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Fun, Balance, and Adaptability Have Led ESPN’s Jen Lada To a Rewarding Career

“This idea of being perfect or knowing everything is so stifling, I think it limits a lot of people from taking those chances and putting themselves in positions where they can succeed because they’ve been programmed to believe they can’t.”

Tyler McComas

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If a bucket list of jobs within the sports media business existed, Jen Lada would be busy crossing off all of the incredible opportunities she’s had. Whether it’s hosting SportsCenter, doing incredible features for College Gameday or hosting a morning radio show, Lada has enjoyed a career that’s taken her to some of the most coveted positions in the business.

But she didn’t get there without some early hardships. However, a lot of hard work combined with exceptional talent has landed her both an incredible TV and incredible radio job. Lada talked about both the television and sports radio space she now enjoys. Plus, a lot more. 

Tyler McComas: I know it’s been a bit since you were hired at ESPN Milwaukee, but how has the morning show gone? 

Jen Lada: Honestly, I’m having so much fun. It’s like anything else, there’s a learning curve and a transition period, but I feel since football season has wrapped we’ve really hit a stride.

The chemistry, information, and entertainment is there, and I feel most mornings like this is the most fun I’ve had in my career. I’m so thankful to Good Karma Brands for taking a chance on me. I had very little radio experience, but they felt like I could be a provocative voice in the space and they gave me this opportunity. We work really hard to not try and take ourselves too seriously.

That sounds kind of like an oxymoron, but that’s our emphasis every day. It’s a morning show, so we want to have fun and for our listeners to have fun, while also discussing the topics of interest. 

TM: You have a background with college football, your co-host Mark Chmura is a former Packer and the Bucks won an NBA Title last year. What’s the No.1 focus when it comes to content? 

JL: It’s a good problem to have. Truthfully, Packers are a 12-month topic in Wisconsin. And the NFL has done an exceptional job of making sure they are a round-the-year topic. We do focus a lot on what the Packers are doing and what Aaron Rodgers is doing.

As the Bucks become more relevant and have success, that fan base continues to grow and we have fun talking about that team. 

TM: What’s been your impression so far of new program director Ryan Maguire?

JL: (laughing) Poor Ryan has been stuck in training. Since he signed on, we’ve very much looked forward to chatting with him. We joke on the show about how we haven’t had a boss for the last year and that’s the only reason we’re still on the air. It’s very tongue in cheek, but there was some of that, where at times we were like, hey, are we doing a good job? Is this good content? Are people listening?

That’s not to say anyone was negligent, it’s just we didn’t have an immediate supervisor. We’re super excited as a show to have someone like Ryan, who has so much experience and knowledge. It will make us that much better. We joke around and say, man, if you listen to us now, just wait until we get some direction. 

TM: How can we be better at putting more women behind the mic in a full-time role?

JL: There have to be executives that are willing to take that risk, and I don’t think it’s that big of a risk. It’s more of a perceived risk, than an actual risk. But I think you also have to have women who are confident enough to step into that space and be willing to fail. Be willing to struggle.

We talked about Tiger Woods this morning on the show and how when you recalibrate your thought process, so that it’s not a zero-sum game, and sports often is, because there’s winning and there’s losing. I’ve referenced Ricky Bobby. “I you ain’t first you’re last.” But with regards to Tiger Woods we talked about how this Masters tournament was a step in his journey back and the bravery it takes to work out those kinks and find out where you stand in a very public space.

My point this morning was this is a checkpoint, not a finish line. And I think women have to be willing to say, this is a checkpoint, not a finish line when you step into spaces where women have not traditionally existed or thrived. Again, it’s not always because they haven’t been given the opportunity, but I think you have to let yourself off the hook a little bit. This idea of being perfect or knowing everything is so stifling, I think it limits a lot of people from taking those chances and putting themselves in positions where they can succeed because they’ve been programmed to believe they can’t. 

TM: We tend to focus on putting more women on the air, and rightfully so, but is there anything positive to report when it comes to more women getting opportunities in sports media?

JL: You’re seeing a lot more women getting opportunities to do things they haven’t done in the past. A lot of play-by-play spaces, Lisa Byington with the Bucks, obviously. Mina Kimes on NFL Live on ESPN. But they still take their share of unnecessary or unwarranted criticism, because there’s still a portion of the population that doesn’t want to hear women talking about sports. It is archaic. We make up a huge portion of the fan population. Ostensibly, these women are educated in the things they’re passionate about. 

When I started in sports, women were forced to compete with other women for very few, very specific opportunities. We were 1 of 10 in a city or 1 of 20 on a beat. Talk about an NFL press box and it might be one of thirty or more. The ratio was just horrible and I think that programming contributed to women feeling – and sometimes acting territorial about their space.

As women are given more opportunities – both in quantity and variety – you’re seeing a lot more championing, support, and friendship between women in the industry. And that, to me, has been the best development over the last 20 years. As executives continue recognizing the value of diversity of experience and thought, it’s obviously been great to see those ratios change. With that progress comes the welcome realization that celebrating another woman’s talent and successes doesn’t invalidate yours or jeopardize your job security.

TM: You’re in a marriage where both you and your husband have jobs in sports media. What are the challenges and positives of that?

JL: Number one with a bullet, no questions asked will always be the schedule. We work very unorthodox hours and if we’re both working unorthodox, unusual hours, you end up really having to do a lot of maneuvering and navigating and staring at a calendar going to figure out how are we going to make this work.

Fortunately, moving back to Wisconsin means we have a great support system. My family is in the area, my dad and mom are a huge help with our three kids. It’s never felt like we can’t do this. 

The advantages? We talk a lot about the things we’re working on. We strategize and brainstorm ways to be better. I’ll have an idea about something or an opinion about something and I’ll throw it out there, and he’ll be my sounding board and play devil’s advocate. That helps me develop my position on things. That’s a huge advantage, to have similar passions and to really understand how the industry works.

You can be very knowledgeable about sports and be a really good broadcaster, but if you don’t understand the ins and outs of the industry, it can be a struggle. Using each other as a sounding board has been a big reason why we’ve been successful. 

TM: You’ve been able to have so many incredible roles at ESPN. Is there one that’s stood out as your favorite? 

JL: It’s just crazy how my journey has been at ESPN. I was hired 7 years ago to join Colin Cowherd on his radio show. I was the Joy Taylor of the show. He obviously took his talents to Fox and I’ve never begrudged him for that. I think it’s fantastic and I always say, get your money and opportunities when they come around. But it definitely left me in a lurch, where I was like, “Okay, I thought that’s what I was going to do, and now that’s gone. How do we still make something of ourselves at the national level with this ESPN thing?”

Again, being hired as a radio talent, we’re talking about two very different departments at ESPN. They’re run by different people. So I really had to sell myself and knock on doors and sell myself as a television talent to people at ESPN who had no idea who I was, because I was hired by the radio department. 

I did a lot of Baseball Tonight when I first started. 2am shows are a grind. (Laughs). I transitioned into some Mike and Mike. I’ve hosted First Take, obviously SportsCenter, which is such a thrill. It’s one of those bucket list items when you get into the business. I remember on my first day at ESPN I took a picture inside the SportsCenter studio.

I think the most fateful interaction was me being picked to be on College Gameday because it’s one of our premier shows and has been for a very long time. It has an exceptional reputation because it has the very best people working on the show. I think Rece Davis is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. The analysts are prepared and informed and they have so much experience in that space.

Obviously, Kirk Herbstreit is one of the premiere stars in our industry. When I got on the show, Tim Rinaldi And Gene Wojciechowski were the feature reporters and I really had no idea how talented and exceptional they were at their craft. I was just kind of being thrown in there and it was like, “okay newbie, swim”.

I just threw myself into college football wholeheartedly and consumed everything that was available to me, whether it was reading books or watching old games, just starting to get a feel for the tradition and pageantry and the passion for college football. Once I threw myself into that I was absolutely hooked. I said this is the greatest thing I could ever do with my career. 

TM: How fulfilling is it doing feature stories for College Gameday? I know you’re not doing them to fulfill yourself, but what’s it like when you move an entire audience? 

JL: I think the most important thing about existing in the feature space is that recognizing early on that these aren’t your stories to tell. I think the only way these things become something, is because somebody was willing to share their pain. Somebody was willing to be vulnerable to allow cameras and microphones and people, virtual strangers into their homes, and talk about things that have really affected them significantly.

It’s not always negative, it’s not always about death or loss. There are times when we’re talking about the other spectrum of emotion. But it does feel like the ones that resonate with people the most are people being transparent and vulnerable. That’s why Hilinkski’s Hope was such a strong reaction. It’s why the story we did with Ryan Day about his father’s suicide when he was a child, which he had only recently come to grips with himself as an adult. It’s why the story of San Hartman at Wake Forest, quarterback, talented kid, comes from a great family and not a lot of people knew what he went through and the loss of his brother several years prior. 

We got a call letting us know that Mike Vrabel showed that piece to his team on a team-building day to convey to them it’s ok to not be ok. And when you’re struggling, we have the resources here available to you to help. I think it’s the ripple effect of those stories that I’m most proud of. Certainly, the impact they have when they’re first seen, but when they’re shared and passed on, or when someone watches one and says, here’s a coach or a player, where you think they’ve got it all figured out and they’re at the top of they’re game and the world at their feet; and they decide to be vulnerable and talk about their challenges, I think it helps normalize some things. I think that’s when sports are at their most powerful, when it brings people together and unifies communities and groups. 

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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