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Jim Nantz Couldn’t Do It All Forever

“He will continue his network duties with the NFL and professional golf but he will now be able to enjoy March Madness just like the rest of us: on our couch tearing up our bracket in disgust.”

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It was between games at this year’s NCAA Tournament Regional site at Birmingham’s Legacy Arena where Auburn had just finished off Iowa 83-75 and Houston had taken the court prior to their game with Northern Kentucky. Jim Nantz had, at most, a 30 minute break before he was needed back on set for the call of the Cougars and the Norse. 

He was in no hurry to get back to his spot. Instead, he was standing against the wall that separated the Houston fans from the media’s seating. On the other side of that wall was a line of Houston fans streaming up the aisle waiting to spend a few seconds with one of their most famous alums.

Jim Nantz was intentional, taking as much time with as many fans as he could. You could tell by the look on his face that the final lap had begun, he was soaking in every moment he had left with the fans of his beloved Cougars. 

Nantz had already announced that this 2023 NCAA Tournament would be his last one for CBS. He will continue his network duties with the NFL and professional golf but he will now be able to enjoy March Madness just like the rest of us: on our couch tearing up our bracket in disgust.

The man has had a distinguished career, no doubt, but his five week run in the spring is the envy of many. He hopscotches across America from the Big 10 Tournament, to the best venues for the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament, to the Final Four and then to Augusta for The Masters. I can assure you there are plenty of people that would sign up for that assignment, but Nantz has decided 33 years of it is just about enough. 

That’s right, for 33 years, he has been going from three weeks of the NCAA Tournament to the beautiful confines of Augusta National.

Not that anyone will ever feel sorry for Jim Nantz, or that he would ask you to do so, but his schedule could be very daunting. CBS now has the rights to 24 professional golf events. Nantz has traditionally skipped a few of those dates but still logs 16-18 annual telecasts. Group that workload with four weeks of college basketball and 21 NFL weekends (22 when CBS has the Super Bowl) and Nantz can be on the road as many as 44 out of the year’s 52 weekends. That is enough to wear on anyone for a few years, much less 33 of them.

Nantz famously tells the story of a moment early in his career at The 1986 Masters. A much younger Nantz was in the 16th tower as Jack Nicklaus came tearing though en route to his sixth Masters win. Nicklaus was 46 by then and long since forgotten when it came to winning golf’s majors. That was nothing a Sunday 65 couldn’t fix. The Golden Bear had roared back from a four shot Sunday deficit to shock the sports world.

As Nantz made his way from the 16th tower back to the television compound, he hitched a golf cart ride from CBS analyst Ken Venturi. The former US open champion told Nantz he wasn’t likely to ever see a day like that again in his career. Venturi could never have imagined Nantz would have seen as much as he has in the years that followed, only a career like that of Jim Nantz could have ruined Venturi’s prediction.

Nantz is big on symmetry, he mentions it often as a way to amplify a team or individual accomplishment. There was a great symmetry in the fact that Nantz wrapped his NCAA Tournament career in Houston, a city that has meant so much to him. There had to be a tinge of sadness that his beloved Cougars, a 1-seed, couldn’t close that circle completely and play for the national championship in their home city. Still, Nantz has had a front row seat for incredible moment after incredible moment in the 33 Final Fours he has called.

The golf tournaments and NFL games will continue to cycle their way through Nantz’s calendar, it is not as if we will never see him. Ian Eagle is a very capable Final Four replacement and CBS/Turner will not miss a beat there. Jim Nantz got to do something fairly uncommon in this industry; he got to call his own shot in leaving the NCAA Tournament coverage. That only thing that leaves to our imagination is how Nantz would have used his trademark turn of phrase to call the end of this run.

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The NBA Play-In Tournament is Simply About Money

By most estimates, the PIT has added millions of dollars in value for the league’s broadcast partners.

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Graphic for the NBA Play in Tournament

No, the NBA play-in tournament won’t save the league. But that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t matter.

In truth, the PIT, as we’ll call it, has done almost exactly what the league’s owners had hoped it would. It drives up a little interest in the NBA’s product before the playoffs proper begin this weekend. It’s sort of an appetizer for the courses to come.

It also drives a few bucks into the pockets of the league’s broadcast partners, and for Adam Silver & Co., that’s the point, of course. Aesthetics aside, if the PIT wasn’t a moneymaker, we’d never speak of it again, very happily.

This creature, after all, is a bit of a mess. It’s clearly contrived. It was hatched during the pandemic as the NBA tried to figure out how to survive its 2020 bubble summer, which tells you most of what you need to know about the motives.

And it can skew ugly. This week’s offerings featured two solidly sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams, Chicago and Atlanta. Under the NBA’s previous top-8 format, the East’s lowest-qualifying playoff team would’ve been Miami at 46-36. That’s respectable.

But the PIT isn’t about respectable; it’s about spectacle. As this year’s version got underway, there were a couple of tantalizing storylines – only a couple, but that’s all you usually need.

In the West, teams featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Zion Williamson, and De’Aaron Fox were all jockeying for their post-season survival. Why? Because their respective teams were merely okay for most of the season, never great.

But you can see why Silver and the NBA owners favored adding a few more playoff possibles in the first place. Again, going back to the top-8 grid of playoffs past, both the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings would’ve been on the outside looking in. Instead, viewers got a Warriors-Kings elimination game on Tuesday night.

The notion of seeing Curry and his crew go out in a one-game tire fire is generally going to be worth a few eyeballs – and that’s the whole ballgame here. Last year’s six PIT games, broadcast on ESPN and TNT, averaged 2.64 million viewers, a 5% increase from the year before.

That’s how this works. By most estimates, the PIT has added millions of dollars in value for the league’s broadcast partners. You can argue that, depending upon the year, the 7-8-9-10 configuration also heightens interest in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, simply because nobody wants to be relegated to the 9-10 elimination game.

It all matters to a league that, like most sports enterprises in America, is trying to figure out the viewer landscape amid a rapidly changing market. Silver acknowledged as much last fall in an interview with Yahoo Sports, saying that the decline in cable subscriptions “has disproportionately impacted the NBA” because the league’s fan demographic trends younger but the remaining cable audience is older.

“Our young audience isn’t subscribing to cable,” Silver told Yahoo, “and those fans aren’t finding our games.”

There’s no doubt the NBA is addressing that issue as it negotiates with TNT and ESPN, whose rights expire in 2025. While cable options might be cut back, the league has to find a way to expand its reach through a significant streaming partnership. It could be part of the impending ESPN/Fox/Warner platform or something else, but it needs to be easily identifiable and easily accessed.

You’d go a little crazy trying to figure out where the NBA stands in terms of viewership. Its opening night last fall was a bust, but the new in-season tournament was a ratings hit. The league got smoked by the NFL on Christmas Day, enjoyed a huge uptick on All-Star Saturday Night, then played a desultory All-Star Game only to see viewer numbers go up from the year before. (Granted, that was a rise from an all-time ratings low.)

Silver, who’s wrapping up a contract extension that will keep him in the commissioner’s job through the end of the decade, has been warily eyeing the TV numbers for years. He isn’t new to any of the concerns, and he has been forcefully behind both the in-season tournament and this PIT creation, which everyone involved has no problem labeling a blatant viewership ploy.

That’s because, for lack of a crisper phrase, it is what it is. The play-in is every bit as basic as it looks, and it was put in place for no reason other than to expand the playoff field and generate a little extra heat through the schedule’s final few weeks, along with these early days of the post-season.

And it generates millions. For Silver and Co, that’s the end of the conversation.

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Verne Lundquist Deserved All The Praise and More During Final Broadcast

Verne Lundquist might be the last of a dying breed. And for all of the fantastic moments he’s had behind the microphone, there was a missed opportunity for one final hurrah.

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A photo of Verne Lundquist
(Photo: Paul David Morris)

Verne Lundquist deserved to call the final holes of The Masters for CBS Sports on Sunday.

While celebrating his 40th time calling golf’s grandest stage, it also marked the end of his illustrious broadcasting career. Lundquist has been a fixture not only at Augusta but also on CBS Sports properties like the SEC on CBS, the Army/Navy Game, and the NCAA Tournament.

But Verne Lundquist is part of the last of a dying TV play-by-play breed.

He was never going to make his final assignment about him.

When you tuned into a broadcast being called by the 83-year-old, you were bound to witness a broadcasting masterclass. The ability to weave humor in and out of the broadcast, along with tenacious prep work, fantastic storytelling, and an intricate knowledge of letting the pictures tell the story were Lundquist’s trademarks.

Take, for instance, his call of the famous “Kick Six” in the 2013 Iron Bowl. In 25 seconds of action, the only thing he says is “On the way … No. Returned by Chris Davis. Davis goes left. Davis gets a block. Davis has another block! Chris Davis! No flags! Touchdown, Auburn! An answered prayer!”

He didn’t speak for the next 65 seconds, letting the pictures — some of which have lived on in infamy — tell the story.

It wasn’t overhyped catchphrases, screaming, or “look at me!” energy that has somewhat permeated modern television play-by-play that made Lundquist a TV legend. It was a dedication to the craft.

It was great to see so many tributes from not just fellow broadcasters but also from some of the PGA Tour players — especially Tiger Woods — for Lundquist in his final assignments.

Make no mistake about it: Verne Lundquist is a titan of the industry and deserved all of the praise that was heaped on him during his final assignment. And I’m not unreasonable, I don’t know that you could expect Jim Nantz — who gave up calling the NCAA Tournament — to step aside for Lundquist to call the final holes of The Masters, when he gave up another high-profile gig to spend more time focusing on golf’s biggest tournament.

But when a guy like Verne Lundquist — who you could argue belongs on the Mount Rushmore of TV play-by-players — is ending his career at a place that he says “means just about everything, professionally,” I think it has to enter someone’s brain to give him the chance to make the call.

Now, maybe the most likely scenario is that Nantz, or retiring CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, did invite Lundquist to wrap his career by cementing Scottie Scheffler’s place in immortality at Augusta National. But watching Verne Lundquist from afar, it’s likely he decided to not shine the spotlight on himself. A quality that took him to the top of the sports broadcasting mountaintop.

I hope Lundquist appreciates all of the admiration shown to him over the past week, from contemporaries and those who participated in the action alike. It was our honor, and our privilege, to listen to Verne Lundquist for all those years. Not only at The Masters, but the Olympics, college football and basketball, and beyond.

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Q Myers, ‘GameNight’ Places Women’s Basketball at the Forefront on ESPN Radio

“I think everything we’ve done has built up where we continue to allow ourselves to do more because of what we’ve done and our consistency.”

Derek Futterman

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GameNight – ESPN Radio
(Illustration) Q Myers – Courtesy: Allen Kee, ESPN Images | Tara Sledjeski, Rachael Robinson – Courtesy: Mike Urrunaga, ESPN | Madison Booker – Courtesy: Stephen Spielman, Texas Athletics | Kiki Iriafen – Courtesy: Karen Amrbose Hickey, Stanford Athletics | Sonia Citron – Courtesy: Notre Dame Athletics | Audi Crooks; Addy Brown; Anna Miller – Courtesy: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register | Ellie Mitchell – Courtesy: Princeton Athletics | Emme Shearer – Courtesy: Portland Athletics | Lauren Jensen – Courtesy: Creighton Athletics | Carly Thibault-DuDonis – Courtesy: Fairfield Athletics | Lindsay Gottlieb – Courtesy: USC Athletics | Joddie Gleason – Courtesy: Eastern Washington Athletics | Tamara Inoue – Courtesy: UCI Athletics | Lindy La Rocque – Courtesy: UNLV Athletics | Megan Griffith – Courtesy: Columbia Athletics | Katie Meier – Courtesy: Katie Meier Hurricane Basketball Camp | Karl Smesko – Courtesy: Brady Young Photo, FGCU Athletics | Vic Schaefer – Courtesy: Texas Athletics | J.R. Payne – Courtesy: Southern Utah Athletics | Jeff Mittie – Courtesy: The Topeka Capital-Journal | Additional Images – Courtesy: Facebook, Instagram

It all started with an idea and aspiration that the momentum would persist and continue to move in the right direction. Qiant Myers, a longtime radio veteran who works as the program director for the Las Vegas Sports Network and hosts several programs centered on the Las Vegas Raiders, was looking to do something different on ESPN Radio GameNight leading up to the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. With March Madness rapidly approaching, the program devised a strategy to implement discussion about the teams and players within the bracket, diligently preparing by booking guests to be interviewed and contribute to the discussion.

Myers and his colleagues take part in a weekly listening session in which they review different parts of GameNight and discuss both strengths and weaknesses. ESPN Radio afternoon program director Mike Urrunaga often joins in these calls to provide his insights and analysis, looking to bolster the quality of the on-air product. The program utilizes a rotation of several hosts, including Myers, Emmett Golden and Jonathan Zaslow, all of whom bring a consistent approach to serve as a source of information and entertainment while inviting listener opinions.

Being based in Las Vegas, Nev., Myers can evince the presence of women’s sports and perceives its rapid proliferation in the marketplace. The Las Vegas Aces have won the WNBA championship in the last two seasons, while the University of Las Vegas is widely considered to have one of the strongest women’s basketball programs in the country.

At the same time, he recognized the success of new teams in establishing fanbases over time, including the Vegas Golden Knights. The defending Stanley Cup champions frequently fill T-Mobile Arena to standing-room capacity, embedded within the zeitgeist and sports renaissance taking place in the city. Concurrently, the Aces averaged at the top of the WNBA in average attendance last season and have leveraged on-court play and stars to help expand its fanbase. With the possibility of more professional sports leagues considering the city for relocation and/or expansion, Las Vegas is among the quintessential examples of sustaining and thriving with both women’s and men’s sports organizations.

“I felt like I already had a foot in the door because I’m paying attention to what’s going on,” Myers said. “I’ve been watching women’s basketball for a long time and really appreciate it.”

When Myers demonstrated his avidity for women’s basketball prior to the start of March Madness, his co-workers recognized that predilection and capitalized on it. In essence, GameNight worked to become the radio home of the tournament by crafting a distinctive sound and disseminating it en masse. The initiative was not only about introducing the athletes to listeners, but also showcasing their personalities and establishing an interpersonal connection.

“I’m a big believer in if the hosts are passionate about something, that passion will carry and it will draw listeners in,” show producer Tara Sledjeski said. “Anything you do – if your hosts are into it – I think you can sell it to the audience because they’re going to be interested in it if the hosts are into it.”

There were several coaches that appeared on the program whose husbands are members of the coaching staff. Additionally, some of the players presented anecdotes about how they would watch and attend women’s basketball games when they were younger and became inspired to pursue the career themselves. By humanizing the guests on GameNight, the interviews were able to more readily appeal to listeners, especially those who are either unfamiliar with or unwilling to accept the burgeoning pantheon of women’s sports.

“I think it is about finding those personal things of why you should be interested in these people, and I think with all sports, it always comes down to the stars, which we’ve especially learned with women’s basketball,” Sledjeski said. “Caitlin Clark – everyone cares about Caitlin Clark, so I think it’s just finding things that will make people resonate with these girls.”

Clark in particular has stood out among the pack of incoming WNBA players, catapulting to become one of the most eminent athletes in the world. Clark was recently drafted No. 1 overall by the Indiana Fever and became the top-selling draft pick in Fanatics history, garnering demand for her jersey from basketball fans around the world.

Nielsen measured the rematch of last year’s National Championship Game between Iowa and LSU to amass an average of 12.3 million viewers. Peaking at 16.1 million, the game marked the most-watched college basketball game to be presented on ESPN platforms before the Final Four.

ESPN went on to break that record two more times in the next five days, beginning with the Final Four game featuring Iowa and UConn that averaged 14.4 million viewers. Although Iowa did not win the National Championship Game, it posted a valiant effort against South Carolina in a game that attained 18.9 million viewers, ending tournament coverage that was up 121% year-over-year.

The metric was significant for Sledjeski, who grew up watching men’s sports and playing softball. When the sport was removed from the Olympic Games in 2008, she wondered what encapsulated the acme of the game, and the fact that these athletes could no longer win gold medals in the games was disheartening and perplexing. Watching the women’s National Championship game outdraw the men’s iteration for the first time in the history of March Madness represented a monumental achievement and step towards further prosperity.

While it can be difficult to attribute a direct correlation, those involved believe that GameNight had an effect on interest in women’s basketball based on observation and logic. Associate producer Rachael Robinson, who also works on the evening program Amber & Ian, enjoyed taking part in the tournament-specific endeavor, during which she learned about personnel within the sport and their indelible impact on its growth.

“Looking back, that was a fantastic idea,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of fun to be ahead of the game. I always enjoy it. People might question you in the moment, but once it blows up, because you know it’s going to eventually, you look like a genius.”

Since GameNight is under the ESPN company umbrella, the program is able to leverage the deep roster of multiplatform talent and have them on for segments during the show. For example, basketball analysts Andraya Carter and Carolyn Peck appeared on the show to discuss the tournament. Following the Final Four games, analyst Jimmy Dikes and reporter Holly Rowe also joined the program to provide their expertise within the overall discussion. ESPN recently reached a new, eight-year media rights agreement with the NCAA that grants the network rights to 40 championships, including all rounds of the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.

“It’s great that ESPN has the rights to all this,” Sledjeski explained, “because it helps us then to bring in our analysts and bring in people that were there and people that were on the call to give that insight of what’s going on.”

“They did such a fantastic job that it made ESPN, really truly the home not only on radio, but on TV,” Myers added. “….I felt like we were the voices leading into the tournament on the radio. I feel like it all worked together.”

Before the tournament began, the GameNight team worked to secure and feature several key figures from women’s basketball, such as Notre Dame guard and ACC defensive player of the year Hannah Hidalgo. Big 12 Conference co-player of the year Madison Booker, Pac-12 Conference most improved player of the year Kiki Iriafen and MAAC coach of the year Carly Thibault-DuDonis were also among the guests at this time. Aside from discussing the games themselves, the program also found ways to engage in storytelling that would effectuate a comprehensive synopsis as to their personas both on and off the court.

“We’re going to do all the research, [and] we’re going to get all the fun facts,” Myers said. “Tara does a great job of that, and obviously I’m going to do my research at the same time…. We did the show before the show because we were just so busy grinding, but that’s the beauty of it.”

As the producer of GameNight, Sledjeski knows that it made the program a more compelling listen in going beyond the action on the court. Certain answers and details stood out within its coverage pertaining to a variety of topics, one of which was a joint interview with Iowa State freshman center Audi Crooks and freshman forward Addy Brown. The teammates became close friends throughout the season and discussed the camaraderie between them and the rest of the team. Furthermore, the program welcomed UNLV head coach Lindy La Rocue who shed light on balancing her personal and professional responsibilities.

“My mind is still blown by her story because last year, she literally had her first child in early November and she was back on the sidelines coaching a week later,” Sledjeski said. “That is mind-blowing, and she gave a great answer about her daughter always being around the team and how she can’t separate things.”

Amid the tournament, GameNight had a plethora of athletes and coaches on the airwaves for interviews, including Oklahoma forward Skylar Vann, Oregon State guard Talia von Oelhoffen and North Carolina guard Alyssa Ustby. Sledjeski informed members of the show to tag the specific universities and basketball programs who the players were representing, which led to several subsequent posts and additional engagement. Robinson was responsible for posting audio from these conversations, and she hopes to augment the breadth of digital distribution accompanying the national radio exposure.

“I really enjoyed it because it was different, because a lot of shows were paying attention to it because it was an initiative and it was going so well,” Robinson said, “but they were very good at getting the lesser-known stories out of the tournament and really pushing them and becoming the home of the tournament.”

In addition to guest interviews and discussion on the air, GameNight also cultivated a social media campaign where it ranked and created a bracket to determine the best Division I basketball program in the country. Women’s and men’s programs engaged in head-to-head battles determined by fan votes on social media about who would win each matchup. Sledjeski presented the concept and seeded the teams for the six-round competition situated similar to March Madness. There were 16 teams within each division (East; Midwest; South; West), narrowing the bracket from 64 to the Final Four.

“That was a whole lot of work to put that bracket together,” Myers said. “Just by her wanting to put that together got me excited about it. It made me want to be like, ‘Yeah, let’s lean into this. Let’s do this. If she’s willing to put in that work, let’s lean into it, let’s have some fun with it and let’s talk about it.’”

Visualizing the competition in a bracket format tied into the theme surrounding March Madness, but determining the exact theme of the venture took several iterations. As she continued to ruminate on how such an effort could surface and elicit broad interest, she began to weigh teams experiencing current success and those who had been perennial champions of yore.

“The more you think about it, it’s really tough with all sports and if you’re trying to cover all pros and programs,” Sledjeski said. “I was trying to narrow it down, and I really don’t know what popped into my head, but I thought it’d be really cool when you think about, ‘Okay, we know the UConn women are doing really good; also then how do they compare to the Duke men?’”

ESPN Radio shared polls on X with two basketball teams and asked users to vote on which one was the stronger all-time program. After 60 rounds of voting, the championship matchup came down to the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball program against the UConn Huskies women’s basketball program. In the end, the UConn women’s team garnered just over 92% of the final vote, taking home the championship in the bracket competition. Monitoring the engagement and interaction on social media, Robinson noticed that there was palpable enthusiasm towards the project. In fact, many programs from around the country recognized the campaign and implored their fanbase to vote in an effort to capture the title.

“It was a very interesting way to look at it because it wasn’t the same, ‘Oh, here’s this; here’s this,’” Robinson said. “It was, ‘Look at the history of these two sports and pick the best one.’”

With the book on this year’s edition of March Madness closed, it does not indicate the end of covering women’s sports on GameNight and ESPN Radio. As teams across the WNBA prepare for opening night next month, collegiate stars including Caitlin Clark, Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso aim to make an impact and assimilate into the league. Building off the momentum from the tournament, ESPN Radio intends to feature a WNBA player every week of the season, an effort that will likely coincide with games on television.

Viewership of the league last season reached a 17-year high with an average of 440,000 people watching games presented on ESPN, ABC and ESPN2. With national media rights for both the WNBA and NBA expiring after next season, respective league commissioners Cathy Engelbert and Adam Silver have addressed the growth of both entities. ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery are currently in an exclusive negotiating window with the NBA that runs through next Monday, April 22. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro believes that the WNBA will be included in a potential renewal with the NBA, a league that is reportedly aiming to implement a regular streaming element into its portfolio.

For now, GameNight is focused on utilizing its resources and platform to drive awareness of and interest in women’s sports through storytelling and regular discussion. The shifting paradigm within athletics has placed women’s sports at the center of conversations rather than it being disregarded or considered an afterthought.

“I think that it’s continuing to get better and growing, and obviously the star power is always going to help because now there’s people in this tournament obviously that watch the game because Caitlin Clark was fantastic,” Myers said. “Now hopefully, now there’s sticking power [and] now hopefully they come back and say, ‘Oh man, let me see it again…’ Now I feel like I can feature more as well, and it’s appreciated instead of, ‘Oh, they’re trying to force feed it because they’re trying to play nice with the ladies.’”

Deloitte projects women’s sports to generate more than $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year, coverage of which comes from ESPN through its radio, television and digital platforms. The team at GameNight and ESPN Radio have discerned and witnessed audience interest in various leagues, teams and games themselves that comprise women’s sports. These discussions are not derivative or contrived in nature; rather, they are genuine opinions that emanate from keen focus on implications and outcomes therein. GameNight intends to continue shattering glass ceilings while not allowing prejudicial, misogynistic commentaries to impede the progress towards equality.

“I think everything we’ve done has built up where we continue to allow ourselves to do more because of what we’ve done and our consistency,” Myers said. “…We’ve earned the right to continue to build up what we’ve already started and see how far it can go.”

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