Why the Wizards moved Steve Buckhantz off the floor

When rapper Wale climbed the Verizon Center stairs a few weeks back to complain about a perceived slight from the Toronto Raptors television broadcasters, it highlighted a new development that may have previously eluded Washington Wizards fans.

And no, it wasn’t that Wale likes to get on camera. Rather, it was that the television broadcast teams — home and away — had been moved from their long-time perch at the Verizon Center scorer’s table to a location near the top of Section 110.

If fans didn’t notice in January or February, they likely did last week. The change in locale made national headlines when both Comcast SportsNet’s Steve Buckhantz and Fox Sports Detroit’s George Blaha were fooled by Trevor Ariza’s last-second three-point attempt from the corner. (Videos here and here.) Both men — sitting at adjacent tables under the Comcast SportsNet suite — thought Ariza’s shot had dropped, giving the Wizards the dramatic win. Both were unable to initially tell that the shot was actually far short — short enough to make the bottom of the net jump up as it would on a made basket.

Buckhantz has repeatedly taken the high road about his missed call — which was picked up by national blogs and talk shows and TNT’s studio showrefusing to complain about his new seat location and insisting that he’s happy just to be employed. And this was undoubtedly a perfect storm — the illusion depended on Ariza being in that precise corner, firing up a dismally short attempt that was right on line, and having the game at stake in the final seconds.

Still, it’s a call that Buckhantz and Blaha both said they’d have gotten right from their old seats.

“If I’m sitting in my old seat, there’s not a tenth of a percent chance I miss that call,” Buckhantz said. “From that particular perspective the ball looked like it went in. I’ve watched it 100 times, and each time it went in. I would make the same call each time.”

“It’s not breaking news that that is not a good vantage point,” agreed Blaha, who lauded the work done by Wizards senior director of communications Scott Hall and his assistants. “If you didn’t have the best statisticians in the league and a great media relations group, it would be extremely difficult. They make it as easy as possible. But you really have a problem with depth perception there.”

Moving broadcasters farther from the action is a trend in every major sport, and the NBA has been no different. Twenty-three of the league’s 30 teams place radio broadcast teams off the court; the Wizards began doing so two seasons ago. This season, the team moved the home and away radio broadcasters into the club level, and put the home and away television broadcasters into radio’s previous spot.

That made Washington the second NBA team — joining Philadelphia — to have both home and away television broadcasters off the court. (Twenty-four teams still house the TV broadcasters on the front row, while three teams put them in the second row. The Lakers have the visiting broadcast in the front row, and the home broadcast higher up.)

The benefits for the Wizards aren’t slight. Moving radio and then TV broadcasts off the floor created 16 new “Owner’s Club” seats, eight between the scorer’s table and each team bench. Those seats sell for $1,500 a game as part of a season-ticket package, and grant access to the remodeled Owner’s Club. The team sold the entire allotment this year, bringing in about $1 million.

And there’s probably no going back. A team spokesman said the broadcasters would be unlikely to move back to the floor, citing the economic benefits of additional premium seating

According to NBA rules, local television broadcasters must be located in the lower bowl. (National broadcasters must be seated on the floor.) They can’t be behind the baskets, and their seats cannot have any obstructions, including potentially standing fans.

The league approved the Wizards’ new locations — which are similar to those in Philadelphia — over the summer. A Comcast SportsNet spokesman said the network had no comment, other than noting that broadcast locations are determined by the team.

Both Buckhantz and his radio counterpart, Dave Johnson, said that there are pluses and minuses to any of the potential broadcast locations.

“In Toronto we sit on the court, and I felt like I was in the game [last month], it was so intense,” Johnson said. “You miss that, to some degree. But I understand what [longtime Cleveland Cavaliers radio voice] Joe Tait said years ago: Why do I want to look at the back of a coach’s butt? In some ways, as you move up, you get a perspective of the whole picture, a bigger picture. The key is not to make the viewer or listener feel they’re getting [a lesser call], because the viewer or listener doesn’t care where you’re sitting.”

Buckhantz agreed, taking responsibility for missing the call and saying it’s his job to adapt.

“The bottom line is I’m thrilled to be calling games and happy to be calling games no matter where I sit,” he said. “Would I like to be on the floor where I have the best vantage point of the game? Absolutely. . . .  Having said that, this is my new home and I have to make it a nice one.”

In any case, this is likely the future, for all branches of the media, covering all types of sports. The Wizards have emphasized filling the lower bowl, and despite the price tag on court-side seats, those are attractive to a high-end clientele.

“Washington had great seats,” said Blaha, the Detroit broadcaster. “It was one of the best places to call a game. And if you were down on the court and you missed that [Ariza] call, shame on you. But hey, I thought it was in too. It’s our job to get it right no matter where we sit.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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