by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans from chilly Toronto. As always, if there are things you think we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me. Stay safe.
The State of the Game
With three of the four major sports on break for the next month or so this seems like a good time to discuss what to expect when they return as well as the outlook for 2021. Since this is a sports media site we are mostly interested in how revised schedules will affect things like rights and ratings. For the sake of this discussion let’s assume that a vaccine won’t be widely available until June.
The NBA is planning for a 72 game season, to start in late December. The NHL is looking at 50-60 games, starting early in the new year. MLB’s players association has stated their intention is to play a full 162 game season with full compensation starting with training camps in February. Good luck with that. These decisions have a bunch of downstream implications for the Toronto teams and the media who cover them.
I’ll focus on the Raptors in this post since the NBA is further along in their process. Masai Ujiri was given a lot of space in a “Star Exclusive” to make the case that they should be allowed to play at home.
“We have to look at other options, because the pre-season is coming up fast — Dec. 1. We are proud to represent our city and our country, and we hope to be able to do that while playing in Toronto. Cities in the United States have been very kind to us — they’ve offered us a home away from home. To them I say: Thank you. To you, I say that I hope we get to tell them we won’t be able to take them up on their generous offer.” – Masai Ujiri
Steve Simmons had this to say by way of rejoinder:
“Ujiri likes to make the argument that this is a time for healing and the Raptors playing in Toronto will help the emotional needs of their fan base. That sounds good. It’s also nonsense. The Raptors would be playing in an empty arena if they were playing in Toronto. Fans will watch their games on television. They will watch them whether they’re playing in Tampa or Nashville or in a bubble anywhere else.” – Steve Simmons
As Michael Grange notes, the biggest issue for the Raptors is whether they will be able to play home games in Toronto, but this is not just about whether fans and players will get to be in the same city. This decision, which may come in the next week, will also determine the fates of the local media who cover the team. Media like sideline reporters and in-game hosts won’t travel regardless of where the Raps call home. These same folks would, however, be able to do their jobs somewhat as per usual if the team were to play at home. The same logic applies to the play by play crews – they won’t be going on the road but if the Raps are at Scotia then they could call the games from their usual perch.
The bottom-line is that if there are no home games in Toronto then every single game will be called off a screen from a studio in Toronto and the sideline reporting will have no connection whatsoever to the actual sidelines of the game. So, from a presentation perspective there are real stakes to the upcoming Raptors season. That said, the Sportsnet crew did a wonderful job delivering the 2020 Jays season. After a few bumps, Shulman and Martinez settled in to the technological set up and adjusted to the limited number of cameras. This brought the TV calls a little closer to what we expect from radio. More narrative and fewer images. This also reduced the number of pointless shots of the wave or staged pans of people cheering in the outfield balcony. And the brightest silver lining of all was that we managed to get through the entire season without enduring the indignity of hearing “Get Up Ball”.
From a reporting perspective, fans can expect a significant drop off in terms of the quantity and quality of what they will receive. While sideline reporting is pretty low on the journalism scale there are occasionally game stories that benefit from being discussed court-side or between the benches. We also occasionally get gems like “Ball” and Biagini trying to wrap his arms around Arash. Again, using the Jays as an example, I didn’t notice a big drop in the quality of Hazel Mae’s work even though no of it involved proximity to the dugout or getting showered in sports drink. (For clarity: I think Hazel is tremendously talented and I wish Sportsnet would give her a larger platform. Other than Deitsch, she has the most impressive contact list and international profile at the network.)
The more pressing issue is that the Raptors are facing the prospect of an entire season without in-person access from journalists. While scrums are certainly done for the foreseeable future, socially distanced podium sessions are still on the menu for teams playing in the same city as the media who cover them. As we witnessed during the NHL’s bubbled playoffs, zoom availability leaves a lot to be desired. If the Raptors play their entire season in the US then no one from the local media will interact with them unless they are willing and authorized to travel into the American Petri dish and then quarantine upon return. Notably, Sportsnet sent none of their ample supply of Jays media across the border to Buffalo, while The Star and the Sun both did.
If you’re a media outlet the main question then becomes how you can justify carrying so many reporters, sideline or otherwise, when they won’t be able to perform a core function of their job. Anyone whose main duties include commenting on what happens on gameday or in-game is at risk of being redundant if the Raptors play in Tampa in 2021. However, put me in the camp of people who think that a fully remote presentation of Raptors games won’t be a major issue. If you listened to Jonah’s excellent discussion with longtime NHL/Sportsnet TV executive John Shannon, he raised some interesting reasons why we might notice a decrease in quality if producers and hosts can’t access players and coaches on game day. Interesting topic for debate, especially around “soft costs”. Listen to the discussion, starting around 32:00, and weigh in.
Over to you: Do you care if the Raptors play in Toronto or not?Are you worried about lack of access by local media?
Another topic that Shannon and Jonah discussed is Don Cherry. It’s been a year since Rogers parted ways with Don Cherry over racist remarks that were nationally broadcast on the public airwaves and all over Sportsnet’s digital platforms. We covered this in depth here. Several outlets remembered the original incident this week. Ken Campbell wrote:
“More importantly, though, when the executives at Rogers Sportsnet fired Cherry, they could never have predicted how events in the world – both the hockey world and the real world – would unfold over the next 12 months. And in that respect, they actually caught an enormous break when Cherry gave them no other choice but to have him step down from Coach’s Corner. Having Cherry’s voice in the middle of the tsunami that was late 2019 and all of 2020 would have been, well, awkward. So in that sense and so many others, it was time.” – Ken Campbell
This is a brilliant insight in my opinion. It is highly likely that, were Cherry still running HNIC’s commentary section, the BLM coverage would have been much more divided. The NHL struggled mightily to acknowledge these protests in a meaningful way and Cherry would have undoubtedly made this about respecting the flag or the troops or some other such distraction.
The Star, oddly, chose this anniversary to give Don Cherry a platform to tell his side of the story. Here is Cherry’s version of the facts:
“All I tried to do on Coach’s Corner was to point out to Canadians that we should honour our fallen who gave the supreme sacrifice.” – Don Cherry
This echoes what Cherry said a year ago: I won’t apologize because, other than semantics, I didn’t say anything wrong. To their credit, The Star also published a piece by a person of colour reflecting on what that incident meant to them:
“I felt a pit in my stomach when I heard him go after people like my sister-in-law, a newcomer from Pakistan who had been in Canada less than nine months and was experiencing her first Remembrance Day.” – Ahmar Khan
Here was John Shannon’s analysis of the situation:
“Last week, I thought the Remembrance Day stuff … I thought they were unfair. He’s paid his price. He’s out of the business. Why drag him out again? … He’s 87 years old. He’s done a lot of good things. He’s done a few stupid things. But why, a year later, drag it out? You know why? Because there’s nothing else to talk about […] When I read the papers here … I went are you serious? We have other issues to deal with, and we’re dragging this up one more time.” – John Shannon
Joe Haggerty of Boston Hockey Now offers another perspective:
“Was it the right thing that Cherry was banished after his reckless, hurtful comments? Probably. But the hockey world is a lot more boring in Cherry’s absence and there should be some acknowledgement of that as well. There are plenty of ways in which the hockey world is not a better place at all without Don Cherry. It’s just a lot more boring and plainer, in point of fact.” – Joe Haggerty
Plugging Brian Burke into Don Cherry’s spot is the quickest way to pacify the Haggerties of the world. He’s just as loud and confident but has much more recent experience. He also would play well with the rock-em-sock-em crowd, given his consistent victim-blaming stance that Steve Moore had it coming from Todd Bertuzzi. Burke also has bona fide progressive credentials given his work with You Can Play. He’s the obvious choice and I can see why Sportsnet would wait until the time is right. When hockey resumes in 2021 I hope Burkie’s Corner is a thing.
Producing remote games is here to stay. The networks have been looking for ways to cut costs for a while due to rising rights fees and shrinking revenues. SBJ has a good story on how the industry is pivoting: “The cost savings from remote productions come from more than just reducing head count and producing games and studio shows with a leaner staff. With producers and graphic designers working out of the home office, networks reduce travel expenses — no flights, no hotels.”
More remote work means fewer staff and ESPN acted swiftly, per Richard Deitsch: “In May 2013, ESPN laid off nearly 400 employees, the company’s first layoffs since 2009. Two years later ESPN laid off roughly 300 employees, about 4–5% of its workforce, a particularly gutting layoff because it featured many long-time behind-the-scenes employees. In April 2017, ESPN eliminated around 100 journalists and on-air personalities. Later in 2017, the company made additional layoffs of more than 100 staffers.” That’s a lot of cuts over a 7 year period.
Pierre LeBrun is quickly becoming the heir apparent to McKenzie as an insider. He also brings an incredible talent for writing. This piece of an NHL agent’s coming out story was a great read.
Laura Armstrong has a good article on Kim Ng becoming the first woman GM in baseball. Most of her writing is features and game stories so it’s nice to read something that is a bit more pointed. Speaking of opinion, the Toronto baseball beat is very weak in this area heading into the 2021 season. Steve Buffery at The Sun seems to be permanently off baseball. Lott and Stoeten are gone from The Athletic. The Globe ditched their regular baseball coverage a year ago. Slim pickings for people wanting critical analysis of the current team.
The Athletic told staffers on a call today they're reversing pay cuts, effective immediately, that were introduced over the summer, per person on call.
Cuts were 10% for those making $150k or less, steeper for those making more. They were supposed to extend through 2020.
— Ben Strauss (@benjstrauss) November 5, 2020
Good news at The Athletic as pandemic pay reductions are over. The company made some cuts earlier this year, and 2021 looks to be an important year for the future of the now dominant media outlet.
Radio Poll – Tim and Sid
It’s been a year since Tim & Sid made the switch from TV only to being branded as a TV & Radio show. We discussed that at length here and it is worth your time to go back and remember how readers here took the news. My question for you is: if you listened to PTS and McCown, how have your listening habits responded? Here’s a poll that asks you to reflect back on whether Dave Cadeau’s big decision was a good one. (Note: program directors and management are not allowed to view poll results without express written consent from TSM.)
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)