Suddenly, for the first time in eons, the rest of the damned world didn’t matter. Anyone who cares about sports once again was feeling a pounding heart, a racing pulse, an urge to air-plane around the outfield with someone named Brett Phillips, a need to scold Dave Roberts for yet another October evening of dastardly dugout decisions.
A pandemic? A presidential election from hell? Democracy’s demise? The end of the world as we know it? Get that stuff out of here. Who could care about anything but a frenetic, daffy and utterly fantastic ending to a baseball game in a mostly empty mega-studio in Texas? A bloop, a bobble, an airball of a swiped tag, a flying baserunner given new life after a stumble and tumble, a star-crossed reliever who didn’t back up home plate … all magnified because a miracle team from St. Petersburg, Fla., which still hasn’t explained how it got here, was out-Hollywood-ing the Dodgers with cinematic beauty while nullifying mystique, payroll, metropolis size and a locked-and-loaded roster.
Regardless of how this World Series concludes — and the Dodgers can’t possibly upchuck again, can they, with a 3-2 lead and the unhittable Walker Buehler waiting in Game 7? — we’ll recall the insane Game 4 sequence as a 2020 gift, an urgently needed and duly appreciated reminder of how sports can enrich lives with one spontaneous thrill from nowhere. To think the hero was a seldom-used Tampa Bay outfielder, without a hit since Sept. 25, whose wife and mother-in-law left Globe Life Field two innings earlier because they were cold. Maybe it’s just as well, for the guy was delirious. “Almost passed out,” said Phillips, who needed an IV after his venture into baseball lore. “I didn’t realize I was dehydrated. My resting heart rate was over 140 just lying there. They had to cover my eyes with a towel because I had a pounding migraine.”
“I’m about to live 15 years shorter,” the Rays’ Brandon Lowe said. “My God, I think I lost 10 years on that last play.” For all of us who witnessed it, the time investment might have been worthwhile.
Yet how many of “us” were actually living the moment, watching the events unfold in an “unperfect storm,” as Roberts imperfectly called it? If this was a litmus test of sport’s resilience, the avalanche of emotion was darkened by another reality hit: Ratings continued to be the worst in World Series history, with Nielsen confirming the all-time classic as the lowest-rated game on record. We can’t assume, as career sports aficionados, that the rest of the world is similarly jazzed. “World Series Gobbled Up By ABC’s `Shark Tank’ and CBS’ `Big Brother,’” blasted the Deadline.com headline after the previous game — a 21st-century prison sentence that baseball can’t escape no matter how memorable and great a game might be. We might think the Randy Arozarena drama was all anyone could talk about, that his slip, recovery and slide into home should be framed forevermore by a remake of the “Macarena” tune.
In truth, it was a “niche” 2020 moment.
And until further notice — such as, a responsibly approved and widely accessible COVID-19 vaccine — sports programming will remain in the bin of niche programming, a free-fall never thought possible through decades of massive growth. As it is, sports isn’t certain to return in full scale next year as the coronavirus roars on, with leagues unclear if they want to foot the massive costs of daily testing. If the ratings also are nose-diving, is it any wonder the commissioners aren’t committing to seasons yet?
To be clear, this isn’t a death spiral — not yet. As long as gamblers have money to lose and states open sportsbooks as Bad Beats crack houses, people will watch games in this country — or at least until North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, called a “thug” by Joe Biden, relieves America of its misery with the push of a nuke button that not even Dennis Rodman can stop. Yet a cold pandemic verity can’t be denied, either: Significantly fewer people care about sports now than ever before in my decades on Planet Earth. Anyone with ears, eyes and a common-sense equilibrium knows it, no matter how many optimism-slanted ratings experts are trotted out by ESPN, Fox Sports and The Athletic sports site — all with vested interests in painting pretty viewership pictures that aren’t real.
The leagues and broadcast networks are playing it cool, using safe and convenient phrases such as “aberration” and “extraordinary times” while pointing out that millions are peeled to cable news channels. But if these officials are being honest with themselves, they are very nervous about the future. What if the coronavirus, still raging with a perilous winter ahead, is still with us in a year or two? What if a Biden victory next week leads to “a depression like you’ve never seen,” to quote President Trump? Why would people come rushing back to sports — cable or streaming — when they have careers to protect, kids to educate, family members to keep alive, mortgages and bills to pay? If people are preoccupied with their own existential worries, such as sleeping at night, why would sports ratings magically spike to previous robust levels or anywhere near?
To enjoy the luxury of sports, millions of Americans need more than disposable income. They need disposable time and disposable energy that has been robbed by 2020. So let’s keep dialogue about the stunning ratings declines simple and unbiased. In a country of 330.5 million human beings, anywhere between 6 million and 9 million watched the first four games of a Fall Classic featuring a famed team from the Los Angeles mega-market — again, the smallest audiences ever for a once-venerated spectacle and a 40 percent decrease from last year’s troubling lows. An NBA Finals that saw LeBron James win a title — again, in the L.A. market — was watched by an average of 7.4 million, a 67 percent drop from two years ago. You say Clayton Kershaw saved the Dodgers and maybe his postseason legacy in Game 5? You say Roberts tried his best to fiddle around again, much to Joe Buck’s dismay, before coming up big with Blake Treinen as the closer and not Kenley Jansen? That’s cool, but was anyone watching one night after The Brett Phillips Finish couldn’t beat Adele and “Saturday Night Live”?
“This team is super-special,” Kershaw said. “And there’s no better explanation than what happened (in Game 4), and then the text messages after, with the group of guys in the players’ texts saying, `You know what? it’s a best-of-three series, we’re going to get it done.’ We came back with a new perspective.”
Only the NFL kingdom, with its heavy gambling emphasis and big-screen magnetism, has avoided huge declines. College football, with the Big Ten resuming last weekend and the Pac-12 returning next month, may or may not boost sluggish numbers. The Stanley Cup Finals sunk 62 percent. The U.S. Open golf major was down 55 percent. The U.S. Open tennis major was down 50 percent. The Kentucky Derby was down 49 percent. Again, the leagues and networks spin madly, pointing out many of those events were played far outside their usual calendar frames and how they’ve collided in October and September, forcing viewers to choose.
Fact is, the numbers haven’t just dipped. They’ve cratered. And unless these powerful moguls have crystal balls that can see the future, there’s a chance things will get worse — maybe much worse — before they get better in sports. If you don’t believe me, consider a widely referenced Marist Poll that revealed another alarming number — 46 percent of those who consider themselves sports fans say they’re devoting less time to sports broadcasts than before the pandemic. They cited sensible reasons: COVID-19 prevents them from attending games in stadiums and arenas, gathering with friends and like-minded fans in bars or living rooms and enjoying the conviviality of community. They cited political reasons, too: Some don’t like how NBA, NFL and MLB players have protesting racial inequality and police brutality.
But the biggest factor, obviously, is the absence of normalcy. If America is entering its most vulnerable period yet for the coronavirus, and hospitals again are facing crisis-level shortages of beds, staff and treatment drugs, isn’t any self-immersion into sports disproportionate to the real world? Especially when we don’t know week to week how many NFL and college players — or position groups — are testing positive for the virus? Isn’t it a major development how Cam Newton, now a turnover machine, hasn’t been the same for the 2-4 Patriots since he contracted COVID? And that the Raiders, who haven’t followed protocols, are slipping at 3-3?
The leagues and networks continue to downplay the virus. The NFL “punished” the protocol-busting Tennessee Titans with a mere bank-account hiccup, a $350,000 fine that hurts much less than bogus threats of game forfeitures and docked draft picks. And it’s a sign of the times when Wisconsin freshman Graham Mertz throws five touchdown passes in his college debut, then tests positive for the virus, meaning, if confirmed, he’ll have to sit a minimum of 21 says. All that said, sports still wants you to think fans are agog over the reunion of Tom Brady and troublemaker-in-waiting Antonio Brown (and, yes, Brady the social worker had Brown talk to Tony Robbins). Or how Jerry Jones blew it again with the hiring of Mike McCarthy, who is openly fighting with Cowboys players and asking why they didn’t retaliate after a cheap shot to fill-in quarterback Andy Dalton. Or how the Steelers are 6-0 and the emerging AFC favorites. Or how, in college football, Indiana beat Penn State for its first statement victory in years, leading coach Tom Allen to crowd-dive into his players. Or how pink-suited Dabo Swinney defended slow-starting Clemson from the evil media with a defensive tone: “I just want to make sure I’m at the right press conference here. We did win the game, I think.” Sure, some people in America still care about basic sports topics.
Many others do not. And won’t for a long time.
Lost in the mad rush to resume events in 2020 are the gathering clouds of 2021. Just because seasons finished and champions were crowned doesn’t mean the same will happen next year. There is no guarantee, for instance, that MLB will have a season if only a smattering of humanity is allowed in most ballparks, as seen this month down yonder in Arlington. The sport lost almost $3 billion in cash in an abbreviated season, and the owners would prefer to pull the plug than lose twice that amount next year.
“We’re thinking long and hard about our entire situation next year,” commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN. “With respect to 2021, it depends on (fans in attendance). We can play. We can collect our broadcast revenue, but for the game to be healthy, we need fans in the ballpark.”
But in California, home of five MLB franchises, Gov. Gavin Newsom will continue to limit large gatherings at stadiums even if regions show marked improvements in COVID data. At only 20 percent capacity, would it be worth MLB’s bother to begin another season? “I think we’re looking for 2022 to start to feel normal again, while we work through this in 2021,” Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly said.
The NBA, meanwhile, is assuming fans won’t be inside arenas anytime soon and wants to launch a 72-game season in time for Christmas. If that is unrealistic — eight weeks away, really? — so is the concept of placing five teams in each of six Bubbles. Haven’t James and other prominent players ruled out such restrictive environments? The NHL, which wants to start Jan. 1, has yet to post a schedule.
Sports plows on, of course, because gamblers are wagering in record numbers at legal sportsbooks — an estimated $2.5 billion in September, $748 million in New Jersey alone. This explains why FOX SUPER 6 promos are becoming as commonplace as Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz acting like frat bros and why ESPN has a Las Vegas studio. But gambling, while potentially lucrative for the leagues and media companies, also fits the very definition of sport’s new pandemic reality.
As in, ditch.
As in, stuck there until further notice.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Who Handled the Tua Concussion Discussion Best?
Rex Ryan, Rodney Harrison, and Boomer Esiason stood out with their commentary on the Tagovailoa story.
The major story going into the bulk of Week 4’s NFL action on Sunday was the concussion suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in Thursday’s game versus the Cincinnati Bengals.
Amazon’s Thursday Night Football telecast, particularly its halftime show, faced heavy criticism for neglecting to mention that Tagovailoa had been tested for a concussion in his previous game just four days earlier. Additionally, the NFL Players Association called for an investigation into whether or not the league’s concussion protocols were followed properly in evaluating Tagovailoa.
In light of that, how would the Sunday NFL pregame shows address the Tagovailoa concussion situation? Would they better inform viewers by covering the full story, including the Week 3 controversy over whether or not proper protocols were followed?
We watched each of the four prominent pregame shows — ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, Fox NFL Sunday, CBS’s The NFL Today, and NBC’s Football Night in America — to compare how the Tagovailoa story was covered. With the benefit of two extra days to research and report, did the Sunday shows do a better job of informing and engaging viewers?
Here’s how the pregame studio crews performed with what could be the most important NFL story of the year:
Sunday NFL Countdown – ESPN
ESPN’s pregame show is the first to hit the air each Sunday, broadcasting at 10 a.m. ET. So the Sunday NFL Countdown crew had the opportunity to lead the conversation for the day. With a longer, three-hour show and more resources to utilize in covering a story like this, ESPN took full advantage of its position.
The show did not lead off with the Tagovailoa story, opting to lay out Sunday’s schedule, which included an early game in London between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. But the Countdown crew eventually got to issue on everyone’s minds approximately 28 minutes into the program.
Insider Adam Schefter provided the latest on the NFL and NFLPA’s investigation into the matter, particularly the “gross motor instability” Tagovailoa displayed in stumbling on the field and how the Dolphins initially announced that the quarterback had suffered a head injury, but later changed his condition to a back injury.
Schefter added that the NFL and NFLPA were expected to interview Tagovailoa and pass new guidelines for concussion protocols, including that no player displaying “gross motor instability” will be allowed to play. Those new rules could go into effect as early as Week 5.
“This is an epic fail by the NFL,” said Matt Hasselbeck to begin the commentary. “This is an epic fail by the medical staff, epic fail by everybody! Let’s learn from it!”
Perhaps the strongest remarks came from Rex Ryan, who said coaches sometimes need to protect players from themselves.
“I had a simple philosophy as a coach: I treated every player like my son,” Ryan said. “Would you put your son back in that game after you saw that?
“Forget this ‘back and ankle’ BS that we heard about! This is clearly from head trauma! That’s it. I know what it looks like. We all know what it looks like.”
Where Sunday NFL Countdown‘s coverage may have stood out the most was by bringing injury analyst Stephania Bell into the discussion. Bell took a wider view of the story, explaining that concussions had to be treated in the long-term and short-term. Science needs to advance; a definitive diagnostic tool for brain injury doesn’t currently exist. Until then, a more conservative approach has to be taken, holding players out of action more often.
Grade: A. Countdown covered the story thoroughly. But to be fair, it had the most time.
The NFL Today – CBS
CBS’s pregame show led off with the Tagovailoa story, going right to insider Jonathan Jones to report. He cited the key phrase “gross motor instability” as a significant indication of a concussion.
Jones also clarified that the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant who helped evaluate Tagovailoa made “several mistakes” in consulting with the Dolphins’ team doctor, leading to his dismissal by the NFL and NFLPA.
The most pointed remarks came from Boomer Esiason, who said any insinuation that the Dolphins, head coach Mike McDaniel, or the team medical staff put Tagovailoa back in the game in order to win was “off-base.” Phil Simms added that the concussion experts he spoke with indicated that Tagovailoa could miss four to six weeks with this injury.
Grade: B-. The opinions from the analysts were largely bland. Jones’s reporting stood out.
Fox NFL Sunday
The Fox NFL pregame show also led off with the Tagovailoa story, reviewing the questions surrounding how the quarterback was treated in Week 3 before recapping his injury during Week 4’s game.
Jay Glazer reported on the NFL’s investigation, focusing on whether or not Tagovailoa suffered a concussion in Week 3. And if he did, why was he allowed to play in Week 4? Glazer noted that Tagovailoa could seek a second, maybe a third medical opinion on his injury.
Jimmy Johnson provided the most compelling commentary, sharing his perspective from the coaching side of the situation. He pointed out that when an injured player comes off the field, the coach has no contact with him. The medical team provides an update on whether or not the player can return. In Johnson’s view, Mike McDaniel did nothing wrong in his handling of the matter. He has to trust his medical staff.
Grade: B. Each of the analysts shared stronger opinions, particularly in saying a player failing “the eyeball test” with concussion symptoms should be treated seriously.
Football Night in America – NBC
Sunday Night Football was in a different setting than the other pregame shows, with Maria Taylor, Tony Dungy, and Rodney Harrison broadcasting on-site from Tampa Bay. With that, the show led off by covering the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, its effects on the Tampa area, and how the Buccaneers dealt with the situation during the week.
But after 20 minutes, the show got into the Tagovailoa story with Mike Florio reporting what his peers told viewers earlier in the day regarding pending changes to the NFL’s concussion protocol and “gross motor instability” being used as a major indicator.
Florio emphasized that the NFLPA would ask how Tagovailoa was examined and treated. Was he actually examined for a back injury in Week 3? And if he indeed suffered a back injury, why was he still allowed to play?
When the conversation went back to the on-site crew, Dungy admitted that playing Thursday night games always concerned him when he was a coach. He disclosed that teams playing a Thursday game needed to have a bye the previous week so they didn’t have to deal with a quick, four-day turnaround. That scheduling needs to be addressed for player safety.
But Harrison had the most engaging reaction to the story, coming from his experience as a player. He admitted telling doctors that he was fine when suffering concussion symptoms because he wanted to get back in the game. Knowing that was wrong, Harrison pleaded with current players to stay on the sidelines when hurt because “CTE takes you to a dark place.”
“It’s not worth it. Please take care of yourself,” said Harrison. “Don’t depend on the NFL. Don’t depend on anybody. If something’s wrong with your head, report it.”
Grade: B+. Dungy and Harrison’s views of the matter from their perspective as a coach and player were very compelling.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
Jason Barrett Podcast – Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt, BetRivers
Sportsbooks are creating their own media now, and no company is doing that using more guys that have made their names on sports radio than BetRivers. Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt talk about the strategy behind that decision for today and for the future.
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
Joe Rogan Betting Admission Reveals Gray Area
Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not.
For nearly a decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover the football and basketball programs for the University of Kentucky in some form or fashion. Whether writing for blogs or working with ESPN Louisville as co-host of the post-game show, I’ve gotten to know people around the program I grew up supporting, and other individuals in the media doing the same. I’ve made some terrific friendships and cultivated quite a few relationships that provide me with “inside information” about the teams.
As an avid sports bettor, that information has sometimes put me into some difficult personal situations. There have been times when I’ve been alerted to player news that wasn’t public, such as a player dealing with an injury or suspension. It’s often been told to me off-the-record, and I’ve never put that information out publicly or given it to others.
I wish I could also say I’ve never placed a wager based on that information, but that would be a lie. While it’s been a long time since I’ve done so, I’ve ventured into that ethical gray area of betting on a team that I’m covering. I’ve long felt uncomfortable doing so, and I’d say it’s been a few years since I last did it.
At least I know I’m not alone. On his latest episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, Rogan told guest Bert Kreischer that earlier in his UFC broadcasting career he regularly bet on fights. He claims to have won nearly 85% of the time (which I highly doubt but that’s another discussion for another time), either via bets he made or ones he gave to a business partner to place on his behalf.
From his comments, Rogan doesn’t seem to have been using sensitive information to gain an edge with the books, but he also didn’t state that he didn’t. He indicates that much of his success stemmed from knowing quite a bit more about fighters coming from overseas, and he said he “knew who they were and I would gamble on them.”
But Rogan undoubtedly has long been in a position where he knows which fighters might be dealing with a slight injury, or who are struggling in camp with a specific fighting style. It’s unavoidable for someone whose job puts him into contact with individuals who tell him things off-the-record and divulge details without perhaps even realizing it.
But let’s say Rogan did get that information, and did use it, and was still doing so today. The fact is…there’s nothing illegal about it, not in the United States at least. While it’s against the rules of some entities — the NFL, for example, has stated they could suspend or ban for life individuals who use inside information or provide it to others — it’s not against any established legal doctrine. Unlike playing the stock market, insider betting is not regulated by any central body or by the government.
However, Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not. Many of the after-the-fact actions that have been taken in the realm of legalized sports betting in this country, or those being discussed currently (such as advertising limitations), fall in line with changes made in Great Britain following their legalization.
One of their big changes was making it illegal to utilize insider information, with very specific definitions about the “misuse of information” and what steps the Gambling Commission may take. It lays out what information can be used, the punishments that may be levied, and at what point it might venture into criminality.
Sportsbooks do have recourse in some instances to recoup money on insider betting, but not many. If they can prove that a wage was influenced, they can cancel the bet or sue for the money. The most well-known instance is the individual who bet $50,000 at +750 odds that someone would streak on the field during Super Bowl LV –which he did– and then was denied the payout when he bragged about his exploits. But unless someone foolishly tells the books that they’ve taken them with information that the public wasn’t privy to, they have little to no chance of doing anything about it.
There are ramifications to insider betting that raise truly ethical dilemmas. Just like stock trading, information can be immeasurably valuable to those with stakes large enough to change prices. If I’m placing a $20 prop bet with the knowledge that a team’s starting running back might be out for a game, or dealing with an ankle injury, I’m not going to harm anybody else playing that line. But if I give that information to a shark, who places a $20,000 wager on that same line, I’ve now enabled someone to move a line and impact other bettors.
Online sports betting in this country continues to grow, and every day we are reminded that there are still aspects of the space that can feel like the wild west. As individuals in the media, we have to decide personally what our ethical stances are in situations like this. We also have to keep in mind the impact that betting can have on our biases–especially if we’ve bet using inside information. A prime example is Kirk Herbstreit, who won’t even make a pick on College Gameday for games he is going to be doing color commentary for lest he possibly appears biased on the call.
At one end of the spectrum, you have someone like Herbstreit, and on the other end, you have folks like Rogan who, while he no longer does so, was more than happy to not only wager on fights himself but gave the information to others. And in the middle, you have hundreds of people in similar situations, who might lean one way or another or who, like me, may have found themselves on either side of that ethical line.
There is no black or white answer here, nor am I saying there’s necessarily a right or wrong stance for anybody in the sports media industry to take. I would say that each person has to take stock of what they’re comfortable doing, and how they feel about insider information being used. Rogan didn’t break any rules or laws by gambling on the UFC, but his admission to doing so might be the catalyst towards it no longer being accepted.
Jason Ence resides in Louisville, KY and is fully invested in the sports betting space. Additionally, he covers Premier League and Serie A soccer, college football, and college basketball for ESPN Louisville 680 including serving as the station’s University of Kentucky correspondent, and co-host of the UK football and basketball post-game shows. He can be found on Twitter @JasonUK17 and reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.