With the Bally Sports RSNs careening towards bankruptcy, and with Warner Bros. Discovery issuing an ultimatum to teams that it intends to shut down the AT&T Sportsnet networks at the end of the month, America’s (non-NFL) major sports leagues are being dragged towards their post-RSN future faster than they probably hoped, with MLB setting up an in-house production arm in the likely scenario that they’ll have to take over production of some teams’ games, at least on the AT&T networks. That makes it look especially likely that once everything shakes out, said post-RSN future will follow, to some degree or another, the template set out by MLS’s deal with Apple TV with leagues producing games in-house for distribution on streaming services.
There are a lot of dimensions to this that I could get into, but for this post I want to focus on perhaps the least important element of it: the aesthetics of it. Every major sports entity has their own in-house production arm with their own graphics package, if not to produce games for their own network then at least to produce them for the international market, but as the leagues have typically relied on the networks (both national and regional) as the primary production and distribution mechanism for their games, they haven’t tended to devote resources towards the graphics of their in-house production arms, which as a result tend to be somewhat sub-par, okay for the relatively lower-tier games (less prominent than what the national networks get, and for the NBA, NHL, and MLB, blacked out in the local markets and usually not even using their own production as opposed to taking the RSN feed) but not necessarily suitable for being the full-time graphics package for the primary means of distribution for a local team’s games or for a league’s most prominent games. Sports entities that produce coverage that they actually expect to be seen by a significant portion of their audience, like most European sports leagues, FIFA, or the IOC, generally put enough effort into their graphics packages that they actually can claim to be worthy of being the primary graphics package for their sport, even – perhaps especially – if they’re exceedingly simple. (Notably, a prominent exception is the Premier League, whose UK partners have their own graphics packages as does NBC in the United States, and which has devolved into this mess for their international productions.)
I haven’t made a post in the Sports TV Graphics category in forever, but I have been making more comments on new and existing graphics packages, and presenting my mock-ups for what new graphics packages might look like, on Twitter in recent years. I decided to take a stab at redesigning the graphics packages for every American sports entity with more than $1 billion in annual pre-pandemic revenue, setting that as the baseline for a league with the resources to put some effort into their graphics packages if they want to. I could have gone lower – the Pac-12 Networks have a surprisingly good graphics package, though that may be partly a function of their location in the Bay Area – but that’s about the point where the quality of international graphics packages starts to deteriorate, and where the American sports leagues involved are either difficult to design a unique package for, fractured across multiple entities that can vary widely in revenue if you can even find out what that revenue is (horse racing and boxing), or that I just don’t want to address for various reasons, including their revenue being set to decline precipitously under the assumptions I’m making (individual college conferences). That leaves the traditional four major sports, plus the post-expansion CFP, PGA TOUR, MLS, NCAA, UFC, and possibly NASCAR, with some other leagues and entities getting new graphics as after-effects of the others; we’ll ignore the UFC because they already produce their own coverage for everything and have a good enough graphics package as a result.
For each sport I sought to balance the competing imperatives of simplicity, aesthetics, accommodation of advanced statistics, and mobile/old-person-friendliness, with this last resulting in certain minimum font sizes that constrained some of my design decisions and might make some people unhappy with what I came up with. I also have some thoughts about how the production might be set up, including general availability of games, main commentators, and theme songs, with the assumption that each league would poach the networks’ commentators and themes for their own coverage (despite Fox putting their own commentators and graphics on top of MLS’ feeds), but these are mostly fanciful and the emphasis is on the graphics. Without further ado:
MLS: We’ll go mostly in descending order of revenue, but we’ll start with MLS since they’ve already started their season, and with it the Apple TV partnership that’s serving as the model for this. That means they’ve rolled out their new graphic, which, in keeping with Apple’s values, emphasizes simplicity, though it was claimed that it would also serve to help accommodate advanced stats. If you’re used to graphics that have them you might quibble with the lack of substitution indicators, but otherwise this is a huge improvement over their previous in-house graphic with its generic fonts, weird, sharp parallelogram shape, and general low-budget feel.
However, I had thought that a “professional” in-house graphic might take its cues from the graphics used the past two years on the All-Star Skills Challenge, so I came up with what you see at right, which uses less horizontal space but works the team logos into the graphic. This might come off as a bit gimmicky compared to other soccer graphics worldwide, and might not be exactly fitting for the move to Apple TV, but considering MLS’s place in the larger sports and soccer landscape and desire to appeal to younger audiences, maybe something more flashy and colorful could have befit their goals.
NFL: NFL Network went for a long time without needing a new graphics package; from 2014 until 2021 all their regular-season games were produced by their other broadcast partners. When they dipped their toe into producing their own college football games some years back, they used their last in-house graphics package, completely unchanged from the last time it was used full-time, before putting out a modernized version for the Senior Bowl in 2021. Last year their package of games was fully severed from the Thursday Night Football package, and with it came a new graphics package, attempting to spiff up the Senior Bowl package. Unfortunately, the result is oddly proportioned and spaced with heavy use of needless italics, and I doubt it would pass muster for use even on a weekly basis. It’s also still a banner, which seems to be falling out of favor with three of the last four Super Bowls, the ones on Fox and NBC, seeing the introduction of centered graphics that use a minimum of horizontal space, although after ESPN’s last NBA scorebug seemed to be a stepping stone to a centered “oppositional” graphic similar to what they use for college basketball, only for the one introduced this year to go back to a fairly standard banner, I’m not as convinced they’d go that direction as I used to be. On top of everything, it seems to presage a horrible new logo for the NFL Network as a whole, and ironically, one they could have used as a baseline for a more centered, compact graphic.
Meanwhile, Amazon took over TNF and introduced a graphics package that may well prove to be the wave of the future: centered and oppositional, with the score rendered in a huge font, explicitly designed to be mobile-friendly, and the down and distance placed on top of the clocks and quarter in a central element. I wouldn’t expect anyone other than ESPN to take cues from this in the near future – even if CBS updates its graphics package at next year’s Super Bowl to look more like what Fox and NBC have (as it is NBC’s graphic isn’t that far off from what CBS might put together) this might seem too gimmicky for the old-school folks there. But if the linear television market completely collapses and/or the NFL has to take over production of all games themselves, I could see them going with a more compact version of Amazon’s graphic. The downside of choosing a playoff game to represent this is that I don’t get to show how the team records would be incorporated into this graphic, which I would imagine would be similar to how Amazon does it.
Other coverage notes: I steadfastly believe that if it were treated as a primary primetime package, Monday Night Football has the potential for better ratings than Sunday nights. Before it made the switch to ESPN, MNF was the NFL’s highest-rated package by a decent margin, better even than the Sunday afternoon packages that have consistently topped the charts ever since; after the switch, ESPN started repeatedly setting cable ratings records, when they’d never beaten the ’93 Al Gore-Ross Perot NAFTA debate in a decade and a half of Sunday night games, with the run of records only stopping when the BCS contract started and produced games that blew the best of MNF out of the water. Now, it’s possible that’s the result of the cachet and mystique MNF had built up dating back to the days of Frank, Howard, and Dandy Don, and the increased profile of the NFL in general could further sap MNF‘s edge, but the argument that people are tired after a whole day of watching football and can’t necessarily muster up the energy for one more game on a Sunday night, while hype for MNF can build throughout the day, can’t be discounted. I still think the NFL could have used the 17th game to give ESPN a second set of games, allowing MNF to return to ABC full-time as a co-main primetime package; instead they used it to divorce NFL Network’s exclusive games from TNF and resorted to the weird “split doubleheader” format to give ABC any exclusive games at all leading up to its return to the Super Bowl.
As a co-main primetime package, MNF could still have a different feel from SNF; in the middle of the season, in October and especially November, MNF could focus on the most popular and valuable teams – the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC East, the Packers and Steelers – that can pop a rating regardless of how good or bad they are, while SNF focuses on the teams actually expected to be good but which could be disastrous with injuries to key players, with the ability to use flex scheduling as a fallback. The rest of the season, MNF would get first dibs on the best matchups in September (when both packages only have expectations to go on) and December (when both packages can benefit from flex scheduling if needed), but SNF gets its crack at the valuable teams at that time (or at least in September).
All this could still co-exist with the late-doubleheader feature game at 4:25 ET, but I could see that timeslot losing its luster as a featured timeslot if the linear TV market collapses in the next decade or two and the NFL takes over all production and distribution of games. Rather than clearing the decks of non-West Coast games to put as many eyeballs as possible on a single game, the league could give (almost) all the best games to the primetime packages, and schedule a handful of games in the late afternoon window for regional distribution and maximize the ability of people in territory where two teams overlap to catch both teams – as only one game in each timeslot would be available for free. It’s possible the league would still have more free games than that, as doing it this way would severely constrict the league’s flexibility in scheduling (especially where the LA teams are concerned) and the league seems to like giving people more free options (as evidenced by how blackouts have been reduced to near-zero in recent years and the advent of the blackout-free double DH in the final week), but that role could be partially filled by giving a streaming service access to one game per afternoon, assigned regionally based on the window the team of local interest is playing in and what game’s already available in the other window, on top of TNF, international and Saturday games, and the ability to sell Sunday Ticket.
Okay, so these brief thoughts on other coverage matters are already longer than the graphics discussion that’s supposed to be the point of this post, but I’ll try to actually keep it brief going forward. Anyway, for theme music the primetime packages can keep their established themes (including Amazon’s theme for TNF), while afternoon games can use the NFL on Fox music. The league’s commentary teams are in a state of transition, but if I were in charge of all NFL game distribution for the upcoming season I’d put Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth on MNF, while pairing Tony Romo and Al Michaels on SNF. Once the most beloved NFL announcer, observers and the Internet have soured on Romo on the past year, while age and poor TNF games seem to have sapped Michaels’ energy this year, capped by a lackluster call of what should have been a genuinely exciting finish to the Chargers-Jaguars playoff game. Romo can provide the energy necessary for Michaels to step his game up (which Collinsworth provided but Kirk Herbstreit and Tony Dungy didn’t), while Michaels is one of the few announcers that wouldn’t put up with Romo’s pointless babbling. Once Michaels retires for good Romo can be reunited with Jim Nantz, or if he hasn’t improved, we can bring in Buck/Aikman or pair Nantz with Kurt Warner, Greg Olsen, or (if he proves to be worth what Fox is paying him) Tom Brady. Either the SNF or MNF teams can call the Super Bowl but if you forced me to choose I’d go with the MNF team.
MLB: MLB Network’s graphics package officially became outdated last season, as baseball’s last broadcast outlet not to include batter information on their score graphic – other than Apple whose coverage was itself produced by MLBN. At the same time MLBN also introduced a new score ticker that looks nothing like any of their other graphics and suggests a full-sized graphic refresh may be coming (though the MLB-produced graphics showing up on the World Baseball Classic don’t exhibit it). I tried my hand at what that might look like at left. Note that pitcher and batter information effectively serves as an extension of the graphic; I had an idea in my mind for a graphic where that information, and maybe even the ball and strike count, would only appear when the broadcast shows the traditional center-field camera with the pitcher and batter, disappearing in all other shots, potentially even going hand-in-hand with an idea I had for an otherwise hyper-condensed graphic with teams identified by cap logo only. But while that might work for a single network’s coverage, it’s probably too gimmicky for a graphics package for all of baseball.
If what I ended up coming up with for that looks a lot like YES Network’s graphic, it should. I tried to match the font used when MLB puts up graphics from its StatCast advanced stats service, which is similar if not identical to what YES uses, and YES has one of the better-laid-out graphics packages in baseball right now. The main change is getting rid of the weird perspective effect used for the base paths on YES’ graphic.
A word about the new pitch clock being introduced this season. Networks have been flailing around looking for ways to incorporate it into their score graphics, with some resorting to showing it in a separate box on screen, like shot and play clocks on 80s and 90s broadcasts, and others awkwardly wedging it into their existing scorebugs. Personally, I don’t think they should have to: there should be a physical pitch clock behind the plate in a position where it can be clearly seen from the traditional center-field camera no matter which side of the plate the batter is on, two if necessary, yet this seems to be actively resisted by both fans and MLB itself. I can’t imagine it’s that much more intrusive than the alternatives.
Other coverage notes: MLB seems to love making large numbers of games available without a subscription to Extra Innings/MLB.tv; in addition to their games on national linear networks, which can form doubleheaders, MLB.tv also offers a “free game of the day”, and ESPN+ has added a crop of games available via their service as well. If MLB were to take over production of all games and made all games available through a single source, they could make four games available for free (with a subscription to whatever streaming service has rights) each day (maybe fewer on Mondays and Thursdays when there’s less than a full slate of games), with each game from a team you’re in-market for coming out of those four games. People seem to like Joe Davis but I still don’t hear a lead announcer from him yet; as widely mocked as Bob Costas was for his loopy commentary for TBS during the ALDS he’s probably still the announcer that could bring the most gravitas and lead-announcer feel to the World Series (now that Joe Buck’s retired from calling baseball), and MLB uses Matt Vasgersian enough in their in-house promos that I think he’d be #2, or an alternate #1, over Davis and Brian Anderson. As great as Fox and ESPN’s themes are I think they’re too associated with their respective networks, and MLB Network’s own “Showcase” theme is actually good enough to be pressed into service for games of any level of prominence. It might be a bit too whimsical and not enough gravitas for the World Series (where Fox used an alternative theme for several years), so I’d bring back CBS’ old theme for that.
NBA: The NBA actually has two in-house score graphics. A few years ago NBATV stopped overlaying their own graphics on top of an RSN feed for their regular season games and simply let the RSNs’ own graphics be used the way the MLB and NHL Networks do. At the same time they introduced a handful of regular season games to be called by their own personnel, first under the “Players Only” banner and now as “Center Court”. These games use a very compact graphic in the corner of the screen, maybe too compact as it seems to make some degree of gimmickyness inevitable. But it’s a far sight better than the NBA’s other graphic, known primarily for its use on almost all non-ESPN WNBA games and nearly every G League game, with its oversized font for team abbreviations crunching the team records (completely absent from the NBATV graphic) into tiny type.
The NBA seems to be especially prone to having its highlights be cropped to a square format that pans across the image for posting on social media sites like Instagram that use that format, so as much as NBA fans might not like it (as every TV partner other than ESPN and Bally uses some form of compact scorebug in the bottom-right corner of the screen), it might behoove the NBA to adopt a centered graphic that takes up as little horizontal space as possible, so square-cut highlights can include as much of it as possible. As a result this is the only centered graphic I’ve produced that puts the quarter and clock below the score, similar to Fox’s NFL graphic, rather than on the same line.
Other coverage notes: The NBA doesn’t have the same air of desperation in making games available to people that MLB does, so its distribution of games that don’t require League Pass can be nearly identical to what it does now: a doubleheader every weeknight, a primetime Saturday game after New Year’s, games Sunday afternoons after the NFL clears out with some additional games on Sunday nights. Before he retired I’d have favored Marv Albert as my lead announcer (though with acknowledgement of his controversial past), but with him gone ESPN’s lead team can call the Finals intact. If the NBA could use any theme music of its choosing you’d think they’d have to bring back NBC’s Roundball Rock, but using it for every game would cause it to lose its specialness, so I’d only use it for games available for free without any underlying streaming service, with games requiring a streaming service subscription using TNT’s theme and regional/League Pass games using either NBATV’s theme or Fox’s regional theme.
NHL: I wasn’t planning on producing a copycat of the scorebug NBC used during its last playoff run that’s since been copied by TVA, but the constraints of the minimum font sizes I’m using coupled with the NHL seemingly forcing its national TV partners into using corner scorebugs made it the most natural outcome, and NBC did cite the accommodation of advanced on-ice data such as shift times as part of the reason for the adoption of this graphic. Ironically, the NHL (to my knowledge) still uses a centered top-of-screen banner for “showcase” games on its own network.
Other coverage notes: The NHL seems to have far less interest in the league as a whole than the NFL and NBA do, and with so little interest in individual teams outside their home markets, less concern about the biggest-name teams swamping lesser clubs than MLB and (to a lesser extent) the other major sports. I’m sure the NHL would still have a handful of daily games that don’t require the out-of-market package, but they may also be the most likely to adopt the MLS model without any changes (heck, as it stands out-of-market games are available to all ESPN+ subscribers at no additional charge, and I could see in-market games simply bundled in with that), and I could see them keeping separate home and road announcers (at least in America; Canada’s networks seem to have a single pool of announcers that can call any game involving the teams they have the rights to) or making their announcers entirely regional, including never having announcers leave their home country for anything other than outdoor games, the All-Star Game, and the playoffs. If it’s desired to have a separate American announce team call the Stanley Cup Final from the English-language Canadian team, go ahead and stick with the NBC/TNT team of Kenny Albert and Eddie Olczyk. The original Hockey Night in Canada theme and the ESPN theme might be the only two NHL themes you need, but if it’s desired to keep them both special (and the former should probably only be used on HNIC, even though TSN’s version actually works surprisingly well on regional games) the NBC and/or Fox themes can be pressed into service on regional games.
College football: As I’ve explained in the past, I’m going to have a hard time following college football, and to some extent college sports more generally, when the current round of conference realignment shakes out, and would prefer the formation of a “super league” to what we’re actually getting, so rather than look at individual conferences I’m just going to look at what a “super league”‘s graphics might look like. The expansion of the CFP is already expected to rake in more money than any other American sports entity (including the NCAA) outside the traditional four majors, and a “super league” would get full credit for college football’s status as the second-most popular sports competition behind only the NFL, but I’m still positioning it behind all four major sports because college sports are a nonprofit exercise that are all about developing the minds and bodies of amateur student-athletes and totally aren’t about such boorish, base concerns as monbahaha I couldn’t say that with a straight face.
I was originally going to make a few different versions of this graphic, including a banner and a box in the corner of the screen, until I found that the mobile-friendly font-size constraints I imposed on myself would make the portion of the graphic dedicated to each team, at least if I spelled out the team names, take up nearly half the width of the screen, making a centered graphic with the down-and-distance stacked on top of the quarter and clocks, similar to my NFL design, really the only option. I like to imagine that one league or the other would want to keep their graphic as relatively close to the other as possible. (I didn’t intend to make the central element hexagonal – it’s supposed to look like the curve of a football, similar to the CFP logo – but PowerPoint, which I use to make these mockups, doesn’t have a shape with a curve that cuts off before it can align with the adjacent side, so this is the best I can do.)
Other coverage notes: I’ve seen enough talk about the desirability of staggered start times for sufficiently TV/streaming-oriented sports leagues (even though MLS isn’t doing so) that I could see the relatively fresh start of a college football super league adopt it, with games starting every half-hour to hour, perhaps every 15 minutes at some points. Meanwhile, college football games are widely enough distributed as it is, and collegiate fandom in general is sufficiently non-localized, that there isn’t really any reason not to give all games the same level of availability. I don’t see any reason not to make Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit the lead voices of the league if we can, while with all due respect to ESPN’s college football theme(s), CBS’ theme would make the ideal choice.
PGA Tour: The graphics for the “PGA Tour Live” streams on ESPN+ have gotten to a place where they could conceivably pass for a main broadcast, with their main drawback their use of a font that, while not quite generic, a) I could use wholesale on my laptop without downloading anything and b) is similar though not identical to the font used for scores on the woefully outdated CBS graphics package the Masters used for most of the 2000s. It’s possible to look past that, though, which makes the main thing to do incorporating an always-on leaderboard that CBS and NBC have adopted in the past few years after Fox used one throughout its ill-fated tenure with the USGA.
I’m not going to just blindly copy them, however. The upstart LIV Golf tour has adopted a sidebar score graphic similar to what’s become the norm in motorsports over the past decade or so, with information on the current shot popping out of the player’s place in the leaderboard. I don’t think the PGA Tour needs to worry too much about trying to keep up with LIV, given its viewership that’s a fraction of what the PGA Tour gets and LIV’s Saudi blood money making it not a fair fight, but when it comes to graphics I think this is something at least worth taking inspiration from; even before LIV launched I put together a number of mockups for how a sidebar graphic might have worked for NBC/Golf Channel, though I only ever actually saved and posted one. Granted that LIV’s leaderboard has a lot to do with its shotgun-start and team format, and having a leaderboard show the top 20-25 players when traditional golf broadcasts only venture beyond a couple strokes behind the leader to show the biggest stars might be overkill, especially since it actively cuts down on the share of the screen devoted to actual action and results in me bending my font-size rules and accepting relatively small fonts even for the largest informational elements, but even without adopting the full-height sidebar, at minimum pop-out graphics for the current stroke would cut down on on-screen redundancy. I feel like a sidebar would be especially useful for “PGA Tour Live”‘s alternate feeds for featured groups and holes, and would get more use out of the whole leaderboard during the first two rounds as opposed to later in the weekend.
Other coverage notes: I don’t have any firm opinions about how the meat of coverage should be distributed, though suffice to say that as it stands, at least three hours of the weekend rounds, four hours for most tournaments with any modicum of importance beyond the Tour baseline, airing on free broadcast television is accepted as the norm. While the majors, especially the Masters and US Open, tend to attract beloved themes that remain associated with them for decades, no theme has really stuck to normal Tour events, with CBS changing its theme every few years despite occasionally landing on something really good and NBC typically presenting pretty blah themes and even more so since integrating Golf Channel into its golf coverage, so I’m just throwing up my hands at this one. As for personnel, I don’t want to give short shrift to either Jim Nantz or Dan Hicks, and with Nantz set to retire from calling the NCAA Tournament there really isn’t any obstacle to him calling all the golf he wants from January or February straight through to Labor Day, to say nothing of Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger as lead analysts. So basically, <shrug emoji>.
NCAA: I first put together graphics mock-ups for league-driven broadcasts back in 2018 or ’19, and I was sufficiently satisfied with the graphics the NCAA used for lower-tier championships they streamed on their own website that I decided they were a useful enough baseline for something more professional. The result, at least with the font I used, looks not entirely dissimilar to what Fox’s recently-retired football graphic might have looked like for college basketball, with the main difference being the use of a banner taking the full width of the screen with the clock and period off to the side. (I think I listed a Round of 64 game as the “second round” despite the NCAA having already ditched that experiment at that point out of a belief that tournament expansion was coming at some point either by the time this came to fruition or as a result of it.)
Other coverage notes: I espoused the virtues of staggered start times when it came to college football, but I actually wonder if March Madness might go the other way and return to a schedule more like it had before Turner became part of the coverage. My thinking is based on the assumption that the cable bundle, and with it linear cable networks, is collapsing, but linear broadcast television can and should continue to survive and thrive, and with streaming services being far more accepted than they were circa 2011, the idea of trudging over to a streaming service to watch a game that’s not being shown on linear TV in your local market should attract fewer complaints. I would not be surprised if, next time the March Madness rights come up for renewal, CBS attempts to take all the rights for itself again and returns to something resembling the pre-2011 status quo with all games available on Paramount+ – though that doesn’t seem to be until 2032 and who knows if Paramount+ will even exist by then. (Notably, for its coverage of the Champions League, until the later rounds of the knockout stage CBS Sports Network foregoes covering specific games entirely in favor of only airing a whiparound show live.)
As mentioned earlier, Jim Nantz is preparing to step aside from calling March Madness with Ian Eagle stepping into the role, but moving to the NCAA controlling the coverage means not having any reason to stick with CBS/Turner personnel as opposed to the ESPN bench that covers the sport far more comprehensively, and Nantz’s retirement removes the last excuse remaining. Granted, that means taking up the team of Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas as the Final Four announcers, which could be awkward given Bilas’ history of tweaking the NCAA. On the flip side, as fond as I am of ESPN’s 2000s-10s college basketball theme, CBS’ longstanding college basketball theme is the only one college basketball fans would accept as the theme to March Madness.
NASCAR: NASCAR’s in-house graphics belatedly moved to a sidebar this year (a few years after both of its domestic TV partners had adopted it), and as such I don’t think they need any major changes. I would like to see it look more like Fox’s graphic to give it more of an edge, but Fox’s overall graphics package with the weird sketchy animations looks too goofy to adopt wholesale.
Other coverage notes: I don’t pay too much attention to NASCAR, but it seems like they currently have multiple viable commentary teams to the point that, as with the PGA Tour, going with a single team for the entire Cup Series season seems like it would be unfair to the others (though Fox’s Mike Joy is a much more established institution in the sport than NBC’s Rick Allen). Fox’s (mostly) long-running theme is one of the most beloved in motorsports, but as with their MLB theme it’s too closely associated with its network (that little snippet of the NFL “da-da-da da-da-da” towards the end disqualifies both of them) and NBC’s theme has been sufficiently embraced as to be a good replacement (though NASCAR’s own “Thunder” theme is worth an honorable mention).