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Chicago Sports 2021: This Is A Major Market?

Years after ditching a cold, political metropolis for life in the California sun, the columnist is shocked that a once-vibrant sports hub has shrunk into national irrelevance and suffers from … Wisconsin envy?

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Chicago

Taylor Bell is a loyal reader of this site and column. Which delights me to no end, given his standing as a legend who covered Chicago high-school sports — and all its triumphs, tragedies and treachery — with appropriate diligence and energy. The other day, Bell suggested I write a piece on how the city’s sports landscape has changed since August 2008, when I departed of my own volition and handed back about a million guaranteed dollars to a failing newspaper.     

My first thought was typically cynical. As I prepared for a sunny beachside bike ride on a 70-degree afternoon, hoping to avoid a crash and an ICU bed not available in Los Angeles, I wondered: “Chicago? Does Chicago still exist?’’

After all, the only time sports is nationally relevant there is when someone produces a documentary about decades-ago stuff. Chicago was celebrated in the riveting re-tell of Michael Jordan and “The Last Dance,’’ just as Chicago was humiliated by the disgrace of meathead Steve Dahl and Disco Demolition Night at old Comiskey Park, part of a recent Bee Gees retrospective. As for the here and now, the news cycle is a Kennedy-in-a-snowstorm snarl. Even the surprising ascent of the White Sox — who’ve thrown as many World Series as they’ve won (one) in the last 102 years — predictably soured when an 84-year-old curmudgeon, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, hired a 76-year-old manager, Tony La Russa, to direct a clubhouse of millennials and Gen-Zers who either know nothing about La Russa’s long-ago achievements or don’t appreciate his past opposition to Colin Kaepernick’s racial protests.  

The worst insult anyone can hurl at Chicago has come true. It’s a feeble, little sports burg compared to the neighboring state and city it likes to mock: Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Cheeseheads can’t frolic on the Frozen Tundra and absorb Lambeau Leaps right now, but they might be celebrating a Super Bowl title with NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, followed by another NBA postseason run from Giannis Antetokounmpo, the newly maxed-up, two-time-defending MVP. By comparison, Chicago offers up Nickelodeon prince Mitchell Trubisky and Lauri Markkanen when it once had, oh, Walter Payton and Jordan.     

Look around. Examine the burning debris. As long as a McCaskey is in the building — from Virginia to George to the pet cat — the Bears will shred the souls of their exasperated fans. Sneaking into the playoffs through a pandemic loophole allows this family-run farce to retain general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, which saves the mom-and-pop owners about $20 million (the franchise is worth $3.45 billion) when both men were considered goners only weeks ago. By extension, this means Trubisky could return based on recent improved play that wasn’t evident Sunday amid the New Orleans slime. Every conceivable quarterbacking scenario has unfolded through time in the City of Weak Shoulders, mostly for the worse. The fans have been tortured enough since 2017, when Trubisky was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Now, you’re going to torture them more by bringing everyone back for another year of “Which Mitch?’’

An idea: Watson is unhappy in Houston and possibly available. In acquiring Khalil Mack, Pace once pulled off a coup as impressive as his Trubisky plan was wretched. Might he save the franchise — and a lot of jobs, including his own — by exploring another megadeal? And don’t count me among those who think Pat Fitzgerald would thrive as an NFL coach. He has mastered the art of “Northwesterning’’ — a perception that any football success is gravy amid higher academia in Evanston — yet when pressured to win big outside that tame environment, he might fail with a rah-rah approach when leading grown men. Not that he should go anywhere near Halas Hall, where it’s 35 years and counting since January 1986, the month by which time is kept in a city that still dances in its head to “The Super Bowl Shuffle.’’ Let it go, people.     

The Cubs have wrecked much of their goodwill from an unimaginable vision, a 2016 World Series title, by dumping salary and launching a reset. New boss Jed Hoyer insists this isn’t a rebuild, but no form of downsizing ever should happen inside a top-five, money-printing franchise with a treasure trove of celebrity fans and global outreach. Why are the Cubs crying poor when they’ve teamed with Raine Group and raised $375 million to acquire (WTF?) big-ticket entertainment companies? Owner Tom Ricketts and his oddballish relatives have mishandled the gift of a curse-lifting by corporatizing the Wrigley Field romance, borrowing heavily for a Cubs-themed hotel/office village that belongs in Buffalo Grove — and now is a ghost town. It might remain that way as Cubdom, despite generational allegiances, tries to reconcile the relationship of various Ricketts family members with Donald Trump after the U.S. Capitol riots. Notice how it took only days after his resignation for Theo Epstein, the savant who slayed the Billy Goat and the Bambino, to join troubled Major League Baseball as a consultant that hopefully leads to a commissionership. He knew when to let it go.

“With what’s happening with the coronavirus, and the money the Cubs have, I wasn’t thinking about being traded,” pitching ace Yu Darvish said through an interpreter after Hoyer shipped him to the Padres. “Also, they are a winning team and I thought we would be able to compete.”     

Once the Cubs, always the Cubs. Of my current residence, the Eagles sang, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.’’ Of the one-and-done Cubs, noted fan Billy Corgan can say, “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.’’ The fear is, this operation is transporting Cubdom back to the most woeful times of Tribune Co. ownership, the years before Steve Bartman and Sammy Sosa’s juicing exploits, when losing 90 games wasn’t so bad for Mark Grace if he could drink and get laid at Murphy’s Bleachers. I asked Sosa one day, after he tried to hug me with his suddenly massive girth, if he used steroids. “Flintstone vitamins,’’ he said with that dugout-wide grin, before mumbling something about a “creatine shake’’ that got my attention.

You always thought the Cubs were doomed to lose even when coming close, as Bartman Night exhibited in all its chilling freakery. Have they returned to death mode? Does anyone have faith that Ricketts, who has laid off staffers in his new building and now might part ways with Kris Bryant and Javy Baez and others with hefty price tags, will approach a championship again? When you launch a network to an audience accustomed to WGN-TV, going back to Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse, you’d better make sure optimum programming — say, a contending ballclub — is on the ledger every day. Ricketts has done things ass-backwards, and now, the Cubs join every pro franchise but the White Sox in the Chicago dumper. I will say this: The Cubs snaked the Sox in the broadcast wars, trading snooze-inducing Len Kasper for smart, fun-loving Jon “Boog’’ Sciambi, who fits Wrigleyville like another beer bar. But even Boog needs upbeat daily material to succeed on the Marquee Sports Network, whatever that is.

Was it me, or was a car parked behind the baseline during a recent Bulls game at the United Center? That’s how they did it in the Continental Basketball Association, which means the franchise of dynasties and docuseries officially has devolved into a minor-league mess. Since Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause wreckingballed the six-pack before its expiration date, preferring to attempt their own dynasty, the Bulls have spent the last 23 years plummeting like no championship franchise in U.S. history. Worse, the man in charge is a younger Reinsdorf, Michael. The futility could continue for decades.

Then we have the Blackhawks, the mighty Blackhawks. Please be thankful for the three Stanley Cups under owner Rocky Wirtz, who continues to donate funds that keep the space heaters on at my former paper, the Sun-Times. He might want to redirect all resources and brainpower toward his now-wayward hockey club, which has lost cornerstone Jonathan Toews to a mysterious illness amid its own rebuild. I’ve liked Patrick Kane since he approached me his rookie year and called me “Mr. Mariotti.” I would urge Mr. Kane to politely ask Mr. Wirtz for a trade.

Chicago, Chicago. Isn’t that where a crazy baseball manager called me “a f——— fag,” prompting a WMAQ-TV reporter named Don Lemon — now a crazy Trump basher on CNN — to call me for a comment? During the 17-plus years I rocked that market, starting in my early 30s, the city often was the epicenter of American sports. I arrived in time for the Jordan dynasty, mostly glorious but needlessly maddening, chronicling both his sublimity and his scandals. I watched the sorry demise of Mike Ditka, ripping him for losing his mind and trying to climb into the stands as the city was ripping me. I watched the Bears trot out so many lame quarterbacks, I started bringing the Sunday New York Times to the press box in December. The White Sox were a big story behind Frank Thomas, who swung a bat better than he delivers lines in Nugenix ads, then stopped being a story until hiring the aforementioned nut, Ozzie Guillen, who somehow won a World Series that America never acknowledged. The Cubs didn’t win hardware in my time, but they’ve owned a city that uses baseball to drive a socioeconomic wedge both unhealthy and unsafe. The Cubs are “the North Siders,” viewed as moneyed and privileged. The Sox are “the South Siders,” from the other side of the tracks.

At Wrigley, a fan might look at me and say he disagreed with a column.

At Whatever They’re Calling Sox Park, I found a nail in my tire one night.

Not that my bosses cared about my safety. The Sun-Times kept giving me three-year contracts because I drove circulation — see the traffic when we started daily “Mariotti 24/7” posts on a primitive website — but they saw me more as a necessary evil than a pillar. Too often, Reinsdorf and his lawyers were calling about me, and too often, the bosses jumped instead of hanging up. To his glee, the Sun-Times had tried to get rid of me in 1994 but failed, leading to the demise of the editor-in-chief. The next editor-in-chief, Nigel Wade, asked me if I was anti-Semitic — soon after, he was forearm-shivering me into a wall as I tried to leave his office, and he eventually was ziggied as well. Years later, Reinsdorf forced editors to print a retraction for contract figures that had run in my column — figures volunteered to me by a night editor straight from a Sun-Times news story on the same topic — yet no retraction was required for the news story, only for my column. No one cared that our figures had come from the agent of Bulls coach Scott Skiles (who had signed an extension) and only slightly differed from figures published by the Reinsdorf-friendly Tribune.

I was the one who took the muddy fall, as always, which was kind of fun for me, even as an absurd smear campaign was starting to overtake my industry reputation with the advent of clowns on the Internet. Every time I wondered about the dirty pool, I knew it was about salaries, impact, outside influences and appearing as a longtime regular on ESPN’s debate program, “Around The Horn,” which was grabbing nearly a million viewers some days. When lies weren’t being told about me at both papers, the local alternative rag was obsessed, to the point an old, bitter writer with a Leonard Cohen voice called our house on a Saturday night for no particular reason. A few years ago, he needed a donor for a liver transplant. I e-mailed him a supportive note and never heard back.

I’m writing about these events, years later, because it makes sense on this vehicle. Barrett Sports Media, where I write media criticism once a week and donate the compensation to charitable journalism causes, is read by aspiring young people who should know what they’re getting into if they are fiercely independent. Everyone mourns the demise of newspapers — I’m describing, through my eyes, how a once-thriving paper crashed. Every time I wondered about these endless episodes of dirty pool, I knew they were about politics, salaries, impact, outside influences and my success as a longtime regular on ESPN’s debate show, “Around The Horn.’’ When lies weren’t being told about me at both papers, the local alternative rag was obsessed, to the point an old, bitter writer with a Leonard Cohen voice called our home on a Saturday night for no particular reason. A few years ago, he needed a donor for a liver transplant. I e-mailed him a supportive note and never heard back.

For every editor who valued me, such as worldly Michael Cooke, there were local honks who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a Sox cap in my column photo during the World Series. See, I wasn’t a native Chicagoan, which, in their minds, gave me no right to criticize teams that served as family heirlooms in a town much smaller in scope than its population suggests. Being an “outsider” just made it a bigger hoot for me, such as when I told native Mike Mulligan, a former writer who hosts a morning show on sports radio, “I know this city better than this city knows itself.” He wasn’t happy with that observation, nor was he happy when I insisted he join me for a day game at Wrigley, taboo for a South Side native.

I was shocked to discover many in the Chicago media were fanboys. If they didn’t grow up there, they were expected to adjust to a certain sappiness and parochiality-embracing — even when teams lost, they were “our” losers. After Guillen’s homophobic slur, among many arrows he slung across the baseball terrain (he would admit to drinking issues), I was invited to appear on national news shows — one with Tucker Carlson, of all people. I couldn’t make it in time for Bill O’Reilly, who settled on short notice for a then-raw Chicago radio host, Laurence Holmes. Laurence actually took offense that I referred to Guillen as “the Blizzard Of Oz,” the perfect nickname.

O’Reilly was incredulous. So the hell what? Was Holmes glossing over the slur and trying to claim I was racist? No, he was just another Chicago fanboy, not ready for national exposure. At least one station finally has gotten around to hiring a regular female host. 

My only goal was to beat the competition. But around me, there often was dysfunction — including the scraps I broke up between our football writers in Jacksonville (in a Super Bowl hotel lobby) and San Diego (outside a stadium elevator). At some point, with my daughters having to answer Ozzie questions about a silly topic they knew little about, the high salaries and accompanying big gigs on ESPN weren’t as important anymore as quality of life. I reluctantly agreed to another Sun-Times extension with a caveat: The paper, stuck with a crappy site, had to up its digital game. I headed to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, only to realize the site wasn’t posting content for hours from our two-man staff. There was no hope for the place. When I returned home, I resigned amicably, and when the Tribune called and asked about rumors, I was honest. I wasn’t going down with the Sun-Times ship, and the story was blasted atop the Trib’s business section. At the time, circulation was around 340,000. Today, the paper claims 120,000, though I’m guessing 90,000 at best and not much more from a website that never got going. The latest editor-in-chief, Chris Fusco, left for a start-up in Santa Cruz, Calif. No permanent replacement has been named, maybe because everyone who takes the job eventually is fired or leaves.

At some point, with my daughters having to answer Ozzie questions about a silly topic they knew little about, the high salaries and accompanying big gigs on ESPN weren’t as important anymore as quality of life. I reluctantly agreed to another Sun-Times extension with a caveat: The paper, stuck with a crappy site, had to up its digital game. I headed to the Olympics in Beijing, only to realize the site wasn’t posting content for hours from our two-man China staff. There was no hope for the place. When I returned home, I resigned peacefully, and when the Tribune called and asked about rumors, I was honest: I wasn’t going down with the Sun-Times ship, and the story was blasted atop the Trib’s business section. Roger Ebert, the famed film critic, called me “a rat,’’ but,sadly, I was spot on. At the time, daily circulation was around 340,000, and we had ruled the city’s sports coverage for years. Today, the Sun-Times is a ghost that claimed a 2018 circulation of 120,000, though I’m figuring 95,000 at best now and not much more from a site that never got going. The latest executive editor, Chris Fusco, left months ago for a start-up in Santa Cruz, Calif. No permanent replacement has been named, maybe because everyone who takes the job eventually is fired or leaves.

Shortly after opting out, I was featured on HBO’s “Real Sports” program as a newspaper columnist who’d signed with an ambitious digital site. One of my industry heroes and ex-bosses, Frank Deford, was putting together a segment about the demise of newspapers. Clutching a copy of that day’s print edition during our taping atop a Wrigleyville rooftop, Deford was shocked to hear me reference a nearby Starbucks and note that several people, as we spoke, were reading their news on computers.

And here we are today.

Do I look back? Never. I accomplished more than ever I wanted there, made a better living than I ever dreamed there, put my successful daughters through high school there. A robust writer with zero homer tendencies, Jim O’Donnell, has been lobbying for me to return to a ghostly sports-radio market with rock-bottom ratings. Once upon a time, I delivered potent ratings for ESPN 1000, but the White Sox were leaning on the bosses about me — to the point the program director, somehow still employed in the business, asked me to sign a document promising not to criticize the Sox or Bulls. I refused. They fired me the morning after Christmas, claiming I had weak ratings. My ratings, in fact, were terrific, and after a legal threat, the station was forced to pay incentive escalators in my contract.

Last year, a new market manager took over. I wrote him a note, wishing him luck on his difficult challenge. He wrote back, same day. Months passed. You know what comes next: Reinsdorf was bringing the White Sox to ESPN 1000. Wrote O’Donnell last month: “Yet another rough residual of the White Sox landing on ESPN 1000 is that the move effectively ends any chance of Jay Mariotti working at the station.”

Ratings be damned.

Has it occurred to Chicago fans that team owners who control the local media give themselves leverage to perpetuate year-to-year mediocrity — an unconscionable condition in America’s No. 3 market?

With the Tribune and Sun-Times in intensive care, The Athletic appears to be the last vestige of sportswriting in Chicago. I’m not confident. Speaking for every sportswriter — myself included — who brainlessly has consumed beer after an event and gets into a car to drive home, I cringed as Jon Greenberg crowed about a drunken memory in a recent column: After standing behind Hoyer at a Pearl Jam concert, he woke up “hungover” after a short night and drove from Chicago to South Bend, Ind., where Darvish was on a rehab stint. Did Greenberg consider that his blood-alcohol level, during a 100-mile drive on challenging expressways, still might have been higher than Darvish’s earned-run average at the time? We all make mistakes, but most don’t publicly brag about them years later. And are we really supposed to be impressed that Jon, yet another fanboy, was hanging by a Cubs executive as Eddie Vedder belted out the hits?

There you are, Taylor Bell.

Excuse me, but I have a beach bikepath to navigate.

BSM Writers

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.”

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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. 

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BSM Writers

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.”

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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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