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How Does Sports Radio Do Hockey Right?

Demetri Ravanos

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Every major professional sports league in America has teams in towns that aren’t very passionate about their sport. Atlanta, for instance, doesn’t seem to be much of an NBA town. The owners of the Marlins, no matter which owners they are, seem to go out of their way to make sure Miami will never be a Major League Baseball town.

No league deals with this phenomenon more than the NHL. That’s not an indictment. As the league expanded, it made sense to establish footprints across the South and the West Coast. While the success of teams in Nashville, Tampa, and most recently Las Vegas have created a decent fanbase in those cities, it is fair to say that the NHL had no established hockey culture to rely on in those regions.

It makes sense then, that not every NHL team has a major presence on local sports radio. As the puck gets set to drop on a new season tonight, I talked to four programmers in American cities that have a passion for hockey about how the local team is covered on their station. We reached out to a programmer in Canada, who did not respond. It sucks, but it actually gives us the chance to focus on coverage of the NHL on American sports radio, where hockey is not our national pastime.

When you think about hockey in this country, your mind might jump straight to Detroit. The Red Wings are in a bit of a down cycle, but the city is Hockeytown, USA. At least that’s what the “Welcome to Detroit” sign says.

Image result for welcome to detroit hockeytown usa

Jimmy Powers, who programs 97.1 the Ticket, says the team’s recent struggles may have silenced some fans, but has created more conversations on his air waves. “[There’s] a lot more to talk about because of the rebuild and their new stadium.” It also doesn’t hurt that the city’s other winter team, the NBA’s Pistons, have been struggling too.

When I asked Powers how much hosts on The Ticket talked about the Pistons in relation to the Red Wings, he answered “It all depends on what is going on and what they have been doing.” It is safe to deduce then that outside of acquiring Blake Griffin from the Clippers last season, the Pistons have probably not give hosts in Detroit much of a reason to push that team into their A block.

But the Red Wings, contrary to what some of us that live outside of the D may think, aren’t always in that A block either. When I asked Powers about the hierarchy of Detroit sports, he described it as “TIGERS and LIONS, until the NHL playoffs.”

Image result for jimmy powers 97.1 the ticket

Allan Davis programs WGR, which is in Buffalo, another hockey-obsessed town. No matter how you measure it, the hometown Sabres were the NHL’s worst team last season. Davis says that definitely showed in the way his hosts talked about the team, but it didn’t push the team off the air at all. ” Like the fans – WGR can sound frustrated with the results of the Bills and Sabres at times. We are fans too. But good or bad, season in and season out – WGR tells the story of every more the teams make on an off the ice, on an off the field, no matter the results of the games. Every day starts with ‘What’s the latest news!'”

He also told me that fans in Buffalo are used to struggling teams. Until last season the Bills owned the NFL’s longest playoff drought. Davis says that means most people that are passionate about the Sabres see the team as something more than just an NHL franchise. For many in his audience, the Bills and Sabres are a stand-in for their community as a whole. “Being a fan of either of these teams means, you know and understand how proud the people of Western New York are of who they are, where they live and how they live. Honest, hardworking and giving. Win, lose or draw we stay together, always there to help each other, whenever or wherever it is needed.”

Image result for allan davis buffalo wgr

I asked Allan then how that kind of passion shows up in his coverage of local sports, and if WGR favors covering one team over the other. He said that it depends on the time of year really, but in striving to keep WGR’s local programming all about Buffalo, both teams have a year-round presence. “WGR has a two hour show – The Instigators – from 10AM-12PM that covers the Sabres all year round. From 12PM-3PM – One Bills Live – is all about the Bills all year round. From August through the fall WGR leans more Bills and football. Winter and early spring more Sabres.”

I never really thought of Washington, DC as a hockey town. Like a lot of sports fans that live outside the nation’s capital, I assumed the sports hierarchy started with the Redskins and everything under that was something of a miss mash depending on who was in contention for a title. Whether that is true or not, 106.7 the Fan program director Chris Kinard, says it didn’t take a Stanley Cup title for his station to treat the Washington Capitals like something more than an afterthought. He told me that hosts and management at The Fan have been focused on their relationship with the team for years.

Image result for chris kinnard the fan

“We have steadily increased our Capitals content over the last few years, and I believe we will take it to a new level this year. We will have three different players on each week, we’ll be joined by the head coach every two weeks, and we’ll have regularly scheduled segments with several of the team broadcasters. We have had the only Caps-focused radio show for a few years, and that show will continue in a regularly scheduled weekday slot again this year.”

He also said that the Capitals have been more than willing to do their part to grow the relationship as well. “Their PR staff is phenomenal. They understand that, to grow their sport, they need to get their players out in the media as ambassadors. And they know the players are GREAT ambassadors. Funny, smart, open, and easy to like. So we do more player interviews with the Capitals than probably all of the other teams combined.”

Is DC a Redskins town? Well, the team does usually dominate the headlines in the fall, but Kinard says this week “most of our focus…will be on the Capitals as they raise their Stanley Cup banner, and drop the puck on the 2018-19 season. We have special shows planned throughout the week, and a few surprises up our sleeve that I think our listeners will love.”

Image result for caps stanley cup

Finally, I talked to Jim Graci at 93.7 the Fan in Pittsburgh. That station isn’t the flagship of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but given how important the team is to local fans, Jim says you have to really know hockey if you want to work for him. “Pittsburgh is a hockey town.  So to do sports talk in Pittsburgh, you better know your hockey.  It’s not surprising when you have a team as successful as the Pens have been for multiple generations.”

Image result for jim graci

Multiple generations is exactly right. When I asked Jim how much of a factor Sidney Crosby is in the Penguins’ popularity, he was quick to point out that while Sid the Kid moves the needle in a big way, he is just one of the many superstars that have worn the team’s sweater. “We’re blessed in Pittsburgh to have Sidney Crosby.  It felt like Sid was the second coming of Mario Lemieux.  And think about it, Lemieux had Jagr (Jaromir Jagr) and Sid has Geno (Evgeni Malkin).  Add to it that Sid had the chance to play with Mario, who literally saved the franchise in Pittsburgh.  It was the passing of the legacy torch.”

So given that multiple generations of Penguins fans have their own stars, do they also have their own rivals? Jim told me that while younger fans have a number of teams they hate, one rivalry unites the fanbase like no other. “The Washington Capitals, with the comparisons between Crosby-Malkin and Ovechkin are a rival… From a historic perspective, the Rangers and Islanders get our fans riled up.  Columbus has become a rival without the history.  They’re better, they play in the same division and it’s a close proximity to Pittsburgh.  The years of living in the Pens’ shadow has made much more intense for their fans.  Detroit was a rival, due to playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, losing one than winning one.  But nothing gets hockey fans buzzing better than Pens-Flyers. And it gets even more intense when the Flyers have a good year.”

The lesson I took away from these conversations is that hockey talk can work on sports radio if your listeners have the passion to support it. It doesn’t have to be a “hockey town” necessarily to talk about major news involving the team. Conversely, even in Hockeytown, USA, a bad team can depress fan enthusiasm.

What matters is that hosts recognize passion where it exists and never treat a hockey interview or discussion like an afterthought. Powers says he gives his hosts the freedom to cover the Red Wings and the NHL as a whole however they see fit. “Our local show will take calls, but we also will be talking about the biggest news stories of the day, even if it is unrelated to what game is about to be played.”

Kinard told me he doesn’t waste time worrying about whether DC is a “hockey market.” “For many years during the “Rock the Red” era, which started about 10 years ago, you could argue that the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. I don’t know that the audience has the sophistication and knowledge of the sport as some traditional hockey cities, but they certainly have passion.”

His attitude is one of “if the fans are passionate about the Capitals, then the Capitals are worth talking about.” That may be best way to approach hockey on sports radio, especially somewhere like Raleigh, NC, which is where I live.

I, and most of my neighbors, didn’t grow up with hockey as part of our day-to-day lives. Still though, nothing in sports unites this town, which is so divided by the college sports loyalties that exist here, like the Carolina Hurricanes making the playoffs. That obviously hasn’t happened in a long time, but if our local hosts don’t take the time to at least know who the stars are and develop relationships with the team, they are going to be at a disadvantage when trying to talk about the market’s biggest story when it finally does happen again.

 

 

 

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Jeff Rickard Understands The Benefits of Attending the BSM Summit

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Jeff Rickard is one of the truly familiar faces of the BSM Summit. He’s not involved in the planning or with the company, but it’s an event he never misses.

“It went from a small group in Chicago the first year to recognition from everyone in our industry, and there’s a lot to be gained when we all get together from different markets and cities,” said Rickard of the event’s growth. “We’re not competing against each other. Instead, we’re there to bring each other ideas, lift each other up, and give each other not just support necessarily, but different ways of looking at and doing things. It allows you to kind of take some energy from another building and bring it back to your own.”

Since the BSM Summit first launched as an invite-only event, Rickard has held jobs in Indianapolis, Boston and Charlotte. In fact, it was at the 2022 Summit in New York where he had his first meeting that would lead to him taking the reins at WFNZ.

Different jobs have come with different situations. Rickard has been able to talk with fellow attendees about translators, transitions to FM, and building digital strategies. He appreciates the networking opportunities that exist at the Summit, but the access to new points of view have helped him grow as a programmer.

“Over the past five or six years, the industry has been growing up a lot,” he says. “In the last, I don’t know, three to four years, I think BSM has helped that along the way.”

The “radio is dying” narrative is a popular one. We can pretend that it only exists outside of our industry, but how many of us know someone very much inside the industry that exclusively speaks the language of doom and gloom when asked about future goals and plans? 

Rickard says that coming to the Summit is a necessity for anyone stuck in or around that mindset. Radio may not be as popular as ubiquitous as it used to be, but there is still enthusiasm for sports radio. That is something to feed off of!

“Local sports radio, if done right, will always attract an audience, because [listeners] can go to Sirius XM and they can go to ESPN and they can get the main stories of the day, and they can talk about the Chiefs winning another Super Bowl, and they can talk about if the Golden State Warriors being past their prime,” he says. “That’s all great, but if you’re in Indianapolis or Charlotte and you want to hear about respectively the Pacers or the Hornets, you know that we’re going to be talking about them. I think we’ve learned about the things that our local audience is going to want.”

Lessons Rickard has learned at past BSM Summits have had a major impact in Charlotte. WFNZ’s cume isn’t just up since he arrived. It has nearly quadrupled. 

According to Rickard, that is the result of valuing all perspectives. He’s a programmer, but that doesn’t mean he is only paying attention to sessions featuring other programmers. He also isn’t focused only on executives that could offer him the next opportunity. Rickard encourages any programmer that attends the BSM Summit to come and take notes when talent from other markets are on stage. 

“You have to realize that they’re not on a level below you. They are in large part you’re partners,” he says. “I always enjoy listening to guys that are highly successful, at those summits, talk about what motivates them, what they’re thinking about, how they go ahead and put a show together. There’s a reason we hire those talented people because they’re really good at what they do. They’re really good at attracting an audience, and they’re better at holding that audience. That’s why they’re speaking at a conference like BSM.”

Day-to-day operations are always on the minds of the people that attend the BSM Summit. When Jeff Rickard comes to New York next month though, he wants to hear conversations about the bigger picture. Whether it is from the stage or at networking events, he wants to be part of the conversations that are fundamental to the future of radio as a medium and broadcasting as a business. The one at the forefront of his mind? Audience measurement.

“We’ve been dealing with Nielsen for a long time,” he says. “There’s good, there’s bad. We all understand the system and how it works. But with so many of our listeners coming to us now through an app or coming to us by downloading what we’re doing online, they’re coming to us straight to the website. We’re starting to be able to kind of pick and choose our own numbers. We can see with certain day parts and certain guests or certain topics that, ‘wow, a lot of people checked into the app at that particular time.’ 

“So I think moving forward, the biggest thing for our industry is how do we continue to more accurately assess who our audience is and what’s really happening there on a moment to moment basis. I think we’re getting better every year, but I’m curious to see what the industry believes is the future for the next ten years, because I don’t think we’re using it now.” 

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Sports Broadcasts Should Remain Political-Free Zones

There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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A cartoon depicting political candidates talking sports
Credit: Maia Lathrop / Clarion

Political thoughts and ads are everywhere. It seems like everything these days is politicized. Sports hasn’t escaped either. Athletes take stands, some commentators have made their political positions well known too.

In this case, politics is more of a catch-all term. It doesn’t just mean Democrat or Republican, it can mean making a comment on any hot button issue in America or anywhere else. Controversies that create a public stir. We’ve had a few over the course of the last few weeks that drummed up lots of emotion and certainly could have been avoided.

The most recent example took place last weekend at the NBA All-Star Saturday on TNT. As I’m sure you know by now, Kenny Smith had some things to say about the Steph Curry/Sabrina Ionescu 3-point shootout. Such choice things as, “She should have shot it from the women’s line, that would have been a fair contest.” Ionescu more than held her own, with 26 points which would have qualified her for the men’s finals in the event. Smith’s partner Reggie Miller didn’t make things much better, when he chimed in, “According to you, you want her to be playing with dolls.” Smith’s response: “Playing with dolls is good, too.” The fallout was swift thanks to social media.

Smith went on to Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN show earlier in the week to defend his commentary. “I think it’s much ado about nothing, honestly,” Smith said, when asked about the controversy. “Most people who know basketball understood what I was talking about. Actually, I was advocating for her, more than anything else, because basketball is muscle memory. So, he practices from one range, she practices from another.” Smith further explained, “Most people just don’t check the tape, they want to just check the bait. My history and track record speaks for itself,” Smith said. “I was clueless why people thought I didn’t want equality.”

Can. Worms. Opened. I get it, social media can make things appear one way when they are intended in another. My question to Smith and Miller, why make the commentary at all in that moment? Ionescu is a terrific basketball player and shooter. Everybody knew the rules going into the exhibition, so why make a stink about it? Or, if the need outweighs the caution, how about putting some notes down on paper so that you aren’t taken out of context? There are ways to make the commentary smoother. It’s not like the event was a surprise.

Talk shows fall into a different light. That’s all about opinion and it is likely up to each individual to understand how far to push it. Hosts should know their markets and from there can figure out what may or may not work. Topics like these generally lead to more fan engagement, because everyone has an opinion. It’s up to the host or hosts to keep the topic ‘on the rails’ or it becomes a free for all.

When it comes to announcers, hosts and reporters in the industry, mistakes can happen. I get that. It’s live and sometimes thoughts can go awry. We’ve seen it countless times. My question is this, why even go there? What is the benefit? Some like to try and make a name for themselves, to be controversial just for the sake of “look at me” or “listen to me” and trying to make headlines. That’s kind of sad to me. There is more to lose than to gain in these cases.

We’ve seen cases of misspeaking and/or controversial ‘hot button’ statements made on air that have proven costly to livelihoods. One of the more recent moments took place in May 2023. Glen Kuiper and the A’s were in Kansas City and had visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum earlier in the day. He was discussing the visit on air when he dropped the n-word. His claim was that his pronunciation of “negro” was misheard. After an investigation, he was fired. Kuiper was one of the best local television announcers.

Before that Reds announcer Thom Brennaman was caught on a hot mic, making a homophobic remark. Brennaman was pulled from the broadcast mid-game and suspended. The Reds later told Brennaman that he would not be returning, which prompted his resignation. To his credit Brennaman owned it and is trying to improve himself as a person. He’s been forgiven by the LGBTQ+ community in Cincinnati, after he attended several meetings with leaders. They weren’t easy as he told me a couple of years ago, but he made the extreme effort.

If there’s one entity in sports broadcasting that needs to stay out of the fray, and be ‘politic proof’ it’s the sports broadcast and telecast. The booth needs to remain pure. It needs to be a sanctuary for fans and broadcasters alike. There aren’t many fans that are tuning into a baseball, basketball, football or hockey broadcast to learn about your opinions about anything else but the game. Fans look to escape that when listening to or watching a game. Sports is the place we go to forget about the real world for 3-4 hours at a time.

We all have opinions about things in the sport and out of it. Opinions about the game you are broadcasting is what you’re there for, right? For example, I can’t stand the ‘ghost runner’ at 2nd base in extra innings in Major League Baseball. It’s gimmicky and takes away from the way the game was meant to be played. Me expressing that opinion as the game heads to extras is appropriate, as long as you don’t lose track of the game. My thoughts on the Presidential race or a Senate race is inconsequential in the scope of my baseball broadcast. Be engaging to your audience about things they care about in the moment, the game.

I hate when people tell us in the industry to “stick to sports”. Nothing grates on me more. I keep thinking, oh, because I talk about sports, that’s all I know? So, all that doctors know about is medicine then, right? It’s a simple-minded criticism, but I have to say, in these cases, in a booth, we should stick to the sports aspect of things.  There’s a time and place for opinions on other things, but during a game isn’t that time or place. Be smart and think before you speak.

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Expanded College Football Playoff Media Rights Will Price Out Fans From Attending Games

Who doesn’t want to spend their retirement chasing a championship across America? If you don’t mind that, do I have a deal for you!

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ESPN and College Football Playoff logos

Everything I wrote last week about the new College Football Playoff deal with ESPN, forget all that…maybe. Last week’s report of a multibillion dollar deal for a total of eight years of playoff games was premature, that is according to the reports of CBS Sports college football insider Dennis Dodd. Sources tell Dodd that MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher circulated a memo to his conference athletics directors saying the committee has yet to review a draft of the deal. That committee is made up of the college football conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletics director.

First off, I would bet my life savings that two of those conference commissioners have reviewed the deal. Nobody is more powerful in the college sports landscape than SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey (who oversees a conference that is business partners with ESPN). Thinking he and Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti have not seen ESPN’s bid is a bridge too far for me. Second, many in the media world have speculated that ESPN may be the only bidder. In that case, if you have or haven’t seen the deal, it is probably the deal no matter what.

All of that is irrelevant to what I am writing about today. The fact remains that someone will cut a deal with the College Football Playoff and it will be a big one. That is the issue as it pertains to the fans. Television dollars run the sport, this is nothing new. But the television dollars spent on the College Football Playoff are running the fans out of the stadiums. As a primer for those who have forgotten, the top four seeds get byes in round one, seeds five through twelve will play on the campus of the higher seeded team. The quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game will be played at a neutral site.

That is the problem for the average fan. For purposes of this discussion, let’s work off the final AP Top 25 of the 2023 season. Ohio State finished 11-2 and was ranked #10, they have a massive fan base and would be among the favorites in any College Football Playoff even with an 11-2 record. That massive fan base travels as well as any group of fans in the sport. No matter where the Buckeyes play, they have fans. We are about to see what those fans would have to pay if Ohio State gets hot.

Round One: Ohio State at Oregon, Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon. The Buckeyes draw the seventh seeded Ducks in one of the tougher environments in the game. The first round games are played on the Friday and Saturday before Christmas, who has plans then? On Expedia, I am able to book a round trip United Airlines flight from Columbus, Ohio to Portland, Oregon for $357, heck of a deal. I’ll, conservatively, add $200 for a rental car for my trip and all I have left is my hotel costs. An average hotel in Eugene goes for about $200 per night so I sleep for $400. Total Cost (before tickets): $957.00

Quarterfinals: Ohio State versus Texas, AllState Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, Louisiana. The quarterfinals and semifinals are played in the New Year’s Six Bowl Games, I am assuming the selection committee rewards Texas with a site close to Austin so the Buckeyes are off to The Big Easy. Delta flies us to Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans for a round trip cost of $561, we spend $100 on Uber (New Orleans is very walkable) but we can’t save on hotel rooms. New Year’s in New Orleans is not cheap, we spend $300 a night to sleep soundly.

Total Cost (before tickets): $1,261.00, Grand Total: $2,218.00

Semifinals:  Ohio State versus Washington, Goodyear Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas. Since we are going to DFW, American Airlines is our best bet this time, we fly round trip for $497. We drop another $200 on our rental and the average Dallas hotel is around $250 a night. We didn’t break the bank but this is adding up very quickly and, as a reminder, we have yet to buy a single ticket.

Total Cost (before tickets): $1,197.00, Grand Total: $3,415.00

Finals: Ohio State versus Michigan, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia. If you fly to Atlanta, you fly Delta. I live in Birmingham, every Southerner knows that, if you die in the South, you have a layover in Atlanta on the way to Heaven. Our round trip flight goes for $504 and we Uber in downtown Atlanta for $100. The good news is there are tons of really good hotels walkable to Mercedes-Benz. The bad news is they are not cheap for big events. You are looking at a minimum of $400 per night.

Total Cost (before tickets): $1,504.00, Grand Total: $4,919.00

Before we have eaten our first bite of food, before we have paid a single dollar for a seat, we are already out almost $5,000.00 per person. The expanded College Football Playoff works for television but has priced out the average fan. Who doesn’t want to spend their retirement chasing a championship across America? If you don’t mind that, do I have a deal for you!

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