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Brad Thompson, Eric Bynes & Chris Townsend Examine MLB’s Challenges and Opportunities

“This year is almost a perfect blend of what we remember and what has become normal.”

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There was a time when walking to the ballpark meant seeing tailgaters, team stores and beer vendors. There were smells, sounds, sights and everything else that made walking to the ballpark such a special event. That’s not exactly what fans are experiencing this season as people flood back into ballparks, but it already far more resembles what we’re used to. Granted, you may be just as likely to see people getting COVID vaccines outside the ballpark than a group of guys playing catch and chugging beers, but seeing baseball revert back to a sense of normalcy has been incredibly therapeutic for many across the country. 

This year is almost a perfect blend of what we remember and what has become normal. Yes, we’re finally allowed to get back in the stadium and enjoy games, but at the same time, everything around you reminds you of the unprecedented time we’re still in.

Baseball fans return for 2021 MLB season: Every team's Opening Day plan for  in-person attendance - CBSSports.com

“Right now, our site is a FEMA site for giving vaccine shots,” said Chris Townsend, host of A’s Cast Live. “The federal government is here at The Colosseum on one side of the parking lot getting vaccine shots. They give over 6,000 shots a day. No parking on the south side of the stadium, I’m outside right now looking at it, and you have people in hazmat suits. It’s really impressive the amount of vaccine shots they’re doing on a daily basis.”

Brad Thompson, host of the Fast Lane at 101 ESPN in St.Louis and Bally Sports Midwest is back in the booth at Busch Stadium. However, for road games, he’s in the studio. It’s a challenge, because you have to train yourself to watch games from two completely different viewpoints, yet still be able to give the same energy and analysis while in the studio as you do live from the ballpark. 

“It’s different and can be difficult in the studio,” said Thompson. “I keep trying to remind myself that the people that are watching at home don’t care where you’re at, they just want you to do as good of a job as you possibly can. As much as you try to tell the story of what’s going on, and it happened on Opening Day, we had a couple of plays that were cut a little bit differently. You just try your best to figure out that aspect and continue to bring the energy either way. The hardest part is seeing, even though there’s a camera that shows the all-nine, where you can see where all the players are, it’s not like watching a game on the field and seeing it develop requires reps.”

It’s different, but it’s so much better than the alternative. That’s true for everyone who’s involved. But there were probably some broadcasters that were nervous about returning to the ballpark, after some took an entire year off. Although there may have been hesitation by some, it seems that’s been replaced with enthusiasm and excitement. 

“Oh my God it’s so refreshing,” said Townsend. “Where we are in the Bay Area, we were on such a lock down that our governor made our organization give a list of how many people can be in the ballpark. My boss actually asked me, he said, can you do all the games from home? I said yes I can treat it like a road game. My crew never entered the stadium last year. I was at my house, my producer was at his apartment and we put our engineer at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors used to play. Getting back to the ballpark was really one of the highlights of my career.”

How A's Cast Made Oakland The Digital Gem Of MLB | Barrett Sports Media

“We did the same exact setup last year,” said Thompson. “It was eerie being in a ballpark with no fans and seeing the back of cardboard cutouts the whole time. The idea of being back in the ballpark, for me personally, is super exciting, because a lot of the energy you have to create within the studio, you don’t have to create, because it’s right there in front of you with the fans. For me, there’s no worry about going back. it’s all exciting.”

Major League Baseball has found itself in uncharted waters as it tries to navigate through two key issues this season. One, the ongoing attempt to grow the brand nationally back to what it once was. Two, navigating political storylines after the league took the All-Star Game out of Atlanta last week. 

It’s tough to say which one will be the MLB’s biggest priority, but the league has to figure out a way to tinker its product to become more appealing to sports fans across the country.

“I think action is the No. 1 thing,” said Eric Byrnes of No Filter Network. “What I’m talking about is putting the ball in play. I think athleticism in the game today is at an all time high, but so are walks and strikeouts. To get the athleticism on display, we need to put the ball in play. One of the things discussed in moving the mound back,but if anything, before doing that, I would consider lowering the mound.”

Eric Byrnes back in Reno, all about getting kids to play

“The biggest one is more action,” said Thompson. “You know, it used to be special when a guy struck out a team 15 times. Now, it means it’s probably just a Tuesday. The average in 2019 was four minutes in between baseballs put in play. That’s not aesthetically pleasing. If we can just figure out a way to create more action I think that would help. The frustrating thing is athletes now are bigger, faster, stronger and better than they’ve ever been before. Unfortunately we don’t get a chance to see the athleticism because of how good the pitchers have gotten and how we really don’t care about the strikeout. We just want to see power.”

“Baseball has one major problem and it’s the timing of the game,” said Townsend. “If you go and look at Opening Day, 11 out of the 13 games went over three hours and three of them went over four hours. The average game time last year was three hours and four minutes. If you’re trying to build a future fan base, you can’t be playing 3 and a half to four hour games. It just doesn’t work. This is the major crisis for Major League Baseball right now.”

Maybe the answer is a trend to more of what Townsend is doing with A’s Cast Live, which is a 24-hour streaming station on iHeartRadio, where the games are aired. Right now it’s the only thing of it’s kind in baseball. If this is the future for baseball, the MLB needs to know how to push the product to more fans across the country. 

Politics and sports intertwining here to stay. Now that baseball has gotten into the mix, it will be one of the major storylines this year, just like it was in the NFL and NBA. Regardless of your stance on the MLB moving the All-Star Game, this will be an interesting summer to see how much, if at all, it affects ratings and attendance. 

“I still think it’s going to be a bigger storyline than it would have been had they kept it in Atlanta,” said Byrnes. “As a baseball fan I prefer to have a separation between sports and politics. There’s channels I can go to if I want to have political discussions or listen in on debates. I’m not asking baseball to be ignorant of what’s going on and I have no problem if they want to make their opinion known, but I think sometimes it’s better to not go public with your opinion, for fear of alienating your fanbase. I don’t care what side of the aisle you stand on the issue, but I think the NFL and NBA would both tell you that it has hurt them.”

“Players utilizing the platform, they should do that,” said Thompson. ”I am in full support of that. From the baseball standpoint, I like to be able to watch baseball and that’s the focus. But I also understand that people have things they are passionate about. The two worlds are going to collide but the hope is that the game is so good it takes the attention away.”

Amidst all that, there’s good news. Not just that baseball is back, but also because teams are shooting for full capacity crowds by the end of the season. Even with all the political drama, baseball has a chance to be the first sport to showcase with full stands that the world is back to normal

“The big thing for us in California is how we keep switching tiers and more and more people are allowed to get back into the ballpark,” said Townsend. “As the season goes and vaccines go, we’re hoping to get to full capacity at some point.”

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

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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