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Professional Development

White Sox Announcer Jason Benetti Uses Humor to Shed Light on Cerebral Palsy

The play-by-play announcer has cerebral palsy, but he has built a career in a field that hasn’t always been accessible to those with disabilities.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo via Ron Vesely, Chicago White Sox

When it comes to attaining success in the sports industry — and in life — Jason Benetti has created his own blueprint.

The ESPN and Chicago White Sox play-by-play announcer has cerebral palsy, but his ability to laugh at himself has allowed him to build a career in a field that hasn’t always been accessible to those with disabilities.

“If I were giving advice, it would be just absolutely have a sense of humor about yourself, and don’t take yourself so seriously,” he said. “I’m in an industry that cares about what you look like, in some regard. Not that it was a major impediment, but people sort of have to be convinced that you should be on TV. But it’s just a matter of navigating the perceptive feelings of others, and that usually goes away.”

Benetti’s cerebral palsy manifests itself in a way that gives him an “unconventional” appearance, but he has been able to thrive despite his diagnosis.

“The cool thing is, it doesn’t look great, but it gets me where I’m going,” he said. “There’s no pain in any way, and it’s really not something I have to manage at all. I’m pretty fortunate that there are no lingering effects, other than things that are perceived by others — like, someone sees me walking toward them, sort of staggering toward them — but there’s no pain or increasing severity. I just am what I am.”

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Recently, Benetti has taken on a venture apart from his sports career — one that capitalizes on his witty personality and dedication to disability awareness. With the help of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF), he has taken part in a campaign called “Awkward Moments.” The animated video series, written and voiced by Benetti, uses humor to chronicle awkward encounters between people with disabilities and the rest of the world.

“We decided to do something campaign-wise that hit on the dry, funny, observational part of having a disability because that’s the way I approach it,” Benetti said. “We talked for a long while and came upon this series. I love it, and I couldn’t love it more.”

“It holds a unique place where it addresses, head-on, the experiences that someone with disabilities has, and it tries to change the way people look at disabilities,” added Richard Ellenson, CEO of the CPF. “It’s our only animated campaign, the character has a terrific persona, and it’s a continuing series.”

As a former advertising creative director, Ellenson co-writes the series with Benetti, bringing his eye for sharp, witty commentary. He explained how the series fits into the CPF’s broader objective.

“Our mission is that we want to be a catalyst for creating new possibilities in the world of disabilities,” Ellenson said. “We look to amplify and communicate, and we are one of the strongest communicators in the field.”

The most recent episode of “Awkward Moments” detailed the uncomfortable exchanges that may occur in a museum, poking fun at the security guards who look on with apprehension as people with disabilities approach valuable artifacts.

The point of the series is not to shame people for their treatment of those with disabilities, though, but rather to inform, entertain and spread awareness.

“We’re not trying to tell people they’re bad for being awkward around us, because you’re not,” Benetti said. “You’re just experiencing something you haven’t experienced a lot. I’d rather explain to people. I find it hilarious.”

The response to the videos has been positive, from everyday people to well-known media members, according to Benetti.

“It’s pretty heartwarming,” he said. “Scott Van Pelt and David Axelrod were nice enough to tweet about it, so I guess this has touched them in a way that they’d want to send it out.”

Although the series takes on a lighthearted tone, Benetti mentioned that it hasn’t always been easy to remain upbeat in his career. Like many people who’ve had to overcome obstacles, he’s gone through his fair share of moments of doubt.

“The thing that’s insidious about being someone with a disability or in a minority group is that when you aren’t getting opportunities, it’ll float in your head that maybe it’s because of X, but some people legitimately don’t care,” he said. “You just kind of play with what you have. You don’t know if there are opportunities you would’ve gotten otherwise. All I have is this life and me. It’s hard to not roll around in your mind when stuff isn’t happening, but what does it do for you?”

He added that he has great respect for those who dedicate themselves to taking on the system and fighting the status quo, but that he takes an alternate approach.

“That’s not to criticize people who pioneer — it’s just a different view of the system,” he said. “I tend to believe over the course of time that people don’t mean to discriminate, even if they slightly are. If they treat me in a way I don’t think others would want to be treated, you can get to know them further or give up. I prefer to get to know them.”

Benetti maintains that first impressions can be overcome, particularly because those impressions stem from the initial look at someone’s appearance and don’t reflect skill or work ethic.

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“If there’s something about you that you don’t think is exactly welcome to some people, it’s OK,” he said. “If you have a thing you think people can’t overcome perceptually, you’re probably wrong. I’ve been fortunate that the effects of my disability have not touched my speaking, and that’s kind of why I leaned into this job. There’s a place for everybody, and the first thing people think about you is generally wrong.”

Ellenson, who has gotten to know Benetti well since collaborating with him on CPF initiatives, said that Benetti’s self-assurance is the reason he succeeds as both an announcer and as a person.

He knows who he is,” Ellenson said. “He has a strong sense of identity — he’s open, yet strong, and he projects confidence, yet warmth. There’s an enthusiasm and warmth from his voice that is pretty unique in sportscasting, and it fills and illuminates the room.”

“He is one of those remarkable individuals who sort of walks through life embracing the complexity and joys around him,” he added. “He shares his passion for sports, life, and storytelling.”

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

Professional Development

Inside Julianne Viani’s Whirlwind of a Broadcasting Career

The broadcaster has made a name for herself, thanks to a tireless work ethic and covering everything from college basketball to the NBA and WNBA.

Bailey Knecht

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Julianne Viani might be the busiest analyst in sports.

The 33-year-old originally from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. is constantly on the go, working as an analyst for major networks like ESPN, CBS, NextVR, Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network. Between games, travel and preparation, Viani has a full slate, bouncing from city to city for the majority of the year.

“Some people only cover men’s college basketball and only focus on that,” Viani said. “I cover everything, from men’s college basketball to women’s college basketball to the NBA and WNBA. I have to keep tabs on what’s going on, on all platforms. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t have to know everything there is to know, but you have to know enough about the big picture on every single platform.”

Even on her off-days, Viani spends her time studying teams and taking conference calls with coaches.

“People are too smart and can pick up whether you know the game,” she said. “You can tell when someone isn’t prepared, and my biggest thing is, I never want to not be prepared. You’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to happen, but the bottom line is I need to make sure I’ve studied up.”

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Viani is a basketball lifer, having played Division-I basketball on a Marist team that made multiple NCAA tournament runs and then played professionally overseas. When she returned to the U.S., she was presented with an opportunity to break into broadcasting, starting with high school games.

“When you produce long enough, you just know right away,” said Steven Fenig, ESPN remote producer and director who has known Viani since covering her as a player at Marist. “It’s weird, I mean, a lot of people that play the game and coach game know it inside and out, but not everybody that’s played is able to take what they know and communicate that to the average viewer and break it down easy for the viewer to understand. Right away with her, I saw that she was really talented.”

Viani worked her way up, and now, one of her main jobs is with the NextVR, where fans can experience NBA games in virtual reality. Her experience with NextVR puts her at the forefront of a branch of the sports industry that most analysts have yet to delve into.

“It’s a full-blown broadcast like regular TV, but it’s fusing technology with the sports industry and broadcast world,” she said. “It’s all about catering to the public, so they can turn their head to the left and right and experience the game. It’s different.”

Matt Drummond, coordinating producer at NextVR, explained why Viani has been so successful in her role there.

“I think it’s her diverse experience and relaxed nature, which are the two ingredients that we look for from everyone involved,” he said. “She’s willing to do whatever to get the job done, and she has the experience to draw from and work through it. We’re always problem-solving on the run because things rarely go to plan, so we need someone with a cool head and calm voice to work through it.”

When it comes to NBA games, it’s still relatively uncommon to see women in the broadcast booth, but NextVR has made it a point to hire diverse analysts.

“The chance to call a full slate of games as a color analyst as a female — it’s really rare,” Viani said. “NextVR has given me a lot of opportunities, and they’ve been good about having women and former players do this. It’s amazing to see the technology out there and be on the front lines and gain experience at the highest level.”

“It’s great having a female voice in our group, and that was something we were looking for,” added Drummond. “She’s brought everything we need to the table. Her work ethic is ridiculous. I don’t know how she puts in that much travel. Every day, she’s in a new city.”

Viani is transparent about the challenges of her job — she admits that the jam-packed schedule takes a toll on her.

“It’s hard,” she said. “During the year, I do get burnt out by the end of the year. By April, I’m really drained and ready for the beach and downtime. I need a whole month to recover. It goes from late October through April nonstop. December, January, February and March are bananas.”

Viani also acknowledged that the scheduling challenges stem from her involvement with a variety of networks, which makes for an inconsistent routine.

“For me, it’s hard to work for a lot of different networks,” she said. “Being an independent contractor is not easy. I get paid by the game, so you’ve got to hustle, and you can do well and make living if you’re getting opportunities, but not having the protection of being with one network is tough.”

Viani is able to keep her spirits high throughout the season, though, because she genuinely loves what she does.

“She just does a spectacular job — there’s always a smile on her face, she’s easy to work with, she’s got a great attitude, she gets along with everybody,” Fenig said. “She’s worked hard to improve her craft, and you can see that by watching her and listening to her.”

She also leans on her faith to get her through the grind of the basketball season.

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“My faith in God is the most important thing that drove me as a player and now in broadcasting,” she said. “I know every door has been opened because God has opened it, and I’ve walked through it and worked because He’s given me talent, so I want to give him glory.”

Although travel and working with multiple networks has become second nature to Viani, she has dreams of locking down a deal with one network and developing a steadier routine.

“I think my goal would be — I love doing a variety of things, but I’d love to be married to one network and focus my attention to just one, whether it’s ESPN or CBS or whatever,” she said.

And even though analyst jobs are in high demand, particularly at the top networks, those who have worked with Viani have faith that she has what it takes.

“For Julianne, the sky’s the limit for her, and as long as she’s willing to stay with it, she’ll get that opportunity as long as she’s persistent,” Fenig added. “Her work ethic and attitude is certainly there, and the talent is there. Hopefully she’ll get that opportunity, and if she does, she’ll nail it.”

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Professional Development

How To Effectively Network at Major Sports Events

There is no shortage of opportunities to network, learn, build relationships and gain access to new experiences at tentpoles such as the Super Bowl.

Jarrod Barnes

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Photo via Unsplash

What do the Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend, and NCAA Final Four all have in common?

The best of the best are competing on the field or court. Fans will travel from all over the world to experience these upcoming major sports events, including some of the biggest celebrities and influencers in sports business. In fact, there are an estimated 200,000 passengers arriving per day for the Super Bowl between February 1 and 4 at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Clearly, there is no shortage of opportunities to network, learn, build relationships and gain access to new experiences at this tentpole. But how does one properly leverage the opportunity? Here are four tips on how to effectively maximize your next trip to a major sporting event, such as the Super Bowl.

Determine Your Goals and Desired Outcomes

Whether you are traveling across the country or staying local, outlining your goals and desired outcomes prior to attending an event will allow you to focus your time and energy.

Deciding what you want to get out of the experience, who you want to connect with, and how you want to connect with them all play a significant role in taking full advantage of the opportunity. Asking yourself questions such as, ‘why do I want to connect with this person?’ ‘What value can I bring to them?’ ‘What specifically can I learn from them?’

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Each one will give you greater clarity on your next steps.

“Preparation is vital. Learn about the people attending and the organizations they represent. Have a business card even if you’re unemployed, as well as an elevator speech that connects with the intended audience and has a purpose,” said Mike Boykin, CEO, Bespoke Sports and Entertainment, an experiential marketing agency specializing in sponsorship consulting and activation.

Reaching out to connections beforehand through social media or email can also create space for a invitation to events or meetups. Exclusive, invite-only events are organized and planned by people. Do you know those people? Finding a way to intentionally align yourself with decision-makers are what provide access.

Identify Key Stakeholders and Events

Sports agencies like VaynerSports and pro athletes like Kenyan Drake and Champ Bailey are hosting events that open the door to additional networking opportunities. In addition, local academic institutions generally host events or have sports-management programs involved in volunteer opportunities.

For example, Georgia Tech is hosting the NFL’s 1st and Future Startup pitch competition and the University of Georgia is taking a group of 25 students to volunteer the week leading up to the Super Bowl.

But with a variety of events, it can be easy to lose sight of the goals you took the time to outline. Ben Milsom, chief ticketing officer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, gave this advice: “Manage your time. So often people try to network with too many people and end up wasting time.

“Ask effective open-ended questions like, ‘How did you get your start in the business?’ ‘What steps should I take to be successful in my first year?’ ‘What mistakes did you make when you were my age and how can I avoid them?’ When you don’t make it about yourself, it’s amazing what you will learn.”

Fundraisers and community events like the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation Luncheon are also an avenue for making connections. Networking can take place in nearly any environment; it’s up to you to bring the intentionality and focus.

Be Present

“Enter conversations with the goal of learning more about the person versus sharing information about you. Everyone likes to talk, but listeners who ask insightful questions tend to come out on top.” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, associate professor of sports management at George Washington University. “It’s one thing to have your business card or portfolio ready; it’s another thing to be ready to listen and add value.”

Charles Davis, a football analyst for FOX Sports, said: “As much as you ask of — and take from — others, you should be prepared to do the same for others.”

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A mindset of abundance may sound counterintuitive, but has the ability to cultivate a strong network.

Have Intentional Follow-Up

Connections and conversations are great, but true collaboration comes through follow-up. Within 24 to 48 hours, be sure to send an email or handwritten thank-you note.

One way to stand out is to mention not only what you discussed with that person, but also what it meant to you and how you may use it as a professional. Don’t hear a response? Stay consistent by providing monthly or quarterly updates; those are a great way to stay top of mind.

Overall, major sporting events not only provide incredible experiences, but also incredible access to networking opportunities. Taking the time to outline your goals and identify key stakeholders prior to events allows you to be present when your opportunity arises.

Who knows, you may also come out as a champion at this year’s Super Bowl.

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Professional Development

New Year, New You: 3 Ways to Jumpstart Your Personal Brand in 2019

With one week of 2019 in the books, it’s time to up your game and take your career to the next level. New year, new professional you.

Jarrod Barnes

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Photo credit: Unsplash

In the age of digital media, your personal brand could be the difference between “Who are you?” and “We’re glad you’re here” in your career. With approximately two billion social media users, the speed and scale at which information is being shared is growing exponentially each day.

Why should you care? In today’s world, perception is reality. The story you’re telling online can open or close doors before you even know they are there. In fact, 91 percent of executives use Linkedin as a source of content. With that in mind, it’s time to up your game and take your career to the next level. New year, new professional you.

Here are three easy ways to bust out of the gate with purpose in 2019 and jumpstart your personal brand.

Audit Your Current Brand

Before moving forward, you have to look back and evaluate where you are. Run a quick Google search on yourself and see what you find. Set up a Google alert for your name (www.google.com/alerts) to be notified when your name is being circulated.

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From an objective point of view, identify which consistent themes appear along with your name — that is your current brand identity. Don’t have a large social footprint? Start small by making sure you have an up-to-date professional headshot and list your most recent work experience on LinkedIn.

“Every decision that you make should revolve around your brand identity,” said Zach Swartz, director of creative media and post-production for Ohio State football.

Creating a “personal mission statement” or “brand positioning statement” are great ways to start identifying the who, what, and why of your personal brand.

Document Experiences and Updates

Have you just landed a new role or completed a professional certification? Make sure to share it with your network.

Facebook has said the Stories format “will soon replace the newsfeed as we know it.” Meanwhile, LinkedIn’s monthly active user base has eclipsed well over 260 million. Of those using the platform monthly, up to 40 percent are accessing it on a daily basis — and 40 million professionals are in high-level, decision-making positions.

Focus on delivering a concentrated message to those massive audiences that reflects what you want to be known for by distributing it on a platform that best suits your strengths. Do you like short bursts of information? Try Twitter. Looking for long-form blog posts and articles? Try Linkedin. Or maybe you feel more comfortable speaking than writing? Start a podcast. Research shows that 26 percent of people in the United States now listen to podcasts monthly, and the average listener tunes in to seven different podcasts each week.

Regardless of the medium, a concentrated and consistent message will allow your voice to stand out from the crowd. The best brands are known for that one thing.  

Have Authentic Interactions

“Authenticity doesn’t mean sharing everything about yourself, to everyone, all of the time,” said Justin Bariso, author of the book “EQ, Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.”

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“It does mean saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and sticking to your values and principles above all else.”

After all, you have no “brand” without a network of people who recognize it. So, make sure you take the time and effort necessary to invest in your network through meaningful conversation. Replying to comments and interacting in Twitter chats can go a long way.

Social media has the ability for you to create an incredible platform, but it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunity. Make sure to capitalize in 2019. 

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