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Chicago Sports 2021: This Is A Major Market?

Years after ditching a cold, political metropolis for life in the California sun, the columnist is shocked that a once-vibrant sports hub has shrunk into national irrelevance and suffers from … Wisconsin envy?

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Chicago

Taylor Bell is a loyal reader of this site and column. Which delights me to no end, given his standing as a legend who covered Chicago high-school sports — and all its triumphs, tragedies and treachery — with appropriate diligence and energy. The other day, Bell suggested I write a piece on how the city’s sports landscape has changed since August 2008, when I departed of my own volition and handed back about a million guaranteed dollars to a failing newspaper.     

My first thought was typically cynical. As I prepared for a sunny beachside bike ride on a 70-degree afternoon, hoping to avoid a crash and an ICU bed not available in Los Angeles, I wondered: “Chicago? Does Chicago still exist?’’

After all, the only time sports is nationally relevant there is when someone produces a documentary about decades-ago stuff. Chicago was celebrated in the riveting re-tell of Michael Jordan and “The Last Dance,’’ just as Chicago was humiliated by the disgrace of meathead Steve Dahl and Disco Demolition Night at old Comiskey Park, part of a recent Bee Gees retrospective. As for the here and now, the news cycle is a Kennedy-in-a-snowstorm snarl. Even the surprising ascent of the White Sox — who’ve thrown as many World Series as they’ve won (one) in the last 102 years — predictably soured when an 84-year-old curmudgeon, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, hired a 76-year-old manager, Tony La Russa, to direct a clubhouse of millennials and Gen-Zers who either know nothing about La Russa’s long-ago achievements or don’t appreciate his past opposition to Colin Kaepernick’s racial protests.  

The worst insult anyone can hurl at Chicago has come true. It’s a feeble, little sports burg compared to the neighboring state and city it likes to mock: Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Cheeseheads can’t frolic on the Frozen Tundra and absorb Lambeau Leaps right now, but they might be celebrating a Super Bowl title with NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, followed by another NBA postseason run from Giannis Antetokounmpo, the newly maxed-up, two-time-defending MVP. By comparison, Chicago offers up Nickelodeon prince Mitchell Trubisky and Lauri Markkanen when it once had, oh, Walter Payton and Jordan.     

Look around. Examine the burning debris. As long as a McCaskey is in the building — from Virginia to George to the pet cat — the Bears will shred the souls of their exasperated fans. Sneaking into the playoffs through a pandemic loophole allows this family-run farce to retain general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, which saves the mom-and-pop owners about $20 million (the franchise is worth $3.45 billion) when both men were considered goners only weeks ago. By extension, this means Trubisky could return based on recent improved play that wasn’t evident Sunday amid the New Orleans slime. Every conceivable quarterbacking scenario has unfolded through time in the City of Weak Shoulders, mostly for the worse. The fans have been tortured enough since 2017, when Trubisky was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Now, you’re going to torture them more by bringing everyone back for another year of “Which Mitch?’’

An idea: Watson is unhappy in Houston and possibly available. In acquiring Khalil Mack, Pace once pulled off a coup as impressive as his Trubisky plan was wretched. Might he save the franchise — and a lot of jobs, including his own — by exploring another megadeal? And don’t count me among those who think Pat Fitzgerald would thrive as an NFL coach. He has mastered the art of “Northwesterning’’ — a perception that any football success is gravy amid higher academia in Evanston — yet when pressured to win big outside that tame environment, he might fail with a rah-rah approach when leading grown men. Not that he should go anywhere near Halas Hall, where it’s 35 years and counting since January 1986, the month by which time is kept in a city that still dances in its head to “The Super Bowl Shuffle.’’ Let it go, people.     

The Cubs have wrecked much of their goodwill from an unimaginable vision, a 2016 World Series title, by dumping salary and launching a reset. New boss Jed Hoyer insists this isn’t a rebuild, but no form of downsizing ever should happen inside a top-five, money-printing franchise with a treasure trove of celebrity fans and global outreach. Why are the Cubs crying poor when they’ve teamed with Raine Group and raised $375 million to acquire (WTF?) big-ticket entertainment companies? Owner Tom Ricketts and his oddballish relatives have mishandled the gift of a curse-lifting by corporatizing the Wrigley Field romance, borrowing heavily for a Cubs-themed hotel/office village that belongs in Buffalo Grove — and now is a ghost town. It might remain that way as Cubdom, despite generational allegiances, tries to reconcile the relationship of various Ricketts family members with Donald Trump after the U.S. Capitol riots. Notice how it took only days after his resignation for Theo Epstein, the savant who slayed the Billy Goat and the Bambino, to join troubled Major League Baseball as a consultant that hopefully leads to a commissionership. He knew when to let it go.

“With what’s happening with the coronavirus, and the money the Cubs have, I wasn’t thinking about being traded,” pitching ace Yu Darvish said through an interpreter after Hoyer shipped him to the Padres. “Also, they are a winning team and I thought we would be able to compete.”     

Once the Cubs, always the Cubs. Of my current residence, the Eagles sang, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.’’ Of the one-and-done Cubs, noted fan Billy Corgan can say, “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.’’ The fear is, this operation is transporting Cubdom back to the most woeful times of Tribune Co. ownership, the years before Steve Bartman and Sammy Sosa’s juicing exploits, when losing 90 games wasn’t so bad for Mark Grace if he could drink and get laid at Murphy’s Bleachers. I asked Sosa one day, after he tried to hug me with his suddenly massive girth, if he used steroids. “Flintstone vitamins,’’ he said with that dugout-wide grin, before mumbling something about a “creatine shake’’ that got my attention.

You always thought the Cubs were doomed to lose even when coming close, as Bartman Night exhibited in all its chilling freakery. Have they returned to death mode? Does anyone have faith that Ricketts, who has laid off staffers in his new building and now might part ways with Kris Bryant and Javy Baez and others with hefty price tags, will approach a championship again? When you launch a network to an audience accustomed to WGN-TV, going back to Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse, you’d better make sure optimum programming — say, a contending ballclub — is on the ledger every day. Ricketts has done things ass-backwards, and now, the Cubs join every pro franchise but the White Sox in the Chicago dumper. I will say this: The Cubs snaked the Sox in the broadcast wars, trading snooze-inducing Len Kasper for smart, fun-loving Jon “Boog’’ Sciambi, who fits Wrigleyville like another beer bar. But even Boog needs upbeat daily material to succeed on the Marquee Sports Network, whatever that is.

Was it me, or was a car parked behind the baseline during a recent Bulls game at the United Center? That’s how they did it in the Continental Basketball Association, which means the franchise of dynasties and docuseries officially has devolved into a minor-league mess. Since Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause wreckingballed the six-pack before its expiration date, preferring to attempt their own dynasty, the Bulls have spent the last 23 years plummeting like no championship franchise in U.S. history. Worse, the man in charge is a younger Reinsdorf, Michael. The futility could continue for decades.

Then we have the Blackhawks, the mighty Blackhawks. Please be thankful for the three Stanley Cups under owner Rocky Wirtz, who continues to donate funds that keep the space heaters on at my former paper, the Sun-Times. He might want to redirect all resources and brainpower toward his now-wayward hockey club, which has lost cornerstone Jonathan Toews to a mysterious illness amid its own rebuild. I’ve liked Patrick Kane since he approached me his rookie year and called me “Mr. Mariotti.” I would urge Mr. Kane to politely ask Mr. Wirtz for a trade.

Chicago, Chicago. Isn’t that where a crazy baseball manager called me “a f——— fag,” prompting a WMAQ-TV reporter named Don Lemon — now a crazy Trump basher on CNN — to call me for a comment? During the 17-plus years I rocked that market, starting in my early 30s, the city often was the epicenter of American sports. I arrived in time for the Jordan dynasty, mostly glorious but needlessly maddening, chronicling both his sublimity and his scandals. I watched the sorry demise of Mike Ditka, ripping him for losing his mind and trying to climb into the stands as the city was ripping me. I watched the Bears trot out so many lame quarterbacks, I started bringing the Sunday New York Times to the press box in December. The White Sox were a big story behind Frank Thomas, who swung a bat better than he delivers lines in Nugenix ads, then stopped being a story until hiring the aforementioned nut, Ozzie Guillen, who somehow won a World Series that America never acknowledged. The Cubs didn’t win hardware in my time, but they’ve owned a city that uses baseball to drive a socioeconomic wedge both unhealthy and unsafe. The Cubs are “the North Siders,” viewed as moneyed and privileged. The Sox are “the South Siders,” from the other side of the tracks.

At Wrigley, a fan might look at me and say he disagreed with a column.

At Whatever They’re Calling Sox Park, I found a nail in my tire one night.

Not that my bosses cared about my safety. The Sun-Times kept giving me three-year contracts because I drove circulation — see the traffic when we started daily “Mariotti 24/7” posts on a primitive website — but they saw me more as a necessary evil than a pillar. Too often, Reinsdorf and his lawyers were calling about me, and too often, the bosses jumped instead of hanging up. To his glee, the Sun-Times had tried to get rid of me in 1994 but failed, leading to the demise of the editor-in-chief. The next editor-in-chief, Nigel Wade, asked me if I was anti-Semitic — soon after, he was forearm-shivering me into a wall as I tried to leave his office, and he eventually was ziggied as well. Years later, Reinsdorf forced editors to print a retraction for contract figures that had run in my column — figures volunteered to me by a night editor straight from a Sun-Times news story on the same topic — yet no retraction was required for the news story, only for my column. No one cared that our figures had come from the agent of Bulls coach Scott Skiles (who had signed an extension) and only slightly differed from figures published by the Reinsdorf-friendly Tribune.

I was the one who took the muddy fall, as always, which was kind of fun for me, even as an absurd smear campaign was starting to overtake my industry reputation with the advent of clowns on the Internet. Every time I wondered about the dirty pool, I knew it was about salaries, impact, outside influences and appearing as a longtime regular on ESPN’s debate program, “Around The Horn,” which was grabbing nearly a million viewers some days. When lies weren’t being told about me at both papers, the local alternative rag was obsessed, to the point an old, bitter writer with a Leonard Cohen voice called our house on a Saturday night for no particular reason. A few years ago, he needed a donor for a liver transplant. I e-mailed him a supportive note and never heard back.

I’m writing about these events, years later, because it makes sense on this vehicle. Barrett Sports Media, where I write media criticism once a week and donate the compensation to charitable journalism causes, is read by aspiring young people who should know what they’re getting into if they are fiercely independent. Everyone mourns the demise of newspapers — I’m describing, through my eyes, how a once-thriving paper crashed. Every time I wondered about these endless episodes of dirty pool, I knew they were about politics, salaries, impact, outside influences and my success as a longtime regular on ESPN’s debate show, “Around The Horn.’’ When lies weren’t being told about me at both papers, the local alternative rag was obsessed, to the point an old, bitter writer with a Leonard Cohen voice called our home on a Saturday night for no particular reason. A few years ago, he needed a donor for a liver transplant. I e-mailed him a supportive note and never heard back.

For every editor who valued me, such as worldly Michael Cooke, there were local honks who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a Sox cap in my column photo during the World Series. See, I wasn’t a native Chicagoan, which, in their minds, gave me no right to criticize teams that served as family heirlooms in a town much smaller in scope than its population suggests. Being an “outsider” just made it a bigger hoot for me, such as when I told native Mike Mulligan, a former writer who hosts a morning show on sports radio, “I know this city better than this city knows itself.” He wasn’t happy with that observation, nor was he happy when I insisted he join me for a day game at Wrigley, taboo for a South Side native.

I was shocked to discover many in the Chicago media were fanboys. If they didn’t grow up there, they were expected to adjust to a certain sappiness and parochiality-embracing — even when teams lost, they were “our” losers. After Guillen’s homophobic slur, among many arrows he slung across the baseball terrain (he would admit to drinking issues), I was invited to appear on national news shows — one with Tucker Carlson, of all people. I couldn’t make it in time for Bill O’Reilly, who settled on short notice for a then-raw Chicago radio host, Laurence Holmes. Laurence actually took offense that I referred to Guillen as “the Blizzard Of Oz,” the perfect nickname.

O’Reilly was incredulous. So the hell what? Was Holmes glossing over the slur and trying to claim I was racist? No, he was just another Chicago fanboy, not ready for national exposure. At least one station finally has gotten around to hiring a regular female host. 

My only goal was to beat the competition. But around me, there often was dysfunction — including the scraps I broke up between our football writers in Jacksonville (in a Super Bowl hotel lobby) and San Diego (outside a stadium elevator). At some point, with my daughters having to answer Ozzie questions about a silly topic they knew little about, the high salaries and accompanying big gigs on ESPN weren’t as important anymore as quality of life. I reluctantly agreed to another Sun-Times extension with a caveat: The paper, stuck with a crappy site, had to up its digital game. I headed to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, only to realize the site wasn’t posting content for hours from our two-man staff. There was no hope for the place. When I returned home, I resigned amicably, and when the Tribune called and asked about rumors, I was honest. I wasn’t going down with the Sun-Times ship, and the story was blasted atop the Trib’s business section. At the time, circulation was around 340,000. Today, the paper claims 120,000, though I’m guessing 90,000 at best and not much more from a website that never got going. The latest editor-in-chief, Chris Fusco, left for a start-up in Santa Cruz, Calif. No permanent replacement has been named, maybe because everyone who takes the job eventually is fired or leaves.

At some point, with my daughters having to answer Ozzie questions about a silly topic they knew little about, the high salaries and accompanying big gigs on ESPN weren’t as important anymore as quality of life. I reluctantly agreed to another Sun-Times extension with a caveat: The paper, stuck with a crappy site, had to up its digital game. I headed to the Olympics in Beijing, only to realize the site wasn’t posting content for hours from our two-man China staff. There was no hope for the place. When I returned home, I resigned peacefully, and when the Tribune called and asked about rumors, I was honest: I wasn’t going down with the Sun-Times ship, and the story was blasted atop the Trib’s business section. Roger Ebert, the famed film critic, called me “a rat,’’ but,sadly, I was spot on. At the time, daily circulation was around 340,000, and we had ruled the city’s sports coverage for years. Today, the Sun-Times is a ghost that claimed a 2018 circulation of 120,000, though I’m figuring 95,000 at best now and not much more from a site that never got going. The latest executive editor, Chris Fusco, left months ago for a start-up in Santa Cruz, Calif. No permanent replacement has been named, maybe because everyone who takes the job eventually is fired or leaves.

Shortly after opting out, I was featured on HBO’s “Real Sports” program as a newspaper columnist who’d signed with an ambitious digital site. One of my industry heroes and ex-bosses, Frank Deford, was putting together a segment about the demise of newspapers. Clutching a copy of that day’s print edition during our taping atop a Wrigleyville rooftop, Deford was shocked to hear me reference a nearby Starbucks and note that several people, as we spoke, were reading their news on computers.

And here we are today.

Do I look back? Never. I accomplished more than ever I wanted there, made a better living than I ever dreamed there, put my successful daughters through high school there. A robust writer with zero homer tendencies, Jim O’Donnell, has been lobbying for me to return to a ghostly sports-radio market with rock-bottom ratings. Once upon a time, I delivered potent ratings for ESPN 1000, but the White Sox were leaning on the bosses about me — to the point the program director, somehow still employed in the business, asked me to sign a document promising not to criticize the Sox or Bulls. I refused. They fired me the morning after Christmas, claiming I had weak ratings. My ratings, in fact, were terrific, and after a legal threat, the station was forced to pay incentive escalators in my contract.

Last year, a new market manager took over. I wrote him a note, wishing him luck on his difficult challenge. He wrote back, same day. Months passed. You know what comes next: Reinsdorf was bringing the White Sox to ESPN 1000. Wrote O’Donnell last month: “Yet another rough residual of the White Sox landing on ESPN 1000 is that the move effectively ends any chance of Jay Mariotti working at the station.”

Ratings be damned.

Has it occurred to Chicago fans that team owners who control the local media give themselves leverage to perpetuate year-to-year mediocrity — an unconscionable condition in America’s No. 3 market?

With the Tribune and Sun-Times in intensive care, The Athletic appears to be the last vestige of sportswriting in Chicago. I’m not confident. Speaking for every sportswriter — myself included — who brainlessly has consumed beer after an event and gets into a car to drive home, I cringed as Jon Greenberg crowed about a drunken memory in a recent column: After standing behind Hoyer at a Pearl Jam concert, he woke up “hungover” after a short night and drove from Chicago to South Bend, Ind., where Darvish was on a rehab stint. Did Greenberg consider that his blood-alcohol level, during a 100-mile drive on challenging expressways, still might have been higher than Darvish’s earned-run average at the time? We all make mistakes, but most don’t publicly brag about them years later. And are we really supposed to be impressed that Jon, yet another fanboy, was hanging by a Cubs executive as Eddie Vedder belted out the hits?

There you are, Taylor Bell.

Excuse me, but I have a beach bikepath to navigate.

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 Podcasts 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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