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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?

Jay Mariotti

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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.

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Sports Radio Advertising is a Great Alternative to Expensive Team Sponsorships

There are plenty of creative ways to tie into sports radio stations, where the fans listen daily, and the investment is often much less than team sponsorships.

Jeff Caves

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Photo of Citi Field in New York
Photo Credit: Stadium Sponsorship

Not everyone can afford to sponsor a local NFL or college football team. However, there are plenty of creative ways to tie into sports radio stations, where the fans listen daily, and the investment is often much less than team sponsorships. Here are some ideas:

Pitchmen for Hire: Leverage Local Personalities

Thousands of listeners tune in to hear local sports personalities discuss their favorite teams. Hiring these “football expert” personalities to represent your business can significantly boost your ad response. Their endorsement can help you rise above the fray and double your ad response.

Get More Bang for Your Buck: Stand Out

Tie into station activities that make your brand stand out. Sponsor the local team poll on the station’s website, host a remote broadcast the day before a big game, or sponsor a charity promotion and donate to the cause. Breaking through the clutter of commercial breaks requires creativity and involvement in station activities.

Tie into Local Teams Without Sponsoring Them

You don’t have to sponsor the local team to run a promotion about them. Consider running ads offering discounts if the team wins and even more significant discounts if they lose. Your ad rep can help you phrase these promotions to avoid legal issues. True fans listen to sports radio weekly for team-related content, so tap into that passion.

Become a Title Sponsor

Be the title sponsor for interview segments with local players. If the station is conducting regular player interviews, sponsor these segments. If shows don’t run many interviews, consider sponsoring newscasts that feature excerpts from these interviews.

Hire Retired Fan Favorites

Retired players beloved by fans can be an excellent asset for your business. They are often less expensive than current stars but still hold significant appeal. Think of players like Mike Alstott, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, or Nate Newton. These personalities can do spots or appear at your location, adding a memorable touch to your advertising efforts.

Adopt a ‘Mattress Mack’ Strategy

Make an offer based on the local team’s success, like Gallery Furniture in Houston‘s Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale. In 2022, he offered customers double their money back if the Astros won the World Series. Such promotions generate significant publicity and engage the local community, even if the offer is temporary.

Sponsoring a local NFL or major college football team may be out of reach for many clients. Still, numerous creative strategies exist to maximize a sports radio advertising investment. By leveraging local personalities, participating in station activities, and creatively tying your promotions to local sports teams, you can effectively break through the clutter and make a lasting impression on listeners. Engaging fans with innovative offers and memorable endorsements enhances your brand’s visibility and builds a loyal customer base.

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Caitlin Clark Media Coverage is Good for Everybody in the WNBA

By tuning in to see what Clark does, viewers are also noticing the many other great WNBA players.

John Molori

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Screengrab from ESPN's Get Up covering Caitlin Clark
Screengrab: ESPN Get Up

It’s time to talk about Caitlin Clark. The rookie guard for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever has become a legit phenomenon in the media. She has singlehandedly, and I repeat, singlehandedly put the focus on a league that has been largely ignored by mainstream sports talk shows for a quarter century.

Nobody wants to admit that one person can change a sport or a league. It is viewed as a slight to people who came before that special athlete and that special athlete’s contemporaries, but it has happened on numerous occasions, and we’ll get to that.

From a marketing and media standpoint, Caitlin Clark is a human tidal wave of interest, excitement, and anticipation. She quite literally brought tens of millions of eyes to the 2024 Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and deservedly so, she will most likely earn tens of millions of endorsement dollars from a variety of corporations and their products. She has inspired congratulations and controversy, especially with her recent exclusion from the USA Basketball Women’s National team.

The reaction to Clark’s success and attention from some members of the media and WNBA players has been shocking. Tremendous commentators such as Andraya Carter, Chiney Ogwumike, and Rebecca Lobo have, at times, come off as apologists for WNBA players who are just plain jealous of Clark’s unprecedented popularity.

As ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has explained eloquently, these critics are missing the point from a marketing and economic perspective. Clark has not only helped herself with her play, but has also brought attention and focus to women’s hoops as a whole.

By tuning in to see what Clark does, viewers are also noticing the many other great WNBA players. Clark is that rare breed of athlete who is truly changing the game, making it better and more profitable not only for herself, but for everyone involved at all levels.

On recent editions of ESPN’s First Take, Smith has gone toe to toe with Carter, Ogwumike, and Monica McNutt on the Caitlin Clark issue. The fascinating exchange between Smith and McNutt on the June 3 edition was a watershed moment in recent sports television.

Smith, McNutt, and host Molly Qerim were discussing the hard foul/shove that Chicago’s Chennedy Carter laid on Clark in a WNBA game. The course of the discussion moved toward the rise in WNBA ratings mainly because of Clark’s presence in the league.

The debate eventually came down to a back-and-forth between Smith and McNutt. Smith reiterated his longtime dedication to the WNBA and women’s sports in general. In response, McNutt said that with Smith’s platform, he could’ve been talking as much about the WNBA three years ago, long before Clark’s debut.

Smith was visibly angered and disappointed by McNutt’s comments. On The Stephen A. Smith Show podcast that same day, he defended himself and his show, saying that First Take has been at the forefront of promoting gender, race, age, and all forms of equality and respect.

Smith is 100% correct. This chap has been a champion of women, minorities, and even older media personalities, such as Christopher Russo, whom he has brought to a whole new audience on First Take. Stephen A. Smith is the Arsenio Hall and David Letterman of sports talk. When the syndicated Arsenio Hall Show hit the airwaves in 1989, he was the first late night host to bring hip-hop artists to center stage on a regular basis.

Similarly, Letterman’s “Late Night” on NBC showcased new talent in comedy and music, while bringing irreverence and originality to the tired old talk show format. Smith has done the same. He has made stars out of Ryan Clark, Mina Kimes, Marcus Spears, Kimberley Martin, and many others. He has also raised the profile of already renowned commentators such as Shannon Sharpe, Qerim, and the aforementioned Russo.

Smith has been a stalwart of equity, but that’s not what McNutt was saying. She was saying that with his audience, Smith could’ve talked about the WNBA thereby creating popularity and exposure for the league long before now.

McNutt’s jarring comment put Smith in a humbled position and really hit at his very core, but he took his game to a whole new level the very next day. McNutt was back on First Take, which right there shows the utter gumption that Smith possesses. He could’ve easily let things settle down a bit before he brought McNutt back on the show, but he didn’t. That’s classic Smith – encouraging discourse and disagreement.

When you get to the level of a Stephen A. Smith, you welcome a debating challenge. The last guests you want are sycophantic suck-ups who cowardly agree, no matter what the subject. Smith’s high point on the June 4 episode was when he said in a loud voice, “Caitlin Clark is white.”

He acknowledged the fact that it makes a difference. He also stated that black players who have been just as talented as Clark have not been given their rightful attention – also true. Regarding the perceived negative treatment of Clark by some WNBA players, Smith made it clear that they should not go easy on Clark on the court, but their mindsets need to recognize that Clark is benefitting the WNBA and putting dollars in their collective pockets.

Whether you agree with Smith or not, the fact is that this is what special players like Caitlin Clark do. They raise the level of discussion and simultaneously raise the profile of their respective sports. The WNBA is now in the A-block on highly rated shows like First Take and ESPN’s Get Up.

The league and its players are on the front burner of discussion for Smith, Nick Wright, Colin Cowherd and many other top-tier, multimedia sports debaters. This fact was straight up impossible one year ago. This is what Caitlin Clark has done.

Clark’s impact and stamp on women’s basketball is not unique. There are precedents where one person has made such a difference.

Larry Bird looked different, played different, restored a dead Celtics franchise, and made his mark in a sport that was on life support in terms of media coverage and fan interest. Bird and Magic Johnson rescued the league – a black man on the west coast and a white man on the east coast, two wunderkinds who changed the NBA forever. Caitlin Clark is Larry Bird.

Tiger Woods burst onto the PGA TOUR and won the Masters in 1997, embarking on a run that would see him change the game of golf from a competitive, performance, historic standpoint, and social standpoint. He was charismatic, focused, and yes, an African American phenom smashing records in a white-dominated sport. Caitlin Clark is Tiger Woods.

In 1965, Alabama quarterback Joe Namath eschewed the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and signed with the AFL’s New York Jets. He raised the profile of the league and garnered more attention and dollars than established AFL stars which made him a target. As the league’s popularity grew however, opposing players recognized his significance beyond the field. They did not go easy on him during games, just ask his knees, but they knew that his success was theirs as well. Namath was the key figure in the eventual AFL/NFL merger. Caitlin Clark is Joe Namath.

Serena Williams was smart, savvy, athletic, fashion conscious, and just plain great. Williams shattered the traditional mold and became an iconoclastic figure in women’s tennis with both her play and personae. The lineage with her sister Venus ushered in a new era in the sport. Serena attacked the game in a unique way. She was exciting and original, and lifted her sport and fellow athletes. Caitlin Clark is Serena Williams.

I am not saying that Clark will have a legendary or Hall of Fame career akin to these illustrious athletes, but the immediate impact she has had on her sport and the media coverage of her sport is similar.

As Smith so often states, Clark is “box office.” You can debate the reasons why, but you cannot debate the fact that she has supremely raised the profile and the financial prospects of women’s basketball and its players.

I understand that other WNBA players want their share of the credit for improving the league. I also understand that WNBA commentators want fairness and equity in terms of attention and the spotlight. However, both groups need to realize that Clark is the main reason that they are getting this increased exposure. On the court, be competitive against Clark and try to beat her and her team. On the air, be critical of Clark and analyze her game, but on a larger scale, understand, accept, and embrace that Caitlin Clark’s most important assist might just be to you.

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Joe Tipton Turned Sports Graphics Into a National Reporting Role With On3

“There’s definitely a competitive aspect of it, which I really enjoy actually because it just kind of keeps you on your toes.”

Derek Futterman

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(Illustration) | Courtesy: On3

In the moments when athletes make a monumental decision about their playing careers, news outlets frequently try to cover the story in a timely and accurate manner. Whether it is signing with a new team in free agency, inking a new endorsement deal or retiring, basketball has plenty of these occurrences annually. These announcements are sometimes accompanied by graphics, adding visual elements of branding and allure to the development. Joe Tipton learned the nuances of photo editing and graphic design at a young age, leading him to create images of NBA players and share them on social media. Observing a lack of interest within the space, he considered doing the same for high school players nearing college commitments.

Tipton Edits, an independent business venture that he began shortly after starting in sports graphic design, provides athletes with a free edit in which their new uniform is superimposed onto an image divulging their new team. These recruits then share the photos on social media and tag Tipton. Especially at the start of the entrepreneurial property, he viewed gaining followers as remuneration, an invaluable currency as digital media continues its swift proliferation.

“I didn’t start making the graphics at 17 to have a job in it – I was just kind of doing it on the side for fun and then just kind of [seeing] where it would go,” Tipton said. “Since I was one of the first people to make graphics for these high school players in their recruiting decisions and now transfers, and now that I’ve built up the presence online and the credibility and the reputation, a lot of them will flock to me, and I think that’s what’s so sustainable about it now.”

The transfer portal keeps Tipton busy in creating and delivering graphics to collegiate athletes moving to a new school. Remaining prepared to create an enticing visual featuring the player in their new uniform and distributing it on social media requires a commitment to the craft. Even though he was a marketing student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he was still trying to determine the best path forward and ended up transforming his hobby into a sustainable career.

“I was able to communicate with high-level basketball players and create something for them – and all of it free of charge – in exchange just for a tag on Instagram and Twitter, which helped propel me and grow my brand and following online,” Tipton said, “and over the years, [it] got me to where I am now.”

By designing these graphics in advance, Tipton was privy to coveted information and recognized that he could effectively reveal where players were signing. His work has been featured on various sports outlets such as ESPN and Bleacher Report and shared by NBA legends including Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen.

On3, a digital sports media brand that delivers news, analysis and insights to consumers regarding college sports, recruiting and NIL, added Tipton as a national basketball reporter after he graduated from college. Since that time, he has established himself as a distinguished journalist covering high school and college basketball.

“[I] had an opportunity to join On3 because basically what I was doing when supplying the graphic to a high school recruit and even transfers now in the portal, I am being gifted the knowledge of where a player is going,” Tipton said, “so I’m able to report that information, and that’s basically what I serve as now for On3.”

Joining On3 provided him with another platform to disseminate this information and expand his audience while assisting the company in its own growth. Shannon Terry founded On3 in 2021, and the platform has continued to expand with dedicated coverage of NIL, the transfer portal and the NFL Draft, along with adding subsidiary verticals such as On3 Elite and On3 HER.

“When it comes to the transfers and their decision making, it’s so rapid fire, and there’s so many players that enter the transfer portal because of NIL, because of instant opportunities and also the ability to play right away and not have to sit out like the previous rules stated,” Tipton articulated, “so it increased the need for what I do and just the coverage of the transfer portal in general has taken a significant leap, which is great for those who cover the portal and recruiting in general.”

Tipton earned a contract extension at On3 earlier in the year, but he has always operated with a chip on his shoulder to prove that he is more than just a graphic designer. While he is a recent graduate and continuing to shape his identity and forge relationships, he believes the process has been considerably slow to this point. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic that working with On3 will be able to propel him to the next level.

“They didn’t view me as a reporter even though I was breaking news, so especially in the earlier stages, I wasn’t getting credit for breaking the news just because I guess they didn’t view me as a reporter [or] traditional media outlet,” Tipton said. “But ever since joining On3, that’s kind of painted me in a new light, and people will look at me a little bit differently, especially with the coverage that I’m able to provide for On3 and then just the overall stories broken.”

There is an aspect of fluctuation that has become more embedded in college basketball, rendering it fundamental to verify information ahead of its circulation. For example, if a player informs Tipton that they are committing to a certain school, he will oftentimes call the coaches or athletics department to safeguard against complicating miscommunication between the two entities. In the end, he is never releasing graphics or reports without extreme confidence in its veracity.

“There’s definitely a competitive aspect of it, which I really enjoy actually because it just kind of keeps you on your toes,” Tipton said. “It’s kind of a rush as well to be able to get it out first, but the first year on the job with On3, there was an incredible amount of pressure that I put on myself to just achieve this at a high level, but there’s also a great deal of stress that comes with it because a lot of what I do is time sensitive.”

Although he has a stellar reporting record dating back to his days solely creating graphics, there are moments when other reporters or outlets beat him to the story. In these situations, the power of his brand and its identity assists in overcoming these impediments, indicative of his broad appeal and widespread reach. Establishing himself as a brand rather than being a graphic designer or reporter within a larger entity has been a key differentiator within his formative years in the business.

“I think it’s the key to sustainability and a way to separate yourself from other people, so I’m incredibly fortunate that the players believe in me, trust in me and then On3 does the same because I’m a source for the player that they can come to and trust, and we all grow together,” Tipton said. “I help grow the player, [and] I help grow On3. On3 helps grow me [and] the player helps grow me because they’re all posting my stuff, we’re posting them, so we’re all on this together, so it’s really nice.”

Tipton never envisioned himself appearing in front of the camera, but he is now doing so regularly for On3. As part of its content, he frequently discusses the latest news regarding recruitment, the transfer portal and NIL in addition to synthesizing player rankings.

“[I am] obviously only just scratching the surface of the on-camera stuff, but I think that is a strong potential avenue for me moving forward in my career,” Tipton said, “but then also my ability to break news at a high level and also the relationships that I have just when it comes to the recruiting insider portion of my job as well.”

Later this month, Tipton will see some of the players for whom he has created graphics soon enter the NBA when the NBA Draft takes place from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although he has not assimilated into reporting on the NBA, he is competitive and has thought about his future work. Yet he understands that a majority of his verve is in college basketball and is focused on breaking news beyond recruiting.

“The good thing about me and kind of how I was brought up was I wasn’t raised in a family that was a fan of a specific team; in fact, my parents aren’t even sports fans at all,” Tipton said. “Sports was just not on at all growing up, so I never grew up a specific fan or a diehard of any specific program.”

Reflecting back on his journey thus far, Tipton feels that he stumbled into his career with fortuitous timing. The versatility he has developed, along with his persistence, networking and inexorable work ethic, has contributed to the growth of Tipton Edits and his role with On3.

Tipton found a way to cut through the media ecosystem, investing his time and effort into a niche that did not exist with the level of cache and emphasis that it currently possesses. The industry moves with unrelenting momentum and can seem imposing to shrewdly understand and cover, but Tipton aims to masterfully keep up while enjoying his journey to an unknown destination.

“We live in a world where, especially younger people, they’re keen on growing their social media presence,” Tipton said, “so On3, Tipton Edits and others alike are able to grow their channels, so they’re encouraged to utilize services like mine to help kind of propel their following and for it to reach a large number of people.”

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