Gut wrenching is a phrase we use around injuries in sports. It is an apt description for the broken bones suffered by Paul George in 2014 at Team USA trials and Louisville’s Kevin Ware a year earlier during the NCAA Tournament. Those kind of injuries are gut wrenching for obvious reasons. Thinking about them or looking at them is physically hard.
Then there are the injuries that are gut wrenching because of the implications for you as a host. Two markets have experienced a very particular subset of these injuries within the last 12 months.
It is the injury to a rookie player deemed the future of the franchise, the savior for fans of the home team. During football season, Cincinnati lost Joe Burrow and just recently, Charlotte has lost LaMelo Ball. Their careers aren’t over, but promising rookie seasons are and that can be painful for hosts in a market.
Mo Egger hosts the afternoon drive show on ESPN 1530 in Cincinnati. He says that to understand the disappointment around Burrow’s rookie season being cut short, you first have to understand what having the first pick in the draft, with the opportunity to select a local kid with that kind of resume did for Bengals fans.
“The Bengals were not only getting the best player in college football, but the most famous, and after years of wrestling with whether or not Andy Dalton could ever take his game to another level, fans got a chance to imagine limitless possibilities for their quarterback,” Egger says. “It also helped immensely that Burrow is a guy who drips confidence, something that isn’t insignificant for beaten-down Bengals fans used to expecting the worst.”
He says that the national narrative about Burrow being compared to the national narrative about the Bengals helped rally fans too. Before national writers started writing about how unfortunate it was that Burrow would have to play for the sad sack Cincinnati franchise, Egger says he had forgotten what passion for the team looked like.
“Given that it was obvious since before the 2019 season ended that the Bengals were taking Burrow with the top pick in the draft, I wasn’t entirely sure what topics were going to present themselves, but it was refreshing to hear fans come to the defense of the Bengals and aim their ire at commentators who, in their eyes, seemed to almost be rooting for Burrow to end up somewhere else.”
LaMelo Ball was received a little differently by fans of the Charlotte Hornets. Chris McClain hosts the morning show at WFNZ in the city. He says that the idea of Mello as a franchise savior didn’t click right away with fans. That’s fine by him though, because it meant more callers to his show.
“The early season buzz on LaMelo was good for talk radio because he was so polarizing. Many fans thought it was a great pick but tons were real skeptical because of his dad and his brothers and because of the talk about his struggles as a shooter. But it didnt take LaMelo long to win the whole city of Charlotte over.”
Sure, it didn’t take long. Handling and distributing the ball at age 19 like a perennial all-star has a way of getting people on your side. Averaging nearly 16 and 6 per night while watching your minutes per game slowly tick up has a way of turning doubters into fans.
Charlotte basketball fans have suffered. Throughout history, there have been a number of times commentators and analysts have pointed to the Hornets as “a team with a lot of promise”. Very rarely were they a real contender though. Melo changed that attitude. McClain says that he had people believing that the franchise had stumbled upon its first true superstar since the days of Grandmama. That is why the Monday morning after Ball and the Hornets announced his rookie season was over felt like a funeral.
“The show on Monday after Lamelo’s injury was announced was a somber one,” McClain said. “He has filled Queen City sports fans with so much hope that it really stunk to feel some of that hope, at least for this year, leaving the fanbase. Plus, many fans have purchased tickets to games later this year and were excited to see him play and now realize they wont get that chance until next season. Real bummer.”
For Charlotte fans, it was a fractured wrist that stole their superstar. In the other Queen City, when Joe Burrow was carted off the field with a torn ACL in Week 11, despair was mixed with anger. Egger says fans were pretty clear that this was their primary concern when the team drafted Burrow without upgrading the offensive line.
“They blamed the Bengals for cycling through offensive line coaches, for giving a pay raise to a shoddy right tackle, and for whiffing on some many draft picks on the offensive line. These were all reasonable criticisms, but when you add to it the seemingly cursed history of not only the Bengals, but of pretty much every Cincinnati sports entity, there was anger meshed with a ‘here we go again’ sense that Burrow’s injury was proof that we simply cannot and will not ever have nice things. When an unfortunate moment in the present ignites a flood of very bad memories, the reaction is not good, and it sure wasn’t that day.”
That can be the danger in losing a rookie season to injury. Fans can have newfound vigor squelched. Conversations hosts haven’t been able to have in years can so quickly turn into the familiar drumbeat of the universe being lined up against your team.
If you’re in a place like Cincinnati, dealing with a fan base like the Bengals’, Egger says it can be easy to wonder if that passion will ever bounce back to where it was the moment before it became clear that Joe Burrow wasn’t getting up.
“With Bengals fans, there’s always trepidation,” he says. “The franchise’s history is not a winning one, there have no playoff wins since January of 1991, and while I think the team’s ownership does at times take some unfair shots from people who are a little too quick to blame the family that runs the team for every single thing that goes wrong, there is a massive amount of mistrust when it comes to how fans view the way the team is run.”
He says that there is something different about Joe Burrow though. Fans seem a little more willing to believe that this is the only guy that can change a pattern that has become far too familiar in the fall. That is probably good for Mo’s ratings and the team’s ticket sales, but he says it comes with a sense of dread.
“Burrow’s arrival has created a ‘if not now, then when’ vibe among most fans I hear from. If they can’t win with a really promising quarterback working under a rookie contract, then when will this franchise every breakthrough and win something meaningful? Add to all of that the fact that the team’s lease in its current stadium is up in 2026, and there is a very real sense that Burrow is quite literally here to save the Cincinnati Bengals, but along with that comes uncomfortable speculation about what will happen to the franchise if Burrow is either incapable of rescuing the team from the depths of the NFL, or more likely, never fully equipped to do so by the people running the franchise he was brought here to save.”
That can be an interesting topic that keeps people tuned in for sure, but can Mo Egger really find a way to keep people interested in a conversation so filled with doom and gloom for what? Five years? Especially if listeners are dealing with anger for letting another talented prospect flop?
McClain has a different outlook. He wants his listeners to know that even without LaMelo Ball, there are reasons to pay attention to and talk about the Hornets.
“I do worry a bit that the Hornets excitement wont be the same this year without LaMelo, but they did win their first game without him and that seemed to remind us that this team is more than just one uber talented 19 year old,” he told me. “If they find a way to make a playoff push without him, I do think fans will stay engaged. And, I know this, the long term hope in this fanbase is the most substantial I have seen in this town and I have been here since the Bobcats arrived in 2004. LaMelo and the personnel moves of Mitch Kupchak have us believing.”
Obviously, it sucks to see a guy’s first professional season come to such an unceremonious end. When you’re on air, there is a fine line to walk. How do you reflect the fans’ frustrations while also convincing them that there are still reasons to pay attention and keep tuning into your show?
Selling optimism can get you part of the way there. Mac is right. If the Hornets do make the playoffs this year, that is reason for Charlotte fans to say that things are improving and being interested to hear what WFNZ has to say about the team.
You also need to be real and vulnerable and let the fans know you feel the same way they do. You also wonder what the hell this means for the next how ever many years. Remember, misery loves company. But also remember that company can get bored quick if misery is all you have to offer.