“Put an ex-jock in the booth, and their cliché-ridden presentation of a game is the least of their sins. As a result of their lack of training, most of them are blessedly lost when trying to establish a storyline for a telecast … Thus, they tend to view a game as a series of plays rather than as a contest, and often they are ignorant of the human perspective.”—Howard Cosell from I Never Played the Game
Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell railed against the “Jockocracy”—the easy route former players have from the playing field to the broadcast booth. Clearly anyone who has watched a football game with Tony Romo on the call or a baseball game with A-Rod in the booth, you know there’s great value to have a recently retired player in the booth. What about former players in Sports Radio? Where do they fit in and what makes one retired player successful in Sports Radio and others unsuccessful?
Over the past 20-plus years I have had the pleasure and challenge of working with a lot of former athletes in Sports Radio. Hall of Famers like Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, and Cal Ripken; and some really good players like Dan Jiggetts, Doug Buffone, Tim Grunhard, Bill Maas, Larry Bowa, and Rob Dibble. At first, I was in awe of each of them.
After a while you get past that. You quickly learn who comes to play for their shows and who is coasting on their reputation. While this may sound simple, I have narrowed it down to four areas that determine whether a former athlete has a role on your station or not:
- Do they really want a career in sports radio?
- Are they willing to put in the work to learn the craft and prepare for every show?
- Are they able (and willing) to put aside their team allegiances and be critical of the team or league they used to play for?
- Can they talk knowledgably about all the local sports teams and all major sports?
There’s a difference between “a job” in sports radio and “a career.” When you hire a host, anchor, or producer from a smaller market you know that they want a career in sports radio, but what about former professional athletes? They are used to big paychecks, regimented schedules, being pampered and catered to. The only way to find out for sure is to give them some work. Fill-ins and weekends and see how they do. How do they respond to callers? Can they ask good questions of the guests? Can they sustain their energy over the length of the show? After a few shows, you’ll know the answer to these questions which will tell you if they want a career in this.
If they get past the first hurdle, then you get to see over a longer period of time if they’re willing to put in the work. When I say work, I’m talking about preparation and the work of hosting/co-hosting a show. Anyone hosting a sports talk show has to watch the games, read up about the teams, and know what’s happening with the big national sports stories. The PD needs to spend time and encourage these former athletes. Talk to them about preparation and performance during the show. Aircheck them. It’s like a film session for a former football player. Point things out and give them tips to improve on. They will improve and they will make mistakes. Help them learn from their mistakes.
Putting aside team allegiances is hard for many former athletes. Some of them aspire someday to work for the teams they played for in a broadcasting, coaching or personnel capacity. In the 1990s I worked with former Bears linebacker Ron Rivera. Ron is a terrific guy with great insight on the game of football. We would sit and talk before the show and his insight on a pretty bad Bears team was spot on. He would talk about players who weren’t living up to their potential, coaching mistakes, etc. It was truly impressive. Then the on-air light would go on and he shied away from being critical of the Bears players, coaching staff, and front office. His great insight was wasted on a handful of us in the office. In his case, he was eyeing a return to the Bears as a coach and in 1996 he returned to the Bears as a defensive quality control coach. He used his smarts and insight to work his way up through the coaching profession and has been the head coach of the Carolina Panthers since 2011. Oh and his wife, Stephanie, was a great basketball coach, too!
The listeners’ perception is that somehow a man or woman, who played a professional sport, only knows about that sport. On the flipside, most professional athletes played multiple sports growing up or follow another sport. In 2003 I had the opportunity to work with HOFer Cal Ripken at XM. Guess what? Cal knew the NBA, its players, and the game inside and out and had a great passion for it. Regardless, a former baseball player has to prove that he knows football and basketball, while a former football player has to prove that he knows baseball and basketball. Not entirely fair, but it is the standard that they are held to.
I think Howard Cosell was wrong about the “Jockocracy” and feel that former players have a lot to offer. But don’t just listen to me, look around the country at the former athletes hosting national and major market sports talk shows—Boomer Esiason and Bart Scott at WFAN in NY, Tom Waddle and John Jurkovic at ESPN 1000 in Chicago, Scott Zolak at the Sports Hub in Boston, Brock Huard at 710 ESPN Seattle, Mike Golic at ESPN Radio, Tiki Barber at CBS Sports Radio Network, Mark Malone at NBC Sports Radio, and Sean Salisbury at SB Nation Radio.
Nothing Is Easy In the Cold, Not Even Broadcasting
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end!
No matter what you may think, doing play-by-play for any sport is a difficult thing. The great ones make it look easy, but it’s not. Prep work dominates things leading up to the broadcast, getting notes, nuggets and entertaining tidbits take up time. Then once you’re prepped, some stadiums are better than others to broadcast. Some booths are easier to work than others.
Then there’s the forgotten element, the weather.
How will you handle inclement weather of any kind? Warmth, rain, snow and oh yeah, the dreaded freezing temperature. Before we get into it, here are a few of the less-than-ideal conditions my fellow broadcasters have had to deal with over the years.
THE FOG BOWL
During the 1988 playoffs between the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, a dense fog rolled onto the field during the game, making it nearly impossible to play or see. Numerous players complained they couldn’t see 10 yards in front of them. Both teams were forced to use their running game because receivers couldn’t see long passes. The broadcast was called by Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw on CBS.
“We couldn’t see anything—absolutely nothing,” CBS-TV play-by-play broadcaster Verne Lundquist told the Associated Press. “We had to look at the TV just like everyone else.” Lundquist’s color man, Terry Bradshaw, told viewers the game should have been suspended.
THE FREEZER BOWL
At -9 degrees Fahrenheit, the 1982 AFC Championship Game between the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers proved to be the second-coldest game in NFL history. It was so cold that Bengals QB Ken Anderson suffered frost bite on his right ear. The temperature was not only -9 degrees, but the wind chill was measured at -58 degrees, by far the worst in league history.
THE ICE BOWL
The 1967 NFL Championship between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys became known as the “Ice Bowl.” It remains the coldest game ever played in the NFL, at -15 degrees with a wind chill of -48 degrees. Lambeau Field’s turf-heating system actually malfunctioned before the game, leaving the turf rock-hard. Officials actually had to resort to calling out plays and penalties because when referee Norm Schachter blew his metal whistle, it actually froze to his lips.
The last two are examples of something topical since last week’s “Super Wild Card” game in Buffalo was played in extreme temperatures. At kickoff, it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill made the temperature feel like minus-5. A far cry from the above games, but come on, it was freezing cold out there.
The CBS Sports NFL announcing team of Ian Eagle and Charles Davis said Saturday’s game between Buffalo and New England was the coldest work environment they’ve experienced during their broadcasting careers.
“We kept the windows closed in the booth until one hour before kickoff,” Eagle told The Athletic. “When we finally opened them, I had a sense that it would be manageable. I was wrong. CBS rented some industrial heaters for the night, but unfortunately, they were no match for the Western New York frigid air. It really hit me in the third quarter. I started shivering and actually had a few moments where my jaw got locked up mid-sentence. It was by far the coldest I’ve ever been calling a game.”
Davis recalled two games he called at Lambeau Field that were similar, but not as bad as it was in Buffalo.
“It helped that the evening was relatively clear, and the winds minimal, but make no mistake about it, ‘the Almighty Hawk (wind)’ made its presence felt and I kept drawing on one thought — everyone involved was cold, and they were persevering,” Davis explained to Richard Deitsch.
“In addition, we were watching history be made in front of us by the Bills offense — seven drives, seven touchdowns, something that had never been done in the NFL playoffs. Beyond impressive, and it definitely helped us maintain focus. I’m not sure anyone would choose to do a game under those conditions, but there was definitely a sense of pride among our team that we all worked to the best of our abilities on a night that would test all of us.”
Davis said that there was no way not to think about his discomfort. He gave credit to the stage crew in the booth that helped to keep him and Ian Eagle warm. There was also a jacket involved, a familiar one given to Eagle during the game, leading to an excellent exchange between he and Davis just before the third quarter started.
Charles Davis: Where did you get the jacket?
Ian Eagle: What jacket?
Eagle: Oh, this? Yes, Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, you might have noticed, wore this a few weeks ago and it hit the internet by storm. Kurt saw that we had this assignment. Kurt now runs a program “Warner’s Warmers,” he just sends the jacket out to whoever needs it. I feel like, I want Jiffy Pop Popcorn. This thing is very warm. This is the same jacket. Kurt sent this to me. Let me tell you, not all heroes wear capes, they wear “Silver Bullet Puffers.”
Davis: Let’s talk about the game for a minute. Kurt, a brother would like a jacket too…
I’ve never really experienced calling a game in that extreme weather, especially after all the years I’ve called baseball games. But being in the Midwest, even those early days in April and sometimes into May, cold temps are a factor.
I think the coldest game I ever called was a game with the Cubs where the temperature at the start was about 31 degrees with a wind coming off the lake. We debated on whether or not to open the windows in the booth. One voted no, one voted yes, so the compromise was the window near the play-by-play guy was cracked open just a bit. Games just sound different with the windows closed. It’s not as clean. It sounds like you’re doing a game in a closet. But sometimes self-preservation comes first. The same goes for extremely warm weather too.
The elements can wreak havoc with the way you call a game. Your pen isn’t working all that well, and how do you score a game without taking your gloves off? In those conditions, as Eagle was saying, your mouth isn’t in sync with your brain and you wonder if the torture will ever end! I know it sounds exaggerated but in the moment, its not.
People sitting at home still want you to call the game. They are looking for the same information you would have given if it were 40 degrees instead of 40 below with the wind chill. It’s a big ask, but the broadcast crew has to find a way to adjust to the conditions and do what they are there to do. It helps when everyone understands that. It’s not to say that you can’t talk about the way things are in the booth or on the field from time to time. But don’t let it dominated the airtime, as tempting as it might be to do so.
Just think, if you’re cold in the booth, what’s life like for the sideline reporter?
Ben And Woods Aren’t Doing a Show For One Person
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show.”
There’s no confusion about where their allegiances lie. And when it comes to being relatable to the audience, there’s few things Ben and Woods do better than buying season tickets at Petco Park, wearing Padres hats and cheering for the lone professional team in San Diego.
Some hosts choose to never openly root for the teams they talk about on an everyday basis. Steven Woods and Ben Higgins strive to never hide who they are on the air. They’re Padres fans and they’re not afraid to show it.
“I was in music radio before and sometimes it was hard to hide my disdain for some of the music that I played, so I just decided not to,” said Woods. “I just let it out there. People I think appreciate authenticity and if I didn’t like a song I’d tell you. But I still had to play it, right? With the Padres, it’s why I never sit in the press box, because I can’t cheer in there. I bought season tickets so that I can go and scream at the players like I want to. I think it resonates, because there’s fans listening in the car that want to see them do well too.”
“I do believe in journalistic integrity,” said Ben. “But to me that means you have to be honest. You have to be honest in your opinions and you can’t be afraid to be critical. No one is more critical of a team than their own fans. They are the most critical people of all. I don’t wanna be the fan that constantly criticizes, but at the same time, why would you listen to a show that is just relentlessly positive and gives you a white wash version of what’s not really reality? Every team has problems and it’s our job to point them out or nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
When you think of baseball towns, New York, Chicago and St. Louis are probably the three cities that immediately come to mind. But in a football world, San Diego has emerged as a new baseball town with the Chargers recently leaving for Los Angeles.
If you have any doubt that San Diego is now a baseball city, just listen to Ben and Woods on 97.3 The Fan from 5-9 am every weekday morning. The duo has no issues with doing three-plus hours of Padres talk, even during the offseason.
That’s not a new thing. Ben and Woods have always conducted the show the way it is now. They want to talk baseball, but they also want to hit off-topic content that will give the listener a chance to laugh on their way to work.
That’s been the case since the show was at Mighty 1090. Ben and Woods were at the station as the morning show when it folded in 2019. That was an incredibly trying time for both talents.
“It was pretty heartbreaking to be honest with you,” Woods said. “I had a brand new baby and the show was going great. We were on the rise and then it went away. It was shocking. It was also scary. I think uncertain is the best word. We believed in our product and we knew there was a market for it and there was a station that just so happened to need a morning show. The timing was pretty serendipitous.”
“I had been a listener for 15 years before I ever worked at that station for the first time,” Ben said. “And then you get there and you feel like, wow, we’re here and then all the sudden it’s gone. It wasn’t overnight, at some point we lost the signal transmission then we went streaming and it was kind of a slow death over the last few weeks. Ultimately it just ended one day. It was a very strange thing. The fact we got picked up at 97.3 The Fan, got back on the air so quickly was really great.”
Things are going extremely well for Ben and Woods at 97.3 The Fan. They’re thriving in morning drive with a unique show that’s different from any other in the market. Sure, they’ll talk about sports, but their focus is more on the overall entertainment of the show.
“It’s morning drive, you’re there to entertain,” said Woods. “You do have to get really creative. We get very creative, because we have to. We take a lot of risks, more so than people would like. The way I look at it as no one remembers us talking about the NFL Playoffs. But they do remember the time we played a 17-minute Bob Dylan song in its entirety on the radio and sat through it. I remember that and always will. Nobody is ever going to say, ‘man, nobody breaks down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like you guys’. But they’ll remember, ‘holy crap, you guys literally played a 17 minute Bob Dylan song it’s entirety’.”
“When we started it was 95 percent sports and I was afraid to do anything else,” Ben said. ”We started doing segments like Ben reads raps, there was a really good response and I started to warm up on OK we can branch out a little bit. Now, if there was a day we didn’t have a non-sports topic I would say that was a weird show.”
“Rest assured, Opening Day comes, we’re blowing out every bit we have, period,” Woods said ”We’re one of the few shows in town that has no problem doing 3 1/2 hours of just Padres talk. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself a little bit. I always call it punting. It’s an easy thing to say, hey, the playoffs are this week let’s get the local beat writer on from every single team and we’ll interview them. Like anyone here gives a rats ass what the Packers beat writer has to say. There may be one guy, but I’m not doing a show for one guy.”
“I guarantee you I’m the only sports talk radio show host in America that gets made fun of regularly for talking Sports on the show,” laughed Ben.
One of the reasons the show has the identity that it does, is because of Woods’ background in multiple formats of radio. No, he’s not a sports radio lifer, and in a way, it’s probably greatly benefitted the show. He’s taken his creativity from the music side and perfectly blended it with his love for sports.
“I like sports radio more because there’s a lot more creativity,“ said Woods. “ I didn’t get to pick the music I got to play at all. Not even a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of chances to talk so for me, as a creative person, this is tremendous. We can do whatever we want and our bosses are pretty cool about giving us a lot of leeway. I’ve learned how audiences react. I’ve learned how to keep an audience. It’s energy, it’s being compelling, breaking balls, having fun. Guy’s driving to work in the mornings, he wants to get a snicker or a laugh, he’s not looking for breakdowns of defenses and things like that.”
Ben and Woods is much more than just the two hosts in the chair every weekday. The cool thing is that anyone that listens to the show knows that. Paul Reindl is the executive producer of the show and has a talent and relationship with the hosts that anyone would dream of.
“He’s the worst,” laughed both Ben and Woods. “Paulie is great. We were able to get away this weekend and after we drank like 40 beers and whiskeys, I was like bro, I’m so proud of you and you’re so valuable to the show. But he’s an unsung hero behind the scenes. He has an uncanny ability to bring sound drops almost intuitively. He’s got pages and pages of drops we’ve collected over the years. He’s just an awesome producer.”
Sports Are Learning To Meet Gen Z Where They Are
“The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity.”
Should sports radio be concerned about where audiences will come from in the future? It is an interesting question that we talk about here a lot. It is also something that the New York Times tackled indirectly last week.
A column from Joe Drape and Ken Belson declared this generation of kids “The eSports Generation” and went on to explain just how disconnected from traditional sports they really are.
An alarmist might ask if this is the beginning of the end of traditional sports leagues. Someone a little more level-headed, like Joe Ovies, may want to dive a little deeper to see what leagues are learning and how they are adapting.
Joe hosts The OG in afternoon drive at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. He is always interested in how changes in technology and consumption patterns effect sports and his audience. I saw him tweeting about the New York Times piece last week and asked if he would want to write a little something for us.
“Meet your audience where they are.”
How many times have you heard that phrase in the last 5 years from a consultant, manager, or any number of Barrett Media posts as content consumption trends continue to spread out over a variety of platforms? Turns out the same applies for pro sports leagues, who are fearful that an entire generation of fans will be lost and their traditional business model will crater as a result.
The New York Times recently highlighted what sports marketers are doing to win over Generation Z, which typically applies to kids born from 1997 to 2012. The Times hits the usual beats.
There’s a reference to Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, an esports star who is also a traditional sports fan, who the NFL hoped would be a Pied Piper for youth fandom. There are examples of MLB, famously stingy when it came to fans using their content on social media, now working with TikTok influencers. And of course, highlighting the NBA’s wide ranging approach to online engagement and their franchise run NBA 2K esports league. Most of the article was based on a recent SSRS/Luker on Trends report, which conducts regular surveys about sports and society.
The issue for pro sports leagues isn’t that Gen Z kids aren’t “passionate” enough about sports. It’s that Gen Z is more likely to admit they simply don’t like sports.
“Only 23 percent of Generation Z said they were passionate sports fans, compared with the 42 percent of millennials (defined as 26 to 41), 33 percent of Generation X (42 to 57) and 31 percent of baby boomers (57 to 76) who identified themselves as passionate. More striking was that 27 percent of Gen Zers said they disliked sports altogether, compared with just 7 percent of millennials, 5 percent of Gen Xers and 6 percent of boomers.”The new york times, Jan. 12, 2022
Also factoring into the waning interest in sports from Gen Z is the dramatic decline of youth sports participation. There is a larger discussion to be had about the role of parents and specialization in this decline, but we can address that topic another day. As it relates to pro sports leagues today, the drop in youth participation absolutely impacts the level of interest in kids who might want to watch the best in the world of sports do their thing.
“Participation in youth sports was declining even before Covid-19: In 2018, only 38 percent of children ages 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
In June 2020, the pandemic’s early days, 19 percent of parents with kids in youth sports said their child was not interested in playing sports, according to a survey conducted by The Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program. By September 2021, that figure was 28 percent.
On average, children play less than three years in a sport and quit by age 11, according to the survey. Why? Mostly, because it is not fun anymore.”the New york times, Dec. 19th 2021
The crux of the issue is that Gen Z is the first generation of kids who are truly free to find their “thing” in a way previous generations never could thanks to modern connectivity. Meeting up on the playground or at a friend’s backyard for a pickup game has been replaced with meeting your friends on a Discord server and deciding if you’re going to play Halo or Call or Duty after school.
If you have kids in the age range that I do, none of this should be a surprise. You see it every day and don’t even think twice about it. But if you do stop and think about how frictionless it has become to be online all day with your friends, you start to realize the impact of never being bored or getting dragged to things by your parent because there were no other options.
Watching sports and going to sporting events isn’t frictionless. It’s a pain in the ass. Older generations deal with it because we don’t know any better, it’s just what we do. But Gen Z isn’t about to stop what they’re doing just to watch a game. Why would they? They can get the highlights later.
Gen Z is about dropping in and out of entertainment options whenever they feel like it. In other words, why would they sit around waiting for their favorite song to be played on the radio when they can easily pull it up on YouTube or Spotify.
Pro sports leagues can create all the social content and tout billions of views. They can tout engagement with Gen Z because a bunch of kids bought NFL related skins in Fortnite.
Awareness of their leagues isn’t the problem. It’s getting Gen Z to care enough to watch the game. Take my kids, who are fully aware of what’s going on in the world of sports, but getting them to sit down and actually watch the game is torture. Throw in the increasing cost to attend sporting events, I’ve started leaving them at home because it’s a waste of money given my 13-year-old is just gonna play Clash Royale in that $75 seat.
To be clear — I’m OK with my kids just not being into sports. It’s not like I didn’t try. It’s simply understanding we’ve transitioned to a world of niche communities. You can still thrive within those niche communities. Just look at sports talk radio as an example, where you’re not winning with cume, but with passion around sports. That’s what great sports talk radio stations sell. Pro sports leagues will be fine doing the same.
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