photo credit: Rogers
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / hatemailaccount at gmail
Good morning sports media watchers. Thanks to everyone who read and commented last week on the Mirtle story. I felt like we moved that discussion forward. There were too many things to talk about this week, so I have left some bits and bites out of this week’s column. As always, if you don’t see something discussed here and want it on the agenda, post a link in the comments or email me and I’ll add it to next week’s draft. Ok, let’s get to work …
5 Questions with … Gareth Wheeler (TSN Radio)
After the shocking footage of Chelsea fans preventing a black man from boarding a train while chanting “we are racists” surfaced, I was curious to know more about the culture of European soccer and what it is that makes overt racists feel empowered to act in these ways. To discuss these and other issues I reached out to the most affable person in all of Toronto sports radio. Gareth Wheeler covers TFC/EPL/World Cup soccer and works evenings for TSN1050. Gareth graciously spent an hour with me at a coffee shop in Leslieville. Here is our chat.
How did you end up at TSN1050?
GW: While I was at Western I got involved in the radio station CHRW. The station had launched some favourites of mine – Dan Shulman, Elliotte Friedman – and it was a place where young broadcasters got started. I was doing it completely for fun while I was playing soccer at Western, and I soon realized I had a passion for it. So I went into journalism rather than law school. After university I worked behind the scenes at TSN and got a glimpse into the industry. I also volounteered at Cogeco and eventually hosted their long-standing local sports show. Then one night after my shift at TSN I stayed late and was cutting together a demo reel, and a guy I worked with saw me there and liked my stuff. He eventually ended up at SUN-TV and called me up to audition against 35 other people for their new sports talk show Grill Room. I did that for 5 and a half years and met a huge range of people and got my hands into every aspect of running a show.
Then SUN-TV started to shift over into SUN-NEWS and wanted me to be a political host. It wasn’t that I was uninterested in that, I just didn’t believe in the kind of product they were putting together, and since the industry is so small I didn’t want to be typecast as “that” broadcaster. Around this time TSN Radio was launching and James Cybulski called me up and asked if I would be interested in being part of the team that was being put together. Unfortunately soon after starting at TSN Radio, my melanoma returned and a bunch of tumours developed and made their way into my lymphatic system so just months after the launch of the station I had to take significant time off just to deal with my stage 3 health situation, which was disappointing. Thankfully I was able to take care of my health issues through natural and alternative methods and put myself in a good position to return.
How do you see the state of soccer coverage in Toronto media?
GW: In many ways we’re trying to play catch-up because traditionally a lot of the broadcasters came from overseas and were used to covering stories from back home. And that was true of soccer fans too. People consumed the global product and paid no attention to any of the local soccer being played. But now with TFC we’re seeing a real thirst for local coverage of why the game should matter to Canadians.
Has the local appetite plateaued or do you think that a winning TFC would draw in a significant number of new fans?
GW: There is substantial room for growth and I think that excites a lot of people over at MLSE. You’re seeing a $105 million dollar expansion to BMO, a place where there were lots of empty seats at times last year. MLSE knows that there’s an untapped market. You see that with a lot of casual fans. They like that it’s 2 hours of your life … it fits nicely into a weekend day; you go out to the pub before, or have dinner after. It’s a great social event. What TFC needs to do now – and it all revolves around winning – is get back the hardcore fan that has moved back to watching Premier League exclusively. These people were excited about having a local team, and they have since turned away because the product has not been good enough. Soccer fans are snobby – and I mean that in a positive way. They’re not going to be fooled by an inferior product. I think MLSE gets that now. I’m not sure they did before. I think they have a much better set-up now for long-term success with their academy, but they need to win and they need to win now.
Can MLS ever give the snobby soccer fan something that will be good enough to compete with the product from overseas?
GW: There’s a real opportunity because not all European teams are doing well financially. The economy over there is not good and it is changing the playing field. North American MLS owners have money to spend. The league is being smart about this. I believe in the next 5 years there will be a turning point. MLS will never be the “it” league like La Liga or Serie A. But it can be an alternative. And North American fans do want to cheer for their own too. They want to cheer for American and Canadian players. And they want to be able to go out at night to watch the games, and not have to wake up early on the weekend just to cheer for their team. So I think MLS can be a good secondary property.
Moving from TFC to Canada’s Men’s national team, what is the explanation for the continued futility of this organization? In my lifetime the U.S. has gone from a soccer ‘nobody’ to competing on the world stage.
GW: The U.S. developed corporate relationships that brought in a ton of cash. They also centralized their training and development programs. They also have a lot more warm weather climates where it’s a lot easier to train. So they have a firm focus on developing the next generation of great American soccer players. In Canada there remains a great divide along most of these dimensions. Because of that we are fragmented. And you see that in Ontario … there are so many individuals and organizations, if someone asked me where their kid should be playing soccer, I couldn’t tell them. You see the same thing with coaches; they are frustrated by the lack of organization. There are so many barriers right now, to tell you truth I don’t know how it gets better. Success stories are the exception not the rule. The Canadian MLS and other professional teams are helping though.
Is there any explanation for the asymmetry in terms of the success of the women’s game as compared to the men?
GW: Canadian soccer was smart in that in the 80s they saw an opportunity to invest in the women’s game and quickly become one of a handful of successful programs. They put the focus on the women’s game and worked at getting a pipeline into U.S. scholarships where there was less competition from within the States. The men’s side was much harder to get scholarships. That was powerful, and it has translated to the success of the women’s game. You’ll see that this summer … the heartbreak of 2012 and losing to the Americans has really galvanized the country behind the team and the sport. There just hasn’t been anything like that on the men’s side yet.
Something like the Chelsea incident would be almost unfathomable in any of the 4 North American sports in 2015. Is there any explanation for why soccer continues to experience this sort of overt and unabashed racism?
GW: It’s a societal issue that is manifesting itself in the soccer world. It’s not a secret that there are a lot of economic and social problems in Europe right now and many of those problems overlap with issues like racism, homophobia, debates about Islam, and so on. The real difference with North America is that there’s not a group of 2,000 Maple Leafs supporters who travel from city to city to root for the team when it is on the road. That kind of mob mentality can lead to good things but it also leads to really bad things. Like here in North America, European soccer is used as an escape. But unfortunately some of the supports groups are using it to bring together like-minded people who are angry at similar social issues, and using the club as a way to galvanize that broader issue.
Isn’t the simpler explanation that when you put dumb people in a group and give them alcohol then you lay the groundwork for dumb behaviour?
GW: I think that’s what explain these kinds of incidents over here but I don’t think it has to do with alcohol over there. I think these are the true feelings of those people. And it speaks to the problems that really do exist over there. It has very little to do with soccer specifically. That being said, soccer has been its own worst enemy here. Few of the owners reflect the cultural diversity of their cities. It’s still a lot of rich old white guys who wield a lot of power. You see these same racist incidents at the coaching and ownership levels, and with the players too. The clubs stand by the players and the coaches. That sends a message to fans that is much stronger than the “stamp out racism” banners they show in stadiums. So the leagues are just reflecting a societal problem.
Why have clubs failed to institute zero-tolerance policies that would just get rid of the racist element from these supporters groups?
GW: Well, you can only really control what goes on in your own stadium, and even that is hard to control. But also you have clubs that have historically been tied to certain ideals. That’s so much different from North American sports. In Europe, because some of the clubs are so old, they have deep cultural roots. Celtic was the Catholic team in Glasgow while Rangers were the Protestant club. There are racial, political, and religious relationships between clubs and their fans and that makes it more than just a game at times. So there is a tribalism to soccer that makes it very difficult to compare to the NHL. But that is changing with advertising and TV contracts. Real Madrid got rid of the cross from their logo around the same time that they got a lot of sponsorships from Abu Dhabi. Money will change things. And a change of leadership will help too. There’s a lot of waxing poetic about getting rid of racism, but not a lot of follow through. Just look at where the next two World Cups are going to be. FIFA has been putting money ahead of all else for a long time. But the game is so strong they could be making money and taking a harder line on equality.
Thanks to Gareth for taking the time. He will be launching an interesting and unique cancer awareness initiative in the near future. You can follow him on Twitter @WheelerTSN
Siegel Steps Back into the Spotlight
It’s been a tumultuous year for TSN Radio’s Jonas Siegel. He publicly lashed out against Phil Kessel back in the fall, prompting one person in the industry to tell me that he thought this would end Jonas’ time as a Leafs beat reporter. That has not come to pass, and as far as can be told from the outside, everything is business as usual.
Siegel became the story again last week when he tweeted out that young Leafs star Morgan Rielly had said in reference to his struggles that it was important “not to be a girl about it.”
Morgan Rielly today said positive approach, strong work ethic during tough time was key. "You're not here to be a girl about it."
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) February 20, 2015
Rielly quickly apologized and expressed that these kinds of expressions need to be excised from the sports vernacular. This prompted an important and fairly civilized discussion in several corners about the substantive ways that women are still disadvantaged in what purports to be an egalitarian society. PPP contributor Katie Flynn has an excellent breakdown of the issue.
As we discussed last week, we seem to be entering a new era of media-athlete relations. There has been a growing sentiment that the media is unfair to athletes and stirs things up to generate content and page-views. That was certainly part of the narrative surrounding Siegel’s last incident. When this story broke, several people were heavily critical of Siegel for tweeting that comment out when he could have simply omitted the offending phrase.
This raises lots of interesting questions about the role of the media in protecting athletes from themselves. For clarity on these issues I reached out to the godfather of Toronto beat reporting, Howard Berger. Here is what he had to say:
HB: To be honest, it’s nearly impossible for me to offer a fair assessment of the situation. I can’t put myself in Jonas’s shoes because there was no such thing as social media when I was his age. I’ve watched Jonas evolve since his very first year on the Leafs beat and I think he’s become a good, balanced reporter. I like him a lot. The attraction and immediacy of social media has become a real wild card in hockey reporting. There have been terrible mistakes – such as the premature bulletins of Pat Burns’ death and the unconscionable act of more than a few “professionals” who somehow did not pause and nudge Jonathan Bernier in a different direction when he mis-spoke about Nelson Mandela in December.But, there have also been triumphs of very good reporting, such as when Jonas Tweeted that Phil Kessel had told him to “get away from me,” when approached after a game earlier this season.
Given how young Morgan Rielly is – and that he often speaks in wisdom beyond his years – I believe I would have checked with him before posting the “girl” remark. But, it doesn’t mean Jonas made a mistake. Much of it falls on the athlete to be circumspect when talking into a live microphone. That said, the quick, mature apology from Morgan was becoming of a fine, young man that I think will be next captain of the Leafs.
Thanks Howie. I’m not sure I agree with him that there is a big difference between the Bernier/Mandela incident and this one. Both involve the choice NOT to protect the athlete. But I understand there is a lot of nuance here because beat reporters probably hear tons of unflattering comments on a weekly basis and have to choose what to report and what not to, and when to massage a quote rather than let the athlete hoist himself by his own petard.
Over to you: did Jonas do anything wrong here? Should he have asked Rielly to rephrase?
Meet the New Blundell …
… same as the old Blundell. Or at least that is the marketing Rogers has chosen to go with to launch Dean’s new morning show. FAN590 PD Don Kollins and Rogers Senior VP Julie Adam tweeted out a video promo which shows Blundell with duct tape over his mouth, twitching in a chair and flexing his hands as if he had just been unshackled. As the camera zooms in on his face he winks and the tagline “Blundell re-programmed” appears.
The implication is clear: the political correctness police tried to shut him down, but Rogers has broken Dean out of jail and is ready to unleash his blistering takes onto the airwaves. So if you were wondering if the statements from Rogers brass that Blundell was not being brought in to play to the same audience as before were sincere, this should settle that. This was a bat-signal to Dean’s former listeners: he’s back!
We will be spending a lot of time in the weeks to come talking about the new show, so I will keep my remarks here to a minimum. One thing worth mentioning is that the FAN decided to launch Dean’s new show on Trade Deadline Day, one of the most important days on the Toronto sports calendar. A main criticism of Blundell’s test run last summer was that he couldn’t hold his own on sports. So I see this as a big risk for the FAN: there is probably no other day when the audience will be expecting such a high level of sports analysis. In other words, Blundell’s key weaknesses will be on full display on Day 1.
This strikes me as a risk not worth taking. Whatever bump you get from launching Dean on a day where everyone is tuning in might be canceled, or worse, by his performance. Of course he’ll be surrounded by experts, but that might just magnify his shallow knowledge of sports. Raju Mudhar of the Star has an interview with Dean, in which the latter reassures us that he is an avid viewer of TSN’s SportCentre and also he plays a lot of golf. I guess according to his new bosses that makes him competent to run one of the most important timeslots in Canadian sports radio, and a slot that Brady&Walker were already dominating.
Lastly, congratulations to Kayla Harris (doing updates on the FAN & other work; wife of PTS producer Ryan Walsh) and George Rusic (evening host and occasional morning show fill-in) for their big promotions. I am really glad to see hard-working people being rewarded for the long hours at low pay they have put in for Sportsnet. This was a good morale move by the station. There are dozens of interns and part-timers toiling away in sports radio, and the FAN needs to set the precedent that this sometimes ends up in full-time contracts.
I know a lot of readers were fans of Dean’s old show. I’m not trying to shut that viewpoint down; in fact I want to hear from you. My questions for you this morning: are you excited to hear Dean talk sports? What aspects/features/bits from his old show do you hope he brings over to the FAN?
Closing out the big local media stories this week, Gregg Zaun was the talk of the baseball town for his anecdote on PTS last week about being hazed as a rookie with the Orioles. This was part of Zaun’s argument that the 2014 Jays suffered due to lack of veteran leadership. Bob agreed with him 100%. Andrew Stoeten has the gory details.
Zaun was then shredded on ESPN by Keith Olbermann (subsequently suspended for anti-Penn State tweets) for being a hack and a baseball Neanderthal. Zauny then walked back the comments after Ripken called BS on the whole thing. Others have dissected this story further. People who follow the Jays know that this is par for the course for Zaun. The 10% of real insights he brings are washed out to sea with the deluge of self-aggrandizing nonsense that spews forth most of the time. There are a lot of talented baseball people working at Rogers. Zaun is not one of them. That said, I guess bad publicity is better than no publicity?
Speaking of Zaun, his mentor Don Cherry went on national television and said “never mind the concussions” when talking about the role of fighting in hockey. This comes at a time when the league is being sued and the entire sports world is working at reducing brain injuries in sports. I wonder how much of Don’s legacy will be whitewashed when he retires.
TSN is hiring a Senior Blogger. If you have a journalism degree and 5 years experience working for a mainstream news outlet, they would like you to blog for them 2-3 times per day, 5 days a week. Just wait until your parents find out that the last 10 years of your professional life have led you to being a senior blogger. I’m sure the other people in the press box will also take you seriously Mr./Mrs. TSN Senior Blogger. Memo to TSN: if you are trying to legitimize your online properties by hiring people with real world journalism experience and credentials, maybe consider adjusting your job titles?
Low Hanging Fruit
- In honour of Gareth’s sunny outlook on life, I will refrain from the usual caustic remarks found in this space and instead say a hearty congratulations to all of the Canadian Screen Awards winner for sports. It was hard to get a complete list from their website, but winners include: Stephen Brunt, Michael Landsberg, Ray Ferraro, Aaron Ward, Josh Shiaman … I’ll update this list as I uncover more.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)
Assistant Junior Blogger