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Can Finebaum Thrive in Big 10 Country?

Demetri Ravanos

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When I say the name Paul Finebaum what comes to mind? Do you think about a rabid Bama fan calling to explain why he poisoned trees on the Auburn campus? Do you think about Phyllis in Mulga losing her mind over Colin Cowherd’s comments about Nick Saban? Maybe it’s Tammy from Clanton calling in to yell about officials being biased against Auburn.

Whatever your answer is, whether you are from the South or not, my point is you think about something related to SEC football. It is where Finebaum’s bread is buttered. It is why he wrote a book called My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.

Finebaum and ESPN are locked in a contract dispute right now and according to Clay Travis at Outkick the Coverage, who you may be tempted to dismiss because of his constant head-butting with ESPN, the relationship is close to irreparable.

According to sources Finebaum, who declined comment to Outkick, was told in October of last year by then-president of ESPN John Skipper not to worry about his soon to expire contract. Nine months later, with limited contact from ESPN executives, Finebaum has now reached the limits of his patience with the network and is preparing to depart. That’s despite substantial efforts by an increasingly frustrated SEC office over ESPN’s inability to get the deal done.

Whatever your thoughts on him, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Travis here. He and Finebaum are close friends. I trust that he has some insight as to where Finebaum’s head is at right now.

Paul Finebaum walking away from the SEC Network wouldn’t be the end of the world. After all, the guy was already successful long before that channel was even a spark of an idea in either Bristol or the league office in Birmingham. Finebaum was already Finebaum even before he was on Jox 94.5 in Birmingham.

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What is a little hard to believe though is Michael McCarthy’s report in The Sporting News that Fox and their Big Ten Network would have interest in snapping Finebaum up if he walks away from ESPN. McCarthy says that some executives for that conference believe Finebaum’s show might be BTN’s missing piece.

But Fox Sports has a history of poaching ESPN talent, like Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, Jason Whitlock and Erin Andrews. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany is said to be a huge Finebaum fan.

Some Big Ten executives have lamented the absence of a “Paul Finebaum-like show” on the network’s programming schedule. Fox owns 51 percent of the Big Ten Network.

I talked to a few program directors of stations in both the Southeast and in Big 10 country to get a gauge on what they expect of Finebaum and the challenges he would face trying to swap out the SEC for the Big 10.

Arky Shea is the program director at The Ump in Huntsville, AL. I asked him how important his home state (and to be fair, mine too) has been to Finebaum’s success.

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“Alabama is the meat of the stew. Auburn is the potatoes,” Arky said in a conversation over Twitter DMs. “The rest of the SEC and their fan bases are the spices and vegetables – depending on what’s in season. Paul has a legacy because of that state and Birmingham.”

Bama and Auburn fans seem to be content to see Finebaum’s focus go conference wide since launching his partnership with ESPN and the SEC, but how would they react to Finebaum moving to the Big Ten Network? Maybe he could talk about Bama or Auburn from time to time, but the Big Ten Network would probably want him focused on the Big Ten, right? That would be a very different show from the one Finebaum’s long time fans are used to.

“After all the smack he and his callers have dished out on the Big Ten and others, that’s traitorous territory,” Shea says of a potential move.

“The average Big 10 fan in Wisconsin would need to be ‘won over’ and heavily educated about the who and why of Paul Finebaum,” Tom Parker (the program director of 105.7 the Fan in Milwaukee, not the colonel that managed Elvis) told me in an email. “He’s an SEC insider with sources and contacts. Why would the Big 10 even want what appears to be ‘a project’? Except for times when he’s said something crazy in the past that got some run (very little here), I doubt a Big Ten fan would have even heard of him. Maybe Fox sees him as another Stephen A or Skip. Willing to say crazy things for attention?”

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That very well could be. After all, if a deal to do a televised version of his radio show on BTN did become a reality, you would have to assume that Fox would also use Finebaum on its Saturday college football coverage in the fall. That may be where Finebaum is the most valuable. Fox’s coverage is pretty good, but they are missing the headline-maker ESPN has in Kirk Herbstriet or even their own “face of college football,” something ESPN has a seemingly endless supply of. Finebaum could fill both of those roles for Fox.

Brad Lane now programs 1500 ESPN in Minneapolis, but he grew up playing football in Texas. He is very aware that football means different things to different parts of the country. He says the Midwest isn’t a college football wasteland. Fans are aware of Finebaum.

“I DO think fans here not only know who Finebaum is, they ‘get’ why he’s successful in SEC land. He’s got the southern drawl, he seems to have deep connections with a lot of the coaches & programs, and he has great self-awareness and the ability to make fun of himself and the way he looks,” Lane said in an email.

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“But more than all that he seems to have tapped into the language & world of SEC football fans; he is a reflection of who they are and what they want from their teams,” he says before adding “Would that translate to the Big 10 if he were to move networks? Highly doubtful. I have no idea how old Finebaum is, but his sort-of ‘old man/southern charm’ seems to speak to and reflect a culture down south that won’t work nearly as well up here.”

I wondered if Finebaum might be giving up a position of power with a move to the Big Ten. After all, the SEC footprint has very few cities with multiple pro teams. There are a lot of cities with a lot of sports options in the Midwest. In his email, Parker illustrated just how much of a stranglehold the NFL can have in the region, saying “Here in Milwaukee, the top team conversations are 1)Packers, 2)Aaron Rodgers, 3) Rumors about the Packers, 4) Rumors about Aaron Rodgers, 5) NL leading Brewers and at a tie for topic #6) Bucks rumors and Wisconsin Football. (props to Joe Zarbano at WEEI – I adapted his NE topic sheet haha).”

My impression has always been that is normal for the Big Ten footprint, but Jeff Rickard of 107.5/1070 the Fan in Indianapolis says that is a little off base.

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“While the B1G conference has campuses near several big cities, (New York, Chicago, Minneapolis etc.) it’s roots still exist in some of the greatest college towns in America. In places like Ann Arbor, Columbus, Bloomington, Madison or beyond the college game is just as alive and well here as anywhere in the country. In football there are traditional powers with fan bases scattered all over the country. If you’re talking OSU, PSU, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska for example (a ton of titles in that group) they’re not sliding to the side for anyone. In basketball, places such as Bloomington, Madison, Ann Arbor, West Lafayette or East Lansing are as electric on game day as any other place in the nation.  Sure, Rutgers or Maryland can get lost in the shadow of NYC or DC but the entire midwest is B1G country and you’ll see the bumper stickers, t-shirts and yard flags representing those schools everywhere,” he told me in an email.

Jeff added that passion doesn’t look the same in the Big Ten as it does in the SEC, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t passion. “Fans in B1G country are just as passionate for their teams as any other conference, they just don’t feel the need to convince everyone of that. They already know who they are and feel pretty good about it, too.”

Justin Acri, who is the program director of 103.7 the Buzz in Little Rock, says that while the Big Ten Network may be an uphill climb for Finebaum, it’s not like he is a force of nature across the SEC footprint. There are plenty of markets where he isn’t aired at all and plenty of listeners that simply don’t like the show. “I have tried to listen a few times, but alas it is not for me. The one time he was a topic of conversation was when he and Saban had their tete a tete at SEC Media Days a few years back. That being said, I tip my cap to him for his continued success.  Every show will not appeal to every man of course and this is a case in point.”

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Brad Carson feels very differently. “I think Paul Finebaum is solid and can do whatever he wants. I think he’s good at football in general as we’ve seen with how much fun he’s had with the Harbaugh stuff,” the program director of Memphis’s ESPN 92.9 told me. “He’s awesome on SEC and can translate that other ways, likely. I’d bet he’ll be awesome on national topics because he’s smart and interested in what fans want to hear in terms of topics. He’s got energy and info.”

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So the previous 1500 words and all of those quotes are a long way of saying “Paul Finebaum shifting focus to the Big Ten would be weird.” How successful would it be? That is a little harder to say.

Personally, I have always believed that as a radio host, Finebaum lives and dies with his callers. Taking his show to the Big Ten Network would most likely mean football in that conference would move to the A block of his topics list. Would the passionate fan base he has already established stay loyal to a show like that? Probably not. Would he be able to build a passionate fan base in Big Ten country doing the same thing he did in SEC country? I don’t think so. From a radio standpoint, the move wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But maybe Finebaum is thinking beyond radio. A move to Fox makes a lot of sense from a TV standpoint. The guy knows college football beyond just the SEC, so the fact that the conference has no relationship with Fox is irrelevant. Besides, it’s not like Fox won’t talk about the SEC at all. The network’s various college football shows will cover everything going on in the world of college football, just like the college football shows on ESPN and CBS do.

What makes the most sense for Paul Finebaum? That depends on what his goals are. If he wants to expand his profile beyond the Southeastern United States, a move to Fox would expose him to a brand new audience. If his goal is continued domination, a new deal with ESPN makes the most sense.

Plenty of people in our industry are of the mindset that Finebaum’s interest in the Big Ten Network is merely a negotiating tactic, and to be honest I am one of those people. Whatever the motivation and wherever he is calling home next month, what is clear is that Paul Finebaum is a valuable brand name in the world of college football.

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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