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In Any Meritocracy, Maria Taylor Is No Rachel Nichols

“ ESPN’s haste to promote a younger Black host, over an accomplished White host, has again exposed a 21st-century disease in network TV and corporate America: Are optics all that matter anymore?”

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I first met Rachel Nichols when she was Rachel Alexander, an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times as I was beginning 17 years of column-writing there. Back in the days when staffers actually met for beers, she’d hang out with us. And it was apparent then that she was a reporter first, not in it for the glamour, while later proving at the Washington Post that she could dominate beat coverage with probing questions and instinctive savvy.

Not surprisingly, her journalism skills drove her to stardom as a front-facing basketball host and sideline reporter at ESPN, where she gained the respect of all — viewers, players, coaches, her network bosses and colleagues — with hard work and source-accrued knowledge. I appreciated she was a journalist at heart, caring much more about the news she was breaking than aesthetic appeal. Anyone who has watched sports television in recent decades knows news isn’t usually the top priority, especially inside network management offices, where a Fox Sports NFL-studio-show director once fired a loaded question at me during a lunchtime job interview.

 “Do you know any blondes you could recommend?’’ he asked.

“Try any sportscast on local L.A. news,’’ I shot back, annoyingly. 

Nichols is not a blonde, becoming a prominent NBA media face based on merit and chops. And she should have been left alone in her dual capacities, as host not only of the daily program “The Jump’’ but the signature “NBA Countdown’’ show that wraps around game telecasts on ESPN and ABC. But inside those management offices, at Disney last year, pressure was mounting from outside influences — politics best ignored by the strongest and smartest bosses — to replace Nichols with Maria Taylor.     

Nichols is White. Taylor is Black.

In any meritocracy, Taylor is no Rachel Nichols. She has shown a robust presence as a sideline interviewer in college football, and she is lively when hosting NBA shows, but if Taylor has broken major news in her time at ESPN, please refresh my memory. A studio-show host must have a rich command of the stories discussed by panelists, and such expertise isn’t gathered by simply showing up and oozing personality. James Brown has broken stories on CBS’ pre-game show, “The NFL Today.’’ Rece Davis has done the same on the ESPN staple, “College GameDay,’’ as has Karl Ravech on ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball. Nichols had attained a similar level of authority through years on the job. Such an asset shouldn’t be scrapped because exterior forces want to make a diversity statement. 

But this is how sports TV — hell, corporate America — operates in the social tumult of the 21st century. All that matters are optics, not the wealth of ability or experience, which is why ESPN is dealing with yet another explosive racial story that paints Disney as a bumbling operation incapable of handling sensitive in-house issues. Sunday, the New York Times reported full details of a videotaped phone conversation between Nichols and Adam Mendelsohn — an influential American political operative and a well-known advisor to LeBron James and his powerful agent, Rich Paul — after Nichols learned that Taylor would replace her as “NBA Countdown’’ host during the 2020 Finals. 

Speaking from her hotel room at Walt Disney World last July, Nichols wasn’t aware while seeking advice from Mendelsohn that a remote camera and microphone were picking up the entirety of their conversation. The camera had been installed as it was for other ESPN personalities performing on-air work from non-traditional pandemic locations. It should have been a private chat, but never underestimate the snake quotient at ESPN or inside media companies in general. Any number of employees had access to the dialogue. Someone recorded it, then leaked it — first to the rogue website Deadspin last year, then recently to Deadspin alumnus Kevin Draper, a reporter at the Times. In their discussion, Nichols made the mistake of turning Taylor’s ascent into a racial matter. 

Yet given ESPN’s troubles with diversity scenarios through the years, was Nichols wrong in objecting to being made a corporate scapegoat? I say she had every right to be upset — and let’s remember, as her attorneys surely have emphasized, that she assumed the conversation was private, not recorded by a creep who eventually made certain it was heard by everybody who mattered in Bristol, including ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro.

 “I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols told Mendelsohn. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”

It wasn’t Nichols’ place to be spilling her troubles to Mendelsohn when the reason for the call was a professional request: She wanted an interview with James and Lakers teammate Anthony Davis, also represented by Paul. But she elaborated anyway. “I just want them to go somewhere else,’’ she said. “It’s in my contract, by the way; this job is in my contract in writing.”

The NBA, of course, is a predominantly Black league overseen by a White commissioner, Adam Silver, and lorded over by mostly White owners. When Nichols complained to Mendelsohn — who helped James coordinate increased Black voting initiatives before a 2020 U.S. Presidential election that ousted Donald Trump — and he responded regrettably on the tape, the ramifications are high-reaching and not good for anyone, including ESPN and the NBA.

“I don’t. I’m exhausted,’’ Mendelsohn told Nichols. “Between Me Too and Black Lives Matter, I got nothing left.’’

If I view his comment as disingenuous, imagine how James, Paul, Silver, Taylor and a whole lot of people feel today. Especially when the 2021 Finals are starting Tuesday — as Taylor’s contract is expiring. Before the pandemic, she reportedly rejected an ESPN offer of more than $5 million annually, wanting a deal in line with network provocateur Stephen A. Smith, who reportedly makes $8 million a year. But now in a post-pandemic salary chop mode, the network made a recent offer to Taylor that reportedly is half the amount of its previous bid, as rivals such as Fox sniff blood. Will she get up from her studio seat in the middle of the Finals and leave? And how will her colleagues on “NBA Countdown’’ respond when, according to the Times, Jalen Rose, Jay Williams and Adrian Wojnarowski were among those on a recent call with Taylor that turned “acrimonious’’ — and nearly prompted a storm-off-the-set revolt — before Pitaro pacified the anger by phone at a family outing? 

The racial tension at ESPN reflects that of a divided America. And it only has been exacerbated by this story. How will America look at Nichols when it sees her? And Taylor? Will people take sides? Might it actually help ratings for a Finals matchup, between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, that is among the least appealing in memory? Or will the drama turn off viewers?

Welcome to the sports media business, kids. If you wonder why so many ESPN people have glum looks, you’re seeing why. And if you wonder why I’m a smiling, healthy guy in my accompanying photo — after working at ESPN for eight years — you’re seeing why. I’ve told an important personal story before, and today, because it’s relevant within the Nichols-Taylor context, I’ll bring it back as I did last month and on other appropriate occasions.

In February of 2011, Howard Bryant was arrested by Massachusetts State Police. A talented senior writer and commentator at ESPN, he was accused of violently attacking his wife — charged with domestic assault and battery, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest, according to a Boston Herald report. Witnesses told police that Bryant “grabbed his wife’s neck, pushed her into a parked vehicle and pinned her against it’’ outside a pizza shop. His wife didn’t press charges, saying she wasn’t abused, and ESPN president John Skipper — though a vocal champion of women’s rights — joined other ESPN executives in welcoming Bryant back to the fold. He continued to work in Bristol as a columnist and TV panelist for years.

Months earlier, while about to enter my ninth year as a regular panelist during the peak ratings period of ESPN’s “Around The Horn,’’ I was accused in a similar case. Bryant had told police that the network was “1,000 percent supportive’’ of him, which ended up being true, but the network was barely responsive to me. ESPN influenced the legal case and public perception by immediately separating from me and allowing fellow panelists to disparage me on air — before a charge had been filed or a lawyer had been hired. I prevailed in a civil case, and the entire matter was expunged years ago, but the network decision was final.

I am White. Bryant is Black.     

How do I know this was racial in nature? Because Skipper, during a future dinner session with me in Malibu, said “Around The Horn’’ desperately needed diversity among the panelists. I happened to agree — and in subsequent years, the show would be filled with diverse faces — but the transformation was conveniently done at my expense. I relate this story not out of bitterness. I want people to know how this business works.

It’s a twisted industry, sports media. I’m not even sure how much I trust Draper, the Times reporter. In 2016, I agreed to part amicably with the San Francisco Examiner when the ailing newspaper, owned by Canada interests, didn’t have the resources to fund my sports-coverage ambitions as an editor and columnist. We determined I would stay through the Super Bowl, hosted that year in the Bay Area, and I’d leave a few weeks after. I decided one day to air my feelings about a rival editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper, who’d recklessly tweeted about my legal case when I arrived in town. I bit my lip for about a year, but having not been impressed by her leadership at the San Francisco Chronicle, I asserted that she had overly feminist leanings toward me and was driving her paper into the ground.

Still at Deadspin, Draper emailed me and assumed I’d been fired because of the tweet, which wasn’t true. He was a disciple of editor A.J. Daulerio, a drug-addled loon who was sued to smithereens by Hulk Hogan — the sex tape, remember? — and actually had contacted Examiner staffers when I was hired, offering money if they produced dirt on me. The publisher reacted properly, saying anyone who dealt with Daulerio would be fired. I warned Draper that if he lied about the timeline of my departure, I would “Hulk Hogan’’ him. He didn’t care, and next thing you knew, the Times was hiring him. Meanwhile, Cooper abruptly left the Chronicle and took an editor’s gig at New York public radio station WNYC, where she is being sued by a veteran healthcare reporter who says he was wrongfully fired and defamed.

His name: Fred Mogul, a 52-year-old White male.

In good conscience, I cannot encourage young people to enter this racket amid so many swirling, treacherous winds and so many shady people. I’m just thrilled to have had my successes and made my money starting when Rachel Alexander was hungry and diligent … and not when Rachel Nichols has to watch her back at all times, realizing no one has it.

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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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

Athletes Are Making Their Money In Content

“Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.”

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In many ways, the voice of athletes started its exponential growth with the introduction of social media, where every human being has access to a personal broadcast channel to express themselves, their passions, stories, and ideas.  The athlete as an artist immediately expanded from highlight reel to Hollywood film and television reel as a content producer.  However, it was The Players’ Tribune, founded by Derek Jeter in 2014, that jumpstarted the athlete-driven voice of content, first in writing, and later in video, polls, and podcasts.  

On the Line: Derek Jeter | By The Players' Tribune
Courtesy: The Players’ Tribune

Michael Jordan was the first international athlete that made millions in sponsorship money—selling his name or attaching his name to products for the purpose of endorsing them for a profit.  He also starred in the Warner Bros. live-action/animated film Space Jam.  Jordan turned those partnerships into ownership of an NBA basketball team and a partner and focus of one of the most iconic athletic brands in the world, Jordan/Jumpman (Nike).  More recently, Jordan was the focus of the Emmy award-winning The Last Dance docuseries about the NBA Chicago Bulls six championships and more specifically the sixth and final trophy for Air Jordan his Bulls team.  He also co-owns a NASCAR team with Joe Gibbs.  

Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.  However, that is the point—the mentee should always outperform the mentor with proper, training, guidance, and a little luck too.  Where many athletes have pursued broadcasting work as color analysts during and after their professional careers in sports, Jordan did not pursue these avenues or seek to open a television or film production studio to develop entertainment, media, and sports content.  

The direct-to-consumer approach of Hollywood and sports networks through streaming platforms, combined with the introduction of athlete voices through social media and podcasts has led to more opportunities.  Los Angeles Laker LeBron James launched his SpringHill Company in 2020 not long after joining showtime in Tinseltown.  SpringHill is a content studio that develops and looks to other studios for major production and distribution.  LeBron has the sponsorship advertising prowess, but can also add documentaries and feature film content to his resume.  

Kevin Durant launched a podcast titled “The Boardroom” through his company, Thirty-Five Ventures.  With YouTube on par with Netflix in revenue (minus the paywall), it provides another direct-to-consumer platform for everyone and more opportunities.  Steph Curry launched Unanimous Media in 2018 as a content and production studio, originally in partnership with Sony Entertainment, now the studio is partnered with Comcast owned NBCUniversal in the $10 million dollar range.  

The media has deemed the Curry deal a first, which is noteworthy, but so is the faith and family focus of Curry’s programming that will span many brands in the NBCUniversal entertainment family.  Curry will join the NBC broadcast for the Ryder Cup as an analyst and host and interview guests for an educational series, which does not include film projects and the second $200 million dollar basketball contract Curry signed in 2021.  Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Dwayne Wade have been involved with film projects of their own.  Tim Tebow is a nationwide celebrity and motivational speaker, not to mention a world-renown athlete and person with a big heart towards faith and philanthropy.    

Peyton and Eli Manning also have their own broadcast for Monday Night Football.  Peyton also starred in the very successful “Peyton’s Places” that will have season two launched soon on ESPN+.  Both are produced by Peyton’s Omaha Productions.

Speaking of Disney brands, the company’s 30 for 30 is still one of the main catalysts for highlighting the struggles and triumphs of athletes.  Hard Knocks, Ballers, and Jerry Maguire also gave insight into the world of sports beyond the field, statistics, and championships.   

The growth of entertainment, media, and sports has been and continues to be exponential.  Some additional areas to watch include development of series and docuseries in baseball, hockey, soccer, and in other popular, but not the big five sports in America (e.g., lacrosse, cricket, etc.).  With women’s sports receiving more attention on television, there are tremendous opportunities for growth in entertainment production particularly in women’s soccer. 

LFG (2021) - IMDb
Courtesy: WarnerMedia

To date, NBA players have dominated the entertainment, media, and sports landscape for Hollywood production.  However, to each their own, because some stars love developing content, others love speaking about content, and still others love to own content (particularly in the form of brands and franchises) (see Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter).  Indeed, the era of athlete as Hollywood producer is upon us.      

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