photo credit: Schadenfreude
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / hatemailaccount at gmail
Good morning sports media fans. I was off last week so some of the things on this week’s docket might be a little old, but hopefully still of interest. Also, there were too many things to squeeze in to this week’s column so I am leaving some stories aside for next week. Also, this week’s column is incredibly long. Sorry.
5 Questions with … Eric Koreen (National Post)
One of the main stories this week was Kyle Lowry and his penchant to be uncooperative with the local media. This is, of course, reminiscent of the stories about Phil Kessel’s attitude problem that eventually culminated in his public blow-up with Dave Feschuk. Neither Michael Grange nor Doug Smith wrote about thew Lowry situation. I found this odd since the entire Toronto media found time to fulminate about Phil Kessel.
I wanted to find out more about whether basketball players face the same pressures as the beleaguered Leafs, and more generally about the challenges of getting good quotes from guys who are just there so they don’t get fined. I reached out to Eric Koreen at the Post who kindly agreed to answer some questions.
Q: How did you get started covering the Raptors?
EK: My brother Mike started working at the Toronto Sun as a co-op student when he was 16. He was the biggest influence on my decision to go into journalism, despite industry experts and participants telling my peers and me that this was an objectively dumb course of action. While I was in school, I worked as an editorial assistant at the Canadian Press sports department. I was there for about 18 months, before leaving because of a lack of opportunity to do more. A few months later — April 2006 — the National Post was expanding its sports section (!!!) and getting rid of its subscription to CP at the same time, which meant they needed a few editors/writers to help create some more content. There were also opportunities to write longer pieces on the side, and I later did my internship in my final year at Ryerson, plus the Post’s summer internship, with the section. Shortly after that the Post cycled through basketball writers. At that point, Jim Bray decided to trust me, a 22-year-old malcontent/introvert, to become the Post’s basketball writer for reasons that only he knows. Bless his debatable faith.
Q: Has there been a noticeable change in the basketball IQ of the city over that time?
EK: Recently, Dwane Casey has been mentioning that the atmosphere in the locker room and around the team — read: stuff the media is saying/writing/thinking — has been negative, considering their success. And he is objectively right. Based on the franchise’s history, fans should be ecstatic with this season, and should enjoy the ride a little more. However, I think that scepticism is also a sign that the market is maybe growing up a bit. Fans are concerned with success not only this year, but in the future, and that might not happen if Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas do not take significant leaps, which they have not. They know that the team has failed to execute its defensive schemes for months now, and that the system might not match the personnel. That is not a basic observation to make. I think the team’s hardcore fans have always been smarter than they get credit for; but I think the conversation we are having about this team is more nuanced than it would have been back in 2008. Overall, I think that’s a great thing, even if it is exhausting on occasion.
Q: How would you characterize your working relationship with Kyle Lowry?
EK: Fine. Occasionally frosty (although this doesn’t make it different for me than it is for any other member of the accredited media). The first piece I ever wrote about him was about how big of a factor his reticence to trust others had been in the first two stops of his professional career. I think that is certainly a reason he keeps the media at a distance, with the exception of a few people. (Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams both wrote excellent pieces on him in 2014.) In general, Kyle is willing to talk about x’s and o’s, which is great, because he has one of the best basketball minds on the team. He does not like talking about his feelings. He has little time for the emotional B.S. that we sometimes crave. After almost three years, if I ask him how it feels to lose three games in a row, I deserve a sideways glance from him. It’s incumbent on us to learn a bit about athletes over time.
Q: Is this significantly different from the way you interact with the rest of the players?
EK: It’s not one of the more congenial relationships I have with a player. He doesn’t want to shoot the crap with me, so I’m not going to force my awkwardness or thoughts on The Americans on him. (I’m very excited about the potential of Frank Langella’s character, if you’re curious.) But that isn’t dissimilar to my relationship with a half-dozen other players on the roster.
Q: The fallout from the Feschuk/Kessel incident led to a lot of discussion about the pressures of talking to athletes in a group setting. What are the challenges associated with scrums?
EK: The biggest issue is that different members of the media need different things. Television and radio reporters need sharp, concise summations or statements. One print reporter might need a certain play described in detail. Another might need a player to answer a question about an opponent. And this often happens right after a game, an intense personal experience for a player. Now we’re expecting him to have coherent thoughts on multiple issues, all in a three- or four-minute window while he barely has room to scratch his face if need be? It’s unrealistic, but a product of the interest there is in sports, plus the limited time the players are available after the game. Media relations staffs generally do an awesome job of making players accessible — the Raptors’ MR staff is excellent — but there is simply too much interest and not enough time. A related issue that is perhaps my biggest pet peeve of this job: Can we let players get dressed in their locker-room stall WITHOUT cameras and reporters forming a semi-circle around the subject? (I would add a disclaimer about how every media member is just trying to ensure they get good positioning or a good camera angle in order to do their job as well as possible, but forget that.) We’re asking for athletes to treat us with respect and humanity, but we can’t let them get changed in relative privacy? Again, if that is the case, we all deserve short, terse post-game scrums.
Q: Would anything of value be lost if we simply phased scrums out?
EK: Personally, I prefer the playoff set-up that puts the stars of a game at a podium. That would be my vote, as it allows access to key figures while also creating more space to talk with the other players back in the locker room. I still believe that a player’s insight can be valuable. When athletes scoff at our inability to understand the game because we didn’t play it at a high level, sometimes — sometimes — they have a point. In a perfect world, the media would ask questions only to fill a legitimate knowledge gap or to ease curiosity. (I fail to live up this standard, along with everyone else.)
Q: Do you think athletes have a responsibility – be it contractual or just professional – to be cooperative with the media?
EK: I’m not really interested in the contractual part of things. That is between the league, the players’ union and leaders of writers’. I also do not believe they owe the fans or us their insight; the vast majority of fans watch the game and don’t read or consume another thing relating to it. We’re lucky our jobs exist. Even when I’m tired of my job, I realize that it’s amazing that I get to do it. However, I think if we treat athletes with respect, they should do the same. That golden rule, etc. And I think 99 per cent of the time, that rule is followed. I really like when players are open and honest and forthcoming. This might be a controversial take, but I like when others make my job easier and more fulfilling. However, it’s not owed. And if we’re relying on quotes to do our jobs for us, we’re being lazy.
Q: The Leafs and Jays have disappointed recently and many stories have been written about “clubhouse problems” or “character issues”. You rarely read anything about that when a team is winning. Is the same character narrative equally applicable (or equally inapplicable) to basketball?
EK: Everybody likes each other when they’re winning. (Notable exception: Shaq and Kobe.) People turn on each other when they’re losing. Masai Ujiri has extolled the virtues of chemistry and cohesion, and I think that matters a ton in terms of style of play. However, going out and trying to acquire a player because he will fit in in the locker room is largely wasted energy, in my opinion. High-maintenance players might make a coach’s life more difficult, but Kyle Lowry went from a divisive figure to the connective tissue of the Raptors the moment they went from bad to good. We’re going to call that a coincidence?
Q: Have you noticed significant differences in the character of the various Raps teams you have covered?
EK: Most of the teams I’ve covered have generally been populated by players who like one another. (Hedo Turkoglu’s teammates even liked him, for the most part!) It helps that every team I’ve covered has had one or both of Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson on them, players that are easy-going, positive yet hard-working. For that reason, among others, Johnson’s free agency this summer will be fascinating.
Q: Scott MacArthur of TSN Radio had a really compelling interview with Colby Rasmus that was the product of a relationship that took a long time to build. Without naming names, are there players with whom you have developed similar trusting relationships, either on or off the record?
EK: As a general rule, time is a huge factor in building relationships, in the locker room or out of it. Now, I’m not sure a player would vent to me on the record to the extent that Rasmus did to Scott — that was a great piece — but I think the more time I spend with a player, the more productive that relationship tends to be. There are exceptions both ways: players that are immediately forthcoming, or players that are never going to share much of anything.
Q: The fan fervour around last year’s playoff run was remarkable, but it also coincided with a very unexpected winning season, a slick new marketing campaign, Drake, and bad seasons from the other local sports teams. Have the Raps turned a corner in terms of the sports consciousness of the city?
EK: I was 10 when the Raptors played their first game. I think people around my age have viewed the Leafs, Raptors and Blue Jays on a similar level for some time now. They are not covered with the same depth and intensity, obviously, but that is a different issue. People are into this team right now. It doesn’t hurt that a few Canadians are drafted into the league every year. I’ve written about We The North and Drake more than I’d like (just joking; I could write about Drake endlessly), but I think that the last 13 months have made a difference, sure. How much? We won’t really know until their next 32-50 season. It’s easy to care when a team is good.
Q: Charles Oakley was beloved by the media for being so quotable. Do you have a favourite all-time Raptor from an interview perspective?
EK: When I first started covering the Raptors, Chris Bosh was the face of this franchise. Now, despite Lowry’s transcendent play, it is probably DeMar DeRozan. Both have my unending appreciation for how professional they have been with the media. Both Bosh and DeRozan can be incredibly thoughtful, amazing when considering the demands that they face(d) as the team’s centrepiece. I have also done long pieces on Quincy Acy and Chuck Hayes on the nature of being a role player, pieces that would not have worked without their active and enthusiastic participation. I’m in debt to them. If I had to pick one player as my favourite to talk to, it would be Reggie Evans, though. He shared three things with Oak: 1) He was unpredictable; 2) He was honest; 3) He gave zero [poops] who might hear/read what he had to say.
Thanks very much to Eric for taking so much time with my questions. Lots of good and thoughtful answers here. He’s also a pretty good follow on Twitter.
Post-script 1: Arian Foster of the NFL’s Texans more or less sums up my feelings about athlete interviews.
Post-script 2: I would have linked to TSN’s Josh Lewenberg’s piece on Lowry but clicking on it took me to not one but two auto-play ads with sound, followed by an auto-playing video recap of the game. Memo to both TSN and Sportsnet: this is far too high a price to pay to read a column. Find another way to monetize your web content. It’s painful to visit your websites at times.
The Paul Beeston Damage Control Tour rolled through town this week and delivered some interesting tidbits.
Let’s start with the slow-pitch party PTS threw for Paul. John Lott has your summary. Look, I understand that Beeston is not going to air his grievances now, so I am not going to get upset that Bob claimed to be asking tough questions while refraining from following up on anything Beeston said. As PTS producer Ryan Walsh tweeted out, this time next year Beeston might have a lot more to say. If we get the same interview at that time, then PTS will have let listeners down.
The highlight of the interview for me was Ken Reid asking Beeston how he felt about seeing his contractual status being discussed in public. Beneath the surface of Beeston’s answer there was something palpably raw and emotional. Nice work Ken. The lowlight of the interview was the nonsense that spewed forth when discussing Beeston’s thoughts about this year’s team. Anyone who is not a goldfish remembers all the same optimism from seasons such as … last year, and … the year before. It’s hard to look at this roster and the gaping holes at 2B, the bench, and the bullpen and think this is a 90 win team. It would have been nice if Bob pressed Beeston on some of these facts, or had he pointed out just how far another $20 million in payroll would have gone this off-season.
The next stop was the State of the Franchise. I hate everything about this event. The questions are pre-screened which renders the idea that this is a way of being accountable to your most loyal financial backers empty. I’m not sure why anyone would be hanging on to season’s tickets at this juncture. Scott MacArthur has a summary of the main talking points, which includes the grass issue as well as some fanciful talk about the All-Star game coming back to the Dome. The always excellent Shi Davidi writes about AA’s strategy of betting on young pitching. BBB also has a nice story on the Jays’ shrinking payroll. Fans were also treated to an up close view of the new artificial turf for this season. Looks just as horrible as the last one to me, but here’s hoping that it produces fewer injuries.
NHL Rights & Ratings
What’s Gary Bettman up to? His decisions about the World Cup of hockey exhibition tournament are very curious. First he screws over his jilted ex-partner in TSN in favour of his current sugar-daddy in Rogers. This was hardly surprising since the whole premise of the 12 year deal is that Rogers and the NHL are entering a partnership to “celebrate the game.” (I actually can’t believe TSN fell for Gary’s negotiating tricks, again.) But then he turns around and spurns his current partner in NBC for his abusive ex-lover in ESPN. How does that make sense?
My own opinion is that the more networks the better in terms of objective coverage, so I’m happy that the NHL is looking to diversify its media partnerships. However I can’t see the benefit for the NHL in pissing off NBC in the middle of its 10 year deal. Maybe Gary is excited about ESPN’s upcoming standalone streaming service. Maybe he wants back on the worldwide leader just to put pressure on NBC to start thinking ahead to the next deal. Maybe NBC wasn’t interested in spending any more money on hockey. Who knows? It will be curious to watch this story unfold.
As David Shoalts (whose employer is 15% owned by Rogers rival Bell) wrote about, and as TSM commented on already, Rogers whining about Numeris’ ratings is hilarious. Rather than looking at the quality of the product they are looking for someone else to blame. The whole incident smacks of desperation. SRG research confirms Shoalts’ reporting, though they also point out that there has been a mild increase in online interest from last year. It’s hard to know what this means since they include social media in this category, and as far as I know the NHL isn’t making any money off of people talking about Phil Kessel on Twitter. I’m sort of conflicted on this because I think that Numeris’ sample sizes on the radio side are problematic, but this is the first I have ever heard of anyone impugning the TV ratings.
Shoalts continued his winning ways by appearing on the Globe’s podcast to discuss things further and had a lot of great insights. He’s a great guest and I wish he were on the radio more often. One point with which I totally agree is that the NHL rights deal was as much about unseating TSN as the #1 cable channel as it was about making money off the games. So while they cannot be happy about having to make concessions to advertisers due to missed targets, Sportsnet is clearly invested in winning a much longer war. It will be interesting to see if some NHL games eventually make their way back to TSN via sub-licensing. That would be a pretty major indicator that the financial side of things is going much worse than expected.
Last thought on this: no one will talk on record or even give details off the record, but the rumblings are getting louder and louder of serious unrest behind the scenes at Rogers’ sports media wing.
The UFC is once again mired in a doping scandal. This is really sapping the credibility of the sport as it tries to draw in new fans. It looks just as broken as boxing has been for a generation. That said, I’m not really sure why any current fans should care. It’s not like the purity of the sport is part of its appeal. Multi-platform Sportsnet contributor Jeff Blair was very excited about this news as it gave him a chance to be relevant in the marketplace.
Quite by accident I found myself reading about Serena Williams’ decision to play in a tennis tournament to which she vowed in 2001 never to return. The story is very moving. Her full account of things can be found in this Time piece. Highly recommended.
Rick Westhead of TSN teamed up with CTV’s W5 program for a fantastic piece of investigative journalism on the prevalence of counterfeiting in sports. You can read about the series here and watch the entire program this Saturday evening on CTV. Parts have already aired on TSN. As we move towards NHL trade deadline day and “insiders” crowing about breaking trades seconds before the competition, let’s be thankful for the real journalism that is actually taking place. Westhead is telling stories that nobody else is even getting close to. TSN deserves a lot of credit for the resources they are devoting here.
Low Hanging Fruit
- Countdown to Blundell got off to a spectacularly bad, but hardly surprising, start with Dean fumbling a tweet about the Jays by claiming the team is owned by MLSE. The tweet has since been deleted (as far as I can tell), but can be seen here. I can only imagine the groans this prompted in the PD’s office, and especially amongst the current FAN on-air talent. Andrew Walker, meanwhile, must be hard at work building a repertoire of dick jokes and ethnic stereotypes in anticipation of March 2nd.
- Still no news about who Brady’s co-host will be in the afternoon. Kollins needs to get this one exactly right, as a poor pairing will tank the show with both Tim&Sid’s existing audience, and the people coming over from Brady&Walker’s audience. I don’t see a good fit with any of the FAN B-team players, so they might have to go outside. That’s also risky. Bit of a mess on their hands there.
- TSN Drive was at the Superbowl last week but somehow still found time to wedge in MacKenzie and Dreger several times. These guys just can’t help themselves.
- Still with TSN Drive, the combination of Naylor, Arthur, Simmons, and Lawless was not very good in my opinion. Too much yelling.
- It’s funny to watch hockey go through the same growing pains baseball went through 10 years ago with respect to fancy stats. As much as the traditionalists are annoying, hockey stats people need to dial it back a notch with the condescension. Rise above it and just stick to the facts, men.
- I’m going to take the high road and refrain from commenting on Bob’s embarrassing interview with Gillick.
- I will however point out the abomination that was his segment with SI NFL expert Don Banks. Banks is as great a guest as there is on the NFL, in my opinion. Yet, Bob dominated the interview talking about his own views on the goal-line play (which he presumably spent other segments on as well) and ended up cutting off the guest mid-sentence due to lack of time. Painful painful radio.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)