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ESPN Ithaca Is Trying To Keep Things Normal

“I’ve always been a student of business. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences in every one of our businesses and how we all make it work.”

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We regularly hear about large media companies combating the COVID-19 pandemic with adjustments to their programming and operations. ESPN’s salary reductions, national layoffs by Entercom, furloughed employees for DAZN and others have all made mainstream news, but smaller media companies and businesses are equally impacted. 

Privately owned radio stations might not be dealt the hand of reducing a seven-figure salary, but those mom and pop media companies still represent a chunk of the broadcast industry.

WPIE in upstate New York has been a privately owned sports radio station for well over a decade. Purchased by Todd Mallinson’s Taughannock Media, now Vizella Media in 2010, ESPN Ithaca fills an important role in the community.

Todd Mallinson

The station relies on the ability to provide play-by-play for local high school sports and they rely on other small businesses for support. Like many of those small businesses, ESPN Ithaca is feeling the negative impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, yet they continue working to serve their local community.  

Brandon Contes: We see in the mainstream media what’s happening with large media companies, but don’t hear as much about the challenges for locally owned stations. Have you seen a significant impact in the number of advertisers, sponsors and clients you have with ESPN Ithaca? 

Todd Mallinson: Yes, we’ve lost some clients. Most of them are in a suspended mode while others just haven’t renewed a schedule. But we’ve worked diligently to get most of our advertisers to change their message, to be more on point and resonate better with our audience. 

BC: How are small businesses in the area doing? If you drive around Ithaca, are a lot of restaurants and food establishments open for takeout?

TM: The roads just seem different, which I’m sure is no different here than anywhere else. Traffic is way down. There are restaurants that are making it work and the ones that are more successful are the ones that already had takeout and pick up as a regular part of their business model. It’s the ones that weren’t setup for it that are more challenged. But we’re supporting every one of our existing businesses and getting the word out to remind people to patronize their local favorite restaurants to help them get through this period of time. 

BC: Are most of your clients locally owned businesses? 

TM: Yes, most are locally owned. And we typically deal with the principal decision maker, there are some car dealers that have certainly ratcheted down spending. Some are maintaining a schedule with us, but until the sales end of things become essential and people can regularly engage, I don’t think we’ll see them come back. 

Cornell supports local small business COVID-19 fund | Cornell ...

BC: With the clients you have lost, are there ways you look to try and maintain a good relationship with them so once we do come out of the pandemic, they’re looking to invest part of their advertising budget with you?

TM: Absolutely. It’s a fine balance in sales that we’re running right now. We want to be supportive and be a sounding board for customers. We truly are in this together and I’ve always been a student of business. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences in every one of our businesses and how we all make it work. Listening to clients and addressing needs, some have been proactive with updating messages, others have been dealing with things that are, in their mindset, a greater priority. We try to be there and encourage them to update messages and I think we’ve done a really good job with that. 

BC: What about the sports awards dinner that ESPN Ithaca hosts every June for high school athletes – Night of Champions. Has that been canceled or postponed? 

TM: We’re in the planning stages of doing something virtually. The fall season was completed, the winter season was all but completed for those teams that were at least halfway into the state tournaments and we’ll be recognizing those two seasons. Obviously, the spring season is in the balance and at this point I don’t foresee it happening. I’m not predicting that, it’s just my gut feeling. The New York State High School Athletic Association is having a meeting the last Monday or Tuesday of this month to make that decision, but I ultimately think it’s going to come down from the governor’s office.

BC: Is the awards dinner more about being a source of income, or used as a way to promote the station and local sports? 

TM: For us, we’re in the community quite a bit with the amount of high school and collegiate sports that we cover locally, whether it’s play by play or reporting. It’s our signature event in terms of recognizing and gathering about 200 top athletes and coaches and families across the 15 school districts. It’s been very well received by our community and this is going into our seventh year. 

BC: How has programming been impacted by the lack of live sports, especially considering ESPN Ithaca carries the amount of local play-by-play that you do. 

TM: It’s challenging, but ESPN has done a really good, proactive job with #SeniorNight and we jumped right on that locally. It was a perfect dovetail for us with the colleges and high schools here. Secondarily, Hometown Heroes is something else that the network spearheaded and we’ve embraced. We’re getting the word out about stories of first responders and people on the front lines of health and essential businesses that are truly essential. 

We have a newspaper we’ve been publishing for four years called Tompkins Weekly and that’s been a nice balance for us, bringing on some content in the afternoon that we traditionally wouldn’t. We’ve had the mayor on, the Chamber of Commerce president on, the head of Infectious Disease Control at the local hospital, and others to give some insight. So we’re sprinkling in information that we want to get across. We’re running a tremendous amount of public service messaging from a variety of different sources, but the main focus is social distancing. I think it was Dr. Fauci, who two weeks ago said you should act like you have the disease, and that stuck with me. We’ve had to adapt, we’re a pretty small staff of eight or nine and we’re keeping just one or two people in the office at a time, everyone else is working from home. 

BC: The station still has a daily local hour? 

TM: Yes, Between The Lines from 5 – 6pm, and that’s been our lifeline to the community. We’ve balanced entertainment and information during that one hour. The host, Nick Karski has done a really good job, who incidentally has been self-quarantined. His girlfriend is a doctor and she came down with symptoms of COVID-19, so they’ve both been self-quarantined for the last two weeks. We’re expecting they’ll be released from quarantine Wednesday (April 15). 

BC: Nick’s still been hosting the show while quarantined? 

Nick Karski appears on 98.5 The Sports Hub's Hardcore ...

TM: He’s been doing it remotely with the Comrex app that allows him to call in from his phone and it sounds pretty clear, it’s definitely come in handy. We have our producer back in the studio helping to record the interviews and get the show on-air. 

BC: You mentioned highlighting local workers and different things you’ve aired to help the community, do those things happen only during the one-hour local show or throughout the day?

TM: We’re sprinkling it throughout the day. The demand on inventory has certainly lightened due to some of the postponements of schedules and lack of play by play, so with that we’re running public service announcements and voice liners throughout the day, 24/7. 

BC: With losing clients and the lack of play-by-play opportunities, have you had to layoff any employees? 

TM: We have not. There’s Small Business Administration aid available, we’ve applied for the EIDL grant and we’ve also applied for the Paycheck Protection Plan. That seems to be a very fluid situations with things changing a little bit here and there. We applied about 10 days ago, but because things changed, we had to refile parts of the application, so we officially went on file last Wednesday (April 8). We haven’t heard anything, we’re expecting to be approved for PPP and the EIDL, but nothing as of this point.

We’ve maintained the same payroll throughout, but it’s getting very concerning because cash flow is becoming tight, businesses have pulled back and there’s concern that some of that business going forward won’t be there. With everybody looking at cash flow, the concern is that some advertising invoices won’t be paid as routinely as they have been. 

BC: How long can you operate as currently constituted with the economic shutdown, lost advertising dollars and no sports. 

TM: If we don’t receive the PPP approval by the end of this month, things will certainly need to change with staffing.

BC: You mentioned eight or nine employees, does that include the newspaper?

TM: Correct, that’s included with the newspaper. 

BC: Is the newspaper operating normally?

Tompkins Weekly - Home | Facebook

TM: It is operating as normal. We’ve seen a significant uptick to our online content, but less distribution to businesses that we would normally sell to, either because they’re not currently open or their traffic is significantly down.

BC: Have you seen more traffic to your radio station website and podcasts with less people in their car right now?  

TM: The website is down a little bit. Our social is up, and that’s largely due to a great job with #SeniorNight locally and from promoting a lot of the interviews that we’ve been doing. We see a significant amount of traffic to our websites during the school year because of pictures. We partner with local photographers that go to the games we’re calling and set up a photo gallery on the site. Typically, there are about 25-50 photos available for people to see and potentially purchase on our website. So without play-by-play and local sports it’s lowered traffic to the site.

BC: What about if some clients are unable to afford terrestrial ad space, have you moved any of them to the website or a podcast? 

TM: There’s been a couple that we’ve moved over, but mostly they’ve either maintained the course with an updated message or they’re in suspension mode if they’re not an essential business and closed. 

BC: What kind of podcasts does the station carry? 

TM: The podcasts that we’re producing at the moment are the interviews from Between The Lines, sometimes they’re extended versions that don’t completely air on BTL. For the one-hour show, our focus is getting virtually everything we do on-air. We’ve maintained our sports reporting seven days a week, like we always have. We continue to interact with athletes and coaches in the area either about the season they’ve missed or the record-breaking seasons they had because Cornell men’s and women’s hockey ranked #1 in the country and both of them saw their season unfortunately end early.  

Take Me Out to the (Backyard) Ball Game - The New York Times

BC: Have you picked up any classic rebroadcast offerings?

TM: Yea, we’re running a number of features through Westwood One and ESPN. We ran the Best of Masters last weekend, we’ve also had some of the Westwood NFL coverage. We’re an MRN affiliate, we usually do very little NASCAR, but with Yankee baseball completely parked, we’re able to carry some of the Best of MRN. 

BC: How are you communicating with your staff right now?

TM: We connect on a regular basis virtually through Zoom or FaceTime as a team and individually. I want to compliment my staff for rallying together in these uncharted times and staying as focused as best they can. They’ve done a great job engaging with our customers and doing a little hand holding.

BSM Writers

Keith Moreland’s Broadcasting Fills Void Left by MLB Career

“When I got through… I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”

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Austin American-Statesman

Sports color analysts are more often than not former players. This has been a consistent norm across sports broadcasting at all levels. The analyst is there to add “color” to the play-by-play broadcaster’s metaphorical and verbal “drawing” of the game. For former MLB slugger and catcher, Keith Moreland, this was the surprise post-playing retirement career that has boosted him to a key figure in Austin media and national media alike.

Moreland played football and baseball at the University of Texas before making his way to the MLB for 12 years with key contributions to the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs in the 1980s.

Moreland reminisced on his decision to play baseball full time: “I thought I was going to be in the NFL, but Earl Campbell changed that. I had just played summer ball. We had won a championship and I missed the first few days of two-a-days. I hadn’t even had a physical yet and I’m in a scrimmage. I stepped up to this freshman running back and as he ducked his shoulder, one of his feet hit my chest and the other hit my face mask and he kept on truckin’. I got up and I thought ‘I could be a pretty good baseball player.’

So I told Coach Royal after practice I was going to focus on baseball and he asked ‘what took you so long? We were surprised you came back because we think you have a really good shot at playing professional baseball.'”

It was a good choice for Moreland. He was part of the 1973 College World Series winning Texas Longhorns baseball team. While at Texas Moreland hit .388 and became the all-time leader in hits for the College World Series. After being drafted by the Phillies in the 7th round of the 1975 draft, Moreland would go-on to play in the majors from 1978 to 1989.

“You go your whole life trying to get to play professionally. When I got through my opportunity to play in the big leagues, I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”

Broadcasting was not the original retirement plan for Moreland. He first tried his luck at coaching with his first stop being his alma mater as an assistant for the Longhorns. At the time, Bill Schoening (a Philadelphia native and Phillies fan), was the radio play-by-play broadcaster. Schoening made Moreland a go-to for a pre-game interview and convinced him to come on talk shows. Schoening even convinced Moreland to practice live broadcasting skills by taking a recorder to games and listening back to them to learn.

“Bill was the guy who brought me onboard and I still have those tapes and I really learned from them, but I don’t want anyone else to ever hear them!” Moreland adds with a chuckle on how far he has come in over 25 years of broadcasting.

Moreland has been a key part of University of Texas radio broadcasts for baseball since the 1990s and has catapulted that broadcast experience to Texas high school football, Longhorn football radio and television broadcasts, ESPN, the Little League World Series, the Chicago Cubs and more since hanging up his cleats and picking up a microphone.

While his playing days are well behind him, Moreland still takes the spirit of his professional athlete background to his broadcasting:

“If you don’t bring energy to your broadcast, somebody’s gonna turn the game on and wonder ‘what’s wrong? Are they losing the game?’”, Moreland remarks, “So you have to come prepared and with energy for the broadcasts.”

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BSM Writers

Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting

The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.

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Maryland Matters

As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.

For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.

While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements. 

While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized. 

Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.

People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.

First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.

The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues. 

None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.  

As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.

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BSM Writers

Saban v. Jimbo Is WrestleMania for College Football Fans

Ryan Brown says the Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher feud is one made for pay-per-view and we have nearly five months to hype the match.

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Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

It was the day after I turned eleven that Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre ‘The Giant’. WrestleMania III filled 90,000 seats at the Pontiac Silverdome and the living room of one of the houses in my neighborhood. Real or fake, we didn’t care. Three decades later, Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher is 100% real and it is coming to a living room near you.

I live in the capital city of SEC Country – Birmingham, Alabama. SEC football needs no additional drama here. You get a complete college football obsession at birth. That said, the October 8th Texas A&M visit to Alabama will be among the most anticipated regular season college football games both regionally and nationally.

One would think CBS will use their annual prime time date for that Saturday just as they did for last season’s Alabama at Texas A&M game, you know, when Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher were on speaking terms. Not knowing how the season will play out, it would be no surprise if ESPN’s College Gameday is in Tuscaloosa as well. While we are at it, let’s just cut to the 2024 chase and schedule a Presidential debate in Tuscaloosa that weekend, as well.

Not one person will be surprised if Alabama is undefeated and the top ranked team in the nation that week. The surprise, based on the rest of the Jimbo Fisher era, will be the Aggies being unbeaten. Their trip to Alabama comes at the end of a five game stretch that includes Appalachian State at home, Miami at home, Arkansas in Dallas and a road game at Mississippi State. Incidentally, the same Texas A&M team that was able to upset Alabama last season also managed to lose to Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Just the prospect of the two teams being unbeaten and highly ranked causes some to say this game would need no extra storylines. Shouldn’t that, and being on CBS in prime time, be enough? The Saban-Fisher Feud already has people discussing this game nationally and Lee Corso hasn’t even donned a body odor-filled mascot head yet.

I would like to project this game to deliver the largest TV audience of the regular season but I can’t, for one reason: I’m not certain it will be close. I think Alabama is that much better than Texas A&M. That’s why the build up will deliver a huge first half audience.

For perspective, in the 2021 regular season, the Alabama at Texas A&M game had the fifth largest TV audience, in a game that went down to the final play. The Ohio State at Michigan game had 15.8 million viewers on as part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff, almost double that of Alabama at Texas A&M on CBS in prime time.

That brings me to another misconception: big games have to be in prime time to get a big audience. Of the top ten largest college football audiences in the regular season and conference championship weekend, only half were prime time games. College football fans, and NFL fans for that matter, will find the best games no matter where they are placed.

So, back to Saban v. Fisher; why is it a bad thing? Would SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey prefer it not happen? Of course. Will it bring more attention to a game in the conference he oversees? I say, absolutely. Heck, my daily show is already selling t-shirts for the game. You may say “shameless plug”, I say paying for my kid’s college. Tomato, tomahto.

This is what made “Mean” Gene Okerlund a household name in the 1980’s. He was the far too serious host that interviewed the wrestlers who challenged other wrestlers to a grudge match in exotic places like the Macon Coliseum and the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the Dallas Sportatorium. Why did they do that? First, it was entertaining but, primarily, it sucked the viewer into making plans to view those matches.

I mean, if Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat said he was going to rip the head off “Big” John Studd, was I going to miss that?

That was why a bunch of kids crowded into a living room in Anniston, Alabama in 1987 to watch WrestleMania III, The Main Event. I can’t tell you who was on the undercard that night. The only wrestlers we cared about were Hulk Hogan and Andre “The Giant”.

Actually, my friend’s mom thought the Ultimate Warrior was “cute and had a great body”. He wasn’t on the card and I thought it was odd she told us that but she was footing the bill for the pay-per-view and had mixed the fruit punch Kool-Aid, so who am I to judge one’s wanton desires?

Texas A&M at Alabama will be the SEC’s main event this season and, if the cards fall right, it may be college football’s main event. What happened between the two head coaches might not be the proudest moment in SEC history but it will bring more attention to that game. And, my word, we finally have a nano-second in which two prominent coaches weren’t pre-programmed robots refusing to deviate from the script.

As amazing as WrestleMania III was for my childhood, it was scripted. The Tide and the Aggies will not be. College football remains one of the greatest values in sports. I pay very little to watch unscripted game after unscripted game. Truth is, you couldn’t even script most of what we see on a college football Saturday. 

Texas A&M at Alabama is already beyond what the most creative writers could imagine and that is why this fuel to the already smoldering fire adds to this game. Now, if Nick Saban will just try to bodyslam Jimbo Fisher, we’ll have something.

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