The Media Column: This time of year, all we talk about is the Patriots. Is it overkill?

Alex Reimer
January 03, 2019 - 11:33 am
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Listeners who tune into WEEI this time of year are guaranteed to hear wall-to-wall football talk. Most of it is about the Patriots, but we also delve into league issues, ranging from the lack of black head coaches in the league to previewing Wild Card games between two out-of-market teams located thousands of miles away. 

Is it pigskin overkill?

My esteemed colleague John Tomase, and I suspect others, think that’s the case. On a recent edition of “Mut & Callahan,” Tomase challenged us to think outside of the gridiron. “This station has this idea, ‘The only thing you can talk about is Patriots,’” he said. “Stop being lazy. That’s not true. You’re an all-sports station –– not the Bruins, not the Bruins. But the other two, you can talk about. And if you’re not, you’re being lazy.”

I am as guilty as anybody for talking incessantly about the Patriots, even when the conversation devolves into hours of circuitous banter about whether they would rather play the Texans or Ravens in the Divisional Round. To defend myself, I point to the ratings. The Patriots averaged a 35 household rating in Boston this season, their highest mark since 2015. Ratings were up four percent over last season.

The Patriots’ ratings uptick correlates with the league’s improved television numbers. NFL ratings were up five percent this year, with professional football games accounting for 46 of the 50 most-watched shows in 2018. It looks like all of the talk about the NFL’s death was greatly exaggerated. 

Even neutral-site NFL games rate highly in Boston. The Rams-Saints showdown, which occurred on Nov. 4, drew a 12.9 rating in the city. For comparison’s sake, the World Champion Red Sox averaged a 6.8 household rating in Boston last season. The Celtics and Bruins consistently draw in the 2s and 3s in our target demographic. 

As most of you probably know, we cater our programming to men aged 25-54. If 35-percent of the general population tunes into the Patriots on an average Sunday, the rate for our target demo is almost certainly much higher. 

Meanwhile, even last year, when Celtics ratings surged by 44-percent, they garnered an average number of 3.24. That means if you dedicate substantial time analyzing the C’s, you’re talking about a product that few of our listeners have seen for themselves. In the words of the great John Dennis, we talk about what sports fans talk about. And right now, the numbers say Boston sports fans are all about football, just like everywhere else in the country. 

Tomase pushed back against that argument, saying the NFL has historically dominated in the ratings, and it’s up to us as professional sports talk show hosts to make the other teams interesting. The Celtics, for example, have stumbled through the first half of their schedule, despite entering the season as Eastern Conference favorites. They’re a high-priced and star-laden team that’s failed to live up to expectations. That should be catnip for us, as long as we’re watching the games.

And therein lies the crux of Tomase’s point: it’s easy to dismiss the other teams in town and point to their lack of popularity relative to the Patriots. It takes much more effort to follow everything and try to come up with unique talking points. Plus, maybe there is an audience after all. The Winter Classic drew an incredible 7.9 rating in Boston.

I will cop to that, and perhaps in the New Year, it wouldn’t be so bad to mix in more Brad Stevens bashing with our never-ending prognostications about Tom Brady’s playing future. But overall, we are slaves to the numbers. The NFL, and by extension the Patriots, are so much more popular than any other entertainment option in the country. 

Now, who’s ready to talk Colts-Texans?

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Macho manly men sports talk hosts swing and miss on Josh Gordon story: Josh Gordon was suspended indefinitely from the NFL two weeks ago for his most recent substance abuse relapse. But since that happened over the holidays, most of our beloved regular hosts didn’t get to share their knuckle-dragging views on addiction.

Nobody was worse on this story than Mike Felger, who called Gordon “freaking pathetic” on his show Wednesday. Felger has made disparaging comments about addicts in the past, calling them “soft.”

This is where it helps to have pushback. marC James expressed similarly repugnant views about Gordon on our airwaves, and was chastised for a week straight. That didn’t happen inside Felger’s world. Tony Massarotti laughed along, and chances are, no other host will go against him. The ignorance is left unchallenged.

Anybody who thinks Josh Gordon isn’t fighting an actual disease should read his 2017 interview with GQ. In it, the troubled wideout talks about how he started abusing Xanax, Codeine and other prescription drugs in his early teens as a way to combat his debilitating social anxiety and depression. That’s the intersection between mental health and drug abuse. Gordon uses substances to curb his anxiety. It’s a destructive coping method, which he developed at a young age. 

Gordon is responsible for his own life, and has been held more accountable for drug and alcohol addiction than most people in his income bracket. He’s lost tens of millions of dollars due to his addiction and now may lose his career. It’s OK to stop beating your very hairy chest –– because you’re so tough and macho –– and realize Gordon is fighting demons that are impossible for many to defeat.

Seth Wickersham’s Patriots expose most influential piece of Boston sports journalism in 2018: One year ago Friday, ESPN’s Seth Wickersham published his lengthy expose about the Palace Intrigue in Patriot Place: “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?”

The piece chronicled all of the stories of dissension that are now largely now accepted as fact: Bill Belichick was pressured into trading Jimmy Garoppolo, Belichick loathes Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady didn't feel appreciated by Belichick. For the last 12 months, almost every portion of Patriots commentary has referenced this story in some fashion or another. All of the Patriots analysis this season, particularly after losses, has existed with the backdrop that we’re probably witnessing the end of the Brady-Belichick era.

And with the Patriots ready to embark on another playoff run, except that conversation to only be amplified in the coming weeks.

ESPN’s Ryan Clark earns analyst stripes with criticism of former teammates: One of the toughest tasks for players-turned-analysts is criticizing their former organizations and teammates. Ex-Steelers safety Ryan Clark has shown a proclivity for doing just that, and should be commended for not backing down in the face of blowback.

On Wednesday, Clark said the Steelers should looks to trade Antonio Brown, following his reported practice outburst and absence from Sunday’s must-win game. Brown responded to Clark, calling him an “Uncle Tom.”

Mature stuff.

Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams also went after Clark on Twitter for talking about his personal experiences in the locker room. Clark, to his credit, pushed back. “I am an analyst,” Clark wrote. “My job is to give my opinion based on experience , knowledge & study. Stories are part of my job. Painting pictures through my life.”

It should be relatively easy to ignore criticism from the nameless Twitter peanut gallery. It is much more difficult to accomplish that when the vitriol comes from your peers. Good for Clark for standing his ground. It’s doubtful that many recently retired ex-players in his position would do that. 

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