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.”
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.
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
As Media Changes, Bob Costas Hopes Standards Remain
“Some people are cynics, and they confuse cynicism alone with insight. That’s not me.”
Growing up in New York, Bob Costas frequently listened to broadcasters such as Red Barber, Mel Allen and Marv Albert call games on the radio. To him, their voices were inseparable from the players. Although he idolized Mickey Mantle, Costas knew the only way he would pass through the Yankee Stadium gates without charge would be by working in the press box. Recognizing that many national broadcasters began their careers by working in radio, he searched for an esteemed college program to accentuate his pursuit of a media career. Once Costas picked up a New York Knicks yearbook and learned that Glickman and Albert had both attended Syracuse University, his mind was, somewhat consequentially, made up.
“When I got there, I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to be a writer or a broadcaster,” Costas said. “Almost as soon as I got there as a freshman, I started getting airshifts doing sports reports and whatnot on the campus radio station. I felt like this was something that I enjoyed and I might have a knack for.”
Costas on the Air
Costas was fond of a specific type of sports broadcasting early in his career, one promulgated by Jim McKay and Jack Whitaker wherein an announcer is more than just someone who documents the game. It led Costas to espouse a multifaceted approach with shades of humor, journalistic elements and some historical references.
“[They] were essayists and at times journalists,” Costas said. “Not just announcers, but journalists with a respect for and a command of language with the occasional literate touch [and] I admired those people. I think I was influenced by them in that they showed me that was an avenue [and] that not every good broadcaster had to be generic.”
When Costas graduated from college, he was hired at KMOX radio by general manager Rob Hyland. He was assigned to be the new play-by-play announcer for the American Basketball Association’s (ABA) Spirit of St. Louis, and later called Missouri Tigers college basketball.
In 1976, Al Michaels was slated to be a regional football play-by-play announcer for CBS Sports, but ended up signing a contract with ABC less than one week before the regular season. It left the network with no one to call an opening week game between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers from historic Lambeau Field, resulting in CBS Sports calling Hyland to inquire about a potential replacement.
“Mr. Hyland said, ‘We’ve got a young guy here. We think he’s pretty good. He’s 24 and looks like he’s 15,’” Costas recalled. “They said, ‘Send him to Green Bay,’ and I signed a one-game contract for $500 to go to Green Bay.”
Costas continued calling regional games for CBS Sports while working at KMOX, being used every so often on football and basketball coverage. It gave him additional exposure in various marketplaces around the United States, and ultimately prepared him to join NBC Sports. By the end of 1981 though, Bryant Gumbel departed the sports division to join Jane Pauley and Chris Wallace as a co-host on TODAY. As a result, Costas was elevated to become a more visible part of NBC’s football coverage. He eventually started hosting the pregame show for the NFL on NBC, and had to learn the mechanics of the studio and how to read from a teleprompter.
“For the first several years that I did it, I didn’t use a teleprompter at all,” Costas said. “I just had notes and ad-libbed around those notes, but then as the production became more sophisticated, they’d want a specific cue to roll in B-roll or whatever, and I began using the prompter for that. I still ad-libbed in and around it because I felt more comfortable doing that.”
Costas on America’s Pastime
Costas continued hosting studio coverage for football, but had also impressed network executives when hosting NBC’s coverage of the 1983 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Earlier that season, he had started broadcasting games with Tony Kubek on Game of the Week, a partner to which he credits accentuating his development. Kubek introduced Costas to key figures around the sport, such as players, general managers and scouts, implicitly communicating the trust he garnered in his abilities.
Throughout his career, the composition and expectations of the audience have altered, requiring Costas to adapt the way in which he calls a game. Research departments compile tedious amounts of information for broadcasters to consider, and it is in their purview to determine what deserves emphasis. When sabermetrics first began to pervade into the everyday vernacular of the sport, Costas had Bill James on KMOX to discuss his theories and baseball abstract, and he considers himself an early adopter of the metrics.
Costas is familiar with postseason baseball as a fan and broadcaster, appearing on World Series broadcasts five different times either as a host or play-by-play announcer. Through his lifetime, he has seen and embraced the evolution of the sport. Yet he is frequently labeled as a “traditionalist.” That led to extensive criticism regarding how he called last year’s American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Guardians on TBS.
“If it ever gets to the point in a broadcast where the statistician eclipses the storyteller, then some of the elements of romance and legend that are part of baseball are lost,” Costas expressed. “What you’re looking to do is strike a balance between those two things. They all have their purpose, but it’s a matter of balance.”
In addition to baseball, Costas also covered basketball with NBC, helping further cement the Association into the collective awareness of the viewing public. He was elevated to lead play-by-play announcer for the 1997-98 season and called three NBA Finals, including one of the most consequential shots in the history of the game. Costas, who announced games locally for the Bulls on WGN-TV during the 1979-80 season, punctuated Michael Jordan’s championship-winning basket in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Although he no longer calls basketball, Costas is a fan of the game and regularly tunes into the NBA Finals while staying aware of ratings.
“A good portion of it is on cable,” Costas said of league broadcasts. “There are very large rights fees paid, so that explains the league’s willingness to go in that direction, and the quality of the broadcasts are generally very, very high. There’s no criticism of the way the games are presented, but it’s less present in the minds of the casual fan than it was in the ‘80s or ‘90s.”
Costas on Reporting
When Costas was at NBC, he was presented with a proposal from producer Dick Ebersol about starting his own late-night talk show, entering a space where sportscasters had not often frequented. While he looks back at that stage of his career with a sense of appreciation, he turned down the program multiple times. Once he reluctantly agreed to host the show, Costas welcomed guests including Paul McCartney, Don Rickles and Mel Brooks among others for longform, insightful interviews.
“It wasn’t confined to five minutes or a quick soundbite,” Costas said. “I think I was well-suited to that format, and once I got my footing after the first few months of doing it, I realized that even though I hadn’t planned anything in that area, it was something that I was suited to do.”
As a journalist, Costas affirms that it is his responsibility to address uncomfortable subjects with his audience in an objective manner. Through this approach, people feel empowered to formulate their own opinions and contribute to the discourse, especially since they do not have to start the entire conversation. In working as the prime-time host of the Olympic Games on NBC for 24 years, Costas had to balance highlighting the competition with bringing light to international affairs and global issues.
“Some people are cynics, and they confuse cynicism alone with insight. That’s not me,” Costas said. “But I hope that I’ve had a healthy skepticism, and I’ve never thought there was any contradiction between embracing the drama; the theater; the human interest [and] the occasionally and genuinely moving and touching things that can happen in sports… and then turning a journalistic eye towards what’s happening within those same events or those same sports.”
Before Costas took over the hosting role from Jim McKay in 1992, they had a lengthy conversation about the duty of the host and how integral the person is in the network’s coverage. It requires being familiar with notable athletes while also having the dexterity to seamlessly pivot, take a briefing and discuss unexpected occurrences. For example, during Costas’ second Summer Olympics in 1996, he had to cover the Centennial Park bombing. At the same time, he needed to know about the competitions and the significance of certain milestones the athletes achieved.
When Costas inked his final contract with NBC in 2012, he insisted that a stipulation be placed that the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil would be the final time he would host the games on the network. At the time, Costas was also hosting Football Night in America on NBC, which led into Sunday Night Football broadcasts with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. The network suggested he take on an emeritus role similar to what Tom Brokaw did as a newscaster, a proposal to which Costas obliged.
Costas has hosted two different nationally syndicated radio programs during his career – Costas Coast to Coast (1986-1996) and Costas on the Radio (2006-2009) it’s a parallel path to the ones takes by some of the biggest names to follow in his footsteps in sports media.
Stephen A. Smith, for example, is a featured commentator on ESPN’s First Take, broadcasts an alternate telecast for select NBA matchups, appears on NBA Countdown and hosts his own podcast titled The Stephen A. Smith Show. He does all of this while building his own production company, occasionally guest starring on television shows and ensuring he is well-positioned for the future. Smith has not been shy about his desire to expand beyond sports, pondering trying to host a late-night talk show of his own. Costas, it should be noted, is the only person to ever win Emmy awards in news, sports and entertainment. He has amassed a total of 28 throughout his illustrious career, the most wins in the history of sports media. Nonetheless, he believes discussing more than sports takes a specific archetype and is not a route all personalities are inclined to forge.
“You could name a lot of people that do one thing, but they do it extraordinarily well,” Costas said. “They don’t have to check every box…. I just had varied interests, and I guess people identified that I had varying abilities, and so I was able to do that.”
Costas has been on MLB Network since its launch in 2009. This followed an eight-year run with HBO as the host of On the Record, which was later revamped into Costas NOW, but he departed the premium television network when they insisted he grant them “cable exclusivity.” He desperately wanted to join MLB Network because of his passion and interest in the game – and ultimately ended up doing so – but not before making a monumental decision about his future.
“It was a really difficult choice because HBO was the gold standard when it came to sports journalism,” Costas said. “But given my love of baseball and given the fact that NBC hadn’t had it since 2000, I went with the baseball network.”
Costas on the Gridiron
Costas’ infatuation with baseball was contrasted with a perceived indignation towards football, although Costas affirms that was not the case. He had generally been allowed to express his opinions about different topics on radio programs or television shows, but there was a point where it became too much.
After he went on CNN to discuss the topic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) following remarks he made at the University of Maryland about football having adverse mental effects, Costas was removed from the NBC’s Super Bowl LII broadcast. The decision did not bother him, as he had been assigned to host the Super Bowl without any prior knowledge before it was publicly announced. In fact, he was somewhat apathetic towards the proceedings.
“What I did suggest was I could make a more significant contribution if, during the course of a six-hour Super Bowl pregame show, you carved out 15 to 20 minutes for a real journalistic interview with Roger Goodell,” Costas shared. “That would be good programming, and it would be solid journalistically, but Goodell declined. So then that left me with no role that I was interested in for the Super Bowl.”
The ambivalent feelings Costas had towards the sport precipitated his exit from the network, officially parting ways in January 2019 and moving to the next stage of his career. Upon his exit though, Costas knew his previous roles were in good hands with Mike Tirico at the helm. The plan from the beginning was to have Tirico assume the host role of both prime-time Olympics coverage and Football Night in America. Once Al Michaels left NBC Sports to join the incipient Thursday Night Football property at Amazon Prime Video, Tirico was duly named the new play-by-play announcer on Sunday Night Football. It was one transaction in a deluge of broadcast movement in the final offseason before the start of the NFL’s new national media rights deal, reportedly worth over $110 billion over 11 years.
“The NFL doesn’t just reign over sports TV; it reigns over all of television and over all of American entertainment,” Costas said. “It’s the only thing that consistently aggregates audiences of that size, and therefore it isn’t just valuable to the networks; it’s indispensable to the networks.”
With these sizable media rights agreements comes substantial compensation for on-air talent. ESPN is reportedly paying Joe Buck and Troy Aikman a combined $33 million to serve as the Monday Night Football broadcast tandem, a figure some people would consider overpaying. Costas does not view it that way, instead perceiving broadcasters as harbingers of credibility.
“When you think about a company spending billions and billions of dollars for a property like they do with football, and then add on all the production costs, why should it surprise anybody that they’re willing to pay a very high premium to get Joe Buck or to retain Jim Nantz or to retain Tony Romo?,” Costas articulated. “Not doing so would be the equivalent of, ‘You spend $5,000 on a suit, but now you’re not going to splurge for the tie or the belt.’ These are accessories to a larger investment, and they’re important accessories.”
ESPN announced it was signing Pat McAfee to a multiyear, multi-million dollar contract to bring his eponymous show to its linear and digital platforms. McAfee conducted the negotiations independently and will still retain full creative control over the show in its new phase. The move, however, received considerable backlash from those inside and outside of ESPN since it occurred amid Disney CEO Bob Iger’s directive to lay off 7,000 employees across all divisions of the company. On several occasions, sports media pundits and personalities alike have expressed that ESPN concentrates its attention on a small sector of talent while neglecting everyone else. While FOX Corporation, Paramount Global and various other companies have engaged in layoffs this year, none made a hire with the star appeal, gravitas, and price tag of McAfee.
“Someone like McAfee; he moves the needle,” Costas said. “He moves it, I guess, [on] various platforms – YouTube, as well as ESPN now, so he can make a difference so that’s what they’re paying for.”
Costas on Modern Media
An existential question those in the media industry are grappling with is how to offset the effects felt by cord-cutting. In the first quarter of 2023, cable, satellite and internet providers experienced a loss of 2.3 million customers, and the latest Nielsen Media Research Total Audience Report says 34% of consumption derives from streaming services. With digital forms of media and over-the-top (OTT) platforms taking precedence in the marketplace, companies must establish alternate revenue streams while continuing to innovate.
CNN laid off employees last year, and its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, will reportedly be laying off additional employees during the summer months. Costas joined the company in 2020 as a correspondent for CNN. Earlier this week, Costas appeared on the network to talk about the merger between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf, which marked a seminal moment in the history of the game.
Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive Officer David Zaslav recently relieved CNN chief executive officer Chris Licht of his duties as CEO following a pernicious feature in The Atlantic. It only worsened a dwindling company morale predicated by several controversial decisions regarding coverage, casting and the network’s commitment to journalistic integrity.
While Costas expressed that he had a “cordial, but not deep relationship” with Licht and did not have shrewd insight into the decision to part ways with the embattled CEO, he does understand the shifts in news viewership and how its subject matter can penetrate into sports media.
For years, consumers regarded MSNBC as being biased to left-leaning politics, FOX News having bias towards right-leaning politics and CNN as nonpartisan, although that sentiment has somewhat changed.
“There’s a battle for viewership, and there’s some thought that people only want to go to the places that reinforce what they already believe,” Costas said. “‘Feed me the same meal every time over and over,’ and now CNN is trying to chart a different course more down the middle. Maybe you have to be more partisan in order to attract a larger cable audience; I underline ‘maybe’ because my insight into this is not as valuable as a lot of other people who are closer to it.”
The fractionalized media landscape, whether it be pertaining to news coverage, morning sports debate shows or afternoon drive programs, has, perhaps, engendered more disparate audiences than ever before. People tend to stick with outlets they know will provide them with information and coverage more favorable to their own points of view, and there is somewhat of an implicit chilling effect associated with channel surfing in certain scenarios. Viewers are obstinate towards programs that reinforce their points of view and hesitant to change, sometimes creating misinformation or, worse, disinformation.
“I think one of the most important courses that should be taught beginning fairly early – probably at the junior high school level and certainly continuing through college – is media literacy,” Costas opined, “which is not telling you what to think, but helping you to navigate this crazy jigsaw puzzle that’s out there.”
There are many people following the business of sports media, but a smaller group of people who tend to break news and report on the beat itself. While there are reporters specialized in different niches of the industry, there are others who indolently parse stories and/or spin aspects of it to render it compatible with their platform.
Established reporters and outlets certainly engage in some level of repurposing; however, these entities safeguard what they are disseminating is true and take accountability for their mistakes. Conversely, there are perpetrators who transmogrify things into engrossing headlines designed to attract traffic. It is disheartening for journalists such as Costas.
“Many sites now, and this is true in sports perhaps especially, [are] just aggregators,” Costas said. “They do no reporting; there doesn’t appear to be any editor overseeing any of it. They just look for stuff wherever it might appear, and then they repurpose it, and almost always, the context, the tone [and] the nuance is lost. At best, it’s reduced to primary colors. At worst, it’s totally misrepresented for clicks.”
In the past, Costas remembers genuine local programming which was exclusive to certain geographical areas. Because of the advent of the internet and social media though, nothing is truly local since people from around the world can consume content live or on demand. While this has brought many people together and improved cultural perceptions, ethnocentrism persists and has hindered accurate comprehension.
“If what you say is inevitably going to some extent be distorted where ‘A’ won’t just become ‘B,’ but it might become ‘X,’ ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ by the time it’s gone through all of its iterations, you sort of say to yourself, ‘What’s the point?,’” Costas elucidated. “Sports is not brain surgery – but you can make a more or less thoughtful point when asked a question, but if it’s then going to be seen, heard or read by more people than heard it initially, and if it’s going to be mangled in the process, it’s almost like a fool’s game to be part of that.”
Costas on the Future
The term ‘pretentious’ is wholly inaccurate in describing Costas. He does not view himself as a visionary and knows that he will not be an “active participant” in the industry that much longer, but is reassured regarding the direction of sports broadcasting. He looks at revered announcers such as Jim Nantz and is able to effectively identify similarities with Curt Gowdy. Although the degree of information available to people has certainly shifted, play-by-play announcing, at its core, remains similar to the on-air product people first heard in 1929, although the lexicon and flow of a broadcast are somewhat different.
“The essentials of the craft remain the same,” Costas said. “If you’re talking about sports talk radio; if you’re talking about the internet’s coverage of sports, that in some cases bears no resemblance to the notions that people of my generation had about credibility and quality of presentation. No one’s saying that sports coverage is masterpiece theater or something that should be taught at a Ph.D. class at Princeton [University], but it can be done more or less thoughtfully. It can be done more or less credibly, and we see wide variations now in how it’s done.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
There is Nothing Old School About a Human Touch in Radio Sales
“Digital buyers are different, and that’s okay. They may not be the right buyer for you to sell to anyway.”
We are not dumb or dumber when it comes to buying radio advertising. Being a radio ad sales rep is old school to some advertising buyers. To others, we write the book on how to get advertising done. Find those clients!
The digital automated ad buying platform AudioGo described selling radio ads as old school and wrote that automated buying is smarter. I am sure that is true for some buyers who have grown up with tech and automation, namely programmatic buying, and have changed their view of a radio salesperson. They don’t see the unique value radio sales reps bring to the process.
Digital buyers are different, and that’s okay. They may not be the right buyer for you to sell to anyway. Plenty of other local direct clients are not ready for algorithms to automate ad buys. They want a human touch, a helping hand, and the kind of expertise that no algorithm can replace. YOU. Radio salespeople add value to these types of clients. Here is why we do and how we are not the “dumb and dumber” of media of buying.
ONE-ON-ONE PERSONALIZED CONSULT
A radio salesperson offers specific solutions to meet a client’s goals with the right target audience and within their budget. We allow real-time interaction to understand the client’s business better, so we can match up the perfect advertising strategy. We are the ultimate live FAQs page. Building strong client relationships is critical. How can trust, collaboration, and a long-term partnership be created based on algorithms?
EXPERTISE AND INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE
Most successful Radio salespeople have invaluable expertise and industry knowledge they picked up through years of experience. Twenty percent of the reps do eighty percent of the business. The vets know all about 6a-8a, 4p-6p, and live endorsement spots.
We get the nuances of radio advertising, like shifting audience demographics, programming trends, and effective messaging strategies. We can advise a client to make a much more informed (and time-saving) decision that can maximize the impact of their ad campaigns. No algorithm can see that.
Automated programmatic buying may offer convenience, but it isn’t too custom of a solution. We tailor advertising campaigns to meet the unique needs of each client. We take in specific target audience preferences, locations, and competitive market trends to produce effective strategies. We listen to real-time feedback and get results. Algorithms rely on predefined parameters and can’t customize.
Buying advertising can be complex, with regulations, industry standards, and market trends constantly changing. Radio salespeople have the experience to anticipate roadblocks and offer proactive solutions. Additionally, we can provide insight into budgeting, negotiation, and buying other media. Algorithms lack intuition and can’t maneuver fast enough to handle the unknown.
While automation and algorithms have their place with certain buyers, remind yourself of the value you offer clients. You provide personalized consultation, industry expertise, customized solutions, and the ability to navigate. You are indispensable to the right buyers. Now find them!
Jeff Caves is a sales columnist for BSM working in radio, digital, hyper-local magazine, and sports sponsorship sales in DFW. He is credited with helping launch, build, and develop SPORTS RADIO The Ticket in Boise, Idaho, into the market’s top sports radio station. During his 26 year stay at KTIK, Caves hosted drive time, programmed the station, and excelled as a top seller. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @jeffcaves.
Vic Lombardi Turns Nuggets Disrespect into Great Content
“I keep telling people they’re going to go where the money is. The money is the Lakers and the big city teams. The Nuggets don’t sell.”
There was a feeling of Denver vs. Everyone during the 10 days that separated the end of the Western Conference Finals and Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The word “boring” was being used to describe what it was going to be like watching the Nuggets play for an NBA title. It didn’t sit well with Denver media and sports fans, as the unfair tag was being consistently referenced by certain members of the national sports media.
Vic Lombardi of Altitude Sports Radio in Denver, along with several of his co-workers, decided to fight against a narrative they found uneducated and unfair. In their eyes, all you had to do this season was to actually watch the Nuggets to find them interesting.
“We assume everyone else knows what we know,” said Lombardi. “We assume that the rest of the country is watching. And all this has done, to be honest with you, has proven that a lot of national folks don’t watch as carefully as they say they do. Because if they watched they wouldn’t be as surprised as they are right now.”
There was even an on-air spat with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated on the Altitude Sports Radio airwaves. During an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show, Mannix said there weren’t any compelling or interesting storylines surrounding the Nuggets first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
Lombardi, along with other hosts at Altitude Sports Radio took exception to the comment and fired back with their thoughts. A few days later, Mannix appeared on the station to defend his position and stick up for what he thought was accurate. Though the tensions were high during the back-and-forth it was incredible content for the station.
But Lombardi says he doesn’t take the spats, whether they’re public or private, all that seriously when other fellow media members.
“The arguments, if they’re anything, they’re all in fun,” said Lombardi. “I don’t take this stuff personally. We had a little back and forth with Chris Mannix. That was fun. I actually saw him in Denver when he came out for media. I respect anyone who’s willing to make their point on the air. It’s not the media’s job, it’s not your job as a host or a writer to tell me what I find compelling or interesting. We’re all from different parts with different needs and you can’t tell me what I desire. Let me pick that. Chase a story because the public may learn something. We’re curious by nature, that’s why we got into this business. All I ask is be more curious.”
The entire team at Altitude Sports Radio did an incredible job of sticking up for their own market and creating memorable content out of it. That should be celebrated inside the station’s walls. None of the outrage was forced; it was all genuine. But what’s the lesson to learn here from media folks, both local and national with this story?
“I think the takeaway is number one, it’s a business,” said Lombardi. “I keep telling people they’re going to go where the money is. The money is the Lakers and the big city teams. The Nuggets don’t sell.
“Well, you start selling when you start winning. They’ve got to sort of earn their way into that club. I think with what the Nuggets have done recently, and hopefully with what they’re about to do, they’re at the adult table. The media business is not unlike anything else. The biggest common denominator is what sells. I get that. I just don’t understand why a team like this, with the most unique player most people have ever seen, why wouldn’t that sell?”
Maybe it’s still not selling nationally, but locally in Denver, Nuggets talk is on fire. For years, the Denver market has been seen as one where the Broncos and NFL rule. The Nuggets have not been close to the top of Denver sports fans’ interests and have probably fallen routinely behind the Avalanche.
But there’s been a real craving for Nuggets talk during this historic run. Granted, it didn’t just start two weeks ago, there’s been momentum building for the team ever since Nikola Jokic started asserting himself as one of the best players in the NBA. But there’s more than just an appetite for the Broncos in the city and the past few years have shown it.
“I think it’s just proven to people in the city that the town is much different than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago,” said Lombardi. “The Broncos continue to rule this town and will do so because the NFL is the NFL. But I can tell you this. There are sports fans outside the NFL. I’m born and raised in Denver and I always believed, what’s so wrong about being an ardent fan of every sport? If you’re a fan, you’re a fan. There’s nothing I hate more than territorializing sports. Like, ‘oh I’m just a football fan’. Or, ‘oh I’m just a hockey fan’. Why? Sports crosses all borders and boundaries.”
Lombardi and Altitude Sports Radio have settled into local coverage of the NBA Finals, rather than fighting with a national narrative. The payoff for the entire ride has been very rewarding for the station. It included what Lombardi called the “highest of highs” when the Nuggets beat the Lakers on their own floor. It even included one of the biggest events the city has seen in the last five years, when the Nuggets hosted its first-ever NBA Finals game last week.
The last few weeks could even be considered one of the most rewarding times in station history for Altitude Sports Radio.
“Our ratings have never been higher,” said Lombardi. “It’s a great display of, sometimes in the media, we think we know what the listener wants. We think we do and we try to force feed them. I think the national folks do that, but so do the local folks. You think they know, but if you give them a nice diet, they’ll choose what they want. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Tyler McComas is a columnist for BSM and a sports radio talk show host in Norman, OK where he hosts afternoon drive for SportsTalk 1400. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_McComas or you can email him at TylerMcComas08@yahoo.com.