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The Pandemic and Sports Media: Dr. Feelgood or Dr. Fauci?

“Guest columnist Jay Mariotti wants an end to wishful-thinking reporting during the pandemic and says media should rely on medical experts, not leagues, about the resumption of sports.”

Jay Mariotti

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From a home studio that features books, photos and the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon’’ album, ESPN analyst Jeff Passan could not have been more definitive. There WILL be baseball in 2020, he declared, referring to live game action in the major leagues and not to the grainy footage of World Series reruns.

“Yes, will,’’ Passan wrote in his accompanying piece on the network site. “As states have begun to plan reopenings, nearly everyone along the decision-making continuum — league officials, players, union leaders, owners, doctors, politicians, TV power brokers, team executives — has grown increasingly optimistic that there will be baseball this year.’’

A giddy fan would come away from the report thinking, “Great, I’m going to have baseball before long! Oh boy oh boy oh boy!’’

Which meant the same fan was deeply confused only hours later. That’s when the grim realities of resuming sports in a still-raging pandemic — — a daunting absence of testing access in the U.S., a demand that athletes assume health risks and possible salary reductions amid fear and uncertainty, a death toll approaching 250,000 — were hammered home by an infectious disease expert with a wee bit more coronavirus cred than Passan. Dr. Anthony Fauci, popular enough among the masses to have his own bobblehead doll, told the New York Times that team sports such as baseball, football and basketball will not resume in 2020 without a sudden breakthrough in widespread testing and the ability to process rapid results.

“Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything,’’ warned Fauci, his usage of “trump’’ perhaps intended. “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, `We may have to go without this sport for this season.’ ‘’ His addendum was more jarring with May upon us and summer nearing: A second wave of Covid-19 is “inevitable’’ without substantial progress in fighting the virus, Fauci said, likely leading to “a bad fall and a bad winter.’’

So, why such a wild disconnect in the reporting of content so vital to the American people? Why are some news sources routinely optimistic about the resumption of sports while others are far more — shall we say — realistic and blunt? As always, follow the fire alarms of lost revenues, the existential crises of league and network empires that continue to burn with each passing day in a U.S. sports industry that typically generates $74 billion per year. The best news shops are committed to airtight, responsible journalism in a global disaster. Others, with direct business attachments dependent on sports, prefer sophomoric wishful-thinking that borders on consumer brainwashing.

From a behemoth such as ESPN to an ambitious writing site such as The Athletic to a talk station in the heartland, media companies have a critical financial interest in the rush to resume sports as soon as possible. Thus, their coverage tends to almost force-feed events back into existence, accentuating “when’’ and not “if’’ and embracing any positive information from the leagues, even if it’s little more than hollow propaganda. If you’d like to call it a self-serving agenda, please do. Nor will I disagree if you call it fake news.

This skewed approach is in antithetical contrast to media companies not in direct business with the sports industry, such as the Times and HBO. The cable network’s long-running journalism bastion, “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,’’ did itself proud this week, devoting a powerful segment to the life-threatening audacity of leagues — NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS — which defiantly staged March events with thousands of paying customers while ignoring directives from local government officials to shut down mass gatherings. Using science and data not evident in Passan’s report, HBO detailed how MLB contributed to a national spread of the virus by continuing its spring-training schedule — profits over precaution and prevention. Among the takeaways was a shaken Eireann Dolan, wife of Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who sat in fear of her life as Grapefruit League games continued. Vulnerable to the virus because of a chronic lung condition, Dolan finally let loose on MLB in a March 12 tweet, begging fans to avoid games a day after Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test prompted the NBA to suspend play.

“Every day I’m holding my breath and wondering, `Who is (Doolittle) going near — what fans, what staff, what players?’ ‘’ Dolan said. “And I thought, `If one person gets it, God forbid, we will have it within a week. All of us.’ ‘’

This is the same league, Major League Baseball, that recklessly wink-winks a “scoop’’ to Passan that games will happen in 2020, blurry reasoning and all. How selfish of ESPN, which could be using investigative reporters such as Don Van Natta and Jeremy Schaap, to duck away from journalism anywhere near as intense and essential as that of HBO correspondent David Scott, who pointed out how none of the leagues has expressed remorse for ignoring the pandemic. It’s the most important sports-related story of this hellish period in U.S. history. But ESPN prefers to protect business relationships rather than deep-dive into the greed and arrogance of those leagues. Among the teams that ignored local health edicts in March: the Golden State Warriors. Generating more than $3.5 million per game in the new Chase Center, owner Joe Lacob proceeded with a Saturday night game while posting signs that the team wouldn’t be liable for Covid-19 risks. And which network benefited from the national telecast?

ESPN, via ABC.

It explains why Passan often joins his ESPN senior insider brethren — NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski and NFL reporter Adam Schefter — on nighttime “SportsCenter’’ appearances as host Scott Van Pelt tries to extract the most most upbeat slant possible. “I’m not trying to be that negative guy,’’ said Van Pelt, as if dismissing objective news reporting as some sort of personality deficiency. Closer to the truth, Van Pelt is trying to breathe oxygen into the faltering stock of the company that pays him handsomely, Disney, which has been devastated by the closing of theme parks and inevitable mass layoffs, an inability to produce high-revenue movies, continued cable cord-cutting and the disappearance of live sports inventory from ESPN, which has seen advertising dry up beyond the virtual NFL Draft and the ongoing 10-part docu-series, “The Last Dance.’’ The three senior insiders no longer are journalists in this setting as much as company-men messengers for the leagues they cover, carrying on dutifully as Van Pelt cheers them on.

Do fans suffering from no-sports withdrawal actually want hopechests from media, regardless if the news is real or fantasy? Or do they want the cold truth from medical authorities not connected to leagues and networks?

Dr. Feelgood or Dr. Fauci?

I’m thinking most sensible people prefer Dr. Fauci.

What’s fascinating is that ESPN, once so aligned against President Trump that the White House called for the firing of host Jemele Hill, now is firmly in lockstep with his wish to resume sports. The flip is more about the network’s recent stick-to-sports edict than any embrace of all things Trump, but the in-house philosophical shakedown can’t be denied: the politically driven voices elevated during the network presidency of since-deposed John Skipper — Hill, Michael Smith, Will Cain, Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre, Dan Le Batard — either have been forced/weeded out of the company, removed from daily shows or, in Le Batard’s case, reportedly doomed to career limbo. The most prominent stars will be Van Pelt, Mike Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith, none of whom will go near politics, not that they could discuss them anyway. In that sense, ESPN has become much like Michael Jordan, the network’s would-be savior, who never met an important social cause he couldn’t downplay or ignore.

I was among those cringing at Skipper’s radical attempt to shake up the planet via activism, as if Bristol was Berkeley. But I wish his successors in power, Jimmy Pitaro and Norby Williamson, would have found a middle ground in approaching Covid-19. ESPN doesn’t really cover the pandemic. It just hopes the virus goes away, and that sports magically returns to normal tomorrow when, of course, all normalcy is gone. “We Miss It, Too,’’ goes the concluding line in the heavy-rotation “There’s No Place Like Sports’’ commercial, which fills in some of the empty ad blanks.

No one was surprised when the cheery CBS play-by-play man, Jim Nantz, launched a sermon about the resumption of sports. He voiced the importance of “faith’’ during the HBO show, saying, “I do know this: If things do get back on track starting in September, you’re going to have a stretch of Grand Slam tennis, golf major championships, baseball, basketball, football, all converging. I mean, as far as programming real estate, it’s going to be a gold rush. It will be like the Wild, Wild West trying to find a place to put your major event on a calendar and fit it around any one of our network’s already full schedules.”

It all sounded interesting. Until he mentioned the V-word: Viacom.

And then I realized, Nantz is just like Jeff Passan, another corporate pawn with a different logo on his paycheck. See you on the dark side of the moon.

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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