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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Athletes Are Making Their Money In Content
“Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished.”
In many ways, the voice of athletes started its exponential growth with the introduction of social media, where every human being has access to a personal broadcast channel to express themselves, their passions, stories, and ideas. The athlete as an artist immediately expanded from highlight reel to Hollywood film and television reel as a content producer. However, it was The Players’ Tribune, founded by Derek Jeter in 2014, that jumpstarted the athlete-driven voice of content, first in writing, and later in video, polls, and podcasts.
Michael Jordan was the first international athlete that made millions in sponsorship money—selling his name or attaching his name to products for the purpose of endorsing them for a profit. He also starred in the Warner Bros. live-action/animated film Space Jam. Jordan turned those partnerships into ownership of an NBA basketball team and a partner and focus of one of the most iconic athletic brands in the world, Jordan/Jumpman (Nike). More recently, Jordan was the focus of the Emmy award-winning The Last Dance docuseries about the NBA Chicago Bulls six championships and more specifically the sixth and final trophy for Air Jordan his Bulls team. He also co-owns a NASCAR team with Joe Gibbs.
Jordan’s example has led to the next generations’ emergence in entertainment, media, and sports. It is an emergence that is beyond in some ways what Jordan has accomplished. However, that is the point—the mentee should always outperform the mentor with proper, training, guidance, and a little luck too. Where many athletes have pursued broadcasting work as color analysts during and after their professional careers in sports, Jordan did not pursue these avenues or seek to open a television or film production studio to develop entertainment, media, and sports content.
The direct-to-consumer approach of Hollywood and sports networks through streaming platforms, combined with the introduction of athlete voices through social media and podcasts has led to more opportunities. Los Angeles Laker LeBron James launched his SpringHill Company in 2020 not long after joining showtime in Tinseltown. SpringHill is a content studio that develops and looks to other studios for major production and distribution. LeBron has the sponsorship advertising prowess, but can also add documentaries and feature film content to his resume.
Kevin Durant launched a podcast titled “The Boardroom” through his company, Thirty-Five Ventures. With YouTube on par with Netflix in revenue (minus the paywall), it provides another direct-to-consumer platform for everyone and more opportunities. Steph Curry launched Unanimous Media in 2018 as a content and production studio, originally in partnership with Sony Entertainment, now the studio is partnered with Comcast owned NBCUniversal in the $10 million dollar range.
The media has deemed the Curry deal a first, which is noteworthy, but so is the faith and family focus of Curry’s programming that will span many brands in the NBCUniversal entertainment family. Curry will join the NBC broadcast for the Ryder Cup as an analyst and host and interview guests for an educational series, which does not include film projects and the second $200 million dollar basketball contract Curry signed in 2021. Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Dwayne Wade have been involved with film projects of their own. Tim Tebow is a nationwide celebrity and motivational speaker, not to mention a world-renown athlete and person with a big heart towards faith and philanthropy.
Peyton and Eli Manning also have their own broadcast for Monday Night Football. Peyton also starred in the very successful “Peyton’s Places” that will have season two launched soon on ESPN+. Both are produced by Peyton’s Omaha Productions.
Speaking of Disney brands, the company’s 30 for 30 is still one of the main catalysts for highlighting the struggles and triumphs of athletes. Hard Knocks, Ballers, and Jerry Maguire also gave insight into the world of sports beyond the field, statistics, and championships.
The growth of entertainment, media, and sports has been and continues to be exponential. Some additional areas to watch include development of series and docuseries in baseball, hockey, soccer, and in other popular, but not the big five sports in America (e.g., lacrosse, cricket, etc.). With women’s sports receiving more attention on television, there are tremendous opportunities for growth in entertainment production particularly in women’s soccer.
To date, NBA players have dominated the entertainment, media, and sports landscape for Hollywood production. However, to each their own, because some stars love developing content, others love speaking about content, and still others love to own content (particularly in the form of brands and franchises) (see Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter). Indeed, the era of athlete as Hollywood producer is upon us.
Media Noise – Episode 44
This week’s episode is all about the NFL. Demetri explains why the league embracing kids is long overdue, Andy Masur stops by to breakdown the first Manningcast, and Ryan Maguire explains why some sports radio stations are missing a golden opportunity to shine on Sundays.
Interviews Thrive On Podcasts In A Way They Can’t On Radio
“Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.”
Live radio vs. podcasts seems to be a heavyweight fight that isn’t ending anytime soon. Podcasts are growing so much that companies that do radio are also now offering podcasts. This column is hardly about that fight.
Instead, this is about how a podcast interview is a better way to get the best out of the guest than anything live on a radio station. This is not about downloads or clicks or sponsors. Solely about the content that is being produced.
A podcast makes the guest more comfortable and is more intimate than a live radio show. Especially in sports.
Since 2015, I have hosted and produced 656 podcasts (yes it was fun to count them) and hosted many radio shows. My current shows are called Sports with Friends, Hall of Justice, and Techstream. That last one I host with tech expert Shelly Palmer.
On radio, there is a myriad of things the host has to do besides focus on the guest.
First, there are the IDs. Program directors have always told me ID the guest every chance I get. “We are talking with Eli Manning on WFAN,” is heard 7 times during an eight-minute segment.
On a podcast, the name of the guest is on the player or app that is playing the podcast. “Episode 1. Eli Manning, New York Giants” scrolls across smartphones, car radios, or other devices constantly. Never interrupt the guest with an ID.
Then, there’s the fact that it is recorded and not live. I have a standard preamble that I say to any guest before any record light turns on.
“I will push,” I explain. “I will see where the conversation takes us, but I do tend to push. However, I’m on your side. This isn’t some expose’. If something comes up that you don’t like your answer, tell me. I’ll take it out. If there’s something that I say that is bad or wrong, tell me, I’ll take it out. This is a conversation, not an interview.”
In 656 podcasts, only one player, Bryce Harper (then of the Washington Nationals) asked me to take something out of a podcast.
We were doing Episode 54 of Sports with Friends when the subject of Dusty Baker came up. He had just been hired to manage the Nationals. I mentioned in passing that Dusty had given the eulogy at my best friend Darryl Hamilton’s funeral.
Bryce was so intrigued that he recalled the comments I had made and asked if we could pause. We then spoke for a good 10 minutes about the kind of person Dusty was. Why Darryl held him in such regard. It was a really inciteful chat. Never was on the podcast.
Still, guests do relax when told that the editing option exists. They let their guard down. The host of a podcast can ask deeper questions.
“Who was the first person you called when you found out you were traded?”
“Have you seen a life for you after football?”
“How much do you hate a certain player?”
All questions, that if asked live, could seriously backfire. So not only does the guest have a guard up, but the interviewer also has to play it relatively safe, when they are not IDing the guest for the umpteenth time.
Time constraints also don’t exist in a podcast where they are beholden on live radio. The guest is just about to tell you they did cocaine during the World Series, and you are up against the clock.
I have hosted shows over the years where the guest was phenomenal, but I screwed up the PPM clock. That was the takeaway. The clock is important on a live medium that needs to get that quarter-hour.
I try to keep my podcasts short. You wouldn’t see it from looking at the lengths of my episodes. Still, I feel that if someone wants to talk and dive into a topic and it goes a little long, I will never cut the guy off.
Ken Griffey Jr. spoke for 45 minutes with a cigar and his feet up on the phone by his pool. He was telling jokes and stories. I wouldn’t have stopped that if a train was coming. When I hosted Mariner content at KJR in Seattle, our interviews usually last 5 minutes.
Jon Morosi broke down the future of clubhouse access and how he traveled during Covid. Then he told an amazing story of his wife working in the medical field and how that impacted all of his family. Shannon Drayer of 710 KIRO got so in-depth in her arduous journey from being a coffee barista to the Mariners on-field reporter. It was split into two episodes.
Former porn star Lisa Ann talked about her decision to quit the business. Even Jason Barrett himself was Episode 173 of Sports with Friends.
(When in the past has Jason Barrett been in the same paragraph as a porn star? Note to Demetri: please leave it in.)
The radio industry is seen to be cutting costs wherever it can. Mid-market stations are not doing night shows anymore, instead offering nationally syndicated programming.
Weekends are another avenue that perplexes me. Talent that is not deemed good enough to be on during the week is often given weekend shifts. Also, some Monday-Friday hosts add a weekend shift to their duties. Here’s a theory: play podcasts. Format them to hit your PPM time marks.
They don’t have to be my podcasts, but in the crowded podcast space, surely there are sports talk podcasts that are intimate, deep, and fun. Since we live in a data-driven age, let’s see how a radio station fares playing high-quality podcasts or portions of them, vs. weekend hosts.
Program directors often worry about the outdated nature of a podcast. That sells the podcaster short. As someone who has been in the podcast space since 2003, I know how to make them timeless, and companies make shows often enough, that rarely would they be outdated.
Quality shines through the speakers. The spoken-word audio format is continually evolving. Opportunities that a podcast creates open doors to audio that is simply superior to live radio.
The podcast industry is continually evolving. Radio needs to evolve as well. Then, it can be a fair fight.
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