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Sports Radio Gears Up For The 2021 NFL Season

“The idea of an extra game in January, which will obviously stretch the playoffs more, gives you a shot in the arm to stretch out the book.”

Derek Futterman

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The 2021 NFL. season is set to kick off tonight when the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by quarterback Tom Brady, host “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys, in the Sunshine State. Around the country, sports radio stations with and without team play-by-play rights are preparing for what is sure to be an unparalleled season, including the addition of a 17th game, and the threat COVID-19 imposes on teams, potentially subjecting them to forfeiting and/or canceling games if there is an outbreak of the deadly disease.

As teams return to the gridiron, they will have to judge their opponents, making adjustments during the game in order to put themselves in the best position to win. Similarly, sports radio, in a new digital age, will have to continue evolving so it fits consumption trends and technological innovations, all while remaining committed to best serving its listening audience.

“There’s a lot more information being distributed more quickly, and because of that, it creates a greater sense of immediacy in talking football on the radio,” said Raj Sharan, program director of 104.3 The Fan and ESPN Denver 1600. “Sports talk radio is live [and] local… [it] is really well-equipped to be in the moment. [We] can really help create that immediacy and intimacy with the listener.”

According to a recent Gallup poll, football is America’s most popular sport, with 37% of respondents choosing football when asked what was their favorite sport to watch. Keeping fans engaged with new content is something radio stations will strive to do as they set to embark upon a season full of uncertainty and ambivalence amid the global pandemic. Some of the ways stations intend to do this include introducing new programming and/or making existing programming accessible across a wider variety of platforms.

“We have a [Minnesota] Vikings-related show every day of the week,” said Chad Abbott, program director of KFAN Minneapolis, which holds the broadcast rights to the Minnesota Vikings. “This year, we have a podcast made for radio as opposed to a radio show made for podcasts [, and] it will feature a handful of different Vikings players throughout the season.”

In the District of Columbia, Washington Football Team Head Coach Ron Rivera is set to join The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan as a weekly guest throughout the 2021 season. This valuable addition to the guest list should give fans unrivaled insight pertaining to the Washington Football Team, along with offering them perspective from a current NFL. head coach who is around the players for practices and during each game.

With football’s substantial popularity comes the ability to augment revenue, ratings and listener engagement ahead of the release of the fall ratings book. Program directors, such as Sharan, are cognizant of the book’s importance on determining the success of their radio stations, and value its numbers, along with growth across digital platforms.

“Every ratings book is important; that goes without saying,” expressed Sharhan. “Obviously the fall one is very special because football is very popular and it’s America’s number one sport. We count on this time of year financially because of how popular the sport is.”

Chris Kinard, operations manager at Audacy D.C. and the brand manager of the aforementioned 106.7 The Fan, in addition to 94.7 The Drive and The Team 980, the latter of which holds the broadcast rights to the Washington Football Team, carries a similar sentiment regarding the emphasis those across the industry put on fall ratings. He looks at a variety of numbers, both traditionally- and digitally-based, to get a broad sense of how the stations he manages are doing.

“In terms of measuring the audience, I think that’s a challenging thing right now,” said Kinard. “We do have more tools at our fingertips than we have ever had in terms of supplementing Nielsen data with streaming data, podcast downloads and website traffic. That helps give a better picture of how big of an impact the football season has on audience growth.”

While there are a handful of diehard football fans who will watch the games and engage with the teams on media platforms no matter how the season is going, some fans rapidly lose interest in football, even if their team is contending for that coveted Lombardi Trophy. While the NFL generally garners most of the sports headlines during this time of year, the NBA and NHL both begin in just a few weeks, and that, combined with the ongoing college football season and the imminent start of the MLB playoffs, sometimes cause the effects of this oversaturation of sports and ancillary content to be felt by sports radio stations.

“I think the NFL is the best sport for when teams are struggling because there is always a storyline that can be talked about during the week,” said Abbott. “My hope every year is that the team is as close to making the playoffs as they can by the end of the [fall ratings] book. Sometimes, it’s nicer to have a 9-7 team than a 14-1 team because you [then] don’t have the ability to live and die by each game.”

Unfortunately for Sharan, he’s had “about five years of practice” in covering a struggling football team. Ever since winning the Super Bowl in 2015, the Denver Broncos have failed to qualify for the NFL playoffs, finishing last or in second-to-last place in four of those five seasons. The key question for sports talk radio stations relates to keeping the audience intact throughout the entire season, even if the local team has a losing record and is quickly eliminated from playoff contention.

When radio stations hold the broadcast rights for a team, though, freely expressing critical opinions towards the team’s personnel and ownership is often seen as damaging to the partnership. The Denver Broncos currently broadcast their games on KOA NewsRadio, and for Sharan, he sees the prospect of obtaining the broadcast rights to the team, if it were hypothetically possible, as eschewing his station’s ability to be an extension of the fanbase.

“We’ve built our brand around personalities free to give their opinion without endangering any type of partnership,” said Sharan. “We view being a completely independent brand to where people can come to get unimpeded opinions as a positive. If we want to dig in on Broncos ownership and how that’s affected the issues going on, we can do that. If we want to hold a front office executive or coach accountable in a major way, we can do that. We don’t have the obligation that tends to come with those rights. I absolutely never want the broadcast rights [to] the Denver Broncos.”

For radio stations holding the broadcast rights to NFL teams, such as those managed by Kinard and Abbott though, they enter this season vulnerable to experience two scenarios; one of which will be a definitive occurrence, and the other which will be sought to be avoided entirely. The first is the addition of a 17th game to the NFL schedule, something that was officially added to the league schedule after the NFL and its player association inked a new collective bargaining agreement in March 2020.

As the first major change to the NFL schedule since the 1978 season, fans and broadcast affiliates alike are enthusiastic about the addition of another week of regular season football and content. From a program director’s perspective, though, there is more to be excited about than just the local team taking the field one extra time.

“Selfishly, it’s good for programmers,” Abbott elucidated. “It extends into the winter [ratings] book of the next calendar year, so this season will extend into the 2022 winter book. The idea of an extra game in January, which will obviously stretch the playoffs more, gives you a shot in the arm to stretch out the book.”

Concurrent with the seventeenth game, though, is the reality that all stakeholders — whether they be fans, broadcast partners, radio stations, or teams — would like to avoid: The threat of some scheduled games having to be canceled or forfeited because of the spread of the Delta variant (B.1.617.2) of SARS-CoV-2, the direct cause of the fast-spreading, more severe form of COVID-19. If cancelation or forfeiture of matchups occurs, sports radio stations will treat it like breaking news, adjusting on the fly to continue to produce relevant football-related content.

“We haven’t discussed in detail any type of contingency plan because, just like any other storyline, that becomes the thing we talk about,” said Kinard. “We’d approach that the same way we did last year when there were changes to the schedule; we talk about the effect of that, whether it is right or wrong, who is to blame [, etc.] This is a storyline.”

Entering the 102nd season of the National Football League, where, in many marketplaces, fans will be allowed to attend the games en masse for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, sports radio stations are committed to bringing their audiences extensive coverage of all the action on and off the field. In the process, they seek to improve and/or maintain ratings, generate more revenue and increase listener engagement.

“We know that during the football season we gain new listeners and clients, and we want to find ways to maintain them throughout the rest of the year,” expressed Abbott. “It’s a marketing tool for many radio stations; the challenge is maintaining listeners throughout the season.”

It is nearly time for kickoff, and sports radio stations will attempt to put themselves in the best position to score a touchdown this football season in a dynamic media landscape. The extra point, though, will surely come from fans being able to safely enjoy the games together again under diminished restrictions.

“We all had a very difficult last year-and-a-half and have looked towards September as a time where kids are going back to school, people are returning to the office, etc.,” said Kinard. “Football is back, and [with] all of those things combined, it should make for a great fall.”

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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