“It’s not going to be boring.” That’s Bomani Jones‘ answer to my question about what his new late-night show, Game Theory (which debuts on HBO this Sunday) is not going to be before adding how it also won’t be a debate show, won’t be exclusively about the cross-section of economics and sports, and won’t be like anything he has done before on television. What the sportswriter turned star in ESPN’s constellation, podcaster, and contributor on HBO’s Back On The Record With Bob Costas has planned is a full execution of his creative vision with interviews (in-studio and remote), pre-recorded deep dives, and the potential to create field pieces. It’s a kind of freedom he says he’s only really had with his podcasts, one bolstered by ample resources and a team of writers and producers.
While having the keys to the kingdom and being empowered to do your show your way might kick up a bit of anxiety in some, Jones tells us fear isn’t on his mind as we discuss the show, the illegitimacy of right-wing beefs against him, social media’s impact on sport, and why the NBA might be the league most disconnected from its fans.
You talk about bringing your own vision to the screen, which is exciting. But what’s the level of fear or vulnerability in doing that?
None. I can’t think of what there is to be afraid of. The only thing there is to be afraid of is that people might not like the television show and that’s just really not the worst thing in the world for me. I’ve been on a TV show that got canceled. Most people I know who’ve done television have been on TV shows that have got canceled. That happens. So for me, the vision that I’m putting out is really a culmination of all the stuff that I’ve been doing for 20 years in this business. I have affirmed over time that I am at my best when I’m leaning in on what I find to be interesting and leaning into things from my perspective, rather than me trying to figure out how to fit that perspective in something else that somebody else is doing, which is by and large, what I’ve done on television for most of my TV career.
I feel very good about what this is going to be. And if the audience doesn’t accept it in the same way that I would like them to accept it, that is their option. So what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to make a television show that we can be proud of and that the people that I respect will view and then ultimately view with some measure of respect. But that other stuff is so far beyond my control. If the audience doesn’t accept this show in the way that I would think that this show should be accepted, I’ll learn from it. I’ll keep it going. But I’m not built to view that as any reflection of myself as a person. It may be a reflection of me as a professional, but that’s only a part of me.
From what I’ve read this is very much taking a look at sports through the lens of economics. How do you make it so… not necessarily that an audience gets it, but that they feel it?
The way I’ve been doing it forever, to be perfectly honest. I think the emphasis on economics is a little bit overstated. If we had named the show something else, people would be a little bit less inclined to view it through that lens. Game Theory is just a cool name given that it’s sports and given that it has a connection to my background. But I’ve always said that you do some graduate study in economics, it’s like going to law school. It becomes part of who you are and just part of the way that you view the world. It’s an indoctrination process as much as anything else. So everything that I’ve done has been from that standpoint.
We’re not going to have every week, like this week in sports business. It’s not going to be that sort of thing. But when we talk about a lot of this stuff, the perspective is going to be informed by those understandings. And we’ll be able to get, I think, deeper into some of those issues than a lot of people will, but I know how to talk about that stuff in English. I used to have to teach it to college freshmen. That’s a great test for you is talking to college freshmen about economics, which tends to scare them to death off the top and get them to realize that they see all the stuff around them already, they just use different terms. And all they’re doing when they get to their economics classes is applying the jargon. And so I’m just going to talk to people about this stuff in English. And I’ve never had any problem getting them to understand those ideas in any other setting. And I don’t think this one would be any different.
You’ve had some instances where you’ve been pulled into conservative media tweets and stuff like that. How does one get used to just having to deal with crap on social media and stuff like that when you’re trying to just do your job and say your thing?
So I got on Twitter I want to say in 2009, and I was doing local radio and then I went from there to doing satellite radio. And then after that, I started doing Around the Horn. And I immediately was able to recognize how different the responses were just because you were on television. I wasn’t saying anything terribly different than I was saying at these smaller outlets. I noticed it also from doing radio, like crazy emails I would get from people before the social media thing became the issue. And I just became ultimately fascinated by the mentality that people had where they just, you are an avatar to them. You’re not an actual person. And they just purge whatever their anger is and all this stuff towards you when people started coming up with the fake accounts and all that. And I was just like, “Wow, this is strange, bizarre, anti-social behavior. I wonder where all that comes from?”
And so as I did more and more television, I realized that for more and more people, it wasn’t even about who I was. It was about something that I just represented to them. The other part of it was I was really good at turning their nonsense around and making it humorous for me and the people who follow me. Then one day I looked up and I realized most of those people weren’t even actually people. It’s bots, it’s trolls, it’s all these different things. And that’s when I started backing away from it because I realized these people aren’t actually people. So when the conservative news people take my stuff and try to make something of it, it never turns into anything or it very rarely does. I see all the times that people would harbor something that I had said, and then it sits there on their site and it doesn’t have any comments and it doesn’t seem to have any traction.
That stuff gets out there and people get charged up. But I don’t even know how many people actually read it. And so for me, it’s not difficult when it’s somebody that I firmly believe is just trying to use me because I represent something they believe to their audience. It’s not like they’re coming at me out of any measure of respect. And then I look and I realize they don’t have that many people that follow them and actually care about what they say either. And so they can go ahead and say it. It only turns into a thing if I say something about it. If I just leave it alone, it’ll die. And so now it’s just easy for me to leave it alone because I know it’s not personal. I know it has absolutely nothing to do with anything I’ve actually said. They just figured somebody who looks like me with the name that I have and the way that I present things, that’ll be somebody that can charge up their audience. What I know about a lot of their audience is they’re out there in front of each other saying how much they hate me and then they sneak in and listen to me when ain’t nobody around.
Is social media, in your opinion, a net positive for sports and sports personalities, be it people in the media or be it LeBron and athletes trying to grow their own brands?
No, it’s a net negative for just about everybody at this point. Now I do think… and I want to be clear because I think I’m speaking from a position of privilege being able to say that because people know who I am now. I definitely used social media to make a name for myself. I definitely introduced myself to a whole lot of people via Twitter. A lot of my career has come because of some of the things that I did and the ways that I got people to pay attention to me on Twitter. So I don’t want to pretend as though there hasn’t been a point where you could get something out of it. But I look at it for the athletes, the idea, hey, your fans want engagement. I’m sure they do. I just don’t know if they necessarily need it. I still think that there’s a value for people who are as famous as they are to scarcity. This idea that you’ve got to give them a glimpse into what your life is. I’m not sure that you have to do that. I’m not sure how much…
For LeBron James at this point, I can’t imagine he would lose a single thing if he never got on Twitter or Instagram again. I just don’t see how. What would happen? Are we going to forget who LeBron James is? No, we’re pretty locked in on that one.
Yeah. I think it’s this myth that we just feel like we constantly have to feed it. People just feel like they need to constantly comment on everything, and like you said, give that much access where like you’re saying, if it’s somebody at that level, it’s not really needed.
Yeah. I used to think that, and I wasn’t totally wrong. I had become a brand as someone who had opinions on stuff. And so when stuff came out, I was going to give you an opinion and it was a broad range of things. Because some people come to me for sports. Some people will come to me for music. Some people come to me for the world. And the next thing you know, you’re out here and you just have an opinion on everything. But what happens when you do that is it really stands out when you don’t say something about a thing. And they’re like, “Oh, so you said something about da da da. You can’t say nothing about this?” And you start feeling obligated to have something on everything for that reason. And ain’t no fun in that. And I don’t even necessarily know how much it helps.
At least for me, I’ve reached a point where it’s I just don’t need to do this anymore. Maybe if you’re younger and you can figure out how to make a name like that, you can do it and you can get something out of it. But yeah, I think at first, one of the charms of social media was that famous people acted like regular people. So you got access to rather than seeing the brand of somebody, you felt like you got a glimpse into who that person actually was. But then what happened on the back end was regular people started acting like brands. Everybody’s Instagram page is like their own magazine. Everybody’s Twitter feed is like their own newsletter. And you think about it, you’ve got 5,000 followers on Twitter. You have 5,000 people who care about what you think. That’s a pretty big number when you stop and think about it. And so I feel like everybody then buys into it. “Hey, my audience,” because everybody has an audience now. And everybody feels like they’re serving their audience. And part of serving your audience as a brand is, it’s Veterans Day, you’ve got to say Happy Veteran’s Day because that’s what a brand does.
Fom a fan perspective, which sport do you think has the hardest time right now connecting with its audience? Which sport is losing its audience?
I’m starting to wonder if it’s the NBA, to be honest. I think that people are more connected to NBA players than they ever were, but they feel more disconnected from NBA basketball than they’ve ever been. And I can’t really understand it because there are so many incredible players right now. And there are really so many interesting storylines and the NBA got what it wanted, which is some legitimate parity where we’re going into the finals and nobody’s really sure who’s going to win. Nobody has a great answer for those things. But there’s an excitement around the NBA that used to exist that I don’t really feel like is there anymore. It’s just weird.
Are players too good at creating their own brands and islands? There are so many players who have their own off-the-court interests and are outspoken and bring a lot of attention to issues. Not that that’s a problem, but in terms of what you’re saying with the league, is that a problem that so many players are a country unto themselves?
Yeah. I don’t think it helps. And I don’t blame those guys for doing that. This isn’t a judgment. But looking at how it affects the larger product, no, I don’t think that helps. I do think that people prefer it if they could associate players with teams rather than the idea the guys are going to bounce around in the ways that they have. I do think that people would rather somebody stick around somewhere 8, 9, 10 years and build a relationship and then go from there. They like teams that they can get attached to in those ways. And I get why guys handle business the way they do now. But I don’t know if that’s better for the larger product.
Is the moral compass of certain things overstated in sports? Obviously, there are athletes that have run into various off field problems. There are leagues like Major League Baseball, which pays minor league baseball players pennies on the dollar, which is really morally reprehensible. Is it overstated the impact of that on fans and their interest in these sports?
I think that there is a general societal… Best way to put it. Basically, we as a society are losing faith in all institutions. Trust is at as low a level as I can think of it ever having been before. And so it’s hard to be disappointed in something you never believed in in the first place. And I just don’t think that very many people in American society right now believe in very much. What does it take for something to be a scandal in 2022? That applies to sports, that applies everywhere else. I was thinking about it the other day, the first scandal that I remember as a child was Iran-Contra. Can you imagine trying to make a news story out of Iran-Contra right now? Could you get anybody’s attention to care enough about that? Or have anybody say anything other than, “Well, what else do you expect from them?”
‘Game Theory’ premieres on HBO Sunday, March 13th at 11:30PM ET