The 2021 NFL. season is set to kick off tonight when the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by quarterback Tom Brady, host “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys, in the Sunshine State. Around the country, sports radio stations with and without team play-by-play rights are preparing for what is sure to be an unparalleled season, including the addition of a 17th game, and the threat COVID-19 imposes on teams, potentially subjecting them to forfeiting and/or canceling games if there is an outbreak of the deadly disease.
As teams return to the gridiron, they will have to judge their opponents, making adjustments during the game in order to put themselves in the best position to win. Similarly, sports radio, in a new digital age, will have to continue evolving so it fits consumption trends and technological innovations, all while remaining committed to best serving its listening audience.
“There’s a lot more information being distributed more quickly, and because of that, it creates a greater sense of immediacy in talking football on the radio,” said Raj Sharan, program director of 104.3 The Fan and ESPN Denver 1600. “Sports talk radio is live [and] local… [it] is really well-equipped to be in the moment. [We] can really help create that immediacy and intimacy with the listener.”
According to a recent Gallup poll, football is America’s most popular sport, with 37% of respondents choosing football when asked what was their favorite sport to watch. Keeping fans engaged with new content is something radio stations will strive to do as they set to embark upon a season full of uncertainty and ambivalence amid the global pandemic. Some of the ways stations intend to do this include introducing new programming and/or making existing programming accessible across a wider variety of platforms.
“We have a [Minnesota] Vikings-related show every day of the week,” said Chad Abbott, program director of KFAN Minneapolis, which holds the broadcast rights to the Minnesota Vikings. “This year, we have a podcast made for radio as opposed to a radio show made for podcasts [, and] it will feature a handful of different Vikings players throughout the season.”
In the District of Columbia, Washington Football Team Head Coach Ron Rivera is set to join The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan as a weekly guest throughout the 2021 season. This valuable addition to the guest list should give fans unrivaled insight pertaining to the Washington Football Team, along with offering them perspective from a current NFL. head coach who is around the players for practices and during each game.
With football’s substantial popularity comes the ability to augment revenue, ratings and listener engagement ahead of the release of the fall ratings book. Program directors, such as Sharan, are cognizant of the book’s importance on determining the success of their radio stations, and value its numbers, along with growth across digital platforms.
“Every ratings book is important; that goes without saying,” expressed Sharhan. “Obviously the fall one is very special because football is very popular and it’s America’s number one sport. We count on this time of year financially because of how popular the sport is.”
Chris Kinard, operations manager at Audacy D.C. and the brand manager of the aforementioned 106.7 The Fan, in addition to 94.7 The Drive and The Team 980, the latter of which holds the broadcast rights to the Washington Football Team, carries a similar sentiment regarding the emphasis those across the industry put on fall ratings. He looks at a variety of numbers, both traditionally- and digitally-based, to get a broad sense of how the stations he manages are doing.
“In terms of measuring the audience, I think that’s a challenging thing right now,” said Kinard. “We do have more tools at our fingertips than we have ever had in terms of supplementing Nielsen data with streaming data, podcast downloads and website traffic. That helps give a better picture of how big of an impact the football season has on audience growth.”
While there are a handful of diehard football fans who will watch the games and engage with the teams on media platforms no matter how the season is going, some fans rapidly lose interest in football, even if their team is contending for that coveted Lombardi Trophy. While the NFL generally garners most of the sports headlines during this time of year, the NBA and NHL both begin in just a few weeks, and that, combined with the ongoing college football season and the imminent start of the MLB playoffs, sometimes cause the effects of this oversaturation of sports and ancillary content to be felt by sports radio stations.
“I think the NFL is the best sport for when teams are struggling because there is always a storyline that can be talked about during the week,” said Abbott. “My hope every year is that the team is as close to making the playoffs as they can by the end of the [fall ratings] book. Sometimes, it’s nicer to have a 9-7 team than a 14-1 team because you [then] don’t have the ability to live and die by each game.”
Unfortunately for Sharan, he’s had “about five years of practice” in covering a struggling football team. Ever since winning the Super Bowl in 2015, the Denver Broncos have failed to qualify for the NFL playoffs, finishing last or in second-to-last place in four of those five seasons. The key question for sports talk radio stations relates to keeping the audience intact throughout the entire season, even if the local team has a losing record and is quickly eliminated from playoff contention.
When radio stations hold the broadcast rights for a team, though, freely expressing critical opinions towards the team’s personnel and ownership is often seen as damaging to the partnership. The Denver Broncos currently broadcast their games on KOA NewsRadio, and for Sharan, he sees the prospect of obtaining the broadcast rights to the team, if it were hypothetically possible, as eschewing his station’s ability to be an extension of the fanbase.
“We’ve built our brand around personalities free to give their opinion without endangering any type of partnership,” said Sharan. “We view being a completely independent brand to where people can come to get unimpeded opinions as a positive. If we want to dig in on Broncos ownership and how that’s affected the issues going on, we can do that. If we want to hold a front office executive or coach accountable in a major way, we can do that. We don’t have the obligation that tends to come with those rights. I absolutely never want the broadcast rights [to] the Denver Broncos.”
For radio stations holding the broadcast rights to NFL teams, such as those managed by Kinard and Abbott though, they enter this season vulnerable to experience two scenarios; one of which will be a definitive occurrence, and the other which will be sought to be avoided entirely. The first is the addition of a 17th game to the NFL schedule, something that was officially added to the league schedule after the NFL and its player association inked a new collective bargaining agreement in March 2020.
As the first major change to the NFL schedule since the 1978 season, fans and broadcast affiliates alike are enthusiastic about the addition of another week of regular season football and content. From a program director’s perspective, though, there is more to be excited about than just the local team taking the field one extra time.
“Selfishly, it’s good for programmers,” Abbott elucidated. “It extends into the winter [ratings] book of the next calendar year, so this season will extend into the 2022 winter book. The idea of an extra game in January, which will obviously stretch the playoffs more, gives you a shot in the arm to stretch out the book.”
Concurrent with the seventeenth game, though, is the reality that all stakeholders — whether they be fans, broadcast partners, radio stations, or teams — would like to avoid: The threat of some scheduled games having to be canceled or forfeited because of the spread of the Delta variant (B.1.617.2) of SARS-CoV-2, the direct cause of the fast-spreading, more severe form of COVID-19. If cancelation or forfeiture of matchups occurs, sports radio stations will treat it like breaking news, adjusting on the fly to continue to produce relevant football-related content.
“We haven’t discussed in detail any type of contingency plan because, just like any other storyline, that becomes the thing we talk about,” said Kinard. “We’d approach that the same way we did last year when there were changes to the schedule; we talk about the effect of that, whether it is right or wrong, who is to blame [, etc.] This is a storyline.”
Entering the 102nd season of the National Football League, where, in many marketplaces, fans will be allowed to attend the games en masse for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, sports radio stations are committed to bringing their audiences extensive coverage of all the action on and off the field. In the process, they seek to improve and/or maintain ratings, generate more revenue and increase listener engagement.
“We know that during the football season we gain new listeners and clients, and we want to find ways to maintain them throughout the rest of the year,” expressed Abbott. “It’s a marketing tool for many radio stations; the challenge is maintaining listeners throughout the season.”
It is nearly time for kickoff, and sports radio stations will attempt to put themselves in the best position to score a touchdown this football season in a dynamic media landscape. The extra point, though, will surely come from fans being able to safely enjoy the games together again under diminished restrictions.
“We all had a very difficult last year-and-a-half and have looked towards September as a time where kids are going back to school, people are returning to the office, etc.,” said Kinard. “Football is back, and [with] all of those things combined, it should make for a great fall.”
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.