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Buster Olney Is One of the Lucky Ones

“He grew up on a dairy farm in Randolph Center, VT, but he and his family knew working on a farm would not exactly be his calling.”

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Buster Olney is one of the great ones. He’s been covering sports for more than 30 years. He’s written books. He’s been recognized by the Associated Press. He’s been nominated for a Sports Emmy. And in my opinion, someday he’ll win the Ford C. Frick Award, given out by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Olney’s impact on baseball coverage is undeniable. He’s among the most recognizable writers and reporters in the sport. His years of reporting, which have spanned both coasts, have earned him that reputation and the deserved respect that comes with it.

But Olney also knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

Not only because he’s covered multiple World Series or Derek Jeter in his prime every day, but because in a sports media world where the career path is often winding, he’s always known what the goal was—and he’s achieved it.

Olney knew he wanted to be a sportswriter long before he got to ESPN. The first seeds of his career path were planted at 15 years old. He grew up on a dairy farm in Randolph Center, VT, but he and his family knew working on a farm would not exactly be his calling.

“My folks figured out that I wasn’t going to be someone who was going to be adept at fixing tractors, so I left the family farm when I was 15 to go to boarding school,” Olney told BSM.

It was in his sophomore year at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western Massachusetts that Olney met Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former New York Times writer, Red Smith. Olney said that meeting sparked his career.

“I got to sit next to him at dinner and I walked away from that conversation, just being so impressed by him and his knowledge and his love for sports, his love for writing,” said Olney. “And it was like, everything came together right in that 72-hour window after he left.”

Once that 72-hour window closed, Olney broke down the metaphorical door to his own life in journalism. Right before his graduation from Vanderbilt University, he began writing for the Nashville Banner in 1989. His next stops included the San Diego Union-Tribune for more than four years, the Baltimore Sun in 1995, and the New York Times in 1997.

He covered the Padres, Orioles, Mets, and four World Series appearances by the Yankees. He even did a season covering the New York Giants on the beat before he moved on to ESPN in 2003.

Just like other longtime writers who have worked at ESPN–Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen, Tim Kurkjian, Mike Wilbon, and Dan LeBatard, among others—Olney has massively expanded his footprint beyond writing. 

Though penning news and columns is obviously still a huge part of what he does, he now wears many hats and has continued to evolve and diversify. He’s a Senior Writer for ESPN.com and covers Major League Baseball, and is entering his 12th year on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball telecasts. He has appeared regularly on SportsCenter, hosts the Baseball Tonight Podcast, and does hits across the network’s radio shows. 

The ability to be multi-dimensional is something that Olney welcomed long ago.

“I loved the idea that ESPN was presenting at that time of being able to do other things,” he said. “You could just see the whole industry was moving in that direction that you had to understand how to present yourself on radio or on television.”

But it wasn’t always an easy transition.

“There’s no doubt that the toughest transition for me was going into television because I’m, generally speaking, a shy person,” he said. “And to this day, I really don’t have any formal training when it comes to being on television.” 

He recalled a series of “disastrous” appearances on TV, but credits ESPN staffers for keeping him positive and giving him many needed repetitions on all of the network’s platforms, especially ESPN News, which helped him get more comfortable on-screen.

“It was like having a lot of opportunity for batting practice,” he said. 

That batting practice has paid off. I personally have been a part of three radio stations that have done regular weekly segments with Olney for the past seven years, and his delivery and information are as polished as any guest we have. 

You can tell he’s knowledgeable and passionate about the subject matter. Plus, he has the ability to generate a rapport with hosts. That’s why stations keep coming back to him. It’s why he’ll be a staple of my baseball coverage for as long he wants to be.

As we know in radio and television, it’s not just the information, it’s also about being entertaining and about the way you present that information. Olney has all the stories that go with a 30-year career.

He beams through the phone when telling me about a front-page story that he wrote at the New York Times in 1999 that I had no idea about. Former journeyman reliever Jason Grimsley once broke into the umpires room as a member of the 1994 Indians to steal back Albert Belle’s corked bat! 

 “Well, lo and behold, I found out years later from Jason that (former MLB Commissioner) Bud Selig had actually called him into his office and they threatened to suspend him and kick him out of baseball right after that happened in 1994,” Olney said. “But as we were going through the process of working on this story and trying to find out if Jason was going to be suspended if he talked out loud about it, Bud Selig, to his great credit, when, an intermediary for me asked him about this, he goes, you know what? That’s a story that should be told—and he’s right. It was a great baseball story.”

He also discussed being there in person the night the Yankees dynasty ended after they suffered a loss to the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the World Series in 2001. Luis Gonzales singled off Mariano Rivera and the dynasty was history.

“That was a game where there was so much going on because it was right after 9/11, it was so much emotion,” he said. “It was really the only time in my lifetime—or in your lifetime—that fans were actually rooting for the Yankees because of what happened on 9/11. And you knew when that hit dropped, not only did the Yankees lose that World Series, but it was the end of that era of Yankee players and they’ve never been the same. To this day, they’re the last team to repeat as World Series champions.”

He has more stories, from playing pickup basketball with Brad Ausmus, Trevor Hoffman, and Bruce Bochy, to former Padres player Bip Roberts being angry with him for something he wrote, to how Cal Ripken Jr. wasn’t a fan of his work because he criticized Ripken Jr. for trying to keep his “Ironman” streak alive when it wasn’t best for the team.

But the one story I finally heard for the first time?

I had to know where the nickname “Buster” came from.

”So two days before I was born, my great grandfather’s name was Captain Bassett,” said Olney, whose real first name is Robert. “He passed away, and I was born, and my mom was feeling sad about Captain Bassett and happy about me. And she recalled that Captain Bassett always referred to little kids as Buster because he couldn’t remember their names. And so my mom from the first day I was born called me Buster. And that’s what I’ve been called ever since other than the first day of school when they would call roll and they would call Robert Olney.”

So that solves that mystery.

As Opening Day 2022 arrives, the next mysteries center around who will be the best teams and breakout stars of this season. And as we figure out the answers, Buster Olney will be writing and reporting about them, just like he always has. Just like he’s always wanted.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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grant cohn

Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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