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Jeff Van Gundy Continues to Evolve

“We have an easy job,” expressed Van Gundy. “We watch the game and we try to convey what has happened, what could happen or what should happen. That’s not about preparation as much as it is [about] studying the teams over the course of the year.”

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Jeff Van Gundy
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While ESPN altered its NBA Countdown crew this year to include Mike Greenberg, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon and Jalen Rose, the network declined to alter its lead broadcast team. Calling his record 15th NBA Finals, play-by-play announcer Mike Breen led the booth beginning in Game 3, with his absence in the beginning of the series being due to a positive COVID-19 test result. For 14 of those 15 NBA Finals broadcasts, Breen has been joined by two former NBA head coaches – Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy.

Van Gundy never played professional basketball, and has not coached in the NBA since his stint with his hometown Houston Rockets from 2003-2007. Growing up in a basketball-oriented family, both he and his brother Stan have served as head coaches in the NBA, and their father Bill was a head coach at the college level.

Van Gundy began his professional coaching career with the New York Knicks, first as an assistant coach and then as the team’s head coach. In this role, he led star players Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Allan Houston and his current broadcast colleague Jackson in the team’s quest to bring a championship back to New York City. While Van Gundy was never able to capture an elusive championship as a head coach in the NBA, he was never afraid to take risks – one of which was resigning as head coach of the team 18 games into the 2001-02 season. Although he came to admit that the decision came out of “momentary frustration” in a 2013 interview on The Michael Kay Show, what resulted was the start of a new chapter in his basketball life.

“I had no intention of broadcasting at all,” said Van Gundy. “I got into it because Marv Albert, who was the Knicks broadcaster at the time I was coaching the Knicks… pushed for me to get a chance at TNT in-between my time coaching the Knicks and going to the Rockets.”

Van Gundy’s first game as an analyst with Turner Sports came shortly after his departure from the Knicks, working alongside Albert and Mike Fratello. While he was coaching, Van Gundy was perturbed by the objectivity Albert communicated when broadcasting Knicks games on the MSG Network, and the two hardly spoke to one another. Despite the apparent animosity before they were colleagues, Van Gundy is grateful for Albert for believing in him and showing him the ropes of broadcasting, especially in a three-man booth.

“I was just fortunate when I started with Marv and Mike for television that they embraced me because I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t really know anything about broadcasting,” said Van Gundy. “Because I had three-man booth experience when I went to ESPN after I was done coaching the Rockets, I found it a lot easier.”

Few teams employ a three-man television booth on regional sports networks; however, most of the national broadcast booths consist of a play-by-play announcer and two analysts. Throughout his time in sports media, Van Gundy has usually been one part of a three-person booth, a variation of the traditional broadcast he prefers.

“I enjoy the three-man booth more than the two, which I think is a little bit… unusual because I love being around my friends,” said Van Gundy. “Mark and Mike taught me so much about broadcasting because when I came in, they had a lot of experience.”

Most broadcasters engage in extensive preparation for each game they call – whether it be through talking to team personnel, pouring over statistics and box scores or documenting key notes and storylines in personalized charts. For Van Gundy though, having a copious amount of notes can be counterintuitive – sure, there may be more information available for him to convey, but reading them in the midst of game action takes his eyes off the court, attenuating the effectiveness of his analysis. As long as he has kept up with the latest news around the NBA, and while at the arena, found dessert and a Diet Coke prior to tip-off, Van Gundy is ready to contribute to each broadcast.

“We have an easy job,” expressed Van Gundy. “We watch the game and we try to convey what has happened, what could happen or what should happen. That’s not about preparation as much as it is [about] studying the teams over the course of the year.”

Instead, Van Gundy and Jackson let Breen lead each broadcast, relying on his voluminous basketball knowledge and broadcasting ingenuity, along with his detailed preparation for each game. As analysts, their role is to enhance the points Breen is making, and center their comments on the game action, dispersing them when appropriate throughout the broadcast.

“Mike sets the tone, [and] we play off him,” said Van Gundy. “He’s like a great point guard, and you share. You don’t get to talk all the time, and that’s cool because that’s what being a part of any good team is – it’s about sharing and sacrificing. It’s not hard because I enjoy who I’m doing the games with.”

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of sports has had to remain vigilant in taking health and safety protocols to slow the spread of the disease with the understanding that players, team personnel and other employees, along with close contacts, could be sidelined from entering the arena with an inconclusive or positive test result. While Van Gundy was placed into health and safety protocols prior to Game 1 due to an inconclusive test result, he quickly returned for Game 2 after subsequent negative rapid tests. Yet Breen, along with ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski, remained in protocols upon Van Gundy’s return, meaning that Van Gundy would work with play-by-play announcer Mark Jones for Game 2 of the Finals. Fostering a working chemistry between Jones, Jackson and himself was not difficult for Van Gundy though since he gets to work with a variety of different broadcasters throughout the regular season.

“Because we work with everybody during the course of the year, I thought it was really easy to work with Mark,” said Van Gundy. “Mark’s an outstanding broadcaster; he loves the NBA; he works exceptionally hard, and he just has a positive vibe to him.”

Sports media as a whole has and is continuing to experience changes because of evolving technologies, changes in consumer habits and increased accessibility for different groups of people to share their opinions to a larger audience. One of the changes that the industry has seen is the evolution of secondary or alternate broadcasts, especially following the success of Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli, also known as the Manningcast, and the recent introduction of Sunday Night Baseball with KayRod.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the NBA, ESPN broadcast a throwback broadcast of a matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks, complete with graphics and visuals from various decades. Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson dressed in the signature ABC Sports gold jackets made famous by Howard Cosell, welcomed guests including Marv Albert, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton and featured special looks back into the storied history of the league.

“I enjoyed it tremendously,” remarked Van Gundy. “It’s a totally different thing than watching the [standard] broadcast that was done.”

Even though Van Gundy enjoyed calling an alternatively-presented basketball game, he still deviates towards the traditional broadcast style when it comes to watching the game for the sake of  closely viewing the action on the court.

“Options are always good, and I haven’t seen the Michael Kay-Alex Rodriguez one yet, but I did tune in every once in a while to the Manning brothers, and they’re obviously incredibly accomplished, knowledgeable and likable,” said Van Gundy. “I thought it was really good, and again, I’m not going to watch the whole game on one of those, but I love tuning in and then going back to a regular broadcast as well, so I think choice and options are great.”

Many NBA players are looking to be present in the media for more than solely showcasing their athletic skills, along with partaking in an occasional interview. A growing group of players characterize themselves as catalyzing a “new age” of sports media in which fans obtain analysis directly from active players, whether it be during the season or in the offseason. For example, Warriors forward and four-time NBA champion Draymond Green hosts his podcast, The Draymond Green Show, on Colin Cowherd’s podcast network “The Volume,” and also joined Turner Sports on a multiyear contract as a contributor on Inside the NBA.

Additionally, throughout the playoffs and at other points during the season, active players, such as Minnesota Timberwolves guard Patrick Beverley and New Orleans Pelicans guard C.J. McCollum, have appeared across ESPN’s programming to give their opinions on the game at large and participate in debates. As this age of “new media” has evolved, some basketball pundits have criticized these players for having other commitments outside of those on the court. As a former head coach, Van Gundy sees no issues with their endeavors – that is, unless they begin to interfere with their play.

“This is professional sports; how you spend your free time and what you do in your free time [is something] I had no interest in, other than making sure you prioritize your job,” Van Gundy said. “[In the] offseason – like McCollum and Beverley – I applaud them [because] they’re trying to position themselves for what’s next after playing, and these guys think a lot about that.”

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant recently made headlines when he stated on Twitter that analysts such as Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe have changed the game of basketball for the worse. Additionally, Durant applauded McCollum and ESPN analyst JJ Redick for ambushing Smith on-air about discussing Russell Westbrook’s appearance at new Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham’s introductory press conference. As a former head coach, Van Gundy cannot speak directly to NBA players feuding with the media; however, he recognizes how fewer topics of discussion stay internal than ever before.

“It’s just so different because you tried to keep everything in the locker room,” Van Gundy reflected. “Now nothing stays in the locker room. It’s just different.”

Creating content has become much like an elevator pitch in the sense that you need to grab the attention of the consumer within the first few seconds to genuinely captivate them. As the average attention span of human beings continues to dwindle within a culture built on the principles of both immediacy and spontaneity, it may be time for professional sports to adapt before the issue becomes more aggrandized.

“I think every demographic would appreciate shorter games,” said Van Gundy. “I think trying to cut down the window to a two-hour window would be terrific. I would be for eliminating more timeouts, doing ads during free throws because no one cares about free throws until the last couple of minutes [in] a close game… I don’t even know if I’d have halftime – just play four straight quarters.”

The median length of an NBA game has been two hours and 12 minutes, and has remained within a few minutes of that figure over the last five years. Yet nationally-televised games, according to research published by Thehoopsgeek.com, averaged five minutes longer than games on regional sports networks this past season, largely because of additional time allocated for commercials.

Between the lines, Warriors guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are both on the path to basketball immortality because they changed the game through mastering the three-point shot. Four championships later, these “Splash Brothers” continue to prove to be must-see TV year-in and year-out, and seeing them live at the brand-new Chase Center in San Francisco costs a family of four an average of $740 according to a study by TeamMarketing Report. That figure ranks second in the league, only trailing the New York Knicks, an iconic original team in the NBA that consistently sells out games at Madison Square Garden, although the franchise has not won a championship since the 1972-73 season.

The Warriors are consistently televised nationally and are often talked about as the blueprint for success in the last decade, and their franchise value has soared to $5.6 billion valuation, second-highest behind the aforementioned Knicks. None of these accomplishments would have been possible though had it not been for a cognizance of where and how to improve. Outside of the lines, the same mindset has been adopted behind the scorers’ table since games began being televised, and now 20 years later, ESPN continues to position itself at the forefront of innovation and sustained success.

“In most cases after every broadcast, everybody says ‘Great job. Great job. Great job,’ [but] that’s not really helping you improve,” said Van Gundy. “[Mike Breen] thought it was imperative [for] everybody to find someone with the expertise in broadcasting who will tell you the truth…Having someone in this business be a truth-teller versus a back-slapper is incredibly important.”

Van Gundy knows he is lucky to call his colleagues his friends, and having that relationship has enhanced the quality of the broadcast over the last 15 years he has been on the other side of the scorers’ table.

“I had known Mike and Mark, and became friends with them for 30 years,” said Van Gundy, “and [I’ve known] Lisa since I came to ESPN and Tim Corrigan, our producer. That core group – I’ve developed deep and abiding friendships with. That’s what makes it truly enjoyable; you can do something with people you care deeply about.”

As his career in sports media continues, Van Gundy might want to try his hand at sideline reporting for either hockey or college football, but only as a substitute if one of the broadcasters has to miss the game. Other than that, he considers himself fortunate and looks forward to the years to come as a member of the ESPN broadcast team.

“To be able to go right from coaching to this [and] do it with friends – I’m just really beyond fortunate,” expressed Van Gundy. “I’m just thankful everyday that I’ve got a job.”

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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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