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Sports Television Networks Don’t Need to Overpay Debate Pundits

“You can remove one zero and one comma from their annual wages. That’s all the networks need to pay.”

Jay Mariotti

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Next time I pass the CAA building in Century City, I’ll be shouted down by talent agents who won’t like the dirty secret I’m about to tell. They can get right in line, joining the numerous haters who can’t handle the truth in this space. Know the $8 million salary of Stephen A. Smith, the $6 million salary of Skip Bayless and the salaries of other leading loudmouths in the sports debate industry?

You can remove one zero and one comma from their annual wages.

That’s all the networks need to pay.

And maybe they’re finally starting to get it, with Fox Sports 1 cutting ties with Jason Whitlock, whose paltry ratings on “Speak For Yourself’’ spoke for themselves. Please don’t attach this breakup as an attack on black America in the violent aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, as some media dramatists might try. If anything, Fox is defending black America, given Whitlock’s provocative commentaries on race and politics.

Recently, with a take incendiary even by his standards, he accused LeBron James of exploiting Michael Jordan’s aversion to social activism after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, when James wrote, “We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can’t even go for a damn jog man! Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!? ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!! I’m sorry Ahmaud(Rest In Paradise) and my prayers and blessings sent to the heavens above to your family.” James’ anger is justified today after another sickening episode of police brutality — and Whitlock’s position looks embarrassing. “This isn’t helpful. It’s twitter-trolling,’’ tweeted Whitlock, claiming James was grandstanding as Jordan was winning critical and ratings acclaim in “The Last Dance’’ documentary series. “It’s using this man’s tragedy to build a brand as more outspoken than Michael Jordan. There are all kinds of ways to draw attention to this tragedy. Suggesting that we are hunted everyday/every time is just s–t-stirring.”

LeBron James Says 'Blacks Are Hunted EVERY TIME We Go Outside ...

But trust me when I say Fox doesn’t care what comes from Whitlock’s mouth if the ratings justify his bluster. They didn’t, sometimes sinking to the level of Kansas City drive-time radio. Simply, the network bosses let his deal expire, realizing they didn’t have to hand him bigger money.

I have personal knowledge in this particular area. For eight years, I was the most-utilized regular panelist on ESPN’s “Around The Horn,’’ appearing on the vast majority of daily shows during the program’s high-popularity era. Every ratings period, a producer would report in our conference call that the numbers rose yet again, to the point a project once mocked as a “Pardon The Interruption’’ knockoff was approaching the commercial success of Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. Airing each weeknight at 5pm ET, ATH was responsible for generating lead-in momentum for PTI.

Damned if we weren’t about to pass the old men. At one point, we were creeping toward a million viewers daily, and while this was before cord-cutting and cord-nevers and Netflix and YouTube and various iterations of Facebook, our impact was staggering. I couldn’t walk down the street without someone asking if Woody Paige is really that goofy (he is). Charles Barkley, who often would rip me and Bayless on TNT, bought me beers in a Cleveland bar. I’d be standing in a terminal at O’Hare, waiting for a late afternoon flight, when someone would look at me, then at the TV above, and say, “If you’re that guy, how can you be standing here?’’ Some trashy websites no longer with us — R.I.H. (Rot In Hell) — would cover me like Justin Bieber. In Florence, we’d just finished walking 463 stairs to the top of the Duomo when a kid in a Ohio State jersey yelled, “Around The Horn!’’ When a panelist was involved in a court case that later was dropped, the New York Post headline read: “AROUND THE HORNY.’’ We were parodied by “Saturday Night Live.’’

Judge Judy had to be nervous. Montel Williams, too. Maybe even the local newscasts. Maybe even Ellen DeGeneres, though probably not.

TBT: As Around the Horn turns 15, a look back at the very first ...

And what was my biggest annual salary for a hit show that more than doubled Smith’s typical ratings on ESPN’s “First Take,’’ drew five times Bayless’s typical ratings on Fox Sports 1’s “Undisputed’’ and safely can call itself the second-most-watched show — the numbers don’t lie — in the history of Embrace Debate programming?

About $300,000, not counting summer pay when subbing for Kornheiser beside the sacred PTI mugshot cutouts. With inflation, call it $500,000 by today’s rates. And I actually employed one of those Hollywood agents, a guy who ordered wild boar ragu on his pappardelle.

“Know how much money we’re making for ESPN?’’ I’d mumble under my breath every time a new title sponsor was introduced.

Stop before you accuse me of complaining. To this day, I’m grateful to have made the annual six-figure, one-comma salary long enough to put my kids through college and feed the dog. I would have done the show for free. But would someone explain what was happening in John Skipper’s head — perhaps I shouldn’t ask — when the former ESPN president went bankroll-bonkers on Stephen A.’s compensation? I’m all for people in sports media getting PAID, in a business that might not exist next week, but when only Tony Romo is making more than Smith in the all-time roll call of sportscasters, um, what the hell? A laughable travesty, Howard Cosell is venting somewhere. Bob Costas, the G.O.A.T. of his genre, was well worth his $7 million a year at NBC. Al Michaels and Joe Buck are worth their $6 million. Jim Nantz is worth his $5 million.

Why? Their audiences, for major events, are in the megamillions. They call the games that serve as gold and sustenance for their networks.

Stephen A.? He yells at Max Kellerman, who used to yell at me.

Bayless? He shouts down Shannon Sharpe, who seems oddly respectful of a guy whose ass I kicked when we were Chicago columnists.

Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless Are Pro Wrestlers, Not ...

But as an effective tag team on ESPN, Smith and Bayless became valuable when their urban-meets-Bible-belt act generated rare credible numbers in late mornings, a slot formerly surrendered to “SportsCenter’’ reruns. Fox Sports 1, trying to make a splash as a new player, chose to break up the Bristol band by throwing huge money at Bayless. ESPN had no choice but to appease Smith with epic money.

The model could be changing, though, at least at Fox. Bayless, whose lukewarm ratings also don’t justify his salary, might have to accept a sizable pay cut. Or, maybe FS1 abandons a debate element that hasn’t approached ESPN’s success in the twisting-and-shouting arena.

As someone who has engaged in past Twitter crossfire with Whitlock, I looked for a reaction on his feed. All I saw was this, from Sunday: “God’s design. One mouth. Two ears. Two eyes. We should all do 4 times as much listening and observing as talking. Don’t be afraid to reflect, acquire knowledge and listen to others with more wisdom. Social media compels us to speak even when we have little of substance to say.’’

Imagine, Whitlock with little to say about the world.

Maybe it’s because everyone stopped listening. And watching.

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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