There are very few absolutes in sports broadcasting but one of them is the changing cast of ESPN’s NBA Countdown program. The roll call of hosts over the last decade includes Mike Tirico, Dan Patrick, John Saunders, Stuart Scott, Hannah Storm, Michael Wilbon, Sage Steele and Doris Burke. Michelle Beadle also took a spin this year as a fill-in. The roster of analysts is even longer.
Trying to find the right talent mix for a high-profile sports studio show is understandable for a network heavily invested in the NBA, and some of the changes to Countdown have improved the show over the years. But the lack of on-air continuity makes a sharp contrast to its more popular pre-and post-game counterpart: TNT’s Inside The NBA. (Even a young Bill Simmons celebrated TNT’s chemistry when he spent the day with the crew in 2002 as a Page 2 writer for ESPN.com).
Prior to this NBA season, ESPN installed Steele as Countdown’s main host (and Burke as a secondary one) where Michael Wilbon previously served as a combo host/analyst. Former NBA coach Doug Collins was brought when Magic Johnson abruptly resigned from ESPN last October. Simmons and Jalen Rose were the holdover analysts from last year.
How did that mix shake out? Opinions are all over the map based on the NBA viewers I’ve conversed with this season. Some viewers like Steele. Some think she’s lightweight on basketball. Some viewers like Simmons. Some think he comes off as entitled and whiny. Some viewers like Rose. Some think he desperately tries to be Charles Barkley. Some viewers like Collins. Some people think he looks miserable on set and is miscast as a studio analyst.
From my vantage point, ESPN management failed to nurture the show effectively. What was befuddling during this postseason was the insistence on providing an overload of NBA voices rather than trusting the Countdown team to carry postgames on its own. Think about how Inside The NBA works. While Turner shows live player press conferences and brings on guests (usually for great segments thanks to the byplay between Charles Barkley and current players), Inside never accedes airtime to other Turner analysts to comment. It believes in its cast and wants to brand it as the final authority on the game it just televised.
Strangely, Countdown’s staff was buried Sunday night on the biggest NBA night of the year — the final game of the NBA Finals. The Countdown group did two segments during SportsCenter (around postgame press conferences) for a total of maybe five minutes. They also taped two segments for SportsCenter later that night. Throughout the playoffs and on Sunday night, Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith received a ton of airtime including appearing on ESPN News before the Countdown crew (ESPN News had the first crack at NBA Finals postgame coverage due to MLB airing on ESPN and NHRA drag racing on ESPN2). Is that the sign of a deep bench or that management does not trust Countdown to handle the postgame on its own? Viewers notice this stuff and if I’m doing the assigning, Countdown is getting every bit of airtime so I can build them up with NBA fans against the Barkley-Kenny Smith-Ernie Johnson-Shaq juggernaut.
What happens next? I’d be stunned if the main cast remained the same. Steele signed a multi-year extension with ESPN and when I spoke with her earlier in the year, she was committed to Countdown for multiple years and management was with her as well. I see her back. Rose is likely back, too. Simmons is tough to predict. He worried last year about the travel away from his family and it’s clear there were times this postseason he was not happy with the show’s direction. (Take it to the bank that multiple staffers are frustrated by management’s treatment of the show.) Collins is miscast significantly, in my opinion. He’s easily the best basketball mind on that set but there’s no on-air chemistry between he and his partners. In an ideal world, Collins would do games only (where he is great) and in a really ideal world, ESPN and TNT would negotiate an out so Collins could replace Steve Kerr on TNT’s top team with Marv Albert. If you asked me today, I’d say Collins is not back with the main team.
For more on this story visit Sports Illustrated where this story was originally published.
SURVEY: 16.9% of All Sports Radio Listeners Are Streaming
The survey found that in May 2022, 16.9% of sports talk radio’s audience tunes in via the station’s online stream. That news comes as Nielsen reported that 11.3% of all radio listenership comes thru a stream, up from 6.9% in May of 2020.
According to Nielsen, All Sports radio stations are the third-most streamed spoken word format, just behind Talk/Personality and News/Talk/Info. The trend is continuing to show that streaming is on the uptick.
The survey found that in May 2022, 16.9% of sports talk radio’s audience tunes in via the station’s online stream. That news comes as Nielson reported that 11.3% of all radio listenership comes thru a stream, up from 6.9% in May of 2020.
Nielsen notes that in the 45 PPM markets they are grabbing data from and the 4,800+ stations that stream in those markets, just 30% of them are encoded. That encoding allows for Nielsen to accurately measure the streams. They used the listener data from 1,500 stations across the U.S., in its latest report, AM/FM Radio Streaming Growth in PPM Markets.
The survey also showed that streaming levels differ widely by radio format. Spoken word formats display strong streaming listenership (Talk/Personality: 31.2%, News/Talk/Info: 19.1%, All Sports: 16.9%). In fact, Nielsen found that 1/3 of all AM/FM streaming in PPM markets is to spoken word formats.
New Study Finds Listeners to MLB on Radio Are Willing to Spend
More than one third (34%) of the respondents recently purchased clothing/apparel that features their favorite team… 27% have visited a ballpark in the past year. That compares to only 19% of the average MLB fan base has made an apparel purchase to support their team while just 11% have gone to a game in person in that same time span.
When it comes to advertiser’s attempting to reach an affluent and engaged audience, sports talk radio might have a whale on their hands. Major League Baseball play-by-play features an audience that has money and has no problems spending it.
In a recent MRI-Simmons study, data shows that consumers who listen to MLB broadcasts on the radio are the perfect audience for sports marketers. According to the analysis, done by Katz Radio Group, nearly two thirds (62%) of those surveyed consider themselves “super fans” of baseball. That number is 58% higher than the average.
Those “super fans” are willing to spend to support their team, as well. More than one third (34%) of the respondents recently purchased clothing/apparel that features their favorite team. Those fans are also far more willing to make the trip to see their team. The study found that 27% have visited a ballpark in the past year. That compares to only 19% of the average MLB fan base has made an apparel purchase to support their team while just 11% have gone to a game in person in that same time span.
The news continues getting better for advertisers. Continued analysis reveals that 66% of listeners are currently employed and have a median household income greater than $106,000.
Listeners to MLB games on the radio are also 34% more likely to place a sports bet and 106% more likely to be a participant in fantasy baseball.
Jeff Dean Signs Off At ESPN Tucson for The Final Time
Dean said on Facebook: “…the years of burning the candle at both ends has taken a dire toll on my health and for the first time in my life, I’m going to put myself and my livelihood first”
Fans will no longer be able to tune into ESPN Tucson and hear Jeff Dean hosting his show. Friday morning was his last show, according to his Facebook and Twitter pages.
The Jeff Dean Show had been airing from 7-9a MT weekday mornings. Dean took to social media to relay the news and the reason behind him stepping away from the microphone. Dean said on Facebook:
“This morning I signed off from my radio show on ESPN Tucson for the final time. I have been devoting too much of my life and my time to working multiple jobs…the years of burning the candle at both ends has taken a dire toll on my health and for the first time in my life, I’m going to put myself and my livelihood first”
Dean went on to emphasize that he isn’t stepping away from ESPN Tucson, he’s just taking himself off the air. He also added that “gladly, I will be continuing my position as PA announcer of University of Arizona Football and Men’s basketball.”
Dean would also go onto Twitter to add even further context for his self-removal from the ESPN Tucson airwaves. He added, “It’s not a decision I arrived at hastily, as it’s been a 6 month mental grind to make the ultimate decision that had to be made, and I’m not particularly happy about it, but I have to put my health first, we all do, and make sure we’re around long enough to enjoy life”.
Dean had been ESPN Tucson’s morning host since November 2019.