ESPN’s bad week

In a post at Medium, I reacted to Jayson Stark’s long piece assuming that America needed baseball players to speak out on politics. The short version: We disagree. More than that, his assumption – that political rifts have created wounds in need of healing – show disconnection from the broader public who, honestly, just doesn’t care about politics.

Then came this week’s news: ESPN expects to lay off a good on-air talent. The two stories have a common thread.

It would be tempting for anyone on the center right to point to ESPN’s socially progressive programming choices and blame that for alienating its core viewership, but the reasons are a bit more nuanced. ESPN’s tunnel vision and lack of self-awareness has prevented it from adapting to a new media environment. Once the sole source of 24 hour sports on TV, ESPN’s networks now compete with national sports channels run by Fox and NBC, regional sports networks, and – notably – networks run by sports leagues themselves. On top of that, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association all offer direct-to-consumer online packages.

That ESPN missed these changes suggests they overestimated their value in consumers’ minds. Like Jayson Stark, they’ve misread the public vibe.

The Rutgers Mess: 1,000 words x 24 frames per second

Rutgers fired their abusive basketball coach for, as Deadspin notes, being a public embarrassment rather than a private one.

The cynics are right on this one: there’s no doubt that Mike Rice’s firing came only because the video of him verbally and physically intimidating his players was on ESPN.  But that does up the ante for the scandal.  Describing what Rice did to his players might be damning, but having a clickable, watchable, shareable video takes it to another level.

Any players Rice would have recruited in the future would have seen that video, and it would have been the first question any parent asked during those all-important living room conversations with a prospective coach.  Rutgers is already in a tough media market, would Rice have managed to be a darling of WFAN?

As another Rutgers alum knows well, video tells a story like no other medium can.  In this case, it blew up what Rutgers had clearly hoped would be a private affair.

Matt Bryant’s second chance

With a sports media that just loves story lines, the redemption story in Atlanta tops the list from the past weekend.  Matt Schaub and Mike Smith finally won a playoff game, and it was the best playoff game of the weekend.  Overlooked, for now, is the second chance their kicker got.

Giants fans remember Matt Bryant.

Big Blue signed Bryant from a life of pawn shops and personal training back in 2002, in a year when the special teams unit was a decided weak link of the team.  In a playoff game against San Francisco, the Giants held a big lead late in the second half before the 49ers came storming back to take the lead.  A furious rally brought the Giants within range for a game winning field goal.

You could have forgiven Bryant yesterday if he felt like he was watching a NFL Network replay.

In 2002, Bryant never got to show that he could make the 40 yard field goal that would have  sent the Giants onward in the playoffs.

In what was a running theme that year, the snap for the field goal attempt was off.  Long snapper Trey Junkin, aside from having the coolest name in football at the time, had been signed off the street that week due to injury – and was playing in what would be the last game of a long NFL career.  An officiating error prevented Bryant from a second chance at playing the hero.

A decade later, Bryant is an established NFL kicker (or at least as established as a kicker can be) and has kicked a 62-yard field goal (a yard shy of the record).  His bad luck in San Fran didn’t send him back to the pawnshop.

Yesterday, after Seattle tried to ice him, Bryant finally got a clean snap and a shot at the ball with everything on the line.  Atlanta plays next week – thanks to Bryant’s decade-overdue kick.

It takes more than a blog post to take down The Sandman

Joel Sherman, baseball columnist for the New York Post (Our Nation’s Newspaper of Record), fears that Mariano Rivera’s reputation will be unfairly tarnished because an Angels Blog, Halos Heaven, posted the video above and speculated that it shows one of the greatest players ever throwing a Gaylord Perry Special:

In this age, a stellar reputation built over years can turn to spit in a few clicks of a mouse… In the few hours in between film clip posting and absolution by MLB, every save in Rivera’s illustrious career was put in question.

Sherman’s fear of a rogue blogger making unfounded and senseless claims is understandable, especially given the fact that Major League Baseball at least payed lip service to the idea they were “investigating” the charges.  But Mariano Rivera’s reputation is not in danger.

Predictably, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi denied any chance that Rivera threw a spitter.  But so did Rivera’s former manager, Joe Torre – as well as fellow Dodgers coaches Don Mattingly and Larry Bowa, who coached Rivera in New York.  Even the opposing manager, Mike Scioscia, said he was surprised the idea had even been brought up.

Rivera has people standing up for him now because of his entire career – not for the success he’s enjoyed, but because of how he enjoyed it.  A recent Sports Illustrated article summed it up nicely.  David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon – from the Red Sox – gushed about their respect for his personality:

“I have respect for Mariano like I have for my father,” says Boston designated hitter David Ortiz. “Why? He’s just different. If you talk to him at an All-Star Game, it’s like talking to somebody who just got called up. To him, everybody else is good. I don’t get it. To him everybody else is the best. It’s unbelievable. And he is the greatest.”

Sure, coming from a steroid cheat that may seem tainted, but Ortiz isn’t the only one singing Rivera’s praises – or the only one whose respect Rivera has won.

Writer Tom Verducci reminded readers that Rivera taught Roy Halladay – a pitcher for a rival team – how to throw his signature pitch during the 2003 All Star Game.  While over the past 30 years, great closers like Dennis Eckersley and Francisco Rodriquez have celebrated strikeouts the way NFL players celebrate touchdowns, Rivera shows respect to every hitter he dominates.

It’s an important lesson in image management: for all the power of online communications, there is no substitute for genuine substance.  So when a blogger posts an accusation – with flimsy evidence – accusing Rivera of cheating, you can bet there’s a reputation at stake.

And it sure ain’t Mariano Rivera’s.

Politics: Showbiz or Sports?

Matt Lewis had a neat post at PoliticsDaily yesterday, talking about how the dreaded “24-hour news cycle” that has (paradoxically) made political discourse more pundit/sound bite-driven has also done the same for sports.

Here is just one example: Recent speculation on ESPN about dissention brewing among Favre’s new Viking teammates (some of whom are loyal to the Vikings’ former quarterback) reminded me of the never-ending leaks that flowed out of the McCain campaign and onto the pages of Politico — usually in regard to Sarah Palin. Be it a campaign or a football team, one disgruntled “unnamed source” can provide a days’ worth of material for cable networks– all of which need to feed a 24-hour news cycle.

A former colleague once called Washington, D.C. “Hollywood for Ugly People” – a town driven by a core industry (electoral politics) with many auxiliary sub-industries (lobbyists, contractors, regulators, think tanks, etc.).  But there’s also a highly competitive streak, just as one might find among professional athletes, but among people who can’t do this.

Instead of show business for the homely, maybe politics is sports for the weak?

$25 million a year isn’t as easy as it sounds

Furor over athletes’ salaries is nothing new.  From the rise of professional baseball in the 19th century to the salary explosions across all major sports in the 1980s and 1990s, the fans who live and die with their teams have groused about how much the athletes they root for make.  And recently, discussions of executive compensation have fallen into the same category.

They have something else in common: the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the quarterback of the New York Giants both earned their highly visible positions by winning a largely invisible process where many people competed.  It’s not an easy climb to get to the top of the mountain.

To that point, check out this story out of Louisville about a journeyman minor leaguer named Kevin Barker.  Of course, Barker is getting paid to play a game, but he’s certainly not living a life I would want to live when I reach 34.

At the ballpark Barker, 34, is known as the “old man” among teammates a decade younger. He is old to be playing in the minors, old to be living in a rented apartment near River Road with blankets, not curtains, covering the bedroom windows.

That doesn’t matter to Barker. What matters is making it back to the major leagues. After all, with road trips and home games — which he leaves for in early afternoon and returns from late at night — he is rarely at home. He doesn’t even know his address. He has his mail sent to Louisville Slugger Field so, if need be, it can be forwarded to his next stop.

Michael Vick: The best thing that ever happened to PETA

PETA is against factory farms, but it understands the value of milking every last drop of potential press attention from a story.

Michael Vick started practicing with the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend after signing a performance-based contract last week.  PETA was quick to speak out against the signing.  Previously, PETA had petitioned the NFL to mandate psychological testing after his prison term to determine whether Vick is a psychopath.  They asked Vick to take their own “empathy test” – then publicly released his answers, exposing his sixth-grade level essay answers to public ridicule (despite a pretty good score).   Earlier this year, they pulled a bait-and-switch during preliminary discussion of Vick appearing in a public service announcement.

And each time, PETA received press attention – which means they have fresh clips they can send to donors and prospective funders.  (As Townhall’s Dwayne Horner has shown, like many non-profit organizations, PETA takes more direction from their funders than they’d like you to know.)  If they ever kissed and made up with Vick, the media gravy train would stop – so don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

If Vick and his handlers understand PR strategy they will ignore PETA – choosing instead to work with the ASPCA, local shelters, or other reputable organizations whose mission is to actually help animals.  But the more likely scenario is that Vick feels the pressure of the protesters who will likely be present at every game (especially the prime time ones) and works fruitlessly to come to soem sort of agreement with PETA – an effort that would be like trying to “come to an agreement” with his new rival’s defensive line.

Nationals Politics

America’s Hometown Team, the Washington Nationals, today fired their manager.

It’s funny to watch sports teams which adopt the culture of the city in which they play.  The New York Yankees demand championship-level success each year the same ways the leaders of the business community would push for market share (or at least the way they used to).  The Pittsburgh Steelers play physical, hard-nosed football much the blue-collar work of their namesakes, the steelworkers who literally built that city.  Detroit Pistons games sometimes end up in violence and the Detroit Lions are the Edsel of professional sports.  The 2007 New England Patriots were cocky and overconfident in their quest for a 19-win season like some dude named Sully from Southie who thinks Smithwick is to him what spinach is to Popeye.

(Before anyone complains, spend a couple years in the dorms at UMass, then let’s talk.)

Similarly, the Nationals resemble the inside-the-beltway mentality.  After drifting along without a discernible plan for five years, the team found a scapegoat and fired the man in charge.  (That’s nothing special – baseball managers get axed all the time, even during the season, and going 26-61 is no way to keep a job.) But Acta’s firing comes after years of personnel decisions coming from a front office which mirrored the bureaucracy in the buildings surrounding it.  At its best, Nationals leaders have been incompetent; at their worst, they have been crooked and corrupt.  Not only were the players on the field bad, but there was never a clear plan for developing a winning team.

Washington DC is not a sports town, but it is a frontrunning town, so a winning Nats team here and there would cause some local buzz – and fill some of those empty seats I keep seeing when I make it out to what is a nice and conveniently located ballpark.  But like their bureacratic neighbors, the Nats are content with showing up for 81 home games with a roster of warm bodies – in other words, doing the absolute minimum.  And except for a handful of scapegoats who had to pay the piper after four years, there has been little chance of getting fired.  If only we all had such job security.

I’m not saying Acta is a genius, but he is certainly deserving of another chance – hopefully for him, with a team which is serious about winning.