What I experienced for eight years cannot be crammed into 500 minutes. Let’s hope the 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance,’’ is remembered for more than the usual retro rehash: Michael Jordan’s merciless appetite to conquer flesh and blood, an angle that merely brushes the marrow of the most exhilarating and elaborate sports story ever told. The magnitude and scope of his reign remain immense even now, still hard to wrap the mind around, as if Shakespeare, Scorsese and Fellini collaborated to inject every conceivable dramatic element, with sprinkles of Spike Lee, Dick Ebersol and Bugs Bunny.
Competitive rage. Global overload. Gambling. Murder. In-house treachery. A pop-culture explosion. Celebrity fawning. Corporate exploitation. Political aloofness. Sneaker frenzy. A mysterious baseball interlude. And characters as diverse as ‘90s life itself: a brooding sidekick, a free-love coach, a feather-boa-wearing freak, a grumpy general manager who poisoned the joy instead of embracing it, and an insufferable owner who was stingy with well-deserved financial rewards and couldn’t wait to launch his own dynasty, which has become a travesty. Even a filmmaker as skilled as Jason Hehir wishes he had a wayback machine to tackle a monstrous challenge: The Jordan spectacle, with all its triumphs and tensions and scandals, was best lived and consumed each day to allow for an exact chronicling of grandeur and wildness.
Nor can a film about Jordan and the Bulls dynasty serve any therapeutic purpose, for a country mired in a stupefying medical lockdown, if it dabbles in the worst two words in the ongoing political lexicon: fake news. This narrative always has lacked a complete filling of all the blanks, revelations that make the story whole. Thus, “The Last Dance’’ is thrust as a moratorium on getting at the truth of a man who somehow remains mysterious after a generation of tongue-wagging and slam-dunking through our consciousness. Some would compare Jordan, in a context of baggy shorts and $200 sneakers, to Donald Trump, and just as Americans demand transparency from the President of the United States, particularly during a pandemic, they would appreciate clarity from the most significant basketball player and sports cultural figure ever.
The audience will be the judge, over the next five weekends, on whether Jordan strikes a more authentic bond beyond his extraordinary legacy. At 57, still mourning the death of his younger friend and disciple Kobe Bryant, he is losing chances to resonate with the masses. He will make progress in “The Last Dance,’’ but likely not enough to lift him from the realm of the enigmatic.
Never has the world hosted an athlete so heavenly and simultaneously devil-like — and if that seems a stretch, consider Jordan won six championships and six Most Valuable Player awards in his six NBA Finals … 666. His genius was his fury, his compulsive need to control every human being and circumstance around him, and that is what fascinates me about the docu-series. As a general rule since his playing career ended, Jordan has been largely reclusive as owner of the nondescript Charlotte Hornets, reticent to reconstruct the Bulls years, an era I covered as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. He has controlled his image by simply not discussing it and staying out of the mainstream and Twitterverse. That has led to social-media mockery (see: Crying Jordan meme), but isolation served him long before he was advised to shelter at home like the rest of us.
So why come out now, Mike? Why consent to a massive project that drops Sunday night on ESPN and Netflix? Is the renowned control freak just playing us again?
Or, some 22 years after pushing off Bryon Russell (he did) and delivering his famous final fling with an exquisitely flexed extension of the right wrist, is Jordan finally ready to drop the veneer and tell the entirety of his tale? If so, it would include a dissection of the following subjects, heretofore off-limits: his troubling gambling habits, the unanswered questions about his father’s grisly 1993 murder, his abrupt decision to play minor-league baseball and whether it was attached to an NBA suspension, his well-known loathing of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and its toxic spread throughout the organization and league, his rebuke of team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for siding with Krause in his feud with coach Phil Jackson, Jordan’s disgust that ownership dismantled the dynasty before its expiration date, a public sexual affair and the end of his first marriage, his relationship with his children, and an array of friendships that have run the social gamut, from Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Kobe to the shadowy likes of Richard Esquinas, Slim Bouler and Eddie Dow, a North Carolina bail bondsman found dead with three of Jordan’s checks in his briefcase.
Obviously, not all of those talking points will be in the show. But the opening episode does include a scene that confirms Jordan’s heartless contempt for Krause. Described as “maniacal’’ by the Washington Post, Jordan approaches the roundish Krause after practice and says, “Are those the pills to keep you short? Or are those diet pills?’’ It’s a symbolic snapshot of the wicked strife between management and the team’s cornerstones — Jordan, Jackson and Scottie Pippen — that led to the tragicomic breakup of a powerhouse capable of winning one or two more titles. It took the presence of rare footage from the final 1997-98 season, christened “The Last Dance’’ by a turmoil-weary Jackson, for the NBA’s entertainment division to kickstart a project centered around the farewell tour, with breakout profiles of the human sides of Jackson, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, assuming Rodman has a human side.
The question to ask throughout the eight-plus hours of air time: Is any new ground being broken? Just because Hehir raves about Jordan’s willingness to answer the most sensitive questions — including those about gambling and his father’s murder — doesn’t mean we’re getting absolute answers from Jordan that settle all doubts.
“He never once censored us. He never once policed us. He never once said that any topic was off-limits, so he was a perfect partner for this project,’’’ said Hehir, who sat down with Jordan for three lengthy sessions. “He went pretty deep on the gambling allegations against him in the ‘90s. He went pretty deep about what happened to his father and how that affected him on the court. … He never instructed us to take anything out, and from Day One, he told me that there wasn’t a question I would ask that he would not answer truthfully.’’
Of course, it’s one thing for a director to raise sensitive topics in a one-on-one interview setting — and quite another to pursue penetrating follow-ups, explore the topic with other people and edit the film with an independence that lets the viewers decide. Didn’t Hehir, who grew up mesmerized by the Jordan mystique like the rest of his generation, fear the wrath of Basketball Jesus? Evidently not. Hehir asked the tough questions, and Jordan provided firm responses, but if this is an Oscar-caliber film, it must be balanced and explore all sides of the explosive issues. Watch closely, with a checklist and pen, to see if “The Last Dance’’ is more about presenting Jordan in a favorable light or at last revealing the real-real, regardless of optics. Which delicate topics are confronted and which are short-shrifted, downplayed and ignored? Gambling, for one, is pervasive throughout the series; the NBA camera crew repeatedly shows Jordan making wagers on anything and everything during the final season. Given Hehir’s exhaustive research and interviews with dozens of subjects, the director had the leverage to attack as he chooses. The wealth of material provides an opportunity for an all-time cinematic work, one befitting his stature. Both blessed and haunted, through triumph and tragedy, Jordan deserves an epic Hollywood deep-dive that captures his historical footprint.
But that would happen only with unvarnished truth. And the control freak in Jordan wouldn’t allow total disclosure. Does he reveal how many wagering millions he blew? If he was suspended by the NBA? If he sees a direct link between his gambling and his father’s murder? No, he does not.
The credits suggest Jordan took typical liberties to protect his portrayal. His Jump 23 enterprise is a principal producer, along with ESPN Films, NBA Entertainment and Mandalay Sports Media, which is chaired by a league owner, the Golden State Warriors’ Peter Guber. Meaning, Jordan and his longtime business representatives, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have had the entire production of “The Last Dance’’ under their dictatorial thumbs, with Portnoy and Polk listed as executive producers alongside industry veteran Mike Tollin. Team Jordan also is fully supported by a league far more interested in legacy promotion than any raw, damaging truths, as well as a sports network grateful to have something substantial to fill dead air during a pandemic. If he wanted it — and my experiences with him say he would demand it — Jordan is armed with the power to control content as a creative overlord. As Polk told The Athletic, that power was wielded during early moments in the project, perhaps making it more difficult to address the most jarring and sensitive components of Jordan’s joyride with definitive, full-blast treatment.
No doubt “The Last Dance,’’ at its core, succeeds in presenting the Jordan panorama in a 2020 prism: the unprecedented glorification, the rock-star traveling circus, the endless highlight reel, the cut from his high-school team that fueled his inner rage, the title-winning jumper for North Carolina, The Shot, the 63-point game, his personal rivalries and accompanying trash-talking, the postseason dramas that weren’t as easy as they seemed, failures and eventual conquests against the Detroit Bad Boys, the Knicks wars, the legendary “Sick Game,’’ the near-crash against Indiana in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals and, of course, the final shot in Utah that should have been the perfect ending for the perfect career. The docu-series will serve as indisputable evidence to hush stubborn millennials and Gen Zers who insist, with recency bias and ignorance, that LeBron James is the greatest of all, forgetting that Bryant came closest to approaching Jordan’s body of work and pulling off the grand impersonation.
Just how far does the documentary dare to reach? I’d like to know if the late David Stern, who presided as NBA commissioner during the Jordan era, fully investigated the relentless flurry of his gambling. Didn’t the league have much to lose if Stern publicly benched his Golden Goose? Jordan didn’t even try to hide his itch for the action — an off-night trip to Atlantic City during a playoff series in New York, his massive golfing losses to an opportunist (and book author) such as Esquinas, his Las Vegas rampages with Woods and Charles Barkley. Was it merely coincidence that Jordan escaped to baseball and missed almost two NBA seasons? We don’t get those answers. During that period, I wrote a column explaining why Jordan was exposing himself to potential extortion — say, a scumbag on an 18th green asking him to fix an over-under in a Bulls game. The Sun-Times’ managing editor, who didn’t last in the job much longer, warned me, “This is the most important column you’ll ever write.’’ The piece ran in some form, but not before an editing workover that seemed to involve outside meddling. Such was the influence of Jordan.
In the doc, Jordan does pile on Krause, whose 2017 death makes the scene look worse. He won’t be so cruel to Reinsdorf, now a fellow NBA team owner and a man Jordan fears to some degree. “The Last Dance’’ should include the all-encompassing quote of the final season, when Krause, already settled on Iowa State’s Tim Floyd as the next coach of a so-called new Bulls dynasty, sat down with Jackson and said, “You can go 82 and (bleeping) oh and you’re not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls’’ — prompting Jackson and the players to declare war on the front office. Also worthy of pitiful detail: the subsequent two-decade implosion of the Bulls. Now an abysmal franchise that wasted the most potent resource in sports history — the pomp and glory of Jordan — the Bulls allowed the very icon they’ve immortalized with a United Center statue to finish his career with the Washington Wizards, all because Jordan was seething about how Chicago ended and needed to control the last scene, sad and dubious as it was in D.C.
No Jordan series is complete without Reinsdorf, now 84 yet still a power player in sports, and how he extracted mega-fortunes for himself and Bulls investors yet never rushed to reward Jordan, Jackson and Pippen. Reinsdorf demanded Jordan play out an eight-year, $24-million contract that became laughably obsolete, particularly after Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing received new, fatter deals amid an NBA boom. Jackson would win title after title, then be insulted each summer with a Scrooge offer that led him to sign one-year deals — the breaking point in his rift with management. Pippen was grossly underpaid for years, demanded a trade and had to leave in free agency to hit a jackpot commensurate with his Hall of Fame credentials. Reinsdorf, as he has done once or twice, could make that story line vanish in the ESPN project with one call to the Disney Co. hierarchy.
There was the anger of Jim Brown and other black activists who called Jordan a coward for his social indifference, such as his flip comment that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,’’ which Jordan says was taken out of context. And don’t forget how Jordan and Pippen turned the 1992 Barcelona Olympics into the humiliation of Krause’s Euro-pet, Croatia’s Toni Kukoc. In an NBA documentary about the Dream Team, Jordan said, “We weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.” Does he now think the stance was a bit petty? Especially after Kukoc famously bailed out PIppen by hitting a game-winning playoff shot after Pippen pulled himself from the game, upset Jackson didn’t draw up the play for him. Pippen should be painted as an agitated soul during Jordan’s baseball escape, not dealing well with lead-dog pressure and referring to Chicago fans as racist around the time a gun was found in his vehicle outside a restaurant. How about the 1993 NBA Finals, won in Phoenix by John Paxson’s dagger and lost when Barkley spent too many off-nights partying at an Irish pub in Scottsdale? And what of Jordan’s faltering relationship with Barkley? Speaking of alcohol, Jordan threatened to ruin Rodman’s life when the party animal routinely showed up hungover at practice, a necessary form of pressure that sobered up Rodman long enough to contribute to three titles and cement his Hall of Fame induction. The bullying side of Jordan is front and center — the haymaker he threw at a feisty Steve Kerr in practice and his ruthless criticism of end-of-the-roster patsies, if only to toughen them for the postseason grind. I once saw Jordan try to gouge Reggie Miller’s eyeball, and he wasn’t apologetic, telling a magazine, “Playing Reggie drives me nuts. It’s like chicken-fighting with a woman.’’
Say what? Jordan should thank the lords, every day, that he played before social media and TMZ. That goes for all facets of a life that would be 10 times crazier and more scandalous had he had born in 1993, not 1963.
Said Hehir: “He went very deep into how he is perceived, how his intensity is perceived, how his competitiveness is perceived and his ambivalence about that. He has a certain pride in how competitive he is and how he’s a win-at-all-costs kind of guy, but also he’s a human being.’’ But the Jordan-rage angle is well-worn, because everyone was subjected to his wrath at some point, myself included. There was the day he warned, “I keep your articles on my refrigerator door,’’ and the time he tossed an ice cube toward my head — missing like, well, a batter whiffing on a curveball — when I stopped by a golf course to ask about the gambling probe. I remember arriving in Memphis to see his oldest son, Jeff, play one of his first AAU games, only to have the coach instruct me which questions to ask — as ordered by Jordan over the phone. When the Sun-Times displayed the column on the front page, with a large photo of Jeff, Jordan was outraged, even as I explained I don’t make placement decisions. And when he couldn’t personally scold and admonish, his tentacles were deep. Broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, his friend and media protector, would take personal shots. And Jordan’s father, not long before he was murdered, engaged me and other media people in a spirited discussion, concluding that his son’s gambling urges were the product of “a competition problem.’’
For years, I navigated Jordan’s attempts to control the media.
Now, in 2020, Jordan is part of the media.
It’s vital to ESPN’s editorial integrity that “The Last Dance’’ not be a puff piece. Buried until further notice in a coronavirus black hole, the network desperately needs oxygen without live sports, which has caused considerable ratings slippage and revenue bleeding along with continued cord-cutting that is killing the cable industry. With journalism in Bristol giving way to business relationships with leagues and athletes, ESPN cannot afford watered-down storytelling for “The Last Dance’’ — the one story that should be maximized and dramatized for full effect.
The clamor for an unconditional, consummate Jordan documentary has been intense for years, increasing amid America’s collective quarantine. LeBron himself tweeted, like a schoolboy: “April 19th can’t come fast enough. I CAN NOT WAIT!!’’ We will be entertained and educated, occasionally gobsmacked and slack-jawed, and that is cool, because I no longer can binge on “Ozark’’ without wanting to body-slam Marty Byrde. But if you’re looking for long-lost revelations that will rock the world, well, remember the operative rule about Michael Jordan: No matter the game, he is in control.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Meet The Market Managers: Ryan Hatch, Bonneville International Phoenix
“Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it.”
For as long as I have known Ryan Hatch, he has been a good friend, encouraging me to take advantage of each opportunity put in front of me. When someone treats you that way, you cannot be anything but thrilled when you see them do the same thing.
Late last year, Ryan was elevated from a programming executive role with Bonneville to become Market Manager of the company’s Phoenix cluster. He is now overseeing every aspect of a building that he has worked in for a long time.
I thought it would be fun to visit with him to see what has changed. The last time I profiled him, he was serving as PD of Arizona Sports 98.7. The last time we profiled Bonneville Phoenix for this series, it was Scott Sutherland in the Market Manager’s chair. So, what has changed?
In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Ryan and I discuss the changing nature of our business, retaining great talent, and supporting the person who’s tasked with filling your former position and leading the programming team forward. When a company is ahead of the curve with its digital strategy and generating strong ratings and revenue, what’s next?
Demetri Ravanos: So how has the transition gone moving from programming into the market manager’s seat? We’re a little over six months into the change. How steep has the learning curve been?
Ryan Hatch: You know what? It’s been fantastic. And I have to give so much credit to Scott Sutherland, who was in the chair before me, and others within the company for really preparing me for this moment. But it’s not just a transition from programming. I would think even if I came up through the sales, marketing or finance side there would be a curve.
I’m learning new things every single day and loving it. So whether it’s six months or six years in this chair or more, I hope that I can always say that.
I love the job. I love the market. Obviously, you know, I’ve been here for such a long time and it’s the best chair to be in. I’m thrilled.
DR: You mentioned Scott and I started thinking about this after you and I set a time to talk. There’s this advantageous environment of education there, right? Because Scott is still in the area. He held your job before. You’re obviously in the building and that’s got to be advantageous for Sean Thompson. How much do those conversations take place day-to-day? There seems to be an opportunity for everybody to learn and build on the person that came before them because they can just walk down the hall and ask.
RH: Absolutely it can be advantageous because you’ve got institutional knowledge. Every person that’s been in your chair before can certainly provide important information to help expedite the onboarding process.
The other side of it is making sure that there are clear boundaries. I can speak with Sean Thompson coming in on the programming side. My goal is to empower him and embolden Sean to take this brand to a different level with new ideas and thoughts.
I’d been in that chair for so long, we were certainly ready for somebody new to come in with a new perspective and new experiences, and Sean’s done a wonderful job doing that. I think if you talk to Scott, he would probably say something similar. So when you ask the question, “is it advantageous?”, the answer is unquestionable. Yes, it is. At the same time, you have to really be clear on where those boundaries are, how much you want to give and share, and how much you want to let that person learn and experience it on their own as they’re creating their new environment, if that makes sense.
DR: So with those boundaries, are there things you see Sean putting into place that make you think, “Oh man, that’s really cool. I kind of miss programing at this moment”?
RH: Well, the irony is in asking that question, I think today is actually his 90th day on the job. So we’re still in the basic stages of him taking that chair.
He’s full of ideas, full of energy. I can’t wait to see so much of it come to fruition. But again, when you’re only three months in, you’re doing a lot of listening and a lot of learning before you dig in to start making change. I expect that to come, but he walked into a position with a great on-air staff, fantastic talent, an unbelievable digital team, with a great marketing and promotional support team behind him as well.
I’ll tell you what I’m most excited about is what’s going to happen this fall. After the listening and the learning is done, we’ll be starting to really build some exciting plans into the NFL season around the Cardinals and the NFL. We’re also hosting the Super Bowl in February of ’23 as well. So we’ve got a great big build coming here in Arizona.
DR: So let’s talk a little bit about the future and where things can go, not just for Phoenix, but for Bonneville overall. I told you this a million times. What has always impressed me about the company, even before you and I got to know each other, was that you guys were so ahead of the curve on recognizing the value of digital content. Arizona Sports is not a radio station, it is a brand.
I wonder now that you are in the market manager’s chair, how you look at all of the money from these different companies being put into podcasts. I mean, the deals being made to turn podcasts into TV shows or movies, do you ever think about what is possible or maybe what the next evolution for the digital side of Bonneville could or should be?
RH: Well, I think as a company, and not to speak for Tanya Vea, who’s in a new EVP position helping oversee a lot of our content initiatives, we’re opening up a mechanism for local ideas to be funneled up to a team led by our VP of Podcasting, Sheryl Worsley. The idea is to be able to support a local that might scale on a national level and help it achieve that potential. I think that we’re very aggressive. I think that we’re also very strategic in the podcasting world.
There’s a blessing and a curse there. The blessing is that that audience is expanding rapidly and the revenue’s been following, you know, slowly, but still following in that direction. The downside is how much time and energy and creativity a lot of our best talent have.
Do we want to put our talk show hosts, who are spending 4 hours a day creating live broadcast content, at the forefront of that effort? How many more hours a day of creative juice do they have left for a podcast or a passion project? It could be something that might not be entirely complimentary to the brand.
I think you have to be smart and strategic and understand how big of a bed it is you want to make. I think we’re being strategic about it and making the best decision for each individual circumstance.
DR: So what about from a broadcast angle? As podcasting continues to grow and becomes the kind of thing that sellers see as easier to get clients involved with, what are the things that terrestrial radio is going to have to do to secure its own future?
RH: Well, speaking on behalf of our properties here, where we’re all local news and all local sports. Really, that’s our business. I don’t think that there’s anything that can replicate the power of live, in the moment, information-based content. And that is the value proposition that broadcast has.
Now, will that traditional radio audience continue to decline and find other venues? Potentially. I mean, that’s just natural, and I think that we’ve seen that accelerate through the pandemic. That doesn’t take away from the importance though.
If you look at Bonneville Phoenix, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR, our streaming numbers are way, way up. Our monthly app users are way, way up. Our smart speaker usage is way, way up. And I think too many times we categorize one as digital and one as radio. I look at it more through the lens of what is a live broadcast and what is driven by more destination-based, story-based, topic-based choices. That’s a different experience and you can serve both.
DR: What is your view of having that live content accessed by both radios and streaming devices? When you’re a programmer, I think it is it is easier to say, “Look, people are coming to this content. This is good content. That is what matters.” But now that you’re the market manager, I know you are a real advocate for total line reporting, but now the ratings take on this whole different meaning to you than they did before. What is your view of the right path forward to paint that picture easily and accurately for advertisers about just how powerful these brands are, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR?
RH: Thank goodness we have fantastic sales management and account executives on the streets telling that story and big brands to back them up with that unique content that our stations are delivering. And as I’ve told you in different settings over the years Demetri, Nielsen is one of many tools that tell that story. When we’re on the streets talking to a potential advertiser, and understand that our game is not as national or our market is not as regional, we are hyper-locally focused. In Phoenix, Arizona, that’s a lot of small to medium-sized businesses. So when we can walk in and share a total audience report that gives a glimpse of Nielsen, which we know is antiquated and really, really needs to be reformed and updated. You’ve got to bring your Google Analytics and your Triton numbers. You have so many other tools to use to evaluate how our content is being delivered and consumed. You’ve got to paint that entire total audience story, and I will tell you that it’s a story that is very well received in Phoenix with our products.
DR: Maybe this is more of a question for your sales staff, but is it a matter of walking potential advertisers and current advertisers through each individual number, or do you find a way to synthesize it down into a simple illustration of how many people are listening to your content every day?
RH: It’s not a numbers game. It’s not getting into detail about how many tens of thousands of listeners we have on one platform and how many on another and how many views or clicks on websites. Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it. When you have something that works for your advertisers, they’re not going to be coming in and scrutinizing the numbers left and right.
Now, you have to deliver to the audience, and we have significant audiences. In fact, I’ll tell you right now, combining everything together. And it’s not apples to apples, because these are all different channels. But our audience is here in Phoenix between our websites, our apps, and our radio distribution. Our audiences have never been better. I mean, that’s a wonderful and easy story to tell.
DR: Play-by-play is obviously a big part of what you do on Arizona Sports. You and I have talked before about the landscape of Phoenix sports, and I think you’ve described it as, because Phoenix is a transplant market, you find yourself talking about everyone’s second favorite team.
So how does that play with advertisers? Do they buy into the idea that this is a unifying thing or is there some concern that it is too much of a transplant market for the value returned by play-by-play doesn’t match the cost to advertise in that space?
RH: Our original franchise, the Phoenix Suns, while, they had a disappointing end of the season, it couldn’t have been more galvanizing. That is the one team that has been here for 50-plus years. That orange blood does run deep. The Cardinals have had their moments. The Diamondbacks have the only championship in the major sports here, but that was back in 2001.
I’ll answer that question in a couple of ways. Number one, we are catering to the fans and to the super fans, but we try to create content that is going to be accessible and interesting for those that would claim that any of the franchises are their second favorite team in a given league. When you move into a market and you head to the office or nowadays maybe it’s a Zoom call, you still want to be able to have a conversation about something that’s relevant. You want a shared experience with your coworker or a neighbor, somebody at school when you’re hanging out waiting to up the kids. So often that conversation is sports.
We have a fantastic sports market. Now, where’s the passion level? Is it as high as a Boston or Philadelphia? Of course not and we’re not going to act like it is. But at the end of the day, what does an advertiser look for? They’re looking for an audience and they’re looking for something exclusive to put their message on. That’s what we’re able to offer with our play-by-play. On top of that, what’s become more and more important to us in our model, especially on the digital side over the years, is the access to those decision-makers, to the coaches, the exclusive access to the general managers with weekly calls, and things like player shows.
There’s so much more that you can offer beyond just the game itself that makes these partnerships great for our business and the advertising community.
DR: So coming out of what is being called The Great Resignation, what are you experiencing as a market manager and what are your other hiring managers experiencing? What are the new challenges of recruiting, whether it is sales or programing, any kind of talent in an environment like this?
RH: Well, let’s add to that and talk about inflationary pressures as well. I mean, there are so many factors at play right now, and I think it’s as tough as I can ever remember it.
What we’re doing here at Bonneville Phoenix is really leaning into our culture and making sure that we’re an employer of choice because we have a culture that people want to be a part of. It’s a good team environment full of hungry people that want to succeed not just for themselves. So the more hungry, humble, and smart people we find, the better off we’re going to be.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost. There’s been a dramatic shuffle. Right now, I can say that we’re close to a full boat, but that wasn’t the case a month ago. There are so many different forces at play right now. It is a difficult environment. Our news side alone faces unique challenges. News itself has been under attack for multiple years. Don’t you think that burns people out?
Absolutely I have concerns, but what can we control? Well, we can focus on executing the vision that Bonneville has provided. It’s built on passionate people and innovation. It is about creating a culture people want to be a part of.
DR: We’ve heard a lot about burnout when people talk about why they leave a job in any industry. We hear about work-life balance. You’re responsible for the entire building, so what are you telling your managers on the sales and programming side about creating an environment for employees that respects that those are real and valid concerns while still maintaining the level of expectation of quality for Arizona Sports and KTAR.
RH: We’re still committed to the highest standards, and we always will be. And we found that certain parts of the business can work pretty effectively from home, while other parts of the business really can’t. I will tell you, on the content side working from home, we did it when we had to. We did it, I would say fairly effectively for a few extended periods. But overall, in a local news and local sports environment that really is driven by the breaking news, the need to work together in a space is real. You just can’t do things as quickly or as effectively or as creatively if you’re separated. You just can’t.
Now, on the sales side, we want them on the streets. We want them out of the office, but there is a balance. So what are we asking our great sales managers to do? We’re asking them just to make sure that they are up to speed on where the activity is and that we’re doing all the jobs that need to be done. Do I ever see us going back to five days a week in the office? I don’t. I think that ship has sailed and I think that’s just fine. I think there’s some real benefit to that.
The way to make this all work is to empower our department heads to come up with a plan that’s going to work best for them, for their people, and deliver on what our expectations are for the business. And then as leaders, we have to understand that the plan is going to be evolving. It really is. This is not going to be decided on a new policy set. I think that we’re in a new world, probably for the rest of our lives.
Broadcasting Fills The Baseball Void For Keith Moreland
“When I got through… I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”
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.”
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.
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.