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RJ Bell Hasn’t Done Anything That Matters Yet

Brian Noe

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Vegas.

Millions of dollars left on the table.

Founder of a 2x Inc. 5000 company.

Being linked to some of the biggest names in sports radio.

These are just a small number of things that RJ Bell has experienced throughout his career. Although RJ is proud of the great deal of success he’s achieved, he still grades himself harshly and feels like he hasn’t accomplished anything that matters yet.

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There might be bigger successes in RJ’s future, but his resume is still very impressive. It’s easy to gather that his wins didn’t happen by accident. RJ had a long-term vision and strategically positioned himself accordingly. He’s the CEO/founder of pregame.com and hosts Straight Outta Vegas weekdays at 6pm ET on FOX Sports Radio. These triumphs didn’t magically fall from the sky without having a plan.

One of RJ’s greatest strengths is that he simply hasn’t forgetten that sports betting is supposed to be fun. The joy he gets from betting comes through in his words and actions. RJ makes a major prediction in this piece about the near future of sports betting. He also mentions what he believes to be the most valuable commodity in the betting world, which can also be applied to other industries as well as life in general. Enjoy.

Brian Noe: What’s the part of your job either with FOX Sports Radio or pregame.com that you enjoy the most?

RJ: I would say the new experiences with FOX Sports Radio are right at the top of the list. I’ve been a guest and doing 15 or so significant hits a week on various radio shows for a long time. Being a guest is a challenge — and initially it certainly was a challenge — but you don’t really have control of the content. You’re answering the host’s questions. Having a chance to be a creator, to allow my creativity to shine through with the Straight Outta Vegas show has been very enjoyable.

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It’s a new experience for me. I’ve had a podcast for a while with Podcast One that’s more of a deep dive handicapping show. It’s done surprisingly well with the listenership, but that’s a niche offering. That’s a, “Hey, you’re a handicapper or you bet and we’ve got great betting information,” and we get our listeners.

Trying to do a national radio show — and that’s something that’s important to remember, and I know you know this, Brian — is that when you’re local you benefit from a built-in interest for those local teams. When your national, you don’t have that crutch of the local teams and you’ve got to find something generally interesting for everybody. That’s been a challenge. Quite frankly it’s been exhilarating because it’s new, but it’s also so substantial when it comes to the reach with nearly 200 stations coast to coast.

Noe: Is there anything that you have tapped into as far as controlling your own show and the direction that it goes that normal hosts interviewing you don’t pursue?

RJ: Our research shows that about half the people who listen to Straight Outta Vegas do not gamble regularly. Now that number I think is going to shock a lot of people, but I’m very proud of it. I really cultivate the concept that there’s a Vegas perspective to anything. Whereas, okay, there’s a buffet and it has a lunch price, and it has a dinner price. The dinner price is more. Part of the reason for that is they bring out the lamb chops for dinner, but you don’t have the lamb chops for lunch. A Vegas guy is going to think, “Wait a second. It switches over at 4. I’ll go eat an early dinner at 3:45, pay the lunch price, but eat all of the lamb chops I want.”

That kind of value-based mentality is something — and really if you think about life — life is bets. You’re making bets if you decide am I going to drive without a seatbelt? Or am I going to drive past the speed limit? The bet might be “am I going to live or die?”. The bet might be “am I going to get a ticket or not?”, and the economics of that. The bet may be something like the clam chowder here is half price but it’s a day old. Is it worth the chance of getting sick?

The poker player, Annie Duke, wrote a book recently called Thinking in Bets and it really explores that concept that we’re all weighing odds pretty much all day. To have a group of people with me hosting that do that professionally and then apply that thinking not just to who’s going to win the game, but was that a smart trade or not? And all of the different sports topics that the talk shows discuss to me is different. I’ve been very enthused at the response to that, I think, unique approach.

Noe: How do you go about finding that middle ground where you are stimulating the hardcore gamblers, but you aren’t causing the new people to swim in details they’re unfamiliar with?

RJ: Yeah, I think there’s two answers to that question, two different facets to the answer. One is, I have zero personal interest in playing to the purist. Every industry, which is niche initially, and then becomes mainstream, has that challenge as it’s emerging into the mainstream. You’ve got the purists and they are saying, “This is how we critique and grade and validate people in our industry.” The purists usually are the ones who were the arbiters of right and wrong that led to the industry being small and niche in the first place. To apply those rules as it goes mainstream is a big mistake.

It’s kind of funny how often I think there is an analogy to professional wrestling and sports betting content. The reason being is the idea that it’s an industry that we all know people like, people do, but it’s always been on the periphery. It’s always been kind of gray. Wrestling is, “You’re dumb if you watch wrestling,” and, “Oh, if you bet you’re a degenerate,” or, “You’re a sucker.” The way that Vince McMahon came in and said listen this isn’t about any purist, this is about entertainment and how can we entertain the fan?

You had this purgatory that the WCW/NWA, those guys were like, “Hey, we’re purists. We’re wrestling and it’s not real — wink, wink — but it’s more real.” Well, no, if it’s not real, it’s not real. Here’s the analogy with sports betting. Probably the thing I say the most often is your chance of winning as a sports bettor — talking to the nation, all the listeners — is about the same as making the NBA. Some of you are going to be able to do that, just like some high school kids make the NBA, but most of you aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If you know that you’re negative EV, then you look at it as recreation. If you look at it as recreation, you don’t fool yourself that you’re in this for an investment, that this is a money-making endeavor. It doesn’t mean you can’t win in any given week or month or even year. It doesn’t mean that you might not surprise yourself and be that one in a long shot that has enough talent, willpower, discipline, work ethic to do it, but most won’t. If they’re doing it for fun, there’s no harm in that.

So, we very much strive to help people win more, but winning more is very different than winning long-term and profiting. That distinction frees us up so much. One, we can be honest. Anyone who’s not saying this is lying. I always say there’s a lot of great information providers out there. Pregame is one of them we hope, but there’s a lot of great ones. The ones to run away from are the ones that say it’s easy to win, because you know they are scamming. The ones that say it’s hard to win, but we think we’ve got the answer — okay be skeptical, but at least they’re being honest about that.

A long time ago, we freed ourselves of any thought of being anything but 100 percent honest about it’s tough to win, now let’s all have some fun. I know that’s a different audience than most of the shows, but I think that’s one of the drivers of our success. Also finally, a driver of the fact that we’re able to reach the casual better or even the non-bettor because we’re not trying to pass a purity test and we’re not trying to fool anyone that this is easy to win.

Noe: How many years have you been working in the sports betting industry and what made you initially want to get into it?

RJ: I graduated from Ohio State in 1992 with a finance degree. I did quite well in school. Now in high school I did horribly, and I grew up in a small town in Ohio — 4,000 people, zero stop lights, one fast-food place, it was a Dairy Queen, but it closed for five months of the year during the winter, so you had to get your Brazier Burger when the weather was fine. Going to Ohio State obviously was big change, going to Columbus, and I decided, hey, I think I can do this. I applied myself.

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As it was discussed — the New York Times did an article a couple of years ago that I was involved in — they really thought it was fascinating that I was accepted into Harvard Law School after. It was like, “Who’s this guy who’s in gambling who could have went to Harvard Law School?” It really was not just, hey, I hate the straight world. There’s a lot of hypocrisy I don’t like about the conventional straight world, but it was more that I thought this industry doesn’t have as many serious people in it. Maybe serious isn’t the word, but they don’t have as many corporate types in it.

My thinking at the time was, hey, I’m pretty good at this finance stuff, but there’s certainly a ton of people better than me. I also thought — and this was certainly the case at the time when I was in my mid-20s — there’s a lot of people that know a lot more about sports betting than me, but I didn’t feel like there were a lot that knew both as well as I did. As time passed, I think that’s proven out to be generally true.

Now we’re seeing with legalization some really serious players getting involved: the venture capitalists, the Silicon Valley types, and the corporate types. I very much welcome that, because it’s back to the idea of the old-timers versus the emerging new market. I believe that the hypertalented, fresh-thinking groups that come into this industry on the bookmaking side and the content side are just going to produce a better product for the gambler.

Ultimately — and I say this sincerely because I can promise you I have personal goals and personal interests, but I’ve aligned myself with the bettor. I really believe that one of the biggest mistakes the mainstream media companies have made, the ESPN’s of the world — and I very much like ESPN in many ways. I don’t like everything, but to me it’s not FOX versus ESPN. It never has been and it won’t be for me ever, but I think they make a mistake when it comes to their sports betting coverage.

Not naming names and I’m not looking to be negative about any individual, but unless I’m mistaken they don’t have one person on payroll that is full-time with gambling. To think about the concept that there’s a subindustry that’s so big and so emerging and it’s, “Hey, let’s get this part-time guy that writes about high school football for the online edition of his local newspaper.” That guy might be a great guy, he might not be. Who knows and who cares? It’s how much does he know about sports betting?

Here’s why they tend to do that. What are the credentials in sports betting? If you’re looking for a doctor, he better have an MD. You better figure out how good the school he went to was, or the specialization, or all of these other ways to be credentialed. Well, as a sports bettor you don’t get a degree. You don’t get in a Hall of Fame typically. What have the big media companies done? They’ve leaned on amateur writers who then don’t know who to go to because there’s not a credentialed list, so they go to the sportsbooks.

One of the things I genuinely believe you can be critical of the big media companies about is their coverage of sports betting is almost invariably from the sportsbooks’ perspective. I get it because, “Hey, this guy is the sportsbook operator for this big casino XYZ.” It doesn’t even matter which casino. “They’ve got a big billion-dollar brand, so I can trust this guy.” Yeah, you probably can. He’s probably not going to deceive you, but I promise he’s going to tell you a story that’s favorable for his side of the counter. To me, the bettor side of the counter haven’t really had the advocates that they need and that’s something that I pride myself on trying to be.

Noe: Why is it that the NBA is progressive and embraces the fact that many people bet on sports, where on the other hand the NFL and MLB resist embracing sports betting?

RJ: Great question. I think there’s two answers to that question. The simple answer is how much do they need the money? Meaning the NFL is king — I was on with Colin Cowherd about a year ago talking about this very topic — the NFL had the best situation possible up until legalization, which was we can be completely sanctimonious and poo-poo sports betting while collecting and benefiting from a vast majority of the potential benefits out there. People were still betting and the interest in the games and the interest in the conversation around the games — things like the NFL Network et cetera — all benefited from gambling, but at the same time the league could say, “Oh, we don’t believe in it. We don’t like it.”

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Sanctimony plus profit equals smiley face for the NFL. Makes sense. Now with legalization there’s so much more money to be made by embracing it, oh low and behold, “You know we’ve reconsidered. It’s not so bad.” With the NFL being in the driver’s seat financially compared to the other leagues, they could be a little bit more sanctimonious and a little slower to adopt something that does have it’s detractors. Certainly there are a certain percentage of people that just think gambling is wrong. They could avoid offending them without losing too much of the revenue, because the revenue was coming in in a tangential way. I think that’s answer one.

I think answer two is simpler. You’ve got legacy money, old-school money in the NFL for the most part, and you’ve got more forward-looking owners in the NBA. Let’s give commissioner Silver a ton of credit. It’s been more than a few years that he wrote the first major commissioner kind of op-ed saying in the New York Times we can’t be this hypocritical. If we’re involved with daily fantasy, it’s pretty much the same thing. Let’s be honest about it and move forward.

That I thought was a smart move, but we know the billionaires — they’re smart in a lot of ways but they’re not always smart in every way. I think that Silver has seen the hypocrisy of daily fantasy being okay but sports betting not being okay at the time. Him embracing that really tore down some of the friction to get us to where we are today.

Noe: Have you noticed any difference since legalization with how you’ve been treated in general? I’m thinking before legalization some might have looked down at you like, “Hey, here’s this guy. He’s just trying to make a buck off of these suckers.” Maybe not looking at you being as smart as you are. Now since legalization maybe that thinking has changed. Has that happened at all?

RJ: Not from individuals. I think some of that is the approach I took. One of the things on pregame.com that we really prided ourselves on, is once there was any uncertainty about online sportsbooks and the legality — and this goes all the way back to 2008 or so — we stopped dealing in any way with any online sportsbook. There was a lot of money, and I mean literally millions of dollars left on the table, but for me it was with an eye towards society is moving to embrace this and if you’re in bed with companies in Costa Rica or offshore country XYZ, it’s going to be a challenge to extricate yourself from that later.

I also think a second approach of mine personally has been understanding trust was the most valuable commodity. If you watch a movie like Two for the Money, if you watch any of the old Saturday morning touts shows on USA Network, those guys were very good at what they did. They were confidence guys. They were salesman. If you watch a movie like Wolf of Wall Street, what Jordan Belfort did in that movie and in his book – and I guess in his real life assuming that his book was a true depiction – is very similar to what a Stu Feiner did back in the day. I don’t know Stu personally. I don’t know really anything about his business except there was a group of guys that were running boiler rooms back then.

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That’s what people thought of when they thought of sports information.

Jimmy the Greek did a great job for himself, but it was such an niche. It was a, “He’s Jimmy the Greek.” Otherwise it was the guys on Saturday morning. What I figured was, well if I can get next to the ESPN’s of the world, the FOX’s of the world, the Stephen A Smith’s, the Colin Cowherd’s, how do I get next to them? Through providing them with differentiated content. Through providing them with value.

When I initially was on the Herd — I mean we’re going back eight years ago — Colin’s producer at the time, in my opinion one of the great producers in radio, Vince Kates, just a brilliant radio guy — we had a casual relationship and he’s like, “Hey, we’re going to start having a handicapper on once a week and we want you to start.” My first thought was how can I make this segment so good that Vince is going to think, “You know forget the other guys, let’s just keep RJ on!” What I came up with was the whole wiseguy grade on Colin’s picks. Luckily Colin liked it, Vince liked it, and they allowed me to continue that segment.

Now imagine it’s a year from then or nine months from then and someone says, “Oh, there’s that RJ guy. Oh yeah, he’s a pick guy,” or, “Hey, he’s a gambler,” but, “Oh, you know I actually heard him on Colin Cowherd.” Now it’s not so easy to just be prejudiced against my career, my industry, because a guy like a Colin Cowherd is involved. Luckily through a lot of effort, and it was a focus of mine, I was able to build those relationships with multiple media companies and hosts on their platforms to the point that eventually it wasn’t, “There’s RJ Bell, he’s a Vegas gambler,” but rather, “There’s RJ Bell, you probably saw him on the Herd or Stephen A Smith.”

Noe: With sports betting being legalized on a state-to-state basis, I’m thinking about new bettors that haven’t even dabbled in gambling that now will. There are a ton of things that you could say in terms of giving advice to new gamblers, but what would be the two most important pieces of advice you would give to someone who’s brand new to it?

RJ: Bet less per game and bet less games. I mean it’s really that simple because the basic premise, the founding principle of what we’re doing with Straight Outta Vegas and pregame.com is it’s hard to win. People just are shocked when they hear that because it’s like, wait a minute. Aren’t you the guy that’s supposed to be saying, bet this game and by a car and once you buy that car you’re going to have a hot girl that wants to ride in it with you?

I never wanted that, but even if I did I could never be as good as those Saturday morning guys at that. That’s in their bones it seems. What was in my bones was I love gambling. Let me try to spread the joy and the pleasure I get from it if it’s done smart and if it’s done recreationally. Really it all comes back to that. As the industry grows, the risk grows for sure of problem gambling. But I think if the mentality is it’s fun, it’s not about getting rich quick, boy you could avoid a lot of the problems.

Noe: What do you see the future being? For example, soon you might go to a game and sports betting is readily available. Is there anything that you foresee happening in the next five years that you’re positioning yourself for right now and getting ahead of the curve?

RJ: I think this is so big that I’m going to answer more toward the industry rather than my business. I think my business is going to be driven by two things — what is the objective of the content we produce? As we said with Straight Outta Vegas is we want everybody on FOX Sports Radio listening coast to coast that’s a sports fan to think, “Oh, this is different.” I tell my producer, Loren [Gardner], and he’s been with FOX a long time. I’m only interested in doing segments which are either better or different.

If you’ve got Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd, Doug Gottlieb, and then me? Chances are I’m not doing very much better in typical sports talk. It’s like being on the Dream Team in ‘92, right? I’m not going to dunk better than Jordan. Well, this is the dream team of radio in my opinion. I am humbled to follow those three. I’m very sincere. If I’m doing the same thing as Colin, I’m done. I’m second best at best. And not even that, but I can do a Vegas perspective hopefully that’s either better or different.

Ultimately, embracing that it’s recreational and providing that audience with something better or different, that’s the business goal. I think it’s important, and I’ll keep this short, but it’s so important about where the industry is going. I think the legacy Vegas sportsbooks are in big trouble because I believe the differentiator for legalized sports betting in the future is going to be technology.

If you think about Facebook, what does Facebook do better? It’s the user experience. The ability of company XYZ to be a big player in sports betting is going to be about cultivating that user experience. I don’t think the Vegas casinos — boy when it comes to brick and mortar and gamblers they’re the best in the universe. When it comes to online? Specifically apps? I think you look at Silicon Valley. My prediction number one is that you’re going to see the sportsbooks of the future look more like Silicon Valley companies and technology companies than Vegas casinos.

The eye popper, the shocker of that — and I’m going to make a prediction and we’ll look back on it in two years and see if I’m right — I believe that the interface between smart TVs and the operating system that sits on top of the television is where the next big move is going to be. Let’s use for example Roku, or let’s say Apple TV. You might buy brand TV XY or Z, but they’re going to have apps on that television and it might be again Roku, it might be Apple TV, whatever.

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Imagine the following. Imagine an Apple TV partners with a sports betting company and they say, “Okay we’re going to allow you to have your interface” — and forget the business side of it because maybe it’s, “We take 85% of the revenue,” Apple says or whatever. In this hypothetical, Apple will keep an arm’s length from the gambling itself, but imagine if Apple says, “See that space in the right corner of the TV when the football game is on? If you want to have your in-game betting right there, then all you guys start bidding on it. Whoever gives us the best deal, you can slide in there.”

Everyone always thought it was going to be a triangle with the bookmakers, the leagues, and the TV networks to get that app in the corner of the football game. I think it’s going to be simply the software company that sits on top of the television telling the leagues, “Hey, we don’t need you,” and telling the networks, “Hey, we don’t need you.”

Now maybe they’ll pay them a percentage to make the peace, a business expense. I believe the lion’s share is going to go to the technology companies like Apple and even the bookmakers themselves that Apple might partner with are going to be a commodity. Bookmakers pretty much are interchangeable. That real estate on your smart TV screen enabled to in-game bet — will LeBron James make this next free throw? Will the field goal kicker make this next kick? That kind of stuff is the future. We see it in Europe and I think it’s the future that technology is going to own, not the networks or even the leagues.

Noe: Do you see any downside of legalized sports betting? For example, if you look at the NBA’s last two minute reports or the NFL stressing that a call was missed in an effort to disprove the outcome was fixed. Do you see leagues going overboard when it comes to being transparent to show that there isn’t anything shady about the result of a game?

RJ: Give me an example of what would be overboard.

Noe: Maybe if you took the last two minute report in the NBA and extended it to the second half report.

RJ: And why would that be a bad thing?

Noe: It could be overkill. Leagues could go so far to show they aren’t doing anything improper that fans might get annoyed and worn out by it.

RJ: If we got there I would celebrate. If the typical response of the league XYZ saying, “Hey, we want to give you more information in the spirit of transparency or more insight in the spirit of transparency,” and then if the average response was, “Enough already, we know it’s all on the up-and-up,” then I think win. We’ve won. Now we’re not as worried about legalization and corruption around that.

Here is probably the thing I pound my fist on the most because it’s so logical. Increased regulation in any marketplace leads to less corruption. Think about the SEC, not the Southeastern Conference, but the Securities and Exchange Commission. Around Roosevelt and FDR it was like, “Uh-oh, the stock market, a lot of shenanigans going on. Let’s have an oversight organization.”

Think about your wife, your girlfriend, whomever that you maybe want to hide a few things from. It might be, “Hey, I’m going to eat a Snickers bar.” Well if she’s out at the book club for the night, you’re going to eat that Snickers and you’re going to eat as many Snickers as you want. You’re going to make sure you wash your hands and face before she comes back. But if she’s got a nanny cam on you making sure you’re not eating Snickers, that’s going to be harder. I don’t care what it is that people want to do that is wrong or something that the overseeing body doesn’t want them to do. The more oversight there is, the less likely people are going to do it. The oversight acts as a deterrent.

A good friend of mine in the industry, Matt Holt, he was with CG Technology for a long time as a vice president and he started his own company. They have funding and it’s been a success so far in that it’s an integrity company. The whole business of that company, or at least the majority of it, is looking at the data as it comes in from all the different betting places and saying, “Is there anything that’s irregular here?”

To me, yeah it’s possible. We’re going to get to the point that everyone is so confident they’re going to say enough already, but that is a ways off still. There still are a lot of people thinking, “Hold on, RJ. If there was no legalized betting, there wouldn’t be any betting to fix games on anyway. To quote Michael Corleone, “Who’s being naive now?” We know the betting is going to happen regardless. If it’s regulated, there’s going to be less corruption.

Noe: Yeah, I agree with that. All the people that are envisioning point-shaving scandals or gamblers getting their hooks into a college basketball team — I don’t know what’s changed. We’re talking about legalization on a state-to-state basis. I can’t imagine the random Joe Schmo that’s now legally betting fifty bucks on a game is all of a sudden going to strong-arm some kid into throwing a game. I just don’t see it.

RJ: But if you’re willing to break the law to fix a game, aren’t you willing to break the law to bet illegally on that game?

Noe: Yeah, but if you weren’t betting illegally to begin with, then why would I believe that because you’re betting legally now, you’re going to do something way more illegal, which is to try to fix a game?

RJ: You’re exactly right. For anyone to even consider fixing a game the “illegality” in some states of sports betting is an irrelevancy. Thus, anyone who was inclined to try to fix a game in the past doesn’t care if it’s legal or illegal, so the only factor is if there’s more legal betting and less illegal betting, there’s more people like Matt Holt tracking the betting and finding out the people who are fixing the games. 

Quick story, Jimmy Vaccaro, one of the true legends and sportsbook operators in Vegas was at the Mirage when the Arizona State college basketball fixing occurred. As he tells the story, literally guys walked into the Mirage with a bunch of cash and said, “I want to bet against Arizona State.” He said, “What’s that point spread? What does that number up there mean?” The guy didn’t even know what the point spread was.

Vaccaro says, “Well,” — I’m going by memory so it’s probably wrong, the number — “that’s +6.” He said, “Okay, I want to bet against them. How much can I bet?” He says you can bet whatever the limit was. He bet it. Now he says, “I want to bet it again.” Jimmy said, “Well, we’ve got to move the line.” The line goes to let’s say 5.5. Bet it again. So he bets it a few times, max bet every time. Jimmy’s like this is weird. The guy doesn’t even know what a spread is and he’s betting it. 

He goes, “Hey, let me get your license, I want to give you a buffet. You should eat all the shrimp you want. So the guy gives his driver’s license and it’s because of that move Jimmy reported it, and they ended up catching the guys. Think about that. That’s a small example, but if that was a bookie that you met in a bar that was mobbed up or whatever, they wouldn’t have any concern, they’d be thinking, “Hey, if this game is fixed, how can we go bet it with some other bookie?” They’re not looking to get the guys driver’s license. The legalization will deter game fixing and corruption. Fact.

Noe: Is there anything that you want to accomplish that you haven’t thus far either in the industry or something well outside of it?


RJ: I feel like everything I’ve done both as a businessman — and I am proud of the fact that pregame.com is a two-time Inc. 5000 company. Multiple millions of dollars of revenue is one of the requirements of being an Inc. 5000 company — and being a coal miner’s son, quite frankly, and doing that with the help for sure of my current team and the team members of the past. I’m proud of that. I am, but to me it all has felt like a prelude to something so much bigger.

There’s an old funny saying. Joe Kennedy said the first million is the toughest. It’s like to get from nothing — and literally I moved out to Vegas in 1998 with $3,000 in cash. That was pretty much what I had out of college. To go from there to the Inc. 5000 has taken a lot of work and a long time, but the idea that in the next five years, I could 5x or 10x what we’re doing is very possible. In one way I’m proud of how hard it was to go from nothing to something, but I’m excited about going from something to something really big. That’s on the business side.

On the media side, I don’t believe I’ve accomplished anything that matters yet. I’m super critical of my work and I think that’s helped me to get better as the time has passed. When I listen to Colin, when I listen to other guys on FOX and certainly other guys on CBS and ESPN — I personally believe this is probably a controversial position that I think Stephen A. Smith is a masterful broadcaster. In a way some of the things people don’t like about Stephen A Smith is proof of how good he is at what he does. I don’t put myself anywhere in their class.

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I hope in my own way I could eventually get there. If the day came where I did a week of radio shows with my Straight Outta Vegas team that I said, “You know something, just maybe this week of shows could stand up to this week of Colin’s shows, or Dan Patrick’s shows,” that to me would be a great achievement. It’s something I really want to achieve. It’s a passion, but I know are ways from that, and thus yes, that is a grand goal I have.

Noe: I do have to ask being a coal miner’s son — is that where you developed your love for squirrel stew?


RJ: (laughs) You know I thought you were going to say where I got my accent from, but yes, my dad was a hunter. Now this dude worked — he’s retired now — he worked 60-plus hours almost every week of the year. It wasn’t 40, it was 60, but he would take off a week for deer season. Like three days for squirrel season, and three days for rabbit season. Let me tell you, he wasn’t the best shot, but when he came home with something, we were eating it the next night or you were not eating.

Noe: How would you describe the taste of squirrel stew to someone who has never indulged in such a thing?


RJ: A very gamey chicken.

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Noe: (laughs) Fair enough. Fair enough. I have to thank you because I interviewed you years ago, actually on FOX Sports Radio, and for some reason I always thought it was — what was I saying? Not wiseguys. What was the term? It was a certain term…

RJ: Oh, I think you said sharks instead of sharps.

Noe: That’s what it was! Yes, I said sharks because I thought it was like they sensed blood in the water so I thought it was the sharks in Vegas, not the sharps, and you played it off very nicely instead of calling me out on it.

RJ: Well I’ll tell you this, the first major media hit I ever did — and it was a weekly — was Mason & Ireland in LA. I consider both of those guys to be friends. I did that hit for nine years and just had to stop with the FOX deal. Mason to this day — eight years plus in — he would call them sharks. So, you were not alone with that one.

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The 2024 BSM Summit Welcomes Stephen A. Smith, Andrew Marchand and 7 More Speakers!

“I am both personally and professionally excited to announce that Stephen A. Smith will join us at the 2024 BSM Summit.”

Jason Barrett

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This week’s column is going to focus a lot on the upcoming 2024 BSM Summit. We released the full schedule today on BSMSummit.com. This is also the final day for event sponsorships to be secured. If interested, email Stephanie at [email protected]. We only have a few remaining opportunities.

If you’re participating at the show, be advised that emails will go out today to all speaker groups with details on date/time of session, content focus, the address of the venue, and who to contact on the day of the event. I have a few names I still have to add to our advertising panel. Getting CMO’s and/or media buyers involved isn’t always easy but I think it’s important. More on that soon.

But let me not bury the lead. We have a major addition to announce. I am both personally and professionally excited to share that Stephen A. Smith will join us at the 2024 BSM Summit.

A month ago I wasn’t sure if this was going to work out. As a longtime fan of Stephen A.’s, this has been a session I’ve wanted to do for six years. Sometimes schedules don’t line up though. But when things do fall into place, it’s pretty cool. This is one of those times.

Stephen A. Smith is a man who needs no introduction or hype. He’s one of the most successful on-air talents in the industry today, helping First Take enjoy nearly 15 years of unmatched success. Aside from his on-air excellence and the impact he’s created at ESPN and during the course of a three decade career, Stephen A. also serves as co-executive producer of First Take, and operates his own production company, Mr. SAS Productions. His book, Straight Shooter; A Memoir of Second Chances and First Takes is a New York Times best seller. He’s also created a hit podcast The Stephen A. Smith Show, which continues to attract a wide range of notable guests and thought leaders, and large audience.

On March 13th, Stephen A. and I will close out day 1 with a wide-ranging, in-depth conversation on the state of the sports media business. It’s a discussion that I know our professional audience will want to be present for. Given his rise to stardom, and ability to maintain a high standard while expanding into other areas of business, there’s a ton to tackle. We’ve got thirty five minutes to do it, and I’ll make sure we make the most of it. My thanks to Stephen A. and his team for moving a few things around to be able to join us.

8 More BSM Summit Speakers:

Stephen A. is going to attract a lot of attention, rightfully so but I don’t want to ignore how valuable these next eight speakers are to the Summit too. I am thrilled to welcome sports media’s top news breaker and a man whose recent arrival at The Athletic instantly elevated the brand’s media coverage, Andrew Marchand.

Joining Stephen A. and Andrew as additions to the Summit are Omaha Productions host Kevin Clark, Outkick’s SVP and Managing Editor Gary Schreier, Audacy Chief Digital Officer J.D. Crowley, Executive Editor and SVP of the Cumulus Podcast Network John Wordock, Matthew Berry’s Fantasy Life CEO Eliot Crist, 98.5 The Sports Hub program director Rick Radzik, and KOA 94.1/850 program director Dave Tepper.

I also want to thank SiriusXM, Quu and Bonneville International for signing on as Summit partners. We operate our shows independently and can’t pull them off without industry support. I’m grateful to every group that has pledged support for our 2024 show, and each individual who’s making time to join us in the big apple next month.

One-Day Only Sale:

To celebrate today’s schedule release and the addition of nine speakers, I’ve rolled out a one-day only sale on Summit tickets. We’re taking $50 off of individual tickets. To take advantage of the sale, click here. Prices return to normal on Tuesday February 27th. Ticket prices increase on March 4th to $324.99 so act now to avoid paying more.

Complete The Phrase:

Last week we tried something new in our 8@8. We introduced a full week phrase, which gave our newsletter subscribers a chance to win tickets to the BSM Summit. Congratulations to Heath Cline, Nick Cattles, Karlos Ortiz, Logan Ward and Michelle Rabinovich on being selected as our winners. Thanks to all who participated in the contest.

Thumbs Up:

96.7/1310 The Ticket: What The Ticket has created in Dallas with Ticketstock is pretty damn cool. The free event is well supported with sponsorships, giveaways, merchandise, contests, and live content from the entire on-air staff. In a time where sports radio isn’t active as it should be producing big money making live events, it’s good to see one of sports radio’s originals out there creating an impact.

Rob Parker: In May of 2016 I wrote a column and asked why no station in America featured an all-black sports radio lineup. Corporate groups didn’t rush in but someone finally took the leap eight years later. Congratulations to Rob Parker and his investors on the upcoming arrival of Sports Rap Radio in Detroit.

Battling 97.1 The Ticket for sports radio dominance isn’t going to be the focus for the new local sports radio brand. Creating an alternative for the black community and launching new stars is. Will it work? Only time will tell. But I appreciate folks who take risks to innovate. That’s something sports radio needs more, not less of.

670 The Score: I absolutely loved what The Score did to turn debate and discussion around Caleb Williams and Justin Fields into an event involving their audience. Having the access to an in-house room to invite fans in is a great asset Audacy Chicago has. Mitch Rosen, Ryan Porth and the Parkins and Spiegel team made good use of it with their QB1 Town Hall. The content was crisp, the room was full, and 670 took a normal day of Bears talk and turned it into an opportunity to create a stronger bond with its audience. Nice job by all.

Jonathan Zaslow and Q Myers: I’ll eavesdrop on a show every now and then and if I know the host(s), I’ll send a text to let them know I was listening. Especially if I like what I hear. That was the case last Thursday night. I’m not usually out at 10pm on a weeknight but while I was in the car, I scanned the dial and landed on Q and Zaslow. Their energy and chemistry was great, and the NBA topics and discussions were relatable and easy to process.

Having worked the night schedule before, you sometimes wonder ‘is anyone listening?’ The good ones focus and perform whether they have an audience of one or one million. Twenty to thirty minutes may not be a ton of listening time, but capturing even five minutes at night is difficult. Nice job by Q and Jonathan. They were on target and kept me interested.

Thumbs Down:

JJ Redick: Since bursting on to the scene, I’ve enjoyed JJ’s opinions and willingness to mix it up. It’s clearly worked because ESPN recently added him to their top NBA broadcast team alongside Mike Breen and Doris Burke. What I don’t understand though is his constant complaining about what people enjoy. Insulting the audience and their preferences is a sure fire way to lose fans. Kudos to Nick Wright for calling it out.

Drama and opinion will always outsell education. Nobody is suggesting that JJ shouldn’t try to make fans smarter. I myself appreciate that. But if you expect people to prefer analysis over entertainment, prepare to be disappointed. Furthermore, despising the audience and what they value leads to more people tuning you out instead of in.

ESPN 97.5: Six months ago the station lost a promising afternoon show with Jake Asman, Brad Kellner and Cody Stoots. Fortunately, they had a strong midday show with Jeremy Branham and Joel Blank that was ready for the afternoon slot. They then added a new midday show with Joshua Beard and Michael Connor, and all seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Until this week.

The station has once again cut staff, killing the new midday show just six months into its run, and parting ways with the only program director in the building. It’s hard to say you want to compete when your decisions suggest otherwise. Frequent change also gives local clients less incentive to stick with you. Here’s to hoping it works out for John, Lance, Joel, Jeremy, Paul and Joe. Good, talented guys who deserve more help and stability.

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Peter Rosenberg Has Become a Dual Threat Across the New York City Airwaves

“I refuse to be the guy who’s like, ‘Let me just repeat kind of the same point so you hear my voice and I sound like a sports talk host.’”

Derek Futterman

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Peter Rosenberg
Courtesy: ESPN New York

Michael Kay and Don La Greca have been working together since 2002. The duo was able to accumulate success together for over a decade, but in September 2015, management chose to add a third host. Kay and La Greca did not desire the change, nonetheless, they welcomed Peter Rosenberg and were receptive to his ideas and perspectives. As a result, they’ve ascended to a higher level, creating exceptional chemistry while leaving an indelible mark on the sports talk format.

Before Rosenberg joined The Michael Kay Show, he frequently listened to it. He detected an overall warmth from the show and felt included as a listener. Combined with the confidence and track record he had procured in media, Rosenberg was able to assimilate into 98.7 ESPN New York and the sports talk format while continuing his music radio duties. He was certain he would be able to find his way and make meaningful contributions and believes the program found its groove in the new structure quickly thereafter.

“I knew that I would bring goods to the table, and once we did a few shows together and we got along, it was pretty easy to see how it was going to work,” Rosenberg said. “Probably easier for me to see than for Michael and Don, but I could tell how this thing was going to work.”

Prior to each show, Rosenberg and his colleagues consider what people are discussing and what they feel passionate about. There are times when his views diverge from that of the group, but he is given the latitude to express himself and offer his viewpoint. In the end, he feels that the show oftentimes gets it correct and finds a way to resonate with the audience. A common remark directed towards Rosenberg, however, is his tendency to not speak all the time. The practice comes from discipline he has accrued over the years, along with a cognizance of the three-person format and ability to suppress hubris.

“If I don’t have a lot to say on a subject, we have three people,” Rosenberg explained. “I refuse to be the guy who’s like, ‘Let me just repeat the same point so you hear my voice and I sound like a sports talk host.’ I would rather wait for the spot and be impactful or make that little quip.”

Rosenberg will be on hand at the 2024 BSM Summit along with ESPN New York co-host Michael Kay, taking part in a Day 1 discussion. Having previously attended the industry conference several years ago, he remembers interacting with industry professionals and learning more about the industry as well. The conference will highlight many aspects of the sports business while examining current challenges, changes, and opportunities.

“There are a lot of jokes about sports talk radio – it’s very easy to make fun of – but it really is an art form to do it well,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not putting every show we do in the Louvre. We do three-and-a-half-hours a day, five days a week, but there are days that belong in the Louvre.”

Outside of his job with ESPN New York, Rosenberg works as a commentator for World Wrestling Entertainment, appearing on television one to two times per month for events. The mode of entertainment blends athleticism with storytelling and is something he considers to be an art form. Additionally, Rosenberg hosts a variety of digital programs and podcasts surrounding the sport, including Cheap Heat with The Ringer and independent YouTube endeavors such as Wrestling with Rosenberg and Real Late with Rosenberg.

“There’s a phrase in wrestling called, ‘Getting your shit in,’” Rosenberg said. “Wrestlers will joke about having a match where it’s like, ‘Well, I want to get my shit in; I want to get my moves in.’ I don’t need to get my shit in every day.”

Despite Rosenberg co-hosting the show with La Greca and Kay, the program is titled The Michael Kay Show, something that people could assume may cause derision or divisiveness. On the contrary, he does not regularly think about the subject and instead focuses on how he can help the program thrive on a daily basis.

Throughout the show, Rosenberg delivers his opinions and insights when appropriate and most salient to the overall discussion. Even so, he is able to talk at length and lead segments if necessary, equipped with a skillset fostered through countless repetitions behind the microphone. The balance between speaking and listening took time for him to implement, and through years of practice, he has become more adept at choosing his spots.

“I take a lot of pride in the sort of humor that I bring to the show, and a lot of that comes in when Michael and Don are being very serious,” Rosenberg said. “You may not hear me very much and it may just be an ad-lib that if you’re a real fan of the show and you listen, it cracks you up because you know sort of what my angle is.”

Although sports media was Rosenberg’s primary interest in his youth, he transitioned to the music format while studying at the University of Maryland. Considering his skills and passions, he determined that the hip-hop genre would be conducive to success and had dreams of hosting on venerated radio station HOT 97 in New York, N.Y. Rosenberg positioned himself for growth in these years, starting his own radio program on the student-run radio station in the summer ahead of his freshman year.

By the time he was a sophomore, he was interning with Darian “Big Tigger” Morgan and Keith “DJ Flexx” Clagon where he learned about formatics and how to run the board. Upon graduation, Rosenberg had stints working at WPGC and WHFS before landing his own talk radio show on WJFK.

Eponymously titled The Peter Rosenberg Show, the program featured Rosenberg and co-host Daryl “Quartermaine” Francis and fused hip-hop with sports and other topics. Even though many perceived the program to be primed for growth, Rosenberg was fired after one year at the station following an on-air feud with colleague Don Geronimo. During the ensuing week, he was broadcasting online from his bedroom while thinking about the future.

Ebro Darden, the program director and morning show host of HOT 97, decided to hire Rosenberg to work at the station in 2007. Since then, Rosenberg has co-hosted Ebro in the Morning alongside Darden and Laura Stylez. The cast provides listeners with honest, candid discussions, exclusive interviews, and plenty of hip-hop. Together the group has thrived within the sprawling media marketplace, building a unique camaraderie across the airwaves.

“Not a lot of teams at this level get along this well, as evidenced by what happened to our competition in the market,” Rosenberg said. “It is not easy for people’s ego to be in check and also for people just frankly to have good relationships – even beyond the ego, actually enjoying each other’s company.”

By hosting in a marketplace considered a consensus birthplace of hip-hop with extensive platinum artists along with many accomplished professional sports teams, topic selection in New York City can seem like a daunting task. Despite not being from New York, Rosenberg tries to captivate and enthrall listeners on two very different programs. The dichotomy between the two formats is something he believes has allowed him to appeal to different segments of the audience.

“When you do music radio, a lot of young women listen to you,” Rosenberg said. “It puts you in a different space – the way that you entertain; the way that you talk – what’s interesting [and] what’s cool is different. When you get on sports talk radio, you’re mostly talking to 50-year-old men, so I think every once in a while it’s useful to be able to inject some of the things that make it work for you with that different audience.”

In August, Good Karma Brands will leave the 98.7 WEPN-FM signal, shifting its focus to its app and the 1050 WPEN-AM signal. Despite enjoying a steady presence on the FM band since 2012, the local marketing agreement (LMA) established between ESPN and Emmis Communications will expire, and Good Karma Brands has elected not to pursue purchasing the signal. With roughly 60% of its listenership taking place outside of radio, ESPN New York will move forward with its focus on digital distribution, relying on 1050 AM for over the air availability.

“I think it’ll force us to be creative in terms of how we market and things like that, and I’m excited to see what everyone does, but I don’t spend a ton of time concerned about it,” Rosenberg said. “I think if handled the right way, you can really make it a positive with how you push the listening online and maybe find a way to surprisingly expand the show into reaching a bit more of a broad audience.”

The head-to-head competition between ESPN New York and WFAN is frequently scrutinized in each quarterly ratings book and has been addressed on various programs between the two entities. Although The Michael Kay Show has finished behind WFAN in the daypart, Rosenberg measures the success of the program through a variety of factors. For example, the program sold out its 20th anniversary show in New York City and has loyal callers who frequently chime into the discussion.

“We just get up every day and act like good people and talk about things that we’re passionate about. I wouldn’t trade it to be one of these screaming lunatics who talks about subjects they don’t actually care about just to get people to bite,” Rosenberg said. “It’s not what we do. To me, I think being yourself is what it’s all about because then if you’re never lying, you don’t have to keep track of what you said in the past.”

While they all have deft knowledge of various sports, Rosenberg tries to stay away from breakdowns that could either be difficult to ascertain and actualize or are too obscure to render enticing. In fact, his least favorite editions of the show are those that closely examine techniques and schemes associated with the games themselves. There are times when it is necessary, but he feels that it evokes previous theories on how to engender interest in the format and a motif of the transformation of consumer options.

“I think that the future of sports talk, to me, is going to be audiences who really want granular sports talk seeking out specific podcasts around the teams and sports that they’re obsessed with,” Rosenberg said. “I think the role of mainstream sports talk radio as we know it will be people who love sports and want to talk about it in a very entertaining way while being themselves and doing other things as well.”

While he still enjoys hosting in the format, he also understands that technological advances, paradigmatic shifts in consumption patterns and proprietary, athlete-driven content has obliged traditional outlets to adapt and exercise prudence. Avoiding misfortune is sometimes out of one’s control, but it is something that Rosenberg attempts to prevent by always staying at the top of his game.

“You’ve got to be talented and innovative because there are going to be less jobs. That is for sure,” said Rosenberg. “In terms of what the jobs are that are offered by big companies and where you can get yourself a nice little salary and insurance, those will be limited if you’re not a former athlete. I think it’s super important that we’re ready to pivot and do different things because otherwise, there’s just going to be so much competition among people.”

Throughout his media career, Rosenberg has amassed many accomplishments while cementing his position with ESPN New York, HOT 97, World Wrestling Entertainment and several independent undertakings. Despite generating consistent success in the country’s number one market in multiple formats, he does not consider himself to have reached his pinnacle as a broadcaster. Rosenberg undoubtedly cherishes his past and present work, but he exhibits tireless determination to augment his standing by aiming to perform at a level commensurate to and exceeding the ingrained standard.

“I know we live in a world where if you get a lot of viewers on Twitch and you’re 19 and funny, you’re hot, but I view what we do a little differently,” Rosenberg said. “I’m probably finishing up my 10,000 hours or just did in the last couple of years, so I’m really trying to master this craft and get to another level that I haven’t gotten to yet. I’m still working on it.”

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‘Load Management’ is Ridiculous in Sports and Even More Dumb in Broadcasting

I think it is a bad decision by any content creator to not have consistency.

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NBA Load Management Graphic
Credit: a2zfacts.net

If you are a fan of the NBA, you are familiar with the term ‘load management’ which has become popular in the last couple of seasons. I should say, if you are a fan of today’s NBA, because the NBA I fell in love with in the 80’s and 90’s had players who played unless they were hurt. Somehow I don’t think the thought of just sitting out a game here and there because it is a long season ever occured to the ‘Showtime’ Lakers or ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons.

Look, if the season is too long for today’s pampered players, we need to figure out how to shorten them. If not, maybe the players can sit out any game they want, they just don’t get paid for it (bet we see a change in behavior then).

I would love to spend this whole column writing about ‘load management’ from the player and fan side. Since I don’t have an NBA team in my city, I have to travel to see a game or two each year. I don’t even want to think about spending the kind of money it takes for me to get to an NBA game and then add in having to wonder if the player or players I am really wanting to see sit the game out for ‘load management’ purposes.

But, I digress. We cover sports media, not sports, so why am I bringing up the topic of ‘load management?’ Well, if you are a fan of The Pat McAfee Show on ESPN, you know that the show is taking a two-week break until March 4. The whole show. Just not happening. For two weeks. Instead, those that tune in to ESPN looking for McAfee, are getting SportsCenter. So, now, we have ‘load management’ going on with talk shows? I’ll come back to this.

Over the last decade or so, it has also been happening in the play-by-play booths of our favorite teams, especially in baseball. Recently here at BSM we have covered some stories of play-by-play talent being hired by baseball teams as Spring Training broadcasts get set to begin. If you are paying attention you are starting to see more announcers referred to as the “primary” play-by-play voice and then there is someone who serves as the backup. In some cases, there’s more than one backup.

What in the name of Vin Scully is going on?

Now, not only are our athletes managing their loads, but our broadcasters are, too?

What happened to the days when you would tune in to a team’s broadcast and you knew unless someone was sick or had a major life event, they would be the voices you would hear? In most cases you had one play-by-play announcer and a color analyst and they stayed in their lanes. After all, the two jobs are very different.

Today, you listen to a baseball game on the radio and you have play-by-play announcers switching off, you have color analysts doing a few innings of play-by-play, you have some innings where people disappear altogether. It’s like one of those lightbulb jokes, “How many broadcasters does it take to call one Major League Baseball game?”

Look, I get that people need breaks. I understand the grind of these seasons, especially baseball. So, perhaps you miss a game here and there during the 162 game (at minimum) season and the fill-in person sits in for you. Every once in a while, that’s understandable.

However, the nonsense that goes on now with people needing multiple innings off every game is a joke. Let’s put some consistency back in to our broadcasting.

The same can be said about your favorite sports television show, radio broadcast or podcast. Pat McAfee works his tail off. He is more than entitled to take some time off. What I don’t understand is why does the whole show need to shut down? Why does ESPN allow their programming lineup to be completely disrupted?

I think it is a bad decision by any content creator to not have consistency. It is so tough these days to pull audience away from their other habits. Letting them look for other programming for a couple of weeks while you take time off is a terrible idea and, in my opinion, shows little care for the people writing the checks.

Fans tune in to The Pat McAfee Show because they like the mix of sports talk, humor, bravado and all that comes with the show. I doubt many of them flip on the station, see SportsCenter running in place of the show they tuned in to see and leave it on. What percentage go somewhere else to find what they get from PMS in another show? What percentage of those discover something new they like? What percentage doesn’t tune back in because the habit was broken?

You can’t tell me The Pat McAfee Show couldn’t put together some great ‘Best Of’ shows or find a suitable fill-in host. Taking time off to refresh, spend some quality time with your family, take a vacation or just sit around and do nothing is great and needed. I just don’t get why the whole show has to do it at once. Give your audience something in place of your normal show that gives them a reason to stick around.

In my radio station management days, I always required programming to have a plan for vacations and if there was more than one host on a show, they couldn’t take the same time off unless it was a holiday. It never even occured to me we would ever allow a show to just take a few weeks off, throw the network on and just hope everyone came back when vacation time was over.

Consistency is huge in this business. Whether you are tuning in a game broadcast or turning on your favorite radio or television show, podcast or other digital content, you should expect to be delivered what you are there for, at least in some way, shape or form.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Best Thing I Heard This Week

This past Thursday Kevin Clancy, better known as KFC from Barstool Sports, was a guest co-host with Gregg Giannotti on WAFN, filling in for Boomer Esiason (who notably took some time off without shutting down the whole show!). One of the conversations Gio and KFC had was about the behind-the-scenes nature of Barstool Sports. Clancy used the term “reality TV” to describe what viewers feel like they are watching whenever Barstool teammates start arguing with one another. It is like a family and it all plays out for the audience to see. This is great content for any talk show host to hear. Your audience wants to know what is happening behind the curtain.

You can hear the full conversation by clicking here.

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In Case You Missed It

On Thursday, Barrett Sports Media founder Jason Barrett announced the addition of Paul Heyman from the WWE as one of the speakers at the 2024 BSM Summit. If you follow wrestling at all, you know how big this is already. However, I know many of you have an aversion to sculpted men rolling around in their underwear in matches that are predetermined, so for those you that don’t know Paul Heyman from Paul Molitor, let me play Jason’s hype man and tell you, this is BIG.

Paul Heyman may be the best on-screen character in the history of pro wresting, he is certainly in the conversation. He is also one of the most gifted speakers on the planet and he flat out knows how to get a reaction from an audience and create great content. He has done it all, in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Bottom line, don’t miss this year’s Summit. Paul Heyman is worth the price of admission alone, and oh by the way, you also get insights from some of the brightest minds in broadcasting and content creation. Hope to see you in New York!

You can read Jason’s full announcement by clicking here.

You can also get just a taste of what Paul Heyman is all about by watching this preview of his WWE Network biography:

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