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Once The Villain, Stephen A. Smith Has Made The Turn to Favorite Again

To paraphrase Harvey Dent, you either become irrelevant or stick around long enough for people to like you again.

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“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

This is perhaps the most memorable line from 2008’s The Dark Knight (considered by many to be the best Batman movie before The Batman hit theaters this past weekend), with which Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt) explains why Gotham City needs Batman. And if the city decides it doesn’t need him, he’s still fulfilling a purpose.

In recent months, Stephen A. Smith has become the opposite of what Dent was talking about. He has lived long enough on ESPN’s First Take to become a hero for the network.

For many years, Smith was everything wrong with ESPN’s daytime programming. He embraced debate. He was personality over substance. His bombast covered up a general knowledge that couldn’t discuss many topics with insight. Most of all, Stephen A. shouted. He screamed to bully whichever co-host or guest opposed him into submission.

Very often, it wasn’t very appealing television. First Take still drew ratings because it was on ESPN in mid-morning. Fans who enjoyed sports debates watched. But it also made for good background for those who worked at home or could play it in the office. It was safe programming at gyms, lobbies, and waiting rooms. But was the show taken that seriously?

But ESPN stuck with Stephen A., giving him even more platforms on radio and streaming, though many claimed they were tired of hearing from him. Network executives and producers knew he was a personality people would watch and listen to, even if it was to disagree with him. Stephen A. wasn’t going anywhere, whether fans thought that was what they wanted or not.

Last summer, Smith stepped into controversy for remarks made about Los Angeles Angels superstar (and eventual American League Most Valuable Player) Shohei Ohtani, saying he couldn’t be the face of Major League Baseball because he didn’t speak English.

One month later, Smith forced Max Kellerman out from First Take. At the time, it was believed that Smith was responsible for the decision, which he later admitted to. Those who felt Stephen A. was too overbearing a presence on the show, too domineering toward his debate opponents, could rightly wonder if this was a bad sign. Was more Stephen A. — or a more powerful Stephen A. — a good thing for First Take?

To paraphrase Harvey Dent, you either become irrelevant or stick around long enough for people to like you again.

Perhaps the blowback Smith received for his Ohtani remarks and taking criticism from colleagues on the air was a humbling experience. Maybe Smith felt he needed to prove that the decision to move Kellerman off First Take was the right one and the show would be better for it. ESPN believed in Stephen A. and a majority of viewers stuck by him. But perhaps Smith felt he needed to justify that confidence.

Of course, that goes entirely against his on-air persona. Stephen A. Smith humbled? Stephen A. Smith contrite? OK, maybe that’s taking speculation a bit too far.

Yet something does appear to have changed. Smith appears to be revitalized. He admitted that his recent bout with COVID which resulted in hospitalization over the New Year’s holiday made him realize how much he missed First Take and wanted to get back to it.

Perhaps more importantly, a new rotation of guest hosts following Kellerman’s departure have helped the show’s debates feel fresh and engaging. Stephen A. is no longer paired with someone expected to be a punching bag for his arguments and rants. His debate opponents fight back. They trade blows. Nobody embodies that new dynamic more than Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, now making regular appearances on Wednesday.

Stephen A. no longer acts as if he has to argue his co-host, guest, or analyst out of the room. He relishes the conflict from a worthy adversary. That’s added a bit of humility, even a bit of playfulness. Smith looks like he’s having fun again on First Take and it’s resulted in a more enjoyable show.

Viewers and sports media observers are no longer complaining in articles and on social media about Stephen A. shouting and screaming. They’re enjoying the noise. They’re appreciating the passion that it demonstrates. Even if there’s criticism, it no longer appears to come with exasperation.

Sure, ESPN believed in Stephen A. and that faith has been justified. And maybe Smith just kept doing what he does and broke through on the other side of popular opinion.

Whatever the reason, the view of Smith has become more positive in the past couple of months. He’s been around long enough to see himself become the champion, rather than the bad guy. It’s a development that those who have been following Smith’s career, the evolution (or de-evolution) of sports debate TV likely wouldn’t have predicted not so long ago.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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