This is what happens when a sports network, ESPN, encourages on-air personalities to become political rabble-rousers. A Woj Bomb detonates and creates more cracks in the American Divide. Astonishingly, a media company owned by fuzzy-wuzzy Walt Disney Company — and once known for blooper videos and Chris Berman’s cornballish puns — now could be perceived as a supporter of China’s Communist government and a non-supporter of U.S. law enforcement.
All thanks to Adrian Wojnarowski, who should stick to trade gossip the next time he wants to fire a public F-You at a senator.
I’m pretty sure the network’s ubiquitous NBA reporting insider — and for that matter, Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and the rest — are no more equipped to speak out on ultra-sensitive social issues than Goofy and Donald Duck. But once their Disney bosses unleashed ESPN Activism Fever amid the heat of 2020 America, in a summer of weak ratings and minimal live sports programming in pandemic-broken Bristol, the policy change was bound to turn ugly and disgraceful. In this case, the shame goes beyond the obvious sin of Wojnarowski’s knee-jerk response to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who had criticized the NBA for its relationship with China in a Friday news release. Hawley wanted to know why the league was allowing players to wear jersey slogans supporting social justice if and when the season resumes in the Disney World bubble — “Black Lives Matter’’ … “I Can’t Breathe’’ … “Vote’’ … among other choices — while not providing options that criticize China or defend police forces.
Only Wojnarowski can explain what got into him. He has been working like a slave since March 11, the night Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test shut down the league and, in sequence, sports in America. Straining for months to tackle questions that had no answers, he looked exhausted on his weeknight “SportsCenter’’ appearances. ESPN does this to many of its prominent people, overextending and exposing them to mistakes born of fatigue, recalling Smith’s flurry of factual errors last year. That said, there is no excusing Wojnarowski for responding to the release thusly in an email to Hawley’s press office:
Except he didn’t include dashes.
Seizing an opportunity to extract mass attention for himself and his causes, Hawley posted the profane, two-word screenshot on Twitter, writing: “Don’t criticize #China or express support for law enforcement to @espn. It makes them real mad.” Wojnarowski tried to apologize directly to Hawley, without success, and expressed the right things in a tweet: “I was disrespectful and I made a regrettable mistake. I’m sorry for the way I handled myself.’’
The damage was done. ESPN suspended Wojnarowski for two weeks without pay and delayed his assignment to the Disney bubble, which represents a stunning upbraiding of the media sensation known simply as “Woj’’ in the social mediasphere and among his network brethren. Said ESPN in a statement: “This is completely unacceptable behavior and we do not condone it. It is inexcusable for anyone working for ESPN to respond in the way Adrian did to Sen. Hawley.”
The senator will get over it.
Journalism will not.
My takeaway isn’t so much the F-You. It’s what the F-You says about Wojnarowski’s relationship with the league he covers. To respond the way he did to a delicate social issue suggests he’s too emotionally invested in the NBA from the commissioner’s office on down, a reporting relationship ESPN has enabled — if not required, wink-wink — thanks to its nine-year, $24-billion rights deal with the league. After years as a sports columnist at a New Jersey newspaper, Wojnarowski moved to the Yahoo Sports site and cultivated a network of NBA sources — general managers, coaches, players, agents — that coincided with the rise of social media. He became Woj, king of the Woj Bombs, the frequent news scoops that drove massive traffic to his platforms. It was natural for ESPN to steal him from Yahoo.
What isn’t natural, or the least bit professional, is his desire to take pro-NBA political stances. China is a particular flashpoint, of course, with the league losing a reported $200 million in Chinese-related media revenue after an explosive tweet last autumn by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who supported a Hong Kong protest movement against the Chinese government. ESPN should have taken action when Wojnarowski liked Morey’s tweet at the time. By ignoring it, bosses Bob Iger and Jimmy Pitaro allowed “F—- You’’ to enter Woj’s brainstream last Friday.
He’ll return to NBA duties later this month, reports the New York Post. I have a better and smarter idea: Remove Wojnarowski from the beat entirely and immediately. What good is his reporting prowess if he is so imbedded with the league, so protective of the people he covers, that he damaged the credibility of the company that pays him? We are here to cover sports, not be part of sports, and it’s obvious a reporter who makes millions has allowed his professional judgment to be clouded. Once, when journalistic standards mattered, sports editors routinely would make reporters swap beats to make sure they weren’t becoming too cozy with sources.
Woj isn’t just cozy. He’s literally in bed with the NBA. How about testing the comfort zones of Wojnarowski and NFL insider Adam Schefter, who has done NBA sideline work, and have them swap beats? More proof that he’s in too deep comes from players who’ve defended him in a #FreeWoj campaign, including LeBron James, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Lou Williams — who tweeted ““Aye #Freewoj man” — and teammate Patrick Beverley, who tweeted two prayer emojis.
They’re praying for Woj? All anyone in sports wants to do is kill me, the way it should be.
Such is the state of sports journalism today, ESPN-style.
Wasn’t it just last week when I scolded the honchos, Iger and Pitaro, for their sudden re-embrace of social activism after declaring the network a no-politics zone two years ago? Think about it: If Stephen A. isn’t ripping President Trump and Kellerman doesn’t want a piece of DeSean Jackson, maybe Woj doesn’t drop the biggest bomb yet on a network so ravaged by self-destruction that it’s barely recognizable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.