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Why Black Athletes Don’t Trust The Owners

Baseball’s latest debacle — an idea that two teams would stage a symbolic walkout, then return to play a game — is an ill-timed indictment of sports leagues and their cluelessness in fighting racial inequality.

Jay Mariotti

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We have two killer diseases in this country, one invisible and the other as blatant as seven gunshots fired toward a Black man’s back. If COVID-19 is insidious, police brutality is the naked terror. Imagine life as an African-American basketball player right now, locked down in a science globe by a league and two broadcast networks, watching the savagery in Wisconsin and figuring America is the same slave nation that oppressed their parents, grandparents and ancestors.

They are being paid, yes. But they do not trust The Man, so to speak. They wonder why Adam Silver, the commissioner who convinced them to resume this disjointed season, hasn’t been in the NBA Bubble and why the league’s interest in amplifying social justice initiatives has waned during the playoffs. And they don’t trust the owners, nearly all white men, even if sports has made many of the players wealthy and renowned. They want these billionaires to use their tentacles to influence politicians, regardless of party or persuasion, and stop the bloody massacre of Black people by white cops.

That message was just beginning to resonate Thursday throughout a $200-billion industry, allowing sports to avoid a devastating domino-effect stoppage, if only until the next shooting. But there to muck it up, as usual, were the socially ignorant klutzes of Major League Baseball, creating even more distrust a day after the NBA season was nearly shuttered by LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and other players feeling helpless in fighting racial inequality from their Disney World confinement. The MLB lords have been stuck in self-sabotage for decades, undermining their sport with endless scandals, a sluggish on-field product and an existential disconnect with younger people. Their failures are as commonplace as another 450-foot pummeling of a juiced ball.

Still, it’s beyond comprehension that this old-fart operation, long mired in a racial crisis with its scarcity of Black players and executives, not only would delay a unified response to the shooting of Jacob Blake but also turn a New York ceremony into a finger-pointing farce.

Mets' Brodie Van Wagenen apologizes to Rob Manfred for leaked video

Jackie Robinson shattered racial barriers in Brooklyn, a few miles from what is now Citi Field. He would have been ashamed to see the dysfunction in the hours preceding what should have been a simple edict: postponing the Mets-Miami Marlins game, following the lead of all other major-league games on the day’s schedule. I don’t trust the entirety of MLB leadership, so I’m still not sure who’s telling the truth and who might be in cover-up or throw-under-bus mode. But knowing the raw ineptitude of commissioner Rob Manfred, I’m not ready to assume Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen was mistaken when he accused Manfred of asking Mets and Marlins players to do the unthinkable: Walk off the field as a tribute to Blake, then return an hour later to … PLAY A BALLGAME?

The idea did come from someone’s convoluted mind. Would Manfred be so crass to prioritize scheduling issues, an ongoing quagmire in baseball’s nightmarish pandemic season, over the Black Lives Matter movement? It would be a fireable offense, another death knell for the sport, yet that is exactly what Van Wagenen suggested in the latest leaked video to burn a sports figure. Talking with two Mets colleagues in late afternoon as the fate of the game was being decided, Van Wagenen ripped Manfred as a leader who “doesn’t get it’’ while failing to understand that Mets players had zero interest in playing. What the loose-lipped GM didn’t know is what everyone should know in the 21st century: His conversation, which referenced an earlier meeting with Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, was being streamed on MLB.com. Minutes later, the video was posted on the team site, where it was discovered by a 20-year-old New Yorker who naturally shipped the clip into the breaking news viralsphere.

Said Van Wagenen to the others: “Baseball’s trying to come up with a solution, saying, `Oh, you know what would be super powerful’ — the three of us here, this can’t leave this room — `you know it’d be really great if you just have them all take the field and then they leave the field and then they come back and play at 8:10. And I was like, ‘What?’ I told Jeff … these guys aren’t playing. They’re not playing. But that’s Rob’s instinct.

“At a leadership level, he doesn’t get it. He just doesn’t get it.’’

He’s right. Manfred doesn’t get it, period, about anything. But that isn’t the point here. Three white men named Brodie, Rob and Jeff were making America Look Stupid Again. Had they already forgotten the powerful words of the previous night from Mets outfielder Dominic Smith? Weeping and choking up during an interview, Smith carved himself a place in history by saying this of the Blake shooting and racism in America: “The most difficult part is to see that people still don’t care. For this to continually happen, it just shows the hate in people’s hearts. That just sucks, you know. Being a black man in America is not easy.’’ All you need to know about the Mets is that the goofish Alex Rodriguez, part of a group angling to buy the team, would be a marked boardroom improvement over Fred Wilpon and his son. So, of course, they botched the Smith moment.

What followed was pure tragicomedy. Van Wagenen, an ill-advised hire with no management experience after a career as a sports agent, released a statement, saying he had the story wrong. It was Jeff Wilpon’s idea, he said — the most overt case of ratting out a boss in recent sports memory.

Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen apologizes after video surfaces accusing Rob  Manfred of suggesting one-hour walkout - CBSSports.com

“Jeff Wilpon called Commissioner Manfred this afternoon to notify him that our players voted not to play,” he said. “They discussed the challenges of rescheduling the game. Jeff proposed an idea of playing the game an hour later. I misunderstood that this was the Commissioner’s idea. In actuality, this was Jeff’s suggestion. The players had already made their decision so I felt the suggestion was not helpful. My frustration with the Commissioner was wrong and unfounded. I apologize to the Commissioner for my disrespectful comments and poor judgement in inaccurately describing the contents of his private conversation with Jeff Wilpon.”

Later, in case everyone didn’t hear him the first time, Van Wagenen reiterated his apology during a conference call. “I have put myself and this organization into this conversation in a way that takes away from the real point,’’ he said. “I’m disappointed in myself.”

Or, was he was dutifully covering Manfred’s ass, with Wilpon’s approval, so the commissioner could avoid epic humiliation and nationwide calls to replace him with whatever fool wants the gig?

If Wilpon did hatch the plan, as he claimed, just be happy the Mets are on the sales block, assuming anyone really wants them. “To clear up any misunderstandings, it was my suggestion to potentially look into playing the game later because of scheduling issues,” Wilpon said. “Brody’s misunderstanding of a private conversation was and is inexcusable.’’

Somewhere on a Florida campus, LeBron was cringing. He had come close to taking down a league — and perhaps all of North American sports, by extension — when he walked out of a volatile players’ meeting after both Los Angeles teams, James’ Lakers and the Clippers, had voted to end the NBA postseason and go home. Now, here was living proof that executives and commissioners are clueless about social injustice. The players who questioned James in the ballroom might have said he was being selfish, that he could afford financially to pop the Bubble when they needed the paychecks. But if LeBron was thinking about himself, it was his legacy as an activist, which currently takes precedence over a fourth championship. After a night of sleep and a cooling of heads, the NBA playoffs carry on. But the games have lost their momentum, after a fun ride of basketball story lines, and any chatter about title contenders has been replaced by when the players next threaten to ditch the Bubble.

“You forget that being in the bubble is hard,’’ said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who thought the season was over when his team initially voted no. “I don’t think it’s coincidence that everyone in this bubble seems to be a little more emotional. I’m not kidding, it’s true. I think part of the effect of being, like, jammed together every day, it has had that effect on everyone.”     Besides, James is busy fighting the White House. “NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences,’’ said Jared Kushner, President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, as the league was postponing two days of games.

Jared Kushner intends to reach out to LeBron James about NBA boycott

After James fired back a tweet — “Change doesn’t happen with just talk!! It happens with action and needs to happen NOW! — Kushner offered to make peace. “Look, if LeBron James reached out to the White House or we could reach out to him, we’re happy to talk with him and say, `Look, let’s both agree on what we want to accomplish, and let’s come up with a common pathway to get there,’ ‘’ he said.

Trump was too busy ignoring the coronavirus during his re-nomination speech to react specifically to James, which surely bugs LeBron. “I don’t know much about the NBA protest,” Trump said. “I know their ratings have been very bad because I think people are a little tired of the NBA. They’ve become like a political organization, and that’s not a good thing.”

At least NBA players have an ally in Silver, though a message was sent through ESPN reporter Marc Spears that the commissioner needs to get “a helicopter’’ and invest more Bubble time with them. It could be worse: Their leader could be Manfred. That such a debacle could happen in such a sensitive time in history is another indictment of a man who shouldn’t have his job. Manfred can’t even control the buffoonery of a team across the East River from his midtown Manhattan office, much less guide baseball through an absurdist pandemic season interrupted by virus outbreaks and game shutdowns. He, too, issued a statement: “Over the past two days, players on a number of Clubs have decided not to play games. I have said both publicly and privately that I respect the decisions and support the need to address social injustice. I have not attempted in any way to prevent players from expressing themselves by not playing, nor have I suggested any alternative form of protest to any Club personnel or any player. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong.”

Do you see a denial in there about Manfred asking the Mets and Marlins to play an hour after a symbolic walkout? Me, neither.

Only the NHL, which finally postponed games after criticism for not doing so the previous night, has had a weaker response to Jacob Blake than MLB. The Mets and Marlins did share a tender moment, standing for a moment of silence and placing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on home plate before leaving the park — without a ballgame. Smith led the Mets onto the field, his tears having inspired the sports world. “It’s still overwhelming at this moment, just to see how moved my peers are — my teammates, my brothers, the front office, the coaching staff, everybody who talks to me on a daily basis,’’ he said. “Just to see how moved they were, it made me feel really good inside. It made me feel like we are on the right path of change.’’

Looking Back On Inaugural Jackie Robinson Day At Shea | Metsmerized Online

The silence lasted 42 seconds. It came on the eve of Jackie Robinson Day, when every major-leaguer wears No. 42, even if a pandemic shifted the date from its usual April 15. The players and their tribute, it seemed, had saved the commissioner and Mets management from themselves.

But the reprieve was only temporary, as always. “It needs to be an ongoing thing,’’ Miami’s Lewis Brinson said of the Robinson tribute. “It can’t just be one day out of the baseball year that we bring light to everything.’’

“I think he would be amazed at the lack of progress in his eyes,” said Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain. “The fact we’re talking about this in 2020, I don’t see the progress in that. It’s almost like we’re going backwards.”

If this is a time machine, it might take us to the point of no return.

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The NBA Play-In Tournament is Simply About Money

By most estimates, the PIT has added millions of dollars in value for the league’s broadcast partners.

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Graphic for the NBA Play in Tournament

No, the NBA play-in tournament won’t save the league. But that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t matter.

In truth, the PIT, as we’ll call it, has done almost exactly what the league’s owners had hoped it would. It drives up a little interest in the NBA’s product before the playoffs proper begin this weekend. It’s sort of an appetizer for the courses to come.

It also drives a few bucks into the pockets of the league’s broadcast partners, and for Adam Silver & Co., that’s the point, of course. Aesthetics aside, if the PIT wasn’t a moneymaker, we’d never speak of it again, very happily.

This creature, after all, is a bit of a mess. It’s clearly contrived. It was hatched during the pandemic as the NBA tried to figure out how to survive its 2020 bubble summer, which tells you most of what you need to know about the motives.

And it can skew ugly. This week’s offerings featured two solidly sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams, Chicago and Atlanta. Under the NBA’s previous top-8 format, the East’s lowest-qualifying playoff team would’ve been Miami at 46-36. That’s respectable.

But the PIT isn’t about respectable; it’s about spectacle. As this year’s version got underway, there were a couple of tantalizing storylines – only a couple, but that’s all you usually need.

In the West, teams featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Zion Williamson, and De’Aaron Fox were all jockeying for their post-season survival. Why? Because their respective teams were merely okay for most of the season, never great.

But you can see why Silver and the NBA owners favored adding a few more playoff possibles in the first place. Again, going back to the top-8 grid of playoffs past, both the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings would’ve been on the outside looking in. Instead, viewers got a Warriors-Kings elimination game on Tuesday night.

The notion of seeing Curry and his crew go out in a one-game tire fire is generally going to be worth a few eyeballs – and that’s the whole ballgame here. Last year’s six PIT games, broadcast on ESPN and TNT, averaged 2.64 million viewers, a 5% increase from the year before.

That’s how this works. By most estimates, the PIT has added millions of dollars in value for the league’s broadcast partners. You can argue that, depending upon the year, the 7-8-9-10 configuration also heightens interest in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, simply because nobody wants to be relegated to the 9-10 elimination game.

It all matters to a league that, like most sports enterprises in America, is trying to figure out the viewer landscape amid a rapidly changing market. Silver acknowledged as much last fall in an interview with Yahoo Sports, saying that the decline in cable subscriptions “has disproportionately impacted the NBA” because the league’s fan demographic trends younger but the remaining cable audience is older.

“Our young audience isn’t subscribing to cable,” Silver told Yahoo, “and those fans aren’t finding our games.”

There’s no doubt the NBA is addressing that issue as it negotiates with TNT and ESPN, whose rights expire in 2025. While cable options might be cut back, the league has to find a way to expand its reach through a significant streaming partnership. It could be part of the impending ESPN/Fox/Warner platform or something else, but it needs to be easily identifiable and easily accessed.

You’d go a little crazy trying to figure out where the NBA stands in terms of viewership. Its opening night last fall was a bust, but the new in-season tournament was a ratings hit. The league got smoked by the NFL on Christmas Day, enjoyed a huge uptick on All-Star Saturday Night, then played a desultory All-Star Game only to see viewer numbers go up from the year before. (Granted, that was a rise from an all-time ratings low.)

Silver, who’s wrapping up a contract extension that will keep him in the commissioner’s job through the end of the decade, has been warily eyeing the TV numbers for years. He isn’t new to any of the concerns, and he has been forcefully behind both the in-season tournament and this PIT creation, which everyone involved has no problem labeling a blatant viewership ploy.

That’s because, for lack of a crisper phrase, it is what it is. The play-in is every bit as basic as it looks, and it was put in place for no reason other than to expand the playoff field and generate a little extra heat through the schedule’s final few weeks, along with these early days of the post-season.

And it generates millions. For Silver and Co, that’s the end of the conversation.

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Verne Lundquist Deserved All The Praise and More During Final Broadcast

Verne Lundquist might be the last of a dying breed. And for all of the fantastic moments he’s had behind the microphone, there was a missed opportunity for one final hurrah.

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A photo of Verne Lundquist
(Photo: Paul David Morris)

Verne Lundquist deserved to call the final holes of The Masters for CBS Sports on Sunday.

While celebrating his 40th time calling golf’s grandest stage, it also marked the end of his illustrious broadcasting career. Lundquist has been a fixture not only at Augusta but also on CBS Sports properties like the SEC on CBS, the Army/Navy Game, and the NCAA Tournament.

But Verne Lundquist is part of the last of a dying TV play-by-play breed.

He was never going to make his final assignment about him.

When you tuned into a broadcast being called by the 83-year-old, you were bound to witness a broadcasting masterclass. The ability to weave humor in and out of the broadcast, along with tenacious prep work, fantastic storytelling, and an intricate knowledge of letting the pictures tell the story were Lundquist’s trademarks.

Take, for instance, his call of the famous “Kick Six” in the 2013 Iron Bowl. In 25 seconds of action, the only thing he says is “On the way … No. Returned by Chris Davis. Davis goes left. Davis gets a block. Davis has another block! Chris Davis! No flags! Touchdown, Auburn! An answered prayer!”

He didn’t speak for the next 65 seconds, letting the pictures — some of which have lived on in infamy — tell the story.

It wasn’t overhyped catchphrases, screaming, or “look at me!” energy that has somewhat permeated modern television play-by-play that made Lundquist a TV legend. It was a dedication to the craft.

It was great to see so many tributes from not just fellow broadcasters but also from some of the PGA Tour players — especially Tiger Woods — for Lundquist in his final assignments.

Make no mistake about it: Verne Lundquist is a titan of the industry and deserved all of the praise that was heaped on him during his final assignment. And I’m not unreasonable, I don’t know that you could expect Jim Nantz — who gave up calling the NCAA Tournament — to step aside for Lundquist to call the final holes of The Masters, when he gave up another high-profile gig to spend more time focusing on golf’s biggest tournament.

But when a guy like Verne Lundquist — who you could argue belongs on the Mount Rushmore of TV play-by-players — is ending his career at a place that he says “means just about everything, professionally,” I think it has to enter someone’s brain to give him the chance to make the call.

Now, maybe the most likely scenario is that Nantz, or retiring CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, did invite Lundquist to wrap his career by cementing Scottie Scheffler’s place in immortality at Augusta National. But watching Verne Lundquist from afar, it’s likely he decided to not shine the spotlight on himself. A quality that took him to the top of the sports broadcasting mountaintop.

I hope Lundquist appreciates all of the admiration shown to him over the past week, from contemporaries and those who participated in the action alike. It was our honor, and our privilege, to listen to Verne Lundquist for all those years. Not only at The Masters, but the Olympics, college football and basketball, and beyond.

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Q Myers, ‘GameNight’ Places Women’s Basketball at the Forefront on ESPN Radio

“I think everything we’ve done has built up where we continue to allow ourselves to do more because of what we’ve done and our consistency.”

Derek Futterman

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GameNight – ESPN Radio
(Illustration) Q Myers – Courtesy: Allen Kee, ESPN Images | Tara Sledjeski, Rachael Robinson – Courtesy: Mike Urrunaga, ESPN | Madison Booker – Courtesy: Stephen Spielman, Texas Athletics | Kiki Iriafen – Courtesy: Karen Amrbose Hickey, Stanford Athletics | Sonia Citron – Courtesy: Notre Dame Athletics | Audi Crooks; Addy Brown; Anna Miller – Courtesy: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register | Ellie Mitchell – Courtesy: Princeton Athletics | Emme Shearer – Courtesy: Portland Athletics | Lauren Jensen – Courtesy: Creighton Athletics | Carly Thibault-DuDonis – Courtesy: Fairfield Athletics | Lindsay Gottlieb – Courtesy: USC Athletics | Joddie Gleason – Courtesy: Eastern Washington Athletics | Tamara Inoue – Courtesy: UCI Athletics | Lindy La Rocque – Courtesy: UNLV Athletics | Megan Griffith – Courtesy: Columbia Athletics | Katie Meier – Courtesy: Katie Meier Hurricane Basketball Camp | Karl Smesko – Courtesy: Brady Young Photo, FGCU Athletics | Vic Schaefer – Courtesy: Texas Athletics | J.R. Payne – Courtesy: Southern Utah Athletics | Jeff Mittie – Courtesy: The Topeka Capital-Journal | Additional Images – Courtesy: Facebook, Instagram

It all started with an idea and aspiration that the momentum would persist and continue to move in the right direction. Qiant Myers, a longtime radio veteran who works as the program director for the Las Vegas Sports Network and hosts several programs centered on the Las Vegas Raiders, was looking to do something different on ESPN Radio GameNight leading up to the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. With March Madness rapidly approaching, the program devised a strategy to implement discussion about the teams and players within the bracket, diligently preparing by booking guests to be interviewed and contribute to the discussion.

Myers and his colleagues take part in a weekly listening session in which they review different parts of GameNight and discuss both strengths and weaknesses. ESPN Radio afternoon program director Mike Urrunaga often joins in these calls to provide his insights and analysis, looking to bolster the quality of the on-air product. The program utilizes a rotation of several hosts, including Myers, Emmett Golden and Jonathan Zaslow, all of whom bring a consistent approach to serve as a source of information and entertainment while inviting listener opinions.

Being based in Las Vegas, Nev., Myers can evince the presence of women’s sports and perceives its rapid proliferation in the marketplace. The Las Vegas Aces have won the WNBA championship in the last two seasons, while the University of Las Vegas is widely considered to have one of the strongest women’s basketball programs in the country.

At the same time, he recognized the success of new teams in establishing fanbases over time, including the Vegas Golden Knights. The defending Stanley Cup champions frequently fill T-Mobile Arena to standing-room capacity, embedded within the zeitgeist and sports renaissance taking place in the city. Concurrently, the Aces averaged at the top of the WNBA in average attendance last season and have leveraged on-court play and stars to help expand its fanbase. With the possibility of more professional sports leagues considering the city for relocation and/or expansion, Las Vegas is among the quintessential examples of sustaining and thriving with both women’s and men’s sports organizations.

“I felt like I already had a foot in the door because I’m paying attention to what’s going on,” Myers said. “I’ve been watching women’s basketball for a long time and really appreciate it.”

When Myers demonstrated his avidity for women’s basketball prior to the start of March Madness, his co-workers recognized that predilection and capitalized on it. In essence, GameNight worked to become the radio home of the tournament by crafting a distinctive sound and disseminating it en masse. The initiative was not only about introducing the athletes to listeners, but also showcasing their personalities and establishing an interpersonal connection.

“I’m a big believer in if the hosts are passionate about something, that passion will carry and it will draw listeners in,” show producer Tara Sledjeski said. “Anything you do – if your hosts are into it – I think you can sell it to the audience because they’re going to be interested in it if the hosts are into it.”

There were several coaches that appeared on the program whose husbands are members of the coaching staff. Additionally, some of the players presented anecdotes about how they would watch and attend women’s basketball games when they were younger and became inspired to pursue the career themselves. By humanizing the guests on GameNight, the interviews were able to more readily appeal to listeners, especially those who are either unfamiliar with or unwilling to accept the burgeoning pantheon of women’s sports.

“I think it is about finding those personal things of why you should be interested in these people, and I think with all sports, it always comes down to the stars, which we’ve especially learned with women’s basketball,” Sledjeski said. “Caitlin Clark – everyone cares about Caitlin Clark, so I think it’s just finding things that will make people resonate with these girls.”

Clark in particular has stood out among the pack of incoming WNBA players, catapulting to become one of the most eminent athletes in the world. Clark was recently drafted No. 1 overall by the Indiana Fever and became the top-selling draft pick in Fanatics history, garnering demand for her jersey from basketball fans around the world.

Nielsen measured the rematch of last year’s National Championship Game between Iowa and LSU to amass an average of 12.3 million viewers. Peaking at 16.1 million, the game marked the most-watched college basketball game to be presented on ESPN platforms before the Final Four.

ESPN went on to break that record two more times in the next five days, beginning with the Final Four game featuring Iowa and UConn that averaged 14.4 million viewers. Although Iowa did not win the National Championship Game, it posted a valiant effort against South Carolina in a game that attained 18.9 million viewers, ending tournament coverage that was up 121% year-over-year.

The metric was significant for Sledjeski, who grew up watching men’s sports and playing softball. When the sport was removed from the Olympic Games in 2008, she wondered what encapsulated the acme of the game, and the fact that these athletes could no longer win gold medals in the games was disheartening and perplexing. Watching the women’s National Championship game outdraw the men’s iteration for the first time in the history of March Madness represented a monumental achievement and step towards further prosperity.

While it can be difficult to attribute a direct correlation, those involved believe that GameNight had an effect on interest in women’s basketball based on observation and logic. Associate producer Rachael Robinson, who also works on the evening program Amber & Ian, enjoyed taking part in the tournament-specific endeavor, during which she learned about personnel within the sport and their indelible impact on its growth.

“Looking back, that was a fantastic idea,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of fun to be ahead of the game. I always enjoy it. People might question you in the moment, but once it blows up, because you know it’s going to eventually, you look like a genius.”

Since GameNight is under the ESPN company umbrella, the program is able to leverage the deep roster of multiplatform talent and have them on for segments during the show. For example, basketball analysts Andraya Carter and Carolyn Peck appeared on the show to discuss the tournament. Following the Final Four games, analyst Jimmy Dikes and reporter Holly Rowe also joined the program to provide their expertise within the overall discussion. ESPN recently reached a new, eight-year media rights agreement with the NCAA that grants the network rights to 40 championships, including all rounds of the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.

“It’s great that ESPN has the rights to all this,” Sledjeski explained, “because it helps us then to bring in our analysts and bring in people that were there and people that were on the call to give that insight of what’s going on.”

“They did such a fantastic job that it made ESPN, really truly the home not only on radio, but on TV,” Myers added. “….I felt like we were the voices leading into the tournament on the radio. I feel like it all worked together.”

Before the tournament began, the GameNight team worked to secure and feature several key figures from women’s basketball, such as Notre Dame guard and ACC defensive player of the year Hannah Hidalgo. Big 12 Conference co-player of the year Madison Booker, Pac-12 Conference most improved player of the year Kiki Iriafen and MAAC coach of the year Carly Thibault-DuDonis were also among the guests at this time. Aside from discussing the games themselves, the program also found ways to engage in storytelling that would effectuate a comprehensive synopsis as to their personas both on and off the court.

“We’re going to do all the research, [and] we’re going to get all the fun facts,” Myers said. “Tara does a great job of that, and obviously I’m going to do my research at the same time…. We did the show before the show because we were just so busy grinding, but that’s the beauty of it.”

As the producer of GameNight, Sledjeski knows that it made the program a more compelling listen in going beyond the action on the court. Certain answers and details stood out within its coverage pertaining to a variety of topics, one of which was a joint interview with Iowa State freshman center Audi Crooks and freshman forward Addy Brown. The teammates became close friends throughout the season and discussed the camaraderie between them and the rest of the team. Furthermore, the program welcomed UNLV head coach Lindy La Rocue who shed light on balancing her personal and professional responsibilities.

“My mind is still blown by her story because last year, she literally had her first child in early November and she was back on the sidelines coaching a week later,” Sledjeski said. “That is mind-blowing, and she gave a great answer about her daughter always being around the team and how she can’t separate things.”

Amid the tournament, GameNight had a plethora of athletes and coaches on the airwaves for interviews, including Oklahoma forward Skylar Vann, Oregon State guard Talia von Oelhoffen and North Carolina guard Alyssa Ustby. Sledjeski informed members of the show to tag the specific universities and basketball programs who the players were representing, which led to several subsequent posts and additional engagement. Robinson was responsible for posting audio from these conversations, and she hopes to augment the breadth of digital distribution accompanying the national radio exposure.

“I really enjoyed it because it was different, because a lot of shows were paying attention to it because it was an initiative and it was going so well,” Robinson said, “but they were very good at getting the lesser-known stories out of the tournament and really pushing them and becoming the home of the tournament.”

In addition to guest interviews and discussion on the air, GameNight also cultivated a social media campaign where it ranked and created a bracket to determine the best Division I basketball program in the country. Women’s and men’s programs engaged in head-to-head battles determined by fan votes on social media about who would win each matchup. Sledjeski presented the concept and seeded the teams for the six-round competition situated similar to March Madness. There were 16 teams within each division (East; Midwest; South; West), narrowing the bracket from 64 to the Final Four.

“That was a whole lot of work to put that bracket together,” Myers said. “Just by her wanting to put that together got me excited about it. It made me want to be like, ‘Yeah, let’s lean into this. Let’s do this. If she’s willing to put in that work, let’s lean into it, let’s have some fun with it and let’s talk about it.’”

Visualizing the competition in a bracket format tied into the theme surrounding March Madness, but determining the exact theme of the venture took several iterations. As she continued to ruminate on how such an effort could surface and elicit broad interest, she began to weigh teams experiencing current success and those who had been perennial champions of yore.

“The more you think about it, it’s really tough with all sports and if you’re trying to cover all pros and programs,” Sledjeski said. “I was trying to narrow it down, and I really don’t know what popped into my head, but I thought it’d be really cool when you think about, ‘Okay, we know the UConn women are doing really good; also then how do they compare to the Duke men?’”

ESPN Radio shared polls on X with two basketball teams and asked users to vote on which one was the stronger all-time program. After 60 rounds of voting, the championship matchup came down to the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball program against the UConn Huskies women’s basketball program. In the end, the UConn women’s team garnered just over 92% of the final vote, taking home the championship in the bracket competition. Monitoring the engagement and interaction on social media, Robinson noticed that there was palpable enthusiasm towards the project. In fact, many programs from around the country recognized the campaign and implored their fanbase to vote in an effort to capture the title.

“It was a very interesting way to look at it because it wasn’t the same, ‘Oh, here’s this; here’s this,’” Robinson said. “It was, ‘Look at the history of these two sports and pick the best one.’”

With the book on this year’s edition of March Madness closed, it does not indicate the end of covering women’s sports on GameNight and ESPN Radio. As teams across the WNBA prepare for opening night next month, collegiate stars including Caitlin Clark, Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso aim to make an impact and assimilate into the league. Building off the momentum from the tournament, ESPN Radio intends to feature a WNBA player every week of the season, an effort that will likely coincide with games on television.

Viewership of the league last season reached a 17-year high with an average of 440,000 people watching games presented on ESPN, ABC and ESPN2. With national media rights for both the WNBA and NBA expiring after next season, respective league commissioners Cathy Engelbert and Adam Silver have addressed the growth of both entities. ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery are currently in an exclusive negotiating window with the NBA that runs through next Monday, April 22. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro believes that the WNBA will be included in a potential renewal with the NBA, a league that is reportedly aiming to implement a regular streaming element into its portfolio.

For now, GameNight is focused on utilizing its resources and platform to drive awareness of and interest in women’s sports through storytelling and regular discussion. The shifting paradigm within athletics has placed women’s sports at the center of conversations rather than it being disregarded or considered an afterthought.

“I think that it’s continuing to get better and growing, and obviously the star power is always going to help because now there’s people in this tournament obviously that watch the game because Caitlin Clark was fantastic,” Myers said. “Now hopefully, now there’s sticking power [and] now hopefully they come back and say, ‘Oh man, let me see it again…’ Now I feel like I can feature more as well, and it’s appreciated instead of, ‘Oh, they’re trying to force feed it because they’re trying to play nice with the ladies.’”

Deloitte projects women’s sports to generate more than $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year, coverage of which comes from ESPN through its radio, television and digital platforms. The team at GameNight and ESPN Radio have discerned and witnessed audience interest in various leagues, teams and games themselves that comprise women’s sports. These discussions are not derivative or contrived in nature; rather, they are genuine opinions that emanate from keen focus on implications and outcomes therein. GameNight intends to continue shattering glass ceilings while not allowing prejudicial, misogynistic commentaries to impede the progress towards equality.

“I think everything we’ve done has built up where we continue to allow ourselves to do more because of what we’ve done and our consistency,” Myers said. “…We’ve earned the right to continue to build up what we’ve already started and see how far it can go.”

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