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Cost Cutting Will Cost MLB Coverage Its Soul

“This sport’s history is a source of great pride for its consumers.”

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Baseball Bet

Major League Baseball recently offered long-term employees over the age of 50 a generous buyout package to leave the league and enjoy an early retirement or move on to another career. While any company is well within its rights to do so, the departures have left baseball missing part of its soul.

The Covid-19 pandemic hurt all sports hard, and sports media outlets as well. Still, it is exhausting to hear MLB talk about their losses. Most of the names I knew left MLB Advanced Media after iconic roles with the company. Others were involved in intricate programming that made up the now-defunct MLB Productions, which was morphed into MLB Network before the 2015 season.

When longtime columnist Richard Justice announced that he was departing, it made the rounds in both media and social media. Justice was an executive columnist for MLB for nine years after a long career at the Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, and Washington Post.

Justice alone is newsworthy, but in the days that followed a host of other longtime reporters announced the same thing.

Ken Gurnick, who covered the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1982, and was will MLB since the inception of MLB.COM in 2001. Greg Johns, a journalist with 41 years of experience, his last 10 covering the Mariners for MLB. T.R. Sullivan covered the Texas Rangers for 32 years beginning with the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram before moving to MLB.com. Joe Frisaro covered the Miami Marlins since 2002 for MLB.COM. 

There are dozens of other employees and the purpose of this column was not to simply list them all.  They ranged from producers to IT experts to journalists and much more. They make up part of the soul of baseball.

Upon speaking with a handful of the many people who took the buyout, none of them could speak to me about it as per the conditions of their departure.

“You have a belt-tightening commissioner,” one former MLB executive told me. This person was not part of the 2020 buyout.

“The league needed to dump bodies.  Whatever the reason, older bodies are too expensive. This was a way to avoid layoffs. It’s kind of classy, but the heart and soul of the long-standing tradition are from people who are now going to now find new things. I think you’ll find these people resurfacing elsewhere.”

I worked for MLB Advanced Media from 2001 to 2008. Then, the outlet was struggling to be taken seriously as a journalistic outlet. These writers were instrumental in telling the stories of a sport desperate for good storytelling.

Over the years, MLBAM as it was known, became a tech empire that the league drew profits from.  When I heard owners commenting about the financial losses that the pandemic was impacting, I wanted to reply by asking about the incredible profits from the 2019 season, 2018, 2017, 2016…. How far should we go back?

The games will go on without them, but part of what drew me to work there and cover that sport was the personalities that made up the game. Under former Commissioner Bud Selig, this sport thrived. Sure, there was a fair share of controversies, and I attended two congressional hearings about steroids in the iconic building that was attacked last week horrifically.  Selig was far from a perfect commissioner, but he was a great boss. During his tenure, the league attendance set their all-time high record in 2005.  That record, will not be broken anytime soon.

Current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said during the 2020 World Series that holding the pandemic-stricken 2020 season cost the sport approximately $8 billion. Any business showing those kinds of losses would be expected to find cost-cutting. 

To be clear, none of these writers were forced to take the buyout. However, offering it at such a young age of 50 (yes, 50 is young!  I’m 46), invites too many talented people to leave when the sport needs the storytellers the most.

For MLB to make this offer, it shows that they do not value the journalism experience. My perception is that this league is more into clicks and tweets than articles and history.

While that might work for other companies in this digital age, that’s not what baseball is about. This sport’s history is a source of great pride for its consumers.

“While this is not good for baseball losing people who have countless years of experience,” one former Wall Street executive told me. “The people who are taking the buyout will look back and understand the economics behind why MLB offered it in the first place.”

The possibility of layoffs still exists in the league offices.

I’ve said on many radio shows.  A station could play a sound bite from Mike Trout to open a segment and give a free station t-shirt to the first listener who could identify him by voice.  Yet, anyone reading this column could recognize the voice of Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, or even Barry Bonds.

Attendance in baseball is on a 15-year downturn. Leaving 2020 out of the conversation (no fans were allowed due to Covid-19 until the playoffs and World Series), MLB attendance is down 1.62% in 2019, following a 4% drop the season before.  When I worked at MLB, we did shows on the attendance records between 2004 and 2007.  That feels like ancient history today.

The labor deal between the players and owners expires after the 2021 season. There have been conflicting reports about the financial viability of playing another season without fans, yet the players are insisting it all starts on time.

The two sides are so diametrically opposed to each other. The sport is evolving with the advent of launch-angle, and pitcher “openers” as opposed to “starters.” The union wants to preserve the old way players were paid.

I was against the 2020 season. I thought the league could have canceled the campaign and used Covid as the reason. Then, Manfred and MLBPA head Tony Clark should meet somewhere and quarantine for 7, 10, or 14 days. Then, don’t come out of a room until they have a new labor deal.

People would have been upset at the idea of no baseball last year. That won’t even come close to the vitriol that sport will see from fans if a vaccine is here and life is returning to normal, and there is no baseball then because of a strike or a lockout.

To the MLB employees that took the buyout. Congratulations. You are in a good position to do some great work in the next step of your individual careers. Or, enjoy a much-deserved retirement.  Your departure is baseball’s loss, not your own.

Still, MLB Network will continue to produce content. MLB.com will have a reporter to cover every team. Without the new “50+” group of former MLB employees, it simply can’t be as good. It won’t have the soul that it is greatly missing.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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