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NOT WATCHING SPORTS? WATCH THE RAYS

Big brains and high character are why Tampa Bay, a low-revenue miracle, should be an American treasure, having jumped on the sinister Astros and purged the haughty Yankees as a country says, “Who?”

Jay Mariotti

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The Tampa Bay Rays play ball the way America should operate. They maximize the mind and shun the ego. They won’t suffer cheats or fat cats. They waste no money, seeking efficiency by passing along their stealth DNA to identified castoffs, homegrown talent and modest free agents. They don’t bully with exit velocity, preferring finesse and earthy methods not common in a homer-or-whiff era: airtight pitching, circus catches, scratch-and-sniff run invention and deep preparation.     

Oakland A's news: Tampa Bay Rays one win away from sweeping Houston Astros  in 2020 ALCS - Athletics Nation

They are seen but not heard. The pandemic doesn’t faze them because they’re used to almost no one watching them, stuck inside a dated dome in a sleepy, forgotten town that still needs a state attached to the dateline. You inspect them for nine innings and wonder how in the hell they won the game. And even if you follow sports fairly closely, I bet you can’t name five of their players without Googling and might not know who manages them.    

Yet here they are, just the small-revenue, no-pretense franchise around which this nation can rally. Having eliminated the haughty Yankees and their bulging payroll and needing one more win to purge the scandalous Astros and their unrepentant smugness, the Rays are stalking the World Series. If you don’t care, ask why you’d prefer football when the NFL and major college conferences are losing to COVID-19, to the point Nick Saban, arguably the greatest of college coaches, contracted the virus. The Rays are anything but a fluke, winners of 17 of their last 22. And after Houston star Jose Altuve struggled with a case of the throwing yips in the American League championship series, you wonder if this is the work of the baseball gods, exacting karma and justice that benefited the type of smart, honest, humble, industrious team appreciate by the purists.     

“We have guys that play the game the right way,” said the acrobatic centerfielder, Kevin Kiermaier, the one player you might know. “We don’t have a whole lot of household names, but we have plenty of well-above-average major-league players in our clubhouse. We know we can play, and we are thriving on the big stage.”     

If nothing else in this disjointed season, October is providing fresh material for viewers who are too immersed in pre-election drama to watch sports. The Rays are worth watching. The Dodgers would be, too, if they’re finally serious about winning a championship for the first time in 32 years. But even after dropping a 15-spot on Atlanta, we still aren’t sure, their fate again dependent on the health and performance of Clayton Kershaw, whose tragi-dramas are as predictable as Halloween. Are they back on track? Or are they setting up their fans for more misery? Besides, America doesn’t want to see Los Angeles — a place it can’t stand anyway — win a World Series and NBA Finals in the same month. It feels right that an unassuming spot such as Tampa Bay might claim a pandemic double, the Rays possibly following the NHL’s Lightning while, over at the Buccaneers facility, Tom Brady is still holding up four fingers and pleading for another down. The people won’t riot in St. Petersburg, Fla., the way the clowns did the other night in L.A. That wouldn’t fit the pervasive aesthetic: the Rays’ Ways.  

Who cares if Fox Sports is dying about a likely Series between the Rays and Braves? So what if the games could be played in a peanut field on the Florida-Georgia line? The Rays feast on their arcane identity, thrilled to have buried a Yankees behemoth described as TV’s “golden child” by reliever Pete Fairbanks. Was he wrong?

“We may as well ruin their day up in Connecticut,” he said, referring to ESPN. “We’re fine with it. We love it. We’re a good club, and we’re trying to go out there and win no matter how big the market is for the team we’re playing across.”     

Hopefully, viewers will abandon marquee bias and give the Rays a shot. They are a welcome changeup in a sport that could use the antithesis of big-city arrogance and blueblood wealth. Unlike the Yankees and Dodgers, they don’t have the financial freedom and market size to throw $324 million at Gerrit Cole or commit $365 million to Mookie Betts for 12 seasons. This has been the story in Tampa Bay forever: a franchise hamstrung by local politics that prevent a deal for a new ballpark, forcing the Rays to explore playing half-seasons in Montreal as a two-nation franchise while stuck with the usual abysmal crowds in dismal Tropicana Field. Only two MLB bottom-feeders, the Orioles and Pirates, had lower payrolls this season, and in recent seasons, the Rays have been dead last. Instead of succumbing to a plebeian baseball status, they have refused to settle. They are convinced that their mantra of outworking and out-strategizing the competition is failsafe, with no better proof than their record in one-run games: 15-5.     

“Oh, I feel we have it. And I think the guys in our clubhouse feel we have it — that knack,” said manager Kevin Cash, someone else with whom we’re beginning to familiarize ourselves. “The one thing you learn with our club is, we’re in a lot of tight ball games. And tight ball games are going to teach you — or you’re going to have to teach yourself — how to win those. And that’s mistake-free. Playing clean, doing things that just don’t allow the extra 90 feet or the extra baserunner. … There’s no margin for error. And I think our guys take that approach every night when they take the field. Hopefully, it’s relentless. We show that we can do it in all facets of the game.”

Rays' Kevin Cash: 'Nobody thought we were going to be okay'

“We want to be that complete team,” Kiermaier said. “We want to be able to hit, pitch, play defense, run the bases, do it all. I think we’re pretty close to all those at the elite level.”     

So how did they get here?     

Al Gorithm got them here. That is my hybrid nickname for the analytics geekery that took over baseball front offices years ago, but the Rays are the true “Ivy Leaguers” — as Alex Rodriguez grudgingly calls them — who have mastered the art of accomplishing the most with the least by being smarter than the pack. Major-market franchises have poached Tampa Bay for executives and managers, but here’s where the success story turns fascinating. Andrew Friedman leaves for the Dodgers, with their unlimited resources, and keeps falling short. Chaim Bloom leaves for the Red Sox, helps the high-heeled owners downsize by trading Betts and dumping other big salaries — and has been targeted by a tough New England crowd as a small-timer. Joe Maddon left the dugout for Chicago, where he won the unthinkable World Series with the Cubs, then was fired before landing in Anaheim, where his first season was another disastrous waste of Mike Trout’s prime.     

Meanwhile, inside a 1989-built relic that looks like a Campbell’s soup can with its lid caved in, the same constants simply carry on — owner Stuart Sternberg, top executives Matt Silverman and Brian Auld — while Cash arguably is an upgrade over Maddon as baseball boss Erik Neander continues the work of Friedman and Bloom. We’ve seen other franchises with self-styled blueprints, from the Cardinals to the Dodgers to wherever Theo Epstein works, but the Rays’ Ways have been remarkably sustainable. This is about more than hatching trends such as an opener to replace the traditional starting pitcher and defensive shifts that drive us nuts but work within the Cash machine. This is about still using scouts — remember them? — to do investigative legwork on potential acquisitions and make sure a player’s character translates to winning. Notice how the Rays deftly unearth and project specific players for their system, don’t give up much for them, then optimize them once in uniform. That’s why the Yankees and Dodgers are seething. They spend for the Lamborghinis and Bugattis when the Rays are getting to the finish line first with Audis and even a few Kias.

“We know we have enough information about how those players can match on the field,” Cash told ESPN, “but how do they match in the clubhouse?”     

“Our front office, they understand our formula,” Kiermaier said. “If you’re going to sit here and bring in all these great pitchers, acquire guys through the minor leagues and through trades, you’ve got to have the proper guys to play behind them. We have the perfect roster for just that.”     

Their best everyday player, Kiermaier was drafted in the 31st round. MVP candidate Brandon Lowe was a third-round selection. Their Cy Young Award pitcher, Blake Snell, was a first-round smash hit. Otherwise, this is cutting-and-pasting as an art form. Mike Brosseau, the Yankee killer, was undrafted. Consider the shrewd trades: 6-foot-8 ace Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows arrived in a deal for Chris Archer, who has lost his way in Pittsburgh and missed 2020 after arm surgery; Willy Adames came in a three-way deal involving David Price, Yandy Diaz arrived in another three-way. While the Yankees were throwing the Bank of America at Cole, the Rays were signing playoff-seasoned Charlie Morton for two years and $30 million. What looked like minor pickups became finds — Joey Wendle, Ryan Yarbrough, Nick Anderson, Ji-Man Choi out of South Korea, Yoshi Tsutsugo out of Japan.     

But three startling maneuvers have defined the Rays this postseason. When the Cardinals deemed Randy Arozarena expendable after he filmed a clubhouse speech by manager Mike Shildt, the Rays gladly absorbed him — and watched Arozarena become Mr. October after a quarantine period with COVID-19. When productive outfielder Tommy Pham blasted the lack of fan support, the Rays shipped him to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe, who has been a better culture fit while Pham was hospitalized in San Diego this week after being stabbed outside a strip club — definitely not one of the Rays’ Ways. And Manuel Margot? You know, the right fielder who dominated Game 2 of the ALCS with a three-run homer and a tumbling catch over a right-field railing that left him sprawled on a concrete aisle in his former home, Petco Park? He arrived last offseason for reliever Emilio Pagan and now is the inspiration for a t-shirt — “I’m good! I’m good’’ — that quotes him when his teammates rushed over to make sure he was OK, bleeding leg and all. Margot could have quit on the play. He has experienced a difficult year, after all: his father’s coronavirus-related death in the Dominican Republic and a rental car that “exploded” in Florida — his word — with his family inside, requiring bystanders to rescue his three children.     “Luckily, I’m able to tell you guys about it,” he said.     

So what’s a little scrape in the first of numerous spectacular catches that symbolized the ALCS? “He sold out,” Morton said. “Those guys are all in for each other and they put their bodies on the line. They’ve been doing that all year.”     

Margot's homer, catch highlight Rays' 4-2 win over Astros - The Hour

Often, the Rays are outhit. Cash changes the batting order and lineup so often, he’s out of ink. You’d think the Braves or Dodgers would overwhelm them with their murderous lineups, but that’s what the Yankees and Astros thought. Whoever prevails in the National League Championship Series, the World Series won’t pull America from the next haywire presidential debate and all the accompanying cable news prattle. Like all sports leagues in 2020, NFL included, the ratings will crater and only the diehards and a few thousand fans — masked and otherwise in the venerable baseball hub that is Arlington, Texas — will be participating.     

It’s just as well. No one knows who the Rays are or why they’re here, except those of us who appreciate minimalism. They are the Marie Kondos of sports, and if you aren’t sure what that means, you shouldn’t be watching anyway.

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One Question About Stuart Scott’s 30 for 30: What Took So Long?

“Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t miss TV.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Stuart Scott

There haven’t been many celebrity deaths that have truly left me in tears. I am a Nirvana super fan, and I remember exactly where I was when I found out about Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but I don’t remember breaking down. I can only remember three celebrity deaths that left me feeling true, uncontainable sadness: Robin Williams, Tom Petty and Stuart Scott.

So many documentaries and episodes of television have been made about the life, times, and deaths of Williams and Petty. They are icons. Their respective deaths left millions of fans in mourning. 

Scott’s impact is no less significant, particularly in the sports media world. I am happy to hear that he is finally getting his due with a life and career retrospective as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

I hated school as a kid. Each morning felt like a march from the courthouse to the bus that would take me to prison. I loved sports and loved to laugh. Scott and Rich Eisen felt like my last little bit of joy before I was dragged to Hell each weekday morning. That’s why he meant so much to me.

His impact can be felt everywhere in our business. Countless black men and women who work in sports media will tell you about the impact they felt seeing someone who looked and talked like them. A generation of broadcasters, regardless of race, will tell you about how they connected to someone who embraced the idea that this is fun and unserious. 

Whether it was references or catchphrases or just his general vibe, Stuart Scott was can’t-miss TV. The fact that he was, revolutionized sports television.

Because of his influence, we were introduced to new faces. The whole style of highlight shows changed. Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman moved it away from a newscast and closer to a watercolor conversation. Scott pushed the genre closer to a block party.

ESPN has been careful about which broadcasters become the subject of a 30 for 30 documentary. Some of that has to do with drawing the line between sports and sports media. Some of it has to do with ESPN not being keen to turn a critical eye on itself. I mean, what other explanation could there be for why we have never gotten a documentary on the aforementioned Patrick and Olberman years

Scott clears whatever bar there is though. His story is one of social impact and industry dominance. On top of that, the way ESPN and its charity partner, The V Foundation, stood behind Scott during his battle with cancer, allows the company to give the story the Disney Princess treatment and erase any flaws or animosity that may have ever existed. That part isn’t necessary, but since ESPN is owned by Disney, it’s a nice bonus.

For a certain generation, this documentary will be a look back at the glory days of ESPN. The cultural dominance the brand enjoyed in the 90s could have come to an end after Keith Olberman’s exit and the end of Sunday night’s “Big Show,” but Scott’s rivalry with Dan Patrick (real or perceived) was an important part of extending that relevance. I mean, you could find boxer shorts in Disney World with “booyah” and “en fuego” scrawled across the ass at that time. 

Rich Eisen will surely figure prominently in the film. How could he not? He and Scott became the SportsCenter’s new gold standard. Their friendship and chemistry were real. They dealt with each other offscreen with no filter and the onscreen product was better for it. To this day, Eisen gets emotional when talking about his friend.

No one who dies at 49 lived a full life. How could they? There is so much left to do and give. But Stuart Scott packed a lot of life and made a lot of impact in his short time on Earth. 

Maybe you need the benefit of time for a 30 for 30 documentary to make a real impact. Scott died in January 2015. By the time the documentary comes out, a decade will have passed. As someone who was 15 years old when I discovered his voice and remained a fan until his dying day, I have one question. Why did we have to wait so long to get this movie? 

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Seller to Seller: Sandy Cohen, Union Broadcasting

“You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners.”

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Graphic for Seller to Seller with Sandy Cohen

In last week’s Seller to Seller feature I had asked several sellers what the hardest part was of selling sports media right now. One of the replies was, “Prospecting, I feel like the number of categories willing to spend what they need to is dwindling.” That response prompted my old foe, Union Broadcasting partner and vice president of sales Sandy Cohen, to reach out to talk further about the topic.

Sandy and Union Broadcasting have been in the game since 1998 in Kansas City where they have Sports Radio 810 WHB and ESPN Kansas City. They also have ESPN Louisville and ESPN Wichita and Cohen oversees sales for all of the properties. I competed against them in Kansas City as the GSM for 610 Sports and learned how well-respected Sandy and his team are in the advertising and business communities as well as how good of a job they do when it comes to servicing clients and building relationships.

Sandy said when he read last week’s piece, a thought kept running through his mind, which was that as an industry, sports media needs more people on the street and a next generation of sellers. He had some great insights on the topic as well as Union Broadcasting had been in a hiring mode recently in Kansas City and he wound up hiring three people with a year or less of experience in the workforce.

When we spoke, I first asked him if we need more or if we need better. As any good salesman would do, he asked for it all. “Yes! We need more, better,” he replied. “I think there’s benefits all the way around. You can increase your sales with more people, and you can energize your existing sales team by hiring brand new salespeople.”

Cohen said they put a full-court-press on recruitment and ran ads on air, on their stream, on their website and all of their social channels. I wondered if people were still excited to work in sports media sales and if they had a solid response.

“We had lots of choices, I was pleased,” Cohen said. He told me they went through a few rounds before inviting some candidates in to make presentations in their conference room. “We looked at how they prepared, how they dressed, did they make eye contact, and did they use props or anything to stand out. Lastly, did they follow up with a thank you and stay in touch throughout the process.”

We talked about what types of things he looks for when screening candidates and he said, “I think they have to have a passion and an interest in sports, be a go-getter with a lot of good energy. I think they need to be money motivated and a self-starter, detail oriented with solid communications skills…If they’re not going to pay attention to the details, they’re not going to make a very good salesperson.”

We agreed that after you go through the difficult process of recruitment and then eventually hiring the new sales talent, the real work begins as now you have to make sure they get trained as best as possible.

As for the training process Cohen uses, he said, “It’s a combination of two things. We have our own in-house training system. We have everything mapped out, what the first two weeks look like, day by day, and then at the end of each day there is a recap. Then it continues, but not as structured as the first two weeks.

“We also use P1 Learning through the Missouri Broadcasters Association which is several weeks and is done in bite-sized pieces. They have homework and video calls and assignments they do to really learn the basics.” Cohen said a couple of the new hires had finished at the top of their P1 Learning class.

“It’s nice because it’s an outside voice, I like the way it is structured, and they go through everything. Beyond that, it is a lot of hands-on attention with new sellers, ongoing training, goal setting, lead distribution, and following up with them on how they are making their contacts. It’s talking to them and seeing what they are experiencing and how we can work on those and that works hand in hand with the formal training.”

I was also curious about the role the other sellers on the team play in training of new hires. Cohen said he is fortunate as he has a lot of senior sellers who are willing to help when called upon.

“We’ve got several veteran sellers who have been with us for 20-plus years,” he said. “So, while they are very busy with their own stuff, they recognize that at some point in their career somebody did that for them as well. They will let the new hires shadow them on calls or spend time with them one on one answering questions.”

Cohen hopes that as an industry, sports media makes a commitment to network with area colleges to form relationships with the professors in business schools or journalism schools to have a chance at some of the top talent coming out of college. “We need to have a presence in these classes and try and be in line when kids are graduating,” he said. “We can bring up the level of interest…it requires a lot of work. But we have to find a way to train new sellers and spend a lot of time with them.”

Of course, once the training wheels are off, at some point the new hires have to perform. We talked about the benchmarks of time as to when you should expect to know what you need to know about a new hire. “In the case of somebody who is fairly new…in six months, are they making progress? One year is definitely a benchmark. I think based on activity, new business, work ethic and habits you have observed you will know…It’s effort and activity and you can teach the nuances of what it means to be a solid individual in our industry.”

As mentioned previously, Sandy and his team are exceptional when it comes to having strong relationships with their clients, built through a quality product but also from the amount of time they spend with their clients and connecting them to one another.

“I just think at its core, what we do is fun,” Cohen said. “Some of the days are going to be long if you’re working all day and then taking someone to a sporting event or whatever it may be. We have always felt like entertainment is what sets us apart and one of the most important aspects of what we do.

“I just think if you’re doing business with someone, why shouldn’t you go and have some fun with them, too? You can certainly just hand them some tickets, but there’s nothing better than experiencing an event or planning a party for a group of clients so that they can all network together. You are putting people together and you are seen as a connector. People love being connected with other people, and we like to do that with local business owners…it becomes almost a club where they all work together because they met at one of our social events.”

Cohen said they try and have at least one significant quarterly entertainment event where they bring large groups of people together in addition to connecting one on one at a sporting event. A couple of recent examples of the larger events included a movie preview where a partnership with a local theater allowed for pre-show fellowship, followed by interaction with a talent who would host the event and then an opportunity for the group to see a movie before it has come out to the public.

Another example was a bus trip to Lawrence, Kansas for a KU-Oklahoma State basketball game which included a behind-the-scenes tour at Allen Fieldhouse. The team broadcasters showed the group the locker rooms and other areas that are not open to the public, followed by a KU chalk-talk and VIP treatment for the game.

In summing it up, Cohen said, “Whenever we can bring groups together like that and have a good time, that’s what we do.”

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Ian Eagle Will Always Remember His First Final Four

“This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

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Photo of Ian Eagle
Courtesy: For The Win

Over the course of his career, Ian Eagle has called what seems like a million basketball games.  His approach for all of those games, whether it was the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, nationally televised NBA games, or college basketball games, has always been the same.  And when it came to taking over as the new play by play voice for the Final Four last week in Arizona, Eagle remained consistent with that approach.

Eagle subscribes to theory that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it”. 

“I recognized that I didn’t want to make sweeping changes to my approach because it was a bigger stage,” said Eagle.  “I wanted to be myself and do the games the way that I’ve done them for a number of years now and I think that comes with experience and maturity and muscle memory.  I do think that having done so many NCAA Tournaments put me in a very advantageous position of knowing what I was walking into.”

One part of that approach was to have fun.  It’s certainly a job that comes with a big responsibility because of the big stage and the number of eyeballs that are on you, but doing play by play is a lot of fun and a really cool job to have, no matter what sport or what level.

In Eagle’s case, he made sure that he was not only prepared for the job at hand, but he also made sure he was having a good time with his crew that included Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson.

“We had a blast,” said Eagle.  “I made a conscious effort to remind myself to enjoy it.  Sometimes in life, we forget that it’s supposed to be fun, and it’s supposed to be joyous.  I had this sense of calm just before going on air for the Final Four.  I didn’t feel nerves.  I didn’t feel stressed.  I felt in the moment and comfortable and excited.”

This was a moment for Eagle that had been in the works for a few years and something that he certainly had been thinking about.  When it was first reported that legendary play by play announcer Jim Nantz would be winding down his long run as the voice of the Final Four, it had been suggested that Eagle was going to be the heir apparent.

In October of 2022, CBS and Turner Sports announced that the 2023 Final Four would be the final one for Nantz and that Eagle would take over in 2024.

For Eagle, it was big shoes to fill succeeding Nantz, but he knew the transition would be smooth and that his job was not to be Jim Nantz but to simply be Ian Eagle.

“I think because it was being discussed over the course of a few years, I never felt that level of enormity,” said Eagle.  “For me, it was recognizing that Jim was synonymous with this event and respecting the run that he was on.  It was incredible.  No one is ever going to match it so why think of it in those terms?  Just go do your job and be you.”

Perhaps this could be viewed as a “passing the baton moment,” but on the day before the national semifinals, a message came up on Eagle’s phone.

It was from Nantz.

“Yeah, he texted me on Friday,” said Eagle.  “We had a really nice exchange.  I think he was being very respectful with the job that I had to do.  There’s a high level of respect between the two of us.”

Even before the Final Four, Eagle had established himself as one of the great play-by-play voices in sports broadcasting.  From his days as a student at Syracuse University to his early days at WFAN in New York, to being the radio and television voice of the Nets and national NBA and NFL games, Eagle had already accomplished so much in this industry.

A premier event like the Final Four seemed like the appropriate next chapter of his career.

“It felt very much like the next step,” said Eagle.  “I think all of your experiences play a role in some way.  Even while you’re experiencing them, you have no idea how that’s going to affect you down the road.”

It has been quite a ride for Eagle, and it was a road that started as a producer at WFAN before that run morphed into an on-air role hosting and ultimately becoming the radio voice of the New York Jets.

The road to the top has to start somewhere and for Eagle it was at the nation’s first sports radio station.

“My time at ‘FAN…I learned so much,” said Eagle.  “I was around some of the most legendary figures in sports radio history and I benefited greatly from osmosis of being in this really unique situation that helped me when I got the next job and then the next job and then the next job.”

From hosting “Bagels and Baseball” on WFAN to doing play-by-play for the Final Four, it’s been quite a ride for Ian Eagle.

“It’s pretty wild if I take a step back and think about it but when you’re in the moment, you don’t necessarily reflect,” said Eagle. “This time is allowing me to exhale a bit and truly appreciate the path.”

And who knows where that path is going to take him next.

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