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America Doesn’t Need Colin Kaepernick In The NFL

“America needs a racial reckoning but that doesn’t mean America needs Colin Kaepernick to play football.”

Jay Mariotti

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It might be easier to cure COVID-19 than separate politics from a Colin Kaepernick discussion. I will try anyway. The problem with signing him to an NFL roster, pointing him to the field as the avatar of social justice and letting him kneel as long as he damn well pleases — with Mark Bradford commissioned to paint history’s portrait — is what follows when the “Star-Spangled Banner’’ ends and he starts taking snaps.

At best, he is a serviceable quarterback.

At worst, he is a lousy quarterback, someone you wouldn’t draft on your fantasy team.

What legions of Kaepernick supporters conveniently forget, assuming many actually have seen him play, is that he hasn’t been the evolutionary, cover-of-GQ, freak-out-defensive-coordinators performer since, oh, 2013. And with his level of competence in doubt, not to mention his emotional and physical framework, common sense suggests that all 32 teams will — and should — continue to avoid him, knowing Kaepernick’s addition would create even more hysteria within a community than clubs were willing to absorb before the sickening police murder of George Floyd. Were he a failsafe difference-maker, by all means, give him a fair contract and watch him perhaps rally a franchise and a city as Hollywood writes the script. But face it, Kaepernick remains a wild, spinning-wheel risk who might show up at practice wearing socks with pigs dressed as police officers.

Do we want that as a nation? No. Even as ESPN abandons its stick-to-sports policy to accommodate fast-and-furious commentary on race, we cannot let race become our foremost sports event. And teams shouldn’t feel obligated to sign Kaepernick as a hurried response to our collective outrage and grief. The current push to return him to the NFL feels knee-jerk-like and impulsive. Yes, there is hell to pay in this country after the succession of hate killings, the unending pain of racial inequality and police brutality. But returning Kaepernick to football, much as it would be a symbolic triumph over unspeakable societal ills, doesn’t make things right in America.

Watch CBS This Morning: NFL star Malcolm Jenkins on racism - Full ...

“I still don’t think (the NFL has) gotten it right. Until they apologize, specifically, to Colin Kaepernick, or assign him to a team, I don’t think that they will end up on the right side of history,” said NFL veteran and Players Coalition co-founder Malcolm Jenkins, speaking for black America on CBS. “At the end of the day, they’ve listened to their players, they’ve donated money, they’ve created an Inspire Change platform; they’ve tried to do things up to this point. But it’s been one player in particular that they have ignored and not acknowledged, and that’s Colin Kaepernick.”

Apologize? A question: Which free agent would I prefer, Cam Newton or Kaepernick? Newton, as most would agree. Of course, amid an explosive and defining moment in time, leagues and teams should aspire to any right side of history, but that isn’t realistic in this case. Aren’t owners trying to win a Super Bowl for cities that use tax money to build stadiums and fans who purchase season tickets? Or are we supposed to ignore that the NFL is a $15-billion-per-year industry wrapped around the ideal of clutching a championship trophy in February? In that vein, does anyone honestly see Kaepernick doing much more in the league than standing on a sideline in a ball cap? Such a sight only would further infuriate his advocates, figuring the NFL and his team still were punishing him for launching the peaceful kneeling protests that changed the world.

The grotesque Floyd visuals, followed by a landmark video featuring Patrick Mahomes and numerous star players, forced a sudden, dubious about-face from commissioner Roger Goodell in his weakest blindspot: relations with African-American players. Now, the NFL “condemns racism and the systematic oppression of black people.’’ Now, the league “was wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourages all players to speak out and peacefully protest.’’ Now, “We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter.’’ So how does that translate to Kaepernick signing with a team before the 2020 season, if and when it takes place?

And why should it translate? Because the Rev. Al Sharpton says so? At Floyd’s funeral in Houston, Sharpton not only delivered the eulogy but demanded the NFL give Kaepernick a job — in the same speech. “It’s nice to see some people change their minds. The head of the NFL said, `Yeah, maybe we was wrong. Football players — maybe they did have the right to peacefully protest.’ Well, don’t apologize. Give Colin Kaepernick a job back,’’ preached Sharpton, commanding a standing ovation.

The Rev. Al Sharpton remembers George Floyd as an 'ordinary ...

“Don’t come with some empty apology, take a man’s livelihood, strip a man down of his talents and four years later, when the whole world is marching, all of a sudden you go and do a FaceTime talking about (you’re) sorry. Minimizing the value of our lives. Your sorry, then repay the damage you did to the career you stood down. Because when Colin took a knee, he took it for the families in this building. And we don’t want an apology. We want him repaired.”

We all hear Sharpton. Yet I wish he was sitting with me in various NFL press boxes during Kaepernick’s second-to-last season in the league, when I covered him as a San Francisco columnist. The experience was unwatchable, so wretched that he was mercifully replaced by BLAINE GABBERT. Even as one who suffered Steve Stenstrom, Moses Moreno, Henry Burris, Craig Krenzel, Cade McNown and Jonathan Quinn as starters in Chicago — poet Carl Sandburg should have called it the City Of Weak Shoulders — the 2015 Kaepernick debacle was the ugliest QB stretch I’ve seen. He improved the following season, but not enough to impress the new 49ers’ braintrust of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, who chose to release him two years before they established undeniable credibility by reaching the Super Bowl.

Does anyone remember this? Rather, does anyone want to remember this? Well, you should. Because it’s not nearly as simple as crying racism and concluding that every franchise has blackballed Kaepernick. Unless I was asleep the day his name was placed in the same breath as “`Hall of Fame,’’ we’re talking about a guy who wouldn’t start for most teams right now and would want a truckload of money to be a backup; he demanded $20 million per season, you might recall, from the now-defunct Alliance of American Football. And while he can’t be faulted for inactivity, the fact remains he hasn’t taken a snap since the 2016 season and will be 33 in November. All you need to know is the first sentence of his Wikipedia bio: “Colin Rand Kaepernick is an American civil rights activist and American football quarterback …’’

Activism first, then football.

The proper order in 2020.

Nor can it be ignored that late last year, the NFL attempted to arrange the unprecedented: an in-season tryout for Kaepernick. The idea was hatched by the famed rapper Jay-Z, Goodell’s new social justice advisor. All teams were invited to an on-field workout and interview at the Atlanta Falcons’ facility, but Kaepernick’s camp was suspicious — why was it scheduled on a Saturday, as general managers and personnel directors were preparing for Sunday games, instead of a Tuesday off-day? A half-hour before the tryout, he abruptly left the site — he said he didn’t trust the private nature of the workout or a league liability waiver — and forced scouts and media to drive more than an hour to a high school field, where he conducted a public session for the eight evaluators who showed up. The others went to the airport, wanting no part of the circus.

Wide receiver from Colin Kaepernick's workout gets an NFL tryout ...

“I’ve been ready for three years. I’ve been denied for three years,” Kaepernick said afterward. “We are waiting for 32 owners, 32 teams and Roger Goodell to stop running. Stop running from the truth, stop running from the people. We are ready to play. We are ready to go anywhere.”

In the process, he shunned the basic protocol for any job-seeker: At least respect the process of those doing the hiring, or they won’t hire you. Said the league’s most powerful owner, Jerry Jones: “That situation probably from the get-go had a lot more that wasn’t about football involved in it, and consequently we got the results of that dynamic.”

Yet the Kaepernick defenders ramble on, aware that it’s the popular and woke approach to take. Said late-night host Jimmy Fallon: “The NFL feels so badly that they’re this close to scheduling another fake workout for Colin Kaepernick. Here’s a fun fact: I just said Colin Kaepernick’s name one more time than Roger Goodell did.”

Difficult as it is to compartmentalize race, Kaepernick remains a football issue. Others who have kneeled on NFL sidelines — including his partner in San Francisco, Eric Reid — have continued to make sizable league salaries because they’ve been more reliable and relevant at their positions than Kaepernick had been at his. He also is a victim of the role he plays as a quarterback — face of the franchise, most important berth on the team — and how that is conflated by his status as the most visible civil rights activist of his time. He’ll never stop being Colin Kaepernick, the peaceful kneeler, and whatever upside there is to signing him — the scant chance he might reclaim stardom — is weighed down by owners fearful that a Kaepernick media frenzy would swallow their teams whole.

Taking a knee' gains new meaning for George Floyd protesters ...

As we’ve seen, sports owners will sign ex-cons if they can help win championships. Kaepernick is one of the proudest Americans of his time, but there’s no assurance he wants to play football as much as advance his much larger platform as a historic martyr. I remember chatting with him, in a group of writers, weeks before his abysmal 49ers season. Unprompted, out of nowhere, he said he didn’t need to play football, that his life would be fine without it. That proved to be true, and I must ask, why should that change now?

America needs a racial reckoning. That doesn’t mean America needs Colin Kaepernick to play football.

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I Love ‘The Dynasty’ AND I Hate the New England Patriots

In the end, the real reason I am writing this column is to encourage content creators to keep doing these sorts of shows. Keep them coming.

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Bill Belichick picture with the graphic for The Dynasty documentary
Courtesy: Apple TV+

I have a confession to make to start out this week’s column. When I first saw the previews for ‘The Dynasty’ on Apple TV+ about the New England Patriots, I threw up a little in my mouth. No way was I going to dedicate any of my precious time to watching a series about Belichick’s cheaters.

I was born and raised in St. Louis. You might be familiar – middle of the country, have that arch thing and yep, two-time losers of NFL franchises. So, if you think YOU hate the Patriots, imagine being me.

In February of 2002, I was doing on-air work with KFNS in St. Louis, co-hosting morning drive and doing football shows on the weekends. I had also been doing play-by-play for a local basketball team and traveled with them, so when it came time to decide who would get to travel to the Super Bowl and who had to stay back, I drew the short straw and stayed.

Financially, this was actually a great deal for me. Pretty much all the other hosts got to go to New Orleans and our sales team had sold a ton of remotes for the days leading up to the game. I recall doing a remote that Saturday morning from a closed business, being rented by someone just to sell merchandise. You know the typical remote setup of a table and two folding chairs? This had no second chair and no table. I believe we were getting power from the business next door.

Then came game day. The Rams were favored by 14 points. I did the pregame show from a packed bar and had several of our other hosts on live from New Orleans. The atmosphere was incredible. If you knew St. Louis pro football history up until this point, you would understand why everyone was in complete disbelief that in a few hours, the Rams – a team from St. Louis – was going to win its second Super Bowl in three years.

Then, the game happened. Instead of the Rams being labeled as a “dynasty,” it was the Patriots and Tom Brady who were being celebrated.

And I still had to do a postgame show. Live from an emptying bar with no atmosphere in it whatsoever. My cohorts scheduled to join me down in Louisiana were of little help. One of them had lost his voice during the game and the other was too despondent to say much.

Then spygate, deflategate, a couple of dynasties, and as I said, I hate the New England Patriots with a passion.

However, when ‘The Dynasty’ came out and I saw the comments being made about it on X and heard several sports radio stations mentioning it, and realized how much I love good storytelling, especially when it has to do with sports and hearing the behind-the-scenes stuff that was going on. So, I decided I would watch it, but I would “hate watch” it. You know, fully prepared to dump all over it and not enjoy it, but see it so I know what others are talking about.

I wrote not that long ago about the NASCAR show on Netflix. It truly inspired me to at least have an interest in what is happening in racing as I am now aware of more of the drivers, and their stories, than ever before.

Similarly, with ‘The Dynasty’ you get a better feel for what was going on with the Patriots from the beginning. Bill Belichick was who he was and pretty much didn’t change. That guy you saw at the press conferences who avoided as many questions as he answered, that’s just him. He is a football coach, he cares about football. His focus is on winning the next game and he doesn’t really care what your agenda is.

He might put on a suit for your cameras, but he isn’t talking about topics he doesn’t want to discuss. He isn’t going to “play the game” and say things just to give out a sound bite. If he is willing to talk on a subject, he gives you his honest answers in short sentences. He saw coaching his team as his job and didn’t really feel the need to talk any more than he had to about most things. I believe when analyzing games becomes Belichick’s job, he will be really good at hard-core, nuts and bolts football talk.

On the other hand, I am wathcing Tom Brady and realizing he could really be special as a football analyst. He reminds me more of Kurt Warner than I thought, in that he is so good at talking about and explaining football. He isn’t doing it from a place of ‘Hey, look at me, I won all of these rings, I am the expert on this stuff.’ He is talking to the audience and saying what he feels in a very natural way. But, there is a lot of passion behind what he is saying and that is a good thing. You can tell he absolutely loves the game.

The more I watch Brady I also think about how much he must really want to do analyst work and be great at it. Why else would he do it? He can do anything he wants to do, go anywhere he wants to go, be with pretty much anyone he wants to be with. And, you automatically know that somewhere between 40-50% of the people are going to be nasty to you just for doing it.

In the end, the real reason I am writing this column is to encourage content creators to keep doing these sorts of shows. Keep them coming. The NASCAR one was great. I am getting in to the F1 racing show, which started several years ago. The shows about the Lakers, especially the HBO show, Winning Time, were fantastic. Apple’s Lionel Messi one was another that was really well done. ‘Full Swing’ and ‘Quarterback’ from Netflix were excellent. Netflix announced recently there will be one on the downfall of the Montreal Expos that I can’t wait for. Inject these in my veins. Give me all of them!

I love this era we are in when it comes to content. So much so, I will even watch when it’s about a team that I absolutely hate.

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The Best Thing I Heard This Week

I love podcasts. I love the industry because it is all based around listener choice. What is it you want to dive into? There’s a podcast for that.

Sports media is of course of great interest to me and the national guys who do sports media podcasts really do an excellent job. I will miss the Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast, which Sports Business Journal and the New York Post had been doing. I look forward to seeing what, if anything, might happen in the podcast space now that Andrew Marchand has moved to The Athletic and John Ourand is with Puck. The SI Media with Jimmy Traina podcast is also a great listen each week and this week Gregg Giannotti of WFAN was his guest. Really a good listen.

Austin Karp from Sports Business Journal is who has taken over the Sports Business Journal and New York Post podcast, which is now known as The Sports Media Podcast. He was the guest on the Sports Media with Richard Deitsch podcast recently, which is another I never miss.

Having the two of them on one show allowed them to cover a lot of ground. Of note, I thought the part of the conversation where both said they believe the NFL will soon add at least one more streaming-exclusive playoff game was quite interesting.

You can listen to the episode by clicking here.

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In Case You Missed It

Last Wednesday, BSM’s Derek Futterman profiled 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh’s Colin Dunlap who is set to receive the Champions Award at the upcoming BSM Summit in New York. Derek shared the story that earned Dunlap the award, which involed him assisting a caller who had called in on the topic of West Virginia head basketball coach Bob Huggins and his struggles with alcohol. The caller shared his story and ultimately said that if he didn’t get some with his own alcohol problems, his wife was going to leave him. Dunlap offered to help him find a treatment plan and went out of his way to assist the listener.

When you read the article, you learn more about Colin Dunlap and find out this wasn’t an isolated incident, it is more of just who he is. Read more about a host going out of his way to use his platform in the best way possible by clicking here.

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Kaylee Hartung Balances ‘Thursday Night Football’ and NBC ‘Today’

“Two years in, I think I’m at a place where I’m proud of the relationships that I’ve built and proud of how hard I’ve worked.”

Derek Futterman

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Kaylee Hartung
Courtesy: Nathan Congleton, NBC

In a regular season matchup between the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers, there had been significant history made by halftime. After two quarters of play, the Chargers found themselves down in the contest 42-0, a record deficit by an NFL team through half of regulation play. The score rendered collective aghast around the league and left fans stunned, and it was up to the Amazon Prime Video broadcast of Thursday Night Football to contextualize and synthesize just what was happening. Sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung was expecting her pre-scheduled interview with Chargers head coach Brandon Staley to be fully upended, awaiting a team representative to deliver the update.

Nonetheless, Hartung made eye contact with Staley and could tell that he was walking over for the interview. She was thoroughly surprised and knew that his team was in the midst of significant tribulation but grateful that he respected her and the aspect of the broadcast for which she is responsible. Hartung surmises that coaches generally do not want to talk to her at halftime because they usually address the team and review plans for the remaining stretch of gameplay. As a result, she aims to be succinct and direct in her questioning to gain real-time insight, a short endeavor with a lasting impact.

“I’m not a reporter who ever wants to ask a ‘gotcha’ question to a subject, no matter who that subject is,” Hartung said. “I want people I interview to tell me exactly what they mean and give me insight into what they’re thinking. That’s how I think of it is, ‘How can I help the millions of people watching learn something in this moment when I’m the only person who can ask that coach that question?’”

Much to Hartung’s astonishment, Staley eloquently responded to her query related to the team’s substandard play. The Chargers ended up losing the game 63-21, and Staley was relieved of his head coaching duties the very next day. Of course, the team was battling a short week between games since they were playing on Thursday Night Football on Amazon. The OTT streaming platform landed the package of games in an 11-year agreement reportedly worth about $1 billion annually. The pact, however, came into effect one year early because of a willingness by previous rightsholder FOX Sports to exit its contract.

Prime Video was tasked with putting together a strong broadcast team of commentators and production personnel to execute the league’s first-ever regular streaming-based platform, enlisting the assistance of award-winning producer Fred Gaudelli. With play-by-play announcer Al Michaels and color commentator Kirk Herbstreit, the company compiled an experienced lead commentary booth.

As the search to continue building the lineup persisted, Hartung was in conversations with the company about the sideline reporting role. After the initial surprise of being contacted for the job when she had not reported on the sidelines for five years, Hartung met with the executives involved and was convinced the opportunity was right for her.

“Amazon was never trying to reinvent the wheel in doing this; they wanted to deliver,” Hartung said. “From the very beginning, their vision was to deliver a broadcast to the quality that NFL fans not only expect but demand, and I think we’re doing that.”

When Hartung was 10 years old, she and her family endured the loss of her father after he was involved in a plane crash at an airshow in Baton Rouge, La. As the family was mourning, the faint volume of CNN encompassed part of the setting to simply provide noise. Suddenly, a brief 30-second anchor voiceover recalled the plane crash and provided relatively superficial details. At the time, Hartung did not understand why the news outlet was not reporting on her father, what he accomplished and the life he lived. The rapid news report caused Hartung to ponder over infusing stories with more details and humane aspects.

Since her mother worked at the Louisiana State University Tiger Athletic Foundation, Hartung frequently had field-level access and behind-the-scenes opportunities surrounding the sports teams. At the same time, Hartung had remained passionate about news media and watched NBC TODAY, going so far as to write a paper in seventh grade saying that she would one day work on the show. Fast forward to last fall and Hartung finds herself as a correspondent for the program, frequently making multiple appearances per week and balancing it with her other related obligations.

Although Hartung was in her second year on Thursday Night Football, it was the first where she had to balance the work with NBC TODAY. Even though she had to sacrifice significant amounts of sleep on certain days, it allowed her to remain true to her roots as a news reporter while also covering sports. For much of her career, Hartung had to reluctantly make a choice between these niches but ultimately fluctuated between the two because of her passions for both.

“I think I’m very lucky to get to cover both, and I’ve been working my whole career to get to cover both and now I’m finally able to, and that for me is a personal win because I don’t want to just be a sports reporter or just be a news reporter,” Hartung explained. “I want to be a great reporter, and I think there are incredible stories to be told on both sides of that coin.”

CBS News Face the Nation reporter Bob Schieffer was sending Hartung’s work with the property to Sean McManus, who at the time was serving as president of CBS News and CBS Sports. She eventually received a call from the CBS College Sports Network to gauge her interest in being a sideline reporter for college games, a proposition she did not pass up.

The company had a newspath affiliate program involving correspondents in different bureaus, and she was looking to be accepted into the rotation. When she assumed that CBS News was not interested in granting her this chance, she auditioned with and eventually joined the ESPN-affiliated Longhorn Network.

The first contract she inked with the entity – a two-year deal with a third-year option – ensured five appearances on ESPN. By the conclusion of her first year, she exceeded that total nine times over and flourished at the company. Hartung was part of the launch of SEC Network in 2014 and treasured building something from the ground up, an opportunity she invested time and effort to effectuate.

As her career has continued, Hartung has recognized how fundamental it is to remain ready for the next opportunity – even if it seems premature at times. Despite not being ready to leave ESPN, the call from CNN to serve as a correspondent was a summons back to news she answered. In the ensuing two years, Hartung affirmed that she consistently showed up on the worst day of people’s lives and navigated through initial uncertainty and discomfort.

“It was very infrequent that I smiled through two years on television at CNN, and so frequently people would ask, ‘Do you miss sports?,’ and my answer was a resounding ‘Yes’ with every time I was asked that question, but I think those two years at CNN for me were just an incredible learning experience,” Hartung stated. “I’m very proud of what I did in the situations I showed up in and the way I could serve the people whose stories I told, but I didn’t feel like I was being the fullest version of myself.”

Hartung continued her work as a correspondent for ABC News beginning in 2019, contributing to programs such as World News Tonight, Good Morning America and Nightline. Although she was enthusiastic about the role, she recognized that Amazon Prime Video and Thursday Night Football was the right chance to assimilate back into sports media. Reflecting back on the 2022-23 season, it is evident to Hartung how much she has grown in the role.

“I’ll be completely honest and say I was terrified [in] Season 1,” Hartung said. “I hadn’t been on the sidelines in five years and I was nervous. I was nervous with every game, with every time that red light came on knowing how big of an opportunity this was, knowing how badly I wanted to be great and knowing how many eyeballs were watching.”

Since Hartung had not covered the NFL before, she needed to establish relationships and develop sources around the league to compile strong, comprehensive and accurate reports. Simultaneously, she was assimilating into a new role with new colleagues and working to foster friendships and chemistry with her teammates. When they were in Houston for their first preseason game together, she vividly remembers a moment of bonding that served in constructing the current product.

“We all walk back into the hotel lobby after the game and everybody’s kind of looking around like, ‘What do we do next? Where do we go?,’ and there’s a bar in the hotel lobby, and before you know it, we’re all sitting around a table, last call comes, Al’s telling stories and we’re asking the hotel, ‘How much longer can we stay?,’ because we don’t want to go anywhere,” Hartung recalled. “That was Week 1 and guess what? That happens every week – it doesn’t get old.”

Even though Hartung presumes she and her colleagues are suffering withdrawals from not being able to spend quality time with one another, she reflects on the year with gratitude and excitement. Amazon generated a 24% increase in total viewers from the previous season, averaging 11.86 million viewers across its 15-game slate according to data from Nielsen Media Research. All of those contests finished ahead of other programming on broadcast and cable television, including the first-ever NFL Black Friday Football contest. Part of that success can evidently be linked to Hartung, who is collecting and disseminating information to enhance the overall presentation.

“Your credibility is everything in this industry whether you’re covering news or sports,” Hartung said. “Two years in, I think I’m at a place where I’m proud of the relationships that I’ve built and proud of how hard I’ve worked.”

Hartung’s football work week begins on Sunday and is largely focused on the two teams she has coming up on Thursday night. Because of the detail required in her job, she makes sure to watch full games and meticulously takes notes from the sideline reports for the previous week. In the days beforehand, Hartung catches up on sleep and prepares for the week ahead, which is filled with meetings, interviews and collaboration.

“The most fervent fans of those teams don’t want to hear the same stories told a week later, right?,” Hartung said. “You want to keep building whatever storylines exist, so if my two teams are playing at the same time on Sunday, I’ll watch one game in real time and follow the other.”

On Monday morning, Hartung has a Zoom call with the broadcast’s producer and director, along with two producers dedicated to the sideline role and a former NFL athletic trainer. The session is a review of the week prior so they can position themselves for sustained performance and improvement and the first of several meetings ahead of the Thursday night broadcast.

By the time Tuesday approaches, she is on the phone with Michaels and Herbstreit to speak with head coaches, quarterbacks and other star players involved in the game. There are also times where Hartung has to interview players unannounced because of their tight schedules, underscoring the necessity of remaining on standby.

In addition to her Thursday Night Football work, Hartung is compiling and reporting on separate stories for NBC TODAY, achieving a delicate balance of two esteemed entities. On most weekday mornings, she is awake by 2:30 a.m. and tries to accrue respite whenever she can, including on airplanes although she tries to avoid red-eye flights.

“I’m always to the city that we’re in by Wednesday morning, go to practice and then have dinner with the crew on Wednesday night,” Hartung explained. “I have a sideline production meeting on Wednesday night where we go through all of my material that I’ve gathered through my own calls and whatnot, and then our big production meeting Thursday morning and kickoff Thursday night.”

Over the course of the game, Hartung has several stories prepared and is ready to interject with her reports when called upon. The key is finishing by the time the ball is snapped so Michaels can deliver play-by-play of the action. Everything changes, however, when there is a significant injury that can alter a season, let alone the ongoing game, for a football team.

“It is reporting in its most elemental and basic form where you’ve got to get the questions answered that are clearly [at the] top of everyone’s mind and concern,” Hartung said. “….You go in with as much of a plan as you can have and then you throw it all out the window and the game breaks out.”

During the week, Hartung apologizes to every player she speaks with because of the condensed week that they are facing. While part of the job of sideline reporters is to bring casual and die-hard fans newfound information and insights about their team, she understands the difficulties in amassing the totality of that material in a five-day span. Hartung is devoted to carrying out her responsibilities without taking shortcuts to achieve the final story, yearning for others to avoid the feeling she had while mourning the loss of her father.

“When they hear their story told, do they feel like I did that justice?,” Hartung said. “….It’s about how you make people feel. Whether you’re the subject or you’re the viewer, it’s about how you make people feel.”

Hartung was in Las Vegas reporting on Super Bowl LVIII for NBC TODAY, delivering updates and following both the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs throughout the week. Coming off a strong regular season for Thursday Night Football and joining NBC Sports for two playoff games – including the Peacock exclusive NFL Wild Card contest – she had to adapt her reporting style to news. There are several occurrences when Hartung reports on sports for the morning show, adapting her approach while displaying her knowledge and rapport with several teams and leagues.

“The stories you’re telling are different, and it kind of goes back to the way you want to make fans care about the games; the way you want to help raise that level of investment fans have – and when I say fans, I mean the TODAY show audience,” Hartung said. “I really enjoy that I get to help the TODAY show audience invest more in their care of the NFL.”

Part of the Thursday Night Football game crew attended Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas and celebrated when reports emerged that the outlet had landed the rights to exclusively stream an NFL playoff game next season. Prime Video is reportedly paying $150 million for the contest, which will take place during the Wild Card round. It remains unknown whether it will be the only streaming-exclusive presentation.

“I think it’s a credit to the work that we’ve put in through these two seasons,” Hartung said. “Our crew with a playoff game – it’ll be good TV. I love the way I feel like our crew on the whole is different and is unique in the scheme of the NFL broadcasts, and I think that we have a certain level of excitement and enthusiasm for the game each week that a playoff game will only heighten.”

As Hartung continues to excel as a news and sports reporter, she wants to be an asset to her colleagues and overall consumption audience. There have been moments in her career where she has struggled internally with confidence, one of which was her assimilation to covering the NFL.

At the conclusion of the first year of Prime Video’s presentation of Thursday Night Football, Gaudelli bestowed Hartung with the most improved player award. Humbly accepting the honor, she regarded it as a compliment and excitedly anticipated the second year. With innovation abound and a plethora of possibilities ahead, Hartung looks to perpetually improve both on set and along the gridiron.

“I feel fulfilled professionally right now in a way that I am just so grateful for,” Hartung articulated. “It sounds so cheesy when I say it that way, but it’s true. I’m quite literally getting to live out a dream, and I just hope I get to stay on this ride for as long as possible.”

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Day Spent With: ESPN Radio

“Every show that comes out has to hit our expectation to make sure we’re living up to the standard and what our audience is expecting.”

Derek Futterman

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Day Spent With – ESPN Radio

For our fifth Day Spent With feature, we sent Derek Futterman to Bristol, CT to learn what goes into a full day of programming at the ESPN Radio network. My thanks to Justin Craig and the entire management and on-air teams for making him feel welcome and providing full access to everything he needed.

If there’s one thing I love about Mr. Craig, and he was like this as a producer, he is always well prepared. In arranging the schedule for Derek’s visit, his entire day from 8am-6pm was accounted for. From meeting with the shows to PR to zoom calls with ESPN NY/ESPN LA to individual manager meetings, if there were issues to explore and people to meet, they were on his schedule. That type of detail is what sets great programmers apart. It’s why JC is one of the best.

Still planned for this series are days spent with sports television shows, a market manager, a social media manager, and a media buyer. We also left room for one additional project should something interesting come up. If you or your brand wish to be involved and have an idea you want to pitch, please email [email protected].

Now without further adieu, here’s Derek Futterman’s Day Spent With the ESPN Radio network.

– Jason Barrett

Some snow is still present on the ground at ESPN Headquarters in Bristol, CT, slowly melting away after a Nor’easter recently blanketed 13 inches worth of flurries above the town. Aside from a more strenuous commute though, this doesn’t slow down anyone on the 120-acre campus the network has called home since 1979. Beyond the entry gates are two adjacent digital centers, each containing colossal television and video production facilities with state-of-the-art technology. In the distance is the ESPN teleport farm that communicates with satellites to distribute programs to several million homes around the world. There are also plenty of network interfaces around the campus capable of disseminating audiovisual content via digital channels.

On this particular morning, two control rooms are filled with producers, directors and coordinators operating First Take on ESPN and the UnSportsmanLike simulcast from ESPN Radio on ESPN2. There are also researchers and loggers monitoring the news cycle and compiling information for use across network properties, always ready to react to breaking news or haste developments.

Up the stairs on the second floor are studios used for award-winning television broadcast institutions, including Sunday NFL Countdown, Outside the Lines and the network’s flagship program, SportsCenter. The original desk, chairs and backdrop are on display in the building next door, accessible by a skybridge spanning over a heated outdoor patio.

The journey towards the ESPN Radio studios continues through several hallways adorned with production facilities, offices and sports memorabilia. Those inside the building complex have transformed and innovated sports media as we know it, seeking to live up to its mission statement and providing value to consumers and partners. Turn a corner and down a long hallway displays a sign with the ESPN Radio logo, identifying the primary location of the division that was first established in 1992.

The radio section of the building contains several studios and control rooms, many featuring radio boards and remotely-operated cameras. There are microphones outfitted with the ESPN Radio mic flag, the heralded letters carrying ethos and prestige serving as a reminder of its sublime history and ongoing journey.

Outside of the studio where the network launched Mike & Mike is the office of Justin Craig, senior director of network talk and operations responsible for overseeing the ESPN Radio vertical. Although his days include several meetings and managerial tasks, he has not lost sight of the formatics and fundamentals of radio broadcasting and connecting with listeners.

“Every show that comes out has to hit our expectation to make sure we’re living up to the standard of what our audience is expecting,” Craig said. “There is an expectation that we’re providing them the information that they need with the personality they expect.”

Craig occupies an office previously used by Stephen A. Smith with a clear view of the fight song corridor dedicated to college football. On the top of a writable wall, he has enumerated ‘relevancy, relatability, ratings/revenue and relationships,’ adding them all together to reach a summation equivalent to ‘results.’ All of these factors ascribe the audience, which patronizes the programming and offers feedback in the form of compliments, criticisms and suggestions.

“You have to make sure that you’re focused on putting content out there that is smart, curious and focused on making a person that’s listening want to listen longer,” Craig said. “I’m going to get my impressions and my audience to stick if I’m interesting, curious and if they can learn something along the way.”

A New Sound on ESPN Radio

The top right corner of the wall has the ESPN Radio lineup listed for reference, which was revamped last fall featuring a blend of established and new radio hosts. While the network opted to alter its complete programming slate, the move was necessitated by company layoffs and a deeper radio partnership with Good Karma Brands.

Morning radio co-hosts Keyshawn Johnson and Max Kellerman were affected by these layoffs, while co-host Jay Williams re-signed with the outlet but moved away from the weekday radio lineup. Evan Cohen, Michelle Smallmon and Chris Canty were installed into mornings, hosting the new simulcast program, UnSportsmanLike, commencing a new era for ESPN Radio and its affiliates.

Megan Judge, senior director of marketing and events for ESPN’s audio portfolio, explained that the hosts of the show have immense talent but are still becoming familiar to a national audience. As a result, the company has adopted a personality-driven approach to promote their content to consumers to help showcase the program. Judge is ultimately focused on demonstrating the value of being an ESPN Radio affiliate by leveraging their properties and personalities to help drive ratings and revenue growth.

“With UnSportsmanLike, we have the ingredients to bake an incredible cake,” Judge said. “Chris, Evan and Michelle are true professionals; they’re fantastic at what they do; their chemistry is great.”

Even though the program films at the ESPN South Seaport Studios in New York City while being produced in Bristol, the synergy between the crew is hardly inconspicuous. Show producer Nuno Teixeira is at the studio by 4am and listens to SportsCenter All Night in addition to sound from the night before. Before the start of the show, he brainstorms with his colleagues and amends the rundown that has been compiled from the prior day. The program then begins its four-hour foray with regular communication between the radio and television productions for the program.

As the show reaches its conclusion, associate producer Pat Costello and board operator JoVante Lawrence complete several tasks, including editing audio and uploading clips. Television producer Mark Morales takes the walk from the digital center to the radio facilities to participate in a brief post-show meeting before watching as the hosts record audio promos for the next day. Craig and other executives routinely offer assistance and suggestions for the programs – which also comes through weekly listening sessions with every show – but they ultimately trust their employees to execute the job for which they were hired.

“I do my best not to hover because you have to entrust upon them, but you’re educating across the way by listening, chiming in [and] by offering up feedback on a regular basis,” Craig said. “That’s why I so appreciate the listening sessions that we do for everyone to continue that bond and partnership with each and every person that we have here.”

Good Karma Brands and ESPN Radio

Cohen also works for Good Karma Brands as its vice president of content, responsible for interfacing with market managers and content directors to benefit fans, partners and teammates. The media conglomerate owns several ESPN-affiliated stations in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and West Palm Beach, possessing control over operations and content. The company also operates ESPN New York 98.7 under a local marketing agreement (LMA) and handles marketing and sales, responsibilities for which Cohen is not directly responsible. The New York and Los Angeles-based ESPN Radio affiliates continue to manage their own content after each lost its program directors – Ryan Hurley and Amanda Brown, respectively – during the aforementioned company layoffs.

ESPN New York is set to depart its 98.7 FM frequency that it has been leasing from Emmis Communications since 2012, a decision made by Good Karma Brands that will end the LMA. Data compiled by Good Karma Brands demonstrates that 60% of ESPN New York listenership occurs outside of terrestrial radio.

Although ESPN New York recently lost the New York Jets to Q104.3 and iHeartMedia, it has retained the MSG Radio Network consisting of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, focusing on digital distribution enabled through its last media rights extension. At the same time, the station’s programming will remain available on the 1050 AM frequency owned by Good Karma Brands, a refined proposition those at ESPN are preparing to actualize.

“I feel we’re just going to do the same content and our listeners will find us no matter where we are, but my challenges as a programmer may be different from those of a seller,” said Jonathan Winthrop, manager of audio operations at ESPN New York. “I don’t necessarily have to convince anyone other than the audience where we are. A seller may have to convince their current clients that nothing’s changing [and that] we’re going to do the same robust numbers regardless of where we’re putting our content out.”

Winthrop frequently meets with Craig to discuss the content and strategy, along with relaying information from Good Karma Brands. Additionally, he and Greg Bergman, manager of audio operations for ESPN LA 710, speak several times a week pertaining to the trajectory of the outlet. Bergman shared that he had constructive one-on-one meetings to help talent improve and expressed that the station is in its best place in years with everyone pulling in the same direction.

Last summer, Good Karma Brands assumed responsibility over operations and sales for ESPN Radio and the company’s podcast entities. Shortly thereafter, Good Karma Brands founder and chief executive officer Craig Karmazin and president Steve Politziner traveled to Bristol to meet ESPN staff. After the typical introductions and pleasantries, Karmazin asked a question and received a straightforward response from a member of ESPN that was largely expected.

“Craig just kind of paused and he said, ‘Is that a real no or is that an assumed no?,’” Judge recalled. “It’s a simple question, but it sort of put me back on my heels that I think with where audio falls in the priority list for ESPN and the day-to-day of being part of a really, really, really big organization, I think we had gotten into the habit of taking assumed no’s or sometimes not even asking the questions internally about, ‘Could we do this?,’ or, ‘What if we tried to make this happen?’”

Since partnering with Good Karma Brands, Judge has detected both a new energy and new sense of possibility within the building. While outside critics have argued previously that ESPN Radio was losing some of its luster, internal operations carried optimism and excitement surrounding the expansion of a decades-long business venture. Craig believes that the entity is consistently evolving and possesses cognizance over the importance of consumer accessibility.

“Find me a location that is exactly the same now as it was back then, and I’ll find you a product that’s having challenges,” Craig said. “I’m thrilled with the direction that we’re headed.”

The Daily Grind at ESPN Radio

The broadcast of UnSportsmanLike coincides with the national morning television program, Get Up!, hosted by Mike Greenberg emanating from New York City. Greenberg’s setup, however, is somewhat unconventional in that he immediately makes the transition from television to radio within one minute. Because of this expeditious turnaround, he communicates with producer Brendan ‘Bubba’ Peregrin throughout Get Up! to prepare for his radio program. Furthermore, program co-host Paul ‘Hembo’ Hembekides diligently monitors the news cycle from Seaport and safeguards against overlooking key developments.

“[Greenberg has] been doing this longer than anybody, so the challenge was figuring out how to get everything switched over at Seaport in that minute SportsCenter and show open, but a lot of the topics are the same,” said Liam Chapman, program director for weekday shows at ESPN Radio. “If it works on Get Up!, it will work on radio.”

Chapman has worked at ESPN for over two decades, during which he has produced Mike & Mike and overseen programs such as Bart & Hahn and The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. Today, he is responsible for network scheduling along with #Greeny, Carlin vs. Joe and Freddie and Harry. ESPN Radio does not receive PPM ratings until several months after a ratings book, but even so, he emphasized how the sample size is not ideal for the amount of people who have the meter. As a result, a lot of the evaluation of his program relies on other qualitative metrics that implement his avidity and ear for radio.

“We all learned from Bruce Gilbert about the personalities to bring in, so for me it’s basically, ‘How do I feel? How do the hosts feel? How does Justin and the rest of the management team feel and how does the production team feel?,’ and I think this is the best we’ve felt about a full lineup in a good number of years.”

Before the start of Carlin vs. Joe, Chapman takes part in a pre-show meeting with the hosts and producers of the program. Throughout the half-hour discussion, there are several ideas brought forth for consideration, including creating a list of what producer Evan Wilner would do for $600, inspired by former late-night host David Letterman.

About 20 minutes before the show, everyone checks the rundown and makes the necessary adjustments to the lineup. Of course, that does not predicate any potential news, something Wilner emphasized to his colleagues in the early days of the program. Being situated within ESPN on its Bristol campus has advantages in this regard that facilitates adapting to real-time developments.

“We might only have four minutes in a break, but we will figure out exactly how to re-route the entire plan if need be,” Fortenbaugh said. “It’s a very fluid show.”

Fortenbaugh is largely working from Bristol where he also appears on various television programs such as ESPN BET Live, First Take and SportsCenter. Conversely, Carlin hosts the program remotely, a pattern that continues down the rest of the lineup. All of the hosts outside of a typical studio setup, which includes both Amber Wilson and Ian Fitzsimmons on the evening program, have the necessary technology to work effectively.

Remote Events, Studio Operations and Production

Outside of its talk programming, ESPN Radio broadcasts approximately 270 live play-by-play events annually, such as out-of-market NFL games, MLB postseason play and several NBA matchups among other properties. With the sheer volume of obligations in this department, Pete Ciccone is working several months ahead of time to make sure things are set and always maintaining a broad perspective. As the program director of remote events, he schedules update anchors and monitors station operations while ensuring fans are properly informed so they can intuitively find the game.

“Not every sport is the same in terms of distribution,” Ciccone said. “Most of them, thankfully, are on hundreds of affiliates as well as SiriusXM and our ESPN app, but it’s not one size fits all.”

Tim Thomas is involved in shaping the network’s messaging in his role as production director. Throughout the day, he is fielding requests from ESPN Radio properties and creating show opens, rejoins and general station imaging. Cayman Kelly is the primary station voice and someone who Thomas works closely with. No piece of production usually exceeds a 30-second duration, something Thomas attributes to dwindling attention spans.

There is clear cohesion and collaboration taking place daily across departments to create informative and entertaining content. Most of the talent pre-pandemic were Bristol-based and in studio for interviews and appearances, a point to which Chapman believes the network has returned. Despite Harry Douglas hosting his afternoon radio program remotely, the technology in the studios minimized latency and permitted real-time interaction with on-site co-host Freddie Coleman.

Coleman welcomed ESPN betting analyst Erin Dolan to the Freddie and Harry show for an in-person interview, taking place shortly after she finished filming ESPN BET Live. Since the show has taken the air, Dolan, along with many other ESPN personalities, have been situated in the radio studios for guest spots and provide unique insights and perspectives on sports news. Show producer Shannon Penn has an outline of Dolan’s segment loaded into AP ENPS, which allows Coleman to reference it in real time and keep things on schedule.

“Even though Harry wasn’t there, the chemistry between Erin and Freddie was so good and the chemistry between Freddie and Harry is so good that it just makes for a better interview,” Chapman said. “All the interviews in studio just are better, and I think it’s because of the face-to-face.”

Weeknights and Weekends on ESPN Radio

The studios are situated in a central location on campus that provides ease of access to other areas around the network. Furthermore, there is updated technology and streaming functionality both for audio and video, positioning each for success.

The people within these studios, however, represent the engine that keeps the train moving forward at all hours of the day to provide over 9,000 hours of talk and event content every year. With affiliates around the country in most of the top marketplaces, it is imperative that the network recognizes the time difference and broadly appeals to the target audience. Continuing its content flow for weeknight shows – Amber & Ian, GameNight and SportsCenter All Night is Mike Urrunaga – who works hours outside of the standard 9 to 5.

Urrunaga frequently attends meetings in the late-morning before arriving on campus in the afternoon to meet with producers and monitor new developments. In addition to the fans, the weeknight programs are integral resources for the morning shows to utilize as they prepare to take the air at dawn.

“We’re very much trying to generate, ‘Okay, here are some topics that you would want to talk about that you can talk about,’” Urrunaga said. “We look at the rundowns that they have setup in the afternoon to be like, ‘Okay, is there something that they are looking at that we can add to depending on what’s going on in the evening?’”

Stosh Cienki, who is the program director of weekend shows for ESPN Radio, works to deepen listener relationships and progress conversations that took place during the weekdays. His work week begins on Wednesday and runs through late Sunday night. His responsibilities include listening sessions, scheduling, planning future events and of course, meetings. Along with his weekend duties, Cienki serves as a mentor to his colleagues, offering advice to streamline their development and processes.

“A lot of the producers we have here are young,” Cienki said. “As someone who’s been here as long as I have and having gone through many different shows, that’s an area where I probably have the biggest impact – just trying to develop guys who have only been here a year or two and show them the right way to prep and get ready for these things.”

Serving Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.

At the end of the day, several ESPN Radio staffers drive across the street to a full-size gym owned by the network to participate in a company-wide volleyball league. The intramural offering is one of several during the year and something Craig found out ahead of last season. Having played volleyball in the past and being recruited by his colleagues, he decided to participate and has subsequently demonstrated his skills on the court. Stepping away from the speakers and connecting outside of the building ultimately fosters friendships and builds rapport, intangible features of the new lineup those at ESPN Radio hopes it is emitting to consumers.

“It’s cool because you want to have those outside-of-the-office activities that allow that camaraderie,” Craig said. “Talk about a culture – that’s where your culture is created.”

While the management team of ESPN Radio has a wide array of responsibilities, everything ultimately centers back to what Craig has prominently displayed in his office. In order to produce successful results, there is a harmonious consensus that relevancy, relatability, ratings/revenue and relationships are the means that comprise the whole.

This is put into effect through a strong workplace culture that promotes friendships, teamwork and a sense of belonging combined with discernible passion for the craft. Those involved in the ESPN Radio operation genuinely enjoy their occupation and look forward to connecting with listeners by remaining dedicated to the the company’s overarching objective, “Serving sports fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”

“Many hosts have said it over the years – this is the toy store of life – and I consider it the universal language,” Craig said. “Everybody speaks sports in some capacity, but it’s the relatability aspect that gets them to stick around and want to do more, but you have to create that culture within the building and have strong leaders in it that are willing to help everybody grow and succeed.”

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