Every major professional sports league in America has teams in towns that aren’t very passionate about their sport. Atlanta, for instance, doesn’t seem to be much of an NBA town. The owners of the Marlins, no matter which owners they are, seem to go out of their way to make sure Miami will never be a Major League Baseball town.
No league deals with this phenomenon more than the NHL. That’s not an indictment. As the league expanded, it made sense to establish footprints across the South and the West Coast. While the success of teams in Nashville, Tampa, and most recently Las Vegas have created a decent fanbase in those cities, it is fair to say that the NHL had no established hockey culture to rely on in those regions.
It makes sense then, that not every NHL team has a major presence on local sports radio. As the puck gets set to drop on a new season tonight, I talked to four programmers in American cities that have a passion for hockey about how the local team is covered on their station. We reached out to a programmer in Canada, who did not respond. It sucks, but it actually gives us the chance to focus on coverage of the NHL on American sports radio, where hockey is not our national pastime.
When you think about hockey in this country, your mind might jump straight to Detroit. The Red Wings are in a bit of a down cycle, but the city is Hockeytown, USA. At least that’s what the “Welcome to Detroit” sign says.
Jimmy Powers, who programs 97.1 the Ticket, says the team’s recent struggles may have silenced some fans, but has created more conversations on his air waves. “[There’s] a lot more to talk about because of the rebuild and their new stadium.” It also doesn’t hurt that the city’s other winter team, the NBA’s Pistons, have been struggling too.
When I asked Powers how much hosts on The Ticket talked about the Pistons in relation to the Red Wings, he answered “It all depends on what is going on and what they have been doing.” It is safe to deduce then that outside of acquiring Blake Griffin from the Clippers last season, the Pistons have probably not give hosts in Detroit much of a reason to push that team into their A block.
But the Red Wings, contrary to what some of us that live outside of the D may think, aren’t always in that A block either. When I asked Powers about the hierarchy of Detroit sports, he described it as “TIGERS and LIONS, until the NHL playoffs.”
Allan Davis programs WGR, which is in Buffalo, another hockey-obsessed town. No matter how you measure it, the hometown Sabres were the NHL’s worst team last season. Davis says that definitely showed in the way his hosts talked about the team, but it didn’t push the team off the air at all. ” Like the fans – WGR can sound frustrated with the results of the Bills and Sabres at times. We are fans too. But good or bad, season in and season out – WGR tells the story of every more the teams make on an off the ice, on an off the field, no matter the results of the games. Every day starts with ‘What’s the latest news!'”
He also told me that fans in Buffalo are used to struggling teams. Until last season the Bills owned the NFL’s longest playoff drought. Davis says that means most people that are passionate about the Sabres see the team as something more than just an NHL franchise. For many in his audience, the Bills and Sabres are a stand-in for their community as a whole. “Being a fan of either of these teams means, you know and understand how proud the people of Western New York are of who they are, where they live and how they live. Honest, hardworking and giving. Win, lose or draw we stay together, always there to help each other, whenever or wherever it is needed.”
I asked Allan then how that kind of passion shows up in his coverage of local sports, and if WGR favors covering one team over the other. He said that it depends on the time of year really, but in striving to keep WGR’s local programming all about Buffalo, both teams have a year-round presence. “WGR has a two hour show – The Instigators – from 10AM-12PM that covers the Sabres all year round. From 12PM-3PM – One Bills Live – is all about the Bills all year round. From August through the fall WGR leans more Bills and football. Winter and early spring more Sabres.”
I never really thought of Washington, DC as a hockey town. Like a lot of sports fans that live outside the nation’s capital, I assumed the sports hierarchy started with the Redskins and everything under that was something of a miss mash depending on who was in contention for a title. Whether that is true or not, 106.7 the Fan program director Chris Kinard, says it didn’t take a Stanley Cup title for his station to treat the Washington Capitals like something more than an afterthought. He told me that hosts and management at The Fan have been focused on their relationship with the team for years.
“We have steadily increased our Capitals content over the last few years, and I believe we will take it to a new level this year. We will have three different players on each week, we’ll be joined by the head coach every two weeks, and we’ll have regularly scheduled segments with several of the team broadcasters. We have had the only Caps-focused radio show for a few years, and that show will continue in a regularly scheduled weekday slot again this year.”
He also said that the Capitals have been more than willing to do their part to grow the relationship as well. “Their PR staff is phenomenal. They understand that, to grow their sport, they need to get their players out in the media as ambassadors. And they know the players are GREAT ambassadors. Funny, smart, open, and easy to like. So we do more player interviews with the Capitals than probably all of the other teams combined.”
Is DC a Redskins town? Well, the team does usually dominate the headlines in the fall, but Kinard says this week “most of our focus…will be on the Capitals as they raise their Stanley Cup banner, and drop the puck on the 2018-19 season. We have special shows planned throughout the week, and a few surprises up our sleeve that I think our listeners will love.”
Finally, I talked to Jim Graci at 93.7 the Fan in Pittsburgh. That station isn’t the flagship of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but given how important the team is to local fans, Jim says you have to really know hockey if you want to work for him. “Pittsburgh is a hockey town. So to do sports talk in Pittsburgh, you better know your hockey. It’s not surprising when you have a team as successful as the Pens have been for multiple generations.”
Multiple generations is exactly right. When I asked Jim how much of a factor Sidney Crosby is in the Penguins’ popularity, he was quick to point out that while Sid the Kid moves the needle in a big way, he is just one of the many superstars that have worn the team’s sweater. “We’re blessed in Pittsburgh to have Sidney Crosby. It felt like Sid was the second coming of Mario Lemieux. And think about it, Lemieux had Jagr (Jaromir Jagr) and Sid has Geno (Evgeni Malkin). Add to it that Sid had the chance to play with Mario, who literally saved the franchise in Pittsburgh. It was the passing of the legacy torch.”
So given that multiple generations of Penguins fans have their own stars, do they also have their own rivals? Jim told me that while younger fans have a number of teams they hate, one rivalry unites the fanbase like no other. “The Washington Capitals, with the comparisons between Crosby-Malkin and Ovechkin are a rival… From a historic perspective, the Rangers and Islanders get our fans riled up. Columbus has become a rival without the history. They’re better, they play in the same division and it’s a close proximity to Pittsburgh. The years of living in the Pens’ shadow has made much more intense for their fans. Detroit was a rival, due to playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, losing one than winning one. But nothing gets hockey fans buzzing better than Pens-Flyers. And it gets even more intense when the Flyers have a good year.”
The lesson I took away from these conversations is that hockey talk can work on sports radio if your listeners have the passion to support it. It doesn’t have to be a “hockey town” necessarily to talk about major news involving the team. Conversely, even in Hockeytown, USA, a bad team can depress fan enthusiasm.
What matters is that hosts recognize passion where it exists and never treat a hockey interview or discussion like an afterthought. Powers says he gives his hosts the freedom to cover the Red Wings and the NHL as a whole however they see fit. “Our local show will take calls, but we also will be talking about the biggest news stories of the day, even if it is unrelated to what game is about to be played.”
Kinard told me he doesn’t waste time worrying about whether DC is a “hockey market.” “For many years during the “Rock the Red” era, which started about 10 years ago, you could argue that the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. I don’t know that the audience has the sophistication and knowledge of the sport as some traditional hockey cities, but they certainly have passion.”
His attitude is one of “if the fans are passionate about the Capitals, then the Capitals are worth talking about.” That may be best way to approach hockey on sports radio, especially somewhere like Raleigh, NC, which is where I live.
I, and most of my neighbors, didn’t grow up with hockey as part of our day-to-day lives. Still though, nothing in sports unites this town, which is so divided by the college sports loyalties that exist here, like the Carolina Hurricanes making the playoffs. That obviously hasn’t happened in a long time, but if our local hosts don’t take the time to at least know who the stars are and develop relationships with the team, they are going to be at a disadvantage when trying to talk about the market’s biggest story when it finally does happen again.
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.