When you have a problem, there are two ways to deal with it. You can bury your head and deny the fact that a problem exists or you can do something about it. Look at ESPN and news/talk radio and we have the wild extremes of each example.
ESPN and the NBA have been on the wrong end of plenty of finger pointing and snickering from conservative media recently. Ratings are down. That is undeniable. There are a myriad of reasons why, but the fact remains that fewer people are watching on linear TV than were before.
What has the NBA done about it? Monday night, the league leaned into a little Disney synergy. ESPN2 presented Marvel’s Arena of Heroes, an Avengers-themed broadcast of the Warriors’ visit to New Orleans. The network took a game between two teams without winning records and used it to excite younger viewers and families.
It was a lot of fun. Three stars from each team were assigned superhero partners create a storyline for the game. The score bug was redesigned to look like a comic book. Graphics were created to make it look like Iron Man and Black Panther were watching the game from the rafters. My 9-year-old son thought it was the coolest thing.
The broadcast wasn’t perfect. Ryan Rucco and Richard Jefferson struggled to figure out how to react to Marvel podcast host and producer Angélique Roché, who was in the booth with them. On top of that, the Pelicans were extraordinarily bad.
The quality of the product was not as important as the product’s existence. Look, this was a game that was going to go totally unnoticed without trying something new. The Arena of Heroes broadcast represented ESPN and the NBA acknowledging that things are not perfect right now and trying something unique to fix it. The broadcast targeting a younger, more casual audience was part of a larger strategy to solve the problem.
Compare that to a story that came out last month. Atlanta’s 106.3 FM flipped from sports to news/talk and in the process announced it would be the latest talk station to air old episodes of the Rush Limbaugh Show in the mid day.
Talk radio has a problem since the biggest star in the format’s history died. No one was built up as the “star in waiting,” so there is a huge void left nationwide. Kudos to the networks and stations putting new voices in Rush’s old time slot and trying to create their own stars, but every time a station decides that there is nothing better it can do from noon until 3 pm than pretend a rant about NAFTA is relevant in 2021, it’s another band-aid over a bullet wound.
That is the difference between content in the sports space and content in the news/talk world. They’re hoarding every band-aid they can find to deal with their biggest problems while we are trying out experimental surgeries.
Sometimes there is nothing wrong with a band-aid. Move outside of the media realm and we see it in sports all the time. What else would you call the Bears signing Andy Dalton?
If you have a long-term plan that requires a little more incubation, so be it. A band-aid may be a necessary stop gap. This industry has proven time and again though that without a permanent solution in mind, executives have a way of talking themselves into band-aids being acceptable permanent fixes. That is bad for talent and that is bad for listeners, which in turn is bad for stations.
Programming band-aids should be a “break glass in case of emergency” scenario. Not every big swing will be a home run, but that is no reason to play it safe and prioritize never spending a penny over addressing a problem.
Problems require solutions. You find those by thinking differently and trying new things. ESPN deserves a ton of praise for leveraging all of the assets Disney puts at its disposal. The talk stations airing 20 year old Rush Limbaugh episodes don’t deserve scorn necessarily, but they should constantly be reminded that there is no way out of their current predicament by pretending they don’t have a problem.
ESPN Deserves Praise For Handling Of Christian Eriksen Collapse
“Raw but professional. That is how I would describe what I saw.”
We have seen crazy moments happen at sporting events. We have seen wilder, more inexplicable moments. It is hard to think of something more frightening than what happened on the pitch in Copenhagen on Saturday afternoon.
During the 43rd minute of Denmark’s opening match of the Euro 2020 tournament, the national team’s star midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the field. It wasn’t a contact injury. It wasn’t one of soccer’s theatrical ploys to get a penalty called. He just staggered forward and collapsed on the field. The referees were called over to check on Eriksen. They then called out the medical staff and for the next twenty plus minutes, we held our breaths.
You can search out the video of the collapse for yourself. It is strange at first glance. It is disturbing when you know what the next few minutes held.
The match was eventually suspended and that put ESPN in an inconvenient situation. The network had to fill more than an hour with studio programming it hadn’t planned for and really couldn’t look to any road map to follow. The end product wasn’t perfect, but it was perfect for the moment, striking the right balance of human emotion and reaction to what Eriksen’s predicament meant in both the present moment and moving forward for the tournament.
ESPN’s coverage was divided into two teams. Sebastian Salazar lead the team of former Austrian defender Christian Fuchs and former Scottish midfielder Craig Burley at the desk. There was also a less formal set where host Kelly Cates was joined by English soccer legend Steve McManaman, American forward Taylor Twellman and referee Mark Clattenburg gathered in recliners to discuss the action. Both groups did an excellent job of not only reacting, but holding my attention. It was the desk crew, led bu Burley’s utter disbelief at what was happening, that was the real standout though.
Craig Burley absolutely earned my respect as a broadcaster and analyst. He was the antithesis of the stereotype of a “Scottish soccer hooligan,” giving detailed and emotional explanations of how the moment effected him. He said plainly that this was the most disturbing thing he had ever seen happen at the Euro tournament. He openly struggled with how to make sense of Christian Eriksen, laying motionless and receiving CPR and hits from defibrillator paddles while all his girlfriend could do was stand on the Danish sideline and watch.
Probably his most skilled and astute moment came when he was asked what UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, should do about the match between Russia and Belgium that was supposed to start after the conclusion of Denmark vs. Finland. There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in Burley’s response. The only correct answer in his opinion was to cancel that match. After all, five players scheduled to take the pitch in that match were current or former teammates of Eriksen’s in his club career.
“It’s difficult around here,” he said, making it clear that the thought of starting a second match was absolutely absurd. “Human beings are involved. People are not robots.”
McManaman said something similar from his recliner. He also could not believe we were talking about trying to play another match today. Instead of speaking on the emotions of the players involved, “Maca” tried to give the viewers an idea of the difficulty this situation puts on managers and UEFA officials. He found the balance of human emotion and explanation of the strategy involved in trying to get a team ready for action in an emotional atmosphere like this one.
Raw but professional. That is how I would describe what I saw. Twellman, a rising star at ESPN beyond just the network’s soccer coverage, came under fire from some fans for what they perceived as Twellman speculating about Eriksen’s diagnosis. Twellman made it clear that he was telling the audience what he heard from a doctor watching the events unfold. In my mind, that isn’t very different from any network turning to their medical correspondent or injury expert. The only difference is the information was being filtered through a third party.
He also caught heat for what some thought was criticizing the reaction of the paramedic staff on hand, taking nearly two minutes to begin administering CPR. That one is a little harder to defend, but my argument would be that we were all scared for Christian Eriksen and trying to make sense of what we had just witnessed. Taylor Twellman just had the misfortune of going through those emotions and reacting on live television. Can’t he and ESPN be forgiven for a misstep in the moment?
Over at the desk, Sebastian Salazar did a masterful job of leading the conversation and making sure the viewers that were flipping over to ESPN after learning about what happened to Christian Eriksen had all of the most up to date information. He was the one that first revealed the photo of Eriksen sitting up, seemingly responsive as paramedics took him off the field. His state had initially been in question, because medical professionals and Eriksen’s Danish teammates formed a barricade and used curtains to keep cameras from seeing everything that was going on.
Salazar was also the first to read the statement from UEFA that told fans Christian Eriksen was at the hospital. The Danish star had been stabilized. It was no longer the life or death situation that had us all on the edge of our seats.
“That is the best outcome we could have seen today,” Burley said. He was talking about Eriksen’s healthy. Surely, that deserves all of the focus and excitement here, but it is also fair to say that “the best outcome we could have seen today” is the only fair description for ESPN’s effort in difficult and upsetting circumstances.
T-Bone Found His Groove And Has Been Going Ever Since
“I think, obviously, you have to have some level of talent to do what we do, but I think there are far more talented people than me that for whatever reason, life’s circumstances prevented them from sticking around.”
The hate mail was consistent. Sometimes intense.
It kept coming and coming…for six months, according to Jonathan “T-Bone” Smith, who had the unenviable task of replacing a popular sports host in Columbus, Ohio, named Scott Torgerson, after he was fired for a controversial tweet involving Desmond Howard in October 2012.
Fast forward to the soon-to-be summer of 2021; no more hate mail (at least on that subject), and it’s eight and a half years of success (the ratings back it up) for “Common Man and T-Bone,” the afternoon show that anchors the successful (the ratings back that up, too) 97.1 The Fan.
Barrett Sports Media scored an interview with “T-Bone,” the “round mound” of Columbus sports radio. It soon became clear that the path to afternoon show stardom was one-third talent, one-third hard work, and one-third “good fortune” for T-Bone.
Jonathan “T-Bone” Smith is a Columbus kid, born-and-raised, who would play basketball outside, then come inside and turn on the radio to hear the Fabulous Sports Babe, Paul Harvey and Dan Patrick, among other radio stars.
“I had always been interested by the idea that you could talk in the microphone and have a bunch of people hear what you had to say,” T-Bone said. He said by the age of 10, he knew he wanted to be on the radio, “some way, somehow.”
In the seventh grade, he listened attentively as a twelfth-grader at his small Liberty Christian Academy school read the morning announcements. That twelfth-grader eventually got a job working at Columbus radio station WUFM 88.7, a Christian rock station. T-Bone followed in the same footsteps. T-Bone started reading the morning announcements as an eleventh-grader, and after high school, he knocked on WUFM’s doors to volunteer on the street team. But the receptionist there had other ideas.
“She said, ‘Do you want to be on air or do you want to do the street team?'” he remembered. “It’s OK, we’ll train you,” she said, after the 19-year-old radio rookie said he wanted to be on-air but had no experience.
By December 2001, six months after donning the high school cap and gown, T-Bone was on the air. During his six years at the station, he did afternoons, nights, and had a stint as the promotions director, too. He had been attending Ohio State, but exited the school to focus on his on-air work full time at WUFM.
Feeling that the religious format was no longer a good fit, coupled with his desire to do more of a talk-based show, he left WUFM in 2008. With no college degree, T-Bone took a customer service job with BMW (yes, that BMW) Financial Services. He was on the phone, a lot, but he liked to talk, a lot, so…it worked out. Plus, it made him more money than what he was making at WUFM. Still, he yearned for that talk-show style program. So T-Bone started a podcast that focused on his love of soccer. His studio? A spare bedroom in his Columbus-area home.
Turns out, Ivan Lee of 1010 WINS in New York City heard his podcast, and offered to air it on a little-known streaming entity called Chat About It, which no longer exists.
Slowly, T-Bone’s name was getting out there.
He swears he got his next radio job, as an afternoon show producer for Sports WONE-AM (980) in Dayton, Ohio, because he had that Big Apple reference on his resume. T-Bone would drive, each day, from Columbus to Dayton (60 miles) to produce and then later host a sports show. After a year of racking up thousands of frequent driver miles, he left Dayton for good in 2011. And he almost gave up his dream of having a long on-air career in radio for good.
“I told my wife, give me a year to get something better (in radio) and (if not), I’ll get a degree, get a better job, give up on the radio thing,” T-Bone told BSM.
Thankfully, the radio gods didn’t make him wait that long. In September 2011, he heard that WBNS-FM, 97.1 The Fan in Columbus, was looking to hire an afternoon show producer for “Common Man and The Torg,” Mike Ricordati and Scott Torgerson. T-Bone applied, and got the job. He told BSM that he could feel the chemistry between the three sports-crazed men, and that made it all the more difficult for T-Bone when, just five or six months into producing the afternoon show, T-Bone thought about applying to become the host of “The Buckeye Show,” which aired after “Common Man and The Torg.”
“I remember, clear as day,” T-Bone said of his walk with Torgerson to get lunch at Chipotle in the spring of 2012, “I said to Torg, ‘I’m thinking of applying to that because I would like to do on-air stuff, but I wouldn’t do it unless you guys are cool with it because I came here to be your producer.’…He said, ‘Ah, dude, you should definitely do it.’ He was very supportive. Mike was very supportive. Torg even said, ‘Hey, you may not get it, but at least it shows them that you’re interested.'”
T-Bone ended up getting the position. He hosted The Buckeye Show from the summer of 2012 until December of that year, when Ricordati hinted to T-Bone that he wanted T-Bone to become the permanent co-host on the afternoon show, after Torgerson’s dismissal from the station.
January to June of 2013 was a true test of resiliency for T-Bone. He was in the more prominent time slot, paired with the more established host (Ricordati), replacing the popular guy known by one syllable — “Torg.”
“Scott (Torgerson) is a really interesting guy. I had a different kind of personality that I think took some getting used to for some people and that’s totally understandable,” T-Bone, who considers “Torg” a friend to this day, told BSM. “After six months or so, things settled down…and I was able to find a groove and we’ve been going ever since.”
“Common Man and T-Bone” are a consistent top-three in the Men 25-54 demographic. The two fellers have an all-comers appeal — not too old, not too young…they can get serious about the Buckeyes and then laugh about Nick Castellanos’ antics on the baseball field…the show isn’t fast-paced and cutthroat like many shows in the Northeast, but never puts you to sleep, either. To steal a line from Adult Contemporary Radio, “Common Man and T-Bone” is that show that “everyone at work can agree on.”
“We’re going to pay more attention to the culture and the conversation around the games as opposed to the actual in-game everyday (nuts and bolts),” T-Bone told BSM.
And the conversation that’s created by Ricordati and T-Bone gives the two a chance to show off their similar senses of humor, as T-Bone described it.
The Columbus market has a little bit of everybody. While the Buckeyes are the No. 1 draw, people come from all areas of Ohio and beyond to call Columbus home. T-Bone said after Ohio State, NFL talk is what interests most sports fans in Columbus. It doesn’t have to be just about the Browns or Bengals, though Browns fans are more dominant in Columbus. T-Bone believes the Indians have more fans in Columbus than the Reds these days, though it wasn’t like that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, according to T-Bone, when the Reds were busy going wire-to-wire and winning the 1990 World Series. Columbus sports fans also like to discuss what’s happening with the Blue Jackets and Crew.
Sometimes, Jonathan “T-Bone” Smith walks into the 97.1 The Fan studio and may have to pinch himself. At age 38, he’s living out his dream, hosting a sports radio show, on one of the highest-rated sports stations in the country, in his hometown.
“I think, obviously, you have to have some level of talent to do what we do,” T-Bone told BSM, “but I think there are far more talented people than me that for whatever reason, life’s circumstances prevented them from sticking around. Talent is very important, but I think availability is extremely important. An ability to shake off your bad days is really important because I’ve had a ton of them. Talent matters, but the ability to stick with it is what matters more.”
T-Bone added this note to aspiring on-air talents: “When an opportunity presents itself, if you’ve done the work, if you’ve prepared, if you have talent, then you can step in and hopefully hit a home run; or a single, if that’s what they’re asking for…just don’t strike out.”
Jim Lampley Thought He Had Come To The End Of The Road
“I was surprised that anybody could arrive at that business position, looking at the history of HBO as a network and what boxing had meant to the development of its identity and its relationship to the audience and decide that that was something that they didn’t want to do.”
Jim Lampley has been synonymous with big-time boxing for over 30 years as the preeminent play-by-play voice at HBO Sports. After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, Lampley is back calling prizefights. This time, it is not on cable or even the standard pay-per-view. Like 35% of US households, he’s joined a streaming service.
Enter Triller. Not Thriller. (Yes, I made that mistake a couple of times already this week.)
Triller is a short-form video app used by musicians, celebrities, athletes, and overall culture setters—has more than 300 million users worldwide.
“HBO was the top of the pyramid in terms of the prestige of the fighters and the fights that we were bringing to the public,” Lampley said in an upcoming appearance on my Sports with Friends podcast. “So, it was a privilege to have that particular ringside position. If you were calling fights in the 80s, 90s, 00s, the teens as I was, and you wanted to be in the best possible place to call the fights. That was HBO.”
When Time Warner was sold to AT&T in 2018, HBO Boxing was not a priority anymore. The program was shuttered on December 8, 2018.
Time Warner has since been sold again in a merger with Discovery Media.
“I didn’t have a, a television sports commentary job anymore,” Lampley noted. “And I did not know at that moment, whether I would, at some point in the future ever have a television sports commentary job, it was quite possible to me that that was the end of the road.”
After more than three decades in network television, and nearly 30 of them as host of HBO’s flagship World Championship Boxing franchise, Lampley is one of America’s most renowned and respected broadcasters and journalists.
He called ALL the big fights from March 1988 until December 2018. He called Mike Tyson vs. Buster Douglas in 1990, and the :91 second Tyson victory over Michael Spinks.
It wasn’t just Tyson. Lampley called the bouts between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe and Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, the remarkable 45-year-old George Foreman’s victory over Michael Moorer in 1994, to the long-awaited showdown between Lennox Lewis and Tyson in 2002.
After all that success, Lampley was surprised that HBO did not continue with boxing in 2018.
“I was surprised that anybody could arrive at that business position, looking at the history of HBO as a network and what boxing had meant to the development of its identity and its relationship to the audience and decide that that was something that they didn’t want to do,” Lampley explained. “They didn’t, it was kind of shocking to me, but on the other hand, at that moment, I had been lucky enough. It’s all luck.”
“It is an honor and a privilege to welcome the preeminent voice in boxing, Jim Lampley, to Triller Fight Club,” Triller creator Ryan Kavanaugh said. “We will blend all the best elements of music, entertainment, and sports, and there is no one better to help lead our broadcasts for fans of all ages than Jim.”
Before hiring Lampley, Triller has been compared favorably to other short-form apps like Snapchat and TikTok. Having long-form programming vaults Triller into a different stratosphere.
Since Lampley started with HBO in 1988, combat sports have seen a change as boxing now shares the entertainment stage with Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting. Lampley stressed that his deal with Triller will be to call traditional boxing matches.
“It doesn’t mean that I have any antagonism for the popularity or the rise of those other sports,” he mentioned. “Most of the people I have encountered who are fans of NMA are also fans of boxing. I do understand that there’s some segregation and there are some people who just like MMA and don’t want to see boxing. So that’s going to go on for quite a while. “
Still, Lampley sees no place for fights with YouTube stars.
As 35% of the US householders have cut the cord and use streaming services over cable and broadcast television, Lampley is quite willing to embrace new technology. He does think the toxicity of social media has gotten out of hand.
“Will social media destroy civilization?” he asked. “I don’t think I have seen a more perverse societal influence in my lifetime than social media. I can’t begin to tell you how abhorrent I find social media and its effects on everything from social relationships to race relations, to gender relations, to politics, etc.
He said Floyd Mayweather’s recent exhibition with YouTube’s Jake Paul crossed a line. “This was yet another example of the degree to which social media can destroy conventional boundaries, cheapened values, and pretty much obliterate the conventional meaning of a lot of things in the society. Everybody with a brain knows that Floyd Mayweather had no chance to prove anything against this YouTube guy with no boxing background. Why did people pay anything to see it?”
The full interview will be released on Sports with Friends on Wednesday, June 16th. Lampley makes his Triller debut Saturday, June 19th at Miami’s loanDepot park, which will feature both men’s and women’s undisputed world title fights for the first time. Headlining the event, ‘The Takeover’ Teófimo López, will defend his Undisputed Lightweight World Titles (IBF, WBC, WBO, WBC, RING) for the first time against ‘Ferocious’ George Kambosos Jr.
We covered a lot of ground in our conversation. Lampley was the first host on the first day for the first 24-hour all-sports radio station, when he hosted WFAN’s first show in 1987. He also called 14 separate Olympic Games for multiple networks. We discussed his thoughts on the upcoming Tokyo games as well.
Lampley is planning to bring his countless stories to his own podcast soon. It was incredibly fun to ask him about his various movie roles, where he played himself. While I marveled at Creed, he says Ocean’s Eleven was his favorite film.
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