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The USFL’s Fan-Friendly Concepts Should Inspire Other Leagues

The new football league might be having to sell gimmicks for people to watch, but the USFL is treating viewers to unprecedented access.

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Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Let me take you on an imaginary journey for a moment, one in which it is the key play late in your favorite team’s game and the network airing your game takes you down onto the field to hear exactly what your coach is saying. Say what you want about the quality of USFL play but this imaginary world is reality in professional football’s newest league.

Never has this portion of the telecast been so artfully used than in Sunday’s Birmingham-Pittsburgh game. The 6-0 Birmingham Stallions are leading their division, the 1-5 Pittsburgh Maulers are not. FOX’s broadcast gave a small glimpse into one of the reasons why the Maulers are getting…well, mauled.

With 4:37 to go in the game, the floundering Maulers were trailing by only a touchdown and head coach Kirby Wilson pulled freshly signed and starting quarterback Vad Lee for the former starter Roland Rivers.

Wilson was probably thinking the same thing I was: “Who in the world is Vad Lee and how is he a professional quarterback?” Granted, Wilson is the team’s coach so there is a small chance he knows who Vad Lee is. We do know for certain he did not like Lee’s body language. He told the media that after the loss, it was his explanation for pulling Lee.

The real drama had played out in the previous Pittsburgh possession, though, and we were able to see it in real time. Wilson called an offensive play, observed Lee’s reaction and spun to an assistant telling him “get (Rivers) ready, I’m taking his ass out”. I’ll remind you, again, it was under 7:00 in a game in which the worst team in the league was trailing the best team in the league by only a touchdown.

Boneheaded move? FOX analyst Joel Klatt seemed to think so but, and here is the key, everyone on the telecast knew exactly why the decision was made. In a normal telecast, without the coaches wearing microphones, the speculation game would’ve dominated the remainder of the time. “Let’s go down to Tony on the sidelines, Tony, did the Pittsburgh coaches finally realize Vad Lee is just a local welder who snuck in the locker room pregame?” No speculation in this case, everyone watching knew exactly what was happening.

Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Now, Kirby Wilson isn’t new to this game. He is the coach that cut a player for allegedly disrespecting a food service worker for offering him chicken salad instead of pizza. Look, I believe everyone is deserving of respect but I’ve got to side with the player on this one. I’m far from a chicken salad hater but I am choosing pizza over chicken salad 100 times out of 100. And if that decision requires me to get a little handsy, we’ll just let the chips fall where they may.

The reason we know Kirby Wilson did this was the fact that it played out on the USFL’s all-access program. It’s their version of the NFL’s Hard Knocks, except you’ve never heard of any of the players and they are having to choose between chicken salad and pizza, not eating lobster tails and wagyu filets. But it is another way the new league is giving you unprecedented access.

It is the type of strategy, some would call a gimmick that upstart leagues need in order to draw eyeballs. FOX and NBC started strong for the USFL’s opening game with more than three million viewers in a combined prime time telecast, the first of its kind since Super Bowl I. The viewership numbers for the top weekly telecast have now settled in around a million viewers, not record territory but consistent.

You’ll not find a bigger football fan than me and I have always said I’ll take football year round. But the truth is, the Spring calendar, and gorgeous weather that calendar brings, make a Spring league difficult to watch. Add in the fact I have a daughter that is 17 and a daughter that is eight (yes, on purpose, they give you a discount on the second one if you wait more than eight years) that fill our May family calendar. Schools insist on making certain every hour of May is occupied. It is as if they say, “Wait a minute, the night of the 17th has nothing! Let’s teach the kids an 18th century musical to celebrate the independence of India from British control.”

All that to say the USFL needs things like live mics on coaches and all access shows to sell a brand new product in a window where it is unexpected. What if college football or the NFL needed to use that same strategy to attract viewers? Hearing the coaches we know well talk in the middle of those high pressure situations would be incredible. Imagine hearing the play-calling genius of Sean McVay, or the overall genius of Bill Belichick, in real time.

College Saturdays would be even more incredible. We could hear what these coaches are saying while they are completely butchering their clock management situations. We could hear Alabama’s Nick Saban when he is melting the faces of anyone in a 20-yard radius because the Crimson Tide’s scout team had to burn a timeout up 52 on Vandy.

The subtitles on Jimbo Fisher would be fantastic, as well. The man talks faster than anyone in human history. I imagine the closed caption operator walks into his supervisor at halftime and quits to go do something easier than type Jimbo Fisher word-for-word during a game. Like, building nuclear reactors.

Many college coaches, led by Saban, are bemoaning the financial environment created by recruiting in the age of name, image and likeness. Wear a microphone during the game and put it on pay-per-view, money problems solved. Heck, if he and Jimbo Fisher would wear microphones in a pay-per-view of their October 8th meeting, we might be able to retire the national debt.

More access has never been a bad thing. The truth is, the USFL has to do these things to sell viewers on a new league. The NFL and most college leagues don’t need this and their notoriously paranoid coaches would never go for it anyway.

But, credit to the USFL for doing it and not shying away from moments like this that make one of their eight head coaches look a little out of his league. Unfortunately for Kirby Wilson, his knee-jerk reaction didn’t work, Pittsburgh lost again. Like the rest of his season, he’s taken chicken salad and turned it into…well, you know the saying.

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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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