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Sports Radio Program Director’s React To ESPN Radio Changes

“Dan is incredibly committed to his way of doing things and he and the network were clearly heading in opposite directions.”

Demetri Ravanos

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ESPN Radio

News broke last week that Dan Le Batard would soon be leaving ESPN and the ESPN Radio weekday lineup. As a result, changes were required to ESPN Radio’s programming schedule, the second major change in less than six months. Mike Greenberg will now slide into Le Batard’s old timeslot, and the team of Alan Hahn and Bart Scott will occupy Greenberg’s previous show time of Noon to 2pm ET.

To nobody’s surprise, the changes produced a ton of reaction. I spent much of my weekend swapping emails and texts with more than ten sports radio program directors who partner with ESPN Radio across the country to take their pulse on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz going away, Greeny changing time slots, and 98.7 ESPN NY’s Bart & Hahn, moving into the national lineup in middays. The majority of the feedback I received was a combination of frustration, disappointment, and confusion of how much the worldwide leader values it’s radio affiliate partners.

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To assure that we received honest and candid feedback, I offered each program director anonymity. Some readers and industry professionals may have an issue with that, but I’d rather have decision makers offer true sentiments instead of platitudes.

One sports radio insider I spoke with told me that he wasn’t at all surprised by Le Batard and ESPN cutting ties. In fact, he says everyone he spoke to close to the situation said they expected the announcement to come much sooner than it did.

“I was actually surprised that his show was a part of the new lineup when it was announced this summer. By keeping him while also taking away an hour of his show, you knew the end was near and there would be another lineup fairly soon.”

One PD out West told me that he is surprised ESPN didn’t find a way to try and keep Le Batard in the family somehow.

“I think Dan is a great talent that resonates with a younger demographic. Those people are not easy to find, and I am curious which direction ESPN is going in moving forward with their daily television product.”

One PD in the Midwest said he suspects Le Batard has been thinking about his future with ESPN for well over a year now, since he caught heat for criticizing the network’s unwillingness to let talent address social issues.

“I think Dan is incredibly committed to his way of doing things and he and the network were clearly heading in opposite directions. But there is a deeper issue here and it’s really about sports radio trying to come to terms with today’s political climate,” the PD said.

“Dan is not shy with his opinions and is not afraid to share them, a staple of any successful radio program in the past. This is great if you’re a conservative oriented talk station with a clear identity. People are coming to that station specifically to hear that viewpoint. But if you’re a station whose identity is tied up in talking about the local baseball, football or basketball team in interesting and entertaining ways – why should a listener come back tomorrow if they think they’re just going to get a “sports guy” trying to do his Sean Hannity or Jake Tapper bit? This terrifies a sports network who just doesn’t have listeners or margins to lose right now. They are afraid of dividing and losing the somewhat niche audience they are able to attract.”

Another Midwestern PD told me it is that willingness to make people, particularly the bosses, uncomfortable that allowed The Dan Le Batard Show to stand out.

“The other shows seem pretty formulaic, but Le Batard and his crew were original; and not wholly dependent on the ‘news of the day’ in creating memorable and compelling segments. They looked at sports, pop culture, and current events thru a different lens, and I appreciated the originality.”

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A PD in the South agreed with the idea that the ESPN Radio lineup is a lot less special without Dan Le Batard in the mix.

“His exit just furthers the homogenization of ESPN’s lineup. For the most part, it’s dull by design. As far as Dan’s replacement? Come on, let’s just say I have very low expectations for it’s longevity on my station. ESPN is still a brand that carries cache locally, but the apple isn’t as shiny as it was. Fortunately for the network, those four letters still open doors.”

That brings up another interesting question. What is the value of the ESPN brand to local affiliates now? Without Le Batard, everything during prime hours originates out of the Northeast and all of the shows in mid days, when stations may elect to air syndicated programming, have a very distinct New York flavor.

One PD I spoke with in the Northeast says the shows don’t add much value to his station, even though he’s not far from the big apple. The lineup may mean less, but the four letters still carry weight.

“I still think the ESPN brand means something. Maybe not what it once meant, but it’s still synonymous with sports and being the top sports brand out there. I still think the power of saying ESPN to clients is more powerful than any other name available.”

“I have no reason for optimism,” a West Coast programmer said when I asked how he felt about airing Bart & Hahn. “It reinforces every negative stereotype about the East Coast centricity of ESPN Radio. You can never be all things to all people (which is the inherent challenge of a network model), but the combination of a longtime New York writer and a player best known for his days with the Jets is an extraordinarily narrow area of interest and expertise. So, I’m sure it will continue to be a good show for 98.7 in NYC.”

I asked several programmers to offer their perspective on the network changing big parts of their weekday lineup twice in the span of a little more than just four months. One PD in the Midwest said that it certainly isn’t ideal, but affiliates likely won’t view it as detrimental as they would if it was local talent being shuffled multiple times within half of a calendar year.

“It begs the bigger question—where does ESPN Radio or any national network or show fit with local radio stations? If I want to listen to any ESPN Radio show, I can listen to it on my phone, watch it on ESPN+, listen to it on SiriusXM, TuneIn, or on my smart speaker. Why do we need any of these shows on a local radio station?”

“ESPN has bent over backwards to help localize the relationship as much as possible – namely offering their talent as guests regularly on our local shows, but in reality, LOCAL content is what drives attention and revenue,” another programmer added in agreement. “I don’t know that ESPN Radio’s programming is going to have mass appeal to local markets outside of New York, LA and possibly a handful of other big cities.”

It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a PD down south that said he didn’t see the need to pay the exorbitant rights fees the local college football team was asking for to be an affiliate of their radio network because there are dozens of ways to consume any one game now. Nothing that has multiple broadcast homes can be that special.

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Another PD told me that given the value in the ESPN brand name, the network shouldn’t rule out continuing to shuffle the deck until they hit on multiple shows that are truly special.

“The ESPN brand still universally means sports – and the play-by-play rights that the network offers are very valuable. But they should continue exploring and looking for transcendent talent to be a part of their regular lineup. Another run at a Pat McAfee? Try to get Katie Nolan more involved in daily radio? Peyton Manning? Hell, put Brett Favre on a show…something that moves the needle. Use weekends to grow up-and-coming personalities, but think about dynamic ensembles for daily radio that creates more ‘juice’ and interest.”

I asked two major market programmers their thoughts on the lineup and where ESPN stands in the national network landscape. Both acknowledged they were unhappy with where things stood, but they each gave a very different answer in terms of where the network ranks against its competitors.

“If we could get out of our contract today, we would. I think that says a lot about how things have changed,” one told me. When I asked if he felt the network valued his station and any of the feedback they’d provided on how the changes were affecting business, he added “Unfortunately, many of the line-up changes are inferior to previous shows on the network once offered. We have voiced our opinion, especially on the morning show but don’t feel we are being heard. Our complaints are usually met with research on where they say the show “is working.”

Another programmer also felt the network’s lineup had lost its luster but tried to relay the positives. “I think ESPN’s roster – albeit not as good as it was a few years ago with Mike & Mike – is still the best option. Fox Sports Radio has closed the gap but ESPN’s play-by-play pushes their package over the top. If you want your brand to be relevant in the future though, worrying about Bart & Hahn’s ratings should be secondary to building out LOCAL content.”

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In trying to diagnose the new ESPN Radio approach, one PD pointed to an issue that drives local programmers crazy and is seen as “a huge problem”. There’s a collective belief that ESPN is insistent on turning their TV stars into radio hosts, a strategic decision which differs from how the network attained its initial success. ESPN Radio became part of the fabric of radio stations across the country because their talent valued the medium and understood how to create great radio content.

“ESPN Radio needs its hosts to be FULLY invested in the radio show,” he said. “TV is full of beautiful people, amazing graphics packages and strong info, but in radio you need to make an authentic connection over time with individual listeners. To be able to do that with large swaths of individual listeners is what will ultimately make a successful radio show. If a host can’t make that connection to its audience it just won’t work and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Also, as a programmer, if it’s obvious to me that the radio show is just another thing they do at the network, why should I invest fully in them on the other side?”

There are going to be mixed responses anytime major changes are made at a national outlet like ESPN Radio. Stations in August adjusted their lineups to feature Le Batard and/or Greenberg in specific timeslots, and now less than five months later they have to explore changing yet again. That’s difficult for not only maintaining audience, but it creates problems for sales departments too who are trying to convince clients to buy commercials inside of a certain show, only to have them not be there less than a half a year later.

The big question that ESPN has to answer moving forward is how important is radio to their business? The network lost well respected executive Traug Keller earlier this year, a huge advocate internally for ESPN Radio and someone who worked hard to keep relationships strong with local stations. Less than a full year into a new regime, and the network already has two talent overhauls on its hands, including a poorly managed situation involving former morning man Mike Golic.

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Station programmers are hoping ESPN Radio executives continue to work on improving the network’s talent and lineup. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone in Bristol that the majority of respondents to this story felt the lineup has gotten worse. They cited play by play and the brand name as the key reasons why they continue partnering with the network. But if the shows themselves aren’t exciting station programmers or local audiences, and play by play airs mostly at night thus generating less local revenue, eventually those four letters will matter less to operators who are paying rights fees and giving up large chunks of inventory.

ESPN Radio has been an important part of the national/local sports radio landscape for decades. Stations have valued their relationship and enjoyed a lot of ratings and revenue success with the network. But if those two areas struggle more as a result of frequent lineup shuffling, local partners could be forced to explore new relationships, and give up on four important letters that have been a large part of their identity.

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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