The 2016 NFL regular season is upon us, and at the end of it comes Super Bowl LI (that’s 51, for those who are hazy when it comes to Roman numerals), which will air Feb. 5, 2017, on FOX. This means the next several months will be eventful, to say the least, for Jacob Ullman, senior vice president of production and talent development at FOX Sports.
I spoke with Jacob to hear about what the upcoming NFL season will look like from a production perspective, the keys to drawing audiences in and his reflections on FOX Sports’ 23rd season broadcasting NFL games.
From your production perspective, will there be any big differences between last season and this season?
The biggest headline for this year is that we have Super Bowl LI in Houston in February. The way our current deal works with the NFL, we get the Super Bowl every three years, so this has obviously been circled on our calendar. We’re going to start the year this Sunday by having our NFL pregame show, FOX NFL Sunday, on-site in Houston. We’ll start the year there and we’ll finish the year there in February for the Super Bowl.
For those, like me, who don’t quite understand the nuances of your role, what are the keys to running a smooth NFL broadcast?
I think we look at it as: We’re here to entertain, but we also want our producers and directors to educate. If we can present the game in an entertaining way and our analysts and experts help viewers learn something about the game, that’s ideal. There’s a phrase, “sugar-coating the information pill.” We recognize that on a Sunday, people are clamoring to watch their NFL, and in a lot of cases that’s the highlight of the week. So we want it to be enjoyable, but we also field a team of experts and want viewers to learn some of the technical aspects of the game in a fun and entertaining way.
Are there different approaches to entertaining and educating planned for this season?
We added a new analyst on the game side, Chris Spielman. He was an All-American linebacker at Ohio State and an All-Pro in the NFL with the Detroit Lions. He’s really made his mark covering college football, and we’ve added him to our team this year for our NFL games. He’s a really well-regarded analyst in the field, so we’re excited to add him. On the early pregame show, FOX NFL Kickoff, we’re adding Charles “Peanut” Tillman, who had several successful years with the Chicago Bears and most recently was with the Carolina Panthers. It’s really special when you can get a guy who was literally on a football field last year. To go that quickly from the field and talk about all the people he’s played with — to be that current is pretty special and unique. He’s a huge asset.
What about on-screen innovations?
We’re really looking at expanding the graphics that are more what we would call augmented reality. Viewers have become very familiar with the yellow line that marks where the first-down line is — it’s become part of the broadcast. We’ve also put the down-and-distance on the field, and the play clock is virtually inserted. We’re going to do that with more and more graphics this year — with statistics, cutouts of players and experimenting in different ways. That will be a big part of our coverage this year, and come February, come playoffs and the Super Bowl, we should have some really cool stuff to unveil.
When I spoke with David Neal in June about the Copa America soccer tournament, he mentioned the importance of introducing unfamiliar audiences to the players, or what he called “characters.” The NFL is better established than soccer in the U.S., so what do you see as the important hooks to retain and grow FOX’s NFL audience? Are characters just as important in football? Or is there something else that you think really pulls audiences in?
I think you’re less in a situation of introducing players as a sport like soccer, where viewers may be less familiar. But you’re still building stars. It’s our goal to help build up teams and players that aren’t as big as others. The Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, Tony Romo, is going to be out for what appears to be a fair amount of time. So we have a new quarterback there, Dak Prescott. Can we make him a star? Obviously, some of that is going to be determined by how he plays on the field. But we’re going to have a feature on him during our pregame show on Sunday to help introduce him. You can never have too many stars.
Can you think of an example from last season?
This time last year, Cam Newton was a well-known player, but he ended up taking it to the next level with an MVP and was a guy we kind of built up throughout the year. Now he’s that much more marquee than he was this time last year. There are always guys who will emerge, and it’s up to us to tell those stories, to introduce them and help familiarize the American public with them. But I guess the difference is you’re not starting from square one with the NFL as you are with other sports. The rise of fantasy football the past several years has also increased the number of marquee offensive players that fans are familiar with.
Turning from talent on the field to talent on the air: When you evaluate on-air talent, what are the specific things you look for?
Fundamentally, you’re looking for people that can have a conversation with the viewer. For a typical game, you’re asking someone to sit and watch us for three hours. You want that to be an enjoyable experience. I think of it as someone you’d want to hang out and spend time with. You want them to talk with the viewer, not talk at the viewer. You really think of it as a conversation as opposed to a lecture.
In addition to the NFL, you oversee FOX’s NASCAR broadcasts. What are some similarities and differences between the production for both sports?
The difficulty in covering NASCAR is you can have a racetrack that’s up to 2.5 miles long, so you have to cover that kind of scope. And there are 30+ cars on the track at once — that’s a daunting task. Each NASCAR race, equipment-wise, is equivalent to the Super Bowl. The challenge on the NFL side is that you can have up to eight games on a Sunday, where for NASCAR, there’s one race a week. We regionalize our NFL games and can have anywhere from 4-8 games on a weekend, so that’s dealing with 4-8 sets of producers and directors, 4-8 sets of announcers, 4-8 different stadiums, 4-8 different television trucks, 4-8 sets of technicians — the sheer scope of it is much more significant on a weekly basis than any other sport we do.
Going back to the Super Bowl: Can you talk about what the run-up to an event of that magnitude will look like for you and your team during the regular season? What’s the build-up to such a huge event like?
It’s a year-round process. We’ve already been to Houston for three different sets of meetings and site surveys, where we’ve picked out locations for sets and camera locations in the stadium, and taken care of logistical things like hotels. The unique challenge is that the game is in Houston this year. We primarily cover the NFC, not the AFC, the conference where the Houston Texans are. So that’s an area and a stadium we’re less familiar with. But we had a request with the NFL for a preseason game there Aug. 28, and we have a game there Week 1 where, as I said earlier, we’ll have a pregame show, which will actually not be at the stadium but at a place called Discovery Green, a park area downtown. It’s where we’ll have a set throughout Super Bowl week for many of our FS1 shows and part of our Super Bowl pregame show. In October, we’ll be back there again for more Super Bowl site surveys and to look at more locations. So it’s always in your thoughts, and you’re constantly in discussion with the NFL on all aspects of the game.
This will be FOX Sports’ 23rd year broadcasting NFL games. Any thoughts on the milestone?
I think it started with skepticism about FOX, which had never done sports before. “What are they going to do, put Bart Simpson in the broadcast booth?” Now we’re part of the fabric of sports fans’ viewing habits during the fall. Our NFL pregame show has been a top-rated pregame sports show on television since it started, and our “America’s Game of the Week” series when we have double-header games on Sundays is traditionally the highest-rated game of the week. We’re really proud to be part of the NFL, which has become part of American society in general. As TV ratings get smaller and more media options become available, amazingly enough, the NFL seems to get bigger and bigger every year. It’s great that we’ve been part of that for 23 years and have coincided with the heights that the league has risen to.
Yeah, dumb luck or something. Or Mr. Murdoch knew what he was doing.