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Is the NFL Ready for the Future of Sports Media?

Demetri Ravanos

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If you’re an NFL fan, chances are you have heard the name Mark Leibovich a lot this offseason. He is the author of the new book Big Game, in which some of the most powerful men in the league talk about its success, future plans, and petty feuds.

Leibovich has covered politics for the New York Times since 2006. He wrote a very similar book about Washington’s power players in 2013 called This Town. He originally wanted to call that book The Way it Works in Suck Up City. It should be obvious that no one comes off looking good.

So how did Mark Leibovich get owners in the image-obsessed NFL to open up to him? Well, the answer could rest in something I once heard SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey say. “Part of my job is to make people comfortable. A reporter’s job is to make people we want to talk to feel comfortable enough to open up to us.”

It could also be as simple as Bryan Curtis’s description of NFL owners in an interview with Leibovich that appeared at The Ringer. They are attracted to power, and politics is power, so in a way, having Leibovich interested in their world validates their feeling that the NFL and its owners are some of the most powerful people in America.

I spoke with Leibovich last week. There is a lot of salacious stuff in the book, and Leibovich holds none of it back, but this is a sports media website. If you want to read that, buy Big Game. I had three things I wanted to ask Leibovich about the NFL’s relationship with its media partners.

1. DOES THE NFL HAVE A PLAN OR EVEN A VISION OF WHAT ITS MEDIA FUTURE IS?

“Yeah, make as much money as possible in the current or next broadcast contract,” Leibovich says. I laugh. He doesn’t. “I mean, I’m serious.”

Leibovich says that he never got a sense that the NFL was any good at thinking and planning for the long term. He says that it starts with the owners, who he describes as “just overwhelmingly old,” but it doesn’t stop there.

“You have no sense that that Roger Goodell even thinks that much about it because he too has very short term goals, and that’s to please the owners who themselves just want, you know, want bigger revenues every year.”

He does heap some praise on NFL Network CEO and Vice President of Media for the league Brian Rolapp. Leibovich describes him as one of the few people in the NFL league office that “seems to get Silicon Valley, seems to get technology, seems to get social media.” He also gives Rolapp credit for forging relationships with Amazon and Twitter.

Given the League’s struggles in adapting to an ever-changing media landscape, I asked Mark if Brian Rolapp had a role similar to the one that Mark Cuban took on for himself when he first became a member of the NBA ownership fraternity. Does Brian Rolapp see modernizing the NFL’s media presence and broadcasting relationships as his primary responsibility?

“Well, yeah, I don’t think Rolapp has that power necessarily over the owners,” Leibovich answers. “So I mean, I think what the NFL desperately needs is either a Mark Cuban, or even better, like a half a dozen Mark Cubans or someone who will break glass and someone who gets the internet. They need someone who is younger, who just is driven by more than just a parochial interest of how his team does and how much money he makes.” Leibovich went on to say that the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, David Tepper, seems capable of filling that role.

I asked him if outside entities have tried to steer the NFL in any direction at all? After all, now that DirecTV is owned by AT&T and AT&T is in the process of acquiring platforms that will allow it to be the first option for both the cord cutters and the corded, has that company used its control of the Sunday Ticket package to try and open the door to being a partner and guiding hand for the NFL?

“I’m sure they have. I mean, I not privy to any of these conversations. They’re a huge stakeholder. I’m sure the NFL has to listen to them…I’d be shocked if they didn’t.”

2. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE LEAGUE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ESPN?

The first time I ever realized that the NFL has seriously butt heads with ESPN on occasion was when I read James Andrew Miller’s Those Guys Have All the Fun. In that book, Miller makes it clear that there were people at ESPN that believed the NFL made their network pay a higher price for the Monday Night Football package, one that doesn’t include a Super Bowl, because of the way the journalistic side of ESPN covered the lasting effects of player head injuries.

I asked Leibovich if Roger Goodell or anyone else at the NFL specifically spoke with any animosity or frustration when it came to talking about ESPN.

“Um, you know, it’s funny. I haven’t heard them talk about ESPN per se…Actually that’s not true. I’ve heard definitely heard the Patriots talk about ESPN,” he said. That makes sense. “Tom Brady’s not guilty” has been the rallying cry of the Patriots’ fanbase since about 2015.

Leibovich did say that, while he had never heard owners openly talk about what they do and don’t want ESPN to cover, “it wouldn’t shock me if when ESPN was negotiating with the league the league said ‘Hey, by the way, remember we’re partners right?’. And that obviously carries all kinds of you know, whether it’s bullying or a strong hint, I mean, it’s definitely a message being sent.”

Telling ESPN what they want covered might not happen, but when I asked Leibovich about ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro’s comments about wanting to repair the network’s relationship with the NFL, he said it isn’t hard to believe that some owner(s) had at one point expressed their frustrations to Pitaro.

“So they care deeply about this stuff. I mean, it’s again very Trumpian. They keep score. They read everything about them, whether locally or nationally. I have no doubt whatsoever that Jimmy Pitaro said what he said it was in response probably to something explicit that either Roger Goodell or someone high up at the NFL or some owner said, because that’s a significant change in tune [for ESPN].”

So, wait a minute. Why do we hear about the NFL’s frustrations with ESPN and not Fox? I asked Leibovich how a company that is the broadcast home in some way of people like Clay Travis, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, all of whom have reveled at one point or another in the league’s declining ratings, has never been on the opposite end of a tisk-tisking by the NFL.

Leibovich said that NFL owners and the league office don’t view any culture war-esque linking of player protests to declining ratings as Fox acting on its own. “They are very unhappy with the president and insomuch as that he can be linked to Fox, I mean that’s going to be part of it,” he said.

Leibovich also said that his sense is that maybe Fox doesn’t care about the NFL’s feelings as much as Disney and ESPN do. “I mean, I don’t totally rule out the idea that this kind of unhappiness has been conveyed privately, but I also wouldn’t underestimate the spine and the power frankly in the levers that Fox has in these conversations. My sense is they don’t really care, and frankly as long as they’re writing a check, I mean they basically get the only vote that counts.”

You can be the most liberal, Fox-hating person on the planet. If you’re a broadcaster and reading that quote, there’s almost no way you don’t think “Right on, Fox!” to yourself.

3. HAS THE NFL CONSIDERED THAT MAYBE IT ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE BECAUSE FOOTBALL ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE?

Part of what made me interested in talking to Mark was the way he talked about the priorities of NFL owners on an episode of Pod Save America. Host Dan Pfeiffer asked if the League recognizes the inherent problem with a generation of parents that don’t want their sons playing football.

Leibovich echoed his comments on that show when I first asked him about the digital future of the League’s media rights. “They’re old. They think very much year to year.” When I asked about what kind of value team owners think their property will have in the long term, he told me that with the NFL, there is never really a long term. “I mean the whole future of the league thing means 10 years or 20 years out.”

What about the NBA? I asked Leibovich if the NFL would ever look to the NBA as a model of where they need to be going in the future, or if the NFL can even acknowledge that the NBA is a competitor that is nipping a little closer at football’s heels than it used to.

“That’s a good question. I mean the only context I’ve heard in the league is people high up in the league talk about the NBA from an owner’s level. There’s some kind of envy that they have a commissioner that seems to get it. And those are private owner conversations, but those conversations definitely exist and I have had them with multiple owners.

“The other part of it is just I think annoyance on the part of people like Roger Goodell that he has been often compared unfavorably to Adam Silver. I think he’s sick of hearing about Adam Silver this and Adam Silver that. I think, you know, maybe he recognizes Adam Silver as a commissioner who is in the midst of the honeymoon that Goodell himself enjoyed back in the first two years of the commissionership which kind of ended abruptly. So I would say that the context I’ve heard them talk about the NBA is they are purely less as competitors but more as, you know, upstarts. I mean, rivals to some degree and someone to be jealous of to some degree.”

Believe it or not, Mark Leibovich says there is actually reason to be optimistic for the NFL’s future. “I think I said this also [on Pod Save America], there are some very smart…I would say “number two’s” at some of the clubs.”

The problem is that older owners will have to retire or…let’s say “worse” for those number twos to get the kind of control they need to make a difference. “A lot of them are heirs to the owners. I mean Jonathan Kraft I would put, you know, number one two, or three. There’s Tony Kahn of Jacksonville and Kevin Demhoff with the Rams. They’re all super smart. But again, it’s basically the owners with the power.”

Big Game is an absolutely fantastic read. I highly recommend you invest some time in it. To read anything he has written or watch videos of any one of the hundreds of TV appearances he has made through the years, go to his website.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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