday night]. Will there be any changes to the telecasts this year?
Vertino: No. And not to correct you in a huge way, but as far as our games, yes, we kick off tonight. But we started at Noon on Saturday and have been going strong since then. But yeah, there won’t be a ton of changes. We’re taking a pass-through game, where we rely on the local broadcasters to provide us the feed with their announcers, and then we put our graphics on them. Then, of course, we’ll have our pre, post, and halftime shows as well. We owe a debt of gratitude to the local broadcasters, because that’s how we get the majority of our game programming, through what we call pass-throughs. It’s a huge collaborative effort on their part to allow us to do that, which is very helpful to what we do.
We’re in the process of discussing maybe doing a couple of games during the playoffs with a Fan Night type model, where we take it out of break and have our guys in the studio do some analysis before we throw it back out to site. So that would be the one thing that may change a little bit. But as far as the actual model of the pass-throughs, everything is pretty much status quo this year.
The biggest change for what we’re doing on-air is all of our pregame shows, which were not part of the mix in past years. We would be on pregame on the weekends, but we were not on every night. And now we’re on every single day before – on either network, TNT or ESPN, or actually ABC for that matter.
SMW: I spoke to Bryan Perez about this last year. Using the local broadcasters, I would imagine, does come with some peril. Tommy Heinsohn was very much boisterous about his displeasure with the referees during a Heat/Celtics game last year, and there’s a lot of homeriffic announcers in the NBA. Does that ever start to be a little bit worrisome, where you might get a fan of a team watching and listening to the hometown announcers for their opponent?
Vertino: I guess I see where you’re coming from on that. I expect that everyone we take during a playoff game would be professional, and try and maintain some objectivity. I don’t live in the utopia where everyone’s right down the middle. So, I would think that perhaps we would get a balance at some point. The one thing that probably helps that a little bit is that in the local markets – say tonight when Orlando hosts Atlanta – Orlando fans will get their game on their carrier, and Atlanta fans will get their game on their carrier.
But you’re referring to out-of-town fans, of course. If you’re like myself and you’re from Washington, D.C., and you watch a Wizards game and you’re getting an opposing announcer, it’s something that might ring hollow, I guess. I think we take the good with the bad on all that. I hope people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But I do understand what your concern is.
SMW: The NCAA Tournament really seems to provide a great model for how the playoffs could be done on Turner and NBA TV. Certainly, in terms of having all these games on different networks – has any thought been given to maybe having a TNT-style broadcast for some of these playoff games on NBA TV, the same way you had a TNT-style broadcast for the NCAA games on TruTV?
Vertino: When you say TNT-style, do you mean like an original broadcast?
SMW: Yeah, an original broadcast where you send Marv or Reggie Miller down to the game, you have consistency with the graphics, et cetera.
Vertino: I won’t say that we haven’t discussed original games, but as far as bringing the graphics across, we’d like to maintain some level of ownership when it comes to NBA Digital, and some level of independence so that we’re not necessarily Turner Sports extended. We will share talent, both in front of and behind the camera, but there’s a reason that we like to brand our own content both on dot com and TV. So I will say yes, we’ve discussed original broadcasts, but no to actually extending everything across so that there’s consistency everywhere.
SMW: There was something I found that was very interesting to me. I found a USA Today article from about 1997, where Rudy Martzke gave you and Reggie Theus credit for this feature that you’d done on Rasheed Wallace to get [his] son back. I had no idea that even happened at all. Could you go into some detail on that? I’m guessing you must have been in your early 20s at that point.
Vertino: I can tell you what happened. I was in Portland for a story we happened to be doing. It was right after Kevin Garnett had signed this huge contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The $120 million deal is what I think it was at the time. For some reason, Minnesota had an extra off day in Portland, so I flew out to Portland to interview Garnett – I think Googs [Tom Gugliotta], Stephon Marbury and probably Flip Saunders.
I knew John Christensen, the PR guru for the Blazers at the time, and we were talking the day before the interview, and he was pitching me on some story ideas as he often did, because he was very good at his job. He said something about Rasheed, and I said, ‘do you think Rasheed has matured or become more of a leader for you because his son is with him now’ – because I had read something over the summer where Rasheed had gained custody of his son.
Apparently, I didn’t read the whole article, because John informed me that Rasheed didn’t have his son, and that the girlfriend at the time who was ordered to turn the son over to him didn’t show up to court. So she basically went on the lam with him. And I said, ‘so, wait a second, his son was kidnapped?’ He said, ‘technically, probably, yes.’ So I said, ‘can we do this story.’ Obviously, it’s a very private matter, with Rasheed and his family. And Rasheed was married, I believe at that point, with two boys with his wife, and it was just a situation that was very delicate.
We eventually were able to sell the Blazers and Rasheed on us doing this story. We didn’t really have an ulterior motive, we just wanted to do the story. Who knows if we could help. I felt it was a compelling story to show what this guy was going through. I think the last thing we mentioned was, hopefully this can help in some way, shape or form. If memory serves, we did the story on December 21st and we aired it on December 23rd. Someone saw it, called the police, and said, ‘this woman is living in my neighborhood with this kid.’ The police, I think, had to figure out what they were referring to about this NBA on TNT feature. Basically, his son was home with him by Christmas. It was pretty amazing.
SMW: I thought it was a very interesting story, certainly one you very rarely hear about.
Vertino: You didn’t hear a lot about it, because I think the timing was what the timing was. It was around Christmas, I think a lot of stations may have been dark at that point, or the news cycles may have been dead. It certainly is pretty incredible. It shows the power of our medium that we were able to do that. I don’t think Reggie or myself would have imagined in a million years that would have aided in reuniting him with his son, but it was pretty amazing.
SMW: Does that rank up near the top of your career achievements?
Vertino: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I’ve produced, I think, five NBA All-Star Games and probably seven or eight Game 7s in the playoffs. But as far as something that’s rewarding to you on a human level? Absolutely.