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Why Do 55 Million Viewers Watch The NFL Draft?

“When TV ratings have plunged in sports and entertainment, the roll call of college players is arguably the second-biggest annual event in American sports — even when it’s about hype, hope and not much else.”

Jay Mariotti

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Think about this. Other than a State of the Union address, a terrorist attack on Manhattan, certain natural disasters and a debate in which a President-to-be refers to a Dead President Tweeting as “a clown” — twice! — no American news event commands coverage on multiple networks.

So why the NFL Draft? Why did 55 million viewers watch last April, in the pandemic’s early throes, and 47.5 million the year before, when the streets of Nashville were jammed as if Dolly Parton was performing a strip tease during a hot chicken sandwiches giveaway?

Nashville's NFL Draft was a smashing success for the city and its host team  - Music City Miracles

Oh, because the Draft is live reality television. And because it celebrates new faces and dreams in this country’s dominant sports league — and most popular and enduring form of broadcast entertainment. And, cutting to core truths, because the NFL is a monopoly that can televise the Draft on its own channel, then use Fox as a leverage pawn to force a scrambling Walt Disney Company to broadcast the show on both ESPN and ABC and, thus, remain in favor when 11-year rights packages are awarded.

Never mind the absurdist overkill. Roger Goodell puts his spectacle on three networks and various digital platforms because he can. So he does.

Once a mom-and-pop, landlines-with-cords operation conducted on fold-up tables in ballrooms — Hotel Lincoln, Hotel Sherman, Hotel New Yorker, Hotel Fort Pitt, everywhere but Motel 6 and the haunted Cecil Hotel — the NFL Draft now is on the same boutique plateau as the NBA Finals, World Series, Final Four, Masters and all else except its own mega-showcase, the Super Bowl. In a context of how interest builds over days, weeks and even months, one could argue the Draft is the second-biggest annual event in U.S. sports. It attracts hordes of mock drafters, nerds who like to ridicule Mel Kiper Jr. yet want to be just like him. It creates heightened mass intrigue, thanks to smokescreens from 32 franchises that guard information like the Russians. By bringing in the family element — this year, chosen players will celebrate with loved ones and friends backstage in Covid-shielded “living rooms” — female viewership has risen. And in one of Goodell’s shrewdest moves in his tumultuous reign as commissioner, cities are selected as revolving hosts, with Cleveland psyched to rock out this weekend and invite 150,000 barking Dawgs into a downtown theme park over three days.

Isn’t the NFL worried about, um, a Fauci superspread? Nah. This league is bigger than any ol’ infectious disease, as the executives will tell you, pointing to a 2020 season that survived without a game cancellation. Just ask Goodell, who is renewing his tradition of hugging newly anointed young men because he has been double-vaccinated — regardless of whether they’ve been or not. “We learned so much from what we did at the Super Bowl,” said league official Peter O’Reilly. “We have every confidence in our protocols that are in place. They’re the ones that got us through a season on the field and with the ability to host more than one million fans. … A year ago, we were hosting a draft in  commissioner Goodell’s basement. Now, we’re looking toward brighter days ahead and so thrilled that we can do a large scale live event safely.” So, after carefully distancing spectators in Tampa, the league thinks it’s prudent to let 150,000 roam from venue to venue in a town that treats football experiences like an AC/DC concert? The reason: TV optics and a feeling that America is alive again, even if the league kills a few folks in the process.

By the time all three networks launch coverage Thursday evening — with Mike Greenberg hosting on ESPN, Rece Davis on ABC and Rich Eisen on the NFL Network — large swaths of the U.S. will be dialed in like Election Night. Oscars ratings were abysmal on Sunday night, mirroring the declines of other awards shows. There is no such thing as appointment TV anymore in a Netflix world. Yet a record 60 million viewers might watch this NFL Draft.

I just have one question.

What exactly is the redeeming substance here?

Beyond the destinations of hundreds of athletes, many of whom never will he heard from again, absolutely nothing is determined. Hype is little more than hope, unrealized until the season begins, but Draft audiences tend to believe what the national media breathlessly report anyway. Fans assume Trevor Lawrence will be “the best quarterback to come into the draft in nearly a decade” because Sports Illustrated says so, forgetting that some experts thought similarly of Joe Burrow last year. Are we certain Lawrence’s coach, Urban Meyer, isn’t headed for the same pro struggles as Nick Saban, snuffed out by NFL minds who can’t wait to subdue his ego? Zach Wilson has been described as a hybrid of Aaron Rodgers and Johnny Manziel, which is weird, and as a “riverboat gambler” by none other than Mark Sanchez, he of the Butt Fumble. It doesn’t bode well when an all-time New York Jets flop is warning the team’s next so-called quarterbacking savior about “a very different media market.” Yet once Lawrence sports a Jacksonville Jaguars cap as the No. 1 pick and Wilson pulls on a Jets jersey as the No. 2 pick, reality is shoved aside for Super Bowl fantasies — after all, it’s Draft Night.

Mac Jones, for all anybody knows, will be a bust. When the aspirational prototype is Patrick Mahomes, a playmaking magician, Jones is regarded for accuracy and on-his-feet I.Q. but offers no running dimension. Who wants a modern-day Carson Palmer, right? Kyle Shanahan is expected to grab Jones with the No. 3 pick anyway, eschewing the more athletically gifted and aesthetically rousing likes of Trey Lance and Justin Fields. It means the San Francisco 49ers, only 14 1/2 months removed from a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, are gambling the future of the franchise on a whim. They became the fifth team in the last 15 years to trade up for a top-three draft pick with the intention of using it for a quarterback. But know how many of those previous four QBs survived beyond five seasons with the teams that drafted them? Zero. Which makes you wonder why Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, with Garoppolo still on the roster, dealt three first-round picks and a third-rounder to trade up.

“You study historically how things work,” Lynch acknowledged. “But we have great confidence in this group of players that are up there, and now we hone in and continue to examine each and every guy. And ultimately do our best to find the guy who will be a great part of this organization’s future.”

49ers' top rookie may have been John Lynch | The Sacramento Bee

If Jones is a star, we can hear the Mac puns already in Silicon Valley. If he flops? He can share horror stories with the biggest quarterbacking disaster in Bay Area history, JaMarcus Russell.

On Draft Night, these are the story lines that sell, even if definitive answers don’t arrive for months and years. Lance played only 17 games at North Dakota State, which used to be known fondly as the program of Carson Wentz … until Wentz regressed into a flop himself. With Matt Ryan aging but hardly ready to retire when he’s EIGHT YEARS YOUNGER than Tom Brady, would the Atlanta Falcons bypass one of the most exciting weapons in years — shock-and-awe tight end Kyle Pitts — to gamble on Lance? “He’s a unicorn,” said Dan Mullen, who coached Pitts at Florida. “How are you going to deal with him?”

“I feel like, at the end of the day, I’ll be the best to ever do it,” Pitts said at his pro day.

Except Lance, he of the Mahomes arm and Lamar Jackson speed, might be the league’s next great quarterbacking sensation. If the Falcons don’t take him, won’t flames burst from the draft rooms of Bill Belichick, the QB-phobic Chicago Bears and the Denver Broncos? Suddenly, Belichick will have a chance to put away his Brady voodoo doll and trade up for his next QB. And maybe it’s not Lance but Fields, the best dual-threat operator in the draft, though his work ethic has been unfairly smeared as lax and his epilepsy viewed as a detriment instead of a sign of perseverance. “I get very frustrated,” said Ryan Day, who coached Fields at Ohio State. “I feel like there are a lot of people in the draft (where) some guys get a pass — and some guys don’t. Certainly, people have taken shots at Justin.”

If Fields and Lance are available about an hour into the draft, every football fan in New England and Chicago will tune in and drive up the ratings. Can you imagine the shrieks if the Bears trade up for Fields and Belichick for Lance? Wouldn’t Belichick use Lance and Cam Newton on the field simultaneously, as Sean Payton did in New Orleans with Drew Brees and Taysom Hill? Unless … Belichick reacquires Jimmy G in a deal.

This is why the NFL Draft thrives when live pandemic sports have fizzled. It’s unscripted madness, made for draftniks and gamblers and common folk alike. It doesn’t matter that one of these five quarterbacks will be Ryan Leaf, one of them will be Peyton Manning and the other three will settle into various modes of success and failure. It doesn’t matter that Kiper himself says on his ESPN platform, “All five of these guys are not going to be really good. There’s going to be a bust, and there’s going to be a disappointment. Now, good luck having your crystal ball to figure that out.”

The crystal ball is exactly why tens of millions watch. The NFL Draft is a game of chance where all teams and players are winners, until the fall, when they’re not. You just wonder if Goodell is plotting how to coax every network to join the crapshoot.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Admits 'We Were Wrong for Not Listening'  Earlier, Encourages Peaceful Protests | Entertainment Tonight

Tucker Carlson would slam the media for bias.

Don Lemon would cry racism when Lawrence is taken first.

And Trevor Noah? He’ll just make fun of it, as I am.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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