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The Biggest Pandemic Lesson: Fans Have The Power Now

Many remained doggedly loyal as sports struggled to survive the last 365 days — now, an industry known for greed and corruption must pay back the people with a responsible, fan-friendly future.

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Bet you didn’t know it before March 11, 2020. But YOU, the fans, are the stars of sports. Yes, YOU — the diehards, the gamblers, the casual followers, the season-ticket holders, the sabergeeks, the tavern revelers, the bracket pickers, the jersey buyers, the trading-card hoarders, the website readers, the radio-show listeners, the Stephen A. Smith devotees, the social-media loons, the kids who still want bobbleheads.

Column: Washington sports fans show their major league mettle | WTOP

Not Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Not Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Trout. Not LeBron James and Steph Curry. Not the Dodgers and Nets and Lightning. Not Nick Saban. Not Gonzaga. Not Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and the mobility of quarterbacking nobility. Not Tiger Woods in his hospital bed. Not Trevor Bauer and his Twitter trollery. Not Novak Djokovic and his reluctance to take a vaccine.

YOU.

And if professional leagues, college conferences and broadcast networks have learned nothing else these last 365 days and nights, it’s that the people who support their industry and collective livelihoods never, ever should be undersold, mistreated or ripped off again. When team owners, star athletes and coaches used to cite the standard tribute, “I want to thank the greatest fans in the world,” they didn’t really believe it.

Now, they must not only embrace it as sport’s new existential mantra, they should be prepared to worship at your feet. The old script — taking the fans for granted — has been flipped by a profound appreciation for your mass interest, your in-venue energy and, of course, your annual multi-billion-dollar financial infusion. It took a global pandemic, the most disruptive health catastrophe in more than 100 years, for the sports behemoth to finally realize who holds the power and operates the on-off switch.

Because if YOU wanted to shut down sports, you could have these last 12 months. You could have stopped watching, stopped betting, stopped paying attention — and the beast would have fallen. Instead, with limited or no access to stadiums and arenas, millions still kept an eyeball on the games while trying to survive life. Never mind that a lack of crowd noise, the fluctuating roars and groans, made for awkward and often dull viewing experiences. Never mind that cardboard cutouts and canned sound created insulting TV caricatures. Never mind that some events, especially in the NBA and Major League Baseball and college sports, were unwatchable. Many folks kept tuning in anyway, and if the ratings were low and in some cases rock-bottom, having a game on was better for the industry than a test pattern. It was the American fan who prevented the American sports foundation from crumbling. Got it?

Notice how Curry — a man with seemingly everything, from immense wealth and family grounding to worldwide popularity — spoke reverently of the 2,000 or so folks allowed into Madison Square Garden for a recent Warriors-Knicks game. “There were some fans heckling, which was awesome,” he said. “Me and Draymond (Green) were talking about it. There’s no better feeling, I don’t care if it’s 19,000 or 2,500 or whatever it is: You love silencing a road crowd.”

See the newfound power YOU’VE accrued in COVID-19 absentia? Let’s hope this understanding will lead to a host of healthy lessons moving forward in sports. The operative word is perspective. Meaning, rather than transforming the games that people love into a perpetual money grab, it’s time the industry considers the fans first when making landmark business decisions.

Start with vaccinations. As I write this, only 9.9 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, but that hasn’t stopped leagues from ramping up their latest mad money rush: recklessly filling empty seats to generate ticket, concession, merchandise and parking revenues. I want to hurl. Let’s not advance the folly that sports events can resume in stadiums and arenas, with packed houses, while taking a half-assed approach to coronavirus vaccines — not requiring athletes and spectators to be inoculated. Otherwise, the virus will continue to endanger people and disrupt schedules, and the pandemic still will be with us. While understanding personal concerns about vaccines, particularly among Blacks and Hispanics, the thought of a locker room divided by vaxxers and anti-vaxxers only invites more infections, more quarantine periods, more missed games — and the possibility of internal dissension, if not a crippling postseason outbreak. As for the fans, a hopelessly split America means spectators in wide-open, mask-off states — such as Texas, which is whipping doors open to a potential 40,500 bodies for the Rangers’ home opener on April 5 — could be walking into superspreader events for months ahead.

Why would MLB allow this? Are the owners, most billionaires, so hard up for ballpark revenues after a dry 2020 that they’re prematurely risking the health of human beings? While 25 of the 30 teams have been approved to welcome fans, including five in California, most are being responsible, such as the 20 percent capacity allowed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot for the Cubs and White Sox. “As a diehard sports fan myself,” Lightfoot said, “I’m personally excited to have Chicago take its first, cautious steps toward safely reopening our beloved baseball stadiums to fans this season.”

That’s the proper approach. Same with California, which works off a tier system based on COVID-19 spread. If rates continue to decline, San Diego’s Petco Park might host 10,000 fans for Opening Day while Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, might have 11,000. The Rangers are being grossly irresponsible. “We’re very confident we won’t be a super-spreader event,” said team CEO Neil Leibman, referencing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to fully open the state. “With all the protocols that we’re following, we’ll be extremely responsible and provide a very comfortable environment for somebody to enjoy a game without worrying we’re going to be a spreader event.” Excuse me, but where’s the so-called MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred? Oh, he’s monitoring the outcry in hopes it won’t be too robust, so other franchises can invite capacity crowds and owners can begin to recoup $3.1 billion in lost revenues. The Baltimore Orioles received state approval to allow 50 percent capacity, or about 23,000 fans, at Camden Yards. The Colorado Rockies can have 21,000 at Coors Field.

Not safe.

Not yet.

But then, no one is forcing a fan to go. Remember, YOU’VE got the power. Watch it on TV. Save the money. Avoid the hassle. Elude the superspread.

Just as it’s uncertain how many MLB players will be inoculated, even as vaccines become readily available to all groups later this year, the NBA has a bigger problem. Some of the sport’s elite stars aren’t committed to taking vaccines, which could influence large percentages of players to follow suit. That would leave an indefinite pandemic cloud over the league.

“That’s a conversation that my family and I will have,” James said. “Pretty much keep that to a private thing.”

LeBron James says he plans to keep decision on whether or not he'll get the  COVID-19 vaccine 'private' - CBSSports.com

“That’s something that I am still thinking about, and I think every individual player, they’re their own person so they can decide if they’re going to get the vaccination or not,” James Harden said.

“I haven’t come to a decision yet,” Donovan Mitchell said. “I’m just trying to learn as much as I can about this vaccine first before I go ahead and make this decision.”

While family comes first, the fans aren’t far behind in the vaccine equation, either. For the NBA to keep producing an optimum product, COVID-19 infections must subside. That won’t happen if non-vaxxers are prevalent on rosters. Have the players considered who made them rich and famous — the fans — and that the league would be best served if they all were vaccinated and basketball life can carry on safely? Commissioner Adam Silver, coming off an ill-advised All-Star Game with dreadful ratings, knows a lingering virus could bury his league. “My hunch is that most players ultimately will choose to get vaccinated,” he said, wishfully. “They have to make personal decisions at the end of the day — and I take that very seriously; I take concerns very seriously. But my sense is most players will, ultimately, decide it is in their interest to get vaccinated.”

If they don’t, look no further than March Madness, where a team hit by an outbreak must forfeit and go home — Gonzaga, Baylor, any team — if it doesn’t have five healthy players for an NCAA tournament game. The NBA postseason, which was peculiar enough last year in the Disney World Bubble, doesn’t need more virus unpredictability.

Then there’s the abominable concept of tanking. When the fans stood by sports amid a crisis, how can any franchise have the gall to quit and impugn competitive integrity?

Or raise ticket prices?

Or, worse, how can a league become so preoccupied by a labor fight that it leads to a work stoppage? Can you imagine MLB, with maybe 10 of its 30 clubs interested in October success this season, asking fans to care anyway — then shutting down the sport in 2022?

I was on a radio show when Rudy Gobert tested positive, put the NBA on pause and changed sports forever. That was one year ago tonight. Since then, sports simply hasn’t mattered as much as it once did, and rightly so. Maybe it never will matter as much again. What does it all mean when you’re trying to get your arm jabbed while staying employed, keeping your family together and making sure your kids are schooled?

The sports industry is challenged, then, to stop thinking it’s all about them — athletes and owners and executives — and realize the mission is completely about the fans and how to respectfully turn them into paying customers again. They did sports an extraordinary favor by not drifting away when their lives were disrupted. It was a gesture of good faith that a corrupt, greedy industry didn’t fully deserve.

And if sports screws up again?

It’s your ball now. Take it and go home.

BSM Writers

Jimmy Pitaro Deserves Some Credit For Monday Night

“Pitaro and ESPN’s executive team had to sign off on a broadcast in which Peyton and Eli were in separate remote locations, without a host to play traffic cop and guide continuity between plays. This all could have blown up in ESPN’s face.”

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Over the last several months, Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN got raked over the coals after the New York Times story on Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor and the subsequent fallout that was effectively a mushroom cloud and the talk of the industry. Ultimately, the buck stops with the leader, but fairness should dictate that leaders also receive accolades for great accomplishments. After just one episode, we can confidently say that landing Peyton and Eli Manning for Monday Night Football qualifies in that regard.

Monday Night Football With Peyton and Eli Manning on ESPN 2, reviewed.
Courtesy: ESPN2

Every TV network executive would have walked from Alaska to Omaha to land Peyton Manning. Andrew Marchand has accurately referred to him as the “white whale of sports TV”; he was so sought after that CBS, who has arguably the best color commentator in all of sports in Tony Romo, tried to lure Manning to the booth before ultimately reaching a new deal with Romo. Any way you slice it, getting the Manning brothers for 10 episodes of Monday Night Football on ESPN2 was a major coup for Pitaro, ESPN, and Disney. 

Nonetheless, it was not without risk. Pitaro and ESPN’s executive team had to sign off on a broadcast in which Peyton and Eli were in separate remote locations, without a host to play traffic cop and guide continuity between plays. This all could have blown up in ESPN’s face. Imagine the chatter if the Manning broadcast was a dud, which it easily could have been given their format is unlike anything that has ever been tried before.

Instead, Peyton and Eli were a revelation. Peyton, with his combination of star-power, personality, and brain processing, is remarkably unique. During the fourth quarter of a close game between the Raiders and Ravens, he was somehow able to simultaneously interview Russell Wilson while immediately breaking down the film of all 22 players from key plays of a game he wasn’t even there for. Eli didn’t get as many words in, but when he did speak he had funny deadpan humor.

Full disclosure: I was traveling during the first half, which by many accounts was not as well executed as the second half, after they settled in.

There will undoubtedly be a number of attempts to replicate this announcing format, but it’s unlikely that any of them will work as well as this one, because none of them will have Peyton Manning. Remember how excruciating it was when TNT tried to do Players Only broadcasts for the NBA? Kevin Clark, speaking on The Ringer’s Press Box podcast with Bryan Curtis, called this a “Black Swan” event — it’ll never happen again because Peyton is one of one. 

Anyways, back to Pitaro and ESPN: They’ve certainly taken their lumps and that’s life when you lead an organization that is the bellwether of the industry, facing myriad challenges, some of which are structural (cord-cutting eating into hefty subscriber fees) and some of which are self-inflicted (if you’ve read this far you already know what many of those are and there’s no need to re-hash). 

Ryan Shirts

However, it bears mentioning that in addition to making the content compromises — and opening up the checkbook for millions of dollars — to land Peyton Manning, Pitaro and ESPN have had a lot of big wins over the last several years. They locked up a monopoly on SEC football rights (in a deal so substantial the conference lured Oklahoma and Texas to join), expanded their NFL deal to get into the Super Bowl rotation, bought up all the UFC rights (which, more than anything else, has propelled the growth of ESPN+ to 15 million subscribers), and brought back the NHL. Sure, all of these wins probably came as a result of bidding the most money, but I’m old enough to remember when ESPN was supposed to be on a death spiral. Reports of ESPN’s demise — at least in live rights; talk programming and journalism have not remained the priorities they once were — were premature. 

ESPN has been described as an ocean tanker, which turns very slowly. Jimmy Pitaro deserves some credit for his steering, in the macro, through some turbulent waters.

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BSM Writers

Did The Manningcast Work?

“The first show was great, but as is the case most of the time, there is room to grow.”

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Is it a variety show? Is it a podcast?  The first of 10 scheduled Manning MegaCasts, hosted by Peyton and Eli Manning, on ESPN2 proved it was a little bit all of the above. It was almost like Beavis and Butthead meets Statler and Waldorf. It was fun to watch the Manning brothers poke fun at each other and at the same time, criticize some of the action they saw on the field. 

The show debuted as an alternative to the regular Monday Night Football broadcast and was met with rave reviews. To me, there was some great, some not so great, and definitely some room to grow. 

Raiders – Ravens: Peyton, Eli Manning on 'MNF' best moments
Courtesy: ESPN2

I love the concept, providing an alternative for those that would rather be entertained than tune into a traditional broadcast. Now, as a play-by-play broadcaster, it makes me pause to think about what the future may hold. There will always be a spot for a traditional broadcast, especially with viewers that have a rooting interest in the game. I’m not sure that hardcore fans of the Ravens and Raiders were tuned in for more than a passing glance. Those folks want to see the game, not the fluff or interviews and the like, offered on the alternative broadcast. That fluff though is what will earn ESPN those fringe viewers that are curious and intrigued by what a “ManningCast” might have to offer them. 

Sitting down to watch the game, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I know that Peyton has a personality that in some cases is larger than life. I was pleasantly surprised to see what Eli brought to the table as well.  The guys played off each other well, each taking a turn to take a shot at the other. I’ll get into some of the best of those barbs a little later. 

Peyton is comfortable in front of the camera and has no trouble talking. That was the issue I had early in the game. The elder Manning really dominated the conversation. There were no times in the first few minutes of the first quarter that I felt I could take a breath because so much was coming at me. They really didn’t allow the game to breathe at all. The constant conversation while entertaining at times just kept on coming. Peyton was talking fast and once in a while he was talking over Eli. 

It didn’t help that the Manning’s were in different studios. I wondered if there was a “delay” in their feeds and if that was the reason for talking over one another at times. The delay was quite evident when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson joined the brothers for the later stages of the game. Wilson seemingly couldn’t get a word in, because Peyton and Eli were talking over him. 

Peyton has that quality to be able to teach the game in a way that it’s understandable. Some of his commentary was a look behind the curtain at how he played and viewed the game. Knowing what to expect when coming to the line of scrimmage, understanding the coverages and realizing what teams are trying to do to disguise things. It was fascinating to hear the brothers go through play calls and how it is relayed from the coordinator to the quarterback and finally to the team. You aren’t going to get that on a traditional game broadcast. 

It was also impressive to hear the guys interview both former players, current players and Charles Barkley. It so often is the case that the current athletes are very guarded in what they say to a regular ole member of the media. That was not the case in the Manning Cast. From Travis Kelce not knowing who the Chiefs were playing next, to Russell Wilson calling out the NFL overtime rule.  Ray Lewis was a fascinating guest, providing some great stories and terrific insight into the game he once played at such a high level. Charles Barkley, well, he’s Charles Barkley. In other words, he was as fantastic as you’d expect. 

The guests added to the broadcast and made me realize that if this Manningcast actually had a host, it wouldn’t have worked as well. A broadcaster would have gotten in the way to me. Yeah, they could have used a professional at times. Maybe someone to get them into and out of the commercial breaks, because that was a little rough early in the game. But that’s the only a host could have fit in. 

The first show was great, but as is the case most of the time, there is room to grow. I really think the Manning Cast would be so much better if the guys were actually in the same room. The dynamic between them, which was already great, would be that much better. Imagine them demonstrating plays on each other. Both putting on helmets and doing what they probably did as kids in their basement, roughing each other up.

Ok, so they’re a little older now, but I seriously think having them in the same place would make things much smoother. With all the technology out there, eliminating that dreaded delay between the Manning’s and their guests would improve the telecast as well. 

Monday Night Football With Peyton and Eli Manning on ESPN 2, reviewed.
Courtesy: ESPN2

This alternative broadcast would be a great place to teach some casual fans all about the great game of football. Not sure why this came to my mind, but like the old days of the NHL, when “Peter Puck” an animated hockey puck would teach you the game. “Peter” was part of the NBC game of the week broadcast. An animated Peyton and Eli teaching those that need to know the finer points of the game, would be spectacular. 

I can’t wait to see how they improve from last week to this week and who the guests will be this time around. Hopefully, they iron out some of the small issues that plagued them in the first telecast and continue to improve. I realize that this show is unscripted and it’s supposed to be a little looser than a normal show might be, but there are some slight fixes as I’ve pointed out that will make it even better.

With all the success the Manningcast had, I can’t help but wonder how all of these accolades are being taken by the regular MNF booth. ESPN in effect has promoted and created competition for its own product. Perhaps the novelty will wear off? Maybe, but it almost seems like the Manning’s are being groomed for a possible move to the main booth. I’m not sure what the feeling is amongst all the parties, but it’s certainly a dynamic worth watching. 

Here are some of my favorite moments from Manningcast show number one, in no particular order:

  • Derek Carr with an overthrow on the Raiders first play from scrimmage, leading Peyton to say about the Raiders season, “Lookin’ at ah 6-11, 6-11 right now.”
  • Raiders’ fans were loud during an offensive series leading to a bad snap and a few false start penalties, leading to this exchange: 

“They aren’t used to it”, said Eli Manning. Then Peyton responded, “Drink your beer, quiet down and let [Derek] Carr play quarterback.” 

  • Peyton putting on a football helmet to demonstrate the calls at the line for the Ravens. The helmet was way too small. “Helmet doesn’t fit”, Peyton said. “Shocking that a helmet doesn’t fit you”, Eli commented. “They didn’t have a XXL helmet for that forehead.”  
  • With Charles Barkley as a guest, Peyton asked him what position Michael Jordan would play if he were in the NFL, “Tight End”. Then Barkley was asked about Larry Bird playing a position, “there’s no place for no slow 6’10” guys in the NFL”, said Barkley.  

Eli: “Punter”

Charles: “that’s about it…”

  • Also, with Barkley on the show…

Peyton: “Hey Charles, you ever get booed at home? Never happened to you, right?” 

Barkley: “I played in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That was a regularity.” “You were lucky, Peyton. Everybody liked you. Eli knows what it’s like to get booed at home.”

Eli: “He had that stadium trained. The fans would get fined if they talked when the Colts were on offense. If a guy was trying to order a beer, everyone would tell him to quiet down until the defense was on the field.”

Eli’s fire alarm goes off in the middle of the show. 

Peyton: “Eli what’d you do?”

  • With Ray Lewis on the show, the trio recalled a game where the Giants played the Ravens in Eli’s rookie season as the starting QB. The younger Manning leading the team to the line of scrimmage, calling out the defense…

Eli: “Hey #52 (Lewis) is the Mike (linebacker)”

Lewis: “No, I’m not the mike. He’s the Mike!”

Eli: “Yeah Ray’s right, the other guy’s the Mike”

It was also revealed in that game in 2004, Eli had a quarterback rating of 0.0 and of course Peyton pointed out, “the same GPA Belushi had in ‘Animal House.’”

  • Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce on the Manningcast

Kelce: “[Watching this game] I’m not trying to get too technical because I think we’re playing the Chargers this week. Oh wait, maybe we’re playing Baltimore. I don’t even know — I’m getting lost in the season already.” 

  • Peyton about 5 minutes later: “Hey, Travis, just so you know, you do play the Ravens next week, so make sure you don’t fly to Los Angeles to play the Chargers.”

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BSM Writers

What Is The Next Advertising Money Cannon?

“In states where betting is legal, stations are having to squeeze live reads and segment sponsorships in wherever they can. Everyone is trying to make sure they aren’t leaving money on the table.”

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If I could tell you that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I know there is another advertising revenue stream out there that can repeat what sportsbooks did for sports radio AND that I know exactly what it is, I could handpick my next employer and name my price.

A Supreme Court decision to make sports gambling a state issue and not a federal one completely changed the advertising landscape. In states where betting is legal, stations are having to squeeze live reads and segment sponsorships in wherever they can. Everyone is trying to make sure they aren’t leaving money on the table.

“There is no question about the significant impact sports betting has had on revenue, both from the station side as well as for our on-air personalities who have become brand ambassadors,” Dennis Gwiazdon, VP and Market Manager of Cromwell Broadcasting’s Nashville cluster told me.

Stations in states that are yet to legalize gambling can see the boom and know it is coming eventually. What about states where gambling is already legal? What about states like Alabama or Utah, which are routinely viewed as two that could realistically never legalize sports betting? Is there a boom on the horizon for them?

I spoke with managers in three different markets. I wanted to know where they saw reason for optimism. The answers were interesting.

Earlier this month, John Ourand of Sports Business Journal took a look at the deal FOX signed with crypto.com. The site is the title sponsor of the network’s College Football Extra. Ourand theorizes that could open the door for crypto companies eventually spending money on sports television the way sportsbooks do.

What is the outlook for radio? Jeff Tyler, iHeartMedia’s area president in Wisconsin, is intrigued by the idea, but he isn’t telling his sellers to go rushing out to make deals.

“There are a lot of variables around crypto,” he told me via email. “So as a company we have a plan to work within this category but not put the company at risk or do anything that could negatively affect our listeners and partners.”

Jeff Tyler (@JeffTyler) | Twitter

Ken Brady, the sales manager at 1010XL in Jacksonville, knows that cryptocurrency has a buzz around it right now. He is not sure what the appetite for it is in terms of an ad market or what the industry’s appetite is for radio advertising.

“There is little chatter about cryptocurrency in our market or with partners,” he says. “This is something we need to understand and explore better.”

I asked all three men if there was a sector where they saw potential. Tyler had an interesting answer. He sees potential in eSports. He thinks teams and companies could benefit from connecting with stations with a dedicated listener base.

“Our brands could help them grow their fan base and activate them to attend more events in person and online.”

Gwiazdon has his eye on another vice. Just like gambling came out of the shadows and now functions under government regulation, it is only a matter of time he thinks before marijuana does the same.

“What immediately comes to mind is the legalization of marijuana at the state and, eventually, federal level,” he says. “There’s so much money in that industry – as evidenced where it has already become legal – that it could easily equal or surpass what’s happening with sports betting right now.”

What is interesting is that amongst this trio, Gwiazdon is the only one that lives in a state where there is absolutely no legal marijuana. What he sees as a potential boom for Tennessee is already legal in both Wisconsin and Florida, albeit exclusively for medical purposes.

A lot of sellers have big plans for pot and cannabis products where they are legal. Very few of them know all the answers though. That is why the RAB has a marijuana FAQ section on its website and advertising agencies specializing in marijuana have sprung up.

For 1010XL, the boom never really materialized according to Ken Brady.

100+ "Ken Brady" profiles | LinkedIn

“We have had little success with this category, the players who have come in seem to be interested in demos outside our strengths or have been flakey with no real appetite for a solid campaign that will work.”

Businesses built by someone following their passion for marijuana are flaky? Well, color me shocked!

Jeff Tyler told me iHeart is looking at this on a market by market basis. Wisconsin has made medical marijuana legal. Tyler can’t have his sellers approaching businesses the way sellers in neighboring states like Illinois or Michigan, where it has fully been decriminalized can.

“Until it’s fully legalized the advertiser revenue is very limited,” he said. “We have a team that leads this vertical for iHeartMedia and have states like Colorado that already have fully legalized marijuana so we have a solid plan and guidelines to follow with these advertisers. CBD is a small category with some hit spots in some markets.”

There may never be another category like sports betting. The money cannon that industry was ready to fire was unpresedented. You can’t bank on it happening again.

I asked Dennis Gwiazdon if it was possible that the radio industry will have to play a very proactive role in creating the next boom. He told me that may be the best way to think about it. What he is sure of is that no idea can be dismissed as the industry looks to find another stream of revenue that has the potential of the sportsbooks.

“We definitely have to get smarter at how we generate revenue. Relying on the old, tried and true ways won’t hold up forever. The good news is our business model is already undergoing a sea of change in terms of how we scale our radio/digital/entertainment assets for wider distribution and access. But some of us are further down the road than others. The audio industry is still the ultimate personal experience. How we continue to maximize – and monetize – our relationships with fans is the key to our survival.”

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