In my estimation, the sea change began in 2015. Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd exited ESPN within months of each other. For different reasons, both had fractious splits with the Mothership. Amidst doubts from some in the industry as to whether they’d remain relevant or disappear, they leveraged personal audiences that platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube had suddenly made portable to prove that prosperity was attainable outside ESPN. Not only that, they stayed relevant in the conversation. Six years later, as content has continued to fragment and the gambling behemoths have entered the chat, the paradigm has fully shifted to favor top talents in sports media in a manner that is truly unprecedented.
To get to where we are now, you have to think about the landscape in 2015. Some talents had big leverage — ESPN had to pay big to keep a lot of its roster from going to upstarts like NBCSN and FS1 — but it was nothing like it is today. Regardless of money, ESPN had the distinct advantage of the very real possibility that you could get lost if you left. Stephen A. Smith, now arguably the face of ESPN, had exited the company only to return after he never totally found his niche at Fox Sports Radio. Michelle Beadle left for NBCSN in 2013, the network canceled her show The Crossover after about seven months, and she too returned to ESPN the very next year.
Yes, Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen had and continue to have considerable success away from the Four Letters, but you have to remember that for a long time they were viewed as outliers. For most others who departed ESPN, even if they continued to have fine careers financially, there was less ‘glow’ on their work. In a business where the size of the audience that you reach has a lot of psychic implications on talents’ own sense of self-worth, this is not insignificant.
As I’ve written a couple of times, Dan Le Batard was amongst those who cautioned against Simmons, Cowherd, and Skip Bayless leaving ESPN. He talked about the magnificent audience reach they were yielding. He warned they would get lost. In what wound up being very fortunate as it pertains to his own circumstances, Le Batard has probably never been more wrong.
And it wasn’t just Simmons and Cowherd who succeeded at new destinations. Many who have left ESPN since 2015 — Jason Whitlock, Will Cain, Jemele Hill, Michael Smith, Emmanuel Acho, Tom Rinaldi, and we could go on for paragraphs — thrive financially and with visibility of their work.
Le Batard exited ESPN about a year before his deal was up, with his extremely valuable podcast feeds in his possession. The deal with DraftKings is just the start of what he and former ESPN president John Skipper will be tackling with Meadlowlark Media. It looks to be the start of a phenomenally lucrative business — and they’ll also have the autonomy to not just talk about whatever they want, but explore other content avenues across the media spectrum.
While ESPN no longer has a stranglehold on talent, they may not even wish to anymore. The company has fortified its ambitions more and more around live rights. They added UFC, they’ll have a monopoly on SEC football in a couple years, the NHL is coming back to them, and they got into the NFL’s Super Bowl rotation — without losing any of their cornerstone live rights as of yet. They of course need talent to fill their events and all their other hours, but they’re not nearly as concerned anymore about which people come, stay, or go.
The landscape had already shifted where top sports media talents found themselves with options not especially available to those in previous generations — before the sports gambling gold rush. To say that sports gambling has improved the fortunes for big names in media would be akin to declaring that a Stop sign is red. Gee, ya think?
But the scale is still so mammoth that we have to talk about it. Dave Portnoy, on his podcast last week, analogized that when Penn National bought Barstool at a valuation of $450 million it was like when the market gets set for a star quarterback and then the hurdle keeps getting subsequently cleared.
The gambling companies are fighting tooth and nail for user acquisition. According to Axios, DraftKings spent about half a billion dollars in marketing last year alone — and that was before they bought VSIN and inked a three-year, $50 million deal with the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. FanDuel, MGM, Caesar’s/William Hill, Rivers, and Pointsbet are all also spending like crazy. Bally’s, Wynn, and Churchill Downs’ TwinSpires are coming as well. If I started naming all the partnerships that these gambling operators had in the sports media business it would be July before you finished reading this piece.
Whether and to what extent the general sports media audience wants the ongoing proliferation of sports gambling content, there’s only going to be more and more. If you think it’s already A Lot, wait until big states like New York, Florida, Texas, and California are legal and go live.
Jay Marriotti, writing for this web site, ripped Le Batard for getting in bed with DraftKings. “So let’s see if I have this straight: He painted his ESPN superiors as undesirable partners because they didn’t want him causing political wars on the radio … yet he’s ethically willing to jump headfirst into the gambling cesspool,” Marriotti wrote. “In the end, he’s the grimiest of all. In the latest example of desperation leading to hypocrisy, LeBatard’s lengthy search for a company to distribute his podcast led to DraftKings, the tout louts who will control ad sales and licensing arrangements. This will sink Le Batard’s show into the betting crapper and complete the demise of a once-great journalist.”
It’s easy to dismiss Marriotti as a scold, but there is a dark side to the relentless onslaught of gambling partnerships where media organizations that should theoretically be watchdogs to keep the industry honest are financially dependent on it. An unfortunate byproduct of the unrelenting marketing campaigns and easy access to gambling is that there will be addicts who lose everything. Relationships and families will be destroyed.
You can believe in individual liberty to support gambling legalization, and believe that it’s better to have it happening out in the open and regulated rather than in the hands of the mob, while also being sympathetic to the inevitable negative consequences. Before he signed the deal, Le Batard surely had to grapple with the idea that there are members of his audience who will get hooked and dig themselves a deep hole.
To be sure, hardly any of the marketing we see connected with our sports is healthy and pure. We are deluged with ads for prescription drugs where the side effects oftentimes sound worse than the symptoms they treat. Beer and liquor marketing remains massive. Is gambling worse for society than alcohol? It’s hard to argue that. And every time you watch sports, played by our planet’s healthiest citizens, there is a flood of commercials for the unhealthiest food.
Nonetheless, life is full of trade-offs. Le Batard, former ESPN president John Skipper, and Meadowlark Media faced the decision on whether to take the DraftKings deal and keep the show free for listeners, or to do his show behind a paywall — a move that Howard Stern pioneered when he went to SiriusXM in 2004. Certainly, Le Batard’s die hard listeners would have followed him to a subscription platform.
Ultimately, Le Batard and Skipper chose the route of maximizing reach and relevance, and they positioned themselves with the flexibility of evaluating the landscape in three years while maintaining control of their intellectual property.
No one can sit here and tell you that they actually know what is going to happen from the great gambling gold rush of the 2020s. It’s a good bet that the dozen or so players will consolidate into a half-dozen or less, but what permutations wind up happening are anyone’s guess. Eventually, the marketplace will be mature from a user acquisition perspective, but customer retention will remain paramount. Therefore, even if the sports media industry doesn’t maintain the insane boom times that are happening now, gambling partnerships will stay a component of the business for perpetuity — the business has been mature in Europe for awhile, but you still see ads for sportsbooks plastered all around soccer fields and even on players’ uniforms.
The bottom line is that the top talents in this business have an unprecedented amount of leverage. The ones in the best position now, besides Portnoy where Barstool is a remarkable story of entrepreneurial organic growth, capitalized on the power of big media organizations to build their own portable personal followings. These followings are enormously valuable across linear and digital platforms, and this is exponentially true if those followers are loyal enough to follow the talents to a specific gambling app. In 2015, it was a real risk for Bill Simmons and Colin Cowherd to spread their wings outside of ESPN (yes, Simmons was fired by Skipper and thus had no choice, but he has repeatedly said it was his plan to leave when his contract expired). In retrospect it can seem like their choices were obvious, but the present boom times for popular sports media personalities can be traced to that stretch.
5 Goals: Rob ‘World Wide Wob’ Perez
“I’ve always had aspirations, hopefully with FanDuel in collaboration with another network, to apply NFL Red Zone to the NBA.”
This month’s subject of five goals is Rob Perez, better known to NBA Twitter as World Wide Wob. The content creator and producer for FanDuel shared with me five things he wants to accomplish or see happen.
1. I want to make FanDuel, my licensing partner in content creation, as happy as possible.
My goal is to drive people to their web site or app, and spread the reach of the brand. I’m sure there’s a more formal word for that, but I want to organically integrate FanDuel into everything I do.
I don’t want to just be a commercial — hey 20% off, or here’s a free bet — because people are drowning in those across various forms of communication. All the content I do is naturally involved, and if someone’s asking about who’s favored it’s a very seamless type of content integration in which I can include them and drive them to FanDuel if they’d like to put their money where their mouth is.
I would certainly love the opportunity to continue working with them — not just because they pay me to do so, but I do find value in working with a sportsbook of that size that is turning into a content company. Of course, they’re always gonna be a sportsbook. It makes them the most money. But, giving you additional reasons to engage with that brand, if you have an itch to bet on something, is what my job is.
I want to continue to be the face of the NBA for them, having a very casual conversation about the game itself — whether that’s off the court stuff, or all the coaching departures earlier this week. Integrating the FanDuel logo into all this feels much more real than a 30-second commercial between timeouts. I want you to enjoy the experience of the show, and gamble if you so choose.
2. NBA Red Zone.
I’ve always had aspirations, hopefully with FanDuel in collaboration with another network, to apply NFL Red Zone to the NBA. It would work best on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and sometimes Sunday, when there are 8-9 concurrent games.
That’s why I’m where I am today. I’m watching every single dribble of every single game. But, I would never expect any other normal human with responsibilities outside of NBA content creation to ever keep up with what’s going on between the Kings and Pistons while there’s seven other games on, one of which is nationally televised.
So, if the NBA ever decides to have a true commitment to their version of the Red Zone — they’ve tried versions of it on NBATV, but I’ve never seen one hopping between games every 15-20 seconds, hot switching any time there’s a play stoppage — I’d love to do it.
You’d have a Scott Hanson type host who is as integrated with the league as it gets. I hope maybe one day I have the opportunity where what I do on my own personal timeline merges with true rights partnership from the NBA. Just based on the feedback I get on my Twitter page, there would be demand for it.
3. Do another NBA variety show.
In the past, I had a show called Buckets that I did with Cycle and ESPN. It had sketches, pre-produced talk segments, and interviews. Think of it like Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon’s shows, but applied to the NBA.
Inside the NBA is obviously the gold standard for an NBA talk show. But, those guys are going to retire at some point. What I do on Twitter Spaces, Twitch, and Periscope — I want the ability to blow that out with some more production resources.
Right now, I’m doing everything myself, from playing DJ to directing to taking calls to actually running the show and talking basketball and researching stats — I’m doing it all on the fly. While I’m certainly happy to do that, I know what we could create with a team around me because we’ve done it in the past. I would love to do a weekly variety show based around the NBA.
4. Some more work life balance.
My entire day for 11 months out of the year revolves around the NBA. It’s my job and I’m happy to. I love following it. At some point, I feel like I’m gonna get burned out, and I don’t want to ever get to the point where doing this feels like work.
It felt a little bit like work this year, and that might be because I’m on Year 8 doing this. [RG note: at this point, I mentioned how last offseason was so condensed after the bubble, and how the energy felt partially zapped out of sports with a lack of fans]. I’m gonna watch regardless because I’m a crazy person, but I think a lot of people would agree with you that the return to normalcy is helping with the engagement on a mainstream scale.
This offseason will be condensed again. We have the Olympics, which of course I’m going to watch because stars will be playing. Summer League is in August. There’s free agency and the draft. There’s barely going to be one month — September — where there probably won’t be a whole lot of NBA news or events.
But then we’re going back to the normal schedule from before the pandemic, which means Media Week will be the first week of October. There’s one month off before it all starts again, and I’m hoping I don’t get burned out by it.
Being on the East Coast, it’s impossible to follow the NBA 24/7. I don’t know how people with kids and families do it. Getting back to the West Coast is a personal goal of mine, which will happen this summer when I move back to Los Angeles. These hours will allow me to get back to a more normal life.
5. I want the Knicks to win a championship in my lifetime.
Just being a die hard Knicks fan and not seeing a title in my lifetime, that’s a personal goal. I’ve put so much work into watching every effing game since I was eight years old with Patrick Ewing and John Starks in the NBA playoffs.
I was young, but I was old enough to know that I wanted to stay up for those games. I was emotionally invested. I would even get to the point where I was putting towels underneath the door so my parents couldn’t see that the TV was on. They thought I was sleeping.
Of course I want my team to win a championship, and I don’t want to die without seeing that mountaintop. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a Red Sox or Cubs fan and going all those years without seeing them win, then having it happen. I want to experience it once.
Whatever it takes to get there. I have too many gray hairs on my head, and every single one of them I can attribute to a single Knicks game from the past decade. Being a fan while trying to create objective NBA content will always be a challenge, but being a Knicks fan will always take precedent over a career because it means that much to me.
Forget the Email, Just Smile & Dial
“Don’t confuse marketing with sales. We are not human advertisements or, even worse, spam.”
Back in August of last year, the pandemic was still front and center, acting as a roadblock for business. Retailers were in business and at the stores, but what about the advertising buyers? Where were they?
Well, the ad-buying community, corporate employees, and most white-collar workers were still at home. So were most of us in radio sales. So, when it came to prospecting for new accounts, some of us gave up, most sent emails, and a few brave souls hit the phone. Earlier this year, I wrote about the sales trainer John Barrows and how he got to the top by cold calling 400 prospects a week! That’s not cold emailing. That’s cold CALLING. And to be exact, if Barrows was working a 10 hour day on the phones Monday through Friday, he would dial at least eight prospects an hour.
Does that send a chill down your spine? Or does it make you want to run to your keyboard to avoid rejection and send some more cold emails? Back in August, when most of our ad buyers were at home, not near a business phone, Jeb Blount and Anthony Iannarino were recording a podcast about why you should hit the phone, not the email. Both sales consultants and authors thought we could improve our connect rate immensely by working the phones over email.
Both authors agreed that we need to have conversations with people about our stations, personalities, shows, and the sports world! We can hire an automated CRM service to send emails!
Now I am all for some well-crafted custom emails sent to targets that do not answer phones or listen to voice mails but not as the first activity in a sales sequence. Don’t confuse marketing with sales. We are not human advertisements or, even worse, spam. Our job isn’t to create awareness for buying sports radio packages; it is to make the sale!
We are consultants offering custom solutions to the unique challenges your clients have. And consider that if you pick up the phone and connect with the advertising buyer and get the appointment, you won’t need an email!
Both consultants agree that you don’t need email to warm up a client when using the phone to get the appointment! I recently tested this theory myself and decided that with the pandemic subsiding in most metropolitan areas and more buyers going back to the office, I could start hitting the phones more.
It worked. I got more appointments faster and wasted less time. I even got help. I had a business owner who I reached out to via email with a custom approach. I offered a few excellent ideas on how I could help him. Crickets. I let 2.5 weeks go by before I picked up the phone to dial the business and ask for him. They told me he was out on vacation and asked me if I had personal interaction with him. I explained no I was looking to connect with him on an advertising idea. The receptionist said you need to talk to Jane, the ad buyer. I was connected immediately.
I left a voice mail. The next day I received a return call indicating interest in my idea, and we set the appointment. Now, why didn’t I try that in the first place!
If you want a custom phone pitch that I wrote out for myself, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now it’s time to smile and dial!
Media Noise – Episode 33
It has been a busy week at BSM. Demetri Ravanos talks about Domonique Foxworth and the future of commentary on ESPN. Kate Constable stops by to discuss her column on Sarah Spain and the sometimes ugly realities of life as a woman in sports media. Finally, Brian Noe and Demetri discuss Le’veon Bell’s Twitter rant and how depressingly relevant it is in the radio business.