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The New, Chilling Reality Of March Madness

Happy as we are to see brackets, the NCAA tournament hinges on positive COVID tests, which could force a team forfeiture with a single outbreak — making Gonzaga’s historic quest particularly fraught.

Jay Mariotti

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Any other year, the magical brackets would rise above the cesspools of college sports, the recruiting sleaze of Arizona and Kansas, even the condo creepiness of Les Miles. Any other year, March Madness would whisk us to a safe place free from existential disruption, where every great game is topped by a greater game and the impossible always is negotiable.

But even the sublimity of America’s most adored sports event isn’t immune from continuing pandemic disorder. The NCAA tournament can’t simply take two vaccine shots and be OK. A year after the cancellation of this basketball spectacle triggered a hellish year for American sports, 68 teams will warily convene next week within an Indiana bubble, in buildings allowing only one human body for every four seats, with the winners on April 5 owning a trophy and a Steak ’n Shake hangover.

NCAA Unveils Logo for 2021 Final Four in Indianapolis – SportsLogos.Net News

And if you think the mightiest competition comes from a history-shaking Gonzaga powerhouse, Big Ten monsters Illinois and Michigan and solo acts Luka Garza and Cade Cunningham, even Dickie V would say no way, baby. The enemy continues to be COVID-19, capable of wiping out the Zags and their mountainous quest — to become the first unbeaten national champion since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers of 45 years ago — with one slip of the mask. Or any other team. Think not? Ask Baylor, another championship contender, which was working on its own spotless season until nine players tested positive and forced a 21-day February quarantine.     

“Even Superman has kryptonite. And I guess COVID protocols is ours,’’ coach Scott Drew lamented after a loss at Kansas.     

At least the Bears had an opportunity to pause as a group and self-isolate. In the tournament, a team without an ample number of healthy players forfeits the game and immediately goes home. I don’t care how closely protocols are monitored. Brace for a number of forfeits, based on the reality that youthful, unvaccinated players on the road — in hotels for days and weeks at a time, with families and friends staying nearby — won’t steer clear of the coronavirus. Thus, anyone eyeing a particular game as appointment viewing, or a gambler rushing to bet a hunch, must be prepared for a cancellation at any time.     

The brackets are certain to be compromised. Still days before the selection committee gathers, as teams navigate conference tournament minefields, the printout already looks strange. Gone are the usual sites and dates within each region that bring anticipation and a sense of national community to the Madness. Instead of listing Denver, Minneapolis, Memphis and Brooklyn, and feeding into Indianapolis for the Final Four, we have Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4 — with first-round games in the home gyms of Purdue and Indiana, second-round and Sweet 16 games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Hinkle Fieldhouse and the Elite Eight and Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s quaint and charming, I admit, if you love All Things Indiana, but there’s no nationwide pomp and circumstance. That’s what the pandemic has done to college hoops, after a regular season when 10 percent of games were canceled and more than 20 percent weren’t played on scheduled dates.     

Interest will suffer. Ratings will wane. That’s only natural, given the anxiety over vaccines and other COVID-related turbulence across the land. Plus, there is grime to wipe away, as the sport hasn’t recovered from corruption scandals that resulted in too many dirty infraction cases to count. And those are just the programs that were caught. Arizona and Shifty Sean Miller had the sense to self-impose a postseason ban, but who outside of Lawrence wants to embrace Kansas, where the school blindly defends coach Bill Self when the FBI thinks he’s a dirtball?     

LSU? You can’t navigate the campus without a Hazmat suit, with Will Wade openly defying the feds like a bankrobber on the lam. If Ed Orgeron and the football program quickly fell from grace after winning a national title, the affairs of his predecessor, Miles, were sickening. Back when he was king of Baton Rouge, Les the Mess allegedly was texting female students young enough to be his granddaughter and bringing them back to his condo, making promises he could help the career of one student while attempting to kiss her and woo her to a hotel. When LSU finally fired him, who hired him?

Les Miles explains why he almost left LSU in 2012 | Fanbuzz

Kansas … which didn’t properly vet Miles and finally came around to firing him Monday night. “I am extremely disappointed for our university, fans and everyone involved with our football program,” said athletic director Jeff Long, who hired Miles. This while Self, bless his Rock Chalk Jayhawk heart, coaches Team Adidas Payoff in the tournament.

And how will America deal with the Creighton story? A team that easily can reach the Elite Eight is embroiled in racial strife after coach Greg McDermott uttered the word “plantation’’ — twice — in a horrific speech to his players. In 2021, any authority figure who urges “everybody to stay on the plantation’’ and that he “couldn’t have anybody leave the plantation’’ shouldn’t be representing the school. Creighton suspended McDermott, but quickly reinstated him so he can coach in the tournament. Upset by the mixed messages, his players posted a video condemning his remarks.

Said Shareef Mitchell: “For slaves, life on a plantation was filled with mental, emotional, physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Viewed only as property and not human, slaves had no rights and no voice. They were branded like cattle, forced from their homeland and stripped of their culture, language and basic human rights. They worked 18 hours a day, six days a week. Any sign of wrongdoing such as lack of productivity, not following instructions or resistance would result in beatings or death.”

Said Denzel Mahoney: “… And that is why what Coach Mac said hurt me and my teammates.”

Will Creighton bond or break? Regretfully, it’s a prominent story line.

Awaiting Selection Sunday, one big issue is whether bluebloods on one bubble will be invited into the big bubble. I can do without Duke, which isn’t worthy, and where Mike Krzyzewski should consider retirement at 74 before the slog impacts his mammoth legacy. Michigan State, Louisville — I’ve seen plenty through the decades. Same with Syracuse, where Jim Boeheim is 76 and impressing no one with his crusty behavior, such as when he mocked a reporter “who never has played basketball and is 5-foot-2.’’

Really now, this is a fine time for the ascent of Illinois, which always should have been a perennial Midwestern force and has reached that level under Brad Underwood, who has two imminent pros in Ayo Dosunmu and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn, who somehow found Champaign-Urbana from Jamaica. Behold the rise of Alabama, coached not by Nick Saban but Nate Oats, who lets his guys run and fire like the NBA gunners and wants to entertain with the ball like, well, Saban. Michigan is coached by Juwan Howard, who can name his next head position in the NBA. Give me Houston, Arkansas.

Give me Toledo, Colgate, Grand Canyon.

Assuming the NCAA allows Oklahoma State to play in the tournament — though I don’t see why, given the Cowboys’ role in the sneaker scams — we’ll have a chance to examine Cunningham, the 6-8 point guard, before he goes No. 1 in the NBA draft. I like his perspective. “I’m not in the NBA yet,’’ he said. “I’m not getting paid by any team. I’m an OSU Cowboy. That’s what I’m worried about. I’m with my team every day trying to get better with them. I’m not going to be a foot out the door. I still want to win games. I still love being around my teammates now.” He could be protecting an injured ankle by simply opting out of March, but that’s now he he or his ankle roll. If Cunningham is the must-watch showman, the best player in America is Garza. If you haven’t seen him play much at Iowa, join the crowd.

The central story is Gonzaga. No longer the mid-major interlopers from the Pacific Northwest, the Zags never will have a better title shot. They are that talented, that mesmerizing and that explosive, with four players who rank in the top five nationally at their positions and a combo guard, Jalen Suggs, who chose to play in Spokane when he could have signed anywhere — including Ohio State, which wanted him as a quarterback. You can buy Zags gear around the world. It’s time to complete a full cycle that began with the program’s first tournament victory in 1999, from underdogs to overlords. With a sweep of the West Coast Conference tournament, Gonzaga would be only the fifth team in the past 45 years to enter the big show without a loss.

“It’s hard to be the front-runner and lead the mile all four laps,’’ coach Mark Few said. “Everybody’s gunning for you.”

“All that pressure comes from the outside, not from anything inside the program with the players,” said Suggs, the nation’s best freshman outside of Cunningham. “We’re just looking to go out every night and get a win on that night, not looking too far ahead.”

OKC Thunder NBA Mock Draft: Jalen Suggs linked to Sooner State

College basketball is the sport that has suffered most dearly without fans. We’ll miss that fury inside the stadiums and arenas of Indiana, where deep basketball traditions can’t replace the collective heartbeats and roars. But we can’t be worrying about atmosphere right now, or wondering how “One Shining Moment’’ will sound.     

The mantra is much colder now.     

Mask up, or go home.

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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