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What Is Happening To The Worldwide Leader In Sports?

Jason Barrett

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It’s been a tumultuous time for the worldwide leader in sports. In 2015, ESPN lost a number of their best on-air talent, as Bill Simmons, Colin Cowherd, Jason Whitlock, and Keith Olbermann all vacated Bristol University. The company also shut down Grantland, and eliminated three hundred jobs, painting a gloomy picture for the largest sports media operator in the country.

But then 2016 arrived, and many assumed that the worst for ESPN was in the rear view mirror. Yet aside from the devastation of losing 300 positions, ESPN finds itself in similar territory, dealing with major talent departures once again.

In just four full months of the calendar year, the company has already lost or terminated Skip Bayless, Mike Tirico, Brad Nessler, Robert Smith, Keyshawn Johnson, Curt Schilling, Joe Schad, and Robert Flores. Another talented analyst Trent Dilfer is also expected to depart.

If there’s a media company capable of overcoming these types of losses it’s ESPN. But, when you lose high profile talent consistently, it has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass.

Keep in mind, we don’t know yet if Jeff Van Gundy or Mark Jackson will get scooped up by an NBA team looking for a new head coach. It’s too early to tell how a change in the Monday Night booth will affect Jon Gruden, and making the wrong hire on First Take could create a situation where the show has to be changed or possibly even cancelled down the road.

Even the network’s signature morning show “Mike and Mike“, which has been on the air for more than sixteen years, recently added Molly Qerim and it’s changed parts of its presentation. Depending on who you ask, the reviews are mixed.

Will the morning show continue to undergo future tweaks? Does the show finally move permanently to New York City? Or has the network reached a point where it’s decided it needs a fresh new program to kickstart a new era in mornings on ESPN Radio and Television?

ESPN Executive Vice President of Production and Programming, John Wildhack said “Understandably when there is a high-profile change, the picture might be viewed through a very small lens. Yet the facts are that more than 95 percent of our talent have remained at ESPN and there are a wide range of circumstances surrounding the few who don’t.”

He has a valid point. The company has indeed signed agreements with 200+ talent over the past twelve months. Given their ability to employ a large number of high profile positions, ESPN is well equipped to continue meeting the needs of sports fans across multiple platforms.

Remember that they’ve been stung by departures before. Great talents like Dan Patrick, Rich Eisen, Craig Kilborn, Charley Steiner, and Rick Reilly have all exited, and although they’ve gone on to successful careers, ESPN has remained dominant without them. To write off the most successful sports media company in America, and suggest that it’s on the verge of turning off the lights would be a bit presumptuous.

However, consumers and investors do have a reason to raise their eyebrows. With every talent defection comes larger questions about the company’s future, and its willingness to invest in keeping its best talent. A simple way to eliminate that noise is by locking up the company’s top people, introducing new media stars, and adding new programming that energizes viewers, and gives them confidence that ESPN is healthy and committed to being number one.

It’s rare to see ESPN getting outbid for quality personnel, but with Fox, CBS, and NBC chomping at the bit to take the next step, it’s the four letter network’s responsibility to make sure they protect their turf and retain their best assets. Failing to do so could open the door for others to make deeper inroads, and possibly lead to a larger competitive threat in the future.

Did ESPN Eliminate Curt Schilling’s Game 6 Heroics on Purpose?

Prior to ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball matchup between the Red Sox and Yankees, the network chose to air the 30 For 30 documentary “Four Days in October“. The story covered the Red Sox miraculous upset of the New York Yankees during the 2004 ALCS, except it was missing one critical piece of the story – Curt Schilling’s Game 6 performance where he helped the Sox even up the series while pitching with a bloody sock.

ESPN said the program was edited because it needed to adjust its broadcast time to get back on track due to the Arizona-Oregon softball game running long. They supplied the following statement:

“When a live event runs long, it’s standard procedure to shorten a taped program that follows. In this case, we needed to edit out one of the film’s four segments to account for the extra length of the softball game.”

I recognize that there are times when edits need to be made to fit a schedule, but if you’re going to air a program, you cannot remove one of the most important parts of the story. Any baseball fan who watched that Yankees-Red Sox series will always remember Curt Schilling’s heroic performance in Game 6. It would be like removing the scene in Rocky 4 where Apollo Creed gets killed by Ivan Drago, and fast forwarding to Rocky’s fight at the end of the film. By removing the Game 6 drama, it showed a terrible lapse in editorial judgment, and denied fans the opportunity to understand the whole story.

To make matters worse, the issue occurred during the same week when Schilling went on the record blasting ESPN. It also involved a team which plays in a city (Boston) where ESPN’s image has been tarnished. If the company was looking to get back in the good graces of New England sports fans, they didn’t help their cause with this decision. Why they couldn’t edit out an earlier part of the story, or air a different program, I’m not sure.

Fox Sports Looks To Attack ESPN With Its Own Strategy!

Fox Sports National Networks President Jamie Horowitz has been unafraid to spend big for talent, while aggressively calling out his former employer. At The CAA World Congress of Sports in April, Horowitz touted ESPN’s decline of SportsCenter viewership, and proclaimed he would take a page out of the Fox News playbook and build FS1 around opinionated talk programming and polarizing personalities. He said that the approach would not only stand out more in today’s cluttered sports media environment, but it would cost less than sports programming built around news and documentaries.

That may seem hard to believe when Horowitz is opening the Fox checkbook to pay talents like Cowherd and Bayless. According to reports, Cowherd is making in the neighborhood of six million annually. Bayless is expected to receive more than five million per year. But featured presentations like 30 For 30 cost a pretty penny too.

The reason why Fox has aggressively pursued personalities is because they see their programming future driven by what Horowtiz likes to call ‘opinionists’. Cowherd, Bayless, Jason Whitlock, Katie Nolan, Clay Travis, Nick Wright, and Joy Taylor all fit that description.

But is replicating ESPN’s talk show programming a wise play? Or is it a subtle reminder that Fox is offering a replica, not the original?

Fox confirmed plans this week to launch a new television show with Cowherd and Whitlock titled “Speak For Yourself”. The show is expected to follow a PTI-style format.

Cowherd and Whitlock should make for a great pairing. They’ve forged a nice chemistry thanks in part to Whitlock frequently appearing on Cowherd’s radio show, and are both comfortable at offering hard hitting opinions, and in-depth commentaries. The duo will benefit from Colin’s radio/television simulcast serving as a promotional tool to help drive people to the new show.

Tony Kornheiser, and Michael Wilbon on the other hand are in the midst of their fifteenth year hosting PTI. Quality, consistency, and chemistry are three things they’ve supplied to audiences during their run on ESPN, and beating them at their own game won’t be easy.

Cowherd and Whitlock should be able to present a younger, edgier, and wittier presentation on camera, and the fact that they’re seen as the shiny new toy should help generate some early sampling. Whether or not they can produce an equal or better television show than PTI though remains a big mystery.

Fox is also said to be developing another opinion based program with Bayless. The show is expected to feature a second personality opposite Skip. No word yet on who that might be.

It’s hard to argue with the strategy since it involves well established talent, and a formula which has paid dividends for ESPN. The questions though are “can Fox do it better“, “will Skip’s exit from First Take bring new viewers to FS1” and “is the audience willing to abandon the brand they’ve spent a lifetime with in favor of something new“?

How the audience responds will tell us whether Horowitz has the right gameplan or not. Regardless of the result, you have to commend him for having the chutzpah to challenge one of the world’s most powerful media brands.

Saturday Night Live Eliminating 30% of Commercials

Media groups find themselves in an interesting predicament. On one hand, they’re fighting for every advertising dollar available, trying to hit this month’s budget, and ignoring the future. On the other hand, they find their products being consumed less, because listeners and viewers refuse to sit through long stretches of commercial breaks.

So what do they do?

In Saturday Night Live’s case, they’ve chosen to protect their programming by reducing their ads by 30%. SNL’s creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels said, “As the decades have gone by, commercial time has grown. This change will give time back to the show and make it easier to watch the show live.”

SNL’s skits have performed well when distributed on social media, but ratings for the program on both cable and broadcast television have suffered in recent years. One reason is because younger viewers have fled to on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

To offset the loss of inventory, NBC will bring in more original sponsored content from advertisers who will partner with the show for branded sketches, something the show is known for. Plans are also in place to add more pre-taped segments, and extend the length of some of the live sketches.

Over the past year, Viacom and Turner have reduced the commercial load on their networks, and Turner, TruTV and TNT have announced intentions to cut their ad inventory by 50%.

This resonated with me because the opposite is happening in sports radio. I see stations adding more inventory than subtracting it, and that’s a pattern that’s going to cause long-term damage to brands if they don’t take steps to address it.

For example, I listened to eight different radio stations last Thursday (the day of the NFL draft). Four of them treated their audiences to twenty minutes of commercials/sales benchmarks during drive time programming. If I include the sports updates that number increases to twenty four or twenty six minutes.

Three stations I observed ran between sixteen and eighteen minutes of spots, not including the updates. The worst sinner of them all aired twenty four minutes of commercials, and benchmarks, plus three updates that were between one and two minutes each. That means that half of their hour was spent running commercials.

If the key to building a connection with the audience includes treating them to entertaining personalities and topical content, how can you do that when you’re not available to be heard 33%-50% of the time each hour?

From a ratings perspective, if you’re required to generate at least five minutes of listening in a quarter hour to gain credit, is that realistic for your radio station when you’re providing only six to seven total minutes of programming? I didn’t even include the use of production opens, or liners which also takes away from your time.

If five major television companies can see where the world is headed, and why it’s critical to adapt before it’s too late, then why is radio consistently late to the party? I don’t care how storied your brand is, if you consistently feature twenty five minutes of interruptions, you’re begging your competitor to crush your business. Do you expect your audience to be loyal to you when you feed them twenty five minutes of spots, and another five to six minutes of generic sports updates each hour?

Once your numbers start to evaporate, don’t dare put that blame on your talent. The failure belongs to the programmer who wasn’t willing to stand up to protect the brand, and the sales manager and market manager who were naive enough to think that they could abuse the audience to enjoy a short-term benefit.

We have shifted towards a world where including advertising in content is normal. How we weave it in may be a work in progress, but it’s what we’ll need to provide to keep revenues high, and commercial time low. You should be thinking about the things you create on a daily basis, and how you can attach your clients to each of those assets. Listeners will endure hearing a sponsor’s name and ten second tag during a quality piece of content. What they won’t accept is a seven or eight minute barrage of commercials and equal or less content time.

If television can get creative, and sacrifice millions of dollars in ad time to help improve their programming, and ratings, then surely radio can figure out a way to do the same.

Under The Radar:

  • Congrats to John Cassio who has earned a promotion to Program Director of 1240/1270 The Fan in Fort Myers/Naples, Florida. He added the PD stripes in early April.
  • Mitch Nelles has gained additional air time on The Big 920 in Milwaukee. His program “The Mitch Nelles Show” added an extra hour, and is now broadcast weekdays from 1p-3p CT.
  • A tip of the cap to Jeff Parles who was named afternoon producer of “The Big Show” and host of the Saturday morning show “The Sports Wire” on KTGR in Columbia. Parles took over for Brandon Kiley who left to produce Kevin Wheeler’s show on 101 ESPN in St. Louis.
  • Paul Jarvis has left Greater Media’s 92.9 in Boston to return home to Burlington, Vermont where he’s taking over as Operations Manager of Vox AM/FM’s four station cluster. As part of his new job, he’ll be overseeing two sports radio brands, 101.3 ESPN, and 960 The Zone.

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Rachel Nichols and Baron Davis Headline Final Speaker Announcements For the 2023 BSM Summit

“I’m sure Baron and Rachel will have all eyes and ears focused on them when they take the stage together next Tuesday at 2:45pm PT.”

Jason Barrett

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The 2023 BSM Summit schedule is set. After months of planning and talking to everyone across the industry, I’m ecstatic to roll out next week’s agenda including making one final announcement involving seven great additions to our conference.

For starters, it is a pleasure to welcome Showtime’s Rachel Nichols to the BSM Summit. I’ve admired her work on television for years, and am thrilled to have her guiding a session which I think many in the room are going to really enjoy.

Rachel’s guest will be former NBA star Baron Davis. Baron runs his own company, Baron Davis Enterprises, and he has been active in investing in media brands, and exploring ways to evolve the industry. Among his areas of passion, athletes taking more control of their brands, and the media industry needing to improve its track record with diversity. I’m sure Baron and Rachel will have all eyes and ears focused on them when they take the stage together next Tuesday at 2:45pm PT.

Also joining the Summit are a few longtime industry friends. For starters, VSiN’s program director Jon Goulet is someone who I’ve known and worked with, and he understands the sports betting audio space extremely well. Jon and BetQL VP of Programming Mitch Rosen will spend time with another industry friend, Bryan Curtis of The Ringer. Collectively they’ll examine the state of sports betting audio on Tuesday March 21st from 3:35p-4:10p, and what they look for when it comes to sports betting talent, and how they determine what is and isn’t success in the sports gambling content world.

With Mitch taking part in the sports betting panel, Jeff Rickard of WFNZ in Charlotte steps into The Programmer’s Panel alongside Jimmy Powers, John Mamola and Raj Sharan. The session is scheduled for Wednesday March 22nd from 9:10a-9:45a PT. Ironically, all four of these programmers work for different companies, so it’ll be interesting to hear how they differ and where they align while navigating through a few sports radio programming topics.

Next, I’m excited to introduce a social media session with Karlo Sy Su of ESPN Los Angeles and Matthew Demeke of AM 570 LA Sports. If you look at the performance of their brands on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook, they’ve each delivered strong audiences and engagement. I’m looking forward to hosting this one and learning about their processes, how they decide which platforms to focus on most, what they consider a social media win when analyzing social statistics, and how they develop their content process. Given our location, we’re calling the session ‘Social Media Goes Hollywood‘. It’s scheduled for Wednesday March 22nd from 3:35-4:10 PT.

I realize you’re not going to remember all of these session speakers and times off the top of your head, so to make it easier, log on to BSMSummit.com and scroll down past our speakers. That’s where you’ll find our detailed list of sessions/times and activities planned each day. We have eighteen sessions, two awards ceremonies, and two parties. Our kickoff party is presented by the WWE and takes place Monday March 20th from 7p-9p at the 1880 Founders Room. The ESPN Radio After Party takes place Tuesday March 21st from 6p-8p at the Lab Gastropub. Both party locations are in walking distance of the USC Hotel and our conference venue.

As an added bonus, thanks to the generosity of our friends at WWE, we will be giving away a pair of tickets to the first night of WrestleMania, and a WWE title at our kickoff party. WrestleMania takes place this year in Los Angeles at Sofi Stadium on March 25-26. You must be present at the kickoff party to win either prize.

We’ll have more to share next week including providing an ongoing blog with session news and notes for our readers. We’ll also have a ton of content available on our social media channels so if you’re not following @BSMStaff on Twitter, @BarrettSportsMedia on Facebook or @BarrettMedia on LinkedIn, what are you waiting for?

The focus now shifts to finishing our creative for next week’s show, sending information to our speakers for their sessions, and finalizing our attendees list. For those who are attending, we’ll be sending out an email on Friday or Saturday with a complete list of names of who’s coming so you can plan meetings in advance.

If you forgot to buy your ticket after seeing months of promotion about the event and meant to do so, you can still do that, but it costs more. Students on the other hand can take advantage of a low rate established for college kids at https://bsmsummit.com/registration.

Putting this event together isn’t easy, but I’m extremely pleased with how it’s come together. We have a lot of smart, talented, and accomplished people making time to be part of this, and I appreciate each and every one of them for doing so. Now, it’s all about the execution. Hope to see you next week in LA.

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Sports Broadcasting Icon Al Michaels To Be Honored at the 2023 BSM Summit

“This is a man who has spent more than five decades on your television screen calling the biggest games, and producing some of the most iconic moments sports has to offer.”

Jason Barrett

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If you work in the sports media industry you’ve likely heard someone along the way utter the phrase “don’t bury the lead“. I’m usually good about following that advice but I didn’t do that at our 2022 BSM Summit.

We introduced the greatest tandem in sports radio history, Mike Francesa and Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo and it was a special half hour. Mike and the Mad Dog were reunited after seven years apart and every individual at the event knew they were witnessing something magical on stage. I created a Mike and the Mad Dog Award for the event, which went to Felger and Mazz, who were the absolute right choice to win it. Even Chris remarked ‘that’s the right call‘.

But I learned quickly that although the intention was right in honoring the industry’s current top performing show, when you have legends in the room and they’re in their element, the last thing you want to do is overcrowd them. The connection Mike and Chris had on the air became the gold standard by which we measure successful sports talk shows, and they didn’t need an award created to deliver a special moment, just two mics and 20-30 minutes of stage time.

As I began thinking about the 2023 BSM Summit, I knew there was an opportunity to build on what we started last year with Mike and Chris, and after talking to a few people who I trust and respect, the decision of who we would recognize became crystal clear. I believe it’s important to honor the greats in our business because those who leave a permanent mark on our industry deserve it. The man we’ve selected has spent more than five decades on your television screen calling the biggest games, and producing some of the most iconic moments sports has to offer. He’s worked with the best of the best inside the booth, has helped elevate the presentation and execution of in-game content for ABC, NBC and Amazon, and his call of the Miracle on Ice, the US Olympic hockey team’s 1980 gold medal win over Russia remains one of the best calls in the history of sports.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honored and privileged to share that Al Michaels will join us on Wednesday March 22nd at the 2023 BSM Summit for our awards presentation, where we will present him with BSM’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Michaels is one of America’s most respected sports broadcasting voices, known for his exceptional work on Monday Night Football (1986-2005), Sunday Night Football (2006-2022) and Thursday Night Football (2022-Present). He’s called the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, Hagler-Hearns, the Olympics, the Indy 500, Horse Racing’s Triple Crown races, College Football and Basketball games, Golf, and more. He’s even held roles as the voice of the University of Hawaii, the Cincinnati Reds, and the San Francisco Giants, and was in the booth in 1989 when an earthquake rocked the Bay Area during Game 3 of the A’s-Giants world series.

The Brooklyn native turned Los Angeles resident has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and owns a ton of hardware including five sports Emmy’s, three NSMA Sportscaster of the Year honors, the 2013 Pete Rozelle Radio & Television Award distributed by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the 2021 Ford C. Frick Award given out by the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Though his trophy case may be full, we’re excited to add another to his collection to show our appreciation and respect for the impact he’s made on the sports media business.

A quick reminder, the BSM Summit takes place on Tuesday March 21st and Wednesday March 22nd at the Founders Club at the University of Southern California. Tickets are on-sale at BSMSummit.com.

Be advised, we have started adding sessions and times on the website. As always, the schedule is subject to change. Our final agenda will be posted by the end of next week. In addition, attendees will receive an email by next Friday with details of who will be in attendance. We hope to see you there.

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Rob Parker, Brian Long, Sean Thompson and Matt Fishman Join The BSM Summit Speaker Lineup

“I’m excited to welcome a few folks who have enjoyed success in different parts of the country, and in different areas of the business.”

Jason Barrett

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As we gear up for our 5th annual BSM Summit on March 21-22, 2023, I’m starting to get a better feel for how the final puzzle may look. When this process starts I have no idea how it’s going to turn out because so much depends on who says yes and no. Many who’ve attended over the years have complimented our lineups, and I appreciate it because I put a lot of time and effort into featuring a strong mix of professionals from different areas of the industry. Though I’m proud of the work we do and the schedule we deliver, there are so many things pursued leading up to the event that I can’t help but wonder ‘what if this or that had worked out?’

One thing that some folks don’t understand if they haven’t been to the show before is that this is not a talent conference. It’s a sports media business conference. That means we feature radio, TV and digital executives, programmers, researchers, sales professionals, and yes, talent. I believe on-air performers are vital to the industry’s success and I want the best of the best sharing their wisdom with everyone in the room, but we’re also not going to do two full days of on-air conversations. Being successful in sports media requires understanding the on-air side and the business side, and we do our best to offer a blend of both.

For today’s announcement, I’m excited to welcome a few sports media pros who have enjoyed success in different parts of the country, and in different areas of the business.

First, Rob Parker is someone who has made a name for himself as a radio host, writer, TV commentator, and teacher. He’s currently heard weeknights on FOX Sports Radio, teaches students at USC Annenberg, writes for Deadspin, and is helping MLBBro gain awareness and a bigger mainstream media presence covering Major League Baseball. He’s experienced, smart, and never short on opinion. I’m looking forward to having him join Mitch Rosen of 670 The Score/BetQL, and Scott Shapiro of FOX Sports Radio for a session titled “Aircheck On Campus“. They’ll take the stage together on Wednesday March 22nd from 2:10-2:45.

My next three speakers, all come from the sports radio programming department.

Matt Fishman is the Director of Content for ESPN 850 Cleveland. Fishman has been with the brand since January 2020 following stints at SiriusXM, 610 Sports in Kansas City, and 670 The Score in Chicago. He even wrote for BSM for a few years.

Sean Thompson is responsible for programming decisions at Arizona Sports and ESPN 620 AM. He joined the well respected Phoenix brand after more than a decade in Atlanta at 92.9 The Game. Sean has also worked in affiliate relations for Westwood One, and on the air and as a programmer in music radio for Good Karma Brands in Madison, WI.

Brian Long is the program director of both San Diego Sports 760 and KOGO 600 in San Diego. In addition to guiding two of the top talk brands in his market, he has also managed Seattle Sports 710, and served as the Assistant Program Director for ESPN LA 710.

Matt, Sean, and Brian will be part of one of our final sessions on day two of the Summit. The Last Call which yours truly is hosting, will explore unique revenue opportunities created by local brands, and examine a few new ideas and missed opportunities that brands and managers may want to take advantage of in the future.

As of today, the Summit has more than forty accomplished professionals taking the stage at the Founders Club at USC’s Galen Center on March 21-22, 2023. I’ve got a few others still to announce as well, including a few cool giveaways planned for the WWE’s Kickoff party.

If you haven’t bought a ticket and wish to be in the room, visit BSMSummit.com. The last day for ticket sales will be Monday March 13th. I’m hoping to release our final schedule of sessions on Tuesday March 14th. Hopefully I’ll see you in the city of angels.

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