Canzano: Pulling back curtain on Cam Rising's disappearing act
Did Utah owe FS1 information before kickoff?
The Fox Sports 1 broadcast crew went home disappointed after calling Utah’s win over Washington State on Thursday night and I can’t say I blame them.
Utah won the game 21-17.
It was a nice win for the Utes, who played without starting quarterback Cam Rising. Utah won on the road. That’s not easy. But it may owe the FS1 broadcast team an apology. Decide for yourself.
The Utes’ football coaches were scheduled for the customary — and contractually obligated — pre-event meeting with the on-air broadcast team of Jeff Levering and Petros Papadakis a day earlier, on Wednesday afternoon.
The Utes pushed it back to 5 p.m.
The FS1 producers, directors and on-air talent accommodated the change, moving their schedules around. Then, the production crew and broadcasters jumped on a 60-minute Zoom call. First went head coach Kyle Whittingham, who glowed about the leadership of Rising. After that, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, joined and did the same.
“We had no idea,” Papadakis told me Friday. “They didn’t tell us. We were given every indication that Cam Rising was starting the football game.”
FS1 built the start of the broadcast around Rising’s heroics. Understandably, so. He’d led Utah to a breathtaking 43-42 win over USC just 12 days earlier. Rising was listed on the two-deep chart as the starter. He made the trip to Pullman. He even warmed up with the first team in the pregame. FS1 used the video in its opening shots.
Papadakis checked with the Utes football sports-information director Jordie Lindley several times before the broadcast started, asking, “Anything new?”
He learned running back Tavion Thomas didn’t make the trip.
“Anything else we need to know?” he asked in a subsequent call, just before kickoff.
“Nothing,” came the answer.
Maybe you were surprised when Utah’s first possession began with walk-on Bryson Barnes under center. But nobody was more shocked than the FS1 director and production team, which had video and a photo of Rising on the screen alongside his stats before the first play. It made the broadcast look unprepared.
Rising had limped into a meeting with the media a week earlier, two days after tumbling into the end zone with the winning score against USC. His left knee was wrapped. Reporter Josh Newman of The Salt Lake Tribune noted that Rising was asked about the knee and said, “I'm still upright, still doing good, still breathing.”
It’s important here to take a step back. There’s a difference between the traditional media that covers a sport and the TV broadcast crew, which is in a partnership with the Pac-12 Conference. I wouldn’t expect the Utes to tell print reporters or local TV that there was a question about Rising’s availability. That news might have reached WSU and created a competitive disadvantage.
For years, football coaches have leaned into those pre-game TV meetings and whispered, “Now, I need you to keep this between us until kickoff…” before sharing that a key player wouldn’t be available. There’s a trust factor involved. The broadcast is there to showcase and celebrate the event, not be misled by it.
Still, there are some notable examples of coaches who wait until the coin flip to reveal personnel decisions. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy is notorious for being difficult in that way.
Gundy had his sports-information director call the TV production truck two minutes before kickoff a couple of seasons ago against Oregon State to let them know he was starting a new QB. It was a scramble, but that broadcast began as if the television partner knew what the heck was going on.
That didn’t happen on Thursday night.
Whittingham said after the game that Rising practiced all week and told coaches before the game he couldn’t go. The coach said, “If Cam says he can’t play, he can’t play.” Barnes, the back-up, confirmed he learned he was starting in the pre-game. But someone on the Utah staff probably should have relayed that information to FS1.
This is a working relationship.
It didn’t work on Thursday.
I like Whittingham. I think he’s a solid human and a great coach. The fact that he won on the road with a multitude of back-ups on Thursday night is a testament to his skill and leadership. But the FS1 crew felt misled and the start to the broadcast made the Pac-12 look amateurish.
“Even if you didn’t get a heads up in the meeting, you should get a call from the sports information director — basically, the PR department — before the game,” Papadakis said. “Just so we can run out the right kid, with the right graphics and the right celebration. And get that moment right for that young man and this moment in Utah football history, with a new starter coming out.
“None of that happened.”
The NFL has an injury-report protocol. It’s heavily monitored by gamblers. College football has no such system. There’s no uniformity. Some coaches will be candid. Others don’t talk about injuries. Whittingham’s long-standing policy is to not discuss them.
The FS1 show opened on Thursday. The teams kicked off. Then, the cameras focused on Utah’s tight offensive huddle on the sideline. And Rising’s photo and stats popped up on the screen.
The broadcasters began to talk about the star quarterback’s accomplishments. Then, the FS1 director got in the ear of the camera operators, shouting, “Where’s Rising?!? Find Rising!! Find Rising!!”
In his place was Barnes, a Utah native.
Turns out he was an all-state high school player. Also, an Eagle Scout. Also, he’s a pig farmer. Papadakis and Levering are pros. They bit their lips and did some quick research during the first commercial break. They spun out of the embarrassing start and recovered. But it could have been avoided with some communication.
Papadakis later said, on air, “They kept it closer than close to the vest. They kept it inside their skin.”
I’m not here to rip Whittingham. Maybe he had bigger things on his mind. He’s laser focused. It was an important football game. Papadakis, who played his college ball at USC, isn’t pissed off. Just a little disappointed. He noted that there’s a fine line between trying to explain what went wrong on Thursday and sounding entitled.
“Maybe it’s been too long since I looked through the mask of a football helmet,” he said.
I think this is valuable stuff for the rest of us. We’re going new places and learning new things. We’re getting a peek at what happens behind the scenes on a college football television broadcast.
A couple of important things, at play as well. FS1 is producing the broadcasts from remote locations. The network didn’t have a sideline reporter at the stadium. Also, it used the minimum six cameras on Thursday’s broadcast.
Said one long-time Pac-12 administrator: “So what investment was put in?”
Maybe that impacts how Utah thinks — or doesn’t think — about FS1.
Do college football teams owe anyone information prior to kickoff? TV partners? Gamblers? Opponents? We’ve seen media rights fees skyrocket in college athletics. Is the contractual relationship about to get stickier? What kind of access does the broadcast partner get these days? Inside information? And how much?
There’s lots to chew on here.
“When we’re doing a broadcast we’re basically showcasing and celebrating an event,” Papadakis said.
That show started with a disappearing act on Thursday.
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