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ESPN Should Use Don Van Natta on Scandals, Not Rehash

“Don Van Natta Jr. is being wasted on a network docu-series, “Backstory,’’ that is more about retro storytelling than the kind of attack-dog journalism needed more than ever in sports.”

Jay Mariotti

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In my wish upon a journalistic star, Disney pun intended, Don Van Natta Jr. would be covering sports scandals. He is an acclaimed investigative reporter in a world that needs more. He helped the New York Times and Miami Herald win three Pulitzer Prizes. He has won individual awards I’ve heard of and never heard of. He has written books on presidents who cheat at golf and Hillary Clinton, with a punchline in there somewhere.

Turn him loose, right?

I would dispatch him to New England for a deep dive into the Patriots, who — after Spygate I, Spygate II, Deflategate, Rub-and-Tug-gate and a tight end who became a double murderer — have become less a football dynasty and more a mirror image of a ruthless, dishonest America.

Investigative Docuseries Backstory Returns Jan. 19 with “Banned ...

I would sic him on Major League Baseball and the demise of a sport immersed in self-sabotage, unable to figure out labor peace, game pace, killer foul balls, the minds of those under age 50 and how to investigate and adjudicate a sign-stealing scheme that involved many more teams — say, all 30 — than just the rogue Houston Astros.

I would hand him a Hazmat suit and send him into the sewage tanks of collegiate sports, where athletes are treated like slaves, coaching legends avoid scrutiny and high-minded university presidents turn into low-minded greedmonsters who expect games to continue amid a pandemic.

Hell, I’d have him probe the sports industry’s bullrush to resume games, with leagues so bent on recouping lost 2020 billions that they apparently don’t care if COVID-19 spreads and people die.

But we know those assignments aren’t going to happen. See, Van Natta works for ESPN, which enjoys lucrative business relationships with those organizations and wouldn’t want bedfellows roughed up and smeared too much by its own employee. If Bristol truly wanted a legitimate journalistic unit, it wouldn’t have minimized the “Outside The Lines’’ news franchise, allowed Bob Ley to walk away and relegated Jeremy Schaap to a curious number of breezy “E:60’’ features. No, ESPN’s concept of journalism is to wait for a general manager or player agent to text an insider, whereupon Adam Schefter or Adrian Wojnarowski tweets out a breaking development, after which Stephen A. Smith and the “Pardon The Interruption’’ guys rant about it. Sports is rife with corruption and dirty money like never before, a landscape made for an attack dog who has tackled corporate American sleaze and Al Qaeda. What a shame Van Natta isn’t permitted to sniff the real blood out there.

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Instead, ESPN has given him a series, “Backstory,’’ that is more about retro storytelling than groundbreaking interrogation. So far, the program has explored Serena Williams’ umpire-related meltdown at the U.S. Open and the lifetime baseball bans of Pete Rose and “Shoeless’’ Joe Jackson, and in both cases, Van Natta and his team gave us a better understanding of what went down. As evidenced by the ridiculous success of “The Last Dance’’ docu-series, TV viewers do like circle-back sports programming, particularly when eager to reminisce during a pandemic.

Yet “Backstory’’ seems more suited for a narrator — does Trey Wingo need something to do? — than a trained, hard-crusted newsbreaker. Once, Dan Le Batard was a brilliant reporter and columnist before ESPN turned him into a multimedia cartoon character. The network does this to people, softening inquisitive brains to use for its why-we-love-sports, serve-the-fan mass mantra. Sure, there’s room for an upcoming piece on Manti Te’o, the football player, and how he fell victim to an online catfishing hoax. I don’t need Van Natta doing the raw legwork any more than I needed Woodward and Bernstein covering Andy Warhol at Studio 54.

I did marvel, though, at how “Backstory’’ deftly succeeded at making a previous ESPN management regime look shoddy without anyone seeming to know it. In the most recent episode, Van Natta explores “The Decision,’’ the 2010 debacle that saw LeBron James and his young business partners from his native Ohio — Maverick Carter and Rich Paul — try to control the narrative of his scorched-earth decision to join the Miami Heat by finagling a live televised announcement via free ESPN airtime. The LeBron-athon — I’ve used the phrase forever — was an infomercial painfully gone wrong, an immediate disaster in every way: for James, who looked stiff, arrogant and unsympathetic toward the incensed, jersey-burning fans he left behind in Cleveland; for ESPN, which created a circus event that bastardized its news division for tacky ratings; for the NBA, which didn’t need a superstar antagonizing the sports world and becoming a villain; and for sports media, who watched a cable TV shop ruin the business in a single-hour swoop.

The Decision: Ten Years Later

It was the night ESPN devolved from a responsible network of record to one that would hand over its entire operation to a celebrity. You can call it the dawning of athlete empowerment; I’ll call it an ethical sellout enabled by a double-talking content executive named John Skipper, who claimed to value elite journalism yet green-lighted a dog-and-pony show. This was a farce from the minute Bill Simmons, then an ESPN.com columnist and a rising influence-peddler at the network, cribbed the idea from a reader named Drew Wagner, who proposed this in a mailbag column: “What if LeBron announces he will pick his 2010-11 team live on ABC on a certain date for a show called ‘LeBron’s Choice?’ What type of crazy ratings would that get?” Simmons, no journalist himself, feverishly sold the idea to Skipper, who moved forward with the project and allowed LeBron and his camp to take over the production — which explains why Jim Gray was the host — despite the petrified protests of NBA commissioner David Stern.

As soon as James uttered the words, “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat,’’ the NBA had a firestorm it wouldn’t extinguish for four years, until James executed a mature about-face, returned to Cleveland and eventually won a championship. The show cheapened ESPN to the point an appalled news reporter was compelled to tweet that night: “ESPN insists it hasn’t handed over the network keys to LeBron. He just picks the time slot, interviewer and gets all ad $ for his charity.’’ Amazing how Van Natta could post such sarcasm, get a job offer from Skipper two years later, then embarrass him on “Backstory’’ three years after Skipper left the network. I don’t think Van Natta was trying to shame his ex-boss. He just asked questions that led to the grave-digging.

“It worked for everybody,’’ Skipper said. “LeBron was smart enough to figure out he would get a platform. He did. ESPN, I believe, was smart enough to understand we would get an audience, be the center of the universe. And despite all the media criticism, 10 million people watched. A lot of them watched incensed. But that’s OK.’’

Ten million people watched. That’s all he cared about.

ESPN will air an episode of Backstory focusing on The Decision

In Skipper’s mind, “The Decision’’ was the impetus for athletes to climb from traditional media boxes and create their own platforms, which led to a revolution: Sports figures now control their messages, start production companies and don’t need external outlets beyond Instagram and Twitter. But for journalists, all this did was hijack the profession and weaken the power of watchdogs who are trying to keep a $200 billion sports industry honest. Maybe fans don’t care about integrity in sports. Fine. Watch your favorite team fall victim to a point-shaving scandal. Lose your bet because a hitter was illegally stealing signs. Let a player leave the NBA’s Disney World bubble for a night and spread COVID-19, shutting down the league.

If we let athletes, leagues and sports-dependent ESPN commandeer and steer the message, you won’t recognize sports in the future. You won’t like it, either, because it will be long on spin  and short on transparency. As it was, the final minutes of “Backstory’’ served as a makeup call to James, praising him for becoming a media mogul and Hollywood producer who just launched another company, Springhill, as a storytelling platform for people of color. I praise James, Carter and Paul for taking lessons from “The Decision’’ and funneling them into empires.

But my takeaway from the show was Don Van Natta, as accomplished in his craft as LeBron is in his, bemoaning how a regrettable decision by his employer has made his job next to impossible. He is being wasted in sports and at ESPN. The New York Times should hire him back. 

BSM Writers

Media Noise – What Is Realistic For FOX at the World Cup?

Demetri Ravanos

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On this special holiday edition of Media Noise, Demetri Ravanos dives into the controversy and criticism surrounding FOX’s coverage of the World Cup in Qatar.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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Mina Kimes, Bruce Gilbert, Mitch Rosen, and Stacey Kauffman Join the 2023 BSM Summit

“By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference.”

Jason Barrett

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The 2023 BSM Summit is returning to Los Angeles on March 21-22, 2023, live from the Founders Club at the Galen Center at the campus of the University of Southern California. Information on tickets and hotel rooms can be found at BSMSummit.com.

We’ve previously announced sixteen participants for our upcoming show, and I’m excited today to confirm the additions of four more more smart, successful professionals to be part of the event. Before I do that, I’d like to thank The Volume for signing on as our Badge sponsor, the Motor Racing Network for securing the gift bag sponsorship, and Bonneville International for coming on board as a Session sponsor. We do have some opportunities available but things are moving fast this year, so if you’re interested in being involved, email Stephanie Eads at Sales@BarrettSportsMedia.com.

Now let’s talk about a few of the speaker additions for the show.

First, I am thrilled to welcome ESPN’s Mina Kimes to the Summit for her first appearance. Mina and I had the pleasure recently of connecting on a podcast (go listen to it) and I’ve been a fan of her work for years. Her intellect, wit, football acumen, and likeability have served her well on television, podcasts, and in print. She’s excelled as an analyst on NFL Live and Rams preseason football games, as a former host of the ESPN Daily podcast, and her appearances on Around The Horn and previously on Highly Questionable and the Dan Le Batard Show were always entertaining. I’m looking forward to having Mina join FS1’s Joy Taylor and ESPN LA 710 PD Amanda Brown for an insightful conversation about the industry.

Next is another newcomer. I’m looking forward to having Audacy San Francisco and Sacramento Regional Vice President Stacey Kauffman in the building for our 2023 show. In addition to overseeing a number of music brands, Stacey also oversees a dominant news/talk outlet, and two sports radio brands. Among them are my former station 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, and ESPN 1320 in Sacramento. I’m looking forward to having her participate in our GM panel with Good Karma’s Sam Pines, iHeart’s Don Martin, and led by Bonneville’s Executive Vice President Scott Sutherland.

From there, it’s time to welcome back two of the sharpest sports radio minds in the business. Bruce Gilbert is the SVP of Sports for Westwood One and Cumulus Media. He’s seen and done it all on the local and national level and anytime he’s in the room to share his programming knowledge with attendees, everyone leaves the room smarter. I’m anticipating another great conversation on the state of sports radio, which FOX Sports Radio VP of programming Scott Shapiro will be a part of.

Another student of the game and one of the top programmers in the format today is 670 The Score in Chicago PD, Mitch Rosen. The former Mark Chernoff Award recipient and recently appointed VP of the BetQL Network juggles managing a top 3 market sports brand while being charged with moving an emerging sports betting network forward. Count on Mr. Rosen to offer his insights and opinions during another of our branding and programming discussions.

By the time we get to March, we should have somewhere between 40-60 participants involved in the conference. My focus now is on finalizing our business and digital sessions, research, tech and sports betting panels, securing our locations and sponsorships for the After Party and Kickoff Party, plus working out the details for a few high-profile executive appearances and a couple of surprises.

For those looking to attend and save a few dollars on tickets, we’ll be holding a special Black Friday Sale this Friday November 25th. Just log on to BSMSummit.com that day to save $50 on individual tickets. In addition, thanks to the generosity of voice talent extraordinaire Steve Kamer, we’ll be giving away 10 tickets leading up to the conference. Stay tuned for details on the giveaway in the months ahead.

Still to come is an announcement about our special ticket rate for college students looking to attend the show and learn. We also do an annual contest for college kids to attend the event for free which I’m hoping to have ready in the next few weeks. It’s also likely we’ll give away a few tickets to industry professionals leading up to Christmas, so keep an eye out.

If you work in the sports media industry and value making connections, celebrating those who create an impact, and learning about the business from folks who have experienced success, failure, and everything in between, the Summit is worth your time. I’m excited to have Mina, Bruce, Mitch and Stacey join us for the show, and look forward to spending a few days with the industry’s best and brightest this March! Hope to see you there.

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BSM Writers

Doug Karsch is Ready to Call First Michigan/Ohio State Game

“The magnitude of the position is intimidating, but when we actually got on the air to do it, it just felt like Jon and I doing a show where there wasn’t a script.”

Derek Futterman

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On Saturday, the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes will square off in their 117th matchup in history – and the stakes are arguably higher than ever before. Both teams enter the game 11-0 for the first time since 2006, and the winner of the game will clinch a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and likely the NCAA College Football Playoff, and Doug Karsch will be there for all the action.

Now in his first season as the team’s play-by-play announcer, Karsch will be given an opportunity to call a high stakes matchup on Saturday for a team he followed from his early days as a sports fan in Ann Arbor.

“Michigan vs. Ohio State just was built up to this mythical sort of proportion,” recalled Karsch. “As a kid it just really sucked me in and really became such a big part of growing up.”

Karsch and his family lived two-and-a-half blocks away from Michigan Stadium and frequently attended the team’s home games. When they could not make the game, they would listen to play-by-play announcer Bob Ufer call the games, known for his iconic style and panache he brought to each broadcast.

Although he grew up a fan of the University of Michigan’s football team, Karsch attended college at rival Michigan State University where he earned his degree in communications. Throughout his time in college, he utilized the resources on campus and in the Detroit metropolitan area to effectively build a career for himself in sports media. Karsch was focused on discovering and maximizing opportunities off campus as much as possible, hence why he interned at three different places while in school.

“I listened to a talk show on AM 1050 WTKA out of Ann Arbor and I called the show on occasion,” Karsch said. “One day I just called and said, ‘Hey, do you have any internships?,’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ I kind of hung around that radio station until they actually had an emergency and I got to fill in as a host.”

Karsch strongly believes in internships as a way to gain a footing into the industry, and coordinated the 97.1 The Ticket internship program when it was still in operation. By standing out as an intern, young professionals are able to assimilate into the industry and make valuable connections that will help position them well in the future.

“To me, it’s kind of a way to sneak in but the problem is you can never know when the job is going to open up and the timing has to be right,” Karsch said. “We have really good interns that didn’t get hired and really good interns that did…. Find the place you want to work [and] see if you can volunteer for school credit or otherwise.”

Aside from working in radio, Karsch interned at two television stations – WEYI in Clio, Mich. and WJRT ABC12 in Flint, Mich. – places where Karsch refined his craft and learned from experienced mentors, including former WJRT sports director Ed Phelps. Upon his graduation from the university in 1992, he continued working professionally with WEYI-TV and two years later, began expanding his on-air presence as the sports director at the station now branded as Sports Talk 1050 WTKA.

“I can’t emphasize enough how internships give you great experience,” Karsch said. “I tell people all the time that are looking to break into the business to do as many internships as you can. My experience was the smaller the station, the more they need you to do and the more practical experience you get and the more [likely] that they will hire you.”

It was at WTKA where Karsch first had the opportunity to cover Michigan Wolverines football, including when the team won the national championship in 1997.

“Getting to cover the 1997 national championship team was a blast,” Karsch recalled. “I actually had a phone line installed right outside of the Michigan locker room and was on the air live interviewing people as they came in and out following that national championship season.”

Karsch was working at the station in the early days of the internet; that is, before it was a steady, reliable medium by which to conduct research and gather information. As a result, his preparation for a radio show involved reading several different newspapers and other articles about certain subjects in order to be ready for any question a caller might ask him on the air.

“In radio, it was more about what you knew than anything, and I kind of liked that,” Karsch said. “I liked that you had to do your homework and you had to be prepared for anything.”

While he was at a Michigan Wolverines basketball game, Karsch remembers being approached by someone who told him of the impending launch of Team 1270, a new AM sports station in Detroit. Before officially taking the air, the station had secured the broadcast rights to both the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings and was considering a significant expansion in its sports coverage.

“I loved college sports more than any of the pro sports at the time, yet there was pretty good money I couldn’t say no to,” Karsch said. “They basically said, ‘We just want you to do you. Do whatever show you’re doing in Ann Arbor; do it in Detroit,’ and that’s what I did.”

Shortly thereafter, Karsch was paired with Scott “The Gator” Anderson on Karsch and Anderson, a program airing middays from 10:00 AM-2:00 PM. As the show approaches 20 years on the air, experiencing sustained success and longevity has come with having a keen awareness of the sports landscape in “The Motor City,” and the blend between college and professional teams.

“I think it’s an underrated sports market,” Karsch said of Detroit. “I think the people care about all four pro teams and we have two major universities that the fanbases love in Michigan and Michigan State.”

Regarding topic selection, a preponderance of listeners tune in for football talk, something that former 94WIP program director and sports radio consultant Tom Bigby told staff during a visit to Detroit. He suggested the station move to an open line format where more of the programming is based on callers than guests, and once the move was made, the impetus for callers to express themselves came at virtually any mention of Detroit Lions football.

After all, the listeners are, in essence, customers, and as the enduring 20th century business adage goes: “The customer is always right.”

“When we bring up the Lions, the phones explode,” Karsch expressed. “It has kind of always been the case since we went to the format. College football does get traction [and] Tigers baseball does get a lot of traction when they’re playing. Mostly we just listen to the audience, watch the feedback that comes in with texts and tweets and follow those leads more than anything else.”

The interactions between Karsch and Anderson are entertaining parts of the show that keep listeners tuning in, especially during debates. During his consulting visit, Bigby told the staff that it was not their job to win every argument; rather, it was incumbent on them to start them all. In working with Anderson, Karsch is aware of the topics that garner strong opinions and passion on the air, and will try to position his co-host to experience success in those moments.

“He has knowledge and does his homework as well, but there are times where I just need to sit back and let him go – and I’m perfectly fine with it because people love him and he gets rolling,” Karsch said of his co-host. “He’s definitely the funny personality on the show.”

It all attributes back to Karsch’s prudence and perception about what makes good sports talk radio. When he was working for a television station as a videographer early in his career, he has a distinct memory of traveling in a news truck and listening to sports talk radio with a sports reporter. Suddenly, the reporter started asking Karsch questions pertaining to how he would handle certain topics or callers on the show, giving him the ability to refine his craft in a completely different setting.

“I think of myself as an air traffic controller whose job it is to keep [the show] from crashing down,” Karch said. “It’s a tightrope, [and] you could always fall off, but every day you never know where it’s going to go; the challenge is always different.”

Over the nearly two decades hosting Karsch and Anderson at the station, which is currently branded as 97.1 The Ticket following the move to the FM band in 2007, the Detroit sports area has helped grow superstars and, in return, won several major sports championships.

“I think some markets skew so heavily towards one of the teams, but I do think in Detroit we’re fortunate to have interest in sports year round,” Karsch said. “There are times here sports stories on a given day just aren’t going to carry the day, so we kind of have to branch out and push out what’s interesting to the average Detroiter if it’s not a sports story.”

Karsch has been working directly with Michigan Wolverines radio broadcast for 16 years, initially hosting the pregame tailgate show, halftime show and postgame show. Additionally, he used to host the Wolverines sports magazine show and also contributed to the University of Michigan’s athletics department website, giving him additional exposure to the brand.

“There’s a familiarity,” Karsch said. “Whether we were in the press box or outside the stadium – it varied just [by] being at all the games [and it] got me accustomed to it.”

Before being named the new play-by-play announcer for Michigan Wolverines football, Karsch worked as a sideline reporter on the radio broadcasts, enterprising stories and shifting the central focuses of his preparation. Yet there are similarities between both roles, evinced by Dan Miller, play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Lions, who gave Karsch sound advice.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to walk into the booth with a bucket filled with information, and when the game is over, that bucket is going to be 95% still filled because you just don’t have to get everything out; otherwise you’re kind of forcing it and it’s awkward,’” Karsch said.

“I caught on a couple of occasions this year where I fell into that trap a little bit, but he’s right. You have to almost prepare for every player on the field on either team to be the star and then when that guy makes a huge play, you hope to have some relevant information to add to their story in that moment of time.”

When Karsch landed the play-by-play job, he was elated and enthusiastic for the start of the college football season. Now as the regular season nears its conclusion, Karsch feels he and color commentator and former offensive tackle Jon Jansen have rekindled their chemistry from when they hosted the pregame tailgate show and called the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl together.

“The magnitude of the position is intimidating, but when we actually got on the air to do it, it just felt like Jon and I doing a show where there wasn’t a script,” Karsch said. “It was Jon and I just doing our thing where the script was the game playing out in front of us.”

Jansen was a captain on the 1997 national championship team and has been able to make connections between being a member of that group and watching this year’s football team attempt to achieve similar levels of success. Michigan recently faced the Illinois Fighting Illini and trailed going into the fourth quarter for the first time all season. The matchup was ultimately decided by a field goal set up by a large punt return by Ronnie Bell, drawing similarities to the National Championship Game in 1997.

“Michigan had to come up with a fourth quarter drive, and he’s telling stories about that day and how much that was a hurdle [for] the team… to overcome when they didn’t have their best day,” Karch said. “….He was connecting dots from the eras that I think a lot of people can appreciate.”

Preparing for a football broadcast is similar to preparing for a radio show in that the goal is keeping people interested in listening and coming back for more. It all comes down to efficiently articulating information and using vivid imagery to tell stories that give listeners the ability to depict a game without seeing it.

“Doing a game in some ways is easier because a majority of the time is just filled describing what you’re seeing in front of you,” Karsch explained, “whereas talk radio is four hours of freelance but being ready to react to what the audience wants to talk about. You don’t have a whole lot of time doing a game to go back and find something that you missed, so you better be prepared for almost everything.”

As he prepares to take the microphone at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Karsch will aim to have his best broadcast of the season. It comes in a game surrounded by various storylines that will all coalesce at kickoff and could very likely determine the outcome of the 2022 Michigan Wolverines season.

Last week’s game against Illinois was Karsch’s first genuine opportunity as the voice of the Wolverines to call a fourth quarter finish at a time when “the game takes over.” Now he is even more prepared for the adrenaline rush in calling a game filled with profound significance and traditional pomp and circumstance – one that may turn out to rival the previous “Game of the Century.”

“The audience needs you to make sure that you’re not missing any details,” Karsch said. “Everything was ratcheted up – my intensity was ratcheted up – I think Jon’s was next level and when it is over you really do exhale. I learned a lot about those moments and then I went back and listened to it [and] I heard a few things I could have done better. I imagine it’s going to be 60 minutes of that feeling this Saturday.”

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