On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode Executive Editor Kara Swisher sits down with SB Nation Editor in Chief Elena Bergeron to talk about how technology plays into sports, especially the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament — a.k.a. March Madness.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode, and you’re listening to Too Embarrassed to Ask, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. This is a show where we answer all of your embarrassing questions about consumer tech. You can send us your questions on Twitter with the hashtag #tooembarrassed. We also have an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Reminder, there are two Rs and two Ss in embarrassed.
My regular co-host Lauren Goode from The Verge couldn’t join us today because she has jury duty, if you can believe that. I would not want to be in that case. Anyway, I told her she could get out by loudly telling everyone she has a podcast, which should scare off any lawyer. But she didn’t take my advice, so just today it’s me. I’m here at Vox Media’s New York office, and I’m delighted to be joined by Elena Bergeron, the editor in chief of SB Nation, another Vox Media property. Elena, welcome to the show.
Elena Bergeron: Hello, thanks for having me.
So I’m excited, because I saw you ... We were just at South By Southwest, and what were you doing onstage there? Because I am the only person who doesn’t know anything about sports in America.
I was doing basically what I get paid to do in our newsroom bullpen, which is talk a lot of crap about sports and make some sports jokes. We just did it publicly at South By.
Yeah, you did it publicly, and you have a big chart up, what were you doing?
Yeah, we had a big chart up because Sunday at South By, and Sunday in the rest of America was selection Sunday, which is the day that the NCAA selection committee lets everybody know what teams are in the March Madness tournament. So the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments.
Right. That’s basketball, right?
Remember, we have a lot of geek readers, who may be sports fans, but we’re trying to get to the idea of lots of things like online ... how people are using online, and everything else. So explain what that means from what you were doing there just for that one, and then we’re going to get into some other things.
Selection Sunday for the sports nuts among us is basically like a sports holiday, right? The college basketball season runs from Halloween, basically, through — it’s mis-termed. It’s March Madness, but the tournament actually won’t end until the first week of April. This is the culmination of most team’s seasons. If you are in the elite level, in the elite stratosphere of college basketball, your goal is to make the tournament. It’s a field of ...
I went to Georgetown, you know, during Pat Ewing’s days.
Oh, did you?
I have some knowledge of this. They were all excited in March on campus.
And you just kind of shrugged.
Final Four is what I remember. But anyway, go ahead, keep going.
Yes, for a team that good, yes. Their destination is ultimately the Final Four. But for everybody else in the field, it’s 68 teams, they will play one-and-out tournament-style, seeded based on how well they’ve done throughout the year. But it’s a big deal to make it not only for the performance and what it says about trying to win a championship, but also because there’s a lot of money involved.
Tell me what you guys had to do with it. Because I want to get into the tech part of it, because this is a tech podcast, and we’re going to talk about tech in March Madness.
Sure, so, officially at South By, I and Charlotte Wilder, who’s our staff writer, essentially we’re using the bracket and what we knew about different teams to give fans a team or assign them a team to follow throughout the tournament. Because there are a lot of people who, all of a sudden, really want to get into March Madness. You hear a conversation about it, particularly if you work in an office, literally every day. Because there’s the bracket madness. People are betting on all the games. Pretty much every night, especially as you get to Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the weekends, there are games on and there are a million games a day.
So there are a lot of people who take off of work to go bet. There are a lot of people who fly out to Vegas for one of the weekends during the tournament. So it’s a conversational thing that if you did not go to Georgetown or a big powerhouse basketball school, you want an in. And you want somebody to talk about this thing that everybody’s talking about, right?
Now, maybe you saw, because I know that you interviewed Valerie Jarrett right ahead of us.
Yes. Yes, I did.
And Charlotte and I are sitting in the green room ...
The Obama adviser, the top of them.
Right. We’re sitting in the green room being like, I really want to know what’s happening in the world and what’s going on with the Democratic party. But the bracket’s being announced right now. So we’re sitting literally in the green room trying to get the live feed from CBS so we can see them announce the field. And this year it was a terrible production because they wouldn’t give you the bracket up front, which is the thing that everybody’s basically waiting for. Not only do you want to know the names of the teams involved, but you want to know who they’re playing, which is essential to the betting. And they waited until the end of the broadcast to do that this year.
Oh, man, that must’ve been a disappointment. Now — this is, as I said, a tech broadcast, so let’s talk about tech and March Madness. How has the internet and social media changed the way people follow the tournament? Because you guys were sitting there frantic, I remember, on your phone. Talk about how ... Is it still driven by watching games on TV? Or is that falling out of favor? Because it seems a lot of it now is surrounding tech. And I know this is not a new thing to you, but how does ... What’s happening right now with that?
Yeah, I think that tech has really enabled kind of the over-the-top fandom around this. And certainly in terms of getting your information and knowing what game to watch, it’s changed everything. Because in previous years — and this sort of predates internet craziness around brackets — if you had the CBS partnership, the rights to actually air the games, CBS was in control of what games it aired on one broadcast network. So, especially in the first weekend when there are 64 teams, once you get past the first four and all that shenanigans, there are games going on simultaneously every day. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And because it’s a one-and-done format, everybody is sort of playing for their life. Those games get very dramatic. If you’re watching the wrong game, you are going to miss the crazy Cinderella moment or the last-minute shot as somebody hits it.
So what technology has really enabled everybody to do is, No. 1, CBS now shares those rights across their networks and with TBS. So TBS, TruTV, everybody is streaming these games on apps, and there are live look-ins to the game that is like the good game. So if you’re watching both on TV, they cut into the feed, so you can just go to the game that you’re going to care about, or the game that’s the upset, or the one that everybody’s tweeting about. And similarly, if you download one of those apps, you have a huge impetus to want to have one of the streaming rights apps against March Madness on your phone, which you really have no other use for the rest of the year.
And so explain what happens in terms of just watching the games. How does it get communicated on social media and other places?
Well, starting with Selection Sunday, No. 1, we were just dying to watch what was going to happen with the bracket, because the bracket is regionally seeded. And so immediately, fans ... If you’re a fan of one of the teams that’s highly ...
Give an example.
If you’re, say, we’ll go a UVA fan, right, because they are the overall No. 1. If you are the best team in college basketball as determined by the NCAA selection committee, you get the primo region. Meaning you get the region that’s closest to your home. So they got the No. 1 seed in the South region, and then once the bracket came out it was announced they were planning UMBC.
So if you’re a fan of either on of those teams, that announcement automatically determines what day you’re playing, where you’re traveling, what your schedule looks like ... Can I book my hotel now? Who are I riding with? Can I call up my friends and say, “Are we going to the game or are we going to watch at this time?” Etc., etc.
Part of that obviously is also betting on games, which has become a big internet thing, especially. So how widespread is that now? And how much is enabled by the internet versus betting pools and other ways they ...
Oh, my god, the internet enables it to explode, right? Because brackets have been a thing forever.
But with the advent of the internet and also with the bracket challenges, which ...
Explain that for people. Explain that for people.
Right. So when you have an entire bracket come out and it tells you all 68 teams that are playing, obviously, and what the match-ups are, the first thing that every fan does is goes through that bracket and sort of determines, based on the tree of what the seeds are, who’s going to win each and every game. You can predict out from the second that you have that bracket ... or you can try and extrapolate out who you think is going to make it to the Final Four. And based on your picking style, basically you can say, “Oh, I think this team is offensively the best team in the country.” You can see how those match-ups are going to play out and get to whatever your lineup is going to be.
But the internet has enabled you to share that in such a way that you can create groups within any peer group you want. We have a couple with our team and our staff, which is maybe a little bit illegal, but not really, where we’re betting within the office against each other, right? But you can fill out as many brackets as you want. You can do it against your parents. You can do it against alumni.
What do you use ... What technology do you use to ...
I do a bunch of them. I’m sorry.
So I’ll do ... ESPN.com has a good one, just because a lot of people use ESPN and log in and have those rights. You can host a group on there to bet amongst your cohorts. CBS SportsLine has one. We also have one on SBNation.com. It is printable. Sponsored by Great Clips, thanks very much. You use those and you fill them out and use them to bet against one another in terms of straight up who’s going to win what. And there are all sorts of methodologies for predicting this thing that is ultimately completely unpredictable.
And people share information about that ...
On texts, on Twitter. What’s the big social media for doing all this from your perspective? Because you just trash talk on Twitter, right?
From my perspective, well, you can trash talk on Twitter, but within a lot of the apps — ESPN is one, and like I said, CBS SportsLine is another one. You can trash talk within the group that you set up.
So a chat.
Exactly. So you can get on there and do that. And same thing when you print them out and do them in real life. Even if you’ve sort of set up your betting or set up the strategy through a website or through an app, when you see people in person you still talk trash.
You do that. But what’s been the most facilitating thing of those? What do people use the most? Let me go through. Twitter, what do people use Twitter for during this time, just to ...
Twitter you use as a second-screen experience, I find, by and large. Like I said, as games are going on in real time, and there’s four going on concurrently on a Thursday, Twitter by and large is how we find out, “Oh, this game that you think is not going to be a very good game, oh my god, it’s the last minute, and this two seed is about to be upset.” And it’s going to throw Vegas into a tizzy and whatever else. That’s how we’re finding out about a lot of stuff. Also, Twitter for me is one of the best replays of what action is actually happening.
Yeah. And so when you see those weird buzzer beaters or you see somebody that’s like 18 years old and he loses and he starts crying on his coach’s shoulder. It’s like, “Oh, that’s the moment.” That’s the human drama of March and the things that we share and make fun of.
Which used to be given to you through sports writers and no other way, right?
Well, that or you would have to wait until your local news re-aired whatever on TV so you could see the action.
Newspaper. TV. What about Facebook? How do people use Facebook when they’re using this?
I tend not to use Facebook.
You tend not to.
But that is always an option through all of the apps, right? So if you fill out a bracket on one of the major sports websites, automatically at the end you will see a badge that’s like, “And share your bracket on Facebook.” Because obviously the methodology you used to come to your Final Four in your predictions, that’s the thing that you want to share and talk about in your feeds with other people. So you want to share it and say, “Look how smart I am. Nobody expects this team to win it all, but I do, and I have all these reasons why.”
Right, okay. And then you have to explain it. And what about Yahoo? Yahoo was the center of that.
What’s happened now there?
Yahoo is less of a center, even though ...
Used to be like this ...
They’ve been a huge fantasy sports force.
Within college basketball, people just use them less because their actual ...
But they used be, I remember.
Yeah, their bracket tool is just not as easily maneuverable for folks. And the sharing part of Yahoo is not quite as easy, because people don’t sign up as much for Yahoo for that anymore. Like, people do it a lot with CBS ...
Which used to be a big driver to that.
Right. So if you have the CBS, for instance, so you can livestream, obviously, you’re kind of housing all your March Madness fandom in one place if you do that.
Right. We’re going to jump to the big picture: What trends are you seeing in how people watch and talk about games this year? And is the impact of tech on March Madness different, or is it something like the Super Bowl/Olympics, because it’s just been more and more and more ...
You saw the Super Bowl. The Olympics, especially, were highly digital this year, comparatively. And that may be because NBC leaned into it. How do you look at that? Do you see it’s just more and more? Or is it that there’s a bigger impact?
It’s more, but sports are so tribal, and your allegiances within sports are such a big part of your identity that social media is really helpful in sort of ...
Creating these tribes.
Right. And creating an echo chamber for the thing that you want to talk about, right? So even during the broadcast you can see people saying, you know, “Use the March Madness hashtag so that you can search it and find commonality of ... about people who are watching the same game as you.”
But even within that, that non prescriptive social media usage, fans will watch. And you see a lot of people, especially this time of year, going all-in on talking about why aren’t players paid, right? So like, right before the bracket was announced, it came out that this is the year that the NCAA will make more than $1 billion in terms of their revenue. And immediately people made that connection. It is March. You’re about to get this huge moneymaking tournament. It’s time to pay the players. So people have really started using that as a ...
Right, which of course there was a controversy ... What team about paying ...
Literally a lot of teams.
A lot of teams. Because there is payment going on. It’s just policed in a way that people think shouldn’t happen anymore.
There’s an investigation around paying players. Mostly through the FBI. The FBI found some wire fraud that was happening from a runner from one of the major agents with ... NBA agents.
But essentially it’s paying players.
Oh it’s definitely paying players.
Do you think they should when that controversy comes up?
I don’t know think that agents should pay players. I think the NCAA should pay players.
Pay players, because ... as they do better. Does that enter money too early? It’s supposed to be pure, right? That’s the concept. But it’s not.
It’s never been pure. And the NCAA tournament ... the men’s tournament is, in fact, the biggest moneymaker for the NCAA out of all their business. So even in terms of e-commerce or selling physical branding of teams or whatever else, the money that they make off the tournament in terms of broadcast rights and revenue that they bring in in arenas, that funds the NCAA’s governance of all sports. And so it’s kind of ridiculous to me that they don’t at least try to pay the players.
How would you split up the pay for players?
Oh, my gosh. I think you’d have to make it equitable. I think you would have to just have a stipend for everybody at this point.
Right. Not the better players over the ... not the winners. Maybe an extra stipend, no?
No, well, when you find that that’s mostly what the players are asking for is just sort of, “I need some money to get me through this college experience.” Or, “I need access to ...” The NCAA has a fund right now that’s sort of an emergency fund for players. Like if there’s a death in the family and they need to travel and they don’t have the money for it. There is a procedure through which you can ... Say you want to protest the NCAA and say, like, “Release these funds to me.” They just want better access to that stuff, and if you could just sort of articulate, “Hey, if you are a college athlete in a major revenue-generating sport, you get $1,000 over the course of the year.” I think that would go a long to people saying, “Hey, at least you’re revenue sharing with the players.”
With the players who they ... who everybody else is making money versus you.
So let’s move on to another area, the NFL. Why do you think ratings are down? And Olympic ratings, same thing. What is happening from your perspective?
It’s March. Why are we talking about the NFL?
I just moved to a bigger topic.
Basketball isn’t down.
I’ve talked a lot about this with Kurt Wagner from Recode, who actually did a piece about NFL ratings for us last March, in fact. But it’s about them, the NFL as a league, breaking up the broadcast and streaming rights. There’s a lot of product around the internet and on TV and on your phone with the NFL. People are looking at the ratings for the broadcast and going, “Why is this going down?” Well, No. 1, as a fan, you don’t know which game takes priority. You’re just sort of like, “Why are you giving me all of this football all the time, when the thing I want to see is my team?”
The NFL makes it extremely hard if you’re out of market to see your team unless you have two or three different types of apps. I know this because I’m a New Orleans Saints fan who lives in New York, and it’s very difficult for me to watch my team except through some of the NFL apps that I have. But I’ll tell you a funny anecdote about that. So this year, I actually went to an Eagles game as part of ... We were hanging out with Bleeding Green Nation, which is our huge Eagles blog for SB Nation ...
Bleeding Green Nation.
Bleeding Green Nation.
Adamant about that. And so I actually had tickets to the game. I’m in the stadium physically watching the Eagles play. But the Saints are playing at the same time. There’s no way I’m not going to check in on that. I have the official app of the NFL. Let me go check in on my team. This is when I learned that if you are in an NFL stadium, you cannot stream another game.
What? Why can’t I have more football? Like what? Is this not what you want?
What? Did you say this? Did you continue and just say, “What? What?”
I was going to throw my phone. And people were around me sort of like ... as all Eagles fans were, “Why d’you want to watch a different game?” I’m like, “That’s not my team. This game is sort of out of hand. I want to watch my team.” But that’s what I mean. Because of the different walls between the streaming and the live and the broadcast, it’s really, really difficult to see the game or to choose the game that you want to see.
Secondly, because there’s so much football and now they play internationally in London and Mexico City, they’re planning NFL football from Thursday on through Monday night. There’s a lot of product and it’s not all very good. And specifically, the NFL players have been very adamant about saying that Thursday night football is a bad product. It throws us off of our natural routines. People are getting hurt because of it, because they’re not as prepared to play the game. But it makes the league something like $500 million a year. They just renegotiated the rights for it. In a year where the player’s union was really talking vociferously about let’s not do this anymore, it makes too much money for the NFL, so they’re going to do it. Even though it’s not ... the ratings aren’t great.
So you think ratings people are watching elsewhere. They’re watching other places, or you don’t ... they’re not reflected in the broadcast?
Right, or you’re directed to one game a week that is the big game. You don’t want to watch all this other bad football.
Yeah. Do you think that the ratings will continue to go down for a lot of this? For broadcast sports?
I do. Well, I think specifically for the NFL. They’re in a hole, because No. 1, they’re chopping up the rights and spreading them a lot, and spreading them on to Amazon and other places. But I think also, one of the things that’s contributing to this that they’re not really prepared for is, the participation rate of people playing football is going down, and has been for years.
I won’t let my kids play football.
I believe it. Why would you?
Why would I?
Unless I want them to be brain dead by 21, I feel like that ... I think I said that to one of the football commissioners. Wasn’t very polite.
I’m glad that you did.
Because they’re chasing after moms hard core, because they realize that’s the gatekeepers. But I think that one of the things that keeps the NFL so relevant in terms of like — media covers it all the time, you can’t not cover the NFL — is that it’s a part of your culture as a sports fan. So Friday night lights, high school football. Saturday tailgating, college football. Sunday afternoon is still widely like ...
You sit, you tailgate, you do NFL games. If it’s not part of the culture of people’s habitual day-to-day lives like that, in the future you’re going to see it fall off the cliff.
Yeah. What about the Olympics? How do you think they did from a digital point of view?
I have not looked at the numbers yet, but I don’t think it was nearly as overwhelming as ... I won’t even compare it to Summer Olympics because Summer Olympics are a little bit of a different beast. But even Winter Olympics year over year — Olympiad over Olympiad — I think they were down mostly because there were a lot of folks that were not competing.
So obviously, the Russian team being a weird situation, that turned people off. NHL players didn’t play. And Winter Olympics sports are predicated on one or two stars popping up in figure skating, for instance. And there just weren’t those this year.
Right. There weren’t those this year. But how do you judge how they did their digital offerings? Because again they were touting how much bigger they were.
Yeah, I mean, you have to have a reason with Olympics to go digital, right? Like with the NFL or with college basketball, you’re there anyway and the mobile offering or the digital offering keeps you connected in a way that you could never be even if you were looking on TV.
For winter sports, you just ... you have no tie to it. You’re not trying to find your team and you’re not tracking your bet. So it’s a much harder proposition to say, “Yes, you should download all these things so that you can watch in real time.” Especially when there’s a tape delay on the live broadcast. You’re going to hear about it on Twitter, who actually won in real time. But then you’ll have the opportunity to watch it on eight different NBC networks later. There’s no impetus to do that.
That’s a really good point, even if it’s digital.
Yeah. Couple more questions, then we’re going to get some questions from some of our audience. Lots of sports leagues are experimenting with digital streams via Twitter, YouTube, Amazon, or even virtual reality headsets. Do you think any of these digital streaming options pose a threat to real, traditional television in that vein?
I think absolutely. Because as a fan you’re always looking for a better product. If you are there and you’re a hard-core fan of a team or of a sport, you want to see how it plays out and so you will push your boundary a little bit for it.
It’s kind of that point that I just made about Olympics. The people that dive into Olympics are sort of like passersby, and you want to see the human drama. But by and large you really don’t know the athletes in the sport. You count on TV to tell you those stories.
Except curling. Every four years curling becomes it.
It does, but name one curler.
I don’t know.
Right, exactly. They’re not getting sponsorships.
I like their Twitters. I follow them on Twitter, that’s it.
That’s really awesome. And like the Diddy Ciroc ad, where he’s curling, that’s fine. But in terms of the major pro sports leagues, you will follow the technology more and more. Because literally, like I said with football, you can’t get enough of the thing that you want. And so I do think that they present an interesting challenge and an interesting threat to linear programming and I think that’s good.
Which one do you think does a great job of them all?
What do you mean?
Twitter, Amazon, YouTube. Which one?
Amazon’s interesting just because they’ve been adventurous in what the partnerships they’re going to take on are. And they’re experimenting with the way that they deliver pieces of the broadcast. Whether they stream it if you have Amazon Prime ... what they’re trying to do with live.
There are some interesting OTT opportunities that Amazon presents for leagues that I think will make them a better partner for leagues than certain others. I think Twitter has been in a weird space because they’re not a very good user experience for video. They don’t showcase video in a good way, and a lot of what they do with live ...
They were early, but yeah.
Yeah, they were early, but again. They’re a very good second-screen experience in terms of the user-generated content, not so much in terms of showcasing the video.
What about YouTube?
YouTube’s going to be big, I think.
Yeah. We kept seeing ads for what they’re going to be doing with live sports, even within linear broadcasting. A lot of ads for that. But I think that because users are so much more used to looking at video on YouTube, it’s a much easier ...
Yeah, exactly, than like Twitter or like Facebook.
What about VR headsets?
VR is going to be interesting.
Have you tried it?
I’ve tried it and it’s really riveting, and obviously I had gone to the All-Star game — the NBA All-Star game — in February, and they are doing a lot around VR as a league trying to make sure that — for their fan experience — making sure that people stay connected to the game and connected to those athletes in real and tangible ways that go beyond just the normal broadcast.
But it’s causing a lot of consternation because the NBA as a league has also been very, very forward thinking in terms of camera tracking and using smart-view technology in arenas, and now using wearables in terms of biometric tracking, which obviously is going to be a huge issue with their players’ union. But if you have that data ...
They should have it.
And we can fight all day about whether it’s owned by the league or owned by the players. You can use that to enhance a VR experience for your audience.
Right. And then Facebook. Facebook. How do you see them entering the picture? Money. Lots of money.
Money. Yeah. They have easy partnerships in a lot of smart things that they’re trying to do now with the change with algorithm to sort of favor local and favor shareable. Well obviously, that has brought applications within the sports world.
But if they’re aligning against the partnerships with the leagues, leagues try to sell the whole league, they don’t try and sell you team by team. And so I think there’s going to be a fundamental headbutt with Facebook and what they’re doing with their sports rights.
With their sports rights. But how long until someone like Amazon or Facebook becomes the only place we can watch live sports? Do you think that ...
Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it’s going to be immediate, but I think we’re closer to it than a lot of people think. And I think it’s going to be decided by the individual leagues themselves. So I think once we get to 2021, what’s going to happen with NFL broadcast rights is going to be a little bit of a tipping point for that move. Just because the ESPNs of the world and the CBSs of the world aren’t making enough.
News corps, yeah.
Yeah. They’re not making enough off of the return of investment for what they’re paying for those rights. And so I think they’re going to bid lower, whereas, Jeff Bezos is not bidding lower.
He is apparently is the richest man in the world. No, but they want to own your whole experience, and then sell you the VR headset along with it.
Or same thing with YouTube and Google, because they’re all in those areas.
All right, when we get back we’re going to talk some more. We’re going to have some questions from listeners ... our audience. I’m here with Elena Bergeron, the editor in chief of SB Nation. By the way, congratulations on your big job.
I have some more questions for her, but first we’re going to talk a quick break for a word from our sponsors. If Lauren Goode we’re here, she’d say #money. So Elena, would you do the honors this week?
Oh that’s much better. Oh my god, I’m totally replacing you.
I’m back with Elena Bergeron, the editor in chief of SB Nation, another Vox Media property. The biggest one at Vox, the sports one, and you ... SB.
Thank you for acknowledging ...
What does SB ... stands for sports ... sports bros? What?
This is a funny question that we end up asking a lot of athletes when we interview them, and they never know. It’s Sports Blogger Nation.
Okay. Sports Blogger Nation. I like Sports Bro Nation, but that’s not good because ...
Steph Curry said sportsball. Sportsball.
Sportsball Nation. You know I call all sports sportsball. Did you know that?
So we’re talking about one of my favorite topics, sports, but ... it actually isn’t. But I find it really interesting where it’s going from a digital point of view, and how people watch and consume it.
We got some questions from our readers and listeners when we announced that Elena would be on the show. We have a question from Josh Schwartz. We have two of them, actually. “I’ve never understood how this stuff is regulated, so if you could explain some of that I’d really appreciate it. Also, what happened between FanDuel and DraftKings merger?”
How what stuff is regulated?
How do they regulate sports online? There’s all sorts of rules around broadcast. Is it much different online?
Some of it in terms of, if you’re talking about streaming and rights usage, is determined by the actual ...
Yeah. Determined by the leagues and what their contracts are with their various partners. So if you are, I don’t know, say, the NBA, and you have a partnership with TBS and TNT to air NBA coverage. Well, those games, you cannot live tweet game footage from the arena against like the SB Nation account, right? And so that’s a thing that’s prescribed by the contract.
But also, the league sometimes enforces that, sometimes doesn’t, just because the NBA is a little more open to sharing. NFL, absolutely not. They are very protective of their rights and the rights of the partners.
So if you guys do what ... If you show off any clips?
They shut them down.
They’ll lose their mind, yeah.
Yeah, they’ll lose their mind. And so how do you, then, do that as a media organization?
Well, as a media organization you can use some of them after the fact, not in real time, against fair use. And so making sure that we’re educating our fans, or pointing out something about the style of player, explaining what happened in terms of injury or a move that was compelling that people need to see. That’s what we sort of use them for. Yeah.
What about the player rules? Because players will have more power. You see all the players tweeting heavily, using social media, creating their own things. Where does that go?
No, they use a lot of social media, and they will adapt clips that the NFL throws out or the NFL team sites throw out, but the athletes themselves don’t own the rights to their own footage.
Rights to themselves. But where do they go? I want to get on to that topic there. Who are the most active in sports?
Oh, my gosh. We see a lot with JuJu Schuster, the Steelers, who we love, on Twitter. And he follows us and retweets us all the time. But he’s someone that’s very active on Twitter in terms of responding to fans or responding to media outlets who post funny memes. So he’s really good.
Odell Beckham Jr. potentially got into a little trouble because a lady that he was with sort of broadcasted on Snapchat that she was hanging out with Odell Beckham Jr. And there were maybe some illegal substances involved, but nobody knows that for sure, so shout out to them. But yeah, there are people that engage their fans in different ways and have leveraged their social media usage to be very profitable to them.
So, again, I’m a Saints fan. I follow Alvin Kamara on Twitter. Alvin Kamara loves Airheads. Alvin Kamara will hashtag Airheads on his Twitter account and people will ask him, “Oh, what is your flavor?” and, “What do you eat before games?” And he’s like, “Watermelon.” And so that has become a thing both in real life, but also something that got him an Airhead sponsorship, right?
So there are a couple who ...
Do you see players getting more power through having digital presences?
Absolutely. I think both in terms of generating income for themselves — just like I said, you can use your social media and level that up into direct sponsorships. But also I think guys that are — and women as well — who are highly visible on social media are more ...
Yeah, exactly. Are much more popular among ... Who uses social media? Millennials. Hi. And so they’ve sort of leveraged that in terms of the traditional metrics of how you judge the popularity of an athlete, right?
So I mentioned Odell Beckham Jr., who’s somebody that hangs out with Drake on Instagram or whatever. Most popular jersey sold in the NFL. So it’s profitable for him and for the league. Same thing for Serena Williams. She’s on there all the time. She talks about her comeback.
Baby. A lot of baby.
Yeah, and she’s often used it as a platform to circumvent those post-match press conferences, right? When you’re not being asked the questions that you think you ought to be asked. Or if you’re asked something and you’re asked it in kind of a jerk way.
She did it the other day when someone ... She had a very calm way of saying, and the reporters in the room depicted it differently, and she just posted it. And it was clear they were wrong.
Exactly. When people describe that interaction as testy, and she just posts the raw video, and says ... I don’t think she said anything, but everybody else goes ...
Yeah, her husband.
She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t argue with anybody. She answered the question. What was testy about that? What are you expecting? And so I think athletes have a lot more leverage in terms of owning their social media channels and programming them well.
Who does it badly? Anybody? And putting drug use on there isn’t a good idea.
Yeah, that’s not a good one. There was a famous incident with one of the former ... I always to say the Washington Football Club because I won’t say their team mascot name. But one of their tight ends was actually posting, “Oh, I’m sitting and I’m reading my play book.” And he was actually reading his playbook without his shorts on. And he just didn’t connect that ... So he sort of exposed himself on Instagram. It’s like, duh, stupid. Why would you do that?
There are a couple people that have gotten themselves into trouble trying to be more clever. And they ...
But you see the trend of all athletes getting on here and being ... doing it?
Yeah, there will always be some holdouts. Some guys that are locker room guys and you know ... There’s an omerta in locker rooms, both for women and for men sometimes, that I just won’t let that stuff out there.
Right, okay. And what about the FanDuel and DraftKings merger? Yeah?
I didn’t pay attention to it.
All right, okay, well those ... okay, all right. Liz Weeks. “If I phrase it as a question will it get on the show? How about this. Who is the greatest underdog in the NCAA March Madness tournament and why is it Syracuse Orange?”
Well, is it the Syracuse Orange?
I don’t know. What do you think? You have your thing right there. Who are you picking? Tell us your draft list.
Yeah ... it’s not a draft, Kara.
We used to play ... I’m sorry, your bracket.
It’s my bracket.
Your bracket. You know, Syracuse ... We used to roll oranges. I recall being forced to roll an orange at a game.
Exactly, Georgetown alum. No, I don’t know that it’s Syracuse, because I’m not exactly sure that they’re going to win. They’re playing in ...
What do you have? What’s in your bracket?
Yeah, my winner overall is Michigan State. And I know that’s going to be controversial for people.
Why? Give us your reasoning? Which I will understand zero.
Yeah, I think they have the most raw talent, in terms of like athleticism, people who are skilled at their positions and people that can legitimately create shots. And I think that goes under-remarked upon for the NCAA tournament, because it’s amateur sports, right? And so you basically need to reverse the ball and pass the ball a billion times. And you need help getting your shot off, because you’re not an NBA player. Not for a team like Michigan State where they have some guys that are pretty ready to be professional basketball players.
What are they ranked?
Right now they came in as a two seed, I believe. No, three seed, sorry. But they were a top team for much of the year. They have never been out of the top five for ...
Who does everyone expect to win?
Everybody had expected Virginia to win. They are the best team on paper, and have been all season, pretty much. Well, they were pre-season unranked by the AP, but it was pretty obvious within a pretty stacked conference that they were great. But they just lost a really important scorer for them with a broken wrist. So they got the top seed, and everybody’s like, “Yes, I think they’re going to win it all.” And now it’s like, “Shit.”
And now their top scorer ...
So if you’re still looking to pick ...
You can say “shit.” Right.
You can be the smart person that goes, “Oh, no, I know why you picked UVA but you don’t know this tidbit.” Just go ... Yeah.
Yeah. Who is the Final Four for you?
Final Four for me is Michigan State, Arizona, Purdue, UNC.
Mostly because Arizona’s in the same regional as Virginia, and if you’re thinking they’re not going to make it, you got to pick somebody out of that regional.
Yeah, exactly. And I like Arizona. They have DeAndre Ayton, who I think is great and has progressed. He’s also one of the players that, according to the FBI, probably got paid to go somewhere, but I don’t care. It makes no difference to me.
But what people will always tell you about picking a bracket is that somewhere in there — because everybody’s seeded, right? — you should pick a No. 12 seeded team to upset a No. 5 seeded team, because it always happens. And so there’s only four of those games. Just pick one. You’ll be fine. Even if you get the wrong one, you’ll sound very smart in your bracket pools and at your water cooler. So those are big ones.
Okay, and the others, Arizona, UNC, Because they’re always in there, right? UNC?
Yeah, UNC’s always in there. They got a good regional, and I think that Xavier, who’s the top seed in that region, will probably get upset.
Who’s the coach there now?
At North Carolina?
I’m sorry. Hello, I don’t know, it was another guy who’s famous, right? What’s his name?
Dean Smith. I’m sorry. It’s like, what do you mean?
I know, but you know if you ask me about details about movies or something like that I’d have a million of them for you. So we all have our talents. Or say, what am I really ... I know everything about a lot of things, but not that. All right. So not Syracuse Orange, though. Sorry, Liz.
They got to beat Arizona State to get in.
What happened to Georgetown, speaking of ... Are they still bad? Or good?
They’re better than they have been. Patrick Ewing is back.
Right, he’s the coach.
He’s coaching. Yeah. And so that’s good. They had a pretty major conference victory, I think, earlier in the conference season. But they’re just not there yet.
Not there yet. Okay, all right.
Scott Bassett: “Why don’t we face reality and just pay a stipend or salary to college athletes?”
That is ... preference that we should. I’m totally down with it.
Right. Do the opposite argument. Why not?
The opposite argument of why not is that, oh, it’s just ... Everybody trots out, “It’s just too hard to figure out what we’re going to pay people,” right? Because of that thing about like, “Well, should we pay a star athlete the same as we would pay somebody that rides the bench?” And it’s like, well, you make money off the whole team, so yes, that’s fine. Especially in revenue-generating sports.
But then they ... you do get into sort of like, who’s going to foot the bill for it? How’s that going to affect ticket prices? Do you, because of Title IX, also pay your women athletes on your campus the same as the male athletes? And I’m like, yep. Sure do. But they get all of this twisting in the wind about why it can’t happen. It just rings hollow.
It gets rid of the corruption, too. Or it starts to ...
If you can find a way to pay them, they you’re at this point where what is the purpose of the NCAA? Because I think the FBI investigation has shown that it’s not to be disciplinary. They don’t have subpoena power. They don’t actually regulate things proactively. So what officially is your purpose?
Right, absolutely. All right, this is from Kurt Wagner, who’s got a few questions.
Oh god, hi Kurt.
Hi Kurt. “How has social media changed sports reporting,” and related, “With players breaking news on social all the time, has it made it easier or harder?” So as an editor, how has it changed your reporting?
I think it’s made it easier for us to ask questions more specifically about a player and their motivations and about their lives. Because you have this open window into knowing as much or as little about them as you are curious to know, whereas before the gatekeepers for us as media are always the PR people that work for the team, or the SID that ... If you’re in college, that’s the sports information director, who guards the access to the team.
Whereas with social media being so readily available, if there is a player of interest, or something that they want to share about their personal life or the coach benching them, they can take to Twitter or to Instagram or to Snapchat or wherever else and voice that opinion. And I can know to ask a follow-up question in a press conference or in a one-on-one interview in a locker room. And so it’s really helpful from that standpoint.
But yeah, there are a lot of times where athletes break news themselves. I think that with the Super Bowl you saw with Malcolm Butler and his benching. Officially the team statement was like, oh, it’s an in-house disciplinary thing. But very quickly you saw his teammates pull the wool from over that. As a journalist, I would’ve loved if one of our reporters had actually sourced that out ...
What was the reason?
Well, there was a lot of reasons. He’s got a couple different beefs with the team. And there’s rumors that he tested positive for smoking weed, and so that was part of the reason why. Other people said, “No, that’s not it.” But you see what I’m saying? Because there’s a lot of ...
Yeah, gives you more ability to find out stuff.
Right. And to confirm it. Because when you have all this conjecture that seems like it’s coming from responsible sources because they’re players and they’re people in the locker room, it gets taken as gospel. Where if you’re talking specifically about things like test violations or — I’ll use an example of Kevin Love recently wrote about this on Players’ Tribune — having a panic attack in the middle of a game and having to walk off court and go to the trainer’s room.
If you are trying to figure out what happened with him and you just go by social media, as a reporter there are certain things that I can’t use. That’s violation of HIPAA laws. You know, that’s an actual mental health issue. You saw Adam Schefter run afoul of this because he tweeted pictures of John Paul Pierre’s hand after an explosion. You know, basically saying he lost a couple fingers, because he was trying to break news. But that’s a violation of HIPAA. And so there are different things that come out or get sourced or take on a life on social media that, according to journalism standards, are not quite verified.
Right. But it’s out there. But it’s out there. You have the president doing it, so. I won’t go into that.
What’s the coolest use of technology in the sports industry today?
I think it’s ... For me, it’s people being able to rally themselves and their fan bases. You see this happen a lot. The Saints unfortunately lost their playoff game in Minnesota, but because of the way they lost, and because our kicker basically broke a rib during the game ... it’s a long story. The Minnesota Vikings fans, because they really respected his performance in that game, a kicker, decided to rally around that guy’s fundraising. So they all contributed from Minnesota to his charity.
To New Orleans, right.
Right. And so it sparked this organic fund-raising campaign that benefited a lot of children with pediatric diseases, which I thought was really amazing and awe-inspiring.
I mentioned that I picked Michigan State to win it all. Well, Michigan State has had several sexual assault scandals on campus. Part of the thing that they’ve been able to do, the Izzone ... Their coach is Tom Izzo, so the student section is called the Izzone. Their students banded together immediately after some of the Larry Nassar trial coverage, and said, “Hey, we’re actually going to go to the game and support the team. But we’re all going to wear teal.” And that’s become a thing. They’ve used it at like ... to rally people online to use a hashtag to donate to survivors of sexual abuse in the local area.
And this is the gymnasts.
Yeah, exactly. But they also had a sexual assault scandal with one of the former assistant coaches on the team and they’re going through that investigation.
But again, two of the Michigan State alumni who we actually wrote about on The Only True Colors, which is the Michigan State fan site for SB Nation, they started out a bracket-picking online forum where you can use all kind of stats to sort of pick your bracket for you. It’s called Algebracket. They’re Michigan State alums. Instead of doing display ads against this really cool tool that they have, they just have a big thing in their banner that lets you direct link to another organization that raises funds for survivors of sexual abuse. So that to me ...
Right. Awesome. By the way, in that case, Larry Nassar, I think technology worked beautifully. All those testimonies going viral the way they did was so much more powerful than a reported news event like on a TV or ...
Yeah, and I think it actually helped some of the women ...
To talk more.
... of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to realize that they had been victimized.
They all posted for the first time on Facebook or on Twitter or ... Using their testimonies is a really fascinating use of all the communications tools, which ...
And then, last question [from Kurt], and I have one more after that. “Do you think sports leagues like the NBA and NFL should use more technology to help refs? Or less? Why? What’s working and what isn’t?”
I think absolutely they should use it more to help refs. It’s funny because we’ve been talking a lot about ...
Like glasses? What?
Well, it’s that, but also all sorts of sensory technology that they’re not acknowledging, right? So when you talk about, “Is that a touchdown?” right? The rule is if you break the plane of where the goal line is. If you have a sensor in the football and a sensor in the pylon that marks where the goal line is, doesn’t that call become a lot easier?
Same thing with like physically if your toe is on the three point line, and in basketball, that shot, if you make it, does not count for three points. Why can’t we tell definitively? If there’s a sensor ...
Right. So it could be in the shoes. It could be in the ...
Exactly. Or in the cameras. All NBA teams have overhead cameras that track player movement. Why can’t we tell from that?
So why don’t they? You know, we talked about the helmets. Why isn’t there stuff in the helmets for impact?
You tell me.
I don’t know. You tell me.
I think it’s a thing they have to negotiate with the players’ associations and various leagues. But also the refs. There’s this weird thing that happens where the refs, in terms of their union organization, they don’t want their judgment called into question publicly. Which you can sort of understand, but if there’s technology that can help you do your job better, why are we fighting this battle?
Why? Yes. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know.
And last question from me. Robots playing sports. Why can’t robots play football?
Well, they can ...
There was a movie, you know, with Hugh Jackman about this. But do you see that happening?
Do you mean “Blue Steel”?
There was one movie with the robots playing ... but their ... people’s heads or brains are in those robots.
Well, if you read the piece 17776 ...
Yes. I did.
Which is the future of football fictive piece by Jon Bois that just won an Elly yesterday — shoutout to Jon Bois. Yeah, I think that’s totally possible.
But the thing that everybody’s worried about is the human drama and the human element of sports. It’s a thing that draws everybody. That’s the heartbeat of March Madness, right? Is that like, you can play the game out on paper or you can simulate the game out all day and tell you what should happen, but the fact that humans are involved is the thing that always makes you have to see the game.
Oh, Elena, sentimental.
What about making like video games? Fortnite sports? Is that sports from your perspective? eSports?
Absolutely. It’s a skill. It’s competitive.
Yeah, yeah. But you think you need people. You need people to be at the heart of these things.
Yeah, but even if you’re playing a video game, it’s a person controlling it, and that’s fine.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But sports you think will not change because of the human element? That there should be players.
Yeah, there should always be players, I think. Even if they’re assisted by chemicals, GMOs, HGH, I don’t care. I just want to see athletes do cool things.
Do you know what would be neat? If we could make ... download the brains of the greatest players and then have them play each other.
Well, I think Ted Williams was counting on that.
Yeah, I know. He was. He still is. He still ... sitting there frozen counting on it.
On that note, we will get into that issue later of freezing yourself for the rest of eternity. But this has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Elena, thank you for joining me.
Thanks for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.