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Can ESPN & TNT Create Latino NHL Audience With One Game?

“There is likely a significant portion of the audience that has the same relationship to hockey that most Americans do with hurling. We know it exists, we know it is a sport, and that is where our knowledge stops.”

Demetri Ravanos

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Did you enjoy the NHL’s return to ESPN on Tuesday? I will admit that it was great to hear the music again and the presentation was pretty strong. Overall though, I got more enjoyment out of the goofy things the network did leading up to the start of the new season than the games themselves.

That is pretty understandable I think. I grew up in Mobile, AL where we had an ECHL team that moved after two seasons because they could not keep the ice on the rink frozen. Being a hockey fan was never really in the cards for me. On top of that, I am way more of a sports media fan than anything else anyway.

One thing that I have seen a lot in the lead-up to the new season is that the NHL and its two new TV partners are going to make an effort to grow the league’s popularity with the Latino audience. That means getting Americans of Latin descent to watch more hockey and getting games on in Mexico.

The NHL’s Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly spoke to ESPN’s Eric Gomez about this recently. He said that the league has its eyes on actually playing in Mexico. An expansion team in Mexico City is unlikely, but the league could build an international event game similar to its outdoor games started by the league and NBC.

“We had started hearing from our clubs that they’d love to play a game in Mexico,” said Daly. “The more we can appeal to more demographics, countries and culturally diverse areas, the better it is for us.”

I wondered how effective a move like this would actually be. Does a single game in Mexico each year raise the NHL’s profile in the Latin community in the United States? Does it even raise the profile of the NHL in Mexico more than one day, maybe one week at most, each year?

I turned to friends that have a history with hockey and are of Latin descent. They also both happen to work in the sports media. I thought they would have discerning eyes to and be able to offer perspective about what is going on here that a white dude from Alabama just wouldn’t have.

Mike Taylor’s show can be heard in afternoon drive on Ticket 760 in San Antonio and on AM 1300 The Zone in Austin. Prior to joining the San Antonio station, Taylor, who is of Mexican descent, hosted the postgame show for the Dallas Stars on WBAP in Dallas.

He gives the league credit and believes the effort to woo a Latino audience will be genuine. He has seen teams in both the NHL and AHL recognize the value of winning over those fans.

“It’s not lip service. Clubs in the South especially want to grow the game however they can,” he told me in an email. “The question is how? Dallas has done a pretty good job and before they left San Antonio, the Rampage tried to tap into the Mexican heritage of the city. And it worked. Many Latinos went to those games.”

Joe Ovies has been on the air in Raleigh, North Carolina for more than 20 years. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup Championship for 850 The Buzz and now hosts The OG in afternoon drive on the team’s flagship station, 99.9 The Fan. In fact, Ovies and his partner, Joe Giglio, made headlines earlier this year for blasting the team after it signed Tony DeAngelo, saying it proved that ownership was out of touch with the market.

Ovies, whose parents are from Cuba, has questions about how the league, along with ESPN and TNT, plan to court “the Latino audience.” It’s not something that can be done successfully by employing a single strategy. He says he has seen ESPN make that mistake every time it tries to celebrate “Latino Culture”.

“For instance, they had a vignette on Tom Flores and his impact on Mexican NFL fans. It was incredibly well done, highlighting fans who viewed Flores as an inspiration and a rare representative of Mexican heritage in the NFL. However, as someone of Cuban descent, those cultural signifiers do not resonate with my upbringing in South Florida in any way, shape, or form.

“While I appreciate Mexican culture and go out of my way to point out its influence in this country, it can’t hit me the same way ESPN’s coverage of the MLB in Cuba did. And I would expect those fans of Mexican would have a vice versa understanding of it.”

Each of the United Sates’ “big four” sports leagues have left the country in the past. That doesn’t just mean games were played in Canada, where three of the four leagues have teams. The NFL has played games in England and Mexico. Major League Baseball has gone to Cuba, Japan, and England. The NBA has visited four foreign countries for regular season games and ten others during past preseasons.

The NHL itself is no stranger to travel. The league’s Global Series games began back in 1997, but since 2000, the events have been confined to European countries where there is already some kind of hockey culture. Going to Mexico and even wooing Hispanic American fans is a different challenge entirely.

ESPN, TNT and the NHL seem to understand that success will require some education. There is likely a significant portion of the audience that has the same relationship to hockey that most Americans do with hurling. We know it exists, we know it is a sport, and that is where our knowledge stops.

If that’s a hill the three entities have to climb, Mike Taylor is adamant that anyone with a financial stake in hockey’s success needs to understand that taking a game to Mexico won’t be good enough. In fact, while it may make an impact in Mexico, Taylor doesn’t think that it will mean much of anything to Mexican-Americans.

“Mexican-Americans are who the NHL needs to focus on. It may sound silly but these teams simply need to do more Mexican-type stuff. Serve authentic Mexican food and promote the hell out of it. Do what a bunch of minor leave baseball teams have done and create an alternate team name that’s Latino-centric. Hire Latin musical stars to play concerts. Get local soccer stars to come to games. Have a low rider show in the parking lot. Some of this may sound stereotypical but if you want Mexican kids to come out, you have to do Mexican things.”

When it comes to ESPN specifically, Ovies is a little more skeptical. He doesn’t see a network that wants to bring hockey to a new audience. He sees a business that needs to make its money back and win over the audience that is already there.

“ESPN paid a lot of money for the rights and investing in NHL coverage to earn back a level of trust with hockey fans who have held a grudge against the network’s lack of coverage for over a decade. When you pay that much money, you have to get your bang for the buck. So I think they went to their binder of ideas that have worked for other leagues, like the NFL, and said ‘hey let’s try this! It’ll look cool and there’s outreach!'”

Ovies’s exposure to hockey dates back to his childhood in South Florida when the Panthers first came to the NHL. His father was a big sports fan and wanted his sons to see big names like Wayne Gretzky play before it was too late. He admits that not enough Cuban dads thought that way. That is why the Panthers left Miami for the suburbs.

Still, he says there is a lesson in that for the NHL. The key to winning over Latinos, or any new audience really, isn’t creating spectacles. It is creating personal connections and memories.

Joe’s son, Jacob, is a huge Hurricanes fan and even participates in the team’s First Goal program. Joe told me that it was possible because of a learn-to-skate program subsidized by the team. The Canes made it easy for anyone who wanted to learn to play to be able to do so.

That hasn’t just created loyalty to the team from his son. Joe told me that it strengthened three generations of his family’s bond with hockey.

“Here you have a 10-year-old kid with a Cuban dad born in the states to Cuban immigrants going through a highly subsided NHL team learn-to-skate program. That leads to house league participation in the Triangle, where he’s playing games on the weekend.

“My dad goes to his first game and is all emotional about it. Essentially tells me ‘my dad was the soccer player, your mom’s dad was the baseball player…you were a good baseball player too…but Jacob is the first Ovies to play hockey…your grandfathers would love this.'”

Taking those learn-to-skate programs and roller hockey leagues to Latino communities in the United States would be exactly like Major League Baseball’s efforts to rebuild fandom for its sport in Black communities. Equipment in both of those sports can be expensive. That is why you get teams and current and former players involved to lower the barrier to entry.

Look, the NHL absolutely should be looking at how to attract these audiences it has ignored for so long. Auston Matthews, one of the league’s biggest stars, is a Mexican-American playing for one of the league’s Original Six franchises.

I can’t stand hockey fans that tell me I don’t like the sport because I haven’t given it a chance. I have. I think it is dumb. What I like about hockey is that my kids like hockey, so we go to games together.

There are plenty of people and communities that “haven’t given it a chance” though because the NHL never gave them a chance. If the league and its partners focus on how to introduce hockey to those communities and make meaningful connections with them, it would be making a smarter investment than creating a major event that pays lip service to that community for a few days every year, thinking that will make them so grateful to be acknowledged that they run out and buy hats and hoodies.

BSM Writers

Will Big Ten Lose Relevance Without ESPN’s Machine Behind It?

Does ESPN’s grip over sports talk and the college football scene affect how a Big Ten team is perceived versus how an SEC or ACC team is looked at? We have yet to determine that but I don’t believe it will.

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It’s a historic time for the Big Ten. The athletic organization is about to become the first college conference to pass $1 billion per year in television rights. The other big news comes straight out of Bristol, Connecticut. ESPN is stepping away from broadcasting its games for the first time in 40 years. ABC will also no longer air Big Ten games for the first time since 1966. 

I became a fan of college football during the Reggie Bush/Matt Leinart era and have so many memories of watching USC on Fox Sports Net and ABC. It’s so crazy to imagine that ABC won’t be airing any USC home or intra-conference games for the first time since 1954. This is a move of epic proportions.

The change could be seen as questionable to some from the Big Ten’s point of view. ESPN is still in 80 million homes. ABC is opening up more slots in prime time for live sports to be available in as shows like Dancing With The Stars begin to transition to streaming exclusively on Disney+. Most of all, ESPN dominates the college football conversation. College Gameday is one of the best studio shows on television and attracts the attention of everyone from the influential to the Average Joe.

SportsCenter is still the sports news show of record and literally faces no other competition besides similar news programming on league owned networks. First Take, as bloviating as it can sound on television, is still one of cable’s highest rated live broadcasts on a daily basis and has a lot of relevancy on social media. Pardon The Interruption is one of the few shows on sports television (if any) that can still draw 1 million viewers on a daily basis. Paul Finebaum is an expert in the game that people trust, watch and listen to on a daily basis and is currently aligned with ESPN’s SEC Network. Finally, the College Football Playoff and Championship still air on the “Worldwide Leader”.

Does ESPN’s grip over sports talk and the college football scene affect how a Big Ten team is perceived versus how an SEC or ACC team is looked at? We have yet to determine that but I don’t believe it will. There seems to be an assumption among fans in forums and social media that all of a sudden ESPN is going to overrun its audience with debate topics and stories across its platforms that are focused solely on the SEC.

While there will be increased attention on the SEC across Disney-owned networks and sites, as there should be because that’s what ESPN is paying for, it is a proven fact that what rates best is a solid product with interesting conversation from multiple angles. Audiences will be able to easily decipher rather quickly whether what they are being served is interesting versus what is being fed to them purposefully and react very quickly. 

There is nothing executives love more than a highly rated, lively, and contentious broadcast that draws attention and contributes to the national conversation. Even though ESPN is more friendly with the SEC now, there is a reason why it is called show business is not called show friends. Why would ESPN want to drain out ratings from their linear programming especially given the already strenuous rope that basic cable is holding onto as a whole? 

Let’s just say Big Ten powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan are both ranked in the top 10 and playing in their traditional yearly game. Despite the fact that Fox will be broadcasting the game, I just don’t see how or why SportsCenter wouldn’t be giving such a prolific game the same coverage it would on a normal basis. There would most likely be no reason for College Gameday to not do their show live from the game or for shows like First Take and PTI to not participate in some sort of debate about it. It’s just not good business for a sports information destination to not engage in the practice of giving out information and analysis about sports even if they don’t own a particular sport or league’s broadcast rights. 

It might be possible to reduce coverage with less popular leagues such as NASCAR and the NHL, which ESPN has been accused of doing in the past, and get away with it without affecting your bottom line. While NASCAR and the NHL each have millions of fans worldwide, their fandom alone can’t compare to the influence which the alumni of major colleges and universities across the country can sway. The Big Ten alumni base is so far and wide that it would be too noticeable after being done consistently not to make some sort of dent. Disney’s own CEO Bob Chapek is an alum of Indiana and Michigan State.

The assumption that Gameday prefers SEC schools has already existed for a long time and could be a determining factor of why Fox’s pregame show Big Noon Kickoff, which has predominantly broadcasted its show from Big Ten schools, is already beating or coming close to Gameday’s ratings week after week.

I also don’t want to underestimate Fox, CBS, and NBC’s impact on the sports conversation. FS1’s “embrace debate” shows may not get the highest ratings but their distribution across social media and the podcast world is well established. The Herd with Colin Cowherd is the 13th most listened-to sports podcast in the country. Replays of FS1 shows are available 24 hours a day on FAST (free ad-supported television) channel apps such as Pluto TV and Tubi that reach millions of people. Fox also recently launched a channel with Fox Sports clips on Amazon’s news app that can reach up to 50 million active users.

CBS Sports has a news network reminiscent of the old ESPNEWS on that same app as well as Pluto TV and is a producer and television distributor for Jim Rome, one of the most listened to sports talk show hosts on radio. It also distributes the highest-rated sports talk morning show in New York – Boomer and Gio – on national TV.

NBC’s sports talk universe exists primarily through their Peacock app (which will reportedly have an exclusive package of its own) and includes Dan Patrick, number 12 on the podcast charts, and Michigan alum Rich Eisen, who has a robust presence on YouTube.

ESPN has more concurrent linear television viewers than its rivals daily. But sports talk content from Fox, CBS, and NBC can still reach a substantial audience through YouTube, FAST channels, streaming services, podcasts, and radio. Fox, CBS, and NBC’s non-sports talk programming throughout the day on their broadcast networks can also serve as a venue to expose the Big Ten’s athletes and schools in a non-traditional way and reach more people not exposed to college sports yet.

The biggest thing we can’t forget is that as of now, for the next 10 years, there will only be one college sports conference whose games are as widely broadcast to the masses as the NFL’s – the Big Ten. Unlike the cable networks, at least 100 million people (1/3 of the country) have a way to access Fox, CBS, and NBC every week. Whether ESPN is talking about the Big Ten or not, the conference will always be able to reach more people than the SEC and other counterparts week after week. Sports fans are already used to flipping between Fox, CBS, and NBC to watch their NFL games on Sundays. They know where to find all three channels and that alone makes the Big Ten the closest comparison that will ever exist to the NFL in our current media landscape. You literally can’t match that.

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BSM Writers

Producers Podcast – Nuno Teixeira, ESPN Radio

Brady Farkas

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BSM Writers

Lance Zierlein Isn’t Taking Shortcuts

“That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts.”

Brian Noe

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Jack of all trades, master of none. The only thing I dislike about that saying is, to me, it implies that a person isn’t special in any one particular area. That isn’t the case with Lance Zierlein. The guy has been crushing morning drive in Houston for 25 years and knocking out NFL draft evaluations for eight years now at NFL.com. It isn’t possible for anybody to master draft analysis, but Zierlein’s talent evaluations stand out so much that NFL coaching staffs and front offices pay attention to his views.

In addition to his on-air duties and draft analysis, Zierlein used to provide gambling advice for bettors through his own handicapping business. This dude gets around. Zierlein has proven to be valuable in many different areas. It’s no wonder that new opportunities have become available to him over the years. In our conversation, Zierlein talks about not taking shortcuts. He also mentions how he tries to avoid taking himself too seriously on the air, and reveals the most gratifying experience of his career. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: How did you initially break in to the radio business?

Lance Zierlein: Radio started for me 25 years ago. Actually it started before then; I started my own handicapping business 28 years ago when I was really young. Then I hustled my way on radio as a football analyst, an expert in my early 20s. I sent stuff out to a bunch of stations, got on, gave out my phone number for my pick line, which I answered myself and gave out picks. That was my living. 

From there, 610AM became an all-sports station in the fall of ‘94. By ‘95 the general manager of the station liked me on the radio and so I was doing a weekend sports show for a couple of hours on Sunday. By ‘97 I was doing morning drive. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I quit a job making $400 a week working 60 hours a week. It was just ridiculous. It was like some horrific management position in a field I had no idea what I was doing. I just quit and bet on myself and started my own business and three years later I’ve got a morning sports talk show. It’s been that way ever since.

BN: What has been your career path when it comes to writing?

LZ: I’ve been writing for a while. I started my own football newsletter in 1998. It was a sports newsletter, then in 2001 it became a football only newsletter. I did that for a while. I was a fantasy football writer for the Houston Chronicle. I had a blog in the Chronicle that was fairly heavily trafficked. I covered everything but really started to focus in on the NFL draft and some fantasy football stuff and the Houston Texans.

Some people over at the NFL noticed me. I planted some seeds over there and introduced myself to people at NFL Media. In October of 2014, they reached out to me about being their new NFL draft analyst. Shortly thereafter I was hired. I’ve worked there since the fall of 2014. So eight NFL drafts and 25 straight years of drive-time radio as well.

BN: When you think about all of those different avenues whether it’s handicapping, sports radio, or being a draft analyst — which is like scouting — which do you think you’ve had to learn the most about to know what you were talking about really well?

LZ: Oh man, well for me radio was never formulaic. I didn’t learn in college, I was just a natural talker and thinker and entertainer. I’m not necessarily predictable.

I think the most that I had to learn was the NFL draft. Handicapping is something that you learn as well. I learned in the pool halls of New Orleans when I was going to school at Tulane. I had a mentor who was a former vice president of finance for a company there. He just taught me about handicapping as being an analytical process where you try to find the right side of the puzzle. There’s a puzzle between two teams, various players, here’s the point spread and you try to work the puzzle out and find the right side. That took time too.

When it came to the draft you’re talking about having to really learn all of the specific factors for every position. From long snapper to punter to kicker to every position on the offensive side and defensive side. Even if you think you know what you’re doing and even if you have a scouting manual like I had to work off of, until you actually watch a ton of tape and make mistakes in evaluations, which you don’t know until two and three years down the road in many cases, and learn from those mistakes and alter your process and dial in your process to match the changing tides of NFL and college football, you really can’t get there.

I think the most learning I had to do believe it or not, and my dad was an NFL and college football coach my whole life, I think it’s interesting; the most learning I had to do really was the scouting and the evaluating process before the NFL draft. I think that was the most work I had to do from start to finish. And I still think that I’m learning in that as well.

BN: Doing draft evaluations is difficult. Handicapping games is difficult. Between the two, which do you think you were thrown into the deep end more? Most when it comes to that?

LZ: Handicapping I was trying to pick winners for people and I didn’t really feel like I had anything to lose. I was doing something I loved to do. I had left a job I hated that I should have never even been in. To me I was master of my own domain. I had my own company. But there’s a pressure that comes with that because although I didn’t need much money to survive and I was married to my first wife at the time, there is a pressure with knowing that you have to win so that people will sign up for the next month and you can pay bills.

When it comes to being thrown into the fire, listen I’ve got to write 500 players a year and every one of them is going to live on the internet forever. There’s receipts on 500 players. When I got thrown in I’m having to call defensive back coaches I know to ask questions about certain things having to do with cornerbacks, safeties. I’m talking to pass rush specialists. I’m talking to coaches primarily and really getting an education. I was lucky enough to talk to some guys who really gave me some help along the way.

But if you just watch a tape, the tape will speak to you. I had Jerry Angelo who was the GM of the Bears who one time told me just say what you see. Just say what you see. I really lived off that for the first couple of years. Then beyond that I started to really learn to be more technical with some of the things I was looking at at every position. Having 500 players that you’re writing up, from what I recall from a former editor there, he got 15 million hits internationally on my scouting reports over a relatively short period of time during the draft.

That really hammered it home for me; man, you just can’t take shortcuts. You have to really understand these guys, know these guys. If you project them wrong that’s fine, but don’t miss because you took shortcuts. It’s going to be there for everyone to read and see. I would say thrown to the wolves much more in the evaluation.

BN: Which of the three would you say is the most gratifying for you between sports radio, handicapping back in the day, and the writing/analyst work that you do?

LZ: God, that’s such a hard question because they’re three very different times of my life. The handicapping stuff was me just getting a shot to springboard into sports and into radio. I always knew handicapping was going to be a way for me to get into radio. I planned it as a side door into radio and my plan worked. I was pretty good at what I did.

Radio was just incredible because it introduced me to my wife. She was a listener so it introduced me to her. We had such a great following. Athletes liked the show. That’s gratifying on a level in my 20s and in to my 30s, I don’t think anything can match that when people around the city know who you are. You’re having fun every single day. You’re coming into the radio station and it’s just a lot of fun. You’re just kind of on a wild ride. You don’t really recognize it until after it’s over.

Football was special in a different way because my dad was a lifelong coach. He’s been a coach since I was one or two years old. He’s won a Super Bowl ring. He’s coached for a variety of college and pro teams. The first time he was reading my scouting reports when he was with the Arizona Cardinals, he came across them. One of the other coaches showed him.

When he really realized wow, he knew I did radio, he knew I did some of the scouting stuff on my own in a newsletter, I don’t think he really took it all that seriously. When he realized in reading my scouting reports for offensive lineman that I was really pretty good at it, and that he agreed with much of it, and he’s now calling me every other day to talk about prospects and get my thoughts on guys, you just can’t imagine the amount of happiness that gave me as a son to know that my dad had that level of respect for my work.

It’s really a second job. Radio is what I had done and this is a dramatically different job. If you’re doing NFL draft analysis for NFL.com, I’m following a scouting protocol. This is not radio. It’s a totally different discipline and job. Knowing that he really had a great deal of respect and that other Arizona Cardinals coaches started calling me and asking my opinions on certain players, it’s hard to really put into words how gratifying that is.

Then through the process knowing that there are people in the league who really respect my work and guys I’ve become friends with who are general managers now who respect what I do. There’s just an immense feeling of satisfaction in doing that and knowing I’ve got number one radio shows at four different stations in Houston.

Then to be able to do this with professionals that are in my dad’s trade. I grew up watching my dad as a coach, I know how tough that profession is for front office personnel, for coaches, and to know that people have a respect for the work that I do, that’s a level of gratification that’s completely different. That’s like a cherry on top. If I never did anything again tomorrow, I would be happy with what I’ve accomplished in my time in sports.

BN: Football fans turn into mini GMs when the draft rolls around. A lot of their evaluations are way off. [Laughs] Do you see a common thread between some of the evaluations that are just not accurate?

LZ: That’s a tough question. I think some people are way too opinionated and firm in opinions and they have not spent nearly enough time actually watching the players. I think it’s really more they’re aggregating opinions from other people and then turning it into their own, which is kind of an incomplete analysis. I think that’s a mistake that some people make.

I think there’s a belief that who you are now is who you’re going to be in the future. That’s the most basic mistake that everyone makes. You have to learn you’re not giving grades for who a player is right now, you’re giving grades for who a player is going to be in three to five years. Learning to do that does not happen overnight. It’s hard. It forces you to think differently. It forces you to really focus on traits and the habits of successful people.

Whether it’s certain successful traits, there are traits that can lead to success, explosiveness, speed, length, toughness, and you’ve got to look for those, and then you worry about NFL coaches coaching up the rest of it. Don’t get too hyper-focused. I think a lot of people get too hyper-focused on who a player is right now and not who a player is going to be later. Then also on the flip side, they get too enamored with stats and names as opposed to understanding what typically works in the NFL.

BN: How about your future? Say five years from now, what you’re doing, where you’re doing it at, what would be ideal for you?

LZ: I really don’t know. I think honestly if the right opportunity came with an NFL team and somebody I respected as a general manager, that would be something I would have to consider. I’m not sure that that right opportunity and all the things would fall in place. I don’t know that that would ever be the case. I’m not sure I see myself doing that in five years.

I think honestly, I feel like I have an eye for talent outside of football. I think I have an eye for talent in radio. I’ve brought five to seven people in who have become radio people and good hosts. I think at some point that might be something that I want to do is become more of a program director. If not a program director a talent scout to bring in the next generation of radio professionals.

I could see myself doing that because I do think I have an eye for people who have it. I didn’t learn the traditional way and so I understand that you don’t have to go through the traditional methods to be someone who can be captivating or entertaining or someone with upside. I think I recognize when people have that kind of upside. I think I’d love to be involved in that side of radio at some point in the future.

I’ve got a football business along with the former director of analytics for the Tampa Bay Bucs. It’s kind of a scouting tool and a recruiting tool for colleges. We’re already working with college teams and with high school teams. I think the handicapping stuff is out for me moving forward. [Laughs] That was an avenue and a vehicle and I still love trying to solve the puzzle, but I don’t put the same time into it anymore. There are different directions I can go in, but I’m happy where I am right now both in radio and the draft stuff. I’m just going to keep letting things play out and we’ll see what happens.

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