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A Conversation With Chris Vernon

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Chris Vernon (AKA Verno) is Sports Talk in Memphis. His quick wit, strong opinions, parody songs, and vast sports knowledge carry his show. Interestingly enough, his show isn’t even on the radio but still dominates the Memphis sports scene. We talked this week about his start in the business and why he left radio to be a star in podcasts and on the internet.

Matt Fishman:  So how did you get your start in sports radio?

Chris Vernon:  In college I was trying to pick a major and took a class called “Introduction to Broadcasting” and since it was a small school I was able to call the basketball games and do a weekly TV show. I did internships at a couple of different places. I interned at KFNS in St. Louis and loved it. The next summer I interned in media relations at the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (Minor League baseball team) and I hated it. I decided that I wanted to be in radio so I moved to Memphis, because it was the closest big city. 

I tried to get a job anyway I could to get my foot in the door. I called the local sports station—Sports 56 WHBQ and told them what I’d like to do and was willing to start on the ground level. They needed a board op who could do updates on the :20s and eventually we’ll get you on the air on Saturdays and then I had to board op Sunday night football and I begged him to let me go on after Sunday Night Football.  The PD said, “I don’t give a crap what you do. Nobody’s listening anyway and you’re not going to have a producer!” So I did the show all by myself, I played the music, took the calls and hosted the show.

MF: How did you develop your style and get your legs under you as a host?

Verno:   It easily took years. A big moment for me was when the XFL was in Memphis and at the game I met “JT The Brick.” He was asking me questions about me and my show. JT says “What’s the name of the show?” It was something like Sports Weekend. JT said “That name is terrible. Change the name to The Chris Vernon Show. If you want to be a name, you want to be a personality; you want to be a star? Name it The Chris Vernon Show. 

JT said, “What do you talk about on the show?” I told him it was a recap of the week and weekend in sports.  JT said “Nobody cares. Anybody can look that up. Recaps, stats, figures are boring. Do you take callers?” I told him that nobody called in, nobody’s listening. JT said “I promise you that people are listening. They just have no reason to call. 

He then gave me a great example, he said–“We’re in Memphis right? (This was early 2000’s) John Calipari is only using Memphis as a stepping stone. Does that bother anybody that he’s using this job as a stepping stone? He’s not going to be here long term.” So I’m listening to him and I go on the air that Saturday and ask “Does it bother anybody that John Calipari is just using Memphis as a stepping stone?” My phones rang off the hook for three straight hours.  JT’s premise was “Your opinion matters. They want to hear what you think about something.” At that point I found my bearings and what I wanted the show to be.

MF: So you’ve been in Memphis for 18 years and I’m sure you’ve had offers to go to larger markets, what has kept you in Memphis?

Verno: By the time I got my bearings and figured out what I was doing, I was already making enough money that I wasn’t enthused about taking a pay cut to go to a bigger market. And I was happy where I was. When I was coming up the internet started to explode. I can see that it is making the world a smaller place. It used to be that you only knew the guys who worked in the big cities. Mike and the Mad Dog were in New York and Mike North was in Chicago. You had to be in the big cities to make the big money and to get known.  Then sports stories and audio started spreading on the internet. So I understand that if I do what I do that people will find me. The internet started to make the world a small place and people became aware of what I was doing. It wasn’t necessary for me to go to a bigger market. I was able to do SiriusXM right out of Memphis and my Ringer show right out of Memphis.

MF:  In 2016 you and ESPN 92.9 couldn’t come to terms and you chose to leave radio and work for Grind City Media. What happened?

Verno:  Here’s the truth—I went to Entercom. I was #1 for four years and when it came time for my contract to come up they only talked to me until a few days before it would expire.  I asked for a certain amount of money and they came back and said this is the most we can offer. My thing was “Why am I the one we are having this discussion over? What is going on with radio right now? The only thing I could control was the show and the ratings.  I had done that over and over again. We’re getting to the point that they are haggling with me? This must be going the wrong way. 

At the time I had a six year old and a three year old. The reason it went down the way it went down is they thought they had me over a barrel. This is the bad side of corporate radio. It’s why they didn’t offer until the last minute and had a take-it or leave-it attitude. They know I’ve got two kids in schools that I’m paying for and parents who I’ve recently moved here to help take care of them. They know I didn’t want to move. Plus, if I stayed here, I’d have to sit out a six month non-compete.

That obviously angered me so much that I just walked away.  I had been talking to Bill Simmons and The Ringer and I knew I couldn’t do the show as it was constructed and do The Ringer. So when the Grizzlies were putting together the idea of Grind City Media, not only was I going to be better off, but  I believed in what they were doing and were going to support what I was doing with The Ringer. Then they brought in Mike Wallace from ESPN, Alexis Morgan, and Lang Whitaker.

MF: Are people listening live or to podcasts nowadays?

Verno:  As the years have passed, people would respond to me hours or a day later on social media about something I said on the show. I realized that the world had gone “On Demand”. They weren’t on my time anymore. Plus, I have a young son who doesn’t know what time anything is on because it’s all on demand. What happens to the next generation? The idea of being on at a certain time has become devalued. The other thing that I noticed was the effect the internet had on Newspapers, Shopping, and Television with cord cutting. So I thought, is radio the only thing that’s going to be immune to this?

MF: So are you suggesting the internet has been a crucial part of your career?

Vernon: I think especially in media it’s important to think ahead. Bill Simmons was so far ahead of anyone in the podcast game. Look at what he’s pulling off in the podcast industry. I’m so proud to work there.  People are choosing to listen to these shows. Since I do NBA podcasts I get tweets from all over the world. I get tweets from Russia, Brazil, and Japan—everywhere!! You’ve also started to see it with sponsors where internet and internet reach is something that’s become really important. The internet presence is now essential. You could always explain this to a younger business owner but now you’re even getting it from the older business owners.  Now there’s a lot of businesses who don’t send a red cent outside of social media advertising.

BSM Writers

Keeping Premier League Games Shouldn’t Be A Hard Call For NBC

“Beyond its massive global fanbase, the Premier League offers NBC/Peacock a unique modern 21st-century sport for the short attention span of fans.”

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NBC Sports is facing some tough, costly decisions that will define its sports brand for the rest of this decade.  A chance to connect with viewers in a changing climate and grow Peacock’s audience as well.  However, making the right choice is paramount to not losing to apps like Paramount+ (pun intended).

NBC is currently in the business of negotiating to continue airing the Premier League as their current deal ends after this 2021-2022 season.  NASCAR is contracted to NBC (and FOX) through the 2024 season.

NBC’s tentpole sports are the NFL and the Olympics.  

Negotiations for the EPL are expected to go down to the wire. Rather than re-up with NBC, the league is meeting with other networks to drive up the price. NBC has to then make a decision if the rights go north of $2 billion.

Should NBC spend that much on a sport that is not played in the United States? It’s not my money, but that sport continues to grow in the US.

If NBC re-ups with the Premier League, will that leave any coins in the cupboard to re-up with NASCAR? Comcast CEO Brian Roberts hinted that there might be some penny pinching as the prices continue to soar. This may have been one of the reasons that NBC did not fight to keep the National Hockey League, whose rights will be with Disney and WarnerMedia through ESPN and TNT, respectively.

“These are really hard calls,” Roberts said. “You don’t always want to prevail, and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong, but I think the sustainability of sports is a critical part of what our company does well.”

Roberts was speaking virtually at the recent Goldman Sachs 30th Annual Communacopia Conference. He told the audience that between NBC and European network Sky, that Comcast has allocated approximately $20 billion towards these sports properties.

Comcast CFO Michael Cavanagh spoke virtually at the Bank of America Securities 2021 Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference and echoed that the company is in a good position to make some strong choices in the sports realm. 

“The bar is really high for us to pursue outright acquisitions of any material size,” Cavanagh added. “We got a great hand to play with what we have.”

While the European investments involve a partnership with American rival Viacom, the US market seems to have apparent limits.

Last Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol Motor Speedway was seen by around 2.19 million people. It was the most-watched motorsports event of the weekend. That same week eight different Premier League matches saw over 1 million viewers. More than half of those matches were on subscription-based Peacock. 

Beyond its massive global fanbase, the Premier League offers NBC/Peacock a unique modern 21st-century sport for the short attention span of fans. A game of typical soccer fan is used to a sport that is less than two hours long. The investment in a team is one or two games a week. 

My connection to the Premier League began before the pandemic.  When I cut the cord in late 2017, I purchase Apple TV.  Setting it up, it asks you to name your favorite teams.  After clicking on the Syracuse Orange and the New Jersey Devils, I recalled that my wife has family based in London, England.  They are season ticket holders for Arsenal, and that family redefined the word “die-hard” fans.

I’ve long been a believer that sports allegiances are best when handed down by family. I love hearing stories of people loving the New York Giants because their parents liked them, and they pass it down to their children.

I’ve successfully given my allegiance to the Devils to my young daughters. 

By telling Apple TV that I liked Arsenal, I get alerts from three different apps when the “Gunners” are playing. The $4.99 is totally worth it to see Arsenal.

Whenever I told this story, I was amazed to see how many other American sports fans had a Premier League team. Students of mine at Seton Hall University rooted for Tottenham Hotspurs, while an old colleague cheers on Chelsea.

Global Is Cool': The Growing Appeal of Premier League Soccer in America
Courtesy: Morning Consult

This is not meant to say that NBC should sign the EPL on my account. The key for any US-based soccer fan is that between Bundesliga, Serie A, and other leagues, there will be no shortage of soccer available on both linear television and streaming services.

Besides, Dani Rojas did say that “Football is life.”  NBC, originator of the Ted Lasso character, should make keeping its Premier League US connection a priority.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 45

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Today, Demetri is joined by Tyler McComas and Russ Heltman. Tyler pops on to talk about the big start to the college football season on TV. Russ talks about Barstool’s upfront presentation and how the business community may not see any problems in working with the brand. Plus, Demetri is optimistic about FOX Sports Radio’s new morning show.

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BSM Writers

6 Ad Categories Hotter Than Gambling For Sports Radio

“Using sports radio as a back page service for gambling will have a limited shelf life.”

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For years sports radio stations pushed sports gambling advertisers to early Saturday and Sunday morning. The 1-800 ads, shouting, and false claims were seedy, and some stations wouldn’t even accept the business at 5 am on Sunday.

Now, with all but ten states ready to go all in on sports gambling, sports radio stations can’t get enough of that green. Demetri Ravanos wrote about the money cannon that sports gambling has become for stations. Well, what if you are in one of those ten states where it isn’t likely to ever be legal like California or Texas? Where is your pot of gold?

A Pot of Gold Articles - Analyzing Metals
Courtesy: iStockphoto

Or, let’s face it, the more gambling ads you run, the more risk you take on that the ads will not all work as you cannibalize the audience and chase other listeners away who ARE NOT online gambling service users and never will be. So, what about you? Where is your pot of gold?

Well, let’s go Digging for Gold. 

The RAB produces the MRI-Simmons Gold Digger PROSPECTING REPORT for several radio formats. In it, they index sports radio listeners’ habits against an average of 18+ Adult. The Gold Digger report looks at areas where the index is higher than the norm – meaning the sports radio audience is more likely to use the product or service than an average 18+ Adult who doesn’t listen to sports radio. The report, generated in 2020, indicates that sports radio listeners are 106% more likely to have used an online gambling site in the last thirty days. That’s impressive because the report only lists 32 activities or purchases a sports radio listener indexes higher than an average adult. I looked at those 32 higher indexes, and I think we can start looking for some gold.

Using sports radio as a back page service for gambling will have a limited shelf life. The gambling companies who commit significant money to get results will continue advertising and chase the others away. So, the future of sports radio needs to include other cash cows.

If it is evident to online sports gambling services that sports radio stations are a must-buy, who else should feel that way?  I looked at the Top 32 and eliminated the media companies. ESPN, MLB/NHL/NFL networks, and others aren’t spending cash on sports radio stations they don’t own in general. But Joseph A Bank clothing, Fidelity, and Hotwire should! Here’s your PICK-6 list I pulled together that’s hotter than sports gambling:

  • Sportscard collectors, Dapper Labs, Open Sea- read about Sports NFT $.
  • Online brokerage firms-Fidelity, Charles Schwab, Robinhood, Webull, TD Ameritrade
  • Golf courses, resorts, equipment, etc.- we play golf at home and vacation
  • Hotwire.com, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Airbnb, Carnival Corporation, and Priceline.com- we’ve used Hotwire in the last year.
  • FedEx, UPS, U.S. Postal Service, Venmo, PayPal, Zelle-we wired or overnighted $ 
  • Jos. A. Bank, shein.com, macys.com, nordstroms.com- we went to Jos. A. Bank in last three months

The sports card/NFT market is 32% hotter than the sports betting market for sports radio listeners. Everything on the PICK-6 is at least 100% more likely to purchase than an average 18+ Adult who doesn’t listen to sports radio. All listed are at or above indexing strength compared to sports betting. The individual companies I added are industry leaders. Bet on it! Email me for details. 

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