Zulgad: Lack of televised games leave Wolves fans wanting more
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
After a multi-season run of irrelevance, the Minnesota Timberwolves have managed to work their way into the conscious of local sports fan with the additions of Ricky Rubio and coach Rick Adelman to a team that already included Kevin Love.
The Wolves' climb up the popularity scale has caused many fans to grumble about the fact that 15 of the team's 66 games this season aren't televised in the Twin Cities.
This included back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday against New Jersey and Houston that weren't shown on Fox Sports North, which is the only station carrying the Wolves this season.
Add those non-televised games to a list that includes Rubio's first start and the game after Kevin Love hit a last-second shot to beat the Clippers in Los Angeles.
If the Wolves end up making a run at a spot in the playoffs, the grumbling will grow much louder in April. Five of the team's final 10 games and four of the last eight aren't scheduled to be televised.
Ted Johnson, the Wolves' chief marketing officer, has been fielding many of the complaints about a television schedule that has caused some to buy the NBA League Pass or attend Timberwolves' viewing parties at various bars around town.
The Wolves are shown on the League Pass because the opposing team has the game on their television schedule.
"It was a bit of a challenging year," Johnson told "Judd & Phunn" on 1500 ESPN when asked about the situation. "When we sat down we were coming out of a lockout, we had about three weeks notice and by then, if you remember, FSN had already started to layer in all of their Wild games and all the other Gophers games and the other sort of content they have to get onto their station. Our agreement with FSN is for them to carry 50 games and they had to sort of layer it in on top of that."
Johnson said the Wolves have two seasons left on a multi-year contract they signed several years ago with Fox Sports North. The Twins and Wild have done deals with the network in recent years that shifted all of their games to that station, but Johnson said the Wolves have not purposely followed suit by not having any games on an over-the-air channel this season.
In the past, the team has had agreements with local stations such as Ch. 45 and Ch. 29. No deal was reached this season for games to be carried on one of those stations because of the lockout that wiped out the first portion of the year and caused schedules to have to be juggled.
"I think where we maybe had an opportunity to get more games on the air, we were not going to be able to do because of the lockout," Johnson said. "It's important to remember that last year we had 75 percent of our games broadcast, and that's really the same percentage this year.
"Fifty of those 66 games are going to be broadcast. It's about 75 percent of our games, which is generally where we have been historically."
Johnson points out that in 2003-04 when the Wolves made a run deep into the Western Conference playoffs that 12 regular-season games weren't shown.
"We have never broadcast all the games on TV," he said. "For some people that are just joining the fan club, that's sort of news to them and they are struggling with it."
The issue is that fans expectations when it comes to television are much different than they were nine seasons ago. The Twins and Fox Sports North learned this in recent years when the network took heat for not carrying several weekday afternoon games. Eventually they did begin to air several afternoon starts.
Johnson said the Wolves have had talks with an over-the-air station - meaning one that isn't only available on cable or satellite - about picking up a game or two in April.
"We won't know until later in March," if that will get done, Johnson said. "A lot of these conversations can take months and months and we know with the timeline we're accelerating them. But even so, there's a lot of issues to sort of work through. We probably won't be able to announce anything yet for another month, month and a half."
FSN also has launched a Plus-channel, creating the ability to carry two games at once. That means if the Twins or Wild already are scheduled to be on Fox Sports North, the Plus channel theoretically could air the Wolves.
Johnson said there haven't been any serious discussions about putting more Wolves games on the Plus-channel, something that would be fan friendly but not inexpensive.
As for why the Plus-channel wasn't considered an option when the Wolves were working with FSN to put together their 2011-12 television schedule, Johnson said the timing wasn't the greatest.
"As you can imagine, it's a lot of work to get this second channel up and running and they are trying to develop content and programming," he said. "So you end the lockout, they are throwing the 50 games on, and then it was more like a month later that they launched the Plus.
"I think they've just been really busy trying to get this second channel up and launched. We've had some cursory conversations, but nothing too serious yet (about adding games on it). But we certainly do plan on having those conversations."
Johnson acknowledged that the Wolves' contract with FSN even could be amended to put more games on at some point, but added, "typically you spend a long time, maybe upwards of a year or two, negotiating these deals, so it's hard to amend with a blink of an eye."
Don't be surprised if and when the Wolves do a new contract with FSN if that network does become the team's only home and there are far more than 50 games shown.
Johnson acknowledged that the Wolves' television ratings on FSN are "up significantly."
That comes as no surprise.
"This is kind of the double-edged sword," Johnson said of appreciating the fact people want to see the team but then having them angry more games aren't being shown. "We've been hearing from fans, we've been getting e-mails, texts and I've been busy on Twitter trying to answer questions. It's a good news, bad news situation. For those of us who have been around the team the last couple of years, I don't think anyone noticed when we weren't on TV."
Johnson, who started with the Wolves in 2003-04, has seen plenty of rough times during his tenure.
"It's somewhat surreal," he said of having a popular product. "My first year here I looked back and I thought, 'This is a pretty easy gig, I can live with this.' You just kind of open the doors and people are excited and people love you.
"The last eight years have been fairly trying for those of us here, and it maybe gives us a greater appreciation for the upward trajectory that we're on now and a greater appreciate for what's going on. But it's so fun, it's so exciting. It's a blast to come into work."
One of the most interesting storylines in the NFL this season has been to see how the tight end position continues to change.
Tight ends have been getting more athletic and versatile for several years, but this season it seems as if there are more tight ends than ever who are really hybrid players, a combination of a tight end and a wide receiver.
Think Green Bay's Jermichael Finley or New England's Rob Gronkowski.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman feels the change is due in part to the fact so many college teams now use the spread offense and so few college tight ends are used exclusively on the line of scrimmage.
"Some of these kids that we're talking about are almost big receivers," he said. "This tight end position has really evolved where you're looking at 245-, 255-, 260-pound kids that can drop their way into and out of coverage, that have natural ball instincts and awareness, that can catch. They are just becoming more and more athletic and I think that's due to how the colleges are using them."
The Vikings feel Kyle Rudolph is capable of maturing into this type of player and being used in a variety of ways. "We saw that last year with Kyle Rudolph when we selected him," in the second round, Spielman said. "Some of the unique things he can do from those positions."
Rudolph had 26 receptions for 249 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games as a rookie. The Vikings wanted Rudolph to improve his blocking and feel he has made strides in that area.
It won't be surprising if the team allows veteran Visanthe Shiancoe to walk as a free agent in March and makes Rudolph their top tight end next season.
As for what defenses will look to do to neutralize these big, fast tight ends, Spielman said: "When you're looking at it from the defensive side, you've got to look at some linebackers that are able to stop the run and have enough athletic skill or a strong safety type that can handle those types of athletes at the tight end position."
End of the Pro Bowl?
Given that the NFL's all-star game does solid television ratings, the assumption was the Pro Bowl wasn't going anywhere, even though it seemed to be a waste of time that was taken less than seriously by many players.
However, it appears after Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and many fans complained about the effort level in this season's game that commissioner Roger Goodell might be listening.
Appearing on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on Sunday on ESPN Radio, Goodell said the league needs to address the quality of the Pro Bowl and might even consider eliminating the game.
"I really didn't think that was the kind of football that we want to be demonstrating for our fans," Goodell said. "And you heard it from the fans. The fans were actively booing in the stands. They didn't like what they were seeing."
Goodell knows changes are needed. "We're either going to have to improve the quality of what we're doing in the Pro Bowl or consider other changes or even considering eliminating the game if that's the kind of quality game we're going to provide," he said.
Goodell has had discussions with the NFL Players Association about the situation.
The issue is that holding an all-star game in football makes little sense because no player is going to even come close to replicating what they go through for a regular-season game.
It's a good sign that Goodell understands his.
No all-star game in professional sports is all that interesting, but the Pro Bowl is the one that deserves to be eliminated. Name the teams and then don't hold the game. That's the answer.