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101 ESPN Is All In On eSports

“101 ESPN’s eSports event took place on a Friday, resulting in a number of people taking off work to be there, and spending the entire day inside the venue.”

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I’ll argue with anyone the NCAA Tournament is the most entertaining post season in all of sports. The buzzer beaters, the occasional Cinderella teams, nothing can top the one-and-done format March Madness bring us every year. But what if you could take what college basketball has mastered and use it as an opportunity for your station?

Sure, many stations across the country did some form of a 68-team giveaway the Monday following Selection Sunday at a local restaurant or bar, but what about an outside the box idea or event that draws in new listeners while capturing the magic of the one-and-done format?

Not only did 101 ESPN in St. Louis find a unique way to grow its brand, it may have also cut down the nets for best original idea this year. On March 1st inside a local Dave and Busters, gamers from in and around the St. Louis area flooded in for an all-day eSports event hosted by 101 ESPN. Two 64-team brackets were created, one for Xbox One players and the other for PS4, as gamers on each device played FIFA 19 with an NCAA Tournament style bracket creating the matchups in each round.

The games were broadcast by 101 ESPN on Twitch, and each show host was live and on-location for the event, putting off a vibe and energy that was unique to any eSports event the city had seen before. With the popularity of eSports continuing to rapidly grow across the country, 101 ESPN program director Chris ‘Hoss’ Neupert saw an opportunity for his station to capitalize.

“I’m a geeky gamer from way back,” said Neupert. “I love video games and it’s the fabric of our station. We have video games in our offices and we play. For us it’s competition and a little bit of a break from reality. You hear a lot about the growth of eSports and it’s hard to ignore. Being a gamer, myself, I’ve enjoyed learning more about the space. I think the competition and entertainment surrounding these events appeals to sports fans. On a personal level, it’s been exciting to see it grow, but there’s still much more we have to learn going forward.”

Many show hosts take pride in being able to adapt to any on-air situation, but that becomes difficult when you have limited knowledge of the subject at hand. Though eSports is growing, it’s still a relative unknown aside from the people who haven’t immersed themselves in it. When trying to find hosts that are capable of hosting an eSports event, your regular show hosts, who may be unfamiliar with the medium, may not always be fit for the task.

To make sure 101 ESPN’s talent were speaking the right language, Neupert wanted the right combination hosting the event. One host was already inside his building, but to find a second, he took to Twitch. That led to finding a local gamer by the name of FOXE, who had a strong, local presence with gamers and was outgoing and entertaining on her stream.

Though she didn’t have any previous experiences hosting a radio station event, Neupert decided to give Foxe a shot, and came away impressed. Not only did he find someone suitable for the job, but she already had built a local following on Twitch which helped get the word out to other gamers.

Image result for foxe twitch

A sports radio station hosting an eSports event is still uncommon, even if many in the format are now aware of the space gaining momentum. There’s a lot of curiosity of how to create and promote events that may not appeal to a radio station’s everyday audience. Neupert said that the targeted audience for the event were young millennial and gen z sports fans. He didn’t expect the older sports fan who’s grown up on the St. Louis Cardinals to show up for the event.

“In terms of promotion, we did a little bit of everything,” added Neupert. “We promoted the event on-air, on our eSports show, and on Facebook, Twitter and Twitch. We sprinkled it all over the place.”

He continued, “It was definitely a different audience. Much younger and diverse than we normally see at station events. Most of the crowd were in the 18-35 demo which was cool to see. St. Louis has a big Bosnian base, so we had a lot of Bosnian players, a lot of African American players, a lot of Caucasians, too. In addition to the gamers that were competing, they brought friends and family to watch. It was a good 9-hour day and people were hanging out the entire time.”

101 ESPN’s eSports event took place on a Friday, resulting in a number of people taking off work to be there, and spending the entire day inside the venue. That was uncharacteristic for Dave and Busters who told Neupert afterwards that the turnout helped them enjoy a great business day. The feeling all around was that the event surpassed everyone’s expectations, including attendees who wanted to know when the next gaming event was taking place.

All the credit for the event’s success goes to Neupert and his staff at 101 ESPN, because they took a chance to try something new, and explored different avenues to make sure it was a success. The station even arranged quality prizes for the winners, a grand prize of 1,000 dollars, 750 dollars for second place and 250 dollars for third.

But how did sales factor into the event? It generated great pub, and brought new people to the radio station, but since this was a new unproven concept, I was curious if making money off the event was a primary focus.

“Sales wasn’t the key focus for this event,” said Neupert. “It was about putting together a great product and entering a new untapped space. The idea was to set ourselves up for long-term success, not just produce a one-and-done. We needed to educate ourselves on air, as well as in sales about what these events are capable of, understanding that it’s not conventional. Moving forward, we now have one successful event under our belts and can take what we learned from it to create future opportunities for our sales team.”

What will be interesting to keep an eye on in the future is if the event produces a ratings lift for 101 ESPN with listeners 18-35. The increased exposure could also lead to more listening to Checkpoint XP, the nationally syndicated eSports program offered by Westwood One which 101 ESPN carries on Friday night from 10pm to midnight. But one thing is for sure: 101 ESPN will be increasing their activity on the eSports front.

“We’ll absolutely do another event in 2019, likely towards the end of the year,” said Neupert. “We would do more, but we have a new flagship deal with the St. Louis Blues and that’s a top priority. It’s very important for us to start next season sounding like we’ve been airing their games for years. Long term though we’d like to do more with eSports because it’s a space that is generating a lot of excitement and we see a lot of opportunities in it.”

BSM Writers

Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench

“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”

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As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.

The Power Of Dead Air
Courtesy: Jacobs Media

Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.

Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.

Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.

Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media. 

Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???

One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.

My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”

Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.

Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country. 

Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format. 

There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.

If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.

Drowning

I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort. 

Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.

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BSM Writers

Digital Platforms Should Signal The End Of Niche Linear Networks

“Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.”

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CBS Sports Network just isn’t built to last. It seems obvious, but it was really hammered home for me on Friday when Jim Rome went off on the network for preempting the simulcast of his radio show for coverage of swimming.

“You idiots are going to preempt this show for swimming?” Rome said. “Stupid.”

You don’t even have to watch the video, right? You can just read the quote and his voice is immediately what you hear in your head.

John Skipper went off on a number of topics during Sports Business Journal’s Media Innovators Conference last week. Some dismissed it as sour grapes. Others said his comments were those of a man that is completely unencumbered by rights deals and corporate interests.

One thing the Meadowlark Media leader said that was dead on was that there are only a few properties in sports television that truly matter.

“Until you can get the NFL, or the SEC, or the NBA on a streaming service, it’s going to be marginal in this country,” Skipper said in a conversation with John Ourand.

He was answering a question about the relevance of streaming services, but the fact is, he could have been talking about any outlet in the world of sports television.

With that being said, it isn’t just CBS Sports Network that isn’t built to last. Comcast got this message last year. That is why NBCSN is about to go dark. Sure, every niche sport has its fan base, but can you build a profitable and powerful brand on swimming, lacrosse and 3-on-3 basketball? You probably can’t.

BSM’s Jeremy Evans recently wrote about life in the metaverse and what it means to sports media. So much happens digitally now. Think about the last time you felt like you HAD to have a physical copy of a movie or album. It always made sense that television networks would get to this place.

Peacock, ESPN+, CBS Sports HQ and Paramount+ all have plenty to offer. Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.

CBS Sports Network isn’t the only cable sports network whose existence may be on borrowed time. You know about FS1. Did you know there is an FS2? Did you know beIN Sports still exists? Don’t worry. It seems most major cable operators don’t know it either. The same can be said for networks with names like Eleven Sports, Maverick, and Pursuit.

In fact, when you look at that group of channels, CBS Sports Network is probably in the best shape. It may carry the low end of college football and basketball, but it at least has sports with large, national followings.

Radio simulcasts have always been cheap programming. Once the production costs are recouped, there is a straight-line path to profit. Sports networks on this level will always be interested in carrying radio simulcasts, and that is a good thing. It means better studios and more exposure for the hosts involved. When the suits can have a legitimate debate whether the live sports their network carries will draw as many viewers as the simulcast of a radio show, it may be time to rethink the path forward.

Streaming platforms weren’t built exclusively for niche sports. ESPN+ launched with college football and college basketball at its core. Now that streaming platforms are here to stay though, it should start a conversation and migration.

The cable sports network was never anything more than a prestige play. It was a way to show that a broadcast network was so serious about sports that the few hours it could devote to games would never do. The problem is that ESPN got that memo decades earlier and established a juggernaut.

Even FS1, which has major talent and rights to major college football and basketball and Major League Baseball, is behind the eight ball compared to ESPN. They got a 34 year head start in Bristol! CBS Sports Network is behind FS1 and it has college football, basketball and hockey. It also has the WNBA and the NWSL. Still, it seems like it is on borrowed time. What does that mean for networks that can’t get a league comissioners to take their call?

I like some of the programming on CBS Sports HQ. I think Paramount+ has been a valuable tool this college football season. There would be nothing wrong with CBS shuttering CBS Sports Network. It is just the reality of where we are headed.

CBS aims to grow Sports HQ within its network of streaming channels -  Digiday
Courtesy: CBS

CBS is run by smart people. I have faith they will see the forest thru the trees in sports media and find the right solution before they start losing money. Streaming means consolidation and unfortunately, that means there may not be room for the FS2s, Mavericks, Pursuits, and Eleven Sports of the world. That doesn’t mean the sports those networks carry cannot find a new home. They may even find a home that makes more sense for them and their fans.

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BSM Writers

Can Your Station Create Its Own Holiday?

“Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape.”

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A belated happy Disney+ Day to us all!

Disney+ Day: Kareem Daniel Says “Momentum Building” At Streamer After 2  Years – Deadline

Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape. The best part, from a marketing standpoint, is fans were captivated by it. They either didn’t realize it was a commercial or they just didn’t care.

The execution was masterful. Granted, we Star Wars fans were left wanting a bit, but Disney dropped teasers for series and movies we didn’t know were coming and showed the first footage from one we have been anticipating for more than a year now.

I started thinking how a radio station could do this. How could it go out and create its own holiday? How for one day, can we make our fanbase excited and glued to social media eagerly anticipating announcements about what is coming next?

This is going to take some creativity. Disney+ is a platform full of multiple brands with multiple fanbases buying in. A sports talk station is one brand. It has varying levels of fanbases, but largely, your dedicated audience are the people that not only love sports, but also like your programming enough to be called P1s. Is that enough people to build an event like this around?

Who cares if it is or not! Go for it.

One thing that Disney did masterfully on November 12 is it brought partners into the fold and made them a key part of Disney+ Day. Fortnite announced that Boba Fett was coming to its game. TikTok announced Disney character voice changers would be available on the platform. Disney found the kind of partnerships that could spread its holiday to even the Disney+ Day equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge.

You can do the same. Surely you have a local brewery as a partner. Can they brew a one day only beer for you? Partner with a restaurant. Can they put your station’s name on the day’s special? Would other partners offer discounts and promotions for celebrating the day? There are a lot of options here.

Now, what are YOU doing on your holiday? Disney has a deep well of franchises. It could squeeze Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, its own studio and more for content and announcements. Again, you are just one brand, but there is still a lot you can do.

Build the day around announcing your special contributors for the football season. Drop new podcasts and play an extended clip on air. Announce new podcasts, the kind of things that will only be available digitally.

Look at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. Joe Ovies and Joe Giglio have created great, multi-episode series that are events for their audience. Like any narrative podcasts, those don’t come together overnight. As long as you have enough audio to build a solid 90 second to 2 minute long preview, you have something worth bringing to the air as part of the celebration.

Do you have a contract you are waiting to expire to make a change in a prime day part? Make your station’s holiday the day that the new talent or show hits the air for the first time. You can do the same for new weekend programs. Whether it is someone new coming to the station or just a new pairing, put them on air for your prime time audience to meet and have your weekday hosts help create some buzz for them.

As for the shows that are on every weekday, you have to make them special that day. Give away a big cash prize. Make the guest list epic – I mean everyone that is on air that day has to be a home run.

The other thing that Disney did so well was work to get all of its divisions involved. Check out this tweet from the Disney Parks account. Every single park around the world lit their iconic building up blue in celebration of the streaming platform’s holiday.

Can you work with other stations in your building? Maybe they won’t give you full on promotion, but between songs, if a DJ brings up a sports topic, would the PD be willing to have them mention that their sister station is celebrating all day? Would a news/talk PD let your talent pop on air to talk sports with their hosts and promote what is happening on your airwaves today?

The answer to these questions could be no. You don’t know if you don’t ask though. Also, if the answer is no, there is nothing wrong with asking for a little backup from your market manager. A station holiday is a major sales initiative after all.

The final piece of this puzzle to take away from Disney is you have to be everywhere. Any local show you air from 6 am until midnight needs to be on location. Fans should have easy access to them. How can they celebrate you if they are not allowed to be where you are?

Use the broadcasts however the sales department sees fit. Take them first to long-established clients to celebrate their loyalty on the station’s holiday. Use them to draw in new clients. Show off what your station can create with its fanbase.

Money has a way of motivating everyone. So, even if your hosts don’t like leaving the studio, these would be remote broadcasts priced at a premium and should have larger-than-usual talent fees attached.

Finally, let’s do something Disney didn’t. I was shocked that a company with this many iconic characters at its disposal and with a CEO that came from the consumer products division, didn’t have a line of merchandise ready to go. Don’t make that same mistake.

Create cool station shirts (not the cheap giveaway crap). Throw the logo on unexpected things like water bottles, bottle openers, facemasks, whatever! Have a merch tent wherever you go. Maybe set up a site to sell it for the day. Make the people come to you to get this stuff.

Twitter is a huge part of promoting what you do. Constantly show off what you are offering and what you have created. That is how Disney sold their event to its most dedicated fans as something not to be missed.

What were we celebrating with Disney+ Day? Nothing. Disney wasn’t even really celebrating anything. It was just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging. Actually, there are a lot of holidays that are just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging.

Valentine Day Digital Ads on Behance

Not every holiday has to celebrate something once in a lifetime. Not every holiday has to even be real. Building your own will take a long lead time, but it is doable. Get sales, promotions and programming in a room and build a plan together. If Disney+ Day taught us anything, it is a valuable way to motivate your fans to spread your message too.

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