When a person looks back at their high school yearbook, it can be jarring to see just how much people have changed since those years and where they may be in their lives. Perhaps the student bestowed the senior superlative of most likely to succeed went on to be an overambitious entrepreneur who failed to follow through on ideas, a group of close friends may no longer be on speaking terms, or someone’s dream career may not have panned out the way they wanted it to. Or perhaps everything went according to plan. For Ryan Ruocco, it was a combination thereof.
On one hand, his dream of playing baseball for the New York Yankees never panned out – but his other dream of broadcasting their games has. In fact, it was listed in his yearbook once he completed fifth grade.
Ruocco’s early days are defined by either playing or watching sports, the latter during which he and his father Peter, who retired from working as senior vice president of labor relations for the NFL in 2021, would talk about the broadcasters.
Because of their conversations, Ruocco felt compelled to explore a career behind the microphone composing and performing an auditory score to accompany prominent moments in sports. Play-by-play is an art form to which he has been able to excel because of his understanding of storytelling, effectively being able to captivate viewers during the rising action leading up to the climax – similar to box office hits.
“If you didn’t have ‘The Godfather Waltz’ in the background, many of those scenes are completely different,” Ruocco expressed. “If you didn’t have the ‘Jaws’ music, the shark doesn’t feel as scary. Well, if you don’t have an enthusiastic call on a Kyrie [Irving] buzzer-beater, the moment doesn’t feel as important.”
Remaining close to the energy of the game was a motivating factor for Ruocco to explore a career in sports media, and it led him to attend Loyola University Maryland during his freshman year in college. Even though he did not thoroughly enjoy his time there, he still worked all year to be selected to broadcast on the school’s radio station WLOY-FM. As the year drew to a close, he was given the opportunity to host radio shows, further cementing his genuine enjoyment of broadcasting.
At the same time, he desired to transfer to a college located closer to his hometown of Fishkill, N.Y. and was told by a friend that Fordham University was known for its radio station.
“I went and I met with Bob Ahrens who’s still my mentor to this day at 86 years old,” Ruocco said. “He just made me fall in love with WFUV. I heard that there was the possibility of being a beat writer in the Yankee clubhouse and that thought was just incredible to me and then kind of getting a grasp of the alums that had come through there.”
Ruocco began matriculating at Fordham University in 2005, and although he had to enroll in several foundational courses concentrated in subject matters such as philosophy and science, broadcasting was always his true focus. During his classes, Ruocco would bring his game charts working to memorize names and other information to be prepared for the broadcast. Furthermore, he spent an interminable amount of time with his mentor Ahrens and refined his craft through both feedback and osmosis, centered around adapting and having command throughout a live broadcast.
Eventually, he was given the opportunity to go on the air as a play-by-play broadcaster for Fordham football, baseball and basketball. In the studio, he was the host of One on One, a sports talk show that took live phone calls from listeners. By the time he graduated in 2008, he had many demos to share with prospective employers and was honored as the recipient of the Marty Glickman Award, given to the play-by-play announcer who best exemplifies Glickman’s qualities.
“Once I was on air, I’d do as many games as I could,” Ruocco said. “I just treated every single demo and on-air game like it was the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals or the World Series, and treated the preparation as such. [I] felt like I came out of school much more ready to attack this profession than many people would when they’re first getting out of school because of the resources I had at WFUV.”
While he was still in college, Ruocco landed an internship with the YES Network and sought to differentiate himself by displaying his persistence and work ethic. Additionally, he utilized opportunities to network with on-air talent so they could get to know him and so he could pick their brains. Ruocco undoubtedly stood out by the end of his internship and was subsequently contacted by YES Network Vice President of Production Jared Boshnack as a junior at Fordham University to see if he would be interested in being the broadcast booth statistician for half of the New York Yankees’ home games in 2007.
“I had never done stats but I just decided, ‘Okay, let me figure out how I can best make the broadcast better,’ and I just became obsessed with being great at that,” Ruocco said. “Michael [Kay] loved me in that position and then very shortly asked to get me on every game because I was enhancing the broadcast in that role. Michael took me under his wing; we developed an incredibly close relationship.”
In 2008, Ruocco was the statistician for all the home games and by virtue of being dedicated to the role, started to be recognized for his play-by-play skills. After tuning in to Fordham Rams football on the radio, several YES Network employees, including Kay (a fellow Fordham alumnus), realized it was their colleague Ruocco doing the play-by-play, and they quickly saw great potential for him to grow and announce at a larger scale.
“They were impressed by me and how I sounded at that age,” Ruocco said. “They all kind of separately talked to the powers that be at YES and said, ‘Hey, you got to listen to Ryan.’”
Sports radio had long been a passion of Ruocco’s and was part of the reason why he began working at 1050 ESPN New York in 2008 as a sports update anchor and host of The Leadoff Spot from 5-6 a.m. Before stepping into this role though, he had filled in on various shows for ESPN Radio and anchored ESPN Radio SportsCenter updates, giving him exposure before regularly hosting an hour-long program.
Beginning his career in the world’s number one media market was not intimidating to Ruocco because of the comfort he felt being at home around the teams he had been following as a child. Moreover, he was an avid listener of New York sports radio, giving him an idea of the parlance and pulse of the city allowing him to thrive and succeed in the locale.
“I think what I love about New York is that there is this energy and attention to everything and it’s just completely different than, I think, anywhere else in the world in that regard,” he said. “There’s also the reality that so many key figures in media live in New York, so you just have a greater chance of being heard here.”
Shortly thereafter, he added hosting a midday show to his responsibilities, titled Second Verse with Robin Lundberg, and sought to lean into he and Lundberg’s youth to cultivate a unique on-air sound imbued with optimism and positivity. This was all while being especially cognizant of ensuring to resist becoming infatuated by the culture of “making mountains out of molehills,” predicated by consistent hyperbole.
“It exists because it’s not easy to fill all those hours every single day unless sometimes you overinflate how big a deal certain things are,” Ruocco said. “….If I was going to say, ‘What are the two things we wanted our show to be?,’ it would be smart and fun. I felt like it was that and we ended up having this very loyal, engaged audience with us.”
Developing cohesiveness with Lundberg was facile in nature since he had been Ruocco’s producer prior to co-hosting middays. Once Ruocco began hosting in the afternoons with Stephen A. Smith on 98.7 ESPN New York, the duo took time to learn about one another and created a synergy that attracted listeners to their show, built on authenticity and credibility.
“If you are authentic, people will respect you and you’ll just have a better chance of vibing and bonding on air if you’re just being truly who you are,” Ruocco said. “I think, for the most part, I’ve been able to do that and I think that most co-hosts are going to appreciate and respect that and Robin and Stephen certainly did.”
Maintaining a relationship with listeners is fundamental in sustaining radio programs and accentuating the qualities that make the broadcast medium distinctive. One way of effectively doing that is by having a keen awareness of the audience and discussing what it wants to hear. Essentially, radio personalities endear themselves to listeners and ultimately attempt to become a quotidian part of their schedules. Conversely, if hosts neglect the interests of the audience nor try to interact with them through taking calls or utilizing social media, consumers have plenty of other options.
“There’s an unlimited amount of entertainment out there,” Ruocco said. “….You have to have your finger on the pulse of what a New York sports fan is thinking and feeling each day and not drift too far from that for too long – and then you also just have to be relatable and someone who, I think, people feel like they can hang out with.”
Although Ruocco left 98.7 ESPN New York in 2015 after a stint in which he hosted with Dave Rothenberg and contributed to The Michael Kay Show, he has continued creating aural content, albeit through podcasting rather than live sports radio. When Ruocco was scoreboard hosting during New York Yankees home games at Yankee Stadium beginning in the team’s 2009 championship season, he bonded with all-star starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia.
One day in the Yankees’ clubhouse, Sabathia told Ruocco that they needed to collaborate someday in the future on a project. Fast-forward to 2017 – Sabathia’s antepenultimate season in the major leagues – and the duo launched the R2C2 Podcast with The Players’ Tribune, a media company founded by Derek Jeter focused on allowing athletes to directly communicate with fans.
Since its inception, the podcast has rapidly grown into one of the premier sports podcasts on the market and has been distributed by other platforms over the years. Longevity in a dynamic media marketplace can be hard to find, but Ruocco and Sabathia’s podcast recently celebrated five years thanks not only to the duo’s credibility, but also in the conversations they have and interviews they conduct.
“We have a very embedded fanbase,” Ruocco said. “We both are managing different aspects of our schedules now so that’s a little different when we knew, ‘C.C.’s on the Yankees’ schedule and I’m going to be in this city with him.’ That can be challenging but we’re both still completely dedicated to making sure we get our episode out every Thursday and having these conversations and I think we both still just love it.”
Some of the guests the show has welcomed over the years from the worlds of sports and media include David Ortiz, Ken Rosenthal, Aaron Judge, Sue Bird and the aforementioned Stephen A. Smith. According to Ruocco, many guests remark on how much fun they had doing the show once their segment concludes, proof of the atmosphere the duo has cultivated without “Gotcha” questions or intentionally making a guest uncomfortable.
“C.C. is really special in that he is so authentic; he does not change no matter what audience is in front of him,” Ruocco said. “….[He is] a winner and a champion… who is, I think interestingly, shy and an introvert – which people are always [initially] surprised by and he always jokes about [it] – but then when you actually get to know him, he has this unbelievably powerful and warm personality. I feel like that really disarms people and gives us the best chance to get into things with guests that otherwise maybe we wouldn’t.”
While he was and continues to work in audio, Ruocco primarily is a play-by-play announcer for YES Network and became a member of the Brooklyn Nets’ broadcast team as the backup to Ian Eagle in 2012. In the years preceding that, he had called several college games and filled in on select then-New Jersey Nets games. From the first game he called, Ruocco’s goal was and remains to put a soundtrack to the pictures on the screen, calling signature moments with ostensible aplomb and setting up his analyst, often Sarah Kustok or Richard Jefferson, for success.
“I try [to] paint the picture of the story of the game; highlight the key moments in a way that makes sense to the audience and is enthusiastic and engaged; and then bring out the best of my analyst,” Ruocco said. “If I can do all of those things – and I think that plays in any market – it ends up standing out just because you’re trying to make sure you’re doing the game justice; not because you’re trying to stand out.”
Over the years with YES Network, Ruocco has been on the call for a countless number of big games, including the largest comeback in Brooklyn Nets franchise history when they defeated the Sacramento Kings 123-121 in March 2019. It was Ruocco’s fourth game in his fourth different city in four nights and despite being fatigued, was able to muster enough energy and flamboyance in his calls to propagate the magnitude as to what had occurred.
“Sarah [Kustok] and I [called] that game and [I] literally [stood] up getting into the calls going full fist-pump,” Ruocco reminisced, “not because I was necessarily celebrating the moment, but just that’s what it took to get every ounce out of my voice.”
Ruocco has also been behind the microphone for New York Yankees games on YES Network, filling in for Michael Kay including when Kay had vocal-cord surgery in July 2019. Earlier that year, he had filled in for longtime Yankees’ radio voice John Sterling on WFAN, ending a streak of 5,060 consecutive Yankees games Sterling had called so he would be ready for the second half of the season.
This past season amid Aaron Judge’s chase towards the American League single-season home run record, Ruocco was again filling in for Sterling on WFAN amid a rotation of play-by-play announcers including Rickie Ricardo, Justin Shackil and Brendan Burke. Ruocco was scheduled to call the Yankees’ late-season series against the Toronto Blue Jays, however, he willingly stepped aside to allow Sterling the chance to call the record-breaking home run. While Judge did not break the record until the next week against the Texas Rangers, it was in Toronto where he tied the record, previously held by Roger Maris (61).
Calling a baseball game vastly differs from basketball largely because of the pace of the action. In baseball, Ruocco estimates he is only calling play-by-play for 10 to 12 minutes over the course of the game, and conversing and engaging his analyst(s), discussing storylines or sharing anecdotes over the rest of the broadcast, which usually spans, at the very least, three hours.
“The analogy my mentor used to [use] is, ‘Baseball’s like a rocking chair where you’re leaning back, telling the story and then at the moment of the pitch, you lean forward with engagement,’” Ruocco said. “….Whereas basketball and football are a little similar in that they have a more defined cadence of action and you’re not necessarily waiting.”
When Ruocco was hosting afternoons with Stephen A. Smith, he remembers Smith being one of the people to ask executives at ESPN why they did not have Ruocco doing play-by-play. Ruocco believes Smith’s words made them pay attention to his skillset more, and eventually he was given the chance to call NBA games on the network.
“Nationally – you’re going to be equally excited for both teams [while] locally, you’re going to be excited no matter what for big plays,” Ruocco said. “Of course [for] the local team whose regional network you’re on, you’re going to give a little more juice to in their big moments than an opponents’ on a local broadcast.”
Ruocco frequently broadcasts NBA on ESPN games during the regular season, recently calling the Christmas Day matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks with J.J. Redick and Cassidy Hubbarth. Since 2013, he has been the lead voice of the WNBA on ESPN, working with Rebecca Lobo, Holly Rowe and Andraya Carter to punctuate moments that have fueled the growth of the league, such as Game 5 of the 2018 WNBA Semifinals between the Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury and last year’s WNBA Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks.
“My role is to call the games with the enthusiasm and credibility that the league deserves,” Rucco said. “My hope is that if someone is tuning in to the WNBA for the first time and they don’t know exactly what to expect and… they hear a broadcast that sounds elevated and sounds engaged and energetic; enthusiastic. They [would] say to themselves, ‘Oh, this is legit,’ because the basketball very much is and that’s how the broadcast should be as well.”
In addition to his work on presentations of NBA and WNBA basketball on ESPN/ABC, Ruocco has also called college football games on the network and NFL games on its radio platform. As it pertains to basketball though, he had the chance to call the NCAA Final Four as the lead play-by-play announcer for women’s college basketball, a role he was named to in late-2020 by ESPN. He continues to work with Lobo and Rowe, sustaining the chemistry they have formed working WNBA games while seeking to highlight the next generation of basketball stars.
“Feeling the magnitude of the event [and] walking out to the arena floor at Target Center before the championship game between UConn and South Carolina and just really feeling how big it was [is] something I’ll always remember,” Ruocco said.
Preparing for a live game broadcast at the national level vastly differs from doing so locally because of the amount of information and “catching up” broadcasters need to do so they can appeal and relate to viewers. Whether it is reading articles compiled from local publications and sent out each morning by Thomas Kintner; or listening to podcasts from the “Locked On Podcast Network” specifically focused on each individual NBA team, Ruocco is able to extrapolate information that he can use for the broadcast and add to his game boards.
A perk to broadcasting national games is the ability to speak with the coaches from each team as well, learning information – some of which is told on the condition of deep background – that can be used to formulate more cogent, erudite opinions.
“I think the key to doing a national game is not sounding like you’re parachuting in,” Ruocco expressed. “You need to sound like you have your finger on the pulse of what’s been happening with that team because any fan that watches that team regularly is going to sniff out you not really knowing what’s going on with their team very quickly.”
Evidently, Ruocco always wants to be improving at his craft and emphasize signature moments in order to do them justice. While he is hesitant to mention any specific positions he covets and just how he wants his career to evolve, being inducted as a broadcaster into a professional sports Hall of Fame is a goal he hopes to achieve by its conclusion.
“I think that’s such a cool, amazing honor for broadcasters and really what it ends up being is somebody who’s been an ambassador for a league for an incredible period of time,” Ruocco said. “That’s something I hope someday long down the road I have the opportunity to do.”
A piece of advice his mentor Ahrens was told by Vin Scully that was previously told to Scully by Red Barber was that the only thing you can take from the broadcast booth is yourself. Those words were passed down to Ruocco, and he tries to manifest them every time he authors the script of the game. Having the propensity to meet the moment has been with him from the beginning though; he is likely one in a small percentage to accurately predict his career in his fifth grade yearbook.
“Being an imitation or a knock-off of anybody else is always going to mean you’re only ever second-best,” Ruocco expressed. “The way you do your best work is by being totally and genuinely yourself. That’s something I always try and remember.”
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.
Which Network Has the Best NFL Pregame Show?
I watched for chemistry on the panel, the personality of the group as a whole and the value of the information the show provided to get me ready for the game.
It’s far too early to start handing out awards in the NFL, with a few weeks left in the season. But it’s never too early to rank the various NFL pregame shows on the main and cable networks.
Talented people coming together to get the viewer ready for that week’s slate of games. Human interest stories, fantasy football news, and reports from the “insiders” make for standard Thursday/Sunday/Monday viewing.
Who does it all best on Sunday specifically? Last Sunday, I was able to get a good look at the shows. I watched for chemistry on the panel, the personality of the group as a whole, and the value of the information the show provided to get me ready for the game.
The shows are listed in ranked order from the best to the sixth best.
#1 – FOX NFL Sunday
The current crew is led by Curt Menefee, who is the host and moderator. Terry Bradshaw, Jimmy Johnson, Howie Long, and Michael Strahan make up the main ensemble. Rob Gronkowski has made a few appearances this season. The FOX NFL Sunday insider is Jay Glazer.
This show is celebrating 30 years on the air this season and while there are only a few of the original members still on the show, it remains the cream of the crop. I just like the personality of the collective group. Johnson, Long, and Bradshaw have been there from the beginning and the seamless addition of Strahan makes it work even better. The show comes across as so natural. The conversations seem to flow like they are just football fans sitting around talking about the game they all love and either played or coached at the highest level.
Menefee is the perfect, “referee/moderator/traffic cop” for the show. He is really smooth making transitions from topic to topic and keeping things rolling. A ringmaster is needed from time to time when Bradshaw starts playing with his panel mates. He is the ultimate teammate, and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself or join in on a “bit”.
Glazer is a polarizing figure, coming off as “brash” at times, but there’s no arguing his sources and information. Usually, Glazer breaks his news on the show, as opposed to social media. Most of the time the info he provides is first seen on the show. It’s top-notch.
Each panelist is strong in opinion without shouting it and getting into heated arguments about the point. As I mentioned these are all guys that have major personalities, but they seem to understand the dynamic. They look at their show as something greater than the sum of their parts. It really works and is the gold standard amongst the national studio shows.
FOX NFL Sunday is a clear choice for the top spot.
#2 The NFL Today (CBS)
Today’s cast includes James Brown, Nate Burleson, Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason, and Phil Simms. JJ Watt will make a few appearances this season. The “insider” is Jonathan Jones.
Back in the day, this was my go-to show. My brother and I would mimic the music all the time. We couldn’t wait for a “You are looking live” from Brent Musburger. But the show has changed since its time in the mid-1970s.
The NFL Today returned to CBS after the network acquired the broadcast rights to AFC games in 1998. The current format of this pregame show began in 1975 with Musburger hosting, with Phyllis George, and Irv Cross. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder joined in 1976. The NFL Today was, for 18 years, the highest-rated program in its time slot.
The latest iteration of The NFL Today is hosted by James Brown. He’s been in the lead chair since leaving Fox after the 2005 season. Brown has a smoothness about his delivery that really works. He never tries to be the center of attention, deferring to his esteemed colleagues on the set. Brown really sets the tone for the show, infusing a little humor into the situation when needed.
Esiason has been with the show since 2002 and is the longest-tenured current member of the panel. Esiason and Simms, the two former quarterbacks, like to get after each other once in a while, but sometimes it seems a bit forced. Esiason exudes personality, Simms does not.
Bill Cowher adds credibility having been a highly successful NFL coach with the Steelers. His opinions are usually strong and from time to time, that scowl he was famous for on the field, comes across on the set. Burleson has become somewhat of a rising star at CBS, bursting on the scene in 2017. In addition to his NFL Today duties, he co-hosts CBS Mornings and appears on Nickelodeon as well.
While this show is certainly a good watch, it doesn’t feel as “unrehearsed” to me as the show on FOX. Some of the commentary and subsequent arguments feel staged and not as organic as I’d like to see. The panel looks like they’re having fun, with Esiason usually driving the boat. Simms gives off a different type of vibe, almost like he’s still angry at not being in a booth calling games. I get it, I would be too, but you have to steer into the skid and join in on the fun or you stand out for the wrong reasons. Cowher is solid and gives great insight and I like Burleson too.
The NFL Today is a solid show, but solid only gets you second place in these rankings.
#3 – NFL GameDay Morning (NFL Network)
This show includes Rich Eisen as host, with panelists Steve Mariucci, Kurt Warner, and Michael Irvin. Ian Rapaport is the “insider” and we get info on analytics from Cynthia Frelund.
Eisen is such a great host. His demeanor is perfect for sports and this show as well. It’s a perfect blend of substance and sarcasm that keeps NFL GameDay Morning entertaining and informative.
Eisen works very well with his assembled cast on the set. Mariucci provides a nice blend of comedic timing with quality information and analysis. He’s always seemed at home in front of the camera and is an easy view. Warner also seems like a natural on the air. His story of course is a great one. He played at a very high level, and I like how he comes across as an everyday guy and isn’t pompous about analyzing today’s NFL. Irvin is good in doses for me. I find him yelling at me more than providing me with excellent information.
Rapaport is very good as an insider, but most of what he ‘breaks’ on the show has already been posted on social media. Still great information.
NFL GameDay Morning is a good show, I feel like sometimes it loses out because it’s on cable and isn’t a regular home for NFL games. You have to hunt for it, but the effort is worth it.
#4 – Sunday NFL Countdown (ESPN)
Now hosted by Sam Ponder, along with panelists Tedy Bruschi, Randy Moss, Rex Ryan, and newcomer Alex Smith. The “Insider” is Adam Schefter.
ESPN’s pregame show used to be appointment watching when a then-funny Chris Berman and Tom Jackson anchored the show. It once featured Mike Ditka and Ron Jaworski and was a very fun and insightful show. Sam Ponder does a nice job as the host of the latest iteration of the show. She runs the broadcast well, and tries to keep the panelists in check. Moss and Ryan provide the personality of the show, with each possessing larger-than-life personas. Bruschi provides good information, but kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Smith is learning the ropes as a first-year guy.
Schefter is one of the best “insiders” in the business, but as previously stated, most of what we see has already been reported, several times on social media.
This show has lost some of its previous luster but still has a good amount of value in the pregame show mix. It’s a tradition for some who remember the glory days and have become used to watching it every Sunday.
#5 – Football Night in America (NBC)
There have been a few changes over the last couple of years at FNIA since Mike Tirico took over as the main play-by-play guy of Sunday Night Football. Maria Taylor has stepped in as the host, with panelists, Tony Dungy, Jason Garrett, Rodney Harrison, Devin McCourty, and Chris Simms. Jac Collinsworth is a contributor. Mike Florio serves as the “insider” and Matthew Berry is the Fantasy Football guy.
Taylor is a very good host, she’s knowledgeable and asks insightful questions of her panelists. That’s where the show takes a turn for me. Dungy’s soft-spoken takes don’t really hit the mark much anymore. Garrett is still growing into his role and I’m still trying to decide whether or not I am a fan. He’s loud, but green in the game of broadcasting. The jury is still out.
I like Harrison for his edge and realism. McCourty has been a nice addition as well, adding another player perspective to things. Simms is all about the hot take and it gets annoying at times.
Collinsworth’s role is kind of weird to me. It seems like the network just put him in there, to, well, put him in there. Not much added by him. Florio provides good inside information and Berry might be the most important guy since basically the whole world plays Fantasy Football.
The NBC show seems the most sterile of the bunch and highly scripted. Many have said they do a good job of creating hype for the Sunday Night game, but I don’t see it. Just my humble opinion.
#6 – TNF Tonight (Amazon Prime Video)
The new kid on the block is Amazon Prime Video and its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. Charissa Thompson, who’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, is the host. She’s joined by a veteran and some relative newcomers. Tony Gonzalez has the most experience of the bunch, which also includes, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Richard Sherman, and Andrew Whitworth.
Thompson has always been a more than capable host, despite her recent revelation that she made up sideline reports. She has a good sense of each of her co-host’s strengths and weaknesses and tries to put each in the best light.
Gonzalez has deep knowledge of the game and a good presence in front of the camera, but he’s a little on the bland side. Fitzpatrick and Sherman are the flamboyant ones. Fitz-magic is trying to find his niche in the broadcasting game. The beard and humor are working for him, but he still has to learn about timing.
Sherman isn’t afraid to voice an opinion which is great and offers some levity to the show as well. Whitworth’s grade is incomplete. He’s very new to the studio show world and is trying to find his way.
The group will eventually create chemistry, but it’s lacking a bit now.
Andy Masur is a columnist for BSM and works for WGN Radio as an anchor and play-by-play announcer. He also teaches broadcasting at the Illinois Media School. During his career he has called games for the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox. He can be found on Twitter @Andy_Masur1 or you can reach him by email at [email protected].
Meet the Podcasters: Mina Kimes, ESPN
“I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis.”
As 2023 inches towards the finish line, so too does our Meet the Podcasters series. We have spoken with people that found success in the space after so many different journeys. Greg McElroy and Chris Jericho were championship-winning athletes. Mike Francesa and Adam the Bull dominated local radio. Bomani Jones made his name in the digital space. We end on a bonafide sports television superstar in Mina Kimes.
If you don’t believe that, just look at the deal she signed earlier this year. She gets to stay at ESPN and carve out time to work with Meadowlark Media. Those aren’t concessions given to someone their network thinks is easy to replace.
It can be tough to find time to chat as the holidays approach, so the conversation was short, but it covered a lot of ground. Why have analytics caught on with fans? Is it more fun to dissect success or to re-think failure? How do you watch a game when you have to not only understand what is happening, but figure out the best way to turn that explanation into analysis?
Obviously, I want to thank Mina and everyone else that made time to chat with me for this series. A big thank you goes to Point-to-Point Marketing as well for making these features possible. Last, but certainly not least, thanks to all of you that took the time to read even just one of these. I hope you learned a little something that you can take with you into 2024 to make your digital content more successful!
Demetri Ravanos: There is a big audience for what you do best and I sometimes wonder how much that surprises those of us that grew up in the media. Do you think the appetite for analytics and in-depth analysis is relatively new, or was the appetite always there without the right platform before the rise of digital media?
Mina Kimes: I think fans are smarter than ever now. Because football is such a big tent, you can find pockets of the audience with every level of knowledge and preference for analysis, but on the whole it really does seem to me that viewers and listeners are better informed than ever, which I’d attribute to the rise of fantasy football and the proliferation of websites and podcasts that talk about film, cap management, analytics, etc.
We see this trend playing out at NFL Live, where our nerdiest segments often capture a good deal of interest.
DR: What for you is more interesting – explaining why things aren’t as bleak as the performance may suggest (i.e., Bryce Young not having time or protection to really see what he is as a QB) or highlighting what makes the greats so great (Mahomes’ best throws, how Micah Parsons sheds blocks, etc.)?
MK: I love digging into great performances, but the first category is really compelling to me because it forces us to look beyond basic numbers and highlights (or lowlights!). That’s where I think the intersection of film and statistics is so useful – it allows us to dig deeper into tendencies and trends to explain why things are happening.
DR: When you are doing your weekend previews, what information do you prioritize? Is it storylines or is there a number or category that you try to make a staple of your analysis for everything?
MK: Once I’ve settled on which games I want to discuss, there are two things I try to zero in on: The strengths and weaknesses of each team, and how they match up.
I also make note of things I’ve observed recently (for example, if a team is leaning on a certain personnel group or formation) and then consider how it might impact the game.
DR: What about in setting those topics and discussions up? How do you watch and re-watch games, plays and moments to best understand what it is you are seeing and find the point you want to bring to the audience?
MK: When I’m watching the weekend’s games on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, I’m looking for interesting (good or bad!) plays, tendencies, and trends. For example, if I notice a QB is having success targeting a specific area of the field, I’ll make note of a few plays, grab the numbers later, and then, when I’m podcasting, consider how that might play out next week.
DR: One of the big differences between podcasts and legacy media is that people listening to podcasts are actively choosing you and the topic you are talking about. Does that change the way you can discuss a game or a player versus on TV?
MK: I’d say the biggest difference isn’t topic selection, but time. On TV we only have a segment or less to hit on a matchup, whereas on my podcast, I’m often talking about the same games and players, but I have 15 minutes instead of five (and I’m one of two people chatting instead of four or five).
I will add that the topic selection process at NFL Live is very collaborative, though. We know which games we need to focus on, but the way we approach discussion is driven by our interests and observations.
DR: I am always interested in the different views on this. Podcast listeners overwhelmingly say they like video now. Is that a preference you understand or does it not make sense to you?
MK: It makes sense! Because the production quality has improved so much (the kind folks at Omaha Productions have been working with me to improve the look of my show for YouTube), many podcasts really don’t look very different from sports television.
If you’re already a listener, why wouldn’t you want to watch as well, especially since you have a convenient viewing device in your hand all day? I do think there will always be people who just listen, though, because their free time for consumption is relegated to commuting (or in my case, walking a dog!).
To learn more about Point-To-Point Marketing’s Podcast and Broadcast Audience Development Marketing strategies, contact Tim Bronsil at [email protected] or 513-702-5072.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at [email protected].
Michelle Smallmon Didn’t Stumble Into Mornings on ESPN Radio
“The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
It all started with an accident. While vacuuming her apartment just two days before the first episode of her new national ESPN Radio program, Michelle Smallmon tripped over an air purifier cord. As a result of the maladroit blunder, she fell face first into her coffee table and hit the inside of her eye on a drinking glass.
When Smallmon looked into the mirror, she immediately saw that her eye was bleeding and swelling up and was in a state of disbelief, although she was not surprised that this happened to her because of her inherent clumsiness. The black eye that came out of all of this turned out to be an advantageous opportunity for the program, which opened its first hour on the air with this circumstance.
Smallmon works alongside Evan Cohen and Chris Canty weekday mornings on UnSportsmanLike, the new ESPN Radio morning show that leads off a refreshed national programming lineup. Since the program is also simulcast on ESPN2, there are cameras on inside the radio studio at the Seaport District-based radio studio, granting viewers of the premiere episode an opportunity to see Smallmon’s black eye for themselves. The incident, however, provided a means for the new hosting trio to introduce themselves and showcase their personalities in an atypical fashion by recalling a calamitous occurrence from the onset.
“We have to be ourselves,” Smallmon said. “People are coming for the sports, and hopefully with our opinions and our information and the knowledge that we provide, they’ll stick around, but they’re going to remember us for who we are. The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”
Once the hosts of UnSportsmanLike were finalized, Smallmon met with Canty and Cohen to determine their collective philosophy for the program. At the crux of their conversation was how sports is supposed to be an enjoyable part of people’s days, making it important to be genuine with the audience and celebrate the festivities.
“I just think that audio provides a really great way for people to weave us throughout their day and it’s something that they can come back to, and I just feel like the audio space continues to grow,” Smallmon said. “So that is really exciting to me that there are so many different avenues for us to explore in the audio space.”
Smallmon and her colleagues understand that their program that was once anchored by Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg in the mornings for 18 years, who created a show that proved to be an enduring facet to sports radio as a whole. Today, UnSportsmanLike is competing for mindshare and attention span in a dynamic media ecosystem where people can consume various types of content by equipping myriad methodologies. The mission to serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere requires the hosts engage in deft preparation and fealty towards the audio vertical, never taking their positions for granted and understanding the privilege in being able to communicate en masse on the air.
“Any time anybody elects to listen to you, they are giving you a vote,” Smallmon said. “They’re choosing you [and] they are saying, ‘I want to spend a part of my precious time with you,’ and particularly in the mornings because we’re the first people that get the opportunity to talk about the games from the night before or to give our opinion on certain things.”
While Smallmon may have stumbled into an enthralling storyline to open the program and captivate the audience, she did just the opposite in landing a spot within the coveted morning drive daypart. Through years of indefatigable persistence and calculated risk-taking, she positioned herself to garner such a chance when the network was in the midst of developing a new lineup.
Despite having a successful morning show in St. Louis, Mo. on 101 ESPN that was finishing with high ratings and bolstering streams of revenue, Smallmon found herself yearning to live in a sprawling metropolis. Because of this, she started visiting her friends in New York City once per month and gradually became enamored with the locale, prompting her to meet with co-host Randy Karraker, program director Tommy Mattern and Hubbard Radio market manager John Kijowski to express her intent to leave the station.
“They have always been my biggest champions [and] they encouraged me every step of the way,” Smallmon said. “They were like, ‘This is going to be a tough transition for us because the show’s going so well, but we care about you as a person more than we do an employee, and if this is your dream and something you think you have to do, we’ve got your back.’ I will always and forever be indebted to them for not only finding a way to help me do that, but for supporting me and checking in with me every step of the way.”
When she was young, Smallmon frequently traveled to St. Louis with her father to attend sporting events, cherishing every chance she could to see a live game. Throughout her childhood, she watched football on television and remembers seeing sideline reporter Melissa Stark interview the players, prompting her to think about working in sports. Quotidian tasks were transformed into beacons of flourishing sports knowledge, catalyzed by her father’s creativity with abecedarian activities such as sorting and folding laundry.
Yet Smallmon concentrated in premedical studies at the University of Illinois, matriculating to try and become a dermatologist. Early on, she realized that she was not dedicated enough to pursue a profession in the field, resulting in a meeting with her advisor about her future plans. Upon being asked her ideal career path, Smallmon demonstrated interest in covering the basketball team with the goal of appearing on College GameDay as a features reporter in the future.
Amid an economic crash, Smallmon was able to land a job as a production assistant at KSDK, a local television station with which she had interned as a college student. Smallmon worked on the outlet’s morning show, Today in St. Louis, arriving at the studios around 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare and execute the broadcast.
Although her shift ended at 2 p.m., she would put in extra effort to stay later and interact with sportscaster Frank Cusamano and sports director Rene Knott, volunteering her time and trying to be productive. In displaying her aspiration to work in sports, she was eventually offered a position in the department, which first started with shooting and editing high school events.
“Most of the work that was done in sports was leading up to the 5 and 6 o’clock newscast until they took a big break before 10 p.m.,” Smallmon said. “I would use that time to just absorb as much as I could, watch the guys at work and try to make myself useful.”
Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Stark, Smallmon had seen various women working and thriving in sports television; however, this was not the case in the sports radio format. Despite being familiar with the medium, she had never considered going on the air until Knott asked her to be a co-host of his new weekend show on 101 ESPN.
After some time, she received a note from an executive inquiring if she would be interested in applying for an open producer position available at the outlet. Even though she applied thinking she would not receive the job – a thought compounded when she discovered the producer role was for the program hosted by Bernie Miklasz – Smallmon made it to the final round of interviews. Speaking with Miklasz directly, he articulated that while he thought she was a good fit for the role, the other candidate had more qualifications and previous experience.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, if that person is as great as you say that they are and have this much experience, they will have no problem finding another job when you hire me to be your producer,’” Smallmon averred. “I left there and I was like, ‘Man, I blew that.’”
Much to her surprise, Smallmon was hired and ended up working with Miklasz in the role for three years. In speaking with him and observing how he interacted with other people, she learned industry nuances and esoterica that made her even more adept at the role. Smallmon was eventually moved to The Fast Lane in the afternoons with Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr and Brad Thompson, possessing a mentality of how to best position the show for sustained growth and success.
Smallmon took her skills to ESPN Radio in 2015 when she moved to Bristol, Conn. to work as a producer. The first stint with the network prepared her to excel on UnSportsmanLike, collaborating with hosts such as Ryen Russillo, Danny Kannel and Jorge Sedano, but she always felt a magnetic pull back towards St. Louis. Once Russillo was officially slated to leave ESPN, Smallmon was in talks with the company about different paths she could take and weighing her options. In the eleventh hour, Smallmon received a fortuitous call from Miklasz, who conveyed that he was thinking about changing up his show and wanted to know if she had any interest in co-hosting the program.
“It just felt like all of the cards were falling into place at the right time for me to make that move, and I’m a person that likes to take chances and challenge myself, and I don’t ever want to live with regrets,” Smallmon said. “I thought, ‘Maybe hosting and being on the air is not going to be for me; maybe it’s always going to be production, but I’d like to know.’”
Once she returned, Miklasz offered to change the name of the program to incorporate Smallmon, an entreaty that she declined because of fear that it would disrupt what was a known entity to listeners in the locale. Upon his exit from the station two years later, Smallmon started hosting with Randy Karraker, who implored her to add her name. Even though she never sought out to find the spotlight, she capitulated to the request once her co-host explained why it was important as not only an identifying factor, but also as the first female to be a full-time host on the station.
“I would hear from so many female sports fans across the area and parents whose daughters listened to the show and whose daughters paid attention to the show because someone who looked like them occupied that seat,” Smallmon said. “I really realized how important it was for me to establish myself in that way.”
As Smallmon made the move from St. Louis to New York City, her parents surmised she was recklessly upending her life. Subletting an apartment from a mutual friend in the city, she was working under a usages deal at ESPN Radio where she would deliver overnight updates and host SportsCenter All Night. Smallmon was grateful for the support of her parents and asked them to give her a year, during which she would work hard to land a full-time job in the city. Three hundred and sixty-six days later, Smallmon took to the air with a black eye to commence UnSportsmanLike, officially meeting her end of the bargain.
“It’s hard to explain to people how strange our job is,” Smallmon said. “The three of us sit in a windowless room and talk to one another for four-plus hours a day, so just by nature of spending that much intimate time with someone, you get to know them really well really fast.”
The workday for the morning episode begins the day prior several hours after the conclusion of the previous broadcast, independently reading articles, following sports news and reviewing games. In the preceding afternoon, the program holds a content call where everyone pitches ideas before an early rundown is sent out and added to throughout the day.
While the game of the night is on, Smallmon is in constant communication with her thoughts before getting sleep and preparing for an early wake-up call. There is a pre-show meeting to review the rundown before the four-hour morning show begins at 6 a.m. As soon as the on-air light is extinguished, the process starts again so the hosts are ready for it to illuminate again in 20 hours.
“It’s really a full-time commitment, especially during football season, to do a job like this,” Smallmon said, “but when you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to host a show of this magnitude, you’ve kind of got to make it your life in a lot of ways.”
When she takes her seat behind the microphone in the morning, Smallmon believes that two of the most talented people she has ever worked with are sitting by her side. In her view, she needs to be at the same level as them on the program and effectuates that through her preparation and by bringing different perspectives to the air.
“I have zigged and zagged and occupied different roles throughout my time,” Smallmon said. “It’s really just been surprising opportunities that I have emerged and that I’ve really been grateful to have and that I want to take advantage of, but I don’t really think about the future and my motivation is not really driven by what’s next; it’s driven by the present.
For now, Smallmon is focused on attaining success in New York City and hopes to participate in the program for as long as possible. Down the road though, she knows that her career will entail a second return to St. Louis when she wants to be back in the community she loves and closer to her family. The gratitude she has in being able to regard the city as home is conspicuous and authentic, and those in the locale continue to listen to her on 101 ESPN for two hours each morning ahead of the station’s local morning program.
“My only goal right now is to make UnSportsmanLike the best show that it possibly can be, and if that is the case, hopefully we have an amazing run with the show,” Smallmon said. “That’s the goal is to make it as amazing as it possibly can be and ride that wave for as long as we possibly can.”
Smallmon never envisioned herself working in radio but now finds herself as a trusted voice in the mornings on a simulcast program within the network’s on-air lineup. Through it all, she has remained true to herself while exhibiting an evident commitment and passion for the craft, valuing every chance she has to go on the air.
“People will always say things to me like, ‘Oh, are you going to be the next Erin Andrews?,’ or things of that nature,” Smallmon explained. “And I say, ‘No, I’m going to be the first and only Michelle Smallmon,’ because the edge that I have over everybody else is that I’m me. There’s nobody else that’s me, and so if I can just be myself and be authentic every day and do that, anybody else can.”
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.