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The Virtual NFL Draft: Hope, Pandemic Porn, No Glitches

“Guest columnist Jay Mariotti says that after initially balking at the NFL deciding to hold its annual draft, he now cedes how the three-day affair is serving a purpose or two.”

Jay Mariotti

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“Hope,’’ Roger Goodell said.

“Hope,’’ Trey Wingo said.

“Hope,’’ Peyton Manning said.

If hope were dope, and the countless mentions of it during the NFL’s first virtual draft could be channeled into medicine, we actually might have a cure for the coronavirus. It was immediately clear on Thursday night’s broadcasts that the league, pilloried here and beyond for insensitively continuing business amid a pandemic, wouldn’t begin choosing athletic talent until the real heroes were honored. As Harry Connick Jr. performed the national anthem from his home piano, a montage of images — doctors, nurses, first responders, police officers, firefighters — flashed across the ABC, ESPN and NFL Network feeds.

Well done.

A proper, necessary tone was established. The league wanted a message to resonate, firmly, that it understands its place amid our global health horror, making sure its primary motive — maintaining a 2020 continuum while hoping not to lose billions if next season is canceled — was a subdued blip in the ongoing carnage. Goodell could least afford to botch this fragile, historical moment after all the public storms that made him something of an American pariah — the concussion crisis, his handling of player conduct problems, the Colin Kaepernick protests. His league needed to do much, much better at a time when a country’s people are desperate for steady leadership.

The NFL succeeded. And so did Bristol, which somehow avoided the high potential for technological folly and unwatchable TV with a presentation free of major glitches, unless we’re counting a robotic Goodell bumbling a few times in a home basement out of “Wayne’s World.’’ A bunch of football men showed up, turned on their digital tools, showed off their kids, made their selections as draftees conveyed their appreciation, then returned to quarantine life with the rest of us. Joe Burrow is heading to Cincinnati, where even the Bengals couldn’t bungle the obvious. Tua Tagovailoa, broken body and all, is off to Miami, leaving Justin Herbert for the Los Angeles Chargers. Tampa Bay, with general manager Jason Licht high-fiving his children in his home office, snagged an offensive lineman to protect Tom Brady as he throws to Rob Gronkowski. (Did I just write that sentence?). The Raiders drafted playmaker Henry Ruggs III, who showed up in a bathrobe that works perfectly in Las Vegas, which also gets the 2022 draft, though Goodell announced it as the 2020 draft. Bill Belichick did not take a quarterback in Round One, but Green Bay did in Jordan Love, which might not inspire love from Aaron Rodgers. Adam Schefter managed some appearances, and Mel Kiper’s hair is still Mel Kiper’s hair in a pandemic.

“We will get through this together,’’ the commissioner told America, “and when we do, we will be here.’’

But, honestly, when on God’s Earth will that be?

With Scott Van Pelt as Mister Rogers, the bleeding American sports industry insists on trying to speak itself back into existence. Other than the NFL tribute, little mention is made inside this hermetically sealed playpen that the world is in unprecedented upheaval — the death toll continues to soar, stay-at-home protests could turn violent, states are playing Russian Roulette with a rush to reopen, and a second and more crippling coronavirus wave could arrive in, say, September, the fantasy date for the NFL and other leagues and events to resume. Or, as Mike Francesa calls it, “Sports Shangri-La.’’

Our games will be back soon!

Until, of course, they aren’t.

In this alternative universe, the draft carried on as an act of resilience, escapism, crisis guidance and primal-scream therapy. After initially balking at the Beavis-meets-Butthead audacity of such an exercise, I now cede how the three-day affair is serving a purpose or two. Yes, it temporarily soothes the souls of alienated humans who can’t function without sports, restless folks who’ve turned “The Last Dance’’ rehash of a 22-year-old NBA tragicomedy into some modern cinematic version of “The Godfather.’’ I get it: Fans and gamblers are freaking about the potential long-term absence of sports, just as sports media professionals are petrified that a virus-paralyzed world won’t need sports media. So even without the massive crowds, rowdy scene and on-stage dap bumps between Goodell and the chosen ones, the first (and hopefully last) remote draft quaiifies as pandemic porn.

But more than that, the NFL is striving to show America how to adapt and survive through unprecedented challenges. Defiantly, the league joined hands with its broadcast partners and dared to trudge through an IT jungle, blind-leaping into a hazy, frightening, post-Covid-19 future. Goodell pivoted to dabble in what will be a complex transformation of the U.S. workplace. To that end, the league and the broadcast production team — coming live from Bristol, not from the Vegas fountains of the Bellagio Hotel — risked a disastrous fallout from technical glitches and Zoom-bombing.

Bloopers! Cue the NFL Films folly music.

Admit it: We were hoping for some disarray, just to laugh a little. But other than a lengthy delayed reaction between Washington’s pick of Chase Young and the celebration of Young and his family, the broadcast proceeded without any discombobulation, a miracle given the complex circumstances. Guided by ESPN veteran Seth Markman, the production pulled off memorable scenes: Jerry Jones, rubbing in his wealth while embalmed in his $250 million yacht, in happy landline conversation with new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy before the pick of CeeDee Lamb, a receiver to help Dak Prescott; Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who has achieved little in the league, sprawled in a glass palace from the pages of Architectural Digest, while Belichick, the coaching G.O.A.T., drafts alone from an ordinary kitchen. And I hope none of the gigantic moose heads on the wall of Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings coach, ever fall as he walks past. Dave Gettleman, the Giants’ embattled GM, wore a mask while sitting alone at home. Goodell could be forgiven for being a bit loopy in his suburban New York home, talking to fans on a wall screen as if they were long, lost friends and starting the night with a joyful embrace of piped-in boobirds. “Wow, even the virtual boos are good,’’ he said. But if that’s our only gripe, damned if this wasn’t a triumph of broadcasting perseverance.

The entire show depended on the functionality of 180 video feeds wired into players, general managers, coaches and TV personnel in self-quarantine. The league mailed do-it-yourself camera kits to 58 top prospects to install at home, with detailed instructions and diagrams, and asked them to maintain social-distancing. Meanwhile, the 32 teams, banned from working facilities, replaced the usual packed war rooms with elaborate video-conferencing from the homes of key decision-makers. Hey, what could go wrong?

Can you say, spotty wi-fi? Dogs barking, babies crying, wives and children misplacing magnets on the kitchen draft board? Doorbells ringing with Amazon packages and pizza deliveries? Good thing “Tagovailoa’’ couldn’t be confused with “Herbert’’ over the cellphone … or could it? Days earlier, the league conducted a mock draft to address glitches and immediately encountered a malfunction with the first pick. Some league executives, ignoring Goodell’s edict to avoid any criticism of the newfangled draft, described the practice session as “chaos.’’ Think of the possibilities: Gamblers, reduced to Russian ping-pong matches to scratch their wagering itches, betting the over-under on how many test patterns ESPN posted. The Detroit Lions, concerned about a Detroit Lions kind of screwup, positioned their IT director inside a Winnebago outside general manager Bob Quinn’s home. Other GMs had walls ripped out of living areas. Chicago Bears fans, forever numb that Mitch Trubisky was drafted over Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson, were afraid not only about GM Ryan Pace but his wife, who unplugged one of his seven computer monitors while vacuuming earlier this week. (I know a Bears fan who thinks Mrs. Pace should make the picks).

And, hmmmm, what about the potential for hacking? Didn’t every team have to keep an eye on Belichick’s IT people?

But the NFL and ESPN did install a backup system, allowing an urgent audible to FaceTime if necessary. And teams invested in stronger wi-fi and cellphone connections while adding computers, video monitors and landlines. And somehow, it worked without ESPN having to flip fast to “the 46th annual Cherry Pit-Spitting Competition,’’ ABC switching to “Kids Say The Darndest Things’’ and the NFL Network auto-changing to “A Football Life.’’ Add the element of charity, with the draft serving as a virtual fundraiser for several causes, and, inexplicably, it came together. No snafus.

Hope.

The adrenaline rush of sports was back, sure to be reflected by the same massive ratings spikes generated last weekend by ESPN’s Michael Jordan-approved documentary series. And it will lead the industry’s wishful thinkers to assume the rest of the parade is around the corner, NBA and MLB and all the rest, ready to kickstart a sports revenue machine that annually produces more than $75 billion in the U.S. They don’t realize, sadly, that the streets will be as barren as before.

This is what happens when league owners and network executives who’ve lived kingpin lives for so long, accustomed to getting their way, suddenly are losing fortunes and seeing empires teeter. They join lost fans in pretending all will be fine when, surely by now, they realize they’re helpless and at the cruel mercy of a ghost until — all together now — herd immunity is achieved and/or a legitimate vaccine is developed, approved and mass-distributed, perhaps in 2021. Jones can’t power-play Covid-19. Mark Cuban can’t shout it down. Bob Kraft can’t massage it. Jerry Reinsdorf can’t dismantle it the way he wrecking-balled the Jordan dynasty. And President Trump, whose minimizing of the pandemic expands to pushing the sports envelope prematurely, can’t do a thing about his nighttime hardship: “… watching baseball games that are 14 years old.’’ As a New York Times headline thumped this week, “The Coronavirus Doesn’t Care When Sports Come Back.’’ They can brainstorm all they want about salvaging schedules within a Bio-dome culture, or empty stadiums. As long as the lives of athletes and their loved ones are at risk, and an entire season would end with one positive test among hundreds inside such a bubble, sports should be shut down. And why would anyone devote scarce resources and supplies to sports initiatives when they are desperately needed by hospitals and front liners?

“There’s going to be a myriad of factors you have to evaluate, and facts you have to know, even before you could contemplate something like a sequester or a quarantined group,” warned DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association. “We all want to be in a position to make sure we’re not doing anything for the sake of football that would unnecessarily endanger our greater community.”

With time on his hands, Smith found a book that is recommended reading for all: “The Great Influenza,’’ about the 1918-19 flu pandemic. “There was a lull in the outbreak and people thought it meant that it had somehow miraculously disappeared,’’ he said. “They only later found out that the virus mutated, that it came back in much stronger form.’’

It should surprise no one that sports, built on fairy tales, continues to float above the pandemic like a pipe dream. Gronk abandons retirement, wrestling, partying and hemp to join Brady in Tampa, another gut blow to the Patriot Way and another reason to miss the NFL if/when it doesn’t return until 2021. The Boston Red Sox are merely wrist-slapped for their role in baseball’s electronic sign-stealing scandal, more a byproduct of cronyism — owners John Henry and Tom Werner are protected in the sport’s inner sanctum, unlike Houston owner Jim Crane — than any assurance the Red Sox weren’t as crooked as the Astros. MLB continues to advance the delusion of squeezing in the 2020 season for “America’s sake,’’ though most of America no longer watches baseball on TV and an Orioles-Royals game sounds worse than actually contracting the virus. While NBA commissioner Adam Silver begins to express pessimism about resuming a season, the NHL skates on with July possibilities. Golf will resume in June without galleries — until a player tests positive because, uh, flights, hotels and rental cars provide virus obstacles. Will Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson be able to maintain social distance from Brady and Manning in their celebrity golf match? If so, such a TV event works, especially when charitable. I’m not so sure about dirt-track racing in South Dakota, a state without large-gatherings restrictions, where ticket sales are capped at 700 for an event this weekend. Aren’t we doing well with virtual NASCAR, where no one dies in the wrecks?

As a whole, sports continues to prioritize lost billions over common sense without asking athletes what they think; they’re the ones expected to assume health risks and abandon families. Without stadium revenues, leagues will ask players to accept lower salaries when, in fairness, the players deserve raises if they agree to such a fraught undertaking. Thus, aren’t we looking at labor standoffs, particularly in baseball, a troubled and scandal-ridden sport before the pandemic? And how greedy and petty do MLB owners look in refusing to issue refunds for “postponed’’ March and April dates, ignoring that almost 30 million Americans are unemployed?

But at least the NFL delivered an actual sports event in real time, floating optimism that includes the May release of the 2020 schedule … for a season unlikely to be played. “It’s hope for our fans, hope for our teams,’’ Goodell said. “It’s hope for our players, for these young men who are about to start their careers as prospects and players in the NFL. That’s what this is all about, and I think we need those diversions. I think we’ll be able to do that for three days, and then we’ll focus on the future immediately after.’’

There is no foreseeable future for sports. All you need to know is that ESPN analyst Todd McShay, set to appear as a draft-night panelist, couldn’t make the gig because he’s recovering from coronavirus. It isn’t overstating matters that the pandemic could lead to World War III. But for one night, a septuagenarian bro who moonlights as U.S. president could think life is returning to normal, when, as most know, normal is at the morgue with 200,000 bodies.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’

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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