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The Bubble Worked, But The NBA is Collapsing Fast

“A long-prospering league has been slammed by all-time low ratings, $1.5 billion in losses and no assurance of when fans will return to arenas, obscuring a monumental success story: a COVID-free season.”

Jay Mariotti

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And to think we called it the Trouble Bubble. In truth, the NBA’s foray into bio-domery will be remembered as a resounding science-and-health success, a miracle in an otherwise abominable year in American life. If you had said not a single player would test positive for COVID-19 in more than three months of restrictive confinement, I’d have shoved nasopharyngeal swabs up your nostrils and demanded another test for recreational drugs.

Yet other than Lou Williams’ chicken-wing run at that acclaimed dining establishment — the Magic City strip club — there was no epidemiological drama at Disney World. The NFL has become an ignorant, whack-a-mole misadventure hellbent to wipe out more games, if not the entire season, especially when protocol-breakers such as the Tennessee Titans conduct secret practices during a team-wide outbreak. Major League Baseball, which bumbled through outbreaks, is inviting more team infections and mass public transmissions by allowing fans at playoff and World Series games in Texas.     

The Most Magical Place on Earth? It has been The Safest Place in the Pandemic. The Silverdome won, the coronavirus lost.

“It just demonstrates that these basic protocols we’re all following are working,’’ said commissioner Adam Silver, who should whisper to avoid the wrath of President Trump. “By wearing a mask, exercising the appropriate protocols, hand washing, appropriate cleanliness, et cetera, by maintaining physical distance, I think we’re learning it can be done, that you can strike a balance between public health and economic necessity.’’

Necessity, in this case, was not too strong a word. Because while the Bubble worked, the NBA’s future is in danger of bursting amid a growing financial crisis and all-time abysmal ratings. It was vital to complete a season and crown what is likely to be a historic champion and story line: LeBron James, winning one for the late Kobe Bryant, the previously dysfunctional Lakers and his own polarizing legacy while championing civil rights and, at 35 years and nine months, persevering in isolation when younger superstars succumbed to attrition. What awaits the league, by comparison, is seismic distress.

Unlike the NFL, which has maintained solid ratings as a reliable home-viewing spectacle, the NBA has been ravaged by the timing and fallout of the pandemic. The league will lose a reported $1.5 billion this season and might take a bigger bath next season, whenever it takes place, if arenas can’t accommodate game experiences — season-ticket holders, luxury-suite owners, corporate partnerships, concessions — that account for about 40 percent of the league’s total revenues. With a dismal outlook in the China market, the plight of some franchise owners whose businesses have been wracked by the virus and, yep, those grotesque TV numbers, no one knows what the NBA will look like in the future.

The players have made it clear the Disney World Bubble is a one-off. They also know the league would like them to sacrifice a chunk of their salaries next season, after accepting 15 percent cuts this season, part of what Silver calls “difficult discussions’’ that already have begun with the National Basketball Players Association. Conceivably, without a labor deal, the league could cancel the collective bargaining agreement via the “Force Majeure’’ clause — get used to that contractual phrase, the worst in sports — and shut down the season. The optimistic news is, Silver has maintained solid working relationships with player advocates such as James and Chris Paul and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts. That said, a league that has enjoyed prosperity for decades is slamming to a halt. And the players don’t want to hear about pay decreases after spending weeks or months in basketball lockdown.

So, with no widespread vaccine in sight, imagine a world without the NBA. Imagine attempting a season inside arenas when the country isn’t ready. No longer protected by a Bubble, will multiple players contract COVID as we’ve seen in the NFL, MLB and college football? The NHL, which also completed a COVID-free season, is pondering several regional Bubbles next season. Might the NBA consider the same experiment? “We need to negotiate everything: when training camp starts, when we start (the season), how we’re going to continue operating potentially under reduced BRI (basketball-related income), frankly,’’ Silver said at his annual Finals news conference. “I think we all understand the essential parameters. And in some of the conversations I’m having with individual players, I think everybody understands, just like in the country, that there’s public health considerations. And the economy is a public health issue, as well, working and trying to strike that right balance. So part of my job is to study what’s happening in other industries, what other leagues are doing, including international soccer leagues. All of that’s on the table right now.”

Armed with credibility in infectious disease prevention, Silver still is overreaching on one immediate goal: admitting spectators into arenas via rapid testing as early as January. It’s one thing to administer daily tests toplayers, coaches and team personnel in a Bubble; it’s quite another, and at substantial expense, to test fans who haven’t been in Bubbles. What if a test is inaccurate? The risks are significant — to the players, as well.

“Based on everything I’ve read, there’s almost no chance that there will be a vaccine at least that is widely distributed at least before we start the next season. I do not see the development of a vaccine as a prerequisite,” Silver said. “My sense with rapid testing is, we may not have 19,000 people in the building. We’ll see. But with appropriate protocols in distancing and with advanced testing, you will be able to bring fans back into the arenas. … The question is: Will there be truly rapid tests, point-of-care (tests) that don’t get sent to the lab? Are there instant results? A lot of pharmaceutical companies are focused on that. There’s a marketplace for that.

“I think we all know, nothing has really changed in this virus. I think the majority of states right now, cases are ticking back up again. There are predictions of a combination of flu and coronavirus season. What that will mean? People are moving back indoors. In some cases, people have COVID fatigue and aren’t following the same protocols. And so, we’re looking at a lot of the same factors we looked at in determining what to do this season. There are advancements clearly in the treatment of people once they get the disease. I think to identify quickly a player who is positive, sort of we’re seeing that in the NFL right now, watching closely what’s happening with that protocol, can they play through it, how will that work, will there be additional spread once they’ve identified a player that has it? So those are all the things we’re looking at.’’

The more he looks at the NFL, the more he has to be mortified. Which scene was more unsettling: Face-of-the-league Patrick Mahomes sharing a close-contact moment after Monday night’s game with Stephon Gilmore, who later tested positive for COVID? Or Titans players working out at a Nashville school when they were supposed to be avoiding one another? “I’ve followed every protocol, yet it happened to me,’’ Gilmore tweeted. “Please be sure to take this seriously.’’

Silver has bigger problems than the coronavirus. The American public has stopped watching his league. Facing competition that doesn’t exist in its normal June timeframe — the NFL, MLB and countless political news shows on Trump-Biden overload — the NBA Finals have crashed just as the two conference finals crashed. Not since the ‘80s, pre-Michael Jordan, have the first three Finals games rated so poorly. There was a spike in Game 4, after a Miami victory in which Heat star Jimmy Butler told James he was “in trouble,’’ but with the Lakers one victory from a championship, only southern California will be watching Friday night when the players don Black Mamba jerseys.

What should concern the league is that the matchup seemed compelling: James and the Lakers, a global megastar and a boutique franchise, facing the refreshing, ahead-of-schedule Heat and a snarling badass in Butler. Is it possible America is simply burned out on James after almost two decades in the public eye? Or, as Trump says, are certain segments of this country tired of the NBA protests, the game boycotts after the police shooting of Jacob Blake? “BLACK LIVES MATTER’’ has been draped across the Bubble courts since July. Are some people tuning out because of it?

“People are tired of watching the highly political @NBA,” Trump tweeted last month after NBA players continued to kneel before games. “Basketball ratings are WAY down, and they won’t be coming back. I hope football and baseball are watching and learning because the same thing will be happening to them. Stand tall for our Country and our Flag!!!’’

Surprisingly, Silver told ESPN that the social justice banners likely will vanish. Is this a smart comment when asking for more payouts from a league of predominantly Black players? “I would say, in terms of the messages you see on the court and our jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time when we began these discussions with the players and what we all lived through this summer,’’ Silver said. “My sense is there’ll be somewhat a return to normalcy — that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor.’’ 

James has been at the forefront of activism, of course. It’s unfortunate if people are too distracted by it to recognize his accomplishment. Giannis Antetokounmpo, two-time defending MVP, was overwhelmed by the burden and went home early. Doc Rivers, who was supposed to finally one-up the Lakers in L.A., lost his job as Clippers coach and was hired in Philadelphia. Who’s still here, carrying so much on his massive shoulders? LeBron. He sensed that  the Lakers, with older pieces and Anthony Davis capable of fading from dominator to dud, might not have the energy to win a Game 7 if the Heat extended the series. So when James woke up from his pregame nap Tuesday, he knew what to write in a group text to his teammates.

“Must win.’’

“I felt like for me, personally, this was one of the biggest games of my career,” James said. “I wanted to relay that message to my teammates, the type of zone I was in, the type of moment it was and the kind of team we were playing against. … They are just a gritty, so damn-well-coached team. I feel like if we’re going to be a championship ballclub, if we want to really be a championship team, that we got to have that same grit and that same attitude. It was my mindset. I’m still in it.”

No, James will not be Greatest Of All Time is he wins his fourth title to accompany six misses. Jordan is the undeniable G.O.A.T., no matter what ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy says. “Comparison is the thief of joy,’’ he said. “It’s a far different discussion between who is the better player. I always say you have the first pick, I’ll have the second pick, and I’ll be very happy whichever player I got. But as far as career — and when you talk about longevity, records broken — I don’t think LeBron James’ career will take a backseat to anyone.’’

Yes, it will. But there’s no disgrace in that. Because in the weirdest year of our lives, he footprinted the unprecedented: spending three-plus months in a Bubble, away from his kids, and reminding a recently-doubting world that he is the most important athlete of his time: a political reformer, a franchise fixer, a mature leader who maximized disparate pieces and, still, a champion. He was the one who created a comfort zone for players before the Bubble, saying, “I have no reason not to trust Adam.’’ Sure enough, other than a few unspecified infections among Disney employees who weren’t tested daily, basketball was allowed to proceed, and LeBron James was allowed to survive and thrive.

You’d like to think the NBA will be fine without him. As seen already, it won’t be.

BSM Writers

The Big Ten Didn’t Learn ANYTHING From the NHL’s Mistake

To not have your product ever mentioned again on THE sports network seems like a steep tradeoff to me.

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ESPN, Big Ten

My favorite moments in life involve watching someone/something on the verge of a great moment and after a lot of struggling, get to the moment that makes them happier than you cam imagine. You can feel your scowl shift from tepid observer to interested party and then finally transition to open fandom. I was on the verge of another one of those moments coming into this week until the Big Ten decided that they would make biggest mistake since the Legends and Leaders divisions.

The conference was closing in on a brand new set of media rights to go into effect starting with the 2023 football and basketball seasons. The discussions were near a climax when the USC and UCLA called Big Ten commish Kevin Warren. Then, the negotiations relaunched and something special was about to happen. The Big Ten was inches away from declaring themselves the richest and most forward-thinking conference in the entire country and if they could win a few football games, they’d be head ahead of the SEC.

You can argue until you are Gator Blue in the face but the fact is, the Big Ten was about to explode and pass the SEC. The conference was about to have games on FOX, ABC/ESPN, CBS and NBC. All of the networks. ALL OF THEM. They were also developing a package for a streaming service to test the waves of the web. It all sounded so damn smart.

Then, the Big Ten went dumb.

The conference got greedy and asked for too much from what would have been their most profitable partner in cachet, ESPN. Reportedly the conference asked ESPN for $380 million per year for seven years to broadcast the conference’s second-rated games… at best. My jaw hit the floor.

Pure, unapologetic greed got between the Big Ten and smart business. The conference forgot a lesson that the NHL learned the hard way. ESPN dominates sports. ESPN is sports.

I don’t need to go to far back in the archives to remind you that ESPN’s offer to the NHL for media rights wasn’t as lucrative financially as NBC’s was, but the NHL took the short-term money and ignored the far-reaching consequence. ESPN essentially wiped them from the regular discussion. Yes, there were some brief highlights and Barry Melrose did strut ass into the studio on occasion, but by no means was that sport a featured product anymore.

One afternoon I had someone tell me that they were upset ESPN was airing a promo for an upcoming soccer match that ESPN was carrying. He told me, “they’re only promoting it because they have the game.”

That’s kind of how this thing works. ESPN is in business with some sports and not others so it makes a lot of sense to promote those you are in business with, yeah? ESPN doesn’t spend a lot of time promoting Big Brother, Puppy Pals or ping pong either. Why would they? There is no incentive too.

Here’s the sad question. Why would ESPN bother promoting the Big Ten? Why would ESPN spend extra time on the air, on their social platforms, on their digital side, to promote something they don’t have access to? The Big Ten is a big deal, but is it that big of a deal?

I am not suggesting that ESPN will ignore the Big Ten. They will still get discussed on College GameDay. But why would the network’s premiere pregame show for decades go to any Big Ten games and feature the conference?

There will be highlights still shown on SportsCenter, but I’m willing to bet they get shorter.

The Big Ten chose network television and a streaming service over the behemoth that is ESPN. As far as streaming is concerned, consider that over half of all NFL frequent viewers still don’t know that Thursday Night Football games are on Amazon only this year. That’s a month away and that’s people who call themselves frequent NFL viewers and that’s the biggest, baddest league in the land. Good luck telling them Purdue/Rutgers is on Apple or Amazon. Streaming is a major part of the future, but it still isn’t the now.

ESPN may seem like the safe bet, but that’s because it’s the smartest bet. NBC is a fine network that spends a bajillion dollars on America’s Got Talent and The Voice. Fine shows, but tell me where I can watch highlights of the recent Notre Dame/Stanford game.

CBS is a wonderful network that dominated with the SEC package for a long time, but that’s because the very best SEC game each week went to CBS. Will they still dominate if they have the league’s #2 package? Because why wouldn’t FOX, Big Ten Network co-owner FOX, get the best game each week for Big Noon Saturday?

There isn’t a single one of us that has a good damn idea where college football will be in three, five or seven years but I do know that ESPN isn’t going anywhere. I know ESPN has elite talent at every level of production and on-air that’s been in place for a really, really long time. I also know ESPN cares way more about sports than the other networks. CBS would like the Big Ten to do well, but CSI: Las Vegas is a priority, too.

The NHL went for quick money and it cost them market share. The sport is still trying to recover after being largely ignored by ESPN for 17 years. It wasn’t out of spite, it was out of business. The NHL once thought it didn’t need ESPN. Where’s the NHL now?

The money the Big Ten will generate is amazing, I will not deny that. It seems like a boondoggle of a lifetime to grab this cash. However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me. The Big Ten is going to get paid a lot now but in the long term, they will pay the most.

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BSM Writers

Producers Podcast – Nuno Teixeira, ESPN Radio

Brady Farkas

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BSM Writers

Lance Zierlein Isn’t Taking Shortcuts

“That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts.”

Brian Noe

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Jack of all trades, master of none. The only thing I dislike about that saying is, to me, it implies that a person isn’t special in any one particular area. That isn’t the case with Lance Zierlein. The guy has been crushing morning drive in Houston for 25 years and knocking out NFL draft evaluations for eight years now at NFL.com. It isn’t possible for anybody to master draft analysis, but Zierlein’s talent evaluations stand out so much that NFL coaching staffs and front offices pay attention to his views.

In addition to his on-air duties and draft analysis, Zierlein used to provide gambling advice for bettors through his own handicapping business. This dude gets around. Zierlein has proven to be valuable in many different areas. It’s no wonder that new opportunities have become available to him over the years. In our conversation, Zierlein talks about not taking shortcuts. He also mentions how he tries to avoid taking himself too seriously on the air, and reveals the most gratifying experience of his career. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: How did you initially break in to the radio business?

Lance Zierlein: Radio started for me 25 years ago. Actually it started before then; I started my own handicapping business 28 years ago when I was really young. Then I hustled my way on radio as a football analyst, an expert in my early 20s. I sent stuff out to a bunch of stations, got on, gave out my phone number for my pick line, which I answered myself and gave out picks. That was my living. 

From there, 610AM became an all-sports station in the fall of ‘94. By ‘95 the general manager of the station liked me on the radio and so I was doing a weekend sports show for a couple of hours on Sunday. By ‘97 I was doing morning drive. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I quit a job making $400 a week working 60 hours a week. It was just ridiculous. It was like some horrific management position in a field I had no idea what I was doing. I just quit and bet on myself and started my own business and three years later I’ve got a morning sports talk show. It’s been that way ever since.

BN: What has been your career path when it comes to writing?

LZ: I’ve been writing for a while. I started my own football newsletter in 1998. It was a sports newsletter, then in 2001 it became a football only newsletter. I did that for a while. I was a fantasy football writer for the Houston Chronicle. I had a blog in the Chronicle that was fairly heavily trafficked. I covered everything but really started to focus in on the NFL draft and some fantasy football stuff and the Houston Texans.

Some people over at the NFL noticed me. I planted some seeds over there and introduced myself to people at NFL Media. In October of 2014, they reached out to me about being their new NFL draft analyst. Shortly thereafter I was hired. I’ve worked there since the fall of 2014. So eight NFL drafts and 25 straight years of drive-time radio as well.

BN: When you think about all of those different avenues whether it’s handicapping, sports radio, or being a draft analyst — which is like scouting — which do you think you’ve had to learn the most about to know what you were talking about really well?

LZ: Oh man, well for me radio was never formulaic. I didn’t learn in college, I was just a natural talker and thinker and entertainer. I’m not necessarily predictable.

I think the most that I had to learn was the NFL draft. Handicapping is something that you learn as well. I learned in the pool halls of New Orleans when I was going to school at Tulane. I had a mentor who was a former vice president of finance for a company there. He just taught me about handicapping as being an analytical process where you try to find the right side of the puzzle. There’s a puzzle between two teams, various players, here’s the point spread and you try to work the puzzle out and find the right side. That took time too.

When it came to the draft you’re talking about having to really learn all of the specific factors for every position. From long snapper to punter to kicker to every position on the offensive side and defensive side. Even if you think you know what you’re doing and even if you have a scouting manual like I had to work off of, until you actually watch a ton of tape and make mistakes in evaluations, which you don’t know until two and three years down the road in many cases, and learn from those mistakes and alter your process and dial in your process to match the changing tides of NFL and college football, you really can’t get there.

I think the most learning I had to do believe it or not, and my dad was an NFL and college football coach my whole life, I think it’s interesting; the most learning I had to do really was the scouting and the evaluating process before the NFL draft. I think that was the most work I had to do from start to finish. And I still think that I’m learning in that as well.

BN: Doing draft evaluations is difficult. Handicapping games is difficult. Between the two, which do you think you were thrown into the deep end more? Most when it comes to that?

LZ: Handicapping I was trying to pick winners for people and I didn’t really feel like I had anything to lose. I was doing something I loved to do. I had left a job I hated that I should have never even been in. To me I was master of my own domain. I had my own company. But there’s a pressure that comes with that because although I didn’t need much money to survive and I was married to my first wife at the time, there is a pressure with knowing that you have to win so that people will sign up for the next month and you can pay bills.

When it comes to being thrown into the fire, listen I’ve got to write 500 players a year and every one of them is going to live on the internet forever. There’s receipts on 500 players. When I got thrown in I’m having to call defensive back coaches I know to ask questions about certain things having to do with cornerbacks, safeties. I’m talking to pass rush specialists. I’m talking to coaches primarily and really getting an education. I was lucky enough to talk to some guys who really gave me some help along the way.

But if you just watch a tape, the tape will speak to you. I had Jerry Angelo who was the GM of the Bears who one time told me just say what you see. Just say what you see. I really lived off that for the first couple of years. Then beyond that I started to really learn to be more technical with some of the things I was looking at at every position. Having 500 players that you’re writing up, from what I recall from a former editor there, he got 15 million hits internationally on my scouting reports over a relatively short period of time during the draft.

That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts. You have to really understand these guys, know these guys. If you project them wrong that’s fine, but don’t miss because you took shortcuts. It’s going to be there for everyone to read and see. I would say thrown to the wolves much more in the evaluation.

BN: Which of the three would you say is the most gratifying for you between sports radio, handicapping back in the day, and the writing/analyst work that you do?

LZ: God, that’s such a hard question because they’re three very different times of my life. The handicapping stuff was me just getting a shot to springboard into sports and into radio. I always knew handicapping was going to be a way for me to get into radio. I planned it as a side door into radio and my plan worked. I was pretty good at what I did.

Radio was just incredible because it introduced me to my wife. She was a listener so it introduced me to her. We had such a great following. Athletes liked the show. That’s gratifying on a level in my 20s and in to my 30s, I don’t think anything can match that when people around the city know who you are. You’re having fun every single day. You’re coming into the radio station and it’s just a lot of fun. You’re just kind of on a wild ride. You don’t really recognize it until after it’s over.

Football was special in a different way because my dad was a lifelong coach. He’s been a coach since I was one or two years old. He’s won a Super Bowl ring. He’s coached for a variety of college and pro teams. The first time he was reading my scouting reports when he was with the Arizona Cardinals, he came across them. One of the other coaches showed him.

When he really realized wow, he knew I did radio, he knew I did some of the scouting stuff on my own in a newsletter, I don’t think he really took it all that seriously. When he realized in reading my scouting reports for offensive lineman that I was really pretty good at it, and that he agreed with much of it, and he’s now calling me every other day to talk about prospects and get my thoughts on guys, you just can’t imagine the amount of happiness that gave me as a son to know that my dad had that level of respect for my work.

It’s really a second job. Radio is what I had done and this is a dramatically different job. If you’re doing NFL draft analysis for NFL.com, I’m following a scouting protocol. This is not radio. It’s a totally different discipline and job. Knowing that he really had a great deal of respect and that other Arizona Cardinals coaches started calling me and asking my opinions on certain players, it’s hard to really put into words how gratifying that is.

Then through the process knowing that there are people in the league who really respect my work and guys I’ve become friends with who are general managers now who respect what I do. There’s just an immense feeling of satisfaction in doing that and knowing I’ve got number one radio shows at four different stations in Houston.

Then to be able to do this with professionals that are in my dad’s trade. I grew up watching my dad as a coach, I know how tough that profession is for front office personnel, for coaches, and to know that people have a respect for the work that I do, that’s a level of gratification that’s completely different. That’s like a cherry on top. If I never did anything again tomorrow, I would be happy with what I’ve accomplished in my time in sports.

BN: Football fans turn into mini GMs when the draft rolls around. A lot of their evaluations are way off. [Laughs] Do you see a common thread between some of the evaluations that are just not accurate?

LZ: That’s a tough question. I think some people are way too opinionated and firm in opinions and they have not spent nearly enough time actually watching the players. I think it’s really more they’re aggregating opinions from other people and then turning it into their own, which is kind of an incomplete analysis. I think that’s a mistake that some people make.

I think there’s a belief that who you are now is who you’re going to be in the future. That’s the most basic mistake that everyone makes. You have to learn you’re not giving grades for who a player is right now, you’re giving grades for who a player is going to be in three to five years. Learning to do that does not happen overnight. It’s hard. It forces you to think differently. It forces you to really focus on traits and the habits of successful people.

Whether it’s certain successful traits, there are traits that can lead to success, explosiveness, speed, length, toughness, and you’ve got to look for those, and then you worry about NFL coaches coaching up the rest of it. Don’t get too hyper-focused. I think a lot of people get too hyper-focused on who a player is right now and not who a player is going to be later. Then also on the flip side, they get too enamored with stats and names as opposed to understanding what typically works in the NFL.

BN: How about your future? Say five years from now, what you’re doing, where you’re doing it at, what would be ideal for you?

LZ: I really don’t know. I think honestly if the right opportunity came with an NFL team and somebody I respected as a general manager, that would be something I would have to consider. I’m not sure that that right opportunity and all the things would fall in place. I don’t know that that would ever be the case. I’m not sure I see myself doing that in five years.

I think honestly, I feel like I have an eye for talent outside of football. I think I have an eye for talent in radio. I’ve brought five to seven people in who have become radio people and good hosts. I think at some point that might be something that I want to do is become more of a program director. If not a program director a talent scout to bring in the next generation of radio professionals.

I could see myself doing that because I do think I have an eye for people who have it. I didn’t learn the traditional way and so I understand that you don’t have to go through the traditional methods to be someone who can be captivating or entertaining or someone with upside. I think I recognize when people have that kind of upside. I think I’d love to be involved in that side of radio at some point in the future.

I’ve got a football business along with the former director of analytics for the Tampa Bay Bucs. It’s kind of a scouting tool and a recruiting tool for colleges. We’re already working with college teams and with high school teams. I think the handicapping stuff is out for me moving forward. [Laughs] That was an avenue and a vehicle and I still love trying to solve the puzzle, but I don’t put the same time into it anymore. There are different directions I can go in, but I’m happy where I am right now both in radio and the draft stuff. I’m just going to keep letting things play out and we’ll see what happens.

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