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Michael Smith Isn’t Trying To Be All Things to All People

“I don’t want to be a ‘Walmart’ podcast network where everything’s under this one roof.”

Derek Futterman

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Michael Smith
Courtesy: Michael Smith, Inflection Point Entertainment

The 18-month stretch from when Michael Smith learned that his edition of SportsCenter with Jemele Hill was being canceled to the time he reached a buyout with ESPN was pivotal in his career. When the network first branded the show, it stressed that it would differ from other SportsCenter programs in that it would explore the intersection of sports, culture and society. Upon its launch, Smith and Hill became the first Black duo to regularly host the program, but it quickly received a deluge of criticism from external viewers and those at the company. Social media users began calling the program “WokeCenter” and began to associate the “Worldwide Leader” with interpolating political discourse and commentary within a program that, at its core, pertains to sports.

Smith, however, knows that the show was ahead of its time and sees how other networks have used it as a template to create impactful programming. The duo added segments throughout the show that differed from what the audience was accustomed to, including unconventional interviews and whiparound discussions. Sports, to them, meant more than just reading the scores of the game or reviewing the Top 10 moments of the day.

“It was very difficult because I knew what we were doing, and I knew that the loudest voices and the loudest critics of what we were doing weren’t watching the show,” Smith said. “But they had different agendas – they had different political and social agendas – and they weren’t really watching what we were doing.”

While Hill began reporting for The Atlantic in early 2018 and reached a buyout with ESPN later that year, Smith’s future was somewhat in limbo. He recognized the power of the brand and took some time to ponder over what could be next. After all, Smith never intended to make it on television, instead studying journalism at Loyola University in New Orleans. There is a chance that none of it would have happened if not for the behest of his high school English teacher, who encouraged him to apply for an internship at The Times-Picayune

“The business kind of found me more than I found it,” Smith said, “but once I did find it, I found a lot of joy in storytelling and being able to really examine the personalities and the processes behind the people and the teams that I cared about.”

All throughout college, Smith maintained a presence at The Times-Picayune while also contributing to his school publication as a sports editor. Eventually, Smith was brought on to work nights on The Times-Picayune’s copy desk as a night editor, which he feels gave him his best writing experience over his formative years. Cognizant of the invaluable aspect of being versatile, Smith also interned with the local CBS television station where he solely logged tape. 

“I was a print major – that was my concentration – so I never thought about going into television, but even that internship with CBS while I was in college gave me some behind-the-scenes experience that turned out to be valuable,” Smith explained. “It also just allows you to meet people and connect with people. It’s not just for résumé purposes and not just even for reference purposes, but you just never know who you’re going to cross paths with again down the road.”

When it came time to graduate and find a full-time position, Smith had an advantage over others in that he had been galvanized to accrue deft professional experience as a student. Because he interned for two summers with The Boston Globe and, once again, left a good impression on the staff, he was offered a job to cover the New England Patriots. As an avid football fan, it was an opportunity Smith could not turn down – even if it meant he would be backing up one of the locale’s most prominent sportswriters.

Nick Cafardo was the primary Red Sox reporter for The Boston Globe and led coverage of the Patriots when the schedules did not overlap. Cafardo was unique in that he consistently demonstrated a sense of humility and worked with Smith rather than trying to bring him down. 

“Not only did he welcome me on the Patriots beat; he made space for me and empowered me on the Patriots beat,” Smith said of Cafardo. “I liked to approach it every day like I was the beat guy, but I started out as his backup. He didn’t treat me like his backup at all; he empowered me to cover the beat and share it with him. I’ll never forget that.”

The future of local journalism as we know it is very much in a perilous state, accentuated by reporter layoffs and quarterly losses. The New York Times Company purchased The Athletic in early 2022, and it is now set to utilize it for all sports coverage in lieu of a dedicated section in The New York Times. Moreover, the Los Angeles Times announced that it is transitioning its sports section to resemble a magazine, focused on deeper storytelling rather than daily news. The industry is in the midst of a paradigm shift, which was evidenced from Smith’s first day at The Boston Globe that happened to coincide with its sales to The New York Times Company.

When Smith was a reporter, he quickly discerned how TV networks were beginning to equip print reporters to provide context and become parts of programming. His first television appearance came at just 23 years old on Around the Horn, the roundtable debate show hosted by Tony Reali. Smith was able to give his opinions on various topics and back them up with facts, which helped him appeal to the audience.

Since he dislikes the sound of his voice, Smith neglected to watch tape and instinctively knew where he needed to improve in order to have more chances to appear on television. It led to more opportunities on other ESPN programming, such as The Sports Reporters and E:60.

As Smith’s profile elevated at ESPN, the opportunities he received became even more prominent, culminating in hosting the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter with Hill. Upon that program’s cancellation though, he began to feel as if he was no longer valued or wanted at ESPN, which led to him negotiating a buyout and leaving the “Worldwide Leader.” The harrowing 18-month process induced sentiments of bitterness and uncertainty with a glimmer of hope clandestine beneath the surface.

“I always felt like a part of it, but to be ostracized and to be viewed internally, or at least it felt like I was, [as] radioactive was difficult,” Smith said. “At a certain point I was just like, ‘You know what? It’s time for me to take my career into my own hands and take back control of my own story and author a new chapter.’”

For the first time in his professional career, Smith was a bonafide free agent – and he was not necessarily looking to join a traditional media entity. Instead, Smith took steps towards becoming an entrepreneur, which started by joining two startup companies in different roles. He first joined (co)laboratory, a sports media content factory based in Los Angeles to oversee its content production and dissemination; however, the role only ended up lasting for seven weeks before complications forced the company to shutter.

The spin-off startup company, game1, made Smith one of its partners, along with film producer Basil Iwanyk and Greg Economou. Early on, the brand inked content partnerships with NBA all-star guard James Harden and famed racecar driver Danica Patrick, and it has since continued to produce distinct content. After about a year with the brand, Smith felt ready to start a new, independent media venture and grow it from scratch.

“I look at both of those startup experiences as successes personally because it taught me and showed me the ropes, more or less, on how to do this myself,” Smith said. “I’m not saying I have all the answers – by no means – but it gave me the perspective, the insight, the experience and confidence to go at it on my own and start my own company.”

Smith partnered with entertainment lawyer Terrence Williams and entrepreneur Dwayne Bernal to create Inflection Point Entertainment. The name of the company was deviated from the Henry Crown Fellowship Program within the Aspen Institute, which recruits classes of business and community leaders at inflection points in their lives and careers. Smith is a member of the 2017 class of the program and is using his experience to author a climax on the palisade of persistence, remaining prescient that his efforts will pay off in the long run.

By working independently, Smith is able to do what he feels is necessary to actualize groundbreaking, distinctive content offerings amid the crowded multimedia ecosystem. Within the company’s first year, it inked a development contract with NBCUniversal’s Peacock, producing original content through the company. Smith and co-host Michael Holley began the original series Brother From Another, which streams daily on Peacock and airs on SiriusXM.

“It’s podcasted; it has a loyal YouTube following as well, but that’s more a daily talk show; that’s more in the vein of a His and Hers [or] a Pardon the Interruption,” Smith said. “It’s more that type of show with obviously a different vibe because the vibe is a reflection of me and Michael’s relationship – our brotherhood; our friendship [and] our personalities, but it’s more of a news of the day show since it’s five days a week.”

The company is beginning to see the fruits of its labor through a new partnership with iHeartMedia that launched the new Inflection Network, which features a variety of different podcast offerings ranging from fantasy football to resiliency. Charita Johnson, the former producer of the His and Hers podcast at ESPN, is leading the network, which will soon add new personalities and programs to its content lineup. For Smith, the partnership was a “no-brainer” in being able to expedite broader distribution of content and enable people to express themselves. Just as Cafardo did for him in Boston, he wants to provide opportunities for the proliferation of the space and demonstrate his magnanimity towards media’s progeny.

“I felt like it was just a natural piece of the portfolio [and] a natural vertical for this company to have,” Smith said. “We’re making feature films; we’re making scripted television series [and] we’re making documentaries. Audio content felt like just a natural play, and it’s something that I always wanted to do as a talent, which was to identify and nurture up-and-coming talent and amplify other voices that just needed the platform.”

Inflection Point Entertainment views the deal with iHeartMedia as a monumental moment in the growth of its business. The challenge in delivering consistent, premium content is in identifying a target audience and providing a valuable return on investment, expanding the metaphorical consumption profit margin. Smith and his company have eclectic interests and passions, and the evolving identity will define the scope of the undertaking.

“I’m not out to be all things to all people – that’s impossible – you can’t please all the people all the time,” Smith said. “I don’t want to be a ‘Walmart’ podcast network where everything’s under this one roof. I also didn’t want to be so specific to where I was not only putting myself in a box, but limiting both our audience and our opportunities in terms of who we work with.”

Over the course of Smith’s journalism career, his storytelling has become more nuanced and enterprised, a more deficient area than instant news reporting. It is one of the reasons he began contributing to Football Night in America on NBC last season through his series, “Gets It.” Smith, who is continuing the project for a second season, interviews NFL players, coaches and personnel who he feels “gets it,” as the name of the show indicates. He believes that the name of the show is one of the greatest compliments that can be given to sports luminaries, many of whom have consistently tried to find their own way and build a successful foundation.

“People have an insatiable appetite for information, insight and enlightenment,” Smith said. “They want to be entertained and they may not have the same level of attention span as they once did… but they still want the information.”

While helping to grow his company, Smith continued to rekindle his presence with larger media entities over the course of the last year. Ahead of its launch of Thursday Night Football, Smith signed on with Amazon Prime Video to work as a correspondent for its pregame, halftime and postgame coverage. When he first met his colleagues, he could tell that they shared a common understanding and dedication to help grow the streaming giant’s sports footprint and bring it to new heights. 

In the weeks leading up to its second season on Amazon Prime Video, the NFL convened a meeting with broadcasters, producers and executives to discuss rule changes and areas of emphasis for the upcoming campaign. For its part, Amazon reviewed its performance from last season as it gears up to embark on the inaugural Black Friday game and utilizes its new flex scheduling ability, both of which are affirmations of the league’s belief in the platform. After one of the meetings, an Amazon executive told everyone, “We haven’t done shit. This is a new year,” emblematic of the collective mindset among those involved.

“It felt familiar and familial,” Smith said of the seminars. “It was like a bunch of rookies who were now going into season two or year two. Everybody’s got their feet underneath them, [and] you can just see the confidence; you could see the chemistry [and] the potential for big things in year two now that we aren’t introducing ourselves to one another.”

Success in the industry is often judged by advertising revenue and web traffic, and while Smith understands how fundamental quantitative metrics are, it is not the reason he began working in the field. He is as dedicated to developing relationships with sources and getting to the truth as he has ever been. Standing by these bedrock principles allowed him to be more than just a reporter or a pundit in the background.

“I didn’t want to be limited by the imagination, the vision or lack thereof of somebody in some corner office,” Smith said. “I wanted to be able to not only be in control of my own story, but tell stories the way I wanted to tell them [and] own my… intellectual property as best I could.”

Inflection Point Entertainment has rapidly flourished from an idea to an investment, and its management team is poised to maintain its upward trajectory. Smith desires to be an architect and foster a place through which people can turn the corner and thrive through tergiversation and disquietude. By embracing the process of constructing a viable infrastructure, he is leading a new story where he, munificently, does not view himself as its main character. In this space, however, Smith is able to share his vision for the future to ensure that the company falls outside of the 90% of startup businesses that fail. Instead, he is focused on attaining an opulence of content and chorus of unique voices.

“I want [it] to be something that provides not only entertainment, enlightenment, information or insight to its audiences and its consumers, but I want it to be a platform for people,” Smith elucidated. “I want it to be something that tells stories the way that they need to be told for the people that need to hear them and see them.”

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BSM Writers

Meet the Bettors – Kelly ‘In Vegas’ Stewart

“There’s so much free content out there. Like we have 38, 39 states about to be 40 states coming on board, and the more states that come on board, the more mainstream that gambling has gotten.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Kelly Stewart is the kind of person that the gambling media needs. She has thoughts not just on the players and results, but she thinks hard about the industry and what trends will be the next to rise to the top.

Maybe you first heard her name because of the controversy surrounding her hiring and firing from ESPN. Maybe you’ve never heard her name at all, because you only know her as Kelly in Vegas. 

What I can say for sure is that she isn’t hard to find. Her content is everywhere. She hosts shows for Outkick, the Superbook, and WagerTalk, a brand she also owns a piece of.

Kelly is the latest conversation in our Meet the Bettors series presented by Point to Point Marketing. We talk about the evolution of gambling Twitter, the challenges faced by media companies launching their own sportsbooks, and why customer service is so important for picks services.

Demetri Ravanos: Can you tell me how you learned to make your way, and I might even say conquer, gambling Twitter? I mean, that’s how most people came to know Kelly in Vegas in the first place. 

Kelly Stewart: Oh, boy. I don’t know if I’ve even still been able to navigate gambling Twitter. It is such an awesome place and very unique. I’m going to say that, because I have met some of my best friends in the world on gambling Twitter. But my brain also wants to say the word cesspool because that is also what it is, right? 

DR: Chris Fallica from FOX used that exact same word for it.

KS: There is so much hate and vitriol when in reality we all have the same goal. We’re all laying eleven to win ten. It’s all of us versus the bookmakers. These trolls on the internet, unless they’re bookies, which they could be, should not be mad at me. I’m not battling. You know, my good friend Hakeem has it pinned to the top of his page from years ago. “I’m not here to compete with anyone.”            

Once you kind of realize that the competition is you versus the books, this is a competition within yourself and you’re trying to be a better version of yourself every single day. Then you really start to look at Twitter a lot differently.            

I’ve muted several types of words. I muted tons of people. Unfortunately, I’ve had to block some people, but overall, I would say that is a great place to have some really cool discord, whether you agree on a team or you disagree on a team. I have gotten great information from absolute utter strangers in my DMs. “Hey, just so you know, this team’s flight is four and a half hours late.” I mean, this is years ago, before it became public knowledge like it was with the UConn team plane. It was stuff like “Oh, hey, I happened to watch practice today, and this is what happened to point guard A” or “Guy B got carted off.”          

Being able to get the best of the information is so critical. So, when you have that network and it works to your advantage, it can be a really beautiful thing. 

DR: So, whether it is because Twitter has changed or because the amount of access to gambling has changed, how have you seen gambling Twitter change? 

KS: Well, it’s crazy because when I got on Twitter in 2009, you just said whatever without any repercussions. Clearly, I was one of those idiots. You just got on and you just typed away.           

I could go on and say, “I don’t like Notre Dame for this reason,” and every Notre Dame person would be mad at you and tell you why you’re wrong. Then it became just such a bigger entity.    

You’re absolutely right. I think gambling Twitter, pre-PAPSA, was a little different. It was a lot more of a hateful place. Touts, people that sell picks, were all over it. It was like the tout world with the customers being able to talk back, and then there was a battle between touts. Who’s smarter? Who knows more? Who’s getting better information? Who’s got the best CLV (closing line value)?        

Now, it’s just such a free for all. There’s so much free content out there. Like we have 38, 39 states about to be 40 states coming on board, and the more states that come on board, the more mainstream that gambling has gotten. That’s really what’s happened to Twitter, too. It’s really brought out a younger demographic. I mean, some of these kids that produce content are barely old enough to place a legal bet, right? And they have more followers than I do! It’s because they’re objectively hilarious. They’re objectively more talented from the creative standpoint. No one is watching them because they win or lose. They’re watching them for entertainment.        

You even hear the word, wager-tainment, which my friend Nick Kostos coined. It’s really interesting because people are going to hate you even when you’re winning, right? They’re going to hate you when you’re losing, but they’re going to still hate you when you’re winning. But if they’re entertained, they’re going to stay around. It’s a really unique pair of words that he put together to describe what I think Twitter is really turning into. 

DR: Let’s circle back on something you said, regarding touts because I do want to ask you about that. But first, just sort of give me an idea of where all people can find your content these days because you’re not just at Wager Talk. 

KS: No, I’m actually all over the place. So, unfortunately, with the layoffs that happened over the summer at Barstool Sports, I was one of those and I thought, “You know, it’s end of June. Football season’s right around the corner. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I can’t be worried about scrambling to find another job. I’m just going to freelance.” So that’s what I’ve been doing since then.           

I have talked with several companies about what I want to do, and I have to make some decisions with my agents, but as of right now, I’m all over the place. I revived The Kelly and Murray Podcast because that was something that I really enjoyed doing. I’m doing a little bit more stuff for the Superbook. I’ve been friends with those guys for years, so that was a very natural fit. You already mentioned WagerTalk, which has been such an integral part of my career. I owe those guys the world, and they gave me a little piece of the company, so that didn’t hurt either. Then I even got into doing some more of what I would call daily fantasy stuff, but more from the player prop side, which is kind of in a gray area.  Some people say it’s gambling, some people say it’s not. It’s definitely gambling. Whether that’s Betr or the Prize Pick world.           

I was doing the rough with Betr. Those guys were super fun because they are hyper creative. Like, that entire office is just a creative vibe. Those guys and I parted ways after Super Bowl because, well, there’s not a lot for me to do until football season starts again. Then I partnered up with the Slash Sports guys. So, we’re doing survivor contests. My girlfriend Pam and I did a Masters pool, which was really tough for me because I have been slacking on the golf front, which is why I decided to partner with Pam. She’s such a great golf handicapper.           

Now, I’m just trying to sift through all of it. Where do I want to be? I’m doing some of the stuff with Outkick, which, of course, is now owned by Fox. We’re in some negotiations about what is the bigger picture for me with them, but really, I’ve just been enjoying myself this whole season and saying, which is not something that when you’re under contract, you really ever get to do. You’re pretty much exclusive to that one entity, and that’s okay. That works for some people. I really like being able to kind of set my own schedule. I got to go to Mexico last week for one of my best friend’s birthdays. That would have never happened if I worked in a very rigid, corporate media position. They’d have been like, “you want to go where for March Madness?” I remember telling Clay I was like, “Oh, I’ll be in Mexico next week.” He goes, “Do you want to cancel the show?” I was like, “No, I’m doing it from the beach.” 

DR: As a gambling content creator, do you ever approach making a new video or podcast, whatever it might be, do you ever approach it with the idea of your goal being turning people into gamblers or are you always approaching it with the idea that you are talking to people that are already gambling? I don’t mean for that to sound nefarious, but is there ever stuff that you are putting out there in your mind, at least, part of the goal with it is to show people that might be interested that “hey, this doesn’t have to be as scary as you think it is?”

KS: That’s very interesting. A few years ago, we were filming a series at the Superbook on showing people how to bet. This was way before phones, right? Like we’re talking 2017, 2018. What it was, was “are you scared to walk up to the window? Well, here’s what you do before you walk up to the window.” So, you’re prepared, right? The videos did okay. Then phone apps came out. Now we don’t have to explain that to people because they just start typing on their phone and they figure it out, right?           

My boyfriend’s little sister, we live in Florida. She’s like, “I got a Hard Rock account.” I’m like, “why?” She got it because “I want to put money on the games with my boyfriend, and I want to have fun.” And I’m like, “how much money did you put in there?” She says, $200, and I go, “okay, what are you going to do when you lose that $200? Because it’s going to happen.” And she’s like, “Well, I haven’t thought that far yet.” I said, “Well, you should think that far.” You know, I hope at WagerTalk, what we do is educate people to become better bettors.           

I don’t think I actually have really done much in terms of growing people into gamblers. Maybe that’s something I should look at, because if you have somebody who’s green and doesn’t have any experience and you explain to them in the beginning, you are going to lose, you’re laying eleven dollars to win ten, and here’s the reality versus they’ve already been gambling for 50 years. Those people are like, “quiet lady, I’ve been doing this for a while and don’t need your opinion.” It’s kind of funny, because some of those people, you can’t educate them. There are other people who are willing to learn. I wish I had a better answer for you because I don’t think that I’ve ever gone into it. Like saying, okay, we need to get more gamblers, but definitely some companies I’ve worked for, that’s how they make money. 

DR: So, I want to circle back on the tout discussion because, especially in states where online is legal, getting information as you place your bet is very easy. In a lot of cases, the tout advertising that used to be all over local TV and radio at night has disappeared. The idea of those businesses has become almost like a bad word.           

WagerTalk is a pay-for-picks service. So talk me through how it’s different from the days of calling a 1-900 number and having to wait five minutes to hear a lock of the day. Why does one work in 2024 and the other doesn’t?

KS: We’re definitely a pick service. The bottom line, yes, we have a YouTube channel with 100,000 plus subscribers where we give free information out every single day, but you’ve got to watch the shows to get it for free. You’ve got to follow the Instagram channel. You need to follow some of the guys themselves. They give out tons of free information and that I’m very proud of. As I mentioned, my goal is to make people better bettors and to lose less money. Something that used to get said in the industry a lot when I worked for Don Best in like 2013, 2014 was “People don’t stop buying picks. They stop buying picks from you.” Like, that’s kind of weird but not incorrect.           

I wonder though, as the generations get younger, if people are just going to stop buying picks, because here is what the other psychology of it is: why do people buy picks? Well, because they want to win or they want to think they’re going to win, but if they still lose, they want someone to blame. I find that also to be another interesting side of the psychological aspect of gambling.           

I’d also like to think that people are paying for information that they don’t have.  Let’s use Ralph Michaels, for example. He and I do a weekly show during football season called Bet on It. His segment is called “Trends and Angles,” and I only want actionable information from Ralph. I don’t want him to say, “well, the last ten games, UConn has covered the spread in the NCAA Tournament.” That stuff you can find everywhere. “Yeah. Thanks, Ralph. We know that, right?”  

He’s not going to do that. He’s going to dig deep into a database that goes back into the 90s. And he’s going to say, “here’s how double-digit home dogs have done in college football since 2003.” Like he’s got something to either play on a game or play against a game. When you’re getting his stuff, you’re getting a lot of that actionable information that might not only pertain to that game, but several others throughout the course of the season. There are other guys like Marco D’Angelo who don’t use a lot of power ratings. He’s looking for those sandwich spots. Sure, you can find those sandwich spots yourself, but are you going to scour through, you know, 313 NCAA basketball schedules to find them? It’s what he’s doing before the game tips off in November. He’s thinking, “Okay, here’s a really flat spot. This could be really interesting. Let me write this on my calendar so that it’s here.”           

We’ve got guys that are, you know, particularly in NBA circles, they get great inside information. A few weeks ago, I never knew this. I should have. It made sense as soon as one of our guys said it. Of course, the Pacers bus to Chicago, why the heck would they fly to Chicago, right? I never really thought about that. Well, their bus broke down. They had a flat tire. It took four hours. They walk into the gym and say screw it; we’re not doing shootaround. We’ll see you at game time. Guess what. They got the doors blown off, okay. They just were pissed off and annoyed. Those types of things, you’re not going to get all the time and those are the types of things, I think, that do still provide a value, but I am genuinely curious to see where the industry is going.           

We see a lot of different sites, they provide different analytics, whether it’s KenPom or Bart Torvic for college basketball or you hear from the shot selection guys. You have to kind of be able to dissect your information. I like to think that that’s what our handicappers at WagerTalk do for those guys that have full time jobs that can’t do this full time, because all of that data collection really is a full-time job. They’re going to give you your information and you can pick and choose. “Do I want to play all their stuff? Do I only agree with them here? Do I only agree with them there?”           

We have a really great customer service team and I give them tons of kudos. We always like to take care of people, and if there’s somebody who’s unhappy, we always are, like, “Here you go. Here’s a refund or you can join up with another guy.”           

So, I like to think that we are the, least tout-y of the touts, right? When it comes to a gambling scale, we only allow guys to do 1% to 5% of your bankroll. You should never bet more than 5% of your bankroll. We don’t allow them to have more than four five-percenters a month, because that would be 20% of your bankroll. There are limitations in place.            

I don’t sell picks. Have I sold picks? Yeah, absolutely. Have I thought about selling picks after the Action documentary? I definitely did. Plenty of guys made a lot of money selling picks, but I said, “No, I’m having a really good time. I’ve got plenty of media gigs where I give these all out for free.” 

DR: Because of the way you have been in the media, you have a little more freedom than your typical over-the-air network has had in terms of the way you cover sports and look at gambling angles. So, Fox started out covering betting, then launched its own book. Barstool starts out talking about betting, launches its own book. Now they’re both out just as ESPN has launched its own proprietary book. What are some of those traps or obstacles that come with trying to be both the media and the book that maybe even the companies just can’t avoid, because of how these business and the laws are set up?

KS: That’s really interesting. I’m not actually even sure what happened with Fox Bet, but I can tell exactly what happened to Barstool. They have been called the pirate ship for a reason. They are unapologetically, just completely out of their minds and say whatever they want with almost zero repercussions. Well guess what? Gaming is going to deal with 40 different states that are going to have something different to say about it. As somebody who grew up in the Nevada gaming world, Nevada has its own sets of rules and regulations.           

I sat in on three different Massachusetts gaming meetings, and I was appalled by some of the ideas and some of the things that these people who have no idea about gambling outside of a casino in regard to sports betting are upset about a can’t-lose parlay with Big Cat, but in the same breath, now we have Rece Davis saying the same thing on ESPN. That’s why I called a spade a spade. I know a lot of people were like, oh, you’re being ridiculous. I said, “When it comes to the law, it has to apply to everyone. And if it’s got to apply to some, it’s got to apply to all.”           

That’s literally what I think happened with Penn. They said, “Oh, shit. We maybe should have looked into this company a little bit more.”           

I think maybe they thought Dave was just going to ride out his contract and ride off into the sunset. I remember there were so many times with Penn where I’m like, “hey, guys, if you want me to go do this event, if you guys want me to do this, you guys want me to do that” and Dave’s like, “you’re not using my talent to do X, Y, and Z. This is what we agreed to.” And I’m like, “oh, okay, I volunteered, but if you don’t want me to do that, okay.”           

I’m guessing something similar happened at Fox, right? They had the show, they were in L.A., they, you know, had Todd they had Clay, they had Sal, and they were the first ones to launch. I did Fox in the Westgate Superbook in 2014, and it was a really fun show.  I’m guessing that it doesn’t always equate to players though, so it didn’t always equate to hard dollars. When you’re spending millions upon millions of dollars to acquire customers – only the certain kind of customers though. Don’t forget, they don’t want the sharp customers. It’s tough to do.           

WagerTalk is based out of Michigan. If there’s something that I want to bet, I can just make a call like, “hey, you have an MGM account and like, can you beat this?” It takes like five seconds because they have everything at their disposal versus in Nevada, which doesn’t allow DraftKings or FanDuel and probably will never. Then you’ve got Massachusetts that seems to be the strictest. New Jersey still can’t bet on college games. There are a couple other states that are now going “we may backtrack and rewrite the law and not allow you to bet on college games.” So, there’s a lot of hoops. There’s a lot of things to navigate, especially in multi-state situations. And I think that’s ultimately that’s what’s going to be the hardest for some of these operators, because you may be able to offer something in one state but not in another, and then you’re going to piss people off. It’s a muddy situation to try to navigate. 

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Matt Jones Gave a Lesson in Audience Engagement During Coverage of Coaching Change

“I can’t sleep, not gonna lie. The next 48 hours are gonna be wild.”

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Matt Jones
Courtesy: Netflix

Matt Jones, founder of Kentucky Sports Radio, put on a clinic this past week on how to cover a sports story and keep your fans engaged. If you wanted the latest information on what was happening with Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari resigning, Kentucky’s replacement search and the eventual hiring of Mark Pope, you didn’t have to go much further than Matt’s X account, @KySportsRadio.

While others may have been first to report certain parts of the story, Matt was on top of it all, and if there was new news, Matt would share it. Then he would generally give an opinion or two, some information or background and when necessary, special content to address a topic as a group.

I am not a Kentucky or Arkansas fan, but I am a fan of John Calipari. I like the “characters” in the sports world, and he is certainly one of them. In my very first management job, I was hired as the Program Director for WHBQ in Memphis. Cal was coaching the Memphis Tigers and I was introduced to him at a Memphis Grizzlies game. I spent about 20 minutes with him, and you would have thought I was a major recruit he was after (I’m 5-7, over 200 pounds so it wasn’t that he was confused). Turns out he had been trying to get some of his assistants a paid radio gig and although it didn’t end up going anywhere, that 20 minutes made me a fan.

So, I had some interest in the story, and I happened upon Matt’s first post which came at 8:42 p.m. on Sunday April 7:

A couple of minutes later Matt posted that nobody on the Kentucky side was confirming anything. A few hours later he posted more from the reporting coming out of Arkansas and then he announced their radio show the next day with Ryan Lemond and Billy Rutledge would go an extra hour.

A few minutes later he posts, “Calipari has informed Kentucky that he is negotiating with Arkansas, according to Matt Norlander.” That post received just under 700,000 views and was shared almost 800 times. At 9:43 p.m., one hour and one minute after posting about the news for the first time, Jones writes, “Twitter space in 10 minutes.”

I can count on one hand how many Twitter Spaces I have taken part in, but I clicked on it more to see how many others were on it. When I joined there were 14,000 people tuned in and Matt would later post they had 19,000 tuned in at once, on Twitter Spaces, on a Sunday night at 10:15 p.m.

Later, Jones would post that he thinks the show the next day “might be the biggest show we have ever done.” At almost midnight he wrote, “I can’t sleep, not gonna lie. The next 48 hours are gonna be wild.”

And he wasn’t kidding. The search for the new coach, the recruits, the portal, the lists of replacement names, the videos from Calipari and his wife, the video of Cal pushing the stroller and walking the dog, the prospective new coaches dropping out (Scott Drew stayed in Waco, Texas for goodness sakes!), the shock of Mark Pope’s name rising to the top and then the eventual hiring of Mark Pope, the press conferences. Holy moly.

And while all of this was going on, Matt Jones was posting and talking about his opinions, hunting for information, writing blog posts, doing interviews, responding to the Kentucky fans, creating extra audio content and keeping everyone in the loop on all of the fallout and aftermath.

I was exhausted keeping up with it, I can’t imagine how Matt must feel.

And what it made me think of is this; if you are a manager of sports media talent, how many of your people would have put in the effort Matt Jones put in and continues to put in on this story?

Matt kept his audience informed, gave them plenty to think about and continuously provided content and context. He brought his audience behind the curtains when he could, and he tried to answer legitimate questions that came up. He was attacked, at one point I believe being blamed for anything bad that has ever happened to Kentucky basketball.

And in the end, when a lot of fans, Matt included, were a bit disappointed when they found out Mark Pope was the guy, they worked through it together. Matt flat out said he was not happy with the hire at first, but now they had only one choice as a fan base and that was to support the decision and the new coach. Pope’s press conference was a sold-out event at Rupp Arena.

Programmers and talent, I encourage you to look back at Matt Jones’ X account timeline from April 7 to today. It’s a blueprint for how to cover a major story and bring your audience along for the ride.

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The Best Thing I Heard Recently

I really enjoyed the conversation Baltimore’s The Big Bad Morning Show had last week talking about the streaming situation. No. 1 prospect Jackson Holliday was set to make his home debut and the game was one which would be streaming only on Apple TV+.

Rob Long, Ed Norris and Jeremy Conn had an adult conversation about the fact that if you were an Orioles fan without Apple TV+ this one would sting. While they noted it is such a small percentage of baseball games, versus football games, that can end up streaming only, this one game would be one a lot of Orioles fans would want to see.

As they talked through it, they noted it is a younger audience which baseball is trying to target, and you are not going to reach that group on linear television. So, while it may stink for fans for that one game or the few the Orioles might have which are streaming only, the bottom line is this is the direction things are going and you need to get used to it.

As Conn said, “Either get in line or get left behind.”

You can listen to the segment in the last hour of the show by clicking here.

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In Case You Missed It

Sean McManus retired this week from CBS Sports and David Berson took over as the president and chief executive officer. Before he stepped away our Derek Futterman had the chance to talk with him and look back on some highlights of his career, this year’s Super Bowl and a look at what Berson will inherit and how things look for the future.

About the success of this year’s Super Bowl, McManus told Derek, “We far exceeded our sales expectations and budgets. The number that’s been written is $700 million, and we exceeded that – obviously the overtime helped – but I think from the time we came on the air at 11:30 with the Nickelodeon Slimetime show until we went off the air at approximately 10:30, it was an unqualified success in every way. The most-watched television program ever; maybe the best Super Bowl ever in terms of the quality.”

You can read Derek’s feature on Sean McManus by clicking here.

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Rich Eisen is the Top Pick as NFL Draft Host

“If you’re gonna literally sit there and want to spend an hour or two, I got to make sure it’s entertaining, you’re engaged, but also informed and not gonna hit the button.”

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Logo for the 2024 NFL Draft and a photo of Rich Eisen

We’re still a week away from the NFL Draft in Detroit. Who among us hasn’t attempted a few mock drafts through one of the many popular “draft simulators” out there? I know I have. Talk about this year’s selections seem to have started earlier than even last year. Coverage of prospects’ “pro days” have become commonplace on NFL Network and streaming platforms. So much attention paid to every little detail about players.

Draft coverage is big business for the folks at ABC/ESPN and the NFL Network. Both networks drum up the excitement of what may or may not happen for months leading up to the big night. They debut new and interesting things, like this year, Nick Saban joins the ESPN crew for analysis. The attention is massive as more and more fans dig deeper into their own team’s needs and possibilities. Thanks to all the information online, the average fan, can feel as educated as the bosses in the NFL. Ok, maybe that’s a stretch, but you know what I mean.

The coverage is wall-to-wall, minute-to-minute, pick-by-pick. It’s crazy how much depth there is to the telecasts, with backstories and packages on interesting players. The analyzation is so crazy these days, some of the information has nothing to do with the way a player may or may not perform if drafted. The stories are fine, but the over analyzation can be a bit much. For example, here in Chicago, we’ve heard the pontificators break down every word uttered by Caleb Williams, to see if he really wants to be the next Chicago Bears quarterback. It’s over the top.  

There’s only so much ‘predicting’ and ‘disappointment’ by the ‘experts’ on each and every pick in the draft. Especially on day two and day three. It’s nauseating at times. Listening to the criticism every single pick because it doesn’t match their “board” can be entertaining to some, but really annoying to others. As hard as it is to believe for some fan bases, the teams know their needs and what direction they may end up going a lot better than some of these analysts.

The NFL Draft is a lot to consume. Some viewers will watch, because they are such big NFL fans, they want it all. Others will watch the first round to be elated or disappointed at their team’s pick. More probably duck in and duck out of the coverage and take in as much as they can until it reaches the point of oversaturation. To me the glue that keeps a network’s coverage together is the host. A person that talks to you and not at you. The person sitting in that ‘anchor’ chair, had better be prepared and have a good disposition and a sense of humor.

If I had the #1 pick in the NFL Draft Host draft, I wouldn’t hesitate to take Rich Eisen. He is my favorite. Eisen has the perfect demeanor to host this marathon of an event. He figures out a way to make it entertaining without going over the top. After 20 years at the NFL Network, he has the hosting thing figured out.

Before last year’s draft, Eisen appeared on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Jimmy Traina. The two discussed the hosts’ job when it comes to the NFL Draft. Eisen was honest and candid.

“If you’re gonna literally sit there and want to spend an hour or two, I got to make sure it’s entertaining, you’re engaged, but also informed and not gonna hit the button,” Eisen said.

Bingo. That’s the key. A host that understands not only what HIS role is, but also has a respect for the viewer. He knows that there is a lot coming at fans in the course of the long broadcast.

“My job is to if you are actually going to sit down and watch a four-to-five-hour event, I need to make it something that you want to hang and watch,” Eisen told SI. “If there’s too much of me in it, if I’m in your face, if I make everything a joke, if I make everything about me, you’re gonna turn off. And that’s the last thing I want to do. For lack of a better phrase and I’ll say it anyway, I just want it to be a ‘douche-free environment’. That’s it. That’s literally my radar screen the entire time when I weave in what I need to weave in.”

That’s an interesting way to look at it, but he’s right. Who wants to watch The Rich Eisen Show, featuring the NFL Draft? Nothing is cut and dry when it comes to the draft. Trades, reaches and head scratchers are commonplace, but you don’t know when they are going to happen. Eisen is one of the more prepared hosts out there and that certainly helps when the draft gives you a squib kick that’s bouncing all over the place.

To take the ‘if there’s too much of me’ portion of his answer above, Eisen uses his cast extremely well.  Eisen is the host, who has some talented analysts surrounding him, and he’s going to let them do what they do. The best hosts realize when it’s time to take a backseat to those more in the know. That’s why they are there right?

It’s not like Eisen doesn’t have opinions about the NFL and the draft. He recently said this on The Rich Eisen Show.

“J.J. McCarthy, right now is rising up draft stock conversations. He’s the odds-on favorite to be the 2nd quarterback mentioned now in the state of Michigan when the draft night hits.”

Shocking revelation, since Eisen doesn’t hide his Michigan allegiances. But the point I make is, there’s a time and place to make your thoughts known. That’s the reason people listen to and watch his show. That’s not why they tune into the NFL Draft, viewers want him to guide them through the experience and that’s what Eisen does, very well.

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