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Is First Take in Shannon Sharpe’s Future?

“First Take feels a little lost. There is an answer to this problem. The question is, does everyone involved want it.”

Demetri Ravanos

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First Take may be trouncing Undisputed in the ratings, but even the most vocal critics of Skip Bayless would have to admit that the FS1 show did have one key an advantage between the two.

Every single day, we knew who was going to be on the show. We knew that there was star power. We knew that there would be fireworks. Like any of the 488 episodes of Law & Order, even if it wasn’t good, we knew the beats and it was comfortable.

Right now, First Take has a problem. Everyone not named Stephen A. Smith on that show is boring. It is time to rethink this Stephen A versus the world routine, because while Smith knows how to entertain, most of his “opponents” do not. 

Michael Irvin, the one reliable bright spot, hasn’t been back since the Super Bowl. JJ Redick is genuinely unlikable. Jay Williams doesn’t seem to be doing the same show as the other people on the panel. And frankly, I just don’t get Chris Russo. 

First Take feels a little lost. There is an answer to this problem. The question is, does everyone involved want it. 

Would Shannon Sharpe go from Skip to Stephen A? Stephen A. Smith doesn’t have a problem working with a guy that has seething disdain for his “brother from another mother”. Does ESPN want to take on another superstar-level salary?

With free agency in his not-at-all distant future, there will be plenty of interest in Shannon Sharpe. Between Smith, the heritage brand of SportsCenter, and the cult following of therecently acquired Pat McAfee, ESPN is the one network I wouldn’t blame for staying out of the sweepstakes. Sharpe wouldn’t add star power or prestige that the network does not already have.

But First Take is ESPN’s cultural touchstone. It is now what SportsCenter was in the 90s and early 2000s – the show that sets the tone and the topics for the rest of the day. 

What Sharpe offers ESPN is a chance to make that product better. If that product gets better, ESPN gets healthier. You do not have to like Smith or First Take to know that is true. 

However, things only improve if Smith and ESPN embrace real change for the show. Over the weekend, Michael McCarthy dismissed Smith’s endorsement of Sharpe on First Take. He called it a “self-serving attempt to manipulate the Sharpe vs. Bayless soap opera in his favor.” That is only true if Smith is so egomaniacal that is willing to derail a chance for First Take to get better.

This harkens back to something we have written about a lot lately. Disney is going through layoffs right now. That means people at ESPN are going to lose jobs. That doesn’t mean that Jimmy Pitaro stops doing his job or no longer has a business to run. If the goal of layoffs at any company is to spend smarter, then using the money saved to invest in returning First Take to must-see status amongst sports fans is a wise investment. 

Until Shannon Sharpe speaks publicly, this is all just fantasy roster moves. It is very possible that being burned out on Skip Bayless and Undisputed 100% about the off-air tension between the two men. We can’t dismiss the possibility that it means that he is also burned out on embracing debate. Who could blame Shannon Sharpe for wanting a little less shouting in his life, even if it would be with someone he likes a little bit more?

Sharpe will have to answer that question for himself. Then, he will have to answer it for his agent. Only after he has done that, will we know if there is a chance he is part of ESPN’s plans.

Every brand has its flagship product and it is the duty of every company to make sure the product that it has built its reputation on is in the best shape it can be. 

It’s why Nintendo keeps putting out Mario and Zelda games every year. They are the products most associated with the brand. If the Zelda franchise stays fresh and Mario is always up to something new, Nintendo doesn’t get stale in the minds of the public.

Shannon Sharpe would instantly improve First Take. If the Hall-of-Famer is still in a debating mood, First Take would instantly give him a bigger platform and louder voice. The match is easy for both sides to justify if they both want it to happen.

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Meet the Bettors: Joe Fortenbaugh, ESPN

“If you’re taking valuable time out of your day to listen to me on television or radio, I owe you big.”

Demetri Ravanos

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When ESPN decided to go heavy into sports betting, Joe Fortenbaugh was one of the first people they called. He was hosting the morning show on 95.7 The Game in San Francisco at the time, a position he got after first coming on the radar by talking about sports betting on radio stations across the country long before the Supreme Court paved the way for states to make their own decisions on sports gambling.

Not only was he well-versed in the practice, but Fortenbaugh is undeniably handsome. He was a natural choice to be one of the faces of ESPN’s new Las Vegas studio.

After finishing his degree at Penn State, Fortenbaugh headed west with plans of finishing law school and becoming a sports agent. He got halfway there. When law school ended, he started playing online poker. Then he got an opportunity that turned his love of sports into a job with the recently launched National Football Post. He was good at what he did but had an inkling that if he learned the ins and outs of gambling, he would be even more valuable in the field.

That was thirteen years ago, and boy was Fortenbaugh right! Not only did his career blossom in the gambling space, but since making the move to ESPN, he has seen his presence on the network grow outside of gambling content, co-hosting Carlin vs. Joe on ESPN Radio.

Joe Fortenbaugh is the latest conversation in our Meet the Bettors series presented by Point to Point Marketing. We touch on the future of betting in California, ESPN’s Las Vegas past, and what kind of bets entertain the masses.

Demetri Ravanos: How does the audience respond when you talk about futures bets? I’m sure they are popular at the start of new seasons, but I wonder if people respond to them the way they do picks for the coming day or week. 

Joe Fortenbaugh: It depends on the price and the rationale. Betting a favorite like the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl because “Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in the NFL” isn’t going to land. Anybody can make that pick supported by that rationale. But if you can find a relative long shot with a great reason for why that player or team is undervalued, our viewers and listeners love it. I believe part of that is because it feels like you’ve joined this very small cult that has a very specific rooting interest. 

Here’s an example: back when Preston Johnson was on the show, he had an incredible breakdown of why it made good sense to bet Joel Embiid to win the MVP Award. That might not seem all that impressive right now, but this was before the start of the 2020-2021 season when Embiid was 60/1 before the campaign started. Fast forward 6 months and that 60/1 long-shot finished 2nd in the voting. Even though it didn’t cash, that was a wild ride for all of us who tailed Preston’s pick and was something that led to fantastic discussions on social media. 

A similar situation occurred back in 2021 when we all bet the Baltimore Orioles to go under their season win total. That’s back when the O’s stunk and they finished with just 52 wins that season. 

DR: You were all the opposite of a fan base. A “hater’s brigade” maybe.

JF: Every loss was a party on social media. 

DR: What is your goal for each broadcast? What does the audience need to walk away feeling for you to be successful?

JF: L&L. Laugh and Learn. 

If you’re taking valuable time out of your day to listen to me on television or radio, I owe you big. Wasting somebody’s time is a cardinal sin in this business. People are busy and have minimal free time. So, if they are choosing to spend some of that with me, I need to deliver in a big way. That’s the mindset each and every day. It’s part of the reason I get up at 4 a.m. every morning. 

It’s one thing to make a pick. It’s another to take the viewer/listener through the process of how you arrived at that pick. If I execute that part properly, a look into my process should be something the viewer/listener can learn from. And at some point, during that delivery, I want to get a laugh out of you. Dedicating an extra 5-10 minutes for each topic trying to come up with a joke or one-liner has a major impact long-term. 

I’m not sure how many people will remember me picking Denver over Minnesota in Game 3 when I was on First Take, but everybody who watched remembers me diving off the screen after Kendrick Perkins came back on-air to address all the trash I’d been talking earlier that segment.

DR: You were in California for a long time. What sense do you get of what lies ahead for that state’s gambling future?

JF: It’s the market every operator is salivating over, but none of that matters until the politicians, Native American tribes and other power players figure out how to divide the pie. 

All that red tape is preventing the California consumer from joining the party, which means illegal bookmakers will still thrive. After all, it’s not like the demand to bet on sports is small in California. It’s massive. But there are a lot of people who want to cash in on this gold rush and all that in-fighting has slowed this process to a crawl. It’s disappointing, but it’s not surprising in the least. 

DR: You’ve worked with a lot of former athletes. Have most of them taken to gambling topics easily or did you sense some hesitancy early on?

JF: There are three types of former athletes when it comes to sports betting content: Those who know it and enjoy talking about it, those who don’t really know it but are happy to try and talk about it, and those who don’t know it and aren’t interested in talking about it. 

The good news for any type of former athlete is that when paired with the right host, they can deliver a wealth of sports betting knowledge without even realizing it. It doesn’t necessarily matter what their sports betting expertise looks like. They can still provide immense value to a broadcast; they just need a knowledgeable host to ask smart questions and listen to the responses. 

I worked with Lorenzo Neal in San Francisco for six years. Lo knew his stuff, so it was a perfect match for me. I used to pepper him with questions about what it was like to play on Sunday and then turn around for a Thursday night road game. I’d ask what it was like as a member of the Chargers to play an early start time on a Sunday on the east coast. I’d have him break down what happened during the bye week and how players responded to the extra rest. All of those insights he provided were extremely valuable to the handicapping process. 

DR: Is the audience going to get the same content from you on social media as they do on TV & radio? Do you make an effort to differentiate the two so that the audience gets the full experience?

JF: It’s no secret that I need to be better and more active on social media, but here’s the thing: my wife and kids come first. If I fail as a father or as a husband, then the rest of this doesn’t matter in the least. 

In my cubicle I have a notecard hanging on the wall with the number “9,705.” Tomorrow I will replace that notecard with a new notecard that says “9,704” and I’ll repeat that process every single day because it will serve as a reminder of how many days remain until I turn 70 years old. Who knows if I’m lucky enough to make it to 70? 

I need to remind myself that life is short, and I only get one shot at it. So, if I have the opportunity to produce something for social media, I’ll take it and will apply the same approach as I apply to TV and radio: “Laugh and Learn.” But sometimes you have to draw the line when it comes to how much time you’re willing to dedicate to anything outside of your family. 

DR: What do you miss about the ESPN Bet studios in Las Vegas?

JF: The size, the staff and the location. We had a monster studio in Vegas that afforded several different looks. I was relatively new to TV at that time, so I had no idea how spoiled we were. 

The stage crew was comprised of some incredible people that I’ll always have fond memories of. We spent a lot of time joking around before shows. That kept things light, which is the way it should be in this industry. And the location was killer. Right on the Vegas strip? How could you ask for a better backdrop when producing a sports betting show? 

One thing I won’t miss is the F1 construction traffic. That was brutal.

DR: As someone that has lived in Vegas in two very different sports gambling environments, what’s it like to see the city hosting Super Bowls and Finals Fours? Did that even seem possible when you were there 15-20 years ago?

JF: I absolutely love it. That city is filled with some tremendous people, and I couldn’t be happier for them. 

While it can be staggering to think about where we were and how far we’ve come, part of me always thought it was possible for two very important reasons. First, Vegas is world class when it comes to hosting events, and we’re talking about some of the biggest events in the world in the Super Bowl and Final Four. How could you not take that into consideration? Second, Vegas is world class when it comes to throwing a party, and we’re talking about events that are synonymous with partying. It’s a match made in heaven. 

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.

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Mike Felger Nailed His Take on Rich Shertenlieb and iHeartMedia

“I want radio companies hiring radio hosts to do radio shows.”

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A photo of Rich Shertenlieb and a Screengrab of Mike Felger

If you’re a regular here at BSM, you’re most likely well aware of the goings on in Boston sports radio. You know that Rich Shertenlieb unexpectedly left 98.5 The Sports Hub and the very successful Toucher and Rich show just over six months ago. You are aware it wasn’t a harmonious departure but that there wasn’t one incident that took place causing the end of the show. You know Rob ‘Hardy’ Poole took over for Rich and you recently became aware Rich has started his own show on iHeartMedia’s classic rock station, WZLX.

As far as sports radio stories go, this is a big one and we have devoted a lot of coverage to the happenings, the speculation and now the aftermath. We have written about a few of the reactions from people in the market, some of whom have taken direct or indirect shots at Shertenlieb and some, like Mike Felger, who wished him well.

What? Wait a minute, a guy on the old team sent well wishes to the guy who left the team and went to another team? And the sun came up the next day and everything?

Yep, it happened. I couldn’t believe it either.

It’s right there on Facebook, where Felger does The Off-Air Show and generally gets into various topics that aren’t necessarily the typical sports story of the day. On this particular episode, Felger had Kendra Middleton as his guest and after they covered the pictures men direct message to Middleton, the topic of Shertenlieb’s show came up.

“I’ve sampled it, I think it sounds good,” Felger said. “It sounds like Rich. It sounds like what it would sound like when Fred was off, and Rich was in.”

If I wasn’t writing this in a column and it were in text form, I would next use the ‘head exploding emoji.’

Felger didn’t stop there. “I’m glad that he got that gig,” he said.

OMG.

Now, before we go too far, let’s get to what Felger really meant by all of this, because he wasn’t just rooting on his old teammate, he made some excellent points as to why he would say what he said.

“Anything that gets people to turn the radio on I am for,” Felger said. “I just want the industry to be good, I want radio to be strong, the industry to be strong, I want people to listen to the radio. I want radio companies hiring radio hosts to do radio shows. I take that whole thing as being healthy.”

Felger continued and wisely said, “I hope Fred and Hardy beat him soundly in the morning in the ratings, but I want Rich to do well, do well enough. I want ZLX and iHeart to do well and do well enough. I want them to have a good business and a strong revenue stream. I am rooting for that and Rich personally as well, who I know, and I wish personal success to him. I’m more interested in iHeart hiring a real radio host to do a real radio show in Boston and obviously paying him enough to it. That’s a good sign and I hope it does well enough that more radio stations keep doing that and whatever gets you to turn on the radio, I am for.”

I’m guessing 98.5 The Sports Hub owner Beasley Media Group probably wishes Felger wouldn’t have said anything about Shertenlieb and not called any attention to him or his show. But that aside, think about what Felger said here. Two things really stand out to me other than what I have already mentioned.

The first thing is that Felger is smart enough to know that it’s good for him and others that the industry is strong. I bet if you asked most radio hosts, they would say they want their competition to go away, but as Felger said, it is much better all-around that they “do well enough.” The more successful the industry, the more likely it is that compensation can remain higher. Plus, competition is good. Always. It just is. It makes people better, keeps them on their toes and overall makes people less lazy.

The second thing is what Felger said about iHeartMedia when he said, “I want radio companies hiring radio hosts to do radio shows.” For all of the shade that gets thrown on the larger media companies when layoffs occur, or local programming is replaced by voice tracking, here is an example where iHeartMedia continues to invest in a local morning show. Good on Felger to point that out.

I don’t know Mike Felger from Mike Ditka, but I do know that this is the second example I have seen where he is not afraid to speak on the competitors without having to dump all over them. A few months ago, he talked about hating to hear what was happening with Audacy and their bankruptcy. Audacy owns WEEI, a direct sports competitor of The Sports Hub.

The points Felger made then are similar to the ones he made recently about Shertenlieb and iHeartMedia. You want the conversation to be about how healthy the industry is, the fresh ideas that are happening and growth that is occurring. That’s good for everyone. Negative stories about the industry can, on the other hand, be a problem for everyone.

Felger gets it. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. He realizes the best thing that can happen is that a third sports morning show in the market does well.

Or does well enough.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Best Thing I Heard/Watched Recently

Kudos to the team at Bally Sports Midwest and the St. Louis Cardinals. Team President Bill DeWitt III reached out to Joe Buck and asked him to work a game with Chip Caray to bring back the nostalgia of a Buck-Caray broadcast booth. Jack Buck and Harry Caray, Joe’s dad and Chip’s grandfather, worked together for 15 seasons on St. Louis Cardinals radio broadcasts in the mid-1950s and 1960s. During that time the Cardinals appeared in the World Series three times and won it twice.

Unfortunately, the game on May 24 was rained out, so fans did not get the chance to watch Chip and Joe work the game together. However, the pregame show and beginning of the broadcast did happen and the two did a few segments together and reminisced about their family connections to the team.

I’m an incredibly biased, lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, but I thought it was awesome and very well done. It really is something you can enjoy if you are just a fan of baseball or broadcasting. You can see what took place by clicking here.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

In Case You Missed It

If you are interested in more on what Rich Shertenlieb is doing at WZLX, Demetri Ravanos spoke to him and profiled him in a recent article. Shertenlieb told Demetri about his exit from 98.5 The Sports Hub:

“I mean, listen, it’s kind of boring because it’s not as scandalous as people might think that it is,” he said. “You only get a couple of times in your career to be able to reevaluate what you’re doing. I would sign long term contracts for about five years. And so, you only get about once every five years to sit and say, ‘I got a chance to try to do something else.’”

You can read the feature by clicking here.

Additionally, check out Garrett Searight’s column where he wonders what could happen if Shertenlieb is successful as a mostly-sports show on a mostly-classic rock station. You can read the column by clicking here.

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Bill Walton Was Undeniably Himself on the Air

As a broadcaster, he was enthusiastically over the top – and well aware of it.

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The on-air career for Bill Walton was a powerful argument for authenticity, but almost nobody in broadcasting trusts that. They see Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA being utterly himself and people just loving it, but for some reason they think to themselves, Nah, I’ll adopt a persona.

This just in: Fake is boring.

Walton, who died Monday at age 71, was never fake, and he was rarely boring. On balance, he was himself. And in the end – and well before that – people appreciated him for it.

To be sure, the man could go on a tangent that might madden a hardened hoops watcher, the guy who lived for someone to tell him why a screen worked or how the leaping close-out on a three-point shooter rarely pays off. That definitely happened, and it happened a lot more over these past several years. I’ve watched plenty of Pac-12 basketball, put it that way.

Yet Walton will ultimately be remembered as simply and unapologetically individual. And if anything, his fame only increased over the past decade or so, even as he – how to put it? – cast his thematic net wider and wider during broadcasts.

It wasn’t always that way. In his earlier broadcasting days, like his time with the NBA on NBC, Walton toed the line fairly often, or at least as often as he could manage. It wasn’t really until later in his career that he became more broadly Bill, with all that implies.

He was open about everything – not just monologues on world affairs, historical notes and music updates, but also about himself. He was that rare public figure who didn’t mind being in public. He leaned into that. He pushed into crowds of people to talk, and he refused to be hurried on his way.

I only mention that characteristic of Walton’s here, on a site devoted to sports media, because it’s what enables us to know that the guy we heard on TV was authentic. We didn’t have to guess. Walton was publicly that same person; it was never an act.

I will say that off camera, Walton was often more gentle than you’d probably guess from hearing his oratory during games. His kindness was legendary, and one constant in his life was his steadfast encouragement of almost everyone around him. He was, in his own outsized way, a very humble person, and if you listened closely to the gamecasts you’d hear that come through.

He spoke in a staccato cadence on the air in part because it was the safest way for him to get a sentence out. Walton suffered with a debilitating stutter as a child and young adult, and he often said that finally overcoming it at age 28 was his life’s greatest achievement. A casual listener could easily mistake that on-air cadence for something forced, an act. It wasn’t.

Walton called things the way he saw them, and he loved hyperbole. He variously invoked Michelangelo, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. in describing basketball players in recent years, sometimes two or three of them at once. (Take a bow, Nikola Jokic.)

That approach is certainly not for every viewer, but it is who Walton actually was. As a broadcaster, he was enthusiastically over the top – and well aware of it. He practically spoke with a wink, but he wasn’t faking. And his increasing renown through the last decade of his life underscores the truth that his authenticity, what made him him, resonated with far more viewers than it repelled.

But networks, and too often those in their employ, don’t particularly love individuals. They love carefully called games and, generally, analysts who color inside the lines.

With the NBA Finals about to start, Bill Walton’s passing feels like a good time to revisit the disastrous decision by ESPN/ABC to blow up one of the few memorably distinctive crews on the sports landscape. And when you zero in on why Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy worked so beautifully, it’s impossible to escape the obvious: Van Gundy sounds like himself.

The league most likely didn’t love that, because being yourself means saying what you actually think. Van Gundy is great at that. The NBA and its broadcast partners, maybe not so much.

I won’t argue that we need more Bill Waltons in broadcasting, because there was only one. We certainly need more people with Walton’s kindness and empathy in actual life. But writing strictly as a sports viewer, I would absolutely love for more broadcasters to step back inside their own skins – be who they are.

You won’t forget how to be an expert; you’ll just become a more human one. The world might even love it. It has happened before.

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