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I Attended Two Ballgames … And Felt What, Exactly?

Rather than suffer Ugly American guilt about sitting in stadiums as a pandemic crushes the world, maybe we should stay home and watch sports on TV, which is an easier experience anyway.

Jay Mariotti

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Because I am American, I am inherently selfish and arrogant. And because I’m inherently selfish and arrogant, I’ve sat in the stands for two Major League Baseball games in recent days, counterintuitive to the headlines. Should I care that India and South America continue to be crushed by the coronavirus, that the number of new cases worldwide is surging toward one million a day?

Should I care that Oregon is restoring restrictions, concerned that variants are causing outbreaks among violently ill young people? Should I care that herd immunity isn’t happening in America, that vaccine resistance remains a crisis in rural areas and among Blacks and Latinos in urban areas? What about the millions who don’t want second doses?

“What I can’t do is bring back someone’s life lost to this virus,’’ Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said. “That’s why, hard as this is, we must act immediately. This is truly a race between the variants and the vaccines.’’

As a human being, yes, I should care deeply … and do care deeply. But as a sports aficionado in the U.S. — where Mike Greenberg shrieked like a carnival barker during the NFL Draft, Clay Travis denounces mask-wearers as “pathetic sheep’’ and broadcast executives blindly push gambling to keep their kids in the best private schools — I’m supposed to convene gleefully among 9,207 at Angel Stadium and bask in so-called renewed normalcy, especially when Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani drill home runs past my first-base seat.

A week later, I am supposed to gallop into Dodger Stadium and marvel at the new center-field plaza, including a “Blue Heaven on Earth’’ welcome sign straight out of Disneyland. Then I’m supposed to chomp into a Dodger Dog no longer manufactured by Farmer John — a civic calamity in southern California — but still blessed with char marks from the grill, which is all that counts no matter who makes the sausage. When Clayton Kershaw shuts down the Reds, I am expected to stand with 15,051 others and spray saliva particles into the air, just across the parking lot from one of the nation’s largest vaccination sites.

Because I am American and my arm has been jabbed twice, I am required to be thrilled by it all, shouting, “Sports is back!’’ while engaged in group hugs with strangers. I should be dressed in my frilliest Gucci at the Kentucky Derby, with malcontent Aaron Rodgers and top-hatted Tom Brady and 45,000 others, watching Essential Quality finish fourth to Bob Baffert’s Medina Sprint despite the human rights abuses of owner Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum — who, per a judge’s ruling in England, plotted the abduction of two of his adult daughters. I should be partying with Bernie Kosar and the Draft mobs in Cleveland, 100,000-plus strong. I should be preparing to join 135,000 race fans at the Indianapolis 500. I should be watching with the boys at the sports bar in Santa Monica as the Lakers attempt to repeat. I should be Sports Jay, as always.

Instead, I’m looking around at thousands of empty seats in both ballparks, wondering why I’m here amid faint cheers and disproportionately loud music.

I’m also wondering why it’s business as usual when the fine print of my e-ticket suggests otherwise: “WARNING — ASSUMPTION OF RISK. COVID-19 IS AN EXTREMELY CONTAGIOUS DISEASE THAT CAN LEAD TO SEVERE ILLNESS AND DEATH. AN INHERENT RISK OF EXPOSURE TO COVID-19 EXISTS IN ANY PUBLIC PLACE REGARDLESS OF PRECAUTIONS THAT MAY BE TAKEN. THE HOLDER AGREES TO (1) ASSUME ALL RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH COVID-19 AND OTHER COMMUNICABLE DISEASES, AND (2) COMPLY WITH ALL RELATED HEALTH & SAFETY POLICIES OF THE DODGERS AND DODGER STADIUM.’’

Health Officials Split on Rapid COVID Tests as Admission Tickets | The Pew  Charitable Trusts

Meaning: If you get sick, or die, you can’t sue the Dodgers or MLB. But, hey, have you checked out the new legends exhibit and Shake Shack stand?

It’s not that I don’t enjoy and savor sports. If anything, a pandemic whetted my appetite for the grist and inspired me to resume writing columns four times a week. The problem is this brainwashing syndrome. You know: Being told by the sports industry — leagues and media alike — that I’m a (pick one) coward, liberal, sheep or pussy if I think it’s narrow-minded and insensitive to re-hurl ourselves into the swirl without feeling anxious about the planet. Such greedy demands not only lack perspective and savvy, they prioritize the ongoing sports money-grab and remind me of what I always pillory about the clamor surrounding our fun and games — the idiots who don’t grasp the bigger world beyond ballparks, arenas, social media, ESPN, WFAN and DraftKings.

Now hear this: The pandemic is not over and might not be over for years. Yet King Sports acts as if it has won the Infectious Disease Super Bowl, carrying on under the guise of entertainment-as-healing when the sole, unabashed purpose is to drive revenues. The NFL, feeling heady after filling the pockets of team owners with $113 billion in new broadcast money, plans on opening all stadiums at full capacity in a few months. “All of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back,’’ said commissioner Roger Goodell. The Atlanta Braves are untying all 41,084 seats at Truist Park this week, as MLB pushes for a summer of large crowds throughout both leagues — though who wants to watch a sport where batters hit a record-low .232 in April and teams averaged only 7.63 hits ? “I have great concern that our sport has turned into a lack of offense — and that the strikeout-homer-walk `Three True Outcomes’ is not our best entertainment product,” said Detroit manager AJ Hinch, who always could have his hitters electronically steal signs and bang on drums in the tunnel, as he did in Houston.

And on our college campuses, where COVID-19 remains a firestorm? LSU, possibly the most corrupt of football programs, says spectators won’t need masks inside the stadium or beforehand in the all-important tailgate culture. “This,’’ said athletic director Scott Woodward, “is another positive step for us as a campus and community.’’

The coronavirus is just the flu, after all. Clay Travis said so. Geaux Tigers!

At least America is comforted by a progressive inoculation pace. Imagine living in Japan — where just 1.4 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in a health care emergency — and knowing the International Olympic Committee carries more political weight than the government with the Summer Games in full-go mode. Every poll favors cancellation, as the Japanese people worry that their health — and that of participating athletes, most not vaccinated — will be jeopardized as COVID-19 cases spike. But prime minister Yoshihide Suga has no interest in halting the Games when $25 billion is on the line, NBC is airing Olympics promos in heavy rotation and IOC president Thomas Bach is running the country.

“The IOC has the authority to decide, and the IOC has already decided to hold the Tokyo Olympics,’’ Suga said.

To which Bach added, “Look at the Augusta Masters,” trying to assuage the nervous masses by name-dropping their national hero, 2021 champion Hideki Matsuyama. Never mind that a major golf tournament involves fewer than 100 players in an outdoor, socially distanced event, while these Olympics would host 11,000 athletes from 200-plus countries in 42 venues. Bach prefers to ignore the dangers and lather the natives, praising the “great resilience and spirit of the Japanese people’’ before adding, “(They) have demonstrated perseverance throughout their history, and it’s only because of this ability of the Japanese people to overcome adversity that these Olympic Games under these very difficult circumstances are possible.’’ He was appropriately pummeled on social media, having mixed World War II and last decade’s tsunami with his desire to cash in.

Keep calling me a Chicken Little, as you have. But as Goodell hailed his 2020 season as a rousing success, a scientific journal known as The Lancet was publishing data that blamed pockets of virus outbreaks in NFL cities on large stadium throngs, even as the NFL insists it hosted 1.2 million fans safely last season. Funny how the league only releases upbeat findings when trying to propagandize us. As epidemiologists howled in mortified protest, the NFL marched on with its usual, three-day Draft extravaganza over the weekend, as if all is well in the world.

Cleveland looks 'unbelievable' on center stage at NFL draft

“We have to do this,” said Jon Barker, who oversees the league’s live event productions. “We need to get people out and back to live events and to experience things like this. The draft is one of those great events that can bring everybody together and do that.”

As I watched my two ballgames and ate my hot dogs (there also is an Angel Dog), I realized what I’d learned the last 14 months: People don’t have to be at the scene anymore. Great seats and all, I still couldn’t enjoy a game in person the way I can at home, where admission and parking are free, a tidy bathroom is just down the hall, and I can eat and drink inexpensively without waiting in line. There is no reason to attend another football game when it’s the ultimate TV sport. Baseball remains a convivial event in person, but any focus on the game itself is best achieved at home. The NBA is fun at home or in the lower bowl, the latter only for a king’s ransom. From a few hundred feet away, would you have enjoyed the Masters or the Derby as much on site as you did in your personal viewing room?

For this shift inward, give the broadcast networks props. Challenged by a pandemic, they’ve succeeded in maximizing the at-home live experience, to the point fans will think twice about spending money and attending games. Having consumed sports on TV since last summer, I’ve been able to block out COVID considerations in the new calendar year. Only when I venture to ballparks, for the first time as a non-working spectator, do I feel guilty about the continuing global massacre.

NBA All-Star Game format, explained: What to know about 2021 rules for Team  LeBron vs. Team Durant | Sporting News

It sounds blasphemous, I know, but I’ll ask again: Why go? If sports is best enjoyed on a big screen, and not among the masses in a confined setting, then why waste time, money and energy? Let the leagues figure out how to keep the turnstiles spinning and the Dodger Dogs devoured.

Just stay home.

Nike can use it as a new slogan.

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Give Me Less College GameDay, More Game

“If you cut out all of Desmond Howard’s and Kirk Herbstreit’s fake laughter, you probably only have 90 minutes of content stretched out to twice that length.”

Demetri Ravanos

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The fate of Pat McAfee, as it relates to College GameDay, is uncertain. McAfee has his pride and almost certainly didn’t enjoy being nitpicked by fans for every little thing last season. The show does not absolutely have to have him, but I do think he is more of a net positive than negative for the show. Plus, as I have written before, the network put an awful lot of effort into building rapport between him and Nick Saban last year. It’s hard to imagine ESPN doesn’t find a way to ensure they are working together this season.

McAfee’s drama is what has fans and industry types speculating on the future of College GameDay right now, but there’s something else I have been thinking about lately. Let’s give McAfee a break. Lord knows he has spent enough time as the focus of everyone’s College GameDay criticisms for the last two years.

I want to know how much longer the show intends to stay at three hours. That’s too much pregame show. If you cut out all of Desmond Howard’s and Kirk Herbstreit’s fake laughter, you probably only have 90 minutes of content stretched out to twice that length.

College football is one of my favorite things in the world. It’s an easy thing to say when Bama is your alma matter, but I don’t just watch the Crimson Tide. I watch EVERYTHING on a Saturday and I still don’t think I get enough.

So I have a radical two-part proposal. In the morning, I need less GameDay and more games. I think the average fan would be just fine with a one-hour pregame show, but I don’t expect ESPN to cut a valuable property down that severely. Instead, let’s settle on a two-hour show. The party can still start at 9 am, just stop at 11 instead of noon.

For that last hour? Start an East Coast game an hour earlier. It shouldn’t be hard for the network that controls all of the SEC and ACC inventory. Just be fair about it. Make sure all of the home teams are in the Eastern time zone and none of the visitors are from the West Coast or Rocky Mountains.

Think of the list of teams that gives you access to: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee from the SEC, the entire ACC outside of the three new additions, and Cincinnati, West Virginia and UCF in the Big 12. 

Even if ESPN wanted to accommodate playoff contenders like Georgia and Tennessee, there’s still a rich inventory of games they could offer at 11 am. Syracuse vs. Georgia Tech will probably be a top 25 matchup, but it is Power Four conference football. Plus, those are schools that should be happy to be on TV at all, so if you are offering them a spotlight time slot on ESPN, who are they to complain? You can swap those names for just about anyone in the ACC or Big 12 and it still works.

There’s a big difference between star power and mass appeal. McAfee and Saban have star power. Football has mass appeal. GameDay cannot deliver the numbers live football can.

On top of that reality, there’s the fact that it’s a decided advantage ESPN has over it’s top competitor. FOX may have the most valuable league in college sports, but they have spent years branding their coverage around the noon hour. Big Noon Kickoff, Big Noon Saturday. That network could not make the same move to 11 am kickoffs without spending huge money on a new marketing campaign. 

Now, let’s talk about part two of this idea. Take Rece Davis, Saban and Howard and give me a meaningful, insightful recap show after the final game of the night on ESPN comes to an end. That, I think, would have even more value to fans than GameDay.

The NFL is and always will be king, but there is a very large population that isn’t ready to jump into fantasy advice the second we wake up on Sunday. Pro games don’t kick off until 1 pm on the East Coast. Why can’t we keep the college conversation going until like 10 am?

College Football Final is fine, but it isn’t at all dynamic. Think of it this way, that replay that’s looped on ESPNU Sunday mornings, if you’re just flipping around, are you more likely to stop if you see Dan Mullen offering an opinion or Nick Saban?

Ultimately, I don’t expect the decision makers at ESPN will consider my idea. Maybe they will, but they’ll dismiss it. It’s always easier to stick with business as usual, and to be fair, the current way of doing things has been very profitable for them, so who the hell am I, right?

However, this is sort of a continuation of the piece I wrote last week about how the network is approaching negotiations with Stephen A. Smith. If you’re building a media company for the future, you have to focus on getting more meaningful games on TV more often. They are the only things that truly move the needle. Football will always be more valuable than football talk.

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Seller to Seller: Sales Meeting

That passion can get you meetings, it can get you sales, it can get you referrals and it can make you rich.

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Graphic for a Seller to Seller feature

C’mon in everyone. Hope your week is off to a great start and you are excited for this week’s sales meeting. Chances are, you’ve already taken advantage of our topic today, which is technology. Some of you probably took out your phone today, looked at the weather forecast to figure out what to wear, or maybe you pulled up the Starbucks app and ordered your morning coffee, which you then paid for with Apple pay.

I still marvel every time I am watching my home cable system, through my phone, with a beautifully clear picture. I am old enough to remember my family having a small television in our kitchen with rabbit ears and sometimes you would have to smack the side of it to hope the picture got better. Now, I can whip out my phone, pull up anything I want in the universe to watch and see it clearly, even on an airplane.

Technology is great. Except for when it comes to sales.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are things about technology that have helped those of us in sales greatly. No more recording the ad on a reel and driving it over to the other station or ad agency that needs it. Just get it in your email and send it on over, or you can even text it over.

The problem is, like a lot of things when it comes to electronic forms of communication, too much gets lost when you are not face-to-face, and the worst part is the person on the other end can’t tell at all if you are passionate about what it is that you are selling. And that has been a huge negative when it comes to trying to communicate with people through email and text or by sliding into their DMs.

The biggest challenge most sellers face is setting appointments with new prospects. We used to call it cold calling but somehow a lot of places let the ‘calling’ part slip away and it became a game of how many emails and LinkedIn messages you could send in a day. And as we all know, the chance you have of someone getting back to you about a first-time meeting through one of those channels is slim. So, why waste the time?

Some would argue that people do not want to be cold called any longer and they would prefer you reach out to them electronically. Of course, that is because it’s easier for them to ignore you or say no to the meeting without actually talking to you. Which, when you think about it, is the exact opposite of what we as sellers want. We want to be in front of them.

So, this is where it gets challenging, but also where we separate the good sellers and the great sellers, or more importantly, the ones who make ok money and the ones who make big money. It is clearly much, much harder today to get that yes to that first meeting. So, we have to work that much harder to get it. And if you want to be successful in this industry, you have to be putting yourself in positions to be in front of people as often as possible.

Whether it is a networking group, Chamber of Commerce event, stopping into businesses, going to games and events or any other way you can be in front of a group of people, if you aren’t doing these sorts of things on a regular basis, you are missing out on a ton of new relationship opportunities.

If you have determined that you are going to meet your financial goals by emailing and sending LinkedIn messages all day, it is going to be a short career for you, and you might want to start looking up new ways to season your Ramen noodles. This is a people business and not many people stop by the studio or office to say hello and ask if anyone is in that can sell them some advertising.

The biggest part of this is the passion with which you sell your product. I believe that you have to have that passion to really make it big in the sports media sales business, and let’s face it, that is why most of us are in the business in the first place. We love it. Many of us eat, sleep and breathe sports. That passion comes out when you talk about what you do and how you can help a local business with the tools and resources you have at your disposal using sports radio as the catalyst. That passion can get you meetings, it can get you sales, it can get you referrals and it can make you rich.

Let people see it. Make a promise to yourself that you’re going to do x number of things every month to increase your time in front of the business community in your area. That is where you will make new connections.

Sales managers, I would encourage you to ask your team weekly in one-on-ones about this time and figure out who is putting in the work to really go out and make new relationships and who is doing the equivalent of ‘sitting by the fax machine waiting for orders.’

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Suzyn Waldman and WFAN Had a Lot to Prove 37 Years Ago

When Suzyn Waldman became the first voice ever heard on WFAN on July 1st, 1987, there weren’t too many people who thought that the radio station would have sustainability.

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Photo of New York Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman
Screengrab: Newsday TV on YouTube

On July 1st, 1987, Suzyn Waldman was about to be the first voice heard on WFAN in New York, the first all-sports radio station ever.  As she settled in to do her first update, a moment that is played back every year when WFAN celebrates its birthday, Waldman could not help but look over on the other side of the glass into another studio and see people holding hands and crying.

It was the staff of WHN, the radio station that WFAN was replacing at 1050 on the AM dial.

“I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” said Waldman who has been in the Yankees radio booth since 2005. 

“I looked through the glass and all of a sudden it dawned on me that when I opened my mouth, they would cease to exist and it really hit me just by doing that.  People were crying and that picture is something that has stayed with me forever.”

Next Monday, WFAN turns 37 years old, and it all started with these words that resonated with Waldman as she drove by Yankee Stadium on her way to work that day.  The old Yankee Stadium had a message board on both sides of “The House That Ruth Built” and that day the message would become part of WFAN history.

“The sign on the message board says, ‘Vintage Guidry’”, said Waldman as she delivered the first words ever heard on WFAN.   “I think I remember what I was wearing…a white blouse with a black skirt.”

But, unfortunately, that’s not all that Waldman remembers about that day.  Her broadcasting career featured some rocky moments early on and it started with what she heard seconds after that first update.

“What I heard through the other side of the glass was get that smart-ass bitch with the Boston accent off my air in afternoon drive,” recalls Waldman.

That first horrible experience did not deter Waldman who would go on to become a pioneer for women in sports broadcasting and a resume that would land her in the Radio Hall of Fame.  There were those at WFAN who tried to move Waldman to overnights with the hope that she would quit.

She wasn’t about to quit.  Instead, she built a career doing things that many of the male employees didn’t want to do.  She covered teams like the Yankees, Knicks and Devils and with that she made a little history.

“What I had to do for that was create my own job which was the beat reporter,” said Waldman. “I was the one who did that.  I took assignments that the guys didn’t want to do.  I did not have an easy time.  I was not going to be defeated because some man thought I was stupid because I was female.”

While there were those who tried to take down Waldman and ruin her career, she did have people in her corner including her family and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

“The Boss” was initially tough on Waldman when she covered the Yankees but quickly grew into a big fan of hers.

Waldman isn’t so sure she would have enjoyed the career that she’s had without the support from Steinbrenner.

“My brother says I would have because I would have found a way,” said Waldman.  “I believed in what I was doing, and I was the one that was going to maybe make it safer for young girls to believe that they could do this or have some kind of career in sports.  George, except for my family, is the most important person in my life.”

In their early days, WFAN went through some growing pains.

They brought in a lot of on-air people from outside of New York and it really wasn’t until WFAN took over the 660 signal from WNBC on the AM dial that the station became a success.  By transforming from Sports Radio 1050 WFAN into Sports Radio 66 WFAN, the all-sports station assumed the iconic “Imus in the Morning” show from WNBC.  The station also created “Mike and the Mad Dog”, the most successful sports radio show in history, in afternoon drive and the rest, as they say, is history.

Waldman knew that WFAN could be a success before it started, but it had to be done the right way.

“Being the sports nut that I am and knowing that there were so many teams in New York,” said Waldman.  “What I did know was it was not going to work if they had national people.  Nobody in New York gives a damn about Nebraska football.”

It was during those early days doing updates at WFAN when Waldman would meet her longtime Yankees radio partner John Sterling.  One of the original hosts that WFAN had hired was legendary Cleveland sports talk host Pete Franklin to do afternoon drive.  But, Franklin’s arrival in New York was delayed because he had suffered a heart attack.

A number of people were brought into fill-in while Franklin recovered and one of them was Sterling, who retired from the Yankees radio booth earlier this season.

“I was John’s update person when he did a week at WFAN in 1987,” said Waldman.  “That’s how I met him.  We hit it off immediately.  I talk to him all the time and he’s very happy.”  

And now, as WFAN is set to turn 37 years old, Waldman is happy that the radio station continues to thrive even though the sports talk format may sound a bit different than it did in the early years.

“I’m not the demographic anymore,” said Waldman.  “It should change.  The times are very different.  I’m really glad I got to be at FAN when we were building something and I’m really proud of that.  Things change and the world changes and I have no problem with that.  It’s somebody else’s turn.”

When Suzyn Waldman became the first voice ever heard on WFAN on July 1st, 1987, there weren’t too many people who thought that the radio station would have sustainability.  There were also people who didn’t think that Suzyn Waldman should be on the air.

WFAN and Suzyn proved a lot of people wrong.

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