On the beat with the 76ers: Inside covering a historically bad team
There are bad teams, there are really bad teams, and then there are historically bad teams. The reporters currently covering the Philadelphia 76ers have chronicled 28 losses in a row (since March 25 last season), including an NBA-worst 0–18 this season. It is the longest losing streak ever in major professional American sports and if the Sixers lose to the Lakers in Philadelphia on Tuesday, they will drop to 0–19, the worst start in NBA history. SI.com’s Ben Golliver examined the losing, including how the average margin of defeat this year is less than previous years.
With an eye toward providing insight into what it’s like to cover a historically losing team, I reached out to four reporters who cover the Sixers on a fulltime basis:
• Bob Cooney, Philadelphia Daily News reporter. Cooney has covered the Sixers since 2012
• Dan Gelston Associated Press sports writer. Gelston has covered the team since the 2003-04 season.
• Tom Moore, Bucks County Courier Times and Calkins Media. Moore has covered the team for 28 years.
• Keith Pompey, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. Pompey has covered the Sixers since 2013.
The panelists were asked to go as long or as short as they wanted on answers. Given I wanted insight into how players, coaches and management react to media on a day-to-day basis during a losing streak, I wanted media who interacted with the team on a near-daily basis. (There are plenty of web-based outlets and bloggers who cover the Sixers daily and have great impact on how fans perceive the team, from SB Nation’s Liberty Ballers to The 700 Level, to The Sixer Sense and others.) Pompey sent his answers back despite being on a very hard deadline (much appreciated) for his outlet and may update overnight. Here’s the roundtable:
Richard Deitsch: What is the biggest challenge covering a team that is not winning, and why?
Bob Cooney: The biggest challenge is just coming up with a different story angle when the result is the same night in and night out. Players aren't as open and honest when they are dealing with loss after loss after loss. It makes it tough to come up with a different view for the fans to read.
Dan Gelston: It can be the repetitive nature of the topics—the game stories are identical and meaningless; how does the team handle the losing? What's the story on the new player who won’t last beyond his 10-day contract? Will coach Brett Brown publicly crack? How many times can you work ‘tank’ into a lede? The players are young and mostly new and haven’t yet been burned out by the daily grind of answering the same questions. Jahlil Okafor playing fast and loose with the law has certainly injected some life into a stagnant beat. It's not how the 76ers wanted to make headlines. Suddenly, 26-game losing streaks don't seem so bad.
Tom Moore: I would say it’s trying to write what folks want to read. Last season, following the Michael Carter-Williams trade and with Joel Embiid injured/unavailable to the media, I wrote about Nerlens Noel three or four times a week, with a bunch of Sunday columns about the draft lottery and draft. This year, rookie Jahlil Okafor and Noel are in my regular rotation. There was some early interest in Nik Stauskas and undrafted rookie T.J. McConnell, but that appears to have decreased.
Keith Pompey: The biggest challenge is trying to keep things fresh as the losses mount.
RD: How accessible have the players and front office been during the losing streak?
BC: The players are very accessible, though they are ‘coached up’ by the public relations director each time before they speak with us. For the most part, there is no hiding by the players before or after games and practices. The front office is a different story. GM Sam Hinkie spoke three times last season and hasn't spoken to the media since training camp. Brett Brown is terrific with the media.
DG: The players are usually always available and coach Brett Brown has shown plenty of public grace and professionalism during this three-year losing stretch. He knew the deal when he signed on, though I’m sure not even he expected the organization would still be an embarrassment three seasons into his tenure. Owner Josh Harris and team president Sam Hinkie rarely make themselves available and are content to let CEO Scott O'Neil and Brown take the lumps with fans and the media. I’m not terribly optimistic but hopefully Harris and Hinkie will talk before Tuesday's game about Okafor’s personal conduct, the losing streak and the state of the franchise in yet another 0-for-the-season start. If ever this franchise needed some public leadership and accountability, it’s this week.
TM: Access hasn’t been the Sixers’ strong suit in recent years. It hasn’t improved as they opened the season with 17 straight defeats. GM Sam Hinkie typically talks on the record roughly five times a year, so head coach Brett Brown speaks for the franchise on a daily basis.
KP: They have been accessible. No one is hiding because they are losing.
RD: How closely do you think 76ers players, coaches and front office people read your stuff?
BC: Brett Brown says he doesn’t read a thing, that he’s a hermit who goes to the gym, goes home, goes to coach his son and goes home. That’s his day. There is no reading of papers or listening to talk radio. Sam Hinkie, however, is aware of everything that is written and said. Though he won’t talk on the record, when talking to him OTR it is quite obvious that he is fully aware of what is written and said.
DG: The players, not at all. The front office and public relations staff take note of my features and hard news stories, probably more than any other team I cover.
TM: I think they have better access to stories via social media, so I’d think they read more of our coverage. I’ve received positive and negative responses from team personnel this season.
KP: I hear that the front office reads all of the beat writers every day. However, I’m not sure about the coaches and players.
RD: Have you had another sporting assignment during your career that included a similar losing streak?
BC: I don’t think any sportswriter in the history of sports has ever had to cover a losing assignment like the one we have dealt with for two-plus seasons. This is something that I don't think has ever happened in the history of sports.
DG: Yes, the 26-game losing streak two seasons ago! The 0-17 start last season! I think they can hit the losing streak trifecta this season. They already have longest overall losing streak (over two seasons) and can hit longest to start a season and longest single season.
TM: I have not. The Sixers’ worst three-year stretch during my time covering them was 64-182 from 1994-97. The Sixers would have to win 27 games this season to match that record, which seems unlikely. If they somehow manage to reach 20 victories, Brown would have to win 50 games for seven consecutive years to get within six games of .500.
KP: Not even close.
RD: How do readers/listeners respond to your stories during a losing streak?
BC: Response from fans is clearly divided. You have the fans who are totally on board with ‘The Process,’ believing that Sam Hinkie has devised a plan that had to be done and that will work. There are others who think management has no idea what it is doing, that ‘The Process’ is being done on the fly and that even with all the draft picks accumulated they will not make the right choices anyway.
DG: There’s a thought that the fans have been patient and bought into Hinkie's process. There’s a ‘Trust The Process’ slogan in Philly. The reality is, the fans have just tuned out. The Wells Fargo Center is empty most nights and TV ratings aren’t much higher than for a test pattern. But it’s sports, so when the Sixers win again, the fans will turn out. I don’t think Hinkie has killed the fan base just yet.
TM: Online views of game stories are down, but Sunday columns seem to be doing fairly well. Similarly, I don’t get much feedback from game coverage, but columns draw more responses.
KP: It depends. Some think I’m picking on the team by reporting the truth. Others think I’m doing a great job.
RD: How would you assess how the Sixers are portrayed nationally versus the reality you see daily?
BC: I think nationally this organization is viewed as a joke. I think across the NBA there is much of that same sentiment. The reality is what it is. If they lose Sunday against Memphis, they will have a 38-144 record during ‘The Process.’ I think what the biggest story is, not including the losing, is how Brett Brown has been able to keep these kids playing hard each and every day. It really is not short of spectacular the job he has done in that area.
DG: I think the organization is starting to get painted as one that has no control over the core players. Joel Embiid is sipping Shirley Temples and openly defying the team’s authority structure. Jahlil Okafor is a Sixer Gone Wild. There are elements of truth in both, but the Sixers are spending as much time of late defending or denying what their players do on their own time than they do talking about what's happening on the court.
TM: A fair portion of the Sixers’ under-40 fan base seems to be on board with the tanking in order to try to land a star in the draft, rather than continue an 11-year stretch of mediocrity in which the team had only won one playoff series and wasn’t bad enough for a top draft position. All of the losing seems generally to be received in similar fashion here as it is around the country.
KP: I think nationally they are portrayed as a joke. However, they are a group of hard-working players in reality. They may not have a lot of legitimate NBA talent on the team. But they do work hard.
RD: How, if at all, does losing impact the mood and tone of your coverage, and why?
BC: I think this question goes to my answer at your first question.
DG: I think I’m a little better off than the rest of the beat writers because writing for the AP means I can mix up the beat and cover the other teams in Philadelphia. If I’ve had enough of the 76ers losing games, I can always cover the Flyers and Eagles. Ok, bad example. I just keep an open mind and try and find new twists on a tired routine.
TM: We keep asking the same questions and the players/coaches typically don’t have much to say, other than they're staying together, getting close to a ‘W’ and this season isn't about wins and losses. Game stories tend to end up looking the same. Trying to do something different becomes more difficult
KP: No, it doesn’t. You are supposed to cover a team the same way regardless of if it’s the best or worst in the league. That’s what I try to do.
When is your best guess that the Sixers will become a winning team?
BC: I think the success of this whole plan revolves around this off-season. The team has four first-round draft picks, two of which could be lottery picks. They NEED to hit home runs with these picks. Dario Saric may come over from Turkey. If he does, he needs to turn out to be a good NBA player, not just a mediocre one. Joel Embiid has to be healthy and show that he can sustain the rigors of NBA life. If all those things come into play and they are able to land a free agent that can fill a certain role, then winning could start to become conceivable in 2017-18.
DG: Trump’s second term? I think maybe 2020-2021 season, at the earliest.
TM: If they can add multiple impact players in this year’s draft, when they could have as many as four first-round picks (including the Lakers' top 3-protected selection via the Carter-Williams deal) and injured center Joel Embiid is able to play significant minutes following his two right foot surgeries, the best-case scenario would be 2017-18. If they don't get a star in the draft and Embiid cannot be a factor, who knows?
KP: I think they could have a winning record in three to four seasons.
What upcoming regular season game is the Sixers best chance for a win?
BC: Many will look to the Lakers game on Tuesday. I know he is not the Kobe Bryant of old, not even close, but I don’t see him coming home to Philly and have his team lose. If not against Denver on Dec. 5, they might be winless for the rest of 2015.
DG: I think they can win Tuesday at home against the Lakers unless Kobe beats Father Time and puts on a show in his last game in front of his hometown fans. If you told me the losing streak reached 30, 40 games, I wouldn’t be surprised.
TM: Tuesday’s home date with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers should be the first time the Sixers are favored in a game this season.
KP: I think that game is Tuesday versus the Lakers at Wells Fargo Center.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of most notable sports media stories of the past week)
1. On Sunday night Kobe Bryant self-reported on the Players’ Tribune that the 2015-16 season would be his last in the NBA. While there will never be another analyst quite like Charles Barkley, the most impactful and valuable studio analyst on sports television today, I believe Bryant could have a Barkley-like impact on an NBA studio show or remote broadcast if he has interest in broadcasting as a post-NBA career.
There are certain traits shared by the best sports broadcasters: intelligence, passion, credibility and honesty. Personally, I like a bit of edge and distance from the establishment, too. Bryant possesses all of these. That he’s also an all-time great is a huge marketing bonus.
As I wrote last January, if Bryant indicates he is serious about a broadcasting career after his NBA career ends—and he has not at made any serious indications that he is at this point—industry sources say he’d command $4-5 million annually, if not more, because there would be a heavy competition for his services. ESPN (whose studio show is based in L.A.) and Turner are guaranteed to be interested.
1a. CBS’s Thanksgiving Day broadcast of Carolina’s win over Dallas drew 32.5 million, up 2% from last year’s comparable window (Philadelphia-Dallas drew 32 million viewers on Thanksgiving Day 2014 on Fox between 4:36-7:54 p.m., ET.) Given this year’s game ran on CBS, it is considered part of the AFC package (even though two NFC teams were playing) and as such, CBS said it was the most-watched Thanksgiving Day Game in 20 years for the AFC television package since 1995. The game peaked at 34.7 million viewers between 5:30-6 p.m. ET.
1b. The Bears win over the Packers on NBC’s Sunday Night Football on Thanksgiving night averaged 27.8 million viewers, ranking as NBC’s second-most watched NFL regular-season game since acquiring the SNF package in 2006, behind only the 30.3 million for Dallas-Washington in 2012.
1c. NBC said the Packers’ halftime ceremony honoring Brett Favre (10:15-10:30 p.m. ET) averaged 28.2 million viewers.
1d. Fox rules analyst Mike Pereira, a former NFL vice president of officiating, on the week-to-week officiating issues that are affecting the outcomes of games: “There are a lot of people that think they know what the problem is. You wanted younger officials, you got younger officials. You turned over 20% of the staff and you have over 25 new officials in just less than two full years and there has been an adjustment process there. You can’t work a Super Bowl until you’ve been in for five years, because this is getting quicker and more complicated and this influx of new people has hurt things. The second thing is three management changes in the last six years. It went from me to Carl Johnson and now Dean Blandino and that’s a lot of different messages to the officials.”
1e. The production crew of Fox NFL producer Richie Zyontz and director Rich Russo, the group that normally works with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on Fox’s top NFL game, were assigned to the Bucs at Colts this week with Buck and Aikman having Sunday off after working Thanksgiving. That put Zyontz and Co. with Dick Stockton and Matt Millen, the first time in 15 years that the Zyontz crew had worked with Stockton and Millen after working with them for eight seasons at Fox in the 1990s.
2. Ohio State might not repeat as national champions in college football but it is clearly the most dominant regular season television team in 2015. ESPN/ABC’s three most-watched games this season involve the Buckeyes, including the network’s most-watched game, the 11.05 million viewers who saw Michigan State defeat Ohio State on Nov. 21. That game drew a 7.0 rating while Ohio State’s blowout win over Michigan on ABC on Saturday drew a 6.8 overnight, making it the highest-rated game of the weekend and second-highest overnight of the 2015 season behind Ohio State-Michigan State. Ohio State’s season-opening win over Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 on ESPN is the third highest overnight this season (6.6).
“From a ratings perspective, Ohio State has always been one of the strongest teams in the country,” said ESPN’s Ilan Ben-Hanan, the network’s vice president for college programing and one of its main schedulers. “This year, they were the defending champs, and that often leads to a surge of interest; same phenomenon with Florida State last year. When you add the storylines around their quarterback situation and the way they flirted with danger all year before Michigan State beat them last week, you get a perfect ratings storm.”
Rivalry weekend is always a strong weekend for college football and this one was no exception. CBS’s coverage of Alabama’s win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl drew a 5.3 overnight rating, which was up 61% from CBS’s choice last year (No. 3 Mississippi State vs. No. 18 Ole Miss) for Rivalry Week. Fox’s primetime coverage of Stanford’s last second win over Notre Dame drew a 4.8 overnight rating, up 213% from last year’s Notre Dame-USC broadcast on Fox and was the highest-rated metered market rating for a regular season college football game in Fox history.
2a. Why Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott was done wrong by some media people.
2b. Last Friday, Iowa’s win over Nebraska drew a 3.5 overnight while TCU’s win over Baylor drew a 3.2 overnight.
2c. This weekend’s College GameDay from Stillwater, Okla. drew a 1.6 overnight, equaling the best overnight of the 2015 season (Oct. 3 at Clemson).
2d. ESPN said the Ohio State-Michigan game was ABC’s highest-rated noon kickoff game on record (59 games, which dates back to 2004).
3. Episode No. 31 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who has been with that network since 1995. Bilas is now on ESPN’s game and studio coverage including ESPN’s Saturday Primetime game-of-the-week telecasts in 2015.
In this episode, Bilas discusses how he prepares for a broadcast, how he views the role of analytics in basketball broadcasting, how he navigates being an advocate for his sport but not being a cheerleader, his Twitter philosophy, how he approaches commentary on Duke (his alma mater) and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, how often he hears from NCAA officials, his appearing on the White Shadow as a high schooler, spending time with the rapper Jeezy, how he projects LSU freshman Ben Simmons in the pros, and more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI's podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• If you love college football and sports photography, you will truly love this from Walter Iooss and the Players Tribune.
• Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski had a three-part series on a Phillies prospect and his long journey to hope.
• Robert Weintraub recalled when Ahmad Rashad proposed to Phylicia Ayers-Allen during halftime of the Lions-Jets game on Thanksgiving in 1985.
• Kristin Wolford, who a spent a decade at The Auburn Citizen (NY) as a sports writer and sports editor, is battling stage 4 colon cancer. Her story.
• SI’s Joan Niesen went to LSU for the Les Miles football funeral and ended up witnessing something very different.
• From New York Times sports writer Scott Cacciola: Even ballet dancers are in awe of Stephen Curry’s moves.
• From SI’s Chris Ballard: Caltech lost 310 straight games. Then it figured out how to win.
Non sports pieces of note:
• Swatting hoaxes: A must read piece on the dark side of the web from Jason Fagone.
• From author Tony Schwartz: “Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.”
• Writer Kevin Pang: What I've learned in 11 years working at the Chicago Tribune.
• Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S.
• On how indigenous women have been prey for serial killers in Canada for year.
• The New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2015.
• From New York Magazine: “The man who played Scott Templeton has co-written and directed what critics are calling the most valorizing movie about journalism since All the President’s Men.”
• From The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump: The last days of the New York mob.
5. The Lawrence Journal World reported that longtime Kansas football and basketball announcer Bob Davis will retire following the current basketball season. He called Jayhawks games for 32 years and was also a long-time broadcaster with the Royals.
5a. In what seems to be an unfortunate trend, another team broadcaster who offered honesty in assessing what was playing out in front of him has been jettisoned. Last week the Marlins announced they would not renew the contract of TV analyst Tommy Hutton after 19 seasons, a decision that has been met by near-universal disdain from fans. Said Dave George of the Palm Beach Post of the decision: “Shocking and stupid and tone deaf at a level that exceeds the franchise’s long-established low standards.”
5b. BeIN Sports’ coverage of Real Madrid-Barcelona on Nov. 21 drew just under 1.9 million total viewers with 1,106,137 total viewers on beIN Sports en Español and 768,445 total viewers on beIN Sports.
5c. Jim Brady, ESPN’s new public editor, wrote his debut column last week.
5d. Olympic champion Bode Miller will make his debut as an television analyst during NBC Sports’ coverage of the Audi Birds of Prey event on Dec. 4-6.
5e. Terrible news out of TSN Canada on Sunday morning. Producer Rick Hodgson, just 36, died unexpectedly, leaving behind his wife Jennie, and young son Rickey. Please check out this Go Fund Me page to help out his son.
5f. Last week about 20 Grantland staffers came out to read their work and take questions from the audience as part of a sponsored forum from Gelf Magazine. I watched via Livestream and offered some thoughts on the night.