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The Familiar (Lebron) And Freaky (DeChambeau) Define 2020

“When a surreal year is revisited, the foremost sports memories will include LeBron James’ heavy responsibilities, on and off the court, and the rise of a science-lab experiment unlike anything golf has seen.”

Jay Mariotti

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It’s the definitive award for a normal sports calendar: Sportsperson of the Year. But this time, for reasons as overt as a six-inch swab shoved into one’s nasal cavity for 15 seconds, the title requires creativity. Survivor of the Year? Pummeler of the Pandemic? Braveheart of the Bubble? Crusher of the Covid? Sultan of Swab?

Whatever the description, it fits LeBron James like his snug Black Mamba jersey. Others are carving initials into this surreal moment, too, including mad scientist Bryson DeChambeau, the transformative carbs-and-weights android who gained 40 pounds, imposed his will and savage driver on Winged Foot and won golf’s U.S. Open. But there’s something about his Hans-and-Franz act that feels freakish, at least until he proves otherwise at Augusta National in November, bizarre as that sounds. And if you’re looking to the NFL for 2020 memories — see Russell Wilson — first ask this after a Sunday when injuries were rampant: Thanks to a coronavirus-shortened preseason, will anyone stay healthy?

As for LeBron, we know who he is and where he’s likely headed in the coming weeks. Even in wild and unrecognizable times, it’s still very much his sports world, like him or loathe him. He doesn’t have too much on his massive, mountain-range shoulders right now — parenting his namesake son through a weed-smoking drama from 2,500 miles away, fighting racial inequality and police brutality from a campus he can’t leave, chastising the media for dissing him in MVP voting and, oh, positioning the Los Angeles Lakers for renewed glory. We’ve entered the championship phase of our medical marathon and global mind-bleep — basketball, hockey, golf, tennis — and, clearly, James is among a sacred few separating themselves and leaving indelible sports footprints in the apocalyptic sand.

But for him, this is about more than outlasting the competition inside the NBA Bubble, winning a trophy and throwing a virtual parade, assuming that is possible amid the wildfire threats and Covid cases of southern California. Up 2-0 over scrappy Denver in the Western Conference finals, after Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beating three-pointer, James is nearing his ninth NBA Finals in 10 seasons. Bigger than all of that, he is accomplishing precisely what 2020 needed from an iconic athlete.

He is the consummate badass warrior, promoting Black Lives Matter, pushing Americans to vote (against President Trump) AND subduing all postseason comers while maintaining his mental equilibrium in restrictive confinement. He is pushing 36 and finishing his 17th year in the league, yet James is the one still standing after Giannis Antetokounmpo faded, Kawhi Leonard choked, Paul George battled demons and James Harden tripped on his beard again. LeBron never will be Michael Jordan, as “The Last Dance’’ docu-series reaffirmed, but I doubt Jordan would have lasted in the Bubble even with daily opportunities to golf and gamble. Nor would Jordan, at the time, have made any impact as an activist. To refer to James as multi-relevant this year is grossly understating his impact. A day doesn’t pass without him making a headline, and, over the weekend, he made at least three.

He ripped the judicial system — and rightfully so — for allowing actress Lori Loughlin and her husband to serve sentences in low-security prisons (yoga and pilates for Aunt Becky!) despite paying $500,000 in bribes in the college admissions scandal. Noting that a judge gave Loughlin a slammer of her choice, James responded on Instagram with five smiling/crying emojis: “Of her what!!??? I’m laughing cause sometimes you have to just to stop from crying! Don’t make no damn sense to me. We just want the same treatment if committed of same crime that’s all. Is that asking for to much??? Let me guess, it is huh. Yeah I know!! We’ll just keep pushing forward and not expecting the handouts! STRONG, BLACK & POWERFUL!’’ White privilege at work, wouldn’t you say?

Then he made news as a father. James didn’t want his three kids joining him and his wife in the Bubble this month because, in his words, “My kids are adventurous and they love to do so much stuff. There’s nothing to do here.’’ That left 15-year-old Bronny, the high-school hoops sensation, to be adventurous in California: He posted a video of himself smoking a blunt, a clip that went viral before it was removed from his Instagram account. While hardly a capital crime, this is a distressing episode for LeBron, who hasn’t seen his children since Father’s Day and admitted to “numerous nights and days thinking about leaving’’ the Bubble. Bronny’s full name, as you know, is LeBron James Jr. He has 5.6 million followers on Instagram, 4.3 million on TikTok. His dad has talked openly about playing at least one NBA season with him. Think there isn’t concern about the fishbowl that awaits him and how he’s handling it? This is a father-son talk best done in person, not on a Zoom call, but in the middle of the playoffs, what is a dad to do? Nor should he blame the evils of social media; after all, LeBron also is the king of networking.

Nor can he do anything but look in the mirror and recall his teenaged self. In his book, “Shooting Stars,’’ LeBron admitted to smoking marijuana as a high-school junior. With co-author Buzz Bissinger, James wrote, “We had become big-headed jerks, me in particular, and we are to blame for that, but so are adults who treated us that way and then sat back and smugly watched the self-destruction.’’ He learned back then about the scarcity of trust, and that’s what he seemed to convey when he tweeted, as his son was being crucified on social media: “Exactly why I have my close circle cause as soon as you try to expand to a square the people who you thought was in your corner as the exact opposite. #MyThoughts.’’ Please keep in mind that James, in almost two decades in the high-profile public eye, has avoided scandal. Hey, kids try weed. At least half the players in the NBA smoke weed. He’ll deal with it.

It was his rant about the MVP vote, though, that suggests James is so amped to prove a point that he can’t possibly lose what would be his fourth championship. Not only did Antetokounmpo win the award for the second consecutive year, he won in a landslide — an outcome that looks dubious after his latest playoff bust as James appears title-bound. After winning MVP honors four times between 2009 and 2013, LeBron hasn’t won since. He also has lost six times in his nine NBA Finals appearances, always an eyesore, especially when compared to Jordan’s 6-0 mark. Now, Giannis is the beloved freak after Leonard became the darling of June. When asked about the vote, James let loose with a torrent of P-words.

“Pissed me off. That’s my true answer,” he said. “It pissed me off, because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything. You know, not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP. But that pissed me off. And I’ve finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship (or) now four times as an MVP.

“I never came into this league to be MVP or to be a champion. I’ve always just wanted to get better and better every single day, and those things will take care of itself. But some things is just out of my hand and some things you can’t control. But it pissed me off.”

Not finished, he targeted the voters: 100 media members worldwide and one fan representative. It’s a strange system for such an important honor. “I don’t know how much we are really watching the game,” James said of the panel. “I’m not going to sit up here and talk about what the criteria should be or what it is. It’s changed over the years since I’ve gotten into the league. Sometimes it’s the best player on the best team. Sometimes it’s the guy with the best season statistically. I mean, you don’t know. I do know Giannis had a hell of a season.’’

But Antetokounmpo didn’t have a hell of a postseason. Nor did the Milwaukee Bucks, who never found their stride in the Bubble and wilted after boycotting a game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The Lakers also were among teams that subsequently boycotted games, but thanks to James’ leadership and considerable activism experience, they maintained clear focus. It never has made sense that MVP awards, which are supposed to pinpoint the best players in their leagues in a given year, are based entirely on regular seasons. James is in the process of making a mockery of the method.

“He locks in. I mean, he goes into a different mode,’’ said Davis, who is the second-best player remaining in the Bubble, with apologies to Jimmy Butler. “He’s already in that mode regardless, because we’re trying to win a championship. I know he’d rather win a ring than an MVP award, but it definitely sparks him like he’s got a chip on his shoulder, like he’s got something to prove. He’s the best player in the league. I mean, every headline is about LeBron James, and everybody talks about what he’s done. But you look at this year, what he’s able to accomplish in the regular season and playoffs — for me, it’s clear-cut he’s the MVP.’’

Some championships this year should be affixed with an asterisk — such as in Major League Baseball, which never should have attempted its Covid-wrecked farce of a shotgun season, and college football, which persists in attempting a disjointed campaign as the virus batters campuses and at least one big-time coach (Florida State’s Mike Norvell). But anyone who tries to downgrade LeBron’s would-be title is an Ass-terisk. The same applies to Naomi Osaka, who took over women’s tennis at the U.S. Open while wearing the names of shooting victims on her masks. And the team that survives the NHL Igloo up north, maybe the surprising Dallas Stars.

DeChambeau? Until a scandal proves otherwise, The Hulk is taking over golf with a counterintuitive mixture of science, protein shakes, painstaking hard work and just enough nuances, such as a short game and, yes, even a few fairway landings between constant saves from the rough. He vowed last year to change his body and swing — but who knew he’d change the sport? Asked Friday if his ethos was big enough to overcome the Winged Foot carnage, he invoked Tiger Woods, who missed the cut for the eighth time in his last 15 majors in a crash that suggested Augusta 2019 will be his famous final scene. “That’s a question for the gods. That’s a question for God,’’ DeChambeau said. “I mean, Tiger has been able to do something like that many times before, so I think there is something. But human scientific research does not say that there’s anything about that.’’

This is a man who vows to live to 130. Is he human? For his next trick, he’ll try a 48-inch driver. “Keep pushing the boundaries,’’ he said.

In a signature 2020 scene, DeChambeau stopped on his way to the trophy ceremony to speak to his family on a big-screen Zoom call.

“I did it!’’ he said.

“You did it! Love you, buddy!’’ his mother said.

“Thanks for sacrificing everything for me,’’ he said.

“We’re going to open up a bottle of champagne,’’ she said.

Golf never has seen anyone like him.

But then, we’ve never seen any year like 2020.

The NFL can’t afford to lose stars such as Nick Bosa and Saquon Barkley to serious injuries in a limping procession that included Christian McCaffrey and Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers’ season might have been sabotaged by evil turf at MetLife Stadium, where coach Kyle Shanahan blamed a new surface that was “sticky’’ — knowing his team returns next weekend to play the Giants. Quarterbacks continue to rule the Monday morning Zoom conversations — water coolers are long gone — with the Tom Brady/Cam Newton comparison game still in flux. Brady played better in a victory while Newton, while continuing to impress, was denied on the game’s final play in Seattle, with the Patriots lining 10 men on the line and alerting the Seahawks to a run. Elsewhere, Patrick Mahomes rallied the Chiefs again after nearly meeting his match in the Chargers’ defense and rookie QB Justin Herbert; Aaron Rodgers avenged turmoil to regain his MVP sheen; and Josh Allen, Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill hurled touchdown passes galore. We saw Wilson dominate the Patriots after declaring himself the league’s best QB, “without a doubt.’’ Bill Belichick agreed, saying he “doesn’t really see anybody better’’ in a dig at Brady, who isn’t in the conversation and might never be again.

And the fans? Little by little, they’re starting to return in increments, still not the sensible approach but unstoppable in a sports world that — as I’ve said and written repeatedly — still treats Covid like the common flu. In Dallas, 21,000 humans shrieked in joy — and spread saliva droplets — as the Cowboys staged an improbable comeback victory. (At least Jerry Jones wore a mask as he hugged people in his suite.) In Kansas City, a Chiefs fan tested positive after attending the season opener, forcing everyone who sat near him to quarantine. In Cleveland, only 6,000 fans were allowed, but that didn’t stop several from engaging in fisticuffs in a town that might not know what the coronavirus is. The league is weird enough this year — Green Bay players trying Lambeau Leaps with no fans to catch them, fake boos piped in over speakers in Philadelphia (natch) — to complicate matters with sick patients in hospitals.

At this stage, though, 2020 belongs to James. Which is astonishing, recalling how he looked “washed’’ last season, to use his media-mocking term. When the NBA season was halted March 11 and didn’t resume until July, he could have dismissed the Bubble as an absurd aberration and checked out. Instead, the King reinvented himself as Prince of the Pandemic. If the Lakers go on to play Butler and the Heat — an intriguing matchup of LeBron’s current and former teams … and Pat Riley’s former and current teams — it won’t be easy. Unlike, say, the dissension-torn Clippers, the Heat have created a closer bond inside the Bubble. In taking a 2-1 lead in the Eastern finals, they’ve rattled the Celtics into a screaming, chair-throwing scene in their locker room and returned to win twice from double-digit deficits.

“Man, we got grit,” Bam Adebayo said. “I’m happy to be on this team with these guys because everybody in here has a different story. We all come from nothing, and that’s what’s beautiful about this team, man. You put guys that come from nothing together, and they have a vision.’’

Said Butler, who finally seems to have found his happy place in NBA life: “We believe in one another. We know what we’re capable of. Yeah, we get down at times, but we never hang our heads, because we know if we play the right way, we give ourselves a chance to win. With this group of guys, man, it’s always smiles out there on the court.”

The Heat will win titles in the future, especially if Antetokounmpo takes his talents to South Beach. But no one can stop LeBron James when he is sensing a chance to finish first again, not second, in a career that often has been more grating than rewarding. Plenty of people in this country aren’t watching sports, glued to news channels weeks before the most important and potentially poisonous presidential election ever, even as athletes bust through the gloom to invent new ways to showcase preeminence.

But if there’s one sports figure who is polarizing enough to draw an audience in October, it’s the Braveheart of the Bubble. The title sticks.

BSM Writers

Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different

I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Brian Noe

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Radio

Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.

With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?

I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?

Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.

It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.

A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?

Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?

Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.

It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”

The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.

It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.

Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.

Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.

Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.

One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?

That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years

Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.

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In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.

It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.

“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”

I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.

The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).

The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.

The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.

I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.

Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.

ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.

The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.

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BSM Writers

The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media

Brady Farkas

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Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3A7FJ4a

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3bZ7NgG

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3dB4FrO

Google: https://buff.ly/3JVC5NG

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

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