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Next Battlefield For Sports: Players vs. Owners

The completion of an NFL season hardly means the industry is home-free, with labor confrontations looming in the NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL as common trust breaks down.

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If this is where life brightens and crystallizes again, following a Super Bowl that connected us and returned us to Tom Brady Normalcy Mode, then explain the disjointed scene in Brooklyn. If we’re nearing the one-year anniversary of Rudy Gobert Night — and a realization that sports has managed to bob and weave through all the evil droplets and complete every league season, for better or worse — why was Kevin Durant told he couldn’t play, then told he could play, then ordered to leave the court and isolate, in a chaotic swirl of medical incompetence that only jeopardized his Nets teammates?

“Free me,” Durant tweeted from the locker room. “Yo @nba, your fans aren’t dumb!!!! You can’t fool em with your Wack ass PR tactics.. #FREE7.”

“He was around all of us,” James Harden said. “The game should have been postponed.”

Consider it a jarring reminder that sport’s calendar of calamity is no one-off.

Even as COVID-19 numbers improve nationwide and millions of arms are being pricked, even as the NFL finished a 269-game schedule without any players or coaches dying, the industry continues to be, uh, Wack ass. The NBA is inviting a dangerous revolt fueled by its most influential stars, including LeBron James, who feel mistreated as the league force-feeds an All-Star Game they don’t want and urges them to take vaccines resisted by the African-American community. Major League Baseball is in its usual war zone, with owners trying to delay the season so more vaccinated fans return to ballparks while players instinctively don’t trust them, all a prelude to a work stoppage — after the season if not before then — that would set back a troubled sport for years. And the NHL? At last count, five teams have been idled and more than 100 players removed from the ice while 33 games have been postponed.

“Because you are going in and out of hotel lobbies with other people, it’s impossible to feel as safe,” said Rick Bowness, the 66-year-old coach of the Dallas Stars. “In Carolina the other day, when we were getting on an elevator, a couple got off and the woman did not have a mask on. So we don’t know, was she coughing in the elevator? Was she sneezing? Who knows?”

The new issue is labor. You knew it was coming. For 11 months, the leagues and unions have co-existed in navigating an unprecedented crisis, a pandemic requiring cool-headed collaboration so everyone could keep making money, broadcast networks could keep airing games and the leagues could avoid devastating shutdowns. The most shocking survivalist story was the NFL, which, without help of a protective Bubble like the NBA and NHL of 2020, mushed through a full season that included several outbreaks but avoided a mass cancellation. “We don’t think there was a safer place to be than in NFL facilities this year,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We never doubted that for a second.” The success largely resulted from the league’s massive wealth and influence — administering about a million daily COVID-19 tests, making necessary logistical investments, taking extra precautions on road trips that lasted only one night and staying true to an elaborate chip system that made sure all league employees maintained proximity and duration via tracking devices.

But with no assurance of when paying spectators are returning to stadiums and arenas, the money squeeze is being tightened with vice-grip tensions. And the leagues are starting to crack, with the NBA, MLB and NHL gamely trying to complete second coronavirus seasons more challenging than the first.

The spirit of Kumbaya in the Disney World Bubble, emboldened by Black Lives Matter protests and a disabling of Donald Trump, seems to be gone. Now we have superstars, one by one, trashing the concept of an All-Star Game in a pandemic. They are spot-on about the NBA’s hypocrisy. In one sense, the league was concerned enough about Durant’s three car rides with a Nets employee last Friday to not let him start the game that night despite three negative tests in 24 hours; yet inexplicably, the league let Durant enter the game even when the employee’s virus test was inconclusive before yanking him for good in the third quarter when the test proved positive. If that is disturbingly erratic, does commissioner Adam Silver actually think players would be safe in Atlanta, where COVID-19 restrictions are lax, even for a one-night event featuring the game and skill competitions? Or that players would obey protocols — a problem when both Durant and the Nets employee reportedly weren’t wearing masks during their contacts?

Image result for atlanta covid

For the first time, the players don’t trust Silver, believing he’s exploiting them in a desperate TV money grab. Specifically, James is upset — and he is someone the league does not want as an adversary. “I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year. I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game,” said James, on track for another MVP trophy and fifth NBA title. “”Short offseason for myself and my teammates, 71 days. And then coming into this season, we were told that we were not having an All-Star Game, so we’d have a nice little break — five days (in March) from the 5th through the 10th, an opportunity for me to kind of recalibrate for the second half of the season. My teammates as well. Some of the guys in the league. And then they throw an All-Star Game on us like this and just breaks that all the way up. So, um, pretty much kind of a slap in the face.”

His sentiments were echoed by elite peers. “(The league) is just putting money over health right now,” Kawhi Leonard said. “It’s money on the line. There’s the opportunity to make more money.”

“The big dog says he has zero excitement and energy for the All-Star Game, and I’m the same way. I don’t want to do it,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, referring to James. “I really right now don’t care about the All-Star Game. I want to see my family.”

“If I’m going to be brutally honest, I think it’s stupid,” De’Aaron Fox said. “If we have to wear a mask and do all of this for a regular game, then what’s the point of bringing the All-Star Game back? Obviously, money makes the world go round, so it is what it is.”

Compounding the problem: a growing reluctance among NBA players to be vaccinated. In a league of predominantly Black players, inoculation isn’t a given but, rather, a delicate personalized question based on a historic distrust in the African-American community about vaccines. What if only one-half of the league’s players and coaches get shots when they are available? That could create a locker-room divide when seasons and aspirations are disrupted by more positive tests among anti-vaxxers.

MLB’s long-term outlook is shakier. The players insist on starting spring training next week despite a seemingly smarter suggestion by the owners, as backed by the Biden administration: Start the season a month late with a 154-game schedule, allowing more players and team personnel to be vaccinated, as well as the fans who ultimately need to generate ballpark revenues for the league to avoid a shutdown. But the players don’t trust the owners after years of labor infighting — and who can blame them? — so they’re pushing forward with a full season against common sense and health logic. The players want paybacks after agreeing to accept only 37 percent of their salaries during the protracted 2020 season, but the owners say they lost $3 billion last year — in truth, they made $3 billion less than the year before.

So what we have is another hot mess of a season clouded by more volatile standoffs between the owners and Players Association, only 9 1/2 months before the collective bargaining agreement expires and the sport unravels like never before. They did agree Monday on health protocols and a return of seven-inning doubleheaders and runners starting at second base in extra innings, but those are window dressings on a ticking bomb. This could be the last baseball we see for quite a while, not that it will be a legitimately competitive season.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, blowing through MLB’s $210-million competitive balance tax like a Porsche on Pacific Coast Highway, signed Trevor Bauer for $40 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022 with opt-outs if he prefers after each season. His salary is expected to exceed the entire 26-man payroll of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland (Whatever We’ll Be Calling Them), and he’ll join Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Julio Urias in a rotation that might never lose. Mookie Betts last year, Bauer this year. Why bother playing the season when the Dodgers are a cinch to win again, even if Bauer complicates the clubhouse camaraderie with dangerous tweets that criticize commissioner Rob Manfred amid a growing labor crisis?

Image result for tony clark rob manfred

“This season is about making sure history remembers us as we wish to be remembered,” Bauer said in one of his self-produced videos. “This season is about adding to our legacy. And I can’t wait, Dodger fans.”

Fans of two dozen other teams will just ignore baseball altogether.

The NHL is on thin ice, as commissioner Gary Bettman already has said the league will lose billions if it somehow finishes a season already in COVID-19 disarray. Maybe that’s what the owners want; the Buffalo Sabres, since hit by COVID cases including an infected head coach, are angry they were forced to play New Jersey without being informed the Devils were dealing with cases.

“It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play,” said Bettman, only exacerbating tensions.

Soon, almost six dozen college basketball teams will descend upon greater Indianapolis, assuming anything in Indianapolis is great, for a bubble-ized NCAA basketball tournament being played only for TV revenues and gamblers — while players who take all the health risks are unpaid. I fear that a new kind of March Madness awaits.  And if it seems fairly normalized that 30,000 daily spectators are allowed this week at the year’s first tennis major, the Australian Open, I have a question for officials Down Under: If you’ve successfully kept the coronavirus under control in your country, why push your luck by trying to pull this off at Melbourne Park?

The sensible health conclusion, in what has been the most confounding time of our lives, is that seasons played outdoors or inside protective Bubbles can be completed. And that seasons played under traditional roofs, with athletes able to come and go as they please in the real world, might not complete seasons.

But now the complications extend beyond the coronavirus. Sports has entered the labor zone, also plagued by a disease known to mutate. Only this one poisons egos and kills leagues.

BSM Writers

How Does Your Show Change When Your Market Grows?

“Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.”

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The population of the United States is always shifting. In our history, there have been migrations from the East Coast to the West, from the rural towns of the South to the major cities of the Northeast. Right now, it is from cities where it stays cold and expensive into places where it is warmer and cheaper.

Raleigh is the 2nd fastest growing large metro in the US | Carolina  Demography
Courtesy: Carolina Demography

We see it all the time with Nielsen market sizes. What was yesterday’s top 50 market is today’s top 30 market. People come from out of town and their new hometown gets a little bit bigger.

So what exactly does that mean for sports radio hosts? Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.

Matt Chernoff is the co-host of Chuck & Chernoff on 680 The Fan in Atlanta. Not only has he been on the air in the city for 24 years, he also grew up there. He has seen the city go from being the biggest metropolitan area in the college football crazy South to the home of the most consistent team in baseball to hosting an Olympics.

Chernoff says the city is still a hot bed for college football fandom. Not only is it the home of more Georgia fans than anywhere else in the world, it is also a common post-college destination for graduates of college football powers Alabama and Clemson as well as about a dozen other power conference school.

As a city though, none of those teams peak Atlanta’s interest the way the local NFL team does these days.

“When the Falcons are good and entertaining they get biggest tv ratings in town and garner more attention than anything else,” he says.

One of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country is North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. My wife and I moved to the area in 2005 and it was already exploding in population. In the 15 years we have been here, the population feels like it has almost completely turned over. That will happen when large corporations like SAS, IBM, GlaksoSmoithKline, and Pfizer all have headquarters in an area.

Most of our transplants come from either the New York metropolitan area or from Chicago. Adam Gold came here from Baltimore in the late 90s. He says that local sports talk still wins, but the transplants have made it possible for syndicated shows to succeed in the Triangle.

The Adam Gold Show | The Sports Hub
Courtesy: Capital Broadcasting

“The national shows we air do fine, and their resources are unmatched,” Adam told me in an email. “But, they’ll never give our listeners everything they want because they still want to hear at least a little about their own teams.  When State loses to Mississippi State the national shows are never going to talk about it.  We will.  But, the strong brand names still resonate, like Mike Greenberg, or the ESPN morning show.”

Gold, who hosts a show that is syndicated across the state and originates from 99.9 The Fan, says that even though the market is the center of the college basketball universe, he has always been aware that the idea of ACC basketball being topic 1-A year round is a myth.

“When it’s basketball season we can talk hoops.  Until then, it’s 90% football.  In fact, even during the basketball season, ACC hoops might come second (or third) to the NFL or college football.”

Football still rules the day, and the transient nature of the Triangle means that you need to know a lot of football. Sure the home teams in college are North Carolina and NC State (and to a lesser extent Duke and East Carolina), but plenty of people want to talk about national brands like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State.

That carries over to the NFL too. Raleigh is weird. There are plenty of people here that adopted the Carolina Panthers as their team in the mid-90s. Before Charlotte got a team of its own though, the closest NFL market was Washington, DC. That means we still have plenty of WFT loyalists. There are also the teams that are popular everywhere: The Steelers, Cowboys, and Packers. They all have large followings in the Triangle too.

“I’ve always treated the Triangle as a transient audience.  Similar, albeit in a smaller way, to Washington, DC,” Gold says.

Salt Lake City is growing fast. The nation seems to have woken up to the fact that lower taxes and life in the Rocky Mountains is preferable to…well, the opposite of both of those things. Hans Olsen came to the area in 1996 to play football at BYU. After a seven year NFL career, he returned to the area and has been a part of 1280 The Zone for the last 16 years.

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I asked him about the growth of the city. As more people came to town, what was that doing to fandom for his BYU Cougars? Outside of Utah, when we think of Utah, we tend to think of every citizen being Mormon. That probably is less likely to be accurate as more businesses start in the state and bring people in from the outside.

Olsen says that it has actually held pretty steady. Most of the businesses that have sprung up in the state are being started by members of the LDS Church. On top of that, the real testament to how powerful BYU’s brand remains even as the Salt Lake City market changes is in the station’s streaming numbers.

“When BYU is good, our listenership is up, our revenue is up, our streaming is up, our podcast downloads are up,” Olsen told me. “And you know, you could attach a pretty nice percentage of increase any time BYU is good. So when they were 11-1 last year, even in the Covid year, we were still doing good in the streaming numbers, downloads, listens, revenue. We were holding strong.

People outside of the Mountain time zone may not realize that the passion for college football in Utah runs as deep as just about anywhere in the SEC. There’s division though. The rivalry between BYU and the University of Utah isn’t called “The Holy War” for nothing. Add to that a Utah State fanbase that constantly feels disrespected and the love of college football doesn’t bring the market together as much as it divides it.

Hans Olsen says that the unifier, unsurprisingly, is the Utah Jazz. People may come to town with their own fandoms in other sports, but Salt Lake City is has a way of turning new residents into Jazz fans.

“They all come together and they love the Jazz. It’s always the center point here in the state and probably always will be.”

Atlanta is different. Matt Chernoff grew up in a city unified by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and depending on what part of the 90s, either Steve Avery or Greg Maddux. Really, at that time, the entire South and people across the country were unified by the Braves. Chernoff isn’t sure it will be that way forever.

MATT CHERNOFF - NBC Sports PressboxNBC Sports Pressbox

“The Braves have always been the team that unites most fans around here but I think the Hawks are about to enter a really special time with a young, exciting team that has a superstar,” he says.

Population shifts can change so much. We saw that with the 2020 Presidential Election. We see it with where national chains decide to open new locations. It isn’t just about more people. It is about how those people change the personality of their new market.

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Back To Basics

Back To Basics: Teases

“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”

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I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands. 

2,622 BEST Fingers Crossed Kid IMAGES, STOCK PHOTOS & VECTORS | Adobe Stock
Courtesy: Adobe Stock

I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether.  To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.  

If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break? 

Example 1: “More football talk, next!” 

Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”  

We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.

The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for. 

Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host. 

I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle. 

Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?” 

Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?” 

Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about. 

Photo by: iStockPhoto

The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you. 

Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice. 

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BSM Writers

Imagine If Sports Media Had To Justify Its Own Tucker Carlson

“Of course Tucker Carlson lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies.”

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Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Last week, our partners in the news media department posted a story about Tucker Carlson. It was about a recent interview the FOX News host did with some guy on YouTube. In the interview, Carlson admits that there are times he blatantly lies on his show – the most popular show that is broadcast by what is ostensibly a news channel.

“I guess I would ask myself, like, I mean I lie if I’m really cornered or something. I lie,” Carlson told Dave Rubin. “I really try not to. I try never to lie on TV. I just don’t – I don’t like lying. I certainly do it, you know, out of weakness or whatever.”

When I first read this story, I just dismissed it. Of course this jackass lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies. There is just no way he is actually as stupid as he pretends to be when he makes that “I am shocked by what I just heard” face. You know the one. It looks like he just discovered there’s a Batman movie where the suit has nipples.

born miserable on Twitter: "Tucker Carlson always looks like someone's just  shown him a picture of a vagina… "
Courtesy: FOX News

I tried to dismiss it, but then later in the week came his impassioned plea to Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend to come on TV to discuss his balls after the rapper tweeted a story about how the Covid vaccine made this guy’s testicles swell and thus ruined his potential wedding.

It is a clip that was passed around Twitter thousands of times. It showed up in my feed over and over with comments like “This is THE NEWS in 2021” and “I never want this man to stop talking about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls.”

Can you imagine if Carlson’s bullshit was acceptable in sports media? I could write the same thing about FOX News in general, but let’s keep this focused on Tucker, because this past week he crossed the rubicon into a special category of absurd.

There are plenty of people in sports media that will go on TV and explain to you why a loss is actually good for a team or why undeniable greatness is actually unimpressive. This is someone going on TV and telling you that it doesn’t matter what you saw with your own two eyes on Thursday night, the Giants actually beat Washington or that the Brooklyn Nets can be dismissed as title contenders because there is no proof that anyone on their roster has even been to the All-Star Game.

I have written in the past that news commenters, be they on radio or television, do not impress me. Those people are not original or interesting at all. They aren’t even talented. I’m only bringing up that opinion to be completely transparent.

Sports Tucker Carlson would be a totally different animal. In fact, such a thing would be unacceptable.

Now, I am sure some of you are out there shouting that sports media does have a Tucker Carlson. In fact, the sports Tucker Carlson works for the same company that the real Tucker Carlson does. His name is Skip Bayless.

Llia L Retweeted This Skip Bayless LeBron Is Tired AGAIN??? Has Looked a  Little Lethargic All Night Isn't He Supposed to Be the World's Finest  Conditioned Athlete? MJ Never Got Tired MJ

Look, I hear you. Skip brings no sincerity to anything, but I also don’t think Skip has any values he is trying to push. His takes are ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. ALL HAIL THEM CLICKS!

Besides, the great thing about sports broadcasting in general is that the stakes of what we are talking about are pretty low. Creativity and absurdity are welcome. None of this is important, nor is there any illusion that it may be. No one is showing up at the Capital with zip ties and bear mace demanding the Chiefs be re-instated as Super Bowl champions or screaming at doctors that the Covid vaccine is a scheme to return Miami to relevance in the college football world.

Putting on my programmer hat for a second, I just cannot imagine how to justify a Tucker Carlson. Then again, my programmer hat was not made and fitted by people trying to pass performance art off as news. So, maybe me not getting it is the strategy.

Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Either way, this, to me, feels like very good information to take to advertisers next time they question the desirability of a sports radio audience versus a news audience. Our listeners are passionate, intelligent people looking to be entertained and engaged by conversations about their favorite teams and they’re willing to support the people that do that for them. The most popular name in news talk admits that he lies when the facts don’t match up to the story he wants to tell. The reaction from the public is “well of course he does.” Which one would you rather have your brand associated with?

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