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SPORTS MEDIA: FIVE WHO GET IT, FIVE WHO DON'T
A weekly analysis of the best/worst in media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who receives tweets from the burner accounts of media people
THEY GET IT
Kenny Mayne, layoff victim — Unlike Albert Pujols, Mayne still maintained an effective slash line when ESPN designated him for assignment. Rather than take a significant pay cut partly necessitated by Disney’s new rights deals — including the NFL at $2.7 billion a year — Mayne politely told Bristol to take the job and shove it. I’ll say what everyone else is thinking: Just because one is white, male and of a certain age doesn’t mean an all-time character should be insulted and sacrificed. Couldn’t this popular personality have been eased out with, say, a three-year victory tour? Mayne refused to stoop as low as his employer of 27 years, maintaining a deliciously dry wit to the cruel end. ‘‘`I am leaving ESPN. Salary cap casualty,’’ he tweeted, thanking retired executives who originally gambled on him. ‘‘I will miss the people. I will miss the vending machine set up over by the old Van Pelt joint. We had everything.’’ He pulled off the impossible as a ‘‘SportsCenter’’ anchor, planting his tongue into his cheek without impeding the daily digest of news. Some younger on-air colleagues look goofy when they wear sneakers with suits, but at 61, ‘‘the Mayne Event’’ wore the kicks well. I just wonder who’ll be the next ``salary cap casualties.’’
Wayne Gretzky, lucky man — Known as The Great One on the ice, Gretzky is closer to The Grate One behind a microphone. That didn’t stop TNT and ESPN from waging a spirited bidding battle for the hockey legend, who was dangled between the NHL’s newly anointed broadcast partners by his savvy Hollywood reps at Endeavor. TNT is expected to win (lose) his services at a reported $5 million annually, which was too much for ESPN. Isn’t that a steep price for a nice gentleman who never has uttered a cross word about anyone? As Cathal Kelly wrote up North in the Globe and Mail: ‘‘As Canadians, we know better. Everybody loves Wayne Gretzky. There’s a very specific clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that addresses this point. But we know that Gretzky is no great talker or raconteur. Whether he is capable of telling an even mildly amusing anecdote is still up for grabs because despite being the most beloved figure in the country for more than 40 years, he has yet to do so. If hockey players are dull ... it’s because Gretzky taught them to be that way. Smile and nod. Smile and nod. It’s nearly impossible to criticize someone when they’re smiling and nodding.’’ Analyst Eddie Olczyk will join play-by-play man Kenny Albert in TNT’s booth, while ESPN counters with analysts Ray Ferraro and Brian Boucher. None is remotely in Gretzky’s starpower range, but once the puck is dropped, sharp analysis is vital. The Great/Grate One gets the riches anyway. Maybe the networks should be talking to Paulina Gretzky, his social-media-soaked daughter.
Greg Gumbel, CBS — I remember being asked to do stupid stuff on TV, such as dressing up like Steve Bartman, Ozzie Guillen and Kate Hudson (don’t ask) for Halloween shows. To his everlasting credit, Gumbel refused to jump into the silly fray when asked by network producers during March Madness. While studio mates Clark Kellogg, Seth Davis and Wally Szczerbiak lost all dignity while dancing with six animated characters, Gumbel just stared in shock and embarrassment. Appearing on a WCKG podcast in his native Chicago, a city made proud by Greg and brother Bryant, he said of his mortified reaction that day, ‘‘I have tried really hard throughout my career not to look like an idiot on TV. I have tried very hard not to embarrass my loved ones, my friends and myself. And I’m not going to (dance). But at the same time, I wasn’t going to let them get away without being poked about it. So that’s why I did what I did. … It was fun. I will only go so far.” Not enough is made in the sports world of the Gumbel dynasty. Outlasting critics who’ve chided Bryant as bombastic and Greg as rigid, they’ll be remembered as the most successful set of brothers in sportscasting history.
Todd Frazier, social media retaliator — If his major-league career is over, at least the baseball vagabond reminded a media member of his amateur-hour lot in life. When Frazier was cut by the Pittsburgh Pirates, a glorified Triple-A club these days, local radio host Mark Madden harpooned him directly on social media, which defies every rule of professionalism. ‘‘Hey, @FlavaFraz21 …happy f—ing trails, you scrub. DFA’d. Now GFY,” tweeted Madden, telling Frazier to go f— himself. He can tend to the rest of his life later, but first, Frazier had a retort for Madden: ‘‘Funny that this slob, I mean absolute slob is talking shit. Go grab another hot dog. Please look yourself in the mirror my goodness. You wouldn’t dare say this to my face FLOUNDER. This picture tells it all. And to think people take you serious. GTFOH.’’ Which is short for get the f— outta here, which I’m going to do before giving these two people any more attention.
Barry Svrluga, Washington Post — It can be painful reading tributes to retiring sportswriters from other sportswriters, but Svrluga’s admiration for Thomas Boswell came through in a masterpiece testimonial. ‘‘If my 14-year-old self believed he could share one press box for one night with Boz, that would have been enough, a dream fulfilled,’’ he wrote. ‘‘To have shared … how many, Boz? Hundreds, right? RFK and Nationals Park, Congressional Country Club and Augusta National, FedEx Field and Capital One Arena, the Stanley Cup and the World Series. Shoot, we even climbed the Great Wall of China together. Tell my 14-year-old self that was the career ahead — riding shotgun to Boz for close to 18 years, watching how the best to ever do it got it done — and he wouldn’t have made it to 15, what with the ensuing heart attack and all. It is the great honor and privilege of my career to have shared those spaces and had those conversations with Boz. He was and is who I want to be when I grow up.’’ Boswell, the consummate baseball wordsmith of his generation, is leaving his hometown paper after 52 years. What I liked about him: While Post mates Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser became TV stars, Boswell stayed true to the press box, once telling Svrluga to buy a 300-foot tape measure when they suspected incorrect outfield measurements at old RFK Stadium. ‘‘I ran past (Boswell) to measure the distance to the wall, the quickest way to work before we got caught and kicked out. Which we did — but not before we had enough data for a front-page story,’’ he wrote. Much as Svrluga will try, there never will be another Thomas Boswell.
Ben Strauss, Washington Post — In a recent column, I asked why major publications hadn’t profiled the oddball coupling of John Skipper and Dan Le Batard, the deposed ESPN power losers. Strauss delivered, pointing out how the ex-journalists have sold out to the legal gambling craze — their company, Meadowlark Media, is receiving $50 million from DraftKings for Le Batard’s podcast — while portraying Skipper as an eccentric. Wrote Strauss: ‘‘Skipper was wearing a maroon sweater, circle-rimmed glasses and khakis rolled up to reveal blue suede shoes, his apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows offering a view of the Hudson River. He was sprawled in front of a coffee table designed, Skipper pointed out, by French painter Yves Klein. The tabletop was a clear acrylic box filled with mounds of raw pigment.’’ Skipper almost went off the rails when speaking of his competition with Barstool Sports and its raunchy front man, Dave Portnoy. ‘‘Barstool is driving value. I don’t think it means you have to do reprehensible, misogynist content,’’ Skipper said. ‘‘`If somebody came to me and said: `I’ll give you a really high margin; you’ve got to do a show on the sexiest pictures of cheerleaders you can find. Can you find pictures of cheerleaders where they jump up and down and their panties are up in their butts? Can you find that for me? I’ll pay you a bunch of money.’ The answer’s no, I won’t do that.” Um, their panties are up in their butts? Sounds like Skipper was channeling Portnoy. I know, Strauss is the sixth who gets it. A friend said I should change the title to ‘‘Those Who Get It.’’ I’m considering it.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Tim Tebow, ESPN — Who doesn’t love his heart and propensity to dream? But at some point, going on 34, Tebow risks becoming a multi-sport freak show. After failing as an NFL quarterback and crashing as a baseball minor-leaguer, he is signing a one-year deal with his college coach, Urban Meyer, and his hometown NFL team, the DUVVALLL!!! (Jacksonville) Jaguars. It’s a whim opposed by many in the front office, which is understandable. Tebow would give tight end a try as a way of generating more interest in the Jags, but he never has played the position and hasn’t been in football pads in six years. ESPN has been patient with his whims, yet at some point, Tebow must decide if he wants to work full-time as an SEC Network analyst or move on to politics or even Sunday morning evangelism. Meyer purchased a house on Tebow’s street; knowing the coach’s thirst for the competitive jugular, he’d still cut Tebow quicker than a Florida Gator chomp. Why must I be the one to tell him that this is another publicity stunt?
Alex Rodriguez, loser — As ex-squeeze Jennifer Lopez frolics in Montana with Ben Affleck, A-Rod and partner Marc Lore have let a deadline pass to purchase the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. Seems team owner Glen Taylor doesn’t trust Rodriguez’s possible motives — would you? — in possibly moving the Wolves to Seattle, where A-Rod once played as a young shortstop before his steroids days. With his life is disarray, he might want to laser-focus on his broadcast duties on ESPN’s ‘‘Sunday Night Baseball,’’ where, if you close your eyes, you might wonder about the thin, Captain Obvious insight if the analyst wasn’t a famous ex-player.
Adam Schefter, ESPN — Look, his bosses admitted before the NFL Draft that they wanted bigger ratings than the NFL Network, even if the league controls the multi-platform broadcast under one Goodellian umbrella. So when Schefter claims it’s pure coincidence that he waited until Draft day to break the Aaron Rodgers-wants-out-of-Green Bay story, he’s insulting our intelligence. He said the timing of his scoop resulted from an ‘‘accumulation’’ of whispers he’d been hearing for weeks. ‘‘There was nothing that morning that came in.’’ he told Dan Patrick. ‘‘No one said to me, ‘Yeah, he wants out; you should report this.’ It’s like, it was going on all offseason. You just keep hearing and there’s more and more talk, and now there’s starting to be Aaron Rodgers talk, and I said, ‘You know what? This isn’t gonna wait much longer.' It just happened to be Draft day.’’ Yeah, he just happened to wait until millions were watching him lead the Draft broadcast with a story that dominated the night, which helped ESPN beat the NFL Network (and sister network ABC). I want to trust Schefter. He and his network keep giving me reasons not to.
Hulu — The danger of docuseries fever is that every subject wants to control the narrative, as Michael Jordan did in ‘‘The Last Dance.’’ Which explains why Jeanie Buss, controlling owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, has appointed her own director, esteemed Antoine Fuqua, to spin out a nine-part series that will glorify the banners and legends and ignore, say, the Buss family dramas that derailed the franchise before LeBron James arrived. She could make that request of Hulu, a derivative of Disney, which is in business bed with the NBA. I will be more interested in HBO’s competing series — based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, ‘‘Three-Ring Circus’’ — that peels open the Hollywood and sex-romp secrets that were undeniably part of the team’s ‘‘`Showtime’’ past, much of it involving the late owner Jerry Buss, Jeanie’s father. She says her production will tell ``the true story of the Lakers,’’ adding during an ‘‘All The Smoke’’ video podcast, ‘‘There is a series being developed at HBO — a scripted series we are not involved in — and I really don’t know how they’re going to tell our story if we’re not involved in it.” Simple. HBO will tell the unauthorized version, while Buss and Fuqua craft the scrubbed, Disney-fied version that we already know about. The HBO show, developed by Adam McKay, will draw more attention and bigger ratings.
Lachlan Murdoch, Fox Corporation CEO — Just because a C-Suite honcho says something in an investors’ call doesn’t mean it’s true. In announcing Fox’s acquisition of Outkick, Murdoch described the site as a leader ‘‘in sports news, and more critically, sports opinion.’’ As one who has been immersed in sports multimedia for decades, I can state definitively that Outkick is not a leader in sports news or sports opinion — not even close — and that it appeals only to a conservative, woke-averse crowd that fits the leaning agenda of Fox News. It’s a mistake to think the Clay Travis cult mobs know or care about quality sports journalism. Case in point: When veteran football writer Peter King pointed out the number of COVID-related deaths on Twitter, he was mocked by an Outkick blogger, while site founder Travis was delighting in a full house at an Atlanta Braves game. Trumpers can unite on Murdoch’s new site. The rest of America will be looking for credible sports news and commentary elsewhere.
Spectrum SportsNet LA — The Los Angeles Dodgers are worth $3.6 billion. The least they can do is serve their television viewers, the ones they largely blacked out for years, by not scheduling events in Dodger Stadium while the team broadcasters are calling away games remotely from the press box. As the Dodgers — ‘‘the greatest team in baseball history,’’ according to the since-backpedaling L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke — were struggling in Chicago, viewers and radio listeners could hear Mayor Eric Garcetti’s speech during the local Fire Department awards banquet. With all due gratitude for fire fighters everywhere, let’s figure out a better way for fans who devote time and money — Spectrum SportsNet isn’t cheap — to follow their team.
Chris Webber, Dead Analyst Walking — Here we thought Webber never would do anything dumber than his fatal time-out signal in 1993, when Michigan had no timeouts remaining late in a national title game. Little did we know. Taking the opposite path of Fab Five teammate Jalen Rose, whose career as an ESPN analyst is thriving, Webber is costing himself a prized gig that could have taken him into old age. He upset his TNT bosses when he left them hanging before opting out of an NCAA tournament assignment, saying he didn’t want to work in the Indianapolis Bubble, according to the New York Post. Not enamored of him as it is, the network is expected to oust Webber from its leading NBA broadcast team and not renew his contact. With play-by-play man Marv Albert officially an octogenarian, TNT must remake a crew that already has fallen far behind the impact and chemistry of ESPN’s Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. Oh, was this a seventh entry in They Don’t Get It?
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.