John Gambadoro has carved out a 23-year career as a sports radio host in the Phoenix market. A run this successful doesn’t happen based on skill alone, which Gambo clearly has. It takes passion to thrive for over two decades.
Gambo has also developed an extensive contact list in order to uncover information that nobody else has. That doesn’t happen by sitting on the couch until it’s showtime. It takes a strong work ethic. Many hosts speculate about players and teams. Gambo reaches out to them directly.
Gambo is a firm believer in connections. He stresses the importance of forming relationships to interns and people trying to establish themselves in the business. It’s fitting because Gambo has built his success on the foundation of connections himself — from his unconventional start in the sports radio business, to the information he gathers on a continuous basis. Gambo is a great example that no one in this industry becomes successful on their own.
A radio career that began in Phoenix is one that Gambo sees ending in Phoenix. He has accumulated many fond memories — one being a dunk tank of all things — and has no desire to leave the market or Arizona Sports 98.7FM. One of the most interesting details that Gambo also reveals in this interview is the sports radio host he least wants to be like. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: What’s the one thing you love most about sports radio right now?
Gambo: I really think that sports radio for the last decade and a half has become the main medium for sports fans to get their news and information. Newspapers are dying. Local sports television is dying. A lot of it is down to a minute and a half a night. The best place for fans to really get their information is sports radio. We’re the one medium that hasn’t taken a hit.
Our company is growing. Our business is growing. Our listenership, it’s growing and it’s fascinating to me because everybody else — there are a lot of people in the industry that are struggling. They haven’t changed with the times.
I think what the fans like about it is, if I do an interview with the manager of the Diamondbacks, or with the general manager of a team, or a player of a team, fans get to hear that whole interview. In a newspaper you might have one line or two lines of what they said. On TV you may get just a snippet of what they said, but [on radio] you get the whole interview. You get to hear what everyone said. You get opinions. You get breaking news. It just continues to grow and get better and better while other mediums have struggled. As a radio group, I think we continue to be the main source for fans to turn to. Plus, there are still so many people in their cars on a regular basis. We’re their outlet for what they can listen to.
Noe: What would you say is the most challenging part of sports radio for you these days?
Gambo: For me personally, I go to a lot of games. I go to the Cardinal games, the Suns games, the D-back games, the ASU games. My role is a little bit different. Yes, I have a talk show and yes I’m opinionated, but I also am a reporter from my background. My background is being a newspaper reporter. I am all about developing contacts, getting sources all around the different leagues and breaking stories. That’s what I do. For me personally — it might be different for everybody else — but for me personally it’s just, man, how do you manage your time? I’ve got a wife. I’ve got kids. I’ve got D-back games to go to. I’ve got press conferences to go to. It’s busy. That’s just the hardest part is just managing your time.
Noe: When you have strong opinions and you’re also a reporter, how do you keep those relationships strong with teams if you’re hammering them at times?
Gambo: Respect. I go to the games. You have more respect when you go to the games. You’re entitled to your opinion and they don’t criticize you because you’re there. Back when I started doing sports radio in ‘97, almost everybody that had a press pass went to the games. But now that’s changed a lot. There aren’t many people that go to the games anymore. Me criticizing I think is accepted more so because, “Oh, he’s there. He was in the locker room.” I’m there.
I think when you’re not there and they never see you, there is a lack of respect. Then when other people criticize, it’s like, “Well, who are you to say something because I’ve never seen you at a game.”
I think the key is you’ve got to be accountable. We get these press passes. We all get them. We all have a press pass, but a lot of people choose not to use them. I’ve always chosen to use it.
Noe: What’s the reason there is a lack of strong sports talk competition in Phoenix?
Gambo: That’s a good question. I don’t think anybody else is committed to doing it. It takes a commitment. We have an amazing company that is committed to providing the audience with the best sports content, the best talk show hosts. We have the rights to the Cardinals, the Suns, the D-backs, the Coyotes, ASU, and now the Phoenix Rising — the soccer team.
We’re committed to content. We’re committed to a great staff. We have an amazing, amazing web department. Our podcasts, our app, our ownership group, and our management group are second-to-none.
There is nobody like our management group. They are just committed to supporting us and making sure that we have the tools necessary to dominate. That’s where it starts.
It’s just like a sports team. It starts at the top. You have to have great ownership that’s committed to winning. You have to have great management that’s committed to winning. We have that. It makes our job a lot easier when you go to work every day and you’ve got a support staff that is literally — I think ours is second to none in the country. I can’t imagine anybody has a better support staff than what we have.
Noe: Where does Kyler Murray rank among other players in the Phoenix area — past and present — in terms of being a lightning rod that produces opinions?
Gambo: Right now he’s at the top of the list because they traded up to draft a quarterback [Josh Rosen] in the first round. Then they got a second round pick for him. They bring this kid in who’s apparently too small. He has been our top topic from the day he announced that he was going to play football instead of baseball. The speculation began.
Now I go back to lightning rods like Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson. There have been a lot of lightning rods. Steve Nash when he went to the Lakers. Luis Gonzalez when he went to the Dodgers. We have a major hatred for L.A. teams here. Anytime a guy goes to L.A. — A.J. Pollock went to the Dodgers — that’s always a lightning rod. From an excitement standpoint, everybody can’t wait to see this kid Murray. I don’t think in my time here there’s been anything like it.
Noe: Who has been the most interesting Phoenix sports figure for you to talk about personally?
Gambo: Probably the Suns owner Robert Sarver because they haven’t won in nine years. He’s made a lot of poor decisions. There are a lot of opinions about him from this fan base. It’s the Suns. They were the first. They’re the most beloved. Everybody wants to see the Suns win a championship.
The Suns owner has always been a lightning rod for controversy. The guy wants to win. He wants to win badly. He does care. He’s gone about it the wrong way many times though.
There is a feeling with the fan base that a lot of fans want him out, wish he would sell the team. I think for the first time now there’s a feeling that he and the organization has turned the corner with the hiring of Monty Williams and James Jones and a new direction for the organization. But he’s been clearly one of the lightning rods because of longevity. He’s been the owner for over a decade. A lot of players come and go.
Noe: How would you describe your relationship with program director Ryan Hatch over the decade you’ve spent together?
Gambo: Fantastic. I have a ton of respect for him. He allows me to be myself. He respects the work that I do. He encourages me, supports me, and makes sure I have what I need. It’s a very good working relationship. I love working for him and I love working for the company. They are very, very good at — if you’re doing your job — they’re very good at supporting you and giving you the tools necessary to get the job done.
Noe: You were on a very successful show Gambo and Ash. Now you’re on another successful show Burns and Gambo. What is the main challenge of trying to build a new brand when the audience is used to another show?
Gambo: Gambo and Ash was like an iconic brand out here. It was a very, very popular show for 12 years. But all good things come to an end. Then when they paired me with Dave, the market was changing a little bit. At that time we had moved from an AM signal to an FM signal. I think that helped give the show a tremendous boost. David is really great at what he does. I’ve never worked with a better driver. He is a great driver of the show. That allows me to do what I do.
It’s crazy. People won’t recognize this; I work during the entire show. During the entire four-hour show I’m talking to coaches, players, and GMs on the phone. We could be talking about a topic and he wants to know an answer. I just start texting. Sometimes I’ll take a phone call during the show and I’ll literally duck out for three or four minutes and he’ll just have to keep talking and nobody knows.
I don’t read a lot of stories to get my information. Dave does that so we balance each other very well. I watch games, I go to games, and I call people. I get my information by calling players, calling coaches, calling owners, calling GMs. Dave’s very good at reading all of the stories on all of the websites that I don’t do. I just don’t do that. We gather information in different ways and it just seems to work.
I do like working with him because on a regular basis I’ve got to take a phone call to find out what’s going on with a local team. Zack Greinke gets hurt in a baseball game and I’m able to report first what’s going on because I will literally stop doing the show for two or three minutes so I can make some calls or text to try to find out what’s going on. We’re on during a very busy time. There’s always stuff going on from 2 to 6 in the afternoon. It works well. The Gambo and Ash brand is what it is and the Burns and Gambo brand it is what it is. It’s some of the same audience, but also a lot of a different audience.
Noe: What does Dave do a great job of as a driver that a weaker or lesser driver doesn’t do?
Gambo: Control me. Reel me back in at times when I need to be reeled back in. I don’t have an education. I didn’t grow up in this industry. I didn’t go to school for any of this. I barely got out of high school. I don’t speak great. [Laughs.] I grew up in an immigrant family from Italy. So for me, Dave is really good at controlling the show, driving the show, steering the show. “We’re going to go here. We’re going to go there. Okay, it’s time to get off this topic.”
I don’t introduce guests, I don’t do teases, and I don’t introduce a segment or end a segment. Him being as good as he is allows me to just concentrate on the content. I concentrate on strong opinions and content. He’s very good at leading me. He’s very good at setting me up for the information that I know or for the opinion that I’m going to have. He loves the role that he’s in. He loves doing what he does. It’s totally different from what I do. Completely different from what I do, but he’s the best at it.
Noe: How did you initially break into sports radio?
Gambo: So I was a sports writer for Newsday in New York from 1989 to ’96. Then I moved to Arizona. I was writing for the Associated Press and I was writing for Sports Arizona Magazine. Then one day I ran into a program director at a radio station — at that time it was KGME — and he was like you would be really good on the radio.
I had no experience and about a month later I was hosting afternoon drive. I had only been here for six months and I was hosting the afternoon drive show because the program director thought that I would be good on the radio. For no other reason, he just heard me talking, just asked me if I had ever done radio before. I said no and he gave me a weekend show for about four to six weeks.
After I had done four to six weeks of Saturday shows he goes, “You’re ready.” He just put me on afternoon drive. I’ve been on ever since.
Noe: Was there a lot of pushback because you sound like a New Yorker — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all — but you know how it is with local people, “Oh, you sound like you’re not from here.” Was that a thing for you?
Gambo: Absolutely. It took me a while to win people over, to get people to respect me. People either love me or hate me. As long as they have an opinion — that type of thing.
Not everybody likes me and not everybody hates me. I think a lot of people listen to the show because it’s a good show. It doesn’t mean you have to like me to listen to the show.
I’ve been here for a long time now so it’s changed a lot, but in the first few years certainly, “Who is this New Yorker? This Yankee fan telling me about my Diamondbacks? This Giant fan telling me about my Cardinals?” The accent doesn’t go away. I’ve been here for 23 years. My accent doesn’t go away. It hasn’t changed.
In the beginning there was a lot of pushback and I wasn’t really accepted, but then I worked hard and I did fall in love with the teams here. I root for the teams here, not over my teams, but I do root for all the teams here a lot. I’m a huge Diamondbacks fan, and Suns fan, and Cardinals. I want those teams to do really well. It just took time to get more experience here, to get accustomed to the lifestyle, and to fit in with the Arizona crowd.
Noe: Could you sense when you were more accepted and they started to take a liking to you?
Gambo: It was probably after the Diamondbacks won the World Series in 2001. I predicted the Yankees would sweep them in four games. I said if the Diamondbacks win, I’ll sit in a dunk tank for as long as you guys want and let you guys just clobber me.
After the Diamondbacks won the World Series, they set up a dunk tank at a Fuddruckers. I had like pneumonia because I literally — for six hours there were lines — thousands of people just trying to drunk me. People were putting ice in the dunker machine. I played along and I think that was the turning point for me probably.
I think I just earned respect more than anything by working hard. More than even the Fuddruckers dunk tank, I’m accessible. My life’s an open book. I don’t block my direct messages on Twitter like other people do or on Facebook, or on Instagram. Everybody knows about my family. Everybody knows about my life. I answer people back as much as I can.
I’ve never been one of those people that wants to keep my personal life personal. People know about my wife. They know about my kids. I’m an open book. Everybody knows what’s going on in my life and I think people really feel like they know me. I always run into people like, “Ahh, I feel like I know you.” I think one of the reasons why is I really relate — I’m nothing more than just some schmuck that grew up in New York and I ended up with a radio show out here.
Noe: If any of your kids were interested in one day being a sports radio host, what advice would you give them?
Gambo: Well, my son wants to play center field for the D-backs right now. That would have to be his fallback plan. He’s an All-Star center fielder at 10 years old. I probably get two to three messages every week from people that want to get into this business. It’s a very difficult business to have success in. Very few people do because it’s hard to have ratings, to have revenue, to have longevity.
I’ve done this for 23 years now. It’s not easy, but I would always encourage people to do it because it’s a freaking blast. It’s not a job. It’s a career if you want to make it one. It’s an amazing career. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I always encourage everybody to go for it. Why not? You look at me. I barely got out of high school. I grew up in a mob family. My lifestyle was different as a New York kid than a lot of these other people.
That’s why I encourage people. I didn’t get to go to college. I didn’t have the ability to go to college. I had a buddy of mine who helped me get the job at Newsday because I really loved sports. From that point forward I just kept working hard. I was all about connections, not about how much you know because I didn’t have the resume. I didn’t have the schooling, and the background, and the college degree. To me it was all about connections. I tell all the interns that work with us, make connections. Meet people. People can help you more than a resume can. People can help you.
Noe: There is so much advice from other people in sports radio, “You need to do this and do that.” Do you hear comments and ever say, “No, you really don’t need to do that”?
Gambo: I go talk to classes a lot. They have me in and I always say I’m going to be different than everybody else that comes in here and speaks to you. When I go talk to Arizona State kids that are in the Cronkite School. I’m going to be different than everybody else. I’m going to be the only person in here that has no college experience. Everybody else that you’re going to speak to is going to come in and they are going to have gone to college and they’re going to have a fancy degree and I have none of that.
What I’m going to tell you is different. What I’m going to tell you is make as many contacts as you can. Don’t do an internship and walk out of there and just put it on your resume. Walk out of there knowing 10 people and having their phone number and seeing if they’ll help you. Bust your ass on those internships, but most importantly get to know people. People will help you.
If you’re good at what you do and you’re a good person, people will help you get a job or make a phone call for you. If I have an intern and that intern is fantastic — then that intern says I’m going to New York. Hey, I’ve got connections in New York. I can make a phone call for you. Or hey, can I put you on my resume? Of course. I think that’s something that a lot of people miss the boat on. They still think that it’s, “Oh, I’ve got to get the experience and I’ve got the college degree.”
Well, so does everybody else, man.
Everybody else has a college degree. Everybody else has internships. You’ve got to get to know people so that way they can make a call for you. That way they can encourage somebody to hire you, or at least take a look at you, or speak to you. That’s what I tell everybody is it’s connections. That’s how I grew up. I didn’t have any education. It had to be connections for me.
Noe: When you’re as opinionated as you are, I’m sure somebody has confronted you about something you’ve said. Do you appreciate that? You strike me as a guy that would actually like someone coming up to you if they have a problem with your comments.
Gambo: I always make sure that after I’m extremely controversial over a player, a GM, a coach, that I’m there the next game. I always make sure I’m there the next game. That way in case anybody wants to say something, or confront me, or even just asked me about what I said, I’m there. I always make sure no matter what if I’m really critical of a player that I’m there the next day.
Of course I’ve gotten in Twitter wars with Markieff and Marcus Morris and a fight with Cody Ross over text messages when I criticized him. So yes it’s happened. When Dennis Erickson lost a big football game one year to Washington State — I had said before the game that if he loses this game I’m going to help him pack his bags. Then when he lost the game and he came on the show I said, “Coach, I’m ready to help you pack your bags because you got to go.”
It is about being accountable. It’s about being there. Sometimes people want to just ask you about what you said and see if it’s true, but most of the time nobody will say anything. Most of the time nobody says a thing.
Noe: You’ve signed a number of contracts over the course of your career. Outside of cranking out good ratings, what advice would you give a young host who’s trying to earn as much money as possible?
Gambo: My career has been pretty successful, but for me I just want to be happy. I’m happy with the amount of money I make. Trust me I am. I can’t believe that I’m doing as well as I am. To me it’s not about breaking the bank and it’s not about always trying to get the next dollar. It’s about being content. It’s about getting to a point where you work for a good company, you love to work for that company, and you’re just happy to be there. It’s not about trying to chase the next dollar.
I’ve had two offers for national gigs — turned them both down. No desire. No desire to go do national radio. To me it’s just really about — be happy. If you’re making a good living and you’re happy with that, you don’t have to be greedy. You don’t have to keep hammering people over the head for more money and things like that. We make our money through our contract and by endorsing companies.
The only thing I would say is if you find a place and you like working there, you’re making a good living, sometimes it’s okay to be content. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I’ve had a 23-year career and loved every freaking minute of it.
I never chased another job in another market. I’ve had people chase me, but I’ve never chased another job. I’ve always wanted to be here. My radio career will start in Arizona and it will end in Arizona. When it’s done and it’s over in a few years, I won’t look back with any regrets.
Noe: If you think about your entire career, is there one thing above all else that you would change if you could?
Gambo: Let me think about that. I got to be honest with you I don’t think there is. Is that okay?
Noe: [Laughs.] Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that. Not one thing though? Not an opinion, your approach to sports radio early on, nothing?
Gambo: Wow, kind of like Frank Sinatra, you know? I did it my way. Right now I have no regrets. I’m not kidding, man. I’m just some street kid from New York that ended up having an amazing career and I’ve been very blessed.
I thank God every night that I’ve been blessed with this career because I don’t even know that I deserved it. I don’t look back with any regrets. I don’t look back like I wish I would have done something differently.
I take a lot of pride in not getting in trouble because I represent a company 24/7. It was always important to me — and I tell my bosses this all the time — I’m a local figure here. I represent this radio station 24/7. I always want to represent this radio station well. If I’m out in public and I’m with my family and somebody wants to come talk to me for two to three minutes, I don’t blow them off. If I’m shopping at the grocery store with my wife and somebody wants to say hello, I stop and talk.
I don’t ever want anybody walking away saying, “God, that guy is such a jerk. I met that guy. He’s an idiot.” I don’t ever want that. I want people to always have a good impression of me because I want them to have a good impression of the radio station.
I don’t get in trouble. Don’t have a DUI. Don’t get arrested. Don’t do anything stupid like a lot of people do. You don’t realize what you have. I don’t know the guy’s name, but there was that guy in New York that had this great career and blew the whole thing.
Noe: [Craig] Carton.
Gambo: Yeah, that guy had an amazing career. How do you blow that? You’re making tons of money hand over fist and you’re doing what everybody would love to do. Everybody would love to do what we’re doing. We’re talking sports for a living. Don’t blow it. So when I see people in the industry — there was some guy in Seattle that had a career as a newspaper guy and I think he got fired or suspended because he started hitting on some girl and she reported him to the newspaper. You remember that one?
Noe: No, I thought you were going to say — I think it was a Seattle host who got busted with a hooker or something like that.
Gambo: Yeah, right. There was a writer — some real estate writer. You should look this up. It was a pretty good story, man. The girl totally outed him on Twitter and then she called the editors. He got suspended. He was sending her all these messages and he’s a married guy. I think it’s just about representing your company well.
Noe: Is there anything specifically that you want to accomplish before your career is over?
Gambo: That’s a great question. I think about this all the time. I don’t want to stay too long. I don’t want to be Mike Francesa. I don’t want to turn into a laughingstock. I want to put in my time and get out at the right time. I don’t want to get out too late, and I don’t want to get out too early, but I definitely don’t want to stay too late because I’ve seen so many people do that. I want to get out in what would be a fair amount of time.
I’ll be 53 years old this year. Is it five more years, six more years, or seven more years? I don’t think it’s any longer than that. I’m pretty positive it’s no longer than that.
I think that’s the thing — I can relate to any audience. Younger people, older people, men, women, and I still love what I do. I have no desire the stop now, but I’ve seen people make fools of themselves by staying too long and I don’t want to do that.
Noe: When you start to see the finish line in this business more clearly, does that help you enjoy what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis even more?
Gambo: Yes, I enjoy what I do all the time. I think I’m different than anybody else that does this job in the country. I do think I’m different. I’m not saying I’m better. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else. I’m different. I don’t do sports radio the way other hosts do it. Again that doesn’t make it better and it doesn’t make it right. I’m just different.
I’m all about making contacts with players, coaches, GMs, owners and getting information that nobody else has. My high in this business, the thing that gets me excited, is having information that nobody else has and sharing that with my audience. Giving them insight that they can’t get anywhere else. That’s my high. That’s what I live for. That’s what I love to do. Every single day that’s my goal. Every single day that’s what I try to deliver.
I try to give my audience insight that nobody else has, that nobody else knows. I can tell them what’s going on with the team, what’s going on with a player, what’s going on with a coaching search. That’s what I live for.
I don’t think there’s anybody else in the country that does it the way I do. I don’t read the stories on the internet to get ready for a show. I don’t read a newspaper. I haven’t looked at a newspaper in forever. I don’t really go on the websites to see what other people are writing and things like that. I’ve got a partner that does a really good job of that stuff.
For me it’s about talking with players and coaches from all over the league. With the NBA Draft coming up, I talked to seven basketball teams the other day. Seven different teams on the draft lottery to find out what was going on with these teams.
That’s just kind of what I do. That’s my high because I feel like I can give my audience something that they can’t get anywhere else. That’s the enjoyment of it for me. If I get to a point where I can no longer deliver that, well then I’m done.
Nothing Is Easy In the Cold, Not Even Broadcasting
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end!
No matter what you may think, doing play-by-play for any sport is a difficult thing. The great ones make it look easy, but it’s not. Prep work dominates things leading up to the broadcast, getting notes, nuggets and entertaining tidbits take up time. Then once you’re prepped, some stadiums are better than others to broadcast. Some booths are easier to work than others.
Then there’s the forgotten element, the weather.
How will you handle inclement weather of any kind? Warmth, rain, snow and oh yeah, the dreaded freezing temperature. Before we get into it, here are a few of the less-than-ideal conditions my fellow broadcasters have had to deal with over the years.
THE FOG BOWL
During the 1988 playoffs between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, a dense fog rolled onto the field during the game, making it nearly impossible to play or see. Numerous players complained they couldn’t see 10 yards in front of them. Both teams were forced to use their running game because receivers couldn’t see long passes. The broadcast was called by Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw on CBS.
“We couldn’t see anything—absolutely nothing,” CBS-TV play-by-play broadcaster Verne Lundquist told the Associated Press. “We had to look at the TV just like everyone else.” Lundquist’s color man, Terry Bradshaw, told viewers the game should have been suspended.
THE FREEZER BOWL
At -9 degrees Fahrenheit, the 1982 AFC Championship Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers proved to be the second-coldest game in NFL history. It was so cold that Bengals QB Ken Anderson suffered frost bite on his right ear. The temperature was not only -9 degrees, but the wind chill was measured at -58 degrees, by far the worst in league history.
THE ICE BOWL
The 1967 NFL Championship between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys became known as the “Ice Bowl.” It remains the coldest game ever played in the NFL, at -15 degrees with a wind chill of -48 degrees. Lambeau Field’s turf-heating system actually malfunctioned before the game, leaving the turf rock-hard. Officials actually had to resort to calling out plays and penalties because when referee Norm Schachter blew his metal whistle, it actually froze to his lips.
The last two are examples of something topical since last week’s “Super Wild Card” game in Buffalo was played in extreme temperatures. At kickoff, it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill made the temperature feel like minus-5. A far cry from the above games, but come on, it was freezing cold out there.
The CBS Sports NFL announcing team of Ian Eagle and Charles Davis said Saturday’s game between Buffalo and New England was the coldest work environment they’ve experienced during their broadcasting careers.
“We kept the windows closed in the booth until one hour before kickoff,” Eagle told The Athletic. “When we finally opened them, I had a sense that it would be manageable. I was wrong. CBS rented some industrial heaters for the night, but unfortunately, they were no match for the Western New York frigid air. It really hit me in the third quarter. I started shivering and actually had a few moments where my jaw got locked up mid-sentence. It was by far the coldest I’ve ever been calling a game.”
Davis recalled two games he called at Lambeau Field that were similar, but not as bad as it was in Buffalo.
“It helped that the evening was relatively clear, and the winds minimal, but make no mistake about it, ‘the Almighty Hawk (wind)’ made its presence felt and I kept drawing on one thought — everyone involved was cold, and they were persevering,” Davis explained to Richard Deitsch.
“In addition, we were watching history be made in front of us by the Bills offense — seven drives, seven touchdowns, something that had never been done in the NFL playoffs. Beyond impressive, and it definitely helped us maintain focus. I’m not sure anyone would choose to do a game under those conditions, but there was definitely a sense of pride among our team that we all worked to the best of our abilities on a night that would test all of us.”
Davis said that there was no way not to think about his discomfort. He gave credit to the stage crew in the booth that helped to keep him and Ian Eagle warm. There was also a jacket involved, a familiar one given to Eagle during the game, leading to an excellent exchange between he and Davis just before the third quarter started.
Charles Davis: Where did you get the jacket?
Ian Eagle: What jacket?
Eagle: Oh, this? Yes, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, you might have noticed, wore this a few weeks ago and it hit the internet by storm. Kurt saw that we had this assignment. Kurt now runs a program “Warner’s Warmers,” he just sends the jacket out to whoever needs it. I feel like, I want Jiffy Pop Popcorn. This thing is very warm. This is the same jacket. Kurt sent this to me. Let me tell you, not all heroes wear capes, they wear “Silver Bullet Puffers.”
Davis: Let’s talk about the game for a minute. Kurt, a brother would like a jacket too…
I’ve never really experienced calling a game in that extreme weather, especially after all the years I’ve called baseball games. But being in the Midwest, even those early days in April and sometimes into May, cold temps are a factor.
I think the coldest game I ever called was a game with the Cubs where the temperature at the start was about 31 degrees with a wind coming off the lake. We debated on whether or not to open the windows in the booth. One voted no, one voted yes, so the compromise was the window near the play-by-play guy was cracked open just a bit. Games just sound different with the windows closed. It’s not as clean. It sounds like you’re doing a game in a closet. But sometimes self-preservation comes first. The same goes for extremely warm weather too.
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your pen isn’t working all that well, and how do you score a game without taking your gloves off? In those conditions, as Eagle was saying, your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end! I know it sounds exaggerated but in the moment, its not.
People sitting at home still want you to call the game. They are looking for the same information you would have given if it were 40 degrees instead of 40 below with the wind chill. It’s a big ask, but the broadcast crew has to find a way to adjust to the conditions and do what they are there to do. It helps when everyone understands that. It’s not to say that you can’t talk about the way things are in the booth or on the field from time to time. But don’t let it dominated the airtime, as tempting as it might be to do so.
Just think, if you’re cold in the booth, what’s life like for the sideline reporter?
Ben And Woods Aren’t Doing a Show For One Person
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show.”
There’s no confusion about where their allegiances lie. And when it comes to being relatable to the audience, there’s few things Ben and Woods do better than buying season tickets at Petco Park, wearing Padres hats and cheering for the lone professional team in San Diego.
Some hosts choose to never openly root for the teams they talk about on an everyday basis. Steven Woods and Ben Higgins strive to never hide who they are on the air. They’re Padres fans and they’re not afraid to show it.
“I was in music radio before and sometimes it was hard to hide my disdain for some of the music that I played, so I just decided not to,” said Woods. “I just let it out there. People I think appreciate authenticity and if I didn’t like a song I’d tell you. But I still had to play it, right? With the Padres, it’s why I never sit in the press box, because I can’t cheer in there. I bought season tickets so that I can go and scream at the players like I want to. I think it resonates, because there’s fans listening in the car that want to see them do well too.”
“I do believe in journalistic integrity,” said Ben. “But to me that means you have to be honest. You have to be honest in your opinions and you can’t be afraid to be critical. No one is more critical of a team than their own fans. They are the most critical people of all. I don’t wanna be the fan that constantly criticizes, but at the same time, why would you listen to a show that is just relentlessly positive and gives you a white wash version of what’s not really reality? Every team has problems and it’s our job to point them out or nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
When you think of baseball towns, New York, Chicago and St. Louis are probably the three cities that immediately come to mind. But in a football world, San Diego has emerged as a new baseball town with the Chargers recently leaving for Los Angeles.
If you have any doubt that San Diego is now a baseball city, just listen to Ben and Woods on 97.3 The Fan from 5-9 am every weekday morning. The duo has no issues with doing three-plus hours of Padres talk, even during the offseason.
That’s not a new thing. Ben and Woods have always conducted the show the way it is now. They want to talk baseball, but they also want to hit off-topic content that will give the listener a chance to laugh on their way to work.
That’s been the case since the show was at Mighty 1090. Ben and Woods were at the station as the morning show when it folded in 2019. That was an incredibly trying time for both talents.
“It was pretty heartbreaking to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I had a brand new baby and the show was going great. We were on the rise and then it went away. It was shocking. It was also scary. I think uncertain is the best word. We believed in our product and we knew there was a market for it and there was a station that just so happened to need a morning show. The timing was pretty serendipitous.”
“I had been a listener for 15 years before I ever worked at that station for the first time,” Ben said. “And then you get there and you feel like, wow, we’re here and then all the sudden it’s gone. It wasn’t overnight, at some point we lost the signal transmission then we went streaming and it was kind of a slow death over the last few weeks. Ultimately it just ended one day. It was a very strange thing. The fact we got picked up at 97.3 The Fan, got back on the air so quickly was really great.”
Things are going extremely well for Ben and Woods at 97.3 The Fan. They’re thriving in morning drive with a unique show that’s different from any other in the market. Sure, they’ll talk about sports, but their focus is more on the overall entertainment of the show.
“It’s morning drive, you’re there to entertain,” said Woods. “You do have to get really creative. We get very creative, because we have to. We take a lot of risks, more so than people would like. The way I look at it as no one remembers us talking about the NFL Playoffs. But they do remember the time we played a 17-minute Bob Dylan song in its entirety on the radio and sat through it. I remember that and always will. Nobody is ever going to say, ‘man, nobody breaks down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like you guys’. But they’ll remember, ‘holy crap, you guys literally played a 17 minute Bob Dylan song it’s entirety’.”
“When we started it was 95 percent sports and I was afraid to do anything else,” Ben said. ”We started doing segments like Ben reads raps, there was a really good response and I started to warm up on OK we can branch out a little bit. Now, if there was a day we didn’t have a non-sports topic I would say that was a weird show.”
“Rest assured, Opening Day comes, we’re blowing out every bit we have, period,” Woods said ”We’re one of the few shows in town that has no problem doing 3 1/2 hours of just Padres talk. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself a little bit. I always call it punting. It’s an easy thing to say, hey, the playoffs are this week let’s get the local beat writer on from every single team and we’ll interview them. Like anyone here gives a rats ass what the Packers beat writer has to say. There may be one guy, but I’m not doing a show for one guy.”
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show,” laughed Ben.
One of the reasons the show has the identity that it does, is because of Woods’ background in multiple formats of radio. No, he’s not a sports radio lifer, and in a way, it’s probably greatly benefitted the show. He’s taken his creativity from the music side and perfectly blended it with his love for sports.
“I like sports radio more because there’s a lot more creativity,“ said Woods. “ I didn’t get to pick the music I got to play at all. Not even a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of chances to talk so for me, as a creative person, this is tremendous. We can do whatever we want and our bosses are pretty cool about giving us a lot of leeway. I’ve learned how audiences react. I’ve learned how to keep an audience. It’s energy, it’s being compelling, breaking balls, having fun. Guy’s driving to work in the mornings, he wants to get a snicker or a laugh, he’s not looking for breakdowns of defenses and things like that.”
Ben and Woods is much more than just the two hosts in the chair every weekday. The cool thing is that anyone that listens to the show knows that. Paul Reindl is the executive producer of the show and has a talent and relationship with the hosts that anyone would dream of.
“He’s the worst,” laughed both Ben and Woods. “Paulie is great. We were able to get away this weekend and after we drank like 40 beers and whiskeys, I was like bro, I’m so proud of you and you’re so valuable to the show. But he’s an unsung hero behind the scenes. He has an uncanny ability to bring sound drops almost intuitively. He’s got pages and pages of drops we’ve collected over the years. He’s just an awesome producer.”
Sports Are Learning To Meet Gen Z Where They Are
“The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity.”
Should sports radio be concerned about where audiences will come from in the future? It is an interesting question that we talk about here a lot. It is also something that the New York Times tackled indirectly last week.
A column from Joe Drape and Ken Belson declared this generation of kids “The eSports Generation” and went on to explain just how disconnected from traditional sports they really are.
An alarmist might ask if this is the beginning of the end of traditional sports leagues. Someone a little more level-headed, like Joe Ovies, may want to dive a little deeper to see what leagues are learning and how they are adapting.
Joe hosts The OG in afternoon drive at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. He is always interested in how changes in technology and consumption patterns effect sports and his audience. I saw him tweeting about the New York Times piece last week and asked if he would want to write a little something for us.
“Meet your audience where they are.”
How many times have you heard that phrase in the last 5 years from a consultant, manager, or any number of Barrett Media posts as content consumption trends continue to spread out over a variety of platforms? Turns out the same applies for pro sports leagues, who are fearful that an entire generation of fans will be lost and their traditional business model will crater as a result.
The New York Times recently highlighted what sports marketers are doing to win over Generation Z, which typically applies to kids born from 1997 to 2012. The Times hits the usual beats.
There’s a reference to Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, an esports star who is also a traditional sports fan, who the NFL hoped would be a Pied Piper for youth fandom. There are examples of MLB, famously stingy when it came to fans using their content on social media, now working with TikTok influencers. And of course, highlighting the NBA’s wide ranging approach to online engagement and their franchise run NBA 2K esports league. Most of the article was based on a recent SSRS/Luker on Trends report, which conducts regular surveys about sports and society.
The issue for pro sports leagues isn’t that Gen Z kids aren’t “passionate” enough about sports. It’s that Gen Z is more likely to admit they simply don’t like sports.
“Only 23 percent of Generation Z said they were passionate sports fans, compared with the 42 percent of millennials (defined as 26 to 41), 33 percent of Generation X (42 to 57) and 31 percent of baby boomers (57 to 76) who identified themselves as passionate. More striking was that 27 percent of Gen Zers said they disliked sports altogether, compared with just 7 percent of millennials, 5 percent of Gen Xers and 6 percent of boomers.”The new york times, Jan. 12, 2022
Also factoring into the waning interest in sports from Gen Z is the dramatic decline of youth sports participation. There is a larger discussion to be had about the role of parents and specialization in this decline, but we can address that topic another day. As it relates to pro sports leagues today, the drop in youth participation absolutely impacts the level of interest in kids who might want to watch the best in the world of sports do their thing.
“Participation in youth sports was declining even before Covid-19: In 2018, only 38 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
In June 2020, the pandemic’s early days, 19 percent of parents with kids in youth sports said their child was not interested in playing sports, according to a survey conducted by The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. By September 2021, that figure was 28 percent.
On average, children play less than three years in a sport and quit by age 11, according to the survey. Why? Mostly, because it is not fun anymore.”the New york times, Dec. 19th 2021
The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity. Meeting up on the playground or at a friend’s backyard for a pickup game has been replaced with meeting your friends on a Discord server and deciding if you’re going to play Halo or Call or Duty after school.
If you have kids in the age range that I do, none of this should be a surprise. You see it every day and don’t even think twice about it. But if you do stop and think about how frictionless it has become to be online all day with your friends, you start to realize the impact of never being bored or getting dragged to things by your parent because there were no other options.
Watching sports and going to sporting events isn’t frictionless. It’s a pain in the ass. Older generations deal with it because we don’t know any better, it’s just what we do. But Gen Z isn’t about to stop what they’re doing just to watch a game. Why would they? They can get the highlights later.
Gen Z is about dropping in and out of entertainment options whenever they feel like it. In other words, why would they sit around waiting for their favorite song to be played on the radio when they can easily pull it up on YouTube or Spotify.
Pro sports leagues can create all the social content and tout billions of views. They can tout engagement with Gen Z because a bunch of kids bought NFL related skins in Fortnite.
Awareness of their leagues isn’t the problem. It’s getting Gen Z to care enough to watch the game. Take my kids, who are fully aware of what’s going on in the world of sports, but getting them to sit down and actually watch the game is torture. Throw in the increasing cost to attend sporting events, I’ve started leaving them at home because it’s a waste of money given my 13-year-old is just gonna play Clash Royale in that $75 seat.
To be clear — I’m OK with my kids just not being into sports. It’s not like I didn’t try. It’s simply understanding we’ve transitioned to a world of niche communities. You can still thrive within those niche communities. Just look at sports talk radio as an example, where you’re not winning with cume, but with passion around sports. That’s what great sports talk radio stations sell. Pro sports leagues will be fine doing the same.
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