There aren’t a lot of stations quite like 101 ESPN. From the on air product to the station’s digital offerings, to management’s willingness to embrace emerging trends like covering gambling and hosting eSports events, Hubbard Broadcasting has never been afraid to let its St. Louis sports talker innovate. Listeners are on board too.
The reason for that is probably best explained in a simple sentence from mid day host Anthony Stalter. “St. Louis is a sports city through and through.”
101 ESPN is a station anchored in both the morning and afternoon by a definitive local sports voice. The station’s PD is a lifelong resident of the city. It’s strange that the best explanation for 101’s success comes from a guy that hasn’t lived his whole life in St. Louis, but then again, Stalter’s explanation is dead on, because it isn’t overthought. In a town full of sports fans, the sports radio brand that has been dominant is the one giving listeners the most local sports conversations surrounded by the least bullshit.
“Nobody was doing it on FM with a big signal,” Hubbard St. Louis’ VP and Market Manager John Kijowski told me when I asked why he thought there was an opening to launch the station ten years ago. The city had two sports stations, both on smaller AM signals, and according to Kijowski, neither of them catered to the city’s hardcore sports fans.
“They were doing a lot of – how do I clean this up? ’T&A’? Guy humor? And then some serious sports talk. I just didn’t think it had to be that way. I thought it can be fun and entertaining. Certainly there are parts that should make you mad and make you laugh. Sports is all about emotion, right? I felt like what I was hearing over there was more T&A and political than good sports talk.”
Bonneville, who owned the cluster at the time, had a struggling Rhythmic AC station on the 101.1 frequency. That is where Kijowski was going to put his new sports station.
“When Bonneville decided to go down that path, they thought that from a company standpoint, they had a stronger ability to sustain some of the early battles if it took some time to get the thing going,” Jason Barrett told me. Before he was the president of Barrett Sports Media, Jason was the program director that launched 101 ESPN.
Barrett had been unemployed for nearly six months when Kijowski reached out to him. Prior to that he had programmed another sports station in town, 590 The Fan. The environment at 590 according to Barrett wasn’t great due in part to financial pressures facing the station.
“The two years of market turmoil at 590 wasn’t exactly what everybody wanted,” said Barrett. “The ownership group had big plans and a successful model in Atlanta but it just didn’t translate the same in St. Louis.”
It made Kijowski’s choice of a guy that had been trashed in local papers and blamed for the station’s failures as his very first sports PD curious to say the least. Barrett says if you were sitting in the room for his and Kijowski’s first meeting, it wouldn’t seem so strange that they ended up working together.
“Having some market experience helped,” Barrett told me. “I had learned firsthand what not to do at 590 and gained a few relationships in the process. Then, on top of it, John and I, the first time we met we just clicked. Our philosophies on radio and vision for the brand was an instant match. I think he liked that I had something to prove and my arrival would create some instant chatter. That just drove me more to make sure I rewarded his faith in me. To this day he’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with.”
To make the station a serious ratings contender Barrett felt a major play-by-play partner (which 101 ESPN landed when it acquired the St. Louis Rams broadcasts prior to launch) was important. So too was adding regular contributors that could break news about the local teams. To help set the tone he hired the city’s top three newsmakers, Joe Strauss, Jim Thomas and Derrick Goold from The St. Louis Post Dispatch and added Brian Stull and Brian Feldman as station reporters.
The key to success though would come from featuring live and local programming throughout most of the day. The long-term goal was to be local M-F 6a-7p but Barrett knew 101 ESPN would have to carry at least one show from ESPN Radio at launch. He planned on it being The Herd with Collin Cowherd, but that wasn’t the national show that ended up on air.
“It’s about two months to launch and we were in a big meeting,” Barrett says. “Keep in mind I had just been out of work for six months after a rough two-year run. If there were things that they wanted to do, I was willing to go along with it because I didn’t feel I had earned the right yet to influence any key decisions. I was just happy to have a chance to build the brand.”
Kijowski was passionate about launching with a local morning show. Barrett made plans to put Cowherd in the middle of 101 ESPN’s lineup, and that was what was pitched to Bonneville executives during a fall meeting. But Greg Solk, who was the company’s Senior VP of Programming and Operations at the time, called Barrett’s bluff.
“He said ‘so that’s the plan, right?’ and I said ‘Yeah, local in the morning with Cowherd in the mid days,'” Barrett told me. “‘And you believe in that plan?’ he asked. I said I did, but he saw it on my face and said ‘I don’t think you believe that.’ I was uncomfortable for a moment but so glad he said that because it gave me the confidence to turn to John and say ‘He’s right. It should be Mike & Mike in the morning and then we start with local at 10am. I loved Colin’s show but Greeny and Golic just fit the market better.”
That was how the initial lineup was built. Mike and Mike wound up producing good results for the station until August 2015 when Bernie Miklasz announced he was leaving the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to take over 101 ESPN’s morning show. Since then 101 has featured local hosts on the air from 7 am to 7 pm.
“They trusted us and we’ve served them well with our output. If we were going to make this move it was going to strengthen what we had,” program director Hoss Neupert said of ESPN.
Neupert never had second thoughts about the move. St. Louis is a town that loves sports, but its devotion is to the local teams.
“During football season Mike & Mike did really well because they talked a lot about the NFL, but sometimes a big baseball game would be missed or there was no talk about a Blues game that ended in controversy,” he told me. “Mike & Mike may have mentioned that or Golic & Wingo may mention it, but St. Louis sports fans now know it will be there.”
Miklasz had a previous relationship with the station. He joined the station a few months after it launched, hosting a mid day show, and was at the station until 2014. When he agreed to return in 2015, it was in part because he saw 101 ESPN as a multi-platform brand where he could write, broadcast, and do a podcast under the same umbrella.
“I always wondered in my mind wondered what it would be like if I went all in on radio,” Bernie told me. “I never had the guts to take the plunge, because all over I see radio stations changing formats and people coming and going.”
For Miklasz, it came down to the people he would be working with and for that made him comfortable enough to commit to leaving the newspaper and making radio his primary focus.
“Kijowski had the vision. I appreciated and respected Jason Barrett’s aggressive attitude and desire to always go for it. Then, Hoss Neupert had that same type of attitude. It just got to the point where it was like I like these people. I respect them and what they’ve done.
“Look, I wanted to be a part of this team, so it was time for me to take this leap. It’s like any other job. There are good days and bad, but I took the jump and haven’t looked back once.”
Michelle Smallmon produced Bernie Miklasz’s show when she was at 101 ESPN the first time around. After that she left for Bristol to work on ESPN Radio’s Jorge and Jen and the Ryen Russillo Show. She returned to St. Louis in January of 2018 to become Bernie’s co-host on the morning show.
“The primary difference now is that I am talking on the air for three hours, and not sitting in a producers booth monitoring the show!” Smallmon told me in an email. Still, she says she approaches each show with that same producer’s mindset.
“As I approach each show and topic, I still look at it from a producer’s perspective. What’s the story? What are the secondary angles? Why does this matter to our audience? How can we find an informative and entertaining way to discuss the story? I had to shift from worrying about booking guests and finding sound to compliment a topic, to developing my opinion, anticipating Bernie’s take on it, and thinking about how we want to structure our conversations.”
Does the switch to a local morning show mean 101 ESPN listeners will never hear Bernie and Michelle talking about the kind of national topics covered on Mike & Mike or now Golic & Wingo?
“It depends on the time of year,” Miklasz says noting that the day we spoke the St. Louis Blues were still in the NHL’s Western Conference Finals. He calls the Cardinals “absolutely a foundation” of his shows in the Summer.
There is one area where Miklasz treads lightly and still hasn’t figured out a definitive strategy for national sports talk. “Sometimes I wonder whether people, because there was so much animosity about the way the Rams left and the way the league allowed it to happen, whether we’re turning people off when we talk too much NFL.”
One of the constants through every iteration of the 101 ESPN lineup has been the afternoon show The Fast Lane and the man steering that ship, Randy Karraker. Even as his partners have changed throughout the years, Randy has continued to be viewed as the voice of the St. Louis sports fan. With Karraker at the helm the afternoon show has been a consistent ratings success for the past decade.
“It’s interesting. I didn’t feel pressure,” Karraker told me of his hire in August of 2009. Despite casting a long shadow with fans in the city, he knew that his first partners on The Fast Lane, former Ram D’Marco Farr and long time St. Louis Bilikins play-by-play man Bob Ramsey, were the right people to build a three man collaborative effort with.
“JB had the vision,” Ramsey told me in an email. “He hired the best talent in the market in Randy Karraker (the best I’ve ever worked with), found an ex jock who could handle himself in the very capable D’Marco Farr and found a decent third man in me who would morph to fit a given situation: analytic when needed, a foil to challenge partners and guests, and quite frankly a real smart ass who could make you laugh. “Ramsey said the show’s strength was in Barrett’s demand for “formatics excellence and detail.”
Karraker and Farr had a relationship before the show began, and each said they knew they could rely on the other for great content. Farr took it a step further, saying that if Karraker was involved, he knew the majority of St. Louis’s sports fans would be tuning in.
“If you could boil down St. Louis, and I mean everything about St. Louis, into one person, you would get Randy,” Farr told me. “I mean, he defends St. Louis fiercely and he’ll also call out the warts at the same time.”
The Fast Lane has gone through multiple lineup changes since 101 ESPN launched in 2009. The current crew includes former Cardinals pitcher Brad Thompson and Chris Rongey alongside Karraker. Rongey, the latest addition came in the wake of Farr heading back to the West Coast.
That move may have coincided with the Rams leaving St. Louis for Los Angeles, but Farr insists that he didn’t leave St. Louis intending to follow the Rams.
“Regardless of what happened, my family decided it was time to go back West,” he said. “We had some aging and ill family members, so our presence was needed (in California). I think I said this on my last show. If the Rams had stayed in St. Louis forever, we would still be going back west. That is just where our lives took us at the time.”
Ramsey credits the foundation Barrett and Neupert built for some of the afternoon show’s success despite lineup changes, but he is blunt about where the real credit should go. “The key for relevance and continuity is Randy Karraker, period.”
Former PD Kent Sterling told me in an email that the writing was on the wall for the Rams as soon as rumblings of a move to LA began. In his estimation, those started in 2011. “The combination of bad football and distrust for owner Stan Kroenke drove interest south. The staff did a great job of covering the team, but St. Louis will always be a Cardinals town. In a research project, we found that St. Louisans were more likely to be NFL fans than Rams-specific fans.”
Farr was in an interesting position the day the Rams officially announced their move in 2016. “The day it was announced, I am driving the show. So that means I am the one telling St. Louis that the team is moving to Los Angeles,” he says. It was strange, here’s a former Ram telling St. Louis that the team is moving to Los Angeles. It was hard. It’s still hard when I think about it.”
Bernie Miklasz saw the Rams leaving as a shot to his credibility. He had been on the radio for months saying the team was not leaving. That wasn’t just an opinion. In Bernie’s mind, it was a fact based on a conversation he had had with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“I’ve told this story on the air, and I don’t feel like I’m breaking any confidences now. Frankly, I don’t care if I am. I actually had dinner with Goodell before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. He invited me out during Super Bowl week because he wanted to sort of get the lay of the land in St. Louis.
“He looked me straight in the eye, in fact it sort of hurt my reputation. He looked me straight in the eyes and said ‘We don’t want that team to go anywhere. We don’t want to leave St. Louis,’ and he seemed very passionate about it.
“I even said ‘Hang on, don’t you want to put a team in LA? Kroenke does have his escape clause and he can probably get a stadium built.” I’ll use his words literally. He looked me in the eye, almost pissed off and said ‘Why the f*** do we need LA?’”.
Miklasz also received a phone call from Rams owner Stan Kroenke around the same time. Kroenke told Miklasz he didn’t like the coverage he was receiving. He brought the team to St. Louis and was a Missouri native after all. Why would he want to hurt fans and a city that are so important to him?
Despite those conversations, Stan Kroenke revealed plans to build his new stadium in Inglewood, California in 2015 and then on January 20, 2016, NFL owners voted 30-2 to move the Rams back to Los Angeles.
St. Louis took the exit hard. To this day, Randy Karraker’s show during the football season still focuses on hating the Rams, and he has no trouble defending doing the show that way. The way the Rams left was an insult to the city.
“I honestly think that if the league and the team would have been more honest about it, I think we would feel better about it, but for the league to tell the people that wanted to build a stadium ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ and for the Rams’ CEO Kevin Demoff to say ‘we want to be here’ was totally disingenuous,” he says. “They had no intention of being here. If they would have just said that this was a business decision and the team saw a chance to be in the country’s second biggest market, I think St. Louis fans would have felt maybe not good about it, but better about it.”
Stalter actually has a positive view on the Rams leaving. It’s not to say that he is glad the team is gone, but he notes that the idea of St. Louis fans only caring about the Cardinals seems to have changed when the NFL team left town.
“There’s still a large contingent that just wants to hear Cardinals content, but the fact that the Blues have a winner now coupled with the fact that the Rams are no longer here, you have a lot of people that are just St. Louis fans now.”
Smallmon said the love the people of St. Louis have for their city and its teams was never more evident than on June 13 of this year. That was the morning after the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup.
“Because this team took us on such a wild ride, the main challenge we faced was being able to accurately convey what this meant, not only to us personally but to the city,” she said. “We were all a little delirious that morning, but I think that was the beauty of it. We often use a feature on our show called ‘mic drops’, where listeners can leave us audio messages. That was my favorite part of that show in the hours after the final horn sounded. Hearing St. Louisans expressing pure joy and celebrating their team and their city. It was a really special day, and one I’ll never forget.”
The Blues will call 101 ESPN their radio home next season, and Kijowski and Neupert are exploring all kinds of ways to take advantage of the relationship.
“We’re talking about a side channel for the farm team and a dedicated all Blues channel,” Kijowski tells me. When I ask him about any concerns he has about something special getting lost on the HD spectrum he insists that if it is promoted right, NHL fans have the dedication to their favorite sport to go and find it.
“Sales as you can imagine is crazy excited,” Neupert says. He has been meeting with PD’s of other stations in the Hubbard cluster in St. Louis since the station and the team made an official announcement. “They realize the bigness of having a major play-by-play and the advantages of utilizing it. Each one looks at their shows and thinks about the different things they can do.”
Neupert even says talent from other stations in the building have discussed the affiliation with the team as a way to dip their toes into the sports radio waters.
“KSHE (101’s classic rock sister station) and the Point (101’s alternative sister station) have on-air talent that came to me right after we made the announcement to say ‘Anything we can do?’ and trust me, they will! I know we have untapped talent that can contribute, and the Blues are open to being creative with anything we want to do.”
For as welcoming as the Hubbard staff can be to people moving to St. Louis to work there, it is still a city built on the idea that most folks that were born there will raise their own families and then die there. Barrett and Kijowski were willing to consider outsiders when they were building the station’s first on air staff, but never lost sight of the parochial nature of the city.
“We had the anchors of Randy Karraker and Bernie Miklasz, so the outsiders could filter in,” Kijowski said. He also points out that having guys like D’Marco Farr, Chris Duncan and Brad Thompson on the station have helped hammer home the local identity the station is so proud of. “Having loved, and truly beloved, St. Louis athletes makes this St. Louis! St. Louis! St. Louis! That lets you sprinkle in some new voices and outside guys.”
Two such outsiders that got sprinkled in during the station’s history were Zach McCrite, who came to St. Louis from Louisville, and Bob Stelton, who is from Seattle but just like the Rams, moved to town following a stint in LA.
Rather than having McCrite come to St. Louis, Barrett went to Louisville to meet the man that wanted to work for him. It was one day at an area bar that McCrite learned just how important it would be to know St. Louis if he wanted to thrive in the job.
“So, we go to a local restaurant and he throws a piece of paper in front of me. It’s a ‘how well do you know St. Louis’ test,” McCrite told me in an email. “And it was stuff like ‘What’s Albert Pujols’ jersey number?’ Five. Okay, I got that. Another one was something like ‘St. Louis is called the Gateway To The what?’ West. Okay. Got that. But then there’s this word association part of the test. He throws a St. Louis-derived word or phrase and I write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind. I only remember one of those and it was the one I had no idea on at the time. The word he gave me was Oshie. I knew I had heard the name, but I couldn’t place it.
“So, I’m sweating and I’m thinking ‘what do I write here? I can’t leave it blank, but I also don’t want to guess wrong.’ So, I just put ‘Oh Shit.’ Turns out, TJ Oshie was, at the time, a third-year player for the St. Louis Blues. He certainly found my blind spot.”
Stelton had the parochial nature of St. Louis sports fans impressed upon him the second he got to town. He heard it from Barrett. He heard it from his partner Bryan Burwell. “I had two very clear thoughts: I was going to consume as much as I could as quickly as I could about the local teams. I was going to watch every moment of every game and give my honest take on what was happening. I moved downtown (despite it not being a great area) so that I was in walking distance to all three arenas/stadiums. And I wasn’t going to try and pretend that I knew something that I didn’t.”
According to Stelton, that honesty and openly asking listeners to fill in the gaps in his knowledge is part of what helped him get over with fans. The other part was being paired with a guy listeners viewed as a heel.
“A large majority of the listeners didn’t like Bryan for whatever reason, so, they seemed to automatically gravitate to my opinion or thoughts, even when he and I had the same exact take on something. When Bryan was let go and it became a solo show, that’s when the ratings took off and the listeners seemed to fully accept me despite me being a guy from the West Coast.”
Stalter says it isn’t hard to win over St. Louis fans. “Once you say ‘this is my home,’ people will embrace you,” the Illinois native, who came to 101 ESPN from Detroit told me.
Stalter is one of those outsiders Kijowski talked about benefiting from being paired with a beloved St. Louis athlete. After being moved from producer of The Fast Lane to hosting The Turn in mid-days, Stalter was paired with Chris Duncan, a member of the 2006 World Series champion Cardinals and the son of former Cardinals catcher and pitching coach Dave Duncan.
“When Hoss first paired me and Chris together, he gave me the best piece of advice. He said if you have to play it a little bit slow at first, and be likable as opposed to overly opinionated, that’s okay,” Stalter shared.
Chris Duncan is no longer a member of The Turn. It’s not something anyone is happy about, but Duncan is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. In January of 2019, it was announced that Duncan, who had already been on indefinite leave, would not be returning to the station. Stalter fought back tears as he made the announcement on air.
“Show-wise, it didn’t matter,” Neupert said of trying to figure out the show’s next step while Duncan’s leave was still indefinite. “The poor guy had seizures during the show at times. Stalter was great about being a pro and picking up the slack. It’s easy not to worry about ratings or sales when you’re dealing with real life. So, for us it was always about let’s do things the right way and be supportive. Yeah we gotta take care of the business side, but let’s be human first.”
Now that it is time to figure out what happens next, Neupert says he won’t rush anything. “We’ve been thinking behind the scenes about what we’re going to do. We have to find the right fit and there’s no real timeline on it.”
Stalter says he and Neupert have been grappling with the idea of what the show will be going forward. As Neupert said, they can take the time to find the right person. Stalter just wants to make sure the next iteration of The Turn keeps “the vibe of informing and entertaining.”
101 ESPN has always been local and forward thinking. The approach has earned them strong ratings and a couple of Marconi nominations as the best sports station in the country. For example, they cut back on live phone calls in favor of the more compact mic drops. The website has served as a platform for original video, written, and podcasting content. The promotions and programming departments have taken chances too by creating live events around eSports.
The current approach to new strategies and ideas remains consistent with what Barrett introduced in 2009. He made sure the people he wanted to hire knew he wanted them. He invited Bob Stelton to sit in on a staff meeting the first time he visited St. Louis to get an idea of the working environment. He met with McCrite in Louisville to make sure he knew what he was in for, and he didn’t object to having to win over Bernie Miklasz, who was wary of what he had heard about him following two tough years at 590 the Fan.
Stelton echoed a sentiment about the environment Barrett and Kijowski created that I heard from a number of people. The staff was professional, but also behaved like a family. More importantly, nothing was sugarcoated.
“He’s absolutely my kind of PD. Very invested, very passionate and creative. But most importantly, very honest. I have huge respect for that.”
Barrett left the station in May of 2011 to join Entercom and launch 95.7 the Game in San Francisco. Now, Barrett serves as a consultant for a number of sports radio stations across the country.
“They are the unstoppable machine in the market right now,” Barrett says of 101 ESPN. “There has been talk over the years about someone trying to take them on but it hasn’t happened because it’s a well run brand by an excellent radio company and it’d take a lot to slow them down. John, Hoss and Hubbard’s executive team deserve a lot of credit for taking what we started in 2009 and lifting it to even greater heights.”
Sterling, another former PD, also acknowledges that the station is thriving today and isn’t surprised to see Neupert at the helm of a winning product.
“I’m very pleased for Hoss Neupert’s success as the PD. It’s a better station today than the one I left, and it was a pretty damn good station then, so Hoss has done a hell of a job.”
“The one thing I hope you take away from this is that we are a family here. That matters to us,” Neupert told me. “We want to succeed for each other.”
Randy Karraker echoed that sentiment. He told me that between being asked for input, not just on who he wanted to work with, but on what personalities could thrive with the support structure set up by management, he felt valued. He had a personal stake in 101 ESPN’s success.
“It felt like home,” he told me. “I told John Kijowski that early on. I said “I’ve never been at a place where I’m walking down the hall and it feels like home.’ Everybody to work with here is great. The facilities are great. They want you to feel comfortable. I think that is part of the reason for the success. Everybody here feels that way.”
John Kijowski also wants to succeed for St. Louis. He and the higher-ups at Hubbard know the best way to do that is to talk as much about St. Louis as possible.
“This thing has changed everything,” JK says as he picks up my phone. “People don’t go to the 10:20 news on TV in St. Louis to find out the score of the Cardinals game. They have the score right on their phone. The reason you have to have live and local shows between 6a and 7p is because it’s not about the score. It’s about opinion. It’s about perspective. And you have to have strong personalities. That is why people still believe in sports talk radio.”
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Marty Smith Loves The ‘Pinch Me’ Moments
“I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have.”
I tell this story all the time. It is told for laughs, but it is absolutely true. Marty Smith once gave me a giant box of beef jerky.
I was in Charlotte visiting him and Ryan McGee on the set of Marty & McGee as part of a larger feature I was doing on the SEC Network. We spent probably 3 hours together that day. It was a lot of fun. The last thing I watched the duo shoot was a promo for Old Trapper Beef Jerky, the presenting sponsor of their show.
As they finished, I shook their hands and told them I had to get on the road. That is when Smith presented me with a box of twelve bags of Old Trapper and told me, in as sincere a voice as you can imagine, that he wanted me to have it.
“I mean, listen, if you give a man beef jerky, by God, you like him,” Smith said to me when I reminded him of that story earlier this week. “That’s redneck currency right there, bud.”
There just aren’t a lot of people in this business like Marty Smith. ESPN definitely knows it too. That is why the network finds every opportunity it can to use him to tell the stories of the events and people it covers.
Last week, he spent Monday and Tuesday with the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. He got a day back home in Charlotte before he headed to Atlanta for the SEC Network’s coverage of the SEC Championship Game on Thursday. Saturday, after his duties for SEC Nation and College GameDay were done, he hit the road for Tuscaloosa to interview Nick Saban and be ready for ESPN’s coverage of the reveal of the final College Football Playoff rankings.
As if that isn’t enough, this week he heads to New York. It will be the second time ESPN will use him to conduct interviews and tell stories during the telecast of the Heisman Trophy presentation. It’s an assignment that Marty Smith still cannot believe is his.
“I’ve had a ton of pinch-me moments, but in the last five, six years, seven years, there are two that kind of stand out above the rest. One was when Mike McQuaid asked me to be part of his team to cover The Masters. The other was last year when my dear longtime friend Kate Jackson, who is the coordinating producer over the Heisman broadcast, asked me to be a part of her Heisman broadcast team and interview the coaches, players and families of the finalists,” Smith says. “You know, brother, I’ve been watching the Heisman Trophy my whole life.”
We talk about what the broadcast around the Heisman Trophy presentation is and how it differs from being on the sideline for a game. He is quick to point out that on a game day, the old adage “brevity is king” is a reality. In New York though, he will have more time to work with. He plans not to just fill it, but to use it.
Marty’s interest in his subjects’ backgrounds and their emotions is sincere. It is part of a larger philosophy. He respects that everyone has a story to tell and appreciates the opportunity to be the one that gets to tell it, so he is going to do all he can to make sure the people he is talking to know it and know that they matter to him. That means putting in the time to be respectful of his subject’s time.
“When I’m interviewing these players or coaches before a game, I want to interview them, and I’m saying not on camera, but when I’m doing the record. I want to get as thorough as I can get. Then you take all of that and you try to pare it down into a very small window. It’s not easy. I mean, look, most of the time you come home with reams of notes that never even sniff air.”
Marty Smith has always been a unique presence. As his profile has grown and he shows up on TV more often and in more places, more people question who this guy really is.
That is par for the course though, right? Someone with a unique presence sees their star rise and out come the naysayers ready to question how authentic the new object of our affections really is.
For me, there is a moment that defines Marty Smith, at least in this aspect. I cannot remember the year or the situation, but he was on The Dan Le Batard Show, back when it was on ESPN Radio. Smith was telling Dan about friends of his that are stars in the country music world and Dan asked what it is like when they are hanging out backstage before one of these guys goes out to perform.
I cannot remember Smith’s exact answer, but a word he used stood out to me. He said it was just buddies having a cold beer and “fellowshippin'”.
I told Marty about this memory of him and said that I am not accusing him of being inauthentic or his persona on television being an act, but I was curious if he was concious of the words he chooses. Even if the version we get of Marty Smith on TV is the same one we would get if we were part of the fellowshippin’, does he think about how he wants people to think about him?
He is quick to note that is isn’t an act at all. What you see when you see Marty Smith isn’t a persona he cooked up when he decided he was going into television. That is just his personality.
“It is a lifelong field from where I’m from to where I am,” he says of what we see on TV. “It is relationships made that pinched my clay and remolded who I was to who I am and reshaped me as a person.”
Anyone from The South can tell you that there is no one monolithic “South”. The gregarious, larger-than-life personalities in Louisiana may not always feel real to people from the more reserved and anglo-influenced South Carolina. The Southern accent I got from growing up in Alabama sounds nothing like the Southern accents I live near now in North Carolina.
If Marty Smith doesn’t seem authentic to you, maybe it is because his version of “Southern” isn’t one you’re familiar with. Maybe it is a version of “Southern” that only exists in one dude on the entire planet.
Smith is from Pearisburg, Virginia just outside of Blacksburg. Surely that informs who he is, but he is also shaped by the wealth of conversations he has had and the characters he has met from his professional life.
“At our company, you have to work really hard to not only make it, but to sustain it. I try hard to do that every day,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve said it before, man. I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have. You piece all of those different things together, and along with opportunity you can do something special, and I’m trying to do that every day.”
The Marty Smith you see on TV is the guy that will hand you a box of beef jerky just because you had a great conversation. He is the guy you see in that viral video from a few years back giving a young reporter advice and encouragement.
You can be confused by Marty Smith. You can have your questions about him and his motivations. They aren’t going to change him though. It took too long for him to become who he is to start second-guessing it now.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Another World Cup Run Ends And There’s Still No Soccer Fever In The USA
“We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.”
Soccer fever? Hardly. Not in the United States at least. The US Men’s National Team lost in the round of 16 against the Netherlands 3-1 last Saturday. The ratings are in. And the ratings are revealing.
An average of 12.97 million viewers tuned in to see the Netherlands-United States World Cup match on FOX. Before you say, “Hey, not bad,” consider the fact that the ratings are down from eight years ago when 13.44 million viewers watched the USMNT lose to Belgium in the knockout stage on ESPN.
Even more damning are the ratings of the USMNT’s initial match in the 2022 World Cup against Wales, an unhealthy 8.31 million viewers.
Let me get this straight; fans waited, waited, and waited some more to finally see the USMNT in World Cup action, and the first game in eight years drew 8.31 million viewers? Really?
There were 5.5 million viewers across TV and digital that watched the NFL Network’s telecast of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game in London. That was a Week 5 game in the NFL compared to the World freaking Cup. Network television (FOX) compared to cable TV (NFL Network). And the ratings are comparable? Come on, US Soccer. Y’all gotta do better than this.
*Mini rant alert — it drives me crazy when soccer in this country is consistently compared to soccer in this country. The promoters of the sport paint an obnoxiously rosy picture of the growing popularity by comparing US soccer now to US soccer then. It’s a joke.
It would be like comparing Nebraska’s 4-8 record in college football this year, to Nebraska’s 3-9 record last year. “Hey, things are looking up!” Never mind the fact that the Cornhuskers are significantly trailing several teams in its conference and many other teams across the country. That’s US soccer in a nutshell. Don’t compare it to other leagues and sports that are crushing it, just say we’re up 10% from last year. Ridiculous.
*Mini rant continuing alert — the Michigan-Ohio State game drew 17 million viewers last month. The New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving drew 42 million viewers. Those are regular-season matchups compared to the biggest stage soccer has to offer. But go ahead and just compare US soccer to itself.
And no, the edge you might feel in my words isn’t born out of fear that soccer will somehow surpass the popularity of football. That would be like Mike Tyson being scared that the Stanford Tree mascot could beat him up. US soccer isn’t a threat, it’s a light breeze. I just hate a bad argument. And many soccer apologists have been making bad arguments on the behalf of US soccer for years. *Mini rant over
The World Cup didn’t prove that American fans are invested in soccer. It proved that we love a big event. It’s the same recipe every four years with the Olympics.
During the 2016 summer games in Rio, when swimmer Michael Phelps was in the pool for what turned out to be his final outing in an Olympic competition, the ratings peaked at 32.7 million viewers. Phelps helped Team USA win gold in the men’s 100-meter relay and then rode off into the sunset.
We don’t really care about swimming. When’s the last time you asked a friend, “You heading out tonight?” and the response was, “Are you crazy? The Pan Pacific Championships are on.”
Whether it’s the Olympics or World Cup, Americans care about the overall event much more than the individual sport. We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.
Ask yourself this, at the height of US swimming’s popularity, would you have paid $14.99 per month to watch non-Olympic events? Me either. US soccer isn’t exactly on fire following its showing in the 2022 World Cup, so the timing isn’t awesome to introduce a paywall for the sport’s top league in this country.
Apple and Major League Soccer have announced that MLS Season Pass will launch soon. I know you’re excited, but try to stay composed. Yes, MLS Season Pass will launch on February 1, 2023. It’s a 10-year partnership between MLS and Apple that features every live MLS regular-season match, the playoffs, and the League’s Cup.
Have I died and gone to heaven?
It’ll run you $14.99 per month or $99 per season on the Apple TV app. For Apple TV+ subscribers — make sure you’re sitting down for this, you lucky people — it’s $12.99 per month or $79 per season. If you don’t have US soccer fever right now, I doubt you’re running out to throw down cash on a product you aren’t passionate about.
Now if the USMNT won the 2022 World Cup, cha-ching. The popularity of US soccer would definitely grow in a major way. Even if they had a strong showing while reaching the quarterfinals, the momentum would be much greater. But a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the group of 16? Nope. This isn’t it. I don’t expect much more than some tumbleweed rolling by instead of cash registers heating up for MLS Season Pass.
Colorado Hiring Deion Sanders Will Be Constant Gift for College Football Media
“If Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers, he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor.”
Deion Sanders quickly made it clear why the University of Colorado chose him to be its next head football coach.
Coming off a weekend in which the four College Football Playoff teams were announced and all of the other bowl-eligible teams accepted their invitations, Colorado — which went 1-11 this past season — made news for hiring Sanders, the former NFL star who was phenomenally successful at Jackson State.
The media that covers college football and sports as a whole should be thrilled that the Buffaloes program decided to take a big leap for attention and notoriety. Sanders is a bold, risky hire. But he’s also been successful in virtually every venture he’s taken. “Primetime” had a Hall of Fame NFL career and also played Major League Baseball. And he’s a master at drawing attention to himself.
During his first meeting with his new team, Sanders made sure to mention that he has Louis Vuitton luggage to make the point that some of his Jackson State players are coming with him to Boulder — including his son, quarterback Shadeur Sanders. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart probably don’t cite luxury fashion when explaining to their players that they’ll have to compete for starting positions.
Coach Prime will not be boring to cover. (That self-appointed “Coach Prime” title, which was on his name plate at his introductory press conference, is a big clue there.) He never has been. This is a man who said during the 1989 NFL Draft, after being selected No. 5 overall by the Atlanta Falcons, that if the Detroit Lions had selected him at No. 3, he “would’ve asked for so much money, they’d have had to put me on layaway.”
Even if he doesn’t win as much as Colorado hopes, Sanders will pursue top talent — players who want to perform on a larger stage than the FCS-level Jackson State allows — and impact athletes will be attracted to him. He got the No. 1 recruit in the nation, cornerback and wide receiver Travis Hunter, to play for him. (Hunter is following his coach to Boulder.) Now that Sanders is at an FBS school in a Power 5 conference, more stars will surely come.
But if Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers — going 27-5 in three seasons, including a 12-0 campaign in 2022 — he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor. And he’ll get the attention that such figures typically draw from media and fans. According to the Denver Post‘s Sean Keeler, at least 400 people attended what felt more like a celebration than a press conference.
Coach Prime wasn’t going to just win the press conference, which is what any school and fanbase want when a new coach is introduced.
If Colorado wanted someone to sit at a podium, and give platitudes like “We want to win the Pac-12 and get to the College Football Playoff,” “We’re going to build a program with young men you’ll be proud of,” or “It’s time to restore Colorado to the football glory we remember,” Sanders isn’t the guy for that.
“Do I look like a man that worries about anything? Did you see the way I walked in here? Did you see the swagger that was with me?” Sanders said during his introductory presser. “Worry? Baby, I am too blessed to be stressed. I have never been one for peer pressure. I put pressure on peers. I never wanted to worry, I make people worry. I don’t get down like that. I am too darn confident. That is my natural odor.”
To no surprise, Sanders announced his presence in Boulder with authority. He had cameras following him as he met with Colorado players for the first time. How many other coaches would have recorded what many would see as a private moment for posterity and post it online?
Sanders caused a stir by putting his players on notice. He warned them he was coming, telling them they’ll be pushed so hard they might quit. He told them to enter the transfer portal and go someplace else if they don’t like what he and his staff are going to do.
That candor, that brutal honesty surprised many fans and media when they saw it Monday morning. For some, that message might have felt too familiar. How many in media — or many other industries — have worried about their job status when a new boss takes over? What may have seemed secure days earlier is now uncertain.
But how do we know other coaches haven’t said something similar when taking over at a new job and addressing their team? We just hadn’t seen it before. But Sanders has been in the media. He knows social media. He understands controlling his own message and telling his story.
Sanders also knows what kind of value he brings to any venture he takes on. How many people would have left an NFL Network gig for Barstool Sports? But Sanders went to where his star would shine, where he was the main show, where he could be Deion Sanders. Maybe he’ll have to turn that down just a bit at Colorado. But athletic director Rick George knows who he hired.
Colorado could have made a safer choice, including previous head coaches Tom Herman, Bronco Mendenhall, or Gary Patterson. A top assistant from one of this year’s Playoff contenders — such as Georgia’s Todd Monken, USC’s Alex Grinch, Alabama’s Bill O’Brien, or Michigan’s Sherrone Moore — could also have been an option.
But what fun would that have been? What kind of tremor would Colorado have created in the college football news cycle? How much attention would a more conventional hire have received? Yes, Sanders has to recruit and win. However, if the objective was to make Colorado football a talking point again, that’s been accomplished.
There could be some friction too. Sanders has already been criticized for being a champion of HBCUs, only to bolt for a mainstream Power 5 program when the opportunity opened. (To be fair, other columnists have defended the move.)
At Jackson State, Sanders tried to control local media when he didn’t like how reporters were addressing him or covering a story. Last year during Southwestern Athletic Conference Media Day, he balked at a Clarion-Ledger reporter addressing him as “Deion,” not “Coach,” insisting that Nick Saban would’ve been shown that respect. Earlier this season, Sanders admonished a school broadcaster (and assistant athletic director) for speaking to him more formally on camera than he did off-camera.
Will that fly among Boulder and Denver media, or the national college football press? It’s difficult to imagine. Maybe Sanders will ease back on his efforts to control reporters within a larger university environment, metropolitan area, and media market. But we’re also talking about Deion Sanders here. He doesn’t bend to outside forces. He makes them bend to him.
Sanders’ stint in Boulder — whether it lasts the five years of his contract and beyond, or less than that — will not be dull. There could be no better gift for the media covering Colorado football. Or college football, a sport already full of bold personalities, eccentric to unhinged fanbases, and outsized expectations. Coach Prime will fit right in.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.