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John Mamola Needs Some Competition

“It’s a different sports market when you come from such a die-hard city where people are raised and their dads were raised to root for certain teams. You just don’t have that down here.”

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The landscape of sports radio and radio in general, for that matter, is constantly changing. This presents challenges for sports programmers around the country. With more ways to listen to content, you have to keep up or risk getting left behind. 

With the Barrett Sports Media Summit in New York just around the corner, we’re featuring one of those sports programmers who will be in attendance. I caught up with John Mamola, the program director at WDAE in Tampa. Mamola and I discussed the Summit and how his station is facing those challenges. 

Andy Masur: What are you looking forward to in the upcoming BSM Summit?

John Mamola: Just bouncing off the one I attended in Chicago, I love hearing from guys like Mitch (Rosen, PD 670 The Score in Chicago) and on a local level Mike Thomas (new GM of ESPN 1000). Just to gather their thoughts, I mean, you know, the best of the best is who I love hearing from. Especially from a local perspective. At the same time, you know, guys like Justin Craig, Scott Shapiro, who deal with syndication and affiliates, the relationships between the local affiliates and the national syndicators. Also, how they can potentially craft their programming to a local audience if at all. That’s my biggest challenge here in Tampa. We run Dan Patrick but how can we make him as much Tampa as possible? Hearing ideas and general discussions with those guys on how exactly they do that is invaluable for me. Hearing guys chime in on their own and things that they’ve tried on a local level for national syndication. 

I’m looking forward to hearing things on Nielsen and ratings and percentage of the ear and that kind of stuff. How podcasting is becoming more and more a prevalent medium for people as opposed to the actual radio in the car. Anyone who’s really associated with that, that’s definitely of interest to me. 

AM: You mentioned a few names, are those the guys that you’re most looking forward to hearing from at the BSM Summit?

JM: The bigger names on the local level, so guys like Mike Thomas and Mitch, and you know, Chernoff. I’m really interested to hear from him because he didn’t attend the one in Chicago. Anyone that deals with how people are consuming sports radio is of interest to me.  

AM: What did you think of the first one you attended in Chicago?

JM: It was great! I’m just happy to see that the first one was a good kickoff, starting point, for the second one. Looks like the one in LA went extremely well. I’m happy to see a third one in New York. 

I also like how Jason has taken these to major markets, Chicago, New York and L.A. I’d be interested to see where the fourth one goes, if he continues to do this and I hope he does. Maybe something a little more south, maybe not so top 20, maybe something top 40 just to kind of get a different spin on things, maybe a different feel on things from the people in that local market. 

AM: So how long have you been at this? Give us some of your background.

JM: I didn’t have any notion of getiting involved in radio, until i found out that my pre-pharmacy credits didn’t transfer to the university of Illinois-chicago.  Not happy about that. I watched Private Parts and thought “hey that looks like a fun career!”, so I looked up the Illinois Media School, took a tour the very next day and that was the start. I got my internship at The Score, worked my way up to overnight board op, then a part time board op on the weekends, and then full-time in the mornings. Then WDAE came calling. There was an opening, I thought, “okay, well I have a kid on the way, and I just got married, so I have to start thinking career as opposed to a job.” I figured something as a programmer would be a little more stable, if there even is such a thing as stable. I’ve been here since April of ’11 and the PD since about three years ago. 

AM: What are some of the challenges facing local sports radio and national sports talk?

JM: The biggest challenge for me, is I don’t truly have a head-to-head competitor. It’s not a bad thing but, at the same time, it’s not a good thing. I like competition. I’m from Chicago, where it’s MVP (ESPN 1000) and The Score going head to head. It’s a little bit of a different way of approaching things and a different way of competing. It’s all about winning the ears of sports fans in the market. 

We haven’t had a real true winner (sports franchise) down here in quite a while. Fans become complacent, there are beaches to go to, and a lot of fun things to do in Tampa. That’s why attendance at Rays games has been last since well before I was born probably. The Bucs have struggled, and even though the Lightning are the hottest ticket in town, they’ve had 230 straight sell-outs, the amount of platforms they’re on here locally is not near the same amount that the Bucs and Rays have.  

It’s a different sports market when you come from such a die-hard city where people are raised and their dads were raised to root for certain teams. You just don’t have that down here. It’s really interesting sometimes the balancing of hyper local with Rays, Bucs, Bolts as opposed to national stuff with Patriots, Giants and Bears and all that kind of stuff. We try to do, not necessarily a 50/50 split between local and national, we try to do, probably 70/30. just because we know that there are a lot of people down here that are just not from here. 

Nationally, I think the biggest challenge for every radio station around the country is “how do I become even more prevalent in every single area where people consume media?”. Younger audiences are going to YouTube, Twitch and they’re going to different streaming outlets, you know Spotify, people listen to podcasts on Spotify.  How can we continue to expand our spider web to where we’re just as prevalent with a Spotify listener or a Pandora listener? How can I get a videocast on a Twitch channel where I can reach new listeners or new viewers? I think that’s the single biggest challenge because the days of just turning on the radio in the car or having a home radio where you just listen, is becoming extinct. How do I become easier to get to right away for that person who has an hour and a half to two hour drive, instead of having to search for me.  

Image result for tampa bay buccaneers loss

AM: So then how do you brand your station, knowing how important the on-air product is, but also realizing the other platforms need your attention?

JM: We still are content first. My main focus is, “are we providing the best content we can at that given time?”. Are we playing the hits as much as we can? That’s first and foremost, because if you’re not doing that, then they’re not going to come find you anyway. Multiple times per hour, we remind people that, on that iHeartRadio app you can listen to WDAE live, on the go, or however you may wish, headphones, smart speakers or whatever you want to do. We actually run imaging every hour to remind people they can listen to us wherever they want to. It’s just finding different ways to make sure that everybody that’s attached to every single one of our talents and our properties has full access to whatever they may need, whenever they need it, at all times.

We’ve seen the results. We had over a million MUVs (mobile user views) last year. It was with a very strong social push with all of our talent. The biggest challenge is how do we get outside of that? We’re just trying some different things, because with technology it’s all about trying and failing. Once in a while we get a hit, then it’s about trying to build off of that hit.

AM:  Is there a value, even if the teams are playing poorly, to having play-by-play on your station?

JM: Absolutely because play-by-play brings cume. That brings the potential listener that may not consume you Monday through Friday, but boy do they love Rays baseball. We’re in a great spot locally here where, every franchise is with iHeartMedia. All the teams have their own individual sticks. For example, the Lightning are on our news station, the Bucs are on our rock station, we have USF football in addition to Rays baseball. We air every Rays game, all 162 plus weekend and evening Spring Training games. The value of play-by-play is still very high. It helps you brand your station as “The home of X”, but at the same time it brings in a different kind of listener where you can hopefully use the limited space you have in that play-by-play to come back to you every morning. You do have those little windows of opportunity potentially, with every single play-by-play deal that you have. If you’re not maximizing that to it’s the greatest potential, then you’re not taking full advantage of what could potentially lead to new listeners each and every day.  

Image result for wdae studio

AM: How much do you have to talk to your talent about keeping a play-by-play partner (the Rays in your case) happy, but still speaking the truth on the air?

JM: We have great working relationships with all our partners. The general rule is “keep it on the field”. We’ve built up a lot of clout with the Rays, so when the whole announcement with the Montreal split came up, we aired the press conference in full, that was a good 65 minutes of radio. The owner of the Rays was coming up with this concept and trying to sell the media and answer a lot of questions. At the same time, we’d be lying to our audience if we were all 100 percent on board with it. The only direction I gave my talent was, at least let the man have his say first. He said his peace and our talent reacted as such. Honestly the organization wasn’t happy with the reaction, but at least they knew that we would be willing to at least give it a chance. I know there are some sports stations that you have to walk a line and you can’t go over it. For us down here there really isn’t a line. We all understand the business we’re in, and we all want to win. We may have disagreements, but we’re just talking sports.  

We don’t lay off anything. It is what it is. We’re talking about sports. We’re talking about games that grown adults play, so we can all have our own opinions on things and i think the franchises understand that. 

BSM Writers

The Big Ten Didn’t Learn ANYTHING From the NHL’s Mistake

However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me.

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ESPN, Big Ten

My favorite moments in life involve watching someone/something on the verge of a great moment and after a lot of struggling, get to the moment that makes them happier than you cam imagine. You can feel your scowl shift from tepid observer to interested party and then finally transition to open fandom. I was on the verge of another one of those moments coming into this week until the Big Ten decided that they would make biggest mistake since the Legends and Leaders divisions.

The conference was closing in on a brand new set of media rights to go into effect starting with the 2023 football and basketball seasons. The discussions were near a climax when the USC and UCLA called Big Ten commish Kevin Warren. Then, the negotiations relaunched and something special was about to happen. The Big Ten was inches away from declaring themselves the richest and most forward-thinking conference in the entire country and if they could win a few football games, they’d be head ahead of the SEC.

You can argue until you are Gator Blue in the face but the fact is, the Big Ten was about to explode and pass the SEC. The conference was about to have games on FOX, ABC/ESPN, CBS and NBC. All of the networks. ALL OF THEM. They were also developing a package for a streaming service to test the waves of the web. It all sounded so damn smart.

Then, the Big Ten went dumb.

The conference got greedy and asked for too much from what would have been their most profitable partner in cachet, ESPN. Reportedly the conference asked ESPN for $380 million per year for seven years to broadcast the conference’s second-rated games… at best. My jaw hit the floor.

Pure, unapologetic greed got between the Big Ten and smart business. The conference forgot a lesson that the NHL learned the hard way. ESPN dominates sports. ESPN is sports.

I don’t need to go to far back in the archives to remind you that ESPN’s offer to the NHL for media rights wasn’t as lucrative financially as NBC’s was, but the NHL took the short-term money and ignored the far-reaching consequence. ESPN essentially wiped them from the regular discussion. Yes, there were some brief highlights and Barry Melrose did strut ass into the studio on occasion, but by no means was that sport a featured product anymore.

One afternoon I had someone tell me that they were upset ESPN was airing a promo for an upcoming soccer match that ESPN was carrying. He told me, “they’re only promoting it because they have the game.”

That’s kind of how this thing works. ESPN is in business with some sports and not others so it makes a lot of sense to promote those you are in business with, yeah? ESPN doesn’t spend a lot of time promoting Big Brother, Puppy Pals or ping pong either. Why would they? There is no incentive too.

Here’s the sad question. Why would ESPN bother promoting the Big Ten? Why would ESPN spend extra time on the air, on their social platforms, on their digital side, to promote something they don’t have access to? The Big Ten is a big deal, but is it that big of a deal?

I am not suggesting that ESPN will ignore the Big Ten. They will still get discussed on College GameDay. But why would the network’s premiere pregame show for decades go to any Big Ten games and feature the conference?

There will be highlights still shown on SportsCenter, but I’m willing to bet they get shorter.

The Big Ten chose network television and a streaming service over the behemoth that is ESPN. As far as streaming is concerned, consider that over half of all NFL frequent viewers still don’t know that Thursday Night Football games are on Amazon only this year. That’s a month away and that’s people who call themselves frequent NFL viewers and that’s the biggest, baddest league in the land. Good luck telling them Purdue/Rutgers is on Apple or Amazon. Streaming is a major part of the future, but it still isn’t the now.

ESPN may seem like the safe bet, but that’s because it’s the smartest bet. NBC is a fine network that spends a bajillion dollars on America’s Got Talent and The Voice. Fine shows, but tell me where I can watch highlights of the recent Notre Dame/Stanford game.

CBS is a wonderful network that dominated with the SEC package for a long time, but that’s because the very best SEC game each week went to CBS. Will they still dominate if they have the league’s #2 package? Because why wouldn’t FOX, Big Ten Network co-owner FOX, get the best game each week for Big Noon Saturday?

There isn’t a single one of us that has a good damn idea where college football will be in three, five or seven years but I do know that ESPN isn’t going anywhere. I know ESPN has elite talent at every level of production and on-air that’s been in place for a really, really long time. I also know ESPN cares way more about sports than the other networks. CBS would like the Big Ten to do well, but CSI: New Orleans is a priority, too.

The NHL went for quick money and it cost them market share. The sport is still trying to recover after being largely ignored by ESPN for 17 years. It wasn’t out of spite, it was out of business. The NHL once thought it didn’t need ESPN. Where’s the NHL now?

The money the Big Ten will generate is amazing, I will not deny that. It seems like a boondoggle of a lifetime to grab this cash. However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me. The Big Ten is going to get paid a lot now but in the long term, they will pay the most.

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BSM Writers

Producers Podcast – Nuno Teixeira, ESPN Radio

Brady Farkas

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BSM Writers

Lance Zierlein Isn’t Taking Shortcuts

“That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts.”

Brian Noe

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Jack of all trades, master of none. The only thing I dislike about that saying is, to me, it implies that a person isn’t special in any one particular area. That isn’t the case with Lance Zierlein. The guy has been crushing morning drive in Houston for 25 years and knocking out NFL draft evaluations for eight years now at NFL.com. It isn’t possible for anybody to master draft analysis, but Zierlein’s talent evaluations stand out so much that NFL coaching staffs and front offices pay attention to his views.

In addition to his on-air duties and draft analysis, Zierlein used to provide gambling advice for bettors through his own handicapping business. This dude gets around. Zierlein has proven to be valuable in many different areas. It’s no wonder that new opportunities have become available to him over the years. In our conversation, Zierlein talks about not taking shortcuts. He also mentions how he tries to avoid taking himself too seriously on the air, and reveals the most gratifying experience of his career. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: How did you initially break in to the radio business?

Lance Zierlein: Radio started for me 25 years ago. Actually it started before then; I started my own handicapping business 28 years ago when I was really young. Then I hustled my way on radio as a football analyst, an expert in my early 20s. I sent stuff out to a bunch of stations, got on, gave out my phone number for my pick line, which I answered myself and gave out picks. That was my living. 

From there, 610AM became an all-sports station in the fall of ‘94. By ‘95 the general manager of the station liked me on the radio and so I was doing a weekend sports show for a couple of hours on Sunday. By ‘97 I was doing morning drive. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I quit a job making $400 a week working 60 hours a week. It was just ridiculous. It was like some horrific management position in a field I had no idea what I was doing. I just quit and bet on myself and started my own business and three years later I’ve got a morning sports talk show. It’s been that way ever since.

BN: What has been your career path when it comes to writing?

LZ: I’ve been writing for a while. I started my own football newsletter in 1998. It was a sports newsletter, then in 2001 it became a football only newsletter. I did that for a while. I was a fantasy football writer for the Houston Chronicle. I had a blog in the Chronicle that was fairly heavily trafficked. I covered everything but really started to focus in on the NFL draft and some fantasy football stuff and the Houston Texans.

Some people over at the NFL noticed me. I planted some seeds over there and introduced myself to people at NFL Media. In October of 2014, they reached out to me about being their new NFL draft analyst. Shortly thereafter I was hired. I’ve worked there since the fall of 2014. So eight NFL drafts and 25 straight years of drive-time radio as well.

BN: When you think about all of those different avenues whether it’s handicapping, sports radio, or being a draft analyst — which is like scouting — which do you think you’ve had to learn the most about to know what you were talking about really well?

LZ: Oh man, well for me radio was never formulaic. I didn’t learn in college, I was just a natural talker and thinker and entertainer. I’m not necessarily predictable.

I think the most that I had to learn was the NFL draft. Handicapping is something that you learn as well. I learned in the pool halls of New Orleans when I was going to school at Tulane. I had a mentor who was a former vice president of finance for a company there. He just taught me about handicapping as being an analytical process where you try to find the right side of the puzzle. There’s a puzzle between two teams, various players, here’s the point spread and you try to work the puzzle out and find the right side. That took time too.

When it came to the draft you’re talking about having to really learn all of the specific factors for every position. From long snapper to punter to kicker to every position on the offensive side and defensive side. Even if you think you know what you’re doing and even if you have a scouting manual like I had to work off of, until you actually watch a ton of tape and make mistakes in evaluations, which you don’t know until two and three years down the road in many cases, and learn from those mistakes and alter your process and dial in your process to match the changing tides of NFL and college football, you really can’t get there.

I think the most learning I had to do believe it or not, and my dad was an NFL and college football coach my whole life, I think it’s interesting; the most learning I had to do really was the scouting and the evaluating process before the NFL draft. I think that was the most work I had to do from start to finish. And I still think that I’m learning in that as well.

BN: Doing draft evaluations is difficult. Handicapping games is difficult. Between the two, which do you think you were thrown into the deep end more? Most when it comes to that?

LZ: Handicapping I was trying to pick winners for people and I didn’t really feel like I had anything to lose. I was doing something I loved to do. I had left a job I hated that I should have never even been in. To me I was master of my own domain. I had my own company. But there’s a pressure that comes with that because although I didn’t need much money to survive and I was married to my first wife at the time, there is a pressure with knowing that you have to win so that people will sign up for the next month and you can pay bills.

When it comes to being thrown into the fire, listen I’ve got to write 500 players a year and every one of them is going to live on the internet forever. There’s receipts on 500 players. When I got thrown in I’m having to call defensive back coaches I know to ask questions about certain things having to do with cornerbacks, safeties. I’m talking to pass rush specialists. I’m talking to coaches primarily and really getting an education. I was lucky enough to talk to some guys who really gave me some help along the way.

But if you just watch a tape, the tape will speak to you. I had Jerry Angelo who was the GM of the Bears who one time told me just say what you see. Just say what you see. I really lived off that for the first couple of years. Then beyond that I started to really learn to be more technical with some of the things I was looking at at every position. Having 500 players that you’re writing up, from what I recall from a former editor there, he got 15 million hits internationally on my scouting reports over a relatively short period of time during the draft.

That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts. You have to really understand these guys, know these guys. If you project them wrong that’s fine, but don’t miss because you took shortcuts. It’s going to be there for everyone to read and see. I would say thrown to the wolves much more in the evaluation.

BN: Which of the three would you say is the most gratifying for you between sports radio, handicapping back in the day, and the writing/analyst work that you do?

LZ: God, that’s such a hard question because they’re three very different times of my life. The handicapping stuff was me just getting a shot to springboard into sports and into radio. I always knew handicapping was going to be a way for me to get into radio. I planned it as a side door into radio and my plan worked. I was pretty good at what I did.

Radio was just incredible because it introduced me to my wife. She was a listener so it introduced me to her. We had such a great following. Athletes liked the show. That’s gratifying on a level in my 20s and in to my 30s, I don’t think anything can match that when people around the city know who you are. You’re having fun every single day. You’re coming into the radio station and it’s just a lot of fun. You’re just kind of on a wild ride. You don’t really recognize it until after it’s over.

Football was special in a different way because my dad was a lifelong coach. He’s been a coach since I was one or two years old. He’s won a Super Bowl ring. He’s coached for a variety of college and pro teams. The first time he was reading my scouting reports when he was with the Arizona Cardinals, he came across them. One of the other coaches showed him.

When he really realized wow, he knew I did radio, he knew I did some of the scouting stuff on my own in a newsletter, I don’t think he really took it all that seriously. When he realized in reading my scouting reports for offensive lineman that I was really pretty good at it, and that he agreed with much of it, and he’s now calling me every other day to talk about prospects and get my thoughts on guys, you just can’t imagine the amount of happiness that gave me as a son to know that my dad had that level of respect for my work.

It’s really a second job. Radio is what I had done and this is a dramatically different job. If you’re doing NFL draft analysis for NFL.com, I’m following a scouting protocol. This is not radio. It’s a totally different discipline and job. Knowing that he really had a great deal of respect and that other Arizona Cardinals coaches started calling me and asking my opinions on certain players, it’s hard to really put into words how gratifying that is.

Then through the process knowing that there are people in the league who really respect my work and guys I’ve become friends with who are general managers now who respect what I do. There’s just an immense feeling of satisfaction in doing that and knowing I’ve got number one radio shows at four different stations in Houston.

Then to be able to do this with professionals that are in my dad’s trade. I grew up watching my dad as a coach, I know how tough that profession is for front office personnel, for coaches, and to know that people have a respect for the work that I do, that’s a level of gratification that’s completely different. That’s like a cherry on top. If I never did anything again tomorrow, I would be happy with what I’ve accomplished in my time in sports.

BN: Football fans turn into mini GMs when the draft rolls around. A lot of their evaluations are way off. [Laughs] Do you see a common thread between some of the evaluations that are just not accurate?

LZ: That’s a tough question. I think some people are way too opinionated and firm in opinions and they have not spent nearly enough time actually watching the players. I think it’s really more they’re aggregating opinions from other people and then turning it into their own, which is kind of an incomplete analysis. I think that’s a mistake that some people make.

I think there’s a belief that who you are now is who you’re going to be in the future. That’s the most basic mistake that everyone makes. You have to learn you’re not giving grades for who a player is right now, you’re giving grades for who a player is going to be in three to five years. Learning to do that does not happen overnight. It’s hard. It forces you to think differently. It forces you to really focus on traits and the habits of successful people.

Whether it’s certain successful traits, there are traits that can lead to success, explosiveness, speed, length, toughness, and you’ve got to look for those, and then you worry about NFL coaches coaching up the rest of it. Don’t get too hyper-focused. I think a lot of people get too hyper-focused on who a player is right now and not who a player is going to be later. Then also on the flip side, they get too enamored with stats and names as opposed to understanding what typically works in the NFL.

BN: How about your future? Say five years from now, what you’re doing, where you’re doing it at, what would be ideal for you?

LZ: I really don’t know. I think honestly if the right opportunity came with an NFL team and somebody I respected as a general manager, that would be something I would have to consider. I’m not sure that that right opportunity and all the things would fall in place. I don’t know that that would ever be the case. I’m not sure I see myself doing that in five years.

I think honestly, I feel like I have an eye for talent outside of football. I think I have an eye for talent in radio. I’ve brought five to seven people in who have become radio people and good hosts. I think at some point that might be something that I want to do is become more of a program director. If not a program director a talent scout to bring in the next generation of radio professionals.

I could see myself doing that because I do think I have an eye for people who have it. I didn’t learn the traditional way and so I understand that you don’t have to go through the traditional methods to be someone who can be captivating or entertaining or someone with upside. I think I recognize when people have that kind of upside. I think I’d love to be involved in that side of radio at some point in the future.

I’ve got a football business along with the former director of analytics for the Tampa Bay Bucs. It’s kind of a scouting tool and a recruiting tool for colleges. We’re already working with college teams and with high school teams. I think the handicapping stuff is out for me moving forward. [Laughs] That was an avenue and a vehicle and I still love trying to solve the puzzle, but I don’t put the same time into it anymore. There are different directions I can go in, but I’m happy where I am right now both in radio and the draft stuff. I’m just going to keep letting things play out and we’ll see what happens.

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