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Bomani Jones explains what he’s trying to do with his new late-night sports show on HBO

Bomani Jones onstage during “Colin In Black And White”, Netflix, And Dreamville Present Path To Power Summit at Clark Atlanta University on November 04, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Paras Griffin | Getty Images

Bomani Jones doesn’t want to be your economics teacher. Instead, the well-known sports personality wants to make compelling arguments around the intersection of sports and money. And now he has the backing of HBO to do it.

The WarnerMedia property announced on Tuesday that Jones’ sports show “Game Theory” will debut on March 13. The late-night program will see six 30-minute episodes in the first season, which will run through April 17.

And Jones has complete control over his project, unlike his days as an ESPN host.

Jones, 41, plans to take deep dives into weekly sports topics and integrate his thoughts through an economics lens. For example, he used the National Football League’s Rooney Rule to explain.

“We’re talking about what goes on within the Rooney Rule,” said Jones. “If we were in-season right now, we would certainly have something that’s about the labor market for coaches. The economics is going to inform that, and it will be a part of the discussion.”

But Jones warned “Game Theory” is “not an economics class. We’re not trying to teach,” he added. “At points, we will inform, but we’ll always try to invigorate and entertain.”

Jones said he’ll discuss sports topics out of the weekly headlines. One of which could be his thoughts on why the NFL should abolish its annual draft.

“All the reasons for me as to why the NFL Draft should be abolished, those are economics issues,” he said. “But if I tell you, ‘I want to abolish the NFL Draft,’ you’re just going to want to hear the argument. And once I start talking, you’re not just going to stop because it sounds like I’m discussing the economics of things. No, it’s a compelling take.”

He added Game Theory’s segments “won’t be as deep or as long as a John Oliver deep dives, but they will be a similar format.”

The late-night sports format has worked well for HBO. The media company has been producing the Emmy award-winning show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” since 1995. HBO also lured long-time sportscaster Bob Costas for a late-night sports show in 2001 when he hosted “On the Record with Bob Costas.” The show lasted until 2004, but the network rebooted the program in 2021, calling it “Back on the Record with Bob Costas.”

Now HBO is shifting its power and media resources to Jones. It’s unclear how much the network is investing in “Game Theory” and what they’re paying Jones, as HBO doesn’t comment on financial matters. But to paint a picture, the network reportedly paid Gumbel more than $1 million annually to host Real Sports back in 2006.

Jones tapped his long-time friend James Davis as one of the new show’s executive producers. Davis created “Hood Adjacent” on Paramount-owned Comedy Central. Jones said Davis will help make the show more compelling.

Asked why he didn’t launch “Game Theory” during Black History Month in February, Jones joked: “I don’t work in that department, my brother. And I haven’t given that any thought, to be honest. We’re starting on (NCAA) Selection Sunday, which I think for the format of the show, is where the show should be started.”

Jones spoke to CNBC last week to further explain “Game Theory” and why the show will work.

Jabari Young, CNBC: “Game Theory” – where did the name come from?

Bomani Jones: Well, we were bouncing around names for what to do on this. With my background with the economic stuff, it was almost too easy. It lands at the wings of economic theory. Another thing is, for me in school, game theory is always something that I found to be interesting because it forms a lot of the thought processes that I have about [sports and culture]. It’s just looking at things from the standpoint of the incentives of the players and looking at how, in theory, things will play out. Very often, it helps you figure out which way things are going to go.

Take my back through your journey. When I first discovered your work, you were doing long-form blog posts and reinvigorated my love for Ric Flair because you had respect for his wrestling character and showmanship. And then, you started appearing on ESPN shows and I thought your points were very provoking. Did you ever think it would get to a point where you would host a show on HBO? Was this always in the cards?

I learned early enough in the game that I didn’t get to decide what was in the cards. I always thought it was something I could do or at the very least, if you were to say a show like this is popping up, I would absolutely think I was a person, if not the right person, to do a show like this. I’ve been talking about doing a show like this for HBO for about 15 years. If you asked what the goal or dream would be, I would’ve told you that. Now, did I think that it would happen – probably not because a lot of things have to break for you to be in a position for you to think this is something that would happen. A lot of that stuff is outside of your hands as a talent. It has to do with the politics of the network, the politics of the industry, or just the trends and directions that people are going in, on top of what you’ve done and who has seen you in the course of time. A lot of that is beyond your control. If you were to walk this up to me in 2007 and asked me, “We’ve got this show. Do you think you can [host] it?” I would’ve said yes.

Did you learn anything with your experiences hosting ESPN’s “Highly Questionable” and “High Noon”? Did the experiences prepare you more for this opportunity?

They definitely prepared me. One thing about working with Dan Le Batard and that show (“Highly Questionable”) in particular is: I got to sit with a master interviewer. Someone who is excellent at talking to people and getting them to say interesting things and making them comfortable to talk about themselves in front of you. If nothing else I got out of my time doing that show, which will always make it valuable, is I learned that from Dan. With “High Noon,” I probably learned things in a somewhat different way. I think High Noon, as much as anything else, helped me learn what kinds of things I probably needed to be doing at this point of my career. If I was going to do a TV show, I probably needed to be doing something that was outside of the paradigms of the things I had already been doing. And I probably thought that I was beyond the point of my career at ESPN where I was going to be told, “The show you’re doing is not working, and you’re not going to do it.” You take some assessment, and you learn some things about what made you and what didn’t work. It reaffirmed something for me that I’ve always felt. It’s good to know that it still stuck with me – that it didn’t go the way I wanted it to – but it didn’t affect my confidence in myself about what else I was capable of doing.

And what is the biggest thing you learned that you will take into “Game Theory”?

I think the biggest thing I learned and that I’m taking into this is: The things that I do that are the best are the things that lean into me and my personality the most. I don’t think “High Noon” was a good reflection of my personality. That had a lot to do with me, just to be clear. But I don’t think the show and its design – it was not designed to lean in on who I was personally. This show is absolutely 100% leaning in on me. Everything that is going to happen on the show in some form or fashion will be a reflection of me. The best that you can do with me is take who I am and lean into it. The podcast that I do for ESPN, especially the last two years, has been successful, and a big part of the growth is we started leaning in more into me. 

An example is, we do a lot of celebrity interviews. Well, it turns out people enjoy listening to me talk to my friends more than they would some famous person. And so, we leaned in on me just hanging out with my friends. We leaned in on the topics and the things outside of sports that reflect my personality. And that’s the stuff that works best.

US journalist Bryant Gumbel attends HBO’s “Big Little Lies” Season 2 premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 29, 2019 in New York City.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

Take me into the business of Bomani Jones. You’re at a point where you’re not just a journalist on ESPN anymore. You’re a recognizable figure. 

The business isn’t different than what it’s been before. I suppose I have a different client that I’m doing some work with than I had prior to this. What’s different? I have an actual management role on this show, and that’s something that I hadn’t really had. You have it with a radio show or a podcast, but you’re just the one who is talking and telling somebody to book you this or whatever. It doesn’t require a real level of energy. Not in the way this is. I’m on the calls interviewing news producers. I’m interviewing graphics producers. We’re interviewing all these people for jobs that I had never really given any consideration to because at ESPN, you show up, and all those things are already filled. I’ve learned how a television show is built. I’ve learned what kind of budget you get to do a show and how to allocate the thing to ensure that you can do all the things you want to. Being involved in shooting promos and writing promos to make sure that they reflect me in the show in the way I want to be reflected and how I want the show to be reflected. I’ve got a lot of people around me, behind me, and in some cases in front of me to give me information and inform me of what those decisions ultimately are and what they will be. But right now, for me, this is a creative endeavor and probably the most exciting part of it.

Describe the business model of “Game Theory.” 

I don’t know what the business model of the show is, to be honest. I know they’re going to write me some checks, and I’m going to show up and do the stuff (laughs). We’ve got a number that’s allocated. We can’t spend more than that to do all the things we want to do. The model itself, for me, is a black box. I haven’t gotten around to asking anybody how they do that because the lights are on.

There are various ways to distribute a show with you in this format. You could’ve picked YouTube or another media company that needs the content to build streaming services. Why HBO?

Two things. One, this company called me – that helps a great deal. They came and presented this to me. Even if I had this myself and talked about who to present it to, HBO would be the first people. This is the most prestigious network in television. They’ve got the people who know how to make things work. They got the people who do a good job of letting you do what you want to do and try to create something that people will love rather than trying to create something that many people may think is good enough. The other thing about doing this with HBO: If this was some kind of half-ass project, it would not wind up on HBO. The level of quality control at this place is high enough to where you feel fairly affirmed just by the fact this gets to see the light of day. You can’t necessarily be sure of that with everybody you’re going to wind up working with. If you ask 100 people who worked in television and said you could have a show, name the network. I think nine out of 10 would say HBO. When you tell people, “I have a show, and it’s on HBO.” The look on their face changes completely. The look on my face would change.

“Game Theory” will center around the economics of sports. What about this topic, that when you talk about it, will keep people tuned in?

Well, I do it all the time. That’s the thing – it’s not like this is something that will be new that I’ve never done while operating in this space. That is something that I always do. But, again, for me, economics is a thought process as much as anything else. It’s about the way that you approach and solve problems. And from there, you can extend it and use it to talk about a bunch of different things. There are elements in money that come into sports that you might not specifically know as an economics discussion, but we’re going to have it. The mistake that people make when they try to do that stuff is not that they try to take on those topics, but they try to take on those topics and tell people they’re about to do something extra smart. That’s not what people want. People want something that they find interesting, compelling, and entertaining. Smart is not a trait that people are looking for as a standalone when it comes to this. So, when we talk about those things, they just need to be digestible and in plain English that people can understand. And it has to be presented in a way where they understand why this is going to be compelling.

We’re in an age where media companies are competing for people’s attention. So, why should people watch “Game Theory,” and why will it be successful?

Because it’s going to be good. I don’t think that on something like that, that you can give some long pitch and people will say, “Oh yeah, that’s going to be the thing.” What we have to do is make a good television show. What I think this show will be is compelling, if nothing else. Sometimes it’s going to be compelling just because of my take, and I’m saying something that you may have not heard before. Sometimes it’s going to be compelling because the stuff is just funny. Sometimes it will be compelling because the stuff looks good. We’ve got a combination of people, a collection of talent working on the show, where I look at everybody on this show, almost, and I feel everybody working on the show, except for me, is overqualified for their position. 

If you’re looking for somebody to speak sincerely about what’s going on, and whose opinion you can trust, and if nothing else means what they say, and going beyond to figure out how they feel to illustrate this stuff, then I think this show is going to work.

Will you need to scale back on ESPN, so people don’t have a Bomani Jones overload?

If I’m going to be honest, if you’ve been peeping game over the last year, the scale back has been in effect, independent of anything to do with HBO. I’ve scaled back on social media stuff just because I don’t feel like it anymore. So you can get away from me if you want to — it’s not that hard.

You’re an advent music lover. If you had to pick the perfect song or soundtrack to describe this moment in your career, what would it be?

If there was one song, and it’s unfortunate that Kanye (West) has decided to act up, but this is the “We Major” moment. This is horns blurring, chill “out, thinking we local, c’mon, homie, we major.” This is major. This is big to be in a position to do something like this. There is nothing you can tell me about this show being here that could ever hurt my feelings or poke a hole in what it is. I am hosting a late-night show on HBO.

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