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Sports Still Filled With Glory, Eyeballs and…More $$$

“The broadcast networks remain bullish on the future of sports, even in a pandemic, which has motivated leagues to play seasons and forge exciting, historic moments despite ever-present health risks.”

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We’ve had our first confetti sightings, blizzards swirling in the faces of LeBron James and the Lakers as “I Love L.A.’’ echoed through a Florida bio-tank. “I guess, as Frank Sinatra would say, I did it my way,’’ said James, before grabbing partner-in-title-crime Anthony Davis for last call at the Disney World lakefront bar, knowing a seventh failure in the NBA Finals wouldn’t be legacy-friendly.

The NFL continues to produce dazzling quarterbacking performances, propane offenses and to-the-wire games that rouse diehards, gamblers and casual folk, with Josh Allen and the Bills Mafia creeping in on the ongoing Russell Wilson/Patrick Mahomes/Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady/Cam Newton debates. Aaron Rodgers has returned to his wondrous self, too, kicked in the ass by Matt LaFleur. The Stanley Cup finals remind us why overtime hockey is a delightful mind-glaze, even inside an igloo with seats covered by tarps. Crazy Mike Leach marched into Baton Rouge, made fun of how the dorms in the stadium have been replaced by suites, then had fun by upsetting LSU, the team whose coach thinks all his players have achieved herd immunity. Ed Orgeron might want to work on herd pass defense after allowing 623 passing yards and five touchdown passes to Mississippi State’s Air Raid.

“It’s better than average, I’ll tell you that,” Leach said after reducing the defending national champions to kitty meat. “We played LSU because New England, Green Bay and the Chiefs had somebody scheduled. So we played these guys.’’

That wasn’t even the biggest story in Covid-infested college football, where a team ravaged by the coronavirus (Kansas State) beat a behemoth that isn’t truthful about which players have it (Oklahoma). “Knock on wood, because who knows who’s gonna be available next week, you know?’’ said winning coach Chris Klieman, in a keeper quote for 2020. “And that’s kind of what everybody has to realize on our team and across college football. I hate to say that, but that’s unfortunately the reality we’re living in.’’

Oh, and through it all, as 23 states report rising Covid numbers in a land paralyzed and frightened about its future, Turner Sports decided for some brain-cramped reason — does someone have naughty pictures? — to pump $3.74 billion into Major League Baseball for seven seasons starting in 2022, even if a troubled sport is shuttered at that point by a labor impasse. This as Fox Corp. decided to leak, though the media weren’t inquiring, that it will pay the NFL up to $2 billion a year to keep its NFC-heavy Sunday package. Think the NBA, concerned about a future that might not include in-arena revenues that constitute 40 percent of the league’s business, isn’t excited to see these heady developments?

“The NFL has asked, I think, all the broadcasters to think about every package, and to think how would we monetize packages that we currently have or other packages differently,” Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch said in a call with investors. “So, we’re looking at all sorts of options.”

In.

A.

Pandemic.

Remember the scene in “I Am Legend’’ when the world stops? When Will Smith, survivor of an infection that turns humans into savage mutants and destroys most of the global population, stumbles through an apocalyptic Manhattan? Amid the rubble, the director should have made room for signs of life: namely, stadiums, ballparks and arenas. Because in our version of the sci-fi film, the demand for live sports by homebound America is bigger than anyone believed. That doesn’t mean the passion is the same, with many people simply trying to survive. Where I live, Los Angeles, I’m not seeing the gold t-shirts and purple car flags of Lakers championship runs past — though I suspect that will change the more James invokes Kobe Bryant. Point being, this stuff is being watched during an unprecedented 10-week run of championship events, which is why the only two entities thinking sensibly about Covid — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — flip-flopped and chose to attempt seasons. There was too much money to grab, you see, as President Trump badgered the Pac-12 in a tweet that smacked of passive-aggressive peer pressure. “You’re the only one now. Open up. Open up, Pac-12. Get going,’’ he wrote. “Said the same thing to Big Ten and they did, and now I’m saying it to Pac-12. You have time. Get going.’’

So, enabled by Trump, the Pac-12 also broke down. Only weeks earlier, University of Oregon president Michael Schill had expressed grave concern about Covid’s potential spread and aftereffects on athletes. Suddenly, advances in rapid testing made him and his brethren do the 180-degree Watusi? “Let me just say one thing it was not about,” Schill said. “This has nothing to do with money.’’ And the Oregon color scheme isn’t green, either.

If sports won’t achieve normalcy in this abnormal year, and maybe not for quite some time, it has stepped around the debris and somehow carried on. The attitude is business as usual even if athletes are infected by the virus, which runs counter to medical wisdom elsewhere in American life. If, say, anyone on the “Saturday Night Live’’ set tests positive for Covid when live shows start this weekend, executive producer Lorne Michaels will shut down all production and quarantine everyone for 14 days, including Alec Baldwin and Jim Carrey, meaning Trump and Joe Biden would be safe from humiliation for a chunk of October. When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife tested positive, it was big news.

Yet when starting cornerback A.J. Terrell tested positive, the Atlanta Falcons simply placed him on the reserve/COVID-19 list. And they dutifully went on to host the Bears, with the NFL insisting that contact tracing and subsequent tests cleared all of Terrell’s teammates and coaches. I am having difficulty believing it — a week earlier, as the Washington Post reported, the NFL didn’t identify a player who was kept out of a game with Covid symptoms. As I’ve written and said often, the flouting of coronavirus transparency is beyond disturbing — do we really trust anything the pro leagues and college conferences tell us about test results? It’s a lost cause; because privacy laws protect the infected, sports isn’t required legally to be forthright. The leagues, supported by media partners that downplay Covid developments while hyping up the games, wish to create a soothing effect among the masses: “You know, we have this. We can play through any old virus. Keep watching and drive up our ratings.’’ The NFL, in particular, also wants its broadcast partners — and streaming interests — to be of a mindset that outrageous multi-billion-dollar rights bids are safe.

The league better beware. Whether it’s head coaches violating sideline protocols by refusing to wear masks or, as reported by ESPN, the Raiders allegedly allowing an unauthorized team employee in the locker room, too many people are playing loose and reckless with the virus. That’s a recipe for an outbreak — or two or five — in a sport with no social distancing on the field. Blame the NFL office, which continues to express no doubt that an entire season will be completed without a hitch and a champion will be crowned on Super Bowl Sunday.

Certainly, the games are delivering so far. The office hot takes, via Zoom these days: Brady is better off in Tampa Bay and Newton is a better idea in New England … Nick Foles rescues another team in Chicago … the Saints are out of sorts in possibly Drew Brees’ final season … who’s fired first, Adam Gase or Dan Quinn? … is Jimmy Garoppolo now expendable? …. always remember the Titans … why we should feel sorry for Joe Burrow … why DK Metcalf must grip the football until he reaches the end zone … the Eagles should be ashamed for punting with 19 seconds left in overtime and taking a tie instead of trying a 64-yard field goal … the Rams should stop whining about a late call when they benefited from one in Week 1 … and how about those chaotic, undisciplined, 1-2 Cowboys?

As for college football, can we page Dr. Fauci, Dr. Anthony Fauci? How many players — again, unpaid and taking long-term health risks — will be infected this season as the Power Five conferences are aligned again and playing in the spirit of money? Notice how many programs continue to play on as epidemiologists say prayers, knowing campuses will be raging Covid hotspots as long as students party and don’t wear masks? For every Notre Dame, which postponed its game against Wake Forest, you have 10 Kansas States that celebrate wins while infected players are vomiting somewhere. Virginia Tech was missing 23 players due to Covid, including the starting QB, yet played and beat North Carolina State. At least those people are being honest. Most are like Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who said he won’t release Covid particulars because he doesn’t want to give an advantage to opponents. How did that go, Lincoln? It’s typical of a sport that somehow will stage a lucrative four-team playoff despite uneven schedules that border on the absurd.

Ask baseball if it’s wise to be reckless or overconfident. Only now — with no new positive tests reported in September, assuming the data is legitimate — can MLB present actual playoff story lines after a shotgun regular season from Covid hell. Still, with 16 teams heading into a so-called Bubble that involves four rounds and as many as 65 games, don’t virus troubles still lurk? In this unusual October pecking order, baseball trails the NFL, an intriguing NBA Finals  — James vs. the Heat and the godfather he bolted, Pat Riley — and college football lunacy in general interest terms.

It would help if baseball rocked us with exciting drama, which will be difficult as games already longer than ever push toward four hours in the postseason. Yet two decades of industry erosion didn’t stop Turner from joining Fox, which has secured the World Series long-term, in making questionable investments. Networks pump money into baseball because it brings the consistent live inventory that attracts advertisers. Even if every cable cord is cut at some point, the streaming generation is why Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN will keep bringing wheelbarrows of money to the NFL table, and why Turner will gamble on baseball. I’d like to think the guarantee of freshly loaded coffers will cause the owners and union to calm down, find common negotiating ground and let us focus on the game, which this October will include: the Dodgers, trying to avoid another postseason fall, with Clayton Kershaw needing to be the G.O.A.T. this time and not the goat … the Padres, who will wake up the millennials and Gen-Zers with one Fernando Tatis Jr. swing and dance … the Rays, maybe best equipped to win it all despite a humble following and wretched ballpark … the Braves, who have a MVP candidate, Freddie Freeman, who thought he was on his death bed while fighting Covid in July … both Chicago teams, the Cubs and White Sox, who only could meet in a World Series during a pandemic in Arlington, Texas … the Astros, who give America a common villain … and Mike Trout, er, never mind, as the Angels continue to waste his career.

My rooting interest is the Marlins, not just because they’re the Marlins — what are they doing here? — but because they overcame baseball’s first Covid blitz. Is it possible Derek Jeter knows what he’s doing?

Notice how all of this commotion — multi-billion-dollar TV deals, LeBron pursuing more history, NFL thrillers, collegiate unpredictability, a hockey champion crowned — is happening with few or no fans in the stands. I miss the fans and never again will take for granted their energy and place in the in-game experience. Sports leagues will mumble something about missing the fans, too.

But they really don’t. Because sports, even when played in makeshift and otherwise empty studios, is still an entertainment spectacle worth watching … and bankrolling with multiple billions. Not long ago, America was obsessed with three topics: Covid, Black Lives Matter and Trump vs. Biden. Now, we at least can marvel at how Joe Montana and his wife stopped a female intruder from kidnapping their 9-month-old grandchild in their Malibu home. And we can thank the heavens that Mike Leach exists.

BSM Writers

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.

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grant cohn

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.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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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.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav 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.

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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.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

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.

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