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Chicago Media Enjoys The Last Dance As Much As You Do

“Covering the Bulls in the ’90s provided a full buffet of stories for sportswriters. Drama, conflict, triumph…never a dull moment.”

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I can’t get enough. I need more and I need it now. Forget that, WE need more and WE need it now.

ESPN’s The Last Dance has been a savior during this COVID-19 pandemic. I’m craving sports and action, and the 10-part documentary directed by Jason Hehir is delivering big time. It’s been a ratings winner for the network (last week’s episodes averaged 5.9 million viewers in the time slot) and its certainly been filling a void, left by the suspension of live sports. 

For me, growing up in Chicago and actually covering parts (back up reporter for a Chicago radio station) of the last 3 Bulls Championships, it’s been a fun trip down memory lane. I’m into it. I was on my couch last Sunday yelling things at the TV, when the director took us back to the Bulls/Pistons Eastern Conference Finals in 1991. I can’t tell you exactly what I was screaming, but suffice it to say, it felt like I was watching this event live for the second time.

The behind the scenes access is unprecedented. Michael Jordan dealing with Dennis Rodman’s request for an in-season vacation was priceless in the moment and after the fact. All the subplots to that entire era of Bulls basketball are covered. It’s a sports fan’s dream to be taken behind that curtain to experience what those that were there experienced first-hand. 

Fortunately for me, I’ve remained friends with many of those TV, radio and newspaper reporters and thought, I wondered what they think of all of this. Is it accurate? Is it fun to look back? Just what was the circus like? 

To answer the latter, I posed that question to 3 guys that were there for every bounce of the ball and every media scrum. David Schuster, a Chicago sports veteran, was working for ESPN at the time of what Phil Jackson dubbed “the Last Dance.”

“It was crazy for sure but I loved every minute of it.  How could you not? We were on the front lines of some of the best sports history ever”, says Schuster. “Being a basketball junkie only made it that much better. I said it then and have said it ever since that Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete I’ll ever hope to be around and I saw him from the best seat in the house almost every game.” 

Fred Mitchell is a fixture in Chicago media as well, working for the Chicago Tribune for decades. He sums it all up pretty simply. “Covering the Bulls in the ’90s provided a full buffet of stories for sportswriters. Drama, conflict, triumph…never a dull moment.”

Chris Boden is another veteran of the Chicago sports scene, having worked in radio and television at the time. He was there, representing CBS Radio and TV. He marveled at the sheer size of the media gatherings each and every night in 1997-98.

“Covering the team was nuts. You see a wide shot of Michael’s postgame scrums at home.  That’s what it was like for EVERY home game, several years leading up to that particular season,” says Boden. “I believe it’d take him 30-45 minutes after every game to get treatment, shower, & fully, impeccably dressed. His locker was just outside the door to the shower/training area, so with the mass of humanity crowded into that space, positioning was key.  You had to be ready to attach the mic to a pole if you weren’t within arm’s reach.  Practices weren’t quite that busy, but you’d occasionally have to jockey for position.”

I remember at times literally hanging out in the empty locker to one side of Jordan to have one hand on my microphone and one on the clothes rod in the empty stall. Occasionally, I’d get that look from him. I’m sure I looked a bit foolish, but I had to get the audio. I wish I knew what he was actually thinking. 

Sometimes documentaries don’t exactly live up to the advanced hype. Once in a while the outcome of the video is arranged in a way that the point is missed. This is not the case with The Last Dance.

“I think the documentary has been fantastic and has become must watch television. I envision numerous Emmy’s on the horizon”, says Schuster. “As one who was on the front lines of the entire Bulls dynasty it is so much fun to re-live it again but also nice to see some footage of things that we were not privy to at the time.” 

Boden agrees, “I’ve been really impressed. They’ve circled back to some of the details in the bigger storylines I’d completely forgotten about.” Boden continued, “though I and other sports media may be familiar with the ‘back stories’ they flash back & flash forward to, at times I’m looking for them to get on with the main story since we’ve heard it before.”

Boden thinks this documentary will serve a young crowd well. “I have to remind myself that there’s an entire generation that never saw Michael during his playing career, and the highlights prove to those 20-and-unders that he’d be just as great in today’s game.”

Chris Boden (sports reporter) - Wikipedia

All three members of my media panel agree, that the director is portraying things correctly. 

“To my best recollection, the documentary is accurately portraying facts and sentiments of that time period,” says Mitchell.

Boden is on board too, “I think it’s an accurate portrayal.  I don’t remember this all-access, behind-the-scenes, season-long filming going on for this eventual purpose,” he said. “The fact that the footage is proof and they got EVERYONE to talk confirms it’s an accurate portrayal.”

It got me wondering when Boden mentioned how the ESPN crew got everyone to talk, if this was the “norm” for everyday on the Bulls beat.  Mitchell may have summed it up best: “Michael Jordan was perhaps the most accessible superstar athlete I encountered during my 41-year career at the Chicago Tribune.”

Schuster echoed the sentiment, “I thought he was a super star both on and off the court. He would be available to the media after every game for a ridiculous amount of time. Wave after wave of reporters would ask the same questions and he would answer them all. Pippen was also pretty good but didn’t go through as much as Jordan.” 

Dennis Rodman presented his own challenges to the media covering the team. “Interviewing Dennis Rodman usually meant walking briskly alongside him with a horde of other reporters as he headed out of the United Center en route to a night on the town,” recalled Mitchell.

Tribune sportswriter Fred Mitchell ending 'terrific run'

Schuster remembers that walk down the hallway, “The reporters would have to walk backwards and try and keep up with his pace. I felt like Michael Jackson doing the moon walk”.

Boden felt bad for the cameramen trying to get to Rodman for the newscasts. “It required cameramen to walk backwards if you wanted to see his face, and while some were better at it than others, there would be an occasional tumble.”

Sometimes in sports, you get too close to the situation to actually appreciate what you are experiencing. It is a job after all. With the magnitude of what the Bulls did in the 90’s I wondered if my media panel is enjoying the look back through the lens of the ESPN documentary. 

“At times, so many games, athletes and events become a blur in the moment. Given the benefit of time and perspective,” waxed Mitchell.  “This documentary neatly packages those memories in an organized video scrapbook.” 

Schuster is enjoying the look back. “It’s great fun and I constantly am looking to see if I can find myself in one of the reporter’s scrums or sitting at court side but mostly it’s just fun to re-live the greatest sports dynasty I’ll ever witness personally.”

Boden appreciates the comfortable seat in which he’s watching the documentary from, after being in the epicenter of the live drama. “It’s almost like an ‘I Survived The Last Dance Circus.’  There was never a shortage of storylines but being & staying on top of it all, covering all the bases as best as you could (especially when it came to Rodman), was a grind,” he says. “But at the same time, you realized you were covering Jordan, the bid for a second three-peat, and that’s what you want to do when you sign up for this career.  And amidst whatever frustration you might feel from time to time, you know there are thousands of others in the business who’d love to be in your shoes.”

It was a special time to be covering a special team for these media veterans. By all accounts the folks behind The Last Dance are getting the job done, telling the stories within the stories to shed some new light on the team.

The Last Dance' Episodes 3 and 4: The Jazz show up, Rodman goes ...

I keep asking, is it Sunday yet? I can’t wait for Episodes 5 and 6. 

BSM Writers

The Best Defense Against An Ornery Subject Is A Good Question

With the right question, a reporter never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role.

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Screen cap from @timandfriends on Twitter

A question should be constructed to get the best answer possible.

This was the guideline I learned as a newspaper reporter, which makes sense. You don’t hear the questions in a story. You don’t usually read them. The questions operate off-stage, the unseen lever that pries out the good stuff from the subject.

The dynamic changes when the interview is conducted in public, though. I learned this first-hand when I transitioned from reporter to radio host in 2013. Suddenly, my questions were part of the content being consumed. This is increasingly becoming the reality for anyone covering pro sports now. Not only have the press conferences themselves become a part of actual sports programming, but those press conferences are increasingly the only access to professional athletes, given post-pandemic locker-room restrictions.

But any time I start to think that it’s important to consider how a question sounds to the audience, instead of focusing on the answer it gets from the subject, I will inevitably be reminded of where that thinking leads. This week, it was Jim Matheson, a veteran Canadian hockey reporter in Canada, confronting the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl over being non-cooperative. 

On the one hand, this kind of tension has existed for decades in pro sports. It’s inevitable, really, that the people paid to play the games will at times be at odds with the people paid to critique their performance. The difference now, as Ian Casselberry pointed out here at BSM yesterday, is that the tension is increasingly visible. 

Personally, I love these moments. Seeing someone get sensitive in public is catnip to my shallow sensibilities. But professionally, there is something to be learned here by going back to the question that started each impasse. Let’s start with Matheson.

“Lots of reasons for why the Oilers are playing the way they are, in terms of winning and losing,” Matheson said. “What do you think is the number one reason for the losses now? Is there one thing, in your own mind, that you’re saying, ‘We’ve got to get better at that’?”

It’s a bad question for two reasons, the first being that it is actually two questions. “Double-barreled” is the term used by John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist, an absolute prince of a man, and an unrivaled expert in improving interview skills. In two days, John taught me more about good interview tactics than I’ve learned in 20 years of weekend workshops and workday brownbags. This won’t be the last time I mention him in my posts here at BSM.

The best piece of advice John offers is also the easiest to institute and provides the most immediate results: Ask one question. Just one. If you add a second question — either out of nervousness or because you try to phrase it better — it will confuse even a cooperative subject. If you have an uncooperative subject, it provides an out. An opportunity to answer the less difficult question and then stare right back at you to indicate it’s your turn.

That is exactly what happened to Matheson. Here was Draisaitl’s response: “Yeah, we have to get better at everything.”

Matheson asked if Draisaitl was willing to expand; Draisaitl was not, adding a sarcastic aside that Matheson could add to it because he knew everything. Jameson then asked Draisaitl why he was so “pissy.”

“Hmmmm,” Draisaitl said, raising his eyebrows as if he hadn’t heard.

“Why are you so pissy?”

“I’m not,” Draisaitl said. “I’m just answering your–” at which point he was cut off by Matheson.

“Yeah, you are,” Matheson said. “Every time I ask a question.”

Now, it’s likely that Draisaitl’s issue has nothing to do with the question Matheson asked. It’s possible that no question Matheson asked was going to get a good answer. But because that question was poorly constructed, it left Matheson cornered into the choice of accepting Draisaitl’s terrible answer to his poor question or creating a confrontation. He chose the latter, and while I don’t think it was wrong, per se, or crossed any lines, Matheson looked like the aggressor. And I suspect that will be the last piece of useful content he ever receives from Draisaitl.

This is the point where my column was initially going to end. Then I saw Ian’s post, which included an exchange between Gary Washburn, a reporter at the Boston Globe, and Celtics guard Dennis Schroder, who was every bit as uncooperative as Draisaitl. It provides the perfect example to see how a better question changed the nature of the impasse.

Let’s go to Washburn’s first question: “Dennis, in Philly, you had one point, but the game before in Indiana, you had 23. It seems like you’ve been up-and-down a little bit. Are you starting to feel comfortable? You had the COVID protocol, you had a lot of things happen this week, are you starting to feel a little bit of comfort in the offense?”

Washburn’s question wasn’t perfect. There are technically two queries, though I’d argue he really just restated his question about being comfortable. It was also a yes-no question, which doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a question that seeks an answer about how or why something has occurred. I’m nitpicking, though. The strength of this question was revealed when Schroeder bristled.

Schroeder: You with us or you with Philly?

Washburn: No, I’m just asking.

Schroeder: You with Boston? You work for us?

Washburn: I cover the Celtics. I’m just asking if you’re feeling any more comfortable over the last couple games.

Schroeder: It’s just a stupid question.

Washburn: My fault. Are you feeling any more comfortable? How did you feel like you played today?

Schroeder: Not good enough for you, huh?

Washburn: No. I’m asking about the bounce back.

Schroeder: We won, so that’s all that matters. I’m a team player, so end of the day if I’ve got 40 points or one point and win the game, I’m going to be happy with it. So end of the day, I’m a team player, trying to win some games. And in Philly, we didn’t come out right, we played right, and that’s it.

Washburn: Thank you.

At no point in that back-and-forth does Washburn have to do anything other than restate his question: Are you feeling more comfortable? Schroeder has the choice whether to answer it, and ultimately talks around the quesrion without addressing it.

Washburn never has to say he was dissatisfied with the answer or call out Schroeder for being uncooperative. He never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role. He’s courteous and even accepts responsibility for a question Schroeder doesn’t like. In the end, Schroeder’s defensiveness speaks for itself. And that is important given how many people are now watching not just the answers that athletes provide, but the hearing and in some cases seeing the questions that provoke them

When Ian wrote about these situations on Thursday, he concluded with a very poignant observation: “Tensions are now out in the open, when they might have previously happened in a corner, away from everyone’s attention. And when these dialogues become public, people feel the need to take sides with the reporter or the athlete. Which side you’re on as a fan likely depends on your perception of the media.”

He’s absolutely right, but I would provide one addition to that. A well-constructed question is your best defense against not only an ornery subject, but also those audience members predisposed to blaming you for antagonizing the athlete. 

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BSM Writers

What is The Next Evolution For Nickelodeon And The NFL?

“The NFL and Nickelodeon are a perfect marriage. An expanded package of games is the ideal next step.”

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No matter how you look at the results, the NFL has hit a home run with a playoff game getting kid friendly packaging on Nickelodeon each of the last two seasons. Parents are watching with their kids, it’s driving an online conversation, and the league is letting a creative group of people have fun.

The NFL Playoffs on Nickelodeon work! So what do you do when something works?

You start to think about what the next step is. Those are conversations both the NFL and CBS/Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, should be having.

To me, the next step for the NFL is pretty obvious. Give us a package of kid-friendly games during the season.

It doesn’t have to be a full 18-weeks, but think of it like ET with Reese’s Pieces. If the idea is that you are using the caché of Nickelodeon characters and graphics to get kids to watch football, doesn’t it benefit you to do that, or something like it, five or six more times during the season? Isn’t that the trail of Reese’s Pieces that could get the little ETs watching football more regularly?

It could be a revenue generator too. Something like the kid-friendly NFL package really does seem tailor-made for a bidding war. After all, every streaming service needs content. You could absolutely see the NFL going to Disney to see if they wanted to counter with something Marvel or Star Wars themed, right?

I think it would be a mistake to put this package of games on the open market. CBS has assembled the right duo in Noah Eagle and Nate Burleson and Nickelodeon has created the right aesthetic for the game. It is goofy. I enjoy watching Patrick Star’s face go from concerned to elated when a kick goes through the uprights just as much as my kids do. I don’t know that I would be as invested in trying to defeat Thanos with football or whatever the counter would be.

Photos & Memes: Nickelodeon's NFL Broadcast Returns, Hilarity Ensues

Make it worth CBS/Viacom’s to up their spend. Take care of the company’s other TV properties somehow. Give them priority for the next Super Bowl bidding.

I don’t know the exact right answer. What I know is the NFL has a GREAT thing here and it should be focused on cultivating it.

So that brings us to the next obvious question: what is the next evolution of this model for CBS and Nickelodeon?

Oh man, some of y’all are gonna hate this shit!

PUT SLIME ON EVERYTHING!

I am serious! Give me a kid-friendly version of The Final Four. Dump slime on the winner of The Masters. Every week the SEC is on CBS, have Young Sheldon pop up to explain to the audience what a bag man is.

Obviously, I am giving you the extreme version of the plan, but you get the gist, right? We just ran a guest piece from Joe Ovies that discussed how leagues are learning to meet the needs of younger fans. Well, here is a chance to do that with the help of a network partner.

Golf is looking for a way to bring back the fans that used to tune in on Sundays to see Tiger Woods close out a big win. It is a shame The Masters is the least likely to let CBS and Nickelodeon help, because it is the event that could use it the most.

CBS is way more likely to get the cooperation of the NCAA Tournament. You would probably have to limit Nick’s involvement to the Final Four, or even just the Championship game, but it would be worth it. Basketball is popular with kids. Those games are played in cavernous domes with plenty of space for an extra broadcast crew. Plus, the players are young enough to be excited about a project like that.

Broadcasting and sports are both built on innovation. When an idea comes along that can truly change the trajectory of how business is done, you have to embrace it. That is what we are looking at here.

The NFL and Nickelodeon are a perfect marriage. An expanded package of games is the ideal next step. If the NFL isn’t interested though, CBS/Viacom cannot let this thing go to waste. It has created something sports-loving parents can do and watch with their kids that aren’t entertained by competition alone. That describes most kids now.

One side, hopefully both, recognize that this is a chance to invest in their respective futures. Not every kid-targeted game or broadcast can look the same, but you have a proof of concept. You know your formula works.

Now get out there and do more of it!

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BSM Writers

Five Down and Dirty Ideas For Gaining Radio Sales Advantage

Tie into the local team and have two ads ready to go. One if they lose and one if they win.

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VaynerSports

Sometimes, salespeople need a new twist on an old idea to close the deal with a client. Here are five bold, down and dirty, ideas to beat out the competition and stand out in your market:

1. Sell an endorsement

Make sure you sell the sponsorship in 13, 26, or 52-week increments. There is no way you want to burn your talent on a category because the client didn’t run long enough.

Start selling spring advertisers right now. Patios, pools, and landscaping makeovers. Maybe sell an advertiser on a community makeover for a prominent retired community person and have the on-air person lead the effort. Sell a crypto or NFT sponsorship to a host and let them learn all about it on the air.

Make sure the talent also posts on social for the client.

2. Update your copy!

Sell copy changes as a benefit to the client. Tie into the local team and have two ads ready to go. One if they lose and one if they win. Your traffic person will hate you, but it can happen!

Produce bad weather spots now. Insert them at a moment’s notice. Buy your traffic person dinner because they will have to re-con the logs. So what. Think “in the moment.” Your listeners do that and it’s the best way to relate to them.

3. Do you have several car dealers, heating and cooling, roofing, or restaurants on the air?

Help them stand out on the station by branding them on weather, traffic, or top-of-hour IDs. This is a great way to pound the advertiser into the listener’s consciousness and separate them for the pack. Consider bonusing them the IDs if they committed to an annual.

4. Sell some NIL

If you have a famous college athlete in your market and a local NIL deal, suggest adding a radio campaign. Dr. Pepper did it. Or sell one to a local sports bar and have the player go there after the game and do an appearance on your post-game show on site.

This concept works well when sold with your CHR or New Rock stations. The rules have changed and you can do a lot more now. Schools, in some cities, are even more than willing to help you! They are doing anything to show other recruits how much love they will get in their town.

5. Super Bowl bet

Get two non-competing advertisers to take sides for the big game coming up. Set it up so if one team wins, listeners get a discount and vice versa. A Heating and cooling guy vs. a plumber could work well. You know how to say “Big Game,” “green and gold” for Green Bay, and the “red team” for Kansas City.

Just find the clients who care about the game. See if your shows would let them do a call-in. Let them cut up a bit and give them some promos, make them part of the Super Bowl hype.

If one of these doesn’t work, sell like Tom Brady.

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