The N in ESPN now should belong to Nichols. If she so desires, Rachel Nichols can take on the dreaded Disney Company attorneys — the ones battling Scarlett Johansson in another courtroom — and sue her soon-to-be-former employer for, among other sins, invasion of privacy. She probably won’t because NBA commissioner Adam Silver respects her and could direct her parachute toward TNT, where she’ll continue what has been lost in this farcical drama: her highly credible work as a host and sideline reporter.
But it’s time someone challenges the Worldwide Leader in Dysfunction. No matter who is running the company, there’s a Kremlin-like stench in the halls of Bristol that turns power into perversion and talented sports media people into poisoned pawns. ESPN thinks it can conveniently cancel Nichols because she wasn’t an obedient puppet, because she dared to criticize the company for past flaws in diversity hiring while painting herself as a prime-time victim in shameless catch-up efforts.
When the truth is painful, Bristol never looks inward. Rather, it takes the sinister, corporate way out and blames the in-house messenger. Nichols is not the problem, and if she were to flee a cutthroat industry and focus on raising her twin daughters with her husband, she can’t leave without first pointing out that ESPN IS THE PROBLEM.
To recap, Nichols learned last year that she was being replaced on the network’s game-day/night showcase, “NBA Countdown,’’ by Maria Taylor. Nichols is White. Taylor is Black. Amid the tense, fraught cultural churn of 2020, Nichols wondered what she had done to deserve the demotion — she and her self-created weekday NBA show, “The Jump,’’ have been nominated for Sports Emmy awards — and said so in a phone conversation with Adam Mendelsohn, a heavy public-relations hitter who advises LeBron James on subjects including political activism.
‘‘I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols told Mendelsohn. ‘‘If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”
Should she have kept those flammable thoughts to herself, expressing them only to her closest family members? Yes. But here’s why Nichols has a robust legal case: She was speaking in what she believed was the privacy of her room inside a Disney-owned hotel, at Walt Disney World, where a Disney-owned media company assigned her to the Bubble-ized pandemic season of Disney’s business partner, the NBA, and expected her to remain isolated with players, coaches and league personnel. She was in ESPN lockdown, away from her family for months, and if Paul George and other NBA players spoke of the emotional upheaval in a hellish experience, imagine learning in the early weeks of that Bubble that you’re losing your high-profile gig.
Furthermore, imagine venting to a confidante in such a freaky, surreal and unprecedented space — and not realizing Big Brother was listening. George Orwell would be fascinated to know that someone in ESPN’s vast production empire hadn’t turned off the network’s video camera installed in Nichols’ room, a device required of reporters appearing on air during the pandemic. Her comments were being recorded on a server, which is crack cocaine to the sort of divisive creeps who scheme to backstab people inside media companies. Next thing you knew, the Rachel Tape was strategically distributed like cancer throughout the company. Taylor was made aware, as were her colleagues in ESPN’s basketball division, many of whom are Black. By the time the audio reached the in-box of company president Jimmy Pitaro, Bristol had yet another internal scandal. Only this one was boiling in the summer of Black Lives Matter.
What happened next should be chilling to young aspirants who think advancement in media is about outworking, outsmarting and outproducing the competition. You can be out-sleazed and out-politicked without having the slightest idea. Behind the scenes, some of the very people who worked with Nichols on her shows were conspiring against her, demanding that she be reprimanded. For months, the Disney bosses — Pitaro, NBA programming chief Stephanie Druley, longtime Disney czar Bob Iger, incoming Disney boss Bob Chapek — did not address a dangerous situation and fueled the raging fires. While Nichols kept working, Taylor and her supporters felt ignored by management. Never has a strong leadership strategy been more critical and urgent at ESPN. And never has leadership been more miserably inept and missing, as underlined by Silver before Game 1 of an NBA Finals interrupted by the Nichols-Taylor fireworks, which followed a New York Times report detailing Nichols’ comments in the tape.
“This is an incident that happened I guess when Rachel was in the bubble a year ago, and I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations that ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it. Obviously not,’’ said Silver, adding that it was “particularly unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other’’ and that Nichols and Taylor are “terrific at what they do.’’
Unconscionably, ESPN pointed the entirety of blame at … Nichols. With millions fixed on the Finals and the surrounding dissension, the company removed her from sideline duties, effectively appeasing Taylor (and her supporters) and hoping she would sign a contract extension to remain as host of major NBA shows. Yet she flipped her own bird at Bristol after the Finals, leaving immediately for NBC, which flew her to Tokyo for Summer Olympics duties. Her departure was bemoaned publicly by Pitaro, whose failures looked even worse. He could have apologized publicly for the snafu, but an embrace of self-accountability is not the ESPN corporate way, even when Silver is critical.
The bosses waited until this week, with sports at its low ebb on the 2021 calendar and America on a pre-Labor Day pause, to fire one last bullet at Nichols. They removed her from all NBA programming, canceled “The Jump’’ and weren’t shy in saying privately that she’ll never appear again on an ESPN platform. Pitaro didn’t attach himself to a statement, leaving those duties to Dave Roberts, now in charge of what will be significantly revamped NBA programming. “We mutually agreed that this approach regarding our NBA coverage was best for all concerned,” said Roberts, who is Black and replaces Druley, who is White. “Rachel is an excellent reporter, host and journalist, and we thank her for her many contributions to our NBA content.”
In the end, no one wins. Taylor left. Nichols is gone. And after years upon years of botched decisions in its NBA division, ESPN continues to humiliate itself while TBS — catapulted by the universally acclaimed “Inside The NBA’’ studio program — shows how professional broadcasting is executed.
A cynic would say this is how business is conducted in the 21st century. I’d say it’s a horrific way to treat a long-valued employee who needlessly has been dumped due to a company’s cowardly, naked fear of racial backlash. I always hesitate drawing from my own experiences at ESPN, knowing some people think I hold a grudge for a long-ago parting of ways. In truth, unlike industry climbers who view Bristol as a destination, I have no interest in working there again — and have the advantage of teaching people how the place operates.
In the first and only legal matter of my life, which later was completely expunged while I was prevailing in a civil case, ESPN immediately yanked me from ‘’Around The Horn,’’ where I had appeared almost daily for eight years. If it was the company’s right to sit me while waiting out the legal process, the show was irresponsible in letting panelists condemn me on the very next program when no charges had been filed — with one participating panelist later confiding they’d been asked to comment by the producers. Did ESPN consider how those comments might influence the case?
Nah. There was a hidden agenda, you see. As president John Skipper told me during a Malibu dinner chat in 2013, the network needed “diversity’’ on “Around The Horn,’’ a goal that came to fruition with numerous new faces in coming years. As a champion of diversity, I always thought the five-white-guy look on the show was awful. My problem was that Skipper and company executives were mounting their initiative at my personal and professional expense.
The same could be said about Nichols, of course. Correcting a “crappy longtime record on diversity,’’ to quote her, comes with the careless price of collateral career damage. For now, she is staying above the fray, tweeting, “Got to create a whole show and spend five years hanging out with some of my favorite people talking about one my favorite things … An eternal thank you to our amazing producers & crew — The Jump was never built to last forever but it sure was fun. More to come …”
But considering Disney Company also might be involved in a crime — in Florida and Connecticut, both parties on a phone call must consent to being recorded or eavesdrop-monitored — then, yeah, Rachel Nichols could own the S in ESPN, too.
As in, Scapegoat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
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.