2020 hasn’t been kind to many. Hundreds, if not thousands have lost jobs in our industry, and it’s forced a lot of us to look in the mirror and question the direction our business is headed in. I’d be lying if I said those prior conversations about moving into the agency business or returning to run a large media operation didn’t creep into my head, but as stressful as the past few months have been, I’ve never been prouder of our team of writers or the work we’ve done.
I don’t share a lot of details about our traffic because I’ve always felt that reaching 100 industry executives mattered more to our business than 10,000 clicks. I also know we cover a niche space, sports media, which produces less traffic than a full service sports site. Our goal has been to educate, motivate, and entertain people in the industry thru the work we do, while also helping and connecting partners to those who can benefit their brands. As long as we deliver on those promises, I’m satisfied.
But I was blown away to see that the news we share, the stories we tell, and the opinions we offer, have connected with more people during the darkest days in our business. Our traffic in June beat our prior 4 year page view totals by 6-7x, and in July, we beat June by 30%, crushing our prior 4 year page view totals by 8-9x. Our best months previously were January 2019 and 2020, months when we release our annual BSM Top 20. So much for sports not mattering huh? I’ll use this moment to remind you that if you’re in charge of advertising for a company that’s looking to connect with a professional audience, email me for a copy of our advertising deck.
I’d love to tell you that we devised a masterful strategy to fuel our growth, and though we made some SEO adjustments, the recent success has more to do with luck, and betting on the brand. In late May, I welcomed Jay Mariotti, John Michaels, Chrissy Paradis, Rob ‘Stats’ Guerrera, Ricky Keeler and Jacob Conley to our writing team. A few people close to me thought I was nuts considering the radio and advertising industry was weakening, and my own livelihood wasn’t secure. Though my bank account is a little lighter, the early returns have been favorable. We’re not out of the woods by any stretch, but the things we can control, we’ve done well at. It has reinforced my belief that you can’t be afraid to take risks during down times.
Secondly, we dove into some subjects that mattered greatly to our readers. Mike Golic and Will Cain‘s exits from ESPN Radio’s lineup, the network’s new programming schedule, Dave Portnoy-Big Cat’s issue over the President Trump interview, Emmanuel Acho’s ‘Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man‘, and COVID-19’s impact on sports, were of great interest to readers. So too were a few of our columnist’s weekly pieces. Staying on top of so many things while trying to balance other jobs hasn’t been easy, but we’ve done the best we can, and I’m pleased with the progress.
Jay has especially been out in front on a lot of these items, cranking out 3-4 columns per week, delivering some of the best written sports content on the internet. He has his fans and critics, and I’m often surprised by the reaction of hosts who want him to pipe down when he offers an opinion they don’t agree with. Did we forget how this business works? You share a point of view, support it with evidence, and let an audience decide where they stand. Some will love you, and listen, watch or read more, and some will hate you, and tune you out. Nobody forces you to consume what you read. If it doesn’t cost you a dime, and you continue devouring content from someone you don’t agree with, then that’s your issue to resolve, because the host, or in this case, the columnist, is living rent free in your head.
What’s funny is I’ve had a few people assume that I share the same views as Jay, and ask me why I’d publish a piece if I didn’t agree with it. For example, I don’t agree with Jay that Dave Portnoy should be canceled. But it isn’t about what I think, it’s about offering different viewpoints, and letting those who consume your content decide where they lie on the issues. If the only thing we posted on this site was what satisfies my personal tastes, we’d be missing out on a much larger audience. This country, and more specifically the media business, used to disagree without it feeling contentious. The sooner we get back to that the better it’ll be for all of us.
Before I weigh in on five media items, I do want to share a few news items. A new BSM Podcast episode will be out soon with Mike Greenberg. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with Greeny, and discussing his return to the national sports radio circuit. Look for the episode later this week.
Later next week, look for a story by Demetri Ravanos on FOX Sports Radio’s 20 year anniversary. We’ve been talking to a lot of people over the past month and a half about their experiences at the network to try and capture what the past two decades were like at one of America’s premier sports radio networks. There are a few more people to track down still, but the goal is to publish the piece either next Thursday or Friday.
I’m also thrilled to share that we’re adding Stan Norfleet as a writer at BSM. Stan wrote a great piece for Deadspin last month, which I encourage you to check out if you haven’t already done so. I’ve known him from his time hosting shows in Atlanta and Charlotte, plus he attended the BSM Summit in NYC this past February. Stan’s a sharp guy with a lot of personality, but he made a mistake on the air that cost him his gig in Atlanta in 2019. He’s doing his best to learn from that experience, and move his career forward, and I’m happy to give him a chance to rebound. His addition not only adds another talented perspective to the site, but it helps us strengthen our diversity, an issue that is important to me. I look forward to having him contribute. His first piece comes out this Thursday.
#1 – Barstool Sports has critics who want to sentence the brand to death for its history of offensive commentary, but if you can allow yourself to be entertained without reading too deeply into everything the brand does, you’ll find their documentary series to be excellent. I watched all 15 episodes with my 18-year old son, and we laughed our asses off. As someone who didn’t consume a ton of Barstool’s content during their early years, I enjoyed getting a better understanding of their progression, and seeing how the brand grew from an idea in Dave Portnoy’s head to a major mainstream media force.
The series gave me a new respect for Portnoy’s passion and vision. A lot of people want to see Dave go down in flames, but you don’t create a monster brand and compete against heavyweights if you don’t have talent, work ethic, creativity, and vision. Say what you want about Dave, but he gave up a good paying job to create a newspaper with no guarantees. He then busted his ass delivering papers all across Boston, writing under different aliases to make the brand look bigger, sold advertising (loved the fake ad trick), recruiting writers, and eventually developed events, merchandise, apps, podcasts and so much more. You get a good sense of how the brand took calculated business risks and continued to pivot throughout the series.
I also enjoyed learning how Barstool’s personalities discovered the brand, became who they are, and didn’t shy away from controversy no matter how complicated things became. Though some will loathe the brand for it, it’s become a huge part of their DNA. In doing so, they changed the game.
Despite an army of haters, Barstool also has a legion of fanatics who support the company’s initiatives every step of the way. So many get caught up in analyzing the commentary of their talent, but don’t give the brand enough credit for how skilled they are at operating their business. Think I’m wrong? Go look at where they stack up when it comes to podcasting, social media engagement, merchandise, popular apps, etc.. You don’t receive a massive investment from Penn National and the Chernin Group if you’re not doing something extremely well.
As a 46 year old professional male, I’m not their target, but I can see why the 18-34 demo digs what they’re doing. My favorite episode by far from the series was Chapter 12 (Tiko Texas). Though the belly button image grossed me out, and Portnoy’s rap song is lyrically crude, I was in tears laughing because his rhythm was terrible from start to finish. For the record, KFC won that rap battle, despite introducing one of the cheesiest rap tunes I’ve ever heard. What’s undeniable though is both Portnoy and KFC are far more skilled in the rap arena than Tiko Texas.
My advice, go to their website and in the search bar, enter ‘Barstool Documentary Series‘, and then watch the content. Or if you have Roku and prefer to watch on TV as I did, download their app, and go thru each chapter to see which one you enjoy most. The episodes are 16-35 minutes in length, and if you’re open minded, you’ll find yourself laughing often.
#2 – I admit that I have a biased answer to this next question, but is there any better of a fit on WFAN than Brandon Tierney? BT and I worked together in San Francisco and remain friends today. I’m sure he’ll see this at some point, and call me and express his frustration over it, but it needs to be said. His voice, passion, knowledge, and unwavering love for NYC should be on display on WFAN, not on CBS Sports Radio. I know he’s lived in many different places, and has the national experience to fit the bill, but The Fan is a bigger platform and it’s where he belongs.
What’s always confused me is why Tierney isn’t on the station’s radar despite working in the same building. He’s in his mid-40’s, lives and dies with the Yankees, Knicks and Jets, is unafraid to challenge decision makers, oozes passion, and connects to the NYC sports fan. He was barely given a sniff when Mike Francesa vacated afternoons, and though he did a show or two with Boomer following Craig Carton’s exit, Gio was the better fit in that spot.
I look at it from afar and wonder sometimes why he’s good enough to be on SNY, MSG, CBS and ESPN NY, but not The Fan. I raised it one time with him a year or two ago and he exited that conversation quicker than Eric Davis leaving the building in San Francisco after doing 4 hours of radio with him.
I understand that he occupies afternoons on CBS Sports Radio and the show is simulcast on the CBS Sports network, but before anyone tries to sell me on his value to the network, save your energy. The sports cash cow for Entercom New York is WFAN, not CBS Sports Radio. If you have an asset that fits well on the station, and can be a part of its long-term success, that comes first.
I applaud Mark Chernoff and Chris Oliviero for putting BT and Tiki Barber on the NYC radio airwaves last week. It was refreshing, and a good start. I just hope the next time it’s permanent.
#3 – A tip of the cap is in order for executives at Townsquare Media. The company recently took the same path that Saga Communications did in March, eliminating Nielsen ratings in all 51 of their markets, a decision that should, but won’t, be carried out at every other radio company. I’m a fan of data, and enjoy crunching numbers to help talent maximize ratings, and salespeople and advertisers get the biggest return for their advertising dollar, but it’s time this business stopped spending money on a faulty service.
PPM has been flawed from its inception. I say that as someone who pumped his fist many times when the numbers were good, and cashed numerous bonus checks when the results benefited brands I managed. The measurement is embarrassingly low, and it’s often inconsistent with a station’s digital data, creating a ton of confusion and a lot of second guessing. It’s also led to a false sense of confidence for some talent and programmers who ‘think’ they know what works based on the behavior of a few meters.
Great vision starts in the mind. Success follows if topical and creative content is delivered consistently by a talented individual or team with a strong work ethic, and an ability to make adjustments, continue improving, and retain the confidence and patience from management. Add a winning play by play franchise to the airwaves, and a brand will be fine. This is rocket science.
If we know what works based on designing strategies to satisfy meters, then why hasn’t local sports radio produced a huge podcasting hit? Or shown an ability to understand and excel at social media? We’re living with patterns of the past, and assuming we’ll be fine as others like Spotify, SiriusXM, and Amazon aim to push us aside.
Talk radio must build new stars, and create ideas and killer content to generate excitement, and those things are far more important than chasing ghosts (meters), especially during a time when data means little to local businesses who are fighting to survive. The last time I looked, Joe Rogan, Bill Simmons and Dave Portnoy weren’t ‘killing it’ in the ratings, but each built brands that earned nine figure investments. If you have unique talent, and timely and creative content, you won’t need ratings to prove your value, it’ll already be understood.
#4 – In 6 days, ESPN Radio will unveil its new weekday lineup and I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you what will happen on Monday morning August 17th. The new team of Keyshawn Johnson, Jay Williams, and Zubin Mehenti will take the air, social media will freak out because it sounds different than the past two decades of ESPN Radio’s morning show, and many will declare the show dead, on life support, or a terrible decision by management. By Tuesday or Wednesday, the noise will amplify even more, and a month later it’ll drastically decline.
Nobody can predict if this morning show will work and last 6-12-18 months, so the best thing these guys can do is prepare, spend time together, create the best content possible, and absorb social media in small doses. The public almost always reacts negatively to something new. We saw it with Get Up and CMB, and it’s why Rob ‘Stats’ Guerrera preached patience from ESPN executives last week in his column.
Winning the PR game during week 1 for a new show isn’t supposed to happen, so don’t spend time worrying about it. Focus on winning the race, not the first mile. If the show has talent, creativity, work ethic, chemistry, and enough surprise moments to keep people on their toes, it’ll be fine. Just know going in, the warm embrace comes later, not during the first week.
#5 – Sports media people have needed sports to return more than I think they even realized. It sounds great when hosts are bullish about the best talent being able to turn dog shit into gold, but they don’t consider that people may not care about their on-air discussion about a movie or TV show, their first public dining experience since COVID-19 hit or their reaction to world news. It’s one thing to have hours worth of material to talk about, but it’s another to have content that an audience actually values.
Having spent more time lately listening, consulting, handling sales, social media, and publishing than writing and hosting podcasts, I’m amazed by how little we learned from the mistakes of a few years ago. When ESPN faced an image crisis over too many personalities being outspoken on political issues, it wasn’t fake news. Neither was the backlash the NFL faced over the anthem issue. Ratings went down, negative publicity up, and advertisers got nervous. Once the noise went away, changes were made, audiences returned, negative publicity declined, and business was booming.
But that took place in a world with sports….not the one we’ve lived in the past few months.
Here we are entering the fall of 2020, once again in an election year, dealing with a global pandemic, one which has sports media folks questioning which path to take. After stating they wouldn’t go down this road again, ESPN has reversed course yet again. Making matters more complicated has been the reaction by leagues to make political issues a larger part of their focus. It’s led many personalities to use their on-air and social platforms to deviate from talking sports, and unleash their fury on a variety of sensitive issues. I realize that the images we’ve seen on our televisions and phone screens in recent months have made many of us angry, myself included, but despite how furious we become with society, we can’t forget that we’re hired to provide a distraction from life’s chaos not add to it.
I saw a tweet recently from Linda Cohn which I thought hit the nail on the head. She asked “Why is the media keeping score on who is kneeling or standing for the national anthem? Don’t we all want the same thing, ending racism in our country?” The easy answer to those questions was yes, but some commentators want an excuse to connect sports to political issues because quite frankly they don’t care about sports, only the access the medium provides to being able to serve a steady diet of their unfiltered personal opinions to an audience.
I understand debating whether games should be played given the challenges presented by the virus. I think that subject is important and unavoidable because it’s impacted each of our lives, and is the biggest reason why our sports viewing experience is being affected. Though we may disagree on the right path forward for beating this pandemic, we’re all dealing with it and rooting for the same outcome. If the games and people we watch though start making divisive matters such as anthem protests, China, the election, defunding the police, racism, etc. part of the broadcast experience, you’ll see more people upset and the channel changed.
The question we should be asking is “do you care about the subject matter you’re tasked with talking about on a daily basis?” If the answer is no, that’s OK. Explore a move into news. Will Cain and Sid Rosenberg did it, so too did Keith Olbermann. The news format needs new voices, and there’s a massive audience seeking that type of content. But don’t stand in the way of those who still care about the thing you’re supposed to.
Sports has never been more important in our lifetime. Without it we’ve seen how dark the world is. Hope, joy, laughter, and an uplifting distraction are needed by fans, listeners, viewers, and readers, not an avalanche of messaging that triggers an immediate tune out. Ratings so far are showing it doesn’t work. Many will blame the decrease on the pandemic, just as they blamed past results on cord cutting, the election, and other issues, ignoring the fact that nobody is in stadiums or arenas this time, and fans have gone thru months of sports withdrawal, meaning we should have more people watching, not less.
The public isn’t seeking a greater mixture of sports and politics, the media and sports leagues are. We can beat this drum again and again, but after a while, the same results appear, and eventually, the excuses run out.