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The Bubble Worked, But The NBA is Collapsing Fast

“A long-prospering league has been slammed by all-time low ratings, $1.5 billion in losses and no assurance of when fans will return to arenas, obscuring a monumental success story: a COVID-free season.”

Jay Mariotti

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And to think we called it the Trouble Bubble. In truth, the NBA’s foray into bio-domery will be remembered as a resounding science-and-health success, a miracle in an otherwise abominable year in American life. If you had said not a single player would test positive for COVID-19 in more than three months of restrictive confinement, I’d have shoved nasopharyngeal swabs up your nostrils and demanded another test for recreational drugs.

Yet other than Lou Williams’ chicken-wing run at that acclaimed dining establishment — the Magic City strip club — there was no epidemiological drama at Disney World. The NFL has become an ignorant, whack-a-mole misadventure hellbent to wipe out more games, if not the entire season, especially when protocol-breakers such as the Tennessee Titans conduct secret practices during a team-wide outbreak. Major League Baseball, which bumbled through outbreaks, is inviting more team infections and mass public transmissions by allowing fans at playoff and World Series games in Texas.     

The Most Magical Place on Earth? It has been The Safest Place in the Pandemic. The Silverdome won, the coronavirus lost.

“It just demonstrates that these basic protocols we’re all following are working,’’ said commissioner Adam Silver, who should whisper to avoid the wrath of President Trump. “By wearing a mask, exercising the appropriate protocols, hand washing, appropriate cleanliness, et cetera, by maintaining physical distance, I think we’re learning it can be done, that you can strike a balance between public health and economic necessity.’’

Necessity, in this case, was not too strong a word. Because while the Bubble worked, the NBA’s future is in danger of bursting amid a growing financial crisis and all-time abysmal ratings. It was vital to complete a season and crown what is likely to be a historic champion and story line: LeBron James, winning one for the late Kobe Bryant, the previously dysfunctional Lakers and his own polarizing legacy while championing civil rights and, at 35 years and nine months, persevering in isolation when younger superstars succumbed to attrition. What awaits the league, by comparison, is seismic distress.

Unlike the NFL, which has maintained solid ratings as a reliable home-viewing spectacle, the NBA has been ravaged by the timing and fallout of the pandemic. The league will lose a reported $1.5 billion this season and might take a bigger bath next season, whenever it takes place, if arenas can’t accommodate game experiences — season-ticket holders, luxury-suite owners, corporate partnerships, concessions — that account for about 40 percent of the league’s total revenues. With a dismal outlook in the China market, the plight of some franchise owners whose businesses have been wracked by the virus and, yep, those grotesque TV numbers, no one knows what the NBA will look like in the future.

The players have made it clear the Disney World Bubble is a one-off. They also know the league would like them to sacrifice a chunk of their salaries next season, after accepting 15 percent cuts this season, part of what Silver calls “difficult discussions’’ that already have begun with the National Basketball Players Association. Conceivably, without a labor deal, the league could cancel the collective bargaining agreement via the “Force Majeure’’ clause — get used to that contractual phrase, the worst in sports — and shut down the season. The optimistic news is, Silver has maintained solid working relationships with player advocates such as James and Chris Paul and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts. That said, a league that has enjoyed prosperity for decades is slamming to a halt. And the players don’t want to hear about pay decreases after spending weeks or months in basketball lockdown.

So, with no widespread vaccine in sight, imagine a world without the NBA. Imagine attempting a season inside arenas when the country isn’t ready. No longer protected by a Bubble, will multiple players contract COVID as we’ve seen in the NFL, MLB and college football? The NHL, which also completed a COVID-free season, is pondering several regional Bubbles next season. Might the NBA consider the same experiment? “We need to negotiate everything: when training camp starts, when we start (the season), how we’re going to continue operating potentially under reduced BRI (basketball-related income), frankly,’’ Silver said at his annual Finals news conference. “I think we all understand the essential parameters. And in some of the conversations I’m having with individual players, I think everybody understands, just like in the country, that there’s public health considerations. And the economy is a public health issue, as well, working and trying to strike that right balance. So part of my job is to study what’s happening in other industries, what other leagues are doing, including international soccer leagues. All of that’s on the table right now.”

Armed with credibility in infectious disease prevention, Silver still is overreaching on one immediate goal: admitting spectators into arenas via rapid testing as early as January. It’s one thing to administer daily tests toplayers, coaches and team personnel in a Bubble; it’s quite another, and at substantial expense, to test fans who haven’t been in Bubbles. What if a test is inaccurate? The risks are significant — to the players, as well.

“Based on everything I’ve read, there’s almost no chance that there will be a vaccine at least that is widely distributed at least before we start the next season. I do not see the development of a vaccine as a prerequisite,” Silver said. “My sense with rapid testing is, we may not have 19,000 people in the building. We’ll see. But with appropriate protocols in distancing and with advanced testing, you will be able to bring fans back into the arenas. … The question is: Will there be truly rapid tests, point-of-care (tests) that don’t get sent to the lab? Are there instant results? A lot of pharmaceutical companies are focused on that. There’s a marketplace for that.

“I think we all know, nothing has really changed in this virus. I think the majority of states right now, cases are ticking back up again. There are predictions of a combination of flu and coronavirus season. What that will mean? People are moving back indoors. In some cases, people have COVID fatigue and aren’t following the same protocols. And so, we’re looking at a lot of the same factors we looked at in determining what to do this season. There are advancements clearly in the treatment of people once they get the disease. I think to identify quickly a player who is positive, sort of we’re seeing that in the NFL right now, watching closely what’s happening with that protocol, can they play through it, how will that work, will there be additional spread once they’ve identified a player that has it? So those are all the things we’re looking at.’’

The more he looks at the NFL, the more he has to be mortified. Which scene was more unsettling: Face-of-the-league Patrick Mahomes sharing a close-contact moment after Monday night’s game with Stephon Gilmore, who later tested positive for COVID? Or Titans players working out at a Nashville school when they were supposed to be avoiding one another? “I’ve followed every protocol, yet it happened to me,’’ Gilmore tweeted. “Please be sure to take this seriously.’’

Silver has bigger problems than the coronavirus. The American public has stopped watching his league. Facing competition that doesn’t exist in its normal June timeframe — the NFL, MLB and countless political news shows on Trump-Biden overload — the NBA Finals have crashed just as the two conference finals crashed. Not since the ‘80s, pre-Michael Jordan, have the first three Finals games rated so poorly. There was a spike in Game 4, after a Miami victory in which Heat star Jimmy Butler told James he was “in trouble,’’ but with the Lakers one victory from a championship, only southern California will be watching Friday night when the players don Black Mamba jerseys.

What should concern the league is that the matchup seemed compelling: James and the Lakers, a global megastar and a boutique franchise, facing the refreshing, ahead-of-schedule Heat and a snarling badass in Butler. Is it possible America is simply burned out on James after almost two decades in the public eye? Or, as Trump says, are certain segments of this country tired of the NBA protests, the game boycotts after the police shooting of Jacob Blake? “BLACK LIVES MATTER’’ has been draped across the Bubble courts since July. Are some people tuning out because of it?

“People are tired of watching the highly political @NBA,” Trump tweeted last month after NBA players continued to kneel before games. “Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back. I hope football and baseball are watching and learning because the same thing will be happening to them. Stand tall for our Country and our Flag!!!’’

Surprisingly, Silver told ESPN that the social justice banners likely will vanish. Is this a smart comment when asking for more payouts from a league of predominantly Black players? “I would say, in terms of the messages you see on the court and our jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time when we began these discussions with the players and what we all lived through this summer,’’ Silver said. “My sense is there’ll be somewhat a return to normalcy — that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor.’’ 

James has been at the forefront of activism, of course. It’s unfortunate if people are too distracted by it to recognize his accomplishment. Giannis Antetokounmpo, two-time defending MVP, was overwhelmed by the burden and went home early. Doc Rivers, who was supposed to finally one-up the Lakers in L.A., lost his job as Clippers coach and was hired in Philadelphia. Who’s still here, carrying so much on his massive shoulders? LeBron. He sensed that  the Lakers, with older pieces and Anthony Davis capable of fading from dominator to dud, might not have the energy to win a Game 7 if the Heat extended the series. So when James woke up from his pregame nap Tuesday, he knew what to write in a group text to his teammates.

“Must win.’’

“I felt like for me, personally, this was one of the biggest games of my career,” James said. “I wanted to relay that message to my teammates, the type of zone I was in, the type of moment it was and the kind of team we were playing against. … They are just a gritty, so damn-well-coached team. I feel like if we’re going to be a championship ballclub, if we want to really be a championship team, that we got to have that same grit and that same attitude. It was my mindset. I’m still in it.”

No, James will not be Greatest Of All Time is he wins his fourth title to accompany six misses. Jordan is the undeniable G.O.A.T., no matter what ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy says. “Comparison is the thief of joy,’’ he said. “It’s a far different discussion between who is the better player. I always say you have the first pick, I’ll have the second pick, and I’ll be very happy whichever player I got. But as far as career — and when you talk about longevity, records broken — I don’t think LeBron James’ career will take a backseat to anyone.’’

Yes, it will. But there’s no disgrace in that. Because in the weirdest year of our lives, he footprinted the unprecedented: spending three-plus months in a Bubble, away from his kids, and reminding a recently-doubting world that he is the most important athlete of his time: a political reformer, a franchise fixer, a mature leader who maximized disparate pieces and, still, a champion. He was the one who created a comfort zone for players before the Bubble, saying, “I have no reason not to trust Adam.’’ Sure enough, other than a few unspecified infections among Disney employees who weren’t tested daily, basketball was allowed to proceed, and LeBron James was allowed to survive and thrive.

You’d like to think the NBA will be fine without him. As seen already, it won’t be.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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