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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.”

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.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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