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How Kenny Mayne Became An Unlikely Star Of The Last Dance

“God knows what you could make out of what we have said through the years about various subjects, but I don’t believe I predicted “The Last Dance.”

Demetri Ravanos

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The Last Dance thrived on nostalgia. This wasn’t a documentary that was meant to give you any new perspective on Michael Jordan or the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. The goal was to transport you back to the 90s and make you feel now the way you did then.

In ESPN's 'The Last Dance' Documentary, Michael Jordan and the ...

ESPN couldn’t rely solely on the footage compiled and edited by director Jason Hehir and his team. The network also looked internally for creative boosts wherever it could find them.

The most memorable and successful of these was a series of commercials for State Farm Insurance starring Kenny Mayne. The commercials tapped into that same sense of nostalgia in the audience, as they were designed to look like clips Mayne hosting SportsCenter in the 90s and predicting a documentary coming decades later.

“I just got a note one day that said ‘We’re gonna do some extra promotion to get this Last Dance thing off the ground and we have an idea that might fit you,’ so I looked at it,” Mayne told me in a telephone interview last week. “Honestly, all I contributed was reading it and doing it over and over and over. I threw in a few of my own lines, a couple of which they accepted. But it was someone else’s idea, not mine. I was just given the chance to fill my little role.”

Mayne’s “little role” was a huge part of the early conversations surrounding The Last Dance. So much of the Twitter conversation the night the series debuted was people admitting that until the State Farm logo was shown, they thought they were actually watching a SportsCenter clip from 1998.

Mayne was entertained by that kind of talk both on and offline. In fact, he told me that he heard from former co-anchors saying that they were fooled because it all seemed so plausible.

“So much is said at 1:45 or 3 in the morning, or whatever the hell time it is, he says. “God knows what you could make out of what we have said through the years about various subjects, but I don’t believe I predicted The Last Dance.”

The spots were short. In the grand landscape, they represent merely a blip on the radar of a ten-hour docu-series. But that doesn’t mean that the teams that developed the spots, ESPN CreativeWorks, in collaboration with Optimum Sports and Translation, didn’t put maximum effort into them.

There was writing. There were shoots. There were re-shoots.

It’s almost as if the folks at ESPN CreativeWorks and Optimum Sports and Translation knew they struck gold with the idea, and that Kenny Mayne was the perfect person to mine every last bit of it. The real problem was bringing the vision to life when dealing with the limitations of a global pandemic.

“With the crisis we’re living through now, I am coming into the studio every two weeks for like three days,” Mayne said. ESPN wouldn’t bend those rules when it was time to shoot the spots. The company’s health and safety protocols couldn’t be violated no matter what was needed or how little time it would take.

“It became a thing where we were using my iPhone, setting it up against a window, so that it would stay still. I did it once. They didn’t like the lighting. I did it a second time. They didn’t like the audio. I did it probably three or four more times.”

Wait…it was all filmed at Mayne’s home on an iPhone? It all looks so real. Does he have a full 1990s SportsCenter set in his basement? How did ESPN pull off that look using just an iPhone?

To hear Kenny Mayne tell it, ESPN really didn’t need much to make the spots work. That is why lighting and audio were so important. That wasn’t a short process. Mayne says everyone involved in the ads were still working right up until the first episodes of The Last Dance aired. When the editors finally liked what they saw, all Mayne needed was some help from his daughter Riley to get the footage to the right place.

“They were able to take just my mouth and chin and nose and grab just that. Typically, when you shoot things, the background can screw everything up, but whatever technology they were using is something I had never encountered previously. I don’t know how they did it.”

An ESPN Commercial Hints at Advertising's Deepfake Future - The ...

At one point, Mayne says, the creative team sent him a single frame during the editing process which he described as looking like something from the plastic surgery-themed reality show Botched. “They had drawn lines all over the place,” he says.

Knowing this, when the ad campaign was revived for the final two episodes of The Last Dance with Keith Olberman and Linda Cohn, all I could look at was their mouths. Things didn’t look as seamless when you know how the sausage is made.

Still, Kenny Mayne was wowed by the process. He told me it was both “very clever” and “very scary” to see how easy it is to manipulate video in 2020.

“There’s stuff people fall for on the internet all the time, everything from getting an email you shouldn’t open to a video that gets manipulated. I would caution everyone, if something sounds unbelievable, then look for another source. This one was just telling you to watch a documentary. I think we can all feel safe knowing it was for non-evil purposes.”

So what is the lasting impression of State Farm’s creative ad campaign? Mayne says he had no idea how they were going to be used and even he was pleasantly surprised by how perfectly they flowed back into the documentary as the last spot aired in a commercial break. The real genius of the spots is that there are so many different elements of the way The Last Dance is presented that they fit so perfectly.

In the end, Mayne uses the old adage that any publicity is good publicity and he is happy to be a part of a campaign that has generated attention. Of course, no conversation with Kenny Mayne is complete without him plainly telling you something that others aren’t willing to acknowledge.

Kenny Mayne - ESPN Press Room U.S.

“Basically, I carried Michael Jordan is what I’m getting at here.”

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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