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Maggie Gray Didn’t Know She’d Be Here

“The biggest challenge is the limited amount of time, because there is so much to cover and so much that we want say.”

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13 months ago, sports radio in New York underwent its biggest change in 30 years as Mike Francesa departed WFAN’s afternoon drive.  Three voices were tabbed to take over, Chris Carlin, Bart Scott and Maggie Gray.

From WFAN’s new trio, Gray was considered by many to be the most surprising selection.  While her credentials were strong, Gray’s resume didn’t contain Carlin’s WFAN history or Bart’s signature New York sports moment.  In an industry where not enough women have prominent weekday hosting positions, Gray is doing it at the top station in the biggest market.

It wasn’t long before Francesa canceled his retirement and returned to WFAN, chopping CMB’s show in half and squeezing them into the midday.  After dealing with plenty of criticism and turmoil early, CMB is starting to hit its stride and the two-hour show leaves listeners wanting more.

As she continues to grow in the country’s toughest media market, Maggie Gray’s unfinished story is already an interesting one.

Brandon Contes: Sports Illustrated was your first full-time sports media job?

Maggie Gray: Yeah, it was, which is both funny and telling about the business that I basically got my very first sports internship when I was a senior in high school, but it took going through college and basically the next five years after college before I got a full-time job.

That’s the nitty-gritty nature of the business, because if you start off as freelance – you’re never sure what’s going to happen, season-to-season you’re just trying to make connections, get better and keep moving.  I call them lily pads, you’re trying to get across, navigate this lake and you’re going from one lily pad to the next trying to get across. Now that I’m a little bit older and wiser, I realize you actually never make it across, the lily pads just hopefully keep getting bigger.

But getting SI was a huge deal for me because it was the first time I had a full-time gig and it was the first time where I thought, this is something that is a possibility to really grow, because they hired me for a position that I had never heard of, that a lot of people had never heard of, to be a digital anchor – What does that even mean?

It’s not a job that was around when I was in college, I didn’t even know I could aspire to a job like that, but to get it in a place that had the name recognition and prestige of SI, while also doing something that’s cutting edge and totally new, and have the feeling like you created it from scratch, was one of the most unbelievable opportunities, and the people there were so incredible.

BC: That was a digital show and you were on camera, was it daily?

MG: It didn’t start as a daily show, it started as just one-off videos.  We would call SI writers and they would say, “Who are you, who is this, why are you calling, what is SI video?” [Laughs]

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It was establishing relationships and we would do these one-off things that started to grow.  It would become a live March Madness Selection Show and we had a relationship at CNN for the first couple of years where we would use their studios to shoot these sort of roundtable discussions.  It started to grow and then finally I had some really smart people around me and they said, ‘We think we can sell a daily variety show, that’s digital.’  The show was built as a half hour show that streamed and it was some news of the day, interviews, crazy stuff, serious stuff. It was just a fun show and it was sponsored from the first day to the very last day, and it’s actually still going on now.

BC: Were you there with Robin Lundberg?

MG:  That’s an interesting story because the show started five years ago, I was the host and we had nobody to fill in for me.  Even when I got married and went on my honeymoon it was a big deal. One time we were out in L.A. doing the show from Angel Stadium and I got horribly sick on the red-eye home, I went in and did the show the next day and then went home and died.  For the next four days it was a mad scramble because there were no backup hosts. They didn’t have a lot of video people at SI because it’s a magazine company.

Years later, after ESPN had their big layoffs, I had been listening to Robin for a while and I sent him an email to see if he wanted to come help with the show and he’s still there now.  I’m grateful to him because it made us not so reliant on needing a guest for everything, Robin and I could just talk about it, have that banter and be a little more sports radio-like.

BC: Was radio the goal at that point or was it just to work in any sports media platform?

MG: My first ever sports internship, where I realized I was bit by the sports broadcasting bug, was my senior year in high school.  I grew up in Binghamton, there was a minor league hockey team and I asked if I could be an intern even though they only gave internships to college kids, but they said the radio broadcaster needs someone to help out with stats on home games.  I sat next to the radio play-by-play guy for an entire season helping him with whatever he needed. The last game of the season, he let me come on-air and read the out-of-town scoreboard, which was probably only a minute, but I got a huge adrenaline rush from it.  I don’t know how many people were listening, it didn’t matter, I loved that rush. So when I went to George Washington University, I walked into the radio station my first day on campus and said, ‘Can I be a part of what you guys are doing?’, so I was always interested in radio.

BC: When was the first time you were on WFAN? You did updates early on?

MG: I did do updates which is a small part of having a connection with FAN that goes back really far.  I was still putting together a freelance life. I was working at MSG – Ironically – MSG was actually the first to put me on air in New York and I’m forever grateful for my opportunity to work for them.  I was at MSG and MLB.com, but I wanted the FAN.

In Binghamton we didn’t get FAN, so I didn’t grow up with it, but when I got an internship at Westwood One in DC, I got to realize what a huge deal WFAN is.  The other funny connection is one of my jobs as an intern in DC was to cut and edit this thing called Sports Time with Mike Francesa.  It was almost like what the CBS Sports Minute is now and it went out to all the Westwood One radio stations throughout the country.

After college, I decided to come to New York and work behind the scenes for the NBA, but when I realized I wanted to be on camera and I wasn’t going to let the dream die, I knew I had to get the Fan.  How do you say you want to be a sports broadcaster in New York and not take a turn at WFAN?

I did an update audition when WFAN was still in Astoria.  Actually, I did about five auditions. It wasn’t an easy job to get, I didn’t walk through the door and get a job, it took a while, but I finally got midnight – 6am working Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s eve, the trifecta.

BC: How was the transition of doing a half hour daily show with SI and jumping to four hours a day on radio?

MG: Well I had done radio shows before getting this job.  CBS Sports Radio launched in 2013 and I auditioned for Dana Jacobson’s role with Tiki and Tierney when they did the morning show.  Dana got it, which she’s amazing so I totally understood that, but then they had a Saturday morning spot open and the Moose and Maggie Show was born, me and Marc Malusis.

I didn’t know Moose very well, we met maybe once or twice, but we had instant chemistry.  I was still working at SI during the week where I was asking other people for their opinions and just facilitating conversations about sports with all these really smart people.  But then on Saturday morning, it was people asking me what I thought about topics and that was the biggest thrill.

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There’s no way I could have this job if I didn’t do that show with Moose for five years.  He’s so great at radio and he taught me that you need to bring strong opinions, formulate an argument and back it up.  In the beginning, we would argue and I would sometimes back down, but I started to find my voice and realize as long as I’m prepared, have facts and can defend my argument, it’s valid.  I was so grateful to him for that. I also started to learn to get thick skin.

At SI, you wouldn’t get huge amounts of criticism, it wasn’t that kind of job. Radio is the intimate medium with callers, listeners and people on social media, so it helped me get thicker skin and realize there are some things you should ignore.

BC: This is obviously a very white male dominated industry, Suzyn Waldman was here hosting middays in the early 2000’s, so there was precedent, but you look around the country and go from sports radio station to sports radio station – there are female reporters and update anchors, but there are very, very few women that are part of a daily radio show.  Did you find those opportunities hard to come by?

MG: I don’t know if I can say.  I wasn’t looking for the opportunity, the Moose and Maggie Show came to me and this opportunity came to me.  I got an email from Mark Chernoff that said I need to talk to you today.  My entire life changed within a couple of weeks and it’s been unreal. I think there is a part of you when you’re trying to break into a portion of the industry that you don’t see a lot of people who look like you, there is one part about getting the job and then the other part about keeping the job.

Everyone says you got the dream job, but now what’s the reality of that dream job, what’s the work like and what does it really look like to have your dream job?  And for me, it’s better than I could have ever imagined.

Now, I just hope that, not just here, but all around the country the people who are doing the hiring are willing to step out and take the risk, take the risk of hiring someone who is bringing a different point of view because ultimately, there are great women out there doing this, they just need to get a chance, just like Mark Chernoff gave me a chance.

BC: Not only a chance, but you grew up in Binghamton, you didn’t look at sports radio as a viable career option.  I’m sure there are other women growing up that see the industry as male dominated and the thought of hosting a sports radio show never even crossed their mind.  But now they see you with this prominent job in sports radio and maybe it will inspire others and they can now look at the industry as one that could have job opportunities for them.

MG: I know that seeing other women do it before me, inspired me and I do think it’s really important because as soon as you see someone doing it, you can start to envision the path for yourself.

What I would say for anyone who is a young woman or even a young man and anyone trying to get into the business, this landscape is changing so much.  Sports talk radio is this solid rock, it’s going to be here through thick and thin, but think of how the industry is changing. There are just so many more outlets to break into sports broadcasting now, it’s fantastic.  

When I was coming out of college in 2005 – and this is 2005, I’m not talking about the 80s and 90s – the 6 o’clock SportsCenter and the 11 o’clock SportsCenter was still the ultimate goal for a lot of people.  Now look at all of the outlets and other ways you can be around the sports industry, it’s incredible.  

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You can start your own YouTube channel and have your own brand by the time you get out of college. It’s really freeing and I think that will help get a lot more women, hopefully people of color and get more diversity into this industry.

BC: It’s similar to the NFL right now where there are so few people of color with head coaching positions.  It’s white male dominated and a lot of that is because for the last 30 or 40 years, it was white males that had opportunities to make connections.

That’s not to say Sean McVay was not qualified to be a head coach at the age of 30, but when for 30, 40 years, it was the same demographic working in the industry, he had more built-in connections to move through the ranks quickly.  So even though those opportunities that are now available for anyone to break into sports media exist, you still need to create pipelines to help non-white males move up and climb within the industry at an equal pace.

MG: And that’s why I’ll go back to –  It shouldn’t be looked at as taking this massive risk to hire a woman, or to hire a person of color, it should be looked at as can the person do the job and especially in this particular industry is the person going to bring a different point of view, that maybe listeners haven’t heard in a while.  Is it going to be thought-provoking, is it going to stir conversation? And I’m not saying it has to be controversial, just saying it has to be a different point of view and I think it actually opens up the scope of listeners.

With the NFL, everyone is a fan.  From an eight year old to an eighty year old, everyone has a fantasy team.  Men, women, every race, and what are they always trying to do? Find new markets.  This is why they play in Mexico City and London. You’re always trying to find new audiences, I don’t think you can ever be complacent, even if you’re number one.

You’re always trying to broaden your horizons and that’s something, especially for our show that we have really tried to do.  Be loyal and serve the listener of the FAN who has been there for 30 years, but also open up the door for someone who never thought FAN could be for them and welcome them into the conversation as well.

BC: You said early on with Moose, you would back down with your opinions at times, did you ever find yourself needing to have a stronger opinion about something to fit in and seem more credible, especially at WFAN with the local audience?

MG: No…

If it’s not genuine, it’s going to come through as not genuine.  I can’t fake that.

One of the big things I learned when I came over from SI, going from a national outlet to a local one is, with national, it’s about the issues because you need someone who’s in Baltimore, Arkansas, Las Vegas, L.A. to all be connected and have an opinion.  Here, it’s about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the minutia. It’s about the Adam Gase press conference. You can’t get too specific or granular here and I found that I love that more than I ever thought I would.

But if I don’t think that something is a big deal, or if I think that it’s getting taken to a place that is absurd, I’ll say that too. You have to be honest.  Radio is the most honest of the mediums. One piece of advice that I got early on and something I’ve been really grateful for, was Mike Quick who was my boss at MSG and he said, ‘We need more Maggie.’  I thought, really? Are you sure you don’t want more Andrea Kremer? But that was really freeing. You can bring your personality and this is such a subjective business, you’re either someone’s taste, or you’re not.  I think the more you let people in on who you actually are, the deeper the connection becomes, and I’m okay sharing a lot with our listeners because I like that having that connection with them.

BC: And that’s how you end up on the floor eating an entire pizza…

MG: [Laughs] On the floor…puking in the Mike Francesa studios…

BC: [Laughs] I was locked into that show because I thought there was no chance you were finishing that pizza.

MG: So many people doubted me that day.  I’ll be honest, the doubters did put a big chip on my shoulder.  There was a moment where Bart was showing me inspirational videos on his laptop and it was working – we actually crossed that threshold where he’s showing me old Nike commercials, and it was helping me get the pizza down.

BC: Did you know Chris or Bart before getting paired up with them?

MG: Chris and I did a couple episodes of LoudMouths together on SNY, but we didn’t know each other that well.  I knew of him and what a great reputation he had, I didn’t know Bart at all.  I didn’t really have a relationship with either of them, but now I feel like they’re my best friends.

We just had the one year anniversary of the show this month.  It doesn’t feel like a long amount of time, but I feel closer to Bart and Chris than anybody.  We’ve really developed a great bond over this last year.

BC: How was the pressure of stepping in for Mike? Obviously it’s an incredible opportunity that couldn’t be passed up, but was there ever that moment of, I’d rather replace the replacement of the icon than replace the icon himself?

MG: You’d be surprised how many people, unsolicited, said, ‘Boy, you don’t wanna be the person to follow the guy.’  That was encouraging! [Laughs]  The pressure is what you make of it.  If you want to feel that pressure, that insane amount of pressure of following up someone, then it will destroy you.

It’s almost like being mentally tough.  You have to take it for what it is, but then realize what the main goal is – to build a new show from scratch and to find your audience.  There’s nothing I can do about who I’m following, or when I’m getting the opportunity. The opportunity is presenting itself and there was no way that I was going to pass it up just because of that.  The fear of that, like many things, the fear and anticipation is much worse than the reality.

BC: It was interesting from the start because you have three very different personalities getting paired up and thrown into the fire and you guys didn’t really do many practice shows.

MG: No, they didn’t want to do a lot of practice shows and I agreed with that, there’s something different about when it’s for real and when it’s taped so I understood why they wanted to do that.

BC: It almost would have been easier with the transition to just focus on being a call-oriented show, a similar sound to what listeners are used to, but you guys added a lot of creative segments as well.

MG: Yeah, we do still take a lot of calls.  The calls are part of the FAN. The interaction with the listeners is one of the backbones of what makes this place go and there was never a thought that we didn’t want to include them in the conversation.  They’re always welcome and we always want to know what they have to say because they’re part of the radio station.

The creative segments are more of a natural thing.  We thought, what kind of show do we want to do, what makes us, us?  We were just figuring that out with trial and error and now I think we’re maybe starting to find our grove a little bit in terms of how much of that creative style to do, the silly stuff, the BS translator and those things.  It’s about sensing what the audience really wants and balancing that with what we want to do.

BC: Is it hard now that the show is compressed to two hours that you have the three different personalities, three different opinions and you have those radio bits that you want to try, but you need to squeeze it into two hours and make it a cohesive sounding show?

MG: The biggest challenge is the limited amount of time, because there is so much to cover and so much that we want say.  The show now is just a sprint from beginning to end, it’s really fast moving and also the news cycle is so fast moving that if we don’t get to something on Monday or Tuesday, by the time it’s Wednesday, forget it because it might not make sense with what people are actually talking about anymore.  It’s been a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. I hate when athletes say this phrase – but it is what it is, so we just make the best of it.

BC: Cross talk segments are becoming very popular on radio stations around the country, you can do 12:30 to 1:00 with Benigno and Roberts and then 3:00 to 3:30 with Mike and now you have three hours.

MG: [Laughs] That would be something, pitch it to Chernoff.

BC: Do you ever go back and listen to old shows?

MG: Oh yeah, definitely, it’s hard because self-evaluation is one of the toughest things to do.

It can be brutal especially when you make mistakes, or things don’t come out the way that you want to, but it’s also necessary.  You have to go back and listen because you could be making the same small mistake over and over and over again when there’s no reason to because things can get nipped in the bud so easily.  But you have to go back and listen.

BC: I’m sure if you go back and listen to a year ago and then you hear what you’re putting on the radio now –

MG: Oh I don’t go back that far. [Laughs]

BC: But that comfort level between the three of you has increased significantly?

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MG: Without a doubt.  We didn’t know each other very well and a few months into getting the job, we got thrown a pretty big curveball and you can learn more about people when you go through a little bit of adversity and you get to find out what people’s true colors are.  With Carlin, Bart and I, we seem like we have all these very different opinions or that we wouldn’t be three friends who would meet up at a bar and watch a game together, but once we went through that adversity, we realized that we gained strength from each other, we can lean on each other and we saw each other’s true colors.  That was incredible because when people get peeled away you see their true self and we all really liked what we saw in each other during that time. It made us trust each other a lot and it brought us really close.

BC: I don’t know if you felt this at all, but I’m sure with three people trying to get to know each other, it can be harder than when it’s just two people. The show went through Mike coming back and then the summer was right around the corner, so now you’re filling in for Mike, but you’re also taking vacations yourselves.  So it’s two at a time; it’s Maggie and Bart for four hours, Bart and Chris for four hours, Maggie and Chris for four hours.

As a listener, I felt that when the three of you would come back together over the summer as a full show, each time it was noticeably improved, so you were able to build chemistry by each getting that one on one time together.

MG: That’s a really good point that I hadn’t thought about, but it’s true, the three of us have a relationship, and then I feel like I have a friendship with Bart and I have a friendship with Carlin and they are both different relationships.  Even when Carlin is out, I’m kind of driving the bus versus when I’m not so that changes your role a little bit, but you’re right, I didn’t really think about that, but we did have a chance to build relationships, one-on-one, but I do think that our show is at its best, no matter what, hands down, when it’s the three of us.

I think that that might be surprising to a lot of people, inside and outside the building, that the show sounds better with the three of us because that was one of the big question marks about the show when we first got it – Does three people work?  And I think our show has proven that it can.

BC: There were also times early on that any kind of debate segments would sound like a roundtable discussion.  It’s Carlin setting up the topic and saying, ‘Maggie what do you think’ and ‘Bart what do you think’, followed by ‘here’s what I think’, next topic.

MG: We don’t take turns as much anymore

BC: Right.  Last Wednesday, I was listening to the open when Carlin was going all in on Mike McCarthy as the Jets head coach while you and Bart were pushing back, but I thought that was the best segment of radio I heard all week on any show or station.  

So how about the ability to improve so much with debate where it doesn’t sound like you’re each trying to avoid stepping on anyone? You’re able to have a more genuine conversation and sometimes know when to step back if two of the hosts are hotter on a topic than the other is.

MG: Thank you, that’s something also that goes on in the pre-production.  Because we’re in New York, there are some days where the show writes itself.  The topic is exactly what the topic is, it’s what everyone’s talking about and the obvious thing that needs to be addressed because people are tuning into the radio station for that discussion.

But then there are times when there are multiple options and you’re not sure what your lead is going to be.  That’s why we sit here for an hour and we talk it out. The things that we naturally seem to have different opinions on or sparks the most conversation in this room, with our producer, board-op and the three of us, that’s what we go with and that’s what should break the tie every single time.  Don’t outthink yourself. If we all have different opinions on something, let’s start with that because it’s going be genuine.

BC: What about the producer change, going from Brian Monzo the first couple of months to now Shaun Morash.

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MG: Yeah, those kinds of things happen and you just have to roll with the punches. We’re so happy that it worked out the way that it did and I think Mike is happy and Monzo is happy it worked out the way it did.  It’s like a good trade in baseball or football, where both sides actually won here. That was seamless and very easy to navigate.

BC: Morash seems to fit the show so well with his contributions.

MG: One thing that we really appreciate with Morash is that he is our listener.  It’s like we have a focus group in the room. I mean, he’s got a giant tattoo, he’s on the message boards, he’s a die-hard Yankee fan.  We needed that person who not only is professional in this business, but someone who could make himself a little bit removed from that and say I’m the FAN listener in the car today, what do I want?  And we needed that, because I’m coming from a journalism background, Bart’s coming in as the athlete and Carlin’s coming from doing this for a long time, being a host and everything that he’s done, it’s great to have that person who is just like you know what, all things being equal, I want to talk Yankees today and we take that into consideration heavily.

BC: What radio shows did you listen to growing up?

MG: I didn’t grow up with a lot of radio being in Binghamton the days before Satellite, but when I got to New York, I actually listened to a lot of Jim Rome.  He used to be on in New York and I still listen to Rome. We’re on at the same time, which is crazy, the fact that I’ve gotten to meet Jim Rome a couple of times is a thrill for me.  I listened to a lot of FAN, I started listening to Shmooze because that’s when I happened to be in the car the most and NO ONE can do what he’s doing, it’s unbelievable. And I would listen to a lot of Boomer and Carton.

I also listened to Mike and Mike.  It helped me with doing the national show at SI to understand what the national conversation is.  Dan Le Batard, I think everyone can agree he is probably doing it as best as it can be done right now, and then podcasts.  

I listen to a lot of podcasts; SI’s podcasts, Peter King’s podcast, I listen to the Lowe Post Podcast and Bill Simmons.  Also a lot of NPR, Fresh Air, Wait…Wait Don’t Tell Me!  I listen to all of those shows because it’s as important to me to understand the front pages, as the back pages.  You have to be a well-rounded person and aware of what goes on in the world because you never know when it’s going to intersect and it can happen in any moment.  

I was reading the quote from Adam Gase where he said, ‘I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Instagram, I don’t use the internet.’ [Laughs]

That’s impressive!  You don’t even use the internet, how did you find out what the weather was going to be today?  A football coach mentality is not a good mentality for someone in the media business. You have to understand the world around you.

BC: How did you end up working with Artie Lange?  Were you a Stern fan?

MG: Oh my gosh – Artie – I loved doing that.

I wasn’t a big Stern fan, we didn’t really get him on the radio up in Binghamton, but I would actually watch him when he was on the E! Network, while I was probably in middle school, so I knew his show, but I didn’t grow up a huge fan.  

I met Artie because he was doing a book tour and he came in to SI.  Peter King happened to be there that day and I asked Peter to sit in on SI Now.  So it was the three of us and we had this fun conversation and a good rapport, so Artie started to invite me on his show.  It was amazing that no matter what state Artie was in, because obviously he’s had his battles and I hope he’s well, I follow him on Twitter and send him notes to wish him well, but he was always the funniest guy in the room no matter what.  Literally – at one point we were on air, he fell asleep, woke up and said the funniest thing of the entire three hour show. He’s absolutely hilarious and everyone on that show was great to work with. Just getting to know him was great and I appreciated Artie because he said to me, ‘I see what you are, you don’t feel like you have to be this macho person who’s in the frat house to do this.’

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BC: I’m a big Stern fan, I go back and listen to older shows of his and content from the cast.  I stumbled on you with Artie and I did think it brought a lot of great balance and was really entertaining.

MG: Thank you, they decided to end the show, otherwise I would’ve kept doing it because he is hilarious and a really kind-hearted person, but it was a lot of fun and now I do LoudMouths with Jon Hein on SNY.  Jon is a great guy and it’s fun to do the show with him.  SNY has been a nice little side thing to do.

BC: Do you expect CMB to be a long-lasting show and relationship or do you take it day by day and not even look towards the future right now, especially with the curveballs that you guys have already been thrown.

MG: I hope it’s a long lasting show. This is the best job I’ve ever had, I love this job, and Carlin and Bart have been the best part about it.

I think there’s even so much more that we have to do.  Our end goal of what we want the show to sound like, we’re still trying to get there.  I love it and I hope I can do it forever. I understand why this is a dream job, because it is that good.

Brandon Contes is a freelance writer for BSM. He can be found on Twitter @BrandonContes. To reach him by email click here.

BSM Writers

Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting

The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.

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Maryland Matters

As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.

For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.

While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements. 

While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized. 

Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.

People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.

First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.

The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues. 

None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.  

As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.

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Saban v. Jimbo Is WrestleMania for College Football Fans

Ryan Brown says the Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher feud is one made for pay-per-view and we have nearly five months to hype the match.

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It was the day after I turned eleven that Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre ‘The Giant’. WrestleMania III filled 90,000 seats at the Pontiac Silverdome and the living room of one of the houses in my neighborhood. Real or fake, we didn’t care. Three decades later, Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher is 100% real and it is coming to a living room near you.

I live in the capital city of SEC Country – Birmingham, Alabama. SEC football needs no additional drama here. You get a complete college football obsession at birth. That said, the October 8th Texas A&M visit to Alabama will be among the most anticipated regular season college football games both regionally and nationally.

One would think CBS will use their annual prime time date for that Saturday just as they did for last season’s Alabama at Texas A&M game, you know, when Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher were on speaking terms. Not knowing how the season will play out, it would be no surprise if ESPN’s College Gameday is in Tuscaloosa as well. While we are at it, let’s just cut to the 2024 chase and schedule a Presidential debate in Tuscaloosa that weekend, as well.

Not one person will be surprised if Alabama is undefeated and the top ranked team in the nation that week. The surprise, based on the rest of the Jimbo Fisher era, will be the Aggies being unbeaten. Their trip to Alabama comes at the end of a five game stretch that includes Appalachian State at home, Miami at home, Arkansas in Dallas and a road game at Mississippi State. Incidentally, the same Texas A&M team that was able to upset Alabama last season also managed to lose to Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Just the prospect of the two teams being unbeaten and highly ranked causes some to say this game would need no extra storylines. Shouldn’t that, and being on CBS in prime time, be enough? The Saban-Fisher Feud already has people discussing this game nationally and Lee Corso hasn’t even donned a body odor-filled mascot head yet.

I would like to project this game to deliver the largest TV audience of the regular season but I can’t, for one reason: I’m not certain it will be close. I think Alabama is that much better than Texas A&M. That’s why the build up will deliver a huge first half audience.

For perspective, in the 2021 regular season, the Alabama at Texas A&M game had the fifth largest TV audience, in a game that went down to the final play. The Ohio State at Michigan game had 15.8 million viewers on as part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff, almost double that of Alabama at Texas A&M on CBS in prime time.

That brings me to another misconception: big games have to be in prime time to get a big audience. Of the top ten largest college football audiences in the regular season and conference championship weekend, only half were prime time games. College football fans, and NFL fans for that matter, will find the best games no matter where they are placed.

So, back to Saban v. Fisher; why is it a bad thing? Would SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey prefer it not happen? Of course. Will it bring more attention to a game in the conference he oversees? I say, absolutely. Heck, my daily show is already selling t-shirts for the game. You may say “shameless plug”, I say paying for my kid’s college. Tomato, tomahto.

This is what made “Mean” Gene Okerlund a household name in the 1980’s. He was the far too serious host that interviewed the wrestlers who challenged other wrestlers to a grudge match in exotic places like the Macon Coliseum and the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the Dallas Sportatorium. Why did they do that? First, it was entertaining but, primarily, it sucked the viewer into making plans to view those matches.

I mean, if Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat said he was going to rip the head off “Big” John Studd, was I going to miss that?

That was why a bunch of kids crowded into a living room in Anniston, Alabama in 1987 to watch WrestleMania III, The Main Event. I can’t tell you who was on the undercard that night. The only wrestlers we cared about were Hulk Hogan and Andre “The Giant”.

Actually, my friend’s mom thought the Ultimate Warrior was “cute and had a great body”. He wasn’t on the card and I thought it was odd she told us that but she was footing the bill for the pay-per-view and had mixed the fruit punch Kool-Aid, so who am I to judge one’s wanton desires?

Texas A&M at Alabama will be the SEC’s main event this season and, if the cards fall right, it may be college football’s main event. What happened between the two head coaches might not be the proudest moment in SEC history but it will bring more attention to that game. And, my word, we finally have a nano-second in which two prominent coaches weren’t pre-programmed robots refusing to deviate from the script.

As amazing as WrestleMania III was for my childhood, it was scripted. The Tide and the Aggies will not be. College football remains one of the greatest values in sports. I pay very little to watch unscripted game after unscripted game. Truth is, you couldn’t even script most of what we see on a college football Saturday. 

Texas A&M at Alabama is already beyond what the most creative writers could imagine and that is why this fuel to the already smoldering fire adds to this game. Now, if Nick Saban will just try to bodyslam Jimbo Fisher, we’ll have something.

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Doc Emrick’s Love Letter is Hockey and… Language

The Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Doc Emrick developed his love for the sport and the art of the call early in life and never let go of either.

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LaFontaine, Indiana is a small rural town in the northeastern sector of the state with a population of just under 900 people. Located between the cities of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, it is similar to the village illustrated in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” and its name, rooted in the French language, translates to “The Fountain” in English.

In the summer of 1955, the local Cub Scouts managed an organized softball league, and once children graduated to become a member of the Boy Scouts, they would transition to play baseball. One nine-year-old child in the summer of 1955 had the common realization that he would not likely make the major leagues since he was not considered an elite-level athlete. While he enjoyed playing the game, he enjoyed listening to the game on the radio even more, so much so that he wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career.

There would often be a softball or baseball game being played on a near-nightly basis in LaFontaine, with upwards of 100 people attending. The town ballpark had a public address system; however, it had no steady announcing presence, instead relying on adults to volunteer to provide the play-by-play for the spectators. For this prospective broadcaster with a nascent avidity for baseball, sitting behind the microphone and vivifying the action became something hardly perfunctory, but rather an inspired art form. It afforded him the chance to interact with his community and his friends as a familiar voice, and helped prepare him for what would become a 47-year professional career carrying out this very task, albeit in different settings for different audiences through different mediums, and primarily in an entirely different sport. 

Going to a Major League Baseball game from LaFontaine was quite the trek for the young Mike Emrick and his family; therefore, attending was often a once-a-year event that took place in the summer. Driving northwest through the corn fields for approximately 150 miles without the presence of super highways, he and his brother Dan, accompanied by their parents, would eventually reach their “Field of Dreams” in Chicago, Il., where they would take in an afternoon game. From the time he was young though, Emrick cheered on the Pittsburgh Pirates. He grew up listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call games of hall-of-fame outfielder Roberto Clemente on the wide-ranging KDKA radio signal.

Emrick had always had an interest in calling baseball games; however, that all changed one day in 1960. At the age of 14, he attended his first hockey game just before Christmas, a matchup between the visiting Muskegon Zephyrs and Fort Wayne Komets in Fort Wayne, Ind. The game ended in a tie, but Emrick was enamored with the game’s nuances, spontaneity and occasional fights nonetheless. While on the way to the car in a snow-filled parking lot to return home, he realized that this fast-paced game on ice would be the outlet through which his voice would be heard and passion for sport expressed.

“When I saw my first hockey game,” Emrick said, “overnight the whole idea changed from baseball to hockey. Then the question was: ‘Well, how do you get to do that?’”

Emrick closely followed the Komets after his realization, learning its players and the game of hockey listening on WOWO radio. While he was a fan of the team and enjoyed watching its hockey games at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, he was also there for another purpose in his quest to become a professional broadcaster.

“After I got my driver’s license at age 16, I would drive 40 miles on Wednesday nights to Fort Wayne and sit in corner sections of the old Coliseum… and do games into a tape recorder and try to get better at it,” Emrick recalled. “It was taking those games and using those sort of phony games; I used legitimate names of players because I would get a lineup and learn who they were. Then I would save the tape – and that was eventually my first audition that I sent out.”

Emrick grew up within a pedagogical household where great emphasis was placed on the proper use of the English language. His mother, Florence, was a home economics and physical education teacher while his father, Charles, was a high school principal, and the family owned a music store on the side as well. From the time he was in fifth grade, he received a salient piece of advice from one of his teachers about the inculcation and subsequent expansion of his vocabulary which he carried with him throughout his career.

“Once we used a word five times, it was ours for life,” Emrick recalled. “[My teacher] encouraged us to build our vocabulary, and so that was influential, I think, along the way.”

Emrick landed his first broadcasting job in 1973 as the radio play-by-play announcer in the International Hockey League for the Port Huron Wings (later renamed the Port Huron Flags) on WHLS radio for $160 per week. That job came after a series of rejection letters from a legion of hockey broadcasting outlets, the stationery located in a binder he keeps to this day.

The next season, despite nearly landing the Pittsburgh Penguins radio play-by-play job, Emrick added another job to his résumé by becoming the team’s public relations director and continued broadcasting games. While he had the will and determination to succeed and become an NHL broadcaster, his backup plan of becoming an educator was quite genuine in scope as his time in the minor leagues continued.

Shortly after he graduated from Manchester University in 1968 with a B.Sc in speech, and, one year later, an M.A. in radio and television from Miami University, Emrick’s foray into the world of college instruction began. Prior to working in Port Huron, Emrick resided in Pennsylvania, teaching public speaking classes at Geneva College and managing it’s 15-watt campus radio station. In addition, he volunteered to work as a correspondent for The Beaver Sun Times coverage of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a season press pass so he could further immerse himself in the game of hockey.

One of Emrick’s mentors in broadcasting was Bob Chase, the Fort Wayne Komets’ play-by-play announcer for 63 years, and someone who had a profound influence on his career. Chase called hockey, along with various other sports including basketball and racing amid his time behind the microphone, and while there were many other announcers doing play-by-play professionally, Chase was representative of Emrick’s soundtrack of hockey.

“I was a college guy and befriended him and he was very kind to me and would listen to my work,” said Emrick. “He was the one person that I listened to because at the time there was not a national TV package for the NHL, and so he was about the only guy I had access to.”

Emrick sought after his Ph.D in broadcast communications to ensure he would have a successful teaching career if his broadcasting dreams fell through. While in the doctorate program, Emrick honed his craft and earned his nickname “Doc,” a pseudonym he was called throughout his broadcasting career. In fact, his dissertation was titled “Major League Baseball Principal Play By Play Announcers: Their Occupation Background And Personal Life,” and signed off by Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, his nonacademic advisor. Later in his career, he famously used 153 different verbs in a single game to describe the movement of the puck, including “squibbed,” “flagged” and “galloped” – an aspect of his broadcasting style, per se, that demarcated him from others in his profession.

“I always tried to use words that were hopefully interesting, but also I didn’t want to come across as talking down to the audience,” said Emrick. “I just wanted to use something that was creative and maybe amused people a little bit. Once one of those words was used, I tried never to repeat it the rest of that night because you don’t want to hammer people with the same one.”

Prior to the 1976-77 season, Emrick relocated to Portland, Maine to serve as the radio play-by-play voice and public relations director of the brand-new Maine Mariners in the American Hockey League – an affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. After three more years of hard work in the minor leagues, he finally made it to the pros with the Flyers as its television play-by-play announcer for home games on PRISM cable beginning in the 1980-81 season.

Having worked in both broadcast mediums, Emrick knows that radio requires the announcer to evoke imagery within the mind of the listener, while television is centered on the announcer’s reaction to the already-cultivated picture. While he never broadcast a boxing match, Emrick uses an analogy within that sport to describe the difference between the two broadcast mediums.

“I’ve heard it described before, and it’s probably accurate, [as] the difference between a boxer leading or counterpunching,” said Emrick. “In radio you basically lead, and in TV you counterpunch.”

Regardless of the medium though, what truly makes a broadcast unique is in how effectively it goes beyond the action taking place on the ice. Being able to do that comes in one’s preparation and knowledge of the game, both of which Emrick possessed and continued to grow upon being named the inaugural television play-by-play voice of the New Jersey Devils in 1982 on the MSG Network.

“The legs that get you from one thing to the next are the identity of the players,” said Emrick. “I think that’s still the most important thing of any play-by-play description is… the ‘who’… because it’s the people who are competing that draw the audience, and you need to identify who it is.”

Emrick returned to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1982-83, first as a spot announcer, and upon his departure from the Devils in 1986, as an studio analyst on UHF telecasts. In the same year, he began his first of many years of national television work as the lead play-by-play announcer for NHL games on ESPN, working alongside former NHL forward Bill Clement.

Before the 1988-89 season, Emrick was promoted by the Flyers to be the team’s lead television play-by-play announcer, working with his analyst Clement for a majority of the time in both his regional and national obligations. Working in both roles simultaneously, he has had to be cognizant of his audience – meaning that the preparation for regional and national games, while similar in methodology, differed from one another in terms of the time devoted to each team.

“Usually with a national telecast, it’s 50-50 on how much you talk about one team or the other,” said Emrick. “With a local broadcast, it’s usually 70-30 or 80-20 because if there’s one team that is supplying all of your viewers or most of them, you go that way.”

Emrick’s presence on regional sports networks continued upon his departure from the Flyers after the 1992-93 season, as he returned to Newark as the play-by-play voice of the Devils on MSG Networks. Broadcasting within the three-team New York-Metropolitan area marketplace for the Devils from 1993 to 2011, Emrick stayed up to date not only on his primary team, along with the Rangers and New York Islanders. As a result, the shift from regional to national television became smoother for Emrick, and with it, the allocation of the time he spent discussing each team more consistent.

“You treated it like a network telecast and I was very comfortable shifting from regional games to network because you had fans of numerous teams living in New York,” said Emrick. “Whereas in Philadelphia, you made the assumption that most of the people that were watching… were Flyers fans.”

Over his years at ESPN, Emrick called two Stanley Cup Finals, something that would render itself into an annual occurrence once he joined Fox in 1995. From there, Emrick called 20 more Stanley Cup Finals with Fox, OLN, Versus and NBC Sports – providing the description throughout the final roadblock standing between one team and a championship. Television, being the visual medium that it is, not only requires an announcer to be aware of their audience, but also of the moment and what will best transmit the atmosphere within the arena to the viewer. Throughout the course of enduring moments that stand the test of time, including game-winning goals, penalty shots and highlight-reel saves, Emrick uses his words judiciously, following a tried-and-true philosophy that requires discipline from the announcer with the potential to put an indelible stamp on the action.

“Less is more. Especially with television, you have a lot of people that have qualified to be in trucks and operating cameras and placing microphones in arenas,” Emrick stated. “Just like you are qualified to be there to describe it, they are the best at their profession… You don’t have to do everything. You have a lot of help.”

Emrick worked his first of seven Olympic Games in 1992 while on CBS, calling the ice hockey championships. While he had to consistently learn names of new players and adjust to the cultural differences of the host country, the quadrennial worldwide showcase built on tradition has induced games that have helped grow the game of hockey on an international scale. One of his most memorable broadcasts emanated from the thrilling conclusion of a gold medal matchup between Canada and the United States from Vancouver, B.C. in February 2010.

The game drew 27.6 million viewers, the largest television hockey audience since Al Michaels was behind the microphone for the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal game between the Soviet Union and the United States aired on tape delay in 1980 from Lake Placid, N.Y. 

“Sam Flood, our executive producer at NBC, always told us [for big games] to broaden the brush,” said Emrick. “In other words, never try to talk inside stuff because we were going to have a lot of extra viewers, and you didn’t want to talk [about] inside stuff and have them feel like they were being left out. And so we basically let the game do the talking and did not try to do a lot of strategy or things like that.”

Part of a broadcaster’s job is to recognize their role within the greater production of a live sporting event. Sure, they are often omnipresent throughout the broadcast; however, they are hardly, if ever, supposed to be the main character. The job of the rest of the production crew is to adequately tell the story of the game, whether it be through camerawork, graphics or interviews. While they are not scripting the moments on the ice, the broadcast director coordinates the assorted roles to help the team’s vision of the end product come to life. It is a task that allows for creativity, but also requires evolution to shifting consumer trends – achieved through collaboration.

Down by one goal in the gold medal game, the United States pulled it’s goaltender Ryan Miller for the extra attacker, which led to forward Zach Parise tying the game with 24 seconds remaining in regulation time. Then in overtime, Canada forward Sidney Crosby scored the “Golden Goal,” giving Canada its first gold medal since the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I think I said, ‘…and Crosby scores – the goal to Canada,’ and then I said nothing for almost two minutes,” Emrick recollected. “I didn’t need to say anything because what we showed and what the people in our truck and the people operating cameras provided was the sound of the crowd and the microphones on cameras”

Over the years, Emrick has worked with numerous analysts, including Bill Clement, John Davidson, Bobby Taylor, Chico Resch, Doug Sulliman, Sal Messina and Eddie Olczyk. As a play-by-play announcer, Emrick ensured that his analyst would be implemented into the game, usually when he felt they could contribute to the broadcast or when he needed to take a breath. By including them in the broadcast, a greater ethos is established with the viewing audience and multiple perspectives are acknowledged.

“I think our business is analyst-driven,” said Emrick. “Those of us in play-by-play are there to enhance the game but not get in the way of it. It is when the play stops that you really learn about what has happened or what could happen in the future. Those of us who are describing the game don’t have time to throw that in, and if we did, our credibility is not nearly that of people who have actually experienced it, and that’s why analysts are there.”

Following the 2010-11 season, Emrick relinquished his role as the play-by-play announcer for the New Jersey Devils and continued to work as the national play-by-play voice of the NHL on NBC for the next decade. His final season as an announcer was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and once professional hockey made its return, Emrick found himself calling games remotely – something he had never done in his illustrious career.

Emrick officially announced his retirement from broadcasting in October 2020 after 47 years behind the mic calling over 3,750 hockey contests, including 22 Stanley Cup Finals, 45 playoff Game 7s and 19 outdoor games. Prior to his retirement, Emrick won the Foster Hewitt Award for “outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster” presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Today, the NHL is in the first of new seven-year contracts with both ESPN and Turner Sports worth a reported $1 billion. For Emrick, the specific networks carrying the games do not mean as much to him as the continued worldwide dissemination of the game of hockey itself.

“I cheer for everybody who winds up being on the air doing games… because this is a game that is wonderful and needs to be continually promoted by whoever winds up with the rights,” said Emrick. “I’m not a businessman; I don’t have billions of dollars in my pocket.”

Following the conclusion of the 2010 gold medal game, sideline reporter Pierre McGuire interviewed Miller and Crosby, and the two athletes, despite being on opposite ends of the outcome, spoke about the significance of competing in the Olympics and how special it was to play the game on an international stage. Reflecting on that broadcast sequence, Emrick affirms that he had never been more proud to be associated with the game of hockey because of the eloquence, class and humility with which they spoke. Therefore, as ESPN and Turner Sports are in the midst of presenting the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs to millions of hockey fans around the world, Emrick hopes that they focus on telling the stories of the athletes – the primary reason for which people tune in to the games.

“The athletes are wonderful, and they have been all the way back through the first years that I started going to IHL games and getting to meet them for the first time,” said Emrick. “The number one thing that we have to sell is not only the speed of the sport, but more importantly, the guys who play it because they’re really good people.”

Whatever the future of hockey broadcasting holds, Emrick has undoubtedly become an integral figure in the history of the sport – all while never donning skates on an ice rink in his life. The half-a-century he covered hockey would not have been possible without his steadfastness towards becoming a professional broadcaster, avidity for the game of hockey and the group of people who allowed him to expatiate on the proceedings situated on a 200-foot sheet of ice. Emrick continues to watch hockey to this day and listens to the next generation of broadcasters be themselves while calling the action, the very advice Bob Chase conferred to him early in his career.

“It was the realization of a lifelong dream to get to do hockey games anywhere to anybody, but to be chosen to do national games was a great honor and responsibility,” Emrick stated. “I never took it lightly, and I always appreciated those who gave me a chance.”

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