Seen & Heard – Weekend Edition

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

 

Good morning sports media fans. Welcome to 2021. This year I’m looking for additional input from people in the industry, especially early and mid-career folks. If you have thoughts on the state of sports media in Toronto, please reach out if I don’t get to you first. Fresh voices are needed and I want to amplify different perspectives here. If you have something to say and want to talk on background, hit me up.

 

Here are some topics to get us started. As always, add your own thoughts in the comments. We run this site because we like hearing what other people think.

 

Five More Years

 

It has been a quiet off-season for your Toronto Blue Jays. After finishing 3rd in the division with a record of 32-28 (with a sub .500 Pyth W-L%) the consensus in November was that the Jays had successfully shifted from rebuilding to competing. The questions turned to what they would need to add to get to the 90 win level in 2021, assuming a full-season would be played. Their splashiest free agent purchase in a decade performed well, and the hope was that the team would have the resources to go buy more pitching, a bat, and some better defence.

 

Despite being rumoured to be in everyone, things have not gone well for the front office so far.

 

 

In the midst of this disappointing time, Rogers quietly announced that Mark Shapiro would be back as team President for another five years. Here’s Ed Rogers’ statement:

 

“Mark’s leadership and commitment to excellence over the last five years have been critical to the team’s growth and development. We’re extremely pleased that Mark will continue to lead the Toronto Blue Jays and build on the team’s progress as we work towards our goal of bringing a World Series championship back to Canada.” – Ed Rogers

 

If Shapiro completes his term this would make him the longest continuous president in team history. Paul Beeston has more combined time in his two stints running the team. Paul Godfrey lasted eight years before moving on to run the National Post.

 

Here’s a rundown of the notable columns on the Shapiro extension. First up is Cathal Kelly of the Globe with a good comparison:

 

“In Toronto sports terms, this isn’t burying the news. It’s entombing it in concrete and dumping it into an ocean trench. I will guarantee you that if (not when) the Toronto Raptors re-sign president Masai Ujiri before his contract expires in July, the team will paint the skies over the city Raptor red. MLSE will treat that news release like it’s the moon landing.”

 

This could be chalked up to a cultural difference between MLSE and Rogers but Kelly is right that the timing and tone reflect the latent uneasiness about Shapiro. While he has many supporters in the media and the fanbase, he has an equal share of detractors. If the team takes a step back in 2021 then the concerns about Shapiro are sure to rise rapidly to the surface once more. For example, Kelly describes act one of the Shapiro era thusly:

 

“In baseball terms, Shapiro’s first five years have been a bit of a dud. He was given a great team, turned it into a bad team and recently levelled it off into a decent team.”

 

The rest of Cathal’s piece is a mix of vague statements about Shapiro not being available or willing to answer tough questions, and a general endorsement of his off the field business performance of reducing the team payroll while raising ticket prices. The piece captures the precarious support Shapiro has in the marketplace.

 

Over at the Star, Gregor Chisholm had this to say:

 

“Shapiro’s first mandate was to tear down the Jays, to move beyond the era of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson. His second mandate is transforming the organization into a perennial contender. There was progress in that regard last year with a brief post-season appearance against the Rays, and the pressure will be on to make sure that success turns into something much bigger down the road.”

 

So while Cathal sees the mandate as continuing to cut costs and increase revenue while staying on the good side of customers, Chisholm argues that Shapiro has earned the right to plan the next moves due to the team’s actual on the field performance and future prospects. He concludes:

 

“The jury is still out on these Jays, but it feels appropriate that the current front office has been given more time to make their case. The painful rebuild is over. It’s time to win. Now go sign some players.”

 

Chisholm has been quite critical of the Shapiro-Atkins duo over the last years so this is a friendlier piece than I was expecting. I imagine things would sound different if the extension took place at the end of the off-season (a month away), with the Jays having failed to improve the team through free agency. In that sense, the timing of extension seems good.

 

Over at the Sun, the always readable Rob Longley saw the Shapiro news this way:

 

“The stability associated with retaining Shapiro is not to be diminished but, at the same time, it starts the clock running on the next and arguably biggest phase of his tenure here.Since his hire in August of 2015, Shapiro’s self-sculpted mandate was to build a sustainable winner from the ground up.”

 

This is exactly right. The narrative the current administration pushed was that the previous one dumped prospects too freely and that a rebuild of the minors was needed to create stable success down the road. The frustrating aspect of this narrative is that it is also a way of buying tons of time before others are allowed to start counting wins and losses. The Ryu signing was a way of letting fans know that the team was planning to start winning over the next 3 years, lest that contract go to waste during non-competitive years. Longley adds:

 

“If there is a notable positive to the timing of the extension — his previous contract expired towards the end of 2020 — it is that Shapiro wouldn’t have signed on for five more years if he didn’t believe he had the backing of ownership to do things his way. So, all that talk from the executive office this winter about the Jays “being in” on this guy and that guy will be more than bluster if there are dollars to back it up.”

 

This is again a good point. Anthopoulos left in part because he didn’t believe in the vision of the team. His success elsewhere speaks for itself. Shapiro has endured a dark period of his own choosing and presumably wants to see the fruits of that labour. Choosing to stay means that he has some reason to believe the resources to finish the job are there.

 

I tried to find something written by Stephen Brunt about the news but there is nothing so far. He is yet to publish anything for Sportsnet in 2021. He has two bylines in the last 140 days. I also tried to find something from The Athletic Toronto but they did not cover this news.

 

This is the first major news item to break since the retirement of John Lott. At this time I very much felt the absence of senior local baseball writers. Over the last 5 years we have lost Bob Elliott and Richard Griffin in addition to Lott, and the marketplace feels a little thin. With Brunt and Blair working for Sportsnet, TSN punting on serious baseball coverage, and the Globe ditching their baseball writer, fans are being underserved in my opinion. I wanted to read a deep dive on Shapiro, his relationship with the media, the ever shifting scope of his responsibilities, whether he has done more or less than previous presidents, whether the changes in management at Rogers will be good or bad for him etc.

 

I’ll kick the question over to you: what’s the solution to the current state of baseball coverage? Assuming that Sportsnet has plenty of baseball folks already, who else could beef up their offerings and with whom? There are some free agents sitting out there now: Barry Davis, Mike Wilner, Andrew Stoeten. Would any of these make sense as additions to The Athletic, Globe, or TSN? Or is this just the reality of sports media in 2021: we are going to have to make do with less than that to which we are accustomed?

 

Doing More With Less

 

I want to start a conversation here about how we think sports media rights and consumption will look in 5 and 10 years. As the Globe reported, Bell shook up its organizational chart recently. The goal of the restructuring involves a pivot to digital. According to their new President:

 

“To continue to lead in a transforming industry, our operational structure needs to make doing business with us easier while also enabling necessary investment in the exciting new content and technology innovation opportunities ahead.” – Wade Oosterman

 

This echoes similar statements made by Rogers about their seemingly perpetual job cuts:

 

“As we modernize and evolve our business to combat the seismic shift in the industry, we are now aggressively hiring in a variety of ‘hot skills’ areas, including sports gaming, data science and analytics, advanced advertising, digital partnerships and performance marketing.” – Rogers spokesperson Andrea Goldstein

 

What both quotes speak to is the recognition that the old ways of making money are failing and companies are scrambling to transition to whatever will come next as quickly as possible. In the domain of sports, the formula used to be simple: acquire rights from leagues, sell advertising space, profit from subscriber fees. This has served Bell and Rogers brilliantly as they built their media empires. The ecosystem is tight and controlled, and you make money along every possible dimension.

 

And there is more than enough content for both sides to fill their evening and weekend schedules. As things stand the two networks have an equal split of the regional games for Canadian hockey teams. They also share the Raptors. Sportsnet has national and playoff hockey, the Jays and MLB playoffs, while TSN has the NFL and CFL , the World Junior Championship, MLS and a lot of international soccer, some premium regular season baseball games, and an assortment of golf and curling.

 

So why the need to shake things up? The answer is that while rights remain massively valuable, the ways of monetizing those rights are losing currency. Cord-cutting rates have been increasing for the last decade, with almost 300,000 households dropping the service in 2019. In the US, nearly 30% of current subscribers plan to cut the service in the coming year. In addition to cord-cutters, the number of cord-nevers continues to grow. Half of people under 30 don’t have cable currently. This is a staggering amount of revenue that is leaving the ecosystem.

 

On the advertising side, as we have seen with the Rogers NHL deal the buyers expect certain ratings results. When they don’t get them the networks have to compensate them in the form of give-backs, resulting in premium slots going unsold because they need to be reserved for existing customers. And while digital consumption is up, ad and subscription revenues from streaming are nowhere near what has been lost from traditional delivery.

 

So networks are in the position of having rights fees escalate but having no clear path to maintaining current profit levels. In a normal economy you would pass those increases on to customers and advertisers but the exact reverse is happening. Advertisers are balking and customers are walking away.

 

Supposing this is more or less accurate, what do you? The one thing all networks know how to do is to cut costs. SN/HNIC drastically cut its studio size and the number of people on its insider roster. TSN has gutted its writing contingent for the website, and is looking at trimming its own studio budgets. Sportsnet is trying to squeeze more out of shows like Tim&Sid with a smaller production staff.

 

My question for you as consumers of sports is this: outside of the actual games, how much do you notice or care about what the networks produce the other 21 hours in the day?

 

Richard Deitsch spills thousands of words a month reporting on the nuances of American panels shows, intermission shows, sideline reporting, and other facets of studio production. I’m an avid reader of all of this, but I wonder how much relevance these have for the average sports viewer. In an on-demand and multi-screen world, does anyone watch this programming? Why would you stick with the intermission show when you can squeeze in some Netflix, or read a twitter thread about the win probabilities for each team going into the second half instead?

 

With every fresh round of cuts we at TSM keep asking: what is there left to axe? I am beginning to wonder if we have been overvaluing much of what happens before the puck drops, and after the final whistle. If fewer and fewer people are watching this content, then why would a network choose to air programming 24 hours a day? Why would advertisers pay anything for spots on shows no one is watching? Why would you pay for a cable package when all you watch are the games, and these can be streamed?

 

You can see why the pivot to digital is so critical. There is obviously money to be made in streaming, on social media, and in secondary markets like gambling and fantasy. The traditional ways of doing business still make up the lion’s share of the revenue now, but the writing is on the wall. The only thing that we know for certain is that live sports will continue to be very valuable in a future where most things can be watched asynchronously.

 

Questions for you: If everything before and after the game was a clip-show on loop would anything of value to you be lost? How do you feel about a future in which most daytime programming is radio on TV?

 

 

Quick Hits

 

If you want a deep dive into the above topic, this from Sportico is highly recommended. “But in making bigger and bigger rights commitments, the leading networks will find themselves in a paradoxical trap. The digital platforms that command the most attention from young sports fans—YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Snap and increasingly TikTok—pay practically nothing in rights fees.”

 

The CBC’s journalistic culture was excoriated in a recent arbitrator ruling on a case stemming from the Don Cherry fiasco. Here’s some background.

 

Simon Houpt at the Globe has some discussion around NBC’s decision to replace Mike Millbury with Mike Babcock. “But reputational rehabilitation is supposed to begin with acknowledging what you’ve done; then you make amends, if those you’ve wronged are interested. But until you clear the air, your ugly past is going to hang over everything you do[.]”

 

Low Hanging Fruit

 

  • Congratulations to David Alter for getting back to covering the Leafs. He’s working for SI.com/THN this season. It’s a crowded marketplace and hopefully Alter will be able to bring something different to readers.

 

  • Speaking of the crowded marketplace, I am a little stunned that so many reporters think that traveling to sit in a press box to watch the game is essential travel. If you do this for a living, please explain what value is added for your readers by you being there in person? Genuine question.

 

  • Line of the week goes to Jeff O’Neill for this, describing the Rogers announcement of the Shapiro extension: “[It] looked like a bill you get for your cable […] and in fine print below, by the way M Shapiro is around for five more years.”

 

  • In my opinion, Arash Madani has proven that he deserves a shot at being an every day voice on FAN590. I’d ask him to pick a partner and then build a show around him.

 

  • Shi Davidi’s updated version of his Big 50 book is coming out. If I were trying to capture as much of the audience as possible I might reconsider the tagline “The men and moments that made the Toronto Blue Jays.” How about: the people and plays that made the Toronto Blue Jays. Just a thought.

 

  • Congratulations to Harnarayan Singh for making the transition from Punjabi to English play by play.

 

 

  • Charles Barkley asked the question. The answer is no.

 

 

  • Can you imagine the reaction in Toronto if Auston Matthews had responded to Steve Simmons this way?

 

 


 

thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

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