Over the last five weeks, I’ve been entertained to no end by The Last Dance on ESPN. The behind the scenes looks, the memories and the greatness of Michael Jordan have been right there on my TV screen for me to revisit and remember fondly. Thankfully, I was old enough to really appreciate these teams and MJ the player.
I was fortunate to cover bits and pieces of the final two championships, but was not around the team all the time. My seat was anything but front row, but there were a few people that had terrific seats for more than one of the titles. The broadcasters saw every game, every play and lived these moments at home and on the road. They were on the team planes and had access to the players. These guys lived it.
Neil Funk who is retiring at the end of this season (if there is a resumption) after 28 years with the Bulls saw it all. Starting on the radio broadcast and eventually shifting to the television chair. He told NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Talk Podcast that he enjoyed the look back through the lens of “The Last Dance”.
“First of all, I think it’s very well done and at times its riveting to watch it. Even though I went through that you know traveling with the team and being around them all the in that last year.”, he told NBCSC. “The one thing about this documentary that it is kind of bringing all that stuff back to you as you sit here. Sometimes you forget about Michael’s greatness and the greatness of those teams.”
Wayne Larrivee worked Bulls television games on WGN-TV starting in 1991. He agreed that the documentary was an accurate portrayal of the actual events.
“I would say very much so. There were some things that they showed that we didn’t know. I thought they did a really good job with that,” he told me via phone. “There were some things they showed that I had forgotten about, like Rodman’s trip to Las Vegas in the middle of the season, I had kind of lost track of that over the years.”
So, the season seemed to play out as depicted, but what wasn’t universally agreed upon was how the show portrayed the star, Michael Jordan. There were those thinking he looked tyrannical, some said they admired him more. The broadcasters had their thoughts.
Funk was happy to see Jordan showing a different side of himself during the documentary.
“It was nice to see him sitting down and kind of opening up. You mention the fact he might have been concerned that people would perceive him in a way that maybe wasn’t flattering to him.”, Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “That IS what made Michael different and what made Michael great. I don’t think he has to worry about that in the least, that’s part of what made him Michael Jordan.”
According to Larrivee the portrayal was fair because it was truthful.
“He was portrayed as he is. He’s a tough competitor and he is a great leader. He was portrayed as a leader. People don’t understand things about leaders sometimes,” Larrivee said. “I thought they portrayed Michael and Scottie very accurately. Michael was the tough cop and Scottie was the good cop, the nice guy. Michael would knock you down and Scottie would pick you up.”
You could tell there was a respect for Jordan among the broadcasters that were around him most often. Larrivee continued in a comparison of MJ and today’s players that tells an important story.
“I will say this about Michael as compared to today’s athletes. Michael had this belief, ‘Listen I show up and play every game. I don’t take vacations, I don’t take nights off, they pay to come see me play and for a lot of people it may be the only time they get to see me play in person,’” Larrivee told me. “Today you have this thing called “load management” that would never happen with Michael Jordan. If he’s healthy he’s going to play the game. He understood that aspect of the game.”
Relationships with the players are key to being able to do your job. But, when one of the players is Michael Jordan how do you handle things? He’s arguably the greatest player of all-time and people are always wanting his time.
“I had learned early on, because when I was in Philadelphia I was with Julius Erving, so I had learned that if you didn’t bother them with kind of silly stuff, they were going to respect you and appreciate the fact you weren’t bothering them all the time,” Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “Unless it was something where I absolutely had to go to him and say hey Michael would you do this interview or whatever it might have been…I tried to stay away from that unless it was unavoidable. When I did go to him, he was generally receptive because I didn’t bother him a lot.”
Larrivee took that same approach to Michael, but seemed to have a leg up on the competition.
“The relationship I had with him (MJ) went back to before I was doing Bulls’ games. Tribune Company (then the owner of WGN-TV and Radio) had another division in it. They used to televise the City Championship game in Chicago. They paired Michael and me together one year,” said Larrivee. “This is before the Bulls started to win championships, but Michael was still wildly popular. They snuck him into the UIC Pavilion. I’ll never forget our production meeting, with Michael sitting on a toilet seat, eating KFC and we were all talking about what we were going to do at the open of the game. During the National Anthem where they dimmed the lights, they snuck Michael in from the back to our seats, then the lights came on and people saw him and went wild.”
Even the broadcasters knew it was the end of the line as did the players in 1998. So, what else can you do but enjoy the ride right? I mean how many times can get that lucky to cover a team that annually wins championships? Larrivee wasn’t going to miss a single chance to soak it all in.
“Tim Hallam (Bulls Senior Director of Public & Media Relations) and I would sit there at center court as the Bulls were warming up getting set to play the game and look at Michael Jordan and say ‘hey, let’s make sure we don’t take this for granted, because we’re never going to see the likes of this again’.”, Larrivee said. “We would do that almost every 2, 3 games and sit back and say don’t take it for granted, it won’t be like this forever. That’s kind of the way it was. We did savor it and it was a big deal that Last Dance, all the way through.”
Funk was just impressed with what the team accomplished in that final championship season, comparing it to another of the titles.
He told NBC Sports Chicago, “I would go back to the third championship in the first three peat and use that as kind of a template for the last one. It seemed like they were running on fumes and Michael was running on fumes. We know how hard it is to win one, then to win two and then the near impossible task of trying to win three. I think the last one of the second three peat, was the hardest of all of them. They’re all hard. That third one especially with all that was swirling around them, the age of some of the players, injuries, that had to be the most difficult to accomplish.”
There are certain calls on the radio or television that take you back. These famous calls remind you where you were, what you were doing, who you were with and even what you were wearing at the time. Funk had one of the all-timers with his description of the last shot Jordan would ever take in a Bulls uniform.
“Michael against Russell, 12 seconds, 11, 10 Jordan, Jordan a drive, hangs, fires, scores! He scores! The Bulls lead 87-86 with 5 and 2 tenths left, and now they’re one stop away. Oh my goodness!”
“That call, of all that I did, that one I’ll always remember only because it was the last one.”, Funk told the Bulls Talk Podcast. “That was kind of the end. So, I’ll never forget that one.”
Indeed, it was the end. The team was broken up the following year. Tim Floyd was brought in to coach a cast of no-name players in a shortened season. The Bulls were just a shadow, a small shadow of their former selves. But the broadcasts had to go on.
For the professionals the Bulls had behind the mics, the play on the court changed nothing about how they got ready for games. Larrivee told me that the show must go on and he didn’t have any trouble gearing up for the 1999 Bulls.
“It’s an NBA game, it’s a big-time game, it’s on a Superstation WGN-TV. Now the spotlight wasn’t as great on us at that time. You know you feel that. But it does not preclude the way you prepare for that game or the approach you take to the game going in.”, Larrivee told me. “We are professionals, but we’re also people so yes, there is a little bit less to it when it’s not a big moment or a big game. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you take it any lighter. I prepared the same way that following year as I did during the Last Dance.”
Tom Dore, who also called Bulls basketball on television during the great runs of the 90’s, obviously knew that ’99 was going to be a lot different. He explained to Sports Illustrated the new challenges of that season.
“How do we get people to say, ‘You should still come and see this? That you need to watch our games.’” Dore told SI. “The key is just you’re looking for anything positive to talk about. And then Mike Tyson hit you with another one to the gut. And then Muhammad Ali hit you with a left to the temple. And then Joe Frazier hit you with an uppercut. That’s what it was like.”
As we take a final look back at the Last Dance, the last word belongs to Larrivee who had an interesting take on how things came to an end.
“I think there’s a romantic quality to this. The Bulls win their third in a row. But it’s tradition that the champion gets to go out on his or her sword and when you break up a team like that after a championship they didn’t get out on their sword. They didn’t get a chance to be dethroned.
“They went out as champions, they were never beaten, there’s something special about that. I know Michael to this day regrets that they didn’t get a chance to go for a fourth (in a row). He feels very strongly they would have won another one. I don’t know if they could have mustered it again, but they never got a chance to. Thus, here they are 22 years later we remember them as they were.”
A special group for sure. A special treat for all of us. Five Sunday nights of pleasure during this crazy pandemic. Whether you liked how it was done or didn’t, a tip of the hat to those responsible for bringing it to us. The Last Dance was one to remember.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.”
A belated happy Disney+ Day to us all!
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.
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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