The return of America’s National Pastime comes on the heels of a period in history marked by uncertainty, fear, frustration and concern. The return of Major League Baseball has been a beacon of hope for sports fans that have been deprived of live sports for months.
ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball Team of Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez and Buster Olney will be calling three national MLB games in four days.
The efforts of embracing technology, combined with the skilled innovative foresight of the sports media industry has paved the way for the truncated 60 game season. Certainly, there will be some adjustments to make along the way, but therein lie the realities of delivering live sports coverage during a global health crisis.
Among the questions, issues and concerns facing broadcasters in the sports media industry regarding the coverage of the 2020 baseball season, the most prominent is what is the role for broadcasters in their coverage of baseball’s return? What is the message that is most important to communicate to fans and sports media audiences?
The ESPN broadcasting team is prepared for the challenge of adapting to the return of MLB in 2020. Mark Gross, Senior Vice President of Production and Remote Events spoke on the logistics and opportunity to embrace technology, “We have never done games from people’s homes until a few months ago. Technology has been our best friend, and keeping an open mind to everything across the board has also been our best friend.”
Gross discussed the ESPN team’s objective for broadcasting the upcoming games, “For us, the goal is always to make sure there’s no negative impact on the product for people watching at home.”
In calling the games remotely, Rodriguez expressed his gratitude in having ESPN Senior MLB Insider Buster Olney to lean on as he and Vasgersian call the games from Bristol: “For me, having Buster on location, the possibility of having him there, we’ll have some type of connection to the building, the weather, how people are feeling, kind of the temperature in the building.”
I spoke with Buster Olney, a staple of MLB coverage in his career as a writer and broadcaster, about the dynamics of the 2020 season.
“I think it’s extremely important to get the context right. This is a major sports league attempting to pull off a truncated season in the midst of a historic pandemic,” Olney says about the importance of having perspective about the season. “While I think fans would like to separate the troubling conditions from baseball and create some kind of fantasyland, the fact is that you cannot separate them, especially with players and staffers constantly forced off the field by infection and teams subject to the city, state and federal disease mandates.”
The historical significance is one area that Buster believes will be integral to the history of the sport and overall.
“When I covered the Yankees for the New York Times in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Yankees advanced to Game 7 of the World Series, the games were a brief daily distraction from the horrors of what happened. In this case, the reality is interwoven into the games—the empty stands, players and staffers sidelined, because of the social distancing and masks that affect the interaction. It’s important to tell the fans how baseball in 2020, like the rest of society, has been impacted by COVID-19.”
The ESPN team has not been cavalier in its preparation for the season; positioned with play-by-play/analyst schedules, as well phenomenal teams in place for any audio, programming or production issues that may arise.
Casey Stern, a veteran broadcaster in his roles with SiriusXM and Turner Broadcasting, took the time to tell me what he feels is most important to communicate to fans and the audience as baseball returns.
“Allow this sport to be the escape it’s always been from the realities we all face off the field both personally and together. It won’t be perfect, and in many ways will not be the same. However, it’s baseball. The crack of the bat, the unbelievable snag to start a double play, and the emotions that go with them, will all help us heal.”
World Series Champion Rob Dibble is no stranger to baseball or broadcasting, currently hosting The Rob Dibble Show weekdays on 97.9 ESPN in Hartford, CT. Dibble’s baseball career coupled with his success within the sports broadcasting industry gives him unique insight and perspective on how to cover MLB’s return.
“The media has to stop promoting fear and spread more hope. These are uncertain times, people need to see athletes setting a good example like a lot of the collegiate baseball leagues are doing, and some of the travel teams I coach.
“Maintain social distancing. Constantly washing hands. Not touching your face. Only touching your own equipment. The most important thing is that the players make sure they follow Medical Advice., limiting where they go before and after games, if they can. MLB has a chance to succeed. We can endure this Pandemic.”
The ‘triumph of the human spirit’ magic that baseball embodies has been demonstrated throughout other pivotal moments in history, as referenced by Buster Olney above. In encouraging hopeful, positive and healing coverage as the live action games return, the path is cleared of resistance fostering camaraderie between America and it’s favorite pastime.
However, the beauty of baseball and it’s universal appeal is it’s inclusive nature. Therefore, the more cynical portion of the audience will undoubtedly have concerns, questions and complaints on any adjustments to the structure and format. One of the main issues that has been dissected among the local and national sports media involves whether a 60 game stretch will be enough.
“60 games is not normal but it was the only option. MLB players always give one hundred percent and this year will be no different,” said Dibble.
“If the entire 60 games and playoffs happen, then it will go down in sports history as one of the greatest seasons under the worst circumstances. Some players will become household names. I hope and pray for an amazing few months.”
Brian Noe, veteran host on Fox Sports Radio and NBC Sports Northwest, offered an alternative perspective for hosts.
“Call me crazy, but I really don’t think much changes for a host during this unprecedented MLB season. The job still remains to find interesting angles that gain the most traction. I greatly appreciate the players going out and performing during a global pandemic. Ideally, I hope there will be many compelling stories on the field that will be the main focus. However, you can’t force it. Hosts shouldn’t try to shoehorn conversations about middle relievers into shows as if they’re in a baseball-minded city like Boston when they aren’t.
“It’s a bad approach to create topics out of respect for players that are risking their health. We’re in the ratings business, not the admiration business. We’ve heard it a million times — play the hits. The saying isn’t to talk about a utility outfielder like he’s on a LeBron level out of gratitude for MLB providing entertainment during tough times. The job is to always figure out what listeners are interested in and keep feeding them what they want. Sell what is being bought. Don’t sell what they aren’t buying — even during a pandemic.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.