The new scariest-word-in-the-vocabulary is “variants.” They’ve arrived in America from far-flung coronavirus capitals, such as South Africa and Brazil, and they are mutating with enough infectious potency to weaken the efficacy of vaccines that are supposed to save us. “A wakeup call,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, who really hasn’t been wrong yet.
Except you won’t hear “variants” uttered much this week in Tampa, where the NFL is throwing itself a COVID-19 victory party of sorts. Roger Goodell and the owners are ready to turn Super Bowl Sunday into a patriotic celebration of perseverance, having demonstrated how to survive a pandemic-pocked season without cancelling even one game. I can hear Jim Nantz now, gushing about the triumph of our inherent spirit and the light at the end of our dark national tunnel. Certainly, in the short term, the league should be proud of its six-month effort — which seems too good and clean to be true — while trumpeting its success in a scientific paper published by the Centers for Disease Control.
“We hope that our experience will have benefits for public health generally, and we’re pleased that the CDC was willing to engage with us on that topic,” league executive Jeff Miller said.
“We were able to show that you can play a team sport while minimizing risk to the participants,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.
The problem with all this backslapping, of course, is that it creates a false and premature narrative: an almighty sports league showing Americans how to navigate the virus landmines. In truth, the only light created was within the NFL itself. When the 32 franchises alone are worth a collective $100 billion, it isn’t too difficult to invest $100 million in the 955,000-plus daily tests that kept the schedule as coronavirus-free as possible. Confronting COVID-19 is more easily accomplished when the wealthy and privileged are driving the tanks. So let’s not shoot off fireworks and turn this into the 2021 version of a previous Americana spectacle in the same Florida city, 30 years ago, when Whitney Houston made us cry during the Persian Gulf War with the greatest national anthem of all.
Our war against the pandemic is not ending. It is just getting started.
“The road to herd immunity from the coronavirus suddenly looks longer,” the Washington Post wrote Sunday. “The emergence of more transmissible, potentially vaccine-evading variants threatens to extend the global health disaster and make 2021 feel too much like 2020. A complicated mix of good news and bad news makes any forecast for the coming months fuzzy. But scientists have one clear and sobering message: The pandemic is a long way from over.”
In that context, the NFL’s ability to reach the Super Bowl is merely a one-percenter conquest. A fraternity of owners didn’t reap their usual revenues — about $12 billion, down from last season’s $15.2 billion — but did maintain heady momentum veering into broadcast-rights negotiations that will bring staggering increases from four network partners and a streamer such as Amazon. They also can brag at their country clubs about staring down COVID-19 and winning … until next season, when the same logistical problems await if vaccines aren’t rolled out more quickly and efficiently.
And to think the sports kingdom assumed 2021 would be so much better and simpler. The calendar flipped to January, ending our annus horribilis. A presidential transition took place, an elderly man replacing a loon. George Clooney even emerged to say “we’re gonna be OK,” and, gee, we can’t thank him enough for that. So, by logical extension, we’d soon be shedding masks, attending games, launching saliva globules without shame and renewing our collective lifelong vow with sports.
Not to throw a stinkbomb on the resumption fairy tale, but as we scan the global landscape, even Sports Pollyannas are wearing Chicken Little suits. The Tokyo Olympics might be shut down and leave an eight-year gap between Rio de Janeiro and Paris. Super Bowl LV will have 48,000 empty seats swallowing 22,000 scattered fans, none allowed on the Raymond James Stadium pirate ship. The wife of the infected Russian hockey superstar, Alex Ovechkin, thinks she’s an epidemiologist and suspects a U.S. conspiracy. Basketball and hockey games are postponed by the hour, rosters decimated beyond recognition. The NBA is attempting to curb outbreaks by banning post-game hugs, even after 20-some players and three game officials spend the previous two hours sweating and breathing on each other.
Meet the new sports. Same as the old sports.
Nothing has changed, nor will it anytime soon. COVID-19 is still the house bully, or the devil, and the longer it’s allowed to rage with deadly force in 2021, the more the virus weakens an industry mechanism that can’t afford another year with few or no fans in the buildings. We’ll continue to consume pandemic sports via television and streaming, as we generally have done the past 11 months, and we’ll watch games inside massive makeshift studios until enough Americans are vaccinated to resume sociable live experiences. But what that target date is … the health experts keep pushing it back, like LeBron James’ hairline, to the point he could be as bald as Michael Jordan before the first capacity crowd is allowed inside a stadium or arena.
Months? Next year? The year after? When?
What was presumed to be a blip, and then a phase, is now the grudgingly accepted new way of sporting life. The fans have adjusted, finding the NFL conference title games in ample numbers and other leagues sporadically because, hey, what else is there to do but watch TV? Broadcast networks keep pretending the virus doesn’t exist in a hocus-pocus game with viewers. Advertisers are feeling enough buzz to keep supporting the programming inventory, to the point we’re sick of Jake from State Farm and Lily at the AT&T Store. It’s easier now making legal bets than clipping toe nails, as simple as a phone call in many states. Media sites continue to cover it all, though never more awkwardly, as if life-and-death-occupied human beings want to waste time psychoanalyzing Kyrie Irving or arguing where Deshaun Watson should play next.
Yet sometime not far off, a breaking point is coming. Because, at its core, sports is a cluster of multi-billion-dollar corporations dependent on all revenue streams to support high-priced labor. And if COVID-19 outbreaks continue to sabotage schedules deep into the new year, the industry will start to crack, and then crash. The pipedream of herd immunity, essential to the full-throttle resumption of sports, is further endangered by the onrush of these aggressive variants. And any hope of an expedited vaccine rollout this winter — Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration called it — is more comparable to a cement-mixer crawl. Meaning, the NBA and NHL potentially could lose billions. And Major League Baseball, careening toward an inevitable labor impasse, already is locked in early strife between owners who want to delay the season and players who do not.
Sports has no one to blame for the prolonged misery but, of course, sports. In the insistent rush to mush through COVID and complete haphazard seasons, the leagues have sent a reckless message to the masses. When games are played and create a sense of perverse normalcy, some unenlightened people watch and think, “Hey, I don’t have to wear a mask if they aren’t wearing masks playing basketball.” Thus, despite 450,000 U.S. deaths and collapsing hospital systems, millions of Americans have spread the virus with sports as a contributing enabler — if not a superspreader itself. Has the NFL even thought about infection possibilities Sunday, with 25 percent of respondents to a USA Today poll indicating they’ll attend gatherings to watch the Buccaneers play host — I’ve waited forever to write that — to the Chiefs? In Los Angeles, the virus epicenter where outdoor dining finally has resumed, a county order mandates that “televisions or other screens that broadcast programming must remain off until further notice” on outdoor restaurant patios.
Shouldn’t that be a national mandate? “It will be tragic if the Super Bowl becomes a superspreader of coronavirus,” said Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County public health director. “Don’t organize a party at home. Don’t go to a Super Bowl party.”
It’s a vicious cycle, hurdling headlong toward March 11, the anniversary of Rudy Gobert Night in America. Did you honestly believe, after the Utah Jazz center recorded the first positive test in U.S. professional sports, that we’d still be swirling in the COVID storm a year later? You would if you were watching the Jazz the other night, when Gobert went to the bench, removed his mask and started talking to teammates. If he hasn’t learned, will anyone? All you need to know is that Tom Brady, again the star of Super Bowl week at the incomprehensible age of 43 years and six months, was petrified when both his parents contracted the virus in September. They’ve recovered and will be in Raymond James Stadium to watch their legendary son try to win his seventh league championship.
“They’re doing great, so I think that’s the best part about all of it — they came through it,” Brady said. “There are a lot of things that happen in your life. Like all of us, as you get older, there’s more that you take on. I still obviously love going out there and competing. But on the other side of that, there’s a lot of family things that are very important to me. Certainly, the health of my parents is very important. I’ll be very excited to know my parents will be in the stands for the game on Sunday.”
With most of the country still homebound, hoping that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline as vaccinations accelerate, Brady’s matchup against Patrick Mahomes — literally for the ages, and for once not a cliche — should attract more than 100 million viewers. The common fan doesn’t care that celebrity parties aren’t happening in Tampa, or that “Opening Night” actually featured daytime Zoom interviews with only nine players per team instead of the usual free-for-all involving hundreds of media. All America wants is some semblance of normalcy, and while this Super Bowl experience will be much more isolated than convivial, pro football has exhibited staying power while other sports have struggled with inconsistent viewership.
The NBA is in an ugly place, cutting and pasting, trying to save a season and avoid financial doom. If the Disney Bubble was magical, the real world is maniacal. The only games worth watching involve top contenders — Lakers, Clippers, 76ers, Bucks — and, I suppose, the follies of a Nets experiment that features three of basketball’s supreme talents but also a spectacular lack of defense and consistency. With teams such as the Heat and Wizards leveled by outbreaks, the league faces a competitive imbalance problem that could lead to a hollow ending — and an 2020-21 asterisk.
The NHL, playing indoors in the virus-conducive chill, already has postponed a slew of games after commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will lose billions playing a truncated season. “Let me make something really clear: We’re coming back to play this season because we think it’s important for the game, because our fans and our players want us to, and it may give people — particularly in isolation, or where there are curfews — a sense of normalcy and something to do,” Bettman said. “It would be cheaper for us to shut the doors and not play. We’re going to lose more money, at the club level and the league level, by playing than by not playing.”
As for whatever they’re doing Down Under, I was stunned to see 4,000 maskless fans in Adelaide — a city said to be COVID-free — watching Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and others play a pre-Australian Open exhibition. The gathering came just hours after a controversial 14-day quarantine, required of all players participating in the season’s first Grand Slam tournament — which is allowing up to 30,000 fans per day at Melbourne Park. The Aussies think they’ve conquered the virus. As we know in America, the minute you think you’ve won, you’re about to lose.
And the Olympics? Can you say sayonara? We know trouble looms because NBCUniversal is issuing hopeful statements — “I believe there will be an Olympics,” said CEO Brian Roberts of parent Comcast — as the Japanese government and residents openly resist the Summer Games with or without spectators. Tokyo was supposed to represent the symbolic restart of sport as we’ve known it. Instead, it could be a casualty of massive proportions.
Only the NFL has shown relative immunity, keeping a date with a Super Bowl once thought impossible. This is the team sport utilizing the largest swath of athletes, with the closest proximity to each other on a line of scrimmage, but the trick was being outdoors and not on university campuses, as we saw during a chaotic college football season. NFL players and their families miraculously heeded Goodell’s midseason warnings to follow protocols. Are we absolutely sure the league didn’t procure the earliest vaccines and distribute them to everyone but the Cleveland Browns, who nonetheless played well and nearly upset the Chiefs?
We’ll be hearing plenty this week from Dr. Sills, who will tell us why the 32 NFL Bubbles were some of the safest places in the land. We’ll also be hearing from Dr. Goodell, citing his COVID-19 success story as another example of why the NFL is king.
Honestly? I think everyone should just say a group prayer, play the damned game and be very, very, very thankful a catastrophe was avoided. Because no one is winning here except King COVID.
Would Local Radio Benefit From Hosting An Annual Upfront?
How many times have you heard this sentence uttered at conferences or in one of the trades; radio has to do a better job of telling its story. Sounds reasonable enough right? After all, your brands and companies stand a better chance of being more consumed and invested in the more that others know about them.
But what specifically about your brand’s story matters to those listening or spending money on it? Which outlets are you supposed to share that news with to grow your listenership and advertising? And who is telling the story? Is it someone who works for your company and has a motive to advance a professional agenda, or someone who’s independent and may point out a few holes in your strategy, execution, and results?
As professionals working in the media business, we’re supposed to be experts in the field of communications. But are we? We’re good at relaying news when it makes us look good or highlights a competitor coming up short. How do we respond though when the story isn’t told the we want it to? Better yet, how many times do sports/news talk brands relay information that isn’t tied to quarterly ratings, revenue or a new contract being signed? We like to celebrate the numbers that matter to us and our teams, but we don’t spend much time thinking about if those numbers matter to the right groups – the audience and the advertisers.
Having covered the sports and news media business for the past seven years, and published nearly eighteen thousand pieces of content, you’d be stunned if you saw how many nuggets of information get sent to us from industry folks looking for publicity vs. having to chase people down for details or read things on social media or listen to or watch shows to promote relevant material. Spoiler alert, most of what we produce comes from digging. There are a handful of outlets and PR folks who are great, and five or six PD’s who do an excellent job consistently promoting news or cool things associated with their brands and people. Some talent are good too at sharing content or tips that our website may have an interest in.
Whether I give the green light to publish the material or not, I appreciate that folks look for ways to keep their brands and shows on everyone’s radar. Brand leaders and marketing directors should be battling daily in my opinion for recognition anywhere and everywhere it’s available. If nobody is talking about your brand then you have to give them a reason to.
I’m writing this column today because I just spent a day in New York City at the Disney Upfront, which was attended by a few thousand advertising professionals. Though I’d have preferred a greater focus on ESPN than what was offered, I understand that a company the size of Disney with so many rich content offerings is going to have to condense things or they’d literally need a full week of Upfronts to cover it all. They’re also trying to reach buyers and advertising professionals who have interests in more than just sports.
What stood out to me while I was in attendance was how much detail went into putting on a show to inform, entertain, and engage advertising professionals. Disney understands the value of telling its story to the right crowd, and they rolled out the heavy hitters for it. There was a strong mix of stars, executives, promotion of upcoming shows, breaking news about network deals, access to the people responsible for bringing advertising to life, and of course, free drinks. It was easy for everyone in the room to gain an understanding of the company’s culture, vision, success, and plans to capture more market share.
As I sat in my seat, I wondered ‘why doesn’t radio do this on a local level‘? I’m not talking about entertaining clients in a suite, having a business dinner for a small group of clients or inviting business owners and agency reps to the office for a rollout of forthcoming plans. I’m talking about creating an annual event that showcases the power of a cluster, the stars who are connected to the company’s various brands, unveiling new shows, promotions and deals, and using the event as a driver to attract more business.
Too often I see our industry rely on things that have worked in the past. We assume that if it worked before there’s no need to reinvent the wheel for the client. Sometimes that’s even true. Maybe the advertiser likes to keep things simple and communicate by phone, email or in-person lunch meetings. Maybe a creative powerpoint presentation is all you need to get them to say yes. If it’s working and you feel that’s the best way forward to close business, continue with that approach. There’s more than one way to reach the finish line.
But I believe that most people like being exposed to fresh ideas, and given a peak behind the curtain. The word ‘new’ excites people. Why do you think Apple introduces a new iPhone each year or two. We lose sight sometimes of how important our brands and people are to those not inside the walls of our offices. We forget that whether a client spends ten thousand or ten million dollars per year with our company, they still like to be entertained. When you allow business people to feel the excitement associated with your brand’s upcoming events, see the presentations on a screen, and hear from and interact with the stars involved in it, you make them feel more special. I think you stand a better chance of closing deals and building stronger relationships that way.
Given that many local clusters have relationships with hotels, theaters, teams, restaurants, etc. there’s no reason you can’t find a central location, and put together an advertiser appreciation day that makes partners feel valued. You don’t have to rent out Pier 36 like Disney or secure the field at a baseball stadium to make a strong impression. We show listeners they’re valued regularly by giving away tickets, cash, fan appreciation parties, etc. and guess what, it works! Yes there are expenses involved putting on events, and no manager wants to hear about spending money without feeling confident they’ll generate a return on investment. That said, taking calculated risks is essential to growing a business. Every day that goes by where you operate with a ‘relying on the past’ mindset, and refuse to invest in growth opportunities, is one that leaves open the door for others to make sure your future is less promising.
There are likely a few examples of groups doing a smaller scaled version of what I’m suggesting. If you’re doing this already, I’d love to hear about it. Hit me up through email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com. By and large though, I don’t see a lot of must-see, must-discuss events like this created that lead to a surplus of press, increased relationships, and most importantly, increased sales. Yet it can be done. Judging from some of the feedback I received yesterday talking to people in the room, it makes an impression, and it matters.
I don’t claim to know how many ad agency executives and buyers returned to the office from the Disney Upfront and reached out to sign new advertising deals with the company. What I am confident in is that Disney wouldn’t invest resources in creating this event nor would other national groups like NBC, FOX, CBS, WarnerMedia, etc. if they didn’t feel it was beneficial to their business. Rather than relying on ratings and revenue stories that serve our own interests, maybe we’d help ourselves more by allowing our partners and potential clients to experience what makes our brands special. It works with our listeners, and can work with advertisers too.
Brandon Kiley Doesn’t Pretend To Be Someone He’s Not
“There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it.”
There must have been something about Brandon Kiley that everyone saw as a young aspiring sports radio host. Nick Wright saw enough to bring him to Houston at SportsRadio 610 as an intern for a summer. Will Palaszczuk saw enough to urge him to apply for his old job in Columbia, MO at KTGR. Ben Heisler saw enough to know he’d fit perfectly with Carrington Harrison in afternoon drive at 610 Sports in Kansas City.
Maybe you can chalk it up to Kiley being able to make such great contacts. Or maybe it’s just that he was supremely talented at a young age. Odds are it’s a combination of both. But he was destined to be a sports talk host somewhere, it just turns out he’s having success over the air in a city he never imagined he’d work in.
A Kansas City kid, Kiley knew at 16 years old he wanted to be a sports radio host. He was even more sure of it when he started doing college radio at Mizzou. But it was in Houston where he got his real taste of what sports radio was like.
“I went to 610 in Houston for the morning show with Nick Wright,” Kiley said. “He basically just assigned me as an extra producer. We had known about each other through Twitter and I had a little bit of a relationship with him beforehand. I think he knew I was willing and able to take on more tasks than a typical intern would usually do. Essentially, I became an extra guest booker, cut audio for them, and came up with topics at night. It was like he had an extra producer for the summer and it was my first real experience doing something like that.”
Imagine the confidence he left Houston with as he traveled back to Columbia for another year of college at Mizzou. Few, if any, on campus could have claimed the kind of summer Kiley just had. He parlayed that experience into a once-a-week show at KCOU, the student radio station. The following semester, he pitched the idea of doing a daily show
“I told them I’d take any time slot available,” Kiley said. “The one that I got was the very glamorous 6-7 am time slot. There weren’t a whole lot of college kids that wanted to wake up that early every morning. I ended up having a rotating cast of co-hosts and it ended up being super valuable because I learned how to work with a lot of types of personalities.”
He excelled as a host and found his style behind the mic, and soon after, he got his first big break. In March of 2014, Will Palaszczuk contacted Kiley and told him he was taking another radio job outside the market. The two knew of each other, seeing as both were in Columbia and covering the same games in town. Palacsuk told Kiley he needed to apply for the spot he was leaving at KTGR.
“There was literally one sports station and one sports show in town and it was that one,” Kiley said. “I applied to him the previous semester and said, hey man, if you guys have anything available I would love to come work there. It just so happened he got a job elsewhere and he called me up and said, ‘Hey man, I don’t know what your plans are, I’m about to take another job and they’re going to post my job available. I don’t know if they’re going to make it a producer or co-host gig, but I think you should apply because I think you’d be good at it’. Will’s good work helped a ton in terms of me landing the gig. I graduated and told them I wanted to make it full-time.I was essentially a producer and co-host for the afternoon show. I never even applied anywhere outside of Columbia”
For two years, Kiley stayed at KTGR and covered the Missouri Tigers. He was fresh out of college and living in a college town doing what he loved in his early 20’s. It wasn’t a bad life. But one night in Columbia changed his entire professional career. It just so happened it occurred on the rooftop at Harpo’s, one of the most well-known establishments in town.
“My roommate at the time, we both worked at the radio station in Columbia,” said Kiley. “He worked at the hit music station and I worked at the sports station. We all went out one night at Harpo’s and he said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you guys know I’m getting out of radio and moving to Kansas City.’ I was like, oh shit, what am I going to do? Our lease was up in two months, so the timing worked out well and I was looking at Barrett Sports Media looking where I could go next.”
“My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, was from St. Louis and there was a job available there. I had always thought, that’s not a place I want to live, why would I ever want to live in St. Louis? They didn’t have a football team, it just didn’t seem like a great fit for me. But my buddy tells me he’s moving and I’m like, St, Louis it is! That night I ended up applying for the job and got a call back from Chris “Hoss” Neupert, who at the time was the PD here, and asked if I would be interviewed with him and Kevin Wheeler, whose show I would be producing.”
So off to St. Louis he goes. For three and a half years, Kiley embraces his new city and tries to work his way up at 101 ESPN.
But the Kansas City kid felt a pull back to his hometown. Oddly enough, Ben Heisler even reached out to tell him he was leaving the station to pursue another opportunity in sports. It felt like the perfect time to pursue his dream of doing sports radio at the station he grew up listening to.
“I’m from Kansas City and grew up listening to 610 Sports Radio,” Kiley said. “A guy I listened to growing up was Nick Wright. I also listened to a bunch of Carrington Harrison, Danny Parkins and Ben Heisler. Those guys had what I consider one of the best shows in Kansas City sports radio history. I got to know them through Twitter and Heisler sent me a text. He knows I’ve always been interested in moving to KC. He tells me he’s about to get out of radio and into more fantasy football stuff and his job is going to come open.
“I had applied for multiple other jobs in KC over the years and had never gotten any real consideration. When Heisler left, I knew Carrington and thought this might work out. I ended up getting in contact with their PD Steven Spector and it felt like a real opportunity. I got what I considered to be my dream job, producing in the afternoons and hosting a Saturday show at 610 Sports. I thought, what could there be more in life than this? This is the best.”
But life happened and he had to make a decision around three months after moving to Kansas City.
“2-3 months later it became clear, it was going to be difficult for my girlfriend, now wife, to move to Kansas City with all of the family ties she had in St. Louis,” said Kiley. “It was the decision of, do you stay in Kansas City and chase the dream or do we alter the dream, in terms of the job, and see if there’s anything in St. Louis?”
He never thought his best years and most successful years as a sports radio host would come in St. Louis but they have. It’s a city he loves and he’s worked hard in hopes it will love him back. But he’s also not going to pretend to be someone he’s not. Though it can sometimes be hard for St Louisans to accept someone that’s not from there, Kiley doesn’t act like he attended World Series games in 1982, listened to Jack Buck growing up or watched Kurt Warner at the Edward Jones Dome. He’s himself.
“That wasn’t my love and I can’t pretend that it was,” said Kiley. “Have there been times, especially early on where that was a potential issue for me? Yeah it was. There was a time where the audience probably said, this guy isn’t a St Louisan. But this is home for me now and I’ve adopted it. It does in a lot of ways remind me of Kansas City, where if you take the time to know what the soul of the city really is, in terms of sports, I think people can appreciate and respect it.”
Kiley doesn’t hold on to his Kansas City roots on the air, in terms of the topics he talks about. He’s a Chiefs fan and even writes for Arrowhead Pride, but he’s not going to talk a lot about the Chiefs in a city that doesn’t have an NFL team. He’s also a Mizzou grad and talks about the teams on Rock M Nation, but again, he’s rarely, if ever, going to do several segments a day on the Tigers. Instead, he knows the audience wants to hear about the Cardinals. Blues talk is clearly next in line. Everything else falls down the order if not off of it completely.
Kiley grew up watching baseball, so he can easily break down what issues the Cards’ offense may be having in the middle of May, but hockey was different. He didn’t grow up around the game and the transition to having in-depth conversations on the Blues was a more difficult task.
“When I came here the first time it was during the middle of a Blues’ playoff run. At that time I was just plopped into this thing, and I didn’t know shit about hockey. I had probably watched about 10 hockey games in my entire life. I’m looking at Kevin Wheeler like, I’ve got to be honest I don’t have a lot on hockey I’m going to be able to help you with. If you could help bring me along with it, that would be great. Over the years I’ve been able to take it in. I used to host a show with Jamie Rivers, who’s a former Blues player. If you told me five years ago I’d be able to do that, much less enjoy doing that, I would have said you’re out of your damn mind.”
Whereas most sports radio shows in football markets are searching for content to help fill segments, this is one of the sweetest times of the year for Kiley and everyone at 101 ESPN. The Blues are deep in the playoffs and the Major League Baseball season is underway. His show BK and Ferrario covers it all every weekday from 11 am – 2 pm.
Kiley never thought this would be his life, but he loves what he’s built in St.Louis and doesn’t give off the vibe he’s looking to leave anytime soon. He’s a great example of someone who didn’t pigeonhole himself into just one market. He was willing to look outside of his hometown and has found true success.
Will Middlebrooks Has Been The Breakout Star Of The Red Sox Season
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?”
The Boston Red Sox experience in 2022 is just different. In every way.
The team has struggled out of the gate. They certainly aren’t the team that was two wins away from the World Series last year.
Fenway Park doesn’t even accept cash anymore.
But it’s not just that the Red Sox are different on the field or at the ballpark – they are different on television too.
When loveable, longtime Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy died in October 2021 at the age of 68, we knew that consuming the Red Sox on TV would never be the same.
There is no replacing Jerry Remy. One person can’t do it. No way.
And the fans know it.
The bosses at the NESN know it too. They haven’t tried to replace Remy on the broadcasts with just one person.
In fact, they’ve brought in several new people to the broadcast team. A group of people just rotating in, giving viewers a different experience and a different perspective every night.
They’ve added former Red Sox players Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar to the broadcast booth roster. They’ve added Tony Massarotti of 98.5 The Sports Hub as well.
And in the pre- and post-game studio, they’ve taken a similar approach, which is an extension of previous years, mixing and matching host Tom Caron with a slew of former Red Sox players including Jim Rice, Tim Wakefield, Ellis Burks, Lenny DiNardo, and former Sox infielder Will Middlebrooks, who will be in the studio for about 40 games this season.
I think that NESN has found a formula that works. It’s been fun and informative – and different. In a year that serves as a constant reminder of what’s been lost as a viewer, it’s refreshing to realize that these broadcast teams are giving you something gained.
A star is born.
When I mentioned to Caron that I wanted to write a piece on Middlebrooks, he said: “He’s a rising star.”
And it’s easy to see why he feels that way.
Will Middlebrooks is young (33), accessible, opinionated, active on social media, and he has the playing resume to legitimize his point of view.
But it took some real coaxing to get into the business in the first place. After a devastating leg injury ended his playing career in 2019, Middlebrooks was unhappy.
“I sat around and sulked and was angry about it for about three months,” he said. “And my wife, Jenny (Dell), finally said, ‘You need to get off your butt and do something, find not just, work, but find something you’re passionate about again.’”
He didn’t know at that time that he was passionate about media work, but Dell, who works for CBS Sports, volunteered him to do a show at CBS Sports HQ in Ft. Lauderdale, near where their family resides.
“She said, like it or not, you have a show in three days. You’re going to try it out, and if you’re good at it, they’re going to hire you,” he recounts of their conversation. “I was like, I don’t want to do it. I’m not ready to talk about baseball. I hate baseball right now. I just have such a bad taste in my mouth from everything that happened over the past year.”
But that didn’t deter Dell from pushing her husband to take the chance.
“She said, well, I don’t care. I already told them that said you would do it,” he says. “So she kind of threw me to the wolves, but for the best. And I went in and I gritted my teeth and just got it done and then talked baseball. I did it a couple of more times and they said, ‘Hey, you’re decent at this. We’re going to hire you on for a year!” “And here we are, I’m four years into it,” he joked.
And over those four years, Middlebrooks has ballooned into one of the most recognizable follows for baseball fans. In addition to working at NESN and CBS Sports, he’s also one-half of the Wake and Rake podcast, has appeared on ESPN Radio, has done color commentary for college baseball, and has more than 155,000 Twitter followers.
Resonating with Boston
When I ask Middlebrooks about landing the NESN gig for 2022, he beams through the phone. He says he wanted the challenge of working in Boston and he welcomed the opportunity to expand his media footprint.
It’s evident that he loves the Red Sox – and the city of Boston. How couldn’t he? He made his Major League debut with the organization, played parts of three seasons with the team, won a World Series with the Sox, and met his wife in the city.
“If I was going to work for an organization or a regional sports network, why not the Red Sox, for someone that I’m actually a fan of?” he said.
While it’s clear that Will loves Boston, and it’s clear why NESN loves him, what needs more unpacking is the attachment that the Red Sox fans have to him considering he spent just those three seasons there and doesn’t live in New England full-time.
Middlebrooks can’t quite figure out why the people of the region hold him so close, but he does have a good hypothesis.
“I think that if I left anything, it was people saying, ‘well, he played hard. He gave everything he had,’ he said. “And I know that’s really important in Boston, just the blue-collar mentality of ‘keep your head down, work, play as hard as you can, even if things aren’t going well, just bust your butt and be a good teammate and all that.’”
But there just may be something else at play.
“I think a lot maybe had to do with when the marathon bombings (2013) happened…I’m pretty outspoken on social media about that stuff and with my teammates, we all rallied around each other,” he said. “I think I was just lucky enough to be a part of a team that was really special to everybody in Boston. So they embraced me after that.”
The Family Dynamic
Dell has been in sports media for more than a decade as a host and sideline reporter for CBS and NESN before that. She knows the business and its nuances. She understands when and how to look at the camera and when and how to ask questions of athletes. She knows the expectations of her husband’s current employers. She’s undoubtedly a great resource to have.
But as Middlebrooks finds his own footing in the business, and as his star grows, what is that dynamic like? She has the answers to the tests already, but how does he balance using that resource versus figuring things out on his own?
“I’m very open to anything she has to say,” he said. “I’ll come out of my office, like, ‘Hey, that was pretty good!’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, it was good…but…”
“She always has something, and at first it used to really annoy me, because I’m like, man, I thought I was doing really good,” he said. “And she’s like, ‘No, you are doing good. I’m just trying to help you get to that next level. There are just little things here and there that you don’t know.’ And as a competitor, it’s really frustrating. But you know, after a couple of minutes I walk away, I’m like, you know what? I’m really appreciative to have that access to someone that can help.”
At such a young age with such already vast experiences, it seems plausible that even bigger media steps could be in play for the former infielder. I asked him if he has a goal he’s working towards. Sunday Night Baseball? The MLB Network? Something else?
“One thing I’ve really learned is to not look too far down the road and kind of just live in the moment and enjoy the moment,” he said. “I’m really happy with being with with CBS and with NESN, and within that umbrella, of course, I would like to grow. Does that mean in the booth? Does that mean more games pre and post? Sure I’m up for anything where they want me, because what I’m doing right now, I feel like is a dream job outside of playing and I’m so happy with it.”
Middlebrooks has been on the NESN broadcasts all week and will continue through this weekend as the Red Sox host the Mariners in a four-game series.