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The Pandemic and Sports Media: Dr. Feelgood or Dr. Fauci?

“Guest columnist Jay Mariotti wants an end to wishful-thinking reporting during the pandemic and says media should rely on medical experts, not leagues, about the resumption of sports.”

Jay Mariotti

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From a home studio that features books, photos and the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon’’ album, ESPN analyst Jeff Passan could not have been more definitive. There WILL be baseball in 2020, he declared, referring to live game action in the major leagues and not to the grainy footage of World Series reruns.

“Yes, will,’’ Passan wrote in his accompanying piece on the network site. “As states have begun to plan reopenings, nearly everyone along the decision-making continuum — league officials, players, union leaders, owners, doctors, politicians, TV power brokers, team executives — has grown increasingly optimistic that there will be baseball this year.’’

A giddy fan would come away from the report thinking, “Great, I’m going to have baseball before long! Oh boy oh boy oh boy!’’

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Which meant the same fan was deeply confused only hours later. That’s when the grim realities of resuming sports in a still-raging pandemic — — a daunting absence of testing access in the U.S., a demand that athletes assume health risks and possible salary reductions amid fear and uncertainty, a death toll approaching 250,000 — were hammered home by an infectious disease expert with a wee bit more coronavirus cred than Passan. Dr. Anthony Fauci, popular enough among the masses to have his own bobblehead doll, told the New York Times that team sports such as baseball, football and basketball will not resume in 2020 without a sudden breakthrough in widespread testing and the ability to process rapid results.

“Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything,’’ warned Fauci, his usage of “trump’’ perhaps intended. “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, `We may have to go without this sport for this season.’ ‘’ His addendum was more jarring with May upon us and summer nearing: A second wave of Covid-19 is “inevitable’’ without substantial progress in fighting the virus, Fauci said, likely leading to “a bad fall and a bad winter.’’

So, why such a wild disconnect in the reporting of content so vital to the American people? Why are some news sources routinely optimistic about the resumption of sports while others are far more — shall we say — realistic and blunt? As always, follow the fire alarms of lost revenues, the existential crises of league and network empires that continue to burn with each passing day in a U.S. sports industry that typically generates $74 billion per year. The best news shops are committed to airtight, responsible journalism in a global disaster. Others, with direct business attachments dependent on sports, prefer sophomoric wishful-thinking that borders on consumer brainwashing.

From a behemoth such as ESPN to an ambitious writing site such as The Athletic to a talk station in the heartland, media companies have a critical financial interest in the rush to resume sports as soon as possible. Thus, their coverage tends to almost force-feed events back into existence, accentuating “when’’ and not “if’’ and embracing any positive information from the leagues, even if it’s little more than hollow propaganda. If you’d like to call it a self-serving agenda, please do. Nor will I disagree if you call it fake news.

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This skewed approach is in antithetical contrast to media companies not in direct business with the sports industry, such as the Times and HBO. The cable network’s long-running journalism bastion, “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,’’ did itself proud this week, devoting a powerful segment to the life-threatening audacity of leagues — NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS — which defiantly staged March events with thousands of paying customers while ignoring directives from local government officials to shut down mass gatherings. Using science and data not evident in Passan’s report, HBO detailed how MLB contributed to a national spread of the virus by continuing its spring-training schedule — profits over precaution and prevention. Among the takeaways was a shaken Eireann Dolan, wife of Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, who sat in fear of her life as Grapefruit League games continued. Vulnerable to the virus because of a chronic lung condition, Dolan finally let loose on MLB in a March 12 tweet, begging fans to avoid games a day after Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test prompted the NBA to suspend play.

“Every day I’m holding my breath and wondering, `Who is (Doolittle) going near — what fans, what staff, what players?’ ‘’ Dolan said. “And I thought, `If one person gets it, God forbid, we will have it within a week. All of us.’ ‘’

This is the same league, Major League Baseball, that recklessly wink-winks a “scoop’’ to Passan that games will happen in 2020, blurry reasoning and all. How selfish of ESPN, which could be using investigative reporters such as Don Van Natta and Jeremy Schaap, to duck away from journalism anywhere near as intense and essential as that of HBO correspondent David Scott, who pointed out how none of the leagues has expressed remorse for ignoring the pandemic. It’s the most important sports-related story of this hellish period in U.S. history. But ESPN prefers to protect business relationships rather than deep-dive into the greed and arrogance of those leagues. Among the teams that ignored local health edicts in March: the Golden State Warriors. Generating more than $3.5 million per game in the new Chase Center, owner Joe Lacob proceeded with a Saturday night game while posting signs that the team wouldn’t be liable for Covid-19 risks. And which network benefited from the national telecast?

ESPN, via ABC.

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It explains why Passan often joins his ESPN senior insider brethren — NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski and NFL reporter Adam Schefter — on nighttime “SportsCenter’’ appearances as host Scott Van Pelt tries to extract the most most upbeat slant possible. “I’m not trying to be that negative guy,’’ said Van Pelt, as if dismissing objective news reporting as some sort of personality deficiency. Closer to the truth, Van Pelt is trying to breathe oxygen into the faltering stock of the company that pays him handsomely, Disney, which has been devastated by the closing of theme parks and inevitable mass layoffs, an inability to produce high-revenue movies, continued cable cord-cutting and the disappearance of live sports inventory from ESPN, which has seen advertising dry up beyond the virtual NFL Draft and the ongoing 10-part docu-series, “The Last Dance.’’ The three senior insiders no longer are journalists in this setting as much as company-men messengers for the leagues they cover, carrying on dutifully as Van Pelt cheers them on.

Do fans suffering from no-sports withdrawal actually want hopechests from media, regardless if the news is real or fantasy? Or do they want the cold truth from medical authorities not connected to leagues and networks?

Dr. Feelgood or Dr. Fauci?

I’m thinking most sensible people prefer Dr. Fauci.

What’s fascinating is that ESPN, once so aligned against President Trump that the White House called for the firing of host Jemele Hill, now is firmly in lockstep with his wish to resume sports. The flip is more about the network’s recent stick-to-sports edict than any embrace of all things Trump, but the in-house philosophical shakedown can’t be denied: the politically driven voices elevated during the network presidency of since-deposed John Skipper — Hill, Michael Smith, Will Cain, Bomani Jones, Pablo Torre, Dan Le Batard — either have been forced/weeded out of the company, removed from daily shows or, in Le Batard’s case, reportedly doomed to career limbo. The most prominent stars will be Van Pelt, Mike Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith, none of whom will go near politics, not that they could discuss them anyway. In that sense, ESPN has become much like Michael Jordan, the network’s would-be savior, who never met an important social cause he couldn’t downplay or ignore.

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I was among those cringing at Skipper’s radical attempt to shake up the planet via activism, as if Bristol was Berkeley. But I wish his successors in power, Jimmy Pitaro and Norby Williamson, would have found a middle ground in approaching Covid-19. ESPN doesn’t really cover the pandemic. It just hopes the virus goes away, and that sports magically returns to normal tomorrow when, of course, all normalcy is gone. “We Miss It, Too,’’ goes the concluding line in the heavy-rotation “There’s No Place Like Sports’’ commercial, which fills in some of the empty ad blanks.

No one was surprised when the cheery CBS play-by-play man, Jim Nantz, launched a sermon about the resumption of sports. He voiced the importance of “faith’’ during the HBO show, saying, “I do know this: If things do get back on track starting in September, you’re going to have a stretch of Grand Slam tennis, golf major championships, baseball, basketball, football, all converging. I mean, as far as programming real estate, it’s going to be a gold rush. It will be like the Wild, Wild West trying to find a place to put your major event on a calendar and fit it around any one of our network’s already full schedules.”

It all sounded interesting. Until he mentioned the V-word: Viacom.

And then I realized, Nantz is just like Jeff Passan, another corporate pawn with a different logo on his paycheck. See you on the dark side of the moon.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’

BSM Writers

Chris Broussard Is No Longer Just A ‘Basketball Guy’

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great.”

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After embarking on a career in sports, Chris Broussard made a name for himself as a writer, specifically as it pertains to covering the NBA. Whether it was covering the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal, covering the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets for The New York Times, or doing television hits for ESPN, Broussard had always, whether it was justified or not, been pigeon-holed as a “basketball guy”.

That was the perception then, but today, the reality is different.

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great,” said Broussard, the co-host of First Things First on FS1 and the co-host of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio. 

“But what was good for me was that at ESPN, I had done First Take with Skip Bayless a lot.  There were a few years where it was a rotation and I was in that rotation. That enabled me to at least do the other sports.” 

Broussard has certainly made a seamless transition from print to electronic media.

After joining The New York Times in 1998, Broussard started to get television exposure doing local hits and then appearances on the various ESPN platforms would soon follow. He joined ESPN full-time in 2004 as a writer for ESPN The Magazine, but that also included regular guest appearances and fill-in hosting opportunities on shows like First Take and the opportunity to be a co-host for NBA Countdown for the 2010-11 season.

With that gig came the opportunity to work with Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, and his childhood hero Magic Johnson.

“I think that may be have been the pinnacle because Magic is Magic,” said Broussard. “He was my favorite player until Jordan came along and (with Wilbon and Barry), we just had great chemistry.”

After one season, Broussard and Barry were replaced by Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose. A few years later, Broussard would make the move that would bring him to the next chapter of his career.

In 2016, Broussard left what amounted to being just a reporters role at ESPN for a new opportunity at FS1 where he would also be an analyst as well as a regular panelist for shows like Undisputed, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, First Things First and Lock It In.  In 2018, he began co-hosting The Odd Couple radio show with Rob Parker on FOX Sports Radio.

And then in August of 2021, Broussard was named the full-time co-host of First Things First, something that almost had happened when the network first launched.

“When they asked me to come on as a full-time co-host, it was great and maybe a long time coming,” said Broussard. “I know when Jamie Horowitz first brought all the people over from ESPN to be on FS1 in 2016, he was considering doing a show where Nick Wright and I were the co-hosts.”

Broussard now co-hosts the show with Wright and Kevin Wildes.

“I thought that I really just fit right in with the chemistry and it’s just been a great trio,” said Broussard. 

Born in Baton Rouge, Broussard and his family also lived in Cincinnati, Indiana, Syracuse, Iowa, and Cleveland.  He was a star football and basketball player for Holy Name High School in Parma Heights, Ohio and went on to play basketball for Oberlin College, an NCAA Division III school in Ohio.

Believe it or not, his first love was not basketball.

“My favorite sport growing up was football,” said Broussard. “I played football through high school. I played basketball at Oberlin College but they recruited for me football and basketball. I even played baseball up until I was about 16 years old.” 

So much for being just a basketball guy, right?

After college, Broussard had a decision to make. He knew he wanted to be a sports reporter but wasn’t sure if it was going to be print or electronic media. When he was an intern at The Indianapolis Star, he spoke to people in the know about which direction to go.

“I was told that it’s just easier and there are more spots in print journalism than there are in television and radio,” said Broussard. “I chose print because I thought I had more opportunities.”

Broussard’s first taste of covering pro sports was in 1995 at the Akron Beacon Journal when he was a backup writer covering the Cleveland Indians who would go to the World Series for the first time since 1954. He shifted to covering the Cavaliers and then it was off to New York and a bit of culture shock for Broussard.

During his 2 ½ years covering the Cavaliers, Broussard typically wore a rugby shirt, jeans and sneakers at games. But he noticed that when the Knicks and Nets would come to Cleveland or when Broussard travelled to New York and New Jersey when the Cavaliers visited the Knicks and Nets, that the New York writers would typically wear suits and ties when covering the games.

So, when he interviewed for the job with The New York Times, Broussard had an important question for his future editor.

“I asked him when I was being interviewed for the job do they require that your writers dress up,” said Broussard. “He said no but they do generally in New York because they know television opportunities are there. So, when I started working at The New York Times, I started dressing up wearing a suit and tie or sportscoat and tie whenever I would cover games.  Ultimately that led to television.”

And the rest is history.

This coming week, Broussard will be busy co-hosting his shows from the Super Bowl in Arizona. It’s one thing to host a radio show or a television show from a studio but it’s really something special to do it from a live event, especially on the giant stage of the Super Bowl.

And this week, Broussard will be center stage in front of a lot of ears and eyeballs.

“It’s always great,” said Broussard. “FOX Sports Radio always has one of the biggest and best platforms on radio row. It’s always fun when you’re doing these live shows at the big events and you’ve got an audience, it really can kind of bring out the best in you. I’m excited about it both for TV and radio.”

Chris Broussard has certainly come a long way in his career in sports. 

From his days as an athlete in high school in college to getting his start as a write to a transformation into a radio and television personality, Broussard has worked hard to get to where he is today.

“I haven’t written a word since I went to Fox,” said Broussard. “I do feel fortunate that I’ve been able from morph from a writer into TV and radio. What you want to do in this business is stay relevant and you want an audience and a platform. There’s not that many people who get that opportunity to do it.”

He’s no longer just a “basketball guy”. He’s a “sports guy”.

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BSM Writers

Radio Row Is One of The Worst Weeks For Our Listeners

Radio Row is a great opportunity for hosts, PDs, and executives. But it isn’t an inherently great opportunity for your listeners.

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From strictly a listener’s perspective, sports radio the week of Super Bowl’s Radio Row is one of the worst weeks.

Before I was a sports radio programmer, I was a sports radio listener. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, I was listening to sports radio with a programmer’s mindset. And every year, I would spend the entire week listening to shows produced live — or pretending to be live — from Radio Row at the Super Bowl. And each year, I would wonder “What the hell is the point of this?”

And now, as a former sports radio programmer, I will sit this week and listen to shows produced live — or pretending to be live — from Radio Row at the Super Bowl. And each day, I will wonder “What the hell is the point of this?”

Who does it serve? Let’s take an in-depth look at that question.

It serves the NFL. Hundreds of media professionals are stationed at its largest event, talking about it, ensuring it stays at the forefront of the public consciousness and providing millions in value for its sponsors.

It serves NFL players. Both past and present. Dozens of current and former stars will flock to Radio Row to record dozens of interviews. They’ll be paid thousands of dollars to pitch their wares as often as possible while expanding their brands outside the cities in which they currently or formerly played.

It serves the sponsors of NFL players. Radio Row provides a one-stop-shop for sponsors to send their endorsers down a line of interviews to continually get in front of new audiences. Scale, baby!

It serves the hosts, PDs, and executives. You get a working vacation! It’s awesome! I live in the Midwest, and yesterday was one of a handful of days I’ve seen the sun since November. Being in Arizona in early February is phenomenal! Plus, you get to hob knob with celebrities, get your photos taken, go to awesome parties with extravagant hor dourves and open bars, and it’s fantastic. You deserve the little break Radio Row provides; better yet, it’s all on the company dime. You get some bonding with your co-workers, you get to network, and it really is an awesome opportunity.

But you know who isn’t served? Your listeners. At least, the vast majority of them. Because here’s the reality: While it’s really cool that you’re hanging out with other radio folks, and you’ll have a plethora of former and current players swinging by for interviews, your listeners really don’t care. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s the truth. While there’s a subset of listeners who are living vicariously through you — and that can’t be completely shortchanged, it’s a big deal — the overwhelming majority couldn’t be less invested in your Radio Row interviews.

Think of it from a listener’s viewpoint: Outside of the Bay Area, do you think anyone has thought “Man, I wonder who Kyle Juszczyk thinks is gonna win the Super Bowl?” I’ll tell you that, no, they haven’t thought that, and they don’t particularly care what he thinks. Furthermore, they definitely don’t care that he’s sponsored by Old Spice, which gives him the P-P-P-Power!™

And it would be fine if there was one interview here or there, but there are some shows — both local and national — that will completely fill out their rundowns with interviews with people your listeners don’t especially care about, ask questions that your listeners don’t especially care about, and end the interview by asking who they think wins Sunday, why they think that way, and allow them to pitch their boner pills or whatever else they’re schlepping. Every day. For five straight days. For two, three, four, or even five hours.

It stinks.

Self-serving isn’t bad as long as you recognize it’s self-serving. And that could be potentially the biggest issue. Now and then, you’ll get a host that is sanctimonious and pretends they’re doing the listener a favor by spending a week away from their family in a warm weather destination, rubbing elbows with some of the greatest players — both past and present — in the game. You’re not. You’re spending a week eating all the free food you can find, drinking all the free beer you can find, and taking pictures to post on your Instagram. And that’s fine, but don’t pretend like it’s something it isn’t. You can talk yourself into its importance, but it’s important to you.

Radio Row is a great opportunity for hosts, PDs, and executives. But it isn’t an inherently great opportunity for your listeners. You can turn it into one with thoughtful questions, a unique spin on the traditional interview, or avoiding the same boring questions your subject has been asked 1,000 times during the day, but you’ve gotta go the extra mile to accomplish that. And I hope that’s not something you lose sight of this week.

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BSM Writers

What Are The Right Social Media Answers For Sports Radio?

“What are the limits of social media for radio brands? Are there any?”

Demetri Ravanos

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Social media does not stand still. The platforms that matter today can fall out of favor with the general public in the blink of an eye. Conversely, the right feature or attention from the right people can catapult a site’s importance in the social pecking order.

How does a radio company determine what matters? Are all formats received similarly on social media or is sports radio such a unique animal that brands have to be much more deliberate in how resources are allocated? To answer these questions, I turned to some experts. 

Tom Izzo doesn’t exclude any platform when he is plotting WFAN’s social strategy. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter may each attract a different type of sports fan, but they all matter in building and serving the larger audience.

“There is sports radio audience on every social media platform, you just have to talk to them differently depending where you are,” he told me. “The language and audience on Twitter is different than the language and audience on Facebook, but there is audience everywhere.”

Audience is everywhere. That’s what is at the heart of the conundrum. How do you best utilize your assets in a landscape that isn’t just constantly changing? It’s also constantly growing!

Lori Lewis has overseen social media strategy at an executive level for Cumulus, Westwood One, Jacobs Media and iHeart among others. Now she coaches companies on creating great content with her own company, Lori Lewis Media

She told me that the key for not just sports stations, but for any brand, is understanding what their audience prioritizes. That doesn’t mean it should be the brand’s only focus though.

“Obviously, for sports radio, it’s Twitter. But don’t sleep on short-form vertical video,” she said in an email. “When done right, you’ll see success (meaning converting views into new fans) with YouTube Shorts and/or Instagram Reels as well as playback videos on Facebook (those are visual replays from the audio show).”

Converting views into new fans was taken to a bit of an extreme in Nashville. 104.5 The Zone launched Zone TV in 2021. Will Boling took the lead in creating the product. He says that launching a proprietary video stream was never about moving away from other social platforms. It was about giving listeners more access to better content in more places.

“Our video platform affects a lot of our social strategy,” he said. “On Twitter, we don’t want to just be seen as a radio station, but as a media company. Our Twitter stream allows us to react to breaking news while also sharing our broadcast at the same time. And with Twitch’s video producer, we can create featured clips from shows whenever we want. That allows us to push video out of featured guests, funny callers and anything in between to promote our podcasts from each show too.”

Video matters so much more than ever before. It does not matter who you talk to or what platform it is you are talking about. The answer always comes back to using video to attract more eyeballs.

TikTok, our most controversial social video platform, is trying to figure out what its reach could be without the visuals. Last month the company announced that it would experiment with its version of podcasts – a mode on the app that would allow users to experience TikTok content as audio-only entertainment.

I asked all three of my experts what their initial impression of the story is. Only Izzo expressed reservations.

“Probably no need for us to be first anywhere if there isn’t any particular benefit to doing that,” he said. “We’ll watch and see what happens and if it turns out that people like consuming podcasts on TikTok we will certainly address that.”

That doesn’t mean WFAN hosts and bosses won’t keep a keen eye on the feature. I would anticipate that there may be some experimental posts that either don’t receive much of a push or perhaps never see the light of day at all.

Boling is adamant that any use of TikTok is a wise one for stations. He says anything set up with an algorithm that rewards creators for posting content the audience connects with is an asset that cannot be ignored.

“We use social media to push listeners to our YouTube channel because it’s an algorithm based platform. If we get someone to click on our page once, then our channel will get recommended to them the next time they get on YouTube. TikTok helps radio companies accomplish that and own every space in the digital market right now.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s Lori Lewis that approaches the feature in the most scientific way. Do TikTok podcasts represent a sort of new frontier for audio brands? Sure, but just like Grogu and the Mandalorian, you have to go there and poke around before you can figure out how it will work best for you.

“If TikTok expands to audio, how might you complement the mothership (The FM/AM stick) and build on the trust you’ve earned from your show? What’s a unique way to tap into new features? As social media evolves, so should our approach.”

What are the limits of social media for radio brands? Are there any? Since the onset of the pandemic, so much listening has shifted from terrestrial signals to digital streams. We have totally rethought what we are. Why should it stop with how our audience consumes our content? 

I asked Lewis if we are too narrow in thinking about how social media can serve us. Are we so focused on what is that we have not considered what could be? Can a brand have one identity on air and use social media to create something that does not mirror it, but instead compliments it?

“Depends on why you’re using social media,” she answered. “If you’re leveraging social media for increased awareness and building trust to drive more engagement during your show, it might not make sense to be different on social than on-air. But, if you’re a vanilla brand limited to creativity on-air, why not? Throw yourself out there. Show your real, relatable self (assuming it’s legal and appropriate, ha-ha). Relatability wins every time.”

Do we have to be deliberate in sports radio with how we allocate our social media resources? Yes, but that doesn’t mean there is a single correct answer. 

Strategy matters on air. It’s no different on social media. But in order to figure out the best strategy, you have to be open-minded and eager to play around with new offerings to determine what works.

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