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Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts

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THEY GET IT

Tom Coughlin, guest essayist — Forget all images of the authoritarian curmudgeon whose style worked in the NFL until it didn’t. Nothing you read in 2021 will be as soul-torturing as Coughlin’s tribute to his wife, Judy, who is dying of an incurable brain disorder. The coach, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, wrote in the New York Times: “For the past year, I’ve been torn between protecting my wife’s dignity and privacy and sharing some deeply personal and sad news. It’s only after some reflection that I’ve come to the conclusion that what my family and I are experiencing may be helpful for others to read. As so many of you are gearing up for another NFL season, I will be sitting far from the sidelines, at the bedside and holding the hand of my biggest supporter, my beloved wife, the mother of our children and a grandmother to our grandchildren.” The life lesson: Beneath even the thickest of crusts, a shattered heart always weeps.

National Football League — This won’t win me any friends in the industry, but the league is right to ban independent media representatives from locker rooms this season. It would be more prudent of the NFL to make sure mask mandates are enforced in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium — where spectators largely are ignoring the county edict, as I wrote this week — but it’s a given that reporters can’t be in locker rooms when franchises are having enough difficulty convincing the likes of Cam Newton and Cole Beasley to vax up. If you’re a conspiracy theorist who thinks the league is capitalizing on the pandemic to permanently relegate independent media to Zoom calls, hey, it’s no conspiracy. But I can’t blame commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners for protecting their $16 billion baby.

The Mike Richards crushers — Hail to Sony Pictures Television, which canceled its messy choice of Richards as “Jeopardy!’’ host and reopened delicious possibilities. They should include Aaron Rodgers, who told CBS’ Adam Schein that he “definitely would have’’ accepted the gig if his football schedule could be accommodated. My latest brainstorm as face of the show is the vanguard of versatility, Bob Costas. But when I reached out, he said he rejected a guest-hosting invitation last year for COVID-19 reasons and isn’t interested in a long-term role succeeding the late Alex Trebek. “Would have been fun as a one time experience, but I never saw myself as the right person for the job,’’ Costas texted. “Whoever winds up doing it, I think he or she should be in their forties or early fifties. That seems like the best fit. I know Alex was around 80, but he had the eternal equity with the audience and could have continued as long as he was able.’’ Costas is 69 going on 49. He should re-consider, though he’s quite busy with his new HBO show and TBS hosting duties for the National League championship series.

Tim Tebow, ESPN — Unless he tries rugby — please, no — the illusion of a professional sports career is over for America’s God-fearing lightning rod. I expect him to expand his role as a college football analyst, the smart call, as he figures out a future that should include, yes, evangelism. I, for one, never have understood Tebow Hate, respecting that his humanitarian contributions overwhelm any me-me-me defects. In a country where people don’t work because they can take government payouts, he set a never-quit example — on minor-league bus rides through the hinterlands — even in the face of social-media ridicule and talk-show overkill. Tebow is a good man at a time when good men are needed, and not a minute after he was waived by Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, he landed a deal with Clean Juice as national brand ambassador. “Tim Tebow’s natural authenticity, inspiring reputation, commitment to healthy living and unwavering faith is a perfect embodiment of the personal and professional values we hold dear at Clean Juice,” CEO Landon Eckles said. Somehow, thanks to Tebow, clean living still sells. ESPN could use a little clean living itself.

Jackie MacMullan, renaissance journalist — To call her a female pioneer is to undersell her extensive impact. As she retires from ESPN, Jackie Mac should be remembered as the rare media badass, regardless of gender, who performed all functions well. She coaxed reluctant sports figures to bare souls. She delivered blistering commentaries in print and on TV. She broke stories, mostly on the NBA beat. In what generally was a farts-and-giggles “Showdown’’ segment on our “Around the Horn’’ episodes, I always braced for fierce, airtight arguments from MacMullan. She is leaving much too soon, but as usual, her reasoning is sensible: “Sometimes, you just know when you’re ready to dial it back, and this is the right time.’’

Ethan Strauss, Substack — This rabble-rouser is the latest to join me and other media freedom-seekers at the independent writing site, joining recent departures at The Athletic. This is the best take I’ve seen in ages on the sleazy intersection of ESPN, sports and Beverly Hills agencies. Just read and swallow hard: “Even if I don’t take it as seriously as malfeasance in our politics or financial institutions, sports corruption still has an impact on coverage, and I dislike how much of the game behind the game is shielded from readers. For example, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) happens to represent key media personalities at ESPN NBA, which was by design, and accomplished with the subtlety and tact of the Red Wedding. When you combine that nugget with knowledge of CAA’s influence over the New York Knicks (GM Leon Rose is a former CAA superagent, coach Tom Thibodeau is a CAA client), ESPN’s reports of Zion Williamson (CAA client) having an interest in joining the Knicks gets put in a different light. The way it’s presented to the consumer is the mere reporting on a rising star in New Orleans wanting to play in New York. You’re not supposed to know that ESPN wants this to happen because ESPN is CAA and CAA is ESPN, which means that CAA is the Knicks, meaning that the Knicks are ESPN. You’re not supposed to know that this factors heavily into why New Orleans is shit out of luck, gumbo and jazz music be damned. In many ways, the agencies run the NBA. The media that they use to execute their messaging is making the principals seem peripheral. So often, the story of a trade or free agency signing is told absent mention of its true author.’’ Preach, baby, preach, as Strauss qualifies as a sixth “They Get It’’ item.

Chicago sports voices — I had the utter misfortune, during my 17 years in the city, to experience the hillbilly homerism of Hawk Harrelson. Chicago was unique that way, filled with broadcasters compelled to shamelessly root for the home teams, sometimes to the point of inebriated parody (R.I.P. Harry Caray). So I’m pleasantly surprised — shocked, actually — to see some of the industry’s best young voices bringing high professionalism to the No. 3 market, namely Jason Benetti and Adam Amin. Both are coveted by the national networks, making it incumbent upon the White Sox and Bulls to keep them well-compensated and happy. Mercy, did I just write something nice about the Reinsdorf Empire? Gobsmacked, I’m calling this item No. 7.

THEY DON’T GET IT

Stephen A. Smith, ESPN — He is appearing so often in the “Don’t Get It” lane, I might have to retire the award and inscribe his name. Body language and long staredowns told us that Smith never was fond of Max Kellerman as a sparring partner, but Kellerman’s removal from “First Take’’ — without a firm replacement — suggests Smith is a tyrant. Will he ever be happy without his close buddy and partner-in-multiple-million-dollar crime, Skip Bayless? Smith should realize that his viewership success doesn’t require Bayless, who is under contract at Fox into 2025, when he’ll be pushing 73. The secret to the longer-running “Pardon The Interruption’’ is natural chemistry, dating back decades, between co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. But Smith prefers to argue with an assortment of debate foes including another loudmouth, Michael Irvin, which will hinder the continuity of familiarity — how’s that for self-invented TV jargon? Whatever Smith wants at ESPN, he gets. This is a dangerous game for his bosses, who suffered through the Shohei Ohtani slur and other Stephen A. disasters and might be in for worse if they don’t rein in his control freakdom. Kellerman is moving to morning network radio and will have a new TV show, but it won’t be front and center. He effectively has been Stephen A’d.

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, b.s. artists — If they want post-NBA careers in media, they must stop with self-serving revisionist history that dents their credibility. On Green’s new Bleacher Report series, “Chips,’’ the two former teammates/combatants don’t blame themselves for the on-court altercation that led to Durant’s departure. Nope, three years later, both are pointing fingers at general manager Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr for how they handled the viral fireworks. Yep, blame the honchos when you guys were the ones squabbling. Said Green: “I told them, ‘I’ll talk to (Durant), but ya’ll aren’t going to tell what I need to say.’’ Next day, Myers and Kerr asked Green to apologize publicly, and he blew a gasket: “I told them then and there, ‘ya’ll are about to f—k this up. The only (people) that can make this right are me and (Durant). There’s nothing ya’ll can do, and ya’ll are going to f–k this up.’ And in my opinion, they f—-d it up.” To which Durant chimed in: “It wasn’t the argument. It was the way that everybody — Steve Kerr — acted like it didn’t happen. Myers tried to discipline you and think that would put the mask over everything.’’ Welcome to the age of athlete empowerment. They simply can reinvent their mess and expect us to believe it.

Associated Press Sports Editors — I realize this ilk is a dying breed, but sports editors shouldn’t completely abandon ethics. There should have been only one conclusion when APSE hosted a panel discussion titled, “Best Practices For Covering Sports Gambling.’’ That would be: Investigate, don’t participate. But the panelists represented pro-gambling interests, including VSiN’s Brent Musburger and ESPN’s Doug Kezirian, and I have no faith that traditional newspaper sites — who aren’t financially attached to the legal gambling world like broadcast and wagering sites — will launch probes into inevitable scandals. “It was so exciting,’’ wrote VSiN’s Dave Tuley, “to see and hear so many sports editors from around the country interested in devoting staff to sports betting coverage in their states.’’ When in doubt, sports editors usually cover their butts rather than advance journalism.

ESPN — Some people, usually with a Bristol area code, think I hold a professional grudge against ESPN. In truth, after eight years of drawing paychecks on Mickey Mouse paper, I own an advantage unlike any other sports media critic: I have the freedom to expose how the place operates without harboring any interest in working there again. The network has a five-year, $1.5 billion contract to stream and broadcast UFC fights, but to be  a legitimate news organization, ESPN must separate from UFC goon Dana White. It failed miserably on its website by posting a business manifesto titled, “Inside the UFC’s Plans to Expand Its Global Stronghold.’’ How about investigating how many UFC fighters suffer brain damage in a life-and-death sport, how many are underpaid and how many were infected by COVID-19? Nah. White would call ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, throw a fit and threaten to take his rights to Fox. So, the manifesto trumps all.

Double-standard practitioners — The legal case of Rick Telander was only scantly covered in Chicago, probably because local sports columnists aren’t relevant anymore, certainly not as they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago. But a question of fairness comes to mind. If a sports figure is arrested for DUI and charged with five related offenses, he generally is put through a ringer with media investigations and frequent updates. Almost a month passed before Telander’s case was dropped by a Cook County Circuit Court judge, who said he viewed a police video, heard testimony from witnesses and ruled there were no “reasonable grounds to believe (the) defendant was intoxicated.’’ The story probably wouldn’t have ended there for an athlete, who might have faced further media probes. A double standard? I’d say so — and the media who cover sports should be subjected to the same intense coverage of their legal issues, regardless of income and station in life. As I said in a previous column, Telander deserved the presumption of innocence. But so do sports people.

Fox Sports — In a country divided by politics and vaccines, one safe and sacred place should be college football. But Fox insists on leaning right and turning loose Clay Travis — yes, he’s back — as a COVID-is-a-myth, Trump-loving activist on its pregame shows. Riding a bus like John Madden back in the day, he’ll only be appearing in the Deep South, thank goodness, in states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia. I assume Fox is trying to attack ESPN’s SEC stranglehold, but now more than ever, America needs a football season as an escape, not another reason to vent. And what’s with the promotional depiction of Travis as some steroids-bulging freakoid with tats? Is anything real anymore? Again, it’s a sixth entry, and again, I can’t help myself.

BSM Writers

Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench

“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”

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As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.

The Power Of Dead Air
Courtesy: Jacobs Media

Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.

Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.

Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.

Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media. 

Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???

One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.

My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”

Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.

Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country. 

Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format. 

There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.

If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.

Drowning

I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort. 

Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.

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BSM Writers

Digital Platforms Should Signal The End Of Niche Linear Networks

“Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.”

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CBS Sports Network just isn’t built to last. It seems obvious, but it was really hammered home for me on Friday when Jim Rome went off on the network for preempting the simulcast of his radio show for coverage of swimming.

“You idiots are going to preempt this show for swimming?” Rome said. “Stupid.”

You don’t even have to watch the video, right? You can just read the quote and his voice is immediately what you hear in your head.

John Skipper went off on a number of topics during Sports Business Journal’s Media Innovators Conference last week. Some dismissed it as sour grapes. Others said his comments were those of a man that is completely unencumbered by rights deals and corporate interests.

One thing the Meadowlark Media leader said that was dead on was that there are only a few properties in sports television that truly matter.

“Until you can get the NFL, or the SEC, or the NBA on a streaming service, it’s going to be marginal in this country,” Skipper said in a conversation with John Ourand.

He was answering a question about the relevance of streaming services, but the fact is, he could have been talking about any outlet in the world of sports television.

With that being said, it isn’t just CBS Sports Network that isn’t built to last. Comcast got this message last year. That is why NBCSN is about to go dark. Sure, every niche sport has its fan base, but can you build a profitable and powerful brand on swimming, lacrosse and 3-on-3 basketball? You probably can’t.

BSM’s Jeremy Evans recently wrote about life in the metaverse and what it means to sports media. So much happens digitally now. Think about the last time you felt like you HAD to have a physical copy of a movie or album. It always made sense that television networks would get to this place.

Peacock, ESPN+, CBS Sports HQ and Paramount+ all have plenty to offer. Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.

CBS Sports Network isn’t the only cable sports network whose existence may be on borrowed time. You know about FS1. Did you know there is an FS2? Did you know beIN Sports still exists? Don’t worry. It seems most major cable operators don’t know it either. The same can be said for networks with names like Eleven Sports, Maverick, and Pursuit.

In fact, when you look at that group of channels, CBS Sports Network is probably in the best shape. It may carry the low end of college football and basketball, but it at least has sports with large, national followings.

Radio simulcasts have always been cheap programming. Once the production costs are recouped, there is a straight-line path to profit. Sports networks on this level will always be interested in carrying radio simulcasts, and that is a good thing. It means better studios and more exposure for the hosts involved. When the suits can have a legitimate debate whether the live sports their network carries will draw as many viewers as the simulcast of a radio show, it may be time to rethink the path forward.

Streaming platforms weren’t built exclusively for niche sports. ESPN+ launched with college football and college basketball at its core. Now that streaming platforms are here to stay though, it should start a conversation and migration.

The cable sports network was never anything more than a prestige play. It was a way to show that a broadcast network was so serious about sports that the few hours it could devote to games would never do. The problem is that ESPN got that memo decades earlier and established a juggernaut.

Even FS1, which has major talent and rights to major college football and basketball and Major League Baseball, is behind the eight ball compared to ESPN. They got a 34 year head start in Bristol! CBS Sports Network is behind FS1 and it has college football, basketball and hockey. It also has the WNBA and the NWSL. Still, it seems like it is on borrowed time. What does that mean for networks that can’t get a league comissioners to take their call?

I like some of the programming on CBS Sports HQ. I think Paramount+ has been a valuable tool this college football season. There would be nothing wrong with CBS shuttering CBS Sports Network. It is just the reality of where we are headed.

CBS aims to grow Sports HQ within its network of streaming channels -  Digiday
Courtesy: CBS

CBS is run by smart people. I have faith they will see the forest thru the trees in sports media and find the right solution before they start losing money. Streaming means consolidation and unfortunately, that means there may not be room for the FS2s, Mavericks, Pursuits, and Eleven Sports of the world. That doesn’t mean the sports those networks carry cannot find a new home. They may even find a home that makes more sense for them and their fans.

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BSM Writers

Can Your Station Create Its Own Holiday?

“Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape.”

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A belated happy Disney+ Day to us all!

Disney+ Day: Kareem Daniel Says “Momentum Building” At Streamer After 2  Years – Deadline

Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape. The best part, from a marketing standpoint, is fans were captivated by it. They either didn’t realize it was a commercial or they just didn’t care.

The execution was masterful. Granted, we Star Wars fans were left wanting a bit, but Disney dropped teasers for series and movies we didn’t know were coming and showed the first footage from one we have been anticipating for more than a year now.

I started thinking how a radio station could do this. How could it go out and create its own holiday? How for one day, can we make our fanbase excited and glued to social media eagerly anticipating announcements about what is coming next?

This is going to take some creativity. Disney+ is a platform full of multiple brands with multiple fanbases buying in. A sports talk station is one brand. It has varying levels of fanbases, but largely, your dedicated audience are the people that not only love sports, but also like your programming enough to be called P1s. Is that enough people to build an event like this around?

Who cares if it is or not! Go for it.

One thing that Disney did masterfully on November 12 is it brought partners into the fold and made them a key part of Disney+ Day. Fortnite announced that Boba Fett was coming to its game. TikTok announced Disney character voice changers would be available on the platform. Disney found the kind of partnerships that could spread its holiday to even the Disney+ Day equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge.

You can do the same. Surely you have a local brewery as a partner. Can they brew a one day only beer for you? Partner with a restaurant. Can they put your station’s name on the day’s special? Would other partners offer discounts and promotions for celebrating the day? There are a lot of options here.

Now, what are YOU doing on your holiday? Disney has a deep well of franchises. It could squeeze Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, its own studio and more for content and announcements. Again, you are just one brand, but there is still a lot you can do.

Build the day around announcing your special contributors for the football season. Drop new podcasts and play an extended clip on air. Announce new podcasts, the kind of things that will only be available digitally.

Look at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. Joe Ovies and Joe Giglio have created great, multi-episode series that are events for their audience. Like any narrative podcasts, those don’t come together overnight. As long as you have enough audio to build a solid 90 second to 2 minute long preview, you have something worth bringing to the air as part of the celebration.

Do you have a contract you are waiting to expire to make a change in a prime day part? Make your station’s holiday the day that the new talent or show hits the air for the first time. You can do the same for new weekend programs. Whether it is someone new coming to the station or just a new pairing, put them on air for your prime time audience to meet and have your weekday hosts help create some buzz for them.

As for the shows that are on every weekday, you have to make them special that day. Give away a big cash prize. Make the guest list epic – I mean everyone that is on air that day has to be a home run.

The other thing that Disney did so well was work to get all of its divisions involved. Check out this tweet from the Disney Parks account. Every single park around the world lit their iconic building up blue in celebration of the streaming platform’s holiday.

Can you work with other stations in your building? Maybe they won’t give you full on promotion, but between songs, if a DJ brings up a sports topic, would the PD be willing to have them mention that their sister station is celebrating all day? Would a news/talk PD let your talent pop on air to talk sports with their hosts and promote what is happening on your airwaves today?

The answer to these questions could be no. You don’t know if you don’t ask though. Also, if the answer is no, there is nothing wrong with asking for a little backup from your market manager. A station holiday is a major sales initiative after all.

The final piece of this puzzle to take away from Disney is you have to be everywhere. Any local show you air from 6 am until midnight needs to be on location. Fans should have easy access to them. How can they celebrate you if they are not allowed to be where you are?

Use the broadcasts however the sales department sees fit. Take them first to long-established clients to celebrate their loyalty on the station’s holiday. Use them to draw in new clients. Show off what your station can create with its fanbase.

Money has a way of motivating everyone. So, even if your hosts don’t like leaving the studio, these would be remote broadcasts priced at a premium and should have larger-than-usual talent fees attached.

Finally, let’s do something Disney didn’t. I was shocked that a company with this many iconic characters at its disposal and with a CEO that came from the consumer products division, didn’t have a line of merchandise ready to go. Don’t make that same mistake.

Create cool station shirts (not the cheap giveaway crap). Throw the logo on unexpected things like water bottles, bottle openers, facemasks, whatever! Have a merch tent wherever you go. Maybe set up a site to sell it for the day. Make the people come to you to get this stuff.

Twitter is a huge part of promoting what you do. Constantly show off what you are offering and what you have created. That is how Disney sold their event to its most dedicated fans as something not to be missed.

What were we celebrating with Disney+ Day? Nothing. Disney wasn’t even really celebrating anything. It was just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging. Actually, there are a lot of holidays that are just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging.

Valentine Day Digital Ads on Behance

Not every holiday has to celebrate something once in a lifetime. Not every holiday has to even be real. Building your own will take a long lead time, but it is doable. Get sales, promotions and programming in a room and build a plan together. If Disney+ Day taught us anything, it is a valuable way to motivate your fans to spread your message too.

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