Tue. Dec 1st, 2020

Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

A periodic look at the best and worst in sports media from an industry veteran who is neither a cardboard cutout nor a virtual fan.

THEY GET IT

Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman — Neither concussions nor Kaepernick nor gloom of COVID-19 can stop the NFL from drawing TV audiences. McManus knows. He actually risked angering the ghosts of Augusta National — or, worse, the pompous officials in green jackets — with this Masters scheduling decree: If the final round didn’t conclude by 4 p.m. Sunday, he was flipping the remaining coverage to ABC. This was the programming equivalent of taking a boom box down to Amen Corner and blasting “Highway To Hell,” but risky as it seemed, McManus made the right call for his network. The NFL remains king, even amid a pandemic, and he wanted whatever numbers he could squeeze from a late-afternoon football window — against stiff competition on Fox — while gambling that the green jacket still would be awarded on his air. When Dustin Johnson romped without weather troubles, then was fitted by Tiger Woods during an emotional ceremony, McManus survived his bunker and saved par. Meanwhile, the ghosts and green jackets were left to ponder this coronavirus-era gut punch: a stunningly low average of 5.59 million viewers, the least-watched Masters on record. What does it mean? For all of Augusta’s prestige in April, it’s an afterthought in mid-November when Woods is hitting balls into Rae’s Creek, patrons are banned, and the NFL has the attention of fans and gamblers — Fox averaged 20 million in the late-afternoon slot and 18 million in early afternoon, leaving CBS with 10.3 million. Also walloping the Masters finish: NBC’s Sunday night game (15.7 million), the Thursday night game on Fox and the NFL Network (12.1 million) and ESPN’s Monday night game (9.8 million), according to Sports Business Daily. Maybe a little more AC/DC, and a little less Dave Loggins, would have helped, but here’s the cruel truth about major events forced out of season in 2020: The Masters joined golf’s U.S. Open, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Final and horse racing’s Triple Crown in scraping rock-bottom in the ratings pond.

Amanda Balionis, CBS Sports — Those who did watch the Masters to the end were reminded that this was no small story. Johnson has overcome drug issues, relationship issues, motivation issues and a boulder of underachievement in his bumpy career, only magnified by the fact his significant other’s father is Wayne Gretzky. Now that DJ has become a great one, if not The Great One, we won’t soon forget how Balionis — six feet away, with only a smattering of spectators watching greenside — finally peeled layers off Johnson in her interview. “It’s hard to talk,” he said, tearing up, breaking down, taking long breaths. “It’s just incredible, obviously, as you can tell … (more long breaths) … Sorry.” Balionis expertly took control, telling him, “Don’t apologize. The overwhelming message, when I talk to your team, is that you care so much and you work so hard. It’s just that a lot of us don’t get to see it. Can you give us just a peek behind the curtain as to why all of this emotion is there?” Said Johnson, again struggling to talk: “I’ve never had this much trouble gathering myself. On the golf course, I’m pretty good at it. Out here, I’m not. … Yeah, I do. I put in a lot of hard work. I’ve got a great team … (more long breaths, more tears) … Jesus.” Yes, it helped to be inside a champion’s defining moment, but Balionis coaxed more out of Johnson in two minutes than the golfing media have in 12 years.

Neil Everett, ESPN — Long after the bosses are asleep back East, this inside jokester keeps getting away with editorial murder while flashing an impish grin. As he reviewed past Masters thrills with co-anchor Linda Cohn on a late-night “SportsCenter” from Los Angeles, Everett dryly snuck in this beauty during a visual of Phil Mickelson celebrating his first Augusta victory: “Phil also had a three-team action parlay.” It was a reference to his gambling issues, of course, which wouldn’t have pleased Mickelson or Masters officials, except, they were asleep too. Who says nothing good happens after midnight? Everett happens.

Dan Bernstein, Chicago radio host — When I wrote columns in that city, I described Bernstein as having Costas-like skill. He always has been stifled by obstacles such as a silly longtime partner and editorial restrictions from on high, but how interesting that WSCR — and parent company Entercom — didn’t blink when he ripped White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf for knowing about crony Tony La Russa’s DUI bust a day before announcing his appointment as manager. I commend Bernstein, yet let me also explain the weaselly nature of Chicago media. Had Entercom landed the team’s radio rights recently, there was zero chance he would have been allowed to even tweak The Chairman. But when the bid failed, Dan Bernstein suddenly was unleashed as Carl Bernstein. Now flip down the dial to ESPN 1000, the station that landed the rights, and you heard nothing close to Bernstein’s criticism — the definition of selling out. Reminds me of when a Chicago Sun-Times editor-in-chief and publisher scolded me for questioning Reinsdorf’s middling baseball payrolls — around 18th at the time, in the No. 3 market — only to tell me later that they no longer cared. Explained John Cruickshank, who was serious: “Jerry didn’t buy a table at our event.” As for what’s left of column-writing in Chicago, I saw too much “woe are the fans” commentary about La Russa and not enough deep thinking about the totality of Reinsdorf’s eventful and largely miserable four decades as an owner. Chicago media lack a worldly purview. Do they not grasp that Reinsdorf is one of the most controversial owners in U.S. sports history and should be covered — and routinely roasted — as such, not just poked in November 2020 because Sox fans are upset? Too many fanboys make for a diluted, disappointing media market.

Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic — I understand why wordsmiths are attracted to baseball writing. But when you consume Baggarly’s precious ode to the late Alex Trebek — and his still-awestruck memories of a 2012 appearance on “Jeopardy,” which won him $61,401 and paid for his Bay Area backyard renovation — you wonder why he isn’t bagging mundane daily coverage of the San Francisco Giants and branching out into the literary world. Same goes for Andy McCullough and other gifted ball writers. Baseball is dying. Writing is not. (See: Wright Thompson and his new book, “Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and The Things That Last.”)

THEY DON’T GET IT

Jim Nantz, CBS Sports — I’d just taken aspirin for my throbbing headache after hearing of his latest career plans — he wants to be the Joe Biden of his profession, calling the Masters until he’s well into his 80s — when Nantz floored me with a burst of sportscasting megalomania not seen since Howard Cosell. He wants to be paid more than Tony Romo, the analyst monster he created, which means he wants a contract unlike any other (per the New York Post). I’m not sure how to break the news to Nantz, but Romo’s insane 10-year, $180 million deal happened only because ESPN was desperate enough for a “Monday Night Football” booth star that it launched a bidding war. Bristol has no such interest in Nantz, nor should it — unlike Romo or another coveted would-be analyst, Peyton Manning, most viewers don’t care if Nantz, Steve Levy or Chris Fowler is working a football game. CBS rewarded its franchise quarterback with record money; now, the center who snaps Romo the football will have to settle for considerably less … or maybe pursue other frontiers in broadcasting, such as a non-sports show with fellow mush-and-gusher John Tesh. The Post reported that Nantz, because of his Masters commitments last weekend, was the one who urged Romo to take the week off from his $18-million-a-year gig rather than work with another NFL play-by-play partner. If he’s really this protective of Romo, well, that’s just a little creepy … and perhaps reflective of his insecurity moving forward. At 61, Nantz is seen by younger viewers as old-school, unlike Fox’s Joe Buck. Or, for that matter, Ian Eagle, who, as CBS’ No. 2  NFL play-by-play man and one of basketball’s leading voices, easily could do the Super Bowl and Final Four; in a fascinating twist, the contracts of Nantz and Eagle are expiring soon. As for the Masters, I’d take Donald Duck at this point, tired as I am of Nantz. He had months to come up with a memorable, pandemic-year call for the winner’s final putt — and all weekend to consider Johnson’s story line — and the best he could do was, “The 2020 Masters, the long-awaited Masters, has a long-awaited champion in Dustin Johnson.” Live a little, Jim. Try this: In a year that needed some music for the soul, the Masters gives us a DJ, spinning some records for the ages. You can thank me for the line by accepting a pretty decent raise, from $6.5 million to the vicinity of Buck’s $10.5 million, and be happy that you get to call boutique sports events for a living.

Dan Le Batard, ESPN — Back when America was healthy and well, the timing and circumstances were right for Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann and Rich Eisen to leave ESPN and thrive elsewhere. But in 2020, industry conditions are all wrong for Le Batard, who is sick of the corporate machine — I’ve been there — yet isn’t thinking straight as he pulverizes his Disney bosses on the air. What are Le Batard’s options in a pandemic-paralyzed business? He could rejoin the man who gave him his ESPN multi-media platform, John Skipper, but troubled DAZN has made only a minimal U.S. dent. Fox could slip him into mornings and dump one-dimensional Clay Travis, but sports radio is on the far periphery of Lachlan Murdoch’s big wheelhouse. It’s one thing to flee a failing newspaper, as I did, or challenge corruption at a radio operation, as I have, but Le Batard’s entire existence as a national media player has been driven by ESPN. There’s a reason one of his producers, Chris Cote, was laid off without anyone giving Le Batard a heads-up: Bristol is sending the host a message about his long-term future. It’s no secret he’s still bitter about Skipper’s 2018 dismissal, but he should get over it — any clear-thinking person knows Disney couldn’t retain an ESPN president with a cocaine problem. Of Cote, Le Batard said on the air: “We were blindsided by him being let go. It’s the greatest disrespect of my professional career that I got no notice, no collaboration. … Corporations don’t tend to be human.” Le Batard made a nice gesture by arranging to keep Cote and pay his salary, but this likely will end ugly for a talent who never again will have the same salary and prominence. For some of us, that’s a cool compromise. Years from now, minus his $3.5 million annual pay, I’m guessing it won’t be for him. He should return to column-writing, which suited him better than life as another afternoon ESPN cartoon character.

Randy Moss, ESPN — It took a while — years, actually — but Moss inevitably made the same unnecessary headlines as a network analyst that he did as a problematic NFL star. You’ve seen “C’Mon Man,” the segment on “Monday Night Countdown” where the studio voices have fun with bloopers and other comical moments. Moss missed the memo that you aren’t supposed to mock high-school players, laughing and repeatedly mentioning the name of a quarterback whose mistakes led to a loss in the Arkansas state playoffs. Tweeted Bladen Fike’s coach: “It’s disheartening to see @espn run a segment like this on a kid. I as HIS HEAD COACH take full responsibility. Any criticism needs to be directed towards me.” Moss has yet to apologize. C’Mon, man!

Bleacher Report — Any idiot want to buy a dead sports site from AT&T? No amount of Charles Barkley mentions or TNT/NBA cross-promotion can help a web address that never sustained a sophisticated presentation and now has no chance. Premier writers Mike Freeman, Howard Beck, Tyler Dunne, Jonathan Abrams, Scott Miller — gone. Editor-in-chief — gone. CEO, COO, chief content officer, engineering SVP — gone. All relevance — gone and gone. The pandemic has forced large sports media companies to re-assess whether quality-content-based websites are necessary, and it appears Turner — despite its ongoing NBA commitment and ill-advised $3.75-billion splurge on Major League Baseball — doesn’t want more than cheap-labor, amateur-hour aggregation with a gambling side deal (a new partnership with DraftKings). Selling Bleacher Report isn’t as simple as AT&T coaxing you to trade in an iPhone X for an iPhone 12 (as I did), but I’m still expecting that annoying Lily person to mention B/R on her next TV commercial from the store.

Sarah Spain, ESPN — We are experiencing history, of course, in November 2020: the ascent of the first female U.S. Vice President and first female general manager in the four major American sports. The graciousness and humility of Kamala Harris and Kim Ng haven’t been adopted by Spain, who drove off large swaths of her potential audience with this needless screed on a fubo Sports Network show about male radio listeners and program directors: “If you’re so worried about scaring off your existing fan base of old, white dudes, remember that they are going to get even older and die and then there will be no one left. So, maybe you should reach out to the other parts of the population that are people of color and women and LGBTQ+ and also not insult the men listening who would like to hear those voices and perspectives and don’t need to only hear from another middle-aged white dude.” Um, the white dudes who pass on will be replaced by more white dudes who might enjoy a “middle-aged white host” as much they enjoy female, Black and LGBTQ+ hosts. If Spain is trying to kill off white men who like sports, she might want to find another calling in life.

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