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Brad Thompson, Eric Bynes & Chris Townsend Examine MLB’s Challenges and Opportunities

“This year is almost a perfect blend of what we remember and what has become normal.”

Tyler McComas

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There was a time when walking to the ballpark meant seeing tailgaters, team stores and beer vendors. There were smells, sounds, sights and everything else that made walking to the ballpark such a special event. That’s not exactly what fans are experiencing this season as people flood back into ballparks, but it already far more resembles what we’re used to. Granted, you may be just as likely to see people getting COVID vaccines outside the ballpark than a group of guys playing catch and chugging beers, but seeing baseball revert back to a sense of normalcy has been incredibly therapeutic for many across the country. 

This year is almost a perfect blend of what we remember and what has become normal. Yes, we’re finally allowed to get back in the stadium and enjoy games, but at the same time, everything around you reminds you of the unprecedented time we’re still in.

Baseball fans return for 2021 MLB season: Every team's Opening Day plan for  in-person attendance - CBSSports.com

“Right now, our site is a FEMA site for giving vaccine shots,” said Chris Townsend, host of A’s Cast Live. “The federal government is here at The Colosseum on one side of the parking lot getting vaccine shots. They give over 6,000 shots a day. No parking on the south side of the stadium, I’m outside right now looking at it, and you have people in hazmat suits. It’s really impressive the amount of vaccine shots they’re doing on a daily basis.”

Brad Thompson, host of the Fast Lane at 101 ESPN in St.Louis and Bally Sports Midwest is back in the booth at Busch Stadium. However, for road games, he’s in the studio. It’s a challenge, because you have to train yourself to watch games from two completely different viewpoints, yet still be able to give the same energy and analysis while in the studio as you do live from the ballpark. 

“It’s different and can be difficult in the studio,” said Thompson. “I keep trying to remind myself that the people that are watching at home don’t care where you’re at, they just want you to do as good of a job as you possibly can. As much as you try to tell the story of what’s going on, and it happened on Opening Day, we had a couple of plays that were cut a little bit differently. You just try your best to figure out that aspect and continue to bring the energy either way. The hardest part is seeing, even though there’s a camera that shows the all-nine, where you can see where all the players are, it’s not like watching a game on the field and seeing it develop requires reps.”

It’s different, but it’s so much better than the alternative. That’s true for everyone who’s involved. But there were probably some broadcasters that were nervous about returning to the ballpark, after some took an entire year off. Although there may have been hesitation by some, it seems that’s been replaced with enthusiasm and excitement. 

“Oh my God it’s so refreshing,” said Townsend. “Where we are in the Bay Area, we were on such a lock down that our governor made our organization give a list of how many people can be in the ballpark. My boss actually asked me, he said, can you do all the games from home? I said yes I can treat it like a road game. My crew never entered the stadium last year. I was at my house, my producer was at his apartment and we put our engineer at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors used to play. Getting back to the ballpark was really one of the highlights of my career.”

How A's Cast Made Oakland The Digital Gem Of MLB | Barrett Sports Media

“We did the same exact setup last year,” said Thompson. “It was eerie being in a ballpark with no fans and seeing the back of cardboard cutouts the whole time. The idea of being back in the ballpark, for me personally, is super exciting, because a lot of the energy you have to create within the studio, you don’t have to create, because it’s right there in front of you with the fans. For me, there’s no worry about going back. it’s all exciting.”

Major League Baseball has found itself in uncharted waters as it tries to navigate through two key issues this season. One, the ongoing attempt to grow the brand nationally back to what it once was. Two, navigating political storylines after the league took the All-Star Game out of Atlanta last week. 

It’s tough to say which one will be the MLB’s biggest priority, but the league has to figure out a way to tinker its product to become more appealing to sports fans across the country.

“I think action is the No. 1 thing,” said Eric Byrnes of No Filter Network. “What I’m talking about is putting the ball in play. I think athleticism in the game today is at an all time high, but so are walks and strikeouts. To get the athleticism on display, we need to put the ball in play. One of the things discussed in moving the mound back,but if anything, before doing that, I would consider lowering the mound.”

Eric Byrnes back in Reno, all about getting kids to play

“The biggest one is more action,” said Thompson. “You know, it used to be special when a guy struck out a team 15 times. Now, it means it’s probably just a Tuesday. The average in 2019 was four minutes in between baseballs put in play. That’s not aesthetically pleasing. If we can just figure out a way to create more action I think that would help. The frustrating thing is athletes now are bigger, faster, stronger and better than they’ve ever been before. Unfortunately we don’t get a chance to see the athleticism because of how good the pitchers have gotten and how we really don’t care about the strikeout. We just want to see power.”

“Baseball has one major problem and it’s the timing of the game,” said Townsend. “If you go and look at Opening Day, 11 out of the 13 games went over three hours and three of them went over four hours. The average game time last year was three hours and four minutes. If you’re trying to build a future fan base, you can’t be playing 3 and a half to four hour games. It just doesn’t work. This is the major crisis for Major League Baseball right now.”

Maybe the answer is a trend to more of what Townsend is doing with A’s Cast Live, which is a 24-hour streaming station on iHeartRadio, where the games are aired. Right now it’s the only thing of it’s kind in baseball. If this is the future for baseball, the MLB needs to know how to push the product to more fans across the country. 

Politics and sports intertwining here to stay. Now that baseball has gotten into the mix, it will be one of the major storylines this year, just like it was in the NFL and NBA. Regardless of your stance on the MLB moving the All-Star Game, this will be an interesting summer to see how much, if at all, it affects ratings and attendance. 

“I still think it’s going to be a bigger storyline than it would have been had they kept it in Atlanta,” said Byrnes. “As a baseball fan I prefer to have a separation between sports and politics. There’s channels I can go to if I want to have political discussions or listen in on debates. I’m not asking baseball to be ignorant of what’s going on and I have no problem if they want to make their opinion known, but I think sometimes it’s better to not go public with your opinion, for fear of alienating your fanbase. I don’t care what side of the aisle you stand on the issue, but I think the NFL and NBA would both tell you that it has hurt them.”

“Players utilizing the platform, they should do that,” said Thompson. ”I am in full support of that. From the baseball standpoint, I like to be able to watch baseball and that’s the focus. But I also understand that people have things they are passionate about. The two worlds are going to collide but the hope is that the game is so good it takes the attention away.”

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Amidst all that, there’s good news. Not just that baseball is back, but also because teams are shooting for full capacity crowds by the end of the season. Even with all the political drama, baseball has a chance to be the first sport to showcase with full stands that the world is back to normal

“The big thing for us in California is how we keep switching tiers and more and more people are allowed to get back into the ballpark,” said Townsend. “As the season goes and vaccines go, we’re hoping to get to full capacity at some point.”

BSM Writers

Marty Smith Loves The ‘Pinch Me’ Moments

“I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have.”

Demetri Ravanos

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I tell this story all the time. It is told for laughs, but it is absolutely true. Marty Smith once gave me a giant box of beef jerky.

I was in Charlotte visiting him and Ryan McGee on the set of Marty & McGee as part of a larger feature I was doing on the SEC Network. We spent probably 3 hours together that day. It was a lot of fun. The last thing I watched the duo shoot was a promo for Old Trapper Beef Jerky, the presenting sponsor of their show.

As they finished, I shook their hands and told them I had to get on the road. That is when Smith presented me with a box of twelve bags of Old Trapper and told me, in as sincere a voice as you can imagine, that he wanted me to have it.

“I mean, listen, if you give a man beef jerky, by God, you like him,” Smith said to me when I reminded him of that story earlier this week. “That’s redneck currency right there, bud.”

There just aren’t a lot of people in this business like Marty Smith. ESPN definitely knows it too. That is why the network finds every opportunity it can to use him to tell the stories of the events and people it covers.

Last week, he spent Monday and Tuesday with the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. He got a day back home in Charlotte before he headed to Atlanta for the SEC Network’s coverage of the SEC Championship Game on Thursday. Saturday, after his duties for SEC Nation and College GameDay were done, he hit the road for Tuscaloosa to interview Nick Saban and be ready for ESPN’s coverage of the reveal of the final College Football Playoff rankings.

As if that isn’t enough, this week he heads to New York. It will be the second time ESPN will use him to conduct interviews and tell stories during the telecast of the Heisman Trophy presentation. It’s an assignment that Marty Smith still cannot believe is his.

“I’ve had a ton of pinch-me moments, but in the last five, six years, seven years, there are two that kind of stand out above the rest. One was when Mike McQuaid asked me to be part of his team to cover The Masters. The other was last year when my dear longtime friend Kate Jackson, who is the coordinating producer over the Heisman broadcast, asked me to be a part of her Heisman broadcast team and interview the coaches, players and families of the finalists,” Smith says. “You know, brother, I’ve been watching the Heisman Trophy my whole life.”

We talk about what the broadcast around the Heisman Trophy presentation is and how it differs from being on the sideline for a game. He is quick to point out that on a game day, the old adage “brevity is king” is a reality. In New York though, he will have more time to work with. He plans not to just fill it, but to use it.

Marty’s interest in his subjects’ backgrounds and their emotions is sincere. It is part of a larger philosophy. He respects that everyone has a story to tell and appreciates the opportunity to be the one that gets to tell it, so he is going to do all he can to make sure the people he is talking to know it and know that they matter to him. That means putting in the time to be respectful of his subject’s time.

“When I’m interviewing these players or coaches before a game, I want to interview them, and I’m saying not on camera, but when I’m doing the record. I want to get as thorough as I can get. Then you take all of that and you try to pare it down into a very small window. It’s not easy. I mean, look, most of the time you come home with reams of notes that never even sniff air.”

Marty Smith has always been a unique presence. As his profile has grown and he shows up on TV more often and in more places, more people question who this guy really is.

That is par for the course though, right? Someone with a unique presence sees their star rise and out come the naysayers ready to question how authentic the new object of our affections really is.

For me, there is a moment that defines Marty Smith, at least in this aspect. I cannot remember the year or the situation, but he was on The Dan Le Batard Show, back when it was on ESPN Radio. Smith was telling Dan about friends of his that are stars in the country music world and Dan asked what it is like when they are hanging out backstage before one of these guys goes out to perform.

I cannot remember Smith’s exact answer, but a word he used stood out to me. He said it was just buddies having a cold beer and “fellowshippin'”.

I told Marty about this memory of him and said that I am not accusing him of being inauthentic or his persona on television being an act, but I was curious if he was concious of the words he chooses. Even if the version we get of Marty Smith on TV is the same one we would get if we were part of the fellowshippin’, does he think about how he wants people to think about him?

He is quick to note that is isn’t an act at all. What you see when you see Marty Smith isn’t a persona he cooked up when he decided he was going into television. That is just his personality.

“It is a lifelong field from where I’m from to where I am,” he says of what we see on TV. “It is relationships made that pinched my clay and remolded who I was to who I am and reshaped me as a person.”

Anyone from The South can tell you that there is no one monolithic “South”. The gregarious, larger-than-life personalities in Louisiana may not always feel real to people from the more reserved and anglo-influenced South Carolina. The Southern accent I got from growing up in Alabama sounds nothing like the Southern accents I live near now in North Carolina.

If Marty Smith doesn’t seem authentic to you, maybe it is because his version of “Southern” isn’t one you’re familiar with. Maybe it is a version of “Southern” that only exists in one dude on the entire planet.

Smith is from Pearisburg, Virginia just outside of Blacksburg. Surely that informs who he is, but he is also shaped by the wealth of conversations he has had and the characters he has met from his professional life.

“At our company, you have to work really hard to not only make it, but to sustain it. I try hard to do that every day,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve said it before, man. I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have. You piece all of those different things together, and along with opportunity you can do something special, and I’m trying to do that every day.”

The Marty Smith you see on TV is the guy that will hand you a box of beef jerky just because you had a great conversation. He is the guy you see in that viral video from a few years back giving a young reporter advice and encouragement.

You can be confused by Marty Smith. You can have your questions about him and his motivations. They aren’t going to change him though. It took too long for him to become who he is to start second-guessing it now.

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BSM Writers

Another World Cup Run Ends And There’s Still No Soccer Fever In The USA

“We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.”

Brian Noe

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Soccer fever? Hardly. Not in the United States at least. The US Men’s National Team lost in the round of 16 against the Netherlands 3-1 last Saturday. The ratings are in. And the ratings are revealing.

An average of 12.97 million viewers tuned in to see the Netherlands-United States World Cup match on FOX. Before you say, “Hey, not bad,” consider the fact that the ratings are down from eight years ago when 13.44 million viewers watched the USMNT lose to Belgium in the knockout stage on ESPN.

Even more damning are the ratings of the USMNT’s initial match in the 2022 World Cup against Wales, an unhealthy 8.31 million viewers.

Let me get this straight; fans waited, waited, and waited some more to finally see the USMNT in World Cup action, and the first game in eight years drew 8.31 million viewers? Really?

There were 5.5 million viewers across TV and digital that watched the NFL Network’s telecast of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game in London. That was a Week 5 game in the NFL compared to the World freaking Cup. Network television (FOX) compared to cable TV (NFL Network). And the ratings are comparable? Come on, US Soccer. Y’all gotta do better than this.

*Mini rant alert — it drives me crazy when soccer in this country is consistently compared to soccer in this country. The promoters of the sport paint an obnoxiously rosy picture of the growing popularity by comparing US soccer now to US soccer then. It’s a joke.

It would be like comparing Nebraska’s 4-8 record in college football this year, to Nebraska’s 3-9 record last year. “Hey, things are looking up!” Never mind the fact that the Cornhuskers are significantly trailing several teams in its conference and many other teams across the country. That’s US soccer in a nutshell. Don’t compare it to other leagues and sports that are crushing it, just say we’re up 10% from last year. Ridiculous.

*Mini rant continuing alert — the Michigan-Ohio State game drew 17 million viewers last month. The New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving drew 42 million viewers. Those are regular-season matchups compared to the biggest stage soccer has to offer. But go ahead and just compare US soccer to itself.

And no, the edge you might feel in my words isn’t born out of fear that soccer will somehow surpass the popularity of football. That would be like Mike Tyson being scared that the Stanford Tree mascot could beat him up. US soccer isn’t a threat, it’s a light breeze. I just hate a bad argument. And many soccer apologists have been making bad arguments on the behalf of US soccer for years. *Mini rant over

The World Cup didn’t prove that American fans are invested in soccer. It proved that we love a big event. It’s the same recipe every four years with the Olympics.

During the 2016 summer games in Rio, when swimmer Michael Phelps was in the pool for what turned out to be his final outing in an Olympic competition, the ratings peaked at 32.7 million viewers. Phelps helped Team USA win gold in the men’s 100-meter relay and then rode off into the sunset.

We don’t really care about swimming. When’s the last time you asked a friend, “You heading out tonight?” and the response was, “Are you crazy? The Pan Pacific Championships are on.”

Whether it’s the Olympics or World Cup, Americans care about the overall event much more than the individual sport. We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.

Ask yourself this, at the height of US swimming’s popularity, would you have paid $14.99 per month to watch non-Olympic events? Me either. US soccer isn’t exactly on fire following its showing in the 2022 World Cup, so the timing isn’t awesome to introduce a paywall for the sport’s top league in this country.

Apple and Major League Soccer have announced that MLS Season Pass will launch soon. I know you’re excited, but try to stay composed. Yes, MLS Season Pass will launch on February 1, 2023. It’s a 10-year partnership between MLS and Apple that features every live MLS regular-season match, the playoffs, and the League’s Cup.

Have I died and gone to heaven?

How much?

It’ll run you $14.99 per month or $99 per season on the Apple TV app. For Apple TV+ subscribers — make sure you’re sitting down for this, you lucky people — it’s $12.99 per month or $79 per season. If you don’t have US soccer fever right now, I doubt you’re running out to throw down cash on a product you aren’t passionate about.

Now if the USMNT won the 2022 World Cup, cha-ching. The popularity of US soccer would definitely grow in a major way. Even if they had a strong showing while reaching the quarterfinals, the momentum would be much greater. But a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the group of 16? Nope. This isn’t it. I don’t expect much more than some tumbleweed rolling by instead of cash registers heating up for MLS Season Pass.

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BSM Writers

Colorado Hiring Deion Sanders Will Be Constant Gift for College Football Media

“If Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers, he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor.”

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Deion Sanders quickly made it clear why the University of Colorado chose him to be its next head football coach.

Coming off a weekend in which the four College Football Playoff teams were announced and all of the other bowl-eligible teams accepted their invitations, Colorado — which went 1-11 this past season — made news for hiring Sanders, the former NFL star who was phenomenally successful at Jackson State.

The media that covers college football and sports as a whole should be thrilled that the Buffaloes program decided to take a big leap for attention and notoriety. Sanders is a bold, risky hire. But he’s also been successful in virtually every venture he’s taken. “Primetime” had a Hall of Fame NFL career and also played Major League Baseball. And he’s a master at drawing attention to himself.

During his first meeting with his new team, Sanders made sure to mention that he has Louis Vuitton luggage to make the point that some of his Jackson State players are coming with him to Boulder — including his son, quarterback Shadeur Sanders. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart probably don’t cite luxury fashion when explaining to their players that they’ll have to compete for starting positions.

Coach Prime will not be boring to cover. (That self-appointed “Coach Prime” title, which was on his name plate at his introductory press conference, is a big clue there.) He never has been. This is a man who said during the 1989 NFL Draft, after being selected No. 5 overall by the Atlanta Falcons, that if the Detroit Lions had selected him at No. 3, he “would’ve asked for so much money, they’d have had to put me on layaway.”

Even if he doesn’t win as much as Colorado hopes, Sanders will pursue top talent — players who want to perform on a larger stage than the FCS-level Jackson State allows — and impact athletes will be attracted to him. He got the No. 1 recruit in the nation, cornerback and wide receiver Travis Hunter, to play for him. (Hunter is following his coach to Boulder.) Now that Sanders is at an FBS school in a Power 5 conference, more stars will surely come.

But if Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers — going 27-5 in three seasons, including a 12-0 campaign in 2022 — he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor. And he’ll get the attention that such figures typically draw from media and fans. According to the Denver Post‘s Sean Keeler, at least 400 people attended what felt more like a celebration than a press conference.

Coach Prime wasn’t going to just win the press conference, which is what any school and fanbase want when a new coach is introduced.

If Colorado wanted someone to sit at a podium, and give platitudes like “We want to win the Pac-12 and get to the College Football Playoff,” “We’re going to build a program with young men you’ll be proud of,” or “It’s time to restore Colorado to the football glory we remember,” Sanders isn’t the guy for that.

“Do I look like a man that worries about anything? Did you see the way I walked in here? Did you see the swagger that was with me?” Sanders said during his introductory presser. “Worry? Baby, I am too blessed to be stressed. I have never been one for peer pressure. I put pressure on peers. I never wanted to worry, I make people worry. I don’t get down like that. I am too darn confident. That is my natural odor.”

To no surprise, Sanders announced his presence in Boulder with authority. He had cameras following him as he met with Colorado players for the first time. How many other coaches would have recorded what many would see as a private moment for posterity and post it online?

Sanders caused a stir by putting his players on notice. He warned them he was coming, telling them they’ll be pushed so hard they might quit. He told them to enter the transfer portal and go someplace else if they don’t like what he and his staff are going to do.

That candor, that brutal honesty surprised many fans and media when they saw it Monday morning. For some, that message might have felt too familiar. How many in media — or many other industries — have worried about their job status when a new boss takes over? What may have seemed secure days earlier is now uncertain.

But how do we know other coaches haven’t said something similar when taking over at a new job and addressing their team? We just hadn’t seen it before. But Sanders has been in the media. He knows social media. He understands controlling his own message and telling his story.

Sanders also knows what kind of value he brings to any venture he takes on. How many people would have left an NFL Network gig for Barstool Sports? But Sanders went to where his star would shine, where he was the main show, where he could be Deion Sanders. Maybe he’ll have to turn that down just a bit at Colorado. But athletic director Rick George knows who he hired.

Colorado could have made a safer choice, including previous head coaches Tom Herman, Bronco Mendenhall, or Gary Patterson. A top assistant from one of this year’s Playoff contenders — such as Georgia’s Todd Monken, USC’s Alex Grinch, Alabama’s Bill O’Brien, or Michigan’s Sherrone Moore — could also have been an option.

But what fun would that have been? What kind of tremor would Colorado have created in the college football news cycle? How much attention would a more conventional hire have received? Yes, Sanders has to recruit and win. However, if the objective was to make Colorado football a talking point again, that’s been accomplished.

There could be some friction too. Sanders has already been criticized for being a champion of HBCUs, only to bolt for a mainstream Power 5 program when the opportunity opened. (To be fair, other columnists have defended the move.)

At Jackson State, Sanders tried to control local media when he didn’t like how reporters were addressing him or covering a story. Last year during Southwestern Athletic Conference Media Day, he balked at a Clarion-Ledger reporter addressing him as “Deion,” not “Coach,” insisting that Nick Saban would’ve been shown that respect. Earlier this season, Sanders admonished a school broadcaster (and assistant athletic director) for speaking to him more formally on camera than he did off-camera.

Will that fly among Boulder and Denver media, or the national college football press? It’s difficult to imagine. Maybe Sanders will ease back on his efforts to control reporters within a larger university environment, metropolitan area, and media market. But we’re also talking about Deion Sanders here. He doesn’t bend to outside forces. He makes them bend to him.

Sanders’ stint in Boulder — whether it lasts the five years of his contract and beyond, or less than that — will not be dull. There could be no better gift for the media covering Colorado football. Or college football, a sport already full of bold personalities, eccentric to unhinged fanbases, and outsized expectations. Coach Prime will fit right in.

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