It isn’t enough to paint BLACK LIVES MATTER on three basketball courts somewhere within an amusement park, where a league and two broadcast networks have tried to recoup revenues during a pandemic. Because in a numbing instant, a moment in time unlike any America has experienced, those gyms were abandoned and left eerily silent by one NBA team after another, followed by WNBA, baseball and soccer teams — all unified by the horrors of police brutality in a protest that powerfully frames the only real purpose of sports in 2020.
Never have games been more irrelevant, out of place.
Yet never have the athletes been more important to the direction of a country, a tortured and very sick America. By forcing the postponements of three playoff games and placing the rest of a COVID-19-gnarled season in doubt, NBA players used their influence to shut down a multi-billion-dollar industry in a dizzying domino effect that could — and should — end the folly of conducting seasons amid racial unrest and a medical crisis. The next 68 days will decide the future of a country that is neither safe nor healthy nor proud. Doesn’t it seem off-putting, if not inappropriate and just wrong, to keep force-feeding games every day and night when the Milwaukee Bucks have established a historic mission statement for all sports?
And don’t play again — while assuming the physical and mental health risks related to a still-raging coronavirus — until cops stop shooting Black people. If it requires the cancellations of seasons, well, who really cares given the magnitude of murder-by-bigotry?
“F— THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,’’ tweeted LeBron James, front and center at this seminal juncture when athletes must be political, like it or not. Does it surprise you that James and the Los Angeles Lakers, along with the city rival Clippers, voted to cancel the season during a Wednesday night union meeting described as volatile? And that James, according to The Athletic, walked out of the meeting when he was questioned by former teammate Udonis Haslem?
It shouldn’t. Nothing should surprise anyone anymore, including the idea that LeBron would prioritize his growing position in the Democratic Party over a fourth NBA championship.
President Trump wants to watch ballgames at night? Well, he can’t have them — or four more years — because his nation is mired in unprecedented and unimaginable upheaval. Trump won’t condemn the endless carnage in the year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the toll of racial injustice that includes another victim, Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old Black man paralyzed after a white police officer fired seven shots at him in Kenosha, Wis. So the Bucks, based 40 miles north of the shooting scene and subsequent unrest that left two dead, decided they weren’t coming out of their locker room for Game 5 of a series against the Orlando Magic. This was the 2020 version of an offensive that sports often wields to battle injustice — activism — only the Bucks were daring to jeopardize the future prosperity of the league that feeds them.
Grasping their place in history, the players stayed and talked in their locker room for hours after the postponement, gaining a phone audience with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. They finally emerged with a statement to the media — the opening portion read by Sterling Brown, himself a victim of police brutality in Milwaukee, where a simple dispute over a parking violation led to his being tased and arrested in 2018. Standing among them: superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greece native who had been staying quiet politically while picking up his second straight league MVP award.
“The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African-American communities,’’ Brown said. “Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings. Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.’’
Next up was veteran guard George Hill, already on record among NBA players who want the season to be canceled. “When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement,’’ he said. “We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it’s imperative for the state legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.’’
Within hours, much of the sports world was in lockstep, and the teams that were playing games Wednesday night — such as 20 Major League Baseball clubs not adopting the postponement pushes of the Milwaukee Brewers and five others — should have pondered the message they were sending as a prominent Black player, Jason Heyward, removed himself from the Chicago Cubs’ lineup in protest. He was joined by other MLB players, Black and Caucasian, in a display of solidarity that will be part of sports until, oh, the first Tuesday in November. When Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts chose not to play, teammates of all races did the same — a marked departure for a sport low on social and racial awareness.
“As a white player on this team, how can we show support? What is something tangible we can do to help our Black brothers on this team?’’ team leader Clayton Kershaw said. “Mookie was great about saying, `If you guys want to play, I support that.’ But we made a collective group decision to not play tonight, to let our voices be heard for standing up for what we believe is right.”
“I’ll always remember this day,’’ said Betts, “and I’ll always remember this team having my back.’’
Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick launched a kneeling protest movement that divided America to its core. The events of an August day in 2020 are tilted toward empathy for the aggrieved, connected to a specific series of shooting tragedies. The Blake shooting has left NBA players helpless in their restrictive campus environment. From the start of this social, health and business experiment, I wondered when they might begin to feel like guinea pigs, or slaves. That crossroads is here, in the form of an emergency Board of Governors meeting Thursday. The players want to effect systemic change, but they feel detached living and working in a Bubble, even with the league-endorsed Black Lives Matter ethos and social justice messages on their jerseys. Hill planted the first seeds of activism Monday when he said, “We can’t do anything. First of all, we shouldn’t have came to this damn place, to be honest. Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are.’’
Soon enough, Disney World was the antithesis of the Happiest Place on Earth, as Chris Paul and union leadership invited players and coaches to a volatile ballroom meeting Wednesday night to discuss whether to continue the season. This will remain an ongoing question, and if enough players want to shut down the playoffs, it would be disastrous for a league that has spent $200 million on the Bubble concept in hopes of helping its fraught financial future. It’s possible the league would enact a force majeure clause that could terminate the collective bargaining agreement and lock out the players. Adam Silver, the commissioner renowned for his wokeness, can’t be faulted because of a trigger-happy cop in Kenosha. Nor can anyone fault team owners who have supported the players in their ongoing fight against racism, with Bucks ownership releasing this statement though the players kept owners out of the boycott loop: “We fully support our players and the decision they made. The only way to bring about change is to shine a light on the racial injustices that are happening in front of us. Our players have done that and we will continue to stand alongside them and demand accountability and change.” Yet who can blame the players — especially those with families, even as the league prepared to allow close relatives and friends onto campus — if they prioritize real life over basketball and pop the Money Bubble?
“Right now, our focus shouldn’t be on basketball,’’ said Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics, a team that pondered a boycott days ago. “i understand it’s the playoffs, but we still have a bigger issue, an underlying issue. And the things we’ve tried haven’t been working.’’
Teammate Jaylen Brown said the NBA’s emphasis on social justice has waned during the postseason: “Things have kind of diminished. I’m curious to see in what creative ways that people put their minds together to push these conversations and make me feel more comfortable about playing basketball in the middle of like a lot of things that are going on.”
Said Fred Van Vleet of the Toronto Raptors, another team that pushed for the boycott: “Coming down here, making the choice to play was not supposed to be in vain, but it’s starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions and nothing’s really changing. And here we are with another unfortunate incident. … We’ve got to take responsibility as well. Do we actually give a f— about what’s going on, or is it just cool to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the backdrop, or wear it on a T-shirt? Like, what does that really mean? Is it really doing anything? At the end of the day, if we’re going to sit here and talk about making change, then at some point we’re going to have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility. I’m just over the media aspect of it. It’s sensationalized, we talk about it every day, that’s all we see, but it just feels like a big pacifier to me.”
Donovan Mitchell should be reveling in his breakout as a Bubble star. Instead, he also suggested that leaving is a better idea than staying, even with his Utah Jazz looking at a possible matchup against James and the Los Angeles Lakers. “A lot of times where we say we don’t feel safe, it doesn’t matter how much money, it doesn’t matter who you are,” Mitchell said. “The common excuse is, `He shouldn’t have walked away, shouldn’t have not listened to the cops.’ He doesn’t deserve to be shot in the back, shot seven times. That’s inexcusable. The point of us coming down here was to create change. I really don’t know how else to describe it as an African American male. When does it stop? When do we feel comfortable? When do we feel safe? … I just want this s—- to stop.’’
No one was more emotional than Doc Rivers, coach of the Clippers, whose voice cracked and eyes grew moist as he assessed the national condition. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” he said. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.
“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better. It’s funny. We protest. They send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits. They go up to Michigan with guns. They’re spitting on cops. Nothing happens.”
Who can focus on a basketball game with minds so enraged and hearts so heavy? That’s why it would be wrong to lambaste the players if they go home, though Trump will try, as he did when he said of their national anthem protests: “The kneeling has been horrible for basketball. People are angry about it. They have enough politics with guys like me. There was a nastiness about the NBA the way (protesting) was done. The NBA is in trouble, bigger trouble than they understand.” It’s amazing the games and individual performances have been sharp — and sometimes spectacular — when so much energy is directed toward the White House.
“The question that I would like to ask is, `Does America think that Black people or people of color are uncivilized, savages or naturally unjust? Or are we products of the environments we participate in?’ ‘’ Jaylen Brown said. “America has (given) its answer over and over again. Are we not human beings? Is Jacob Blake not a human being?’’
By nightfall, even TNT analyst Kenny Smith was walking off the “Inside the NBA’’ set. “This is tough. Right now, my head is ready to explode,” he said. “Like just in the thoughts of what’s going on. Coming in and even driving here, getting into the studio, hearing calls and people talking. And for me, I think the biggest thing now as a Black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight.”
Even Lou Williams was weighing in. The Clippers guard has been averse to the Bubble all along, including the day he had permission to attend a funeral and wound up in a strip-joint controversy. “It’s unfortunate we’re in this Bubble and we’re still dealing with these issues,’’ he said. “We’re still seeing unarmed Black men get shot in the streets. It’s just ridiculous at this point. And I think it’s difficult being here when things like that are happening. You kind of feel helpless in a way. You can use your voice in a way, but I think our presence is much more felt.’’
All of which compounds the surreal nature of what we’re watching in sports. In roughly the time required to find * on a laptop keyboard, I saw Lucas Giolito complete a no-hitter in front of cardboard cutouts and Paul George reveal his struggle with depression in a Bubble. Those events alone should silence, at once, all talk of asterisks for Sports In A Pandemic. If anything, 2020 should be affixed with a colossal exclamation point.
What many of these human beings are accomplishing is nothing short of stunning, dealing as they are with the double whammy of an infectious disease and racial unrest. Life in relative isolation left George, the Clippers star, in “a dark place’’ that impacted a career-worst shooting slump against Dallas. “It was just a little bit of everything, he said. “I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety. A little bit of depression. Just being locked in here. I just wasn’t there. I checked out. Games 2, 3, 4, I wasn’t there. Shout-out to the people that were in my corner, that gave me words. They helped big time, help get me right, (get) me back in great spirits. I can’t thank them enough.”
This is only the beginning of a drama that parallels, not coincidentally, a presidential election season that already is giving us the dry heaves. NHL players are upset that games weren’t postponed, prompting this tweet from San Jose star Evander Kane: “Actually it’s incredibly insulting as a black man in hockey the lack of action and acknowledgment from the @nhl.’’ The NFL has yet to announce an official position about sideline kneeling, with a strong suspicion that the almighty Jerry Jones will oppose it again, despite commissioner Roger Goodell’s so-called 180-degree flip on the topic. After all, Trump has voiced his opinion about the NFL season: “If they don’t stand for the flag and stand strongly, I’d be very happy if they didn’t open.’’
Tweeted Houston wide receiver Kenny Stills, a kneeling activist: “NBA is showing us how it’s done. Time to connect with local activists to help formulate demands.’’
As we await more monumental news, in this apocalyptic year from hell, this much is true: The sports world, so often derided as scandalous and greedy and cringeworthy, never has been prouder.
Why Charles Barkley Is Sports Television’s Most Valuable Personality
Barkley is a larger-than-life personality. His analysis is sometimes way out there, but it either makes you think, scratch your head or laugh.
Once the Western Conference Finals end, so will the season for Charles Barkley and his TNT crew. Inside The NBA has become ‘must watch’ television over the last few years. In my opinion, it is the best of its kind in any sport right now.
The chemistry displayed on the ITN set is unparalleled. Charles Barkley is one of the biggest reasons to tune in. He’s unfiltered, he’s real and he’s always himself.
I’m not the only one that feels that way. Former ESPN boss and current Meadowlark Media front man, John Skipper, recently appeared on the Dan Patrick Show to sing the praises of Barkley. Skipper puts him among the greats in broadcasting.
“I think there are only three or four people in the history of broadcasting that you can
genuinely say people tune in to see them. The late, great John Madden, who just recently
passed, was one of those guys. Barkley is the guy right now in all of sports that you can say
people will tune in to see him.” Skipper said.
John is on to something here. Barkley is a larger-than-life personality. His analysis is sometimes way out there, but it either makes you think, scratch your head or laugh.
Sometimes all of those things happen at the same time. Barkley’s commentary is usually the stuff that floods the internet that night, and is the talk of your office, or friends the next day.
Seemingly if you miss it, you’re a little behind the times. I mean, the man made a grand entrance to the set the other night in Dallas. He rode to the set on a horse just before Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals between the Mavericks and Warriors. Shaquille O’Neal joked that to carry Barkley’s body, the horse had to have “a strong back” and he kept saying “please fall!” as Barkley had a little trouble with the dismount. Leading Barkley to exclaim, “I grew up in Alabama, brother, I know how to ride a horse.”
This is one of the reasons I think Skipper believes what he does. Barkley is always up to
something, no matter how silly it may make him look or how outlandish it might be. This guy is confident in pretty much everything he does, with the possible exception of his golf game. He can dish it out for sure, but Barkley can take it as well, which usually results in something hilarious. He has personality and its genuine. That makes him likable whether you agree with him or not.
Barkley is also the best kind of humorous, the unintentional kind. It works.
While Skipper is dead on about Barkley, it does beg the question, would Charles be as popular
without his cohorts on Inside the NBA? It’s like asking if the talented lead singer of a band, would be as popular as a solo artist. In this case, I wonder. You’ve heard of ‘system
quarterbacks’, right? I think the formula works for Barkley, in part because of the surrounding
cast. While people may tune in to see Barkley, they can’t help but notice the other guys on set and understand why Charles can be Charles. It’s because the entire dynamic works.
Take Barkley off the show, it’s not as good. Take Kenny off the show, same. Take Shaq off, also same. Take Ernie off, well you get the picture here. They each have unique personalities and the ability to be themselves and work as a group. Each brings something to the table, but the key ingredient is not taking themselves too seriously. They all enjoy being there.
Skipper saw that part of the equation as well and knows why the show is what it is, a success.
“It’s because they look like they’re having fun. They know what they’re talking about. They’re
willing to be provocative, they’re willing to mash it up, and it’s great.” said Skipper to the Dan Patrick Show.
The former players mesh like they are family. EJ is the patriarch that lets the guys be guys and jumps in when it looks like it may go off the rails. Fighting is all part of it. Heated arguments take place from time to time with strong, opinionated former players each thinking he is right. In the flow of the show, it’s actually entertaining to watch. It helps that all of the panelists had successful and in a couple of cases, Hall of Fame careers. Even if they have an interesting way of explaining their points, they each bring a knowledge base to the show.
I think by their mere presence, the group makes Charles better. Not always agreeing with him, challenging him, or calling him out if you will, makes for much more entertaining television. You can tell that Barkley feels comfortable with the group he is on the set with. It really allows him to let more of his big personality out. But it is all about that comfort and everyone being comfortable with who that other person is and what their strengths are on the show. It works so well.
Think about the popularity of the show and how many other studio crews are taking elements of it and adapting it to their own shows. That includes TNT’s NHL on TNT pre/post/intermission shows. The formula works, but you have to have the right people on the set. The NHL version is growing into something of its own, this being its first season.
Now, just to throw a wrench in here, if and when Barkley were to leave the show, it would be a big blow. Right now, he’s the one guy they can least afford to lose. But, the Hall of Famer has hinted at calling it quits recently. TNT held a conference call just before the All-Star Game in February, in which Barkley and the Inside the NBA panel appeared. At the end of the call, Barkley was asked how much longer he’ll continue to be a broadcaster.
Via the Dallas Morning News’ Brad Townsend, Barkley said he has 2 years left on his contract
“and that’s probably going to be it for me.” Barkley continued, “It’s been a great, great thing. I love Ernie, Kenny, Shaq and everybody we work with. But I just don’t feel the need to work until the day I die. I don’t, man. I’ll be 61 years old if I finish out my contract. And I don’t want to die on TV. I want to die on the golf course or somewhere fishing. I don’t want to be sitting inside over [by] fat-ass Shaq [waiting] to drop dead.”
Barkley is must see television, mainly because of the environment he’s surrounds himself in.
There’s a strength in the numbers, not just the stats these former players have amassed, but
the bond they’ve formed. It makes for terrific, not terrible (in Barkley voice), television.
Rob Parker is a Hall of Famer and a Pioneer
Rob Parker began his career by starting a sports-only newspaper at his high school and now he’s a Hall of Famer.
On the outskirts of the borough of Queens in New York City, lies the neighborhood of Queens Village. Located about nine miles to southeast of Citi Field, the neighborhood was founded in the 1640s and is viewed as quiet and residential. Queens Village is the home to Martin Van Buren High School, which opened in 1955. In the year 1980, Rob Parker recognized a dream inside the walls of that school with an idea that was well before it’s time. He wanted to start the first all-sports newspaper.
The idea came out of Parker’s frustration with the school paper, The Beeline, for which he wrote. The 16-year-old Parker had an intense hunger for a future in journalism, but didn’t love the fact he would write an article on the basketball team in the fall and it wouldn’t be published until baseball season. He wanted to run a paper that was more timely and solely dedicated to sports. The idea was shot down before it even started.
“I went to the school principal and said I wanted to start an all-sports newspaper that came out on time every month,” said Parker. “He was like, ‘no, the kids are only going to throw it on the ground as trash’. That was the first response out of his mouth. Could you imagine that? An educator telling a kid that?”
The school principal also said there wasn’t enough money to pay for another newspaper. But Parker wasn’t going to just turn away. He then asked if the idea could be a go if he raised the money to pay for the printing. Reluctantly, the principal agreed.
Parker went home and grabbed his typewriter. He realized his idea was only going to happen if he made it happen, so he hustled to find a way to make it a reality. He wrote three letters to the three publishers of the three New York newspapers, in hopes of just one of them agreeing to help his new venture. The Daily News did not write him back, which was unfortunate because that was Parker’s favorite paper. The New York Times wrote back, but sent a letter saying it was against their company policy to help other people start newspapers.
“As if a 16-year-old kid was competition,” laughed Parker. ‘I was shocked somebody actually said that and wrote that letter.”
Call it luck, call it fate, but the New York Post responded.
“I opened up the envelope and there was a check for 50 dollars to start my newspaper,” Parker said. “Rupert Murdoch was the publisher. That’s really what catapulted my career and gave me the belief in journalism to get started. That was the start of it all.”
That small gift by Murdoch and the New York Post sparked a Hall of Fame career for Parker. His all-sports newspaper, Sports Line was a huge success at Martin Van Buren High School. So much so, that even after he graduated, multiple editors carried on the legacy of the paper. It wasn’t the turnout the school principal thought it would be.
“This is 1980 and I think the first all-sports newspaper debuted in the United States in like 1989,” Parker said. “I’m really proud of that Sports Line paper. That’s my lasting memory of Van Buren High School.”
This week, 42 years after his sports media career officially began, he’s walking the same halls where he had a big idea and empty pockets. This time around, he’s being honored by being inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s been like a year and a half because of Covid,” said Paker. “But at the time, it came out of nowhere. I still pinch myself, I gotta be honest.”
Parker has enjoyed an incredible 36-year career as an acclaimed writer and a national host on both radio and television at the biggest networks in the industry. He’s a pro, but it still hit him in a way he didn’t expect when his co-host Chris Broussard of The Odd Couple on Fox Sports Radio, which can be heard from 7-10 p.m. EST, referred to him by his latest honor in the opening segment of the show on Monday.
“When Chris said The Hall of Famer it was just awesome,” Parker said. “I always remember calling the late Al Kaline in Detroit The Hall of Famer, so that’s what I think about. The fact people are saying that to me is pretty special.”
“Rob’s induction into his high school Hall of Fame is absolutely well-deserved,” said Broussard. “He’s excelled in virtually every aspect of journalism – print, beat-writing, column writing, TV and radio. And he’s also been a mentor and door-opener for dozens of young journalists. I couldn’t be prouder for my radio partner.”
It’s been a week of reflection for Parker and the opportunity to be present for the induction has been humbling for him. But what would that 16-year-old version of Parker think about this?
“No way, no how, would this be possible,” Parker said. “Just a kid growing up with a dream of being a newspaper reporter, since I was nine-years-old. All I ever wanted to be is a sports writer. To be down this road and go from writing to national television and national radio it’s very humbling and fulfilling. The one thing I will say is I don’t feel like I’ve left any stone unturned and I was able to experience all the things I wanted to experience.”
This isn’t the first honor Parker has been given during his sports media career. Far from it, actually. Parker was named the National Association of Black Journalists’ Sports Task Force Journalist of the Year in 2018. He was also the first Black sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press when he was hired in 1993 and the first Black sports columnist for Newsday in New York. He’s broken barriers in his career and it’s one of the many reasons why a plaque will be forever enshrined at Martin Van Buren High School.
All of that started by one random act of kindness. It happened because the editor of a newspaper decided to send a check for 50 dollars to an unknown kid in the city. Parker has never forgotten what Murdoch did for his career. It’s probably even a driving force as to why he’s helped mentor more than 50 journalists.
“A couple of years ago I was on the set of Undisputed and I was able to tell Rupert that story,” Parker said. “He was amazed by it. He was like, did that really happen? I said absolutely.”
Meet The Market Managers: Ryan Hatch, Bonneville International Phoenix
“Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it.”
For as long as I have known Ryan Hatch, he has been a good friend, encouraging me to take advantage of each opportunity put in front of me. When someone treats you that way, you cannot be anything but thrilled when you see them do the same thing.
Late last year, Ryan was elevated from a programming executive role with Bonneville to become Market Manager of the company’s Phoenix cluster. He is now overseeing every aspect of a building that he has worked in for a long time.
I thought it would be fun to visit with him to see what has changed. The last time I profiled him, he was serving as PD of Arizona Sports 98.7. The last time we profiled Bonneville Phoenix for this series, it was Scott Sutherland in the Market Manager’s chair. So, what has changed?
In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Ryan and I discuss the changing nature of our business, retaining great talent, and supporting the person who’s tasked with filling your former position and leading the programming team forward. When a company is ahead of the curve with its digital strategy and generating strong ratings and revenue, what’s next?
Demetri Ravanos: So how has the transition gone moving from programming into the market manager’s seat? We’re a little over six months into the change. How steep has the learning curve been?
Ryan Hatch: You know what? It’s been fantastic. And I have to give so much credit to Scott Sutherland, who was in the chair before me, and others within the company for really preparing me for this moment. But it’s not just a transition from programming. I would think even if I came up through the sales, marketing or finance side there would be a curve.
I’m learning new things every single day and loving it. So whether it’s six months or six years in this chair or more, I hope that I can always say that.
I love the job. I love the market. Obviously, you know, I’ve been here for such a long time and it’s the best chair to be in. I’m thrilled.
DR: You mentioned Scott and I started thinking about this after you and I set a time to talk. There’s this advantageous environment of education there, right? Because Scott is still in the area. He held your job before. You’re obviously in the building and that’s got to be advantageous for Sean Thompson. How much do those conversations take place day-to-day? There seems to be an opportunity for everybody to learn and build on the person that came before them because they can just walk down the hall and ask.
RH: Absolutely it can be advantageous because you’ve got institutional knowledge. Every person that’s been in your chair before can certainly provide important information to help expedite the onboarding process.
The other side of it is making sure that there are clear boundaries. I can speak with Sean Thompson coming in on the programming side. My goal is to empower him and embolden Sean to take this brand to a different level with new ideas and thoughts.
I’d been in that chair for so long, we were certainly ready for somebody new to come in with a new perspective and new experiences, and Sean’s done a wonderful job doing that. I think if you talk to Scott, he would probably say something similar. So when you ask the question, “is it advantageous?”, the answer is unquestionable. Yes, it is. At the same time, you have to really be clear on where those boundaries are, how much you want to give and share, and how much you want to let that person learn and experience it on their own as they’re creating their new environment, if that makes sense.
DR: So with those boundaries, are there things you see Sean putting into place that make you think, “Oh man, that’s really cool. I kind of miss programing at this moment”?
RH: Well, the irony is in asking that question, I think today is actually his 90th day on the job. So we’re still in the basic stages of him taking that chair.
He’s full of ideas, full of energy. I can’t wait to see so much of it come to fruition. But again, when you’re only three months in, you’re doing a lot of listening and a lot of learning before you dig in to start making change. I expect that to come, but he walked into a position with a great on-air staff, fantastic talent, an unbelievable digital team, with a great marketing and promotional support team behind him as well.
I’ll tell you what I’m most excited about is what’s going to happen this fall. After the listening and the learning is done, we’ll be starting to really build some exciting plans into the NFL season around the Cardinals and the NFL. We’re also hosting the Super Bowl in February of ’23 as well. So we’ve got a great big build coming here in Arizona.
DR: So let’s talk a little bit about the future and where things can go, not just for Phoenix, but for Bonneville overall. I told you this a million times. What has always impressed me about the company, even before you and I got to know each other, was that you guys were so ahead of the curve on recognizing the value of digital content. Arizona Sports is not a radio station, it is a brand.
I wonder now that you are in the market manager’s chair, how you look at all of the money from these different companies being put into podcasts. I mean, the deals being made to turn podcasts into TV shows or movies, do you ever think about what is possible or maybe what the next evolution for the digital side of Bonneville could or should be?
RH: Well, I think as a company, and not to speak for Tanya Vea, who’s in a new EVP position helping oversee a lot of our content initiatives, we’re opening up a mechanism for local ideas to be funneled up to a team led by our VP of Podcasting, Sheryl Worsley. The idea is to be able to support a local that might scale on a national level and help it achieve that potential. I think that we’re very aggressive. I think that we’re also very strategic in the podcasting world.
There’s a blessing and a curse there. The blessing is that that audience is expanding rapidly and the revenue’s been following, you know, slowly, but still following in that direction. The downside is how much time and energy and creativity a lot of our best talent have.
Do we want to put our talk show hosts, who are spending 4 hours a day creating live broadcast content, at the forefront of that effort? How many more hours a day of creative juice do they have left for a podcast or a passion project? It could be something that might not be entirely complimentary to the brand.
I think you have to be smart and strategic and understand how big of a bed it is you want to make. I think we’re being strategic about it and making the best decision for each individual circumstance.
DR: So what about from a broadcast angle? As podcasting continues to grow and becomes the kind of thing that sellers see as easier to get clients involved with, what are the things that terrestrial radio is going to have to do to secure its own future?
RH: Well, speaking on behalf of our properties here, where we’re all local news and all local sports. Really, that’s our business. I don’t think that there’s anything that can replicate the power of live, in the moment, information-based content. And that is the value proposition that broadcast has.
Now, will that traditional radio audience continue to decline and find other venues? Potentially. I mean, that’s just natural, and I think that we’ve seen that accelerate through the pandemic. That doesn’t take away from the importance though.
If you look at Bonneville Phoenix, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR, our streaming numbers are way, way up. Our monthly app users are way, way up. Our smart speaker usage is way, way up. And I think too many times we categorize one as digital and one as radio. I look at it more through the lens of what is a live broadcast and what is driven by more destination-based, story-based, topic-based choices. That’s a different experience and you can serve both.
DR: What is your view of having that live content accessed by both radios and streaming devices? When you’re a programmer, I think it is it is easier to say, “Look, people are coming to this content. This is good content. That is what matters.” But now that you’re the market manager, I know you are a real advocate for total line reporting, but now the ratings take on this whole different meaning to you than they did before. What is your view of the right path forward to paint that picture easily and accurately for advertisers about just how powerful these brands are, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR?
RH: Thank goodness we have fantastic sales management and account executives on the streets telling that story and big brands to back them up with that unique content that our stations are delivering. And as I’ve told you in different settings over the years Demetri, Nielsen is one of many tools that tell that story. When we’re on the streets talking to a potential advertiser, and understand that our game is not as national or our market is not as regional, we are hyper-locally focused. In Phoenix, Arizona, that’s a lot of small to medium-sized businesses. So when we can walk in and share a total audience report that gives a glimpse of Nielsen, which we know is antiquated and really, really needs to be reformed and updated. You’ve got to bring your Google Analytics and your Triton numbers. You have so many other tools to use to evaluate how our content is being delivered and consumed. You’ve got to paint that entire total audience story, and I will tell you that it’s a story that is very well received in Phoenix with our products.
DR: Maybe this is more of a question for your sales staff, but is it a matter of walking potential advertisers and current advertisers through each individual number, or do you find a way to synthesize it down into a simple illustration of how many people are listening to your content every day?
RH: It’s not a numbers game. It’s not getting into detail about how many tens of thousands of listeners we have on one platform and how many on another and how many views or clicks on websites. Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it. When you have something that works for your advertisers, they’re not going to be coming in and scrutinizing the numbers left and right.
Now, you have to deliver to the audience, and we have significant audiences. In fact, I’ll tell you right now, combining everything together. And it’s not apples to apples, because these are all different channels. But our audience is here in Phoenix between our websites, our apps, and our radio distribution. Our audiences have never been better. I mean, that’s a wonderful and easy story to tell.
DR: Play-by-play is obviously a big part of what you do on Arizona Sports. You and I have talked before about the landscape of Phoenix sports, and I think you’ve described it as, because Phoenix is a transplant market, you find yourself talking about everyone’s second favorite team.
So how does that play with advertisers? Do they buy into the idea that this is a unifying thing or is there some concern that it is too much of a transplant market for the value returned by play-by-play doesn’t match the cost to advertise in that space?
RH: Our original franchise, the Phoenix Suns, while, they had a disappointing end of the season, it couldn’t have been more galvanizing. That is the one team that has been here for 50-plus years. That orange blood does run deep. The Cardinals have had their moments. The Diamondbacks have the only championship in the major sports here, but that was back in 2001.
I’ll answer that question in a couple of ways. Number one, we are catering to the fans and to the super fans, but we try to create content that is going to be accessible and interesting for those that would claim that any of the franchises are their second favorite team in a given league. When you move into a market and you head to the office or nowadays maybe it’s a Zoom call, you still want to be able to have a conversation about something that’s relevant. You want a shared experience with your coworker or a neighbor, somebody at school when you’re hanging out waiting to up the kids. So often that conversation is sports.
We have a fantastic sports market. Now, where’s the passion level? Is it as high as a Boston or Philadelphia? Of course not and we’re not going to act like it is. But at the end of the day, what does an advertiser look for? They’re looking for an audience and they’re looking for something exclusive to put their message on. That’s what we’re able to offer with our play-by-play. On top of that, what’s become more and more important to us in our model, especially on the digital side over the years, is the access to those decision-makers, to the coaches, the exclusive access to the general managers with weekly calls, and things like player shows.
There’s so much more that you can offer beyond just the game itself that makes these partnerships great for our business and the advertising community.
DR: So coming out of what is being called The Great Resignation, what are you experiencing as a market manager and what are your other hiring managers experiencing? What are the new challenges of recruiting, whether it is sales or programing, any kind of talent in an environment like this?
RH: Well, let’s add to that and talk about inflationary pressures as well. I mean, there are so many factors at play right now, and I think it’s as tough as I can ever remember it.
What we’re doing here at Bonneville Phoenix is really leaning into our culture and making sure that we’re an employer of choice because we have a culture that people want to be a part of. It’s a good team environment full of hungry people that want to succeed not just for themselves. So the more hungry, humble, and smart people we find, the better off we’re going to be.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost. There’s been a dramatic shuffle. Right now, I can say that we’re close to a full boat, but that wasn’t the case a month ago. There are so many different forces at play right now. It is a difficult environment. Our news side alone faces unique challenges. News itself has been under attack for multiple years. Don’t you think that burns people out?
Absolutely I have concerns, but what can we control? Well, we can focus on executing the vision that Bonneville has provided. It’s built on passionate people and innovation. It is about creating a culture people want to be a part of.
DR: We’ve heard a lot about burnout when people talk about why they leave a job in any industry. We hear about work-life balance. You’re responsible for the entire building, so what are you telling your managers on the sales and programming side about creating an environment for employees that respects that those are real and valid concerns while still maintaining the level of expectation of quality for Arizona Sports and KTAR.
RH: We’re still committed to the highest standards, and we always will be. And we found that certain parts of the business can work pretty effectively from home, while other parts of the business really can’t. I will tell you, on the content side working from home, we did it when we had to. We did it, I would say fairly effectively for a few extended periods. But overall, in a local news and local sports environment that really is driven by the breaking news, the need to work together in a space is real. You just can’t do things as quickly or as effectively or as creatively if you’re separated. You just can’t.
Now, on the sales side, we want them on the streets. We want them out of the office, but there is a balance. So what are we asking our great sales managers to do? We’re asking them just to make sure that they are up to speed on where the activity is and that we’re doing all the jobs that need to be done. Do I ever see us going back to five days a week in the office? I don’t. I think that ship has sailed and I think that’s just fine. I think there’s some real benefit to that.
The way to make this all work is to empower our department heads to come up with a plan that’s going to work best for them, for their people, and deliver on what our expectations are for the business. And then as leaders, we have to understand that the plan is going to be evolving. It really is. This is not going to be decided on a new policy set. I think that we’re in a new world, probably for the rest of our lives.