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Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content machine — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio programs and podcasts — who is neither a cardboard cutout nor a virtual fan.

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THEY GET IT

Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels, NBC — As leagues drool like pack dogs to embrace legalized gambling, it’s vital they don’t allow integrity breaches to explode into wretched scandals. Kudos to Collinsworth for using prime time to expose Doug Pederson. In what obviously was a tank job to climb into a higher draft spot, Pederson yanked dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter of a tight game and inserted inept backup Nate Sudfeld, ensuring a stinker loss that pushed the 7-9 Washington Football Team ahead of the 6-10 Giants for a clownish NFC East title. Collinsworth echoed the raw disgust of bettors, Giants fans, some Eagles fans and sports purists alike when he said, “I simply could not have done it. You’ve got men out there that are fighting their guts out trying to win the game.’’ Chimed in partner Michaels, he of the wink-wink references about point spreads: “I agree, under the circumstances, absolutely. (If) they are getting blown out, yeah. And we mentioned, yesterday Doug said he wanted to get Sudfeld into the game. But in this circumstance? Come on.” The NFL does not want two prominent broadcasters on “Sunday Night Football,’’ the league’s showcase weekly event, delving into competitive ethics — a discussion many other paycheck-protectors would have avoided. As for Pederson, his nose grew longer than the Walt Whitman Bridge when he claimed he was “coaching to win.’’ Win what, the No. 6 pick?

The Athletic — In attack mode at last, the site has used its deep pool of reporters to break stories at a recent high clip. My usual complaint about The Athletic — a lack of critical edge — isn’t as glaring when each day brings more scoops. The churn is embarrassing ESPN, which, in turn, embarrasses itself by resorting to familiar bigfoot fakery. When The Athletic or another site breaks news, ESPN takes hocus-pocus credit with a line in an opening paragraph — such as, “sources tell ESPN’’ — while hoping the reader doesn’t notice an acknowledgment in a much later paragraph that the story first was reported elsewhere. It happened when ESPN insider Jeff Passan, writing about the trade of Blake Snell to the Padres and the names of prospects acquired by the Rays, ended his opening paragraph with a credit grab: “… sources familiar with the agreement told ESPN.’’ The story then waited six graphs to mention, “The Athletic was first to report the players going to the Rays in the deal.’’ Same goes for NBA insider Brian Windhorst, who said “sources told ESPN’’ that the Heat were not pursuing James Harden, then waited until his final graph to mention, “The South Florida Sun-Sentinel first reported the Heat’s decision to end the trade talks.’’ The Athletic was out front as the Cubs were peddling Yu Darvish to the Padres — by the way, San Diego hasn’t been this relevant since the Ron Burgundy days — but ESPN, playing catch-up again, didn’t even bother crediting the news-breaker, instead citing “sources familiar with the deal.’’ It was Chip Brown at Horns 24/7 who first tweeted Steve Sarkisian “is expected to be the new coach at Texas’’ — and minutes later, without a mention of Brown’s report, ESPN was reporting that sources were “telling ESPN’s Chris Low that the Longhorns have zeroed in’’ on Sarkisian. And when Saints star Alvin Kamara tested positive for COVID-19? We initially were led to believe “a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter’’ first when, in the final graph of the story, we learned “NewOrleans.Football was first to report Kamara tested positive.’’ ESPN is conveniently omitting that it is simply CONFIRMING what others have broken, which The Athletic did when reporter Scott Burnside “confirmed’’ the NHL is playing two outdoor games at Lake Tahoe, quickly noting “Sportsnet was first to report the NHL’s plans.’’ The practice is dirty and unethical, with executives and editors to blame for not stepping in, but the industry is afraid to call out the “Worldwide Leader.’’ I’m not — and how fitting that ESPN’s news desk recklessly posted a false story from a fake Schefter account Monday, forcing the network to issue a correction. It’s still an annoying topic for me, having once broken Michael Jordan’s return to basketball in the Chicago Sun-Times (with the Associated Press), only to see a beaten Sam Smith at the rival Tribune credit the AP and, um, an unnamed newspaper. This isn’t gamesmanship. It’s weasel-ism.

Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN — From his home studio in Nashville, he showed how to responsibly stay on the job and do it well after a positive COVID-19 test. You never would have known he was in isolation while breaking down the Herbie Bowl, and while his allegiances to Ohio State (as a former player) and Clemson (his sons play there) again suggest a collegiate conflict of interest that hasten a bump-up to the “Monday Night Football’’ booth, his insights and commentary remained airtight. He mauled Mississippi State’s Mike Leach for his players’ roles in a sickening New Year’s Eve brawl, saying, “Mike Leach should be embarrassed. His postgame interview and what he said, `Hey, it’s football. Hey, it’s physical. It’s going to happen’ — are you kidding me, Mike? You should be embarrassed about your program and what it did. This is a black eye for the sport. Maybe you don’t care about the sport, dude. It’s as bad as it could be for people that are sitting around watching college football and that breaks out.’’ I couldn’t have said it better, dude, though the only reason Leach’s team was playing Tulsa in yet another needless game — the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl — is because it’s one of 17 bowls owned and operated by ESPN Events. I’d be even more impressed if Herbstreit had popped his bosses for overlooking a blatant detail in their desperation to air such shlock: Mississippi State came in at 3-7. The takeaway is this: Whereas Tony (the $180 million man) Romo missed his CBS assignment Sunday, due to COVID protocols, Herbstreit showed up and won the weekend.

Tom Rinaldi, Fox Sports — His ballyhooed move from ESPN doesn’t require much dissection. As a sentimental storyteller and interviewer, Rinaldi realized Fox is ensconced in the sacred Super Bowl rotation (unlike ESPN), carries the NFC championship game every year (unlike ESPN), televises the World Series every year (unlike ESPN) and has soccer’s World Cup in 2022 (unlike ESPN). He also is being paid appreciably more at Fox than at ESPN, where Disney has tightened pursestrings once yanked wide open for leading talent. He also has bosses who value his dramatic deliveries — OK, melodramatic — even more than they did at ESPN, which now can let foul-mouthed rappers set scenes with musical collages. “The biggest events on Fox just got bigger because of Tom,’’ said Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks, who describes Rinaldi as “one of the all-time great people in this business and a generational storyteller.’’ Indeed, Rinaldi is a happy and upbeat fellow, and he’ll be very happy painting pictures of hope, inspiration and kindness at Fox. Sometimes it’s as simple as a guy still believing sports is all about fairy tales and wanting to maximize his glee.

Mike Valenti, Detroit talk host — How refreshing to see a harsh critic of a rancid sports franchise gain the support of his corporate superiors … and ultimately win a political tug-of-war. Valenti was so scathing in his attacks on the Detroit Lions — and rightfully so — that they fled his station, 97.1 The Ticket, and took their broadcast rights to another outlet five years ago. In an uncommon step for sports radio, CBS Radio backed Valenti in the standoff, and last month, the Lions returned to The Ticket (now owned by Entercom) with their tail between their legs. How uncomfortable did the team make it for him at the time? Valenti said the senior vice president of communications, Bill Keenist, tried to have him fired and called him frequently during commercial breaks, disputing points he’d expressed on the air. Keenist has denied this, but I happened to be on the same college newspaper staff as Bill, and, yes, he can be a rah-rah shill who thinks he’s a media-controlling sheriff. Of course, I have my own experiences in this regard: a Chicago sports owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, leading a charge to run me off ESPN 1000 despite my stellar ratings. If someone with the stones of Valenti’s corporate backer, Chris Oliviero, had run my station back then, I’d still be ruling sports radio there. This time, content won and manipulation lost.

Dave Portnoy, Barstool Sports — This is the second straight “Five Who Get It’’ where I flunk math and count to six. But I am astonished — gobsmacked, actually — that the clown prince of sports media has raised more than $16 million for small businesses via The Barstool Fund. Of course, Portnoy could raise billions and not make us forget his racist and sexist rants and the creepy way he got started in the industry: publishing a photo of Tom Brady’s naked, then-toddler son. Consider this a healthy step forward … though, chances are, he’ll eventually step back into the same sewage.

THEY DON’T GET IT

Dan Le Batard, Free Agent — I commend him for a classy, grateful farewell show, with nothing but love for his father and colleagues on his final “Highly Questionable.’’ Still, it was awkward to see the host yapping on ESPN’s TV and radio platforms weeks after parting with a network he has napalmed for years. If ESPN is trying to expunge the Le Batard memory and move on, it shouldn’t have brought him back for a final day of shows in 2021. A bigger question for ESPN boss Norby Williamson, centrally involved in the divorce proceedings: What ultimately happens to Le Batard’s stable of loyal friends who remain on his former TV program? Ratings for the network’s afternoon talk block aren’t wowing anyone these days, and after the “High Noon’’ flop, the network should push creator Erik Rydholm to develop a fresher realm of programming. That is: less cartoonish humor and more viewer-connective substance. A note to Le Batard, 52, and his radio gang: The longer you stay idle with no major gig — Spotify? Sirius XM? — the less impact you’ll make in the future. “We approach this scary cliff together to take quite the leap of faith. Are you ready to jump with us?’’ Le Batard asked his radio fans. “If you’ve paid close attention, we’ve been ready to take this leap for awhile. We know the strength of the army that stands at attention at our back. I promise you, we’re going to show you how much we don’t take that for granted. I can’t wait to take you on this fight, and this flight, with us.” Are they doing radio? Or going to war?

Sports Betting Executives — Has someone stolen Chad Millman’s identity? Or was he always diabolical, even as editor-in-chief at ESPN.com, in hoping gambling sites disrupt the future of legitimate sports journalism? Now a top boss at the Action Network, Millman was asked by the Washington Post if betting companies will “save or swallow’’ sports media. “Why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t it be both?’’ he shot back. Does Millman not realize these are two disparate universes a zillion miles apart in moral purpose and intent? Does he actually think a game that bottomed into a rout an hour earlier can be connected in any ethical or realistic way to the phony game — driven by point spreads, over-unders and fantasy teams — still going on in the final minutes? It’s the latest comment that portends an alarming new reality: Authentic and responsible sports coverage will be devoured by brands, including those in mainstream media, chasing the casino money. Then there’s Brian Musburger, CEO of the Vegas Stats & Information Network. In a stunning statement that might interest the FBI, among others, Musburger sees hiring professional journalists and using inside information culled from sources and locker rooms to feed tips to bettors. WTF? Referring to Teddy Greenstein, the college football and golf writer who left the Chicago Tribune to join something called PointsBet Sportsbook, Musburger told the Post, “There is a long history of guys looking for an edge. It’s harder to have that now because information happens so fast. But guys like Teddy, who have their ear to the ground and have covered a beat — whether they know it or not, they have information important to sports bettors.” Excuse me while I take three showers. If leagues and teams begin to credential writers from such operations — not impossible as partnerships between sports and gambling interests blossom — hell, why not just stop writing about games and athletes and turn all reporters into dirtbags, tweeting every eavesdropped tip he or she unearths so some loser in Jersey City can lay down a phone wager? Said Musburger, nephew of media legend (and one-time crack journalist) Brent Musburger, who hosts a radio show for VSIN: “The places that have the money to hire the best writers right now are the folks that are serving the gambling audience. So it’s interesting.” No, it’s frightening — consider the scandals that await in sports and media when strategies like his exist. Unlike some writers, I’m fortunate I don’t have to work for these sites. But be damned sure I’ll be watchdogging them.

Charles Barkley, TNT — Don’t say I didn’t warn Barkley if he ends up in the craphole again. The man-child who once admitted to a gambling addiction that cost him at least $10 million — $2.5 million in six hours alone — somehow was allowed by the network (and parent AT&T) to place $100,000 on the Portland Trail Blazers to win the Western Conference. This actually happened during “Inside The NBA,’’ via league partner FanDuel, which suggests Barkley has slipped into dangerous old habits while NBA commissioner Adam Silver has lost his moral compass. I don’t care if Barkley ends up broke, but I do care if young people vulnerable to gambling illnesses now think it’s cool to bet on sports because Charles did so on TV. Of course, legal bets now can be made in numerous states over cellphones, many of which have accounts with … AT&T. Wait, I’m not through with Barkley. After Kevin Durant replied to post-game questions from the “Inside The NBA’’ crew with short answers — Barkley is a frequent critic of Durant — Barkley not only ridiculed Durant but brushed aside Kenny Smith’s subsequent question about whether it still bothers Charles that he never won a championship ring. He went into a sideways rant about idiot media people, not realizing he can be one himself.

Scott Van Pelt, ESPN — I’m thankful when anyone returns from the clutches of COVID-19, including the “SportsCenter’’ anchor. Perhaps he regrets his foolish comments of last spring. In the early stages of the pandemic, with sports on pause and trying to figure out responsible steps forward, Van Pelt callously argued one night that athletes — the strongest and ablest among us, he said — should be allowed to immediately resume games. Never mind the death toll in the real world. Never mind that ESPN had a vested interest in live events. Van Pelt spoke from an empty mind, not realizing that “One Big Thing’’ would become “One Real Big Thing’’ in his life come December. An idea: How about a segment where he lists the number of sports people infected since he opined so irresponsibly? People ask why I don’t like Van Pelt. It’s not about liking him … I just don’t respect him. Can we see more Neil Everett in that time slot, please?

Vince Doria, ex-ESPN executive — Not sure what possessed him to sit on the story of Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend in 2013, or why he let Te’o’s high-powered agent influence him in the matter. But Doria, an editor who launched many legendary news careers, lost respect when his former employer shamed him this week on a “Backstory’’ episode. He preferred to negotiate with agent Tom Condon for a face-to-face interview with the humiliated linebacker rather than immediately publish the news ESPN already had gathered, allowing a few rubes at since-deadspun Deadspin to finally get a story right after farcically botching so many others (oh, the lies they’ve told about me and anyone else who criticizes them). What’s interesting is how they’ve all since faded away — Doria into retirement, Te’o to the Chicago Bears’ practice squad and the ex-Deadspinners to menial jobs where they evidently can’t afford to wear better clothes on “Backstory.’’ When asked by ESPN reporter Don Van Natta Jr. if, in hindsight, he’d rather have the scoop or interview, Doria admitted, “Probably the scoop.’’ This is what happens, I suspect, when newspaper editors become TV bosses. They think ratings first, journalism second.

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Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content

Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.

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USA Today

When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.

“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.

Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:

1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”

2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.

The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.

I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.

Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”

There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.

First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.

The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.

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BSM Writers

The Client Just Said YES, Now What?

We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.

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One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!

We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.

When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.

They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.

A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 74

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This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.

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