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The State of New Jersey Devils Broadcasts in 2018

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As a companion piece to yesterday’s post about the media coverage of the Devils, this post looks at the state of the television and audio broadcasts of New Jersey Devils games. It provides some history, some thoughts on the personnel, and more.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils
Deb Placey: A mainstay of Devils broadcasts since 2011.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Yesterday, I wrote at length about the media coverage of the New Jersey Devils in its current state. I went into some detail about how we got to where we are. In general, I think the coverage is quite good between team-independent, team-provided, and fan-driven sources for news and analysis. I did not go into the the broadcasts because they deserve special focus.

They are media in terms of providing the game, commentary, and initial reactions to what will or has happened. They are providing information to an audience. The broadcasts, on purpose or otherwise, reflect how the organization is presented. They also have a direct role in being a fan of this team since they are presenting the Devils games. It is possible to be a fan without following the news or blogs; it is much harder to do so without paying attention to any broadcast. Besides, whether you watched or heard one or hundreds of games, many fans have strong opinions about them. To that end, they deserve their own post.

The Network Situation

Let’s start with television and a bit of background. Why they are with MSG is tied into how they got to their current position. MSG Networks has the local television rights to the Devils and the Islanders. Both teams are part of a group that also holds the TV rights for New York Rangers and New York Knicks games. They also either broadcast games or shows involving the Sabres (mostly in upstate NY), the New York Red Bulls, the New York Liberty, and the New York Giants (mostly a review show: 1st & 10). As the network is a part of the Madison Square Garden Company - which owns MSG - they have plenty of features associated with the history of the arena. That same company also owns the Rangers and the Knicks, so there are features for them. They also have some original programming both sports and otherwise.

That in of itself has been a source of frustration. Since the owners of the network also effectively own two teams, those two teams tend to get prioritized over the others. That should not surprise an outsider, but it can be annoying when multiple games are on at the same time and the Devils (and Isles) are on an secondary channel like MSG2, MSG+, MSG+2 (which was not always in high-definition). That the Devils do not get as many features or always get notice on the other MSG hockey shows (they do on Hockey Night Live!, less so on the MSG Hockey Show), which furthers the notion that the Devils are a little lost in the crowd. So why are the Devils with MSG? Simply put: they made them offer they really could not refuse.

Way back in 2004, the sports landscape in the NYC area was much different. The Yankees and Nets joined up and broke away from Cablevision. In fact, they had a spin-off holding company called PuckHoldings that owned the Devils for a few years - presumably to leverage a better arena deal or a new arena with the Nets in New Jersey. That fell through. YankeesNets also fell through in part because of the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network (YES) launching and the costs associated with that. YES was a big deal in that it broke up an effective monopoly Cablevision had on television broadcasts for the professional sports teams in the area, excluding football. The Nets were sold to Bruce Ratner in 2003 with a long-term agreement that YES would have the TV rights to their games. Even so would one channel for the Yankees and the Nets be enough? Surely, they would want more programming. There were also rumblings of a new network coming from a group involving the New York Mets. While Sportsnet New York did not launch in 2006, the formation of YES and initial survival meant the door was open for more competition. Rather than risk losing the rights to the Devils and the Islanders to other networks in the area, MSG Networks paid out big in 2004 to secure their TV rights. Big is an understatement. The Devils received a 20-year deal believed to be worth $500 million per Forbes. It is one of the more lucrative deals in hockey and provided a lot of stability for the organization’s broadcasts. There was no way the Devils (or most sports teams) were going to turn that down. Especially a Devils team that PuckHoldings sold to Vanderbeek for $125 million; which was less than what the $175 million paid to get them from Dr. John McMullen. In any case, the Devils are going to be with MSG until 2023-24 - regardless of how they are presented on the network.

For those who want change or at least to get away from Our Hated Rivals and their insipid TV coverage, that is not too terribly far away. I know it has been an increasing trend for people to “cut the cable cord” and rely solely on streaming on the Internet for television. I’m not yet convinced this is a large enough movement to make a big change in who owns rights. For one, many companies are set up or will be set up to pivot to streaming. MSG has been advertising its MSG GO mobile app for streaming their own broadcasts. It works well. I imagine it will be even better as telecommunication standards improve and connections become stronger. For another, a lot of the big television networks are still betting big on live sports being a thing on TV. For example: just a few months ago, ESPN took the rights for UFC from FOX for $1.5 billion over five years. That’s just for mixed martial arts; could you imagine how much a new deal for football or basketball could yield? I do not think the Devils or the NHL will leave television anytime soon. The Devils may not be massive rating draws in the local market, but 82 games with pre-game, post-game, and intermission work is a lot of content for a sports network. Depending how the upcoming NHL CBA fight goes (the CBA expires in 2022, but the union or league can opt out in 2019), it will be interesting to see how much a new TV (or more accurately, TV and streaming) deal would be offered. It’s something to look for in the future.

Oh, speaking of, the Devils will occasionally get on a national broadcast. Not often, though. You can count the number of Devils games in recent years on NBC Sports Network or NBC (they have the NHL TV rights until after the 2020-21 season) proper on your hands. For the past few years, that was understandable: the team was bad. With a flashy rookie named Nico Hischier and the league’s Hart Trophy winner in 2017-18 named Taylor Hall, maybe they will get some more appearances on the network. And when the Devils play a Canadian team, they’ll usually get on one of the national Canadian networks for some additional publicity. For the most part, the Devils haven’t been on the national stage enough times for it to be something to consider. I do miss Doc calling Devils games, but it is what it is. If you want the Devils on TV, you’re most likely going to be tuning into a MSG channel or NHL.tv which will stream the broadcast from said MSG channel.

The Broadcast - The Presentation & People

While the Devils are not the feature team on MSG - the teams that they own are - their presentation and format is actually pretty solid. Their graphics are consistent with the other games they broadcast and they are clean and easy to see. Their backdrops are good and the sets they do have look nice enough. The old days of darkened sets of Matt Loughlin and The Maven, Stan Fischler, recording segements as if they were in a basement. While the Devils may not get the prime choice of networks, MSG has ensured that the broadcast team does travel to the games for truly live coverage.

That last part should not be taken for granted. For example, the New York Red Bulls broadcast teams do not travel and it really shows at points. Steve Cangialosi does a fine job as a soccer play-by-play guy and Shep Messing, well, you know he’s there. But there’s something lost to reacting to what is on screen instead of making observations that could be made without needing a camera pointing at it. It’s one thing to have Deb Placey back at the studio in NY, but to have the commentators away from the action - especially in a sport like hockey where being there live is a better experience than television - does cheapen the experience. Credit where credit is due for not keeping Cangialosi and Daneyko in Newark or their New York studios.

Speaking of, the main people on television has plenty of experience. Veteran sports broadcaster Deb Placey has been quite good as a pre-game, post-game, and intermission host in the studio. She’s been doing Devils games for a while and handles everything with aplomb. The questions are not particularly hard-hitting, but that’s due to the nature of what the producers want to go for. Storylines, yes; criticism, no. Play-by-play is handled by Steve Cangialosi and Ken Daneyko is the color commentator. They both had huge shoes to fill in when they started. Cangialosi followed the legendary “Doc” Mike Emrick; Daneyko stepped in for the friendly and charismatic Glenn “Chico” Resch. Both have done a good job. Cangialosi has been a very capable behind the mic and he describes the action well without bombarding the listener with a stream of words that do not mean much. Sure, he does tend to pronounce “score” as “scar” but it works for him. Color commentator Ken Daneyko is certainly passionate, charismatic, and has grown into the role. He has been somewhat cliche with how he softens criticisms (all issues are “a little” issues. He was a little late, he was a little bit behind the play, he only got a little bit of that) and still has mentality and sentiment of an older era of the game. I would prefer a color guy more “with the times” and more analytical; but his style for a color commentator is common and it works with what the producers want. Plus, he does work hard as he does act as the Devils’ analyst on other MSG programming here and there. Bryce Salvador is the new regular of the bunch as an in-studio analyst. He’s become increasingly confident in front of the camera and he has had good insights here and there. I think he’ll improve and become a long-term regular. That’s the crew and unless I missed something, I anticipate them all returning for 2018-19.

Overall, it’s OK. When it comes to commentating, it is almost on a spectrum from serious, no-frills, analysis all the way to the homiest homer that ever homered. Neither extreme is enjoyable, but fans and the situation at hand dictates some balance between both. Nobody wants lipstick being put on a pig as the Devils get blown out or someone does something remarkably bad. On the flipside, when the Devils succeed or a player does something well, they should be hyped up accordingly. I think the Devils broadcast tries to have that balance. I think improvements could be made. They could stand to be more modern in their analysis. They mentioned here and there some of the stats at Natural Stat Trick last season; I’d like more of that. I’d like less of softening of criticism; although I get why they are like that - especially from Daneyko and Salvador. Both played the game, both sympathize when something goes wrong, and both do not want to come across as harsh. Fair, but a little bit less of the “little bit ____” would be an improvement. Commentary is never easy so I respect those who get into it and can make it work. That said, some tweaks to keep things fresher - a little fresher? - would be nice. As it stands, the TV broadcast does the job well enough. Radio on the other hand...

The Radio or the Digital Audio Network

Did you know that while the television coverage is owned by the network, the Devils actually control who calls games for them on the radio? I‘m serious. I’m sure the Devils have a say for TV, but it is ultimately up to MSG Networks to decide who’s hosting, who’s doing interviews, and who’s calling games. As for radio coverage, the Devils make the call. For example, Lou hired Sherry Ross in her previous run as color commentator - that wasn’t by the station. The Devils have more of a say in their audio-only broadcasts these days as the Devils have put out The One Jersey Network in November 2016.

The One Jersey Network is basically a digital radio station at this point. Instead of a consistent radio presence, you just download that iHeartRadio app and stream this instead. While it acts the same as the radio, the format kind of defeats the point. Radio is standard in cars and most radio stations stream online anyway. While hockey does not necessarily lend itself well to radio, it has been a way to follow the game when you cannot get in front of a TV or you’re out driving or commuting. Using The One Jersey Network requires using up their data and be subject to spotty Wifi connection. It is less convenient than the radio. And I could not even tell you what is on it except for the Devils’ radio coverage. Do people really use it? Maybe it’s more popular than I think it is. Even so, what are the Devils going to do with it other than audio broadcasts? Will there be video? Will there be other audio shows? Will they work with other sports organizations or other organizations at all, or is it solely for the Devils? Will anything happen or is it going to go away soon? Why should I or any fan get on board with The OJ Network outside of games? Or even with games? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?

And what about the actual radio? Apparently, the Devils’ deal with 660 AM and 101.9 FM WFAN was renewed in 2017 and it allowed for streaming of their audio live on the WFAN.com site. I don’t know how long the deal is for or for how much. However, the mainstay sports station in the NY Metropolitan area did not always carry every game. Some were on Bloomberg Radio (1130 AM), but the driver of the One Jersey Network was to have a platform for the games that WFAN did not have. Which begs the question: why keep such a deal in place? Yes, the relationship has been ongoing for over 13 straight seasons since the Devils left 770 AM WABC; but it has not been an equal give-and-take. It’s not like WFAN shows highlighted or focused on the Devils to give them more attention. Their most popular hosts rarely talked about hockey and if they did, it was usually about Our Hated Rivals. And I don’t know how well the Devils draw on radio; hockey is a tough game to follow just by sound - especially in this day and age of high definition (and eventually 4K) visuals. It does not make sense to me and I do not see it continuing if The One Jersey Network Again, I could be dead wrong and there’s a large enough listening audience to justify WFAN wanting a deal with the Devils on top of the whatever is going on with The OJ Network. But this whole situation makes little sense to me.

Regardless, those who have been listening to the audio broadcasts last season (and presumably next season) have heard get to hear the play-by-play call from Matt Loughlin, Loughlin is an OK play-by-play guy with a solid voice and he has a long history being around the organization. I put him about on par as Cangialosi. The color commentary comes from Chico. Chico stepped came back to the microphone and the organization for 2017-18. Sherry Ross’ contract ended at that time, so the Devils made the relatively easy choice to bring back someone so many Devils fans (like myself) have heard for so many years. Yes, he has his foibles of messing up names and needing second looks at plays. But his charisma and like-ability is off the charts. It is just enjoyable to hear his voice and candor. I like Ross and all that, but she and most other people just can’t match his warmth and easy-to-follow style. He’s well regarded in the organization and I’m happy he is involved. As a radio team, I have not heard them all that much in this past season - thanks to the whole OJ Network thing - but from snippets here and there, it seems to do the job.

General Thoughts & Your Take

Writing all of this out, it struck me how status quo things have been. The broadcasts as a whole are fine. They are not to either extreme of not being enjoyable and too analytical or so pro-Devils-never-do-anything-wrong it is ridiculous. But it seems to be in a kind of doldrums. The best word I could use to describe them are functional. I would not go out of my way to say they are amazing or one of the best in hockey.

Perhaps it is in the personnel. While there have been changes on the audio platform, the only new face to the faces of either broadcast is Salvador. Chico replaced Sherry Ross, both of whom have had previous broadcasting runs with the Devils. Placey has been a host for the Devils broadcasts since 2011. Cangialosi replaced Dr. Emrick in 2011 as well. Daneyko, who was always a face for the organization, took Chico’s spot as TV color commentator in 2014. Loughlin has been on radio duty since 2006. None of these people are doing a bad job or anything. And I understand contracts are in place so it is not easy to move people around. But some different voices here and there could provide a change of pace.

It may be more to do with the production and direction of the broadcasts. It is just like a lot of the other broadcasts in sports. The game is presented, story lines are highlighted throughout, and there’s a sideline (or in between the benches) reporter for occasional news to go with the two-person booth doing the game live. Any stats, analysis, or questions to players or coaches are typically basic and/or cliche to be interesting. What the Devils broadcast is a lot like other sports broadcasts. Which is fine, but it keeps them as just another member in the crowd - especially on a TV network where air time is split between so many other teams. The bigger problem at the moment is that the Devils have this One Jersey Network thing not doing a whole lot amid a somewhat unclear audio situation. But the Devils or the production staff and decision makers at MSG would do well to consider some tweaks to make the Devils TV broadcasts stand out more. They are quite visible and followed closely by fans. Something to set it apart would help make it very good instead of just OK and functional for what it is. Alas, I fear that may not happen until a new TV deal gets discussed and/or some of the contracts end and changes are forced to be made. I do not expect either to happen anytime soon.

That’s how I see the current state of the Devils’ broadcasts. As much as I like the media coverage and how expansive as it is, I do think there could improvements here. I just do not really seeing any change happening any time soon. But I could be wrong. In the meantime, what do you think about the Devils’ broadcasts? Do you think their TV is OK? For those of you that follow along on radio, do you think Matt and Chico work decently on audio? What would you use The One Jersey Network for anything? If you were in charge of the broadcast, what would you change? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils broadcasts as they are in the comments. Thank you for reading.