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The Virtual NFL Draft: Hope, Pandemic Porn, No Glitches

“Guest columnist Jay Mariotti says that after initially balking at the NFL deciding to hold its annual draft, he now cedes how the three-day affair is serving a purpose or two.”

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“Hope,’’ Roger Goodell said.

“Hope,’’ Trey Wingo said.

“Hope,’’ Peyton Manning said.

If hope were dope, and the countless mentions of it during the NFL’s first virtual draft could be channeled into medicine, we actually might have a cure for the coronavirus. It was immediately clear on Thursday night’s broadcasts that the league, pilloried here and beyond for insensitively continuing business amid a pandemic, wouldn’t begin choosing athletic talent until the real heroes were honored. As Harry Connick Jr. performed the national anthem from his home piano, a montage of images — doctors, nurses, first responders, police officers, firefighters — flashed across the ABC, ESPN and NFL Network feeds.

Well done.

A proper, necessary tone was established. The league wanted a message to resonate, firmly, that it understands its place amid our global health horror, making sure its primary motive — maintaining a 2020 continuum while hoping not to lose billions if next season is canceled — was a subdued blip in the ongoing carnage. Goodell could least afford to botch this fragile, historical moment after all the public storms that made him something of an American pariah — the concussion crisis, his handling of player conduct problems, the Colin Kaepernick protests. His league needed to do much, much better at a time when a country’s people are desperate for steady leadership.

The NFL succeeded. And so did Bristol, which somehow avoided the high potential for technological folly and unwatchable TV with a presentation free of major glitches, unless we’re counting a robotic Goodell bumbling a few times in a home basement out of “Wayne’s World.’’ A bunch of football men showed up, turned on their digital tools, showed off their kids, made their selections as draftees conveyed their appreciation, then returned to quarantine life with the rest of us. Joe Burrow is heading to Cincinnati, where even the Bengals couldn’t bungle the obvious. Tua Tagovailoa, broken body and all, is off to Miami, leaving Justin Herbert for the Los Angeles Chargers. Tampa Bay, with general manager Jason Licht high-fiving his children in his home office, snagged an offensive lineman to protect Tom Brady as he throws to Rob Gronkowski. (Did I just write that sentence?). The Raiders drafted playmaker Henry Ruggs III, who showed up in a bathrobe that works perfectly in Las Vegas, which also gets the 2022 draft, though Goodell announced it as the 2020 draft. Bill Belichick did not take a quarterback in Round One, but Green Bay did in Jordan Love, which might not inspire love from Aaron Rodgers. Adam Schefter managed some appearances, and Mel Kiper’s hair is still Mel Kiper’s hair in a pandemic.

“We will get through this together,’’ the commissioner told America, “and when we do, we will be here.’’

But, honestly, when on God’s Earth will that be?

With Scott Van Pelt as Mister Rogers, the bleeding American sports industry insists on trying to speak itself back into existence. Other than the NFL tribute, little mention is made inside this hermetically sealed playpen that the world is in unprecedented upheaval — the death toll continues to soar, stay-at-home protests could turn violent, states are playing Russian Roulette with a rush to reopen, and a second and more crippling coronavirus wave could arrive in, say, September, the fantasy date for the NFL and other leagues and events to resume. Or, as Mike Francesa calls it, “Sports Shangri-La.’’

Our games will be back soon!

Until, of course, they aren’t.

In this alternative universe, the draft carried on as an act of resilience, escapism, crisis guidance and primal-scream therapy. After initially balking at the Beavis-meets-Butthead audacity of such an exercise, I now cede how the three-day affair is serving a purpose or two. Yes, it temporarily soothes the souls of alienated humans who can’t function without sports, restless folks who’ve turned “The Last Dance’’ rehash of a 22-year-old NBA tragicomedy into some modern cinematic version of “The Godfather.’’ I get it: Fans and gamblers are freaking about the potential long-term absence of sports, just as sports media professionals are petrified that a virus-paralyzed world won’t need sports media. So even without the massive crowds, rowdy scene and on-stage dap bumps between Goodell and the chosen ones, the first (and hopefully last) remote draft quaiifies as pandemic porn.

But more than that, the NFL is striving to show America how to adapt and survive through unprecedented challenges. Defiantly, the league joined hands with its broadcast partners and dared to trudge through an IT jungle, blind-leaping into a hazy, frightening, post-Covid-19 future. Goodell pivoted to dabble in what will be a complex transformation of the U.S. workplace. To that end, the league and the broadcast production team — coming live from Bristol, not from the Vegas fountains of the Bellagio Hotel — risked a disastrous fallout from technical glitches and Zoom-bombing.

Bloopers! Cue the NFL Films folly music.

Admit it: We were hoping for some disarray, just to laugh a little. But other than a lengthy delayed reaction between Washington’s pick of Chase Young and the celebration of Young and his family, the broadcast proceeded without any discombobulation, a miracle given the complex circumstances. Guided by ESPN veteran Seth Markman, the production pulled off memorable scenes: Jerry Jones, rubbing in his wealth while embalmed in his $250 million yacht, in happy landline conversation with new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy before the pick of CeeDee Lamb, a receiver to help Dak Prescott; Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who has achieved little in the league, sprawled in a glass palace from the pages of Architectural Digest, while Belichick, the coaching G.O.A.T., drafts alone from an ordinary kitchen. And I hope none of the gigantic moose heads on the wall of Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings coach, ever fall as he walks past. Dave Gettleman, the Giants’ embattled GM, wore a mask while sitting alone at home. Goodell could be forgiven for being a bit loopy in his suburban New York home, talking to fans on a wall screen as if they were long, lost friends and starting the night with a joyful embrace of piped-in boobirds. “Wow, even the virtual boos are good,’’ he said. But if that’s our only gripe, damned if this wasn’t a triumph of broadcasting perseverance.

The entire show depended on the functionality of 180 video feeds wired into players, general managers, coaches and TV personnel in self-quarantine. The league mailed do-it-yourself camera kits to 58 top prospects to install at home, with detailed instructions and diagrams, and asked them to maintain social-distancing. Meanwhile, the 32 teams, banned from working facilities, replaced the usual packed war rooms with elaborate video-conferencing from the homes of key decision-makers. Hey, what could go wrong?

Can you say, spotty wi-fi? Dogs barking, babies crying, wives and children misplacing magnets on the kitchen draft board? Doorbells ringing with Amazon packages and pizza deliveries? Good thing “Tagovailoa’’ couldn’t be confused with “Herbert’’ over the cellphone … or could it? Days earlier, the league conducted a mock draft to address glitches and immediately encountered a malfunction with the first pick. Some league executives, ignoring Goodell’s edict to avoid any criticism of the newfangled draft, described the practice session as “chaos.’’ Think of the possibilities: Gamblers, reduced to Russian ping-pong matches to scratch their wagering itches, betting the over-under on how many test patterns ESPN posted. The Detroit Lions, concerned about a Detroit Lions kind of screwup, positioned their IT director inside a Winnebago outside general manager Bob Quinn’s home. Other GMs had walls ripped out of living areas. Chicago Bears fans, forever numb that Mitch Trubisky was drafted over Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson, were afraid not only about GM Ryan Pace but his wife, who unplugged one of his seven computer monitors while vacuuming earlier this week. (I know a Bears fan who thinks Mrs. Pace should make the picks).

And, hmmmm, what about the potential for hacking? Didn’t every team have to keep an eye on Belichick’s IT people?

But the NFL and ESPN did install a backup system, allowing an urgent audible to FaceTime if necessary. And teams invested in stronger wi-fi and cellphone connections while adding computers, video monitors and landlines. And somehow, it worked without ESPN having to flip fast to “the 46th annual Cherry Pit-Spitting Competition,’’ ABC switching to “Kids Say The Darndest Things’’ and the NFL Network auto-changing to “A Football Life.’’ Add the element of charity, with the draft serving as a virtual fundraiser for several causes, and, inexplicably, it came together. No snafus.

Hope.

The adrenaline rush of sports was back, sure to be reflected by the same massive ratings spikes generated last weekend by ESPN’s Michael Jordan-approved documentary series. And it will lead the industry’s wishful thinkers to assume the rest of the parade is around the corner, NBA and MLB and all the rest, ready to kickstart a sports revenue machine that annually produces more than $75 billion in the U.S. They don’t realize, sadly, that the streets will be as barren as before.

This is what happens when league owners and network executives who’ve lived kingpin lives for so long, accustomed to getting their way, suddenly are losing fortunes and seeing empires teeter. They join lost fans in pretending all will be fine when, surely by now, they realize they’re helpless and at the cruel mercy of a ghost until — all together now — herd immunity is achieved and/or a legitimate vaccine is developed, approved and mass-distributed, perhaps in 2021. Jones can’t power-play Covid-19. Mark Cuban can’t shout it down. Bob Kraft can’t massage it. Jerry Reinsdorf can’t dismantle it the way he wrecking-balled the Jordan dynasty. And President Trump, whose minimizing of the pandemic expands to pushing the sports envelope prematurely, can’t do a thing about his nighttime hardship: “… watching baseball games that are 14 years old.’’ As a New York Times headline thumped this week, “The Coronavirus Doesn’t Care When Sports Come Back.’’ They can brainstorm all they want about salvaging schedules within a Bio-dome culture, or empty stadiums. As long as the lives of athletes and their loved ones are at risk, and an entire season would end with one positive test among hundreds inside such a bubble, sports should be shut down. And why would anyone devote scarce resources and supplies to sports initiatives when they are desperately needed by hospitals and front liners?

“There’s going to be a myriad of factors you have to evaluate, and facts you have to know, even before you could contemplate something like a sequester or a quarantined group,” warned DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association. “We all want to be in a position to make sure we’re not doing anything for the sake of football that would unnecessarily endanger our greater community.”

With time on his hands, Smith found a book that is recommended reading for all: “The Great Influenza,’’ about the 1918-19 flu pandemic. “There was a lull in the outbreak and people thought it meant that it had somehow miraculously disappeared,’’ he said. “They only later found out that the virus mutated, that it came back in much stronger form.’’

It should surprise no one that sports, built on fairy tales, continues to float above the pandemic like a pipe dream. Gronk abandons retirement, wrestling, partying and hemp to join Brady in Tampa, another gut blow to the Patriot Way and another reason to miss the NFL if/when it doesn’t return until 2021. The Boston Red Sox are merely wrist-slapped for their role in baseball’s electronic sign-stealing scandal, more a byproduct of cronyism — owners John Henry and Tom Werner are protected in the sport’s inner sanctum, unlike Houston owner Jim Crane — than any assurance the Red Sox weren’t as crooked as the Astros. MLB continues to advance the delusion of squeezing in the 2020 season for “America’s sake,’’ though most of America no longer watches baseball on TV and an Orioles-Royals game sounds worse than actually contracting the virus. While NBA commissioner Adam Silver begins to express pessimism about resuming a season, the NHL skates on with July possibilities. Golf will resume in June without galleries — until a player tests positive because, uh, flights, hotels and rental cars provide virus obstacles. Will Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson be able to maintain social distance from Brady and Manning in their celebrity golf match? If so, such a TV event works, especially when charitable. I’m not so sure about dirt-track racing in South Dakota, a state without large-gatherings restrictions, where ticket sales are capped at 700 for an event this weekend. Aren’t we doing well with virtual NASCAR, where no one dies in the wrecks?

As a whole, sports continues to prioritize lost billions over common sense without asking athletes what they think; they’re the ones expected to assume health risks and abandon families. Without stadium revenues, leagues will ask players to accept lower salaries when, in fairness, the players deserve raises if they agree to such a fraught undertaking. Thus, aren’t we looking at labor standoffs, particularly in baseball, a troubled and scandal-ridden sport before the pandemic? And how greedy and petty do MLB owners look in refusing to issue refunds for “postponed’’ March and April dates, ignoring that almost 30 million Americans are unemployed?

But at least the NFL delivered an actual sports event in real time, floating optimism that includes the May release of the 2020 schedule … for a season unlikely to be played. “It’s hope for our fans, hope for our teams,’’ Goodell said. “It’s hope for our players, for these young men who are about to start their careers as prospects and players in the NFL. That’s what this is all about, and I think we need those diversions. I think we’ll be able to do that for three days, and then we’ll focus on the future immediately after.’’

There is no foreseeable future for sports. All you need to know is that ESPN analyst Todd McShay, set to appear as a draft-night panelist, couldn’t make the gig because he’s recovering from coronavirus. It isn’t overstating matters that the pandemic could lead to World War III. But for one night, a septuagenarian bro who moonlights as U.S. president could think life is returning to normal, when, as most know, normal is at the morgue with 200,000 bodies.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’

BSM Writers

Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content

Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.

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USA Today

When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.

“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.

Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:

1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”

2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.

The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.

I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.

Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”

There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.

First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.

The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.

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BSM Writers

The Client Just Said YES, Now What?

We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.

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One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!

We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.

When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.

They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.

A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 74

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This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.

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