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Ken Rosenthal Built a Career on Bowties and Credibility

“A lot of baseball writers, and I guess sports writers joke that really we’re not equipped or trained to do anything else, which is true.”

Derek Futterman

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Ken Rosenthal
Courtesy: Getty Images

“The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017 – part of a much broader issue for Major League Baseball.” That headline ended up having an enduring impact on the game of Major League Baseball, encapsulating a detailed account of the infamous scandal penned by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic. The team utilized a complex system to discern what pitches the opponent was preparing to throw and communicated them to hitters using a trash can. After the story was published, Major League Baseball conducted an investigation and punished the Astros through forfeiture of draft picks, banning executives from the league and, in turn, leaving an indelible asterisk next to the World Series championship.

The story was worthy of more than simply being the first to tweet the information. The Athletic was new at the time and committed to storytelling in a variety of different ways. This story took time to discover the intricacies and nuance imbued in the reporting. The entire process illustrates Rosenthal’s mission at this stage in his career as a senior baseball writer and reporter: disseminating original, comprehensive content.

“My concern with that story was not that it was going to be perceived as inaccurate,” Rosenthal said. “I knew it was accurate, and we had people on the record; it could not have been better in that regard. If we had gone simply on the sources, it’s easier to challenge.”

Throughout his journalism career, Rosenthal’s internal ambitions have outweighed staunch critics, and it ultimately led him to break new ground in reporting on “America’s Pastime.” During his formative years, Rosenthal was interning at Newsday, not yet donning his signature bowtie, where he covered a variety of different sports on Long Island. He was accompanied by another intern with palpable talent and charisma evident from the very beginning, Tom Verducci, who went on to write for Sports Illustrated.

Rosenthal was aware that he was not as strong of a writer as Verducci, but actively sought out advice to try to improve at the craft. One day during the winter break in his senior year of college, he visited the Newsday offices and met with sports editor Dick Sandler. Rosenthal requested guidance on how to pursue a journalism career since he was nearing graduation, and was met with somewhat of a disheartening reality check.

“He did advise me to go to law school,” Rosenthal recalled. “It did light a fire under me, and my dad was an attorney. I remember he was pretty pissed off when I told him that. I just don’t think you should tell a young person something like that.”

The deadpan statement was a seminal moment in Rosenthal’s development. It encouraged him to apply to over 75 newspapers, most of which decided not to hire or even interview him. Recognizing the importance of networking and having industry connections, Rosenthal asked fellow University of Pennsylvania alumni John Dellapina for assistance in his job search. The request paid off when Rosenthal landed at the York Daily Record, a smaller outlet where Dellapina was working. He began reporting on high school sports, becoming familiar with the nature of the profession. From there, he spent two years with the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, NJ where he covered horse racing and the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers.

“I love the newsroom,” Rosenthal said. “I love the action and really everything about it. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s always been kind of home to me. A lot of baseball writers, and I guess sports writers joke that really we’re not equipped or trained to do anything else, which is true. But to say this is my calling is a little strong.”

Rosenthal relocated to Baltimore and was hired to a full-time role with The Baltimore Evening Sun covering the Orioles, which were led by superstar shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. at the time. The team steadily improved during the time Rosenthal covered them. Rosenthal and Ripken Jr. had their differences over the years, as Rosenthal was a particularly aggressive reporter. His tenacity earned him a promotion to sports columnist in 1991.

The Orioles were facing the California Angels on Sep. 6, 1995. Ripken was suiting up for the 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for the most consecutive games played in Major League Baseball history. The stadium was sold out, even meriting a visit from then-President of the United States, Bill Clinton. National columnists were situated in the press box to cover the singular occasion.

At that time, The Baltimore Evening Sun had published its newspaper for the final time amid declining circulation, and moved to combine with The Baltimore Sun, which was distributed in the mornings. Rosenthal continued to write columns, but felt an inordinate amount of pressure leading up to Ripken Jr.’s record-breaking ordeal. Most local newspapers were just that, meaning out-of-town writers were rarely consumed, but Rosenthal identified because of the event, many people would be reading his work for the first time. He wanted to make a name for himself while also doing justice to the history on the field.

“I said, ‘Hey man, what do you do? What do you think? What should I do here?,’” Rosenthal remembered asking Mike Littwin, who had become a trusted part of his support system. “And he said, ‘You write how important he is to the city [and] to the sport,’ and it sounds silly in a way, but at that point to the country… he was like a true hero. That was kind of the approach I took, and it went fine.”

National outlets began to take heed of what Ken Rosenthal was doing and explored hiring him as a reporter. While in Baltimore, Rosenthal also covered the Baltimore Ravens. He hosted a weekend talk show on WJFK radio and also appeared on WBAL. He had been named Maryland Sportswriter of the Year five times. The first job offer he received from a national outlet was from CBS Sportsline, but Rosenthal decided not to go because he did not want to work intensely as would be expected.

Nonetheless, Rosenthal ended up adopting an arduous work schedule in the end, but eased into the process by joining The Sporting News in 2000. His pitch to the outlet, which was in the midst of transitioning to the internet, was how he had a network of people he knew from the Orioles. The front office experienced consistent periods of turnover, meaning executives and personnel Rosenthal had conversed with were now dispersed across different areas of the league.

“At least I knew those people and I could go forward,” Rosenthal said. “It just took a while, of course, to build to the point where I could really be comfortable in that job. You’re never comfortable, but I felt I could do the job okay.”

The Sporting News had a partnership with FOX Sports where writers would appear on various regional sports networks to discuss teams around the league. As its senior baseball writer, Rosenthal would sit in a television studio for two hours and cycle through different cities, taking questions and interacting with show hosts. He was also permitted to participate on ESPN’s morning debate show Cold Pizza, which later became First Take, working with ESPN reporter Jim Bowden. 

Rosenthal began to realize that expanding his career to that medium could make sense down the road. Those television appearances were accompanied by feature stories, breaking news articles and a weekly column, further diversifying his media portfolio. His wife was the impetus that ended up compelling Rosenthal to find a television job, her entreaty occurring while watching Tim Kurkjian report for ESPN on television.

“My wife said to me, ‘Why can’t you do that?,’” Rosenthal reminisced. “I thought, ‘Okay, maybe it’s time to look into it,’ and I actually did get offers from ESPN and FOX.”

Rosenthal chose to join the team at FOX Sports because the network told him there would be a chance he could report on Game of the Week with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. Before he made the decision to leave The Sporting News, Rosenthal had to consider the potential lifestyle change and be certain he wanted to take the chance. Reflecting on his time with the outlet though, Rosenthal was, perhaps somewhat unbeknownst to him, put in positions to build a demo reel for a television role by his boss, John Rawling.

“I give him endless credit for [encouraging] me to do the television,” Rosenthal said of Rawling. “He allowed me to go on Cold Pizza while I was still working for The Sporting News because he wanted me to have the greatest possible opportunity to leave if something went wrong at The Sporting News. There’s not many bosses that would do that, but he was basically setting me up to leave and I’m very grateful for that, always.”

After joining FOX Sports’ Game of the Week, his profile continued to grow. Rosenthal maintained a steadfastness to journalistic principles – hence the reason he was perturbed when FOX Sports chairman David Hill ordered him to wear a bowtie on the air during the 2010 postseason. Hill wanted to distinguish Rosenthal from other reporters.

“Even though I was on television, I always thought [that] what should distinguish me is my work,” Rosenthal said. “A look – I didn’t want any part of that. But he was the boss, and he was a very strong boss and a powerful boss.”

Following the first broadcast, Rosenthal approached FOX Sports executive and current CEO Eric Shanks to ask whether he would need to wear the bowtie again. Shanks said he should, so much to his chagrin, Rosenthal did so until the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. Entering the 2011 season, Rosenthal was prepared to shed the bowtie and let his work set him apart.

Instead, Rosenthal continues to wear bowties to this day thanks to a call from former football linebacker Dhani Jones. He founded the Bow Tie Cause to represent different nonprofit charities and asked Rosenthal if he would be willing to help support its mission.

 

“I never imagined that it would become, I guess, kind of part of my identity, but it is,” Rosenthal said. “When I don’t wear it now – and even if I’m at the ballpark on a Friday preparing for a Saturday broadcast in my regular clothes – some fan or somebody will say, ‘Hey, where’s the bowtie?,’ and so it is definitely part of it.”

While Rosenthal was with FOX Sports, he inked a contract to join MLB Network in 2009 after being persuaded to do so by senior vice president of production John Entz. Entz had worked at FOX Sports in the past, and he was confident that MLB Network was an ideal landing spot for Rosenthal. After he received assurance from both Tom Verducci and Bob Costas that he could continue being an objective reporter, Rosenthal decided to take them at their word and join the network.

There were no issues initially with Rosenthal appearing as a contributor and reporter across programs such as Hot Stove, MLB Tonight and MLB Now, but he says the environment ostensibly changed under Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred. Rosenthal was critical of Manfred in columns he had written for The Athletic regarding the forthcoming MLB lockout, and MLB Network was concurrently in the midst of reevaluating its programming lineup. Rosenthal was one of many personalities let go by the network as it added a variety of new names, including Cameron Maybin, Hunter Pence and A.J. Andrews, and launched a new show geared towards younger fans titled Off Base.

“I was upset that, honestly, a resolution was not reached sooner because there were a few years there that just were very uncomfortable for me,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t know that I want to go into great detail, but a lot of things I did were challenged and questioned. It just wasn’t a pleasant environment, [and] it was almost a relief when it came to an end.”

“As MLB Network continues to look at fresh ways to bring baseball to our viewers, there is a natural turnover in our talent roster that takes place each year,” a league spokesperson said in a statement issued to the New York Post at the time. “Ken played a significant part at MLB Network… We thank him for his work across MLB Network’s studio, game and event programming, and wish him the very best going forward.”

When FOX Sports converted a preponderance of its digital content to video, Rosenthal was released from the portion of his contract stating he would write for the outlet’s website. Paul Fichtenbaum, the editor of The Athletic, recruited Rosenthal to join the fledgling outlet with no guarantee of success. It was a precarious decision with potentially calamitous aftershocks, and one he made after being persuaded by his son and convincing his broadcast agent that it was the right move. If it did end up falling through, Rosenthal had two television jobs to fall back on and would be able to continue to support his family.

“Being at The Athletic has been the most gratifying thing because it proved – and I was thinking along these lines – that print wasn’t dead,” Rosenthal said. “It proved there was a real value, and I think it also proved that great sports journalism could still be done – not that it’s not done in other places; of course it is – but on a level like we’re pursuing it right now.”

In his roles with The Athletic and FOX Sports, Rosenthal has only enhanced his reputation as one of the industry’s predominant newsbreakers. He frequently reports transactions before they are officially announced by teams, and many baseball fans turn on his Twitter notifications during the hours leading up to the trade deadline. Rosenthal, however, has put less of an emphasis on utilizing social media.

“On Twitter, it just seems to me to be a hamster wheel,” Rosenthal said. “I’m active on it – I’m still trying – but the real win, especially for our company, is when you can break a story that can’t be confirmed in 10 seconds and have everybody just forget who even broke it in the first place.”

There have been various stories in which Rosenthal knows there is the threat of sacrificing a relationship and/or facing immeasurable criticism. While he acknowledges that people have the right to have opinions, he tries to avoid becoming invested in comments or partaking in debates with readers. All he asks, as has been consistent throughout his career, is that people read things before making assertions – which led to a recent Twitter exchange with Amazon Prime Video and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

“Social media has only amplified people’s opinions, and I just have to kind of grin and bear it at times, and that’s fine,” Rosenthal said. “I think most people see you for what you are, but there are always going to be people that will feel otherwise, and that’s just all part of it.”

Aside from writing and appearing on television, Rosenthal interacts with baseball fans through his Fair Territory podcast. The media venture debuted in early April, and Rosenthal has been hosting weekly episodes since then and contributing to FT Live featuring Scott Braun, AJ Pierzynski, Todd Frazier and various former major league players. Rosenthal had previous experience hosting radio programs and also answered listener questions on a podcast with The Athletic, but this project is different in that he sets the agenda. It is available to listen on most audio platforms and can also be watched on YouTube.

“I just kind of go for whatever how long it is – 30 minutes or whatever,” Rosenthal said. “And that part of it is different [in] that I have to carry it like that, but I’ve done television for so long. It’s not uncomfortable or anything like that – it’s natural.”

As the media industry continues to gradually consolidate operations amid an extensive demand for niche content, Rosenthal values the versatility he cultivated from the start of his career. The specifics of his job description change on a yearly basis, and he advises aspiring professionals to keep an open mindset about their own futures. He aims to continue showcasing his adept skill set while staying true to the bedrock principles of journalism and reporting.

“I don’t ever see myself as the most talented person,” Rosenthal expressed. “I can name five people off the top of my head – 10, 15 – that write better than me, but I do work hard. I think that is what has carried me. So what I’m trying to say is I think hard work can overcome deficiencies in talent – not totally, of course – but that to me is the core of everything.”

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Ryan Clark is Ready for ‘The Pivot’ to Grow with Channing Crowder, Fred Taylor and Fanatics

“We want to be a place where you can just be yourself and you can love yourself and truly tell your story and show people who you are.”

Derek Futterman

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Ryan Clark
Courtesy: The Pivot

Answering a call from Emmy Award-winning producer Alicia Zubikowsi, Ryan Clark learned of a potential new media venture in a niche space. Zubikowski had produced the I Am Athlete podcast for nearly two years, which rapidly proliferated in size, scope and prominence. A financial dispute among the colleagues, however, led to the departures of Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor from the roster, along with Zubikowski, and they branched out on their own to actualize a new vision. After speaking with Zubikowski, Clark met with Crowder virtually and evinced compatibility that compelled him to become involved in the project.

Less than two years later, The Pivot Podcast has quickly amassed notoriety and prestige within sports media. The athlete-driven podcast contains weekly conversations with contemporaries and luminaries alike, to talk sports, music and entertainment. Clark, Crowder and Taylor possess an evident rapport and retains the audience while encouraging prospective listeners to hear the genuine endeavor.

“We felt like there was some synergy there, we thought we could do some good things and we decided to give it a try,” Clark said. “I had already been doing my own podcast that I was funding myself, editing myself and cutting promos myself just because I understood what the space was and I knew that that’s where a lot of media was going, and at the time I didn’t have a partnership or anyone kind of showing me the way, but I was like, ‘These people have already been successful.’”

Since its launch in the winter of 2022, The Pivot Podcast has amassed over 158 million views and 870,000 subscribers on YouTube alone. The show has welcomed guests across a variety of professions, some of whom have included Caleb Williams, Snoop Dogg, Gayle King and Travis Kelce. During its time in circulation, it has made an indelible impact on the landscape and recently agreed to a multi-year partnership with Fanatics.

Through the deal, The Pivot Podcast will feature Fanatics’ verticals surrounding commerce, betting, collectibles and events, and the Fanatics Sportsbook garnering the title of the “official sportsbook” of the show. Additionally, the program will be part of company events such as Fanatics Fest NYC and its annual Super Bowl party.

“Luckily for us, it’s been such a blessing,” Clark said. “Some of the stories we’ve been able to tell, the people we’ve been able to work with and have as guests on the show, and then obviously now having an opportunity to partner with Fanatics and be a part of Michael Rubin’s team and sort of head their media division, especially when you’re speaking of Alicia and what she’ll be able to do, it just makes so much sense.”

Fanatics itself had inked some deals in the sports media space over the last year, including agreements with Bleacher Report and Overtime, but they were largely under the aegis of merchandising and/or live events. The company also hired Ed Hartman as its chief strategy officer in media, trying to discover content that fits various key business sectors. For The Pivot, retaining creative control and autonomy over the content was essential and being involved in other ventures added more value to the proposition.

“To be a part of those things and bringing those things to the world, but also an opportunity to showcase the athletes and entertainers that are part of the Fanatics family – and I think that’s a different and a bigger opportunity than any podcast has ever had with any partnership, and that is why it was important for us to find the right partnership,” Clark said. “And if I’m being honest, our producer has turned down multiple deals saying that she believed that this was the one before this was ever even a thing that Michael Rubin was talking about.”

Reaching this point required hard work, consistency and confidence that The Pivot would ultimately resonate with audiences and establish a rapport in the space. Luckily for Clark, he had a viable fallback plan in that he was working at ESPN as an NFL analyst, a role he had positioned himself to attain while he was still an active player.

During his career, he had worked on 93.7 The Fan hosting a radio show from a hibachi restaurant in Pittsburgh and also appeared on local television. Clark played 13 years in the NFL as a safety and won a Super Bowl championship as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 season.

Although Clark had been told as a player that he had a chance to thrive in sports media, his formative years in the business broadened his understanding of the landscape and how to achieve success. Upon retiring from the NFL, he signed a multi-year agreement with ESPN to appear on NFL Live, SportsCenter, ESPN Radio shows and additional network programming.

Over the last several years, he has been a consistent part of NFL Live. Clark explained that the show contains underdogs who have crafted chemistry that has coalesced into an on-air product and meaningful friendships. Laura Rutledge, Dan Orlovsky, Marcus Spears, Mina Kimes and Adam Schefter work with Clark and blend their football knowledge and expertise with entertainment.

“I could see how much work they all put into their craft, and I respected that, and then once you get that respect and you start to work together, now you get to know the people,” Clark said. “You get to know about their kids, you get to know about their home life, you get to know about what makes them tick and what makes them themselves, and then we care about each other.”

As members of the show watch NFL games every week, they remain in constant communication through a group chat. Additionally, Clark ensures that he is actively listening to what his colleagues say on the air so he can disseminate informed, substantive opinions that play a part in the overall product.

“The smartest of analysts understand what they have to be on each show based on who they’re working with,” Clark said. “I think you just also have to be versatile enough to do that. You have to know when you’re on NFL Live, that show is so heavy X and O; that show is so heavy, ‘Let’s educate – let’s talk about the things that are important in ball, even if they aren’t the most popular things.’”

Starting last season, Clark was added to Monday Night Countdown as a studio analyst as part of a revamped iteration of the program hosted by Scott Van Pelt. Joining Clark as analysts on the show were his NFL Live colleague Marcus Spears and incumbent analyst Robert Griffin III. While there were some memorable moments both in studio and on site throughout the year though, Clark felt that the show struggled to capture an essence on the air.

“I think the show is just hard because it’s sort of like rolled over the entire infrastructure and changed the people, and it happened so late that I don’t think we ever got an opportunity to find our voices on that show, and we tried to work through that throughout the season,” Clark said. “….I think last year was a learning experience where if I’m being really honest, we did bad TV sometimes, which was new for me because I felt like I haven’t done bad TV in a very long time, and it was embarrassing for me because I put so much time into it.”

Former Philadelphia Eagles center and Super Bowl champion Jason Kelce is joining the show and was formally introduced this week. During a charity golf outing this offseason, Clark had a chance to meet Kelce and learn more about him as a person while also answering questions about ESPN and the sports media business.

“I told him to be himself because being himself is what got him here,” Clark said. “He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my opinion, so he has so much knowledge, experience and wisdom that people will crave, and he can give it to them uniquely with his personality, with his honesty [and] with the openness and vulnerability about who he is. Other than that, he’s going to have to learn.”

Akin to Clark hosting The Pivot and working at ESPN, Kelce hosts the New Heights podcast with his brother, and will now be joining Monday Night Countdown on ESPN. Clark anticipates that Kelce will be a huge addition, referring to him as the “hottest free agent ever,” and hopes to grant him longform chances to express himself on the air. Being on the show for a second season, however, nearly was not a reality for Clark amid an expiring contract at ESPN.

“I was gone,” Clark said. “I wasn’t considering – I was done. Normally they extend your contract until it gets done most times. I was out – my contract had ended.”

Clark took part in discussions with other people in the business, some of which included having his own show and organizations starting networks around him. Throughout the process, he was cognizant about the relationships and memories he had built at ESPN and was appreciative for various personalities speaking up for him, including Mike Greenberg and Stephen A. Smith. In the end, Clark signed a multi-year extension with the network that implemented a raise and additional responsibility while also continuing his other projects.

“Obviously my family is the NFL Live crew,” Clark said. “Scott Van Pelt and I probably share one of the most memorable nights in television when Damar Hamlin went down. And so those relationships were things that I didn’t want to leave unless there was a good enough reason to leave, and I don’t think that’s just money.”

Clark started hosting Inside the NFL last season on The CW, a storied sports franchise that presents highlights, analysis and interviews every week during the NFL season. After spending approximately four decades on HBO and subsequent years on Showtime and Paramount+, the program moved to broadcast television for the first time. Clark conceptualizes his role as a point guard who is able to score when necessary and successfully facilitate his colleagues Jay Cutler, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, Chris Long and The Pivot co-host Channing Crowder.

“I think that was the hardest adjustment with Inside the NFL initially was like, ‘Okay, how do I set these guys up for success while still doing something I’m really good at, which is analyzing football?,’” Clark said, “and it’s taken some time to really sort of find a space for it, but I think I did find that on Inside the NFL.”

In working on The Pivot, Clark built relationships organically through conversations surrounding strategy, content creation and lifestyle. One episode in particular that stands out to him is when the show interviewed former NBA forward Michael Beasley where he opened up about his mental health struggles and hardships he has endured throughout his life. Furthermore, he talked about struggling to find the right people and explained that everyone stole from him except his kids. Clark, Crowder and Taylor sympathized with Beasley and offered him assistance, underscoring the unscripted, genuine nature of the show.

“Everybody wants The Rock to be able to come on their show and talk about his battles with depression, but we also want Kevin Hart to be able to come on the show and invite him to nudist camp too,” Clark said. “We want to be a place where you can just be yourself and you can love yourself and truly tell your story and show people who you are. And I don’t necessarily know if it’s distinctive in effort or goal; I think it’s been distinctive in execution, which, in the end, is what we deliver to people.”

Through the new partnership with Fanatics, Clark looks forward to continuing to take part in candid conversations and storytelling on The Pivot while continuing to thrive in his work with ESPN and The CW. As someone who attained a successful NFL career after signing as an undrafted free agent, he maintains a mentality built on an indefatigable work ethic and resolute dedication towards his professional endeavors. Once the show signed the partnership with Fanatics, it had an opportunity to interview Tom Brady, who discussed topics including his experience being the subject of a Netflix roast and the lessons he learned playing in the NFL.

“Not everybody understands Tom Brady, right?,” Clark said. “Who knows that story? Who has ever lived that, ‘I’m the greatest to ever do something’? But everybody has understood what it’s like to struggle; what it’s like to doubt yourself, right? And so we bring them that story, and in bringing them that story, we talk about the things that Fanatics is doing and the ways that they are now moving in the sports world.”

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Christopher ‘Mad Dog’ Russo Making the Most of His Resurgence with the Help of ESPN

Far from a close-minded fuddy-duddy. He is an open-minded observer of sports, one of the greatest of all time.

John Molori

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Screengrab of First Take on ESPN with Chris Russo
Screengrab from ESPN/First Take

The true essence of Christopher ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, Version 2024 can be found in the open to the May 15 edition of First Take on ESPN.

In the aftermath of the Knicks defeating the Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, superstar showstopper Stephen A. Smith opened the program with an emotionally joyous soliloquy lauding his favorite New York basketball team. Smith was jubilant, ebullient, and thrilled.

The segment ended with Smith walking over to panelists Russo and Kendrick Perkins and hugging them in glee. After the show’s open, the Knick rapture continued, that is, until “Mad Dog” was let out of the kennel.

Russo brought things back down to earth, predicting that Indiana would win Game 6 of the series. He then went through a mental historical timeline of the Knicks choking in playoff games at home. This level of historic context is largely lost on modern sports fans, many of whom believe that nothing existed before LeBron James or Tom Brady.

Russo’s beautiful dose of reality ticked off the jovial Smith but set the discourse on a more levelheaded road. Russo is a talking history book, and let’s face it, not everybody likes history class. The difference, however, is that Christopher Russo lived this history, and indeed, made history himself. A 2022 National Radio Hall of Fame inductee, he has uniquely entertained sports fans for more than four decades, becoming one of the most memorable and imitated personalities ever.

He created Mad Dog Sports Radio on SiriusXM in 2008 and headlines the channel with his popular Mad Dog Unleashed show. In addition, he hosts the daily High Heat program on MLB Network. Still, it is one of Russo’s earliest and most recent gigs that set him apart.

Beginning in 1989 and for the next 19 years, Russo and Mike Francesa hosted the landmark Mike and the Mad Dog afternoon driveshow on WFAN radio in New York. It was a ratings mammoth and ensconced Russo as a stone-cold sports media legend.

I am going to make the case that Russo’s latest incarnation as a First Take Wednesday regular is just as significant. It has exposed a whole new audience to the Russo experience. On a more basic level, it is just really special to see a classic radio guy like Russo welcomed into the most progressive and popular sports talk show on the air right now.

Kudos to Stephen A. Smith for making Russo a regular on his program. You can tell that Smith, author of an historically significant media career himself, truly respects those who came before him and blazed the trail. In fact, to a certain extent, Smith is a media offspring of Russo. They both possess riveting personalities, unquestioned bravery, and on-air dominance. Like or dislike, agree or disagree, these are two men who must be listened to and respected.

With Max Kellerman’s 2021 exit from First Take, I was doubtful as to what would happen to the program. My worst thought was that Smith would bring in a bevy of co-hosts who would bow to his greatness – like Jerry Jones’ Cowboys’ coaching hires since Jimmy Johnson. Thankfully, Smith went in the other direction. Russo has the same cache as Smith, so there is no hero worship. He says what he feels and talks straight – real talk in a colorful and exciting manner.

As the Knicks discussion continued, Smith wanted to tap into Russo’s New York sports sensibilities and emotion asking Russo if he felt Madison Square Garden shaking during the Knicks’ Game 5 win. It didn’t work. Russo responded that at 65 years-old, he has been in the Garden for many big games and then cautioned Smith to take it easy with the Knicks.

He again harkened back to New York’s less than sparkling history in big games and menacingly joked that it is his job to “spoil Stephen A’s fun.” Russo then spectacularly took the air out of the building with an ominous What If asking what the Knicks would do if it came down to a Game 7 and the game was tied with the clock winding down.

Russo is also self-deprecating. When host Molly Qerim asked him for a prediction on the Nuggets-Timberwolves series, Russo said that he predicted that the Bills would blow out the Giants in Super Bowl XXV – the famed Scott Norwood missed field goal game. Qerim, who does an excellent job in controlling Hurricane Christopher, acknowledged the obscure reference.

While Russo has a database of past stats and stars, he is not lost in history. In fact, on this edition of First Take, he made a bold statement that the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokić has the greatest offensive skill set of any center in the history of the NBA. These are not the words of a stodgy curmudgeon whose mind cannot be changed.

Russo is an astute observer of our games. He sees greatness and gives that greatness credit. Far from a close-minded fuddy-duddy. He is an open-minded observer of sports, one of the greatest of all time. His opinions are not to be chided. They are to be listened to and appreciated.

During First Take’s Quick Takes segment, Russo ably put his encyclopedic knowledge to use. The question posed was whether the Celtics or Lakers are the greatest franchise in NBA history. Russo’s analysis was spot on and long overdue. First, he discounted the Minneapolis Lakers’ five titles as part of the pro-Lakers argument. He also cited the Celtics’ overall dominance when the two franchises have met in the NBA Finals over the decades.

Lastly, he remarked that the Celtics have had four eras of greatness: Russell in the 1960s, Havlicek-Cowens in the 1970s, Bird in the 1980s, and Pierce-Garnett in the late 2000s, while the Lakers have only two: Magic-Abdul-Jabbar in the ‘80s and Shaq-Kobe in the 2000s. It was the best analysis of a longtime debate.

In a debate about Bronny James and his NBA hopes, Russo again was the voice of reason giving a very realistic analysis of why he is not a top pro prospect. It is clear that Russo has nothing to prove, nobody to impress, and no apple to polish. He made his bones years ago, and his takes are refreshing and objective.

The cherry on top of Russo’s First Take sundae was his What Are You Mad About? segment. Viewers tuning into this part of the program are no doubt wondering who the hell, and at times, what the hell they are watching. Russo pushes the limits of his angst, heart rate, blood pressure, and decibel level picking apart several news items from the week in sports. At times, he closes his blurbs screaming to the heavens, “May God strike me down!”

In this particular segment, he went off on late NBA playoff start times, the intrigue surrounding the 2024 NFL schedule release, and his distaste towards the vulgar humor in the Tom Brady roast. Russo gets up close to the camera and goes off in a boisterous way. It is simultaneously fantastic and frightening.

In his last piece on the roast, Russo looked into the camera and yelled to Brady, “How stupid can you be!” This is the same question I will pose to anyone who dismisses Russo as an out of touch old guy. This cat is no curmudgeon. He is a killer. Elderly? No, epic. Bygone? How about straight up bad ass. That is Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo, Version 2024.

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How to Renegotiate Your Annual Sports Radio Advertising Contract

Reducing expenses within an annual radio agreement takes a strategic negotiation and budget management approach.

Jeff Caves

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Graphic that shows two people negotiating
Graphic Courtesy: Soject.com

If you are a small to medium-sized business, there is no doubt you are facing rising costs, and making ends meet is a top priority. Sometimes, that means cutting expenses on things you have committed to via contract, like a 2024 annual radio advertising agreement with level monthly payments. You are on the air each month and appreciate the value of advertising consistently. You understand the necessity to maintain a market presence within the budget you laid out last year. You negotiated a win-win contract and are happy with it. However, with your costs spiraling to deliver your services, cost-cutting measures have become critical for financial viability in the long term and better cash flow in the short term. You are now tasked with the need to reduce expenses wherever you can, and your sports radio advertising is next on the list. The station doesn’t want to lessen your committed budget. It’s time for strategic negotiation and decision-making. Here are some effective strategies to accomplish this objective while keeping your annual budget intact:

Pricing and Rates

Initiate negotiations on pricing and rates for ad spots with the radio station. They know where they have more demand than supply and could even make more money by freeing up some of your commercials to be sold to other clients, sometimes at higher rates. This is typically during the weekday drive time periods; you probably got an annual rate for your commitment. If the station is willing, you could move into off-peak nighttime buys or weekends. Off-peak hours typically come at a lower cost and can still reach a substantial audience, enabling you to stretch your budget further. Give the station 30 days to see if they can accomplish this, and if not, go to plan ‘B.’

Longer Commitments

Consider committing to a longer-term contract, like a multi-year agreement, to potentially lower your monthly cash commitment. Maybe you could move off $2,000 per month from July to December and move it to the first six months of 2025. Emphasize your dedication to maintaining a consistent advertising presence over time, which can incentivize the radio station to continue the partnership.

Frequency and Unit Length

If the station allows you to reduce the monthly budget, focus on maximizing frequency by strategically choosing the length of ad units. Instead of running only thirty and sixty-second ads, opt for :15 slots to increase frequency without exceeding your budget. Shorter units are more cost-effective per spot and can deliver well-known messages repeatedly.

Budget Reallocation and Trade

Explore avenues for reallocating funds within your annual budget to optimize expenses. For instance, negotiate a reduction in the monthly budget and allocate the saved funds to months where your cash flow is strongest. Having a payment schedule that matches your cash flow will give you the best chance to meet expenses. Furthermore, explore opportunities for service or trade to offset your monthly bill, leveraging resources you have already paid for that may match up well with what the station needs.

Reducing expenses within an annual radio agreement takes a strategic negotiation and budget management approach. Concentrating on pricing, rates, contract length, frequency, and budget reallocation can keep your station relationship intact, honor your contract, and increase cash flow.

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