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Is the NFL Ready for the Future of Sports Media?

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If you’re an NFL fan, chances are you have heard the name Mark Leibovich a lot this offseason. He is the author of the new book Big Game, in which some of the most powerful men in the league talk about its success, future plans, and petty feuds.

Leibovich has covered politics for the New York Times since 2006. He wrote a very similar book about Washington’s power players in 2013 called This Town. He originally wanted to call that book The Way it Works in Suck Up City. It should be obvious that no one comes off looking good.

So how did Mark Leibovich get owners in the image-obsessed NFL to open up to him? Well, the answer could rest in something I once heard SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey say. “Part of my job is to make people comfortable. A reporter’s job is to make people we want to talk to feel comfortable enough to open up to us.”

It could also be as simple as Bryan Curtis’s description of NFL owners in an interview with Leibovich that appeared at The Ringer. They are attracted to power, and politics is power, so in a way, having Leibovich interested in their world validates their feeling that the NFL and its owners are some of the most powerful people in America.

I spoke with Leibovich last week. There is a lot of salacious stuff in the book, and Leibovich holds none of it back, but this is a sports media website. If you want to read that, buy Big Game. I had three things I wanted to ask Leibovich about the NFL’s relationship with its media partners.

1. DOES THE NFL HAVE A PLAN OR EVEN A VISION OF WHAT ITS MEDIA FUTURE IS?

“Yeah, make as much money as possible in the current or next broadcast contract,” Leibovich says. I laugh. He doesn’t. “I mean, I’m serious.”

Leibovich says that he never got a sense that the NFL was any good at thinking and planning for the long term. He says that it starts with the owners, who he describes as “just overwhelmingly old,” but it doesn’t stop there.

“You have no sense that that Roger Goodell even thinks that much about it because he too has very short term goals, and that’s to please the owners who themselves just want, you know, want bigger revenues every year.”

He does heap some praise on NFL Network CEO and Vice President of Media for the league Brian Rolapp. Leibovich describes him as one of the few people in the NFL league office that “seems to get Silicon Valley, seems to get technology, seems to get social media.” He also gives Rolapp credit for forging relationships with Amazon and Twitter.

Given the League’s struggles in adapting to an ever-changing media landscape, I asked Mark if Brian Rolapp had a role similar to the one that Mark Cuban took on for himself when he first became a member of the NBA ownership fraternity. Does Brian Rolapp see modernizing the NFL’s media presence and broadcasting relationships as his primary responsibility?

“Well, yeah, I don’t think Rolapp has that power necessarily over the owners,” Leibovich answers. “So I mean, I think what the NFL desperately needs is either a Mark Cuban, or even better, like a half a dozen Mark Cubans or someone who will break glass and someone who gets the internet. They need someone who is younger, who just is driven by more than just a parochial interest of how his team does and how much money he makes.” Leibovich went on to say that the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, David Tepper, seems capable of filling that role.

I asked him if outside entities have tried to steer the NFL in any direction at all? After all, now that DirecTV is owned by AT&T and AT&T is in the process of acquiring platforms that will allow it to be the first option for both the cord cutters and the corded, has that company used its control of the Sunday Ticket package to try and open the door to being a partner and guiding hand for the NFL?

“I’m sure they have. I mean, I not privy to any of these conversations. They’re a huge stakeholder. I’m sure the NFL has to listen to them…I’d be shocked if they didn’t.”

2. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE LEAGUE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ESPN?

The first time I ever realized that the NFL has seriously butt heads with ESPN on occasion was when I read James Andrew Miller’s Those Guys Have All the Fun. In that book, Miller makes it clear that there were people at ESPN that believed the NFL made their network pay a higher price for the Monday Night Football package, one that doesn’t include a Super Bowl, because of the way the journalistic side of ESPN covered the lasting effects of player head injuries.

I asked Leibovich if Roger Goodell or anyone else at the NFL specifically spoke with any animosity or frustration when it came to talking about ESPN.

“Um, you know, it’s funny. I haven’t heard them talk about ESPN per se…Actually that’s not true. I’ve heard definitely heard the Patriots talk about ESPN,” he said. That makes sense. “Tom Brady’s not guilty” has been the rallying cry of the Patriots’ fanbase since about 2015.

Leibovich did say that, while he had never heard owners openly talk about what they do and don’t want ESPN to cover, “it wouldn’t shock me if when ESPN was negotiating with the league the league said ‘Hey, by the way, remember we’re partners right?’. And that obviously carries all kinds of you know, whether it’s bullying or a strong hint, I mean, it’s definitely a message being sent.”

Telling ESPN what they want covered might not happen, but when I asked Leibovich about ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro’s comments about wanting to repair the network’s relationship with the NFL, he said it isn’t hard to believe that some owner(s) had at one point expressed their frustrations to Pitaro.

“So they care deeply about this stuff. I mean, it’s again very Trumpian. They keep score. They read everything about them, whether locally or nationally. I have no doubt whatsoever that Jimmy Pitaro said what he said it was in response probably to something explicit that either Roger Goodell or someone high up at the NFL or some owner said, because that’s a significant change in tune [for ESPN].”

So, wait a minute. Why do we hear about the NFL’s frustrations with ESPN and not Fox? I asked Leibovich how a company that is the broadcast home in some way of people like Clay Travis, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, all of whom have reveled at one point or another in the league’s declining ratings, has never been on the opposite end of a tisk-tisking by the NFL.

Leibovich said that NFL owners and the league office don’t view any culture war-esque linking of player protests to declining ratings as Fox acting on its own. “They are very unhappy with the president and insomuch as that he can be linked to Fox, I mean that’s going to be part of it,” he said.

Leibovich also said that his sense is that maybe Fox doesn’t care about the NFL’s feelings as much as Disney and ESPN do. “I mean, I don’t totally rule out the idea that this kind of unhappiness has been conveyed privately, but I also wouldn’t underestimate the spine and the power frankly in the levers that Fox has in these conversations. My sense is they don’t really care, and frankly as long as they’re writing a check, I mean they basically get the only vote that counts.”

You can be the most liberal, Fox-hating person on the planet. If you’re a broadcaster and reading that quote, there’s almost no way you don’t think “Right on, Fox!” to yourself.

3. HAS THE NFL CONSIDERED THAT MAYBE IT ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE BECAUSE FOOTBALL ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE?

Part of what made me interested in talking to Mark was the way he talked about the priorities of NFL owners on an episode of Pod Save America. Host Dan Pfeiffer asked if the League recognizes the inherent problem with a generation of parents that don’t want their sons playing football.

Leibovich echoed his comments on that show when I first asked him about the digital future of the League’s media rights. “They’re old. They think very much year to year.” When I asked about what kind of value team owners think their property will have in the long term, he told me that with the NFL, there is never really a long term. “I mean the whole future of the league thing means 10 years or 20 years out.”

What about the NBA? I asked Leibovich if the NFL would ever look to the NBA as a model of where they need to be going in the future, or if the NFL can even acknowledge that the NBA is a competitor that is nipping a little closer at football’s heels than it used to.

“That’s a good question. I mean the only context I’ve heard in the league is people high up in the league talk about the NBA from an owner’s level. There’s some kind of envy that they have a commissioner that seems to get it. And those are private owner conversations, but those conversations definitely exist and I have had them with multiple owners.

“The other part of it is just I think annoyance on the part of people like Roger Goodell that he has been often compared unfavorably to Adam Silver. I think he’s sick of hearing about Adam Silver this and Adam Silver that. I think, you know, maybe he recognizes Adam Silver as a commissioner who is in the midst of the honeymoon that Goodell himself enjoyed back in the first two years of the commissionership which kind of ended abruptly. So I would say that the context I’ve heard them talk about the NBA is they are purely less as competitors but more as, you know, upstarts. I mean, rivals to some degree and someone to be jealous of to some degree.”

Believe it or not, Mark Leibovich says there is actually reason to be optimistic for the NFL’s future. “I think I said this also [on Pod Save America], there are some very smart…I would say “number two’s” at some of the clubs.”

The problem is that older owners will have to retire or…let’s say “worse” for those number twos to get the kind of control they need to make a difference. “A lot of them are heirs to the owners. I mean Jonathan Kraft I would put, you know, number one two, or three. There’s Tony Kahn of Jacksonville and Kevin Demhoff with the Rams. They’re all super smart. But again, it’s basically the owners with the power.”

Big Game is an absolutely fantastic read. I highly recommend you invest some time in it. To read anything he has written or watch videos of any one of the hundreds of TV appearances he has made through the years, go to his website.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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grant cohn

Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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