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MLB Network Completing the Cycle Towards Opening Day With Winter Meetings

Baseball’s iconic network continues to roll out fresh content throughout the off season starting with the annual Winter Meetings

Max Simpson

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There truly is no offseason in the sports world.

For Major League Baseball, the offseason is a chance to fine-tune rosters, revamp on-field protocol, and solidify new strategies and areas of focus heading into the next season. No event plays a bigger role in this than the Baseball Winter Meetings.

Held in Las Vegas from December 9-13, the 2018 Baseball Winter Meetings provide an opportunity for club managers and general managers from throughout the league to congregate. Player signings, potential trade deals, and shuffling young prospects through the farm system are all topics for discussion.

Former Colorado Rockies general manager and current MLB Network studio analyst Dan O’Dowd has leaned on his former experience in the majors when talking to current team officials. He noted that there is a certain energy to the Winter Meetings that makes it a distinct event from the rest of the offseason.

“It is the one time a year where the baseball cycle doesn’t stop for an entire week,” said O’Dowd. “Everybody in the game gathers under one roof to talk baseball.”

With teams sending their lineups of general managers and roster decision-makers to the meetings, the goal of the Winter Meetings is to help ensure that each team’s roster takes shape. Agents, on behalf of individual players, meet with team executives as contracts are negotiated and terms are discussed.

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“Clubs talk amongst each other but there is a bit of competitive tension,” said O’Dowd. “Every club has suites within the hotel where they talk strategy and meet with agents. With personnel sometimes traveling from one side of the hotel to another to meet with various representatives and clubs, it is usually a flurry of activity.”

In today’s social media landscape, news is breaking at a record pace, ultimately allowing MLB Network to share that news to the baseball world.

“For general managers, it is very difficult to contain their plans regarding free agents and trades,” said O’Dowd. “It is more about controlling the outcome as it will find its way into the media one way or another. Everyone is looking for news.”

Due to the amount of breaking news and storylines to keep fans updated on, MLB Network utilizes a full crew and new show segments to keep the public engaged. With over 45 hours of live, on-site programming from the beginning of the Winter Meetings to the end, there is plenty of content for fans to digest.

From live coverage provided by Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci amongst others, to interviews with managers and insight into club strategy with O’Dowd, Dan Plesac, and the rest of the MLB Network crew, there is no shortage of communication and planning that goes into the day-to-day operations for the media outlet.

“Our team is excited to get to Las Vegas to cover the Winter Meetings,” said Dave Patterson, SVP, MLB Network Production. “The adrenaline of our analysts and production staff will be pumping for four straight days because the next big transaction could come at any time from any club. We’ll be on our toes and ready to change direction at a moment’s notice.”

What’s new this year? Coverage of the Winter Meetings across all of MLB’s media platforms will be presented by the advisory, assurance and tax firm CohnReznick. As part of the collaboration, MLB Network will produce a new series, “Business of Baseball.”

The series will go in-depth within the issues that surround clubs both on and off the field. The first episode of the series will begin on Saturday, December 8 at 8:00 p.m. ET and feature general managers Alex Anthopoulos (Atlanta Braves), Rick Hahn (Chicago White Sox), Dayton Moore (Kansas City Royals), and Mike Rizzo (Washington Nationals) whilst being moderated by O’Dowd and MLB Network host Brian Kenny.

“During filming, there was such authentic communication amongst the managers,” said O’Dowd. “Those guys were so transparent with their thoughts when we were discussing topics that were not easy to be so vocal about. We talked for over two and a half hours discussing everything from analytics to general manager/club manager relationships.”

MLB Network’s content doesn’t stop after the Winter Meetings either. Directly after the conclusion of the meetings, MLB Network Presents will roll out with its latest program, “Eck: A Story of Saving.” Hosted by Bob Costas, the original series, which launched in January 2015, covers some of the most iconic moments and players of baseball from MLB Network’s own unique lens.

Weekday programming staples such as “Hot Stove,” “High Heat with Christopher Russo,” “MLB Now,” “Intentional Talk,” and “MLB Tonight” will continue to provide expert analysis and captivating debates throughout the offseason.

And with the start of the new year marking MLB Network’s 10-year anniversary since its debut, content will reflect the best of what the network has to offer. The “Top 10 Right Now!” series returns for its ninth season after the new year. The series, which ranks the top MLB players at each position, will be followed by the six-part series “Top 100 Players Right Now!” which reveals the pecking order of the best players in the game.

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While there will be plenty of discussion highlighting today’s elite players, MLB Network will also take time to honor baseball’s greats as it announces the results of the 2019 National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot on Tuesday, January 22. The network will also air the first interviews with the new electees. This will transition into the start of spring training and the beginning of another edition of regular-season coverage.

MLB Network certainly keeps busy throughout the year; highlighting the build-up towards the playoffs and breaking down highlights throughout the postseason and World Series are staples of its programming. Yet, the network has continued to keep fans informed of offseason headlines, roster reshuffling, and new content to surely fill the craving as we look towards Opening Day.

Max Simpson is a contributing writer for Front Office Sports. A graduate from Arizona State University, Max currently works for the Reno Aces & Reno 1868 FC with time spent with Sun Devil Athletics and the Arizona Diamondbacks. For @frntofficesport, Max highlights unique partnerships, brand marketing strategies, and content activation. He can be reached at max@frntofficesport.com.

Digital Media

Meet the #Rising25: Adam Johnson of ISM Raceway

Meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager for ISM Raceway. A 2016 Grand Canyon grad, a talent and passion for storytelling landed him in this year’s class.

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The #Rising25 class of 2019, presented by AB InBev, represents some of the brightest young professionals in the sports industry. Over the next several weeks, we’re proud to introduce you to this year’s winners and highlight some of their achievements to date.

Today, meet Adam Johnson, Digital Content Manager of ISM Raceway.

A 2016 graduate of Grand Canyon University, Johnson began working at ISM Raceway (then known as Phoenix International Raceway) as a volunteer tour leader.  It was in his college days that Johnson saw the possibility of building a career in sports. As a college student, he also gained experience with GCU athletics, the Arizona Rattlers, and the Jerry Colangelo Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic.

“Growing up, my discretionary income would go towards sporting events. Now, I make my income from working behind the scenes at sporting events that I’d love to be attending as a hobby,” Johnson says. “As a kid, I consumed a lot of information about my favorite teams and leagues through the television broadcasts and through social media in high school. I loved the idea of being the person who gives today’s kids that information about their team. Being able to share my passion with the next generation made a lot of sense to me.”

Johnson credits much of his professional development to the education he received as a student and employee at GCU. During his time there, the athletic department transitioned to Division I, which provided an ideal learning environment. Johnson then joined ISM Raceway full-time shortly after graduating from GCU.

In 2017 and 2018, the raceway underwent a $178 million dollar renovation. Some racing fans weren’t thrilled with the idea of a track that had basically remained untouched since 1964 now going through a major change. As part of the digital content team, it was the task of Johnson and his cohorts to win fans over with access to the stadium’s new additions.

“I can confidently say that well over 90% of our fans who had doubts are satisfied with the product now thanks in large part to our storytelling,” he says. “Winning over old fans who were skeptical as well as gaining some new fans for the raceway was my career highlight so far.”

Johnson has already held a number of roles in his short career but says that, irrespective of position, authenticity and having a strong character are essential for success. 

“If people are going to talk about you, make sure that it’s something that you would be proud to hear,” he says. “Be yourself but be cognizant that people are always watching, especially when you work in something like social media.”

Johnson advises those looking to shift their sports careers into the fast lane to take networking seriously and not be intimidated to reach out to others.

“You’d be amazed what can happen if you just reach out and ask someone to coffee,” he says. “That goes a long way because everyone has been in that spot before where they don’t know what their next move is. Take that step out of your comfort zone and ask people if you can pick their brain.”

Meet the full class of 2019 here.

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Inside Locked On Podcast Network’s Quest to Provide Fans with Daily Updates

David Locke started a short-form daily podcast to bolster his job security and now he’s built Locked On Podcast Network across the NBA, NFL and, now, MLB.

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Photo Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2011, and all David Locke wanted was job security.

Locke had just become the Utah Jazz’s radio play-by-play man, replacing longtime announcer Rod Hundley. It was a dream gig but one without much stable footing, so Locke decided he needed a side hustle. It ultimately came by way of launching a short-form daily podcast to further connect with fans and cement his place in the position in the organization.

Eight years later, the plan worked out better than he could have imagined. Locke is still with the Jazz and, in 2016, Locked On formally became an entire podcast network built around daily 15-minute podcasts in the NBA and NFL. This week, it launched an MLB component to deliver further content to an audience that averages more than 5 million listeners a month. Locke believes baseball content is a natural extension of the network’s vision.   

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“The natural rhythms of baseball match the network in ability to get a team update in 15 minutes,” Locke said. “I’m a big San Francisco Giants fan, but I haven’t watched a game in forever. I don’t have three hours often, but now I listen to Locked On Giants and I know a lot more about the team all of a sudden from 15 minutes a day.

“In that sense, it has a chance to be really successful.”

Locked On Podcast’s MLB network launched with 20 markets, but Locke expects it to soon scale up to all 30 teams. The goal is to someday rival the network’s success with the NBA, whose aggregate weekly listenership was only once surpassed by its NFL content. “There’s a soap opera element to the NBA,” he said. “It’s as popular or more popular in the offseason.”  

Several polls and studies on podcasts have shown the best format podcasts are shorter, like the 15-minute format Locked On Podcast Network has chosen. The research firm IDG Connect found the ideal time for a podcast is 16 minutes in a study finding users want short, digestible content no matter the format.

Likewise, more Americans are listening to podcasts, as a 2018 Edison Research study found an estimated 48 million Americans listen to podcasts weekly. The same study found podcast awareness among Americans had grown from 46 percent of the total population in 2012 to 64 percent in 2018.

As the network grows to encompass more teams and league, Locke says the next step to improve the network’s content will be to continue to search for high-caliber podcast hosts, the best of whom are often writers already on the respective team’s beat. “There’s no real consistency [in hosts],” Locke said. “Two parts have to happen. They have to care passionately about the team and sport and the ability to deliver daily podcasts. It becomes a bit self-selecting in what we’re asking.

“It brings high-level people naturally by what it is.”

Those hosts aren’t being asked to contribute for free, either. Locke was tight-lipped on his revenue model but said the monetization of his network provides the hosts with a modest payment.

“We’ve had really good revenue growth the past two-and-a-half years, and some of our guys have really successful shows,” he said. “We’ve found a way to bring revenue to all our hosts. We’re really proud of that piece. We’re finding mechanisms to allow podcasts that have not been able to monetize, monetize.”

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Locke’s biggest-picture goal is that Locked On PodcastNetwork can open doors for young talent hoping to make a name for themselves in the media world. He worries radio is providing fewer and fewer avenues, something that he hopes Locked On can both compensate for and, ultimately, benefit from.

“There is a real chance to developing the next age of talent, and not just for other people,” he said. “They can develop and then stay with us and hopefully there’s no reason to leave. I hope that’s something we can be for people.”

The next frontier of growth is already on tap. This fall, Locked On Podcast Network will roll out NCAA teams, an arena the network has dabbled in but never fully committed to. With a format that is scalable to any league, Locke hopes to continue filling fans in with his quick-hit podcast format.

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How Access Has Changed The Conversation Around Digital Storytelling

Athletes share more of their lives than ever before, leaving content creators to grapple with how to deepen the message in the stories they tell.

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Photo Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Athletes are sharing more of themselves than ever before, putting the onus on sports content producers to develop thoughtful stories to better connect with audiences. A South by Southwest panel on storytelling in sports discussed how to cut through the noise as a documentary filmmaker and sports storyteller.

“Athletes now have their own crews, cameras constantly around documenting their own lives,” said Gotham Chopra, co-founder and chief creative officer of Religion of Sports, who is currently finishing up a documentary on Stephen Curry entitled “Stephen vs. the Game. “For us, we try to cut through the clutter. It’s not about the access, not just a commodity, but what am I trying to say? Why are we doing this? Unless there’s clarity around that, I don’t think it’s worth doing.”

When linear television networks ruled the roost, almost any sort of athlete-related access motivated viewers to tune in to see a slice of an unknowable world. Social media opened the floodgates, however. Now that visibility has exploded, and fans can connect directly with athletes, there’s a need to tell bigger, bolder stories.

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“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of access,” said Libby Geist, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films & Original Content. “That’s just not enough anymore. There has to be stakes. The bar has to get higher and higher. We need to stay in our lane and not get stars in our eyes. A big name isn’t enough anymore.”

For ESPN, one of the biggest answers has come by way of longform documentaries, most notably its 30 for 30 series. Today, it ranks as one of the network’s most critically acclaimed imprints. But Geist remembers a time, not too long ago, when stakeholders were wary of viewers making time to watch hour-plus-long programming that sometimes strays off the beaten path.

“It was a risk to commission 30, hour-long docs,” she said. “Now we know they can sit for a long time. Not just for sports stories, but director-driven. Not just moments in time, not just a Super Bowl or big game, but much more layered cultural stories.”

The culmination of those efforts came in 2016 with ESPN’s Academy Award-winning, five-part miniseries on O.J. Simpson, “O.J.: Made In America.”

“The conversation around that was a ‘step back moment,’” Geist said. “People were not just talking about sports, the buzz around the level of discussion.”

That buoyed a new wave of production. Not only does ESPN have 15 to 20 new 30 for 30 projects in the works, according to Geist, but many of them are “big tentpole films,” like an upcoming 10-hour Michael Jordan project.

In addition, Geist and ESPN also have another platform to work through and deploy new content on thanks to the introduction of ESPN+. Though still less than a year old, ESPN+ is already paying dividends by providing new avenues to tell stories. Geist used the example of the docuseries, a medium she was once loath to push due to the headache of scheduling against billion-dollar live sports rights on ESPN. Now, though, they can be uploaded and binged at a viewer’s leisure.

The number of media platforms like ESPN+ and the plethora of other streaming services have posed the question to independent filmmakers like Chopra of how to make compelling content and draw in viewers. He said he’d prefer a small audience deeply engaged in the message of the project rather than a larger, passive one.

“The new platforms have really raised the game of accountability,” he said. “How do I invest? Whether [in subscriptions] or time, you have to earn that. It’s pushed us as creators.”

Ultimately, however, access does matter in the sense of finding subjects willing to offer up more substantial parts of themselves. Dexton Deboree, co-founder of Los York Entertainment, credits the NBA, in particular, for being a forerunner among organizations within sports that push a coherent message and let players tell meaningful stories. That encourages storytellers like Deboree to embrace athletes’ narratives as a microcosm of humanity to spur serious discussions and connect with like-minded people. Last year, Deboree released “Unbanned: The Story of AJ1,” which tracked the cultural influence of Air Jordan shoes.

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“If I’m not into basketball, but I realize there’s a connection, suddenly, there might be something to that community,” Deboree said of how a personal story can create new fans. “I don’t know that we’re changing minds. We just strive to stir the pot and get people to talk about stuff [that] maybe they weren’t.”

From Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell to today’s athletes like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, athletes have always had the power to spark social dialogue. Chopra recently finished “Shut Up and Dribble” with James, the title taken from a Tweet James received from Fox News personality Laura Ingraham.

“What an amazing time to be alive in this political climate,” Chopra said. “It was conceived from the most popular player in the world literally getting into a social media war with the president of the United States. We went back to the 1950s, and this isn’t new.”

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