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Unhappy Anniversary, Everyone!

“We were more aware of the stresses that were being placed on the ‘behind the scenes” folks, those in the television trucks and the camera folks that provided our pictures. That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate them before, because we did. This pandemic just made it much more obvious.”

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It was one year ago today that Major League Baseball followed several other sports leagues in shutting things down. COVID-19 and the ensuing pandemic caused panic, chaos and closed facilities across the country. It’s a day that many of us will not forget. Now, a year later with signs of hope that things will get back to normal, so much has changed in sports, broadcasting and life. 

The word normal seems weird to say. Zoom calls have replaced actual time in locker rooms and clubhouses. Limited access has become a way of life for broadcasters and journalists, almost getting used to what is happening. Mainly it all comes down to just doing the best you possibly can under the current circumstances.

Ross, Happ on approach to camp | 02/24/2021 | Seattle Mariners

The challenges were immeasurable from the broadcast side, yet the good ones knew how to overcome the obstacles. Kevin Kugler, who calls games on Fox, The Big Ten Network and Westwood One, shared one of those hurdles he and some others needed to jump over. 

“The biggest challenge has been giving the viewer or listener everything they need for a quality broadcast.” Kugler told me. “We’ve lost a little of the ‘relationship’ aspect of calling the games this year without actually being in practice or shoot arounds and having a chance to interact one on one with players and coaches. Doing video calls has helped some, but it’s not the same as actually developing those in person relationships. We’ve all done the best we can, but I do think the audience is missing out on some of the info we might glean in person.”

I can relate. Without that real one-on-one time with athletes or coaches, you do lose a little touch with the team you’re covering. 

Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster, Eric Nadel who handles the radio broadcast for the Texas Rangers agreed with Kugler.

“There is so much time to fill and the best, most interesting information is the stuff we get from those interactions with the people in uniform,” Nadel said via email. “The inability to talk to players, get to know them so they trust me and tell me stuff that the average fan can’t find on line, has been devastating.”

Another play-by-play guy that agrees with the assessment is Judd Sirott who handles the radio call for the Boston Bruins.

“First off, we are incredibly fortunate to be working this season. The pandemic has wreaked havoc: hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives, and many more have seen their livelihoods disappear.” Sirott told me. “To survive, businesses have had to be agile and adapt.  Calling Boston Bruins games is no different. The biggest challenge is not being able to “be there”, that’s not just the games (road games now), but morning skates, dressing room scrums, the coach’s office and everything we’d normally have access to.”  

Access is clearly a roadblock during this time, something unavoidable for the safety of the players, coaches and media members. Chicago Bears radio play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak points out it isn’t easy to replace actually being on site. What you lose is more than just access to players. It is the ability to set the tone and feel of game day for your audience.

“I would say like all play-by-play announcers and analysts, we want to be where the action is, and there is nothing entering the stadium on game day that can replace that.” Says Joniak. “From the smells of the tailgates, to walking into the booth and seeing the green grass, and the anticipation of what is to come. It revs the engine in a way nothing else comes close to matching in my life. I love gameday and all that comes with it. From kickoff to the final whistle, it’s an adrenaline rush and it’s something I crave. I feel we as a crew did the best we could, given the circumstances.” 

What's the best and the worst thing about being a Bears fan? - Windy City  Gridiron

Kugler agrees that atmosphere matters to the audience and fans in the seats matter for atmosphere.

“I cannot wait until everyone is back, because the art of doing a broadcast hinges so much, in my opinion, on the fans.  Playing off the emotions, the highs and lows, the music of the crowd.  I miss that so much, and had really just been delving into that more when the shutdown came along.”

Professional broadcasters want to get their calls right. That’s a fact. That was much harder to do when looking at a game on a monitor not even in the same building as the game that was being called. Sirott says this is where patience had to rule the day. 

“Accuracy is king. Trying to decipher tipped pucks in front; altercations behind the play; injured players hobbling off the ice; coaches barking at something on the bench when you can’t see the game from the perch you normally occupy is difficult.”, he said. “Taking some extra time for the picture to develop on screen and working with my partner Bob Beers (who’s keenly aware and has a great feel for the game) has helped. The conditions lead to more mistakes.  You have roll with it.  And when the time is right, have some fun with it.”

He even took the route of tailoring and refining his approach to these broadcasts. “To get the content, meant being more resourceful. I’ve jumped on the phone, sent an email, fired off texts or delved into some different sites online to collect material for our broadcast.” 

The highest compliment a broadcaster can get during these crazy times is from the fans, is when they can’t tell the difference. 

“Many listeners didn’t realize we were not at the road games”, said Joniak. “So, the payoff is that we maintained the integrity of our broadcasts and reliably served our listeners with the same thoroughness and passion as we’ve also delivered over the past two decades.”

Even those that knew what was actually going on, gave the broadcasters the benefit of the doubt.

“I will say this, fans have been very forgiving with the broadcast hiccups. I really have been pleasantly surprised with how little people have yelled at us for some of those things.”, said Kugler. “I think that everyone has just been so happy to have the events on TV or radio that they have been able to overlook some of the things that would have created angry tweets a couple of years ago!”

Here's an outside-the-box idea for Cubs TV: Kevin Kugler - Bleed Cubbie Blue

So, did anything positive, other than the fact the games were actually played? I know from my perspective working baseball, I became acutely more aware of what I was doing as a play-by-play announcer. Lessons to myself about slowing down and other details that I feel made me a little better under the circumstances. I’m a harsh critic of my own work, so that’s saying something. Seems like everybody figured out something along the way here. 

“I think I’ve learned a little bit about what’s important and what’s not.  I’ve really worked this year on trying to provide what is most crucial for the viewer or listener,” said Kugler. “Sometimes, I think we all get wrapped up in our prep and we can forget that we are doing this broadcast for someone else.  Not for us, but for the fans.  I have started to go into each game prep really thinking more about that, what would I want to see or hear as I’m tuning into this game?  Sounds simple, but it’s something I’ve become really aware of over the past year.”

Joniak found some things that made him a better announcer under tough conditions.

“My senses were keener, my concentration deeper. The circumstances force you to pay deeper attention.”, he said. “There were times in games, and I think back to the Bears-Falcons game in Atlanta, where it was so dramatic of a finish it felt like I was there even though I wasn’t. I got absorbed in the moments. I also had crowd noise pumped in my headset by our engineer Paul Zerang so that was significant. I thrive in a loud stadium and calibrate my emotions accordingly with the rise and fall of the chatter.”

Sirott on the other hand found he could change things up and still have a successful broadcast.

“I’ve been more flexible with my time. Hockey players are creatures of habit.  Lots of broadcasters are the same.  We like a routine.  To keep everyone safe and healthy, we’ve all had to change our schedules.” 

For Nadel, who’s been at this a long time, he learned something too, don’t take the simple things for granted. “It (the result of the pandemic) hasn’t made me a better broadcaster. It has made me a broadcaster just trying to survive and do the best possible job given the current conditions.” Nadel told me. “But when and if we ever have access again to the people in uniform, I will be sure to use that access even more than I did before. If there is any way that I am better, it’s that I have to lean more on personality, perhaps making the broadcasts more entertaining even though I am less informative.”

The common theme, these conditions were not ideal, but in the grand scheme of things, we learned a little about ourselves. We learned to adapt to an ever-changing environment and provided fans with a quality broadcast under the circumstances. It was actually quite remarkable to see all the different “set ups”. Where the monitors were placed and so on. 

Detroit Lions radio team calls matchup at Lambeau from empty Ford Field

I also think along the way, many of us, including those that I talked to for this column, appreciated things a little more. We were more aware of the stresses that were being placed on the ‘behind the scenes” folks, those in the television trucks and the camera folks that provided our pictures. That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate them before, because we did. This pandemic just made it much more obvious. 

Unhappy Anniversary pandemic, we won’t miss you one bit, but thank you for helping all of us to see what was important through these crazy tough times. 

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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