When reports started surfacing a week ago that the Clippers were fixing to fire Bruce Bowen after only one season as the game analyst on their Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket telecasts, a confusing array of semaphore red flag signals came with it.
Technically, as pointed out in the initial story by ESPN’s ever-reliable Adrian Wojnarowski, the Clippers were “withholding approval” over a contract extension for Bowen, a former San Antonio Spurs star who had been working on a let’s-see-how-this-goes basis.
In vetting whether to bring Bowen back as Ralph Lawler’s broadcast partner, the Clippers were said to not be pleased by his stipulation to miss several games because of family commitments in San Antonio. Other people questioned his lack of TV energy.
Then Bowen did a Sirius XM radio interview in a late June, in which he said unflattering things about former Spurs teammate Kawhi Leonard.
Bad timing there.
The Clippers believe they have a legitimate shot of landing Leonard as a free agent next summer. A team executive strongly felt Bowen’s presence could damage their chances. So that was the apparent deal breaker.
Immediate media blowback branded the Clippers as oversensitive and insecure, which remains a talking point for the professional opinionists to hammer upon and dip in melted butter as they adjust their lobster bibs.
But there was also this interesting yet glaring technicality: Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket actually hired Bowen for this job in the first place. How then could the Clippers fire him?
Don’t let semantics get in the way of a good narrative.
In most cases, the team employs the broadcasting talent — control the messenger, the thinking goes, control the message. Even though that wasn’t the setup with the Clippers, what happened with Bowen illustrates what can happen when one partner is trying to keep the other happy.
The Clippers continue to make overtures of starting their own sort of off-shoot regional channel. FSW/PT, which has seen the Dodgers, Lakers, Sparks and Galaxy defect, could agree to take this financial burden off the Clippers’ plate in exchange for a reduced rights fee.
If the perception is that the broadcaster works for the regional channel, he or she should be able to be more impartial, uphold some vision of journalistic standards. Bowen believed that to be the case.
But with more and more money at stake in how a team’s brand is valued, there is more gray area left to a team wanting more of what Southern California viewers aren’t much used to — a “homer” mentality, often not so well disguised.
“The reality is, we think of this as an editorial matter, a separation of church and state, but in the case of announcers on a local team broadcast, it’s a different animal,” said Ed Desser, an L.A.-based sports media consultant who worked on the Lakers’ and Dodgers’ broadcasting deals. “Announcers on a local telecast are not really like those on a national network. They are really simpatico with the team. So in general, it isn’t about who pays them. It’s who they are working for and under what guise.”
Bowen was a broadcast analyst for ESPN before he moved to the Clippers. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but last week on Dan Patrick’s radio show he said that “there are listeners out there who want to see what I’m saying. Is he just a homer or is someone telling the truth about the game that he loves?”
Patrick replied: “I think the difference is, and you found this out the hard way: You can be critical, do your job as an analyst on ESPN, but you can’t do that in a local market.”
Today’s media world exposes more of the core conflict of interests broadcasters have to wrestle with, even more so with social media exposing personal biases. The conflict doesn’t always have to end in a public relations nightmare. Sometimes, it’s a teachable moment: that just because one is paid by whomever to provide honest opinions, it doesn’t mean one should always provide honest opinions.
Bowen can get sympathy and a scolding at the same time. He has every right to talk, with consequences. The Clippers, and FSW/PT, have every right to curtail his employment, with reasonable explanation. To date, neither the Clippers nor FSW/PT have commented publicly — and don’t intend to either.
Now the Clippers have to move quickly, with FSW/PT’s industry guidance, to reach an agreement on a replacement for Bowen, who came in after a decision last summer to let go of Mike Smith after his run of nearly 20 years in the organization as a broadcaster.
Longtime Clippers pre- and post-game analyst Don MacLean, who stepped in for Bowen at times last season, would be the most comfortable fit to rejoin Lawler, who enters his 40th season with the organization. Another former Clipper, Brent Barry, has been floated.
Or the job could go to a woman — former Sparks and USC star Lisa Leslie might have been a candidate, but she is already committed to doing a 40-game package with the Orlando Magic for Fox Sports.
For whoever gets the job, now would be the time to clean up social media accounts, sidestep TMZ guerrilla interviews and double check all references — personal, professional and otherwise.