Over the last decade or so – we’ve seen the rise of the “insider” in sports media.
The title adorns the names of respected reporters like a military rank. It’s a bit of a buzz word that demands the attention of the casual sports fan. After all, insiders don’t just grow on trees, theirs is a title that was earned – forged after years of conference calls and locker room interviews. While he’d never describe himself as such – it can’t be denied that Ric Bucher is one of the first journalists to earn an “NBA Insider” distinction.
“I don’t even know what that means,” shrugs Bucher. “I’m just a storyteller.”
The truth is – labeling the media veteran as an NBA Insider is probably selling the first generation American short. While he’s certainly earned all the stripes necessary to becoming an insider – the national columnist, radio host and sideline reporter would best be described as a renaissance man.
Born to German immigrants, Bucher started playing piano at the age of 6.
“By the time I was 12 I hated it,” recalls the Cincinnati native. “At that point it just wasn’t cool.”
Fortunately for 12-year-old Bucher, his attitude toward the ivories changed thanks to one of his earliest role models.
“9 year old Joel – I’ll never forget it!”
Though three years his younger – it was Bucher’s fellow student Joel who opened his eyes to the world of jazz piano.
“I was so used to classical sheet music. Jazz you got a couple chords, maybe a key and you go from there. There’s so much creativity involved, so much freedom – you can make anything your own. Kind of like writing a column – I loved that.”
To this day, the former Baldwin Music Company student still plays.
Bucher’s ability to make proverbial lemonade would become a bit of a theme in his life. No matter the circumstances presented – he would always find a way to make things work for him.
If you ask the 6’3″ athlete today, he’d say if he was born 15-20 years later he would’ve pursued a collegiate basketball career. As it was growing up the son of German immigrants in the 70s, soccer was just about all he knew. A lifelong player, he was always the goal scorer in high school – a mindset he was forced to shift when he began playing at Dartmouth.
“The Dartmouth coach was a former goalkeeper – so his philosophy was certainly defensive. In order to get on the field I had to change how I played, so I shifted to kind of a defensive midfielder.”
Bucher’s compromise earned him a spot on the varsity soccer side as a freshman, a roster position he held for four years.
After college, it was an internship with Sports Illustrated that allowed the English major to realize what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
“I was surrounded by all these writers who would just parachute into these huge events and write great pieces. I couldn’t wait to get started on my own somewhere.”
Up until that point, Bucher thought he would put his communication skills to work as a lawyer or an advertising executive. Whatever it was – he wanted to be sure his working class parents were proud given their tremendous sacrifice putting him through college.
“There weren’t scholarships for soccer players, I was able to earn a bit of an academic scholarship but my annual tuition was half of what my dad’s annual salary was. I don’t know how they did it.”
His first position landed him at the San Diego Tribune, a job he was happy to have, but he couldn’t help but compare his choices to that of his friends.
“That was a bit of a tough time for me,” admits Bucher. “I was looking around at all my Dartmouth classmates who were working for Lehman Brothers or Leo Burnett, and I was at high school football games. It was hard, but it was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”
Bucher’s early days in Southern California turned the eager young professional into a journalist. He began sniffing out stories himself, developing resources and making the calls. He learned how to find the story and, more importantly, how to tell the story.
“After San Diego, I knew I could work for just about anyone.”
The resilience of the writer was eventually rewarded with a position on the San Jose Mercury News staff covering the San Francisco 49ers. Bucher liked football – but not like he loved his basketball. Undeterred, he made the most of his position. He continued to plug away until he found himself as the paper’s Warriors writer four years after his initial hiring.
10 years removed from graduating Dartmouth – Bucher had his dream job. Most stories would wrap up there – the son of immigrants who defied the odds to earn himself a place in the NBA media landscape. However, as Bucher remembers it, this is where the road got even tougher.
As a minority owner, team Vice President and Head Coach – Don Nelson was the Warriors in 1993, and he wasn’t trying to make any new friends in the media.
“I arrive on the scene and I was already way behind all my competitors. Every other writer had been covering the team for years and had a relationship with Nelly. I had no shot at getting any kind of exclusive information.”
Rather than raise his arms in defeat and blame his “unfair” circumstances, Bucher went to work. He knew if he couldn’t develop Nelson, he’d try to strike up a relationship with their new draft pick out of Michigan – Chris Webber.
“When Chris landed in Oakland for the first time there were two people there to greet him – myself and a real estate agent.”
In no time, Webber and Bucher had a bond. Both were new on the job and trying to make a name for themselves. At the time, Bucher was just developing a source he thought would help him through his first year. He had no idea this source would produce the biggest story of his young career.
On the court, the Warriors were having a great season. Webber was working on a Rookie of the Year campaign and Nelson was guiding the team back to the postseason. From an outsider’s perspective, all seemed well in Oakland – but that was far from the case.
“Chris and Nelly weren’t getting along, and Chris used to tell me all about it. How he wasn’t sure if he could keep playing for him,” remembers Bucher in such clarity it feels as if the conversations happened last season.
“I told him I would keep everything under wraps, but as soon as it became apparent during games that there’s a problem I would have to write it. That’s the understanding we had.”
By February, it had become evident there was absolutely an issue between the Warriors head coach and their star player, and Bucher wrote the piece. Before publishing, he offered Nelson a chance to comment, a chance Nelson dismissed.
Writing a story that sheds negative light on a subject you cover every day is never easy for a journalist – especially when that subject is an NBA legend and you’re a first year beat reporter. Unfortunately for Bucher, mother nature and the scheduling gods stepped in to make matters even worse.
“We were on the road in Chicago when I was putting together the story. We had an off day before our next game in Cleveland so a lot of the older beat writers travelling decided to spend an extra day in Chicago. Being the new guy, I caught the first plane I could to Cleveland – and that’s when the story was published,” he pauses, the trauma of the moment still audible in his tone.
“That day, there was a huge storm in Chicago and all the other writers were snowed in, which meant they would miss Nelly’s next media availability and I would be there to face him all by myself!”
With almost 30 years covering the NBA, Bucher doesn’t seem to take much personally. Emotions are all part of the business. That’s why when he describes the colorful insults the Hall of Famer hurled at him that day he does so with an admirable sense of humor.
“It was tough for a while, I was under some scrutiny and it felt like I was on an island by myself but eventually everything turned out to be true.”
Unknown to him at the time, Bucher’s courage to pen the piece earned him a favorable reputation around the league. Not only did he write the tough story, he faced the music and refused to backpedal.
The budding insider’s next gig sent him to the Washington Post in 1997. It was here he had a preview of what would become iconic sports programming just a few years later.
“I used to walk into Kornheiser’s office and pose a question on whatever happened the night before, then pass the word onto Wilbon and just sit back and watch them go at it.”
After just a year in Washington, Bucher was approached about a position with ESPN the Magazine as it launched in 1998.
When asked about his transition from a daily paper to a national magazine – Bucher’s almost lost for words.
“It was awesome!”
In 1998, Sports Illustrated was still king, but ESPN the Magazine was the cooler, younger and edgier competitor.
Not only was he able to build his brand and readership on a national stage, but for the first time he had the opportunity to be on television. It wasn’t the medium he set out to conquer, but the piano playing soccer star was never one to back down from a new challenge. In time he was able to hone his on air skills as he became a regular contributor to studio shows. He didn’t realize it at the time, but by branching out as a multimedia personality, Bucher was preparing himself for the seismic shifts that would slowly upend the industry.
“If you look at my career, I saw the end of newspapers. I saw it a little bit at a time, decision makers not seeing that everything was moving toward digital.”
In 2012, Bucher thought it was time to cut down on the travelling and focus on being around his kids in the Bay Area. With years of television experience now on the resume, he took a job with CSN Bay Area and the Warriors as a sideline reporter. He also joined the Bay Area’s new sports station 95.7 the Game as a morning show host. However, the move that raised the most eyebrows was his eventual agreement to work for Bleacher Report.
“I’ll admit – that was kind of dumb luck,” reflects Bucher today.
It’s hard to imagine, but just five years ago the idea of a national writer as well-known as Bucher working for a website was relatively unheard of.
“I wasn’t so sure at the time when they approached me, I actually told them they didn’t have the best reputation – but I liked the plan they had for themselves and I agreed to give it a shot. My role with them was changing all the time at the beginning, but I stuck with it and they remained true to their word.”
Five years later Bleacher Report’s platform is undeniable, and digital outlets the likes of The Athletic and The Ringer have become sought after destinations for national writers and media personalities alike.
“I’ve always been able to adapt in my career, to change” declares Bucher. “It’s served me well.”
Ric Bucher has seen his career evolve from a high school sports writer in San Diego to the lofty position of NBA Insider for both ESPN and now Fox Sports. He doesn’t claim to have predicted the evolution of the sports media landscape, but he always seems to be slightly ahead of the curve.
Like turning classic piano chords into jazz – Bucher’s never been afraid to improvise.
Jack Ferris writes feature stories for BSM and serves as an update anchor for iHeart Radio in San Francisco and as a freelance contributor for the PAC-12 Network. Previously he has worked as a sports anchor for KXLY-TV in Spokane and as the co-host of the Don West Show on KPQ in Central Washington. You can find him on Twitter @JFerris714 or reach him by email at FerrisJack54@gmail.com.
Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different
I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.
Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.
With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?
I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?
Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.
It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.
A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?
Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?
Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.
It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.
Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”
The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.
It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.
Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.
Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.
Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.
One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?
That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide each weekend on FOX Sports Radio. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years
Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.
In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.
It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.
“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”
I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.
The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).
The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.
The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.
I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.
Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.
ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.
The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.
Arky Shea serves as BSM’s evening editor, a daily news writer, and a weekly media columnist. He has previously worked for Outkick, 97.7 The Zone, 740 Sports Radio, and 730 The Ump where he held roles as the station’s program director, afternoon host, and producer. To connect, find Arky on Twitter @ArkyShea.
The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media
Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.
Brady Farkas is a sports radio professional with 5+ years of experience as a Program Director, On-Air Personality, Assistant Program Director and Producer in Burlington, VT and Albany, NY. He’s well versed in content creation, developing ideas to generate ratings and revenue, working in a team environment, and improving and growing digital content thru the use of social media, audio/video, and station websites. His primary goal is to host a daily sports talk program for a company/station that is dedicated to serving sports fans. You can find him on Twitter @WDEVRadioBrady and reach him by email at email@example.com.