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Things Are Going Better Than Joel Blank Ever Anticipated

“It’s certainly been a good time to do sports radio in Houston, because there have been so many topics that carried you through what our normal dead times are.”

Tyler McComas

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Houston has seen a lot of change over the past 14 months. James Harden was traded in January 2020, Carlos Correa signed with the Twins in free agency this week, and Deshaun Watson is heading to Cleveland. You could argue the three-biggest faces in the Houston sports scene from just 18 months ago are no longer in town. 

Change has also taken place at ESPN Houston in 2021. Most notably with the daily lineup. Joel Blank has been a long-time voice on the station and was admittedly nervous when he found out he was getting a new co-host. But he also knows that change is inevitable in radio. As changes were happening on his show, and during other time slots around him, Blank embraced the new future at the station. 

“I think like anything in life, change gets people on their heels a little bit and they start questioning everything,” said Blank. “But I think overall what we’ve seen is that we’ve got a really, really good group of people that have all found their niche. Everyone is in the right spot and we all truly get along.

“In the past, shows were kind of an island. Every show was their own thing and there was no overriding theme for the station and no marketing targeted to our demographic. It was basically, hey, you have your time slot, you do your thing. Now, we have everyone on the same page and everybody has each other’s backs and it’s been really fun to see the development of the shows and the new talent.”

When Blank was told his new co-host would be Jeremy Branham, he was very familiar with the name but the two didn’t really know each other on a personal level. That was the immediate hurdle for The Killer Bs, who are on the air weekdays from noon to 3 on ESPN Houston. But the two experienced broadcasters figured it out. And maybe even quicker than most people would have guessed. 

“I think it’s going better than I could have ever anticipated because I was apprehensive,” Blank said. “Not because Jeremy wasn’t good, but because we didn’t know each other. We lived in parallel universes where we were both doing sports and working for teams, but we rarely crossed paths. Suddenly, we were thrown together and told, hey, make this work. So for that reason alone, you have doubts on how quickly it’s going to come together and what kind of chemistry you’re going to have. It’s just been everything I could have wished for. For a long time on our station, combativeness is what everybody came here for. Now it’s taking a turn to where we can have a passionate discussion but in the next segment we can be on the same page and talking about a totally different topic.”

It’s incredibly comforting for a new host at the station to be welcomed by someone who’s been a longtime voice. Blank has made it a point to be friendly to all the talent on the team. 

“Joel has been through a ton when it comes to changes he has dealt with since the pandemic hit,” said Cody Stoots, co-host of The Wheelhouse at ESPN Houston. “One thing I know about Joel is if you have his back, Joel has your back. He will go to bat for his people, even when some of them are new to him. Joel’s passion for his teammates is fun to experience, especially when he’s comfortable enough with you to start giving you a hard time!”

“Joel does a great job at bringing true passion and unfiltered opinions to every show he hosts,” said Jake Asman, co-host of The Wheelhouse on ESPN Houston. “You can tell that he truly cares about the subject matter and doesn’t fake anything to his audience. It’s been great to work with Joel and be his teammate the last four years.”

It seems like all the major storylines that have come out of Houston the past two years have included some level of controversy. Sure, the Astros made a run at another World Series title last year, but the national storyline seemed to still be about the cheating scandal that rocked baseball. Then, there were the uncomfortable conversations about Deshaun Watson and all of the allegations against him. 

Those times are behind Houston sports fans. Especially when it comes to Watson and the Texans. For the first time in a while, it seems like the overall conversation can move toward football and building the roster back up. But even with that being said, Blank wasn’t complaining about consistently discussing all the drama with the Astros and Texans. 

“It’s certainly been a good time to do sports radio in Houston, because there have been so many topics that carried you through what our normal dead times are,” Blank said. “I think from a Texans perspective, I’ve said this all along, the Deshaun Watson situation was a black cloud that until he was traded, wouldn’t go away. But every black cloud provides shade and that shade is Jack Easterby. He’s still there and people are still bothered by it. I think it’s opened people’s minds that the rebuild can finally start. You can take a deep breath now and say, let’s just concentrate on football.”

Houston is a major market. The city has an NFL, NBA and MLB team, amongst other sports entities. But at ESPN Houston, there’s probably more of a different vibe on the sales side than what you would experience at other sports radio stations in large markets. The station believes in relationships with clients. Not that most major market radio stations don’t, but Blank was told when he joined the station his personal relationships with clients would go a long way towards his success. 

“Lance Zierlein, who does our morning show, gave me some advice when I left the Rockets and I came to do sports radio,” Blank said. “He said, you’re going to absolutely kill it, but the one thing you have to know when it comes to clients is, you have to treat them like they’re your friend and you have to develop a relationship so that you are friends. Because friends have a hard time saying no and walking away from friends. So therefore, the better relationship you can develop, and the more you can carry the torch for your friends, the more your friends will stay by your side through thick and thin.

“He’s been so spot on with that. So many of my clients are my friends and so many of my friends come back to me and say, hey, we’re seeing results because you speak from the heart and believe in us, therefore your listeners believe in you, and we’re seeing them come through the doors.”

The Killer Bs have a catchy new slogan when it comes to the Texans. “Embrace the Suck”. At some point, it feels like Blank and Branham will eventually put that on a t-shirt. That’s the main storyline moving forward: the after-effects of the Watson trade and what the franchise does moving forward. 

What’s not a major storyline is another deep NCAA Tournament run from the Houston Cougars. Thursday night, UH will take on No. 1 seed Arizona to move on to the Elite 8. No, the Cougars aren’t a blueblood hoops program, but they’re one of the more successful programs in the past five years, which includes a trip to last year’s Final Four. Yet, another run isn’t moving the needle much in the Houston market. 

“It’s crazy. Kelvin Sampson and I go way back,” Blank said. “We worked together for the Rockets. Jeremy is the play-by-play voice of the Cougars. It’s almost frustrating because Jeremy and I are both basketball guys at heart but the city’s just not that fired up about college basketball. It never has been. I think when the Cougars make these runs, they’re kind of blips. The number 1 story for us has been Deshaun Watson and the 1B story is Carlos Correa.”

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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