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What You Can Learn From Doug Gottlieb’s Missteps

Reporting is a trade, a profession, and while the premise of the job is simply to tell the truth, we all know how complicated the very idea of the truth has become.

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Doug Gottlieb

Doug Gottlieb deserves credit for admitting his error.

I want to make that very clear up front because I’m going to spend a good chunk of this column being fairly critical of something Gottlieb did. It’s something that Gottlieb has already taken a good deal of flak for, and I’m not writing about this column to pile on, but because there’s a bigger point to be made here not about Gottlieb specifically but about sports media in general.

There’s a whole lot of people who are using the language of news reporting without knowing what actually goes into the practice of reporting the news or understanding the implications of reporting the news. And if you start talking like a reporter without having the chops of a reporter, it leaves you vulnerable to getting pantsed in public like Gottlieb just did. Personally, I thought it was funny, but to be very candid that’s because I’m petty and I don’t personally care for Gottlieb’s perspective or his work. That’s my personal opinion, though, and I’m focused on the professional aspect here because there’s a larger point to be made. But to do that, we need to backtrack to June just after Freddie Freeman returned to Atlanta with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Buster Olney of ESPN reported about the emotional fallout from Freeman’s free-agent departure from Atlanta. Olney reported Freeman had fired Excel Sports Management, the agency that handled the negotiations first with the Braves and later with the Dodgers.

Enter Gottlieb. After Olney’s report, Gottlieb tweeted a more specific allegation about a specific agent at Excel: “Casey Close never told Freddie Freeman about the Braves final offer, that is why Freeman fired him. He found out in Atlanta this weekend. It isn’t that rare to have happen in MLB, but it happened – Close knew Freddie would have taken the ATL deal.”

This is not presented as Gottlieb’s opinion, but rather stated as a fact. It is essentially an allegation of professional malpractice, an agent failing to provide his client with all the information necessary for an informed decision. In this case, Gottlieb stated that Freeman was prevented from acting on an offer he would have accepted because his agent didn’t tell him.

Let’s pause the story right here before we get to Close’s reaction to the report. Gottlieb has every right to report hard news. There’s no class you must pass to become verified as a reporter, no certificate you must earn. You don’t even need to have studied journalism in college to practice the profession. But there are expectations that this language creates for those who read it. He is stating not what he thought happened or what he’s heard might have happened. Gottlieb stated this is what happened, and a good reporter must not only know this is exactly what happened but be able to demonstrate why he knows this is exactly what happened for reasons we’re about to see.

Close contested Gottlieb’s account. Then Close sued Gottlieb for libel in a New York district court, releasing the following statement: “Although we gave Mr. Gottlieb an opportunity to retract his false statement, he failed to do so. The Complaint sets the record straight as to what occurred during the negotiations with the Atlanta Braves.”

I considered writing a column on this after Close filed the suit because I wanted to explore the risks that a host runs when they go from offering opinions – which is what most of us do – to reporting news. I even sought sources with expertise in defamation law, and heard back from Nicholas Creel, an assistant professor in business law at Georgia College and State University, and David Reischer, a New York attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. Both agreed that the main issue probably was not money.

Creel: “For Close, the value of this lawsuit isn’t necessarily in winning at trial. As an agent, he’s got a reputation to defend, filing this lawsuit and showing that he’s willing to fight a damning accusation likely helps him mitigate that reputational hit he’s suffered.”

Reischer: “Such a lawsuit would be expensive and likely lead to limited monetary damages, unless the Twitter post was gross and reckless in regards to the truth. More likely the plaintiff would need to settle for injunctive relief merely to get the offending online review removed.”

Now at the risk of boring you, I need to get wonky with some legalese that’s important in defamation cases starting with vocabulary. Libel is a defamatory statement that is written or published as opposed to slander, which is a defamatory statement that is said out loud. Because the issue here was a Tweet, it was a libel claim. In both instances, the defamatory statement must be shown to be demonstrably false. Truth is an absolute defense against any claim of libel or slander. It can’t be legally considered defamatory unless it’s false.

Second, there is a different legal standard for public figures when it comes to defamation as opposed to private individuals. A public figure must prove “actual malice” – meaning the person who made the defamatory statement wanted to harm the complainant. A private person must prove only that the person making the defamatory story was negligent and that a reasonable person would have or should have known the defamatory statement was false. As for what constitutes a public figure, well, lawyers make an awful lot of money arguing that one out in court, but the basic premise is that a public figure is a household name while a private person is someone who has not sought the public spotlight nor had it shined on them involuntarily.

This differentiation is important because Close filed his case as a private individual however Gottlieb could have disputed that if the case had gone to court.

Creel: “One thing to keep in mind that definitely cuts against the chances Close will be held to be a private individual is that the law recognizes that people can be public figures for a ‘limited purpose.’ Given that MLB is a major national pastime and the politics of players negotiating has an entire media ecosystem built on it, it’s pretty likely that they court will be accepting of the idea that Close fits at least this narrow category of public figure.”

That would have had huge implications for the case.

Reischer: “It makes sense that Close is coming out of the gate contending he isn’t a public figure, as he’s hoping to preemptively rebut the inevitable contention that he is one. If the court does find him to be a public figure, his case will be near unwinnable.”

I came away believing that Gottlieb had pretty limited vulnerability in the case. It might be uncomfortable to hear Close call him a liar in court, but proving Gottlieb not only lied, but did so with the intent of harming Close, is hard to imagine. I was surprised last week when Gottlieb released a statement retracting his report. He deleted the Tweet from June.

“I prematurely reported on these events and simply got it wrong. Upon further vetting of my sources, a review of the lawsuit filed against me in this matter, a direct conversation with Casey himself, I have learned that the conduct I alleged did not occur and there is no credible basis for stating that it did.”

A cynical characterization is the apology was made only at the point of a knife, but I want to take Gottlieb at his word. He’s being accountable and stating unequivocally he was wrong. That’s honorable.

What’s left unsaid is how Gottlieb came to make what he now characterizes as a mistake, though. The implication is that he received inaccurate information from his “sources” but that’s about all the insight we get into his reporting process. Did he contact Close or Freeman before publishing his tweet? That’s standard practice for a reporter especially in a case like this where Close and Freeman are the only two people certain to have direct knowledge of whether Freeman was informed of Atlanta’s final offer. In fact, Gottlieb’s initial tweet didn’t reference any source.

Reporting is a trade, a profession, and while the premise of the job is simply to tell the truth, we all know how complicated the very idea of the truth has become. The practices that reporters are taught to follow do not solve this challenge, but they do provide some safeguards aimed to prevent a reporter from putting too much stock in any one person with a specific agenda or limited knowledge of the situation.

It’s why attribution is important and the use of anonymous sources is generally discouraged. When it’s deemed necessary to use an anonymous source, the newspapers I’ve worked for required the reporter to disclose the source to his or her editor.

If you’re not going to follow basic standards like this or don’t deign to reach out to people with direct knowledge of a situation you’re reporting on, I would advise you not frame your work as a news report. In fact, there’s an easy fix: Start your statement with, “I think …” If Gottlieb had done that in his initial Tweet there would have been no problem. The issue was that he presented it as a fact, something he knew definitively. Turns out he was wrong about that.

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The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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