Over the last decade or so – we’ve seen the rise of the “insider” in sports media.
The title adorns the names of respected reporters like a military rank. It’s a bit of a buzz word that demands the attention of the casual sports fan. After all, insiders don’t just grow on trees, theirs is a title that was earned – forged after years of conference calls and locker room interviews. While he’d never describe himself as such – it can’t be denied that Ric Bucher is one of the first journalists to earn an “NBA Insider” distinction.
“I don’t even know what that means,” shrugs Bucher. “I’m just a storyteller.”
The truth is – labeling the media veteran as an NBA Insider is probably selling the first generation American short. While he’s certainly earned all the stripes necessary to becoming an insider – the national columnist, radio host and sideline reporter would best be described as a renaissance man.
Born to German immigrants, Bucher started playing piano at the age of 6.
“By the time I was 12 I hated it,” recalls the Cincinnati native. “At that point it just wasn’t cool.”
Fortunately for 12-year-old Bucher, his attitude toward the ivories changed thanks to one of his earliest role models.
“9 year old Joel – I’ll never forget it!”
Though three years his younger – it was Bucher’s fellow student Joel who opened his eyes to the world of jazz piano.
“I was so used to classical sheet music. Jazz you got a couple chords, maybe a key and you go from there. There’s so much creativity involved, so much freedom – you can make anything your own. Kind of like writing a column – I loved that.”
To this day, the former Baldwin Music Company student still plays.
Bucher’s ability to make proverbial lemonade would become a bit of a theme in his life. No matter the circumstances presented – he would always find a way to make things work for him.
If you ask the 6’3″ athlete today, he’d say if he was born 15-20 years later he would’ve pursued a collegiate basketball career. As it was growing up the son of German immigrants in the 70s, soccer was just about all he knew. A lifelong player, he was always the goal scorer in high school – a mindset he was forced to shift when he began playing at Dartmouth.
“The Dartmouth coach was a former goalkeeper – so his philosophy was certainly defensive. In order to get on the field I had to change how I played, so I shifted to kind of a defensive midfielder.”
Bucher’s compromise earned him a spot on the varsity soccer side as a freshman, a roster position he held for four years.
After college, it was an internship with Sports Illustrated that allowed the English major to realize what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
“I was surrounded by all these writers who would just parachute into these huge events and write great pieces. I couldn’t wait to get started on my own somewhere.”
Up until that point, Bucher thought he would put his communication skills to work as a lawyer or an advertising executive. Whatever it was – he wanted to be sure his working class parents were proud given their tremendous sacrifice putting him through college.
“There weren’t scholarships for soccer players, I was able to earn a bit of an academic scholarship but my annual tuition was half of what my dad’s annual salary was. I don’t know how they did it.”
His first position landed him at the San Diego Tribune, a job he was happy to have, but he couldn’t help but compare his choices to that of his friends.
“That was a bit of a tough time for me,” admits Bucher. “I was looking around at all my Dartmouth classmates who were working for Lehman Brothers or Leo Burnett, and I was at high school football games. It was hard, but it was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
Bucher’s early days in Southern California turned the eager young professional into a journalist. He began sniffing out stories himself, developing resources and making the calls. He learned how to find the story and, more importantly, how to tell the story.
“After San Diego, I knew I could work for just about anyone.”
The resilience of the writer was eventually rewarded with a position on the San Jose Mercury News staff covering the San Francisco 49ers. Bucher liked football – but not like he loved his basketball. Undeterred, he made the most of his position. He continued to plug away until he found himself as the paper’s Warriors writer four years after his initial hiring.
10 years removed from graduating Dartmouth – Bucher had his dream job. Most stories would wrap up there – the son of immigrants who defied the odds to earn himself a place in the NBA media landscape. However, as Bucher remembers it, this is where the road got even tougher.
As a minority owner, team Vice President and Head Coach – Don Nelson was the Warriors in 1993, and he wasn’t trying to make any new friends in the media.
“I arrive on the scene and I was already way behind all my competitors. Every other writer had been covering the team for years and had a relationship with Nelly. I had no shot at getting any kind of exclusive information.”
Rather than raise his arms in defeat and blame his “unfair” circumstances, Bucher went to work. He knew if he couldn’t develop Nelson, he’d try to strike up a relationship with their new draft pick out of Michigan – Chris Webber.
“When Chris landed in Oakland for the first time there were two people there to greet him – myself and a real estate agent.”
In no time, Webber and Bucher had a bond. Both were new on the job and trying to make a name for themselves. At the time, Bucher was just developing a source he thought would help him through his first year. He had no idea this source would produce the biggest story of his young career.
On the court, the Warriors were having a great season. Webber was working on a Rookie of the Year campaign and Nelson was guiding the team back to the postseason. From an outsider’s perspective, all seemed well in Oakland – but that was far from the case.
“Chris and Nelly weren’t getting along, and Chris used to tell me all about it. How he wasn’t sure if he could keep playing for him,” remembers Bucher in such clarity it feels as if the conversations happened last season.
“I told him I would keep everything under wraps, but as soon as it became apparent during games that there’s a problem I would have to write it. That’s the understanding we had.”
By February, it had become evident there was absolutely an issue between the Warriors head coach and their star player, and Bucher wrote the piece. Before publishing, he offered Nelson a chance to comment, a chance Nelson dismissed.
Writing a story that sheds negative light on a subject you cover every day is never easy for a journalist – especially when that subject is an NBA legend and you’re a first year beat reporter. Unfortunately for Bucher, mother nature and the scheduling gods stepped in to make matters even worse.
“We were on the road in Chicago when I was putting together the story. We had an off day before our next game in Cleveland so a lot of the older beat writers travelling decided to spend an extra day in Chicago. Being the new guy, I caught the first plane I could to Cleveland – and that’s when the story was published,” he pauses, the trauma of the moment still audible in his tone.
“That day, there was a huge storm in Chicago and all the other writers were snowed in, which meant they would miss Nelly’s next media availability and I would be there to face him all by myself!”
With almost 30 years covering the NBA, Bucher doesn’t seem to take much personally. Emotions are all part of the business. That’s why when he describes the colorful insults the Hall of Famer hurled at him that day he does so with an admirable sense of humor.
“It was tough for a while, I was under some scrutiny and it felt like I was on an island by myself but eventually everything turned out to be true.”
Unknown to him at the time, Bucher’s courage to pen the piece earned him a favorable reputation around the league. Not only did he write the tough story, he faced the music and refused to backpedal.
The budding insider’s next gig sent him to the Washington Post in 1997. It was here he had a preview of what would become iconic sports programming just a few years later.
“I used to walk into Kornheiser’s office and pose a question on whatever happened the night before, then pass the word onto Wilbon and just sit back and watch them go at it.”
After just a year in Washington, Bucher was approached about a position with ESPN the Magazine as it launched in 1998.
When asked about his transition from a daily paper to a national magazine – Bucher’s almost lost for words.
“It was awesome!”
In 1998, Sports Illustrated was still king, but ESPN the Magazine was the cooler, younger and edgier competitor.
Not only was he able to build his brand and readership on a national stage, but for the first time he had the opportunity to be on television. It wasn’t the medium he set out to conquer, but the piano playing soccer star was never one to back down from a new challenge. In time he was able to hone his on air skills as he became a regular contributor to studio shows. He didn’t realize it at the time, but by branching out as a multimedia personality, Bucher was preparing himself for the seismic shifts that would slowly upend the industry.
“If you look at my career, I saw the end of newspapers. I saw it a little bit at a time, decision makers not seeing that everything was moving toward digital.”
In 2012, Bucher thought it was time to cut down on the travelling and focus on being around his kids in the Bay Area. With years of television experience now on the resume, he took a job with CSN Bay Area and the Warriors as a sideline reporter. He also joined the Bay Area’s new sports station 95.7 the Game as a morning show host. However, the move that raised the most eyebrows was his eventual agreement to work for Bleacher Report.
“I’ll admit – that was kind of dumb luck,” reflects Bucher today.
It’s hard to imagine, but just five years ago the idea of a national writer as well-known as Bucher working for a website was relatively unheard of.
“I wasn’t so sure at the time when they approached me, I actually told them they didn’t have the best reputation – but I liked the plan they had for themselves and I agreed to give it a shot. My role with them was changing all the time at the beginning, but I stuck with it and they remained true to their word.”
Five years later Bleacher Report’s platform is undeniable, and digital outlets the likes of The Athletic and The Ringer have become sought after destinations for national writers and media personalities alike.
“I’ve always been able to adapt in my career, to change” declares Bucher. “It’s served me well.”
Ric Bucher has seen his career evolve from a high school sports writer in San Diego to the lofty position of NBA Insider for both ESPN and now Fox Sports. He doesn’t claim to have predicted the evolution of the sports media landscape, but he always seems to be slightly ahead of the curve.
Like turning classic piano chords into jazz – Bucher’s never been afraid to improvise.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.