Was the NHL’s great success also a great failure?
“You can’t have success if you don’t risk failure,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman commented to Mike Tirico on Saturday as the sun made the league’s most picturesque outdoor game unplayable.
Instead of a 3 pm eastern time NBC telecast, the last two periods of the game between the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights was moved off NBC to the lame-duck NBC Sports Network at midnight EST. Sunday’s game between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers moved from 3 pm to 2 pm to then 7 pm and back to NBCSN.
“I still think it was a big success given how unique it was once the ice situation was squared away,” NESN announcer Billy Jaffe told me. “How majestic it was, is what made it successful.”
The pictures alone were breathtaking. I found myself glued to the television. Unlike the 31 previous outdoor games, no fans could attend. They didn’t even build stands. Television was the only way to expose that scene to the masses.
Saturday’s first period averaged 1.398 million viewers on NBC. The final two periods on NBCSN averaged 394,000 viewers. That’s more than a million fewer viewers after the delay.
“The sunny weather and its impact on the weather was a bad break for the NHL in terms of lost windows and audience on NBC,” said John Kosner, President Kosner Media and former head of digital media at ESPN. “However, the weekend was a spectacle, it generated tons of attention and coverage and did produce very big audiences for NBCSN.”
“I thought it was spectacular,” NHL Network senior reporter EJ Hradek told me. “I think every time they go play an outdoor game there are always risks. I’ve covered almost all of them. I was not at this one, unfortunately, because nobody was really at this one. I’ve been in situations where games are moved and changed.”
Going into the weekend, the NHL’s decision to try to play at Lake Tahoe was one of the more innovative ones I’d seen. Certainly, during the year-long pandemic, it’s one of the most out-of-the-box ideas from any sport. Still, if a million people could not see the end of the game, what was it all done for?
“People will always talk about the sunny weather that delayed the NHL in Lake Tahoe,” said Kosner. “That’s not all bad in my book!”
“We’re in such a crazy unique environment right now that I think anything different is good. It’s worth risk-taking, but it’s also gonna have challenges presented. But I think when it was all said and done, especially the Flyers and Bruins showed itself beautifully.”
The Sunday night game between the Flyers and Bruins averaged 1 million viewers. The afternoon NBC replaced the game with a Washington Capitals-New Jersey Devils that only averaged 750,000 viewers. The debate rages how many more people would have watched a Lake Tahoe afternoon game on that Sunday.
The NHL was being bold in designing this unique event. Previous NHL outdoor games have been held in football or baseball stadiums with over 50,000 people.
“I still enjoyed the pageantry,” Jaffe added. “The whole ‘Mystery, Alaska’ type thing about it. But on the business side, which I’m not really qualified to speak about. I’m sure it wasn’t as much of a success as it could have been.”
One other issue with the event. The Colorado Avalanche uniforms received tons of praise for their version of the “Reverse Retro” jersey that every team has. The Avs wore the logo of their previous incarnation, the Quebec Nordiques. The Nordiques left Quebec in 1995 and became the Avalanche, winning the Stanley Cup in their first season in Denver.
I think the decision to use that logo, and for NBC to put that logo in their graphics is a direct insult to the fans in Quebec. Their team was taken from them. That does not celebrate their history. It rubs salt in the wound.
The Avalanche are not the only team that uses a previous incarnation of the franchise. The Carolina Hurricanes are wearing the Hartford Whalers logo as their Reverse Retro jersey. One Hartford fan told me it reminds him of the departure, a wound that is not fully healed.
I suggested that if the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder wore Seattle SuperSonics uniforms for some kind of retro night, there would be a legitimate mutiny in the Pacific Northwest. Relocation is a sad story in sports, and celebrating it, sends the wrong message.
“I mean, it is the same franchise,” Hradek said. “The franchise was sold and moved. I didn’t live in Hartford. I didn’t live in Quebec City. I could only tell you as a hockey fan. I mean, I enjoy seeing those jerseys because I don’t take offense to them, but again, I can’t speak for a fan in Hartford or a fan in Quebec City.”
The Avalanche could have used the old Colorado Rockies, hockey team. That franchise played in Denver but left to go to New Jersey in 1982. The difference is that Denver got a new team. The Wild honor the North Stars, but again nobody is left in the cold.
All in all, I applaud the NHL for trying the Lake Tahoe experience. Unfortunately, it had to hurt to lose a million viewers. If a picture is worth a thousand words then Lake Tahoe can write its own novel.
Seth Everett is a columnist for BSM, and accomplished sports broadcaster with over 25 years of experience in the media. He currently works for iHeartMedia and hosts 3 podcasts that combined have over 100,000 listeners weekly. Previously, he has worked for ESPN, FOX Sports Radio, NBC Sports Radio, Sirius/XM, FOX Sports, MLB.com, and Bloomberg TV, as well as WFAN, 98.7 ESPN NY, KJR, WIP and 950 The Fan. Seth also lends his professional expertise to Syracuse University as an adjunct professor. He can be found on Twitter @Seth_Everett.
Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different
I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.
Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.
With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?
I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?
Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.
It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.
A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?
Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?
Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.
It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.
Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”
The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.
It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.
Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.
Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.
Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.
One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?
That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide each weekend on FOX Sports Radio. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at email@example.com.
ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years
Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.
In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.
It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.
“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”
I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.
The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).
The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.
The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.
I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.
Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.
ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.
The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.
Arky Shea serves as BSM’s evening editor, a daily news writer, and a weekly media columnist. He has previously worked for Outkick, 97.7 The Zone, 740 Sports Radio, and 730 The Ump where he held roles as the station’s program director, afternoon host, and producer. To connect, find Arky on Twitter @ArkyShea.
The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media
Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.
Brady Farkas is a sports radio professional with 5+ years of experience as a Program Director, On-Air Personality, Assistant Program Director and Producer in Burlington, VT and Albany, NY. He’s well versed in content creation, developing ideas to generate ratings and revenue, working in a team environment, and improving and growing digital content thru the use of social media, audio/video, and station websites. His primary goal is to host a daily sports talk program for a company/station that is dedicated to serving sports fans. You can find him on Twitter @WDEVRadioBrady and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.