photo credit: Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media watchers. We are coming to the end of the sports calendar with the NBA and NHL trophies to be handed out shortly. Looking ahead, the spring radio book will be out at the end of this month and there are a bunch of expiring contracts at both 590 and 1050. That will be interesting to watch. A special thanks to those of you in and outside of the industry who are in touch to let me know about things that should appear in this space. You can always email or DM me (even if we are not following each other) with story ideas.
Programming note: I'm on assignment for the next few weeks so won't be posting regularly. Follow me on Twitter for occasional sports media observations. Retweets are sometimes sincere.
Bob Elliott retired, somewhat suddenly, this week. He is 66 years old and has been working in the industry for 30 years. Many tributes poured in from all corners. Steve Simmons wrote glowingly about his longtime colleague:
"More than anyone in this city, this country, he broke stories. Almost all the big ones. And if he didn’t break them, he provided immediate context, the insider’s view, the road no one else travelled."
Over the course of his career Elliott certainly was front and centre on many stories but to claim that "more than anyone … he broke stories" is not accurate. Since the Rogers takeover of the Jays, most of the news about the team has come from Sportsnet. More recently some unpopular stories — payroll, Bautista's contract demands, etc. — have come from TSN and other outlets. During the Riccardi era, most stories came from American writers, or from Jeff Blair.
To be honest we don't really have that one baseball voice in this country who, when he speaks, we all listen and know we are getting the truth. In the U.S. you have Peter Gammons and more and more Ken Rosenthal as gospel on baseball. In this country we have that with Bob McKenzie (1.3 million followers) on hockey.
Steve is right that Elliott was a master at providing context. His minute-by-minute or day-by-day breakdowns of key trades or signings were enthralling. John Lott writes about how those stories came to be:
"Sources trusted him because he never betrayed them. Neither did he acquiesce when he was hot on the trail of a story. And he had so many sources—more than the rest of us combined, many times over—that if he couldn't get what he wanted from one, there were always a dozen more he could try. As a result, he harvested information and fascinating details that no one else could. He was a columnist who was a reporter first. He often told me he never fancied himself a writer. He was a storyteller."
Historically, his PTS radio appearances (more on that below) were legendary. He and Bob had, and still have, a great rapport. However in recent years he would sometimes be confused about names and plays, and one wondered whether he had actually seen the game from the night before. He tells Lott in the above piece that age and slowing down are part of his reasons for retiring. I am told that he is negotiating with the Sun to do a regular Sunday column but that those details have not yet been finalized. This would be a great addition to the weekend reading of baseball fans in this country.
Thank you Mr. Elliott for all you have done for Canadian baseball over your career. I am very much looking forward to being able to continue reading your excellent writing.
Emptying the Pool
Elliott's retirement is the second major loss for baseball readers in the last year. John Lott was let go from the National Post as part of their cutbacks. This leaves Richard Griffin at the Star as the most senior baseball regular writing for a print outlet. So we have gone from 3 respected baseball voices down to 1 in a very short time. I hope that Griff remembers that with great power comes great responsibility, and doesn't send any more tweets like this one:
Said another guy drawing a paycheque from Rogers. https://t.co/W8lCf31Eq1
— Richard Griffin (@RGriffinStar) October 29, 2015
With the full-time losses of Elliott and Lott here is how your written baseball coverage stacks up at the majors for the rest of this season. (Apologies if I missed anyone. Let me know and I'll add them in.)
Star – Richard Griffin, Rosie DiManno, Brendan Kennedy
Sun – ?? [recent Jays related stories by Bill Lankhof, Terry Koshan, Steve Buffery]
Globe – Robert MacLeod
TSN.ca – Scott MacArthur, Steve Phillips
SN.ca – Shi Davidi, Arden Zwelling, Ben Nicholson-Smith, Jeff Blair, Stephen Brunt, Nick Ashbourne, Naoko Asano, Dafna Izenberg, Mike Johnston, Craig Battle, David Singh, Dan Robson, Tao of Stieb (note: these are just the people who have written Jays stories in the last week for SN. I'm sure there are more …)
I will continue to beat the drum for someone at a major outlet to hire John Lott to write and comment on the Jays on a full time basis. With the Elliott retirement there is a clear opening at the Sun/Postmedia. While I want this to happen, I am not hopeful. The Globe has had months to hire him, which leads me to suspect that there just isn't the money anywhere in the industry to spend on someone at his level.
The Sun will be saving a massive amount with Elliott's salary coming off the books. If they don't want to give it all to Lott, another option would be to hire someone in early or mid career to be their lead baseball person. Arden Zwelling has distinguished himself at SN and would be a logical option. The same goes for Scott MacArthur at TSN. The worst possible outcome would be to shuffle some people around in the hopes of replacing Bob Elliott. This would be basically admitting to the audience that you're giving up on being a leader in baseball coverage.
As with basketball (which we covered last week), Sportsnet's approach stands out from the rest. Their strategy seems to be to overwhelm you with content by hiring everyone under the sun to produce copy for their website. I'm not sure what they pay for this privilege — industry norms are shockingly low — but there is clearly no shortage of people willing to do it.
Neither radio station currently sends a beat reporter on the road to every game. The Globe has been without a baseball columnist since Blair left. The Sun is now without one too. So while more people than ever are producing content for us to consume, the jobs we associate with the best kind of content seem to be drying up.
Over to you: Who is your "go-to" on baseball? Will you shift over to Griffin now that Elliott is done?
Two interesting moments this week. First, Mike Toth wrote a blog about his discussions with someone in the industry. Second, Bob McCown spoke about being told who he could and could not have on his show.
Here is Toth from his recent post over at Mike Toth Media:
"But is there a need for a “strong”, “tell it like it is” voice in Canadian sports? I’m not sure. Websites like TMZ Sports, designed to “dig up dirt” on athletes, already exist and anybody can jump on board Twitter to rant and rave about what bugs them. Does the world really need Mike Toth to join the massive man hunt when it comes to ripping the Blue Jays bullpen when they blow a big lead?"
He goes on to discuss how most fans don't seem to want harsh criticism of winning teams, and team owners Bell & Rogers want it even less so. He posits this as the cause of pom-pom waving from people employed by TSN and SN during the Jays and Raptors playoff runs. See for example:
Goddamn it's fun to be a fan.
— Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair) May 24, 2016
He also cites Steve Simmons' widely criticized casino story as evidence that neither fans nor media want hard reporting. His conclusion is that the current state of the media in Canada is not really set up to provide "tell it like it is" sports journalism.
It's hard to disagree with Mike on this last point. Most people at the papers moonlight at either TSN or SN. Pure newspaper jobs are disappearing. While most of the media with whom I speak will insist that they have never been told what they can and can't say, most reasonable people will admit that they are keenly aware of what doesn't make the boss happy when it comes to criticizing ownership or league partners.
This brings us to Bob McCown's comments on PTS (Friday, 4pm hour). Here's the clip in question:
In it Bob confirms that Elliott was banned from his show by one of Bob's superiors at Rogers — presumably far above the head of program director Dave Cadeau. This ban was in response to an unflattering piece Elliott had written. I covered what I can only assume is the piece in question here.
Bob says he didn't agree with the piece, and then strangely says that, knowing Elliott, he didn't take it seriously. I'm not sure what he meant by that, but it sounds like he's accusing Elliott of being disingenuous in his criticisms of Ed Rogers. Stranger still, he goes on to say that the people in question were thin-skinned about the piece. So, the listener is left a little confused about why Bob didn't take it seriously, but also why he didn't agree with the piece given that the behaviour exhibited in response to it seems to confirm one of the piece's central points. (For the record, I think the Elliott piece was unnecessarily over-broad in its criticisms).
Anyway … Bob admits that he acceded to the ban for a while but then brought Elliott back on, only to be rebuked by his boss — Cadeau? Moore? — for doing so. He contends that he will defy the ban going forward and that if people at Rogers don't like it "they are going to have to deal with me!" Bob has forever told us that he doesn't take marching orders from anyone, though this is obviously false. As much as we grouse about the FOB (Friends of Bob) phenomenon that ruined PTS, it is clear that he is often told who his co-hosts will be, and which stories will and won't get covered. I don't doubt he has a lot of control, but it is far from absolute.
This incident seems to lend support to what Mike Toth wrote about. Elliott "told it like it is" (whatever that means) and was banned from Rogers. We have talked at length (and at times ad nauseam) about broadcasters who cheer for the home team while covering the Jays, the CFL, the NHL, etc. We recently discussed the NHL concussion emails and how certain people were oddly quiet for a while.
It is interesting to hear both Mike and Bob — two industry veterans — speak out about the same issue on the same week. Another interesting angle to this is that Bob is in his walk-year and nobody with whom I have spoken believes Rogers will renew him at over a million dollars, or even half that amount. I have long believed that a "zero fucks given" Bob McCown would be a delight for the ears. Here's hoping that's what we get before Bob sails off into the Escarpment.
Over to you: is there any place where we can find journalism that is free of biasing influence? What did you think of the Bobcat's growling? Does Mike have a point?
Must-read baseball story of the week comes from SI.com's Tom Verducci. He has a great piece on Jose Bautista.
Must-read basketball story of the week comes from Eric Koreeen for Vice Sports. He discusses the case for and against keeping Demar and Bismack. (Oddly, he fails to give credit to his colleague Andrew Walker when mentioning the latter's interview.)
Jon Filson, head of Star Touch, has left the company. That is not good news for the Star. As we have discussed many times, they have a very big sports department and have avoided cuts for the most part.
James Bradshaw at the Globe does excellent work covering the media. It is beneath him to have to write a glorified press release about the Globe's new partnership with the Washington Post. "The technology is supposed to be smooth, stable and adaptable to desktop computers, mobile phones and tablets of all sizes." Uh, OK.
Andrew Bucholtz over at AA writes that ESPN saw a drop of 1.5 million subscribers recently. With skinny bundles now on the market in Canada it will be interesting to see if this hastens or slows the rate of cordcutting. People who were holding on to their existing services in the hopes of downgrading to a skinny package might regard the widely panned bundles as the last straw.
With the Zika Olympics coming up, it's time to start learning about the athletes who will be risking their health to serve our country. Here's a nice write-up on the womens soccer team.
Lastly, the details of the Argos tailgate program have been released. "Parking spots will be sold for a $5 premium on top of normal event parking rates, which will be $30 at Ontario Place and $35 at Exhibition Place. Parking spots will be need to be purchased in advance as part of a season pass at Ontario Place or a half-season pass at Exhibition Place." Can anyone explain that last sentence to me? Apparently the beer will be cheap, so there is hope that the kind of fans they despearately need to attract will show up.
Oh, there's also this:
The first two games of the Stanley Cup Final averaged 3.3 million viewers/1.2 demo/1.9 HH rating, down from the year-ago 6.05M/1.9/3.6. Eeep
— Anthony Crupi (@crupicrupicrupi) June 3, 2016
Low Hanging Fruit
- Cringiest moment on radio this week? No contest. Andrew Walker and co-host JD Bunkis devoted the better part of a whole segment to joking about giving birth to Devon Travis. Someone fell asleep at the quality control switch in the PD's office.
- Haven’t listened to Naylor & Lansberg in a while. Checked back in on Monday after the Raps’ loss to hear their takes on the series and what it might mean for basketball's growth in Toronto. Sad to report that 3+ months in, it is still a competitive story telling show loosely themed around sports. They must be killing it in the "remember when" demographic.
- Overdrive pays three salaries for its hosts. During the 10-15 minute interview with SI's Tom Verducci, 100% of the questions were asked by Bryan Hayes. Good for TSN if they can afford to pay two people to contribute nothing for segments at a time. With hockey ending next week there are going to be plenty more such opportunities.
- I will try to listen to more radio this month in anticipation of writing about the spring book. What stands out to you, good or bad, that I should keep my ears open for?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)