“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
This is perhaps the most memorable line from 2008’s The Dark Knight (considered by many to be the best Batman movie before The Batman hit theaters this past weekend), with which Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt) explains why Gotham City needs Batman. And if the city decides it doesn’t need him, he’s still fulfilling a purpose.
In recent months, Stephen A. Smith has become the opposite of what Dent was talking about. He has lived long enough on ESPN’s First Take to become a hero for the network.
For many years, Smith was everything wrong with ESPN’s daytime programming. He embraced debate. He was personality over substance. His bombast covered up a general knowledge that couldn’t discuss many topics with insight. Most of all, Stephen A. shouted. He screamed to bully whichever co-host or guest opposed him into submission.
Very often, it wasn’t very appealing television. First Take still drew ratings because it was on ESPN in mid-morning. Fans who enjoyed sports debates watched. But it also made for good background for those who worked at home or could play it in the office. It was safe programming at gyms, lobbies, and waiting rooms. But was the show taken that seriously?
But ESPN stuck with Stephen A., giving him even more platforms on radio and streaming, though many claimed they were tired of hearing from him. Network executives and producers knew he was a personality people would watch and listen to, even if it was to disagree with him. Stephen A. wasn’t going anywhere, whether fans thought that was what they wanted or not.
Last summer, Smith stepped into controversy for remarks made about Los Angeles Angels superstar (and eventual American League Most Valuable Player) Shohei Ohtani, saying he couldn’t be the face of Major League Baseball because he didn’t speak English.
One month later, Smith forced Max Kellerman out from First Take. At the time, it was believed that Smith was responsible for the decision, which he later admitted to. Those who felt Stephen A. was too overbearing a presence on the show, too domineering toward his debate opponents, could rightly wonder if this was a bad sign. Was more Stephen A. — or a more powerful Stephen A. — a good thing for First Take?
To paraphrase Harvey Dent, you either become irrelevant or stick around long enough for people to like you again.
Perhaps the blowback Smith received for his Ohtani remarks and taking criticism from colleagues on the air was a humbling experience. Maybe Smith felt he needed to prove that the decision to move Kellerman off First Take was the right one and the show would be better for it. ESPN believed in Stephen A. and a majority of viewers stuck by him. But perhaps Smith felt he needed to justify that confidence.
Of course, that goes entirely against his on-air persona. Stephen A. Smith humbled? Stephen A. Smith contrite? OK, maybe that’s taking speculation a bit too far.
Yet something does appear to have changed. Smith appears to be revitalized. He admitted that his recent bout with COVID which resulted in hospitalization over the New Year’s holiday made him realize how much he missed First Take and wanted to get back to it.
Perhaps more importantly, a new rotation of guest hosts following Kellerman’s departure have helped the show’s debates feel fresh and engaging. Stephen A. is no longer paired with someone expected to be a punching bag for his arguments and rants. His debate opponents fight back. They trade blows. Nobody embodies that new dynamic more than Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, now making regular appearances on Wednesday.
Stephen A. no longer acts as if he has to argue his co-host, guest, or analyst out of the room. He relishes the conflict from a worthy adversary. That’s added a bit of humility, even a bit of playfulness. Smith looks like he’s having fun again on First Take and it’s resulted in a more enjoyable show.
Viewers and sports media observers are no longer complaining in articles and on social media about Stephen A. shouting and screaming. They’re enjoying the noise. They’re appreciating the passion that it demonstrates. Even if there’s criticism, it no longer appears to come with exasperation.
Sure, ESPN believed in Stephen A. and that faith has been justified. And maybe Smith just kept doing what he does and broke through on the other side of popular opinion.
Whatever the reason, the view of Smith has become more positive in the past couple of months. He’s been around long enough to see himself become the champion, rather than the bad guy. It’s a development that those who have been following Smith’s career, the evolution (or de-evolution) of sports debate TV likely wouldn’t have predicted not so long ago.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Silver Has An NFL Backstage Pass
“When you go through a career transition like that, let alone during a pandemic, you find out a referendum on all your relationships.”
It was the 2010 NFL Draft and standout wide receiver Dez Bryant was eligible to be selected by a professional football team. As a journalist, Mike Silver has always looked to enterprise stories and wanted to be with Bryant when the moment he had been waiting for finally arrived.
Through a preexisting relationship with Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, he got in touch with Bryant and received permission to attend his draft celebration. Before being selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys, Bryant revealed to him that then-Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland had asked him during the pre-draft process if his mother was a prostitute.
Once that information was published in Silver’s column, Ireland had to publicly apologize and was subsequently put under investigation by the team’s majority owner Stephen Ross.
“People were like, ‘How did you get that?,’ but I was very proud because really the way I got it was because Deion Sanders respected me enough based on things that had happened decades earlier and the way that I conducted myself that I was able to ultimately get to Dez,” Silver expressed. “That to me is a validation. I’ve nurtured relationships for years and years that have led to zero reporting and thought, ‘It’s okay; it’s just part of the process. It is what it is.’”
From the start, Silver was a believer in journalism and the power the profession had in divulging stories in pursuit of the truth. Born in San Francisco, Calif. and raised in Los Angeles, he would read The Los Angeles Times sports section for a half hour per day, observing the proclivities and vernacular of other writers. As a high school student, he co-authored a sports column in the Palisades Charter High School Tideline with current Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, gaining practical experience in journalism and cultivating professional relationships.
“I was the only Warriors fan in our school because I was born in San Francisco so he used to clown me for being a Warriors and 49ers fan like everyone else in our school – so I ended up having the last laugh,” Silver said. “By old standards, you’d say, ‘You can’t cover Steve Kerr. That’s your friend.’ I think in 2022 if I have to cover Steve Kerr, I’ll just be like, ‘You know what? Everyone knows we’re friends. I’m just going to be up front about it.’”
Silver attended the University of California, Berkeley where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mass communication and media studies. The school was not known for profound levels of success within its football and basketball programs, according to Silver; however, the student newspaper was a place to gain repetitions in covering sports and having finished work published, printed and distributed.
Towards the end of his time in college, Silver wrote stories that were published in The Los Angeles Times, the newspaper he grew up reading and from which he drew inspiration to become a journalist.
“We would tell the players we covered, ‘Hey, we’re trying to go to the pros too, and we’re not going to get jobs in this industry if we don’t write the truth,’” Silver said. “We were trying to break in as legitimate journalists and we definitely ruffled some feathers along the way.”
Once he graduated from school, Silver began his professional career writing for The Sacramento Union where he covered the San Francisco 49ers. Silver grew up as a football fan and was familiar with the team but always tried to find original, untold angles to differentiate his stories from others. Shortly thereafter, he transitioned to join The Santa Clara Press Democrat as a beat writer and used the time to further develop his writing and reporting skills. Five years later, he was in talks to land his dream job as a writer in Sports Illustrated, a prolific sports magazine focused on producing original content.
Sports Illustrated was released on Wednesdays and operated under the belief of trying to omit any stories that may have been reported in the days prior. The goal was to tell stories that were under the radar and would be impactful and memorable for its readers.
During a typical week, Silver would visit both the home and road teams in their own cities with the hopes of connecting with players and team personnel. After a game, he would go to the locker room, yet he would try to avoid doing one-on-one interviews since the content would likely be published elsewhere before the magazine was released.
Then, his writing process commenced and often went through the night, as Sports Illustrated had a 9 a.m. EST deadline the following morning. By taking the approach of enterprising stories, Silver quickly became one of the most venerated and trusted sportswriters in the country, composing over 70 cover stories for the publication.
With the advent of the internet though, journalism and communication was forever changed allowing for the free flow of information and ideas in a timely manner.
“Now I can arrogantly write to whatever length I want and every precious word of mine could be broadcast to the masses, but [back then] you better have it the exact length because it’s going on a page,” Silver said. “You’re maybe reading over a story 15 times or more to get it just right before the seven layers of editing kick in. You’re also leaving theoretically half of your great stuff on the cutting room table never to surface again or seldom.”
Nurturing a relationship built on trust and professionalism is hardly facile in nature, and it required enduring persistence and resolute determination to achieve for Silver. Through these relationships, he has been able to create both distinctive and original types of content. As innovations in technology engendered shifts in consumption patterns though, he decided to do what he originally perceived as being unthinkable and left Sports Illustrated after nearly 13 years.
“When I went there, I felt like we had 30 of the 35 best sportswriters in America and it was murderer’s row,” Silver said of Sports Illustrated. “I had a great, great experience there the whole time so I never thought I’d leave.”
After meeting with Yahoo Sports Executive Editor Dave Morgan and being given an offer with flexibility in the job and a promise of a lucrative salary, Silver knew it was simply too good to pass up. He opted to still write a column on Sundays to counterprogram Peter King at Sports Illustrated, who authored his own weekly “Monday Morning Quarterback” column.
Additionally, Silver agreed to write two additional branded columns per week in a quest to adapt to the digital age of media.
“I was trying to stay current and connect to an internet generation and keep up with the way that people were consuming their content at that time,” Silver said. “….We just had a spirit at Yahoo that we weren’t owned by anyone, we didn’t have a deal with the league and we were going to report the news in a very unfiltered way.”
An advent of the digital age in media has been the practice of writers appearing on television to present their information en masse, requiring changes in their delivery. Unlike in a written piece, reporting on television requires efficiently making key points and speaking in shorter phrases to allow the viewer to easily follow the discussion. Moreover, writers are sometimes presented with questions that may provoke deeper thought or analysis, and occasionally challenge their lines of reporting.
Silver never thought he would work in television, but as a part of his contract with NFL Media, he was writing columns and serving as an analyst on select NFL Network programming. In working on television on a league-owned entity, it forced him to step out of his comfort zone and pursue mastery of a new skill set.
“I never wanted to do TV voice and be cheesy and look like someone who was trained for the medium so my strategy was more to try to be myself on camera and see how that translated,” Silver articulated. “It seemed to work to some degree – and then obviously I picked up a lot of tricks of the trade and techniques and got better reps. Essentially, I think reporting is reporting [and] information is information.”
Moving into television, a medium with sports coverage that is, at its core, nonlinear due to the potential for breaking news and unexpected occurrences, changed the manner in which the information was presented and/or prioritized on the air. In a column, Silver’s goal was to find original angles and obtain anecdotes and quotes to implement into the storytelling. Now on television, sources were still used largely on the condition of deep background, meaning no individual or group could be attributed to the information in any way.
“With TV, there was an element of, ‘Hey man, I’m just trying to sound smart when I talk about you guys,’ which is code for, ‘I don’t have to use your name when I say this stuff, but when I’m weighing on why you just traded for Trent Richardson, help me understand what’s really going on with the Indianapolis Colts at this moment,’” Silver explained. “That’s just a random example. I liked [television] more than I thought I would.”
Silver’s contract was not renewed at NFL Network in 2021, providing a stark change in his lifestyle and leaving him looking for a job in the midst of trying economic times. Through a relationship he had with sports radio host Colin Cowherd, he was given the opportunity to join his upstart podcast platform The Volume as a host. Cowherd eagerly recruited Silver to the platform following a lunch in which the topic came up naturally in conversation about future endeavors.
“When you go through a career transition like that, let alone during a pandemic, you find out a referendum on all your relationships and I have a lot of them from players, coaches, owners and GMs to media people and friends in other industries, etc.,” he explained. “Colin Cowherd is someone I’ll never, ever, ever forget or stop being grateful to…. We were kind of talking some stuff out and he was like, ‘Why don’t we do a show on my network?,’ and we started talking about what that would be. We left lunch… and about 10 minutes later he called me and said, ‘Okay, here’s what I think,’ and kind of continued it.”
Today, Silver is hosting an interview-based program called Open Mike featuring guests from the world of professional football. Recent guests on the program have included Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff, New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh and Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marvin Jones. Prior to joining The Volume, Silver had hosted a podcast with his daughter called Pass It Down, which ultimately ran for over 50 episodes and gave him experience working within the medium.
“I’m sitting there spending an hour with [Las Vegas] Raiders GM Dave Ziegler or [Buffalo Bills] linebacker Von Miller or whoever we have on,” Silver said. “You’re not only getting to know that person; you’re watching the way I connect with that person and usually have a body of work with that person, and there’s a comfort level there too.”
John Marvel was Silver’s direct boss at NFL Media and a friend he kept in touch with for many years. Through various correspondences and the dynamic media landscape, they decided to start their own media venture called Backstage Media. The company has a first-look deal with Meadowlark Media – a company co-founded by John Skipper, who also serves as its chief executive officer. Skipper was formerly the president of ESPN and someone Silver wished he had worked for earlier in his career.
“I did not know John Skipper before I left NFL Network,” he said. “I didn’t particularly have a dream to [ever] work at ESPN. We’ve had conversations over the years – ESPN and I – and it never seemed like the perfect fit for me. Now that I know John Skipper, it’s like ‘I would have worked for that guy any time.’ He’s fantastic, [and] I’m just so pumped to be in business with him.”
The company, which focuses on producing documentaries and other unscripted programming through the intersection of sports, music and entertainment, has various projects in development. The idea was derived out of both of their penchants for storytelling and an attempt to utilize new platforms built for engagement within the modern-day media marketplace.
“We’re hoping that documentaries, docuseries [and] episodic podcasts – mostly unscripted – …will be kind of our wheelhouse,” Silver said. “….There’s about four big things that are [hopefully] close to being announced. One’s football; one’s boxing; one is basketball; and one is kind of a blend of some things. I feel like we have a pretty diverse set of interests.”
Joining The San Francisco Chronicle as a football reporter has been indicative of a full-circle moment for Silver, as he is once again around the San Francisco 49ers and writing columns about the team and other sports around the Bay Area at large. Today, he is working with Scott Ostler and Ann Kllion, and directly with Eric Branch on the outlet’s 49ers coverage. Through it all, he seeks to continue gaining access to places that the ordinary person would only be able to dream about in order to tell compelling and informative stories, no matter how they may be delivered or on what platform(s) to which it may be distributed.
“I’m old school in a lot of my mentality in terms of journalism and storytelling and all of that,” Silver said. “I think those things don’t go away. I think it’s journalism first; relationship first; access first; storytelling first; and you figure out the rest.”
As for the future of the profession which has ostensibly become less defined because of the evolution of social media and communication, relationships and storytelling have truly become the differentiators. Silver aims to continue practicing what has allowed him to gain exclusive scoops in the industry and tell stories that would otherwise, perhaps, fly under the radar, but do so in a way that does not jeopardize his sources.
“I’m going to try to develop relationships and cultivate relationships where people trust me and give me a sense of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m going to try to get into places that you, as the consumer, couldn’t otherwise go and take you there, and I’m going to err on the side of the relationship as opposed to finding out one thing that could cause a splash that day on Twitter.”
Some athletes are hosting podcasts or writing columns to directly communicate with their fans, including Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green on The Volume, intensifying the quest for engagement and attraction. Yet Silver advises journalists looking to break into the industry not to get distracted in meeting certain metrics, instead adhering to best practices and reporting truthful information without ambiguity.
“Just don’t get undone by the noise,” Silver said. “Put your head down; hyperfocus; grind; tell good stories; do journalism and hopefully over the course of time, that will stand out. I’d still like to believe that.”
Covering professional sports, specifically football, generates a large amount of potential storylines on which journalists can report – and today, digital platforms give them the ability to cover them in different ways. While some scoops may requit a large article, others may be able to be told in 280 characters or less, such as a trade rumor or injury. The amount of information Silver and his colleagues uncovered working for a print publication and then had to omit because of space limitations underscores a key journalistic principle of efficient and truthful storytelling. In today’s media landscape, he hopes to be able to do that regardless of its means of dissemination.
“If you went back and just looked at our normal… feature or story off a game [and] the level we reported on a Wednesday and translated that to a Twitter generation, people would lose their minds about how much we found out and how much we reported with on-the-record quotes usually, and they’d be like, ‘He said what!?,” Silver said. “That’s all we knew and that’s [how] we did it…. I don’t think people understand how much the threshold has changed. It’s all good. The most important things hopefully haven’t changed.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Video Simulcasts Are Now A Must Have For Sports Radio
All of these shows have done an amazing job of constantly communicating with their audiences to make sure they’re aware of changes coming their way.
Video simulcasts of sports talk radio and podcasts have gone up extraordinarily in quality as of late. The craft started as a novelty that very few participated in. ESPN and YES Network dominated the genre with their simulcasts of Mike and Mike in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog respectively. Slowly but surely other sports networks and RSN’s picked up the genre over time and it has now become a major component within sports coverage in the streaming world.
The most popular and prominent shows in the medium right now include The Dan Patrick Show, The Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz, The Pat McAfee Show, and The Rich Eisen Show. These four shows in particular have done an excellent job of independently producing and building out their video content to look visually appealing while also engage with the audience through graphics, pictures, stats on screen. In McAfee’s case, his company even entered into a rights agreement with the NFL for highlights.
Finding their shows can be difficult at times. Eisen’s show has moved from television to Peacock and to Roku Channel all within the span of a couple years. When LeBatard’s shipping container first began their live video voyage they didn’t have a consistent schedule. Patrick’s show has also leapt between RSNs, national networks, YouTube and its current home on Peacock. But all of these shows have done an amazing job of constantly communicating with their audiences to make sure they’re aware of changes coming their way.
The video simulcasts have become so lucrative for these shows that they’ve found sponsors to advertise against what they’re offering and they ensure that they pay attention to the look of the show. Commercials that feel like television play during Patrick and Eisen’s shows. Logos are displayed during LeBatard’s broadcast and NFL Films vignettes that you would find on NFL Network air in the middle of McAfee’s broadcast.
McAfee’s show recently moved into a new studio in Indianapolis specifically built for them by FanDuel and just yesterday LeBatard announced they would be moving into their own state of the art studio in Miami that will help expand their creativity. Patrick’s show doesn’t even have guests call into their show anymore – most join via Zoom. Eisen’s guests are more often than not in studio. All of these shows also upload highlights relatively quickly to YouTube. They’re still audio-first but video is no longer secondary. It is 1A in terms of importance.
As much as these simulcasts feel close to real TV, there are still some hijinks that fans have to get used to that aren’t the same as a regular TV broadcast. During LeBatard’s broadcast, a rolling loop of their own self produced album plays during breaks. While the songs are hilarious in nature, if you’re a weekly viewer of their simulcast it might get tiresome to hear every time there is a break.
A loop of some of the show’s greatest moments and some of the side projects Meadowlark Media produces might be more engaging and help reduce drop off rate. McAfee’s show also struggles with white balancing their cameras almost every telecast. At times in the middle of a conversation during the show, discoloration occurs before changing back to normal skin tones.
Patrick’s show has used the same set of graphics since it began simulcasting on NBC’s linear sports network years ago which could be a turnoff for younger viewers of the internet era who always want change in order to grab their attention. Eisen’s show has awkward interruptions happen in the middle of conversations because commercial breaks are different in length on terrestrial radio vs. streaming.
At the end of the day though, these shows are the epitome of what it means to have grit and guts to achieve your American dream. Although their productions are subsidized and/or licensed by big media platforms and sports books, their social media presence and the actual production of these shows was built on their own. During the first couple of weeks after LeBatard’s show left ESPN, the former columnist could often be heard teasing listeners that they were working on building a video enterprise and how difficult it was.
It’s hard to stand on your own in sports talk media without the backing of superpowers like ESPN, Fox, NBC, CBS and Turner who have been producing live broadcasts for decades. But these shows have found a way to do so in a new world that is tailored towards doing everything on your own.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
5 Ideas For December Sales Success
How much better will you enjoy Christmas and New Year knowing you have some presentations to make to prospects who want to roll into 2023 with a new idea?
Now is the time to put your foot on the gas for a great start to 2023-not waiting til January. With Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day all falling on weekends, you can’t count on who will be at work the Friday or Monday around those holidays in December.
So, looking forward from here, you only have 15 or so days that you can count on your clients and prospects to be at work before the end of 2022. And, if they are at work, consider their motivation or lack of it before approaching them. But here are five ways to attack December.
Cutting a year-end deal
Make sure you go back from the potential start date of the schedule and allow for production, proposal, and acceptance. That usually means you need a week from when you present a year-end idea to when the schedule starts. So, aim to have all appointments booked by 12/9, so you can sell 2-week packages that begin Monday, 12/19. That will give you a sense of urgency and gives you five solid business days to sell your ass off starting Monday.
Make all your pricing and payment terms expire by Friday, 12/9. You can always extend if need be once they give a partial commitment. You want anybody involved in the decision to sign off and let you cut this deal! The idea here is to create urgency and work ahead.
Beat the bushes
Do you want to wake up on 1/2/23 with an empty pipeline? How much better will you enjoy Christmas and New Year knowing you have some presentations to make to prospects who want to roll into 2023 with a new idea? Don’t try to qualify these prospects over the phone. Do it in January when both of you are fresh but get that commitment NOW. Look for your new client avatar.
From now til the end of the year is also an excellent time to meet with your sales assistant, traffic manager, production person, or anybody who helps you at the station. Sit down with them face to face and see what you can do better to make their job easier. Give them some ideas on how they can help you as well. Mend some fences or make new friends; the reason tis the season. Surprise them with a Cheetos popcorn tin for less than $10. Please do it. You will be surprised by what you hear because this is a popular time of year for layoffs, transfers, and people taking new jobs.
Practice a new pitch
December is also a great time to record yourself doing a webinar and start planning to let your content do the talking. Wouldn’t it be nice if your 10-minute talk on how to make live reads work, how to buy radio, or why your audience buys the most widgets produced some warm leads? Practice and get going!
Jeff Caves is a sales columnist for BSM working in radio, digital, hyper-local magazine, and sports sponsorship sales in DFW. He is credited with helping launch, build, and develop SPORTS RADIO The Ticket in Boise, Idaho, into the market’s top sports radio station. During his 26 year stay at KTIK, Caves hosted drive time, programmed the station, and excelled as a top seller. You can reach him by email at email@example.com or find him on Twitter @jeffcaves.