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Ready or (Definitely) Not, Football Season Is Upon Us

“Does a sport fraught with COVID-19 superspreader risks and filled with social justice demonstrations have any chance of completing NFL and college seasons — when non-stop chaos seems more likely?”

Jay Mariotti

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Excuse me, what happened to myocarditis? Wasn’t this the reason not to play football, a potentially fatal heart condition linked to COVID-19? Weren’t the country’s leading cardiac specialists imploring the NFL and collegiate overlords to consider recent evidence — numerous athletes in their 20s and teens with heart muscle inflammation — as yet another medical risk in the delirious rush to launch seasons in the Year of Corona?

Other than the Big Ten and Pac-12, no one wanted to listen. So here we are, virus be damned, only days from Chiefs-Texans with 16,000 spectators in Kansas City. And here we are, already one game into the college scrums, if we’re counting Central Arkansas beating Austin Peay the other night. Football is such a runaway religion in America — I mean, sickness — that normally smart people believe it’s entirely reasonable to jeopardize the long-term wellness of players, coaches, support staffers, fans and, by extension, their families and other human beings in the grand spirit of squeezing in schedules through the evil droplets.

They’re treating doctors like tackling dummies and a positive virus test as just another game-week hazard, like a concussion. Hey, you’re a wuss if you can’t handle a head ding and a bigger wuss if you can’t deal with a fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, loss of taste and smell, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, confusion and hallucinations. Never mind the horrors we’ve lived since March. Never mind that a football game, an in-your-face convergence of saliva and other bodily fluids for more than three hours in hundreds of games per season, is the very definition of a superspreader. Never mind that more Black people are dying of the coronavirus than white people, and that 70 percent of NFL players are African-American. Never mind that COVID-19 will remain our predominant thought, 24/7, until a legitimate vaccine is approved and distributed. Never mind the trigger effect of one infectious cluster on a football field, let alone several.

And never mind that on the season’s first possession — as Austin Peay’s CJ Evans Jr. raced for a 75-yard touchdown, while two ESPN booth analysts shrieked as if the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff was the Rose Bowl — a referee was caught cursing into a live mic.

“God damn mask!’’ he said, as if warning us of what’s ahead.

At this point, I’m tired of lecturing. If football players don’t realize how they’re being exploited for money, let them get sick and cope with the consequences, such as putting close relatives in hospital beds. Dozens of NFL players have wisely opted out. LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, rated in the top five on most draft boards, is the latest college star to opt out. They realize football, unlike the successful protected environments of the NBA and NHL, is not played inside a Bubble. They also realize Major League Baseball, not Bubble-ized, has been forced to postpone 38 games after a flurry of positive tests — despite mostly acceptable physical distancing on the field and rosters half the size of the NFL’s. Add the Athletics to a perpetually growing list that might include all 30 big-league teams before the playoffs, assuming MLB ever reaches that point.

Football people aren’t paying attention. Don’t you understand their big-boy sport is mightier than any old virus, especially if based in the South, where the gridiron is treated like a Civil War battlefield? Jerry Jones wants to put as many fannies in the seats as possible for Cowboys games. Nick Saban wants “to play for the players’’ at Alabama, where more than 1,000 positive tests have been recorded on campus since Aug. 19. And Dabo Swinney? “If we cancel football, the virus isn’t going to go away,’’ he said, with typical ass-backward logic. “If you told me we wouldn’t get the virus if we canceled football, I’d be the first person to sign up to cancel. Somewhere along the line, we have to recognize that we love the game.’’

Even if it kills someone.

“You can’t tell me that running onto a football field is supposed to be a zero-risk environment,” said Duke infectious-disease specialist Cameron Wolfe, dropping that precious nugget to Sports Business Daily. “Look at all of the regular sporting injuries that we accept as a certain level of risk as part and parcel of football. Now the reality is that we have to accept a little bit of COVID risk to be a part of that.”

Imagine describing coronavirus as “part and parcel,’’ like a hip pointer — but then, Wolfe is paid to advise the ACC, which starts play next week.

“Is the virus going to be any better or different (next year)? No, probably not,’’ said UAB athletic director Mark Ingram, whose program hosts the first FBS game Thursday. “Are the numbers going to be remarkably different? No, probably not. Are we going to have a vaccine? No, probably not.’’

Then, hell, let’s play football because we only live once, though we also only die once.

Unlike college players, the pros are compensated handsomely for their assumed risks. That hasn’t stopped the NFL Players Association from new demands ahead of the Sept. 10 opener. Union president JC Tretter wants daily virus testing — a fair request, considering the NFL is a $17-billion-a-year enterprise that should want optimum testing — after the current end date of this Saturday. He knows the league had zero positive tests among players and just six among staff members between Aug. 12-20, but Tretter wrote this week, “In the spirit of adaptability, expect the NFLPA to push for modifications.’’ In his position, I would want to know if the league is being transparent about test results. Does the NFL, or any league, have a good reason to be honest with so much riches on the table?

NFL minds have more to ponder at the moment than an infectious disease. The players witnessed the game boycotts that started in the NBA and spread to the WNBA, MLB, Major League Soccer, tennis and, with typical social stalling, the NHL. Week 1 boycotts aren’t expected, for now, but NFL players are much more leery of commissioner Roger Goodell and good-old-boy billionaire owners than NBA players are of their owners — and that didn’t stop the Milwaukee Bucks and other teams from forcing game postponements and demanding stronger league initiatives after the latest case of police brutality, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. The NBA faces a shaky financial future, but NFL players know their league is filthy rich and could afford to pull the season plug if necessary. Even with scattered fans in the stands and a potential 40 percent loss in revenue, the season is being fortified by $3.2 billion in new debt, thanks to an A+ credit rating.

So it will be nothing short of fascinating to see how the NFL owners — specifically, the almighty Jones — respond to players’ demands related to social justice and racial inequality. They will want to do more than kneel on the sideline during the national anthem, the movement launched four years ago by Colin Kaepernick. Think demonstrations, frequent messages in the media. The league is inscribing slogans on the end lines of end zones: “It Takes All Of Us’’ and “End Racism.’’ Decals are allowed on helmets and caps, with names or phrases honoring victims. T-shirts with statements — such as “Stop Hate’’ and “Black Lives Matter’’ — are available to wear in warmups. And the plan is to play the Black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’’

But will that be enough to appease players when their NBA brethren lost patience, without being stressed by COVID-19? Goodell has yet to announce an official league stance on sideline kneeling, perhaps because Jones still wants to negotiate a compromise that will have all players standing during “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’ The timing of his comment couldn’t be worse, but, then, what would one expect from Jones but divisiveness?

“Everybody knows where I stand on the anthem. Everybody knows where the Cowboys stand,’’ said Jones, who two years ago threatened to bench any player who knelt.

He’d better talk to his nose tackle, Dontari Poe, who says he plans to kneel. It’s important when powerful management people in the league call out the owners, including Packers CEO Mark Murphy, whose team is based in the state where a white police officer fired seven shots at Blake’s back from short range. Said Murphy: “They are in powerful, privileged positions and can make a huge difference, and they obviously have close relations with everybody in their organizations. It’s time to make changes.’’

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll referenced his brethren. “Coaches, I’m calling on you. Let’s step up,’’ he said. “No more being quiet, no more being afraid to talk the topics, no more `I’m a little bit uncomfortable, I might lose my job over this because I’ve taken a stand here or there.’ Screw it. We can’t do that anymore. Maybe if we do, we can be a leadership group that stands out, and maybe others will follow us. But it’s not just for coaches. I just know that I might have a better ear listening to me when I’m talking to coaches. … Our players are screaming at us: `Can you feel me? Can you see me? Can you hear me?’ They just want to be respected. They just want to be accepted. Just like all of our white children and families and want to be. It’s no different because we’re all the same. And there’s a lot of people that don’t see it that way, but there’s a lot of people that do.”

In the NBA, most superstars embrace social justice responsibility. But would Tom Brady and the embattled Drew Brees, criticized for his racial ignorance last spring, ever sit out a game in protest? Quarterbacks are the NFL’s power brokers, and while Black stars such as Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson have used their voices, where is Brady? “Until the people in the NFL who are irreplaceable decide they’re going to step back and hang it up for a week, two weeks, whatever it may be … but I don’t foresee that happening,” Jaguars receiver Chris Conley said. “I hate to say that. I wish I could stand up and say with confidence that people in this league would band together.”

Goodell, as usual, is dawdling. If it took him this long to investigate an owner who should have been ousted long ago — Washington’s Daniel Snyder, whose sexually warped work environment includes allegations he ordered staffers to make a risqué video featuring the team’s cheerleaders — then, yes, we definitely should worry about what might happen on the sidelines in Kansas City. And in the stands, where even a fraction of the usual 76,000-fans throng will include its share of COVID-iots neither socially distancing nor wearing masks. In the college game over the weekend, in Montgomery, Ala., fans and players were supposed to obey protocols. They didn’t. Not that anyone was around to enforce the virus rules.

NBC will introduce its C360 camera at Arrowhead Stadium, featuring breathtaking bird’s-eye views and zoom capabilities for sidelines and the line of scrimmage. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will be ready, too, as will the viewers who never thought this moment would come on the second Thursday of September.

I just don’t think football is ready for what’s about to pulverize it, a season of blindside hits that aren’t preventable. Unless, of course, wiser heads prevail and the sport is shut down until next year.

Sorry, I’ll stop making sense.

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 Cleveland Plain Dealer, 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. Then came covering the Cavaliers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer 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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