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Is the NFL Ready for the Future of Sports Media?

Demetri Ravanos

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If you’re an NFL fan, chances are you have heard the name Mark Leibovich a lot this offseason. He is the author of the new book Big Game, in which some of the most powerful men in the league talk about its success, future plans, and petty feuds.

Leibovich has covered politics for the New York Times since 2006. He wrote a very similar book about Washington’s power players in 2013 called This Town. He originally wanted to call that book The Way it Works in Suck Up City. It should be obvious that no one comes off looking good.

So how did Mark Leibovich get owners in the image-obsessed NFL to open up to him? Well, the answer could rest in something I once heard SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey say. “Part of my job is to make people comfortable. A reporter’s job is to make people we want to talk to feel comfortable enough to open up to us.”

It could also be as simple as Bryan Curtis’s description of NFL owners in an interview with Leibovich that appeared at The Ringer. They are attracted to power, and politics is power, so in a way, having Leibovich interested in their world validates their feeling that the NFL and its owners are some of the most powerful people in America.

I spoke with Leibovich last week. There is a lot of salacious stuff in the book, and Leibovich holds none of it back, but this is a sports media website. If you want to read that, buy Big Game. I had three things I wanted to ask Leibovich about the NFL’s relationship with its media partners.

1. DOES THE NFL HAVE A PLAN OR EVEN A VISION OF WHAT ITS MEDIA FUTURE IS?

“Yeah, make as much money as possible in the current or next broadcast contract,” Leibovich says. I laugh. He doesn’t. “I mean, I’m serious.”

Leibovich says that he never got a sense that the NFL was any good at thinking and planning for the long term. He says that it starts with the owners, who he describes as “just overwhelmingly old,” but it doesn’t stop there.

“You have no sense that that Roger Goodell even thinks that much about it because he too has very short term goals, and that’s to please the owners who themselves just want, you know, want bigger revenues every year.”

He does heap some praise on NFL Network CEO and Vice President of Media for the league Brian Rolapp. Leibovich describes him as one of the few people in the NFL league office that “seems to get Silicon Valley, seems to get technology, seems to get social media.” He also gives Rolapp credit for forging relationships with Amazon and Twitter.

Given the League’s struggles in adapting to an ever-changing media landscape, I asked Mark if Brian Rolapp had a role similar to the one that Mark Cuban took on for himself when he first became a member of the NBA ownership fraternity. Does Brian Rolapp see modernizing the NFL’s media presence and broadcasting relationships as his primary responsibility?

“Well, yeah, I don’t think Rolapp has that power necessarily over the owners,” Leibovich answers. “So I mean, I think what the NFL desperately needs is either a Mark Cuban, or even better, like a half a dozen Mark Cubans or someone who will break glass and someone who gets the internet. They need someone who is younger, who just is driven by more than just a parochial interest of how his team does and how much money he makes.” Leibovich went on to say that the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, David Tepper, seems capable of filling that role.

I asked him if outside entities have tried to steer the NFL in any direction at all? After all, now that DirecTV is owned by AT&T and AT&T is in the process of acquiring platforms that will allow it to be the first option for both the cord cutters and the corded, has that company used its control of the Sunday Ticket package to try and open the door to being a partner and guiding hand for the NFL?

“I’m sure they have. I mean, I not privy to any of these conversations. They’re a huge stakeholder. I’m sure the NFL has to listen to them…I’d be shocked if they didn’t.”

2. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE LEAGUE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ESPN?

The first time I ever realized that the NFL has seriously butt heads with ESPN on occasion was when I read James Andrew Miller’s Those Guys Have All the Fun. In that book, Miller makes it clear that there were people at ESPN that believed the NFL made their network pay a higher price for the Monday Night Football package, one that doesn’t include a Super Bowl, because of the way the journalistic side of ESPN covered the lasting effects of player head injuries.

I asked Leibovich if Roger Goodell or anyone else at the NFL specifically spoke with any animosity or frustration when it came to talking about ESPN.

“Um, you know, it’s funny. I haven’t heard them talk about ESPN per se…Actually that’s not true. I’ve heard definitely heard the Patriots talk about ESPN,” he said. That makes sense. “Tom Brady’s not guilty” has been the rallying cry of the Patriots’ fanbase since about 2015.

Leibovich did say that, while he had never heard owners openly talk about what they do and don’t want ESPN to cover, “it wouldn’t shock me if when ESPN was negotiating with the league the league said ‘Hey, by the way, remember we’re partners right?’. And that obviously carries all kinds of you know, whether it’s bullying or a strong hint, I mean, it’s definitely a message being sent.”

Telling ESPN what they want covered might not happen, but when I asked Leibovich about ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro’s comments about wanting to repair the network’s relationship with the NFL, he said it isn’t hard to believe that some owner(s) had at one point expressed their frustrations to Pitaro.

“So they care deeply about this stuff. I mean, it’s again very Trumpian. They keep score. They read everything about them, whether locally or nationally. I have no doubt whatsoever that Jimmy Pitaro said what he said it was in response probably to something explicit that either Roger Goodell or someone high up at the NFL or some owner said, because that’s a significant change in tune [for ESPN].”

So, wait a minute. Why do we hear about the NFL’s frustrations with ESPN and not Fox? I asked Leibovich how a company that is the broadcast home in some way of people like Clay Travis, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, all of whom have reveled at one point or another in the league’s declining ratings, has never been on the opposite end of a tisk-tisking by the NFL.

Leibovich said that NFL owners and the league office don’t view any culture war-esque linking of player protests to declining ratings as Fox acting on its own. “They are very unhappy with the president and insomuch as that he can be linked to Fox, I mean that’s going to be part of it,” he said.

Leibovich also said that his sense is that maybe Fox doesn’t care about the NFL’s feelings as much as Disney and ESPN do. “I mean, I don’t totally rule out the idea that this kind of unhappiness has been conveyed privately, but I also wouldn’t underestimate the spine and the power frankly in the levers that Fox has in these conversations. My sense is they don’t really care, and frankly as long as they’re writing a check, I mean they basically get the only vote that counts.”

You can be the most liberal, Fox-hating person on the planet. If you’re a broadcaster and reading that quote, there’s almost no way you don’t think “Right on, Fox!” to yourself.

3. HAS THE NFL CONSIDERED THAT MAYBE IT ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE BECAUSE FOOTBALL ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE?

Part of what made me interested in talking to Mark was the way he talked about the priorities of NFL owners on an episode of Pod Save America. Host Dan Pfeiffer asked if the League recognizes the inherent problem with a generation of parents that don’t want their sons playing football.

Leibovich echoed his comments on that show when I first asked him about the digital future of the League’s media rights. “They’re old. They think very much year to year.” When I asked about what kind of value team owners think their property will have in the long term, he told me that with the NFL, there is never really a long term. “I mean the whole future of the league thing means 10 years or 20 years out.”

What about the NBA? I asked Leibovich if the NFL would ever look to the NBA as a model of where they need to be going in the future, or if the NFL can even acknowledge that the NBA is a competitor that is nipping a little closer at football’s heels than it used to.

“That’s a good question. I mean the only context I’ve heard in the league is people high up in the league talk about the NBA from an owner’s level. There’s some kind of envy that they have a commissioner that seems to get it. And those are private owner conversations, but those conversations definitely exist and I have had them with multiple owners.

“The other part of it is just I think annoyance on the part of people like Roger Goodell that he has been often compared unfavorably to Adam Silver. I think he’s sick of hearing about Adam Silver this and Adam Silver that. I think, you know, maybe he recognizes Adam Silver as a commissioner who is in the midst of the honeymoon that Goodell himself enjoyed back in the first two years of the commissionership which kind of ended abruptly. So I would say that the context I’ve heard them talk about the NBA is they are purely less as competitors but more as, you know, upstarts. I mean, rivals to some degree and someone to be jealous of to some degree.”

Believe it or not, Mark Leibovich says there is actually reason to be optimistic for the NFL’s future. “I think I said this also [on Pod Save America], there are some very smart…I would say “number two’s” at some of the clubs.”

The problem is that older owners will have to retire or…let’s say “worse” for those number twos to get the kind of control they need to make a difference. “A lot of them are heirs to the owners. I mean Jonathan Kraft I would put, you know, number one two, or three. There’s Tony Kahn of Jacksonville and Kevin Demhoff with the Rams. They’re all super smart. But again, it’s basically the owners with the power.”

Big Game is an absolutely fantastic read. I highly recommend you invest some time in it. To read anything he has written or watch videos of any one of the hundreds of TV appearances he has made through the years, go to his website.

BSM Writers

The NFL Hopes You’re Lazy Enough to Pay Them $5

“This app reportedly doesn’t even have any original content of it’s own. NFL Films produces content for ESPN+, HBO Max, Peacock, Tubi, Epix, Paramount Plus, and Prime Video. It has also reportedly had discussions about producing content for Netflix. Unless they plan to bring all of those shows in-house, what kind of shows could NFL Films produce for NFL Plus that you couldn’t already find on all of those other apps?”

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NFL Streaming

Corporate goodwill is a hard thing to ask for. It’s not something that is a requirement for any entity to engage in. But it can go a long way in establishing a deeper bond for the future. According to Sports Business Journal, NFL owners are contemplating launching a streaming service for the league.

The app would feature podcasts, content created by teams and radio content. It’s unknown where the podcast content will come from but one can assume it’ll include the various podcasts the NFL produces with iHeartRadio. Team content that is expected to be featured could come from videos and audio that is already posted on team websites and social media platforms such as YouTube.

Various organizations across the league have expanded their YouTube efforts over the last couple of years as the Google-owned site has slowly set itself apart as a leading source for viewership. My hometown team, the Baltimore Ravens, for example promotes a talk show with cornerback Marlon Humphrey where he interviews players and other key figures from the team about their lives and careers and how they got to where they are today.

The most important part of this app will be NFL games itself. On Sunday afternoons, whatever games are airing in the specific location you’re in while using the app, those are the games you have access to watch. If you’re in Baltimore and a Ravens game is airing on CBS while the Commanders are on Fox, those are the games the app will offer. If you’re in Boston and a Patriots game is on CBS while a Giants game is on Fox – you won’t have access to the Ravens game airing on CBS in Baltimore or the Commanders game on Fox in Baltimore even if that’s where you normally live. These games used to be a part of a deal with Yahoo Sports and Verizon – who distributed them on their apps for free.

JohnWallStreet of Sportico notes, “longer term, the existence of a league-owned streaming platform should help ensure broadcast rights continue to climb.” But at the end of the day, how does this help the fan? The increase of broadcast rights is going to end up costing viewers in the long run through their cable bill.

ESPN costs almost $10 per cable customer. The app, as of now, isn’t offering anything special and is an aggregation of podcasts, games and videos that fans can already get for free. If you want to listen to an NFL podcast – you can go to Spotify, Apple Podcasts and various other podcast hosting platforms. If you want to watch content from your favorite teams, you can go to their website or their social media platforms. And if you want to watch games, you can authenticate your cable subscriptions and watch them for free through your cable company’s app or CBS’ app or the Fox Sports app.

It’s nothing more than a money grab. Games are already expensive to go to as it is. Gas prices have reached astronomical highs. Watching content has become extremely costly and it’s debatable whether buying streaming services is cheaper or more expensive than the cable bundle. And now the NFL wants to add more stress and more expenses to their viewers who just desire an escape from the hardships of life through their love of a beautiful game? It seems wrong and a bit cruel to me.

The beauty of paying for content apps is that you’re going to gain access to something that is original and unique from everything else in the ecosystem. When House of Cards first premiered on Netflix, it was marketed as a political thriller of the likes we had never seen and it lived up to its expectations for the most part. The critically-acclaimed series led viewers to explore other shows on the app that were similarly a more explicit and unique journey from what had been seen on television before.

This app reportedly doesn’t even have any original content of it’s own. NFL Films produces content for ESPN+, HBO Max, Peacock, Tubi, Epix, Paramount Plus, and Prime Video. It has also reportedly had discussions about producing content for Netflix. Unless they plan to bring all of those shows in-house, what kind of shows could NFL Films produce for NFL Plus that you couldn’t already find on all of those other apps? Even YouTube has partnered with NFL Films to produce behind the scenes footage of games that is available for FREE.

If you’re going to force viewers to pay $5 to watch games on their phone, the least you could do is give fans access to speak with players and analysts before and after the games. Take NFL Network over the top so that we can wake up with Good Morning Football. Offer a way for fans to chat while games are being watched on the app. The ability to watch an All-22 feed of live games. A raw audio options of games. The ability to screencast. Even a live look at the highly paid booths who are calling the games.

Five bucks may seem small in the grand scheme of things but it is a rip-off especially when the content is available for free with a few extra searches. Goodwill and establishing a person to person online relationship with fans could go a long way for the NFL. It’s not going to work using these tactics though. And after facing such a long pandemic, offering it up for free just seems like the right thing to do.

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Sports Talkers Podcast – Danny Parkins

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Danny Parkins opens up to Stephen Strom about why he is so passionate about defending Chicago. He also gives his best career advice and explains why a best friend is more important sometimes than an agent.

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Marc Hochman is The Lebron James of Miami Sports Radio

The Hochman and Crowder Show with Solana isn’t like anything you’ll hear in most major markets. But they wear that distinction with a badge of honor. They’re not interested in breaking down why the offensive line can’t get a push on short-yardage situations, they want to make you laugh, regardless if it’s sports content or not. They’re perfectly Miami sports radio. 

Tyler McComas

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Marc Hochman

There’s 30 minutes to go until Marc Hochman’s summer vacation and he’s suddenly overcome with emotion. Instead of staring at the clock, he’s staring at an article from The Miami New Times, which has just named him Best Talk Radio Personality in its “Best of 2022” awards issue. It’s an incredible honor in a city that has several worthy candidates, including the man sitting right next to him, Channing Crowder. 

But it’s not just the honor that’s catching Hochman’s eye, it’s also the paragraph where the newspaper compares him to Lebron James. No, seriously. Compliments are nothing new for the Miami radio veteran, but being compared to one of the best basketball players of all-time is new territory. Part of the paragraph reads like this:

“His current domination of the afternoon drive simulcast on both WQAM and 790 The Ticket (WAXY) is akin to Lebron playing for the Lakers and Clippers simultaneously. Could he do it? Probably. Does Hochman do this daily? Yes. Advantage, Hochman.”

Talk about incredibly high praise for a sports radio host. Especially one in Miami where there’s still a lot of hard feelings towards Lebron. But the praise is accurate, because the Hochman and Crowder Show with Solana airs on two different Audacy stations every day. It’s an interesting dynamic, especially for a market the size of Miami/Fort Lauderdale. 

“We have a joke that if you don’t like what you’re hearing on 560, feel free to tune in on 790,” laughed Hochman. “But it’s fun and I think in some strange way it’s increased our audience. As crazy as it is to say in 2022, there are people who listen to a particular radio station and don’t ever change it. I do think being on both stations has expanded our audience. We have fun with it. The show is on for four hours on 560 WQAM and three hours on 790 The Ticket.”

It’s cool to see Hochman get this type of honor during his 10th year of being an afternoon host on 560 WQAM. Especially since he’s originally from Chicago, but has carved out an incredible career in a city he’s called home since the late 80s. It’s funny to think Hochman had no interest in sports radio in 2004 when his college friend Dan Le Batard offered him a job as an executive producer at a startup station in Miami. Now, 18 years later, he’s being voted as the best to do it in the city. 

“Everybody likes to be recognized for what they do,” said Hochman. “We get recognized all the time by the listeners, but when someone out of your orbits writes their opinion of what you’re doing, and it’s that glowing of an opinion, it’s great. I’ve been compared to Lebron before, but it’s always been my hairline. It was nice to be compared to him for another reason. That was super cool.”

The best part about all of this is how Hochman will use this as a funny bit on the show, because, above anything else, he’s instantly identified as someone who’s incredibly gifted at making people laugh on the air. There’s no doubt it will become a theme on the show, both with him and his co-hosts, Crowder and Solana. 

“The award came out about 30 minutes before I was leaving for my summer vacation, so I had about 30 minutes on the air to respond to it,” Hochman said. “So I’m sure it will become a bit on the show, I certainly will refer to myself as the Lebron James of sports talk radio in Miami. Although, there’s still some hard feelings here towards him.

That was the one part that jumped out, obviously, to me, Crowder and to Solana. I don’t think I’m Lebron James but Crowder said on the air that sometimes you have to acknowledge when you’re playing with greatness, and he said “I used to play defense with Jason Taylor and Junior Seau, now I’m doing radio and I will acknowledge greatness.”

With or without this honor, it’s pretty evident Hochman is the happiest he’s ever been in sports radio. He’s surrounded with two talented co-hosts, but the sentiment is that Hochman does an incredible job of putting both Solano and Crowder in situations to be the best versions of themselves on the air. However, Hochman sees it differently. 

“I think that’s more on the people around you,” he said. “If you have great teammates, they’re great. Crowder and Solana, those dudes, if you want to make a basketball comparison, we have ourselves a Big Three.

Solana is the best at what he does, Crowder is the absolute best radio partner I’ve had in my career. He’s so aware of what it takes to entertain but also has broadcast sensibilities at the same time. I actually think he’s the one that makes us sound better than what we really are. He has a really incredible knack for entertaining but also informing.”

The Hochman and Crowder Show with Solana isn’t like anything you’ll hear in most major markets. But they wear that distinction with a badge of honor. They’re not interested in breaking down why the offensive line can’t get a push on short-yardage situations, they want to make you laugh, regardless if it’s sports content or not. They’re perfectly Miami sports radio. 

“I would say Miami is the strangest sports radio market in the country,” said Hochman. “I grew up in Chicago so I’m intimately familiar with Chicago sports talk. Miami sports talk, which is Le Batard, who redefined what works. In Miami, that’s what it needed. It’s more guy talk than sports talk. We certainly can’t break down a third inning in a Marlins game and why a runner should have been running when he wasn’t, the way that New York, Philadelphia or Boston radio could.”

“That doesn’t work here. When Crowder and I go on the air everyday, we’ve always said, our goal is we want to laugh the majority of our four hours on the air. If we’re laughing, we assume the audience is laughing, as well. That’s our personality. We both like to laugh and have fun. I like to do it, no matter what is going on. That translates to the radio. Luckily, Miami is a sports radio market that embraces that, because I don’t think we could do a show any other way.”

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