When we look back at 2020 years down the road, chances are most of us will remember it as the year we were rocked by Covid-19. The pandemic caused death, economic pain, a surge in unemployment, shut downs across the country, and even a Presidential change. Although each of the issues we’ve dealt with are much more significant than news created in sports media circles, this is after all a media site, and 2020 was a year full of activity.
During the past twelve months, Joe Rogan and Bill Simmons got paid big by Spotify. Outkick became a bigger brand due to Jason Whitlock and Clay Travis teaming up to form a strong 1-2 punch. Mike Francesa stepped away from the daily sports radio chaos in New York City after three decades on top. Sports radio stations 98.5 The Sports Hub, 97.1 The Ticket, and KFAN proved they could deliver monster ratings without sports, while top notch talent such as John Kincade, Steak Shapiro, and Bernie Miklasz learned that even a strong body of work wasn’t enough to survive the havoc created by Covid-19 on the sports media industry.
The coronavirus also taught the sports television industry a valuable lesson about storing quality programming, as networks aired content of little value due to the sports world shutting down. The national sports radio scene saw Mike Greenberg return to ESPN Radio while Mike Golic, Trey Wingo and the Dan Le Batard crew exited. Damon Amendolara even showed how a national sports radio show can bring together a host, listener and community by introducing the world to ‘Lil’ Mo Gaba and continuing to honor him after his passing.
There were many examples of great content, touching stories, head scratching decisions, and personality rants, but I’m going to focus on twelve things I liked, observed and remain bullish on heading into 2021. This list is not in any particular order. It’s just a series of things that have either caught my attention or are floating thru my brain as we brace ourselves for a brand new year.
#1 – Layoffs were unfortunately a frequent part of the 2020 conversation. ESPN, iHeart, Entercom and others all went thru it. Personnel were cut and in some cases temporary salary reductions, hiring freezes, and mandatory furloughs were installed. Entering 2021, there are a lot of talented people sitting on the sidelines. Though some decisions were necessary as a result of unexpected economic pain caused by the pandemic, cutting jobs isn’t a path to long-term prosperity. Brands become weaker, retained employees become bitter as their responsibilities increase, and competitors get stronger due to skilled people being available. With another stimulus package expected to give more relief to media groups and a vaccine on the way to help society in its fight with Covid-19, better days should be coming our way. If though future cuts become necessary again, executives should learn from the mistakes they made in 2020. Introducing poorly thought out terms such as ‘employee dislocation‘ and ‘excellence centers‘, and failing to be open and honest with media professionals who were being let go after investing decades of time to help brands succeed leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. It paints a picture of a company and its leadership team lacking awareness and compassion during difficult times. In the long run that’s never a good omen for growing a business. Professionals understand the realities of the world. They can handle bad news. Treat them with respect rather than worrying about how your message might resonate in the trades and press. Trust me, no fancy quote or created term is going to make your company look better when you’re eliminating hundreds of salaries.
#2 – You can have the best talent on earth, a sales team that can sell ice to an Eskimo and a loyal audience that will listen to anything you present thru their speakers but it’s all irrelevant if you can’t actually get on the air. 2020 was The Year of the Engineer. Brands learned how fortunate or screwed they were this year based on who was in charge of their engineering department. Engineers usually fly under the radar inside most stations, only being called upon when something goes wrong. Well, given how many challenges there were to deal with in 2020, few departments earned their money more than these folks. So when you’re enjoying an adult beverage celebrating the arrival of 2021 and putting 2020 in your rear view mirror, feel free to raise a toast to the men and women in these departments across the country because without them, the damage our industry felt in 2020 would have been much more severe.
#3 – No brand had a better 2020 than Barstool Sports. Regardless of whether you love or loathe Dave Portnoy and Erika Nardini, Barstool was acquired as part of a $450 million dollar deal with Penn National. They then rewarded their new ownership group by continuing to dominate social media, introducing new apps, podcasts, and personalities (Deion Sanders, Joey Mulinaro, Ben Mintz), monetizing commentaries and social moments thru a mixture of strong advertising and merchandising strategies, explored new territory (Coach Duggs on Twitch), and they’re positioned well to enjoy a strong share of the sports betting market. Portnoy in particular continues to evolve by diving deeper into the stock market, moving to Philadelphia to grow the brand’s sports betting opportunities and fan base, and by being more active in the political arena. He weighed in frequently on decisions made by politicians during the pandemic, offered video commentaries on the presidential election, and has appeared on CNBC and FOX News, even traveling to the White House for a face to face conversation with President Trump. Don’t worry he didn’t change everything though. Pizza reviews remained a hit, and feuds with former HBO exec Peter Nelson and media critics remained alive. The brand’s best effort though came at the end of the year with the creation of The Barstool Fund to help small businesses impacted by the pandemic. The idea was an instant success, generating over 11 million dollars in donations, and helping more than 45 small businesses. The videos submitted by local businesses have been powerful, and the calls made by Portnoy to each owner informing them that help is on the way have been uplifting, proving to the world that Barstool can do amazing things with its platform when it rallies around a cause. Barstool has taken a lot of hits over the years for its prior actions and commentaries but their ability to make an impact is undeniable, and they’re unlikely to slow down anytime soon, even with a pandemic causing all sorts of pain and disruption.
#4 – Some were pissed that Craig Carton had a seat waiting for him in New York at WFAN following his exit from prison. I’m not one of those people. Hearing Carton back on the air, doing what he does best, entertaining sports radio listeners, was a smart programming and business move for FAN. Craig is gifted at what he does and added instant star power to the radio station, but finding chemistry with Evan Roberts and beating 98.7 ESPN NY’s The Michael Kay Show is going to be a lot harder than teaming with Boomer Esiason and beating a national morning show featuring Mike & Mike and/or Golic & Wingo. Whether Carton & Roberts win or not though in the future is besides the point. Sports radio is better with Craig Carton on the air. If you want to pout about him getting the job without serving a life sentence for his prior transgressions that’s fine. But I think it comes down to four simple things; Results, Relationships, Talent and Timing. Like it or not, Carton had all four on his side and now it’s up to him to make the most of his second chance. I’m rooting for him to do just that.
#5 – Timing is everything when it comes to creating an impact, and for ESPN, the decision to move up the release of The Last Dance was both smart and necessary. With sports shut down and networks relying on old games and programming that looked and felt different and unimportant, the arrival of the ten part series directed by Jason Hehir, highlighting Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls of the 1990’s, gave people a sense of normalcy and something to look forward to on a weekly basis. It was the most tweeted about show in 2020 and a heavy part of conversation on sports radio as hosts took to it like moths to a flame. Though the series had Jordan’s influence all over it and generated mixed reactions among former Bulls and sports media members, I enjoyed it. It gave people a reason to watch sports on television during a time when they were desperate for good content. Sometimes that’s more important than the facts themselves.
#6 – Four individuals earned my respect and appreciation for their social media creativity in 2020….Barstool’s Kevin ‘KFC’ Clancy created two digital hits with his social video series One-Minute Man and The Goddamn Jets. The Jets series delivered what you’d expect, the rantings and ravings of a pissed off Jets fan. As a Giants fan, I’m used to Jets fans being upset so that didn’t move me as much, but One-Minute Man was an absolute gem. The series features Clancy looking at trending sports and pop culture topics, it’s well edited, cleverly produced, and laughter is provided throughout each episode. Few talent understand how to reach and connect with younger audiences while still serving traditionalists like myself better than Clancy……another sports media star who created a social media impact was ESPN’s Katie Nolan who turned a Zoom call with ESPN friends into one of the coolest moments of the year. With the country locked down and looking for positive things to latch on to, Nolan used her creativity, connections, and media guests to turn a normal video chat into a special piece of content that was better than most of what aired on ESPN television during the same week…….since we’re on the subject of Zoom, Annie Agar arrived on the scene and used her creativity to show how certain scenarios would play out if the key parties involved were to take part in a Zoom call together. The originality of Agar’s work got the attention of ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown producers and landed her an appearance on the show. If Agar was able to make this quickly of an impression on social media in 2020, I’m curious to see what she has in store for us in 2021….but the best social video content I saw this year was more serious in nature. FOX Sports’ Emmanuel Acho tackled the issue of race in America with the introduction of Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man. The series was an instant success and has since been turned into a best selling book. Considering all we witnessed on our phone and television screens as city’s across America dealt with public unrest following controversial deaths involving police and black men, Acho leaned in to an important issue, and invited notable guests such as Matthew McConaughey, Roger Goodell and the Petaluma police department to explore ways to improve racial tensions in society. The all white backdrop to each episode made an immediate impression, and Acho’s ability to guide and advance serious discussions showed why he’s rapidly becoming a sports media sensation.
#7 – We heard mixed reactions initially when news broke that Pat McAfee was leaving CBS Sports Radio for SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio. I was surprised because I couldn’t understand how Entercom and Westwood One could let a rising star like McAfee get away less than a year into a deal or why anyone would think McAfee wouldn’t fit in on the Chris Russo branded channel. From the start I thought it was a no-brainer decision for SiriusXM’s management team and am even more convinced now that Steve Cohen and his leadership group hit a homerun. McAfee is a star in every sense of the word. His style is better presented on satellite radio than on terrestrial, and his placement in the lineup between Adam Schein and Mad Dog is perfect. Does he deliver a traditional sports talk show? No. The great ones usually have their own style and ability to generate interest and McAfee does plenty of that whether it’s on television, radio, social media or inside of a wrestling ring. With his arrival on the channel, McAfee has added more star power, appointment conversations, and another reason to continue listening to one of sports radio’s best national channels.
#8 – I said it three years ago and believe it even more now at the end of 2020. Stations are going to use Virtual Program Directors in the near future. The majority of communication is done thru email and the phone. A good leader with creative ideas, strong technical skills, an ability to coach talent, industry relationships, and accessibility doesn’t need to be in an office to be effective. Most groups learned this during the pandemic. If talent can perform from their kitchen tables, so too can a PD inside a home office, whether living locally or elsewhere in the country. With brands looking for ways to reduce costs and maintain efficiency, and professionals seeking flexibility if asked to adjust their economic situations, don’t be surprised if this becomes a more popular trend down the line.
#9 – ESPN Radio ends 2020 in an unfamiliar position, having to regain trust and confidence from a large number of affiliates. Longtime executive Traug Keller departed in February, and months later a few other prominent execs, most notably Connor Schell, also exited. Since then the Bristol run network has made two major lineup changes, losing key people such as Mike Golic, Trey Wingo, Dan Le Batard, and Jon ‘Stugotz’ Weiner. The loss of those high profile talents and the reports in the press surrounding their departures, has left decision makers questioning if staying in business with ESPN Radio is in their best interests. ESPN executive David Roberts tried to alleviate some of those concerns during a conversation with yours truly, but if ESPN wants to retain a firm grasp on the successful business its built then it’s going to have to deliver results, offer more executive access to radio leaders, and provide lineup stability. Radio operators don’t do well with frequent change, especially on a national level where one tweak can affect hundreds of radio stations. It’s too early to say whether or not the changes made will make ESPN Radio stronger but most industry folks we spoke with aren’t optimistic about the network’s direction and feel FOX Sports Radio has become the strongest national product. It’s up to Roberts, Justin Craig, Norby Williamson, Tim McCarthy, Amanda Gifford and everyone else involved to prove the new path can be just as successful as the old one.
#10 – Since we’re on the topic of national sports radio, one brand I’m going to be keeping an eye on in 2021 is VSIN. The brand established itself well over the past few years, added to its talent roster in 2020, and has its sights set on expanding its terrestrial footprint in the new year after announcing its exit from SiriusXM. To help them do that they’ve expanded their partnership with IHeart and will soon announce the hiring of a Director of Audio. With sports betting gaining more political support across the country, the Las Vegas based audio/video brand is built to capitalize on it. The category itself is red hot in advertising circles, and given some of the changes and uncertainty surrounding some of the national sports radio networks, it’ll be interesting to see if a growing market and new relationships can help Brian Musburger’s brand ascend to a higher level. Based on what I see and hear, I’d bet on them making strides in 2021.
#11 – A position that doesn’t exist inside most sports radio stations which absolutely should is a Director of Merchandising. GM’s and Execs don’t like to pay off-air folks because they can’t attach dollars to their roles, but this is one position that absolutely can. Brands have 168 hours per week to use their airwaves, and unlimited opportunities on social platforms to market their products and generate revenue. Heck, stations use these hours to sell thousands of minutes of commercials to clients, stressing the value of the medium and its ability to drive sales. Maybe it’s time to take our own medicine and use the air time to move our own products. To do that, programmers are going to need to reevaluate the importance of a promo and work closely with the Director of Merchandising to better use promo time to grow business. This should easily be an annual six figure business for sports radio brands. WWE, Barstool Sports, ProWrestlingTees and others are making a fortune on merchandise, and sports radio should be doing the same. Before you bitch about the expenses associated with creating merch, save it. Ordering in bulk cuts costs and in this 2020 economy I’m sure local t-shirt shops would love to work with radio stations to stay busy and keep their doors open. You don’t make money without spending money and companies can’t afford to say no to adding six figures worth of revenues to their bottom lines. At this stage of the game, radio must rethink how it’s growing NTR and merchandise should be at the center of the discussion.
#12 – Why radio groups and advertising agencies throw large sums of money in the direction of Nielsen is beyond my understanding. 2020 should have been a wakeup call that when business survival is on the line, spending big for a flawed ratings service makes little economic sense. Yet most radio groups kept feeding the monster while absorbing financial losses and staff reductions. Kudos to Saga Communications, Midwest Communications and Townsquare Media who realized there are other ways to grow a company without relying on the service. I have nothing against Nielsen. I love research, examining listening trends, analyzing meter counts, and studying the game within the game. I also like a few people in the company who try to lend insight whenever I have questions. My problem is the information. First, streaming has been poorly captured. The company just finally started measuring headphone listening. Think that could be a problem when a pandemic hits, shutdowns create record unemployment, and less people are on the road? Now add to that consistently low meter counts which can see a market’s results affected by one individual. When a business is hurting, your ratings won’t be enough to convince them to buy advertising. The only thing that might save it is a relationship between the client and a salesperson or manager. I also didn’t like the way Nielsen announced their new ‘Subscribers First‘ policy. Although I can see why they’d want to stop providing information on brands that don’t use their service, they’re also providing less full market information to companies who are paying for the service. As expected, it produced reactions from a few media professionals. Click here, here and here to read some of them. Maybe one day radio’s measurement service will produce statistics and evidence that help executives trust and understand the listening patterns of their audience, but that day has yet to arrive. In the meantime, executives keep throwing money at the problem, worrying more about what they could lose rather than what they might gain by pursuing a different path.