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Drew Deener & ESPN Louisville Showed The Cardinals They Cared

“I don’t think iHeart ever took us seriously, because they thought there was no way.”

Tyler McComas

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Red and white M&M’s filled a bowl and the sound of Teddy Bridgewater throwing a touchdown pass in the 2013 Sugar Bowl filled the room. This wasn’t a random occurrence. Every single detail of what was in the room that November day in 2021 was carefully planned out by Drew Deener and the staff at ESPN Louisville. They knew it was their big moment and everyone was on board to give the best presentation possible to Learfield and The University of Louisville

The presentation was for the rights agreement to U of L athletics, a deal the station had longed for. For the first time in several years, ESPN Louisville, which comprises of ESPN 680 and 93.9 The Ville, thought it might have a puncher’s chance in acquiring the new rights, even though the station was trying to get them away from 840 WHAS, who had the 50,000 watt signal across town. That’s why strategic planning was so important. Deener and ESPN Louisville wanted to show how much they valued U of L athletics. 

“We made a formal presentation and had everyone on our staff here,” said Deener. “We even had Bob Valvano in on Zoom from New York. Basically, we showed how much we cared. We made the presentation and I knew we had just nailed it. We had the Sugar Bowl game playing on the TV and we only had red and white M&M’s, we were just showing how much we cared about the whole deal.”

There was no question how much ESPN Louisville valued the potential opportunity of being the flagship for U of L, but there was one stiff disadvantage working against them. At the time, the flagship belonged to 840 WHAS, just like it did for many years. That station boasted a 50,000-watt signal ESPN Louisville and 93.9 The Ville didn’t have. It was the biggest hurdle for ESPN Louisville. 

“I knew the thing we needed was a second strong radio station to get this done,” said Deener. “We’ve got two (93.9 FM and 680 AM) but our AM 680 we weren’t going to have a chance. At one point I said to Dugan Ryan ‘Man, I wish I knew somebody at 970 because they probably have the second strongest signal in town’. Dugan said ‘I talk to those guys every day’. He set up a conference call and they’re privately owned — like we’re privately owned — and that’s when we started to say ‘Ok, their signal, plus the FM of ours would work’.”

ESPN Louisville seemingly had a solution to its biggest issue. There could be an agreement with Troy Miles and Word Media Group — who owned the 970 AM signal — to team up and submit a proposal for the U of L flagship rights. 

“Drew and I have a common friend by the name of Dugan Ryan, who was the owner of WXVW,” said Troy Miles, GM of Word Media Group. “He did a lot of work with Drew through clearing games back in the day. Drew was made aware of U of L the week before we were made aware of U of L. Dugan basically introduced us to Drew.

“Drew called Dugan and said ‘Hey man, U of L is coming up. Do you know the guys over at Word Media Group?’ and he said ‘Yes, do you want to meet him?’ Dugan made the introduction to Drew and that’s how it all came together. Drew had received a proposal from U of L and the following week we received one. I guess U of L was shopping it at that time and they didn’t know that we were talking with Drew, so it’s kind of like we formed an alliance together and went to U of L as a group, versus individually.”

The biggest disadvantage was addressed. Now it was time to showcase the biggest advantage ESPN Louisville had. 

“We knew the No. 1 thing that was going to be in our favor is that U of L would never be knocked off the air by Kentucky,” said Deener. “Like, they had all the inherent advantages, 30-plus years, 50,000 watts and all that, the one thing we can say is, absolutely the only thing that will ever knock off the U of L event is another U of L event.”

That was a huge plus for the Louisville administration. For several years, there was frustration that U of L games would be knocked off the air for UK games, the in-state rival. That wouldn’t be the case with ESPN Louisville. 

“When I would talk to people in the athletic department, and I would definitely talk to fans, it was always a talking point,” said Deener. “I remember somebody pretty high in the athletic department just told me ‘I just want to know where the damn game is’. That’s the biggest thing for U of L. It’s more of a deal with Learfield, that’s who we made the proposal to. U of L had to just sign off on it and be ok with it, once they saw what we were offering and were willing to do.”

The deal came together in the most unique of circumstances. Deener can’t think of another situation where two local stations have teamed together to take on something such as a flagship rights agreement. 

<strong><em>ESPN Louisville and 970 The Answer combined to secure the University of Louisvilles radio rights from its previous longtime rights holder<em><strong>

Word Media Group even helped Deener get connected with several independent stations across the state to help facilitate affiliate deals. It truly was the work of teamwork. 

“It was so much work,’ laughed Deener. “I knew we could outwork them and put together a plan that showed how much we cared about it, but I didn’t know in the end if 50,000 watts was going to be the one thing keeping us from it because it’s the one thing we can’t do. We couldn’t have found a better crew than the crew over at 970. It’s the best teamwork you’ve ever seen. This is going to sound corny, but when we were putting together a group text, at some point, somebody made a point about us trying to take down the Evil Empire or Thanos so our group text was called The Avengers.”

“I was actually the creator of the name Avengers in the text group,” laughed Miles.

There’s no doubt teaming up with 970 AM and Word Media Group was huge for the deal. It may have sealed things. There are a few big takeaways from this story, but number one is the fact two locally-owned stations came together to better their situation. 

“Somebody that was involved in the process I know and trust said getting 970 was a game changer,” Deener said. “You just don’t see two different radio stations from two different groups combining on a proposal. It’s just a great tale of two private companies coming together.”

“Drew had the sports coverage but we had the signal strength,” said Miles. “You were able to get both worlds in there together.”

Another big takeaway is the larger radio signal not winning out in the end. Does it mean teams aren’t as interested in watts for their radio partner as they were 20 years ago? There may not be a definite answer. But even with a signal disadvantage, ESPN Louisville found the right path to acquire the U of L rights. 

“I think 50,000 watts doesn’t mean today what it meant 5-10 years ago because of the phone,” said Deener. “You stream games on your phone or Alexa, or wherever.”

It’s been a year since Deener got the call that his station would be the new flagship for U of L. He still remembers the exact moment and probably will for many years to come. 

“I got the call and the only other person that knew was our sales manager,” said Deener. “We found out we got it and we high-fived so hard I hurt my hand. We had to keep it a secret for like a week. I don’t think iHeart ever took us seriously because they thought there was no way. I always worried if it got out we had a chance, that they would unleash the power of the Death Star, and that iHeart could offer assets that we just don’t have. We had to keep it a secret and the staff didn’t even know until the morning of. That was a celebration.”

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Pregame Shows Have to Stop Ridiculous Pretend Pep Talks

“Audiences want access, but they want real access. Adults playing make believe is the peak of cringe TV.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Lou Holtz, Stephen A. Smith and Jimmy Johnson give pregame pep talks on pregame shows.

ABC caught a lot of deserved heat for its pregame show on Sunday. What was supposed to set the stage for a huge Game 7 between the Knicks and Pacers in the NBA Playoffs was actually something out of Stephen A. Smith’s fantasy. The show was more about the Knicks than it was anything else going on in basketball, but it was more about him than it was about the Knicks.

The network showed Smith’s arrival to the arena. To me, that was the peak example of just how bad the show was. It wasn’t the worst moment though. Sure, showing an analyst’s walk-in alongside each team’s biggest star was a new low in self-indulgence, but it didn’t match the pep talk.

Stephen A. Smith is not the first analyst to give one of the teams playing in the featured game his version of the pep talk. ESPN used to make this a regular feature of College Football Final when Lou Holtz was on the show. We saw it earlier this year on FOX NFL Sunday when Jimmy Johnson delivered an over-the-top speech to the Dallas Cowboys via the television during a halftime report.

I wish I knew whose idea this was. Who was the first producer to tell a former coach or player that they needed to give the audience an idea of what they would be doing in the locker room right now? I’d like someone to point that person out so I could slap the hell out of them.

Audiences want access, but they want real access. Adults playing make believe is the peak of cringe TV. I would rather watch literally anything else.

Even before the ManningCast, networks had learned that the access the audience wants is explanation, not bluster. Look, you won’t find a bigger critic of Urban Meyer as a coach than me, but I will be one of the first to tell you that he breaks down plays and decision making as well as anyone on TV. I understand the chess match between the coaches better after watching Meyer with a telestrator. I trust Nick Saban will bring that same quality, maybe even at a higher level, to College GameDay this season.

The men and women hired as analysts are smart. Regardless of the sport, if you’re hired to be part of a pregame show, chances are you have played the game. You have been in the locker room in these moments. You don’t have to convince the audience. They know it’s true.

Sports media is in a really interesting place. I have written before that I struggle to see how ESPN can justify a raise or a long-term extension to Stephen A. Smith in a landscape where the audience tells us over and over again that the only thing that really makes a difference to them is live games.

Star power matters because networks aren’t giving out the kinds of contracts they once did. Maybe that is why the former players and coaches don’t push back when asked to make fools of themselves in this way. They can tell us it’s about their personal brand, but if you’re doing something the audience isn’t responding to just because it puts you in the spotlight, are you building anything?

Pretend pep talks do not work. Does your respect for someone grow when you watch them get worked up over a situation they have imagined in their head? Probably not.

I have seen some studio shows take a moment and ask the former coach at the desk how they would respond to it. That makes a lot more sense. 

“Coach, the Panthers are headed to the locker room down seven and it can be pinned directly to Bryce Young throwing a pick six earlier this quarter. His rhythm has been off since then. What are you telling the young quarterback right now to get him ready for the second half?”

Analysts are supposed to be experts. The audience is supposed to feel like the analyst’s opinions have more weight than their own. Answers to direct questions give the audience insight.

My problem with so many studio shows is there is a lot of noise and not much being said. Everyone wants me to think the fellas are having a great time, so the laughter is over the top and every highlight is accompanied by a series of catchphrases that have caught on with no one. I’m not saying that I want studio shows to be completely devoid of fun. I just don’t want my time wasted.

That’s all pretend pep talks are. They’re just noise that waste my time. I don’t know a better way to describe what I saw Sunday on ABC.

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John Murphy Wanted to Go Out on His Terms as the Voice of the Buffalo Bills

“I guess I never appreciated the fact that the fans were paying that much attention.”

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Graphic of longtime Bills announcer John Murphy
Courtesy: Buffalo Bills

It’s always hard to say goodbye to a job that you love, especially when it’s under unfortunate circumstances. The Buffalo Bills organization and their many fans throughout Western New York were saddened to find out a couple of weeks ago that longtime Bills radio announcer John Murphy would be stepping away from the play-by-play position after 35 years in the radio booth.  Murphy spent 16 years as a color analyst and 19 years as the play-by-play announcer, but he continues to recover from a stroke that he suffered on January 1st 2023.

For the veteran broadcaster, the reality set in that it was time to step aside.

“I’m disappointed,” said the 67-year-old Murphy during a phone conversation last week with Barrett Sports Media.  “I’m nearing the end anyway, but you’d like to go out on your own terms and finish the way you want to finish and I’m not able to do that.  It’s disappointing but by the same token, there’s no way I can do the games talking the way I currently talk so I think it makes sense.”

Not long after the announcement, there were people, including former players Stevie Johnson, Alex Van Pelt and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who reached out to “Murph” to share their feelings about him.  Murphy also heard from so many fans and that was overwhelming to him to find out just how much he meant to “Bills Mafia.”

“It meant everything really,” said Murphy who was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2019.  “I guess I never appreciated the fact that the fans were paying that much attention.  You do this for so long and your kind of alone with the four or five who are on the air and honestly you don’t think anybody is listening. It’s pretty important, I guess, to people and that makes it fun, and it makes it gratifying for me.”

From a personal standpoint, Murphy was extremely important to me when I was a student at Buffalo State College (now Buffalo State University) from 1985 to 1989.  Nobody in my family had ever been in broadcasting but it was my dream to do it and every young broadcaster needs a mentor.  I’m proud to say that Murphy was one of them during my college years always willing to talk to me when I would see him at games that I covered for WBNY, my college radio station.

Words cannot describe what this man meant to me and my career.

We shared a lot of good times back then, especially when he hosted a sports talk show on WBEN and I would be a frequent phone caller “Peter from Porter Hall at Buff State”.  I can’t tell you how many times I would call in to the trivia contest and the prize always included tickets to a local sporting event and a bucket of chicken wings from “Rooties”, a popular restaurant in the Buffalo area back then.

To this day, it has been an honor and a privilege to call him a friend and to be able to stay in touch.

For Bills fans, it was an honor and a privilege to have a true professional like Murphy in the broadcast booth.  As the color analyst, he worked with legendary Bills play-by-play voice Van Miller from 1984 to 1989 and then again from 1994 to 2003.

“Van was great,” said Murphy.  “I learned so much about not getting in the way of the play-by-play announcer and letting him have his time and enough time to set up the play and to finish the play.  It was great to see him do that, and I learned a lot.  I learned almost everything from Van as far as the right way to do things.  He will never be matched as far as I’m concerned with the play-by-play job he did here.”

Following Miller’s retirement, Murphy slid over to assume the duties as the play-by-play voice in 2004.  It’s never easy to replace a legend, but that’s what Murphy did, and he was well prepared for the task at hand.

“I had huge shoes to fill,” said Murphy.  “I feel like, 19 years later, I’m still working on filling them.  I don’t think I ever matched what he did and the way he painted the words.  It was a great education and a great way to learn how to do it the right way.”

Miller was the Bills’ play-by-play voice through the glory years of going to four straight Super Bowls following the 1990 through 1993 seasons.  After Murphy took over as the “Voice of the Bills,” the great moments were few and far between.  In fact, the Bills suffered through a 17-year absence from postseason play, an era of futility that ended in 2016.

After a long wait, Murphy was finally the voice of a Bills team that was making Buffalo sports fans talking proud again and giving them a reason to shout.

“We had a rough go,” said Murphy.  “I was the voice of the playoff drought.  To break through that threshold and to get in the playoffs each of the last five years now has made all the difference in the world.  It’s a different game when the team is a contender and the Bills have been contenders for five years now so that’s been good and good to see.”

A native of Lancaster, New York and a graduate of Syracuse University, Murphy was able to spend his final seasons with the team calling some incredible moments, many of them that brought Bills fans out of their seats at Highmark Stadium but also a few that ended their seasons before being able to get back to a Super Bowl.

There are a couple of moments that stand out.

“There was Taron Johnson’s interception against Baltimore (AFC divisional playoff 2021) in the playoffs which he ran back 101 yards for a touchdown,” recalled Murphy.  “That was an incredible play.” 

That was a great moment but there was also a sad moment that he will always remember.

“The game that sickened me the most was the loss at Kansas City that went back and forth with Mahomes and Josh Allen,” said Murphy of the classic 2022 AFC Divisional Playoff game won by the Chiefs in overtime 42-36. 

“With 13 seconds to go, Josh had the lead, and they gave up the lead and lost to Kansas City.  That was a bitter loss, but it was really a fun game to work.”

As Murphy steps away from the booth, Chris Brown is expected to be named the new radio voice of the Bills.  In Murphy’s absence, Brown finished up the 2022 season and did play-by-play for the entire 2023 season.

Murphy, who had to replace a legend in Van Miller, believes that Brown is the right man to fill his shoes.

“I’m happy for him,” said Murphy.  “Chris has a great understanding of the way things work in the league and the way players are acquired and signed and he does his homework too.  I think he’s great and will do a great job.”

While Murphy has stepped away from the play-by-play duties, he still hopes to be a part of the Bills’ gameday broadcasts.  If his speech improves by September, the plan is for Murphy to provide one or two-minute features on the pre-game show.

“I hope so,” said Murphy.  “That remains to be seen but I’m hoping that’s the way it goes.”

And so is everyone in Western New York that has been accustomed to hearing Murphy on the broadcasts for so many years.  Aside from the continued excitement about the Bills being a perennial playoff team, Murphy shares in the excitement of the organization and the fans about the new stadium that is currently under construction.

Without an agreement for a new home in the Buffalo area, there was a good chance that the Bills would have been forced to relocate to another market.

“You drive by there and you can sense that this is real and this is happening and the Bills are here to stay,” said Murphy.  “It’s very exciting and very exciting to see that the Bills are implanted in Western New York for years to come now.”

I mean no disrespect to so many other radio play-by-play announcers in the NFL, but I have to admit something. Whether it was my time at SirusXM NFL Radio or my current run at Infinity Sports Network (formerly CBS Sports Radio), I always looked forward to working on an NFL Sunday, Thursday or Monday and using John Murphy’s play-by-play calls on my updates.  As long as the Bills won, I always used his highlights.  I’ll miss those calls (but not the ones when the Bills beat the Jets) and so will Bills fans. 

Here’s hoping for his health to continue to get better and that he could still be a part of the Bills broadcasts in some small way going forward.

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Seller to Seller: Scott Speropoulos, Audacy Memphis

“I was that guy when it’s fourth and long and no time left, give me the ball.”

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Graphic for a Seller to Seller feature with Scott Speropoulos

Sometimes when you meet people, you just know immediately they’re someone you could hang out with, watch a game and have a beer (or two). Scott Speropoulos, the General Sales Manager for Audacy’s four stations in Memphis is one of those. He is high energy, a great talker and comes complete with that great southern charm and accent.

Scott knows a thing or two about media sales, too, something he has been involved with in some capacity for most of his 25-plus year career.  He started in radio as a remote coordinator before going to work for a startup television station. Along the way, he sold print as well, managed in radio, managed in print, was a Director of Sales in television and then the pandemic hit. That’s when Scott decided, “It’s time to come home, I’m back here again.”

At the end of 2020, Speropoulos returned to the group of stations he had been with from 2005-2007, which now includes 92.9 ESPN the dominant sports radio station in the market.

When asked what made him a great seller when he was getting started, he said, “I just got out there and hustled. The Director of Sales from another station called me and said, ‘Everywhere my people go, they are finding your business card, so you are going to come work for us.’ Just getting out there and hustling and getting my name built and my reputation and I tried to meet with as many people as possible.”

Speropoulos talked about what led him to pursue management opportunities after he had been selling television for six years. He said selling the television station started to feel a little bit like “Groundhog Day.” He said he looked to his younger days as an athlete and thought about how well he generally had performed under pressure.

“I was that guy when it’s fourth and long and no time left, give me the ball,” he said. “The TV station had people who had been there for a long, long time and they were not planning on retiring any time soon. And it just so happened the radio stations I had started with needed a National Sales Manager and had me come over and sell for a year and then I got the NSM role…it was just that personal challenge of taking the next step in my career.”

Clearly Speropoulos has seen many changes in our business since his sales career began back in 1997. “Back when I started, it was you buy a spot on TV and you sprayed and prayed,” he said. “Now, we’ve got so many digital capabilities where I can take more of that sniper approach. Tell me exactly who you are looking for and I can bring you those people…I can get those people without you having to waste advertising dollars on people that don’t make sense for you.”

He talks a lot about the culture of the Audacy Memphis office and says the group of air talent he works with do a great job working with the sales team and their clients.  “I am lucky because my guys here, the culture we have here is everyone is pulling on the same rope together, we all want to help each other.”

Speropoulos recently grew his sales team by one and said he found a lot of people applying who seemed scared about commission sales and “wanted everything guaranteed.” He said being a big fan of former Alabama head coach Nick Saban, it is all about discipline with him when it comes to who he is looking for.

“I can teach you sales, but I can’t teach you self-discipline. It’s someone who makes those decisions every day and knows that it’s five o’clock but goes ahead and makes that extra call. And someone who is willing to constantly learn because the world of digital changes every day. There is going to be something new that comes out tomorrow and they’ve got to be able to adapt. We can’t have anyone who is just set in their ways and says they cannot sell digital.

“It’s being disciplined. It’s making those right decisions. You have the autonomy to go to lunch whenever you are ready. Are you going to take that hour and a half lunch, or do you take a lunch where you could make an impact somewhere? Am I going to make cold calls today or am I going to push that off until Friday?

“It’s the person who makes the strong decisions and the tough decisions that hold themselves accountable. I can’t babysit you. I can’t be as tough on you as you are going to be on yourself so that’s what I am looking for, someone who is going to hold themselves accountable, someone who is going to make the tough decisions. Someone who is striving to do better every day.”

92.9 ESPN made a change in afternoon drive a little more than a year ago when Gary Parrish left for a new position and former Memphis Tigers offensive lineman Gabe Kuhn took over. Many times, changes or noise in the industry can rattle a sales team. Speropoulos said he always tells his team to focus on what they can control.

“Focus on the strategy that we have put in place for that specific client and see it all the way through,” he said. “If we stay true to what we put in place that we know is going to work, who cares if the DJ leaves tomorrow. Our goal is to help them grow their business and bring them quality consumers. If we stay true to what we believe in, all that other stuff is noise.”

Scott believes today the key is for sellers to work with clients to drill down on what their ideal target is before creating a campaign and then pick the best products that fit how to reach that person. He also said sellers have to remain on top of the changes and new products that can help their clients.

“There’s going to be new technology that we haven’t even fathomed yet that we are going to be able to utilize. So, it’s staying on top of our toes, staying educated and embracing the change as it comes.”

When asked what he does to keep it fun and rewarding for his sales team he said, “In my group everyone is a little different. Some like trophies, some would rather just go out and have a beer.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I care about every single person here and I make sure they’re happy and I put their needs ahead of mine. We have a great team. They care about how we achieve as a team.”

They have achieved quite a bit since flipping to sports in 2009 and seem headed for continued success with Scott Speropoulos heading up the sales team. He is all about the team and nobody, as they say in the south, getting ‘too big for his britches.’

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