by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans, hopefuls, insiders, and powerful executives. The local media is churning out quality content and it is hard for me to keep up between shifts at the gas station. More than ever, please send me items for inclusion in this space. The same request goes for people in media: if you or someone else wrote or said something noteworthy, let me know. I wish I had time to see and hear all the good work being done. My failure to mention it here is almost always unintentional.
Lastly, I’m also working on another roundtable (on a top secret topic) that should come together next month. These are some of the most well-received things we do here. I really enjoy being able to use the platform we have to engage in productive conversations about the industry. If you have ideas for interesting roundtable topics and guests, please write to me.
With that out of the way, you may want to get comfortable; this is a long one.
Zaun Swings & Misses
This week Marcus Stroman pitched the Jays to a win with a complete game. In his usual fashion, he celebrated with exuberance. Cameras caught Albert Pujols gesticulating at the mound. After the game Marcus said he would talk to Albert and by the next day the issue had been resolved.
Baseball, as we all know, is governed by a set of unwritten rules that covers everything from bunting to sliding to the proper pacing of a home run trot. For some, these rules add to the charm of the game. For others, they represent an attempt to enforce 1920s morals on the current generation. Most of the rules in the mythical tome come from a time when baseball dominated the national sports scene, earning it the moniker “America’s pastime”. The game was also racially segregated for most of the time when these rules were being unwritten.
Stroman’s roistering provoked the ire of Sportsnet (m)analyst Gregg Zaun. You can watch his analysis here.
“It’s an unsportsmanlike way to behave. I don’t understand all the […] rubbing it in people’s face […] The fact that you’re screaming and hollering … there’s a certain way to behave on a baseball field and ways not to do it […] I don’t understand it. Maybe it’s the newer generation: everybody has to have that ‘dig me’ moment.”
Several baseball reporters, none of whom have played the game, disagreed with Zaun. Here’s Sportsnet’s Jeff Blair:
“There are a lot of the game’s conventions that are fine by me; a lot of its unwritten rules and nuances and quirks and anachronisms that add to my enjoyment. But when it comes to players being expressive? Have at it, is my feeling …”
Richard Griffin shares a similar viewpoint:
“He had a right to release his emotions at the end of it. To me, an emotional leap and a fist pump is far better than an orchestrated bow-and-arrow routine like Fernando Rodney or some of the other choreographed celebrations.”
Andrew Stoeten had a harsher take:
“[J]ust how much credibility on “sportsmanship” does Mr. “I gave my teammate a blank cheque for a gambling debt and I have no idea how it ended up with a steroid dealer” think he has?”
The harshest response of all came from Marcus himself who called Zaun someone with “zero” credibility:
@Cornishwho Outside opinions are irrelevant. Especially when they come from sources with zero credibility. Appreciate your support though my man!
— Marcus Stroman (@MStrooo6) April 24, 2017
The weakest take came from Zaun’s on-air partner, Jamie Campbell:
— Jamie Campbell (@SNETCampbell) April 23, 2017
First, no one believes that you didn’t see the events in question. You’re in a studio surrounded by screens. Second, the tweeter was asking for an opinion. The “why do you hate free speech?!?!” reply is embarrassing. Jamie seems like a nice person, and has been a fixture on the Jays for a generation now. If he really can’t bear to offer an opinion then he should say nothing. The fence on which he has chosen to sit is painful to watch.
Back to the issue at hand. I think there is an interesting debate to be had on the following question: what defines the difference between celebrating and showing up your opponent?
Leave the rule book to one side. Every sport has some answer to this question, and the standards vary in each sport. Can you imagine a baseball player celebrating a home run the way an NFL receiver celebrates a touchdown catch? Or the way an NBA player reacts after a dunk or a 3 pointer? Remember Teemu Selanne’s patented goal celebration that we all loved?
I am not arguing that baseball should automatically adopt the conventions of the other major sports. However, lost in Zaun’s self-aggrandizing rhetoric, is a valid question about which reasonable people can and do disagree. However, as usual, Zaun marched gladly into the false equivalence between a celebration of any kind and insulting your opponent.
This is what makes Zaun a bad choice for his job. Any good discussion gets lost due to his inability to make a point without turning people off, or his default mode of describing all opposing views as strawmen. See also Mike Wilner.
Facing the Music
Jays followers will recall that this is not the first time a Blue Jay has called out Gregg Zaun. In 2013 JP Arencibia publicly denounced Zaun and then-Sportsnet analyst Dirk Hayhurst (who went to the same Twitter summer camp for people with thin skins as Patrick O’Sullivan). JP’s most pointed comment was this:
“I know speaking for myself and for the team, that there’s not one person in that clubhouse that respects those guys. They’re informing the fans the wrong way and it’s not right. [N]ot a lot of us, including myself, respect someone that used performance-enhancing drugs and was able to stick around as a below average player in the major leagues.”
You can read all the gory details of that back and forth in this excellent article by then-National Post baseball writer John Lott. The interview in question can be heard here. It’s a good listen. Jim Lang, former morning show host on FAN590, asks a great question following one of JP’s claims about Zaun/Hayhurst: “what is the right way for people to criticize you and the team?” I was expecting JP to stutter and stumble but he handled it pretty well.
As with Stroman, JP asserts that Zaun has no credibility in the Jays clubhouse. At the core of the case of Arencibia v Zaun/Hayhurst is, per Lott, the following:
“[T]hey do not inform their commentary by showing up to talk to him or his teammates before home games. “They’re never around,” Arencibia said. “They’re never around the clubhouse. I was able to talk to Dirk today, and I told him, ‘Hey, you can say what you want to say. Just be around the guys more. Come in. Why was it the first time you’ve shown face today, when something was said?’ ”
The piece continues, with a quote from Dirk:
“Approached for comment […] Hayhurst first said Sportsnet had barred him and Zaun from doing outside interviews on the subject. But then he offered a few comments […] he agreed that Arencibia had a point. “Maybe if I was here, it would have alleviated some of those things for him, to address me personally,” Hayhurst said. “But I still don’t think him going on a radio show and voicing that was the right way to voice that stuff.”
I am not surprised that Hayhurst defied the gag-order. Few people have as much confidence in the truth of their own opinions as The Garfoose. Lott also mentions one of media’s unwritten rules:
“The tradition is longstanding: Those who comment regularly on a team should appear in the clubhouse the day after writing or broadcasting criticism. It is considered proper form to face the music. “You never see either one of them,” Gibbons said. “That’s a fact. To tell you where that goes, people view that as gutless.””
This is a very interesting point, and explains a lot of the tension we see between players and media. “Gutless” strikes me as a little over the top, but I understand Gibbons’ point. Finally, Lott takes some pleasure in pointing out how difficult it is to obtain clarity on all of this:
“During a radio appearance, Zaun said Arencibia’s PED comments were “over the line.” “He may come to regret those at some point,” Zaun said. At that, the Rogers talk-show host asked the Rogers baseball analyst whether he might sue the Rogers baseball player over comments made on a Rogers radio station. The Rogers baseball analyst said he didn’t know. He did not sound particularly keen on the idea. Nor would it likely get much traction among the folks who run the Rogers hall of mirrors.”
The interview in question was Elliotte Friedman and John Shannon. You can watch the whole thing here, including radio professional Shanny scrolling through his feed on not one but two devices while the guest is talking.
- Zaun says JP has his phone number and call him anytime. That’s why he doesn’t need to go to the clubhouse. He resents that JP didn’t come to him. “I’m one of the most approachable guys in the world.”
- He watches batting practice every day from his perch but doesn’t go down to the field. “I won’t go into the clubhouse unless necessary … I’m intruding on their time. I’m 10 feet away … All they need to do is wave at me.”
- In response to Elliotte asking about the Michell Report (way to go EF!), Zaun says he doesn’t put much stock in allegations, and mentions A-Rod, Melky and Ryan Braun as examples of the dangers of the court of public opinion.
- JP mentioning PEDs broke the “bro-code”.
The most interesting quote was this:
“The reason why I don’t go to BP is because my job is to analyze […] not to go down and listen to stories and glad-hand and play the slap and tickle game. I don’t need to hear from coaches or front office people. I don’t need them to skew my vision of what I saw or what I will see.”
Follow the implicature: he doesn’t spend time down on the field because he thinks that will somehow interfere with his ability to comment objectively on the team. The implication is that those other people you see hanging around the batting cage and the locker room — reporters, journalists, the radio and TV crews — are compromised in just this way.
What he doesn’t get, surprisingly for someone who played the game, is that those people are building the credibility to be able to comment critically. Zaun doesn’t think he needs to build that credibility because, as he often reminds anyone who will listen, he played the game.
I see many sides to the clubhouse visit rule. Certainly if someone is in the clubhouse on a regular basis getting material for their stories then one has an obligation to be there after those stories appears. That makes sense. The harder issue is with people whose stories don’t depend on being in the clubhouse. Should Ben Ennis be making regular visits because he talks Jays on his show? What about Cathal Kelly who is paid to deliver his trademark opinions on the entire world of sports and is rarely at the Dome before the playoffs?
That’s where Zaun’s case is interesting. He watches all the games on TV and his job is to analyze what he sees. Can he do that if he doesn’t talk to the players or the coach? Does he see all he needs to in order to have an informed opinion from his perch above the field?
I would say no, but can also appreciate the opposite view. My question for those using Zaun’s logic is why any baseball columnist like Griffin or Lott or Davidi ever needs to go to the clubhouse to get material for their stories. All the quotes are easy to access (and less and less interesting with each passing year of media training) within minutes of the media scrum taking place. I think there is more to being in the clubhouse and on the field than getting quotes. That’s why Zaun loses credibility in my eyes.
Over to you: is Zaun, or anyone who comments on the Jays, exempt from the Clubhouse Rule?
Postscript on Zaun v Stroman
In an article about the JPA case, Richard Griffin had this to say:
“The unfortunate part for the Jays is that Arencibia pays too much attention to the Social Media, to the fans, to the critics that react instantly and with great relish, piling on gleefully to criticisms they see Zaun offering on the pre-game and what Hayhurst says on radio. […] He prefers to react to the vocal minority, which in pro sports always presents itself as the strongest critics.”
This is phenomenal analysis from 2013 whose truth has only matured in the years since. In 2017 players can instantly access all the critical things said about them, if they want. This is what drives athletes into dangerous waters. What they do with all that information is entirely up to them. The best thing they can do is to put it into context. In Stroman’s case, all he needs to do is consider the body of work of his critic. Zaun has a track record of targeting demonstrative young stars, most of whom are not white, while ignoring or celebrating similar or worse behaviour from veterans, most of whom are white.
This is not to say that athletes should fall into the trap of dismissing all critical comments as the work of “haters”. A good strategy if you are diving into your mentions (or searching your your own name) is to take what you can from the reasonable negative comments and to ignore the rest. It’s not difficult to separate intelligent and informed comments from the rest.
Funnily enough, this is the response I give to media who write me to complain about the comments section here. The tendency to focus on the negative becomes an obsession for some despite the presence of positive comments as well. It is very hard to work with people like that.
Zaun is one of the least likable people at Sportsnet, in my opinion. That is not a short list. I wonder how much value Zaun brings to the organization with his flashy form of analysis. (Recall, as a player Zaun was opted for attention-seeking customized catcher’s masks unlike the traditional ones worn by almost all other backstops. This “me-first” approach has only intensified since joining the media.)
With the 2017 Jays season in danger of being over before summer begins, Sportsnet will be taking a hit in terms of ratings. Rogers will be losing a lot of ticket sales and opportunities to sell you a cell phone contract. We have grown accustomed to more than a million tuning in on a regular basis to watch the Jays, but things were very different in the not too distant past. The average of 900,000 viewers reported in middle 2016 was a big jump over the 700,00 average from the same time in 2015 and much more than the 590,000 from mid 2014. During the darkest days of the Riccardi era averages fell down to around 320,000.
Obviously the play on the field is the most important factor here but the peripheral stuff matters too. The Dome has its faults as a baseball venue. There are residual gripes about the end of AA’s tenure. Ed Rogers is still a bad word among the fanbase, and his father’s statue continues to wrankle. Popular Twitter PR person Stephen Brooks was dismissed without explanation. Blair and Wilner have hostile relationships with the fanbase. Blundell recently called a respected member of Sportsnet’s baseball staff a shill. Zaun adds another layer of negativity to this already loaded platter.
The Future of Sports Radio
With the announcement this week that Sportsnet is adding a 3rd all-sports radio station this is a good time to reflect on the state of the industry. One thing is clear from the comments attached to the previous link: some people really don’t like TSN1040 in Vancouver. The same sort of comments appeared here about the FAN back in 2011 when TSN1050 was announced and launched. It will be very interesting to see if the FAN has more success against the incumbent heritage brand than TSN did here. It would be hard for them to do worse.
One notable difference between the two cases is that Sportsnet 650 will launch with Canucks radio rights. It took a couple of years before TSN1050 was able to acquire half the Leafs games. That being said we have seen little evidence of a ratings boost at TSN1050 from being a destination for Leafs listeners. Another key difference is that Sportsnet650 will be able to draw from established radio voices from 590 and 960. TSN1050 launched with a significant number of relative unknowns and sports lightweights, rather than sharing some of their big TV names with radio. I’ll save speculating about a Vancouver line-up for later. A third possible difference-maker will be the signal strength. As we have seen here, 1050 was dead on arrival for a bulk of the listenership.
One thing that is a near certainty is that 650 won’t rely on syndicated US programming during the day. This mistake by 1050 has remained a mystery to all observers for half a decade. The height of this confounding decision came when they chose to get rid of Matt Cauz (1 salary – 3 hours) in favour of extending the workload of Naylor& Landsberg by a half an hour, adding an hour to Leafs Lunch, with 1 hour of Dan Patrick sandwiched in between. This decision came as the Leafs and Raps were both in the playoffs, the Jays season was just getting going, as was TFC’s. Inexplicable.
I spent some time looking at the line-ups from the 6 other TSN all-sport stations and the decision to run syndicated US programming makes a little more sense in aggregate. Across their network, almost all stations rely on a goodly amount of US programming, either live or taped.
- 1150Hamilton runs DP & Rome instead of Leafs Lunch
- Neither 1050 nor 1150 run any mainstream local programming all weekend
- Edmonton1260 runs taped Jim Rome from 6-9pm then goes back to local at 9pm
- Winnipeg1290 runs local replays from 10-11am and 6-8pm before switching to US programming from 8pm-6am
I am starting to see the logic: an hour here and there adds up to lots of salary when you have 7 stations. Focusing on the financial savings would be a decision made by someone who doesn’t understand sports radio very well. Local is king, and we have 30 years of evidence to confirm this principle. Local is what drives listenership during the key time-slots. If you can’t afford local hosts then there is a real question about what you are hoping to accomplish. Paying for US programming means hours of NCAA basketball and football, as well as lots of baseball and basketball with little focus on Jays and Raps. What percentage of Canadians will tune in for that?
The problem is deeper than just listenership. The decision to syndicate and replay also means there are few opportunities for advancement for young broadcasters. Take a glance at the bench over at TSN1050. You have Andy McNamara … and who else? Mike Hogan has been retained as a fill-in host since being relieved of his Argos play-by-play duties in favour of a TV audio simulcast. The opportunity costs of this strategy are obvious. This Wednesday instead of going with local talk about end of the Leafs season or upcoming clinching game for the Raps, TSN1050 went with an out of market NBA playoff game.
Compare that to 590: Ennis just got the tap on the shoulder to move up after years of paying his dues. Dan Riccio (soccer) and JD Bunkis (basketball) are getting pumped by the network as guest experts on their other shows, and both work the evening shift regularly. Rob Wong and George Rusic are also getting time to develop. 590 have a short bench but everyone contributes in relatively well-defined roles.
Here’s some free consulting advice for TSN (contact info above for retainer options). Try a local-national hybrid. If you don’t want to pay someone to host a local show then why not take advantage of the programming you are paying for in other markets? Will Winnipeggers really prefer hearing Dan Patrick talk to Arkansas’ head football coach to listening to the topics being discussed by the local Vancouver show?
The concept would be to offer a “channel surfing” form of syndication relying on the best live and taped programming from your own network. This would raise the profile of your existing radio personalities, and create more of a national conversation around Canadian sports. You could also do simulcasts between markets ahead of or after key games (e.g Sens-Leafs, Impact-Whitecaps, CFL)
The fact that this has not been tried speaks to lack of creativity at TSN when it comes to radio. More than ever before I am worried that this entire division is at risk. It is clear that Bell believed slapping the TSN brand on radio was a ratings guarantee. At least in Toronto the results have been disastrous and have cost many frontline workers their jobs. Few cuts have been made at the management level.
By contrast, the FAN will likely create 5-10 new jobs in radio and reward promising young talent with a chance to move up to a more important time-slot. Or they might make John Shannon their signature host: Shenanigans with John Shannon, every day from 4-7. (Reader submitted alternative: Shannonigans).
One cautionary question I have about the decision to branch out to YVR: how much money there is to be made? Consider the following data:
- iHeartRadio owns 850 stations in the US and they are close to declaring bankruptcy
- Sports talk radio is about 5% of all radio listenership (PPM markets only)
- Revenue for AM radio has decreased each of the last 5 years
- Broadcast (TV & radio) revenue in 2015 = 18 billion. Only 1.6 billion of that is commercial radio
There is certainly brand building opportunity in taking ears away from TSN in a major market. The same logic supported keeping Sportsnet Magazine around but Rogers decided to axe that publication at the end of 2016. It will be interesting to see how they approach this new venture at a time when cutbacks and austerity still dominate the company’s internal operations.
Over to you: 1) Would you listen to local programming from Edmonton, Montreal, and Vancouver late nights in Toronto? 2) Vancouver folks: tell us what you are hoping for out of your 2nd all-sports station. How is 650’s signal?
ESPN abandons hockey. What does this do to the NHL? Very big questions. Bruce Arthur has a good piece on the human side of this from a Canadian perspective.
The NHL is trying to bury its ongoing concussion lawsuit in paperwork. This is a classic move when you are dealing with plaintiffs with declining and expensive health conditions. A judge denied their request, per Rick Westhead.
I very much enjoyed this piece by Sean Fitz-Gerald on the bright future for the Leafs.
Low Hanging Fruit
- The Athletic have updated their app to enable landscape mode. As someone who never reads articles on my phone, I am very happy about this development. Next they need to work on their podcast production. The most recent Blue Jays one sounds like it was recorded on the TTC.
- Jeff Blair still has many of his colleagues blocked on Twitter.
- Bryan Hayes commented that too many media are telling fans not to boo the Jays’ poor performance. I agree with him on this. The only qualification I would add is that booing a pitcher who can’t throw a strike or a hitter who grounds into a double-play is pretty dumb. Do you think that was their objective? But booing a lousy team at the end of the game to express your displeasure with management? Fill your boots.
- Ennis, Walker, Bunkis. Pick two. As soon as 3 of them are on the mic I change the channel.
- Missing since 2015 is TSN’s Jays podcast. Too bad. It was good.
- Zelkovich back at Yahoo Canada after 4+ months off?
- Unintentional Overdrive comedy — Noodles referring to someone as a jock sniffer.
- Sportsnet congratulated itself for the number of minutes of hockey viewers watched. The rest of the industry laughed at them. You can’t underestimate how widely this document was mocked.
- Brady asked Cox a good question on the morning show (April 24th, 8am) about whether this Leafs season puts to bed the Brian Burke talking point about how players have a hard time playing here because of the rotten media. Cox said this was always an excuse by bad coaches/GMs and this team’s success exposed it as such. I am so glad Burke is gone from this market.
- The FAN needs to pay someone to edit out the sports updates from the podcast version of the morning show. I listen far less as a result.
- If you have nothing clever or witty to tweet, resist the urge to churn out one of these:
Joe Maddon wearing a toque is really the Maddonest Maddon ever did Maddon. #ThatsCub
— Scott MacArthur (@ScottyMacThinks) April 13, 2017
- Steve Simmons and Damien Cox have both discovered quote-tweeting. Now we all get to see their replies to the crap people tweet at them.
- Nothing will ever beat this.
Nothing except that they were a pitch away from being 4-2 on the trip with a chance for a sweep. Other than that, though. https://t.co/rB8Y5Q6Soe
— Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness590) April 27, 2017
- Finally, POS is back next week. Let’s see what a very public suspension will do to his on-air persona. Leopards don’t change their spots, and this guy is addicted to Twitter. How long before he takes the bait.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)