We’ve seen Naomi Osaka bravely protest police brutality, wearing seven different face masks with the names of victims. We’ve watched her maintain composure on the court as her idol, Serena Williams, lost hers during a savage bullying of a U.S. Open umpire. We’ve marveled as she stared down Williams at the Australian Open and reduced her to competitive mush, destroying her chance of tying the career record for Grand Slam victories.
So we’re supposed to believe that Osaka, poised to become the world’s pre-eminent female athlete, suddenly quivers at the thought of reporters asking her questions after a match? To the point she has stunningly withdrawn from the French Open, one of tennis’ four major events, rather than realize how she and her sport only prosper from worldwide media coverage — and how it has helped create a wealthy, privileged life for herself?
She at least should be truthful about her agenda, which has mushroomed into a referendum on athlete/media relations in the 21st century. Sensitive as we all should be about depression, I’ve followed Osaka enough to know her issue isn’t primarily about “mental health” — her stated reason for refusing to speak to media in Paris, prompting officials to fine her $15,000 and threaten to disqualify her, which led her to quit Monday. No, this is more about control, the inevitable defiance from a new generation of athletes who see no reason to appear at organized press conferences when they can manage their own public narratives.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka wrote in a lengthy Twitter post. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
I feel sad for her. But I’m just as baffled about why she’s undermining an all-time career because she feels some tension at media gatherings. Osaka is far from the first athlete to protest media responsibilities out of fear, resentment, distrust or arrogance. But she is the first, in recent memory, to openly declare a media boycott before an important competition, then go home when she didn’t get her way and the sport threatened her with severe sanctions.
“Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” she wrote. “Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.
“I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that. I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense. I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
Translation: They no longer need the media — and haven’t for a long time in the social media age. The movement is athlete empowerment, here to stay as long as new revenue cascades into sports via media and gambling companies. The backlash has been building, with periodic media shutdowns from NBA star Kyrie Irving and others, and Osaka is daring to risk her career trajectory to challenge authority. Shouldn’t a confidante talk to her, advise her otherwise? It makes no sense why someone who has been treated well and even warmly by the global media, as Williams deals with the barbs, would construct a wall that invites a war she cannot win. Just 23, Osaka has used media to her advantage early in her career, presenting a likable, socially aware image mixed with Gen-Z fun. Never has a young athlete been prouder than she was last September, when she celebrated her U.S. Open championship by laying on her back, her hair famously spread in a silhouette, and staring out at a world she already had conquered. When asked what message she was sending by wearing seven masks with seven names — from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor — during her seven matches, her answer was unforgettable.
“Well, `what was the message that you got’ was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking,” she said before going inside a room at Arthur Ashe Stadium and answering more questions about her social justice causes.
She must not have been depressed that day. But on days when she is, why not appear at the press conference and say so? That way, she doesn’t damage her career and shrink her platform. When tennis great Chris Evert says, “I feel like Naomi is starting to form an aura around her now of almost invincibility, something we’ve seen for 20 or 25 years with Serena” — why disrupt it with obstinacy? Without regular media visits, Osaka allows conduits to dry up across the planet and restricts the impact of her messages. It’s her life, her career. But if she thinks she can rely exclusively on Twitter, Instagram and post-match stadium conversations — conducted with friendly interviewers and adoring fans — for the next dozen years, I can assure her the strategy will backfire. At some point, sooner than later, she’ll need mainstream media to promote her career, to publicize her missions and, as the world’s highest-earning female athlete, to name-drop her sponsors. And she’ll want to abandon what surely will linger as a daily distraction, especially as snarling, offended commentators take shots.
For now, she is adamant, explaining on her social platforms: “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me. I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.
“Me not doing press is nothing personal to the tournament and a couple journalists have interviewed me since I was young so I have a friendly relationship with most of them. However, if the organizations think they can just keep saying, `Do press or you’re going to be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh. Anyways, I hope that considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
French Open officials showed as much empathy as Pepe Le Pew. With cross-referenced support from the other three Grand Slams — Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open — they underlined the fine print in their rulebooks and sounded warnings. You might ask, “Why default her?” Oh, because they enjoy having their tournaments covered by news agencies worldwide. And they believe players, even the best, should market the sport that has enabled their lifestyles. Of course, Osaka’s attorneys would have a hoot poking at their rationale and championing freedom of speech, at least in America.
In a joint statement, the four Slams wrote: “As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offense investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.). We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement. As a sport nothing is more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honor their commitments.”
They make a good point about not allowing preferred treatment, not that Osaka wanted to hear it. “Anger is a lack of understanding, change makes people uncomfortable,” she tweeted Sunday, hours before withdrawing. Would tennis officials actually have disqualified her and enforced future Grand Slam suspensions? Trust me when I say every major sports league and organization — and thousands of professional athletes — were monitoring closely.
Addressing questions, particularly minutes after a match, can be about as fun as a double fault. But the sessions, over time, can provide a penetrating window into one’s persona. A connection is formed with fans — forget the media — who can pump athletes with adulation and money for a lifetime.
Rather than make decisions selfishly, Osaka could have sought advice from a pioneer who at first needed the media, then seized the attention and thrived. She might know Billie Jean King as the female star who beat the old man in “Battle of the Sexes,” but King’s image saturation in the ‘70s made it possible for Williams to achieve superstardom for two decades … and for Osaka to blow off news conferences as she ascends to the top.
Or, if she isn’t into chats with OGs, why not visit with Rafael Nadal? He could have been smeared by the media in his career infancy, with his court theatrics and flamboyance, but he recognized how a combative entanglement with reporters made no sense. “I mean, we as sports people, we need to be ready to accept the questions and try to produce an answer, no?” said Nadal, who is chasing his mind-numbing 14th title on the French clay. “I understand her but in the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who normally are traveling who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We’re not going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be popular, no?”
Not long ago, Osaka said of her goals, “The biggest thing I want to achieve is — this is going to sound really odd — but hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player.” This is NOT the way to go about it, as that fictional girl won’t get to know her.
I don’t want to think in sinister terms, but is it possible this is Osaka’s way of running from the challenge of playing on clay — her career bugaboo? It didn’t help when her sister, Mari, cited the clay factor as the reason for the boycott, writing on Reddit, “Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad at clay. At every press conference she’s told she has a bad record on clay. When she lost in Rome (round one) she was not ok mentally. Her confidence was completely shattered and I think that everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay. This isn’t true and she knows that in order to do well and have a shot at winning Roland Garros she will have to believe that she can. That’s the first step any athlete needs to do, believe in themselves. So her solution was to block everything out. No talking to people who is going to put doubt in her mind. She’s protecting her mind hence why it’s called mental health.”
Before you knew it, Mari’s post was deleted, followed by another that she had “f—ed up.”
The anxiety in Camp Osaka is the talk of tennis. Already, the only player ahead of her in the world rankings, Ash Barty, senses a crack in the Naomi Curtain. “At times, the press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s not something that bothers me,” said the Australian. “I’ve never had problems answering questions or being completely honest with you guys. It’s not something that’s ever fazed me too much.”
From Nadal and Barty to Roger Federer and even Serena Williams, the greats of tennis tend not to view themselves as larger than the game. No-Show Naomi apparently has other thoughts. So far, she’s down big in the first set, losing to herself.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.