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The Path Journeyman NFL Players Take to Broadcasting

Cam Newton recognized an all-out blitz, checked at the line of scrimmage and threw a wide receiver screen for a touchdown. Dan Orlovsky saw it all from home, where he was watching Panthers-Dolphins on Monday Night Football with his wife.

Orlovsky listened for the broadcast to explain how genius the check was—Newton had made it a numbers game, understanding where pressure was coming from and finding the soft spot in the defense—an explanation that never came. Orlovsky thought people should know what just happened, but he wasn’t sure how to tell them. Grab your phone, rewind the broadcast on DVR, mute the TV and make a video, his wife told him. So he made the video, posted it on Instagram and Twitter, then went to bed. He awoke to his video blowing up on social media.

It was in that moment that Orlovsky, in his first year out of the league after a 12-year career (including 12 career starts) as an NFL quarterback, realized this was how he’d break into the NFL media game.

“[As a backup] I had to get the third-string running back, who’s as dumb as a brick, to understand the same thing as the third-string receiver, who’s very smart,” Orlovsky says. “How do I get those guys to understand the same thing? How do I not insult the receiver’s intelligence but also get the dumb guy to understand it? This sounds braggadocious, but you either can or you can’t.

“I believe fans are way smarter than they were 10 years ago because of technology and accessibility. Taking them deeper into the whys, which is something I’m able to do because of my experiences and journey, it has certainly helped in this transition.”

If you have a gold jacket or are slated to get one in the next 5-7 years, the path to a broadcast booth or studio gig is significantly easier. Newest Monday Night Football analyst Jason Witten will be in Canton in a few years. Almost every former player who appears on a Sunday pregame show for ESPN, FOX, CBS and NFL Network are either already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or soon to be there.

But what of the guys who won’t ever wear the gold jacket? How do they stand out in a crowd of recently retired players who all want to break into the game, and with a new crop coming in each year? Now more than ever they have more options in the media world: podcasts, YouTube, Facebook Live, team-owned sites, various blogs, national and local sports talk radio, college conference networks etc.

Jacob Ullman, FOX’s senior vice president of production and talent, remembers the old days, when if a guy wanted to be found, he had to send Ullman a VHS through snail mail. Now he can get those tapes as an email attachment, go down the rabbit hole of YouTube reels and find talent himself. Or, sometimes he just happens to be on Twitter when a former player makes a cell phone video.

“It’s probably not that different from being a player working to make the roster [as opposed to] the guy who was the No. 1 pick in the draft. You probably do have to work a little bit harder,” Ullman says. “I think once you’re in it, everyone has to work equally as hard. To get to a network, it’s probably a little more difficult.

“But the beauty of it is there are more opportunities than before. There are more opportunities for people looking to get into broadcasting in 2018, exponentially more, than when I started in the business.”

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Andrew Hawkins tried doing a podcast with his brother, Artrell, back in 2009 but it never picked up steam, in large part because they were too far in front of that wave. He saw his brother, a nine-year NFL vet, chase a post-playing media career that ultimately wore him down. And so when Hawkins finished his six-year career as a receiver for the Bengals, Browns and (for one spring) Patriots, he knew he didn’t want to jump into anything immediately.

On his own time, Hawkins began putting together “Hawk’s One Minute Rundown”—well-edited, humorous takes on the sports news of the day—and posting them to Instagram.

“Even after a dismal performance, Texans quarterback Tom Savage—no relation to 21—has been named the starter, leaving football fans everywhere wondering if there has ever been a more undeserving naming,” Hawkins deadpanned into the camera one day last November.

Those videos, along with his master’s from Columbia University in sports management, helped him land the job hosting SportsCenter on Snapchat. The news is quick, digestible and funny for the digital audience.

“Thankfully I’m a person of the digital age,” says Hawkins, who co-hosts a podcast with former Browns teammate Joe Thomas and who’s also the director of business development for the companies of Maverick Carter and LeBron James. “That’s how I consume my content. I’m on digital more than I’m on TV as far as watching so I understand the culture and demographic. It just takes practice, and like anything you find a rhythm.”

Technology has been a big part of Geoff Schwartz’s media moves. The eight-year offensive lineman, whose last NFL game was in 2015, has been on the forefront of using tape to teach the game—mostly offensive line play, which is neither sexy nor widely evaluated—to his 60,000-plus followers on Twitter and beyond. He does regular live videos on Facebook and Twitter both during the season and offseason, and he frequently embeds GIFs into his writings for SB Nation.

The NFL is not as lenient with its video content as, say, the NBA. Every now and then a media member receives a notice from a social network declaring he or she has violated the DMCA and the content has been removed. The trick here is to use the NFL’s copyrighted video (all-22 film and/or the broadcast tape) and transform it in a way that can pass the fair-use test.

“What I’ve been told, and not by the NFL but the various places I work, is if you use it in a way to be instructive on the game, they’re pretty much O.K. with that,” Schwartz says. “As long as it’s not like a three-minute video. Most of my videos are at most two minutes. But the entire time it’s clear that I’m teaching off the tape. I’m not showing eight plays in a row. It’s one play and maybe I’m drawing something on the board with that play. I’m not just breaking down an entire half of film, and that’s important.”

In D.J. Shockley’s case, he has all the NFL film he wants. Shockley breaks down plays on the website of the Atlanta Falcons, where he spent four seasons as a backup quarterback (2006-09).

NFL teams have long had their own sites, but over the past five years or so they’ve maximized their capabilities. Realizing how much content they own and how easy it is to talk to their coworkers who happen to play football (legacy media does not get the same access), team sites have started to employ writers and former players to create their own content.

The Falcons gig has helped Shockley, a star at the University of Georgia, land analyst jobs with both the ACC and SEC Networks. And last year during the preseason he was a field analyst for Falcons games.

“There were a lot of things that opened up for me and it’s becoming more national. But I enjoy the local stuff as much as I enjoy the national things as well,” Shockley says. “Just like when you played, you want to climb the ladder. I know it’s tougher every year with new guys coming and everyone’s trying to do it as far as the broadcast world, but I’ve enjoyed the space that I’m in.”

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Over the past three years, 38% of the NFL’s Broadcast Bootcamp participants have gone on to secure jobs in sports media, a respectable clip for the 12-year institution led by the league’s player engagement arm.

The bootcamp typically takes 27 to 30 former and current players out of a pool of nearly 40 applicants. Talent executives from every major TV and radio network teach and evaluate the next crop of players-turned-broadcasters. Sessions at April’s bootcamp at Bowling Green State University included “ethics in broadcast journalism,” “the changing news landscape,” “sports media coverage of social issues” and “calling a game.” Longtime broadcaster James Brown began each day with a hypothetical question to the participants.

• Can you objectively cover a team that you feel was unfair to you when you played?

• As a local sports reporter, would you feel an obligation to favor the home team?

• Can you be trusted with background information obtained from the head coach and/or players in the production meeting?

In the decade-plus that the bootcamp has been around, it’s evolved along with the changing media landscape. “We now cover podcasts,” says Arthur McAfee, the league’s senior vice president of player engagement. “So there’s now a conversation on how to put on a podcast, what the content should be, what the frequency of delivery is, how do you make it effective and interesting.”

Ben Hartsock, a 10-year tight end, went to his first bootcamp in 2015 and, upon being the top student, earned the chance to call a regular-season NFL game for Sky Sports UK. Since then he’s become a weekend host for ESPN radio with his eye on doing TV features. He did the bootcamp again this spring, helping him earn a spot on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football. That program features Nate Burleson, perhaps the best example of a non-gold jacket player who is becoming a media star after an 11-year career as a wide receiver.

“Now I’m using that clip from television and sending that to every network to try to leverage that into something else,” Hartsock says.

Ullman, the FOX exec, has the same message for players at every bootcamp. So many come into the week hoping to one day become color analysts, but Ullman encourages them to hear everything taught during the week in the event those dreams don’t come to fruition.

“The reality is there are 16 analysts in a booth doing NFL games on television. You’re two times more likely to be a starting quarterback in the NFL,” Ullman says. “If that’s the only expectation, the odds are you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. But there are all these different forms where you can make a living in this business.”

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The media business can be glamorous for a few, but there are more people making beat writer salaries than Stephen A. Smith-level money. The same can be said for these non-gold jacket wearers compared to a Michael Strahan.

“It’s an investment and a risk that you’ve got to be willing to take, because the spot on television was unpaid and the radio I get is small potatoes,” Hartsock says. “You have to be willing to grind. I know guys who have jobs on the side. Never feel sorry for me because I was blessed enough that we were smart with our finances, but yeah we are putting more out than we’re taking in, for sure.”

Most of these players have to be “yes” men, never turning down an offer big or small because you never know what it could become. But the goal, as Schwartz says, is “always to make more money and work less.”

Orlovsky made a nice sum in his playing career, but “my kids eat a lot of food” and he’d like his career in broadcasting to start turning a profit. He did TV in Philadelphia for free. His national TV hits have been free, too. Though he’s been approached about starting his own website and monetizing what he does on Twitter, he has higher aspirations and believes he’ll start seeing the fruits of his labor soon.

For now, he looks at his wardrobe and realizes it’s an awful lot of athletic gear; he’s going to have to upgrade his wardrobe in the near future.

“Now that I’m going on television more I’ve had to grab a couple more sportcoats and sweaters,” Orlovsky says. “I looked at my wife and said, when someone writes me a check, I’ll get more. But until someone offers me a contract, I’m not going to go all out with these clothes.”

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.


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