Everyone in the sports media business is well aware that football season is the crucial time of the year. As we enter July, it’s all barreling upon us. College football is huge in its own right but the NFL is King, and from my vantage entering the most fascinating season of all-time.
The primary reason for this is there is an unprecedented depth of great, interesting, and/or serviceable quarterbacks. If you pull up a list of the 32 NFL teams, there’s virtually no dreck to be found. As we’ll discuss, the floor has been raised several levels.
I’m not sure everybody realizes how dominant the NFL is not just in sports but also the broader TV landscape. Thirty-three of the top 50 most-watched TV shows of 2020 were NFL games, including 14 of the top 20 (this year there will be robust Olympics competition, but no presidential debates).
And the rich are getting richer. This offseason, the league inked new TV deals collectively worth $100 billion. The regular season is expanding to 17 games. Fans are returning to the stands, which makes the games feel much more meaningful. Knock on wood, games should be played at the dates and times they’re supposed to be, rather than the roving jigsaw puzzle of last year. Gambling continues to be legal in ever more states, which should help with eyeballs on the margins — even if it doesn’t it’s effectively a printing press of money in marketing partnerships.
Out of home viewership was not counted in standard 2019 ratings, and last season sports bars were either closed or faced capacity restrictions in many regions. I expect an enormous impact to be felt with the full inclusion of these metrics this season.
I ran all this by a network executive who responded: “Ad sales for football are through the roof. College and pro. The marketplace agrees with you.”
Returning to the unprecedented quarterback talent in the league: To double-check my own opinions, I reached out to NFL experts Peter King, Albert Breer, Mike Florio, and Sean Salisbury — who combined have closely followed the league for over 100 years — to see if they could ever remember a season that lined up to be as fascinating as this one. Here’s what they said:
Peter King (NBC Sports)
Lots of reasons to think 2021 will be one of the NFL’s most interesting seasons. I’ll give you four.
One: We are in the NFL’s golden age of quarterbacks, with the best crop of young passing stars I’ve seen in 37 years covering the league. In 2005, two quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards, and two had a rating over 100. In 2020, 12 surpassed 4,000 yards, and 10 had ratings over 100.
Two: Tom Brady at 44, piloting a fully intact defending Super Bowl champion. Both of those things are incredible.
Three: GMs are bolder than ever. If the Deshaun Watson case is resolved by midseason, one of the risk-taking GMs could trade for him, even if Watson is suspended.
Four: Navigating a 17-game season, with more injuries and general fatigue, will be a storyline. Coaches should rotate series off–at least for veterans–in fourth quarters of decided games, but will they? I didn’t mention COVID, and how teams respond to the 2021 protocols. But I have to think a team with 2019 freedoms could have a competitive advantage over a division rival with 2020 restrictions.
Albert Breer (Sports Illustrated)
Where I think the NFL’s collective quarterback situation is so interesting stems back to three years ago, when it seemed just about every team was going into the season with at least some sort of plan at the position. That year was 2018, and I honestly couldn’t find a single team where I looked and could say, definitively, that team is going to take one in the first round next year. Three did—the Cardinals fired their coach and bailed from Josh Rosen after a single season, the Giants finally tabbed a successor for Eli Manning, and Washington saw its QB, Alex Smith, suffer a seismic injury—but that didn’t lessen the overarching idea, and that was that the NFL, as I saw it, had never been healthier at its most important position.
And now, going into the 2021 season, I think we’ve reached the next phase of that, where just good, for a lot of teams, isn’t good enough.
Call it the Mahomes-ization of the NFL. At the aforementioned juncture, before the 2018 season, Mahomes was indeed the Chiefs’ plan at the position (they’d just dealt Smith away to clear the way for their 2017 first-round pick), but few knew what Andy Reid was about to unleash on the league. Three years later, he’s the mountain that most other teams are looking up at, the one they’ll have to scale over the next decade to win a championship. A decade ago, winning a championship with Joe Flacco or Eli Manning, or a raw second-year player (where Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger were for their first titles) was realistic, if you were good enough around them. And a lot of teams, looking at the challenge Mahomes will present them for the foreseeable future, clearly don’t see it that way anymore.
If you’re the Bills with Josh Allen or the Chargers with Justin Herbert or the Jaguars with Trevor Lawrence, you have reason to believe that the ceiling is there where you’ll get close enough to keep pace with Kansas City and Mahomes. But most others? There’s a reason why the Rams paid a king’s ransom to swap out a 26-year-old Jared Goff for a 33-year-old Matthew Stafford, and why the Niners moved heaven and earth to gamble on Trey Lance, which will eventually mean bailing on Jimmy Garoppolo. As is the case with Allen, Herbert and Lawrence, the ceiling is there with Lance and Stafford, and clearly the Niners and Rams don’t think it was with Garoppolo and Goff.
So that, to me, is the most interesting thing about this very interesting season to come. It’s the year where good was not good enough for a lot of teams at the position. I believe the explosion of capable quarterbacks in the NFL is a result of a couple things—these guys are developed with personal coaches like golfers from the time they’re in grade school, and the NFL is far more creative offensively than it used to be, allowing for a wider net to be cast for talent at the position—and that has raised the bar at the position.
It seems like the talent pool now is deep enough for everyone to be good at quarterback. But because of the presence of Mahomes, more and more, teams feel the need to be great.
Mike Florio (ProFootballTalk; Mike’s book ‘Playmakers’ is out March 15th)
It’s all driven by the quarterbacks. We continue to be in a golden age of the most important position in football, with several older quarterbacks who are among the best to ever play (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger), plenty of great young quarterbacks who ultimately could be among the greatest to ever play (Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield) and some potential all-time greats (Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott) in the middle. Quarterback play is improving at the college level, and NFL teams are no longer trying to make quarterbacks who did great things in college do something different at the next level. They’re embracing the great college quarterbacks for who they are and what they do, and they’re becoming great pro quarterbacks.
The annual availability of a fresh crop of competent rookie quarterbacks has made teams more willing to move on from veterans, resulting in more quarterback movement than ever before. Every year, free-agency will include quarterbacks who previously never would have gotten away from their existing teams. Now, teams who have good quarterbacks will crave finding great quarterbacks, and they’ll be willing to give up the bird in the hand to get there.
Here’s where this all is going to eventually lead. Within five years, the league will start talking about expansion. A few years ago, there weren’t 32 quarterbacks who were good enough to start in the NFL. Now, there are enough. Enough to justify 34 teams, 36 teams, or more.
Legalized gambling will push the league in that direction. The new 17-game season will inevitably become an 18-game season. Beyond that, the only way to increase the inventory of games will be to increase the number of teams.
Sean Salisbury (SportsTalk 790 and KPRC 950 in Houston)
No doubt the energy and momentum the NFL will get from the return from Covid will heighten the excitement. We are blessed with as deep a Starting QB class as we’ve possibly ever had. We have play callers who are doing things most of us didn’t think was feasible. Two of our best, Rodgers and Watson, may not play. Brady is the favorite and still is the very reason the team should be the favorite to be in the Super Bowl. At 44 years old this August he should be preparing his HOF speech. Yet, he’s playing like he did a decade ago.
I don’t remember a time when we went into a season thinking a dozen different QBs could win an MVP. We have franchises who people have laughed at that are now in positions to win their division and are a February threat like Cleveland and Arizona. The excitement of young stars — Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence — bringing relevance to the Jets and Jags while giving hope to their fan base. We all wonder who Carson Wentz and Jimmy G actually are as players and whether Bill Belichick will turn Mac Jones into his next Super Bowl QB. There are so many other wow factor stories in the league this year, yet the QB drama alone is enough to make you pay triple the price for a ticket. For me, I can’t remember a time when I was more intrigued and pumped for an NFL season than I am in 2021!
Imagine If Sports Media Had To Justify Its Own Tucker Carlson
“Of course Tucker Carlson lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies.”
Last week, our partners in the news media department posted a story about Tucker Carlson. It was about a recent interview the FOX News host did with some guy on YouTube. In the interview, Carlson admits that there are times he blatantly lies on his show – the most popular show that is broadcast by what is ostensibly a news channel.
“I guess I would ask myself, like, I mean I lie if I’m really cornered or something. I lie,” Carlson told Dave Rubin. “I really try not to. I try never to lie on TV. I just don’t – I don’t like lying. I certainly do it, you know, out of weakness or whatever.”
When I first read this story, I just dismissed it. Of course this jackass lies. Even his most dedicated fans think he lies. There is just no way he is actually as stupid as he pretends to be when he makes that “I am shocked by what I just heard” face. You know the one. It looks like he just discovered there’s a Batman movie where the suit has nipples.
I tried to dismiss it, but then later in the week came his impassioned plea to Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend to come on TV to discuss his balls after the rapper tweeted a story about how the Covid vaccine made this guy’s testicles swell and thus ruined his potential wedding.
It is a clip that was passed around Twitter thousands of times. It showed up in my feed over and over with comments like “This is THE NEWS in 2021” and “I never want this man to stop talking about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s balls.”
Can you imagine if Carlson’s bullshit was acceptable in sports media? I could write the same thing about FOX News in general, but let’s keep this focused on Tucker, because this past week he crossed the rubicon into a special category of absurd.
There are plenty of people in sports media that will go on TV and explain to you why a loss is actually good for a team or why undeniable greatness is actually unimpressive. This is someone going on TV and telling you that it doesn’t matter what you saw with your own two eyes on Thursday night, the Giants actually beat Washington or that the Brooklyn Nets can be dismissed as title contenders because there is no proof that anyone on their roster has even been to the All-Star Game.
I have written in the past that news commenters, be they on radio or television, do not impress me. Those people are not original or interesting at all. They aren’t even talented. I’m only bringing up that opinion to be completely transparent.
Sports Tucker Carlson would be a totally different animal. In fact, such a thing would be unacceptable.
Now, I am sure some of you are out there shouting that sports media does have a Tucker Carlson. In fact, the sports Tucker Carlson works for the same company that the real Tucker Carlson does. His name is Skip Bayless.
Look, I hear you. Skip brings no sincerity to anything, but I also don’t think Skip has any values he is trying to push. His takes are ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. ALL HAIL THEM CLICKS!
Besides, the great thing about sports broadcasting in general is that the stakes of what we are talking about are pretty low. Creativity and absurdity are welcome. None of this is important, nor is there any illusion that it may be. No one is showing up at the Capital with zip ties and bear mace demanding the Chiefs be re-instated as Super Bowl champions or screaming at doctors that the Covid vaccine is a scheme to return Miami to relevance in the college football world.
Putting on my programmer hat for a second, I just cannot imagine how to justify a Tucker Carlson. Then again, my programmer hat was not made and fitted by people trying to pass performance art off as news. So, maybe me not getting it is the strategy.
Either way, this, to me, feels like very good information to take to advertisers next time they question the desirability of a sports radio audience versus a news audience. Our listeners are passionate, intelligent people looking to be entertained and engaged by conversations about their favorite teams and they’re willing to support the people that do that for them. The most popular name in news talk admits that he lies when the facts don’t match up to the story he wants to tell. The reaction from the public is “well of course he does.” Which one would you rather have your brand associated with?
Back To Basics: Teases
“If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them.”
I think one of the things I love about radio is how theoretical a lot of our strategies can be. We assume a lot in this business, and its largely because we have to. We assume we know what topics our listeners want to hear, we assume they know things that might actually need more explanation, and sometimes we assume they’re just going to stick around because they like us. Sure, there are metrics that you can follow, trends you can keep track of, and social growth that helps gauge your impact, but largely a lot of the content we put out, and specifically the way we put it out, we’re just hoping it lands.
I think one of the easy tactics to lose sight of when you’re going through the daily gauntlet of hours of talk time, is the good old fashioned radio tease. In an ever-increasing world of digital tracking and analytics, the value of a tease going into a commercial break can be difficult to track. And because we don’t know its true impact it can easily be forgotten or just ignored altogether. To me, this is a massive mistake and a big opportunity lost. Sometimes, we just need to let common sense prevail when determining what is and is not worth our time.
If we think about this from a very basic level, we need listeners to hold onto our signal as long as we can possibly keep them. How do we do that? Compelling conversations, debates, interesting interviews, and personality they can’t find anywhere else. All of that is great, but at some point you’ll need to go to commercial break, and no matter how likable or entertaining you think you might be, 6 minutes of commercials is likely going to take your average listener across the dial to a new location. So, how do you keep them or at least ensure they’ll find their way back? Give them something they need to know the answer to. Again, I’ll ask you to think about this logically: Which one of the examples below is more likely to keep a listener engaged through a commercial break?
Example 1: “More football talk, next!”
Example 2: “Up next, the one move that will guarantee Brady another ring, right after this!”
We all know the answer. Example 2 gives the listener something to think about. You’ve provided just enough information that you have them thinking, while creating a gap of information that they will hopefully want filled. Yet, we opt for Example 1 way more than we should. Myself included. It’s lazy and more than anything it’s a lost opportunity to keep a listener.
The most loyal/die-hard members of your audience aren’t going anywhere, so it doesn’t matter how you go to break for those individuals. The least loyal, who maybe like your show, but they are just jumping around every day in their car or online, they aren’t sticking around no matter what you say. It’s those in the middle, the one’s who are looking for, usually subconsciously, a reason to stay or comeback. That’s the audience you’re providing this tease for.
Teases are not for your most loyal listeners, teases are for people that are stopping by to see what you have going on, which is the majority of your overall CUME. If you can hook those casual listeners, even just a few, to stay through a commercial break and listen to a fertility clinic commercial, then you’ve done your job as a host.
I find the best radio tease is direct, a good description that leaves the audience hanging for an answer or your opinion on the issue. Nebulous or nondescript teases don’t give the audience enough to sink their teeth into, you want to leave them guessing but if they guessing too much they’ll probably lose interest. You want to make them think, you don’t want them to have to solve a puzzle.
Example 1: “Could Aaron Rodgers be subtly hinting where he wants to play next?”
Example 2: “A player makes it known he wants out, but where does he want to go?”
Both examples above are fine, it’s certainly a step up from the “more football, next” tease but Example 1 provides the listener with something specific enough for them to start thinking of answers in their own mind, thus creating that desire to see if their idea matches up with what you are about to tell them. Giving the listener a player or team that you know most of them care about, plus a level of mystery, equals a good/solid tease that is more likely to keep them hanging on through the break. Example 2 is good but the problem I find with those is that they’re so nebulous that you aren’t sure you care as a listener. You might want to know the answer, but without a solid description, you give the audience a chance to decide that they don’t care or you just simply miss the opportunity to elicit a response by not drawing attention to an item that they are passionate about.
The next step in all of this is making sure you follow up on what you tease. You might only get a couple opportunities to mislead a listener before your teases mean nothing to them in the future. If you say you are going to talk about Alabama’s dominance in the SEC around the corner, make sure you do it, and if you aren’t able to, I think its only fair to draw attention to the fact that you couldn’t follow up on it. Apologize and move on. It’s live radio, things happen, and I think people listening understand that but you also have to be respectful of the time they are giving you.
Bottom line is, teasing is a radio parlor trick and it’s an easy one to lose sight of. We don’t prioritize them as much as we go along in this business, whether that be for egotistical reasons, laziness, or just not prioritizing them as part of the show prep process. Treat your teases with seriousness and a level of priority, the same way you do with the topics and content you create. We all know we’re not reinventing the wheel, there’s nothing that we can say that hasn’t been said 100 times in the sports talk sphere, but portraying that to your audience is doing them and yourself a big disservice.
Athletes Are Making Their Money In Content
“Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.”
In many ways, the voice of athletes started its exponential growth with the introduction of social media, where every human being has access to a personal broadcast channel to express themselves, their passions, stories, and ideas. The athlete as an artist immediately expanded from highlight reel to Hollywood film and television reel as a content producer. However, it was The Players’ Tribune, founded by Derek Jeter in 2014, that jumpstarted the athlete-driven voice of content, first in writing, and later in video, polls, and podcasts.
Michael Jordan was the first international athlete that made millions in sponsorship money—selling his name or attaching his name to products for the purpose of endorsing them for a profit. He also starred in the Warner Bros. live-action/animated film Space Jam. Jordan turned those partnerships into ownership of an NBA basketball team and a partner and focus of one of the most iconic athletic brands in the world, Jordan/Jumpman (Nike). More recently, Jordan was the focus of the Emmy award-winning The Last Dance docuseries about the NBA Chicago Bulls six championships and more specifically the sixth and final trophy for Air Jordan his Bulls team. He also co-owns a NASCAR team with Joe Gibbs.
Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished. However, that is the point—the mentee should always outperform the mentor with proper, training, guidance, and a little luck too. Where many athletes have pursued broadcasting work as color analysts during and after their professional careers in sports, Jordan did not pursue these avenues or seek to open a television or film production studio to develop entertainment, media, and sports content.
The direct-to-consumer approach of Hollywood and sports networks through streaming platforms, combined with the introduction of athlete voices through social media and podcasts has led to more opportunities. Los Angeles Laker LeBron James launched his SpringHill Company in 2020 not long after joining showtime in Tinseltown. SpringHill is a content studio that develops and looks to other studios for major production and distribution. LeBron has the sponsorship advertising prowess, but can also add documentaries and feature film content to his resume.
Kevin Durant launched a podcast titled “The Boardroom” through his company, Thirty-Five Ventures. With YouTube on par with Netflix in revenue (minus the paywall), it provides another direct-to-consumer platform for everyone and more opportunities. Steph Curry launched Unanimous Media in 2018 as a content and production studio, originally in partnership with Sony Entertainment, now the studio is partnered with Comcast owned NBCUniversal in the $10 million dollar range.
The media has deemed the Curry deal a first, which is noteworthy, but so is the faith and family focus of Curry’s programming that will span many brands in the NBCUniversal entertainment family. Curry will join the NBC broadcast for the Ryder Cup as an analyst and host and interview guests for an educational series, which does not include film projects and the second $200 million dollar basketball contract Curry signed in 2021. Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Dwayne Wade have been involved with film projects of their own. Tim Tebow is a nationwide celebrity and motivational speaker, not to mention a world-renown athlete and person with a big heart towards faith and philanthropy.
Peyton and Eli Manning also have their own broadcast for Monday Night Football. Peyton also starred in the very successful “Peyton’s Places” that will have season two launched soon on ESPN+. Both are produced by Peyton’s Omaha Productions.
Speaking of Disney brands, the company’s 30 for 30 is still one of the main catalysts for highlighting the struggles and triumphs of athletes. Hard Knocks, Ballers, and Jerry Maguire also gave insight into the world of sports beyond the field, statistics, and championships.
The growth of entertainment, media, and sports has been and continues to be exponential. Some additional areas to watch include development of series and docuseries in baseball, hockey, soccer, and in other popular, but not the big five sports in America (e.g., lacrosse, cricket, etc.). With women’s sports receiving more attention on television, there are tremendous opportunities for growth in entertainment production particularly in women’s soccer.
To date, NBA players have dominated the entertainment, media, and sports landscape for Hollywood production. However, to each their own, because some stars love developing content, others love speaking about content, and still others love to own content (particularly in the form of brands and franchises) (see Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter). Indeed, the era of athlete as Hollywood producer is upon us.
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