Everyone in the sports media business is well aware that football season is the crucial time of the year. As we enter July, it’s all barreling upon us. College football is huge in its own right but the NFL is King, and from my vantage entering the most fascinating season of all-time.
The primary reason for this is there is an unprecedented depth of great, interesting, and/or serviceable quarterbacks. If you pull up a list of the 32 NFL teams, there’s virtually no dreck to be found. As we’ll discuss, the floor has been raised several levels.
I’m not sure everybody realizes how dominant the NFL is not just in sports but also the broader TV landscape. Thirty-three of the top 50 most-watched TV shows of 2020 were NFL games, including 14 of the top 20 (this year there will be robust Olympics competition, but no presidential debates).
And the rich are getting richer. This offseason, the league inked new TV deals collectively worth $100 billion. The regular season is expanding to 17 games. Fans are returning to the stands, which makes the games feel much more meaningful. Knock on wood, games should be played at the dates and times they’re supposed to be, rather than the roving jigsaw puzzle of last year. Gambling continues to be legal in ever more states, which should help with eyeballs on the margins — even if it doesn’t it’s effectively a printing press of money in marketing partnerships.
Out of home viewership was not counted in standard 2019 ratings, and last season sports bars were either closed or faced capacity restrictions in many regions. I expect an enormous impact to be felt with the full inclusion of these metrics this season.
I ran all this by a network executive who responded: “Ad sales for football are through the roof. College and pro. The marketplace agrees with you.”
Returning to the unprecedented quarterback talent in the league: To double-check my own opinions, I reached out to NFL experts Peter King, Albert Breer, Mike Florio, and Sean Salisbury — who combined have closely followed the league for over 100 years — to see if they could ever remember a season that lined up to be as fascinating as this one. Here’s what they said:
Peter King (NBC Sports)
Lots of reasons to think 2021 will be one of the NFL’s most interesting seasons. I’ll give you four.
One: We are in the NFL’s golden age of quarterbacks, with the best crop of young passing stars I’ve seen in 37 years covering the league. In 2005, two quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards, and two had a rating over 100. In 2020, 12 surpassed 4,000 yards, and 10 had ratings over 100.
Two: Tom Brady at 44, piloting a fully intact defending Super Bowl champion. Both of those things are incredible.
Three: GMs are bolder than ever. If the Deshaun Watson case is resolved by midseason, one of the risk-taking GMs could trade for him, even if Watson is suspended.
Four: Navigating a 17-game season, with more injuries and general fatigue, will be a storyline. Coaches should rotate series off–at least for veterans–in fourth quarters of decided games, but will they? I didn’t mention COVID, and how teams respond to the 2021 protocols. But I have to think a team with 2019 freedoms could have a competitive advantage over a division rival with 2020 restrictions.
Albert Breer (Sports Illustrated)
Where I think the NFL’s collective quarterback situation is so interesting stems back to three years ago, when it seemed just about every team was going into the season with at least some sort of plan at the position. That year was 2018, and I honestly couldn’t find a single team where I looked and could say, definitively, that team is going to take one in the first round next year. Three did—the Cardinals fired their coach and bailed from Josh Rosen after a single season, the Giants finally tabbed a successor for Eli Manning, and Washington saw its QB, Alex Smith, suffer a seismic injury—but that didn’t lessen the overarching idea, and that was that the NFL, as I saw it, had never been healthier at its most important position.
And now, going into the 2021 season, I think we’ve reached the next phase of that, where just good, for a lot of teams, isn’t good enough.
Call it the Mahomes-ization of the NFL. At the aforementioned juncture, before the 2018 season, Mahomes was indeed the Chiefs’ plan at the position (they’d just dealt Smith away to clear the way for their 2017 first-round pick), but few knew what Andy Reid was about to unleash on the league. Three years later, he’s the mountain that most other teams are looking up at, the one they’ll have to scale over the next decade to win a championship. A decade ago, winning a championship with Joe Flacco or Eli Manning, or a raw second-year player (where Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger were for their first titles) was realistic, if you were good enough around them. And a lot of teams, looking at the challenge Mahomes will present them for the foreseeable future, clearly don’t see it that way anymore.
If you’re the Bills with Josh Allen or the Chargers with Justin Herbert or the Jaguars with Trevor Lawrence, you have reason to believe that the ceiling is there where you’ll get close enough to keep pace with Kansas City and Mahomes. But most others? There’s a reason why the Rams paid a king’s ransom to swap out a 26-year-old Jared Goff for a 33-year-old Matthew Stafford, and why the Niners moved heaven and earth to gamble on Trey Lance, which will eventually mean bailing on Jimmy Garoppolo. As is the case with Allen, Herbert and Lawrence, the ceiling is there with Lance and Stafford, and clearly the Niners and Rams don’t think it was with Garoppolo and Goff.
So that, to me, is the most interesting thing about this very interesting season to come. It’s the year where good was not good enough for a lot of teams at the position. I believe the explosion of capable quarterbacks in the NFL is a result of a couple things—these guys are developed with personal coaches like golfers from the time they’re in grade school, and the NFL is far more creative offensively than it used to be, allowing for a wider net to be cast for talent at the position—and that has raised the bar at the position.
It seems like the talent pool now is deep enough for everyone to be good at quarterback. But because of the presence of Mahomes, more and more, teams feel the need to be great.
Mike Florio (ProFootballTalk; Mike’s book ‘Playmakers’ is out March 15th)
It’s all driven by the quarterbacks. We continue to be in a golden age of the most important position in football, with several older quarterbacks who are among the best to ever play (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger), plenty of great young quarterbacks who ultimately could be among the greatest to ever play (Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield) and some potential all-time greats (Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott) in the middle. Quarterback play is improving at the college level, and NFL teams are no longer trying to make quarterbacks who did great things in college do something different at the next level. They’re embracing the great college quarterbacks for who they are and what they do, and they’re becoming great pro quarterbacks.
The annual availability of a fresh crop of competent rookie quarterbacks has made teams more willing to move on from veterans, resulting in more quarterback movement than ever before. Every year, free-agency will include quarterbacks who previously never would have gotten away from their existing teams. Now, teams who have good quarterbacks will crave finding great quarterbacks, and they’ll be willing to give up the bird in the hand to get there.
Here’s where this all is going to eventually lead. Within five years, the league will start talking about expansion. A few years ago, there weren’t 32 quarterbacks who were good enough to start in the NFL. Now, there are enough. Enough to justify 34 teams, 36 teams, or more.
Legalized gambling will push the league in that direction. The new 17-game season will inevitably become an 18-game season. Beyond that, the only way to increase the inventory of games will be to increase the number of teams.
Sean Salisbury (SportsTalk 790 and KPRC 950 in Houston)
No doubt the energy and momentum the NFL will get from the return from Covid will heighten the excitement. We are blessed with as deep a Starting QB class as we’ve possibly ever had. We have play callers who are doing things most of us didn’t think was feasible. Two of our best, Rodgers and Watson, may not play. Brady is the favorite and still is the very reason the team should be the favorite to be in the Super Bowl. At 44 years old this August he should be preparing his HOF speech. Yet, he’s playing like he did a decade ago.
I don’t remember a time when we went into a season thinking a dozen different QBs could win an MVP. We have franchises who people have laughed at that are now in positions to win their division and are a February threat like Cleveland and Arizona. The excitement of young stars — Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence — bringing relevance to the Jets and Jags while giving hope to their fan base. We all wonder who Carson Wentz and Jimmy G actually are as players and whether Bill Belichick will turn Mac Jones into his next Super Bowl QB. There are so many other wow factor stories in the league this year, yet the QB drama alone is enough to make you pay triple the price for a ticket. For me, I can’t remember a time when I was more intrigued and pumped for an NFL season than I am in 2021!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.