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The Perils of Hiring The Cool Kid at The L.A. Times

“Trying to survive in a troubled media industry, a legacy news operation compromised traditional ethics to hire a hipper sports columnist from ESPN, Arash Markazi, who only made things messier.”

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He’s not a bad guy, Arash Markazi. Last year, we chatted at a Beverly Hills wine bar, and there’s probably a joke in there somewhere because LeBron James and his associates enjoy the same establishment. Years ago, Markazi committed a journalistic sin for not properly identifying himself as a working ESPN reporter at a James-hosted party in Las Vegas, an offense for which I scolded him on an ESPN-owned radio station.

ESPN did not suspend him for the misstep. In January of last year, the Los Angeles Times poached Markazi and made him a sports columnist, with executive editor Norm Pearlstine assuring a concerned Times sportswriter in a subsequent e-mail that he had spoken to Disney Company executives about Markazi. Wrote Pearlstine to Nathan Fenno: “ESPN thought Arash’s flamboyance was a plus — he appealed to the younger fans that ESPN and other sports information outlets must attract if they are to remain viable.’’ The editors specifically wanted Markazi to cover popular millennial and Gen-Z interests, such as UFC and e-sports, while carrying on a gossip-columnist-type persona that led him to celebrity haunts such as — hey, babe — the Beverly Hills wine bar. They also knew he had 120,000 Twitter followers. They also knew he’d be a fresh, hipper face for a fledgling newsroom channel on local cable TV.

So the Times knew it was getting Billy Bush, not Bill Plaschke.

What the Times didn’t know it was getting, apparently, was a youthful writer who continued not to grasp basic journalism standards — in part because Markazi is a product of a media generation that often ignores such practices. Hacks at chop shops such as Deadspin and Barstool Sports have routinely committed worse professional (and human) crimes than Markazi, who lazily ripped off press releases verbatim and received perks at a Vegas casino hotel in exchange for favorable publicity. But Deadspin and Barstool never have tried to prioritize — or, in many cases, remotely cared about — ethics. With the guidelines vague and relaxed in a rotting industry, Markazi might not have realized he was doing anything flagrantly wrong — and certainly wouldn’t have faced reprimands at the chop shops. Hell, Barstool might have given him a raise for sneaking around LeBron’s party.

Life doesn’t work that way, nor should it, at the Times, which forced Markazi to resign last month. His demise was part of an extraordinary and extensive investigative report, published last week, in which the Times rebukes itself for in-house scandals including ethical failures, charges of racism in hiring practices, bullying and a dysfunctional culture that has worsened under Pearlstine. This came after Plaschke — who, at 62, rates among the best sports columnists of his generation — joined other Times sports staffers in calling out Markazi for his work methods.

Aspiring journalists should model themselves after Plaschke, as fair as he is gifted and earnest. But when the last 15 years have been filled with Internet-spawned trash, students think cesspool artists such as Deadspin founder Will Leitch — whose career has gone meh after presiding over the mass libeling of the sports and media worlds — are the role models. The problem for editors such as Pearlstine: In a desperate search for cutting-edge talents who appeal to younger demographics, established prestige sites also might sacrifice longstanding principles to lure the 18-to-35 set.

When the Times bought into Markazi, it bought into a looser way of reporting — as heartily endorsed by ESPN, according to Pearlstine’s infamous e-mail. Just as unsettling, the University of Southern California also bought in, making Markazi an adjunct professor at its Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism — which posed another issue when Markazi conducted a cushy interview with then-embattled USC athletic director Lynn Swann, who since has left the position. The Times and USC prioritized youth and pizzazz over traditional scruples. And both lost, including Pearlstine, who also is being eased out of the Times, at 77, after a long and distinguished career.

If any of this is unfair to Markazi, it’s that gossip columnists through the years — think New York tabloids — routinely have cut deals and flouted standards in the spirit of breaking stories. He broke stories. He wrote well enough. He was effective on TV. But the L.A. Times isn’t the New York Post. The old guard had to protect decades of credibility, even if the editors who hired Markazi weren’t listening to early complaints. “They looked at us like we were a bunch of whiny, old dinosaurs who didn’t like this hip, young guy,” Plaschke said in the Times’ self-expose. “There was this feeling of, `Well, it’s just Sports.’ But it’s not just Sports. Sports are the fabric of the community, and readers deserve our care, our trust and our integrity.’’

At least the Times has chosen to look in the mirror and opt for complete transparency, unlike media outlets that take hits and never address them. Such self-pillories are the only chance for long-range media survival: exposing internal warts to a public never more suspicious about those who gather and comment on news. In the Times’ case, gazing inward will help only if the newsroom pivots and uses its ample resources as just three legacy powerhouses have done in a dying newspaper racket: the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. In the 10 years I’ve lived in California, mostly in L.A., the Times has been perpetually turbulent. Things were supposed to improve with the financial might of the multi-billionaire owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. But it was Soon-Shiong who vowed to bring youth and e-sports coverage to his sports pages. So the Times hired the cool kid from ESPN.

Next time, hire the proven and seasoned commodity, regardless of Twitter followers.

BSM Writers

The Craig Carton/FanDuel Deal Is Undeniably A Good Thing

“Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better.”

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Craig Carton is destined to forever be a polarizing figure in the world of sports media. Long before he was arrested, he had plenty of detractors that considered him less of a talk show host and more of a shock jock. Add to it a conviction for his role in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors in order to pay back gambling debts, and it is clear that the guy’s approval rating will never hit 100.

Charities of disgraced shock jock Craig Carton say he let them down; lawyer  calls it a 'gross misunderstanding' - New York Daily News
Courtesy: New York Daily News

There are understandable reasons not to like a guy and then there are grudges. Grudges don’t have to be personal. They don’t have to spring from some sort of affront. They can easily be born out of feeling like someone has figured out a way to live a life above the rules and free of consequence for their awful actions.

Grudges can (and often do) blind us to reality. I think that is a big part of what is happening when people point to Craig Carton’s new deal with FanDuel and say that there is something wrong with it.

If you missed the announcement last week, Carton is joining FanDuel as the company’s first “responsible gaming ambassador.” He will create content about gambling responsibly and also work with FanDuel engineers to create AI to spot problem gambling patterns. The deal gives Craig Carton a seat at the table with one of the biggest mobile sportsbooks in shaping their responsible gaming policy. Isn’t that a good thing?

I probably cannot convince you to view the guy in any particular light. When it comes to former inmates being rehabilitated and getting a second chance, we tend to be very dug in with our opinions, whatever may influence them.

Undeniably, Carton did a bad thing. Swindling people out of huge chunks of money is always bad. In America, it somehow seems worse. As costs of living increase and wages remain flat, every dollar is accounted for and allotted to something for most of us. The guy should be ashamed of himself. And here’s the thing: he clearly is.

Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better. Hell, what other station in America dedicates any time at all, even just a half hour on the weekend, to issues of addiction and recognizing problem habits? This deal with FanDuel seems perfectly in line with his previous attempts to atone.

Hello, My Name Is Craig
Courtesy: Audacy

You don’t have to like Craig Carton, but you do need to acknowledge that everything he has done in terms of highlighting his problem with gambling and offering help to those that he sees a little bit of his own struggles in has been sincere. There is no reason to believe it isn’t.

Under the terms of the deal, not only will Carton advise and create content for FanDuel, but the company will also make sure Hello, My Name is Craig finds a bigger platform. You can be cynical and say that this is just part of a bigger deal between FanDuel and WFAN parent company Audacy, but FanDuel’s Chief Marketing Officer, Mike Raffensperger explained that it is good for the gaming industry to promote betting responsibly.

“I think what we recognize we needed is to add some humanity as to how we get this message across,” he said when explaining why Carton was the perfect face for this campaign.

We see it every time we post a story about sports betting. Someone will comment that it is an evil practice and that the advertising has made sports radio disgusting. The reality is that it is no different from alcohol. For most people, it is harmless. Plenty though, cannot handle it. Still, you tell me the first time you hear an ad break on sports radio or see a commercial break during a game without a beer commercial.

If you really believe sports gambling is evil and want people to stay away from mobile or physical sportsbooks, who do you think the ideal person to be delivering that message is?

You can go with the puritan approach of tisk-tisking strangers and telling them they are flawed people that are going to Hell or you can have a guy that has literally lost it all because of his addiction out front telling you “I know I cannot place a bet and here is why. If that sounds familiar, maybe it is time for you to seek help.” It seems pretty obvious to me that the latter approach is exactly what Raffensperger is talking about – using humanity to reach the people they need to.

Craig Carton committed a crime. A court of law said he had to pay for that both with restitution to his victims and with jail time. He served his time. Deals like this one with FanDuel make it possible for him to stay on schedule with the restitution payments. Even if you think he is unforgivable, that should make you happy, right?

It is admittedly strange to see a mobile sportsbook hire a “responsible gaming ambassador.” I would argue though that it is only strange because it isn’t something we have seen before. Be skeptical if you are the “I’ll believe it when I see it” type, but I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to congratulate and celebrate both Craig Carton and FanDuel.

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BSM Writers

Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards

“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”

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I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.

While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.

Ohio State football broadcasts go remote amid COVID-19 restrictions
Courtesy: WBNS Radio

Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.

This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.

I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.

Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.

I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.

A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.

Highly Questionable 4/12/21 - Changing History? - YouTube
Courtesy: ESPN

There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.

It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.

It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.

Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.

Anxiety and Depression From COVID-19 – San Diego – Sharp Health News
Courtesy: Nuthawut Somsuk

More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.

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BSM Writers

If Netflix Wants Live Sports, F1 May Be Just The Beginning

“Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.”

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In the past, Hollywood dealmakers and stockbrokers wondered whether another studio or streamer would catch Netflix.  Its dominance stemmed from being a first-mover and not having a serious competitor until Amazon and Disney ten or more years after their launch.  However, Netflix would eventually have to compete for content, original and licensed, other platforms that offered less expansive ad-based options, and additional content like live sports or a very popular series or movie premiere.  

Arguably, the pandemic accelerated the move to digital and it allowed competitors to gain subscribers because people were spending more time at home.  More subscribers and additional streaming options for consumers has not caused Netflix to faulter, but it has caused Netflix to rethink its sports strategy.  For years, Netflix was dead set again streaming live sports because of their cost and commercials—Netflix does not have advertisements on its platform currently.  

A sports fan's guide to Netflix, Hulu, YouTube & more after coronavirus  cancels live games | Sporting News
Courtesy: Sporting News/Getty

Netflix’s popular Drive to Survive docuseries about the Formula 1 (or “F1”) racing circuit, which was renewed for a fourth season, and the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls The Last Dance represents a golden era and renaissance of sports documentaries.  As much as fans of feature films and television series enjoy learning about actors during and off camera they similarly want to know about sports stars, their coaches, and franchises.  In other words, the business of sports is booming in valuation and behind-the-scenes content.  

Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated that the popularity of Drive to Survive has caused the company to rethink its stance on purchasing live sports content.  The broadcast and streaming rights to Formula 1 will become available via ESPN and Sky Sports in 2022 and 2024.  Netflix, will have some competition to secure F1 rights, which will drive up the cost.  It was also reported by Front Office Sports that the Netflix CEO would require a level of exclusivity for sports rights that other platforms do not normally require.  The exclusivity is likely required because Netflix will want to justify the purchase price and to keep-in-line with what Netflix customers expect—exclusive content on the platform.  

With Premier League club Manchester United looking to secure a broadcast deal for selling its rights outside of the traditional league format, it might be the perfect acquisition for Netflix.  An exclusive team vs. an entire league would also be less expensive and more targeted.  One aspect of uncertainty for all streamers is their subscribers overseas, particularly in untapped China.  The international market is far from settled or established.  Netflix also has a large operation in India so possibly cricket via the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) could be a rights purchase to consider.

In 2018, the original content on Netflix only accounted for 8%.  This means that 92% of the content on the platform just a few years ago was all owned (at least partially) by someone else.  That statistic has changed because Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple+, and many others have since been created and stocked or restocked with content.  Controlling interest in Hulu was even purchased from FOX by Disney.  Disney and Amazon now both rival Netflix in terms of subscribers.  Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.  

As Comcast-owned NBCUniversal CEO Brian Roberts recently said, purchasing sports rights can be difficult.  Sports rights are expensive.  Exclusive sports rights are even more expensive.  Sports rights only become available every five to ten years.  Networks and streamers are highly competitive to secure those rights with the hope of landing viewers, subscribers, and advertising dollars.  

Will Netflix get into sports rights bidding?  In the past, the digital entertainment giant has been steadfast is its non-sports approach.  However, the market has changed and is flooded with more competitors now.  Netflix has to change to meet its customer and the market needs.  

Formula 1 presents an interesting scenario for Netflix as a buyer and partner.  F1 is a popular league internationally and growing in the United States.  Two new F1 races in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, in addition to season four of the Drive to Survive Netflix series are sure to drive traffic, pun intended, and interest in the racing sport.  

Formula 1: Drive to Survive Season 3 Netflix Docuseries
Courtesy: Netflix

Formula 1 is a sports league that will cost less to purchase streaming rights than a traditional American “Big 4” like the NBA, NFL, or MLB.  Formula 1’s structure is also centered at the top so it would be easier to make an exclusive deal that Netflix seeks.  The remaining questions being, will Netflix pursue Formula 1 sports rights to increase its streaming platform subscribers and compete with others?  Second, will Netflix be the first to offer commercial free live sports programming—for a premium price—or offer in-screen ads and additional during-break inside looks, content, and analysis?  Or will Netflix act more like a traditional broadcaster and offer advertisements to pay down its purchase price?  One will know more after a few laps around the sun.

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