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Masks Up, Ratings Down

“The NFL’s first COVID-19 crisis raises doubt about the efficacy of protocols and whether the pro and college seasons can be completed, while Jimmy Butler smack-talks LeBron in an NBA Finals that needs viewers.”

Jay Mariotti

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Call it Coronakarma. In the same week COVID-19 hospitalized President Trump — just hours after he mocked the size of Joe Biden’s mask, said “the end of the pandemic is in sight’’ and continued a year-long delusional dance challenged in U.S. presidential history only by Frank Underwood in “House Of Cards’’ (and he wasn’t real) — how fitting to see the NFL slammed by its own virus crisis.     

A coincidence, it is not. In the league’s hellbent quest to snag as much of a $17 billion pot as possible this season, commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners embraced Trump’s urging that major sports play on through the pandemic, even if some of those owners loathe the president. As COVID continues to rage for a ninth month in America, what did all of these men gain from an abundance of hubris, ignorance and hypocrisy?

Grim answer: A place in medical limbo and potential American infamy, with the most powerful person in the free world and the most prominent sports enterprise in the Western Hemisphere weakened because neither treated the pandemic with appropriate concern. Trump has been tethered to his room in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, at the mercy of antibody cocktails, experimental treatments, steroids and whatever else they pump into his 74-year-old, somewhat obese body.

The NFL? Goodell has the freedom to apply common epidemiological sense and call an immediate timeout on the season, which would allow the league and its franchises to reassess protocols and make sure they know what they’re doing while risking the health of thousands. But that’s not how football people roll, even as players and coaches eschew masks, violate policies and make a daily mockery of a virus that has killed almost 210,000 Americans. The league marches on, despite evidence that sports playing inside restrictive environments — NBA, NHL — can avoid COVID-disruptions and complete seasons, while football on the professional and college levels is encountering the same perils outside a Bubble that pummeled Major League Baseball. The college game recklessly marches on, too, as fans foolishly allowed into stadiums on COVID-ravaged campuses are clustering without masks and social distancing, forcing SMU police to clear the entire student section Saturday and the SEC to ponder an autumn of outbreaks in the stands, which conceivably could spread to players.

People still don’t get it.

Until, you know, they GET it.

The sports model on how to survive in a pandemic has been authored, for the most part, by none other than LeBron James. Assuming Game 3 was a momentary and embarrassing snooze and not a sign of more lethargy ahead, the Lakers remain comfortably positioned to win the NBA Finals, though they’ve allowed a hungry badass named Jimmy Butler a crack in the concrete door. Disgusted as he left the court before the buzzer — the loss to the undermanned Heat means two more days in the Bubble — James can’t allow himself to commit eight turnovers and let various teammates, including Anthony Davis, be no-shows again in Game 4. Otherwise, the “LeBron legacy’’ questions become loud and persistent; the Heat, after all, are without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, leaving Butler to carry the night and mouth “trouble’’ to his Miami teammates in the closing seconds. As in, the Lakers are in trouble. They aren’t in trouble yet, but it makes for a more watchable series.

Butler, for instance, admitted to telling James, “You’re in trouble,’’ not long before James exited the court with 10 seconds left — not a good look, and one we’ve seen before in failure. Butler said he simply was responding to what LeBron told him earlier in the game. Observe how far Butler has come from humble beginnings, in life and basketball: He’s mouthing off to the King. “First of all, we’re not going to act like I’m just out there talking trash, because I’m not,’’ Butler said. “LeBron said it to me at the end of the first. That’s what happened. I just said it to him in the fourth quarter.’’

James took the high road, describing Butler as one of the game’s great competitors and someone he’ll miss when he retires from the sport. “I don’t feel like we’re concerned,’’ James said about a Lakers performance he deemed as “poor’’ Sunday night. “We know we can play a lot better. We have an opportunity to take a commanding lead Tuesday night.’’

And if they do, he’ll be one victory from an achievement more sweeping and impressive than finally claiming a title for Cleveland in 2016. For more than three months, James has stayed true to Bubble life, followed all the protocols, vigilantly fought racial injustice and police brutality, urged people to vote and vowed to win in Kobe Bryant’s memory while aiming for his fourth title. Shouldn’t everyone be taking notes in America, in sports?

Much of the country still refuses to grasp what’s happening, whether it’s a president who will return from the hospital and claim COVID really is the common flu or a league boss determined to navigate a season out of greed when Vegas odds don’t favor him. “We’re continuing to be vigilant, flexible and adaptable,’’ said Goodell, trotting out words he used in July when October demands much more urgency. In the space of days, the Tennessee Titans were shut down by a COVID outbreak of 20 cases while Cam Newton — one of the NFL’s biggest stories so far and a self-described “Superman’’ —  also tested positive for the virus. That quickly, the league was blindsided by an inescapable 2020 truth: Its expectation of completing the season, through the Super Bowl in February, can shrink to utter folly at any moment.

If there’s one certainty about this mindbleep of an infectious disease, it’s that anyone who thinks it’s a bunch of hooey soon will have his head or ass pressed against a toilet for days. The virus likely is determining the future leadership of this country. On a much lesser scale, it already has shot holes in the almighty NFL shield. Or, more to the point, COVID has popped at least four of Goodell’s “32 separate bubbles’’ before the regular season is a month old. When Newton’s positive test coincided with another positive test at the Chiefs facility, the league shifted Sunday’s hyped Chiefs-Patriots matchup to Monday night in Kansas City — assuming more tests don’t turn up positive. Cold reality is, the NFL schedule no longer can be written in anything but pencil. The two games postponed Sunday could be four games next week. Or seven next month.

Wrote Newton in a somber-faced Instagram selfie, which shows a mask worn improperly on his neck: “I will never question God’s reasoning; just will always respond with `Yes Lord!!’’’ I appreciate all the love, support, and WELL WISHES!! I will take this time to get healthy and self reflect on the other AMAZING THINGS THAT I SHOULD BE GRATEFUL FOR!!!’’

Brady, after throwing five touchdown passes Sunday to outduel Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, didn’t comment about the health status of his New England successor. It’s best he said nothing; Brady was the one flouting protocols by practicing without a mask at a Tampa public park. “We were told during training camp that this could happen, if you’re not diligent, you’re not careful,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I’m home-schooling my kids, we’re not having guests over at the house. You have to do those things if you want to play the games on Sundays.”

Sounding much like commissioner Rob Manfred when MLB was reeling from outbreaks, the NFL is pointing fingers. The problem, the league says, isn’t with the protocols; the failure lies in the protocols not being followed, which the league expects to find as representatives scour the Nashville landscape for clues. This as the league conducted a conference call with all teams concerning COVID “accountability, learnings and requirements.’’ What Goodell won’t admit, like Manfred, is that the NFL didn’t communicate COVID evils strongly enough from the season’s outset. Seven head coaches have failed to wear face masks on the sidelines, including two (Jon Gruden and Sean Payton) who contracted the virus, setting a poor example for the league and the U.S. population. Ravens coach John Harbaugh lowered his mask to argue with an official, spraying saliva droplets in the poor guy’s face. Last week, several Raiders players weren’t wearing masks or socially distancing during a charity event in Nevada. No amount of fines or threats of suspensions and docked draft picks seems to faze the men in uniform when in the heat of battle.

Leave us alone, they say. We’re busy.

“I understand that we’re all chasing perfection,” Harbaugh said. “We try to be as perfect as we can. It’s a pretty hard standard to hold other people to. But you try the best you can. That’s all I really have to say about it.”

Perfection? We’ll accept mask mediocrity at this stage.

All of which throws America into a deeper daze as it searches, in vain, for any semblance of normalcy in sports. Distracted by Trump’s illness and the many news channels smothering it, sports fans have tuned out the NBA Finals; Game 1 was the lowest-rated Finals game since 1994, when millions were busy watching O.J. Simpson in a white Bronco. At least baseball is playing its postseason in its customary month, but if viewership has taken a beating in previous autumns, how many will watch now? Ratings are undeniably down throughout the industry. And it’s not hard to explain.

The scope and grandeur of sports simply isn’t the same. It’s difficult to wrap oneself into a game when your team, even the Lakers or Stanley Cup champion Lightning, is in a Bubble with no fans or pomp. Or when you have no idea if a game will be postponed or how many missing players will dilute the experience. Or when the NFL’s biggest stories are Josh Allen and the 4-0 Bills, the Kevin Stefanski-revived Browns and the dismal Cowboys, who are worse under Mike McCarthy than they were under Jason Garrett. Or when college football actually is moving forward with a four-team playoff when ACC teams are playing 11 games, the SEC and Big 12 are playing 10 games, the Big Ten is playing nine and the Pac-12 is playing seven. At some point, the joy of having sports is interrupted by the jolt that sports is still very messed up and disjointed without fans in the arena and disposable energy across America. Even when Russell Wilson throws 16 TD passes in four games and leaves the stage to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, a delectable treat is shrouded in the 2020 haze.     

Though only a few realists wanted to hear it, football is the sport most vulnerable to the coronavirus. As I’ve said and written, ad nauseam, dozens of players and personnel on each team are perpetually in close contact — on lines of scrimmage during games and practices, at facilities, in locker rooms, on road trips in planes and hotels and dining rooms. The NFL has been administering daily COVID tests — and an outbreak happened anyway, with the Titans reporting positive tests for 10 players and 10 personnel members. That should sound alarms that the worst could be ahead. Exposed to the outside world every day, NFL and college teams are required to be extra-diligent when they return to their living quarters or, perhaps, wander into public restaurants and bars. For weeks, the NFL’s plan seemed to work. After the Titans’ outbreak, the most accomplished coach of his time, Bill Belichick, voiced pride in how the Patriots were eluding COVID issues. “We monitor everything every day. We don’t just do it when there’s a problem or something comes up somewhere else,’’ he said. “We do it on a daily basis and make everyone aware — because this is everybody. It’s not just players; it’s players and coaches and staff and everybody else. If we can do something better, then we talk to them about how we can do it better. So we try to monitor it the best we can, and we, I think, are pretty vigilant with all of us.”     

Until Newton was placed on the dreaded reserve/COVID-19 list. This forced the Patriots to take a game-day flight — two planes, 3 1/2 hours in the air — and turn to backups Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham in a rushed reset Monday night. See how this already has altered competitive balance at the most important position in team sports and further discombobulated a schedule complicated by a Titans-Steelers postponement? It doesn’t require much imagination to see how the season could become a logistical entanglement; at least MLB, when it was bombarded by summer outbreaks, had time to shut down a team or two for weeks. The NFL doesn’t have such a luxury. As for the idea of sequestering everyone in hotels in home cities, the Players Association shut it down.     

Of course, there still is no exact science about how COVID is contracted and spreads. In the Titans’ case, multiple positive tests over several weeks seemed to take an eventual toll. In other cases, a player can catch it from a family member or child or simply by happenstance. On the college level, Notre Dame’s outbreak was linked to players and coaches sitting together for a team meal — dumb, dumb, dumb — and a player vomiting on the sideline. Such irresponsibility is a poor reflection on school leadership — namely the president, Red. John I. Jenkins, who was maskless when he attended the ceremony for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Apologizing to students, Jenkins wrote in a letter: “I know many of you have read about the White House ceremony I recently attended. I write to express my regret for certain choices I made that day and for failing to lead as I should have.’’ Days later, after Trump saluted Notre Dame during a debacle of a presidential debate, Jenkins tested positive for the virus.     

If it can happen in Tennessee, if it can happen in South Bend, it can happen anywhere.     

The NFL insults us all by treating the virus like an ankle sprain and simply playing the game a night or two later. College football, with a power base in the Southeast, can be even more careless. The coach who slayed LSU last month, Mississippi State’s Mike Leach, hasn’t been wearing his facial covering as mandated by the SEC. “I tried to remember the best I could. Then I found myself talking all the time,’’ said Leach, who calls the team’s offensive plays. “So between me taking it down to talk, me lifting it up and it falling down on its own and me remembering to put it back up, I think there were a number of challenges there.”     

Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, responded with a two-page memo to coaches and warned of consequences. Leach responded with trademark sarcasm in a back-and-forth with the New York Times. “Do you ever find that pretty soon those things will start to smell bad, and all of a sudden, you’re going: `What’s that smell? What’s going on out there?’ No, there’s nothing going on out there. That’s your breath,’’ he said. “I find myself too preoccupied to do it, and then all of a sudden I notice it’s around my neck down there.’’     

Eventually, Leach centered on the political heart of the matter. “I try to do my best with it,’’ he said, “but once you’re six feet apart, I can’t help but wonder if some of this isn’t a homage to politicians.’’     

Saturday, Leach and Mississippi State were muffled in a shocking loss to Arkansas. The Razorbacks’ first-year coach, Sam Pittman, dutifully wears a mask, saying, “I couldn’t live with myself if I thought I had transferred the virus to somebody.’’     

Coronakarma, to paraphrase John Lennon, is gonna get you.

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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