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What Do Fans Think A Sports Talk Host’s Job Is?

“When it comes to local media, fans expect to hear why their optimism isn’t unfounded or why following their team isn’t time wasted.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Last Friday, Seth Everett posted a column that I thought was a fair critique of where baseball is as a sport. He pointed out that the public seemingly only pays attention when the sport is in a PR mess, and lately, that seems to be happening a little too frequently.

Seth made points that are hard to argue with. The move from Atlanta to Denver for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game seems less about benefitting Denver and punishing Georgia than it does about making Major League Baseball feel good. The lack of balls in play is definitely a problem. Baseball may not be dying, but I, for one, can’t see how anyone can feel good about the sport right now. Later in the day, a tweet popped up on my timeline from my pal Brady Farkas.

Now, call me cold or an opportunist or unfair or whatever, but why does the media need to save baseball? Doesn’t it seem like that should be baseball’s job to figure how to change public perception? I’m not sure any of us in this business owe any league or team anything other than than to be fair, which I thought Seth was. “Hit piece” feels a little strong. But this comment started my wheels turning.

I know Brady loves baseball. He hosts a show on WDEV in Vermont, so he has to be locked in on the Red Sox, but at the drop of a hat he can tell you all of the problems with the Mariners’ farm system.

Brady is a more traditional sports fan than I am. He lives and dies with his teams and will put on any game at any time and can find himself locked in. I love college football, I love the Celtics, other than that, I just want to be entertained. I grew up rooting for the Buccaneers, and so I was happy to see them win the Super Bowl, but I am not positive that I didn’t get just as much joy out of Tom Brady being drunk on a boat later that week.

Does loving the absurdity and weirdness of sports blind me to what it is fans of teams and listeners to our shows think our job description is? Is there a widely held belief that we need to protect or only talk positively about the teams and sports we cover?

Heath Cline is one of my closest friends in this business. He hosts the afternoon show at 107.5 The Game in Columbia, SC. The city is the home of the South Carolina Gamecocks. The school’s football, basketball and baseball games play on his station. Heath says that definitely shades the way his listeners think about his job.

“There’s definitely a belief among some portion of the audience that being ‘the home of the Gamecocks’ means we’re supposed to be rah rah at all times,” he says. “What’s funny is that we’re supposed to back them to the hilt, until the minute the fans get mad and want to fire someone at which point unless we agree with them we’re homers and shills for the athletic department.”

Heath Cline | WNKT-FM

I called Gary Parrish, because I thought he might have a unique perspective. Gary has a local audience in Memphis, where he can be heard on 92.9 ESPN. He also has a national audience thanks to his work for CBS. He covers college basketball both on television and on CBSSports.com.

Gary says there are times he has found himself wondering if he has colleagues that feel like they are supposed to protect and talk up the sports they cover.

“Even friends of mine will say things and type things like ‘college basketball is the greatest sport in the world’. And the truth is, it’s just not,” Parrish says. “It’s, at this point, kind of a niche sport. It’s kind of, for most people, a six week sport, maybe a five week sport, maybe even a three week sport. So, I don’t feel like it’s my obligation to lie to anybody. I love college basketball. It is my job to to cover college basketball, but I don’t pretend that it’s not without issues and I think some real serious issues that that need to be addressed.”

I am not making a comment on anyone’s professionalism here. Two people can choose to do the same job in very different ways. Different outlets can even come with different expectations in how you do your job and what you owe the people and organizations you cover. That can mean you can talk about the same thing the same way on two different platforms and the audiences can have opposite opinions of you. Parrish says he deals with that every basketball season.

“The perception of me inside of Memphis versus outside of Memphis is pretty drastically different, specifically in the way that I talk about the University of Memphis,” he says. “I think I think non-Memphians think that I am too positive about the Tigers and talk too much about Memphis, more than it deserves. In the market, I’m like the guy that Memphis fans think hates on Memphis. They genuinely believe that I despise Memphis, which is just not true.”

Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) | Twitter

Carrington Harrison hosts the afternoon drive show on 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He told me that any discussion about baseball and the idea that it is a dying sport is not easy. The answer is nuanced and listeners aren’t always here for nuance. How do you succinctly say that baseball is dying except for the places where it isn’t?

“We don’t have national conversations about baseball anymore,” Harrison explains. “The only way we have national conversations about baseball is when there are historic single game feats. Tomorrow, if someone pitched a perfect game, we would talk about it, of course, or a fight happens. Those are the only times we talk. Or a big contract is given out. Tomorrow, if they gave a player 400 million dollars, everybody in sports would be talking about it.”

Occasionally, I’ll exchange Twitter messages with Sports Map Radio mid day host Jake Asman. He hosts a show with a national perspective. I wanted to get his take.

Asman echoes Harrison’s idea that baseball doesn’t have the popularity problems on the local level that the sport does nationally, but he also thinks there are some real problems in terms of the sport’s ability to build a new generation of fans.

“The pace of play and lack of action besides strikeouts and homers is a major turnoff to a lot of fans. I also think every team going all in on analytics is not a great way to attract fans to your sport.”

So what if he were to say that on air? Is there anything special a host has to do or anything special that he/she needs to consider if he/she is planning to be critical of a league? What about if he/she is being critical of a team as an entity rather than sounding off on their on-field performance?

“I would treat criticism of a team or league as I would treat criticizing a player or coach during a segment. I would make sure that I am well informed on the topic I am going to be critical of and I would never make things personal,” Jake says in a DM.

Jake Asman Moves To Mid Days On SB Nation Radio | Barrett Sports Media

That seems like basic advice, right? It does answer my question though. No, there is nothing special you have to do, nothing more you owe to the audience if you are talking about an institutional problem with a sport or any other non-human entity.

Cline tells me that the idea of being unfair to a team is something that exclusively lives with fans. He worked in markets across Florida before moving to South Carolina. In the entire time covering college football, the only people that have ever accused him of having an agenda are fans.

“I have never gotten a single call from an athletic department person at either Florida or South Carolina complaining about anything I’ve ever said,” he texted. “It’s possible my bosses have and kept it from me, but I think if you’re honest, can back what you say up with facts and don’t make things personal there’s really no way they can complain too much.”

According to Harrison, the audience wants to be told they are right or that they have a good idea. When it comes to local media, fans expect to hear why their optimism isn’t unfounded or why following their team isn’t time wasted.

“I think in really any form of media, and I think we see it in sports, we also see it in news, there’s some implied confirmation bias,” Harrison says. “Like, you want to hear people that agree with your point of view. And if you’re listening to local radio, you want to hear the conversations come from a local perspective.”

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That is an interesting idea and one with a lot of merit. There will always be a segment of the audience that believes a local perspective means one that sings the praises of the home team. There might even be a segment of the audience that believes a sports media perspective should always be deferential to sports and teams when we aren’t addressing issues on the field. I can see how someone could get there. I don’t think it is right, but we’re dealing with a fan brain, and you can connect those dots.

When it comes to the concept of “fan brain,” Parrish is a little less eloquent and a little more blunt.

“It’s just that fans, and this is something you have to always remind yourself, they don’t often want to hear the truth.”

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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