Every major professional sports league in America has teams in towns that aren’t very passionate about their sport. Atlanta, for instance, doesn’t seem to be much of an NBA town. The owners of the Marlins, no matter which owners they are, seem to go out of their way to make sure Miami will never be a Major League Baseball town.
No league deals with this phenomenon more than the NHL. That’s not an indictment. As the league expanded, it made sense to establish footprints across the South and the West Coast. While the success of teams in Nashville, Tampa, and most recently Las Vegas have created a decent fanbase in those cities, it is fair to say that the NHL had no established hockey culture to rely on in those regions.
It makes sense then, that not every NHL team has a major presence on local sports radio. As the puck gets set to drop on a new season tonight, I talked to four programmers in American cities that have a passion for hockey about how the local team is covered on their station. We reached out to a programmer in Canada, who did not respond. It sucks, but it actually gives us the chance to focus on coverage of the NHL on American sports radio, where hockey is not our national pastime.
When you think about hockey in this country, your mind might jump straight to Detroit. The Red Wings are in a bit of a down cycle, but the city is Hockeytown, USA. At least that’s what the “Welcome to Detroit” sign says.
Jimmy Powers, who programs 97.1 the Ticket, says the team’s recent struggles may have silenced some fans, but has created more conversations on his air waves. “[There’s] a lot more to talk about because of the rebuild and their new stadium.” It also doesn’t hurt that the city’s other winter team, the NBA’s Pistons, have been struggling too.
When I asked Powers how much hosts on The Ticket talked about the Pistons in relation to the Red Wings, he answered “It all depends on what is going on and what they have been doing.” It is safe to deduce then that outside of acquiring Blake Griffin from the Clippers last season, the Pistons have probably not give hosts in Detroit much of a reason to push that team into their A block.
But the Red Wings, contrary to what some of us that live outside of the D may think, aren’t always in that A block either. When I asked Powers about the hierarchy of Detroit sports, he described it as “TIGERS and LIONS, until the NHL playoffs.”
Allan Davis programs WGR, which is in Buffalo, another hockey-obsessed town. No matter how you measure it, the hometown Sabres were the NHL’s worst team last season. Davis says that definitely showed in the way his hosts talked about the team, but it didn’t push the team off the air at all. ” Like the fans – WGR can sound frustrated with the results of the Bills and Sabres at times. We are fans too. But good or bad, season in and season out – WGR tells the story of every more the teams make on an off the ice, on an off the field, no matter the results of the games. Every day starts with ‘What’s the latest news!'”
He also told me that fans in Buffalo are used to struggling teams. Until last season the Bills owned the NFL’s longest playoff drought. Davis says that means most people that are passionate about the Sabres see the team as something more than just an NHL franchise. For many in his audience, the Bills and Sabres are a stand-in for their community as a whole. “Being a fan of either of these teams means, you know and understand how proud the people of Western New York are of who they are, where they live and how they live. Honest, hardworking and giving. Win, lose or draw we stay together, always there to help each other, whenever or wherever it is needed.”
I asked Allan then how that kind of passion shows up in his coverage of local sports, and if WGR favors covering one team over the other. He said that it depends on the time of year really, but in striving to keep WGR’s local programming all about Buffalo, both teams have a year-round presence. “WGR has a two hour show – The Instigators – from 10AM-12PM that covers the Sabres all year round. From 12PM-3PM – One Bills Live – is all about the Bills all year round. From August through the fall WGR leans more Bills and football. Winter and early spring more Sabres.”
I never really thought of Washington, DC as a hockey town. Like a lot of sports fans that live outside the nation’s capital, I assumed the sports hierarchy started with the Redskins and everything under that was something of a miss mash depending on who was in contention for a title. Whether that is true or not, 106.7 the Fan program director Chris Kinard, says it didn’t take a Stanley Cup title for his station to treat the Washington Capitals like something more than an afterthought. He told me that hosts and management at The Fan have been focused on their relationship with the team for years.
“We have steadily increased our Capitals content over the last few years, and I believe we will take it to a new level this year. We will have three different players on each week, we’ll be joined by the head coach every two weeks, and we’ll have regularly scheduled segments with several of the team broadcasters. We have had the only Caps-focused radio show for a few years, and that show will continue in a regularly scheduled weekday slot again this year.”
He also said that the Capitals have been more than willing to do their part to grow the relationship as well. “Their PR staff is phenomenal. They understand that, to grow their sport, they need to get their players out in the media as ambassadors. And they know the players are GREAT ambassadors. Funny, smart, open, and easy to like. So we do more player interviews with the Capitals than probably all of the other teams combined.”
Is DC a Redskins town? Well, the team does usually dominate the headlines in the fall, but Kinard says this week “most of our focus…will be on the Capitals as they raise their Stanley Cup banner, and drop the puck on the 2018-19 season. We have special shows planned throughout the week, and a few surprises up our sleeve that I think our listeners will love.”
Finally, I talked to Jim Graci at 93.7 the Fan in Pittsburgh. That station isn’t the flagship of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but given how important the team is to local fans, Jim says you have to really know hockey if you want to work for him. “Pittsburgh is a hockey town. So to do sports talk in Pittsburgh, you better know your hockey. It’s not surprising when you have a team as successful as the Pens have been for multiple generations.”
Multiple generations is exactly right. When I asked Jim how much of a factor Sidney Crosby is in the Penguins’ popularity, he was quick to point out that while Sid the Kid moves the needle in a big way, he is just one of the many superstars that have worn the team’s sweater. “We’re blessed in Pittsburgh to have Sidney Crosby. It felt like Sid was the second coming of Mario Lemieux. And think about it, Lemieux had Jagr (Jaromir Jagr) and Sid has Geno (Evgeni Malkin). Add to it that Sid had the chance to play with Mario, who literally saved the franchise in Pittsburgh. It was the passing of the legacy torch.”
So given that multiple generations of Penguins fans have their own stars, do they also have their own rivals? Jim told me that while younger fans have a number of teams they hate, one rivalry unites the fanbase like no other. “The Washington Capitals, with the comparisons between Crosby-Malkin and Ovechkin are a rival… From a historic perspective, the Rangers and Islanders get our fans riled up. Columbus has become a rival without the history. They’re better, they play in the same division and it’s a close proximity to Pittsburgh. The years of living in the Pens’ shadow has made much more intense for their fans. Detroit was a rival, due to playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, losing one than winning one. But nothing gets hockey fans buzzing better than Pens-Flyers. And it gets even more intense when the Flyers have a good year.”
The lesson I took away from these conversations is that hockey talk can work on sports radio if your listeners have the passion to support it. It doesn’t have to be a “hockey town” necessarily to talk about major news involving the team. Conversely, even in Hockeytown, USA, a bad team can depress fan enthusiasm.
What matters is that hosts recognize passion where it exists and never treat a hockey interview or discussion like an afterthought. Powers says he gives his hosts the freedom to cover the Red Wings and the NHL as a whole however they see fit. “Our local show will take calls, but we also will be talking about the biggest news stories of the day, even if it is unrelated to what game is about to be played.”
Kinard told me he doesn’t waste time worrying about whether DC is a “hockey market.” “For many years during the “Rock the Red” era, which started about 10 years ago, you could argue that the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. I don’t know that the audience has the sophistication and knowledge of the sport as some traditional hockey cities, but they certainly have passion.”
His attitude is one of “if the fans are passionate about the Capitals, then the Capitals are worth talking about.” That may be best way to approach hockey on sports radio, especially somewhere like Raleigh, NC, which is where I live.
I, and most of my neighbors, didn’t grow up with hockey as part of our day-to-day lives. Still though, nothing in sports unites this town, which is so divided by the college sports loyalties that exist here, like the Carolina Hurricanes making the playoffs. That obviously hasn’t happened in a long time, but if our local hosts don’t take the time to at least know who the stars are and develop relationships with the team, they are going to be at a disadvantage when trying to talk about the market’s biggest story when it finally does happen again.
Dallas Cowboys: Proof That Marketing Works
“Good marketers can convince you their products are anything they want you to believe those products are.”
Why do people still hate the Dallas Cowboys? Give me a good football reason that the Cowboys are worth your time. I get that there was an era where if the NFL was Mortal Kombat, the Cowboys were Shang Tsung, but those days ended three decades ago.
It’s 2022. There are adults in their late 20s that have never seen a Cowboys’ championship. Since 2000, the franchise has been to the playoffs fewer times than the Falcons. They have won as many playoff games in that time as the Jaguars. At this point, hating the Cowboys is about as useless as hating Luxembourg.
So why do people still have such a deep-seated disdain for the star and the players that wear it? Why was a national celebration set of on Sunday when the Cowboys lost in the stupidest way imaginable?
The answer is pretty simple really: marketing.
Good marketers can convince you their products are anything they want you to believe those products are. Great marketers can get you to behave like those products are what they say they are even when you know that isn’t true.
Jerry Jones is a great marketer.
People tune in when the Cowboys play. Maybe a good chunk of those people are hate-watching, but they’re watching. That is why the team was on in primetime six times this season. Of those other eleven games, seven of them were called by either FOX’s or CBS’s top broadcast team.
ESPN completely rebuild and rebranded First Take around the idea that Stephen A. Smith doesn’t like the Dallas Cowboys. That is it. The whole promo package for the show was just Smith wearing a cowboy hat and chomping on a cigar and laughing.
Shouldn’t we be doing this to the Patriots? Afterall, in the time since the Cowboy’s last Super Bowl appearance, New England has gone to the game an astounding ten times and won six titles.
It’s easy to read that sentence and say “Well, Tom Brady isn’t there anymore. The Patriots aren’t what they used to be. It isn’t as much fun to hate them.”
Uh, dawg, who in Dallas has been worth hating since Troy Aikman retired? You know, like 22 years ago!
Jerry Jones isn’t the man that coined the phrase “America’s Team, ” so he didn’t set its initial meaning. What it became, by virtue of him leaning into the branding is something that forces you to react. Either you buy into the blue and the silver and the star and you’re with America’s team or you recoil at the branding and the goofiness of the whole aesthetic and want to watch it burn.
Notre Dame football could be doing this too. The problem is they do not have the great markerter out front pushing that slogan over and over again.
Even “how bout them Cowboys?” is a solid positioning statement. It’s easily repeatable in good times or bad. The genius of Jerry Jones embracing that statement and that clip of Jimmy Johnson shouting those four now-iconic words is that it is a question that always has an answer.
Fans can celebrate with “how bout them cowboys” when the team wins. Haters can say it facetiously when they are on a losing streak. Either way, you are saying it and the Dallas Cowboys are occupying a part of your brain.
Positioning statements work. That is why so many stations tag their imaging with the same phrase or sentence every single time. That is why so many stations are called The Fan or The Game or The Ticket.
Admittedly, sometimes we need to rethink how our listeners are receiving the message. If we are all going for homogeny, nothing can stand out. Maybe that is a reason to rethink what I jokingly call “sports radio’s magic hat of five acceptable station names”, but the larger point is that you want every message you put out to point to the brand image you are trying to portray.
Jerry Jones’s message to the NFL and the media is no matter who they root for, fans care about my team. His positioning statements reflect that. Whether you think they are great marketing or goofy corporate branding, they work. The proof is everywhere.
Three Sports Marketing Trends You Need To Know
“Sports marketing is evolving at an extremely rapid pace and you’d best know where your competition lies or where opportunity exists.”
#1 OTT’s RAPID EXPANSION
Pay TV lost more than 5 million customers in 2020 and that trend is going to continue and the number is going to increase. With nearly 30% more Americans cutting the cord in 2021 and almost 87% of adults 18-24 preferring the OTT option, you’d better dive in and understand just how fast video consumption is changing; especially in sports. Platforms like ESPN+, Amazon, Peacock, Paramount+ and Facebook are diving head first into the sports rights market so that they can deliver LIVE sports where Americans are consuming video. OTT provides that sniper riffle approach advertisers are looking for as they try to increase ROI and minimize waste.
#2 AI … DATA-DATA-DATA
Without a doubt artificial intelligence is changing the way marketers are deciding how to go to market with their messaging and their products and/or services. More data is available now than ever before and you’d better understand how your client is using it to help them make their buying decisions. Most large advertisers are not only using one, but multiple vendors and are trying to obtain as much data as they possibly can so they can better recognize trends and understand their consumers behaviors and buying patterns
#3 eSports is BOOMING
Video games aren’t just for fun and entertainment at home anymore. Gamers are now creating leagues, generating 6-figure endorsements and have multiple contests where they compete for HUGE cash and prizes. Marketers are actively looking for ways to take advantage of this meteoric rise in popularity of eSports and that includes product placement, team sponsorships, individual gamer(s) sponsorships and tournament sponsorships. If your station isn’t trying to create a sellable feature around eSports then you’re missing out on a huge and very sellable feature. There are over 234 million eSports enthusiasts world wide and that number is only going to continue to climb.
OTT, AI and eSports are rapidly changing the sports marketing landscape and these are trends that will only continue and grow over the next 5 years. Digitalization of just about everything is changing how, where, when and on what kind of devices sports fans are consuming content. Sports marketing is evolving at an extremely rapid pace and you’d best know where your competition lies or where opportunity exists.
Be the expert in the room when meeting with agencies and/or clients, it will set you apart from the pack. Understanding these rapidly evolving trends will help you have better and deeper dialog with your advertisers.
What Should Radio Be Thinking About On Martin Luther King Day?
“Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?”
Monday, January 17 is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A lot of you will get the day off of work. Some of you will attend prayer services or civic events to honor the civil rights leader and his legacy.
Dr. King, like all humans, had his flaws but is undeniably a man worth celebrating. In a world where the divide between the powerful and the rest of us seems to be growing out of control, it is good to take a day to celebrate and think about a man that made a career out of speaking up for the little guy – whether that means black and brown people during the Civil Rights Era or it means workers in times of labor unrest.
Across the media landscape, we will see stations and networks running promos touting their “commitment to Dr. King’s dream!”. The sentiment is great, but I do wonder what it means to the people making those promos and the stations and networks airing them.
Look at the archives of this site. Think about the BSM Summits you have attended. How often have we been willing to shine a spotlight on the amount sports radio talks about embracing diversity versus actually putting plans into action? Jason has written and talked about it a lot. Every time, the message seems to circle back to him saying “I am giving you the data. You are telling me you recognize that this is a problem. Now do something about it.”
It’s something I found myself starting to think about a lot last year when Juneteenth became recognized as a federal holiday. Suddenly every brand was airing ads telling me how they have known how special this day is all along. And look, I hope that is true. It seems like if it was though, I would have been seeing those ads in plenty of Junes before 2021.
I am going to put my focus on the media because that is what we do here, but this can be said about a lot of companies. So many brands have done a great job of rolling out the yellow, black, red, and green promo package to acknowledge that it is Martin Luther King Jr Day or Black History Month or Juneteenth. I worry though that for so many, especially on the local level, that is where the acknowledgment ends.
That isn’t to say that those stations or brands actively do not want more minority representation inside their company. It just isn’t a subject for which they can say they have taken a lot of action.
Look, I am not here to debate the merits of affirmative action. I am saying in an industry like sports radio, where we thrive on fans being able to relate to the voices coming through their speakers, shouldn’t we be doing a better job of making sure minority personalities know that there is a place for them in this industry? Shouldn’t we be doing more than just waiting for resumes with “black-sounding names” on top of them to come across our desks?
WFAN went out and found Keith McPherson in the podcasting world to fill its opening at night after Steve Somers’s retirement. FOX Sports added RJ Young, who first made a name for himself on YouTube and writing books, to its college football coverage. 95.7 The Game found Daryle “Guru” Johnson in a contest. JR Jackson got on CBS Sports Radio’s radar thanks to his YouTube videos and when it came time for the network to find a late-night host, it plucked him from Atlanta’s V103, one of the best-known urban stations in America.
That’s two guys in major markets, another on national radio, and a third on national television. In all four cases, the companies that hired them didn’t just sit back and wait for a resume to come in.
Some of you will read this and dismiss me. After all, I am a fat, white Southern man. If I were a hacky comedian, I would say “the only four groups you are allowed to make fun of” and then yell “Gitterdone!”.
In reality, I point those things out because I know there is a large chunk of you that will call this whole column “white guilt” or “woke” or whatever your talking point is now.
Whether or not we are about the be a majority minority nation is up for debate, but here is a fact. America is getting darker. I look at the radio industry, one that is constantly worried about how it will be affected by new innovations in digital audio, and wonder how anyone can think doing things like we always have is going to work forever.
I’m not damning anyone or saying anybody should be losing their jobs. I don’t know most of you reading this well enough to make that judgment. What I am saying is that our industry has lived on the idea that this business is always changing and we have to be adaptable. I think it is time we do that, not just with the content we present on air, but in how we go about finding the right people to present it.
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