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The Best Media Discussion Of Jon Gruden Happened In A Virtual Classroom

“Ley was masterful in his moderation and made you feel like you were watching an extended version of Outside the Lines.”

Seth Everett

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In the two weeks since Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, there have been hours of radio and television plus pages and pages of internet print on the subject. The best thing I saw this week was not on either.

Former ESPN host Bob Ley and former Sports Illustrated/Baseball America editor BJ Schecter organized and moderated a virtual panel of sports dignitaries entitled, “The Gruden Effect: Examining the Larger Issues.”

The event was held Monday night as part of a Sports Media Speaker Series at Seton Hall University. 

“All of these things require a path to redemption, right?” asked ESPN and HBO’s Bomani Jones, one of four panelists in addition to Schecter and Ley. “Like if you don’t have a path to redemption, then people have no reason to change or anything. There’s nothing to look forward to.”

Jones was joined on the virtual dais by the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association George Attalah, former executive director of the NBA Players Association Charles Grantham, and NFL Network reporter Judy Battista.

Ley was masterful in his moderation and made you feel like you were watching an extended version of Outside the Lines.

“I need to say one sentence about this because I’ve been trying to suppress some of the anger and all of a sudden the feelings have just come back,” Attalah said. “The reason it was okay for no action to be taken between the Friday email and the Sunday game was that DeMaurice Smith, who was a black labor lawyer who wasn’t ‘one of them.’ Period. That just needed to be said, as bluntly as possible.”

During his time at the NBAPA, Grantham presided over three collective bargaining agreements. He was far from surprised that emails like the ones Gruden sent existed.

“Really nothing new. I mean, I go back to (former Cincinnati Reds owner) Marge Schott,” Grantham said. “I go back to (former Los Angeles Clippers owner) Donald Sterling., This is 2021, nothing new is really happening here.”

Students were allowed to ask questions at the end, but it was clear no one held back.

 “What I see on the horizon, however, is that time and time again, they proved that the organizational institution of football or basketball or baseball or hockey it’s time for some adjustments and some changes,” Grantham said. “This is not a regular, normal business. These are cartels. They run it the way they choose to run it. At a time when we’re looking for diversity, it means the structural change has to start.”

Battista discussed the media perspective on the leaked emails. She said it is impossible that the emails reported by both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are the only derogatory inappropriate ones.

“Obviously every reporter wants to see all 650,000 emails,” she said. “Since the Washington Football Team investigation wrapped up over the summer, right? Jon Gruden deserves everything he is getting. So does Bruce Allen for that matter, but who has also been a part of this? We don’t know what happened in Washington and what that workplace environment was like beyond, that it was a very toxic workplace. I think highly unprofessional is how they described it. So yes, I would like to see all the emails.”

Still, she does not see complete transparency surrounding the Washington Football Team.

“There is no real ground-level pressure on these owners, whether on a national level or a local level,” Bomani Jones said. “When this thing happened on Friday, we kind of played it macro level. The larger NFL Press Corps, for whatever reason, is not really a questioning bunch. Like this goes differently from sport to sport. It’s not a broad indictment of anybody.” 

Ley has been active with his alma mater Seton Hall since retiring from ESPN in June 2019. He has been very active in creating a greater sports media program within the School of Communications and the Arts and serves on the board of regents.  He told me on my Sports with Friends podcast that he looks back fondly on his time at ESPN but relishes new challenges.   

Grantham is currently the Director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall as well. He noted that unless the players take a larger role in determining the future of the NFL through their union things like the Gruden emails will keep happening.

“I don’t see that happening unless they are compelled to do it by the government or some other outside force, such as the union, the players finally figure and decide that it’s going to be a priority,” Grantham added. “Is that a hostile environment? It’s a labor-management issue.”

Like podcasts, long-form entertainment can take an issue to levels that short segments simply cannot. When it came to Jon Gruden, there was a lot to unpack.

BSM Writers

Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different

I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Brian Noe

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Radio

Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.

With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?

I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?

Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.

It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.

A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?

Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?

Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.

It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”

The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.

It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.

Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.

Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.

Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.

One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?

That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years

Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.

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In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.

It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.

“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”

I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.

The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).

The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.

The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.

I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.

Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.

ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.

The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.

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BSM Writers

The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media

Brady Farkas

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Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3A7FJ4a

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3bZ7NgG

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3dB4FrO

Google: https://buff.ly/3JVC5NG

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3STupzF

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