“Put an ex-jock in the booth, and their cliché-ridden presentation of a game is the least of their sins. As a result of their lack of training, most of them are blessedly lost when trying to establish a storyline for a telecast … Thus, they tend to view a game as a series of plays rather than as a contest, and often they are ignorant of the human perspective.”—Howard Cosell from I Never Played the Game
Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell railed against the “Jockocracy”—the easy route former players have from the playing field to the broadcast booth. Clearly anyone who has watched a football game with Tony Romo on the call or a baseball game with A-Rod in the booth, you know there’s great value to have a recently retired player in the booth. What about former players in Sports Radio? Where do they fit in and what makes one retired player successful in Sports Radio and others unsuccessful?
Over the past 20-plus years I have had the pleasure and challenge of working with a lot of former athletes in Sports Radio. Hall of Famers like Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, and Cal Ripken; and some really good players like Dan Jiggetts, Doug Buffone, Tim Grunhard, Bill Maas, Larry Bowa, and Rob Dibble. At first, I was in awe of each of them.
After a while you get past that. You quickly learn who comes to play for their shows and who is coasting on their reputation. While this may sound simple, I have narrowed it down to four areas that determine whether a former athlete has a role on your station or not:
- Do they really want a career in sports radio?
- Are they willing to put in the work to learn the craft and prepare for every show?
- Are they able (and willing) to put aside their team allegiances and be critical of the team or league they used to play for?
- Can they talk knowledgably about all the local sports teams and all major sports?
There’s a difference between “a job” in sports radio and “a career.” When you hire a host, anchor, or producer from a smaller market you know that they want a career in sports radio, but what about former professional athletes? They are used to big paychecks, regimented schedules, being pampered and catered to. The only way to find out for sure is to give them some work. Fill-ins and weekends and see how they do. How do they respond to callers? Can they ask good questions of the guests? Can they sustain their energy over the length of the show? After a few shows, you’ll know the answer to these questions which will tell you if they want a career in this.
If they get past the first hurdle, then you get to see over a longer period of time if they’re willing to put in the work. When I say work, I’m talking about preparation and the work of hosting/co-hosting a show. Anyone hosting a sports talk show has to watch the games, read up about the teams, and know what’s happening with the big national sports stories. The PD needs to spend time and encourage these former athletes. Talk to them about preparation and performance during the show. Aircheck them. It’s like a film session for a former football player. Point things out and give them tips to improve on. They will improve and they will make mistakes. Help them learn from their mistakes.
Putting aside team allegiances is hard for many former athletes. Some of them aspire someday to work for the teams they played for in a broadcasting, coaching or personnel capacity. In the 1990s I worked with former Bears linebacker Ron Rivera. Ron is a terrific guy with great insight on the game of football. We would sit and talk before the show and his insight on a pretty bad Bears team was spot on. He would talk about players who weren’t living up to their potential, coaching mistakes, etc. It was truly impressive. Then the on-air light would go on and he shied away from being critical of the Bears players, coaching staff, and front office. His great insight was wasted on a handful of us in the office. In his case, he was eyeing a return to the Bears as a coach and in 1996 he returned to the Bears as a defensive quality control coach. He used his smarts and insight to work his way up through the coaching profession and has been the head coach of the Carolina Panthers since 2011. Oh and his wife, Stephanie, was a great basketball coach, too!
The listeners’ perception is that somehow a man or woman, who played a professional sport, only knows about that sport. On the flipside, most professional athletes played multiple sports growing up or follow another sport. In 2003 I had the opportunity to work with HOFer Cal Ripken at XM. Guess what? Cal knew the NBA, its players, and the game inside and out and had a great passion for it. Regardless, a former baseball player has to prove that he knows football and basketball, while a former football player has to prove that he knows baseball and basketball. Not entirely fair, but it is the standard that they are held to.
I think Howard Cosell was wrong about the “Jockocracy” and feel that former players have a lot to offer. But don’t just listen to me, look around the country at the former athletes hosting national and major market sports talk shows—Boomer Esiason and Bart Scott at WFAN in NY, Tom Waddle and John Jurkovic at ESPN 1000 in Chicago, Scott Zolak at the Sports Hub in Boston, Brock Huard at 710 ESPN Seattle, Mike Golic at ESPN Radio, Tiki Barber at CBS Sports Radio Network, Mark Malone at NBC Sports Radio, and Sean Salisbury at SB Nation Radio.
Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing
…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.
In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.
“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.
“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”
Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.
The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?
That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.
You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.
“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”
Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.
Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”
Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”
Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”
Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”
It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.
WORTH EVERY PENNY
I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.
My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.
My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.
After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.
Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.
Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”
My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.
My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.
Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.
And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.
Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.
A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours.
But is that why you sell sports radio?
In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.
A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family.
Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.
I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.
I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.
Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important.
So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.
Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table
Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.