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What’s Next For America’s Most Innovative Market?

“Like it’s market as a whole, the San Francisco sports media scene is objectively interesting, especially over the course of the 21st Century.”

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Bay Area.

It’s a little bit of a buzz word isn’t it?  “Buzz phrase” if you want to split hairs.  If you want to split atoms feel free to make the drive to Palo Alto and visit Stanford.

For as long as San Francisco’s sat on the southern edge of the Bay’s Golden Gate to the Pacific she’s been on the forefront of just about everything.  The cutting edge of American cultural, science and socio-economic development.  

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In that sense – especially over the last 20 years –  “Bay Area” refers to much more than a metropolitan area in Northern California.  Across the country the phrase pops up when discussing property value, tech news and most of all politics.  

Of course this isn’t a political piece – but it illustrates the point that in 2020, the San Francisco Bay Area remains as intriguing as it did when men and women from across the world flocked to the area to find their fortune in the nearby foothills in 1849.  Whether you like what’s going on here or not, just about everyone has an opinion.

Like it’s market as a whole, the San Francisco sports media scene is objectively interesting, especially over the course of the 21st Century.  The last 20 years has seen 4 sports franchises relocate with some fascinating changes in each team’s broadcast booth.  The market’s regional sports television network has been bought and rebranded 4 times since Y2K, and a number of legendary personalities have signed off for the last time paving the way for the next generation.

On the radio front, 2020 begins much like the century did – with KNBR on top.  The Sports Leader had a sports talk monopoly in town since 1990 when the station committed to the format.  As with any station in any market over 20 years, the programming schedule has seen a number of names come and go.  The one man who has stood tall through two decades, literally, is Tom Tolbert.  

Gary Radnich would be another name on the list if the Bay Area Radio Hall of Famer’s career lasted another 6 months or so.  Radnich stepped away from the microphone last summer after an illustrious career leaving an overwhelming gap in the station’s midday slot.  Fortunately – another household name in the Bay was available in Greg Papa.  

Twenty years ago Papa was in the broadcast booth for the Raiders.  During the Summer he was alongside Ray Fosse doing television for the A’s.  Today he’s still doing NFL games – for the 49ers.  Papa is wrapping up his first year with the red and gold after serving as the voice of the silver and black from 1997 to 2017.  It was January of 2019 when the veteran play by play man officially crossed the Bay to work for the Niners in what might be the most overlooked sports media story of the year.  

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KNBR might still be in the poll position, but their lead isn’t as comfortable as it was in 2000.  It was 2011 when 95.7 The Wolf switched formats to become The Game and KNBR’s first sports talk rival in the market.  From the jump, 95.7 placated to a fan base that felt alienated for years by KNBR – A’s/Raiders loyalists.  The startup station was able to lean on East Bay fans to find their footing in the market and battle their older, established brother down the road.  

Today, much like 2000, live rights is the most powerful weapon in the eternal ratings war – and The Game secured some heavy artillery when signing with the Warriors in 2016.

On the topic of broadcast rights, the Oakland A’s have become trend setters of sorts with their approach to coverage.  

2019 marked the launch of A’s Cast and it’s flagship show A’s Cast Live hosted by KNBR and 95.7 alum Chris Townsend.  The digital network has allowed the team to receive and analyze real time data from listeners in the Bay Area and beyond.  It’s been so successful, a number of teams around the league could be implementing similar networks very soon.  

Embracing the digital world has proven fruitful for the decision makers at NBC Sports Bay Area, especially in recent years.

Back in 2000, when “digital” was just an adjective for a wrist watch, the highlight show was king and Fox Sports Bay Area was happy to give regional sports fans their fix.  20 years and a few name changes later and NBC Sports Bay Area is adapting with the times and they have the attention of the rest of the country.

“The Outsiders,” with Drew Shiller and Grant Liffmann was launched several years ago.  The Warriors postgame show had no budget and was broadcast solely on Facebook Live – back when Facebook Live was a shiny new tool no one knew how to use.  Today, not only is “The Outsiders,” on linear television – but there’s NBC Regional Sports properties across the country who have used the same formula to support their own teams.  

Walk out of the NBCSBA newsroom, head to the elevator and go up one level and you’ll find the only independently owned conference network in America.  The PAC-12 Network launched in 2012 – and unlike Fox’s Big Ten Network in Chicago or ESPN’s SEC and ACC Networks – it’s owned by the league’s 12 schools. 

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It’s no secret revenue hasn’t been what commissioner Larry Scott and the universities had hoped for in the first 8 years, but the trajectory of the unprecedented P12N has been and will continue to be a sports media case study.  

As we stand on the ground floor of a new decade, it’s hard to imagine what the Bay Area market will look like in 2030.  One trend you can track without question, like rising rent prices in the city, is the migration to digital space.  How that space is filled is anyone’s guess – but those with the courage to explore and experiment will surely be rewarded.  At which point, the rest of the country will take notice.

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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