Survey the media landscape on any given morning and it looks like the opening scenes of a dystopian movie. Once-proud institutions lay on the ground, still smoldering. Scavengers pick apart the husks for salvageable parts. Things are both bleak in the aggregate and profoundly depressing in the specific. Sports Illustrated‘s tumultuous month is a bold-faced example.
Only three weeks after Meredith sold the name and licensing rights to Authentic Brands Group, SI employees found out Monday their print and digital operations will now be run by TheMaven, an under-the-radar and flagrantly problematic player besieged by a past that raises far more questions than it provides answers.
Ross Levinsohn and James Heckman, as detailed in a 2018 NPR piece, have a relationship that mirrors two kids trading baseball cards in a treehouse, only instead of Ken Griffey Jr. cards, they’re swapping personal checks, favors, and job offers. In previous jobs, Heckman sent emails that read like they were written by Dan Bilzerian. Levinsohn was twice named in sexual misconduct suits, though he was cleared after a lengthy investigation.
None of this is to moralize but instead point out the way in which this duo, as so many high-level sports media minds in recent years have done before, has fallen into yet another opportunity despite copious baggage and a wanting track record.
It’s all too familiar. As the sphere of opportunity gets smaller, the odds of climbing up from the bottom rung of content creation to the big leagues is even more of a pipe dream than it was before. The price of entry seems to be having had some experience atop the ladder before — and results are immaterial.
Deep pockets attract equally deep pockets and the old guard looks a lot like an old boys network, with retreads with questionable pasts getting waved to the front of the line and patted on the back, not even tsk-tsked for their transgressions.
This is not to say people shouldn’t be given second chances. Individual businesses can run things however top brass sees fit. If DAZN wants to build a stable of executives like John Skipper and Jamie Horowitz, that’s on them. If Eric Weinberger wants back in the game, he has the assets to ante up. And it should be pointed out that this is a world shaded in gray. All transgressions are not created equal. Painting with a broad brush leads to some faulty conclusions.
So instead, let’s pose a question: what message does the phenomenon send to those in the companies affected and the outside world? Expand it beyond off-the-court behavior and out of sports.
The scourge of the uber-rich taking the wheel of a media outlet, crashing spectacularly, then getting the keys to a new one and a new one after that is an incredible juxtaposition to the rank-and-file who fear losing career and livelihood thanks, often, to mismanagement.
Journalists are a cynical lot and it’s hard not to become even more so as this cycle continues. There’s no end in sight.
Dropping the Ball
LaVar Ball is always the loudest and never the smartest voice in the room. To invite him in is to make a deal with the devil. Stomach this guy for a half-hour, or 10 minutes, and reap the riches of better ratings and social leverage. It’s a deal ESPN and Fox Sports have been willing to make as his children explore NBA dreams and the patriarch explores milking every opportunity for a fool’s money.
He is a 21st Century character, a talent-adjacent squeaky wheel who is part professional wrestler and part day trader. Reality is lost on him and he says whatever he needs to say in the moment to make it through the situation. Some say he’s playing advanced chess, but as we’ve seen in other arenas, sometimes the person doesn’t have a plan and, in actuality, stumbles through the wringer making all types of avoidable mistakes.
Ball, who famously told Kristine Leahy to stay in her lane, stepped in it yesterday on First Take, making what many perceive to be an inappropriate comment to Molly Qerim. Ball’s camp said he meant nothing by it, but one loses the benefit of the doubt after the first strike.
ESPN made it clear that it was unacceptable. Now we wait to see just how unacceptable they found it. This should be the death knell. Qerim is the point guard setting up Stephen A. Smith — the network’s most important voice — for dunks. She also happens to be married to Jalen Rose, who is both popular and incredibly valuable.
Ball gets invited on television with the tacit understanding that there could be a trainwreck. No one should be surprised when he causes things to veer off-track. Think what you like about him, but it’s tough to sit back and understand why a network would choose limited doses of his brand of entertainment at the expense of alienating valued assets.
The lesson here: if you bring the circus to town, you may be stuck cleaning up the elephant crap. People are far less likely to gladly grab a broom when things get personal.
Fox‘s presentation of the U.S. Open showed steady improvement as the network gets comfortable with its golf footprint. The directors smartly allowed Pebble Beach and its scenic glory to be the star — with the use of brilliant drone shots — and resisted the urge to dictate too much live coverage to the biggest names. A dedicated stream on FS1 following featured groups helped in that regard and was a smart implementation.
Joe Buck was predictably solid, and getting a Jim Nantz cameo was a nice bonus. The breakout star, though, was Joel Klatt, who conducted interviews. He showed great knowledge, asked insightful questions, and did a terrific job with Brooks Koepka on multiple days. Fox must have known what they had in him, but it was a pleasant surprise for the public to see him excel at this level.
Already the network’s top college football analyst, the sky is the limit for Klatt. Showing this versatility is a major boost to his career and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more programming built around him in the future. He’s a nice digestif to the legion of strong-opinion-havers and shock jocks atop the food chain.
And Finally ….
It takes a big man to admit they watch The Bachelor and its kissing cousin, The Bachelorette. It serves as carved-out bonding time with a spouse and there’s plenty of tributaries of discussion to ride down. The show has always been a bloated, completely unnecessary collection of scenes cobbled together with the expressed interest of filling two, sometimes three, and occasionally four hours a week.
But the relatively new gambit of ending these two-hour installments with cliffhangers before or during the rose ceremony is awful. No one wants this. Last night’s episode marked a new low. After 75 minutes, there was an abrupt stop of narrative action and a shift to a Q&A between Hannah and Chris Harrison.
There is teasing the audience and there’s taunting the audience. This was assuredly the latter. There’s a limit to how much masochism a casual viewer will sign up for and this franchise is blowing past the line on the reg.
NOTEBOOK: Richard Deitsch asked 25 sports media personalities to open up about those who doubted them … Bryan Curtis on ESPN’s decision to stop sponsoring a sportswriting award … Brilliant idea here to do a Ringer trade value ranking … Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich gave an incredibly thoughtful answer to an in-game interview.