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The Best Defense Against An Ornery Subject Is A Good Question

With the right question, a reporter never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role.

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A question should be constructed to get the best answer possible.

This was the guideline I learned as a newspaper reporter, which makes sense. You don’t hear the questions in a story. You don’t usually read them. The questions operate off-stage, the unseen lever that pries out the good stuff from the subject.

The dynamic changes when the interview is conducted in public, though. I learned this first-hand when I transitioned from reporter to radio host in 2013. Suddenly, my questions were part of the content being consumed. This is increasingly becoming the reality for anyone covering pro sports now. Not only have the press conferences themselves become a part of actual sports programming, but those press conferences are increasingly the only access to professional athletes, given post-pandemic locker-room restrictions.

But any time I start to think that it’s important to consider how a question sounds to the audience, instead of focusing on the answer it gets from the subject, I will inevitably be reminded of where that thinking leads. This week, it was Jim Matheson, a veteran Canadian hockey reporter in Canada, confronting the Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl over being non-cooperative. 

On the one hand, this kind of tension has existed for decades in pro sports. It’s inevitable, really, that the people paid to play the games will at times be at odds with the people paid to critique their performance. The difference now, as Ian Casselberry pointed out here at BSM yesterday, is that the tension is increasingly visible. 

Personally, I love these moments. Seeing someone get sensitive in public is catnip to my shallow sensibilities. But professionally, there is something to be learned here by going back to the question that started each impasse. Let’s start with Matheson.

“Lots of reasons for why the Oilers are playing the way they are, in terms of winning and losing,” Matheson said. “What do you think is the number one reason for the losses now? Is there one thing, in your own mind, that you’re saying, ‘We’ve got to get better at that’?”

It’s a bad question for two reasons, the first being that it is actually two questions. “Double-barreled” is the term used by John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist, an absolute prince of a man, and an unrivaled expert in improving interview skills. In two days, John taught me more about good interview tactics than I’ve learned in 20 years of weekend workshops and workday brownbags. This won’t be the last time I mention him in my posts here at BSM.

The best piece of advice John offers is also the easiest to institute and provides the most immediate results: Ask one question. Just one. If you add a second question — either out of nervousness or because you try to phrase it better — it will confuse even a cooperative subject. If you have an uncooperative subject, it provides an out. An opportunity to answer the less difficult question and then stare right back at you to indicate it’s your turn.

That is exactly what happened to Matheson. Here was Draisaitl’s response: “Yeah, we have to get better at everything.”

Matheson asked if Draisaitl was willing to expand; Draisaitl was not, adding a sarcastic aside that Matheson could add to it because he knew everything. Jameson then asked Draisaitl why he was so “pissy.”

“Hmmmm,” Draisaitl said, raising his eyebrows as if he hadn’t heard.

“Why are you so pissy?”

“I’m not,” Draisaitl said. “I’m just answering your–” at which point he was cut off by Matheson.

“Yeah, you are,” Matheson said. “Every time I ask a question.”

Now, it’s likely that Draisaitl’s issue has nothing to do with the question Matheson asked. It’s possible that no question Matheson asked was going to get a good answer. But because that question was poorly constructed, it left Matheson cornered into the choice of accepting Draisaitl’s terrible answer to his poor question or creating a confrontation. He chose the latter, and while I don’t think it was wrong, per se, or crossed any lines, Matheson looked like the aggressor. And I suspect that will be the last piece of useful content he ever receives from Draisaitl.

This is the point where my column was initially going to end. Then I saw Ian’s post, which included an exchange between Gary Washburn, a reporter at the Boston Globe, and Celtics guard Dennis Schroder, who was every bit as uncooperative as Draisaitl. It provides the perfect example to see how a better question changed the nature of the impasse.

Let’s go to Washburn’s first question: “Dennis, in Philly, you had one point, but the game before in Indiana, you had 23. It seems like you’ve been up-and-down a little bit. Are you starting to feel comfortable? You had the COVID protocol, you had a lot of things happen this week, are you starting to feel a little bit of comfort in the offense?”

Washburn’s question wasn’t perfect. There are technically two queries, though I’d argue he really just restated his question about being comfortable. It was also a yes-no question, which doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a question that seeks an answer about how or why something has occurred. I’m nitpicking, though. The strength of this question was revealed when Schroeder bristled.

Schroeder: You with us or you with Philly?

Washburn: No, I’m just asking.

Schroeder: You with Boston? You work for us?

Washburn: I cover the Celtics. I’m just asking if you’re feeling any more comfortable over the last couple games.

Schroeder: It’s just a stupid question.

Washburn: My fault. Are you feeling any more comfortable? How did you feel like you played today?

Schroeder: Not good enough for you, huh?

Washburn: No. I’m asking about the bounce back.

Schroeder: We won, so that’s all that matters. I’m a team player, so end of the day if I’ve got 40 points or one point and win the game, I’m going to be happy with it. So end of the day, I’m a team player, trying to win some games. And in Philly, we didn’t come out right, we played right, and that’s it.

Washburn: Thank you.

At no point in that back-and-forth does Washburn have to do anything other than restate his question: Are you feeling more comfortable? Schroeder has the choice whether to answer it, and ultimately talks around the quesrion without addressing it.

Washburn never has to say he was dissatisfied with the answer or call out Schroeder for being uncooperative. He never has to assume an antagonistic stance or role. He’s courteous and even accepts responsibility for a question Schroeder doesn’t like. In the end, Schroeder’s defensiveness speaks for itself. And that is important given how many people are now watching not just the answers that athletes provide, but the hearing and in some cases seeing the questions that provoke them

When Ian wrote about these situations on Thursday, he concluded with a very poignant observation: “Tensions are now out in the open, when they might have previously happened in a corner, away from everyone’s attention. And when these dialogues become public, people feel the need to take sides with the reporter or the athlete. Which side you’re on as a fan likely depends on your perception of the media.”

He’s absolutely right, but I would provide one addition to that. A well-constructed question is your best defense against not only an ornery subject, but also those audience members predisposed to blaming you for antagonizing the athlete. 

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104.5 The Zone Keeps Rising Under Paul Mason as Nashville Continues to Grow

“It starts with the people that you have on your staff but it starts above that.  It’s having great people that trust you to build your vision.” 

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Nashville background with the 104.5 The Zone logo and a picture of Paul Mason
Nashville Skyline Courtesy of: SeanPavonePhoto/Fotolia

When Paul Mason arrived at 104.5 FM “The Zone” in Nashville to take over as Program Director in April of 2020, he was hoping to made an immediate impact at the radio station. The growth was helped by a Tennessee Titans run to the AFC Championship Game during the COVID year of 2020 and four years later, the station is doing very well.

“I could not be happier with what we’ve seen here at The Zone with just the growth of this group as a whole,” said Mason who took on the added title of Operations Manager of Titans Radio in April 2021. 

“It’s come together as a team and everybody roots for everybody and pulls for everybody to win. I think you’re seeing all tides rise because as a PD I cannot be anymore pleased with what I’ve seen unfold the last several years.”

There’s no question that the Nashville sports market is booming and that’s just a part of the rapid growth that the city has experienced in recent years. Major pro sports arrived in town when the Houston Oilers relocated to Nashville in 1997 and two seasons later they were renamed the Titans. In 1998, the Nashville Predators joined the National Hockey League as an expansion team and went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. And now, there’s a Major League Soccer club in town after Nashville SC was born in 2020.

Throw in the fact that it’s always been a huge SEC market and the sports scene is exploding in Nashville.

“It’s growing and it’s growing very quickly,” said Mason. “There are new people moving here every day and getting exposed to not only different teams but also to us. It’s important to us and we’re always marketing what this brand is and who we are to not just the people who have been here and have been loyal to us over the years but the new people coming in.”

Building a radio station and the brand that comes along with it is not an easy thing to do. A lot has to go your way and now there are digital considerations that play into a radio station’s revenue stream.

In the case of The Zone, business has been good for the brand.

“If the brand is right, everything else is going to follow so if we’re talking about or targeting the things on air that our audience comes to us with an expectation, that’s going to grow,” said Mason. “We are delivering on those expectations. We’re obviously very football-centric and very Titan-centric but the key is balancing that with everything else in the town as well.”

There’s no question that the sports radio industry has changed over the years and continues to evolve, especially when it comes to technology. These days, it’s not just about the terrestrial aspect of a radio station but other ways that content is distributed whether it’s video, podcast or streaming. Those other components are extremely important to a radio station’s success.

It’s something that Mason and his team have taken to very well.

“You have to embrace technology and you have to embrace things evolving and if you resist, you’re going to get left behind,” said Mason. “What we’ve done well here is we’re on every social media platform and we do it well. We’ve embraced video by creating Zone TV a few years back. In the world that we live in now, you need to be in all the places that your audience wants to consume you.”

While Mason has been very successful in the role of Program Director, it does take a village for a sports radio station to be successful. At The Zone, Mason has been getting a lot of help from his friends. Whether it’s Cumulus Nashville Market Manager Allison Warren or Operations Manager Charlie Cook, Mason has and continues to receive a great deal of support from up above.

“It’s all about the people,” said Mason. “It starts with the people that you have on your staff but it starts above that. It’s having great people that trust you to build your vision.” 

And the vision has led to a terrific lineup at The Zone including Ramon, Kayla and Will from 6am to 10am, Buck Reising 10am to 1pm, Blaine and Mickey from 1pm to 3pm and 3HL from 3pm to 7pm.

“Just beyond our air staff, it’s having a good sales staff, a good promotions staff and good producers,” said Mason. “My job is to be the resource for them to put them in the best position possible to do what they do best.”

Speaking of those shows, the lineup at The Zone did very well in the 2023 Barrett Sports Media Top 20 list.

*Paul Mason finished 5th in the voting among Mid-Market Program Directors.

*The Zone finished 5th among Mid-Market sports radio stations.

*Ramon, Kayla and Will finished 4th among Mid-Market sports morning shows.

*Buck Reising finished 2nd and Blaine and Mickey finished 5th among Mid-Market sports midday shows.

*3HL finished 2nd among Mid-Market sports afternoon shows.

“I was thrilled to have every one of our shows place in the top five,” said Mason. “I think that just shows the growth of what we’ve done here at The Zone. I couldn’t be anymore happy for our staff. I love the results but we want all of our shows to be number one so that’s going to be our next goal.”

Mason will get a chance to revel in the success of The Zone when he rubs elbows with the entire sports radio industry at the upcoming 2024 Barrett Sports Media Summit in New York City on March 13th and 14th. Mason attended the 2023 Barrett News Media Summit in Nashville in September but this will be his first visit to the BSM Summit. 

“I can’t wait to go to the summit,” said Mason. “If I can go up there and learn one or two things that I can take back here to Nashville and try to figure out how it works within my structure, that’s great but I think I’m going to learn a lot more than that. It’s meeting different people in the industry with a lot of minds coming together and you just never know what you’re going to learn or who you’re going to run into and how it’s going to turn out. I can’t wait to get boots on the ground in New York to check it out.”

While Paul Mason hopes to learn a few things at the BSM Summit, there’s no doubt that other Program Directors and media professionals from around the country will want to pick his brain as well. That’s because Mason has guided The Zone in Nashville to incredible success and there’s no telling what lies ahead.

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Reimagining the Relationship Between ESPN and Major League Baseball

So, how can ESPN and MLB’s relationship evolve in their next contract?

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MLB on ESPN

Last week I wrote about the three media storylines heading into Spring Training with Major League Baseball. One of them was ESPN possibly opting out of their MLB contract after the 2025 season, letting the league know after this season.

MLB’s relationship with ESPN began in January, 1989 when MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth agreed to 4-year $400 million agreement with the 10-year-old cable network to begin televising 175 games per season starting in 1990. ESPN was not considered “The Worldwide Leader” yet, they were owned by Capital Cities, not Disney, and ESPN was just one network. It had the rights to the NFL, but split Sunday Night Games with TNT. They had no NHL or NBA rights, so ESPN’s baseball coverage was paramount. It included a nightly highlight show called “Baseball Tonight,” with all the highlights and coverage on each edition of SportsCenter.

Now in 2024, ESPN has 30 exclusive regular season telecasts, and also has coverage of all Wild Card Series games. “Baseball Tonight” is now limited to just a pre-game show before the Sunday Night game. The sport is rarely talked about on ESPN’s marquee shows “Get Up” and “First Take.” Another major difference is ESPN now has the rights to almost everything. The now Disney-owned network airs 23 regular season NFL games and two playoff games. Add in the fact they now have a plethora of NBA and NHL games and MLB went from a priority to an afterthought at ESPN.

ESPN MLB Coverage19902024
Total Games175 (25 exclusive)30 (all exclusive)
Cost Per Year$100M$550M
Nights CoveredSunday (exclusive), Tuesday, Wednesday, FridaySunday and Other Weeknights TBA for 3 games (all exclusive)
Special GamesOpening Day, HolidaysOpening Night, International Game, Little League Classic (counts with SNB)
Baseball Tonight7-Days A Week during SeasonSundays prior to Sunday Night Baseball
Other Notable EventsEquitable Old Timers Game at All-Star GameHome Run Derby, Every Wild Card Series Game
Major Sports on ESPNNFLNFL, NHL, NBA

That deal agreed upon in 1989 was also the last television contract negotiated by Peter Ueberroth, as A. Bartlett Giamatti would take over as baseball’s head man on April 1, 1989. Fast forward 35 years and during Spring Training media day in Florida this past week, current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the 2029 season would be his last as commissioner, thus he will have a similar task as Ueberroth did.

As I said last week, consider ESPN opting out of the MLB as a reallocation of their payroll. Disney is in the process of negotiating rights deals with the NBA and have reportedly agreed to a 6-year $7.8 billion deal for the College Football Playoff. So, how can ESPN and MLB’s relationship evolve in their next contract? Here are some options:

Regular Season Games & Coverage

The number of regular season games on ESPN is the amount they want and that’s probably not going to change. Anything more could affect the other entities they have to cover.

However, MLB has a regional sports network (RSN) issue, everyone is aware of this. Even teams that own their own network are worried. Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said on Monday, “TV is a challenge for everybody right now…we’re going to have to adapt.”

ESPN could use ESPN+ for more MLB games to help the RSN problem. If MLB gets to 15 teams where they takeover production, ESPN+ could be the one-stop-shop for those teams, in-market, while MLB.tv could serve as the out of market option for all teams. ESPN+ could also simulcast “MLB’s Big Inning” which already airs on MLB.tv and Apple TV+ on weekdays. It could bring value to the streamer and more money to the owner’s pockets.

Postseason

The only league that might see the new streaming platform established by Warner Bros. Discovery, FOX Sports and ESPN as a positive is Major League Baseball. They are the only major sports league that airs regular season and postseason games on all three entities. While we mentioned ESPN’s opt-out, WBD and FOX Sports have their deals through 2028. Could the last rights Commissioner Manfred negotiates be to open up WBD and FOX’s deals, and re-negotiate with an extension to 2031.

Why would it benefit WBD and FOX to open up their deals? Right now the Tuesday night baseball games on TBS are non-exclusive, making their contract the only linear TV contract, that is not league owned,  to have a non-exclusive package. Also with their new streaming platform, there is more room to carve out digital rights, and alternate broadcasts, which has become the wave in sports.

Could you imagine FOX with an alt-cast with Jeter, A-Rod, and Big Papi on their FOX Saturday Night games. It could be another version of the “ManningCast.” The big key in this is to establish more postseason rights, and bigger games for ESPN. Here is the current structure.

Current MLB Postseason CoverageESPNTBSFOX
Wild Card SeriesYesNoNo
Division SeriesNoYes (alternating league)Yes (alternating league)
League Championship SeriesNoYes (alternating league)Yes (alternating league)
World SeriesNoNoYes

Here is my proposed idea

Proposed MLB Postseason CoverageESPNTBSFOX
Wild Card Series2 Series (league TBS is not doing)2 Series (same league as LCS)No
Division Series2 Series1 Series (same league as LCS)1 Series (same league as LCS)
League Championship SeriesNoYes (alternate leagues each year)Yes (alternate leagues each year)
World SeriesYes on ABC (even years starting with 2026)NoYes (odd years starting with 2027)

With this proposed idea, the network that loses is FOX, they lose a division series, which means they lose October programming on FS1, and they go from having a World Series every year, to just every other year starting in 2026, That would probably be the biggest hurdle for Commissioner Manfred to clear.

Also the World Series is on a Monday Night, so would ESPN be willing to have competition air on their sister network for a night. Or would they make that the game you possibly bring back an afternoon World Series game – something the sport has not seen since 1987.

Conclusion

This plan gives ESPN more of a reason to be invested in Major League Baseball. Even with the new hockey deal, there’s no more talk about Connor McDavid on the network’s morning shows than there was before. But more exclusivity on the network, and carving more marquee events for ESPN, could give them more reason not only to extend the deal, but still give MLB the money it wants.

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Can FOX Sports Solve its Greg Olsen Problem with College Football?

“FOX can keep Olsen and Olsen can stay the network’s top analyst. All that has to happen is the network has to move Greg Olsen from its NFL coverage to its college football coverage.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Greg Olsen
Courtesy: FOX Sports

Fox seemingly has a problem. It was talked about throughout the playoffs. Tom Brady is really coming aboard next season to join Kevin Burkhardt in FOX’s top NFL booth, which will unseat Greg Olsen, widely considered the best game analyst on TV.

There have been plenty of theories about what to do. Everyone has a thought about which network should cut ties with its top NFL analyst to make room for Olsen. The most obvious answer though is that Olsen gets bumped down a peg to FOX’s number two booth. Currently, that’s Joe Davis and Moose Johnston. What other changes would that necessitate? 

Maybe Amazon moves on from Kirk Herbstreit. Maybe Cris Collinsworth decides to retire, opening up a spot on NBC. Those are the best case scenarios for Olsen, but my guess is FOX does not want to lose him to a competitor. In 2022, I wrote that FOX may not realize what it has in Olsen. I received an email the next day from a FOX executive that said he definitely knows what the network has and thinks Olsen deserves to be in the spotlight in his booth, not playing second fiddle to Tom Brady.

So with that in mind, I have a suggestion. FOX can keep Olsen and Olsen can stay the network’s top analyst. All that has to happen is the network has to move Greg Olsen from its NFL coverage to its college football coverage. It’s a radical idea, but I think it’s a good one.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no reason FOX has to think about replacing Joel Klatt. He also regularly receives high praise for his work. But if the network sees Olsen as a higher priority, this is a chance to keep him in the fold without diminishing his role.

Greg Olsen’s future at FOX probably does not include another Super Bowl. It sucks. I thought he did a great job with Super Bowl LVII. But if the reality is he won’t get to do that again, wouldn’t you rather still be on a top broadcast each week? The College Football Playoff Committee has denied earlier reports that a deal on a new TV contract with ESPN is done. We know FOX really wants a piece of the event. If you’re Greg Olsen and you are open to moving to Big Noon Saturday, there is still a chance that comes along with the chance to call the National Championship Game in the future.

Right now, FOX Sports boss Eric Shanks has to solve the Olsen problem. He can cross the Klatt bridge if it gets to that point, but there are options. Even if his playing days didn’t have the star power of the rest of the Big Noon Kickoff cast, he has established himself as an elite analytical mind. He could move into a featured role on the pregame show. 

Olsen would bring not just star power, but authority. He was a standout tight end for The University of Miami in the early 2000s. It’s undeniably a marquee brand. He was an all-conference performer. He experienced the beginnings of realignment first hand. As a member of the notorious 7th Floor Crew, his college career even has that little bit of infamy and controversy that FOX loves. 

Pairing him with Gus Johnson could be a home run. The energy would be the complete opposite of ESPN, CBS and NBC. Imagine Johnson and Olsen going off the air and then flipping over to whatever game Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson are covering. It would sound like a funeral by comparison.

College football is not the NFL. I get that. But if the last handful of years have proven anything in the sports broadcasting business, it’s that star power matters most of all. Olsen may have proven himself more than capable, but he just can’t compete with Tom Brady in the area that has the most influence on who gets the top job.

Plenty of football fans and media members view college football as a step down from the NFL. I get why, the NFL dwarfs everything else on television. But the college football audience is still trending upward. Nowhere has that been more evident in recent years than at FOX

FOX doesn’t want to lose Olsen, and I don’t think it will. He may have an opt out clause but I am not sure a job that is worthy of exercising it will be available to him. 

So if you’re in charge of FOX and you have an asset like Olsen, you have to ask yourself what the best way to use him is. If Brady is there, there is a ceiling on how high Olsen can go, so do you stick him at the number 2 spot and risk losing him every season, or do you try to sell him on being the number one guy in a new booth – one that already has shown its growth potential? 

Maybe there is no obvious answer, but if FOX wants to pitch Olsen on making the move to college football, it can play to his ego and competitive instincts. That should make it an easy sell.

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