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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.”

Jay Mariotti

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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“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?

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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.’’

Barrett Blogs

BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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BSM Podcast

Media Noise: What Does The Return of Bob Iger Mean to ESPN?

Demetri Ravanos

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Demetri Ravanos has questions about Disney going back to the future with Bob Iger. This entire episode of Media Noise is all about what the change at the top of the Walt Disney Company indicates about the future of ESPN.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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Barrett Blogs

Mina Kimes, Bruce Gilbert, Mitch Rosen, and Stacey Kauffman Join the 2023 BSM Summit

“By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference.”

Jason Barrett

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The 2023 BSM Summit is returning to Los Angeles on March 21-22, 2023, live from the Founders Club at the Galen Center at the campus of the University of Southern California. Information on tickets and hotel rooms can be found at BSMSummit.com.

We’ve previously announced sixteen participants for our upcoming show, and I’m excited today to confirm the additions of four more more smart, successful professionals to be part of the event. Before I do that, I’d like to thank The Volume for signing on as our Badge sponsor, the Motor Racing Network for securing the gift bag sponsorship, and Bonneville International for coming on board as a Session sponsor. We do have some opportunities available but things are moving fast this year, so if you’re interested in being involved, email Stephanie Eads at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com.

Now let’s talk about a few of the speaker additions for the show.

First, I am thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Mina Kimes to the Summit for her first appearance. Mina and I had the pleasure recently of connecting on a podcast (go listen to it) and I’ve been a fan of her work for years. Her intellect, wit, football acumen, and likeability have served her well on television, podcasts, and in print. She’s excelled as an analyst on NFL Live and Rams preseason football games, as a former host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and her appearances on Around The Horn and previously on Highly Questionable and the Dan Le Batard Show were always entertaining. I’m looking forward to having Mina join FS1’s Joy Taylor and ESPN LA 710 PD Amanda Brown for an insightful conversation about the industry.

Next is another newcomer. I’m looking forward to having Audacy San Francisco and Sacramento Regional Vice President Stacey Kauffman in the building for our 2023 show. In addition to overseeing a number of music brands, Stacey also oversees a dominant news/talk outlet, and two sports radio brands. Among them are my former station 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, and ESPN 1320 in Sacramento. I’m looking forward to having her participate in our GM panel with Good Karma’s Sam Pines, iHeart’s Don Martin, and led by Bonneville’s Executive Vice President Scott Sutherland.

From there, it’s time to welcome back two of the sharpest sports radio minds in the business. Bruce Gilbert is the SVP of Sports for Westwood One and Cumulus Media. He’s seen and done it all on the local and national level and anytime he’s in the room to share his programming knowledge with attendees, everyone leaves the room smarter. I’m anticipating another great conversation on the state of sports radio, which FOX Sports Radio VP of programming Scott Shapiro will be a part of.

Another student of the game and one of the top programmers in the format today is 670 The Score in Chicago PD, Mitch Rosen. The former Mark Chernoff Award recipient and recently appointed VP of the BetQL Network juggles managing a top 3 market sports brand while being charged with moving an emerging sports betting network forward. Count on Mr. Rosen to offer his insights and opinions during another of our branding and programming discussions.

By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference. My focus now is on finalizing our business and digital sessions, research, tech and sports betting panels, securing our locations and sponsorships for the After Party and Kickoff Party, plus working out the details for a few high-profile executive appearances and a couple of surprises.

For those looking to attend and save a few dollars on tickets, we’ll be holding a special Black Friday Sale this Friday November 25th. Just log on to BSMSummit.com that day to save $50 on individual tickets. In addition, thanks to the generosity of voice talent extraordinaire Steve Kamer, we’ll be giving away 10 tickets leading up to the conference. Stay tuned for details on the giveaway in the months ahead.

Still to come is an announcement about our special ticket rate for college students looking to attend the show and learn. We also do an annual contest for college kids to attend the event for free which I’m hoping to have ready in the next few weeks. It’s also likely we’ll give away a few tickets to industry professionals leading up to Christmas, so keep an eye out.

If you work in the sports media industry and value making connections, celebrating those who create an impact, and learning about the business from folks who have experienced success, failure, and everything in between, the Summit is worth your time. I’m excited to have Mina, Bruce, Mitch and Stacey join us for the show, and look forward to spending a few days with the industry’s best and brightest this March! Hope to see you there.

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