Mon. Apr 19th, 2021

5 Who Get It, 5 Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who has been vaccinated and will be shredded for publicizing it.

THEY GET IT

National Football League — Who knows if Planet Earth will exist in an hour, much less in 2033? Should the world disintegrate, at least the NFL grasped how to remain front and center in American culture, securing a staggering $113 billion over 11 years for its broadcasting and streaming deals with NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN and Amazon Prime. As I recently observed, a league pummeled by perpetual upheaval in recent times — a concussion and safety crisis, high-profile personal conduct cases, charges of racism amid the Colin Kaepernick protest movement, then a global pandemic — was deft and nimble enough to rise above existential issues and remain, by far, the biggest colossus in sports and show business. Roger Goodell and the owners did so by making the sport safer, protecting and marketing superstar quarterbacks and unleashing video-game thrillmaking in real time. In the process, the NFL is maintaining a critical balance between the mature demographics of its traditional cable audience and younger streamers. The league is demanding consumers to ante up and pay more for content, but when 14 of the top 20 TV audiences (33 of the top 50, 76 of the top 100) in an election-and-news-dominant year were NFL-related, the media companies had no choice but to double down on rights investments. And with the league now embracing legalized gambling after once viewing the casino world as the devil’s work — I still do, as you know — viewership will prosper while numbers lag in other sports. Asked by the Wall Street Journal if this will be his final broadcast negotiation, Goodell said, “You bet your ass.” Few will acknowledge it because the man is reviled, but when he walks away, Goodell will be the most accomplished sports commissioner ever.

Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN — Once Bristol decided to dive voraciously into league partnerships and minimize news and journalism, Pitaro became the grease for the skids. He is a fan at heart and acted like one in his negotiations with the NFL, fixing bruised feelings left by combative predecessor John Skipper and schmoozing Disney Co. back into the league’s bosom. The result, for a whopping hike of $2.7 billion a year, is a return to the Super Bowl rotation for the first time since 2006, with ABC getting two Big Games while ESPN retains “Monday Night Football,” gains flexibility for better “MNF” matchups and adds two playoff games per season, for an annual total of 23. Disney now is deeply embedded with (deep breath) the NFL, college football, the NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball, college basketball, the Masters and tennis’ Grand Slams. It’s right to assume that any ESPN attempt to investigate wrongdoing by the company’s business partners will be quashed, meaning Pitaro will be viewed as complicit when his fading news division ignores or short-shrifts scandals. But, then, I don’t think he or Disney CEO Bob Chapek really care. This is ESPN’s attempt to remain a sports media behemoth, for better or worse, after a devastating 2020. An aside: Does Disney really want Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick working Super Bowls? It’s time to match the heightened platform with the proper booth talent.

Andy Katz, Turner Sports — In ESPN’s convenient haste to purge middle-aged White guys — the woke police can troll me now — Bristol sometimes is made to look particularly wretched. Remember when Katz was a victim of mass layoffs? Four years after that blindside, he’s the emerging media star of March Madness, using his vast reporting skills to expertly cover the breaking story of VCU’s forfeiture due to COVID-19, then injecting his college basketball knowledge into studio chat sessions with Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. This was in marked contrast to how goo-master Jim Nantz handled the story the next day during a CBS game telecast, first praising the NCAA’s Dan Gavitt for his Indianapolis success story — um, the tournament had just started — then dismissing the VCU story with a blah comment and a commercial read after colleague Bill Raftery had tried to address it. Turner host Ernie Johnson, sounding relieved that a journalist was on set, told Katz after the segment, “I appreciate the way you use all of your contacts and share the information with me and the audience.” In the surest sign of acceptance, Barkley shouted, “Great job, Andy!” before spending the next few days poking fun at him. Turns out his ESPN dismissal was a boon to Katz’s career. He refused to allow a network’s mistake to define him.

Charles Barkley, Turner Sports — Maddening as he can be when stuck in goof mode, Barkley excels when topics transcend basketball. Attacking the very social-media creeps who watch his show, he tore into troll culture when Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell was threatened online after the Buckeyes’ first-round loss. “I’m never gonna dignify these losers and interact with them ever. I don’t care how much money some offers me, I’ll never do social media because of this,” Barkley said. The sports world, including teen basketball players, would be wise to heed Barkley’s words and shut down all accounts. Life is too short to let anonymous cowards toy with your mind. I used to spar with these cretins — including some in the media industry — until I started using the BLOCK and MUTE functions as the technological answer to a Raid can. Kills bugs dead, right? At last count, I’ve blocked 3,128 bugs.

Dana O’Neil, The Athletic — Oh, to read a writer who is passionate about her subject matter. That often isn’t the case, especially when someone has been on a beat too long, but O’Neil’s enthusiasm still jumps off the page after decades of covering college basketball. Many sports media people are simply trying to get by these days. O’Neil, upon arriving in Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament, took advantage of a rare year of one-stop shopping and spent 13 hours on a binge: three buildings, four games. Starting her trek at venerable Hinkle Fieldhouse, she wrote: “Fifteen minutes after leaving my hotel, I make a left-hand turn on 47th Street and look to my right. It is 11:32 on a beautiful Friday morning. Bruce Springsteen is playing on the radio, but in my head I hear the archangels singing. If you’re going to spend a day chasing basketball around Indianapolis, it’s not a bad idea to start at the cathedral.” Anyone who didn’t keep reading to the end doesn’t like life.

THEY DON’T GET IT

NBC — In a room with Donald Trump, Kanye West, Cardi B, Jerry Jones and Tucker Carlson, the TV sports executive still might have the biggest ego. Just because NBC says Drew Brees will be the next great football analyst doesn’t mean he won’t flop. First, have we ever heard Brees say anything opinionated? Second, and more importantly, didn’t he anger ample segments of the U.S. population last year when he opposed the national anthem protests of Colin Kaepernick and others, drawing the ire of LeBron James and numerous NFL players? “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States,” said Brees, before apologizing. Does NBC think America has forgotten that comment? There’s an urgency at the network to eventually pair Brees with the unremarkable Mike Tirico on “Sunday Night Football.” I don’t care how old Al Michaels is. When he and Cris Collinsworth have helped build the biggest showcase in sports television, you don’t run them off until you know Brees is worthy. In the rush to find the next Tony Romo, rival executives should realize there is no next Tony Romo.

Amazon Prime — If Jeff Bezos expects tens of millions of viewers flocking to his exclusive “Thursday Night Football” package, perhaps he should have focused on buying the distressed Washington Football Team. Only a kickass matchup brought the national masses to Fox and the NFL Network, and fewer will be watching via streaming — which might represent the future for sports but remains a fad in the eyes of linear traditionalists who still locate games via cable clickers. Just because 40 million Americans have cut cords doesn’t mean they’ll spend a valuable weeknight watching the NFL. And the 90 million who haven’t cut cords won’t be subscribing to Prime for a Lions-Falcons game. The league grew greedy when it expanded to Thursdays, not realizing America didn’t want a five-consecutive-day barrage of professional and college football. All of which keeps in line with my theory about streaming: The content still must be great to attract eyeballs, and too many Thursday games aren’t worthy of our time, much less our added expense. Not that the NFL is too concerned, receiving an average of more than $1 billion for 15 Amazon streams a year. Last season, Amazon’s lone game drew only 4 million viewers. That won’t be nearly enough to meet an incentive that would allow Amazon to air a playoff game, not that we want Amazon airing a playoff game.

Brent Musburger, Vegas Stats & Information Network — Once a journalist who anchored a TV newscast — and a columnist who kept the Chicago sports scene honest — Musburger has sold out to the sports gambling craze. You are looking live at the South Point Casino in Las Vegas, where Musburger is based as the broadcasting symbol of legalized wagering. His old network profiled his new career on “CBS Sunday Morning,” where he somehow compared gambling on a sports event to immigrants who came to America in previous centuries. “Listen, when the country was founded, they took a chance,” he said. “I mean, they came across the ocean. They didn’t know what the hell was at the other end. It was founded by speculators. It was founded by guys who gambled with their family’s life.” Brent, those people were trying to find a new way to live and survive. Not to generalize, but gamblers are trying to win enough to buy a week’s worth of weed.

Chicago Sun-Times — I was curious how my former sports section, once among the country’s best, covered the triumph of Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean over Big Ten monster Illinois — the ultimate local story and readership magnet. In my day, we would have dispatched beat writers, columnists and photographers on an I-65 convoy to Indianapolis, just 3 1/2 hours away. Today’s Sun-Times, barely kept breathing by periodic bailouts from Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz and other businessmen, didn’t send a soul, using an Associated Press story and an analysis by someone writing from home. Years ago, after opting out of my recently-signed contract extension because management was filthy, I appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports” and predicted the Sun-Times would fade away because it didn’t adapt to the digital world. I didn’t think the place would stop trying.

Media-controlling sports franchises —  Did the Indianapolis Colts actually prohibit Philadelphia media from asking questions of their new quarterback, Carson Wentz, about his dismal ending with the Eagles? Yes, they did, and the Indiana media and everyone else on that Zoom press conference should have got up and left, leaving Wentz alone with his sour memories. The pandemic has allowed teams to make a mockery of media, effectively reducing access that won’t return even in a post-COVID world. Then there’s this: As further evidence that regional networks are in bed with the franchises they pay to cover — thus blurring the lines of journalism — we have the cases of Amy Gutierrez and Dan Kolko. When Gutierrez was let go by NBC Sports Bay Area, she quickly was hired by … the San Francisco Giants, the team she’d been covering from the dugout as a field reporter. The Washington Nationals followed suit, hiring Kolko after Mid-Atlantic Sports Network canceled him as a pre- and post-game host. I’ve known forever that there is no real newsbreaking by these outlets, just a direct filter from the teams to the viewers via “professionals” who are being used. I just want the fans to understand the scam so they can differentiate between authentic and house media. “For two decades, Amy has served as a key link between our fans and the Giants through her exceptional work on our broadcasts and in the community,” Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said. “We are delighted that Amy will bring her storytelling talents to the Giants and will continue to expand her reach to Giants fans everywhere.” Storytelling, remember, is a euphemism for public-relations fluff.

Steve Kerr, crybaby — When the Warriors coach made a curious admission — that he enjoyed the challenge of a 15-50 season more than the anguish of the 2018-19 season, filled with drama over Kevin Durant’s impending departure and devastating NBA Finals injuries to Durant and Klay Thompson — he should have known there would be backlash. Specifically, was he tweaking Durant? “That last year was tough,” he said on The Ringer’s NBA podcast. “There was a lot going on — some that you know about and some that you don’t. That was very difficult.” The not-so-veiled hints were enough for a Bay Area media member, Drew Shiller, to draw a parallel to Durant in a tweet. Kerr was incensed, calling out Shiller in a lengthy diatribe for “a terribly unfair shot.” I say it’s a cheap attempt by Kerr to deflect a wave of social media responses, including one from Durant, never a big fan of Kerr: “This is hilarious.” When Kerr chooses to be outspoken on all topics, including politics, he can’t retro-whine after saying, “There was a lot going on — some that you know about, some that you don’t.” Shiller felt bad, tweeting that he “deserved” Kerr’s rant. Given the history between Kerr and Durant — and the way the coach continued to coddle Draymond Green after he referred to Durant as “a bitch” during a defining confrontation that season — no mea culpa was necessary. I come away wondering: Does Kerr need a break from coaching? Wait, did I just do “Six Who Don’t Get It” again? Obviously, I skipped calculus at Ohio, where, you may have heard, the basketball team beat defending champion Virginia. “The nation has fallen in love with this Ohio team,” said Grant Hill, before the nation fell out of love watching a loss to Creighton.

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