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Sports Radio Program Director’s React To ESPN Radio Changes

“Dan is incredibly committed to his way of doing things and he and the network were clearly heading in opposite directions.”

Demetri Ravanos

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ESPN Radio

News broke last week that Dan Le Batard would soon be leaving ESPN and the ESPN Radio weekday lineup. As a result, changes were required to ESPN Radio’s programming schedule, the second major change in less than six months. Mike Greenberg will now slide into Le Batard’s old timeslot, and the team of Alan Hahn and Bart Scott will occupy Greenberg’s previous show time of Noon to 2pm ET.

To nobody’s surprise, the changes produced a ton of reaction. I spent much of my weekend swapping emails and texts with more than ten sports radio program directors who partner with ESPN Radio across the country to take their pulse on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz going away, Greeny changing time slots, and 98.7 ESPN NY’s Bart & Hahn, moving into the national lineup in middays. The majority of the feedback I received was a combination of frustration, disappointment, and confusion of how much the worldwide leader values it’s radio affiliate partners.

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To assure that we received honest and candid feedback, I offered each program director anonymity. Some readers and industry professionals may have an issue with that, but I’d rather have decision makers offer true sentiments instead of platitudes.

One sports radio insider I spoke with told me that he wasn’t at all surprised by Le Batard and ESPN cutting ties. In fact, he says everyone he spoke to close to the situation said they expected the announcement to come much sooner than it did.

“I was actually surprised that his show was a part of the new lineup when it was announced this summer. By keeping him while also taking away an hour of his show, you knew the end was near and there would be another lineup fairly soon.”

One PD out West told me that he is surprised ESPN didn’t find a way to try and keep Le Batard in the family somehow.

“I think Dan is a great talent that resonates with a younger demographic. Those people are not easy to find, and I am curious which direction ESPN is going in moving forward with their daily television product.”

One PD in the Midwest said he suspects Le Batard has been thinking about his future with ESPN for well over a year now, since he caught heat for criticizing the network’s unwillingness to let talent address social issues.

“I think Dan is incredibly committed to his way of doing things and he and the network were clearly heading in opposite directions. But there is a deeper issue here and it’s really about sports radio trying to come to terms with today’s political climate,” the PD said.

“Dan is not shy with his opinions and is not afraid to share them, a staple of any successful radio program in the past. This is great if you’re a conservative oriented talk station with a clear identity. People are coming to that station specifically to hear that viewpoint. But if you’re a station whose identity is tied up in talking about the local baseball, football or basketball team in interesting and entertaining ways – why should a listener come back tomorrow if they think they’re just going to get a “sports guy” trying to do his Sean Hannity or Jake Tapper bit? This terrifies a sports network who just doesn’t have listeners or margins to lose right now. They are afraid of dividing and losing the somewhat niche audience they are able to attract.”

Another Midwestern PD told me it is that willingness to make people, particularly the bosses, uncomfortable that allowed The Dan Le Batard Show to stand out.

“The other shows seem pretty formulaic, but Le Batard and his crew were original; and not wholly dependent on the ‘news of the day’ in creating memorable and compelling segments. They looked at sports, pop culture, and current events thru a different lens, and I appreciated the originality.”

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A PD in the South agreed with the idea that the ESPN Radio lineup is a lot less special without Dan Le Batard in the mix.

“His exit just furthers the homogenization of ESPN’s lineup. For the most part, it’s dull by design. As far as Dan’s replacement? Come on, let’s just say I have very low expectations for it’s longevity on my station. ESPN is still a brand that carries cache locally, but the apple isn’t as shiny as it was. Fortunately for the network, those four letters still open doors.”

That brings up another interesting question. What is the value of the ESPN brand to local affiliates now? Without Le Batard, everything during prime hours originates out of the Northeast and all of the shows in mid days, when stations may elect to air syndicated programming, have a very distinct New York flavor.

One PD I spoke with in the Northeast says the shows don’t add much value to his station, even though he’s not far from the big apple. The lineup may mean less, but the four letters still carry weight.

“I still think the ESPN brand means something. Maybe not what it once meant, but it’s still synonymous with sports and being the top sports brand out there. I still think the power of saying ESPN to clients is more powerful than any other name available.”

“I have no reason for optimism,” a West Coast programmer said when I asked how he felt about airing Bart & Hahn. “It reinforces every negative stereotype about the East Coast centricity of ESPN Radio. You can never be all things to all people (which is the inherent challenge of a network model), but the combination of a longtime New York writer and a player best known for his days with the Jets is an extraordinarily narrow area of interest and expertise. So, I’m sure it will continue to be a good show for 98.7 in NYC.”

I asked several programmers to offer their perspective on the network changing big parts of their weekday lineup twice in the span of a little more than just four months. One PD in the Midwest said that it certainly isn’t ideal, but affiliates likely won’t view it as detrimental as they would if it was local talent being shuffled multiple times within half of a calendar year.

“It begs the bigger question—where does ESPN Radio or any national network or show fit with local radio stations? If I want to listen to any ESPN Radio show, I can listen to it on my phone, watch it on ESPN+, listen to it on SiriusXM, TuneIn, or on my smart speaker. Why do we need any of these shows on a local radio station?”

“ESPN has bent over backwards to help localize the relationship as much as possible – namely offering their talent as guests regularly on our local shows, but in reality, LOCAL content is what drives attention and revenue,” another programmer added in agreement. “I don’t know that ESPN Radio’s programming is going to have mass appeal to local markets outside of New York, LA and possibly a handful of other big cities.”

It reminds me of a conversation I once had with a PD down south that said he didn’t see the need to pay the exorbitant rights fees the local college football team was asking for to be an affiliate of their radio network because there are dozens of ways to consume any one game now. Nothing that has multiple broadcast homes can be that special.

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Another PD told me that given the value in the ESPN brand name, the network shouldn’t rule out continuing to shuffle the deck until they hit on multiple shows that are truly special.

“The ESPN brand still universally means sports – and the play-by-play rights that the network offers are very valuable. But they should continue exploring and looking for transcendent talent to be a part of their regular lineup. Another run at a Pat McAfee? Try to get Katie Nolan more involved in daily radio? Peyton Manning? Hell, put Brett Favre on a show…something that moves the needle. Use weekends to grow up-and-coming personalities, but think about dynamic ensembles for daily radio that creates more ‘juice’ and interest.”

I asked two major market programmers their thoughts on the lineup and where ESPN stands in the national network landscape. Both acknowledged they were unhappy with where things stood, but they each gave a very different answer in terms of where the network ranks against its competitors.

“If we could get out of our contract today, we would. I think that says a lot about how things have changed,” one told me. When I asked if he felt the network valued his station and any of the feedback they’d provided on how the changes were affecting business, he added “Unfortunately, many of the line-up changes are inferior to previous shows on the network once offered. We have voiced our opinion, especially on the morning show but don’t feel we are being heard. Our complaints are usually met with research on where they say the show “is working.”

Another programmer also felt the network’s lineup had lost its luster but tried to relay the positives. “I think ESPN’s roster – albeit not as good as it was a few years ago with Mike & Mike – is still the best option. Fox Sports Radio has closed the gap but ESPN’s play-by-play pushes their package over the top. If you want your brand to be relevant in the future though, worrying about Bart & Hahn’s ratings should be secondary to building out LOCAL content.”

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In trying to diagnose the new ESPN Radio approach, one PD pointed to an issue that drives local programmers crazy and is seen as “a huge problem”. There’s a collective belief that ESPN is insistent on turning their TV stars into radio hosts, a strategic decision which differs from how the network attained its initial success. ESPN Radio became part of the fabric of radio stations across the country because their talent valued the medium and understood how to create great radio content.

“ESPN Radio needs its hosts to be FULLY invested in the radio show,” he said. “TV is full of beautiful people, amazing graphics packages and strong info, but in radio you need to make an authentic connection over time with individual listeners. To be able to do that with large swaths of individual listeners is what will ultimately make a successful radio show. If a host can’t make that connection to its audience it just won’t work and it’s a very difficult thing to do. Also, as a programmer, if it’s obvious to me that the radio show is just another thing they do at the network, why should I invest fully in them on the other side?”

There are going to be mixed responses anytime major changes are made at a national outlet like ESPN Radio. Stations in August adjusted their lineups to feature Le Batard and/or Greenberg in specific timeslots, and now less than five months later they have to explore changing yet again. That’s difficult for not only maintaining audience, but it creates problems for sales departments too who are trying to convince clients to buy commercials inside of a certain show, only to have them not be there less than a half a year later.

The big question that ESPN has to answer moving forward is how important is radio to their business? The network lost well respected executive Traug Keller earlier this year, a huge advocate internally for ESPN Radio and someone who worked hard to keep relationships strong with local stations. Less than a full year into a new regime, and the network already has two talent overhauls on its hands, including a poorly managed situation involving former morning man Mike Golic.

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Station programmers are hoping ESPN Radio executives continue to work on improving the network’s talent and lineup. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone in Bristol that the majority of respondents to this story felt the lineup has gotten worse. They cited play by play and the brand name as the key reasons why they continue partnering with the network. But if the shows themselves aren’t exciting station programmers or local audiences, and play by play airs mostly at night thus generating less local revenue, eventually those four letters will matter less to operators who are paying rights fees and giving up large chunks of inventory.

ESPN Radio has been an important part of the national/local sports radio landscape for decades. Stations have valued their relationship and enjoyed a lot of ratings and revenue success with the network. But if those two areas struggle more as a result of frequent lineup shuffling, local partners could be forced to explore new relationships, and give up on four important letters that have been a large part of their identity.

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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