Only three sports franchises on Planet Earth are worth more than the Los Angeles Lakers, home of Hollywood gold, LeBron James, celebrity fans, the Laker Girls, a $3-billion local broadcast deal and 16 NBA title banners. Just last week, Forbes estimated the team valuation at $4.4 billion, trailing only the Dallas Cowboys and New York’s Yankees and Knicks. Think about it: The Lakers are more valuable than all but one NFL franchise and all the world’s soccer clubs, including those in hallowed hubs Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester.
None of which stopped team controlling owner Jeanie Buss, beloved in southern California, from applying for and receiving a $4.6-million federal loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, a system purportedly designed for small businesses needing coronavirus relief. Not until the Lakers were outed by the Trump administration, which threatened criminal action against large companies trying to trick the program, did they return the money in April.
“I never expected in a million years that the Los Angeles Lakers, which I’m a big fan of the team — but I’m not a big fan of the fact they took a $4.6 million loan,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNBC. “I think that’s outrageous.”
I expected scathing commentary from the Los Angeles Times, armed with some of the best sports and news columnists in the business. But all I saw was a basic news story and scant letters to the sports editor, one from angry reader William Ford, who wrote what Bill Plaschke, Dylan Hernandez, Steve Lopez, Robin Abcarian and other Times voices did not write: “The Los Angeles Lakers just became the Los Angeles Takers in my book. Would you have returned the $4.6 million without the public shame caused by social media? You have shamed Elgin, Jerry, Kareem, James and Kobe and every player who has worn purple and gold, as well as an entire city.’’
Why the absence of similar biting words from Times regulars and the editorial page? Oh, let’s just say the billionaire who signs their checks might not have enjoyed anti-Lakers opinions from those on the payroll. Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner and executive chairman of the Times, has been a minority stakeholder in the Lakers since 2010. Back when they were playing games at Staples Center and not in the Disney World Bubble, Soon-Shiong often was seen courtside, high-fiving and hugging fellow fans after victories. Sometimes, Buss herself received his joyful congratulations. If there was no official edict to avoid the topic at the Times, there was a tacit understanding: To stay on good footing, do not criticize Buss in this matter, especially when Soon-Shiong — as part-owner — could be considered complicit in the failed loan-grab.
Such are the unethical invasions that are corrupting, if not killing, sports media in America. As the power and influence of rich leagues and owners continue to swallow fierce independence, too many editorial decisions are made with money in mind — such as, ignoring the boss’ conflict of interest to protect one’s regular paycheck. In some entanglements, cross-ownership of a sports franchise and media outlet means Plaschke and LeBron are in effect paid by the same person, which also impacts Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, a hard-hitter whose checks are signed by John Henry, who also owns the Red Sox. All of which puts some local columnists — the last vestiges of watchdog commentary about an industry staggered by a pandemic and numerous recent scandals — in the same boat as ESPN and Fox Sports on-air talent and local-market talk show hosts.
If you’re working for The Man, how can you comment negatively about The Man? And if you can’t comment about The Man, why should any media consumer read, watch or listen when your credibility is compromised? The pandemic-driven upheaval of sports, in which no one is sure when and if leagues will return to some semblance of normalcy, has created a media culture of self-preservation and content suppression poisonous to a craft that has been softening for years.
Hear nothing, see nothing, check direct deposit on the 15th and 1st.
Tell J.A. Adande to add a new class — How To Kiss Ass And Keep Your Job 101 — to his curriculum in Northwestern’s sports journalism initiative.
I don’t need to rehash my existential concerns about ESPN, which long ago sold out to Big Sports — and the accompanying billions — and has been predictably giddy in covering a sports restart fraught with COVID-19 doubt and fallout. It might as well be renamed the NBA/NFL/MLB/NCAA Channel, and anyone who watches should realize the programming is an extension, in too many cases, of what the leagues want and want Bristol is only happy to give them. If you wonder why ESPN continues to pretend college football is around the corner, consider the company literally owns and operates the sport, to the point it will lose almost $1 billion in advertising alone if the season is canceled. Ethically, ESPN is a lost cause.
No, I’m focused on The Athletic, maybe the last-gasp option for those aspiring to write sports as a long-term livelihood. Struggling to support a subscription-based model while sports was on pause for months, the site has resorted to its own form of desperation. First, it laid off dozens despite raising $139.5 million in funding. Then, it sought sponsorships … within the very industry it is supposed to be covering independently and aggressively. The business site Front Office Sports reported Evan Parker, The Athletic’s general manager of business and editorial operations (job descriptions that shouldn’t be in the same title), has “set out to find sports teams, leagues and promotional partners who understood The Athletic brand’’ in hopes of boosting “image and subscriber count.’’
Next thing you knew, The Athletic was partnering with Major League Baseball and T-Mobile on a cringeworthy promotional giveaway — free one-year subscriptions to The Athletic and MLB.TV to T-Mobile/Sprint customers in the U.S.
The Athletic has sold out, too.
Even when Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich are breaking news about baseball — information often handed to them because MLB has a vested interest in The Athletic’s success — I’ve yet to see a word demanding, say, the cancellation of the season. Or doubting commissioner Rob Manfred’s competence, as some of us are doing, in the wake of virus outbreaks that have blitzed the Cardinals and Marlins. The dire situation cried for harsh commentary. What you initially got from Rosenthal was this: “MLB’s shifting approach raises questions around the sport.’’ He came back with a piece urging Manfred to cooperate with players, in their navigation of COVID-19, for the sport’s greater good.
That’s as good as he can do?
No, that’s all he’s allowed to do under the business parameters.
And do you honestly think legends such as Jayson Stark and Peter Gammons, who’ve served MLB to the degree they’ve been inducted in the Hall of Fame, are going to excoriate Manfred when they’d be biting the ownership hand that has fed them for decades?
When MLB returned late last month, followed by the NBA and NHL, The Athletic excitedly introduced a 40-part series called “The Comeback.’’ The idea: Wrap the resumption of sports around the greatest comebacks in sports history — as if a level-headed person would lump the pandemic in the same thought process as a Miracle at the Meadowlands.
Wrote Seth Davis, a college basketball guy with else nothing to do: “Anyone who thought sports wasn’t coming back probably doesn’t watch a lot of sports. Sure, things were looking bleak for a while. We were facing long odds, and in many ways we still do. But we’ve seen big comebacks before, haven’t we? A 3-0 deficit in the playoffs. A 25-point hole in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. Trailing by three goals at halftime of a Champions League final. We’ve seen other examples of people beating long odds. Athletes re-emerging from retirement, recovering from serious injuries, winning games and tournaments when they were supposedly well past their primes. Each time, the prospects for success seemed bleak. Each time, sports reminded us of the art of the possible. This is what we need from sports, now more than ever.’’
What we need, from sports, is for the outbreaks to stop. What we need, from The Athletic, is to call for an MLB shutdown. And what we need, from life, is for people to stop getting sick and dying. But, see, the sports world operates in a parallel universe in which a $4.4-billion basketball franchise thinks it can justify a PPP loan. The Lakers didn’t get their $4.6 million, and if anyone feels sorry for them, they’ll still reap $12 million from a Spectrum SportsNet deal because players and coaches spent extra weeks in Florida confinement — when they could have been with their families — so eight seeding games could be played.
The L.A. Times could have been all over that, too. Instead, an Oregonian report was accusing the Times of accepting $100,000 in advertising money from the Pac-12 in exchange for favorable and additional coverage of the conference. A 2018 e-mail from the league to Blake Richardson, a young Times staffer, promised him “all the access and info to become the best Pac-12 reporter out there.’’
I wonder how the late, great Jim Murray would be lampooning his own bosses for these sins. Just a guess: His column would be spiked.
Not that these pressures didn’t exist before the pandemic. I’ve faced numerous warnings from on high not to cover certain stories. A Cincinnati editor-in-chief discouraged us, when I was 26, from probing the beginnings of the Pete Rose gambling scandal because, hey, Pete was a local hero. A Chicago editor-in-chief, who had front-row Bulls tickets during the Michael Jordan Era, was upset when I broke a story that Scottie Pippen felt like “a statue’’ during one of Jordan’s playoff point binges. Another set of Chicago bosses, a publisher and editor-in-chief, chastised me for questioning why White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was in the bottom half of MLB payrolls, relenting only when they told me one day in the hallway, “Jerry didn’t buy a table for our event.’’ Another editor-in-chief asked if I was “anti-Semitic’’ as he tried to soften my coverage of Reinsdorf, only the most prominent owner in U.S. sports at the time. They often tried to intimidate and fire me, to no avail, and when Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called me “a f—— fag,’’ the bosses didn’t have my back, not surprising after they’d pulled my column condemning Sox fans for harassing wives of the Houston Astros during a World Series game in Chicago. When I asked one of the conflicted editors, who’d wanted me to wear a Sox cap in my column logo during that World Series, if he was a fan of the team, he nodded.
Sometimes, the official scoreboard clock in the United Center would stop — for several seconds — in the final minutes of Bulls games. Once, I could understand. Twice, three times, four? Given the immersive nature of gambling in the NBA culture, it was time to investigate. I was prepared to run a powerful, corroborated column; the editors were not because, you know, the NBA had called. Few of these people are anywhere near the media business today. Some are dead, figuratively if not literally.
I’ll never forget the words of Larry Wert, a major broadcasting executive who became a big shot at NBC, when he ran me off his radio station: “Jay, some of us go to business school and others go to journalism school.’’ This was followed a decade later by the story I love telling: An ESPN Chicago program director, Len Weiner, took me to an Arby’s near the station and demanded I sign documents that I wouldn’t criticize Reinsdorf’s White Sox and Bulls. When I refused, the station fired me a day after Christmas and claimed publicly that I had bad ratings, only to look downright fraudulent when the ratings were terrific. I’d like to say Reinsdorf and that station have flourished since then. In truth, both have been mostly in the dumper.
So, yes, if I were an L.A. Times columnist, I’d have criticized the Lakers. And the next day, after the piece was killed, I’d have been downsized if not pushed out the way a snidely irreverent Times columnist, T.J. Simers, was dumped years ago. Which explains why I’m here today, writing proudly for a media industry site that prioritizes independence over dirty business deals, and why I’m donating my compensation to journalism-related sites that hopefully hear what I’m saying.
But probably don’t.
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.