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The Gold Rush Is Here & Talent Have Never Had More Leverage

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?

Ryan Glasspiegel

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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. 

Michelle Beadle Sexy Pics | Twitter Bikini Photos | Get Up ESPN

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.”

Jay Mariotti

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.

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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.

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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