I have finally returned from three long days in football heaven (or to some media, hell), aka SEC Media Days, only to find out that it’s not football season yet. What’s up with that? After an easy three hour drive full of plenty of reflection, I’m ready to get my observations down before they all turn into a football-shaped blur in my mind.
They saved the best for last.
Maybe it was because I finally discovered that the bar in the lobby sold Starbucks. Maybe it was because the majority of my work covering UK’s appearance was over. Or maybe Les Miles is just that funny. For whatever reason, Thursday was by far my favorite of the SEC Media Days. Les Miles got things rolling at 8:30 a.m. in a way only Les Miles could, with ridiculous statements like “I spent the summer doing hyperbaric oxygen therapy research” and “I repelled down a building. I don’t know that that was all it was cracked up to be.” And let’s not forget him essentially calling Twitter bans un-American. I was so impressed by his speech that I ditched Mark Richt’s session to follow him around the convention floor, which was probably the best decision I made all day.
The other great part of the SEC Media Days finale was the Saban spectacle. At least 115 Alabama fans camped out in the lobby all morning for a millisecond glimpse of the championship coach. Why 115? That’s all the fire marshall would allow. There’s a reason why people compare Kentucky basketball fans to Alabama football fans: we’re all that crazy. For that reason, I both understood and respected these people. Got a hat in the shape of a national championship ring? If they made one for Kentucky, I know ten people who would buy one. That creepy Nick Saban painting you’re waiting to get signed? My friend’s grandmother has one exactly like it of Adolph Rupp. The undulating “Rolllllll Tide” had just as much passion behind it as the staccato-ed “Go Big Blue.” I get you, Bama.
Only in a place like Alabama could Nick Saban be considered a rock star. To an outsider, he seems very mild. He’s not tall, doesn’t have much style, his hair is meh, and he definitely doesn’t carry himself with a ton of swagger. When he finally took the stage at Media Days, honestly, he was pretty boring. (Alabama fans, if you’re reading this, please don’t stone me the next time I try to enter your state.) What makes Saban “Saban” is his mind. Say what you will about the guy’s social behavior (Matthew Mitchell had quite a lot to say), but he is a football genius, and knows how to play the game with the media, too. That sigh you heard on the ESPN telecast of his remarks today was the state of Alabama swooning when he called Bear Bryant the greatest coach who’d ever lived. He is our Cal. And every step he took in that hotel didn’t just draw attention, it commanded it.
Which is why, for the most part, his remarks were a letdown. Minus the Bear love and a few cute quips (“I had a great vacation, then I get the opportunity to come here and see 1200 of my very closest friends all at the same time.”), Saban was a snooze-fest at the mic. But I guarantee there was a mob when he left the room.
Media Days is a monster force fed by the SEC
This being my first Media Days, I’ve thought a lot about the concept of the event. When it comes down to it, it really has no purpose. It’s a three day press conference that could easily have been done over the phone or internet. But, as the SEC grows, so does Media Days. The two are like parasites of each other. To further my point, here’s a list of media attendance at the event over the past ten years:
Number of media members at SEC Media Days
2013 – 1,239
2012 – 1,085
2011 – 1,050
2010 – 873
2009 – 923
2008 – 853
2007 – 830
2006 – 685
2005 – 643
2004 – 500
As you can see, this only goes back to 2004. A lot of the people I spoke to over the past three days told me about the earlier days of the event, which was first held in small ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Birmingham. Apparently, back in the day, it was mainly an excuse for the media and coaches to get together and drink or play golf. Now, it’s second to only the Super Bowl in number of media credentialed. It’s televised live on ESPN. And for what? Press conferences and photo ops.
The SEC isn’t just the best conference in the nation; it’s the most publicized. Don’t think for one second that the league doesn’t LOVE having 1,200 media members publicizing their teams. It feeds the league. And in turn, the league feeds the event. Over the past five years in particular, SEC Media Days has ballooned into a complete circus, due in large part to the league’s new TV deals. This will only get more insane when the SEC Network starts next year. Look at how big the Johnny Manziel story was this year, and the Tim Tebow show before that. Now triple the funding. How fat can this monster get? As one guy I spoke to said, “You have to think that at some point, it’s going to implode.”
Don’t get me wrong: SEC Media Days is awesome. If you’re a football fan like me, it’s like living a dream. This is why people dream of covering sports for a living. For that reason, caffeine and adrenaline kept me awake after very little sleep, and I kept my complaining to the utmost minimum. I wish the same could be said of some of my colleagues.
All media are not created equal
I’ve worked for KSR for almost three years, eight months of which has been full time, so I’m well aware of the dichotomy in sports media. There was no better case study for that than SEC Media Days. Here are my views on all of them:
Print: These are the newspaper men and women, whose industry is slowly dying, and as a result, they are the most jaded of the bunch. However, I’d argue that they are also the hardest working, bent over computers, headphones in, to transcribe 95% of the time. Most of them were very nice to me.
Blogs: Bloggers (aka moi) work differently than print media. While we also transcribe (or sometimes, just wait for the coaches’ statements to be posted online), we mostly post quick reactions and news as opposed to lengthy feature pieces. Our reactions are always instant, whether it be via Twitter or on our sites. Bloggers are mostly 20 and 30-somethings, and get lots of dirty looks from the print media folk, but that’s a story for another day.
Social Media: These are the youngest of the bunch, and only use their smartphones and iPads to post news. They rarely look up while walking. As someone with only a year left in my twenties, they kind of make me feel old.
TV: I found that the TV people are the nicest people to interact with, especially the cameramen, who always have an awesome sense of humor. The on-air “talent” was mostly pleasant, save the really famous people who kind of hung out on their own. Also of note: 75% of the women at Media Days were TV reporters (more on this later). They all wore ridiculously tall heels and sundresses every day and looked miserable in the freezing cold main room.
Radio: I didn’t interact with the radio folk much since they had their own row downstairs. However, I enjoyed walking up and down the dark Radio Row just to hear all of the different voices and opinions. You can always tell when it’s a radio person asking questions at a press conference because they do it in their “radio voice.”
Etc.: The league loves to boost the Media Days attendance numbers, so if you’ve covered at least a few games for your team, you will likely get in. These people are mostly older, and here for the show. They have great stories.
My favorite encounter with a media person was legendary Alabama radio host Paul Finebaum, who randomly sat next to me this morning during LSU’s session. I didn’t even realize who he was until someone else walked up and said hello to him. I immediately introduced myself and we chatted for a while, and it was one of the highlights of my trip. He said he didn’t sleep at all last night leading up to Alabama’s big day at the podium and teased me to work hard to make up for his lack of energy. He was incredibly down-to-earth for someone who is about to be insanely rich. I only hope I get to talk to him again someday.
What about the women?
On Tuesday, my UK media BFF Larry Vaught asked me if I was surprised by the number of women at Media Days. (I love Larry, but this is SUCH a Larry question.) Honestly, up until that point, I hadn’t even thought about it. I looked around the main media room and counted about twenty-five female reporters out of maybe 300 at the time. That was about in line with what I saw throughout the event. (Keep in mind, this doesn’t include TV reporters.) I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a different connection to my female colleagues, but for the most part, we were all there to work, not bond over cocktails. All the same, it was comforting to hear Larry say that the number of women at the event has grown over the years. We go, girls.
Once a fan, always a fan
While I am sharpening my media skills and becoming more comfortable in the press world, there are still times when my “fan-ness” overrides everything. A good example of this would be my encounter with Tim Couch. I was twelve years old when Couch enrolled at UK. Prime teeny bopper years. The promotional Tim Couch poster from McDonald’s is still hanging on my bedroom wall at my parents’ house. My Dad and I went up to Cleveland for Tim’s first exhibition game, during which I bought his Browns jersey, a Dawg Pound towel, and even a Dawg Pound dog bowl. Tim Couch was essentially my Justin Beiber. So, when I saw Tim across the convention floor lobby, I knew I had to go say hello. Tim couldn’t have been nicer, and recognized me from the website. We chitchatted about the event for a bit, how funny Les Miles was, how insane the Saban arrival would be, etc. Doron Lamb would be proud, I did my best not to geek in front of him, but when I got back to my computer in the main room, I geeked. Just a little.
One of my favorite parts of Media Days was the dichotomy between the first floor of the hotel and the second floor. Fans crowd the lobby for a glimpse of their heroes walking by to Radio Row. However, everything else takes place on the second floor of the lobby, which is only open to media, athletes, coaches, and staff. What connects the two? Private elevators and, more notably, the Escalator of Disappointment I’ve been referencing all week. The escalators connect the convention floor to the lobby, and although all of the players and coaches use the elevators to go back and forth, fans hold on to that last hope that one of the stars will slowly descend from their football heaven. In fact, as you can tell from my Instagram feed, one of my favorite pastimes was riding up and down the elevator just to see the reactions on the fans’ faces when they realized I wasn’t famous. I’d much rather do that than take notes on most of the coaches’ rah rah stump speeches.
After eight months as a full-time media member, I still feel caught somewhere in between a reporter and a fan. Maybe that’s why I felt so at home on the escalator.