ESPN's Mike Couzens on broadcasting during the pandemic, increased TV exposure for female athletes and the future of live sports broadcasts

"It’s like, if you build it, they will come. If you provide the opportunity for people to watch [women's sports] on a bigger scale, people will watch that and I’m a huge advocate for women’s sports."

Welcome back to Out of Bounds, a free, weekly newsletter about college athletics. Feedback, tips and story ideas are always welcome at andrew [dot] wittry [at] gmail [dot] com or you can connect with me on Twitter.

I’m really excited to share today’s newsletter, which is the transcript of an extended conversation with ESPN play-by-play broadcaster Mike Couzens.

We talked about a variety of topics, including:

  • His experience broadcasting during the pandemic

  • How his travel schedule changed over the course of the last year

  • His thought process when the Ivy League canceled its 2020 men’s basketball conference tournament, which he was scheduled to broadcast

  • The benefits of increased media exposure for women in athletics

  • How he balances incorporating off-the-field storylines with calling the action on the field or the court

  • The future of sports broadcasting

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Out of Bounds: Can you walk me through a typical year in terms of how many events you broadcast?

Mike Couzens: The year usually starts for me around Labor Day weekend, with the beginning of college football. From the start of college football season to the end, it’s usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 games, including a bowl game, doing one game every week. Sometimes it’s two games when you get MACtion thrown in there or the weeknight Sun Belt games later on in the season as well.

Then there’s a little bit of crossover between college football and college basketball in November and then into December. College basketball will take me through March, going through champ week and then when that time rolls around, I’ll usually do college baseball and then the last couple years, I’ve been fortunate to start doing college softball, which has been an absolute blast.

Usually, I’ll do a handful of MLB games on ESPN Radio because, believe it or not, before I started working for a sports TV company, I primarily did play-by-play on the radio and had very little sports TV experience, so that’s always been fun to dabble back into that. In past years, I have done a lot of high school basketball, although not lately. Ted Emrich now is the primary voice of high school basketball, so I guess you could say I graduated from high school twice. (laughs)

The summers have been a little bit less busy for me, but usually the number of events for me will be somewhere from 60 to 70. I want to say my busiest year has been closer to 75. I skipped over, too, NCAA wrestling. I just did my fifth year of covering that sport, all the way through the NCAA championships, so there’s always something exciting going on.

What is the longest you went without traveling to broadcast a game? And in a usual schedule with your 70 games a year, what would typically be the longest length in between games?

MC: The last one I did prior to everything shutting down was March 7, which was a softball game at the University of Florida. That was a Sunday, so I got home Monday and the next thing I was scheduled to do was travel to Boston for the Ivy League basketball tournament and found out Tuesday that the Ivy League sent out the announcement that they were canceling their winter sports championships, so I went from March to September without calling a game.

The longest I would normally go would be the time between football games, so usually Saturday to Saturday. In a typical year, I would do two basketball games a week, so let’s say it would be Tuesday or Wednesday, and a Saturday or a Sunday, so you leave the day before the basketball game. So fly out Monday, game Tuesday, fly home Wednesday, be home Thursday, fly again Friday, game Saturday, fly home Sunday and then do that again on Monday.

It was dramatically different to not get on a plane two or three times a week and just have everything shut down. I remember I was out in the yard with my wife and we were just picking up some sticks that had fallen from a recent storm, when I saw the tweet come across that the NCAA had shut everything down. Then it was a question of, “Alright, what’s next?” and that question lingered for quite some time, not just me, but for so many people.

If we go back to March 2020 and the Ivy League cancels its basketball tournaments, I know at that time it’s like, ‘Alright, this is a league that’s more academic-focused, maybe they’re just being preemptive,’ and then we see what happens the next 15 months. What was your state of mind when you first heard the news and you don’t know what’s going to happen next?

MC: I think it was just trying to keep up with everything that was going on because you’ve got the leagues who are issuing statements and saying, “OK, well here’s what our plan is” or “We’ve put together a working group,” and then you have reporters who say, “Well, sources tell me this.” So I’ll text with my friends who are in the business and we’re like, “Hey, what did you hear?” I think we were all thinking about what’s the most feasible plan in terms of bringing college football back and so, was it going to be football in the spring? Or was it going to be a six-game season? Or what was it going to be?

I think for me it was not necessarily worrying about when things were going to happen, it was just a matter of how it was going to happen because of how important college football is to the sports ecosystem, I don’t think anybody thought it wasn’t going to happen, but just how was it going to happen and looking forward to when it was coming back.

For any workplace, the work-life balance and the role of technology has really changed in the last year, so I’m curious, we’ve all heard about the remote broadcasts, but what was the biggest benefit of technology for your job and what do you think you lost when you couldn’t be there in person?

MC: Interestingly enough, I think coordinating schedules with getting ahold of coaches and players became a lot easier because – for the most part, especially during football season, when in-person gatherings were much more limited than they are now – we’re all sitting at home or in our offices. The coaches at the facilities and us, as the announcers, at home and so it wasn’t a matter of trying to figure out, “Well, when can we come to the facility and sit down?” and they have this next meeting on their schedule. It was just like, “Alright, does a two o’clock Zoom work?” Yeah, like what else are we doing? We’re just sitting around. (laughs)

I think getting undivided attention, too. With basketball, when you go meet with a coach, you’re usually going to the team’s practice the day before or the shootaround and they’ll stop over intermittently to talk but then might jump back into a drill in the middle of a sentence or the middle of a question, whereas on a Zoom (call), you’re going to have 30 minutes of undivided attention. I think that was different and that was a bonus, and getting to talk to more players because if they were in between classes, we might get them on Zoom on their phone walking across the quad, where if you’re traveling in person and you’re on-site at the football facility, certainly they couldn’t be there for that.

The things that were more challenging from not being on-site were – I did one football game from home, the rest of them I traveled for; I did all my basketball games remotely – I think there’s always a lingering element in the back of your mind of, “Am I missing something?” There was that story in The Athletic the other day about the Major League Baseball broadcasters and how imminent their return might be to stadiums and with football, there’s some element of it because you’re not always going to have all 22 guys in the frame. Basketball less so, because all 10 (players) are always going to be there but maybe not the coaches, the bench or the officials. And baseball and softball, you miss out on some of it because you can’t see as well the trajectory of the ball, or maybe the umpires who are not the umpire at the base where the play is occurring.

It’s funny because there was a stadium that I worked at in Minor League Baseball in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where the press box was up the third-base line and you are just about even with the third-base bag, so whenever it was a right-handed batter, you couldn’t see where the ball was crossing the plate, whether it was high or low, inside or outside. And you couldn’t tell where a fly ball was going to land because the roof overhang was out over your head, so you had to watch the outfielders as they made their move to the ball to get an idea of where the ball might land. That was a good carryover skill for this year in calling games remotely with baseball and softball, watching the outfielder and the moves that they made. Sometimes even they weren’t sure where the ball was going, so it was a matter of being a little bit more careful to make sure you could be precise in your call. I think that’s a wholistic picture of what working remotely has been like.

Obviously the pandemic affected in-person access for beat reporters, but it seems like even before that, media access has been limited due to new social media channels and in-house media because they don’t need traditional press – at least in their minds – to get their message out. Has the level of access for broadcasters changed, even pre-pandemic?

MC: For broadcasters, I haven’t noticed a change, no, because with the technological barriers being diminished as far as reaching people, we can all find an agreeable time to talk to one another. So no, I don’t think that’s changed for us, and I hope that access remains for everyone. I think that the point that you made is true in that teams have certainly realized, “We can do a lot of this publicity through our own channels.” But I still think it’s important, there’s the situation with the French Open and the larger discussion about what obligation do athletes – and I think the extension for college sports and professional sports is what obligations do coaches have? – to speak to the media and I don’t know that there is a right answer to that.

Certainly by the nature of our jobs, it makes it more easy to be able to hear from the actors firsthand but I also understand the reluctance from teams to want to make sure the best, positive message gets out there, too.

Over the last year, I’ve made a conscious effort of when I’m referring to men’s college basketball, I’ll say “men’s basketball” or “men’s college basketball,” rather than just defaulting to “college basketball” but assuming it’s men’s basketball. I wonder, between the ongoing gender equity review of the NCAA’s championships and all of the discussion about media exposure and equity, as someone who broadcasts men’s and women’s college sports, are there any changes you’ve made or subtle reminders about how adjectives matter and specificity matters?

MC: It absolutely does matter in the same way that having people who look like you and people who are of your gender and of your background and your ethnicity being in important roles in any position is important. Yes, I have been more conscious in doing that because there have been times where we’ve seen accounts that tweet out, “Hey, this person has the most wins in college basketball,” but then there might be an omission of, “Oh, hey, you forgot about Tara VanDerveer” or “You forgot about C. Vivian Stringer on the women’s side of the game.” It’s those types of things that we have to remember. Records in sports aren’t just men’s sports records, they’re men’s and women’s sports records.

I think what’s been helpful for me is that in my career, I grew up very poorly covering the women’s basketball team at my high school for my school student newspaper. That, very early on, gave me the idea, the understanding that basketball is not a single-gender sport. I think I’ve been privileged also now to get to cover for a couple years softball and to get to cover a little bit of women’s basketball as well. It’s a reminder that, “Hey, just because one side of sports gets more coverage doesn’t mean that it’s the one that’s necessarily the best or the ones whose records are the most important.”

I think it’s been great to see we’ve had women’s basketball, we’ve had gymnastics and now college softball this year on ABC. You watch the Women’s College World Series and the stadium’s packed, and it’s the first year they’ve gotten to do it at the renovated stadium. It’s like, if you build it, they will come. If you provide the opportunity for people to watch it on a bigger scale, people will watch that and I’m a huge advocate for women’s sports because they’re awesome and there are stories to be told there and tremendous athletes that people should get to know and be fans of. It’s definitely something that’s ever-present for me because of how important it is.

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I saw some data recently from the Big Ten Network, this was internal data that was part of a huge public records dump that Ohio State had, and basically BTN had shown that their highest-rated women’s volleyball matches over the last five years were almost all in 2019 after their coverage had increased.

You mentioned the ABC coverage, what role can increased coverage or coverage on those bigger channels, like an ABC, have for women’s basketball, softball, women’s volleyball? Because I think the results are clear, even if everyone doesn’t want to accept them.

MC: Our coordinating producer for softball, Meg Aronowitz, she says something along the lines of, “If you’ve never been introduced to softball before, when you do finally see it, you’re going to love it,” and you just can’t help it because it is a really exciting sport. It’s fast-paced, it’s a lot of action and you have tremendous athletes.

I had the privilege of covering the super regional with James Madison this year and got to cover Odicci Alexander, who’s their pitcher who became a huge star at the Women’s College World Series, because not only of how good she is, but that one diving play that she made down the third-base line to help save a run from scoring.

If you’re on a streaming platform, you’re going to get the people who really are diehards because you have to search that out. It’s not going to come just from channel surfing. But if you’re on main broadcast television or ESPN or ESPN2, those are channels that are just on all the time. They’re on in barber shops, they’re on in sports bars, they’re on in restaurants. If people watch that and they say, “Hey, I didn’t know this was on,” but then they might go home and watch it or say, “Oh, this is going to be on tomorrow, let me make that appointment viewing.”

I think there’s only continued room for growth and room to add more fans. I don’t know how the demographics skew of who’s watching more or how any of that works, but I know that myself, as a 31-year-old guy, I’m in love with these sports because they’re exciting. If you’re a sports fan, you’re someone who likes the drama, the competition, the athleticism and the stories of it, it shouldn’t matter to you who’s playing, whether it’s male or female. It’s just really good, right?

Look at the Olympics every couple years, there’s a concerted effort for storytelling for those and we get behind those people who are Americans because we say, “Hey, that’s our country.” Like, “Hey, this is the school near me on TV,” and James Madison or Oklahoma is making a run to the Women’s College World Series. Or Oregon women’s basketball with Sabrina Ionescu is making these amazing runs deep in the postseason. You get behind those things. I just think the more people see it, the more they’re going to love it. It’s a matter of bringing it to more people, really, is what it is.

My second job after college was covering Vermont women’s basketball in the 2011-12 season. I called the games on AM radio on WVMT in Burlington and I think the team won like 10 games that year, so they were well under .500. That was one of the most fun seasons that I’ve had, being a part of that team and getting to know the players and where they came from. None of the players on that team went on to play professionally but one of them works with the Canadian women’s basketball program now, the Olympic team, and it’s really cool just to see where people go in their lives. Whether you get invested because of the action on the court or because the people are good people off the court, I think any reason is good to help grow the game.

I’m glad you mentioned JMU. I watched your call of Game 3 against Missouri and they came back and won. Odicci Alexander, she’s pitching, she’s batting third, just had this great game and they were kind of the darling, making it to the Women’s College World Series. They’re kind of this natural underdog upsetting these bigger programs.

There’s maybe a chance with the passing of some of these NIL laws that there could maybe be an increase in the dispersal of talent and maybe indirectly, stories like JMU softball could be slightly more common. I think in college football, for example, there’s some fatigue with the CFP and “Oh, it’s the same group of four, five, six teams making it every year.” Fans are maybe bored or they just want a bigger playoff so their team can make it.

I wonder, sports fans love a good underdog story and you’re the one telling these stories, such as JMU softball, do you have any thoughts on how NIL laws could maybe affect parity or where talent goes?

MC: I hadn’t thought about it that way but I do think that’s an interesting theory because in the moment, the teams that are the dynasties of college sports currently, whether it’s UConn women’s basketball or Alabama football, those are the programs that have the best players. They recruit the best players and the best up-and-coming players still want to go there.

I think I would have to give it more thought. I don’t know. And I realize that’s not a great answer for you. The true answer is I don’t know. I think that it’s an uncomfortable answer because I don’t know that anybody knows what the truth is but I’m comfortable saying, “I don’t know” in a lot more situations than maybe I was as a younger person.

I think I’d be interested to see how it all plays out. I’m certainly supportive of athletes being able to pursue their full economic value because as Jay Bilas has laid out time and time again, whether it was you or me as student broadcasters – although I don’t know if anybody would’ve paid for what I was doing at age 20 as a broadcaster (laughs) – or if it was a concert pianist, or the star student biochemist, they’re able to go and make money off of the talent they have. Whether it’s an athlete receiving a local endorsement or whether it’s just being able to make money off of a camp coaching the sport that you do, I think that makes all the sense in the world.

There’s so much going on in college athletics, between name, image and likeness legislation and the gender equity review, and we saw some of the player movements last summer. I’m curious, as a broadcaster, how you approach that because a lot of fans view these sports as their escape. Those topics aren’t politics in a traditional sense, but people say, “Oh, it’s political,” “It’s politics,” whatever.

I wonder, how do you balance that? Because if Justin Fields leads this Big Ten movement, that’s part of his story and that’s maybe important for a broadcaster to share that on the call, but if it’s the bottom of the sixth in a tight game, you don’t want to be talking about federal legislation, either.

MC: (Laughs) Time and score is the most vital commander in terms of when you stick to the game and when you can get into other topics. That comes down to planning before the contest. You sit down with producer, director, graphics, analyst and just say, “How do we want to tell this story? What’s the most responsible way we can tell this story? What level of discussion are we going to get into on this story?”

And importantly, because if the game is close, you don’t want to do it, so do we want to do something in the first half? Or do we want to do something at the under-12 (timeout) in a college basketball game in the first half, where it might be 24-20, but the next basket is not going to be the one that decides the game?

We’ve approached things like this for a long time, whether it’s trouble off the court or off the field for a team. Those are things that are still relevant because if a player is missing from the game, you can’t not address why a star player isn’t there, so you have to go about it, but you also can’t opine on it. If there’s legal trouble or if there’s a team-issued suspension, we may not know all of the facts, so we can only state the facts that we do know. For this, it’s to say, “Hey, if Player X is leading a motion to unionize, here’s what this player has done. Here’s what this player has said. Here’s the response from the other interested parties,” and we do it that way.

As a play-by-play broadcaster, my job is to document the game, what’s happening in front of me in 40 or 60 minutes and make sure that everybody knows what the story of the game is. The analyst, who is likely either a former player or a coach, they’re much more attuned to being able to opine on those things, having either done them or been in closer proximity than I ever have or will. If it’s something the analyst is comfortable talking on, it’s my job to set them up for that and to have a conversation and ask pertinent questions.

But in my role in a game, I also don’t want it to become a podcast about a certain topic and I want to make sure the people who are tuning in for the game also get treated to the finer aspects of the game and make sure that we do that game justice because if it’s a team you’ve been waiting to watch all week, you can hear about those things any of the other hours of the week. We want to make sure the game is properly documented, too, but also not just closing our eyes and siloing ourself into just what’s happening in front of us.

I think there’s a lot of really bad-faith arguments when it comes to TV ratings, why people are or aren’t watching certain things on certain channels, but it seems like across the board in the pandemic, many sports and leagues saw their ratings decline. It makes sense because many were out of season, there’s obviously much bigger stuff going on, and women’s sports were some of the few leagues that actually bucked that trend.

As cord-cutting becomes more common and maybe there are some ratings decreases, do you think the calculus of sports broadcasts changes at all? Should Mike Couzens be on TikTok, promoting your travels and the teams you’re covering? Should there be more Nickelodeon NFL broadcast-type risks? That’s not to say it has to be gimmicky but do you think the way sports broadcasters try to capture young fans is going to change going forward?

MC: I think there’s always some type of evolution, right? Have you ever watched like a really old NFL or college football game on YouTube? Where there’s either no score on the screen or there’s just one little box in the corner and no graphics? We think that’s some Paleolithic television to us and it’s really only like 40 years ago that that was the case. Then we’ve evolved into having consistent lower-thirds and we can show the tail on a home run as it goes out of the ballpark and have the Statcast show. There’s been the Nickelodeon broadcast, which I think just won a sports Emmy, which was thoroughly entertaining and I think is a great way to go about bringing in new fans to the game.

I think the segmenting of broadcasts to try to find more niche audiences, like look at the way ESPN has covered the College Football Playoff. You’ve had the coaches’ film room and then you’ve had Marty and McGee watching the game and then you have the traditional telecast and the homers telecast. Cool ways to innovate that didn’t exist before because we have all of these digital platforms and all of the linear networks that ESPN has available to do it. It’s still amazing to me to be able to watch a game on my phone when I’m out and about, which I realize has been around for a while, but I grew up without cable TV, which is a long story, but how I ended up getting into broadcasting was listening to AM radio.

I think it’s all made a natural adaptation for all networks to try to find new ways to keep viewers engaged because all of us, we just have shorter attention spans these days. Even myself, like reading a book, my brain after three pages will say, “Hey, look at your phone, you might have missed something.” I didn’t miss anything. That’s just the way we’re all conditioned to be these days so I think it’s the smart thing to do and it’s also more entertaining. I like that as a viewer and I look forward to being a part of that as a broadcaster, too, because if it presents a fun, new challenge and a way to a call a game and exposes me to something new, I like that aspect of it.

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In the conclusion of the letter, the American’s Board of Directors wrote, “We trust that you will agree that the American has earned and deserves your support as the official sixth autonomy conference, and that you will also support a rotating contract bowl or an automatic CFP bid for the American if, in fact, the CFP expands with automatic bids as part of the formula. The American stands ready to assume its former place in the top tier by becoming a member of the autonomy group, where it can make a more significant and valuable contribution to college athletics at the highest level.

“To this end, we respectfully request a meeting between our board chair, selected board members and our commissioner, and the chairs of the A5 group to discuss the American’s inclusion.”

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.