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Pat Hughes Knows the Feeling of Game 7

“I was very pleased the year before to be inducted into the Cubs Hall of Fame – that was a great thrill – but the capper was Cooperstown.”

Derek Futterman

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Pat Hughes
Courtesy: Jon Greenberg, The Athletic

On a cold November night in Cleveland, a packed house of 38,104 spectators looked on as the grounds crew rushed to pull the tarp over the diamond at Progressive Field. While the rain delay turned out to be just 17 minutes, it came at a pivotal moment in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Cleveland had not won the World Series in 84 years, while the Chicago Cubs had a longer streak at 108 years. Chicago Cubs radio play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes felt the same tension and excitement as the fans, but in being tasked with delivering the action to listeners, he could not stay silent.

If he decided to forgo his announcing responsibilities, the consumers would not know what was happening. As an innumerable number of listeners tuned in, he set the scene as the game approached extra innings. Once the Cubs took the lead in the top half of the 10th frame, the feasibility of a world championship became more palpable, and Hughes reminded himself to remain calm and keep his intonation and diction under control.

With the tying run on first base, Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery delivered an 0-1 breaking ball that was chopped on the ground to third baseman Kris Bryant. As he scooped the roller and fired the ball to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to make the final out, Cubs fans and the city of Chicago breezed into a euphoric state. Once Hughes saw the umpire signal an out, he extemporaneously dispatched a message of a century and change in the making – the Cubs, being declared World Series champions.

“The Cubs come pouring out of the dugout, jumping up and down like a bunch of delirious 10-year-olds,” Hughes exclaimed. “The Cubs have done it!”

Hughes had been with the Cubs for two decades and waiting for that moment, something many of his predecessors in the role had never been afforded a chance to see. At the same time, he had to be cognizant to keep his call within a short window because of something he discovered the morning of the game.

While working out at a local gym, Hughes received a text message from Audacy executive and Chicago Cubs radio executive producer Mitch Rosen to immediately call him to discuss an urgent matter. Once they connected, Rosen informed Hughes that State Farm Insurance had made the network a lucrative offer to interpolate an advertising spot within 30 seconds of the final out.

“Mitch said, ‘Pat, are you okay with that?,’” Hughes recalled. “I said, ‘Well, do you have a choice? I know you want the sponsorship dollars, so yeah, I can do that.’ So whatever I said, I had to be done and leave about two to three seconds of dead air before I read the commercial.”

As Hughes drives to the ballpark through the neighborhoods surrounding “Wrigleyville,” he frequently observes construction workers on the side of the road. Equipped with jackhammers ramming into concrete and battling the ornery, pugnacious trajectory of dust and particles, they engage in strenuous physical labor to earn their keep. Hughes knows that play-by-play announcing is not easy and has its own challenges, but still considers himself extremely fortunate and is humbled by his position.

“Being a baseball announcer for a great American franchise like the Chicago Cubs – are you kidding me?,” Hughes said. “I get up for every single game.”

Hughes immersed himself in the idiosyncrasies of the English language as the son of two educators, both of whom stressed the importance of literacy through reading. Today, reading is an essential part of his game preparation, extrapolating storylines, correlations and new ways to compose phraseology within the broadcast. He does this each morning for no less than one hour, sipping coffee as he completes this part of his homework assignment.

Akin to many broadcasters, Hughes originally desired to be a professional athlete. One year of occupying the bench on the San Jose State University basketball team confirmed to him that he was not skilled enough. Play-by-play announcing, he perceived, was the next best thing, compelling him to join the student-run radio station – KSJS – to try and attain opportunities. Luckily for Hughes, his older brother was working as its sports director and helped immerse him in football broadcasts as a sideline reporter.

“I was aggressive and I probably was not very good,” Hughes remembered. “I certainly wasn’t as good as I thought it was, but that was my start.”

Throughout his college years, Hughes actively sought chances to hone his craft and called football, baseball, and basketball games. On the side, he would file sports reports, host interview shows, and harshly critique himself after reviewing recordings of his work. By the time he graduated, Hughes estimates he called nearly 200 play-by-play events, and his hard work earned him a fortuitous break before he accepted his diploma.

The San Jose Missions, former Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, fired their play-by-play announcer after the first month of the 1978 season, which would turn out to be their last in the locale. Needing to expediently bring someone new on board, the team publicized the job search, and Hughes made sure to apply.

Even though he was a senior in college, his skillset and acumen ended up being sufficient enough for him to land the job. As he was earning his final credits, Hughes suddenly found himself one step away from making it to the major leagues and knew just how lucky he had been. Yet he positioned himself to be in line for these types of situations and maximized the opportunity by compiling calls for a new demo reel.

The portfolio of work, conspicuous attention to detail, and passion imbued therein landed him a role with a local sports channel where he called a wide range of different offerings. For three to four nights every week, Hughes would bring viewers action from a plethora of different events, including gymnastics, bowling, and sumo wrestling.

While he was with the station, Hughes had met John Petri, an employee who left shortly thereafter to work on a new media venture in Columbus, Ohio. Warner-Amex QUBE, an interactive and immersive television viewing experience, revolutionized the industry and granted people the ability to communicate with their entertainment systems. With up to 30 channels, including pay-per-view events and other services, the project introduced technology that advanced future developments in television.

Looking for a sports commentator, the outlet hired Hughes, who called high school and collegiate football and basketball games each week. The station also covered approximately 10 baseball games for the Columbus Clippers, the then-Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, granting him additional repetitions in that setting.

“I put together an audition tape from that work,” Hughes said, “and that led directly to me going to the big leagues in 1983 with the Minnesota Twins.”

In being hired by the Twins at the age of 27, Hughes was one of the youngest play-by-play announcers in all of the major leagues. Working alongside Dick Bremer, who still serves as the voice of the Twins today, the duo called games on Spectrum Sports and KMSP-TV in what turned out to be a disappointing 92-loss season for the team.

While the Twins went on to win the World Series four years later in a seven-game battle against the St. Louis Cardinals, Hughes had already departed Minneapolis, Minn. to take a radio job with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Deviating from the common path many broadcasters take to try to succeed in television, Hughes knew that his broadcasting style and the way he communicated with the audience was most conducive for the aural medium. In reviewing the sports media landscape at the time, he felt that radio jobs were more stable, leading him to ink a two-year contract with the Brewers that paid him better money.

Inspired by the voices of his childhood including Russ Hodges, Lon Simmons, and Bill King, along with other voices of the game such as Ernie Harwell and Harry Caray, he sought to forge a strong affinity with his audience. He saw the power of the medium firsthand in working alongside Bob Uecker, who has his name in the rafters at American Family Field and continues to call games for “The Crew.”

“I think radio sells the game of baseball better because you are there every day and you become part of the family,” Hughes said. “I’m not bragging or anything, but people invite me to graduations and bar mitzvahs, and they invite me to birthdays and special events in their family. I don’t know if TV guys get invited too, but I sure do, and it’s because of that intimate feeling that they have with the radio guys.”

Hughes expounds on his thinking by outlining a typical ninth-inning scenario – the bases loaded with one out. As the hitter grinds through a consequential at-bat, fouling off pitches to stay alive, a television announcer, he affirms, says, “Another foul.”

Conversely, radio announcers are filling a blank canvas with the soundscape of the crowd in the perimeter, splattering the mural with parlance evoking both timbre and ambience. In describing an invigorating and unnerving scene, Hughes is able to capture the scope of the occurrence and subsequently let it guide him to the finish line.

“‘Here’s the windup, and another foul. It remains 2-2. The drama continues to build; the fans turning inside-out in their seats,’ or whatever it is you say,” Hughes said as he narrated a hypothetical call. “But you’ve got a steady – like a companionship dialogue going with your listening audience that the television guys do not.”

Shortly after the ratification of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated facets of the business that allowed entities to compete against one another, Hughes prepared to broadcast his first game on WGN Radio with the Chicago Cubs. The city has been delineated as the No. 3 market in the United States since Nielsen began tracking designated market areas (DMAs) and garners almost 3% of the total American marketplace share. Before his first game on the job, radio color commentator and Hall-of-Fame third baseman Ron Santo called Hughes to alleviate his angst and express confidence in the broadcast.

“He says, ‘I know you’re nervous. Don’t be –you’re going to be fine. You do your job; I’ll do the color. We’re going to laugh; we’re going to have fun [and] the audience is going to love it,’” Hughes remembers Santo telling him. “As he is saying that, I can actually feel the tension draining out of my body. It sounds corny, but it’s true. I hung up the phone and I was ready to go to work the next day on Cubs radio, and we clicked immediately.”

The contrasting lives of Hughes and Santo made for an informative and entertaining on-air product referred to as the “Pat and Ron Show” over the ensuing 15 years. The duo dominated in the ratings and presented broadcasts of games filled with undisputable chemistry and discussion about the team. At the same time, Hughes was working with another venerable analyst who made the broadcasts enjoyable and distinguished them from other programming.

Hughes had been the announcer for Marquette University basketball games since 1988, but he did not have Hall-of-Fame basketball coach Al McGuire joining him until the 1996 campaign. McGuire had served as head coach of Marquette for 13 years and led the team to an NCAA championship in his final year with the team. One day after having done a game from historic Freedom Hall in Louisville, Hughes told McGuire that they would get a cab to go to the airport and fly home. While they needed to catch flights back to Chicago and Milwaukee, respectively, McGuire had other plans in mind.

“He says, ‘Pat, we don’t need a cab. We’re going to hitchhike – somebody’s going to recognize me; they’ll pull over; they’ll give us a ride and we’ll save the cab cash,’” Hughes remembered McGuire explaining. “I said, ‘Okay Al, but I’ve got to say I’ve never hitchhiked.’ He says, ‘Well listen, it’s real complicated. You stick out your thumb and start shaking.’”

On a cold winter day in Louisville, Hughes and McGuire hitchhiked on the side of the road, and just as McGuire had hypothesized, he was quickly recognized by a driver. Agreeing to take them to the airport, McGuire regaled the driver and his passengers with stories about coaching and basketball in general for the entirety of the journey.

By the time they reached the airport, Hughes was stunned at what had just happened, and he asked his partner if he would turn in what it would have cost to reach the airport on his expenses. “No Pat, I don’t cheat the small stuff – I’ve got enough big scams going,” McGuire replied. The duo called an estimated 50 ballgames together as part of a local television package, and Hughes does not remember having a single bad moment with him.

“He was so much fun, so knowledgeable, so crazy and so Irish,” Hughes said of McGuire. “I’m Irish myself, and we had many, many laughs and shared many beers and had so much fun.”

Today, Hughes works on the Cubs broadcasts with color commentator Ron Coomer and host Zach Zaidman, both of whom he considers to be superb at their craft. For each broadcast, Hughes has the goal of being accurate, prepared and detailed in his descriptions. Additionally, he does not try to suggest to others how to do their job or take “cheap shots” at anyone involved. While he prefers the Cubs to always be winning and competitive, he seeks to be objective and knows everyone around him shares the same goal.

“We always laugh,” Hughes expressed. “I think that’s important because going back to when I was 10 years old, I think that was something I just enjoyed. Being at the ballpark, playing ball and laughing. Having fun – batting practice was fun; infield practice was fun; winning was fun, always. I played to win, but I enjoyed it.”

Baseball is a game filled with numbers that penetrate beyond the basic hitting and pitching statistics. The advent of sabermetrics and technological evolutions have refined methodologies to better project individual and team performance with a strong correlation coefficient. Broadcasts around the league reacted by adopting differentiating approaches as to how often these metrics are integrated into the call.

While Hughes understands many of the numbers, he knows that various members of the listening audience are casual fans who do not have time or interest to delve into the specifics of how they are calculated. As a result, it is difficult to contextualize and have an understanding of the science behind these data. Rather than inculcating these phenomena by prosody, he simplifies and renders qualitative figures naturally into the flow of a game.

“It makes me angry almost when I hear some of these announcers throw out these WAR statistics or OPS statistics,” Hughes conveyed. “I feel like saying, ‘What are you trying to do? Are you trying to show us how smart you are or are you trying to actually educate and entertain the audience, which is really what your job is, so which one are you doing?’”

For the first time in his broadcast career, Hughes called the games to the cadence of a pitch clock, part of rules adopted by Major League Baseball to hasten the pace of play and augment offensive output. These rules helped catalyze a 9.6% rise in attendance and 24-minute decline in game time year-over-year, a triumph for a sport balancing tradition and innovation while fighting irrelevancy. Hughes noticed that the game at a more swift pace, and around the league at large, ballparks were more full in the latter innings than in previous years.

The challenging part of the job comes through travel and being away from family for nearly 100 days per year, something he found especially strenuous as his kids were growing up. Constant bus rides, flights, and hotel stays can be taxing over the course of a 162-game season, but Hughes has always tried to keep it all in perspective and remember just how felicitous his situation is.

“Easy doesn’t even enter into the equation – it’s not supposed to – but I’ve learned how to handle it, I think, to the best of my ability, and I like the product that we turn out every day,” Hughes said. “We have fun; we try to get the proper information disseminated to the audience.”

While Hughes just completed his 40th season working in Major League Baseball, he has been a fan of the sport for as long as he can remember. The innate love of the game and appreciation for its past, present and future galvanizes him to continue working, and while other jobs have appealed to him in the past, he does not wish to go anywhere else in his career. Hughes has found a home at the corner of Addison and Clark and is genuinely fond of his profession.

“I have no interest in being a voice for any other team at this stage,” Hughes said. “I don’t think that’s even possible, so I have the job that I want.”

Over the past season, Hughes made road trips to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles; Citi Field in New York City; and Fenway Park in Boston in addition to several other venues to document Cubs baseball. He had one additional stop on his schedule this year when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum informed him that he had been named the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award.

The prestigious honor is bestowed on a broadcaster who has made major contributions to the sport, and when Hughes found out he had won, he was in a state of disbelief. Within 30 seconds of the announcement, he saw a text message from Bob Costas, who had won the award himself back in 2018. Moreover, he received congratulations from his broadcast partners and industry executives, many of whom were in his living room with him as he learned of the news.

Hughes accepted the award in a ceremony during Hall of Fame Weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he was joined by his broadcast partners, friends and family. Even after being in the booth for Game 7 of the World Series and punctuating a final call fans had waited over a century to hear, he still felt nerves in making the speech. Before arriving, he deliberated whether or not he wanted to memorize the address but decided against it to ensure he would be prepared and focused in the 15 minutes he was allocated.

“It was the best thing that can ever happen to a baseball announcer; there’s nothing even close,” Hughes said. “I was very pleased the year before to be inducted into the Cubs Hall of Fame – that was a great thrill – but the capper was Cooperstown.”

Even though his voice was already etched in posterity, Hughes can now officially say that he is a part of baseball immortality. Making it to Cooperstown, however, does not mean he has reached the conclusion of his career. Instead, he wants to stay engaged in the sport and hopefully return behind the microphone for another seventh game of the World Series.

“I’ve been the voice of the Cubs now for 28 years,” Hughes said, “and when a franchise that special puts you in charge, I still consider it an awesome responsibility day in and day out.”

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Sports Radio Advertising is a Great Alternative to Expensive Team Sponsorships

There are plenty of creative ways to tie into sports radio stations, where the fans listen daily, and the investment is often much less than team sponsorships.

Jeff Caves

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Photo of Citi Field in New York
Photo Credit: Stadium Sponsorship

Not everyone can afford to sponsor a local NFL or college football team. However, there are plenty of creative ways to tie into sports radio stations, where the fans listen daily, and the investment is often much less than team sponsorships. Here are some ideas:

Pitchmen for Hire: Leverage Local Personalities

Thousands of listeners tune in to hear local sports personalities discuss their favorite teams. Hiring these “football expert” personalities to represent your business can significantly boost your ad response. Their endorsement can help you rise above the fray and double your ad response.

Get More Bang for Your Buck: Stand Out

Tie into station activities that make your brand stand out. Sponsor the local team poll on the station’s website, host a remote broadcast the day before a big game, or sponsor a charity promotion and donate to the cause. Breaking through the clutter of commercial breaks requires creativity and involvement in station activities.

Tie into Local Teams Without Sponsoring Them

You don’t have to sponsor the local team to run a promotion about them. Consider running ads offering discounts if the team wins and even more significant discounts if they lose. Your ad rep can help you phrase these promotions to avoid legal issues. True fans listen to sports radio weekly for team-related content, so tap into that passion.

Become a Title Sponsor

Be the title sponsor for interview segments with local players. If the station is conducting regular player interviews, sponsor these segments. If shows don’t run many interviews, consider sponsoring newscasts that feature excerpts from these interviews.

Hire Retired Fan Favorites

Retired players beloved by fans can be an excellent asset for your business. They are often less expensive than current stars but still hold significant appeal. Think of players like Mike Alstott, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, or Nate Newton. These personalities can do spots or appear at your location, adding a memorable touch to your advertising efforts.

Adopt a ‘Mattress Mack’ Strategy

Make an offer based on the local team’s success, like Gallery Furniture in Houston‘s Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale. In 2022, he offered customers double their money back if the Astros won the World Series. Such promotions generate significant publicity and engage the local community, even if the offer is temporary.

Sponsoring a local NFL or major college football team may be out of reach for many clients. Still, numerous creative strategies exist to maximize a sports radio advertising investment. By leveraging local personalities, participating in station activities, and creatively tying your promotions to local sports teams, you can effectively break through the clutter and make a lasting impression on listeners. Engaging fans with innovative offers and memorable endorsements enhances your brand’s visibility and builds a loyal customer base.

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Caitlin Clark Media Coverage is Good for Everybody in the WNBA

By tuning in to see what Clark does, viewers are also noticing the many other great WNBA players.

John Molori

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Screengrab from ESPN's Get Up covering Caitlin Clark
Screengrab: ESPN Get Up

It’s time to talk about Caitlin Clark. The rookie guard for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever has become a legit phenomenon in the media. She has singlehandedly, and I repeat, singlehandedly put the focus on a league that has been largely ignored by mainstream sports talk shows for a quarter century.

Nobody wants to admit that one person can change a sport or a league. It is viewed as a slight to people who came before that special athlete and that special athlete’s contemporaries, but it has happened on numerous occasions, and we’ll get to that.

From a marketing and media standpoint, Caitlin Clark is a human tidal wave of interest, excitement, and anticipation. She quite literally brought tens of millions of eyes to the 2024 Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, and deservedly so, she will most likely earn tens of millions of endorsement dollars from a variety of corporations and their products. She has inspired congratulations and controversy, especially with her recent exclusion from the USA Basketball Women’s National team.

The reaction to Clark’s success and attention from some members of the media and WNBA players has been shocking. Tremendous commentators such as Andraya Carter, Chiney Ogwumike, and Rebecca Lobo have, at times, come off as apologists for WNBA players who are just plain jealous of Clark’s unprecedented popularity.

As ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has explained eloquently, these critics are missing the point from a marketing and economic perspective. Clark has not only helped herself with her play, but has also brought attention and focus to women’s hoops as a whole.

By tuning in to see what Clark does, viewers are also noticing the many other great WNBA players. Clark is that rare breed of athlete who is truly changing the game, making it better and more profitable not only for herself, but for everyone involved at all levels.

On recent editions of ESPN’s First Take, Smith has gone toe to toe with Carter, Ogwumike, and Monica McNutt on the Caitlin Clark issue. The fascinating exchange between Smith and McNutt on the June 3 edition was a watershed moment in recent sports television.

Smith, McNutt, and host Molly Qerim were discussing the hard foul/shove that Chicago’s Chennedy Carter laid on Clark in a WNBA game. The course of the discussion moved toward the rise in WNBA ratings mainly because of Clark’s presence in the league.

The debate eventually came down to a back-and-forth between Smith and McNutt. Smith reiterated his longtime dedication to the WNBA and women’s sports in general. In response, McNutt said that with Smith’s platform, he could’ve been talking as much about the WNBA three years ago, long before Clark’s debut.

Smith was visibly angered and disappointed by McNutt’s comments. On The Stephen A. Smith Show podcast that same day, he defended himself and his show, saying that First Take has been at the forefront of promoting gender, race, age, and all forms of equality and respect.

Smith is 100% correct. This chap has been a champion of women, minorities, and even older media personalities, such as Christopher Russo, whom he has brought to a whole new audience on First Take. Stephen A. Smith is the Arsenio Hall and David Letterman of sports talk. When the syndicated Arsenio Hall Show hit the airwaves in 1989, he was the first late night host to bring hip-hop artists to center stage on a regular basis.

Similarly, Letterman’s “Late Night” on NBC showcased new talent in comedy and music, while bringing irreverence and originality to the tired old talk show format. Smith has done the same. He has made stars out of Ryan Clark, Mina Kimes, Marcus Spears, Kimberley Martin, and many others. He has also raised the profile of already renowned commentators such as Shannon Sharpe, Qerim, and the aforementioned Russo.

Smith has been a stalwart of equity, but that’s not what McNutt was saying. She was saying that with his audience, Smith could’ve talked about the WNBA thereby creating popularity and exposure for the league long before now.

McNutt’s jarring comment put Smith in a humbled position and really hit at his very core, but he took his game to a whole new level the very next day. McNutt was back on First Take, which right there shows the utter gumption that Smith possesses. He could’ve easily let things settle down a bit before he brought McNutt back on the show, but he didn’t. That’s classic Smith – encouraging discourse and disagreement.

When you get to the level of a Stephen A. Smith, you welcome a debating challenge. The last guests you want are sycophantic suck-ups who cowardly agree, no matter what the subject. Smith’s high point on the June 4 episode was when he said in a loud voice, “Caitlin Clark is white.”

He acknowledged the fact that it makes a difference. He also stated that black players who have been just as talented as Clark have not been given their rightful attention – also true. Regarding the perceived negative treatment of Clark by some WNBA players, Smith made it clear that they should not go easy on Clark on the court, but their mindsets need to recognize that Clark is benefitting the WNBA and putting dollars in their collective pockets.

Whether you agree with Smith or not, the fact is that this is what special players like Caitlin Clark do. They raise the level of discussion and simultaneously raise the profile of their respective sports. The WNBA is now in the A-block on highly rated shows like First Take and ESPN’s Get Up.

The league and its players are on the front burner of discussion for Smith, Nick Wright, Colin Cowherd and many other top-tier, multimedia sports debaters. This fact was straight up impossible one year ago. This is what Caitlin Clark has done.

Clark’s impact and stamp on women’s basketball is not unique. There are precedents where one person has made such a difference.

Larry Bird looked different, played different, restored a dead Celtics franchise, and made his mark in a sport that was on life support in terms of media coverage and fan interest. Bird and Magic Johnson rescued the league – a black man on the west coast and a white man on the east coast, two wunderkinds who changed the NBA forever. Caitlin Clark is Larry Bird.

Tiger Woods burst onto the PGA TOUR and won the Masters in 1997, embarking on a run that would see him change the game of golf from a competitive, performance, historic standpoint, and social standpoint. He was charismatic, focused, and yes, an African American phenom smashing records in a white-dominated sport. Caitlin Clark is Tiger Woods.

In 1965, Alabama quarterback Joe Namath eschewed the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and signed with the AFL’s New York Jets. He raised the profile of the league and garnered more attention and dollars than established AFL stars which made him a target. As the league’s popularity grew however, opposing players recognized his significance beyond the field. They did not go easy on him during games, just ask his knees, but they knew that his success was theirs as well. Namath was the key figure in the eventual AFL/NFL merger. Caitlin Clark is Joe Namath.

Serena Williams was smart, savvy, athletic, fashion conscious, and just plain great. Williams shattered the traditional mold and became an iconoclastic figure in women’s tennis with both her play and personae. The lineage with her sister Venus ushered in a new era in the sport. Serena attacked the game in a unique way. She was exciting and original, and lifted her sport and fellow athletes. Caitlin Clark is Serena Williams.

I am not saying that Clark will have a legendary or Hall of Fame career akin to these illustrious athletes, but the immediate impact she has had on her sport and the media coverage of her sport is similar.

As Smith so often states, Clark is “box office.” You can debate the reasons why, but you cannot debate the fact that she has supremely raised the profile and the financial prospects of women’s basketball and its players.

I understand that other WNBA players want their share of the credit for improving the league. I also understand that WNBA commentators want fairness and equity in terms of attention and the spotlight. However, both groups need to realize that Clark is the main reason that they are getting this increased exposure. On the court, be competitive against Clark and try to beat her and her team. On the air, be critical of Clark and analyze her game, but on a larger scale, understand, accept, and embrace that Caitlin Clark’s most important assist might just be to you.

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Joe Tipton Turned Sports Graphics Into a National Reporting Role With On3

“There’s definitely a competitive aspect of it, which I really enjoy actually because it just kind of keeps you on your toes.”

Derek Futterman

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(Illustration) | Courtesy: On3

In the moments when athletes make a monumental decision about their playing careers, news outlets frequently try to cover the story in a timely and accurate manner. Whether it is signing with a new team in free agency, inking a new endorsement deal or retiring, basketball has plenty of these occurrences annually. These announcements are sometimes accompanied by graphics, adding visual elements of branding and allure to the development. Joe Tipton learned the nuances of photo editing and graphic design at a young age, leading him to create images of NBA players and share them on social media. Observing a lack of interest within the space, he considered doing the same for high school players nearing college commitments.

Tipton Edits, an independent business venture that he began shortly after starting in sports graphic design, provides athletes with a free edit in which their new uniform is superimposed onto an image divulging their new team. These recruits then share the photos on social media and tag Tipton. Especially at the start of the entrepreneurial property, he viewed gaining followers as remuneration, an invaluable currency as digital media continues its swift proliferation.

“I didn’t start making the graphics at 17 to have a job in it – I was just kind of doing it on the side for fun and then just kind of [seeing] where it would go,” Tipton said. “Since I was one of the first people to make graphics for these high school players in their recruiting decisions and now transfers, and now that I’ve built up the presence online and the credibility and the reputation, a lot of them will flock to me, and I think that’s what’s so sustainable about it now.”

The transfer portal keeps Tipton busy in creating and delivering graphics to collegiate athletes moving to a new school. Remaining prepared to create an enticing visual featuring the player in their new uniform and distributing it on social media requires a commitment to the craft. Even though he was a marketing student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he was still trying to determine the best path forward and ended up transforming his hobby into a sustainable career.

“I was able to communicate with high-level basketball players and create something for them – and all of it free of charge – in exchange just for a tag on Instagram and Twitter, which helped propel me and grow my brand and following online,” Tipton said, “and over the years, [it] got me to where I am now.”

By designing these graphics in advance, Tipton was privy to coveted information and recognized that he could effectively reveal where players were signing. His work has been featured on various sports outlets such as ESPN and Bleacher Report and shared by NBA legends including Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen.

On3, a digital sports media brand that delivers news, analysis and insights to consumers regarding college sports, recruiting and NIL, added Tipton as a national basketball reporter after he graduated from college. Since that time, he has established himself as a distinguished journalist covering high school and college basketball.

“[I] had an opportunity to join On3 because basically what I was doing when supplying the graphic to a high school recruit and even transfers now in the portal, I am being gifted the knowledge of where a player is going,” Tipton said, “so I’m able to report that information, and that’s basically what I serve as now for On3.”

Joining On3 provided him with another platform to disseminate this information and expand his audience while assisting the company in its own growth. Shannon Terry founded On3 in 2021, and the platform has continued to expand with dedicated coverage of NIL, the transfer portal and the NFL Draft, along with adding subsidiary verticals such as On3 Elite and On3 HER.

“When it comes to the transfers and their decision making, it’s so rapid fire, and there’s so many players that enter the transfer portal because of NIL, because of instant opportunities and also the ability to play right away and not have to sit out like the previous rules stated,” Tipton articulated, “so it increased the need for what I do and just the coverage of the transfer portal in general has taken a significant leap, which is great for those who cover the portal and recruiting in general.”

Tipton earned a contract extension at On3 earlier in the year, but he has always operated with a chip on his shoulder to prove that he is more than just a graphic designer. While he is a recent graduate and continuing to shape his identity and forge relationships, he believes the process has been considerably slow to this point. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic that working with On3 will be able to propel him to the next level.

“They didn’t view me as a reporter even though I was breaking news, so especially in the earlier stages, I wasn’t getting credit for breaking the news just because I guess they didn’t view me as a reporter [or] traditional media outlet,” Tipton said. “But ever since joining On3, that’s kind of painted me in a new light, and people will look at me a little bit differently, especially with the coverage that I’m able to provide for On3 and then just the overall stories broken.”

There is an aspect of fluctuation that has become more embedded in college basketball, rendering it fundamental to verify information ahead of its circulation. For example, if a player informs Tipton that they are committing to a certain school, he will oftentimes call the coaches or athletics department to safeguard against complicating miscommunication between the two entities. In the end, he is never releasing graphics or reports without extreme confidence in its veracity.

“There’s definitely a competitive aspect of it, which I really enjoy actually because it just kind of keeps you on your toes,” Tipton said. “It’s kind of a rush as well to be able to get it out first, but the first year on the job with On3, there was an incredible amount of pressure that I put on myself to just achieve this at a high level, but there’s also a great deal of stress that comes with it because a lot of what I do is time sensitive.”

Although he has a stellar reporting record dating back to his days solely creating graphics, there are moments when other reporters or outlets beat him to the story. In these situations, the power of his brand and its identity assists in overcoming these impediments, indicative of his broad appeal and widespread reach. Establishing himself as a brand rather than being a graphic designer or reporter within a larger entity has been a key differentiator within his formative years in the business.

“I think it’s the key to sustainability and a way to separate yourself from other people, so I’m incredibly fortunate that the players believe in me, trust in me and then On3 does the same because I’m a source for the player that they can come to and trust, and we all grow together,” Tipton said. “I help grow the player, [and] I help grow On3. On3 helps grow me [and] the player helps grow me because they’re all posting my stuff, we’re posting them, so we’re all on this together, so it’s really nice.”

Tipton never envisioned himself appearing in front of the camera, but he is now doing so regularly for On3. As part of its content, he frequently discusses the latest news regarding recruitment, the transfer portal and NIL in addition to synthesizing player rankings.

“[I am] obviously only just scratching the surface of the on-camera stuff, but I think that is a strong potential avenue for me moving forward in my career,” Tipton said, “but then also my ability to break news at a high level and also the relationships that I have just when it comes to the recruiting insider portion of my job as well.”

Later this month, Tipton will see some of the players for whom he has created graphics soon enter the NBA when the NBA Draft takes place from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although he has not assimilated into reporting on the NBA, he is competitive and has thought about his future work. Yet he understands that a majority of his verve is in college basketball and is focused on breaking news beyond recruiting.

“The good thing about me and kind of how I was brought up was I wasn’t raised in a family that was a fan of a specific team; in fact, my parents aren’t even sports fans at all,” Tipton said. “Sports was just not on at all growing up, so I never grew up a specific fan or a diehard of any specific program.”

Reflecting back on his journey thus far, Tipton feels that he stumbled into his career with fortuitous timing. The versatility he has developed, along with his persistence, networking and inexorable work ethic, has contributed to the growth of Tipton Edits and his role with On3.

Tipton found a way to cut through the media ecosystem, investing his time and effort into a niche that did not exist with the level of cache and emphasis that it currently possesses. The industry moves with unrelenting momentum and can seem imposing to shrewdly understand and cover, but Tipton aims to masterfully keep up while enjoying his journey to an unknown destination.

“We live in a world where, especially younger people, they’re keen on growing their social media presence,” Tipton said, “so On3, Tipton Edits and others alike are able to grow their channels, so they’re encouraged to utilize services like mine to help kind of propel their following and for it to reach a large number of people.”

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