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.
Jimmy Pitaro Deserves Some Credit For Monday Night
“Pitaro and ESPN’s executive team had to sign off on a broadcast in which Peyton and Eli were in separate remote locations, without a host to play traffic cop and guide continuity between plays. This all could have blown up in ESPN’s face.”
Over the last several months, Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN got raked over the coals after the New York Times story on Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor and the subsequent fallout that was effectively a mushroom cloud and the talk of the industry. Ultimately, the buck stops with the leader, but fairness should dictate that leaders also receive accolades for great accomplishments. After just one episode, we can confidently say that landing Peyton and Eli Manning for Monday Night Football qualifies in that regard.
Every TV network executive would have walked from Alaska to Omaha to land Peyton Manning. Andrew Marchand has accurately referred to him as the “white whale of sports TV”; he was so sought after that CBS, who has arguably the best color commentator in all of sports in Tony Romo, tried to lure Manning to the booth before ultimately reaching a new deal with Romo. Any way you slice it, getting the Manning brothers for 10 episodes of Monday Night Football on ESPN2 was a major coup for Pitaro, ESPN, and Disney.
Nonetheless, it was not without risk. Pitaro and ESPN’s executive team had to sign off on a broadcast in which Peyton and Eli were in separate remote locations, without a host to play traffic cop and guide continuity between plays. This all could have blown up in ESPN’s face. Imagine the chatter if the Manning broadcast was a dud, which it easily could have been given their format is unlike anything that has ever been tried before.
Instead, Peyton and Eli were a revelation. Peyton, with his combination of star-power, personality, and brain processing, is remarkably unique. During the fourth quarter of a close game between the Raiders and Ravens, he was somehow able to simultaneously interview Russell Wilson while immediately breaking down the film of all 22 players from key plays of a game he wasn’t even there for. Eli didn’t get as many words in, but when he did speak he had funny deadpan humor.
Full disclosure: I was traveling during the first half, which by many accounts was not as well executed as the second half, after they settled in.
There will undoubtedly be a number of attempts to replicate this announcing format, but it’s unlikely that any of them will work as well as this one, because none of them will have Peyton Manning. Remember how excruciating it was when TNT tried to do Players Only broadcasts for the NBA? Kevin Clark, speaking on The Ringer’s Press Box podcast with Bryan Curtis, called this a “Black Swan” event — it’ll never happen again because Peyton is one of one.
Anyways, back to Pitaro and ESPN: They’ve certainly taken their lumps and that’s life when you lead an organization that is the bellwether of the industry, facing myriad challenges, some of which are structural (cord-cutting eating into hefty subscriber fees) and some of which are self-inflicted (if you’ve read this far you already know what many of those are and there’s no need to re-hash).
However, it bears mentioning that in addition to making the content compromises — and opening up the checkbook for millions of dollars — to land Peyton Manning, Pitaro and ESPN have had a lot of big wins over the last several years. They locked up a monopoly on SEC football rights (in a deal so substantial the conference lured Oklahoma and Texas to join), expanded their NFL deal to get into the Super Bowl rotation, bought up all the UFC rights (which, more than anything else, has propelled the growth of ESPN+ to 15 million subscribers), and brought back the NHL. Sure, all of these wins probably came as a result of bidding the most money, but I’m old enough to remember when ESPN was supposed to be on a death spiral. Reports of ESPN’s demise — at least in live rights; talk programming and journalism have not remained the priorities they once were — were premature.
ESPN has been described as an ocean tanker, which turns very slowly. Jimmy Pitaro deserves some credit for his steering, in the macro, through some turbulent waters.
Did The Manningcast Work?
“The first show was great, but as is the case most of the time, there is room to grow.”
Is it a variety show? Is it a podcast? The first of 10 scheduled Manning MegaCasts, hosted by Peyton and Eli Manning, on ESPN2 proved it was a little bit all of the above. It was almost like Beavis and Butthead meets Statler and Waldorf. It was fun to watch the Manning brothers poke fun at each other and at the same time, criticize some of the action they saw on the field.
The show debuted as an alternative to the regular Monday Night Football broadcast and was met with rave reviews. To me, there was some great, some not so great, and definitely some room to grow.
I love the concept, providing an alternative for those that would rather be entertained than tune into a traditional broadcast. Now, as a play-by-play broadcaster, it makes me pause to think about what the future may hold. There will always be a spot for a traditional broadcast, especially with viewers that have a rooting interest in the game. I’m not sure that hardcore fans of the Ravens and Raiders were tuned in for more than a passing glance. Those folks want to see the game, not the fluff or interviews and the like, offered on the alternative broadcast. That fluff though is what will earn ESPN those fringe viewers that are curious and intrigued by what a “ManningCast” might have to offer them.
Sitting down to watch the game, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I know that Peyton has a personality that in some cases is larger than life. I was pleasantly surprised to see what Eli brought to the table as well. The guys played off each other well, each taking a turn to take a shot at the other. I’ll get into some of the best of those barbs a little later.
Peyton is comfortable in front of the camera and has no trouble talking. That was the issue I had early in the game. The elder Manning really dominated the conversation. There were no times in the first few minutes of the first quarter that I felt I could take a breath because so much was coming at me. They really didn’t allow the game to breathe at all. The constant conversation while entertaining at times just kept on coming. Peyton was talking fast and once in a while he was talking over Eli.
It didn’t help that the Manning’s were in different studios. I wondered if there was a “delay” in their feeds and if that was the reason for talking over one another at times. The delay was quite evident when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson joined the brothers for the later stages of the game. Wilson seemingly couldn’t get a word in, because Peyton and Eli were talking over him.
Peyton has that quality to be able to teach the game in a way that it’s understandable. Some of his commentary was a look behind the curtain at how he played and viewed the game. Knowing what to expect when coming to the line of scrimmage, understanding the coverages and realizing what teams are trying to do to disguise things. It was fascinating to hear the brothers go through play calls and how it is relayed from the coordinator to the quarterback and finally to the team. You aren’t going to get that on a traditional game broadcast.
It was also impressive to hear the guys interview both former players, current players and Charles Barkley. It so often is the case that the current athletes are very guarded in what they say to a regular ole member of the media. That was not the case in the Manning Cast. From Travis Kelce not knowing who the Chiefs were playing next, to Russell Wilson calling out the NFL overtime rule. Ray Lewis was a fascinating guest, providing some great stories and terrific insight into the game he once played at such a high level. Charles Barkley, well, he’s Charles Barkley. In other words, he was as fantastic as you’d expect.
The guests added to the broadcast and made me realize that if this Manningcast actually had a host, it wouldn’t have worked as well. A broadcaster would have gotten in the way to me. Yeah, they could have used a professional at times. Maybe someone to get them into and out of the commercial breaks, because that was a little rough early in the game. But that’s the only a host could have fit in.
The first show was great, but as is the case most of the time, there is room to grow. I really think the Manning Cast would be so much better if the guys were actually in the same room. The dynamic between them, which was already great, would be that much better. Imagine them demonstrating plays on each other. Both putting on helmets and doing what they probably did as kids in their basement, roughing each other up.
Ok, so they’re a little older now, but I seriously think having them in the same place would make things much smoother. With all the technology out there, eliminating that dreaded delay between the Manning’s and their guests would improve the telecast as well.
This alternative broadcast would be a great place to teach some casual fans all about the great game of football. Not sure why this came to my mind, but like the old days of the NHL, when “Peter Puck” an animated hockey puck would teach you the game. “Peter” was part of the NBC game of the week broadcast. An animated Peyton and Eli teaching those that need to know the finer points of the game, would be spectacular.
I can’t wait to see how they improve from last week to this week and who the guests will be this time around. Hopefully, they iron out some of the small issues that plagued them in the first telecast and continue to improve. I realize that this show is unscripted and it’s supposed to be a little looser than a normal show might be, but there are some slight fixes as I’ve pointed out that will make it even better.
With all the success the Manningcast had, I can’t help but wonder how all of these accolades are being taken by the regular MNF booth. ESPN in effect has promoted and created competition for its own product. Perhaps the novelty will wear off? Maybe, but it almost seems like the Manning’s are being groomed for a possible move to the main booth. I’m not sure what the feeling is amongst all the parties, but it’s certainly a dynamic worth watching.
Here are some of my favorite moments from Manningcast show number one, in no particular order:
- Derek Carr with an overthrow on the Raiders first play from scrimmage, leading Peyton to say about the Raiders season, “Lookin’ at ah 6-11, 6-11 right now.”
- Raiders’ fans were loud during an offensive series leading to a bad snap and a few false start penalties, leading to this exchange:
“They aren’t used to it”, said Eli Manning. Then Peyton responded, “Drink your beer, quiet down and let [Derek] Carr play quarterback.”
- Peyton putting on a football helmet to demonstrate the calls at the line for the Ravens. The helmet was way too small. “Helmet doesn’t fit”, Peyton said. “Shocking that a helmet doesn’t fit you”, Eli commented. “They didn’t have a XXL helmet for that forehead.”
- With Charles Barkley as a guest, Peyton asked him what position Michael Jordan would play if he were in the NFL, “Tight End”. Then Barkley was asked about Larry Bird playing a position, “there’s no place for no slow 6’10” guys in the NFL”, said Barkley.
Charles: “that’s about it…”
- Also, with Barkley on the show…
Peyton: “Hey Charles, you ever get booed at home? Never happened to you, right?”
Barkley: “I played in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That was a regularity.” “You were lucky, Peyton. Everybody liked you. Eli knows what it’s like to get booed at home.”
Eli: “He had that stadium trained. The fans would get fined if they talked when the Colts were on offense. If a guy was trying to order a beer, everyone would tell him to quiet down until the defense was on the field.”
Eli’s fire alarm goes off in the middle of the show.
Peyton: “Eli what’d you do?”
- With Ray Lewis on the show, the trio recalled a game where the Giants played the Ravens in Eli’s rookie season as the starting QB. The younger Manning leading the team to the line of scrimmage, calling out the defense…
Eli: “Hey #52 (Lewis) is the Mike (linebacker)”
Lewis: “No, I’m not the mike. He’s the Mike!”
Eli: “Yeah Ray’s right, the other guy’s the Mike”
It was also revealed in that game in 2004, Eli had a quarterback rating of 0.0 and of course Peyton pointed out, “the same GPA Belushi had in ‘Animal House.’”
- Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce on the Manningcast
Kelce: “[Watching this game] I’m not trying to get too technical because I think we’re playing the Chargers this week. Oh wait, maybe we’re playing Baltimore. I don’t even know — I’m getting lost in the season already.”
- Peyton about 5 minutes later: “Hey, Travis, just so you know, you do play the Ravens next week, so make sure you don’t fly to Los Angeles to play the Chargers.”
What Is The Next Advertising Money Cannon?
“In states where betting is legal, stations are having to squeeze live reads and segment sponsorships in wherever they can. Everyone is trying to make sure they aren’t leaving money on the table.”
If I could tell you that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I know there is another advertising revenue stream out there that can repeat what sportsbooks did for sports radio AND that I know exactly what it is, I could handpick my next employer and name my price.
A Supreme Court decision to make sports gambling a state issue and not a federal one completely changed the advertising landscape. In states where betting is legal, stations are having to squeeze live reads and segment sponsorships in wherever they can. Everyone is trying to make sure they aren’t leaving money on the table.
“There is no question about the significant impact sports betting has had on revenue, both from the station side as well as for our on-air personalities who have become brand ambassadors,” Dennis Gwiazdon, VP and Market Manager of Cromwell Broadcasting’s Nashville cluster told me.
Stations in states that are yet to legalize gambling can see the boom and know it is coming eventually. What about states where gambling is already legal? What about states like Alabama or Utah, which are routinely viewed as two that could realistically never legalize sports betting? Is there a boom on the horizon for them?
I spoke with managers in three different markets. I wanted to know where they saw reason for optimism. The answers were interesting.
Earlier this month, John Ourand of Sports Business Journal took a look at the deal FOX signed with crypto.com. The site is the title sponsor of the network’s College Football Extra. Ourand theorizes that could open the door for crypto companies eventually spending money on sports television the way sportsbooks do.
What is the outlook for radio? Jeff Tyler, iHeartMedia’s area president in Wisconsin, is intrigued by the idea, but he isn’t telling his sellers to go rushing out to make deals.
“There are a lot of variables around crypto,” he told me via email. “So as a company we have a plan to work within this category but not put the company at risk or do anything that could negatively affect our listeners and partners.”
Ken Brady, the sales manager at 1010XL in Jacksonville, knows that cryptocurrency has a buzz around it right now. He is not sure what the appetite for it is in terms of an ad market or what the industry’s appetite is for radio advertising.
“There is little chatter about cryptocurrency in our market or with partners,” he says. “This is something we need to understand and explore better.”
I asked all three men if there was a sector where they saw potential. Tyler had an interesting answer. He sees potential in eSports. He thinks teams and companies could benefit from connecting with stations with a dedicated listener base.
“Our brands could help them grow their fan base and activate them to attend more events in person and online.”
Gwiazdon has his eye on another vice. Just like gambling came out of the shadows and now functions under government regulation, it is only a matter of time he thinks before marijuana does the same.
“What immediately comes to mind is the legalization of marijuana at the state and, eventually, federal level,” he says. “There’s so much money in that industry – as evidenced where it has already become legal – that it could easily equal or surpass what’s happening with sports betting right now.”
What is interesting is that amongst this trio, Gwiazdon is the only one that lives in a state where there is absolutely no legal marijuana. What he sees as a potential boom for Tennessee is already legal in both Wisconsin and Florida, albeit exclusively for medical purposes.
A lot of sellers have big plans for pot and cannabis products where they are legal. Very few of them know all the answers though. That is why the RAB has a marijuana FAQ section on its website and advertising agencies specializing in marijuana have sprung up.
For 1010XL, the boom never really materialized according to Ken Brady.
“We have had little success with this category, the players who have come in seem to be interested in demos outside our strengths or have been flakey with no real appetite for a solid campaign that will work.”
Businesses built by someone following their passion for marijuana are flaky? Well, color me shocked!
Jeff Tyler told me iHeart is looking at this on a market by market basis. Wisconsin has made medical marijuana legal. Tyler can’t have his sellers approaching businesses the way sellers in neighboring states like Illinois or Michigan, where it has fully been decriminalized can.
“Until it’s fully legalized the advertiser revenue is very limited,” he said. “We have a team that leads this vertical for iHeartMedia and have states like Colorado that already have fully legalized marijuana so we have a solid plan and guidelines to follow with these advertisers. CBD is a small category with some hit spots in some markets.”
There may never be another category like sports betting. The money cannon that industry was ready to fire was unpresedented. You can’t bank on it happening again.
I asked Dennis Gwiazdon if it was possible that the radio industry will have to play a very proactive role in creating the next boom. He told me that may be the best way to think about it. What he is sure of is that no idea can be dismissed as the industry looks to find another stream of revenue that has the potential of the sportsbooks.
“We definitely have to get smarter at how we generate revenue. Relying on the old, tried and true ways won’t hold up forever. The good news is our business model is already undergoing a sea of change in terms of how we scale our radio/digital/entertainment assets for wider distribution and access. But some of us are further down the road than others. The audio industry is still the ultimate personal experience. How we continue to maximize – and monetize – our relationships with fans is the key to our survival.”
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