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ESPN Edge Conference Puts The Future On Display

” The company will look to continue to embrace movements in the digital space and the proclivities of its viewers and sports fans at large as it looks to serve the sports time anytime and anywhere for years to come.”

Derek Futterman

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Since 1979, ESPN has sought to be the worldwide leader in sports coverage and media innovation, remaining at the forefront of changing consumer habits and emerging technologies. One year ago, the company introduced the ESPN Edge Innovation Center, effectuating a new standard to power sports media innovation through robust partnerships with companies centered around connectivity, technology and consulting. In conjunction with this new branch of the company, the ESPN Edge Conference was created to inform sports media professionals and partners about the work the company is doing to fulfill its mission of serving the sports fan anytime and anywhere.

“We’re on to year two, and I’m here to guarantee no sophomore slump this time,” said Around the Horn and conference host Tony Reali. “I have no doubt you’ll feel the impact when you see the ways we can unleash technology to power content; the way we can partner in cultivating our minds to championing innovation.”

ESPN Head of Sports Business and Innovation Mark L. Walker shared some of the company’s achievements over the last year in the “Powering the Future of Sports Media Innovation” session of the conference. The ESPN Edge Virtual Lab, for example, was created to test new technologies with internal stakeholders and implement them on programming. Around the Horn was the first half-hour program to implement augmented reality.

The company experimented with volumetric video broadcasting technology in a matchup between the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets last season, allowing fans to see the game in 3D and from more camera angles than were previously realistic. The network’s broadcast of the NBA Finals also utilized innovative technology and hardware to change the way the game is presented, virtually placing elements and video around venues to be captured by drones and other cameras.

“As innovation across infrastructure, networking and computing enable more immersive digital experiences than previously possible, ESPN is utilizing the breadth of its rights and partnerships… to create future-state experiences that enable the most immersive, connected communities for our fans,” Walker said.

Accenture partnered with ESPN to help transform the fan experience. The company has over 721,000 employees and maintains two schools of thought regarding innovation known as “Big I” and “Little I.” While the latter relates to continuous levels of improvement every day, the former refers to transforming a space and doing something never before seen. In order to do that though, diversity within the company is an essential part to ensure different perspectives and backgrounds are considered relating to company decisions.

“You can’t innovate unless you are diverse,” said Julie Sweet, chair and chief executive officer of Accenture in a panel moderated by Mike Greenberg. “As you look across what’s happening now, there’s so much opportunity with technology, the use of data, AI and there are so many challenges and opportunities so companies are taking much more seriously not just the words, but moving to action. They believe they cannot serve these new markets and take care of these challenges unless they have different thought at the table.”

The ESPN network of platforms spans across traditional and modern approaches to content dissemination and aims to meet the fan where they are. As an example, Formula One Racing, a sport quickly rising in popularity, is being used by the company and its partners as a case study of creating multiplatform content engaging and informative to consumers.

StatusPRO Technology is one of the companies looking to reach consumers, but it also has positioned its product to appeal to those within the National Football League as a training mechanism. Started by former NFL wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and Division I quarterback Troy Jones, the company launched NFL Pro Era, the first ever fully-licensed NFL virtual reality game. Moving from being football players to founders of a technology company, the duo seeks to implement augmented reality, mixed reality and virtual reality into the game experience for both athletes and fans. Andrew Hawkins, co-founder and president of StatusPRO, found himself interested in the technology after he saw a hologram of Tupac at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival; the challenge was how to apply it.

“I started building a mobile application that will connect anybody with relevant experience with the people who would value it,” Hawkins said in a panel moderated by Molly Qerim. “If you wanted to have a sports media sector of it, people who want to be in Molly’s shoes could subscribe to get feedback [and] mentorship.”

After being approached by two non-athletes about this type of technology potentially being able to shift the sports landscape, Jones analyzed it more thoroughly and came to the conclusion to try to revolutionize the space as well.

“I said, ‘Hey, this can really disrupt sports [and] help athletes get better, but also helps and gives them experiences they’ve never had,’” Jones expressed. “We believe this is the future of computing and how people will interact with the internet and content.”

The Baltimore Ravens were the pilot team for the technology developed by Howard and Jones’ team, and utilized its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, to produce a special experience centered around his versatility and athleticism. Aside from that though, he is indicative of authenticity to the consumer base and gives the platform to market its mission of pioneering gaming and training in ways never before realized. The challenge comes in getting people to realize that what they perceive to be in the future is actually here in the present.

Through its 5G technology, large bandwidth and low latency, Verizon has helped ESPN transform fan experiences around the world in addition to broadcast production. The company figures to accelerate the speed at which changes can be made and presented to consumers and seek to use the technology to immerse fans within the game instead of having them passively observe the action. An example of such integration is the 2022 X Games Aspen mobile application where the company was able to exploit second-screen technology and alternate viewing experiences to transform the viewing experience for fans.

Verizon’s 5G technology allowed for ESPN to place unique types of cameras in locations never before accessible along with those with 180° and 360° degree capabilities. Upon analysis of application data, the average session length was found to be 20 minutes and two-thirds of users returned for a second time. The network surmises experiences like these could alter the direct-to-consumer approach to media innovation for years to come.

“There was so much work that had to be done [and] it just doesn’t happen without a lot of coordination and a lot of teamwork. I think that has been what’s made this partnership, at least from my perspective, really special,” Tim Reed, vice president of programming and acquisitions at ESPN, said. “At the end of the day, we all wanted to work towards creating something really unique for our fans and an experience that we all could be really proud of.”

One way audiences are becoming more engaged in sporting events is by having a stake in the game through betting. As more states move to legalize the activity following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Murphy v. NCAA (2018) delegating the regulatory power to the states, content providers such as ESPN have observed its proliferation in popularity and subsequently built studios in Las Vegas while implementing betting segments within studio and live game programming.

“ESPN is the number one, most trusted brand in sports,” said Mike Morrison, vice president of sports betting and fantasy at ESPN. “We’re setting records on digital with the ESPN App, on streaming and social media as a sports publisher and [as an] editorial journalism platform. ESPN’s brand and the trust people have in it offers ESPN the opportunity to further lean into sports betting.”

The outcome of games and performance of athletes can change in an instant and, subsequently, the outcome for bets whether they be props, parlays or teasers. Just as it is difficult to accurately predict the outcome of a sporting event, it is also hard to project the growth of certain industry trends – part of the reason why ESPN decided to view the growth of sports betting and be ready to assimilate into the space if they deemed it as a place for future growth. Once the network saw sports fans migrating to betting platforms and the success they were experiencing, it decided to more heavily migrate into the space and now continues to do so as both analysts and storytellers.

“We are the most trusted brand in sports media,” repeated Laura Gentile, executive vice president of commercial marketing at ESPN and Disney Networks. “That is why we’ve taken this patient, methodical approach to sort of vetting the opportunity and being there in a responsible way. Trust for us is always going to be paramount. When we have partners; when we have odds, we need to feel good about that and give it to fans in the proper way.”

Both sports betting and fantasy sports have blurred the lines when it comes to following specific teams; instead, fans are following athletes and/or certain occurrences in games with the prospect of winning or losing money at hand. Part of the value proposition of sports betting to ESPN aside from telling stories that relate to the interests of fans is using its platform to make it more accessible, part of the reason why many sportsbooks have looked to partner with them to sponsor segments, statistics or other parts of their multifaceted broadcasts. ESPN is aiming to emulate how it was able to help grow fantasy sports to sports betting, the latest innovation in a dynamic content landscape.

“We’ve almost doubled the number of fantasy players in the last 10 years,” Gentile said. “We’re breaking records every single year when it comes to sign ups and how people are playing on multiple teams and multiple leagues. Fantasy is much more accessible; it used to be this strange, rotisserie type of thing [but now it is] more mainstream. Now you’re sitting there watching games that you would never watch before because your team hinges on it. It’s very, very similar [to sports betting] and I think we’ve made fantasy football much more understandable and much more successful.”

Coinciding with new technologies and viewer experiences, sports fans crave information and listen to experts decipher statistics and trends that enhance their knowledge and understanding of the game both on the playing surface and in the front office. Dr. André Snellings always had an interest in sports but attended the University of Michigan to receive his PhD in biomedical engineering. The dissertation he crafted and successfully defended in order to earn his PhD related to deep brain stimulation as a form of treatment for Parkinson’s Disease, assisting neurosurgeons to locate the most optimal location for electrode implants and neural recordings to be placed to help eliminate the disease.

Snellings discovered fantasy sports while waiting for a colleague in a laboratory one day and instantly became captivated by the practice after creating a fantasy basketball team. He got into the industry by means of necessity though, as he looked to augment his own knowledge about the practice but did not have the means to do so.

“One day I heard a guy on the radio giving fantasy sports advice and when I went to sign up for his website, I volunteered doing analysis for them to gain access,” he said. “It turns out that the same tools that made me good at bioengineering lent themselves to sports analysis.”

Following a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, he worked to build his career in sports media which eventually led him to become a senior writer at RotoWire. Once he signed on with ESPN as a senior writer and on-air talent, he began applying his expertise to the world of professional sports. In fact, he suggested trades during the 2017-18 and 2020-21 seasons in columns for the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively, to make in order to contend for a championship. Whether or not there was any correlation between his suggestions and the team’s strategy, both franchises ended up executing the suggested trades and went on to win league championships.

“I utilized the same analytical toolbox in both careers,” he said. “These days, I apply it to the NBA, the WNBA, the NFL and the tennis tours in addition to the nervous system.”

ESPN Edge has also partnered with Microsoft to help leverage innovations in data and artificial intelligence to transform the sports media landscape. Referencing surfing, the panel discussed how technology can assist in familiarizing fans with sports with which they may not be as familiar while also genuinely eliminating biases to allow for objective scoring.

Akin to the intersection between training and gaming, the technology that gives fans insights about statistics is also desired by sports franchises looking to optimize their performance and prevent injuries to move into the future. It serves a dual purpose which is marketable and usable for those on the field and in the stands.

“It was the athletes, coaches and people involved in the sport [who were] coming to us and asking us to bring this technology to the field,” Kevin Ashley, principal engineer at Microsoft, said. “We have this magic; we have this technology that can tell them how to improve performance and reduce the number of injuries on the field.”

Social media remains vitally important in content strategy and distribution, but part of the expertise of teams comes in identifying which opportunities could help the growth of a brand as compared to hindering it. Vice President of Social Media at ESPN Katiee Daley and her team recognized the growth of TikTok, joining the platform in 2015 and creating specialized, digestible content for consumers. Today, ESPN as a brand is in the top five in terms of following and engagement on the platform following its launch in 2015.

BeReal, a social network centered around authenticity, alerts users once per day of the commencement of a two-minute window to take a photo and post it to the platform. The application has surged in popularity since its inception in 2020 and has been installed over 53 million times globally; however, ESPN has yet to create an account on the platform despite considering joining it.

“We’ve talked about ‘Can we show up as authentically ESPN there or is it going to come across as us trying too hard?,’” Daley said. “I think it’s smart to pick your spots [and] pick the playgrounds that you want to be testing in.”

In appealing to consumers, ESPN has focused on the growth of alternate broadcasts, most notably Monday Night Football with Peyton and Eli – colloquially-referred to as the Manningcast. Featuring former NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, the program presents viewers with an alternate perspective of the action on the gridiron broadcast in quasi-studios built in their respective homes.

According to Ed Placey, who serves as vice president of production at ESPN, Peyton Manning declined the use of a telestrator because it is indicative of a normal broadcast but is engrossed by viewing various different camera angles and videos of plays. As a result, the network recently installed a large LED wall with television screens showing different feeds of the game at his home, giving him the opportunity to analyze plays from multiple angles. Conversely, Eli Manning watches the game and enjoys using the Microsoft tablets provided on the sidelines to look at the special coaches feeds of plays and will sometimes use them as a type of telestrator as well. Nonetheless, the key to the broadcasts is relatability, and despite them having storied careers on the field, have been successful thus far in their pursuit to revolutionize the way football is presented across multiple platforms.

“We’ve found that Peyton and Eli’s broadcast and many other second-screen experiences that we do are for folks that aren’t as avid in that game at that time and want something different,” Placey said. “People who are just casual on that night love tuning in to Peyton and Eli because they’re kind of watching it the same way they are. It’s Monday; it’s fun; it’s not serious all the time with them.”

Whether it be alternate broadcasts, evolutions in augmented reality or fan engagement, the ESPN Edge conference exhibited the network’s innovations and areas of development and future growth. The company will look to continue to embrace movements in the digital space and the proclivities of its viewers and sports fans at large as it looks to serve the sports time anytime and anywhere for years to come.

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Seeking Solutions at the NAB Show

“ My hope is that I’ll leave Las Vegas this week, smarter, inspired, and more confident in where we’re headed.”

Jason Barrett

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Photo Credit: NAB Show 2024

I’m writing this while on a flight to Las Vegas for the NAB Show, where I’ll spend the next few days talking and listening to folks discuss the future of the media business. Curtis LeGeyt and his team do a fantastic job with this event. Technology will be on full display, relationships will be extended in hallways and restaurants, and ideas and insights will be shared on stage by many operating corporately, and in local markets.

I’ve always enjoyed attending and speaking at this show because I have access to more information than most. That doesn’t make my opinions or wisdom better, it just means it doesn’t come from one source. I’ll get to share some of my thoughts on Tuesday when I join Fred Jacobs, Mitch Rosen, Rod Lakin, John Mamola and Matt Nahigian for a session titled, “Changing The Game: Creating Unique Sports Radio Programming.” I’ll also be appearing with new RAB CEO Michael Hulvey on the ‘Radio on Main Street’ podcast.

I’m privileged to consult many brands across the country. Most of my focus is on radio, but that’s not the only space I’m in. There are groups I work with that you have no idea about. News is part of my mix too. My access to various companies allows me to stay educated and see things that others only read about.

Because I see and hear so much, and I study brands, content, and audience habits, it drives me crazy hearing folks preach the same things they did a decade ago. Some leaders view the industry through one company lens, and don’t take advantage of opportunities to attend and learn at places like the NAB Show. I’ve never understood that. Why stay the same when opportunities to get better exist? What you believe works and doesn’t isn’t often seen the same by others. This is especially true when comparing the big three (Audacy, Cumulus and iHeart) to smaller groups.

But this isn’t just an executive or corporate issue. It happens with programmers, talent and agents too. I hear a lot of the same complaints but don’t see a lot of proof of a better way forward. Whether it involves discovering talent, measurement, generating revenue, mastering social media, getting talent paid or using artificial intelligence, what are your solutions?

The media business is constantly evolving. Many new brands have emerged, and they see opportunity where traditional outlets don’t, especially in digital. Growing a brand and business requires more than playing the hits, chasing meters, and sharing posts on LinkedIn. It takes adding skills you don’t have, building programming for different platforms, growing revenue beyond traditional ways, and most importantly, getting out of your own way. If you don’t have all the answers, that’s ok. Acting like you do is a bigger issue.

We have never had more real estate to work with to connect audiences and advertisers. However, we don’t take full advantage of it because many aren’t masters of multiple spaces. We also create goals that sound good in conference rooms yet lack the strategy and insight to be executed. I hear this a lot when websites, podcasts, YouTube, social media and newsletters are mentioned.

Because I love this industry so much, I defend it frequently. Print outlets love to portray our business in a negative light. Even the trades prioritize coverage of revenue projections, stock prices, investments in technology, etc., things that matter less to listeners, viewers, content creators and programmers. With so much attention on the industry’s lack of growth, it often looks like we’re steering a ship towards a tsunami.

My hope is that I’ll leave the NAB Show, smarter, inspired, and more confident in where we’re headed. Optimism is sometimes hard to find in terrestrial outlets, but this is an exciting time for the media industry. Capitalizing requires new skills, a wider focus, creativity, and forward-thinking leaders. Let’s put our time and energy into identifying solutions rather than spewing the same old narratives.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Thumbs Up

University of Florida: State of the art equipment, tons of space, on-site operations for the SEC Network, a weather network to cover the entire state of Florida, ownership of Gainesville’s leading sports radio station (WRUF), excellent hands-on training, and students who want to learn, and possess passion and desire to make a mark on the business. It was great to see so many invested on campus in the future of the industry. It’s easy to see why Florida’s track record of developing successful broadcasters is stellar.

Chris Oliviero: Audacy New York’s top boss has always had a sharp programming mind, and when faced with making moves to guide his brands forward, he’s often passed the test with flying colors. He’s doing it again with the naming of WFAN’s new program director. The news becomes official at 9am ET today. Once the name is revealed, I’ll update this space to provide proper attribution. The bottom line, WFAN made a great hire.

Dave Portnoy: Betting on sports often produces losses but Portnoy lately has been on a hot streak. The Barstool Sports owner hit last week on the NCAA Championship game, and again this weekend with the Masters. Over the past four months he’s generated over 5 million dollars in winnings. What’s next, Dave?

Thumbs Down:

NCAA Championship Game Start Time: I understand that the game between UConn and Purdue took place in Arizona, but there’s no reason for a national championship game to start at 9:20pm ET. Given how much TV networks pay, and taking into account the viewing habits of sports fans, losing audience on a Monday night over a late start time makes little business sense. Hopefully this gets figured out in the future.

AEW: Airing behind the scenes footage of an incident involving CM Punk made sense eight months ago. Doing it last week was pointless. Any momentum gained is tied to a talent no longer in the company, and having an arena full of people chanting a former talent’s name does little for anyone on the current roster. Just a strange decision that provided little upside.

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Eavesdropping: Masters Radio on SiriusXM

“And then there is the very best in the business at doing this, who is an even better teammate, the voice of the Masters, Mike Tirico.”

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Graphic for Eavesdropping feature with Masters Radio

A tradition unlike any other, indeed. It was yet another mesmerizing Masters tournament this past weekend when Scottie Scheffler took home his second green jacket. The weekend weather was perfect, and the golf was spectacular. I spent a lot of my weekend eavesdropping in on Masters Radio from SiriusXM.

Listening to golf on the radio is a bit sentimental for me. One of my best friends, Jay Randolph Jr., was a PGA Tour Radio broadcaster, and sadly we lost Jay to liver cancer in November 2022. He had worked with many of the voices I was listening to this weekend and in a weird way I felt very connected to him listening to the Masters on the radio versus hearing the audio from CBS.

I can’t say enough good things about the way the Masters is presented on radio. From tuning in early and hearing David Marr III setting the scene for the day along with Craig Stadler and Scott Simpson to hearing the starter introduce Tiger Woods to hearing the crew throughout the day as the leaders worked their way around the course, it was, in a word, masterful.

There are many voices you hear while listening and it’s obvious none of them would rather be anywhere else. That’s the overall feeling you walk away with when listening to the Masters Radio team – they love golf, they love this tournament, and they’re having the time of their lives painting the picture for the audience.

The knowledge of course, is off the charts. Whether it’s little nuggets of statistical information, historical facts or on-course reporters giving reads of a green, the Masters Radio team knows their golf and you walk away a smarter golf fan when listening to what they have to say.

As the players at the top of the leaderboard on Sunday began to tee off, around 2:15 p.m. CT, host Taylor Zarzour had a terrific introduction before turning things over to one of the best parts of Masters Radio, lead voice Mike Tirico.

As the Masters music played in the background, Zarzour said, “From the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, this is the Masters on SiriusXM. Why is it that we love this place so much? Maybe it’s because of its breathtaking beauty…maybe it’s the fellowship at Augusta National, without any electronic devices, you are your most present here. The conversation seems more meaningful. You are where your feet are.

“Or maybe, ‘YES SIR!’ the man that made that collection of words famous is Verne Lundquist, in one of his many calls we will never forget. Verne made it during what I think we love the most, the second nine on Sunday at Augusta. Today is his final assignment in an illustrious career. Wouldn’t it be fun if he had one more memorable call? If so, we will press play on it during this final round broadcast led by Jeremy Davis and his fabulous production team.

“On the air we have some Masters veterans as analysts. I wish you could see Johnson Wagner’s passion when an eagle was made. And if the Masters had an accent, Steve Melnyk would be speaking it. The best on-course commentators in golf are here with John Maginnes stationed at Amen Corner, Brian Katrek in the middle of holes 15 and 16, and the great Maureen Madill is headed over to 17.

“And then there is the very best in the business at doing this, who is an even better teammate, the voice of the Masters, Mike Tirico.”

I planned to write my own description, but I think Zarzour nailed it. Tirico did as well, saying, “Taylor, that’s awesome man, that sets the scene so perfectly and I think shapes the thoughts of so many of us as we drive into the property here on Sunday.”

While the broadcasters were all on their A-game, so too were the producers and sound engineers. As I said before, they don’t miss anything. Whether it be the sound of the club hitting the ball, the conversations between caddies and players, the atmosphere of the birds and the patrons, it is all blended exceptionally well. And when something big happens, the passion of the announcer’s voice along with the noise from the crowd is mixed perfectly.

The broadcasters gave every player at the top of the leaderboard their just do. The more you listened, the more you learned about Scottie Scheffler, Max Homa, Ludvig Aberg, Collin Morikawa and Bryson DeChambeau as they made their way around the course. You caught every step of their rounds with Maginnes, Katrek, Madill and Johnson Wagner walking the course with them. And nobody is better at giving you the storylines than Mike Tirico.

Tirico is one of those voices where if you hear it, you know the event is a big one. His voice leading the way on Masters Radio makes it sound even bigger than it is, if that is even possible. He not only gives exceptional commentary, but he is terrific bringing in the other broadcasters in and out of the conversation. And, as one can imagine, he is as prepared as possible, a virtual golf and Masters encyclopedia.

As the leaders got past ‘Amen Corner’ and the tournament started to reach its climax, you could feel the emotion through the microphones.

As Scottie Scheffler led by two and then hit his second shot on 14 to within two feet of the hole, Tirico had an excellent play-by-play call, followed by a very subtle response from Steve Melnyk, who simply said, “There’s a reason he’s No. 1.”

As Scheffler putted out and took a three-shot lead, Tirico added, “He’s that close to a second green jacket in three years.”

At that point in the broadcast, Zarzour took over and Tirico moved to a setup next to the 18th green and as he did Zarzour mentioned it was from there Tirico had called Tiger Woods’ win exactly five years prior.

As Tirico and Johnson Wagner take over the call from near the 18th green at around 5:25 CT, the leaders head to the 16th hole with Scheffler leading by three.

As analyst Steve Melnyk wrapped up his time in the booth, he praised Scheffler for his play and made a statement about second place finisher Ludvig Aberg saying, “Ludvig is the new young face of the golf world.”

Maureen Madill doubled down as she told Tirico that some of the younger golfers who challenged Scheffler this weekend were like a zoom call where they are waiting to come into a meeting. “I think Ludvig Aberg and Max Homa are in the major waiting room,” she said.

As Scheffler started to wrap up his second win at Augusta, Brian Katrek had the call of his putt on the 16th hole: “…On the way, up to the cup and in. There are no more questions, Scottie Scheffler can put one arm in the jacket right now. Birdie at 16, he is 11 under par and he leads by four.”

Tirico was bringing it all home as he described Scheffler and his caddie Ted Scott walking up the 18th fairway. “The crescendo builds as Scheffler gets close to the 18th green,” he said and then brilliantly went silent and let the crowd noise takeover.

As Scheffler pitched to within a few feet, Tirico said, “Scottie Scheffler’s gonna do it again.”

As Scheffler’s wrapped up his championship, Tirico said, “Scheffler, over the ball, shuffles the feet, Scottie Scheffler the putter back and in! Scottie, Scottie, he’s done it again. Scottie Scheffer, for the second time in three years is the Masters Champion.” He later added, “Only eighteen men now have won multiple Masters and the latest is Texan Scottie Scheffler.”

Golf on the radio is not easy. It’s made even more difficult when you are trying to blend together a number of voices and sounds to truly maximize the coverage. I can’t imagine it being done any better than the way Masters Radio on SiriusXM did it this weekend.

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Eavesdropping: Busted Open on SiriusXM

“If Cody would have won at WrestleMania 39 there would have been cheers. But what you got because of Cody’s victory last night was tears.”

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Graphic for Eavesdropping: Busted Open Radio

The day after the Super Bowl, it’s always fun to hear sports radio in the two towns which had teams in the game. In that same vein, I tuned into Busted Open on SiriusXM the day after WrestleMania weekend.

Host Dave LaGreca, who plays the role of the fan on the show, was joined live from WWE World by co-hosts Tommy Dreamer, Mark Henry and Bully Ray. The fan exhibit was not open to the public at the start of the show, but fans entered the picture after the first hour.

The first hour of this particular show went about as fast as a radio show can possibly move. As soon as the show started the hosts immediately got into making fun of Bully Ray, who had been a surprise guest-referee in a match during WrestleMania night two, for how he looked in the referee uniform.

“Allow me to be the very first to admit those stripes don’t look the best on me,” the WWE Hall of Famer replied to the jokes.

Mark Henry jumped in to say, “It was kind of just what WrestleMania needed. To have the ECW influence on the show, great representation for the brand and showing respect to Paul Heyman as well.” Heyman had been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame during the weekend and was celebrated not only for his WWE contributions but as the creator of ECW, which was based in Philadelphia, where he first worked with Bully Ray who was then known as Bubba Ray Dudley.

“I had people backstage in WWE telling me ‘We have never seen you smile that much in life ever,’ said Bully Ray “…I jumped at the opportunity. Too much fun.  Last night was the first WrestleMania that I got to appreciate…the level of stress that came with [when you are performing in the matches] you’re not able to take it all in…it’s really not fun because it’s so stressful.”

Bully Ray said he could feel the pop as he was introduced and really enjoyed getting to “smell the roses for the first time.”

LaGreca could no longer hold it in. He cut off the talk about his co-host participating in WrestleMania and moved on to the heart of the matter. In the main event the night before, Cody Rhodes had ended the run of Roman Reigns as the Undisputed Universal Champion after more than three and a half years. More importantly to the hosts and fans alike, the story of Cody Rhodes building to this moment was one they all agreed was one of the great moments in WrestleMania history.

Of course, WWE loves surprises and on the second night of this year’s WrestleMania, they had plenty in store. The Rock had already come back to be a part of the WrestleMania 40 storyline and then during the Sunday main event, John Cena and The Undertaker came out as surprises.

Bully Ray gave a great description of what he was doing as the main event was happening. He said he was with Damian Priest, who had earlier in the evening won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, and while they didn’t plan to watch the main event live, when it started, they thought they needed to see it. “We ran through the halls and go out into the arena,” he said. “Guys, when the gong hit for The Undertaker, the both of us turned into 12-year-olds…we were jumping up and down…lost it, loved it.”

Mark Henry said, “We reacted the same way. I cannot imagine what that must’ve felt like in person.” Bully Ray replied, “When you can hear the pop in a stadium, you know the pop is big.”

LaGreca said, “There wasn’t a lot to get excited about with night number one, but night two was just hit, after hit, after hit. And that main event, with all the stories that played out and had a conclusion during that match…You couldn’t have played that out to a better conclusion than what we saw last night.”

The hosts then listened to an audio clip from the previous year, where the day after WrestleMania some fans, including LaGreca, were extremely disappointed that Cody Rhodes did not beat Roman Reigns and “finish his story” then. At the time, Bully Ray had said there was a bigger picture story WWE would build that would show Cody fighting hard times much like his father, ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes had gone through. Mark Henry agreed.

LaGreca said he was “eating some crow” but then admitted it’s all part of it where the emotion gets so high, and he pointed out that people were actually crying when the main event ended.  “If Cody would have won at WrestleMania 39 there would have been cheers.  But what you got because of Codys victory last night was tears,” LaGreca said. “This is an end of one story, but more importantly the beginning of a new story.”

LaGreca came back from a break and reverted immediately back to what the difference was in Rhodes winning the title in 2024 versus having done it in 2023. “It went from a great moment…to maybe one of the greatest WrestleMania moments of all time last night,” he said.

There was strong insight given out by all of the former wrestlers at different times during the show, and they also pointed to things a casual fan may not have picked up on. One of those happened when you heard ring announcer Samantha Irvin get genuinely emotional in announcing Rhodes as the new champion.

“We’re not used to hearing emotion in a ring announcer’s voice, so Samantha Irvin brought something special and extra to the table in that announcement,” said Bully Ray.

Tommy Dreamer added, “It was the most perfect imperfection ever and it made that moment even more real…it was something that will be remembered through the annals of time.”

As the hosts continued to talk about the emotion of the night, Henry said, “It felt like WE won.” This gave Bully Ray the chance to sum it all up as he said, “The key word that you just said, WE. Cody made you feel like you were a part of his struggle. You were a part of his story.”

Henry went on to say, “I felt like last night, for the first time, that I could almost cry for Cody. I honestly felt emotional seeing him become the face of this new era, the ‘Triple H’ era….Wrestling is a feel business and if you don’t feel it then it’s not worth really putting on television. I felt that [last night] and I know every fan felt that.”

The hosts continued to give insight as they discussed a gift given to Cody Rhodes by WWE executives backstage and a spot where a table broke before it was supposed to and how smoothly the performers pivoted. Having Henry, Dreamer and Bully Ray on the show allows for a lot of this type of discussion where they can give perspective from having been in the ring.

Later LeGreca is asked if he would rank this WrestleMania up there with WrestleMania 17, widely considered the best of all time. LeGreca said if night number two stood on its own he would say it was better, but perhaps not if you consider both nights. The panel as a whole agreed it was definitely up there as one of the best and Henry noted it will be the highest grossing, so that is one way to judge which was the best.

“There were very few holes in that show,” Dreamer said.

While the first hour was rapid fire and had a ton of great reaction to all of the highlights of the night before, the show took a bit of a turn in the second hour. As the crowd became a part of the show it seemed to change the demeanor of the hosts a bit, especially LaGreca who seemed to be playing to the crowd rather than the listening audience. He yelled out “We did it!” talking about Cody Rhodes winning and then led a “Cody! Cody! Cody!” chant that didn’t go over well to those not on site.

Then there was a very strange guest appearance by WWE superstar Liv Morgan which seemed to bring the show to a halt. Later, Kevin Owens was live on the show and his appearance made a lot more sense as he participated in WrestleMania and had thoughts to share about others who performed and the storylines which were created. Owens helped bring the energy of the show back up and you could tell as a listener how passionate he is about wrestling and what took place during WrestleMania 40.

The programmer in me would remind the hosts not to do the show for their hardcore fans only, as they have to assume people are coming in and out of the show. They had incredible content in the first hour with really strong opinions from their experts, but there was never any resetting or going back to what was talked about, which I thought was a bit of a miss.

With that said, if you are a wrestling fan and you didn’t feed off the energy and excitement the hosts had for what they had witnessed the night before, something is wrong with you. Busted Open Radio was an excellent listen as a follow up to what was a memorable WresleMania weekend.

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