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Sports or Politics? Flip-Flopper ESPN Can’t Decide What It Is

“Desperate for eyeballs, the network has re-embraced the social justice commentary it abandoned in 2018, yet it’s wrong to downplay coverage of a pandemic that could shut down sports.”

Jay Mariotti

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The first sign of trouble for any desperate company is the complete, amnesia-based 180. Wasn’t it only two years ago when ESPN decided it needed less Colin Kaepernick, Jemele Hill and activism? Now, ESPN and Walt Disney Company want more Kaepernick, Hill and activism — and once Bob Iger and Jimmy Pitaro stop teetering like Bobbleheads in a windstorm, perhaps they’ll start to think again about what their viewers want.

Sports.

I thought ESPN finally had grasped as much when Iger hired Pitaro to replace John Skipper, who’d become more a ‘60s hippie than a sports network president. Not long ago, in the fall of 2018, Iger communicated a sea change from his perch as Disney chief executive when he told the Hollywood Reporter: “There’s been a big debate about whether ESPN should be focused more on what happens on the field of sport than what happens in terms of where sports is societally or politically. And Jimmy felt that the pendulum may have swung a little bit too far away from the field. And I happen to believe he was right.”

They WERE right. Until they weren’t.

Colin Kaepernick Partners with Disney to Develop More Diverse Stories

Anyone who knows me realizes this isn’t some shallow fanboy directive to “stick to sports.’’ Never have I stuck to sports, as evidenced by recent columns and podcasts, including a takedown of a creepy bigot at Barstool Sports and my hope that sports continues to attack racism while ignoring President Trump’s tweeting barrages. In ESPN’s case, it’s an exercise in understanding the expectations of your traditional audience — the daily digest of sports — and not straying awkwardly as a miscast political commentary machine. But that’s about to be reprised after Kaepernick, with Bristol-ousted Hill as his lead producer, cut a lucrative deal to create “scripted and unscripted stories that explore race, social injustice and the quest for equity.’’ A featured project will be an ESPN documentary series on Kaepernick, the quarterback-turned-civil-rights-force, that is sure to stretch for weeks like “The Last Dance’’ blockbuster.

Again, there is a reason millions of people watch CNN, Fox News and agenda-driven news channels. It is not the reason people watch ESPN, even now, in a volatile and divided America.

No doubt there is ample room at the network for content that continues to expose systemic racism, a monumental theme of this culture-crushing 2020. But to flip-flop so abruptly as a policy-maker smacks of opportunism in the crumbling house of Iger, whose entertainment empire has been devastated by the pandemic — Hollywood, sports, amusement parks — and can rely only so much on Michael Jordan and the streaming debut of “Hamilton’’ amid abysmal third-quarter fiscal numbers. When in doubt, tap Kaepernick. When in doubt, have Stephen A. Smith lambaste Trump for foolishly suggesting the noose in Bubba Wallace’s Talladega garage was “just another HOAX.’’ When in doubt, have other personalities weigh in on racial injustice. To be clear, those are important content elements at all times, not just in the current climate.

But when juxtaposed against Iger’s comments less than two years ago, the sudden embrace of race — anew — comes off not as a natural function but a push to bring eyeballs and relevance to a network with no live sports and ratings that faintly recall the fledgling days of tractor pulls and Irish hurling. Race has become the dominant topical substance of the network and its accompanying news site when, suspiciously, ESPN has been mostly hands-off in critical commentary about the resumption of sports.

Why would that be? Oh, because ESPN is a business partner of Major League Baseball, which is botching early COVID-19 testing protocols the way it botches everything else it touches. One by one, the prominent likes of Mike Trout and Kris Bryant have voiced an alarming lack of confidence in commissioner Rob Manfred and his ability to launch an abbreviated 60-game season, much less complete a World Series in late October. Said Bryant: “What we agreed to was testing every other day, and we’ve had guys who showed up on (June 28) and hadn’t got tested again (until) seven days later. And you don’t get the results until two days later. That’s nine days without knowing. If we want this to succeed, we have to figure this out. I wanted to play this year because I thought it would be safe. Honestly, I don’t really feel that.”

Disney names Bob Chapek CEO; Iger to chair board through 2021 ...

How did ESPN respond to the flurry of concerns, opt-outs, positive virus tests and protocol buffoonery? Tamely, with a wishy-washy request for patience from baseball insider Jeff Passan. We’re only talking about a deadly health crisis here, folks. Why not apply the same heat on Manfred that Stephen A. directs at Trump? Oh, maybe because ESPN was busy leading its site with the 2020 MLB schedule, including two opening night matchups: Yankees-Nationals, Giants-Dodgers.

“ESPN will broadcast both games,’’ ESPN reported.

Expect an even longer editorial runway for the NBA, which literally is beholden to Iger for offering Walt Disney World as the league’s medically contained bubble. There will be problems, including players who stray from protocol or want to go home, and a possible lack of transparency concerning infected players. What if LeBron James tests positive? Or Giannis Antetokounmpo? Will the public ever know? Will the league cite a sprained toe? With the NBA restricting bubble access to merely a few hand-picked media people, ESPN’s reporting presence becomes more urgent. But if commissioner Adam Silver asks his network bedfellows to withhold sensitive information, does anyone have faith that journalism will prevail when the league and network are trying to recoup billions?

Tuesday, Silver acknowledged concern that more positive virus tests once players are sequestered in the bubble could jeopardize the season — “in essence (putting) a hole in our bubble,’’ he said. This should have been the lead story on ESPN.com. It was not.

Pro football, the ultimate contact sport and uniquely vulnerable to a massive coronavirus spread, has little chance of launching a season in September. You wouldn’t know it watching ESPN, which minimized a story in which NFL Players Association president JC Tretter said the league “is unwilling to prioritize player safety and believes the virus will bend to football.’’ Of course, ESPN was all over the record-smashing contract extension of Patrick Mahomes, as well as the anti-Semitic messages posted by Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, whose direct superiors in Philadelphia — owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman — are Jewish. Both were major stories. But any bigger than a union leader suggesting the NFL is intentionally risking players’ lives?

Q&A with the 'First Take' duo of Stephen A. Smith and Max ...

Brainwashing, I call it. The heavy coverage of racial issues should be flanked by equally heavy coverage of the pandemic, which will continue to threaten the future of sports — and ESPN’s existence — until a vaccine is approved and distributed, which could be years away. For almost four months now, Bristol has wanted you to believe the return of sports is imminent. “LIGHT AT END OF TUNNEL,’’ flashed a graphic atop a “First Take’’ chat this week about the NFL. There is no light, of course, but there was a statement from Iger about Kaepernick, contradicting his words of 22 months earlier.

“During this unprecedented time, The Walt Disney Company remains committed to creating diverse and inclusive content that resonates and matters,” he said. “Colin’s experience gives him a unique perspective on the intersection of sports, culture and race, which will undoubtedly create compelling stories that will educate, enlighten and entertain, and we look forward to working with him on this important collaboration.”

What I want Bob Iger to do is explain, to his core ESPN audience, why COVID-19 is anathema to a $200 billion sports industry and his once-almighty network. Seems telling the truth would be bad for business.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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