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Ken Carman Has Cleveland in His DNA

“There’s never been anywhere outside where I can fall into bad traps of trying to reinvent myself.”

Derek Futterman

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Ken Carman
Courtesy: Audacy

When Ken Carman was working a job in a stone plant, he embarked in strenuous physical labor on a daily basis and called former prisoners his colleagues. Seeing them on a daily basis, he recognized the value that was embedded within the second chance they were receiving to right their previous wrongs and got to know the stories behind each person. While Carman recognized that they were not going to move him up into high places per se, he gained an inherent understanding of people that rendered him apt to encounter and interact with people from many different types of backgrounds.

Being from Akron, Ohio, which is just outside of Cleveland, Carman witnessed the potpourri of professions that take place within the sprawling metropolis. Although he desired to be a sportswriter from the time he was in high school, he was doing what was necessary for him to make a living as he worked to find opportunities in sports media.

In addition to working at the stone plant, which made the type of stone that is utilized on the sides of houses, he was also involved in landscaping and part of the effort to maintain different homes and areas around the locale. Aside from teaching him the importance of humility and not letting his ego interfere with his path, he also became more connected to everyday people who would become devoted listeners.

“It’s finding a way to treat all those people respectfully and resonate with those people,” Carman said. “I think that that’s actually helped a lot in being able to talk to the types of listeners that we have because our listeners call from all over and they all have all types of different backgrounds, but they all seem to be Browns, Cavs and Guardians fans.”

If Carman had not been hired to work at 92.3 The Fan in 2011, he was prepared to drive a bread truck in order to make a living. After all, he was preparing to get married, purchase a home and raise a family, and he needed to find a way to sustain a source of revenue.

Carman did not take school very seriously, something he regrets later in life, but he greatly values a conversation he had with his assistant principal in high school. Upon completing a project, he was told to sit with the high school administrator at lunch, a direction he thought indicated that he was in trouble. Instead, he received a life-changing suggestion to consider working in radio, something that altered his career trajectory and led him to find a way to combine his love of sports with journalism.

Carman attended the University of Akron and studied mass media communications while participating in the college radio station. Looking back on the program, he regards it as a seminal time in his journey that helped him further discover his passion for the medium at an operation that was managed similar to a sizable commercial operation.

While he was at the station, his supervisor had notified him about an opening as a part-time board operator and followed up to ask if he had applied for the position. Upon Carman revealing that he had not, his supervisor implored him to apply for the job immediately, which he ended up landing.

After his graduation, Carman worked on honing his craft as the play-by-play broadcaster for both Ashland University athletics and the Akron Aeros. In yearning to master the art of effectively and compendiously evoking imagery, telling a story and adjusting to the cadence of the game, he became more aware of his own identity and proclivities as a broadcaster.

“There’s never been anywhere outside where I can fall into bad traps of trying to reinvent myself,” Carman said. “I am what I am, and there’s a lot of people thankfully who like me, and there’s a lot of people who are still entertained by me anyway, so that’s made it a lot more fun and a lot more rewarding.”

Carman has worked with 92.3 The Fan since its inception in 2011 where he hosted a Friday night football show and other weekend programming. Although he wanted to succeed, he did not have any blueprint of how stellar performances would lend themselves to his professional growth and entered the studio with the mindset that each broadcast was his last.

To this day, he remains motivated by both fear and paranoia, especially having been laid off in the business before at his previous job with Clear Channel Radio. Carman ensures he never takes the platform he has been afforded that allows him to disseminate his opinions en masse for granted and approaches each broadcast in the same manner.

“To have an opinion and for people wanting to hear that opinion is a blessing and it is not a right,” Carman said. “It is really not a right; it’s really a privilege. Because of corporate downsizing at another company, I’ve had that removed from me, so I know what it’s like to lose that. I don’t ever want to lose that again, at least I don’t want to ever lose that again on my terms.”

The inherent apprehension about losing his job has bolstered Carman’s mental acuity and refined his concentration for each episode of his radio program, which is now broadcast in the morning drive slot within prime hours. Before transitioning to this spot, however, he enhanced his skill set through invaluable feedback from his producers that assisted with his program from 7 p.m. to midnight, people who allowed him to experiment and receive feedback on how to improve with each repetition. At the same time, Carman was becoming more erudite in the profession by being receptive to being guided by his colleagues and continued developing a rapport with the listening audience.

Within his formative years in radio prior to his time on 92.3 The Fan, Carman remembers being yelled at on several occasions within professional settings. Before being hired within the sports talk format, Carman worked in rock radio and performed an abundance of grunt work and mundane tasks to make sure the hosts would be comfortable and that the shows would be positioned to succeed on a daily basis.

“I’ve been doing this at a pretty high level for a long time, and I don’t always take criticism the very best, but I know that my bosses have the very best of intentions for me,” Carman explained, “and knowing that people aren’t there to put you down but they’re there to work with you.”

Cultivating meaningful and enduring professional relationships with colleagues can engender a feeling of mutual trust and understanding. Once this sentiment is achieved, there is, oftentimes, diminished feelings of foreboding doubt and tergiversation that may have otherwise been present. For Carman, it has been a fundamental aspect of his development that has helped contribute to his own progression as a media professional.

“Trusting people – that’s what I want people to be able to do,” Carman said. “That’s what I think we need to work on, and there’s definitely been some bosses who have taken advantage of that trust, so I can understand that.”

Upon the departure of Chuck Booms from the morning slot in 2015, Carman appeared on the program as a fill-in host alongside Kevin Kiley. At the same time, he continued hosting his evening slot and hosted weekend programming on Sunday nights at the national level for CBS Sports Radio. Several months later, Carman was named the full-time replacement and discovered how to appeal to a new sector of the audience on a regular basis.

“It was eye-opening because I thought that everybody knew who I was because I was on at night and I was on the station,” Carman said. “I found out that the morning audience is a much more active audience, and you have to go quick and you have to be more direct and you have to be to the point.”

Before starting the role, Carman’s bosses warned him that he needs to be ready to take punches and emphasized how the experience would be different than anything he had done in the past. After a brief adjustment period, during which he felt that many things he was saying were falling flat, he eventually began to interest the audience and come into his own on the air. Less than a year later, Carman was without a co-host, as Kiley submitted a letter of resignation to the station after allegedly being censored in expressing his opinion following repeated misogynistic comments on the air.

“It was a totally new experience because I had to learn all over again that there were things that [we] wanted to do that they don’t know yet,” Carman said. “There’s things that we can try now and do now that the listeners would be with us on, but at the time, we didn’t really understand that.”

Carman began to work with Anthony Lima, who was in the interim role as co-host before being granted the position permanently a few months later. When he met Lima for the first time, Carman recalls his co-host telling him that he would not like him at first and then proceeded to make a joke that he says that only Clevelanders would understand. Immediately thereafter, Carman recognized that he would be able to get along with Lima and was incredulous towards the premise behind why he did not think they would get along right away.

“I think we’ve always been different,” Carman said. “We’ve enjoyed a very personal relationship with each other where we can say, at times, terrific things about each other and then horrific things about each other to each other’s faces, and I don’t think it’s affected our relationship at all. If anything, it’s made it stronger.”

Over the years, there have been some points of truculence on the show that have led to a plethora of on-air disagreements or arguments. In fact, Carman estimates that he and Lima quarrel at least once a week on the program, something that they are willing to do on the radio and from which move on. In the end, their chemistry and friendship is seemingly perdurable and they understand how their cohesion as an on-air duo continues to captivate the listening audience seven years later.

“We’ve never been able to hold a grudge with one another, and I think that’s what’s helped us separate ourselves from others and is what has hopefully endeared us to our audience,” Carman said. “….There are times where Lima and I, for that moment we are very angry with one another, but at that time, we’re very good at pulling emotion out of each other, and I think that’s what the listeners enjoy.”

In a similar manner, Carman and Lima regard the callers to their program as an additional voice on the show and treat them as if they are in the studio with a microphone in front of them. By providing them that level of credibility and prestige, they do not hesitate to castigate these participants when they make a statement that is not genuine or based on legitimate fact.

During a recent episode of the show, several callers dialed the show to express their frustrations regarding Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, who has led the team to a 5-3 record on the season thus far. While many sports fans are not afraid to criticize their team, this scenario happened directly after a thrilling victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

The entire ordeal led to a rant from Lima about how he felt the callers wanted him and Carman to discuss the prospect of the coach being fired at any moment there is some level of adversity in the season. He went on to refer to it as “an exercise in futility” for the fans and punctuated how he had no interest in doing that type of broadcast.

“We don’t want to sit there and entertain people who are saying things just because they said them before and they want to double down and triple down on them,” Carman said. “I think that’s [what] he was frustrated with is that our callers, who are a character [and] a part of our show, it seems like they weren’t being honest with each other and they weren’t being honest with themselves and they weren’t being honest with us.”

Carman regards authenticity as an indispensable aspect to any sports radio program, along with the hosts being able to laugh at themselves. Even though the sports talk radio format grants longform conversation, there are times calling for brevity and being able to discuss serious matters.

Although he always aims to be genuine with the listening audience, Carman does not deny that there are some theatrics involved with hosting his radio program. There are instances where he accentuates a point and crafts things in a manner so as to effectively convey what he wants the audience to know.

For example, if Carman is addressing a problem about the Browns, he will construct the delivery of his point in such a way that is conducive to the listening experience while also keeping the attention span of the audience in mind. The modern media ecosystem has granted the consumer more autonomy over what they want to consume, sometimes causing it to be more difficult to hold interest without being supplanted by something else.

“I want them to be listening in, and I want them to turn up the radio for that moment because I want them to hear exactly what I’m saying as if I’m talking to that one man or woman driving right down 480; driving down 77,” Carman said. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m talking to thousands of people every 15 minutes; I’m talking to one person in particular, and they know when I’ve made my mistakes, and I’m willing to admit when I make mistakes.”

Sports radio outlets are in competition with other media providers all across the industry, the primary platform of dissemination notwithstanding. A preponderance of brands actively utilize, or have at least explored capabilities made possible within the digital sector and technological innovation as a whole. Over the years, Audacy’s 92.3 The Fan and Good Karma Brands’ ESPN 850 Cleveland have gone head-to-head in the ratings, an imperative data source that Carman does not scrutinize over. Despite being cognizant of how these metrics have long been venerated and utilized within sales and sponsorship endeavors, he works on retaining the existing audience and expanding the breadth of a show through their content.

“I know that they’re important, and I know that there’s a lot of things that I always have to make sure that I do nuts and bolts wise to make sure those numbers are up, but I always look inward,” Carman said. “I always look inwards. I always make sure we’re doing our thing well, and if we’re doing our thing well they’ll be there, and thankfully they’ve been there.”

Since Carman has been on the air at the station for 12 years, he has seen audience members grow as time goes on. Thinking back on his tenure at the outlet, he finds it hard to believe that there are people who work in the city that are in their 20s that have been tuning in to the program from the time they were in middle school. He now also reaches his listeners and other consumers within the city as a sports anchor on evening broadcasts on FOX 8 News, keeping viewers aware of what is happening with the players, teams and leagues pertinent to the city.

“When they trust you that you have the best interest [of] the area at heart, that means a lot,” Carman said. “I think that that’s part of that success – that you can tell the truth and they know that your heart’s into it and you know that they trust you that you want what’s best for the region.”

When Carman initially landed the job at 92.3 The Fan, he remembers the reaction from his grandfather and the pride that he had. Having grown up during the Great Depression without completing a high school education, he was very poor and worked hard to make ends meet. Through it all though, he had an ostensible hubris for Cleveland and was elated to discover that his grandson would be able to proffer his opinions to the audience.

Some radio hosts may look to move to a larger designated market area, such as New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, granting them a new audience and additional teams to cover, along with the possibility of additional opportunities. Carman does not like to project entirely far into the future, but if there is one thing he knows for sure, it is that he has no plans on leaving Cleveland during his career. Through his occupation and livelihood, he has a passion for discussing the local teams that he grew up watching and providing the local perspective to a growing legion of fans.

“It’s just something that I couldn’t imagine doing anywhere else, and it’s something that I really take pride in every day because you know this business can go away at any time,” Carman said. “It’s going to be cliché, but I really am thankful for every day here.”

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Greg Hill is Turning the Tables in Morning Drive on WEEI

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen.”

Derek Futterman

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Greg Hill
Courtesy: Audacy

Earlier in the week, the Boston Celtics secured their 18th NBA championship. Across a variety of sports radio stations, especially those in the Boston-Manchester designated market area, the triumph was a subject of discussion on Tuesday morning. Within morning drive on WEEI, host Greg Hill provided his thoughts on the team and its achievement.

Akin to the Celtics, Hill aims to position his weekday program to thrive and sustain success. After working in the industry for many years, some professionals can exhibit a sense of apathy, but for Hill, it is quite the opposite, exhibiting congeniality and authenticity to the audience as a whole amid this quest.

Although Hill broadcasts on a sports talk station, the morning show spans beyond comprehensive sports discussion while implementing a variety of other topics into its daily discussion. In fact, Hill defines the breadth of topics into two distinctive categories, one of which is sports while the other covers an assortment of miscellaneous subjects mentioned on the show.

“I think it’s more beneficial if you are a radio person and you know what you think works when it comes to doing radio,” Hill said. “If you can find a way to keep the audience entertained and engaged and try, if you can, to present content that’s different than [what] they might find somewhere else, then that’s more important than necessarily a vast X’s and O’s knowledge when it comes to sports from my perspective.”

Sports teams in the city of Boston have established a tradition of grandeur and excellence, making a habit of remaining in contention for championships every year. In fact, the Celtics championship ended the city’s title drought that spanned just over five years. During that time, the media ecosystem has changed with a prioritization on digital distribution in addition to more niche content offerings. As a long-tenured radio host, Hill has been able to successfully adapt by optimizing the idiosyncrasies of the medium while also being open to innovation.

“The old adage about, and I think it still remains a unique advantage when it comes to this medium, is that when you wake up in the morning, you want to know, ‘What happened? What happened last night?,’ and you want to hear people give you their slant on it,” Hill said. “My function, I think, is to give everybody the opportunity to share their opinions on stuff.”

While Hill has become a respected sports radio host, he initially started working in another sector of the industry. During his time as a middle school student, he worked a paper route and saved his money to buy two turntables and several 45-rpm records. Hill would then go to the garage of his parents’ house and host a radio show with no audience, working to master the craft in his nascence. As he grew older, he started to bring his records to his high school radio station and take the air.

The passion and verve he possessed for the medium, along with his talent in the craft, helped him land a job at WAAF as a promotion coordinator. As he began to showcase his abilities, he earned chances to go on the air over the weekends and overnight. Morning show host Drew Lane later asked Hill if he wanted to do sports on the program, and he continued to grow from there.

When Hill was named the host of the new Hill-Man Morning Show on WAAF a few years later, he needed to find a way to stand out in the marketplace. After all, he was facing competition from Charles Laquidara on WBCN and a variety of other media outlets, and it took time for the program to eventually break through. Hill took the opposite approach of other stations in the area to render the show distinct from those on other media outlets.

“WBCN at the time was an older-targeted station, so we targeted the station towards Men 18-34 and figured that we could grow as they grew,” Hill said. “So we were just going out attending every single possible event where somebody might be, going out before concerts and shaking hands, and doing all that stuff that I think you have to do in order to try to get people to try your show and try your station.”

Hill’s program catapulted to the top of the marketplace, and he signed a lifetime contract after 26 years on the air to stay at WAAF. In signing the deal, he never thought he would work anywhere else, but things changed three years later when Gerry Callahan hosted his last show in morning drive on WEEI. Then-Entercom announced that it was adding Hill to the daypart to host a new morning drive program and retained co-host Danielle Murr in the process, commencing a new era for the outlet. Shortly thereafter, WAAF was sold to the Educational Media Foundation and re-formatted with contemporary Christian programming.

“I never thought [W]AAF would go away,” Hill said. “It was a legendary rock station, and I still to this day will flip by that station and hear Christian rock music and sit there in silence for a couple of minutes for that great radio station, but being the same company and the same market manager at the time [in] Mark Hannon, when that opportunity came up [to] try something different and to make a change, I was really excited about it.”

In moving formats, Hill and his colleagues evaluated the program and determined how they could grow their audience on WEEI while staying true to the essence of the show. The program, however, was going up against Toucher & Rich, the hit morning show on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and others.

“I think this business is slowly moving farther and farther away from dollars being dependent on being the #1 station or where you’re ranked when it comes to Nielsen,” Hill said. “To me, the most important thing is that we’re doing what we should do to get partners for the radio station on the business side of things and delivering results for them.”

Hill is cognizant of the success of 98.5 The Sports Hub but articulated that the ranking does not matter to those spending money on radio. Instead, he claims that it is about the level of engagement and patronization of the product that facilitates interest in the brand.

“From a differentiator point of view, we’re up against, on the sports side of things, an incredible radio station that has done an amazing job of being #1 in this market for a long time with really compelling personalities,” Hill said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to find ways to be different when it comes to our choice on content and the way in which we present it, and then outwork them when it comes to going out and meeting people who might listen to the show.”

Whereas Hill was originally a solo host during his early days on WAAF, he is now joined by Jermaine Wiggins and Courtney Cox, both of whom bring unique aspects that enhance the program. Wiggins, a former tight end for the New England Patriots, provides his knowledge of football and the perspective of a professional athlete. Cox is the youngest person on the program and has a unique approach from her time covering sports at NESN while embracing the humor and repartee on the show. Show producer Chris Curtis, who worked with Hill at WAAF, also contributes to the conversation as well and has helped maintain synergy.

“Whether it’s the co-hosts on the show or callers, I love when they are having fun at my expense, and I think that self-deprecating humor to me is the best,” shared Hill. “If we have a show in which I end up being the punchline or end up, whether it’s my age or lack of technological skill or my frugality – whatever it is – that to me is my favorite part of what we do and that personality coming through, I guess.”

Hill uses his platform to benefit the community through The Greg Hill Foundation, a nonprofit organization he founded to provide families affected by tragedy with immediate needs. He created the foundation in 2010 to celebrate two decades on the air at WAAF before the advent of crowdfunding in a quest to give back. The foundation has donated over $20 million to more than 9,000 beneficiaries during its 14 years.

“We’re lucky in radio because we have this incredible tradition of public service, and I think everybody in radio feels this obligation – this great obligation to use the airwaves to help others,” Hill said. “We’re granted the incredible platform in which we can actually get people to respond when help is needed, and so I wanted to be able to use that microphone and the radio station on those days to be able to help the beneficiaries in our area who needed it.”

Hill recently signed a multiyear contract extension with Audacy-owned WEEI to continue hosting The Greg Hill Show. Part of what compelled him to remain at the station was working with Ken Laird, the brand manager of the outlet who used to be his producer at WAAF. Moreover, he has known Audacy Boston market manager Mike Thomas for over two decades as he leads the cluster of stations in an environment with many entities looking to garner shares of attention.

“To be able to have the opportunity to work with those guys, know what they are, what I need them to do to keep them happy and to have the opportunity for us to, from a team perspective, that we have one clear mission in mind, and that is to be No. 1,” Hill said. “No. 1 in revenue and No. 1 when it comes to ratings, so to be able to sit there and go, ‘Alright, since I came here five years ago, we definitely have some wins, but there’s still a lot that we have to do,’ and to be able to do it with them together was way more interesting to me than any other opportunity.”

Even though Hill has worked in the sports media business for many years, he remains energized by the prospect of achieving goals and having the privilege to host his radio program. In the past, he has stated that he would like to slow down in his career, yet he is unsure what he would do without working in radio.

“That being said, I’ve been getting up at the crack of dawn for 30-something years, and I’m definitely feeling it more than I used to,” Hill said. “But sometimes I think it would be fun to go and do one more radio show where I play seven great songs an hour, as long as I get to pick whatever I play and there’s no research and there’s no computer programming the music. I sometimes think about that, but I just love doing this.”

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If Jim Rome is Willing to Innovate, So Can You

Jim Rome is 59 years old and has been at this for 35 years. And if he finds value in embracing new platforms, you, your hosts, and your stations should be able to do it, too.

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Photo of Jim Rome and a logo for the X platform

Jim Rome is 59 years old. He’s been in the sports talk radio game since before I was born. And earlier this year, his show left CBS Sports Network to begin a live simulcast on the Elon Musk-owned X platform.

And it has exposed him and his show to a much wider, and frankly much younger, audience in the short time since the simulcast began.

If you search X, you’ll see either “I didn’t know Jim Rome was still around” or “I’ve never heard of Jim Rome, but I saw his show on here,” posts.

Now, that doesn’t mean he’s abandoning terrestrial radio. In fact, he recently chastised a caller for talking poorly about “scratchy AM radio”, which elicited a strong defense of the medium from the sports talk legend.

But I can’t help but think that if — at this stage in both his life and his career — Jim Rome is willing to try new things, so can you, your show, or your station.

To be frank, Rome has every reason to coast. Rest on his laurels. Simply collect a paycheck and call it a day until his contract is up. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s innovating. He’s taking chances. I’m sure it’s a much safer feeling — especially for someone about to reach 60 (you look great by the way, Jim) — to stick to a familiar simulcast on cable TV. For damn near 40 years, that’s been the dominant player in the space. But it isn’t 1992 anymore.

Listening to Rome describe the new simulcast makes either one of two things true: Either he doesn’t truly understand what he’s doing, or he believes that his audience is potentially too old to understand streaming. Because he talks about the new venture like he’s trying to explain it to a five-year-old, but at least he’s out here attempting it.

Listening to many shows or stations around the country has at times led me to have a cynical view of the industry. Lipservice is often paid when you hear leaders say “We’re in the content business, not the radio business,” but then only put their content on the radio. Or in podcast form, in three-hour blocks with the live traffic reports still included in the audio to really cement home the fact that the producer couldn’t be bothered to even attempt to edit it before publishing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some stations that have fantastic radio, podcast, digital video, and social media strategies. Others excel at live events.

But many — you could argue too many — are resting on their laurels, taking a “this is good enough,” approach to the format and its content, and hoping that nothing ever changes.

The problem is the world changes every single day. And if you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind. If the biggest and best stations in the industry fall behind, the entire format falls behind. And I don’t want to see that happen.

If you don’t have a digital video strategy in 2024, I have one quick question: Why not? I was a Program Director in market #228, and we had a digital video strategy.

If you don’t have a podcast strategy in 2024 that’s better than “just put up the entire show from today”, I have one quick question: Why not?

“Why not?” is likely the question Jim Rome asked when he was presented with the opportunity to move his show from the safe haven that was CBS Sports Network and bring it to a wider, younger, and more accessible audience on social media. Now, was it a risk? Absolutely.

But that’s the point. Be willing to take the chance. Be willing to try something different. Experiment. Learn. I can empathize with those who are frozen by the fear of failing. It’s a completely valid worry. But not growing, not chasing every revenue and content avenue possible, and not learning something new is a bigger risk, in my book.

I’m not here to suggest you take an ax to everything you’ve done on your show, your station, or your cluster, but I will strongly advocate for expanding your horizons and attempting to meet your audience wherever they may be. And even if that audience might be in places you’re unfamiliar with, familiarize yourself. Do I get the impression Jim Rome was super familiar with live video streams on X before taking his show there? No. But he was willing to take a chance, knowing that it might benefit in the long run.

I hope you operate in the same spirit.

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Do HBO and Hard Knocks Determine Part of the NFL Schedule?

Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

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Graphics for NFL Films and HBO's Hard Knocks

We could debate the merits of HBO’s decision to feature the entire AFC North in its end-of-season version of Hard Knocks, but we won’t. Say this much: It hasn’t been done before.

That’s because HBO and the NFL never before decided to do it, nothing more. The network and the league set the parameters for Hard Knocks, after all, and you can tell by this year’s lineup (Hard Knocks: Offseason, Hard Knocks: Training Camp and Hard Knocks: In Season) that they’re running out of ways to keep things fresh.

Featuring an entire division, especially one that includes longtime rivals, does help accomplish that. It doesn’t hurt that the Ravens, Browns, Steelers and Bengals all finished with winning records in 2023.

But let’s skip the rest of the gloss and get to the nubs of it: Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

And should a network get to call that big of a shot?

The league hasn’t said anything about Pittsburgh’s schedule, and HBO certainly won’t. But Steelers fans – and anyone interested in the AFC playoff picture – immediately took notice when the NFL’s 2024 slate was announced on May 15.

The Steelers’ schedule was never going to be cake; six games within the AFC North takes care of that. But the NFL placed all six of those games within the final eight weeks of the season. Pittsburgh’s other two games in that stretch? At Philadelphia, and home to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Christmas Day.

A schedule like that could build some drama into a series about four teams trying to outlast each other and make it into the post-season, wouldn’t it? And while we can’t outright say the NFL planned this into the mix, we can think it.

The Steelers have never appeared on the HBO series, as you probably know. There’s been a bit too much made of head coach Mike Tomlin’s reluctance to open up either himself or the locker room to the network’s cameras and boom mikes, but it’s true that Pittsburgh dodged the bullet for more than two decades – until now.

Tomlin isn’t the only coach who’d rather skip the intrusion. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on The Adam Jones Podcast recently that he doesn’t watch the show, in part because it’s so obviously forced. “Everything’s put on,” Harbaugh said. “You got to put a microphone, and a camera in your face – people aren’t the same.” But he said he’ll tell his team to conduct business as usual, assuming that’s possible.

Tomlin and crew got a weird schedule in general, not only at the finish. The Steelers open with two straight on the road, which hasn’t happened to them in 25 years. I guess you could say they were due.

Week 2 happens to place them in Denver, the site of Steelers quarterback Russ Wilson’s bad breakup with Sean Peyton and the Broncos last offseason. They don’t get a divisional opponent until Week 11, two weeks beyond their bye. After that, it’s a broken-glass crawl to the finish.

“It’s probably not exactly how I would have drawn it up, but we’ve got to do the best we can,” team president Art Rooney II said. “A lot of the division games are at the end of the schedule, so it will be an interesting stretch there toward the end.”

That’s one way to put it. The Steelers went 5-1 versus the North last season, but they grabbed two of those wins within the season’s first five weeks. This year, not so much.

Tomlin hasn’t discussed any of this publicly, and nobody needs to feel sorry for either him or the franchise. They’ll get by. Close watchers of the Steelers noted that in the club’s announcement of the Hard Knocks news, not a single member of the organization was quoted, but beyond that it’s anybody’s guess other than the obvious, which is that –  like lots of teams – Pittsburgh probably views HBO as one of those things the NFL makes the franchise live with. Not everybody craves that stage.

The league always tries to build suspense into the season’s final several weeks, and TV ratings are the tail that wags the dog. No argument there. It’s common for divisional opponents to square off down the stretch, with a team often playing each of its division foes one more time over the final four or five weeks.

But that’s after they’ve already played their rivals once, usually much earlier in the year. Viewed in that light, meeting again toward the finish becomes a great way to gauge how much teams have changed through the season, and who’s left standing.

That is good drama, the kind we all want to see. This season’s Steelers schedule, on the other hand, smells like forced theater – weird, because it isn’t really necessary. But there we go again, overcomplicating things. It’s show business, kids.

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