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Kevin Graham Is Just Trying To Enjoy Himself Leading KNBR

“Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal.”

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If a song was needed to accurately describe Kevin Graham’s radio career, Metallica’s Wherever I May Roam would be a good place to start. The guy has been all over the place. As the new program director at KNBR in San Francisco, Graham has also held radio gigs in Boston, New York City, Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Columbus.

That’s some serious mileage. Suffice to say, Graham loves moving about as much as he loves watching his New York Jets losing.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If his career were a cereal, it wouldn’t be something simple like Frosted Flakes. It would be much more eclectic like Frosted Flakes mixed with Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Kevin Graham is a former on-air guy who hosted three different stints of sports talk shows in Salt Lake City. He was a Utah Jazz pre and postgame host. Graham was a football and basketball play-by-play guy who also broadcasted parades and beauty pageants when he was starting out. Add in the fact he programmed news talk station WBAP in Dallas for five years and you can see why his career is like an epic cereal medley. What a long, strange trip it’s been. 

Graham provides details about the major lineup change in afternoon drive that was recently made at KNBR. One of the most interesting things Graham reveals is what clicked for him as a programmer that changed his mindset and entire approach to the job. We also chat about what has caused him the most pain in his radio career, involving your star player in big decisions, and living life beyond radio. Enjoy!

Brian Noe: Where are you originally from?

Kevin Graham: West Virginia is where I was born and raised till about 14. Then right before my freshman year of high school, my parents got transferred to Detroit. I ended up going to high school in the Detroit area, then went to college at Central Michigan University. That’s when the radio world took off from there in all the different markets everywhere I’ve been.

I knew in seventh grade I wanted to be in sports broadcasting just because I played all the sports and was average to below average. Usually, when you’re the smallest and slowest kid on a team, you realize you’re not going to be a pro athlete. [Laughs] That’s when I decided you know what, maybe I can be in broadcasting. The best move that ever happened was my dad getting transferred to Detroit. The school I went to had a radio station, so as a freshman in high school I was in radio. I ended up doing some baseball play-by-play that year and just got hooked on it right then and there. It just took off from there.

BN: What’s been the best and worst part about being all over the country with all the stops you’ve made?

KG: [Laughs] The best part is just the fun of going to new markets. The fun of being a PD for me is working with the talent, the content, the branding, the imaging, the core of what a PD does. To me that’s a blast. All the various markets I’ve done it in.

Most stations that I’ve had to go in, there was a reason they were bringing me in because they weren’t doing as well as they were hoping. Fortunately, I would say all except one, they were in a better spot when I left than they were when I got there, which is cool.

A lot of that goes to the credit of just a lot of talented people. That’s been the fun. Having the impact that you can have on various talents and see what they’ve been able to do and grow.

I look at Detroit, I hired Mike Valenti — who’s number one in that market now for years — straight out of college at Michigan State and paid him not a lot and put him on middays with Terry Foster. Now, 20 years later or whatever it’s been, the guy is dominant. To see that type of stuff, to see the impact you have on people, that’s the best stuff.

The hardest part is just every move — as you’ve probably been around — sucks. It’s just hard to move. It’s taxing for a marriage when you’re moving that much. It’s hard when you have kids. It’s just hard when you move that much. My hope is this will be my last one, but that’s been my hope in a lot of places too. [Laughs]

BN: [Laughs] Hopefully this one comes true, man. The lineup change in afternoon drive, what was that process like for you just getting on board at KNBR and then this mammoth change takes place?

KG: It was a couple of things. First, it was ratings-driven. The ratings of the show had not been up to par with the other shows. We were taking a look at that. A lot of it was just listening and my gut. In the end, I trust my gut.

You hate it. That’s the worst part of the job — and that’s nothing towards Larry [Krueger] and Rod [Brooks], the two guys that we had to replace because they’re both very talented. But for whatever reason when that show was put together, the three-man show which can work in some places, it just wasn’t clicking the way we hoped.

In the meantime, Adam Copeland, who I was listening to regularly on our morning show as kind of a third person there, did a 5 a.m. show, also did fill-ins, Bay Area native, lots of energy, passionate. Talking it over with my general manager and Bruce Gilbert and just going through what we could do, we kept going back to him. Obviously, in that situation it’s hard, you’ve got to get buy-in from a lot of people and you’ve got to figure it out, but in the end we felt, and ultimately my gut felt that it would be a better show. So far, so good.

We’ve only been on I think about a month. Some of it is they just had to get to know each other. You know how it is when you get new shows and new co-hosts and all that. At least they’ve been aware of each other, just never really worked together. One month in, we’re really excited at where we’re headed and how the show is sounding right now, so I’m very hopeful that we’ve got ourselves a pretty good hit there.

Plus, Tom Tolbert’s a star in this market. Again, it’s nothing towards Larry and Rod, but when you have three people, here you’ve got your lightning rod, a guy that’s been in the market for years, a guy that’s been number one multiple times for years including before they made the change. I just felt like you needed to hear more of him.

When you have three people, it’s just harder to do that. Tom being the laid-back personality that he is, wasn’t commanding that he needed more air time. He was a team player, which is exactly what he should be doing. It was a big decision that moving forward we need to hear more of Tom. So far, so good on that.

BN: What’s your approach when involving a star, or not, in a process like that? It’s like NFL teams where some choose to involve their star quarterback with certain decisions, some don’t; what did you prefer to do with Tom Tolbert in your situation?

KG: That goes back to me being an on-air talent, I try to manage how I would like to be treated. I’m very direct and honest, and that’s how I manage people. I try not to be a jerk about it, but hey, here’s what I’m thinking we need to do. What ideas do you have? So in this approach, yeah, I did talk to Tom obviously before pulling the trigger. I felt like he needed to be aware.

To Tom’s credit, he didn’t really want to be aware. [Laughs] He was kind of put in a bad spot and I completely understand that. It’s a tough spot, but there was no way I was going to take our number one star, one of our top lightning rods on the station, and not get his feedback on it because that would be the worst thing, trying to force-feed someone if you don’t have their buy-in in my opinion.

BN: Especially when you’re new. Imagine if you didn’t involve him, made this change and he hated your guts for it.

KG: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt. I was just trying to be transparent and open. Those situations, they suck. I didn’t sleep for a couple of weeks leading into it. It’s awful. But I’m paid to do what I feel is best for the brand. The company is trusting me to try to put the best product on the air and I felt like at that time, and with others in our building felt like it was the best time to make that change. I felt like Tom needed to be in the loop on it. If there were any red flags I needed to know that because I wasn’t going to make a change and put somebody in there he wasn’t going to like. That would not work.

BN: One of the challenges during the pandemic was that a lot of your hosts were working remotely. What was that like to start in a brand new market when that was part of the equation?

KG: It was hard. My morning guys were coming in. They had gotten approval and got all the necessary vaxxing and all of that. They were in. I was seeing them often. But everybody else was working remotely.

For me, it was good because John Lund is doing middays with Greg Papa. I’ve worked with John in the past. John was my first producer in Salt Lake City. I’ve actually hired him at other spots. That was easy because he’s somebody I’ve known for years. I was able to connect with him.

The others I just called and tried to get to know them. I just talked to them and made sure I tried to communicate as much as I could. At one point I get here and by the way within a couple of weeks of being here I end up with COVID even though being vaxxed and all that. That was hard because now I’m working remotely from a new city and a new place. So I was dealing with all that as well.

Just tried to communicate as much as possible and tried to adapt. When you’re at a station like this too, it’s not just the on-air you have to deal with, when you’ve got the Giants, the Niners, we have 1050 that carries games like crazy. There’s a lot of moving parts to this thing. Not only did I have to try to learn the market, get to know my hosts, but also try to learn the systems and everything that needed to be done to make sure everything was running smoothly.

BN: I hear this from a lot of on-air guys where maybe they figured something out, it clicked and then it just really changed their whole approach on air. Was there anything like that from a PD standpoint where you finally learned something and then it was just like oh wow, I kind of get it now?

KG: It’s weird to say this, but I think COVID changed a lot of things from my standpoint. For me, I was always a workaholic. I always felt like I had to work harder than everybody else to succeed. I think COVID just kind of slowed things down in a weird way because we were all in different spots and I think you saw how different people reacted to it. Some reacted very favorably to it and other people had a lot of issues with it. I was probably in the middle.

I was kind of trying to figure out how to manage a staff from a distance and had some personal stuff because at the time my dad was not in good health, so COVID allowed me to go work remotely from where they are to help him. I think after all of that and when I was wrapping up BAP and then coming here, for me it just cemented that okay you know what, there’s more to life than just your job 24/7. 

Unfortunately — and fortunately — I don’t think I probably would have had the success if I didn’t work as hard as I did and learned as much as I did. Now I’m at a stage where literally every day I wake up and man, wow, I’m blessed to be where I’m at and there’s a click moment where it’s like okay, this is not a big deal. Don’t overreact to that. Calm, figure it out, work it out, try to keep everybody else calm.

It’s weird, I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and probably everything finally clicked for me in a comfort zone where I finally said okay, you know what, quit being nervous about the next ratings book, quit being nervous about this and that. Just chill it out, enjoy yourself, be in the moment, take advantage of the perks and fun like going to games and all of that.

I used to skip some of that stuff because I felt like I had to get the imaging written up. I had to do this. I had to do that. Now it’s like you know what, I’ve got enough time in a day to get that type of stuff done and I’ve got a great support staff of people that help. I empower people more than I ever used to. I was more of a control freak, now I feel like I empower people because I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want it to be that if I do end up leaving here whether it’s by my choice or not, I would love to have people here who can step up into my role and take over. That’s how I kind of look at it now.

BN: As a New York Jets fan you’ve felt a good amount of pain over the years. I’m curious what has caused you the most pain in sports radio over the years?

KG: The most pain in sports radio over the years — Nielsen by far. Freaking Nielsen still to this day. We’ve got some blips going on now with meters and — just trying to watch my language — it’s very frustrating to have a system that you’re judged by — and all of us have to live by it, programming, sales, everything — that’s based on such a limited sample.

How you can go one month and be dominant and the next month you lose a couple of people. That happened to me in Dallas. It’s happened to me here. It’s happened to me in Boston. No matter what size market, two people can affect your livelihood in such a negative way. I don’t know the answer. It is what it is as they keep saying, but it’s really frustrating when you’re completely judged on this system.

Now we get real data about our stream, and just recently see that Nielsen is giving us 17,000 cume on our stream but yet Triton is giving us 300,000 cume on our stream. It’s like the 300,000 is real, where Nielsen is still based on the PPM technology. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s the biggest frustration and most likely will be the reason I get the hell out of this industry eventually. [Laughs] Whether I want to or not.

BN: Hey man, I totally get it. As far as your professional future goes, if you were able to write out what the next 10 years of your career look like, what would you want it to be?

KG: If you would’ve asked me that 10 years ago, I could have a map. Right now I don’t know. Right now all the moves I’ve made and all of the things I’ve gone through — and a lot of people have gone through particularly through COVID and everything else — I’m just trying to enjoy myself right now. I’m in such a great spot.

I have a great general manager in Larry Blumhagen who’s a brand new general manager and I was his first PD hire. Bruce Gilbert, Brian Philips, everybody in the Cumulus family, Mary Berner obviously lets us manage on a local basis, which I think is a little rarer than a lot of places these days with the way companies are. I’m just in a really good spot. I’m just going to enjoy this ride.

If I ever choose to move along, I don’t think it’ll be another PD job. If I stay in radio per se, I’d like to think all the various experiences I’ve had, could move up into a more senior-level job where I can impact multiple brands for a company. But if that doesn’t work out there are so many places now that create content. Everybody’s a media company now.

The thing about you and me and a lot of us in radio, we think the only thing we know is radio. Well, we know how to do content. If you can get on a mic and entertain people for four hours, you know what you’re doing. You can do the same thing as a programmer, so I do think we as a radio industry, I think we have the ability to get outside of radio if we want to now with audio being as hot as it is. I do believe that there could be other things that we can do if the time closes. As of now, man, I’m just settling in, enjoying myself, trying to figure out how to afford food here in San Francisco and be okay. [Laughs]

BSM Writers

On Sunday Night, Everyone Is Watching Karl Ravech

“What I like about my story over the years at ESPN from 1993 to the present is that it’s constantly changing and evolving.”

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Karl Ravech injured his knee while playing soccer at Needham High School and needed to make a decision on what he wanted to pursue as a career. Always having an interest in both sports and writing, Ravech made the decision to attend Ithaca College as a communications major. Throughout his time in upstate New York, he worked hard to take the next step in his career by quickly immersing himself in the professional world, serving as the sports director at NewsCenter 7 in Ithaca, N.Y. and a freelance producer for WCVB-TV in Boston, Mass. – all while attending classes.

Upon his graduation, Ravech attended SUNY Binghamton to earn his master’s degree in management and leadership. Just as he had done previously, Ravech worked in the professional world as he pursued this degree, now as a sports anchor and reporter at WBNG-TV in Binghamton, N.Y.. In 1990, Ravech earned his degree and relocated to Harrisburg, Pa. and was nominated for two local Sports Emmy awards for his reporting on baseball and golf.

Ravech was hired as an anchor by ESPN in May 1993 and has been a fixture at the network since, working in a variety of different on-air roles. He is now the primary play-by-play announcer for Sunday Night Baseball, occupying the seat behind the microphone for Major League Baseball’s biggest matchups every week. Getting to this point in his career has been a journey that has required Ravech to consistently adapt and develop, and, in turn, has augmented his versatility.

“What I like about my story over the years at ESPN from 1993 to the present is that it’s constantly changing and evolving,” said Ravech. “I think the fact that it hasn’t stayed stagnant is what’s wonderful, and the Sunday Night Baseball booth is sort of the next iteration in [my] career.”

Ravech began hosting the overnight edition of SportsCenter with Mike Tirico and Craig Kilborn upon his being hired, and became the primary host of Baseball Tonight and postseason baseball studio coverage starting in 1995. After recovering from a heart attack he suffered while playing pickup basketball with colleagues in 1998, Ravech hosted golf coverage for the network as Tiger Woods became the youngest golf pro to ever win a Grand Slam, and also continued his baseball duties.

Starting in 2006, Ravech began his immersion into the broadcast booth when he became a commentator for Little League World Series broadcasts. Each year, he makes the trip to Williamsport, Pa. to call the action on ESPN and ABC showcasing young, talented baseball players while also telling their stories off the field. Additionally, Ravech has served as the voice of the College World Series on ESPN since 2011, calling the championship action each year from the Charles Schwab Field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

The style of both of these broadcasts differ from calling a Major League game in that there is more time to delve into the backgrounds of each of the players and tell the unique stories they bring – especially for those participating in the Little League World Series.

“I’d love to be able to bring that same level of joy to a college game or a Major League game, but I think it’s obvious that it’s a little more serious,” said Ravech. “You’re talking about, in the professional ranks, people that are getting paid; and there’s a lot of pressure on the college kids and their fan bases are very passionate.”

Much like a performer, one of the roles of a broadcaster is understanding and catering to their audience; that is, to understand exactly why a person may be watching or listening to a game and what they seek to gain from it. When a broadcaster is able to pull back the curtain and see the game from the perspective of an audience member, it allows them to foster a deeper connection with the audience as a whole and modify the broadcast accordingly.

“The little league crowd that’s on TV is very different than the one that you get for a College World Series game and certainly for a Major League Baseball game,” explained Ravech. “They have baseball in common, but I don’t think that the expectation when you watch the Little League World Series is to dive too deep into Xs and Os… It’s really about why most people came to the game, which is to enjoy it and have fun with it.”

Being aware of the viewing audience has been central to Ravech’s early success as the new primary voice of Sunday Night Baseball, as it differs from the viewers he had previously been communicating with on Monday Night Baseball, a role he took on in 2016. Yes, calling games on Mondays and Wednesdays undoubtedly required ample preparation; however, Ravech’s new gig has required a shift into how he applies his preparation to the broadcast.

“On Sunday night, [everyone is] watching, which means you have got to be as prepared by talking to the players and coaches as you possibly can be because the people who are consuming it know as much about the team as you do,” said Ravech. “It’s not as if we are preparing any differently, but you’re certainly paying a great deal of attention to just the two teams.”

Throughout his time at ESPN, Ravech had worked extensively with Eduardo Pérez: a former Major League player and experienced analyst. Whether it was in the booth at the College World Series or calling Korean Baseball Organization games remotely in the middle of the night during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the duo has developed a synergy on the broadcast.

Pérez is able to extrapolate unique storylines during the game because of his profound ability to communicate with those around him.

“As we walk through the stadiums, he is talking to people who are doing everything in the building – whether they are operating an elevator; whether they are the general manager; whether they are a player; whether they are welcoming people into a clubhouse,” Ravech said of Pérez. “He knows everyone, and those connections make him so valuable.”

Someone Ravech has been familiar with over his years living in New England is former all-star pitcher and YES Network analyst David Cone, albeit from covering him as a player and watching him on television. Ravech called ESPN being able to land Cone this offseason “the last piece” to assembling the new booth, all while Cone is still slated to call 50 Yankees games on the YES Network this season. Prior to the 2022 campaign, Ravech and Cone had not worked together; yet just a few games into his new job, Ravech has been impressed with his colleague.

“He recognizes that in order to communicate properly we, collectively, have to understand what it is that we’re talking about – so you’re not just throwing terms out there that may sound good but you don’t know what they are – and he’s very aware of that,” Ravech said of Cone. “He’s the complete package when it comes to an analyst in 2022.”

Along with being the voice of Sunday Night Baseball, the College World Series and the Little League World Series on ESPN, Ravech has also served as the voice of the SEC basketball tournament since 2017. Being on the call for high-stakes matchups, such as the Kentucky Wildcats against the Tennessee Volunteers, or on Sunday Night Baseball, the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox, is an exciting part of Ravech’s job throughout the calendar year. But no matter the sport; no matter the league; no matter the game – there is a consistent aspect of Ravech’s vernacular he is cognizant of every time he steps behind the microphone.

“I think my style, whether it’s in the studio or in the booth, is to really engage with the analyst,” said Ravech. “That part of it is, I think, a common trait through all of my broadcasts and I want to continue to do that.”

Having the ability to engage in genuine conversation with his analyst comes in actively listening and molding the conversation to fit most optimally with what is being discussed, even if it means departing from what he had originally planned. In this sense, he sets his partners up for success during the broadcast, part of the reason why he has been adept in working with different personalities in varying atmospheres across different sports.

“If you listen, then your follow-up questions will not necessarily be ones that you have written down already,” explained Ravech. “[Your analyst] has opened up this door, and you better be able to be willing to walk through it with them because they’re trying to say something and you’ve got to get it out of them.”

While Ravech, Cone and Pérez call Sunday Night Baseball games in the style of a traditional broadcast, there are several elements of the entire viewing presentation that demonstrate ESPN’s willingness to adapt to changing media consumption trends. One of these elements includes the addition of the new KayRod Cast, which became the most viewed alternate broadcast during a Major League Baseball game during the season debut of Sunday Night Baseball. The broadcast, featuring New York Yankees play-by-play announcer and 98.7 ESPN New York host Michael Kay, along with all-star third baseman Álex Rodríguez, diverts from the traditional style of broadcast through longform conversation, special guests and commodifying the act of watching a live baseball game.

“Baseball to me is an ideal platform for things like the KayRod Cast,” Ravech opined. “I think David, Eduardo and I spend a great deal of time focused on the game, but I think there are times where you can veer off and get into some entertaining conversations, and I certainly know that the guests that are on the KayRod Cast offer opportunities like that as well. Baseball lends itself to things like ESPN is doing right now, and I’m grateful to be in one of those booths.”

One of the elements within the traditional Sunday Night Baseball broadcast that lends to the commodification of the sport is putting mics on players. It’s a new element in Sunday Night Baseball this year. Fans have been given a firsthand perspective, essentially divulging the in-game mindset of a Major League player. Occasionally though, the action finds the interviewee mid-sentence during a game, as it did Francisco Lindor recently – and those are moments where all the broadcasters can do is watch and hope for the best.

“You’re kind of holding your breath that he makes the play instead of his being, in some way, distracted by the conversation,” said Ravech. “We’re incredibly sensitive to that. We try to, for the most part, stay out of when they are at the plate; there’s no talking to them. But in the field, they understand that this is an opportunity for them to share with the consumer at home a real on-the-field view that people would not otherwise get.”

Appearing as the featured player on Sunday Night Baseball garners plenty of significance and gives players the opportunity to connect with their fans and the larger viewing public. Having the chance to share your perspectives on national television during a game has become a badge of honor, and players from each week’s matchup have nominated a player for the next week’s game to wear the microphone. So far, ESPN is batting 1.000 in that department, as everyone who has been nominated has appeared on the following week’s broadcast.

“Joey Votto was very different than Ozzie Albies [who] was very different than Kike Hernandez and Francisco Lindor,” explained Ravech. “The list is great, and every one of them has provided unique looks into the game and their positions and their communication styles and skills while they’re on the field and in the dugout.”

Occasionally, a player will opt to stay on the microphone for an extended period of time as Phillies outfielder and reigning National League Most Valuable Player award-winner Bryce Harper did a few weeks ago. Harper was the designated hitter for that night’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers and stayed on the microphone for four innings of the contest.

“It was incredible,” recalled Ravech. “We got a chance to talk to one of the biggest names in the game for four innings; he almost became a quasi-analyst with us. It was really neat, and I think the viewer benefits from it.”

As Ravech’s career continues, he seeks to improve in all areas of his work and try new things if the opportunities arise within ESPN’s broadcast portfolio. While there is always the chance of opportunities presenting themselves at different media outlets, Ravech affirms that since the network continues to innovate and remains the leader in coverage, he wishes to continue working with them.

“I think [ESPN] is going to continue to evolve for sure,” said Ravech, “and I feel very comfortable about the direction they’re going to go in and continue to ride along with them.”

Any additional career endeavors that Ravech desires to pursue will be because he had actively pursued them, and he is excited to discover what lies ahead in his career.

“I’m not one of those who looks at it and says, ‘I want to call a World Series. I want to call a Final Four,’” said Ravech. “If that all happens, then there will be a reason. I’ll have sought those out, as opposed to the way this has happened – which is you kind of just keep moving around and finding your lane like water does down the sidewalk. That’s the beauty of it; it’s organic – there’s nothing linear about it.”

Ravech has worked with a wide array of broadcasters throughout his career at ESPN, including Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Stuart Scott and Chris Fowler, and has spoken to aspiring broadcasters on numerous occasions as well. One broadcaster he has had the opportunity to mentor firsthand is his son Sam, who has grown to become a play-by-play announcer on the SEC Network, ACC Network and ESPN, making his debut for the latter at 22 years of age.

Through mentoring his son and other young broadcasters, Ravech has learned that having authenticity in the on-air work that you do allows for one’s true personality to shine through no matter the sport being played or medium on which the broadcast is being disseminated.

“I always encourage Sam to be himself. Don’t try to be somebody else; don’t use somebody else’s voice; don’t try to speak the way they do,” said Ravech. “Be you, and hopefully over the course of a long time, people will come to respect you [and] your work.”

Sometimes, getting opportunities in sports media comes in being uncomfortable; that is, broadcasting or talking about a sport with which you may be unfamiliar or having to relocate outside your home market to accept a job. By working to transform feelings of discomfort into those evoking contentment, sports media professionals can successfully learn to grapple with change, and be prepared for it the next time it happens.

ESPN saw potential in Karl Ravech in his early years at the network and has been open and receptive to giving him opportunities both inside and outside of baseball as time goes on. In order for Ravech to grow as a broadcaster though, he had to work to enhance his craft – but none of that would have been possible had it not been for Ravech being open to and embracing change.

“Be malleable. Be flexible,” said Ravech. “That’s what I would tell anyone, whether it’s my son Sam who I’m incredibly proud of, or anybody getting into it. You just never know which way this career is going to go and the things it’s going to expose you to. You just don’t.”

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BSM Writers

The Big Ten Could Change The College Football TV Landscape Forever

“It appears the Big Ten could be the first major conference to embrace major streaming services carrying its top games.”

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The college football world, and the college football Twitterverse, was lit the night of September 22, 2018. The fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners were being taken to the wire by Army, a team that still runs the triple option in an age when offenses routinely throw the ball 40+ times per game. The National Championship picture was already going to be blurred a bit and we’d barely even started the season. We all left our games of choice in search of the end of regulation and the eventual overtime only to find a relic of days gone by, the game was only available on a pay-per-view telecast.

In the days before massive conference media deals, the pay-per-view games were a regular occurrence, normally reserved for the Southwest Louisianas and Pacifics of the world visiting town. For you kids, Southwest Louisiana is now The University of Louisiana and Pacific once played football, sort of. Not even regional telecasts had an interest in those games, so you called your local cable company and shelled out $39.95 to watch a poorly produced telecast of an absolute bludgeoning. 

Incidentally, one other way you could watch these pay-per-view games was if you had access to one of those C band satellites. In my youth, it was a sure sign of wealth. It looked like your neighbor had raided a NASA facility and stolen a satellite at gunpoint. You couldn’t hide them, either. They would sit out in the middle of your lawn like you were trying to communicate with beings from a neighboring solar system.

My friend had one of these satellites and we spent hours watching random things like Spanish language shopping networks. Where else can you buy an authentic matador cape for four easy payments of $39.95? We also found news analysts awaiting their live shot window while applying one more coat of make-up or adjusting their toupee. It occasionally kept us out of real trouble, even if it wasn’t the height of entertainment. But, I digress.

The concept of the stand-alone pay-per-view game seemed to have been dealt a near fatal blow with the massive ESPN and FOX deals with the major conferences. It was finished off and buried with the launches of the conference television networks. Technically, almost all the games are “pay-per-view” in that I pay my provider each month for the sports channels but I no longer have to find a channel I otherwise never use and watch color bars in anticipation of an announcer I never see trying to sell me on the importance of a game in which the home team is favored by five touchdowns.

The imminent Big Ten Conference media deal is going to be a big one but, according to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, it may include something many college fans have never encountered, major games only available on streaming.

Warren told ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg that Amazon and Apple will be potential major players in the future deal. It would be a departure from the normal business plan for the two streaming giants to settle for games featuring a directional school playing a Big Ten power. That means the real possibility of a meaningful Top 25 Big Ten game being available only on a streaming service.

The NFL is already in this bed with Amazon. Notre Dame has also dipped their toe in this pool with a 2021 game exclusively available on Peacock. There has yet to be a conference go all-in to this degree. It appears the Big Ten could be the first major conference to embrace major streaming services carrying its top games. Somebody had to be first, as the Big Ten was with the Big Ten Network, and you can be sure every conference commissioner is watching.

There is a certain comfort to finding games in the way you always have. I imagine dialing up Amazon Prime for the big Wisconsin at Penn State game will have the same feel as dialing up the random channel for the old school pay-per-view.

My family is uniquely prepared for this as we have, apparently, chosen to purchase our streaming services like we are buying them in a Sam’s Club family pack. The Amazon deliveryman visits my house so often I asked my accountant if I could declare him a dependent on my taxes. The Big Ten won’t be sneaking a streaming game past me!

This will come with a certain amount of criticism, no doubt. Many fans pay for their satellite or cable packages primarily for their favorite team’s games. Now, my conference of choice will ask me to add a streaming service on top of this. It’s a smart move by Amazon or Apple. Big Ten fans will sign right up and promptly forget to cancel as soon as the season ends and the $14.95 will keep being drafted whether you watch Severance, or not. My wife and I gave the first Severance episode 15 minutes and moved on to Bridgerton. For your information, I only watch Bridgerton for the well-written dialogue.

This feels like a seminal moment in sports TV, not unlike the 1995 Duke-North Carolina game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. That was the night ESPN chose to televise college basketball’s most-watched rivalry on ESPN2. It forced cable providers, and viewers, to say: “Wait, big games will be there too? It’s not just Jim Rome and Jim Everette fighting?” In the length of a two-overtime classic Tar Heel win, ESPN2 became a necessity for any true sports fan. 

Now, you’ll have to pry the Michigan-Ohio State game out of FOX’s cold dead hands but, if Amazon or Apple wants this to work, they’ll pay the money that would put any other Big Ten game in play for them. That is the only way you convince the average fan to pay more for the services they don’t already have. Money obviously isn’t an issue for Amazon and Apple, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook could realistically be under the impression they are actually buying the physical states that make up the Big Ten.

If Amazon is the winning bid, their football profile is off to an impressive start. The Sports Business Journal reports they are among the leaders for NFL Sunday Ticket to pair with their current national games, a deal believed to be worth $2 billion per year. Add major Big Ten games to the mix and it won’t be long until other conferences are interested in joining the platform.

For Apple, it would be a new sporting venture to pair with their national MLB games, giving them an extended profile. Not shockingly, they are also in the mix for the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package according to Sports Business Journal. All of this means I could eventually watch one of these games on my watch. We truly are living in the time of The Jetsons.

If not now, soon. Amazon and Apple don’t just go away. Clearly, they are interested in being major players in sports streaming and have the money necessary to get a seat at that table. If not the Big Ten, another college conference will be on board, but make no mistake – the Big Ten would be a major pelt on the wall for either company. Speaking of walls, this news may mean it is time to add another TV to yours. Amazon has some great deals right now.

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BSM Writers

Peacock’s ‘MLB Sunday Leadoff’ Hits Baseball Broadcast Sweet Spot

‘MLB Sunday Leadoff’ feels like meeting up with an old friend while ‘Friday Night Baseball’ has been more like going on a blind date.

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@JasonBenetti on Twitter

Sunday was Mother’s Day, so it probably already felt like a special day for many families and households. But for baseball fans, the late morning felt particularly warm and festive with the debut of MLB Sunday Leadoff on Peacock and NBC Sports.

Breakfast and baseball? (Maybe “brunch and baseball” is more appropriate with the pregame show beginning at 11 a.m. ET, followed by the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox playing at 11:30 a.m.) Who might have guessed the two would blend together so wonderfully until Peacock showed us?

Yes, sports fans have woken up with tennis, soccer, the Olympics, and the NFL in London for many years now. But as the Sunday Leadoff broadcasters mentioned a few times, a morning start time felt like getting up early to play a Little League game, reviving a happy memory for so many fans.

And though baseball has endured criticism for its slow pace and idyllic vibe in recent years, those aspects seemed to fit with a Sunday morning — when some might be waking up, returning from quiet early errands, or coming home from church — just perfectly.

The Peacock broadcast certainly embraced comfortable nostalgia with its presentation, with Vin Scully narrating the introduction, reminding (or informing) viewers that NBC was once the home for Major League Baseball for more than 40 years with Saturday’s Game of the Week. Baseball returned to the network for six years, from 1994 to 2000, but had been elsewhere for 22 years.

To younger generations, that may not matter. Baseball has been readily available on Fox, ESPN, TBS, and more importantly, regional sports networks. But NBC always felt like home for the sport with voices including Scully, Mel Allen, Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Joe Garagiola, Tony Kubek, and Bob Costas. Even on a streaming platform, with Sunday’s debut simulcast on a linear broadcast network, baseball being back on NBC (or an NBC product) just felt right.

However, promoting the game’s past and tradition isn’t the best way to appeal to younger fans. MLB Sunday Leadoff seemed entirely aware of that, bringing an energy and excitement to its presentation that made baseball feel vital. Host Ahmad Fareed and analyst Nick Swisher made the broadcast feel like an event, informing viewers of the White Sox and Red Sox and which players were worth watching.

Bringing on popular online baseball personalities like Rob Friedman (aka @PitchingNinja on Twitter) to break down the starting pitching match-up between Chicago’s Dallas Keuchel and Boston’s Tanner Houck was also a nice touch.

A highlights package of Saturday night’s action opened its arms to fans of all ages. Fareed and Swisher narrated the action enthusiastically, making the footage feel as if it had to be seen. (Swisher may have been too enthusiastic for 11:30 in the morning — 8:30 a.m. on the West Coast — but those familiar with him shouldn’t be surprised that he came across as very caffeinated. He’s a high-energy dude.)

Even better, the theme from This Week in Baseball played with the highlights. More specifically, the theme song is titled “Gathering Crowds,” composed by John Scott, and played over the closing credits of the show with a montage of baseball action. Want to get an older baseball fan excited? Play that theme song.

The actual game broadcast was smooth as well. Those who didn’t know otherwise might guess that play-by-play announcer Jason Benetti and analysts Steve Stone and Kevin Youkilis have often called games together. They sounded comfortable with each other in a three-man booth setup that doesn’t always work.

Of course, Benetti and Stone work together on NBC Sports Chicago’s White Sox broadcasts so there was obviously familiarity there. With the plan for Benetti to work with rotating analysts associated with the two teams playing each Sunday, it was a fortunate circumstance to have Stone in the booth. That made a more welcoming environment for Youkilis, who’s new to broadcasting this season on NESN’s Red Sox coverage.

Benetti certainly helped with making Youkilis comfortable, asking him questions about playing at Fenway Park (as a batter and fielder), his approach to hitting, and how he strategized against opposing pitchers. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering how many different analysts Benetti works with while calling basketball and football. He’s an utter professional who elevates his partners and makes broadcasts fun.

Sunday’s telecast also benefited from some luck. During the fourth inning, Peacock had Red Sox left fielder Alex Verdugo mic’ed up, a feature that’s worked well on many baseball broadcasts so far this season. Verdugo provided good insight on how he handles playing in front of Fenway Park’s iconic Green Monster, dealing with fly balls, caroms, and throws in a setting unlike any other in MLB.

But the game was delayed when home plate umpire Ron Kulpa was hit by a foul ball off his mask. Kulpa seemed stunned by the impact and was checked by trainers before leaving the game to be examined further. That resulted in a 20-minute delay while first base umpire Marty Foster changed into proper gear to take over behind home plate.

Yet for viewers watching on Peacock or NBC, the stoppage may not have felt so long because the broadcast crew and Verdugo engaged in an extended interview that felt more like a conversation, covering topics ranging from being traded for Mookie Betts, dealing with the wind as an outfielder, and favorite restaurants in Boston. It surely helped that Verdugo has been mic’ed up for broadcasts before and was already comfortable with such a situation. But the timing of it all worked out fortunately for Peacock.

MLB’s new streaming ventures with Peacock and Apple TV+ received heavy attention going into the season. Fans and media weren’t sure of what to expect, while exclusive telecasts meant viewers had to sign up for these services to watch. Of the two thus far, MLB Sunday Leadoff feels like meeting up with an old friend while Friday Night Baseball has been more like going on a blind date.

To be fair, maybe too much was expected of Apple TV+ from the outset. A tech innovator streaming live sports for the first time would surely bring something new to a baseball telecast, maybe even reinvent parts of it. Instead, the game broadcasts — incorporating some who have never called a baseball game before — have felt like everyone involved is still trying to figure out what works best.

Meanwhile, Peacock just produced a solid baseball broadcast, sprinkling in elements that may have been familiar, but also felt fresh. Leaning on nostalgia doesn’t hurt, either. But there’s also less of an uphill climb by not trying so hard to be new and innovative. Comfort is a nice thing, especially on a Sunday morning.

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