The game is Sports versus The Virus. Any other competition is wholly insignificant, now that human rivals are united as allies and all strategies and tactics have been unleashed upon a killer pandemic. COVID-19 is the mightiest of dynasties, undefeated and prohibitively favored by Vegas sportsbooks to destroy, in succession, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL, college football and, in the final nuclear scene, an NFL behemoth that might look like King Ghidorah after he was mauled by Godzilla.
A power sweep has become the Hazmat-level cleanup after each event. A double is the number of negative tests, two, necessary to escape MLB quarantine. The pick-and-roll refers to an NBA player picking at the stale roll from his Disney World food bag. Banging on a trash can is what the Astros will do when teammates are about to be Instagram-outed at a crowded bar. And maintaining six feet of physical distance?
“That’s how we guard anyways,’’ said coach Mike D’Antoni, managing a crack about the Rockets’ defensive challenges.
It’s the biggest story of a sports journalist’s life, really — the audacity of this industry to defy the heavyweight champion of infectious diseases. What a damned shame that only a few will be able to legitimately cover it. Because leagues must minimize coronavirus risks within extremely strict protocols, welcome to a new world of Sports Reporting By Zoom, in which traditional locker-room access is long gone and almost all credible media members will be relegated to asking questions via group streaming sessions while tethered to seating areas with far worse sightlines than folks watching at home. I’d like to say the arrangement is temporary.
In truth, it’s the future. This is what sports leagues have dreamed of, marginalizing and controlling the media while hand-picking those who will remain obedient to the corporate cause. Now that a new order has been established, think they’ll ever return to the old way? Heh.
Only those who pay lucrative rights fees, the broadcast networks, will have any chance of in-person interviews with athletes and coaches during the sports reset. In the NBA’s case, just 10 national-scope reporters will be allowed post-game access in a socially-distanced news conference — and literally at a price: $550 per day in the Rudy Gobert Dome, with their news organizations ponying up for a hotel room, three daily meals, a once-a-day virus test, transportation to the gyms and, naturally, a waiver form absolving the league of liability if the reporter contracts COVID-19.
And make out the check to Walt Disney Company, please, which means news outlets are paying ESPN for coverage capabilities when, I dunno, I thought reporters were supposed to be competing against ESPN.
Oh, and if one of those 10 league-approved reporters is switched out for whatever reason? The news organization will have to pay an additional fee of about $4,500, all according to the Miami Herald. As for dozens of other reporters who cover the league regularly and need to follow the 22 teams in Orlando? They can attend games but have to sit in some distant nether region, though they’ll have priority to ask questions via Zoom. Gee.
Some gig, right? Risk your life by flying to Florida, the bastard child of the American pandemic, and you still might have to call a buddy at home if you couldn’t determine if a game-winning shot beat the buzzer.
If our year from hell has changed life interminably, sports media have been reduced to the ranks of the utterly non-essential. With newspapers and websites on perpetual death watches, executives are faced with no-win decisions: Either spend money from ravaged budgets to pseudo-cover these games, or don’t cover them and risk losing readers accustomed to up-close-and-personal sports coverage. Specifically, how can The Athletic — maybe the last-gasp option for the sportswriting profession — continue to charge $59 a year in good conscience when its reporting no longer will be distinguishable from the free-of-charge digital norm?
And football coverage, though the sport has little chance of operating this season, will be even flimsier. When players are endangered by an in-your-face contact sport with lines of scrimmage and locker rooms lurking as coronavirus petri dishes, media members won’t be allowed in the same county, much less anywhere near field level.
A sports fan might ask, “Why does a reporter need one-on-one access, anyway? What’s wrong with Zoom?’’ Once leagues and teams are allowed to cultivate pack journalism, the likelihood of original reporting shrinks, and coverage takes on a homogenous look. The sports industry doesn’t want fierce independence in media people. It wants yes robots who don’t rabble-rouse or break damaging stories. For years, teams have relied on paid broadcasters to carry the public-relations flag. Even they are being shortshrifted during these shortened seasons, with baseball announcers forced to call road games via remote from home ballparks or studios.
As I’ve always feared, leagues ultimately will sell their product entirely through broadcast partners — and writers hired as promotional flacks — and control all narratives and messages. They realize the sports media industry is in chaotic free-fall and smell an opportunity. This is the thanks we get for helping to popularize these sports and elevate them into multi-billion-dollar colossuses. America is about to witness the most bizarre few weeks, if not months, in its sporting history. It’s a story that requires large numbers of highly skilled, sophisticated journalists to make sure leagues are telling the truth and lives aren’t being jeopardized.
But based on the early work of ESPN’s embedded Malika Andrews, whose hard-hitting NBA reporting so far has entailed uninspiring food selections in the Trouble Bubble — falafel and oatmeal, yum! — I’m not sensing sports in a pandemic will be covered as the story of a lifetime. I was doing my radio program when planes crashed into towers on 9/11. I watched grown men dive under press-box tables during the Bay Area earthquake, then stayed for days covering the rubble. I was there, in Greece, when demonstrators threw rocks in protest of Colin Powell’s trip to the Olympics. And I would love to be at Disney World, raising hell.
Mickey Mouse has a better chance than any reporter does of breaking news, which is by design, of course. Sports wins, media lose.
Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable
After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.
Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.
Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.
The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)
OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.
What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY
Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.
This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.
I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.
I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.
What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.
I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.
“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”
Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.
“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “
“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”
OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.
However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.
“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.
“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”
Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.
That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.
Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”
I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.
I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.
I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.
By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”
Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:
Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”
If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.
Media Noise – Episode 75
A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.
Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM
Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.
Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.
I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future.
Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?
Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.
How is advertising on Bleav different?
We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content.
What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see?
The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space.
SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like?
We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?
There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple.
At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram.
If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.