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Has Our Access To Players Changed Forever?

“I have felt for a long time that locker rooms will not be open to the media soon. I think zoom calls will be replaced by press conference rooms, but that idea of 30-40 reporters standing around Saquon Barkley after a New York Giants home game is not happening soon.”

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This week’s withdrawal from the French Open by Naomi Osaka was misread at least in part by many mainstream media outlets. Coming less than a day after she was fined $15,000 for missing a mandatory media session was a mere coincidence. Osaka’s heartfelt message posted on her social media revealed she had been battling anxiety since her controversial victory in the 2018 US Open. It did, however, raise the issue of the current state of press conferences and the lack of access mainstream media is currently receiving.  What are the media responsibilities of athletes going to be once the pandemic is no longer a factor?

Charles Woodson of the Green Bay Packers fielded questions from a  mob of reporters in the locker room after winning Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.
Getty Images

The issues Osaka has been dealing with are not new phenomena. In late 2018, I was working on some projects with Nissan and Osaka had recently become an ambassador for the company. I reached out to Nissan to see if I could welcome Naomi to my Sports with Friends podcast. In a heartfelt reply, my contacts at Nissan told me she was only doing mandatory media at that point. I noticed she was not comfortable talking to the media then, so her post didn’t surprise me at all.

If the French Open was trying to pressure Osaka into doing media zoom press conferences, it didn’t work. Not just because of her anxiety, but because she has a social media presence that is huge. Other athletes are likely to take notice.

Still, the Covid-19 issues have changed the way media members could interact with athletes.  Even before the March 2020 shutdown, the first move sports made was to ban reporters from the locker room/clubhouse/dressing room. After Rudy Gobert tested positive, all interviews took place specifically on Zoom (or equivalent software platforms). It hasn’t changed since.

That has had a huge impact on the media’s ability to do their job.  Using baseball as an example, there has been very small contact between media members and players since the beginning of spring training 2020.  Jon Paul Morosi, baseball insider for MLB Network and FOX Sports discussed that recently on Sports with Friends.

“The ability to be on the field and just have a baseball conversation (players and coaches) was incredible,” Morosi said. “It was just those spontaneous conversations. ‘Where’d you go to college, who’d you play with in college, who you played with in high school,’ those sorts of conversations were wonderful to have again. It’s important for me to constantly revive those contacts, whether it’s by reaching out to a college coach, an agent, or an executive.”

The biggest revelation that ties to both Osaka and social media, is that the players generally liked the separation between themselves and reporters.

Now that we are getting closer to ending all the restrictions, the question that was raised as Osaka withdrew was, will the media be given all their privileges back?

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman says yes.  He appeared on my Sports with Friends podcast nearly a month ago and said that the ban from locker rooms is only temporary. 

Courtesy: AP

“You’re gonna go back when things get back to normal,” Bettman told me. “ You will go back to the locker room when it’s safe.”

I have felt for a long time that locker rooms will not be open to the media soon.  I think zoom calls will be replaced by press conference rooms, but that idea of 30-40 reporters standing around Saquon Barkley after a New York Giants home game is not happening soon.

Morosi made a great point about not being able to establish relationships. It reminded me of the beginning of my career and how then the key to being in the sports world was relationships.

My first year out of Syracuse I was in Denver, Colorado working for KKFN The FAN.  Among my responsibilities, I was sent to cover the day-to-day operations of the Denver Broncos. I was 23 years old and did not know a soul. John Elway was already a soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer. I was young and did not do a single one-on-one interview for the first four weeks of the season.

Then, in week 5, I overhead defensive lineman (now radio host) Alfred Williams talking to his teammates about Madden NFL 97, which had recently been released.  I had a sudden moment of boldness and mentioned that I played that game too. It struck a conversation with Williams, Tyrone Braxton, and other players.

I was not looking for a story. I did not feel the need to take a selfie. I was not trying to break anything. I just befriended those guys like I had met any other friends in my life. 

Fast-forward a few weeks later, and we had set up a Madden league. (yes, I’m old moment – we had to connect to each other’s computers via a dial-up connection) (just typing it hurts me.)  We played throughout that season. Our Super Bowl was postponed because the BRONCOS were in San Diego playing in Super Bowl 32, defeating the Green Bay Packers. Relationships were forged.

Today, reporters can’t get that access. Players now consider their own brands.  They use their own social media to get statements made. 

Throw in the pandemic, and there are no profiles about a random player on a team. Reporters have to go through media relations to talk to anyone unless a reporter of Morosi’s stature had a phone number.

Shannon Drayer, Mariners’ field reporter for KIRO and the Mariners Radio Network, told me last winter that her whole access point is compromised.  Her job is based on how she communicates with players.  Now, she is relegated to Zoom, and while she continues to do her job well and sound great on the air, it is just not the same.

Morosi explained that one media relations executive proposed this as an outstanding compromise.

“One compromise could be that the clubhouse, or at least the field, would be open before the game for a period of time,” JP said, reiterating that this is only when protocols are fully lifted. “Maybe there’s like a field access time or a clubhouse access time before the game, but that possibly the clubhouse would be closed after the game.”

Osaka inadvertently started a debate on whether athletes should need to be in press conferences at all. I do believe that the media is simply a conduit to the fans.  It is also possible, that the days of “needing” the media are outdated.

Naomi Osaka
Courtesy: AP

As the country recovers from the Covid-19 restrictions, I wonder how many athletes will use Osaka’s bravery as a way to avoid the press.

Athletes may be able to control their message the way they want. There are still too many good journalists and broadcasters that tell great stories to not let them do their best work.

BSM Writers

How Does Your Show Change When Your Market Grows?

“Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.”

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The population of the United States is always shifting. In our history, there have been migrations from the East Coast to the West, from the rural towns of the South to the major cities of the Northeast. Right now, it is from cities where it stays cold and expensive into places where it is warmer and cheaper.

Raleigh is the 2nd fastest growing large metro in the US | Carolina  Demography
Courtesy: Carolina Demography

We see it all the time with Nielsen market sizes. What was yesterday’s top 50 market is today’s top 30 market. People come from out of town and their new hometown gets a little bit bigger.

So what exactly does that mean for sports radio hosts? Well, if your job is to talk about the sports and teams that your market cares about, it means that you need to stay on top of how these new residents are shifting the market’s tastes.

Matt Chernoff is the co-host of Chuck & Chernoff on 680 The Fan in Atlanta. Not only has he been on the air in the city for 24 years, he also grew up there. He has seen the city go from being the biggest metropolitan area in the college football crazy South to the home of the most consistent team in baseball to hosting an Olympics.

Chernoff says the city is still a hot bed for college football fandom. Not only is it the home of more Georgia fans than anywhere else in the world, it is also a common post-college destination for graduates of college football powers Alabama and Clemson as well as about a dozen other power conference school.

As a city though, none of those teams peak Atlanta’s interest the way the local NFL team does these days.

“When the Falcons are good and entertaining they get biggest tv ratings in town and garner more attention than anything else,” he says.

One of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country is North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which includes Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. My wife and I moved to the area in 2005 and it was already exploding in population. In the 15 years we have been here, the population feels like it has almost completely turned over. That will happen when large corporations like SAS, IBM, GlaksoSmoithKline, and Pfizer all have headquarters in an area.

Most of our transplants come from either the New York metropolitan area or from Chicago. Adam Gold came here from Baltimore in the late 90s. He says that local sports talk still wins, but the transplants have made it possible for syndicated shows to succeed in the Triangle.

The Adam Gold Show | The Sports Hub
Courtesy: Capital Broadcasting

“The national shows we air do fine, and their resources are unmatched,” Adam told me in an email. “But, they’ll never give our listeners everything they want because they still want to hear at least a little about their own teams.  When State loses to Mississippi State the national shows are never going to talk about it.  We will.  But, the strong brand names still resonate, like Mike Greenberg, or the ESPN morning show.”

Gold, who hosts a show that is syndicated across the state and originates from 99.9 The Fan, says that even though the market is the center of the college basketball universe, he has always been aware that the idea of ACC basketball being topic 1-A year round is a myth.

“When it’s basketball season we can talk hoops.  Until then, it’s 90% football.  In fact, even during the basketball season, ACC hoops might come second (or third) to the NFL or college football.”

Football still rules the day, and the transient nature of the Triangle means that you need to know a lot of football. Sure the home teams in college are North Carolina and NC State (and to a lesser extent Duke and East Carolina), but plenty of people want to talk about national brands like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State.

That carries over to the NFL too. Raleigh is weird. There are plenty of people here that adopted the Carolina Panthers as their team in the mid-90s. Before Charlotte got a team of its own though, the closest NFL market was Washington, DC. That means we still have plenty of WFT loyalists. There are also the teams that are popular everywhere: The Steelers, Cowboys, and Packers. They all have large followings in the Triangle too.

“I’ve always treated the Triangle as a transient audience.  Similar, albeit in a smaller way, to Washington, DC,” Gold says.

Salt Lake City is growing fast. The nation seems to have woken up to the fact that lower taxes and life in the Rocky Mountains is preferable to…well, the opposite of both of those things. Hans Olsen came to the area in 1996 to play football at BYU. After a seven year NFL career, he returned to the area and has been a part of 1280 The Zone for the last 16 years.

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I asked him about the growth of the city. As more people came to town, what was that doing to fandom for his BYU Cougars? Outside of Utah, when we think of Utah, we tend to think of every citizen being Mormon. That probably is less likely to be accurate as more businesses start in the state and bring people in from the outside.

Olsen says that it has actually held pretty steady. Most of the businesses that have sprung up in the state are being started by members of the LDS Church. On top of that, the real testament to how powerful BYU’s brand remains even as the Salt Lake City market changes is in the station’s streaming numbers.

“When BYU is good, our listenership is up, our revenue is up, our streaming is up, our podcast downloads are up,” Olsen told me. “And you know, you could attach a pretty nice percentage of increase any time BYU is good. So when they were 11-1 last year, even in the Covid year, we were still doing good in the streaming numbers, downloads, listens, revenue. We were holding strong.

People outside of the Mountain time zone may not realize that the passion for college football in Utah runs as deep as just about anywhere in the SEC. There’s division though. The rivalry between BYU and the University of Utah isn’t called “The Holy War” for nothing. Add to that a Utah State fanbase that constantly feels disrespected and the love of college football doesn’t bring the market together as much as it divides it.

Hans Olsen says that the unifier, unsurprisingly, is the Utah Jazz. People may come to town with their own fandoms in other sports, but Salt Lake City is has a way of turning new residents into Jazz fans.

“They all come together and they love the Jazz. It’s always the center point here in the state and probably always will be.”

Atlanta is different. Matt Chernoff grew up in a city unified by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and depending on what part of the 90s, either Steve Avery or Greg Maddux. Really, at that time, the entire South and people across the country were unified by the Braves. Chernoff isn’t sure it will be that way forever.

MATT CHERNOFF - NBC Sports PressboxNBC Sports Pressbox

“The Braves have always been the team that unites most fans around here but I think the Hawks are about to enter a really special time with a young, exciting team that has a superstar,” he says.

Population shifts can change so much. We saw that with the 2020 Presidential Election. We see it with where national chains decide to open new locations. It isn’t just about more people. It is about how those people change the personality of their new market.

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Back To Basics

Back To Basics: Teases

“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”

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I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands. 

2,622 BEST Fingers Crossed Kid IMAGES, STOCK PHOTOS & VECTORS | Adobe Stock
Courtesy: Adobe Stock

I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether.  To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.  

If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break? 

Example 1: “More football talk, next!” 

Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”  

We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.

The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for. 

Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host. 

I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle. 

Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?” 

Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?” 

Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about. 

Photo by: iStockPhoto

The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you. 

Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice. 

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BSM Writers

Imagine If Sports Media Had To Justify Its Own Tucker Carlson

“Of course Tucker Carlson lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies.”

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Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Last week, our partners in the news media department posted a story about Tucker Carlson. It was about a recent interview the FOX News host did with some guy on YouTube. In the interview, Carlson admits that there are times he blatantly lies on his show – the most popular show that is broadcast by what is ostensibly a news channel.

“I guess I would ask myself, like, I mean I lie if I’m really cornered or something. I lie,” Carlson told Dave Rubin. “I really try not to. I try never to lie on TV. I just don’t – I don’t like lying. I certainly do it, you know, out of weakness or whatever.”

When I first read this story, I just dismissed it. Of course this jackass lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies. There is just no way he is actually as stupid as he pretends to be when he makes that “I am shocked by what I just heard” face. You know the one. It looks like he just discovered there’s a Batman movie where the suit has nipples.

born miserable on Twitter: "Tucker Carlson always looks like someone's just  shown him a picture of a vagina… "
Courtesy: FOX News

I tried to dismiss it, but then later in the week came his impassioned plea to Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend to come on TV to discuss his balls after the rapper tweeted a story about how the Covid vaccine made this guy’s testicles swell and thus ruined his potential wedding.

It is a clip that was passed around Twitter thousands of times. It showed up in my feed over and over with comments like “This is THE NEWS in 2021” and “I never want this man to stop talking about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls.”

Can you imagine if Carlson’s bullshit was acceptable in sports media? I could write the same thing about FOX News in general, but let’s keep this focused on Tucker, because this past week he crossed the rubicon into a special category of absurd.

There are plenty of people in sports media that will go on TV and explain to you why a loss is actually good for a team or why undeniable greatness is actually unimpressive. This is someone going on TV and telling you that it doesn’t matter what you saw with your own two eyes on Thursday night, the Giants actually beat Washington or that the Brooklyn Nets can be dismissed as title contenders because there is no proof that anyone on their roster has even been to the All-Star Game.

I have written in the past that news commenters, be they on radio or television, do not impress me. Those people are not original or interesting at all. They aren’t even talented. I’m only bringing up that opinion to be completely transparent.

Sports Tucker Carlson would be a totally different animal. In fact, such a thing would be unacceptable.

Now, I am sure some of you are out there shouting that sports media does have a Tucker Carlson. In fact, the sports Tucker Carlson works for the same company that the real Tucker Carlson does. His name is Skip Bayless.

Llia L Retweeted This Skip Bayless LeBron Is Tired AGAIN??? Has Looked a  Little Lethargic All Night Isn't He Supposed to Be the World's Finest  Conditioned Athlete? MJ Never Got Tired MJ

Look, I hear you. Skip brings no sincerity to anything, but I also don’t think Skip has any values he is trying to push. His takes are ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. ALL HAIL THEM CLICKS!

Besides, the great thing about sports broadcasting in general is that the stakes of what we are talking about are pretty low. Creativity and absurdity are welcome. None of this is important, nor is there any illusion that it may be. No one is showing up at the Capital with zip ties and bear mace demanding the Chiefs be re-instated as Super Bowl champions or screaming at doctors that the Covid vaccine is a scheme to return Miami to relevance in the college football world.

Putting on my programmer hat for a second, I just cannot imagine how to justify a Tucker Carlson. Then again, my programmer hat was not made and fitted by people trying to pass performance art off as news. So, maybe me not getting it is the strategy.

Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0.

Either way, this, to me, feels like very good information to take to advertisers next time they question the desirability of a sports radio audience versus a news audience. Our listeners are passionate, intelligent people looking to be entertained and engaged by conversations about their favorite teams and they’re willing to support the people that do that for them. The most popular name in news talk admits that he lies when the facts don’t match up to the story he wants to tell. The reaction from the public is “well of course he does.” Which one would you rather have your brand associated with?

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