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Conflict Leads to Content

“If a host gets 50 percent of the listeners to agree, and the other 50 percent to disagree, that’s a guaranteed win.”

Brian Noe

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Most people don’t wake up and think, “How can I get others to disagree with me today?” Many occupations don’t function that way. But sports radio is one of the industries that absolutely thrives on disagreements. Conflict is a main pillar upon which the industry is built.

Take the College Football Playoff for instance. For months this season there were debates galore about which teams should make it, which teams shouldn’t, who might get screwed, what if this or that happens. By the time games ended last Saturday it was obvious that four teams — Alabama, Michigan, Georgia and Cincinnati — belonged in the CFP. Poof, the conflict disappeared. The conversations vanished also. 

College Football Playoff Selection Show – Instant Insight from ESPN  Analysts about the CFP Semifinals and the New Year's Six - ESPN Press Room  U.S.
Courtesy: ESPN

The focus immediately shifted to who should be seeded where. It was like, “What’s the next thing we can argue about?” It’s just such a striking example that when we mostly agree about something, there really isn’t much to talk about.

Sports radio hosts need to form topics that many listeners actually disagree with. Those people might chime in with their arguments, but they certainly won’t tune out.

Now, there are some pitfalls and hot take landmines surrounding this tactic. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit was guilty of manufacturing conflict last Sunday during ESPN’s announcement show. When it was unveiled that No. 4 Cincinnati had earned a playoff berth, Herbstreit made a few comments about the Bearcats that were dripping with sarcasm. He basically flip-flopped in front of the football world.

Herbstreit was like whoa, what’s this? A Group of 5 school in the Playoff? I thought there was a lot of buzz that the committee would never do such a thing.

Yeah dude, there was a lot of chatter that a Group of 5 school would never be included, and you were one of the main chatterboxes leading that charge. Herbstreit conveniently forgot that he was very skeptical in the past about Group of 5 schools deserving a spot in the CFP.

It wouldn’t make sense to say, “Candy corn is awful,” and then years later say, “Candy corn is awesome and I don’t understand why all of these people say otherwise.” It would be a contradiction that caused many to scratch their heads. The reaction would be, “I thought you were the anti-candy corn guy, and now you’re campaigning for it?”

Stirring the pot in an effort to generate conflict isn’t automatically wrong, but when you’ve stirred the pot in the exact opposite direction, it can be an awful look. The public keeps receipts on your previous comments. It’s silly to pull a 180 on what you’ve previously said.

Another temptation to avoid while trying to create conflict is a good old-fashioned hot take. Desperate attempts to attract attention are just embarrassing. On that same ESPN announcement show, it would have gotten quite the reaction if a host said, “Cincinnati is going to win it all.” Cue eyes being rolled. The reaction would be, “Really? You actually believe the Bearcats, who struggled against Tulsa and Navy, are going to take down Alabama and then probably Georgia?”

If no one believes your words are genuine, you’ll be looked at like a clown.

What's it like being a clown? | Boing Boing

I think the goal for sports talk hosts is to be like Vegas. When it comes to betting, Las Vegas wants to attract an equal amount of money on each side of a contest. That way they’re guaranteed a payday because of the juice, which is basically a tax when placing bets. Vegas is guaranteed a win.

If a host gets 50 percent of the listeners to agree, and the other 50 percent to disagree, that’s a guaranteed win. Think about it; if half of the people concur, it shows that the host isn’t a crazy person who’s saying something outlandish just to get attention. And if the other half sees things differently, it generates a conversation. Boom, success.

When hosts pour half and half into their morning coffee, that should be a good reminder to get half of the audience to agree with their opinions, while the other half differs. That’s a winning formula. This obviously doesn’t need to be the case for every single point of view that’s expressed on a show. That’s impossible. But it’s just a smart approach to have this in mind when generating topics.

I believe that hosts should not only be aware of how things sound, but also how things feel. A musician doesn’t write music without being aware of how the song feels. While conflict is a driving force in sports radio, too much of it can be overkill.

Hosts need what I call Joy to the World topics from time to time. Taking a break from all of the debates to laugh at Brian Kelly’s fake accent is useful. Sharing stories about the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats campaign in Week 13 is uplifting.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris, who was once homeless, represented his Da’ Bigger Picture Foundation that assists underserved families. Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski showed his support for military and veteran causes by honoring United States Organizations. He also highlighted his Gronk Nation Youth Foundation and said that when you wear size 16 cleats, you can support two causes.

There might be a few bah humbug people out there that have something negative to say about players supporting charities that are important to them, but overwhelmingly we’re going to agree that this is awesome. There’s a reason why Scott Van Pelt starts off SportsCenter with the Best Thing I Saw Today; it’s upbeat and fun. It’s valuable for sports radio hosts to take a breather from disagreements as well.

Best Thing I Saw Today: Arkansas State gets first win - ESPN Video
Courtesy: ESPN

A sports talk show can’t be all Kumbaya though. Sure, some laughs and some cool stories are helpful, but it can’t be all lovey-dovey. That isn’t how sports fans are wired. Fans have strong opinions and opposing views. It would be a sin for hosts not to tap into that and use it to their advantage.

Debate and disagreement are the bread and butter of sports radio. We just simply aren’t going to agree about everything. Embrace that fact and seek it out instead of running away from it. Debates don’t need to be contentious — reasonable minds can disagree — but in sports radio, conflict is king.

BSM Writers

Jason Barrett Podcast: Rich Eisen, NFL Network

Jason Barrett

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Rich Eisen reveals how he ended up partnering with Stuart Scott, the moment he knew he made the right move joining the NFL Network, and the influence standup comedy had on his broadcast career.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3nTJC5K 

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3z9hErM

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3oyi0U0

Google: https://buff.ly/3vh7Tqu

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3w9hqAh

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Does FOX Need West Coast College Football Success?

“I think we are all looking forward to the twelve team playoff and I don’t know if it matters as much as it did in the last eight years.”

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Don’t believe them. Don’t believe those people that try to sell you on the idea that a given sport is better if a given team in said sport is good. You know, college football is better when Notre Dame is good. Maybe they tell you college basketball is better when UCLA is good. Might they say the NFL is better when the Dallas Cowboys are good? Let me tell you, whoever the they is saying those things, they are wrong. FOX isn’t living or dying on it?

I am not here to tell you college football is better when USC is good. The Trojans are ninth all-time in FBS wins with 866 victories, they claim 11 National Championships and 39 conference championships. There is zero doubt they are among the elite, blue blooded programs of the college football world. With all of that said, USC hasn’t contributed to college football’s national championship discussion in more than 15 years. But, now Southern California is back and in College Football Playoff contention.

With only Notre Dame and a PAC 12 Conference Championship left to play, 10-1 USC is in excellent position to earn the first College Football Playoff bid in school history. The Trojans would be the third west coast team in the playoffs, 2014 Oregon played in the inaugural edition and 2016 Washington was the only other PAC 12 participant. It has now been five playoffs since a PAC 12 team has been in the top four.

That brings up the obvious question, how important is it for the health of the College Football Playoff to have west coast teams involved, especially one based in Los Angeles? L.A is, of course, the second largest media market in the nation. College football is well down the list of priorities in the City of Angels but having a team in the mix might help the overall national rating.

College Football has long been criticized for becoming too regional of a sport. The results thus far do lend themselves to that belief, the only team from outside the South to win a national championship was 2014 Ohio State. The SEC has twice had two teams among the four playoff teams and two of eight championship games matched Alabama and Georgia from the SEC. 

So, does the College Football Playoff need West Coast teams for long term health? FOX is one of the rights holders for PAC 12 football and the main FOX college analyst, Joel Klatt, doesn’t think it is necessary. “I don’t know if it matters this year. This is like the last two years in an eight year term for a president,” Klatt told me on my show, The Next Round, “I think we are all looking forward to the twelve team playoff and I don’t know if it matters as much as it did in the last eight years.”

To Klatt’s point, the College Football Playoff seems to be screeching towards that twelve team format and a bigger media rights deal. That deal will almost certainly include multiple networks, not just ESPN/ABC, and will be worth significantly more money than the current deal. So, it is not as if the lack of a presence west of the Rockies has hurt the attractiveness of the College Football Playoff to the networks.

On the other hand, the playoffs have never reached the lofty ratings they had year one. Was the 2014 edition just ratings lightning in a bottle or has the regional nature of the product hurt those ratings? The 2014 semi finals did fall on New Year’s Day which meant the games were played in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl which has proven to be the most successful schedule in terms of ratings success.

The college football lover in me couldn’t get enough of FOX’s Saturday night USC-UCLA telecast. There’s something about both teams wearing those classic home colors and playing in that historic stadium under the lights. They put on a great show, the show also would go on without them.

I want as many people as possible exposed to college football; it only makes the sport healthier. If that means more West Coast teams need to be in the playoffs, I hope they earn their way in. An expanded playoff will only make it easier. Until then, just keep telling people college football is better when your team is good

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HBO’s ‘Shaq’ Docuseries Tells Shaquille O’Neal’s Story With Style, Personality

What ‘Shaq’ wants the audience to know is that success wasn’t easy for the man, despite his physical gifts.

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Screen cap via HBO Sports

From the very beginning of HBO’s Shaq docuseries, Shaquille O’Neal tells us how important storytelling is to him. Just recapping a sequence of events isn’t enough for the Hall of Famer. As the man puts it himself, “sometimes when you tell a story, you wanna add a little barbecue sauce.”

Director Robert Alexander (The Shop, A Man Named Scott) adds plenty of barbecue sauce to O’Neal’s life story, especially in the first two parts of the docuseries. (Shaq runs four episodes, with the opener debuting Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max. Each of the following three episodes will premiere on the subsequent Wednesday.)

Nothing less should be expected from a gigantic personality like O’Neal. This isn’t a dry documentary that simply chronicles a series of events. Alexander mixes in stock, news, and archival sports footage to add embellishment and punctuation to many stories and important points. Music, creative set design, and animation also play key roles in keeping the narrative moving and the audience engaged.

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Each episode has a visual theme to it. Part 1 emulates a music video. Several comic book elements are incorporated into Part 2. Part 3 is meant to invoke a classic stage drama, a Shakespearean tragedy. Unfortunately, Part 4 is less focused in that regard, though some fun video game graphics are produced. Editors Freddie DeLaVega, Lenny Messina, and Ted Feldman deserve significant credit for making all the pieces fit together into a cohesive visual trip that gives the documentary an energy not seen in many projects like this.

Much like The Last Dance did for Michael Jordan, Shaq helps define a basketball icon for newer generations more familiar with the athletic giant from being part of TNT’s Inside the NBA panel and his many, many commercial endorsements.

The documentary begins with an adolescent O’Neal growing faster than his body and mind could handle. He wasn’t a phenom who was a superstar from the very moment he took the court, despite his obvious size advantages. And his path to major college basketball didn’t take the typical route.

Eventually, however, viewers see what those of us old enough to have watched O’Neal play at LSU remember. He looked like an adult among boys. His dunks were ferocious, raising his knees as he bent the rim to his will. And, as you might recall, young Shaq was much thinner than the diesel he became late in his professional career.

The first two episodes of Shaq chronicle O’Neal’s rise to superstardom, from college sensation at LSU to No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick by the Orlando Magic, developing into a force for whom there was no match on the court on the way to NBA championships. O’Neal was so dominant that the game had to adapt to him. Rival teams stocked their rosters with three to four big men that could each spare six fouls roughing O’Neal up and sending him to the free throw line. The NBA’s defensive rules changed to allow more double-teaming.

Parts 3 and 4 of the docuseries are less fun, as the second pair of episodes follow O’Neal’s fall from the ultimate heights of his career and difficulties in his personal life. His relationship with Kobe Bryant deteriorated and took a championship dynasty down with it. A major factor in those tensions developing was O’Neal’s reluctance to stay in shape during the offseason, continuing to put on weight, and eventually having toe surgery right before the 2002-03 season.

This is where O’Neal’s involvement and cooperation probably hurt Shaq the most. Unlike the first two episodes, when everything was going well for him, the big man doesn’t offer as much insight into his shortcomings. Particularly frustrating is his lack of accountability. At one point, O’Neal flat-out says he’s not talking about what went wrong with the Lakers.

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Looking right into the camera and accepting responsibility for his role in the demise of two championship teams (later including the Miami Heat) would have been riveting. Instead, others are left to try and explain O’Neal’s actions, which feels dishonest as teammates like Rick Fox and longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti try to cover for him.

What Shaq wants the audience to know is that success wasn’t easy for the man, despite his physical gifts. Basketball did not come easily to him as a youth, nor did championship success in college or the NBA as he grew up. But like so many great athletes do, O’Neal channeled criticism from the media and slights from opponents including Dikembe Mutombo into major aggression on the court. (His words for the 1999-2000 NBA MVP voter who prevented him from the league’s first unanimous win are profanely hilarious.)

O’Neal makes it clear that strong figures in his life provided discipline and guidance — beginning with the military-influenced upbringing of his stepfather, then coaches who could teach him how to be a great player like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley — made him who he is. He has always been a personality and time has been kinder to some of the behavior that was once considered brash. Now he’s a worldwide brand known even to non-sports fans. Those viewers, along with diehard basketball fans, will enjoy getting to know him better in this docuseries.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Part 1 of Shaq premieres Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Each of the three episodes will premiere on the subsequent Wednesday, through Dec. 14. The docuseries will also stream on HBO Max and be available on-demand, with repeat airings on HBO networks.

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