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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. 

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Sports TV’s Star Era is Over, So What is Stephen A. Smith Worth Now at ESPN?

“The future is about meeting your audience’s needs on demand and putting a focus on what it is audiences will pay a premium to see. I don’t think that describes studio debate shows.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stephen A. Smith
Courtesy: Evan Angelastro, GQ

What is ESPN paying Pat McAfee? The exact figure is disputed, but it’s believed that he signed a contract for $85 million last year. The network writes a $17 million check to Troy Aikman every year and another $10 million check for his Monday Night Football partner Joe Buck.

That is a lot of money already tied up in talent. It seems like ESPN is about to agree to another staggering dollar figure to keep Stephen A. Smith on the payroll. But I have a question.

Why are we doing this? Why is an eight-figure annual salary for any single person a good investment? 

ESPN’s corporate parent, The Walt Disney Company, has said over and over again that they are trying to build a media company for the future. It’s why Star Wars is a streaming-only property for the time being and why Hulu is being folded into Disney+. 

The future is about meeting your audience’s needs on demand and putting a focus on what it is audiences will pay a premium to see. I don’t think that describes studio debate shows.

Jimmy Pitaro had an idea when he took over ESPN. He wanted to give more money to fewer people and put the network’s biggest stars everywhere he could fit them. It’s why Smith was on First Take and NBA Countdown and had a show on ESPN+. It’s why Mike Greenberg had Get Up, NBA Countdown and a radio show. When Pitaro was first laying the foundations for his tenure atop ESPN, the idea made a lot of sense. 

Now though, it’s time for the strategy to be re-thought, particularly as Pitaro and his boss Bob Iger lay out the reasons why it makes sense for the network to offer its audience so many different approaches to its digital future.

The star era of sports television is over. Just ask FS1 and Skip Bayless

When the biggest names and most recognizable faces at ESPN were Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, and Stuart Scott, we turned on ESPN to see what they would do and hear what they would say. To hear those talents tell it though, that was a time when ESPN was afraid to lean into its stars and instead tried to hammer home that no SportsCenter anchor was bigger than the show itself. There were a lot of steps that got us from that reality to this one, but each one made the talking heads matter a little less. Now, the only things that move the needle for the audience in a way that matters to the people at the top of Disney are games.

It started with the rapid growth of cable, then came the internet. That gave birth first to blogs, then YouTube and then to podcasting. We didn’t have to wait for Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon at 5:30 anymore. We could get access to whatever opinion we wanted any time we wanted it.

From there, it kicked into overdrive. Streaming TV became common in most homes. Sports betting was legalized in states all over the country. The Covid-19 pandemic shut down the sports world. Streaming viewership grew to the point that it overtook traditional television.

Advertisers have been paying attention to all of it and what it all means. Look at FOX News, which has been dominant in primetime on cable. The median age of the audience for those shows is 69. That means half of the people watching are 70 or over. It’s why commercials for catheters and reverse mortgages fill so much of the network’s ad time. That’s not just true for FOX News. It’s a problem for just about every traditional TV network. 

ESPN’s median viewer age is 48 and according to one study, nearly 40% of its audience is over 55. That’s still a valuable audience to advertisers, but remember that linear TV viewership isn’t popular with young people at all. Those people are not going to turn 48 and suddenly get a craving for a cable cord or satellite box. Many of them won’t even look into streaming tv packages like YouTubeTV, HuluTV, or Fubo. 

The one exception is live games. ESPN’s median age isn’t significantly lower than FOX News’s because of Smith or McAfee. It’s because of Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL and college football. The future value of ESPN is being able to offer all those leagues and games to viewers without forcing them to pay a cable or satellite bill.

First Take is well-constructed. Stephen A. Smith’s comments and antics on the show get spoofed by Saturday Night Live and draw a reaction from Jon Stewart. He has made the show a cultural touchstone. PTI and Around the Horn have both stood the test of time, in their 23rd and 22nd years on the network respectively. Those shows have performed at or above expectations for multiple decades, but I don’t think that guarantees they will be around forever.

What if ESPN wanted to take those games from smaller college conferences and international leagues that currently air on ESPN+ and put them on the main network instead? As we move to full availability of ESPN without a cable or satellite contract, the network could take advantage of America’s desire to bet by airing games throughout the majority of the day’s 24 hours. Integrate ESPNBet capabilities into the presentation, and you certainly have a more profitable product.

I could see myself watching a game in a league I am unfamiliar with and maybe even putting a little money on it if ESPN utilized the Pat McAfee Show crew. I’m not a huge fan of their college football broadcasts, because that’s my favorite sport and I want to watch the game, but if you’re telling me we’re all watching a soccer game from France’s Serie B and they are telling me what in-game bets they like, I just may participate. Degenerates can convince other degenerates to bet on anything if the vibe is right! The problem is that I don’t know how much of that McAfee can do and I don’t know many other ESPN talents that have that kind of equity with their audience.

Don’t judge Smith solely on recent weeks. It’s a short period when he has come off as really unlikable, but it’s part of a much larger career that has shown you over and over again that he knows how to attract and connect with an audience. Having him is a win for any network. But is it a win that’s worth an annual salary of 15 or 20 million dollars? I don’t think it is.

Stephen A. Smith has goals he wants to accomplish. There are new realities in the media business and ESPN needs to be ready to adapt. If the age of the star pundit on television is over, I’m not sure a long and expensive contract makes sense for either side.

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Seller to Seller: John Goforth, Magellan AI

“I love hiring people to do job A so they are ready to do job B in six months and that’s always been a really successful tactic for me as well.”

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Graphic for a seller to seller feature with John Goforth of Magellan AI

John Goforth is in his fifth year as Chief Revenue Officer at Magellan AI, a podcast advertising analytics platform. In his ‘previous life,’ Goforth spent more than a dozen years selling and managing in radio, with a heavy emphasis in sports.

After stops at KMOX, KFNS and 101 ESPN in St. Louis, Goforth was recruited to ESPN Chicago and later took over as Local Sales Manager for 670 The Score and 93XRT. When he looks back at his time with those stations and companies, he thinks about how much he enjoyed the creativity involved in the business. His success, he believes, came from his work ethic and building great relationships with clients who he would work tirelessly for to create engaging advertising campaigns he knew would drive results.

But Goforth also saw the declining revenue of traditional media and saw the opportunity in the podcast space. So, since 2016, Goforth’s sales life has revolved around podcasting.

Magellan AI has software which continuously monitors 40,000 advertisers across 50,000 podcasts. They work with publishers, ad agencies and brands and some have referred to the company as “the Google of podcasting.”

Goforth had previously worked with Magellan AI as Senior Vice President of Sales at HowStuffWorks, he was their first subscriber. “It’s so much easier to sell an advertiser who is already engaged in the podcast ecosystem than someone who isn’t,” Goforth told BSM in 2022. “I always wanted it to be someone else’s job to convince them that podcasts were the right channel. I just want to find the people that have already embraced the channel and convince them my content was good content to try.

“Sellers use us to understand the marketplace – who’s spending, what genres are they accelerating in, where are they pulling back, how much money are they spending and what their competitive field and industries look like.”

For example, Magellan AI data can tell you that in the month of April, Better Help spent nearly $7.7 million in podcast advertising, Amazon spent nearly $5.5 million. It can also tell you that Toyota was the top spending auto dealer in podcasting for the month and that 7 of the top 15 spenders in the month of April spent the most in sports.

When asked about the current state of the podcast industry and the knowledge people have of the industry, Goforth said, “The industry is evolving…the big learning curve for everyone is getting past the idea that Dynamic Ad Insertion (DAI) is bad, that DAI is equal to programmatic. DAI is the way in which an ad is served, it has nothing to do with the ad style. Programmatic is a way in which to buy ads.

“So, we’re past downloads and impressions and what is a pre-roll a mid-roll and a post-roll and now it’s on to what type of inventory are we selling and who’s selling it.”

Goforth said if 2020 and 2021 were the years of the content acquisition wars, right now is the era of inventory acquisition wars for podcasting. “I don’t think companies care so much about being able to say ‘we are the exclusive provider of this podcast, and we are the only ones with access to this inventory.’ That still exists…but as more brand awareness gets involved, it’s really important to be able to offer scale.”

Sports has been a big part of Goforth’s career from his days selling St. Louis Cardinals Radio on KMOX to being part of a brand-new FM sports station in St. Louis at 101 ESPN, to managing sports sales in one of the top markets in the country. He said for podcasting, there are a couple reasons why sports content does so well.

“Sports is a great gateway drug,” he said. “A lot of brands that are newer to podcasts are comfortable with sports and sports content. If they have to go explain something to their bosses, they’re never going to get in trouble for saying they bought sports…By and large, sports feels safe to traditional marketers. The other thing that goes along with that is the proliferation of sports gambling. Sports gambling is, in some ways, funding sports media.”

One area that is no different for Goforth in the software business from the media business is having to recruit and train salespeople if you are going to be successful. He said he has used different strategies in the past but has come back to one of the simpler strategies when it comes to hiring sellers.

“It’s one of the most challenging pieces of running a monetization business, finding the people that can actually go do it. I’ve evolved over the years, I’ve had lots of different philosophies and theories…and ultimately, I’ve circled around to the philosophy of Malcolm Gladwell…the concept is, recruiting is hard enough and no matter what you do, you are going to get it wrong 50% of the time. So, don’t overthink it, follow your gut. Thats been the most successful path for me. Do I like this person? Would I want to have a beer with this person? Do they seem intelligent?

“I don’t subscribe to the ‘check the box’ theory…If I am hiring a podcast seller, it’s less interesting to me if you have sold podcasts. If everything else is great, I can teach you that part. Are you smart? Do you have that motor, that drive? Thats the one thing that is non-negotiable, the internal motor. I want to hire adults to be adults. I don’t want to have to check in on them and micromanage. I just want them to tell me when they need something and be supportive of them. I want to hire smart, competent people to do their job and if they need training, I give it to them. Thats been the most successful thing for me.”

Much like Brian Schneekloth from Beasley Media Group Boston talked about in this space previously, Goforth is a big believer in growing your sales bench internally. “I love hiring people to do job A, so they are ready to do job B in six months and that’s always been a really successful tactic for me as well.”

Whether it has been driving revenue selling sports media or driving revenue selling software to help others build podcast revenue, John Goforth is finding success and staying at the top of his game.

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Gary Myers Continues His Storied Career Covering the NFL

“If I knew I was going to be this happy writing books and working as a consultant on other projects, I would have gotten out of the newspaper business a long time before then.”

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Screengrab of author Gary Myers
Screengrab: Big Blue View

In the world of sports media, things are certainly a lot different today than they were five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago and thirty years ago.  For Gary Myers, a veteran of 8 years covering the Dallas Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News and 29 years as an NFL columnist for the New York Daily News, staying involved with covering football these days meant transitioning into something different.

Myers has been working on various projects including writing books and consulting on a documentary about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

“It was a pretty long newspaper career,” said Myers who left the Daily News in 2018.  “It was a really good time to get out of there because unfortunately the Daily News is just not what it used to be.”

Myers’ most recent book is titled “Once a Giant” and chronicles the 1986 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.  He is also working on a book that examines the same subject as the documentary that he is working on…who was the bigger reason for the New England Patriots’ dynasty?

Bill Belichick or Tom Brady?

“I think people’s opinions have gotten skewed by the fact that Tom went to Tampa and won a Super Bowl in his first year there and Belichick made the playoffs once in four years without Tom,” said Myers.   “I would say my end evaluation is 60-40 Brady but it’s not 80-20 and some people think it’s 90-10.  Somebody had to draft the kid.” 

Speaking of Tom Brady, the future Hall of Fame quarterback is set to take his talents to the Fox NFL broadcast booth this season teaming with Kevin Burkhardt on the network’s top team.  While some are questioning just how committed Brady is to the job and how good he will be on television, Myers is convinced that Brady will be a star on TV.

Myers wrote a book about Brady and Peyton Manning back in 2015 and was able to spend a lot of time with Brady.

“Tom was very cooperative and gracious with me,” said Myers.  “He’s a genuinely good guy who I think is really bright.  He’s very well-spoken and eloquent.  I think he’s going to be great on TV.  People are going to be looking for him to fail and I think they’re going to be disappointed because I think he’s going to be very good at this.” 

In addition to being an NFL writer and columnist during his career, Myers was also the NFL insider for HBO’s “Inside The NFL” from 1989 to 2001.  Today, writers who have been NFL insiders on TV include the likes of Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport.  Back in the day, it was Myers who followed in the footsteps of the legendary Will McDonough.

Even though he has transitioned away from his legendary newspaper career, Myers has been able to stay connected to covering football.  With the way that the newspaper business has changed, the writing was on the wall that it was time to step away and find another way to cover the NFL.

Myers was not ready to call it a career.

“I still have way too much energy to retire,” said Myers.  “I’m taking advantage of what I call my institutional knowledge and put it to another way of using it.  If I knew I was going to be this happy writing books and working as a consultant on other projects, I would have gotten out of the newspaper business a long time before then.”

When Myers was writing books while also working full-time for the Daily News, he had to find a way and the time to juggle both responsibilities.  In the case of “Once A Giant”, he spent two years just working on the book and on a subject that meant a lot to him.

And he was able to put a lot of TLC into it without having to divide any time with a newspaper life.

“It is the best book I’ve ever written,” said Myers.  “I was incredibly passionate about the subject.  It’s all I was working on for two years.  I didn’t take on any other projects.”

While Myers has transitioned into books and other projects, the newspaper scene in New York City, as well as many other markets around the country, continues to descend.  When Myers was with the Daily News, he felt that his employer had the gold standard when it came to covering sports in the Big Apple.

Today, Myers laments what the Daily News now is and gives credit to his once bitter rival, the New York Post, for continuing to do things the right way. 

“They (the New York Post) are the only newspaper, in this area at least, that are still approaching it like it’s 1985 in terms of the resources that they put into covering sports,” said Myers.  “They still send five people to the Super Bowl.  The Daily News is a shell of what it used to be. That’s sad to me.”

The role of NFL beat writers and columnists continue to evolve because the access has changed significantly.  When Myers covered the Dallas Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News, there was always a plethora of players available for him to talk to and that left him with a good problem to have when he went back to the press room to work.

“The hardest decision I had to make when I left the locker room was which story do I want to write because I had about ten in my notebook,” said Myers. 

Fast forward to today and things have changed for reporters.

Many times, there are only a handful of players in the locker room during media access periods and that restricts the ability of the writers to create relationships with the players and get exclusive stories.

What you have now are the same reporters going up to the same players at the same time.

“I am convinced that if the NFL had its way and the teams had their way, the only people that would be covering the teams now would be the teams’ website, the teams’ video department and they would grant access to the network partners to come in before the games,” said Myers.  “They don’t need newspapers anymore and they don’t need local radio stations.  It’s just different.  The day-to-day media is no longer a priority to the teams.”

And that is a big reason why Gary Myers is enjoying the new chapter of his storied career covering the NFL.  He doesn’t have to worry about the day-to-day grind of covering a team because he’s made the very successful transition to writing books and finding other ways to tell stories about the National Football League.

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