Last Friday, Seth Everett posted a column that I thought was a fair critique of where baseball is as a sport. He pointed out that the public seemingly only pays attention when the sport is in a PR mess, and lately, that seems to be happening a little too frequently.
Seth made points that are hard to argue with. The move from Atlanta to Denver for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game seems less about benefitting Denver and punishing Georgia than it does about making Major League Baseball feel good. The lack of balls in play is definitely a problem. Baseball may not be dying, but I, for one, can’t see how anyone can feel good about the sport right now. Later in the day, a tweet popped up on my timeline from my pal Brady Farkas.
Now, call me cold or an opportunist or unfair or whatever, but why does the media need to save baseball? Doesn’t it seem like that should be baseball’s job to figure how to change public perception? I’m not sure any of us in this business owe any league or team anything other than than to be fair, which I thought Seth was. “Hit piece” feels a little strong. But this comment started my wheels turning.
I know Brady loves baseball. He hosts a show on WDEV in Vermont, so he has to be locked in on the Red Sox, but at the drop of a hat he can tell you all of the problems with the Mariners’ farm system.
Brady is a more traditional sports fan than I am. He lives and dies with his teams and will put on any game at any time and can find himself locked in. I love college football, I love the Celtics, other than that, I just want to be entertained. I grew up rooting for the Buccaneers, and so I was happy to see them win the Super Bowl, but I am not positive that I didn’t get just as much joy out of Tom Brady being drunk on a boat later that week.
Does loving the absurdity and weirdness of sports blind me to what it is fans of teams and listeners to our shows think our job description is? Is there a widely held belief that we need to protect or only talk positively about the teams and sports we cover?
Heath Cline is one of my closest friends in this business. He hosts the afternoon show at 107.5 The Game in Columbia, SC. The city is the home of the South Carolina Gamecocks. The school’s football, basketball and baseball games play on his station. Heath says that definitely shades the way his listeners think about his job.
“There’s definitely a belief among some portion of the audience that being ‘the home of the Gamecocks’ means we’re supposed to be rah rah at all times,” he says. “What’s funny is that we’re supposed to back them to the hilt, until the minute the fans get mad and want to fire someone at which point unless we agree with them we’re homers and shills for the athletic department.”
I called Gary Parrish, because I thought he might have a unique perspective. Gary has a local audience in Memphis, where he can be heard on 92.9 ESPN. He also has a national audience thanks to his work for CBS. He covers college basketball both on television and on CBSSports.com.
Gary says there are times he has found himself wondering if he has colleagues that feel like they are supposed to protect and talk up the sports they cover.
“Even friends of mine will say things and type things like ‘college basketball is the greatest sport in the world’. And the truth is, it’s just not,” Parrish says. “It’s, at this point, kind of a niche sport. It’s kind of, for most people, a six week sport, maybe a five week sport, maybe even a three week sport. So, I don’t feel like it’s my obligation to lie to anybody. I love college basketball. It is my job to to cover college basketball, but I don’t pretend that it’s not without issues and I think some real serious issues that that need to be addressed.”
I am not making a comment on anyone’s professionalism here. Two people can choose to do the same job in very different ways. Different outlets can even come with different expectations in how you do your job and what you owe the people and organizations you cover. That can mean you can talk about the same thing the same way on two different platforms and the audiences can have opposite opinions of you. Parrish says he deals with that every basketball season.
“The perception of me inside of Memphis versus outside of Memphis is pretty drastically different, specifically in the way that I talk about the University of Memphis,” he says. “I think I think non-Memphians think that I am too positive about the Tigers and talk too much about Memphis, more than it deserves. In the market, I’m like the guy that Memphis fans think hates on Memphis. They genuinely believe that I despise Memphis, which is just not true.”
Carrington Harrison hosts the afternoon drive show on 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He told me that any discussion about baseball and the idea that it is a dying sport is not easy. The answer is nuanced and listeners aren’t always here for nuance. How do you succinctly say that baseball is dying except for the places where it isn’t?
“We don’t have national conversations about baseball anymore,” Harrison explains. “The only way we have national conversations about baseball is when there are historic single game feats. Tomorrow, if someone pitched a perfect game, we would talk about it, of course, or a fight happens. Those are the only times we talk. Or a big contract is given out. Tomorrow, if they gave a player 400 million dollars, everybody in sports would be talking about it.”
Occasionally, I’ll exchange Twitter messages with Sports Map Radio mid day host Jake Asman. He hosts a show with a national perspective. I wanted to get his take.
Asman echoes Harrison’s idea that baseball doesn’t have the popularity problems on the local level that the sport does nationally, but he also thinks there are some real problems in terms of the sport’s ability to build a new generation of fans.
“The pace of play and lack of action besides strikeouts and homers is a major turnoff to a lot of fans. I also think every team going all in on analytics is not a great way to attract fans to your sport.”
So what if he were to say that on air? Is there anything special a host has to do or anything special that he/she needs to consider if he/she is planning to be critical of a league? What about if he/she is being critical of a team as an entity rather than sounding off on their on-field performance?
“I would treat criticism of a team or league as I would treat criticizing a player or coach during a segment. I would make sure that I am well informed on the topic I am going to be critical of and I would never make things personal,” Jake says in a DM.
That seems like basic advice, right? It does answer my question though. No, there is nothing special you have to do, nothing more you owe to the audience if you are talking about an institutional problem with a sport or any other non-human entity.
Cline tells me that the idea of being unfair to a team is something that exclusively lives with fans. He worked in markets across Florida before moving to South Carolina. In the entire time covering college football, the only people that have ever accused him of having an agenda are fans.
“I have never gotten a single call from an athletic department person at either Florida or South Carolina complaining about anything I’ve ever said,” he texted. “It’s possible my bosses have and kept it from me, but I think if you’re honest, can back what you say up with facts and don’t make things personal there’s really no way they can complain too much.”
According to Harrison, the audience wants to be told they are right or that they have a good idea. When it comes to local media, fans expect to hear why their optimism isn’t unfounded or why following their team isn’t time wasted.
“I think in really any form of media, and I think we see it in sports, we also see it in news, there’s some implied confirmation bias,” Harrison says. “Like, you want to hear people that agree with your point of view. And if you’re listening to local radio, you want to hear the conversations come from a local perspective.”
That is an interesting idea and one with a lot of merit. There will always be a segment of the audience that believes a local perspective means one that sings the praises of the home team. There might even be a segment of the audience that believes a sports media perspective should always be deferential to sports and teams when we aren’t addressing issues on the field. I can see how someone could get there. I don’t think it is right, but we’re dealing with a fan brain, and you can connect those dots.
When it comes to the concept of “fan brain,” Parrish is a little less eloquent and a little more blunt.
“It’s just that fans, and this is something you have to always remind yourself, they don’t often want to hear the truth.”
Gary Bettman Wants You To Have More Access
“Both of these partnerships we have are outstanding examples of being extraordinarily fan-friendly.”
In the wake of the NHL’s latest national television contract, Commissioner Gary Bettman has solidified the league’s broadcast future. Recent contracts dictate that the league will be appearing on ESPN and TNT/TBS next season after its relationship with NBC concludes after 10 years. Still, the key to both deals is streaming and Bettman explained how there is more work to be done.
“First and foremost whatever media package you’re going to do, particularly on a national basis, you want to make sure you’re getting the most exposure, the best possible production, the best possible promotion that you want to be able to give your fans as much access to the game as possible,” Bettman said on Episode 299 of my Sports with Friends podcast.
The deal with Turner is for seven years worth a reported $225 million. ESPN’s contract is also for seven years for more games than Turner and is reported to be more than $400 million.
The keys to these deals are the streaming apps. Both ESPN+ and HBO Max are key components to each deal that are making out-of-market games as well as exclusives available to subscribers. Still, the controversial decision made by the Regional Sports Networks to require cable subscriptions to stream the local teams is impacting cord-cutters across the US.
“Media distribution and the platforms are going to continue to evolve,” Bettman explained. “Frankly with new technology also represents improved camera coverage. The productions are better than they’ve ever been. You have HDTV, which didn’t exist decades ago. We use more technology, whether it’s player tracking or any of the other statistics that we use. With SAP and Amazon and Apple, the opportunities to get within the game, because there are more distribution platforms have never been greater.”
My takeaway from Bettman’s statements on the subject is that both he and the broadcast people in his office are well aware of the facts presented. While some fans are expecting a quick fix, these deals are complicated. Each team has its own contract with an RSN. Bettman can’t legislate a new way to circumvent those contracts. Plus, he still believes in linear television.
“There is some cord-cutting going on, but linear television still predominates, and more people are watching on a big screen TV in a large room with a couple of other family members or friends,” Bettman said. “Or when you go to a bar sports bar, you see what’s on in the background.”
Because I’ve known Bettman for over a decade, I take him at his word. We did discuss him coming back on the podcast for episode 399 (which would be in June 2023). I’d love to see progress made on the issue then.
“I think there is an evolution going on, but I think it’s easy to over-generalize,” Bettman said.”
The deal with NBC was profitable in many ways over the 10 years. Originally, games were aired on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), and now to NBC and NBC Sports Network, which be shutting down by the end of 2021.
The ESPN deal was signed in March. The Turner contract was made public in late April.
“Both of these partnerships we have are outstanding examples of being extraordinarily fan-friendly,” the commissioner said. “Giving more content than ever before in more places than ever before. We couldn’t be more excited to have the Walt Disney Company (ESPN) and Warner Media (Turner) working with us and the game. Our organization is excited and thrilled, and we know both of their organizations are thrilled as well. This is an exciting time for us.”
Other highlights from the 45-minute conversation had to do with competitive balance. Unlike the NBA, the NHL regularly has quality teams with records above .500 that don’t make the playoffs.
We talked about the impact that Covid-19 has had on the league. Bettman addressed the decision to create the “playoff bubble” in Toronto and Edmonton as opposed to an American city.
He also discussed the fact that the NHL and NHLPA extended their collective bargaining agreement by four years while negotiating the return to play in the summer of 2020. That’s with former MLBPA head Donald Fehr at the helm. My memories of the canceled World Series made the NHL extension seemingly impossible.
Finally, Bettman addressed his legacy. He takes being the first commissioner in modern sports to be openly booed as a badge of honor, noting that nowadays all commissioners get booed. “(NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell got booed at the draft last week,” Bettman said.
Still, he knows his legacy will always be connecting to canceling the 2004-2005 season. Yet, the growth of the league is unprecedented, and he has been the architect of that.
Bettman sees no end to his tenure, or at least wouldn’t admit it to me. Maybe we can address that in two years for episode 399.
Media Noise Podcast – Episode 27
Demetri Ravanos begins this week’s episode by looking at Thursday Night Football moving to Amazon exclusively in 2022 and what it means for future business deals with the NFL. Russ Heltman drops by next to offer his thoughts on Rob Parker and Chris Broussard’s heated discussion over Tim Tebow being the beneficiary of white privilege and his value to ESPN as a college football analyst. Seth Everett closes things out by weighing in on Gary Bettman’s legacy and the NHL’s recent deals with broadcast groups.
News & Sports Is A Perfect Marriage For Sales
“Plenty of sellers have a news talk/sports talk combo to sell especially if they are in AM-heavy clusters.”
There are a lot of similarities in sports talk and news talk radio sales. And there are some differences, some of which are actually complementary and work to the sellers’ advantage. I was fortunate to sell news and sports talk as a combo for years.
As Jason Barrett recently announced, the Barrett Sports Media and News Media web sites have merged. Plenty of sellers have a news talk/sports talk combo to sell especially if they are in AM-heavy clusters. One of my 2021 resolutions was to seek out the positive in most situations so let’s look at the similarities the two formats offer to a salesperson.
- Both are foreground formats. For the most part, spoken word radio listeners are seeking to focus on what is being said. They don’t listen to podcasts or talk shows so they can free their mind up to think about other things. Plenty of music listeners have their minds completely elsewhere and don’t even hear what the air person has to say. In fact, most music jocks are told to shut up and play the music. Great selling point for live liners, spots and why our commercials are worth more money.
- We have very loyal customers. The best results for any advertiser comes from the heaviest users of a station- their “P1’s”. Most news/sports talk tsl comes from a much smaller % of the cume. Listeners to Sean Hannity, Jim Rome, Ben Shapiro, and Colin Cowherd stay put. Music listeners tend to chase the hottest song or diary responders to music stations will flip to the station with the contest to win concert tickets. Often this can lead to fewer spots needed in a schedule to achieve a better frequency.
- We got the dough. Nothing sells luxury goods and services like a news/sports talk radio station. Look at any consumer index survey and these two formats will always score near the top. Make sure you load up on luxury car dealers, independent import car repair, jewelers, stockbrokers, realtors and home services companies.
- Sports formats can skew younger especially with stations that have guy talk driven hosts. Some sports stations have local play by play and that can cume in a younger audience. News talk radio is heavy 55+ and especially 65+. Younger buyers will carry a bias at times vs news radio and the age of the listener.
- The news talk format is conservative and mostly anti-liberal/Democrat in general. Some national advertisers would not allow their commercials to fall into the Rush Limbaugh show for example. Sometimes, buyers will not place ads on a conservative station for personal reasons. In sports, at least traditionally, that doesn’t happen as often. Historically sports have steered away from conservative or liberal positions on any politics. We have a chance to change that. See below.
- Sports talk typically has 80/20 Male to Female audience. News talk skews much more female and can be a 60/40 split Male to Female. That opens the door to what a 45–64-year-old woman may be more interested in home services, jewelry and more!
A Happy Couple
- A sports and news talk combo buy provides a great one stop shop for anything with a male skew. And, make sure you point out the earning power differences. We used to have fun with a graphic that pointed out with our combo you get customers and with the rock stations you got convicts. Get it? Customers or Convicts?
- If you are selling to male store owner and he is over 40 years old there is a good chance he listens to one of your shows. Just ask him.
- It may be time to start talking politics. If you have a conservative news talk station loaded with local news and political talk in the morning and Shapiro, Savage, and Hannity at other times, you got a conservative station. If you have a local show or two on the sports station, why not encourage them to speak up? Occasionally, the talent will not be conservative Republicans and certainly most athletes who speak out on political matters and command attention are not republican conservatives. Seems like a perfect balance for buyers who object to one lean over the other.