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Q & A with Taylor Zarzour

Demetri Ravanos

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Overt the course of the last decade I have watched Taylor Zarzour grow from someone who was trying to get back on the air to one of the most in demand names in our industry. We first met when he became the sports director at the Curtis Media Group in Raleigh, and as a result he became the third mic on my show on 96 Rock.

During that time, we discovered that we grew up just nine miles away from one another in Mobile, Alabama. Small world, right?

Today, Taylor has become one of the most valuable sports voices at SiriusXM. He and Greg McElroy co-host The First Team on ESPNU Radio. He also contributes to the network’s PGA Tour Radio, anchoring the coverage of major tournaments and hosts a show called The Starter.

On television you’ll find Taylor on the SEC Network handling play-by-play for both football and baseball. He previously hosted Dale Earnhardt Jr’s official weekly podcast, but with all that he has going on, something had to give, right?

Taylor’s modesty is the kind of thing that might make you want to punch someone. I mean, nobody that has accomplished what he has can really be that modest and “aw shucks” about it, can they? But having spent every morning with Taylor for the better part of four years, I can tell you that it’s genuine. I’ve never thought of him as arrogant, just supremely confident. What may seem like Taylor being unfriendly is his hyper-focus.

Our conversation for this column centers on his career history, his motivation for doing what he does and how he does it, and the message he hopes colleagues and fans will take away from his work.

Q: When someone tells you they think you’re a good broadcaster, do you think it’s because you get to cover the sports you love (college football, golf, NASCAR) or is it because you’ve built a great career by being a good broadcaster?

TZ: It’s probably a little bit of both, but I’d like to think that, hopefully in a non-arrogant way, that being hard-working, passionate, and knowledgeable about the things I’ve always loved have served me well and led me to this place. I count my blessings everyday because not everybody gets to do something as professionally fulfilling as what I’m doing. Hopefully I’m giving off that kind of vibe whether it’s on radio or television. Some of the responses I’ve received from people that I work for have been exactly that and that’s what I think my biggest strength is. It’s the passion and enjoyment in my work, and I don’t ever want to lose sight of that. There are countless things I need to improve on. I’ll always be my toughest critic, but I think the thing that has served me best is how much I love what I do.

Q: I’m often asked, “how has Taylor Zarzour created these opportunities for himself?”. When we started working together, your previous position didn’t exist until you became available. The podcast with Dale Jr. didn’t exist until you were on it. How do you manage to get yourself on the radar of people? Is it simply reputation or are you active in promoting yourself?

TZ: I don’t know, Demetri. I’ve never tried to lobby for anything. David Stuckey (Senior Vice President of Curtis Media Group) approached me. Mike Davis with Dale Jr. approached me, and I’m grateful and honored that both of them did. When Mark Packer left to join SiriusXM, DJ Stout in Charlotte asked if I’d be interested in taking that job and joining WFNZ. Steve Cohen reached out through a mutual friend and asked if I’d be interested in working for SiriusXM. All of these relationships began when those guys contacted me. Without them reaching out, I don’t have these opportunities. Maybe I’m just incredibly fortunate, but I’d like to think that through hard work and hopefully what they would consider good performance, that I earned the benefit of their phone calls.

Q: What lessons did you learn from working on a rock show and news show that you carry with you to your current show with Greg McElroy?

TZ: I learned not to be too close-minded and only service the most diehard fans that are going to be interested and watching you no matter what. David Glenn, for example, had a huge impact on me, because David at some point in every broadcast will refer to Coach K as “Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski” or “North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams.” By doing that he brings every person that’s listening into the broadcast no matter how much or little they know. So that’s an example of something that had a huge impact on me, but those experiences made me more open-minded to who is listening and how much knowledge they have. I try to be really careful when talking about an offensive line’s ability to block or certain schemes and the zone read compared to a triple option, because the over-whelming majority of our audience only casually follows a sport. They have so many other responsibilities that they aren’t going to be able to be locked in all the time.

Q: So what about the time that you spent out of broadcasting entirely? What did you learn from it that sticks with you now?

TZ: That this is where I belong. I was working in real estate and realized my passion was broadcasting. I put pressure on myself to be something else because we had just had a family. I wanted to make a certain income and I thought it was a good opportunity, and I’ll never forget my wife saying “(Broadcasting) is what you’ve always wanted to do. You’ve always believed in yourself. Why would you stop now?”. I made the decision that I was going to go back into the broadcasting business, but I don’t know what I would have done to pursue it if David Stuckey hadn’t called.

Q: How old are your daughters now?

TZ: 11 and 12.

Q: I ask because this is a time period where they are involved in so much more. I know your goal is to provide them and Betsy (Taylor’s wife who likes me even though she shouldn’t because I cussed too much in front of their children) with the best life possible, but is there a point where you’d pass something up and say “I’m doing too much and I’m missing too much?”

TZ: I think about that everyday. I’ve seen some of the personal sacrifices that so many of my contemporaries have made and some of the regrets that they’ve had through the years. By taking more professional assignments, they’ve made sacrifices in terms of how much time they spend with their families. I would have so much regret about that if I put myself in that position, so I’ll probably continue to feel that way. There’s nothing I cherish more than my wife and two daughters, and there are other things that I’ve been considered for and turned down because of that.

Q: What are the benefits and struggles of doing a show, particularly a morning show, out of your home?

TZ: There are a lot of benefits to being home. We can live anywhere we want. I can broadcast from almost anywhere because of my job with SiriusXM, so there are few restrictions which is a huge benefit. The downside to it is cabin fever. I have a room in my house that is my work room. When I’m in there it’s like I’m at work. When I get done, I am literally leaving the office and trying to mentally power down which is a huge challenge compared to getting in your car, driving home, and having enough time to mentally escape to a different place.

Q: There has been a lot of talk lately about the way people consume media. Whether it’s cord cutting or the ESPN cutbacks, there are many in our industry who are skeptical. One area which is included in that conversation is the future of satellite radio. How much do you concern yourself with these topics?

TZ: I actually worry less about that kind of stuff today than I used to. I used to worry a lot about the terrestrial radio ratings game and competing against other radio stations and how much money the station could make off of my show. SiriusXM is in a tremendous place and growing day by day. I am ecstatic. I don’t have any concerns about the company’s future. As far as ESPN goes, there will always be tremendous demand for live play-by-play programming. I can’t envision a day where that goes away. To be connected to ESPN and the SEC calling games every weekend is something that is the chance of a lifetime, and the only concern I have is my performance.

Q: You grew up playing golf, so certainly you’re a fan of the sport. When it comes to NASCAR, if there was one thing I learned about you from working with you, it’s that you were a fan of Dale Jr. But you’re also an SEC guy through and through. So when you cover these sports, how do you balance your fandom with remaining professional? Particularly when you’re hosting a show with Greg McElroy who won an national championship at Alabama, a school you grew up rooting for. It’d be very easy for someone with less skill and experience to turn that program into a daily Crimson Tide report.

TZ: I’ve never thought it was any different than any other business where someone is considering what is best for their family and financial future. If they went to a certain school and are a banker, they aren’t going to take their business from only UNC fans or the side of the community that they can most relate to. That would be foolish.

Q: Right, but none of us got into this field without being a passionate sports fan. When you’re younger and developing your interests as a fan, it’s hard to love the sport as much as you love the team you’ve invested most of your time and energy into. That has a lasting impact on a lot of people.

TZ: I’m sure that’s the case for some, and maybe it is for you, but honestly, that’s never been the case for me. I’ve always cared much more about the sport than I ever did a particular team. My objectivity and professionalism is far more important to me than any team I’ve ever cheered for or who wins or loses a game. I didn’t go to Alabama, and while I do have four siblings that went to school there, I also had a brother that went to Georgia. I have a father that went to Florida. I have all kinds of relatives that went to Auburn and that’s always kept me much more open-minded to those schools and how great they are. Getting into this business and developing relationships at all of those places, has made me pull more for people. Roy Williams told me years ago that the longer you’re in this business, you will start to pull for people over teams because of the relationships you build, and that’s where I am now. The only exception to that is when I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. I was a Carolina Hurricanes fan because I wanted the team and the city to be successful. That didn’t in any way shape or form mean I was an NHL fan which is probably the way most people look at their teams. But I love college football. I love college basketball. I love the sport far more than any one team and I try to be as objective as I can because this is a lifelong passion for me.

Q: Who have you looked at in the broadcasting industry and said, “If I can be a tenth of the broadcaster that guy is, I’ll be okay”?

TZ: Vin Scully had the biggest impact on me. I used to watch the Saturday NBC baseball game of the week and Vin’s ability to paint a picture and provide perspective on what I was watching – I still think he is the best that has ever lived. Even until the end of last season when he called his final game, I just marveled at his preparation, his passion and his perspective for what he was seeing in front of him. In my opinion, he is above all the others. I can never sound like Vin Scully, and I’ll never have his vocal chords, but I can try to emulate his ability to be prepared and be passionate about what I am talking about.

Q: Your tag line at the end of every show is “Whether you agree or disagree it’s all for him,” right?

TZ: Correct.

Q: How much when people talk to you about your show does that come up? Do they notice or appreciate the message?

TZ: It happens from time to time. I decided to say that back when I first had a sports radio show in Mobile (on WNSP-FM). My point in saying it was no matter how animated we get when we discuss certain topics, let’s try to keep things in perspective of what really matters. “Him” to me is God. “Him” to someone else listening may be someone else or something else, but I think that keeping things in proper perspective whether we’re calling for guys to be fired or sharing our predictions for who will win a game, let’s realize this is for fun. We’re supposed to be enjoying what we’re discussing. I always appreciate it when someone notices or has something to say about that.

Taylor Zarzour hosts The First Team with Greg McElroy, weekday mornings from 7a-10a ET on SiriusXM. He also calls college football and college baseball games for ESPN’s SEC Network, and hosts golf coverage for SiriusXM’s PGA Tour Radio. He can be found on Twitter @TaylorZarzour.

BSM Writers

Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different

I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Brian Noe

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Radio

Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.

With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?

I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?

Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.

It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.

A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?

Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?

Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.

It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”

The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.

It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.

Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.

Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.

Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.

One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?

That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years

Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.

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In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.

It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.

“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”

I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.

The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).

The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.

The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.

I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.

Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.

ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.

The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.

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BSM Writers

The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media

Brady Farkas

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Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3A7FJ4a

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3bZ7NgG

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3dB4FrO

Google: https://buff.ly/3JVC5NG

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3STupzF

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