By: John Molori
November 28, 2006

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McGrail puts NESN at forefront of Boston sports

With record-breaking ratings and a seemingly endless parade of new programming, the New England Sports Network (NESN) has become the hottest media outlet in New England. Only Sports Radio WEEI can match NESN?s hold on the psyche of area sports fans.

When the current Red Sox ownership assumed control of the team in 2002, they knew that NESN was the jewel in their newly acquired crown. The man who has the keys to the kingdom is NESN president Sean McGrail.

Since being named president in 2000, McGrail has spearheaded NESN?s drive to 400,000 premium subscribers and 4 million basic cable homes. Media Blitz recently had a lengthy conversation with McGrail about the present and future of one of the most successful regional sports networks in the country.

ONE for all

In recent weeks, NESN has trumpeted the arrival of ONE (Original NESN Entertainment). In truth, the network has always produced a host of original programs. The ONE concept puts it under a defined banner.

Says McGrail, ?We produce more original content than any regional sports network (RSN) in the country. We cannot be all things to all people, but we have to produce a product that our audience will like. All of our shows have to be local. We are a one-stop network for New England sports fans.?

ONE is also a sign that NESN is looking for new programming. ?It signals outside providers about our initiatives,? says McGrail, a Northeastern and Boston University grad who has been with NESN for 22 years.

?We produce a lot of shows in house, but we are also open to buying shows or collaborating with outside producers.? Depending on the specific deal, NESN may provide equipment, facilities or talent to a given production.

While new programming ideas are welcome, airtime is somewhat limited. Says McGrail, ?Right now, we produce 230 professional sporting events a year along with 50 high profile collegiate games. In addition we cover Boston College, the Beanpot and Hockey East, which adds up to another 80 games.

?We have maybe 50 days a year of prime time space. The goal is to find local content that will make the viewer tune in earlier and stay later. Our goal over the next three years is to air 100% independently produced programming that appeals to all of the New England states.?

Team game

Since its inception in 1984, NESN has been the cable network of the Boston Bruins and Boston Red Sox. Today, it is the sole carrier for both teams? entire schedules. While studio shows and other programming add to the flavor of NESN, the Bruins and Red Sox remain the foundation for the network.

While the Red Sox recent success has been a ratings windfall for NESN, the struggling Bruins have presented a challenge. Says McGrail, ?Hockey is a helmet sport. We want to bring the Bruins to the audience and make them more accessible.

?Programs like (the reality series) ?Be a Bruin,? ?The Buzz? (hosted by Hazel Mae) and ?Rubber Biscuit? (hosted by Rob Simpson) give us opportunities to showcase players on the ice and in the community.?

Last season?s ?Bruins All Access? hosted by Jillian Nathan and Kelly Barons was not renewed for this season, but McGrail hopes his new Bruins offerings will rekindle the hockey flame in New England.

?In the 1970s, the Bruins were bigger than life,? he states. ?They had the highest TV audience of any pro sports team. They were getting 30 shares at a time when there were just a few stations in Boston.

?In 2003-04, the Bruins averaged a solid 11 household rating for their final 2 playoff games, then the lockout happened.? To put these numbers in perspective, the highest rated Red Sox game ever on NESN scored a 22.3 or 535,200 households.

?The Bruins are going to win,? says McGrail, a native of Worcester. ? They are committed to winning. There is a potential giant audience out there. All they need is one good season.?

The Red Sox have given NESN a lot more than just one good season. The team?s consistent contention and rousing World Championship in 2004 are the primary reasons for the network?s ascension to the top of the Boston sports scene.

Says McGrail, ?It is a generational allegiance. I talked to cable operators in the 1980s and 1990s trying to explain the phenomenon of the Red Sox. It ?s like nothing that regional television has ever seen. The passion here is second to none.?

It?s that passion that forces NESN to eschew all forms of pro-Red Sox bias. While you won?t find any harsh or biting criticism of the team on NESN, the hosts and analysts do discuss performance with objectivity. NESN benefits from the overriding climate of the so-called Red Sox Nation, which seems to wince at any strong criticism of the team.

Says McGrail, ?We don?t believe in going after off-field stuff, but if you are not objective, fans won?t take you seriously. Our viewers are so intelligent and that is an advantage for us. We have never told our talent, ?Don? t talk about that.? Everything that happens on the field is fair game.?

On May 1, 2006, NESN scored its highest household rating (22.3 or 535,200 households) for any event in history for the Yankees-Red Sox game featuring Johnny Damon?s return to Boston. NESN beat the YES Network?s coverage of the same game by over 3 ratings points. Postgame coverage also set new records.

In addition, NESN was the highest rated regional sports network in baseball for the third straight season scoring a 10.6 average household rating for Red Sox broadcasts in the Boston market, nearly 20% better than the second highest rated regional network (Fox Sports Midwest in St. Louis).

Want more numbers? NESN?s Red Sox coverage was the top rated program in Boston 83 times in 2006. This means that 55% of NESN?s game broadcasts beat every primetime show on every major broadcast and cable network in the Boston market.

McGrail gives much credit to the Red Sox ownership group headed by John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino. ?They are totally focused on winning the World Series over and over again. They have also been committed to changing the fan experience at the game and at home.

?High definition television (Hi def) is part of that overhaul. They have supported us with increased pregame and postgame programming, as well as Hi def. They have also brought a business mindset to NESN and an expansive view of the network.?

McGrail points to 2000 as a transitional year for NESN. He states, ?We looked at the business and focused on enhancing our distribution. That led to us going to basic cable putting us in 95% of New England homes.

?We also expanded the program lineup and put more resources into making it second to none. Our competition isn?t the Celtics or FSN. It?s everyone on that dial. We have to drive people to our content.?

Lineup card

In the past few years, the talent roster at NESN has undergone some key changes. The recently re-signed Tom Caron , a three-time Emmy winner, has emerged as the lead host for Red Sox pregame and postgame shows.

In 11 years at NESN, Caron has been a Bruins studio host, play-by-play announcer for college hockey and Pawtucket Red Sox, host of ?SportsPlus? and other NESN programs.

Dennis Eckersley has solidified himself as the best baseball studio analyst in the business. While Eckersley shares analyst duties with Jim Rice and Gary DiSarcina, Don Orsillo no longer shares Red Sox play-by-play duties with Sean McDonough. Following the 2004 season, Orsillo became the team?s sole announcer.

Orsillo?s booth partner, Jerry Remy, has become a multimedia giant and cult hero. He is an author (Watching Baseball), Internet icon (, local and national television and radio star and 2006 Red Sox Hall of Fame inductee.

This past year, NESN hired Tina Cervasio as Red Sox in-game reporter. The network recently let go freelance reporter/anchors Mike Perlow and Paul Devlin, and hired Kathryn Tappen as a full-time anchor/reporter.

Hazel Mae, who came to NESN in 2004 from Toronto, is the lead ? SportsDesk? anchor and host of various Red Sox and Bruins shows. She has carved a niche as one of Boston?s most popular sports personalities.

Says McGrail, ?I hired Hazel. I saw her tape and knew she?d be great. She is effervescent, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Hazel is a sports fan. She is the real deal and will be absolutely great in a few years. We were thrilled to re-sign her this year.?

With the arrivals of Mae, Tappen and Cervasio, all very attractive as well as talented women, it would be easy to say that NESN is subscribing to the ?sex sells? trend in sports broadcasting.

That would be a disservice to the trio. Mae, Tappen and Cervasio have brought professionalism and competence to NESN. They have all had striking debuts and should only get better.

Next week, Cervasio will be at baseball?s Winter Meetings providing reports for three live editions of ?Red Sox Hot Stove,? Monday at 6:00 p.m., and Tuesday and Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Tom Caron will host from NESN?s studios. It is the first time NESN has done live reports from the winter meetings.

Says McGrail, ?The sex sells thing is wrong. The volume of male to female hosts at NESN still favors the men. We have three women and over a dozen men. Before, it was 15 guys. We had no balance. I take credit for adding these women to our team. We should have more of a balance.?

McGrail is equally ebullient about the Remy and Orsillo tandem. ?Jerry is a regular guy and is very good at what he does. He approached broadcasting like baseball. He worked hard at it. Don has received more focus recently. They are a great team with a terrific creative thing going.?

Desk job

In 1989, McGrail recommended that NESN hire Amy Stone as the network?s first anchor for ?SportsDesk.? The production has evolved from an early morning capsule of sports news and highlights to a half-hour morning edition, a midday edition and a nightly sportscast.

?SportsDesk? is our core franchise along with the Red Sox and Bruins,? says McGrail. ?We continually invest in it. The show allows us to tell in-depth local stories and cover all of the local teams on site.

?We can go more in-depth that any other network can. This is a big opportunity for us and we have put more emphasis on the show over the last five years.?

When Mae arrived in 2004, ?SportsDesk? began its expanded nightly edition. ?With the emergence of Hazel, we have made significant changes to the show,? McGrail relates.

?It?s hard to say if we will add any future talent to the program. Since the show debuted, we have been able to give a deeper perspective than the daily sportscasts. Now we have added ?The Edge? to provide information at the bottom of the screen constantly. Everything we do is all about being more informed.?

John Molori's columns are published in The Boston Metro, Patriots Football Weekly,, Boston Sports Review, Boston Baseball Magazine, Methuen Life,,,,, and Email John at [email protected]