Millions of dollars left on the table.
Founder of a 2x Inc. 5000 company.
Being linked to some of the biggest names in sports radio.
These are just a small number of things that RJ Bell has experienced throughout his career. Although RJ is proud of the great deal of success he’s achieved, he still grades himself harshly and feels like he hasn’t accomplished anything that matters yet.
There might be bigger successes in RJ’s future, but his resume is still very impressive. It’s easy to gather that his wins didn’t happen by accident. RJ had a long-term vision and strategically positioned himself accordingly. He’s the CEO/founder of pregame.com and hosts Straight Outta Vegas weekdays at 6pm ET on FOX Sports Radio. These triumphs didn’t magically fall from the sky without having a plan.
One of RJ’s greatest strengths is that he simply hasn’t forgetten that sports betting is supposed to be fun. The joy he gets from betting comes through in his words and actions. RJ makes a major prediction in this piece about the near future of sports betting. He also mentions what he believes to be the most valuable commodity in the betting world, which can also be applied to other industries as well as life in general. Enjoy.
Brian Noe: What’s the part of your job either with FOX Sports Radio or pregame.com that you enjoy the most?
RJ: I would say the new experiences with FOX Sports Radio are right at the top of the list. I’ve been a guest and doing 15 or so significant hits a week on various radio shows for a long time. Being a guest is a challenge — and initially it certainly was a challenge — but you don’t really have control of the content. You’re answering the host’s questions. Having a chance to be a creator, to allow my creativity to shine through with the Straight Outta Vegas show has been very enjoyable.
It’s a new experience for me. I’ve had a podcast for a while with Podcast One that’s more of a deep dive handicapping show. It’s done surprisingly well with the listenership, but that’s a niche offering. That’s a, “Hey, you’re a handicapper or you bet and we’ve got great betting information,” and we get our listeners.
Trying to do a national radio show — and that’s something that’s important to remember, and I know you know this, Brian — is that when you’re local you benefit from a built-in interest for those local teams. When your national, you don’t have that crutch of the local teams and you’ve got to find something generally interesting for everybody. That’s been a challenge. Quite frankly it’s been exhilarating because it’s new, but it’s also so substantial when it comes to the reach with nearly 200 stations coast to coast.
Noe: Is there anything that you have tapped into as far as controlling your own show and the direction that it goes that normal hosts interviewing you don’t pursue?
RJ: Our research shows that about half the people who listen to Straight Outta Vegas do not gamble regularly. Now that number I think is going to shock a lot of people, but I’m very proud of it. I really cultivate the concept that there’s a Vegas perspective to anything. Whereas, okay, there’s a buffet and it has a lunch price, and it has a dinner price. The dinner price is more. Part of the reason for that is they bring out the lamb chops for dinner, but you don’t have the lamb chops for lunch. A Vegas guy is going to think, “Wait a second. It switches over at 4. I’ll go eat an early dinner at 3:45, pay the lunch price, but eat all of the lamb chops I want.”
That kind of value-based mentality is something — and really if you think about life — life is bets. You’re making bets if you decide am I going to drive without a seatbelt? Or am I going to drive past the speed limit? The bet might be “am I going to live or die?”. The bet might be “am I going to get a ticket or not?”, and the economics of that. The bet may be something like the clam chowder here is half price but it’s a day old. Is it worth the chance of getting sick?
The poker player, Annie Duke, wrote a book recently called Thinking in Bets and it really explores that concept that we’re all weighing odds pretty much all day. To have a group of people with me hosting that do that professionally and then apply that thinking not just to who’s going to win the game, but was that a smart trade or not? And all of the different sports topics that the talk shows discuss to me is different. I’ve been very enthused at the response to that, I think, unique approach.
Noe: How do you go about finding that middle ground where you are stimulating the hardcore gamblers, but you aren’t causing the new people to swim in details they’re unfamiliar with?
RJ: Yeah, I think there’s two answers to that question, two different facets to the answer. One is, I have zero personal interest in playing to the purist. Every industry, which is niche initially, and then becomes mainstream, has that challenge as it’s emerging into the mainstream. You’ve got the purists and they are saying, “This is how we critique and grade and validate people in our industry.” The purists usually are the ones who were the arbiters of right and wrong that led to the industry being small and niche in the first place. To apply those rules as it goes mainstream is a big mistake.
It’s kind of funny how often I think there is an analogy to professional wrestling and sports betting content. The reason being is the idea that it’s an industry that we all know people like, people do, but it’s always been on the periphery. It’s always been kind of gray. Wrestling is, “You’re dumb if you watch wrestling,” and, “Oh, if you bet you’re a degenerate,” or, “You’re a sucker.” The way that Vince McMahon came in and said listen this isn’t about any purist, this is about entertainment and how can we entertain the fan?
You had this purgatory that the WCW/NWA, those guys were like, “Hey, we’re purists. We’re wrestling and it’s not real — wink, wink — but it’s more real.” Well, no, if it’s not real, it’s not real. Here’s the analogy with sports betting. Probably the thing I say the most often is your chance of winning as a sports bettor — talking to the nation, all the listeners — is about the same as making the NBA. Some of you are going to be able to do that, just like some high school kids make the NBA, but most of you aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with that.
If you know that you’re negative EV, then you look at it as recreation. If you look at it as recreation, you don’t fool yourself that you’re in this for an investment, that this is a money-making endeavor. It doesn’t mean you can’t win in any given week or month or even year. It doesn’t mean that you might not surprise yourself and be that one in a long shot that has enough talent, willpower, discipline, work ethic to do it, but most won’t. If they’re doing it for fun, there’s no harm in that.
So, we very much strive to help people win more, but winning more is very different than winning long-term and profiting. That distinction frees us up so much. One, we can be honest. Anyone who’s not saying this is lying. I always say there’s a lot of great information providers out there. Pregame is one of them we hope, but there’s a lot of great ones. The ones to run away from are the ones that say it’s easy to win, because you know they are scamming. The ones that say it’s hard to win, but we think we’ve got the answer — okay be skeptical, but at least they’re being honest about that.
A long time ago, we freed ourselves of any thought of being anything but 100 percent honest about it’s tough to win, now let’s all have some fun. I know that’s a different audience than most of the shows, but I think that’s one of the drivers of our success. Also finally, a driver of the fact that we’re able to reach the casual better or even the non-bettor because we’re not trying to pass a purity test and we’re not trying to fool anyone that this is easy to win.
Noe: How many years have you been working in the sports betting industry and what made you initially want to get into it?
RJ: I graduated from Ohio State in 1992 with a finance degree. I did quite well in school. Now in high school I did horribly, and I grew up in a small town in Ohio — 4,000 people, zero stop lights, one fast-food place, it was a Dairy Queen, but it closed for five months of the year during the winter, so you had to get your Brazier Burger when the weather was fine. Going to Ohio State obviously was big change, going to Columbus, and I decided, hey, I think I can do this. I applied myself.
As it was discussed — the New York Times did an article a couple of years ago that I was involved in — they really thought it was fascinating that I was accepted into Harvard Law School after. It was like, “Who’s this guy who’s in gambling who could have went to Harvard Law School?” It really was not just, hey, I hate the straight world. There’s a lot of hypocrisy I don’t like about the conventional straight world, but it was more that I thought this industry doesn’t have as many serious people in it. Maybe serious isn’t the word, but they don’t have as many corporate types in it.
My thinking at the time was, hey, I’m pretty good at this finance stuff, but there’s certainly a ton of people better than me. I also thought — and this was certainly the case at the time when I was in my mid-20s — there’s a lot of people that know a lot more about sports betting than me, but I didn’t feel like there were a lot that knew both as well as I did. As time passed, I think that’s proven out to be generally true.
Now we’re seeing with legalization some really serious players getting involved: the venture capitalists, the Silicon Valley types, and the corporate types. I very much welcome that, because it’s back to the idea of the old-timers versus the emerging new market. I believe that the hypertalented, fresh-thinking groups that come into this industry on the bookmaking side and the content side are just going to produce a better product for the gambler.
Ultimately — and I say this sincerely because I can promise you I have personal goals and personal interests, but I’ve aligned myself with the bettor. I really believe that one of the biggest mistakes the mainstream media companies have made, the ESPN’s of the world — and I very much like ESPN in many ways. I don’t like everything, but to me it’s not FOX versus ESPN. It never has been and it won’t be for me ever, but I think they make a mistake when it comes to their sports betting coverage.
Not naming names and I’m not looking to be negative about any individual, but unless I’m mistaken they don’t have one person on payroll that is full-time with gambling. To think about the concept that there’s a subindustry that’s so big and so emerging and it’s, “Hey, let’s get this part-time guy that writes about high school football for the online edition of his local newspaper.” That guy might be a great guy, he might not be. Who knows and who cares? It’s how much does he know about sports betting?
Here’s why they tend to do that. What are the credentials in sports betting? If you’re looking for a doctor, he better have an MD. You better figure out how good the school he went to was, or the specialization, or all of these other ways to be credentialed. Well, as a sports bettor you don’t get a degree. You don’t get in a Hall of Fame typically. What have the big media companies done? They’ve leaned on amateur writers who then don’t know who to go to because there’s not a credentialed list, so they go to the sportsbooks.
One of the things I genuinely believe you can be critical of the big media companies about is their coverage of sports betting is almost invariably from the sportsbooks’ perspective. I get it because, “Hey, this guy is the sportsbook operator for this big casino XYZ.” It doesn’t even matter which casino. “They’ve got a big billion-dollar brand, so I can trust this guy.” Yeah, you probably can. He’s probably not going to deceive you, but I promise he’s going to tell you a story that’s favorable for his side of the counter. To me, the bettor side of the counter haven’t really had the advocates that they need and that’s something that I pride myself on trying to be.
Noe: Why is it that the NBA is progressive and embraces the fact that many people bet on sports, where on the other hand the NFL and MLB resist embracing sports betting?
RJ: Great question. I think there’s two answers to that question. The simple answer is how much do they need the money? Meaning the NFL is king — I was on with Colin Cowherd about a year ago talking about this very topic — the NFL had the best situation possible up until legalization, which was we can be completely sanctimonious and poo-poo sports betting while collecting and benefiting from a vast majority of the potential benefits out there. People were still betting and the interest in the games and the interest in the conversation around the games — things like the NFL Network et cetera — all benefited from gambling, but at the same time the league could say, “Oh, we don’t believe in it. We don’t like it.”
Sanctimony plus profit equals smiley face for the NFL. Makes sense. Now with legalization there’s so much more money to be made by embracing it, oh low and behold, “You know we’ve reconsidered. It’s not so bad.” With the NFL being in the driver’s seat financially compared to the other leagues, they could be a little bit more sanctimonious and a little slower to adopt something that does have it’s detractors. Certainly there are a certain percentage of people that just think gambling is wrong. They could avoid offending them without losing too much of the revenue, because the revenue was coming in in a tangential way. I think that’s answer one.
I think answer two is simpler. You’ve got legacy money, old-school money in the NFL for the most part, and you’ve got more forward-looking owners in the NBA. Let’s give commissioner Silver a ton of credit. It’s been more than a few years that he wrote the first major commissioner kind of op-ed saying in the New York Times we can’t be this hypocritical. If we’re involved with daily fantasy, it’s pretty much the same thing. Let’s be honest about it and move forward.
That I thought was a smart move, but we know the billionaires — they’re smart in a lot of ways but they’re not always smart in every way. I think that Silver has seen the hypocrisy of daily fantasy being okay but sports betting not being okay at the time. Him embracing that really tore down some of the friction to get us to where we are today.
Noe: Have you noticed any difference since legalization with how you’ve been treated in general? I’m thinking before legalization some might have looked down at you like, “Hey, here’s this guy. He’s just trying to make a buck off of these suckers.” Maybe not looking at you being as smart as you are. Now since legalization maybe that thinking has changed. Has that happened at all?
RJ: Not from individuals. I think some of that is the approach I took. One of the things on pregame.com that we really prided ourselves on, is once there was any uncertainty about online sportsbooks and the legality — and this goes all the way back to 2008 or so — we stopped dealing in any way with any online sportsbook. There was a lot of money, and I mean literally millions of dollars left on the table, but for me it was with an eye towards society is moving to embrace this and if you’re in bed with companies in Costa Rica or offshore country XYZ, it’s going to be a challenge to extricate yourself from that later.
I also think a second approach of mine personally has been understanding trust was the most valuable commodity. If you watch a movie like Two for the Money, if you watch any of the old Saturday morning touts shows on USA Network, those guys were very good at what they did. They were confidence guys. They were salesman. If you watch a movie like Wolf of Wall Street, what Jordan Belfort did in that movie and in his book – and I guess in his real life assuming that his book was a true depiction – is very similar to what a Stu Feiner did back in the day. I don’t know Stu personally. I don’t know really anything about his business except there was a group of guys that were running boiler rooms back then.
That’s what people thought of when they thought of sports information.
Jimmy the Greek did a great job for himself, but it was such an niche. It was a, “He’s Jimmy the Greek.” Otherwise it was the guys on Saturday morning. What I figured was, well if I can get next to the ESPN’s of the world, the FOX’s of the world, the Stephen A Smith’s, the Colin Cowherd’s, how do I get next to them? Through providing them with differentiated content. Through providing them with value.
When I initially was on the Herd — I mean we’re going back eight years ago — Colin’s producer at the time, in my opinion one of the great producers in radio, Vince Kates, just a brilliant radio guy — we had a casual relationship and he’s like, “Hey, we’re going to start having a handicapper on once a week and we want you to start.” My first thought was how can I make this segment so good that Vince is going to think, “You know forget the other guys, let’s just keep RJ on!” What I came up with was the whole wiseguy grade on Colin’s picks. Luckily Colin liked it, Vince liked it, and they allowed me to continue that segment.
Now imagine it’s a year from then or nine months from then and someone says, “Oh, there’s that RJ guy. Oh yeah, he’s a pick guy,” or, “Hey, he’s a gambler,” but, “Oh, you know I actually heard him on Colin Cowherd.” Now it’s not so easy to just be prejudiced against my career, my industry, because a guy like a Colin Cowherd is involved. Luckily through a lot of effort, and it was a focus of mine, I was able to build those relationships with multiple media companies and hosts on their platforms to the point that eventually it wasn’t, “There’s RJ Bell, he’s a Vegas gambler,” but rather, “There’s RJ Bell, you probably saw him on the Herd or Stephen A Smith.”
Noe: With sports betting being legalized on a state-to-state basis, I’m thinking about new bettors that haven’t even dabbled in gambling that now will. There are a ton of things that you could say in terms of giving advice to new gamblers, but what would be the two most important pieces of advice you would give to someone who’s brand new to it?
RJ: Bet less per game and bet less games. I mean it’s really that simple because the basic premise, the founding principle of what we’re doing with Straight Outta Vegas and pregame.com is it’s hard to win. People just are shocked when they hear that because it’s like, wait a minute. Aren’t you the guy that’s supposed to be saying, bet this game and by a car and once you buy that car you’re going to have a hot girl that wants to ride in it with you?
I never wanted that, but even if I did I could never be as good as those Saturday morning guys at that. That’s in their bones it seems. What was in my bones was I love gambling. Let me try to spread the joy and the pleasure I get from it if it’s done smart and if it’s done recreationally. Really it all comes back to that. As the industry grows, the risk grows for sure of problem gambling. But I think if the mentality is it’s fun, it’s not about getting rich quick, boy you could avoid a lot of the problems.
Noe: What do you see the future being? For example, soon you might go to a game and sports betting is readily available. Is there anything that you foresee happening in the next five years that you’re positioning yourself for right now and getting ahead of the curve?
RJ: I think this is so big that I’m going to answer more toward the industry rather than my business. I think my business is going to be driven by two things — what is the objective of the content we produce? As we said with Straight Outta Vegas is we want everybody on FOX Sports Radio listening coast to coast that’s a sports fan to think, “Oh, this is different.” I tell my producer, Loren [Gardner], and he’s been with FOX a long time. I’m only interested in doing segments which are either better or different.
If you’ve got Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd, Doug Gottlieb, and then me? Chances are I’m not doing very much better in typical sports talk. It’s like being on the Dream Team in ‘92, right? I’m not going to dunk better than Jordan. Well, this is the dream team of radio in my opinion. I am humbled to follow those three. I’m very sincere. If I’m doing the same thing as Colin, I’m done. I’m second best at best. And not even that, but I can do a Vegas perspective hopefully that’s either better or different.
Ultimately, embracing that it’s recreational and providing that audience with something better or different, that’s the business goal. I think it’s important, and I’ll keep this short, but it’s so important about where the industry is going. I think the legacy Vegas sportsbooks are in big trouble because I believe the differentiator for legalized sports betting in the future is going to be technology.
If you think about Facebook, what does Facebook do better? It’s the user experience. The ability of company XYZ to be a big player in sports betting is going to be about cultivating that user experience. I don’t think the Vegas casinos — boy when it comes to brick and mortar and gamblers they’re the best in the universe. When it comes to online? Specifically apps? I think you look at Silicon Valley. My prediction number one is that you’re going to see the sportsbooks of the future look more like Silicon Valley companies and technology companies than Vegas casinos.
The eye popper, the shocker of that — and I’m going to make a prediction and we’ll look back on it in two years and see if I’m right — I believe that the interface between smart TVs and the operating system that sits on top of the television is where the next big move is going to be. Let’s use for example Roku, or let’s say Apple TV. You might buy brand TV XY or Z, but they’re going to have apps on that television and it might be again Roku, it might be Apple TV, whatever.
Imagine the following. Imagine an Apple TV partners with a sports betting company and they say, “Okay we’re going to allow you to have your interface” — and forget the business side of it because maybe it’s, “We take 85% of the revenue,” Apple says or whatever. In this hypothetical, Apple will keep an arm’s length from the gambling itself, but imagine if Apple says, “See that space in the right corner of the TV when the football game is on? If you want to have your in-game betting right there, then all you guys start bidding on it. Whoever gives us the best deal, you can slide in there.”
Everyone always thought it was going to be a triangle with the bookmakers, the leagues, and the TV networks to get that app in the corner of the football game. I think it’s going to be simply the software company that sits on top of the television telling the leagues, “Hey, we don’t need you,” and telling the networks, “Hey, we don’t need you.”
Now maybe they’ll pay them a percentage to make the peace, a business expense. I believe the lion’s share is going to go to the technology companies like Apple and even the bookmakers themselves that Apple might partner with are going to be a commodity. Bookmakers pretty much are interchangeable. That real estate on your smart TV screen enabled to in-game bet — will LeBron James make this next free throw? Will the field goal kicker make this next kick? That kind of stuff is the future. We see it in Europe and I think it’s the future that technology is going to own, not the networks or even the leagues.
Noe: Do you see any downside of legalized sports betting? For example, if you look at the NBA’s last two minute reports or the NFL stressing that a call was missed in an effort to disprove the outcome was fixed. Do you see leagues going overboard when it comes to being transparent to show that there isn’t anything shady about the result of a game?
RJ: Give me an example of what would be overboard.
Noe: Maybe if you took the last two minute report in the NBA and extended it to the second half report.
RJ: And why would that be a bad thing?
Noe: It could be overkill. Leagues could go so far to show they aren’t doing anything improper that fans might get annoyed and worn out by it.
RJ: If we got there I would celebrate. If the typical response of the league XYZ saying, “Hey, we want to give you more information in the spirit of transparency or more insight in the spirit of transparency,” and then if the average response was, “Enough already, we know it’s all on the up-and-up,” then I think win. We’ve won. Now we’re not as worried about legalization and corruption around that.
Here is probably the thing I pound my fist on the most because it’s so logical. Increased regulation in any marketplace leads to less corruption. Think about the SEC, not the Southeastern Conference, but the Securities and Exchange Commission. Around Roosevelt and FDR it was like, “Uh-oh, the stock market, a lot of shenanigans going on. Let’s have an oversight organization.”
Think about your wife, your girlfriend, whomever that you maybe want to hide a few things from. It might be, “Hey, I’m going to eat a Snickers bar.” Well if she’s out at the book club for the night, you’re going to eat that Snickers and you’re going to eat as many Snickers as you want. You’re going to make sure you wash your hands and face before she comes back. But if she’s got a nanny cam on you making sure you’re not eating Snickers, that’s going to be harder. I don’t care what it is that people want to do that is wrong or something that the overseeing body doesn’t want them to do. The more oversight there is, the less likely people are going to do it. The oversight acts as a deterrent.
A good friend of mine in the industry, Matt Holt, he was with CG Technology for a long time as a vice president and he started his own company. They have funding and it’s been a success so far in that it’s an integrity company. The whole business of that company, or at least the majority of it, is looking at the data as it comes in from all the different betting places and saying, “Is there anything that’s irregular here?”
To me, yeah it’s possible. We’re going to get to the point that everyone is so confident they’re going to say enough already, but that is a ways off still. There still are a lot of people thinking, “Hold on, RJ. If there was no legalized betting, there wouldn’t be any betting to fix games on anyway. To quote Michael Corleone, “Who’s being naive now?” We know the betting is going to happen regardless. If it’s regulated, there’s going to be less corruption.
Noe: Yeah, I agree with that. All the people that are envisioning point-shaving scandals or gamblers getting their hooks into a college basketball team — I don’t know what’s changed. We’re talking about legalization on a state-to-state basis. I can’t imagine the random Joe Schmo that’s now legally betting fifty bucks on a game is all of a sudden going to strong-arm some kid into throwing a game. I just don’t see it.
RJ: But if you’re willing to break the law to fix a game, aren’t you willing to break the law to bet illegally on that game?
Noe: Yeah, but if you weren’t betting illegally to begin with, then why would I believe that because you’re betting legally now, you’re going to do something way more illegal, which is to try to fix a game?
RJ: You’re exactly right. For anyone to even consider fixing a game the “illegality” in some states of sports betting is an irrelevancy. Thus, anyone who was inclined to try to fix a game in the past doesn’t care if it’s legal or illegal, so the only factor is if there’s more legal betting and less illegal betting, there’s more people like Matt Holt tracking the betting and finding out the people who are fixing the games.
Quick story, Jimmy Vaccaro, one of the true legends and sportsbook operators in Vegas was at the Mirage when the Arizona State college basketball fixing occurred. As he tells the story, literally guys walked into the Mirage with a bunch of cash and said, “I want to bet against Arizona State.” He said, “What’s that point spread? What does that number up there mean?” The guy didn’t even know what the point spread was.
Vaccaro says, “Well,” — I’m going by memory so it’s probably wrong, the number — “that’s +6.” He said, “Okay, I want to bet against them. How much can I bet?” He says you can bet whatever the limit was. He bet it. Now he says, “I want to bet it again.” Jimmy said, “Well, we’ve got to move the line.” The line goes to let’s say 5.5. Bet it again. So he bets it a few times, max bet every time. Jimmy’s like this is weird. The guy doesn’t even know what a spread is and he’s betting it.
He goes, “Hey, let me get your license, I want to give you a buffet. You should eat all the shrimp you want. So the guy gives his driver’s license and it’s because of that move Jimmy reported it, and they ended up catching the guys. Think about that. That’s a small example, but if that was a bookie that you met in a bar that was mobbed up or whatever, they wouldn’t have any concern, they’d be thinking, “Hey, if this game is fixed, how can we go bet it with some other bookie?” They’re not looking to get the guys driver’s license. The legalization will deter game fixing and corruption. Fact.
Noe: Is there anything that you want to accomplish that you haven’t thus far either in the industry or something well outside of it?
RJ: I feel like everything I’ve done both as a businessman — and I am proud of the fact that pregame.com is a two-time Inc. 5000 company. Multiple millions of dollars of revenue is one of the requirements of being an Inc. 5000 company — and being a coal miner’s son, quite frankly, and doing that with the help for sure of my current team and the team members of the past. I’m proud of that. I am, but to me it all has felt like a prelude to something so much bigger.
There’s an old funny saying. Joe Kennedy said the first million is the toughest. It’s like to get from nothing — and literally I moved out to Vegas in 1998 with $3,000 in cash. That was pretty much what I had out of college. To go from there to the Inc. 5000 has taken a lot of work and a long time, but the idea that in the next five years, I could 5x or 10x what we’re doing is very possible. In one way I’m proud of how hard it was to go from nothing to something, but I’m excited about going from something to something really big. That’s on the business side.
On the media side, I don’t believe I’ve accomplished anything that matters yet. I’m super critical of my work and I think that’s helped me to get better as the time has passed. When I listen to Colin, when I listen to other guys on FOX and certainly other guys on CBS and ESPN — I personally believe this is probably a controversial position that I think Stephen A. Smith is a masterful broadcaster. In a way some of the things people don’t like about Stephen A Smith is proof of how good he is at what he does. I don’t put myself anywhere in their class.
I hope in my own way I could eventually get there. If the day came where I did a week of radio shows with my Straight Outta Vegas team that I said, “You know something, just maybe this week of shows could stand up to this week of Colin’s shows, or Dan Patrick’s shows,” that to me would be a great achievement. It’s something I really want to achieve. It’s a passion, but I know are ways from that, and thus yes, that is a grand goal I have.
Noe: I do have to ask being a coal miner’s son — is that where you developed your love for squirrel stew?
RJ: (laughs) You know I thought you were going to say where I got my accent from, but yes, my dad was a hunter. Now this dude worked — he’s retired now — he worked 60-plus hours almost every week of the year. It wasn’t 40, it was 60, but he would take off a week for deer season. Like three days for squirrel season, and three days for rabbit season. Let me tell you, he wasn’t the best shot, but when he came home with something, we were eating it the next night or you were not eating.
Noe: How would you describe the taste of squirrel stew to someone who has never indulged in such a thing?
RJ: A very gamey chicken.
Noe: (laughs) Fair enough. Fair enough. I have to thank you because I interviewed you years ago, actually on FOX Sports Radio, and for some reason I always thought it was — what was I saying? Not wiseguys. What was the term? It was a certain term…
RJ: Oh, I think you said sharks instead of sharps.
Noe: That’s what it was! Yes, I said sharks because I thought it was like they sensed blood in the water so I thought it was the sharks in Vegas, not the sharps, and you played it off very nicely instead of calling me out on it.
RJ: Well I’ll tell you this, the first major media hit I ever did — and it was a weekly — was Mason & Ireland in LA. I consider both of those guys to be friends. I did that hit for nine years and just had to stop with the FOX deal. Mason to this day — eight years plus in — he would call them sharks. So, you were not alone with that one.
Mike Silver Has An NFL Backstage Pass
“When you go through a career transition like that, let alone during a pandemic, you find out a referendum on all your relationships.”
It was the 2010 NFL Draft and standout wide receiver Dez Bryant was eligible to be selected by a professional football team. As a journalist, Mike Silver has always looked to enterprise stories and wanted to be with Bryant when the moment he had been waiting for finally arrived.
Through a preexisting relationship with Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, he got in touch with Bryant and received permission to attend his draft celebration. Before being selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys, Bryant revealed to him that then-Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland had asked him during the pre-draft process if his mother was a prostitute.
Once that information was published in Silver’s column, Ireland had to publicly apologize and was subsequently put under investigation by the team’s majority owner Stephen Ross.
“People were like, ‘How did you get that?,’ but I was very proud because really the way I got it was because Deion Sanders respected me enough based on things that had happened decades earlier and the way that I conducted myself that I was able to ultimately get to Dez,” Silver expressed. “That to me is a validation. I’ve nurtured relationships for years and years that have led to zero reporting and thought, ‘It’s okay; it’s just part of the process. It is what it is.’”
From the start, Silver was a believer in journalism and the power the profession had in divulging stories in pursuit of the truth. Born in San Francisco, Calif. and raised in Los Angeles, he would read The Los Angeles Times sports section for a half hour per day, observing the proclivities and vernacular of other writers. As a high school student, he co-authored a sports column in the Palisades Charter High School Tideline with current Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, gaining practical experience in journalism and cultivating professional relationships.
“I was the only Warriors fan in our school because I was born in San Francisco so he used to clown me for being a Warriors and 49ers fan like everyone else in our school – so I ended up having the last laugh,” Silver said. “By old standards, you’d say, ‘You can’t cover Steve Kerr. That’s your friend.’ I think in 2022 if I have to cover Steve Kerr, I’ll just be like, ‘You know what? Everyone knows we’re friends. I’m just going to be up front about it.’”
Silver attended the University of California, Berkeley where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mass communication and media studies. The school was not known for profound levels of success within its football and basketball programs, according to Silver; however, the student newspaper was a place to gain repetitions in covering sports and having finished work published, printed and distributed.
Towards the end of his time in college, Silver wrote stories that were published in The Los Angeles Times, the newspaper he grew up reading and from which he drew inspiration to become a journalist.
“We would tell the players we covered, ‘Hey, we’re trying to go to the pros too, and we’re not going to get jobs in this industry if we don’t write the truth,’” Silver said. “We were trying to break in as legitimate journalists and we definitely ruffled some feathers along the way.”
Once he graduated from school, Silver began his professional career writing for The Sacramento Union where he covered the San Francisco 49ers. Silver grew up as a football fan and was familiar with the team but always tried to find original, untold angles to differentiate his stories from others. Shortly thereafter, he transitioned to join The Santa Clara Press Democrat as a beat writer and used the time to further develop his writing and reporting skills. Five years later, he was in talks to land his dream job as a writer in Sports Illustrated, a prolific sports magazine focused on producing original content.
Sports Illustrated was released on Wednesdays and operated under the belief of trying to omit any stories that may have been reported in the days prior. The goal was to tell stories that were under the radar and would be impactful and memorable for its readers.
During a typical week, Silver would visit both the home and road teams in their own cities with the hopes of connecting with players and team personnel. After a game, he would go to the locker room, yet he would try to avoid doing one-on-one interviews since the content would likely be published elsewhere before the magazine was released.
Then, his writing process commenced and often went through the night, as Sports Illustrated had a 9 a.m. EST deadline the following morning. By taking the approach of enterprising stories, Silver quickly became one of the most venerated and trusted sportswriters in the country, composing over 70 cover stories for the publication.
With the advent of the internet though, journalism and communication was forever changed allowing for the free flow of information and ideas in a timely manner.
“Now I can arrogantly write to whatever length I want and every precious word of mine could be broadcast to the masses, but [back then] you better have it the exact length because it’s going on a page,” Silver said. “You’re maybe reading over a story 15 times or more to get it just right before the seven layers of editing kick in. You’re also leaving theoretically half of your great stuff on the cutting room table never to surface again or seldom.”
Nurturing a relationship built on trust and professionalism is hardly facile in nature, and it required enduring persistence and resolute determination to achieve for Silver. Through these relationships, he has been able to create both distinctive and original types of content. As innovations in technology engendered shifts in consumption patterns though, he decided to do what he originally perceived as being unthinkable and left Sports Illustrated after nearly 13 years.
“When I went there, I felt like we had 30 of the 35 best sportswriters in America and it was murderer’s row,” Silver said of Sports Illustrated. “I had a great, great experience there the whole time so I never thought I’d leave.”
After meeting with Yahoo Sports Executive Editor Dave Morgan and being given an offer with flexibility in the job and a promise of a lucrative salary, Silver knew it was simply too good to pass up. He opted to still write a column on Sundays to counterprogram Peter King at Sports Illustrated, who authored his own weekly “Monday Morning Quarterback” column.
Additionally, Silver agreed to write two additional branded columns per week in a quest to adapt to the digital age of media.
“I was trying to stay current and connect to an internet generation and keep up with the way that people were consuming their content at that time,” Silver said. “….We just had a spirit at Yahoo that we weren’t owned by anyone, we didn’t have a deal with the league and we were going to report the news in a very unfiltered way.”
An advent of the digital age in media has been the practice of writers appearing on television to present their information en masse, requiring changes in their delivery. Unlike in a written piece, reporting on television requires efficiently making key points and speaking in shorter phrases to allow the viewer to easily follow the discussion. Moreover, writers are sometimes presented with questions that may provoke deeper thought or analysis, and occasionally challenge their lines of reporting.
Silver never thought he would work in television, but as a part of his contract with NFL Media, he was writing columns and serving as an analyst on select NFL Network programming. In working on television on a league-owned entity, it forced him to step out of his comfort zone and pursue mastery of a new skill set.
“I never wanted to do TV voice and be cheesy and look like someone who was trained for the medium so my strategy was more to try to be myself on camera and see how that translated,” Silver articulated. “It seemed to work to some degree – and then obviously I picked up a lot of tricks of the trade and techniques and got better reps. Essentially, I think reporting is reporting [and] information is information.”
Moving into television, a medium with sports coverage that is, at its core, nonlinear due to the potential for breaking news and unexpected occurrences, changed the manner in which the information was presented and/or prioritized on the air. In a column, Silver’s goal was to find original angles and obtain anecdotes and quotes to implement into the storytelling. Now on television, sources were still used largely on the condition of deep background, meaning no individual or group could be attributed to the information in any way.
“With TV, there was an element of, ‘Hey man, I’m just trying to sound smart when I talk about you guys,’ which is code for, ‘I don’t have to use your name when I say this stuff, but when I’m weighing on why you just traded for Trent Richardson, help me understand what’s really going on with the Indianapolis Colts at this moment,’” Silver explained. “That’s just a random example. I liked [television] more than I thought I would.”
Silver’s contract was not renewed at NFL Network in 2021, providing a stark change in his lifestyle and leaving him looking for a job in the midst of trying economic times. Through a relationship he had with sports radio host Colin Cowherd, he was given the opportunity to join his upstart podcast platform The Volume as a host. Cowherd eagerly recruited Silver to the platform following a lunch in which the topic came up naturally in conversation about future endeavors.
“When you go through a career transition like that, let alone during a pandemic, you find out a referendum on all your relationships and I have a lot of them from players, coaches, owners and GMs to media people and friends in other industries, etc.,” he explained. “Colin Cowherd is someone I’ll never, ever, ever forget or stop being grateful to…. We were kind of talking some stuff out and he was like, ‘Why don’t we do a show on my network?,’ and we started talking about what that would be. We left lunch… and about 10 minutes later he called me and said, ‘Okay, here’s what I think,’ and kind of continued it.”
Today, Silver is hosting an interview-based program called Open Mike featuring guests from the world of professional football. Recent guests on the program have included Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff, New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh and Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marvin Jones. Prior to joining The Volume, Silver had hosted a podcast with his daughter called Pass It Down, which ultimately ran for over 50 episodes and gave him experience working within the medium.
“I’m sitting there spending an hour with [Las Vegas] Raiders GM Dave Ziegler or [Buffalo Bills] linebacker Von Miller or whoever we have on,” Silver said. “You’re not only getting to know that person; you’re watching the way I connect with that person and usually have a body of work with that person, and there’s a comfort level there too.”
John Marvel was Silver’s direct boss at NFL Media and a friend he kept in touch with for many years. Through various correspondences and the dynamic media landscape, they decided to start their own media venture called Backstage Media. The company has a first-look deal with Meadowlark Media – a company co-founded by John Skipper, who also serves as its chief executive officer. Skipper was formerly the president of ESPN and someone Silver wished he had worked for earlier in his career.
“I did not know John Skipper before I left NFL Network,” he said. “I didn’t particularly have a dream to [ever] work at ESPN. We’ve had conversations over the years – ESPN and I – and it never seemed like the perfect fit for me. Now that I know John Skipper, it’s like ‘I would have worked for that guy any time.’ He’s fantastic, [and] I’m just so pumped to be in business with him.”
The company, which focuses on producing documentaries and other unscripted programming through the intersection of sports, music and entertainment, has various projects in development. The idea was derived out of both of their penchants for storytelling and an attempt to utilize new platforms built for engagement within the modern-day media marketplace.
“We’re hoping that documentaries, docuseries [and] episodic podcasts – mostly unscripted – …will be kind of our wheelhouse,” Silver said. “….There’s about four big things that are [hopefully] close to being announced. One’s football; one’s boxing; one is basketball; and one is kind of a blend of some things. I feel like we have a pretty diverse set of interests.”
Joining The San Francisco Chronicle as a football reporter has been indicative of a full-circle moment for Silver, as he is once again around the San Francisco 49ers and writing columns about the team and other sports around the Bay Area at large. Today, he is working with Scott Ostler and Ann Kllion, and directly with Eric Branch on the outlet’s 49ers coverage. Through it all, he seeks to continue gaining access to places that the ordinary person would only be able to dream about in order to tell compelling and informative stories, no matter how they may be delivered or on what platform(s) to which it may be distributed.
“I’m old school in a lot of my mentality in terms of journalism and storytelling and all of that,” Silver said. “I think those things don’t go away. I think it’s journalism first; relationship first; access first; storytelling first; and you figure out the rest.”
As for the future of the profession which has ostensibly become less defined because of the evolution of social media and communication, relationships and storytelling have truly become the differentiators. Silver aims to continue practicing what has allowed him to gain exclusive scoops in the industry and tell stories that would otherwise, perhaps, fly under the radar, but do so in a way that does not jeopardize his sources.
“I’m going to try to develop relationships and cultivate relationships where people trust me and give me a sense of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m going to try to get into places that you, as the consumer, couldn’t otherwise go and take you there, and I’m going to err on the side of the relationship as opposed to finding out one thing that could cause a splash that day on Twitter.”
Some athletes are hosting podcasts or writing columns to directly communicate with their fans, including Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green on The Volume, intensifying the quest for engagement and attraction. Yet Silver advises journalists looking to break into the industry not to get distracted in meeting certain metrics, instead adhering to best practices and reporting truthful information without ambiguity.
“Just don’t get undone by the noise,” Silver said. “Put your head down; hyperfocus; grind; tell good stories; do journalism and hopefully over the course of time, that will stand out. I’d still like to believe that.”
Covering professional sports, specifically football, generates a large amount of potential storylines on which journalists can report – and today, digital platforms give them the ability to cover them in different ways. While some scoops may requit a large article, others may be able to be told in 280 characters or less, such as a trade rumor or injury. The amount of information Silver and his colleagues uncovered working for a print publication and then had to omit because of space limitations underscores a key journalistic principle of efficient and truthful storytelling. In today’s media landscape, he hopes to be able to do that regardless of its means of dissemination.
“If you went back and just looked at our normal… feature or story off a game [and] the level we reported on a Wednesday and translated that to a Twitter generation, people would lose their minds about how much we found out and how much we reported with on-the-record quotes usually, and they’d be like, ‘He said what!?,” Silver said. “That’s all we knew and that’s [how] we did it…. I don’t think people understand how much the threshold has changed. It’s all good. The most important things hopefully haven’t changed.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Video Simulcasts Are Now A Must Have For Sports Radio
All of these shows have done an amazing job of constantly communicating with their audiences to make sure they’re aware of changes coming their way.
Video simulcasts of sports talk radio and podcasts have gone up extraordinarily in quality as of late. The craft started as a novelty that very few participated in. ESPN and YES Network dominated the genre with their simulcasts of Mike and Mike in the Morning and Mike and the Mad Dog respectively. Slowly but surely other sports networks and RSN’s picked up the genre over time and it has now become a major component within sports coverage in the streaming world.
The most popular and prominent shows in the medium right now include The Dan Patrick Show, The Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz, The Pat McAfee Show, and The Rich Eisen Show. These four shows in particular have done an excellent job of independently producing and building out their video content to look visually appealing while also engage with the audience through graphics, pictures, stats on screen. In McAfee’s case, his company even entered into a rights agreement with the NFL for highlights.
Finding their shows can be difficult at times. Eisen’s show has moved from television to Peacock and to Roku Channel all within the span of a couple years. When LeBatard’s shipping container first began their live video voyage they didn’t have a consistent schedule. Patrick’s show has also leapt between RSNs, national networks, YouTube and its current home on Peacock. But all of these shows have done an amazing job of constantly communicating with their audiences to make sure they’re aware of changes coming their way.
The video simulcasts have become so lucrative for these shows that they’ve found sponsors to advertise against what they’re offering and they ensure that they pay attention to the look of the show. Commercials that feel like television play during Patrick and Eisen’s shows. Logos are displayed during LeBatard’s broadcast and NFL Films vignettes that you would find on NFL Network air in the middle of McAfee’s broadcast.
McAfee’s show recently moved into a new studio in Indianapolis specifically built for them by FanDuel and just yesterday LeBatard announced they would be moving into their own state of the art studio in Miami that will help expand their creativity. Patrick’s show doesn’t even have guests call into their show anymore – most join via Zoom. Eisen’s guests are more often than not in studio. All of these shows also upload highlights relatively quickly to YouTube. They’re still audio-first but video is no longer secondary. It is 1A in terms of importance.
As much as these simulcasts feel close to real TV, there are still some hijinks that fans have to get used to that aren’t the same as a regular TV broadcast. During LeBatard’s broadcast, a rolling loop of their own self produced album plays during breaks. While the songs are hilarious in nature, if you’re a weekly viewer of their simulcast it might get tiresome to hear every time there is a break.
A loop of some of the show’s greatest moments and some of the side projects Meadowlark Media produces might be more engaging and help reduce drop off rate. McAfee’s show also struggles with white balancing their cameras almost every telecast. At times in the middle of a conversation during the show, discoloration occurs before changing back to normal skin tones.
Patrick’s show has used the same set of graphics since it began simulcasting on NBC’s linear sports network years ago which could be a turnoff for younger viewers of the internet era who always want change in order to grab their attention. Eisen’s show has awkward interruptions happen in the middle of conversations because commercial breaks are different in length on terrestrial radio vs. streaming.
At the end of the day though, these shows are the epitome of what it means to have grit and guts to achieve your American dream. Although their productions are subsidized and/or licensed by big media platforms and sports books, their social media presence and the actual production of these shows was built on their own. During the first couple of weeks after LeBatard’s show left ESPN, the former columnist could often be heard teasing listeners that they were working on building a video enterprise and how difficult it was.
It’s hard to stand on your own in sports talk media without the backing of superpowers like ESPN, Fox, NBC, CBS and Turner who have been producing live broadcasts for decades. But these shows have found a way to do so in a new world that is tailored towards doing everything on your own.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
5 Ideas For December Sales Success
How much better will you enjoy Christmas and New Year knowing you have some presentations to make to prospects who want to roll into 2023 with a new idea?
Now is the time to put your foot on the gas for a great start to 2023-not waiting til January. With Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day all falling on weekends, you can’t count on who will be at work the Friday or Monday around those holidays in December.
So, looking forward from here, you only have 15 or so days that you can count on your clients and prospects to be at work before the end of 2022. And, if they are at work, consider their motivation or lack of it before approaching them. But here are five ways to attack December.
Cutting a year-end deal
Make sure you go back from the potential start date of the schedule and allow for production, proposal, and acceptance. That usually means you need a week from when you present a year-end idea to when the schedule starts. So, aim to have all appointments booked by 12/9, so you can sell 2-week packages that begin Monday, 12/19. That will give you a sense of urgency and gives you five solid business days to sell your ass off starting Monday.
Make all your pricing and payment terms expire by Friday, 12/9. You can always extend if need be once they give a partial commitment. You want anybody involved in the decision to sign off and let you cut this deal! The idea here is to create urgency and work ahead.
Beat the bushes
Do you want to wake up on 1/2/23 with an empty pipeline? How much better will you enjoy Christmas and New Year knowing you have some presentations to make to prospects who want to roll into 2023 with a new idea? Don’t try to qualify these prospects over the phone. Do it in January when both of you are fresh but get that commitment NOW. Look for your new client avatar.
From now til the end of the year is also an excellent time to meet with your sales assistant, traffic manager, production person, or anybody who helps you at the station. Sit down with them face to face and see what you can do better to make their job easier. Give them some ideas on how they can help you as well. Mend some fences or make new friends; the reason tis the season. Surprise them with a Cheetos popcorn tin for less than $10. Please do it. You will be surprised by what you hear because this is a popular time of year for layoffs, transfers, and people taking new jobs.
Practice a new pitch
December is also a great time to record yourself doing a webinar and start planning to let your content do the talking. Wouldn’t it be nice if your 10-minute talk on how to make live reads work, how to buy radio, or why your audience buys the most widgets produced some warm leads? Practice and get going!
Jeff Caves is a sales columnist for BSM working in radio, digital, hyper-local magazine, and sports sponsorship sales in DFW. He is credited with helping launch, build, and develop SPORTS RADIO The Ticket in Boise, Idaho, into the market’s top sports radio station. During his 26 year stay at KTIK, Caves hosted drive time, programmed the station, and excelled as a top seller. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @jeffcaves.