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Zach Leonsis is Building Monumental Sports Network for the Fans

“While the RSN business has had plenty of editorial around its demise, I would not conflate the demise of an RSN system with the value of the local rights.”

Derek Futterman



Zach Leonsis
Courtesy: Monumental Sports & Entertainment

When Monumental Sports & Entertainment purchased the remaining 67% stake of NBC Sports Washington from NBCUniversal last August, it marked a historic occasion for the enterprise and significant addition to its portfolio. The entity owns the Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association (NBA), Washington Mystics of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League (NHL), along with Capital One Arena and other sports franchises.

It made the prudential decision as the regional sports network faced increased scrutiny and turbulence, catalyzing a change in core business strategy. While teams were recovering from the global pandemic and compensating personnel with large contracts, the regional broadcast products were growing less profitable and subsequently confronted with an ambiguous future.

As evidenced in the past year, Diamond Sports Group, a subsidiary of Sinclair, Inc., declared Ch. 11 bankruptcy and is currently within an exclusivity window trying to restructure debt equating to more than $8 billion. Facing mounting pressure from professional sports leagues and distributors, the company has selectively rejected contracts throughout the process, a situation Major League Baseball foresaw prior to the start of its 162-game regular season. The uncertainty has precipitated obloquy towards Diamond, with an obfuscatory business strategy and structure presumably on the horizon.

Once a lucrative subset of sports media, some regional sports networks find themselves in plight as the industry’s ecosystem transitions with new technologies and refined consumption habits. Consumers have a variety of choices on many platforms, and brands are ultimately competing to earn shares of attention that convert into brand affinity and loyalty. By attracting viewers and transforming them into devoted fans, these networks are able to continue growing their reach and revenue while remaining relevant.

Zach Leonsis, Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s president of media and new enterprises, was heavily involved in the decision to grow its media ventures and involvement in the space. The company recently completed a full rebrand of NBC Sports Washington to Monumental Sports Network, introducing a lineup of new programming and functionalities, along with live game broadcasts of their local teams. If the model proves to be adopted by teams en masse, it is likely that Monumental Sports & Entertainment would be considered among the “innovator” category within the diffusion of innovations curve.

“We were certainly one of the first teams to buy our rights back, and we have seen several teams take their rights back moving forward as well,” Leonsis said. “I think that teams are well-positioned to do this, and there are a number of independents who have proven that they can manage distribution and provide a quality TV product for their fans.”

Over half of Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s yearly revenue emanates from media ventures both at the regional and national levels. Even before the abeyance of professional sports due to health and safety concerns associated with the global pandemic, the value proposition of teams owning their media rights was becoming more alluring and palpable in scope. Although it was difficult to completely offset some of the fiscal losses these leagues endured, the abridged and restricted return of sports in bubble formats sans fans helped recoup some of the expected profits.

“When you get a lot of change, it can present challenges, of course, but it can also present great opportunities,” Leonsis said, “and I think that our platform in Monumental Sports & Entertainment has been and continues to be well-positioned to take advantage of new investments [and] new acquisitions.”

Leonsis is an integral part of the company’s future, spearheading a revolutionary process to change the way consumers watch sports in the Washington metropolitan area and beyond. As the son of Ted Leonsis, owner and chief executive officer of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, he has studied and attained the erudition necessary to become a stellar businessperson, remaining cognizant of the present while thinking about the future.

Zach Leonsis earned his master of business administration at Georgetown University after matriculating at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving an undergraduate degree in communications and commerce. Through a combination of his studies and watching his father exercise his foresight and ability to interpret and thrive in situations of discordance, he recognized how essential it is to keep a broad point of view and not become consumed by one particular silo of business.

“We don’t operate any of our businesses individually,” Leonsis said. “We have one, shared collective leadership team that operates everything together [and] think that we’re stronger by doing that.”

Referring to the theory as the “platform effect,” Leonsis posits that the synergies and workflows within individual teams render seamless collaboration and amalgamate to form a strong final product. Through the utilization of that thereof, the vertical integration of portions of the brand can be actualized and made more effective. Furthermore, entities can engage in a comprehensive review of their internal strengths and weaknesses, along with potential external sources of windfall and affliction. In particular, Leonsis has focused on new technologies and initiatives, recognizing the company’s efforts to invest in sports betting, Esports and other growing spaces.

The company has had interest in its media properties for several years and was keenly observant of the hastened pace of cord cutting when it was negotiating its agreement with Comcast Corporation in the latter half of 2016. As a result, Monumental Sports & Entertainment worked with NBC Sports Group to create a digital sports and entertainment over-the-top (OTT) sidecar platform, which subsequently obtained an equity partnership in the venture. Shortly thereafter, the entity launched a direct-to-consumer (DTC) product offering live streams of games for the Washington Mystics (WNBA) and Washington Valor (AFL), its first experimentation in the space.

“I think we pride ourselves on being first-movers; we pride ourselves on being calculated risk-takers,” Leonsis said. “We’ve had a great track record of success, [but] we’ve had some failures too – we’re not afraid to admit that – and we’ll continue to operate in that same fashion moving forward with the quest to build the world’s most valuable regional sports and entertainment property.”

In completing the acquisition of NBC Sports Washington, Monumental Sports & Entertainment worked internally to develop a new identity and reinvent its airwaves. The company forged a partnership with brand agency, HZ, which helped develop the new logo, marketing campaign and other extensions. The network revealed its new slogan, “The game’s on,” and launched a brand video featuring the new look, along with on-air talent and highlights from its various properties.

In making this strategic business transaction, Leonsis felt it was an opportunity for the company to play both offense and defense. As it pertains to being on the offensive, being able to maximize the potential of the vertical integration and opportunity to reestablish the instantiation of coverage throughout the locale were points of benefit within the deal.

Monumental Sports & Entertainment completed equity financing since then and now has the ability to control its direction with ownership of the live and local rights. Because of this, the sports and entertainment firm has future opportunities within its own purview, whereas it worked with an external media partner and did not have as much latitude in this regard. No longer outsourcing regional coverage and distribution permits the company to focus on promulgating its assets and providing viewers with unrivaled, behind-the-scenes coverage.

“I think we really viewed it as an opportunity to buy our rights back as opposed to buy the network,” Leonsis said. “While the RSN business has had plenty of editorial around its demise, I would not conflate the demise of an RSN system with the value of the local rights.”

With rising team valuations and player salaries, there are concerns regarding the affordability of live sports. Certain marketplaces feature ticket prices that are not affordable to most fans, making the prospect of going to a game exceedingly rare. Teams often utilize a dynamic pricing model and have special promotions on seats throughout the year, equipping media channels as a means of promotion to drive fans to their venues.

Over time though, there has been a greater focus collectively placed on the viewing experience, hence the introduction of DTC platforms with innovations such as real-time advanced statistics and different commentary options. The consumer is being granted more control than ever before, a critical point of differentiation within the Monumental Sports Network DTC service, which was introduced earlier in October.

Through the platform, fans have access to multiple camera angles during live home games, along with the ability to rewind and replay action both in real time and slow motion. Moreover, the network has introduced a daily newsletter complete with news, scores and other information. The platform, which allows fans to watch Monumental Sports Network live on multiple devices, is currently available on the web, iOS, Android, Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV with more platforms to come in the near future.

“We used our preseason as a dress rehearsal and really a public beta to try to work through a lot of [potential] issues, and we think we made a tremendous amount of progress through that,” Leonsis said. “We’re going to be uber-critical internally of how we’re performing; we’re going to be reviewing how we’re driving subscribers, monitoring churn [and] watching viewership on the network on a daily basis, not even a weekly basis.”

Leonsis considers the entity fortunate to have received previous experience in this space so it is able to better serve the consumer and avoid some of the shortcomings and common mistakes made in the early stages of launch. In being able to leverage its properties at all levels of professional sports, the platform has the potential to benefit the District at large rather than solely fans of the area’s teams.

“We’ll continue to do additional work with local high schools and colleges so we can build out a real grassroots and amateur space community,” Leonsis said. “I think we have an opportunity to build this into a real community asset, and great programming begets great partnerships, relationships and the like, so we’re excited about what we’re investing back into.”

The Capitals, who captured a Stanley Cup championship in 2018, have a team with veteran talent headlined by forward Alexander Ovechkin, who is chasing the all-time NHL scoring record. Ovechkin netted his 800th career goal last season and currently sits just 70 goals behind Wayne Gretzky for the prestigious mark. The 38-year-old is quickly approaching the milestone as the team looks to thrive in the competitive Metropolitan division.

“We are documenting so much of his run – we had incredible footage from when he broke the 800-goal mark and when he broke Gordie Howe’s record, and I think our fans have an insatiable appetite for wanting to understand more from Ovi directly,” Leonsis said. “‘How does it feel? How do his teammates rally around him and what not?’ We’ll continue to leverage that behind-the-scenes access and tell that story.”

The company recently reached a deal with Robinhood, a financial services platform, to serve as the official jersey patch sponsor for the Wizards. Additionally, the brand will be featured throughout broadcast coverage, including as the presenting sponsor for Wizards Postgame Live. The transaction serves as an example of business opportunities and integration across the company in different areas of focus.

“We’ll all gain a bit more flexibility as we move forward,” Leonsis said. “We’ve fully integrated our ad sales team with our larger partnership team, and we’re seeing great uplift from that as well.”

Simultaneously, questions naturally arise regarding how genuine the coverage is in expressing news, information and opinions under the same roof as ownership. There are plenty of independent media outlets that cover sports teams, but there are some concerns about being able to proffer unbridled opinions and remain objective when consolidated in this sense.

Regional sports networks have rarely been solely owned by a professional sports team and often provide varied and deft opinions. Altogether, producing and propagating coverage through the same platform poses risks to equitable and impartial coverage, Monumental Sports & Entertainment points to other examples of ongoing instances – specifically those in New York City – that have proven successful in the space.

“Clearly there are best-in-class examples [with] networks like the YES Network and MSG Networks,” Leonsis said. “We have another independent network here locally in MASN – that’s our neighbor – and so our focus is going to be on delivering what we do best: behind-the-scenes access and really, really high-quality programming.”

Some regional sports networks launching direct-to-consumer platforms have created various purchasing options to grant fans more capability in selecting what they want to receive. For example, fans are able to purchase individual games on some services, gaining access to the proceedings as if they had a single-game ticket. Monumental Sports & Entertainment decided not to take this approach in an effort to mitigate difficulties and complexity, instead offering fans either a monthly or annual package. TV Everywhere subscribers can access an equivalent to the annual plan using valid login credentials.

“We didn’t slice things by team [and] we didn’t slice things by individual games,” Leonsis said. “We want to try to over-deliver [and] we want our platform to be intuitive to use.”

The first 10,000 subscribers to the annual membership package receive an exclusive, limited-edition bobblehead set of three which includes the aforementioned Ovechkin, along with Kyle Kuzma and Elena Delle Donne. Along with the bobbleheads, which play audio of game calls from Monumental Sports Network play-by-play announcers, all annual subscribers receive a score of other benefits. Some of these include a 20% discount off team merchandise and apparel, discounted tickets for a selected monthly game and pre-sale ticket access.

“I think about our direct-to-consumer offering like, ‘What is the Amazon Prime equivalent for our company, Monumental Sports?,’” Leonsis explained, “and that’s something that I think we are uniquely positioned to offer that might be more challenging for a third-party network.”

Leonsis knows that rights are going to be distributed in a variety of ways in the years to come; however, the mission for teams remains the same in generating interest. On average, Capital One Arena welcomes 3 million people through its turnstiles each year, and the teams are focused on providing a safe and enjoyable in-arena experience with a product that resonates with fans and keeps them coming back.

“We, as teams, are direct-to-consumer businesses ourselves,” Leonsis said. “We have millions of emails and names in our database here locally, and that better positions us to frankly grow and scale a direct-to-consumer product.”

Monumental Sports & Entertainment is currently in the process of constructing a state-of-the-art studio and production space adjacent to the arena set to open in Q1 2024. The two-story, SMPTE 2110 facility is set to include two studios with the ability to combine for certain broadcasts if necessary. Additionally, two insert studios and five control rooms will allow the network to produce multiple events in real time, an ability especially useful because of the frequent overlap between Wizards and Capitals games. Everything will be connected through cloud-based technology that will enhance the network’s capabilities to efficiently turn ideas into reality.

“We expect to improve and increase our video quality across all of our programs from 1080i to 1080p at 30 frames per second to 60 frames per second,” Leonsis said, “and we’ll be ready to go 4K when our distributors are ready for that too.”

The studio will also lend itself for producing ancillary programming surrounding the games, such as pregame and postgame shows, team-oriented news programs and highlight-based presentations. As part of the change, the network tabbed hosts Wes Hall and Alexa Landestoy to host weekly series for the Wizards and Capitals, respectively, and also reached a deal to bring Rachel Nichols to its airwaves to host an interview format series. Nichols covered the Capitals with The Washington Post during her formative years in the industry and currently serves as a contributor to Undisputed on FOX Sports 1.

“She obviously lends a lot of credibility, not just to the NBA but all of sports,” Leonsis said. “I think our athletes really, really respect her; our fans instantly recognize her and the cache that she’s brought, I think will do a lot for our air and perfectly complements the kind of brand that we’re trying to build.”

As a company, Monumental Sports & Entertainment is focused on building the world’s most valuable regional sports and entertainment platform. The company wants to surpass $1 billion in revenue, a goal Leonsis divulged that it is “well over halfway there” in attaining.

Through various endeavors and operating in the ninth-largest designated market area (DMA), according to the latest report by Nielsen Media Research, Zach Leonsis and the team at Monumental Sports & Entertainment are focused on crafting a product built for fans. By honoring tradition and staying focused on the future, the enterprise is excited about being able to shape its programming and broadcasts for years to come.

“We have some really exciting things ahead, I think, as we continue our transformation over these next few months,” Leonsis said, “and by the time we get to the beginning of 2024, I think fans are really, really going to be delighted with what they see.”

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Michelle Smallmon Didn’t Stumble Into Mornings on ESPN Radio

“The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”

Derek Futterman



Michelle Smallmon
Courtesy: Missouri Athletic Club Connections

It all started with an accident. While vacuuming her apartment just two days before the first episode of her new national ESPN Radio program, Michelle Smallmon tripped over an air purifier cord. As a result of the maladroit blunder, she fell face first into her coffee table and hit the inside of her eye on a drinking glass.

When Smallmon looked into the mirror, she immediately saw that her eye was bleeding and swelling up and was in a state of disbelief, although she was not surprised that this happened to her because of her inherent clumsiness. The black eye that came out of all of this turned out to be an advantageous opportunity for the program, which opened its first hour on the air with this circumstance.

Smallmon works alongside Evan Cohen and Chris Canty weekday mornings on UnSportsmanLike, the new ESPN Radio morning show that leads off a refreshed national programming lineup. Since the program is also simulcast on ESPN2, there are cameras on inside the radio studio at the Seaport District-based radio studio, granting viewers of the premiere episode an opportunity to see Smallmon’s black eye for themselves. The incident, however, provided a means for the new hosting trio to introduce themselves and showcase their personalities in an atypical fashion by recalling a calamitous occurrence from the onset.

“We have to be ourselves,” Smallmon said. “People are coming for the sports, and hopefully with our opinions and our information and the knowledge that we provide, they’ll stick around, but they’re going to remember us for who we are. The humanity and the relatability is what’s going to really bring people in.”

Once the hosts of UnSportsmanLike were finalized, Smallmon met with Canty and Cohen to determine their collective philosophy for the program. At the crux of their conversation was how sports is supposed to be an enjoyable part of people’s days, making it important to be genuine with the audience and celebrate the festivities.

“I just think that audio provides a really great way for people to weave us throughout their day and it’s something that they can come back to, and I just feel like the audio space continues to grow,” Smallmon said. “So that is really exciting to me that there are so many different avenues for us to explore in the audio space.”

Smallmon and her colleagues understand that their program that was once anchored by Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg in the mornings for 18 years, who created a show that proved to be an enduring facet to sports radio as a whole. Today, UnSportsmanLike is competing for mindshare and attention span in a dynamic media ecosystem where people can consume various types of content by equipping myriad methodologies. The mission to serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere requires the hosts engage in deft preparation and fealty towards the audio vertical, never taking their positions for granted and understanding the privilege in being able to communicate en masse on the air.

“Any time anybody elects to listen to you, they are giving you a vote,” Smallmon said. “They’re choosing you [and] they are saying, ‘I want to spend a part of my precious time with you,’ and particularly in the mornings because we’re the first people that get the opportunity to talk about the games from the night before or to give our opinion on certain things.”

While Smallmon may have stumbled into an enthralling storyline to open the program and captivate the audience, she did just the opposite in landing a spot within the coveted morning drive daypart. Through years of indefatigable persistence and calculated risk-taking, she positioned herself to garner such a chance when the network was in the midst of developing a new lineup.

Despite having a successful morning show in St. Louis, Mo. on 101 ESPN that was finishing with high ratings and bolstering streams of revenue, Smallmon found herself yearning to live in a sprawling metropolis. Because of this, she started visiting her friends in New York City once per month and gradually became enamored with the locale, prompting her to meet with co-host Randy Karraker, program director Tommy Mattern and Hubbard Radio market manager John Kijowski to express her intent to leave the station.

“They have always been my biggest champions [and] they encouraged me every step of the way,” Smallmon said. “They were like, ‘This is going to be a tough transition for us because the show’s going so well, but we care about you as a person more than we do an employee, and if this is your dream and something you think you have to do, we’ve got your back.’ I will always and forever be indebted to them for not only finding a way to help me do that, but for supporting me and checking in with me every step of the way.”

When she was young, Smallmon frequently traveled to St. Louis with her father to attend sporting events, cherishing every chance she could to see a live game. Throughout her childhood, she watched football on television and remembers seeing sideline reporter Melissa Stark interview the players, prompting her to think about working in sports. Quotidian tasks were transformed into beacons of flourishing sports knowledge, catalyzed by her father’s creativity with abecedarian activities such as sorting and folding laundry.

Yet Smallmon concentrated in premedical studies at the University of Illinois, matriculating to try and become a dermatologist. Early on, she realized that she was not dedicated enough to pursue a profession in the field, resulting in a meeting with her advisor about her future plans. Upon being asked her ideal career path, Smallmon demonstrated interest in covering the basketball team with the goal of appearing on College GameDay as a features reporter in the future.

Amid an economic crash, Smallmon was able to land a job as a production assistant at KSDK, a local television station with which she had interned as a college student. Smallmon worked on the outlet’s morning show, Today in St. Louis, arriving at the studios around 3:30 a.m. every day to prepare and execute the broadcast.

Although her shift ended at 2 p.m., she would put in extra effort to stay later and interact with sportscaster Frank Cusamano and sports director Rene Knott, volunteering her time and trying to be productive. In displaying her aspiration to work in sports, she was eventually offered a position in the department, which first started with shooting and editing high school events.

“Most of the work that was done in sports was leading up to the 5 and 6 o’clock newscast until they took a big break before 10 p.m.,” Smallmon said. “I would use that time to just absorb as much as I could, watch the guys at work and try to make myself useful.”

Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Stark, Smallmon had seen various women working and thriving in sports television; however, this was not the case in the sports radio format. Despite being familiar with the medium, she had never considered going on the air until Knott asked her to be a co-host of his new weekend show on 101 ESPN.

After some time, she received a note from an executive inquiring if she would be interested in applying for an open producer position available at the outlet. Even though she applied thinking she would not receive the job – a thought compounded when she discovered the producer role was for the program hosted by Bernie Miklasz – Smallmon made it to the final round of interviews. Speaking with Miklasz directly, he articulated that while he thought she was a good fit for the role, the other candidate had more qualifications and previous experience.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, if that person is as great as you say that they are and have this much experience, they will have no problem finding another job when you hire me to be your producer,’” Smallmon averred. “I left there and I was like, ‘Man, I blew that.’”

Much to her surprise, Smallmon was hired and ended up working with Miklasz in the role for three years. In speaking with him and observing how he interacted with other people, she learned industry nuances and esoterica that made her even more adept at the role. Smallmon was eventually moved to The Fast Lane in the afternoons with Randy Karraker, D’Marco Farr and Brad Thompson, possessing a mentality of how to best position the show for sustained growth and success.

Smallmon took her skills to ESPN Radio in 2015 when she moved to Bristol, Conn. to work as a producer. The first stint with the network prepared her to excel on UnSportsmanLike, collaborating with hosts such as Ryen Russillo, Danny Kannel and Jorge Sedano, but she always felt a magnetic pull back towards St. Louis. Once Russillo was officially slated to leave ESPN, Smallmon was in talks with the company about different paths she could take and weighing her options. In the eleventh hour, Smallmon received a fortuitous call from Miklasz, who conveyed that he was thinking about changing up his show and wanted to know if she had any interest in co-hosting the program.

“It just felt like all of the cards were falling into place at the right time for me to make that move, and I’m a person that likes to take chances and challenge myself, and I don’t ever want to live with regrets,” Smallmon said. “I thought, ‘Maybe hosting and being on the air is not going to be for me; maybe it’s always going to be production, but I’d like to know.’”

Once she returned, Miklasz offered to change the name of the program to incorporate Smallmon, an entreaty that she declined because of fear that it would disrupt what was a known entity to listeners in the locale. Upon his exit from the station two years later, Smallmon started hosting with Randy Karraker, who implored her to add her name. Even though she never sought out to find the spotlight, she capitulated to the request once her co-host explained why it was important as not only an identifying factor, but also as the first female to be a full-time host on the station.

“I would hear from so many female sports fans across the area and parents whose daughters listened to the show and whose daughters paid attention to the show because someone who looked like them occupied that seat,” Smallmon said. “I really realized how important it was for me to establish myself in that way.”

As Smallmon made the move from St. Louis to New York City, her parents surmised she was recklessly upending her life. Subletting an apartment from a mutual friend in the city, she was working under a usages deal at ESPN Radio where she would deliver overnight updates and host SportsCenter All Night. Smallmon was grateful for the support of her parents and asked them to give her a year, during which she would work hard to land a full-time job in the city. Three hundred and sixty-six days later, Smallmon took to the air with a black eye to commence UnSportsmanLike, officially meeting her end of the bargain.

“It’s hard to explain to people how strange our job is,” Smallmon said. “The three of us sit in a windowless room and talk to one another for four-plus hours a day, so just by nature of spending that much intimate time with someone, you get to know them really well really fast.”

The workday for the morning episode begins the day prior several hours after the conclusion of the previous broadcast, independently reading articles, following sports news and reviewing games. In the preceding afternoon, the program holds a content call where everyone pitches ideas before an early rundown is sent out and added to throughout the day.

While the game of the night is on, Smallmon is in constant communication with her thoughts before getting sleep and preparing for an early wake-up call. There is a pre-show meeting to review the rundown before the four-hour morning show begins at 6 a.m. As soon as the on-air light is extinguished, the process starts again so the hosts are ready for it to illuminate again in 20 hours.

“It’s really a full-time commitment, especially during football season, to do a job like this,” Smallmon said, “but when you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to host a show of this magnitude, you’ve kind of got to make it your life in a lot of ways.”

When she takes her seat behind the microphone in the morning, Smallmon believes that two of the most talented people she has ever worked with are sitting by her side. In her view, she needs to be at the same level as them on the program and effectuates that through her preparation and by bringing different perspectives to the air.

“I have zigged and zagged and occupied different roles throughout my time,” Smallmon said. “It’s really just been surprising opportunities that I have emerged and that I’ve really been grateful to have and that I want to take advantage of, but I don’t really think about the future and my motivation is not really driven by what’s next; it’s driven by the present.

For now, Smallmon is focused on attaining success in New York City and hopes to participate in the program for as long as possible. Down the road though, she knows that her career will entail a second return to St. Louis when she wants to be back in the community she loves and closer to her family. The gratitude she has in being able to regard the city as home is conspicuous and authentic, and those in the locale continue to listen to her on 101 ESPN for two hours each morning ahead of the station’s local morning program.

“My only goal right now is to make UnSportsmanLike the best show that it possibly can be, and if that is the case, hopefully we have an amazing run with the show,” Smallmon said. “That’s the goal is to make it as amazing as it possibly can be and ride that wave for as long as we possibly can.”

Smallmon never envisioned herself working in radio but now finds herself as a trusted voice in the mornings on a simulcast program within the network’s on-air lineup. Through it all, she has remained true to herself while exhibiting an evident commitment and passion for the craft, valuing every chance she has to go on the air.

“People will always say things to me like, ‘Oh, are you going to be the next Erin Andrews?,’ or things of that nature,” Smallmon explained. “And I say, ‘No, I’m going to be the first and only Michelle Smallmon,’ because the edge that I have over everybody else is that I’m me. There’s nobody else that’s me, and so if I can just be myself and be authentic every day and do that, anybody else can.”

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Desmond Howard Unnecessarily Threw Pete Thamel Under the Bus on College GameDay

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A photo of Desmond Howard

College football fans can be a crazy bunch, most of them are crazy in the sense they are doing stupid things that give you a good laugh but, every fan base has a lunatic fringe. Each fan base is more than willing to point out the lunatic fringe in the fanbase of their rivals but often are slow to acknowledge their own offenders. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist in any program that has any significant fanbase. The lunatic fringe affected College GameDay Saturday, and Desmond Howard didn’t help the situation.

As a fan, you can accept it as true or bury your head and assume you are the one singular program that has somehow avoided having a fringe lunacy.

Michigan is certainly a significant football program with a massive fanbase. Just the sheer number of Michigan fans tells you there is going to be a larger than normal number of fans that might fall into the category of “fringe lunatic”, it is just how the odds work.

That suggestion was made by ESPN during Saturday’s College GameDay which originated from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Just in case you are completely unaware of the biggest story in college football this season, during Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game, Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh was serving the final game of an agreed upon Big Ten Conference suspension. The game also happened to be the biggest game of the season so far, a virtual play-in game for the College Football Playoff.

The suspension of Harbaugh was the result of allegations that Michigan staffer Connor Stalions was running an “off the books” sign stealing operation and that Stalions was a little too closely connected with Harbaugh for the Big Ten’s comfort.

Stories like these only become mainstream by reporting and ESPN’s Pete Thamel was on the frontlines of that reporting. It should be said that, just because something is reported by ESPN, FOX, or CBS, doesn’t automatically make it true. Likewise, just because something reported about your team may not paint them in the best possible light, it doesn’t make it untrue. That was the gray area ESPN’s College GameDay found themselves in Saturday; one of their top college football reporters in the very midst of the fans that are upset with his reporting.

Thamel joins GameDay on site every week, normally delivering the breaking news on injuries and coaching changes, fairly normal stuff. He delivers his reports, not on stage, but among the actual team fans who are gathered behind the set for all the cameras to see.

Except Saturday when Thamel was not among the masses but inside the more controlled confines of Michigan Stadium.

Honestly, Thamel being inside the stadium, rather than among the crowd, would not have seemed at all odd to me until Michigan’s Heisman Trophy winner and GameDay analyst Desmond Howard made it awkward in this exchange:

Howard: “We’ve been doing this 12, 13 weeks and Pete’s always been in the crowd giving his reports, I’m like, ‘What the Hell’s Pete in the stadium for?’ That kind of just threw me all off, I’m like, ‘Put your big boy pants on and do it in the crowd like you normally do it.’”

Rece Davis: “He’s got some from the lunatic fringe, some ‘friends’. We’re just taking care of him.”

Howard: “We’ve got security. We’ll be ok. These guys are nice out here. These are nice fans. They’re not going to do anything.”

Davis: “It only takes one. That’s all.”

Howard: “He’ll be ok. Put the big boy pants on.”

I have no idea how many credible threats Thamel has received but there was, apparently, enough concern for ESPN to move him into an area that could be more easily secured.

Desmond Howard, though, seemed upset that ESPN doing that painted the fan base of his old school in a very negative light. I would make the case that even the most ardent GameDay viewers wouldn’t think it odd that Thamel was inside the stadium rather than among the crowd. Howard’s insistence on Pete not wearing his “big boy pants” only drew further attention to the fact Thamel was not in his normal spot.

Desmond Howard came off sounding like he was under some sort of pressure, personally created or applied from Michigan interests, to point out there was no reason Thamel should have any concern about Michigan fans. In doing so, Howard came off as something he’s never been accused of being, a poor teammate. The best way to handle the situation for ESPN would be to completely ignore the fact there was a change in Thamel’s location. In the event ESPN thinks anyone would notice, highly unlikely as it may be, just create a simple cover story.

To Thamel’s credit, he seemed content to not be the focus of this addition to the story, it was only Howard’s awkward interaction that brought it to light. It was completely unnecessary and only made everyone involved look a little worse.

In his NFL career, Desmond Howard averaged only one fumble per season, Saturday in Ann Arbor, he added another.

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Nick Wright, Danny Parkins, Andrew Fillipponi and Omar Raja Join The 2024 BSM Summit Lineup

All four of these men are extremely talented and accomplished, and I’m grateful to each of them for making time to be with us.

Jason Barrett



The buildup to the 2024 BSM Summit continues with our next speakers announcement. Media professionals looking to attend March’s show can secure seats at We’ve already announced Jeff Smulyan, Mark Chernoff, Don Martin, Bruce Gilbert, Scott Sutherland, Chris Oliviero, Scott Shapiro, Spike Eskin, Mitch Rosen, Paul Mason, Bonnie Bernstein and Damon Amendolara will be part of the event. We’ll have additional big names to reveal in the weeks and months ahead too so stay tuned for more.

Before I get into the latest group of speakers, I want to pass along some Barrett Media news.

First, when you log on to BSM and BNM on Monday December 4th, you’ll notice both sites operating with a new, cleaner look. We pump out a lot of daily content on our websites but finding all of it can be intimidating. We’re hoping the modifications make it easier to find and digest our content and look forward to your feedback on what we roll out next week.

Secondly, I’ve spent months going through a process to identify an Executive Editor for Barrett Media. The type of leader I’ve been looking for different from what exists at some online publications. I’ve spoken to a lot of smart, talented people during this process, many who I know could make us better. However, there is only one job available. Fortunately after going through an extensive search, I’ve identified someone who I’m interested in teaming with to help take Barrett Media to the next level. I hope to announce that hire and the addition of a number of new writers next week. I think our readers, partners and clients will like what’s on the horizon.

Third, we have opened up voting on the Barrett News Media Top 20 of 2023. The deadline to cast votes for News/Talk PD’s is next Monday December 4th. We will present the News/Talk radio format’s collective feedback December 11-15 and December 18 on

There’s other stuff on the way as well, but I’ll save the rest for next week. Let’s dive now into the latest additions to the Summit.

It is my pleasure to announce the additions of Nick Wright of FS1, Danny Parkins of 670 The Score in Chicago, Andrew Fillipponi of 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, and Omar Raja of ESPN to the 2024 BSM Summit speaker lineup. All four of these men are extremely talented and accomplished, and I’m grateful to each of them for making time to be with us.

Starting with Omar Raja, the work he did building House of Highlights into a powerhouse social brand is well documented. He now serves as a commentator for ESPN’s digital and social content, which includes being the leading voice behind ESPN’s SportsCenter Instagram account, and providing strategic social programming across ESPN’s social platforms. It’s not every day industry professionals gain an opportunity to learn from one of the industry’s top social media minds, so I’m hoping to see a lot of folks present when he shares his wisdom at the Summit.

Shifting from digital to on-air talent, one session I know many will be present for will include three personalities who have been highly successful in each of their careers, and share a lifelong bond through the friendships they formed while attending Syracuse University together. Nick Wright, Andrew Fillipponi, and Danny Parkins are three of the best in the business today, and all three will be on stage together to discuss their individual paths, their differing approaches to content creation, measuring and managing success, and much more. Having Damon Amendolara, another Syracuse graduate who’s been highly successful on the air, guide the session should make it even more interesting and entertaining for all in the room.

With these latest four individuals added to the lineup we’ve now secured sixteen top speakers for March’s show. I’m hoping to reveal the next group of participants in a few weeks. Once we get past the holidays I’ll start revealing the awards winners and a few executives who will be part of the conference.

I want to thank Steve Stone Voiceovers, Good Karma Brands, Bonneville International, Silver Tribe Media, Premiere Networks and the Motor Racing Network for returning as sponsors of the 2024 BSM Summit. If your group would like to explore a sponsorship opportunity for the show or review website or newsletter options for 2024, email Stephanie Eads at [email protected] to receive a copy of our advertising decks.

That’s the latest for now. More to come in December.

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