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Meet The Market Managers: Keith Williams, Good Karma Brands Chicago

“I think we just love being creative. It stands out and it does amazing things for our partners.”

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Week 2 of Season 2! Today, the Meet the Market Managers series takes us to Chicago. My conversation with Keith Williams of Good Karma is an interesting one.

Keith is a lifer with GKB, having worked in multiple markets, leading multiple brands for the company. Part of working for Craig Karmazin’s group though is not being married to any ways of doing business. Even lifers aren’t allowed to lean on the idea that “this is how we’ve always done it.”

In our conversation, presented by our outstanding partners at Point-to-Point Marketing, Keith shares why that approach works for him, and why it was part of guiding his search for the station’s new Director of Content. We also talked about competition between Good Karma markets, how Mike Thomas left his mark on the station in a short time, and how to explain the changing media landscape to clients.

Enjoy!

Demetri Ravanos: One of the first things you had to do in Chicago after taking the reigns of ESPN 1000 was hire a PD. That search was largely internal. What were you prioritizing as you were looking for a new leader on the programming side? 

Keith Williams: Just having the vision to pivot quickly to create new opportunities for our team, for our sales and marketing teams, and increase the diversity of our hosts. Those were three things that we really talked about looking to expand. Yes, we had some good internal candidates. We had a few external as well. Danny (Zederman) is obviously who I went with and Ryan Maguire, who you know as he wrote for BSM, we found a spot for in Milwaukee so that he was still with Good Karma.

It was something that obviously my predecessor was very focused on, and he did amazing things with this radio station, moving some of the pieces around, adding Twitch and an app, and of course, the White Sox rights. I thought Danny could really help us get to that next level. He’s added a number of shows already, some specialty things and things specifically on the app. We’re having some fun. 

DR: This is a really big stage. Market number three is a big one to step into for your first programming role. That said, Danny has spent a lot of time with that radio station during his career. You mentioned part of the way ESPN 1000 presented itself while under Mike Thomas’ leadership, so what was it about what Danny that made you say, “I don’t care that he doesn’t have the prior PD experience. He’s the guy!”?

KW: Well, first, he’s really creative. He’s an activator. I knew he was going to move quickly and get things done. He’s got a high capacity to work fast, to work smart, and he’s a really good communicator, and we need that. We need someone that can communicate the vision, the ideas for marketing, for our sales team, and obviously to set the vision for our content team.

We want to be fun. We want to be fast. Obviously, the Bears are always going to be the big team in town, but we also want to continue to bring that personal level of entertainment to our fans.

I think Danny has the ability, and his relationships here with the team, having pretty much worked with almost every single person. This was a great move for him to get the opportunity to prove himself.

DR: So as a new boss coming in, and immediately having to pick a leader of the programming side when you have multiple guys internally interested in the job, how do you go through the process and make sure to build relationships with the people that didn’t get the job? How did you show them that they still have a lot of value to you and the brand? 

KW: That was important. I mean, everybody doesn’t have the exact skill set to manage, to lead and to work quickly and have the ability to communicate across departments. At the same time, everyone that did apply had unbelievable ideas on how to make us better, and we want people’s feedback. We’re not trying to shove things down everyone’s throat. It’s all about listening, communicating, and hearing everybody’s opinions.

We’re a small company. We can pivot on a dime and listen to people’s ideas and feedback and take it, run with it, and make a change. If it doesn’t work, we’ll switch back. So, that’s the beauty of it.

For the people that did apply internally, we took their feedback. We are involving them in the process and hearing their voices. We’re allowing them to help us, because they have a passion for this radio station and market, and deep relationships in the building. Danny and I are both all ears for every single idea that comes across our table.

DR: You mentioned that the company is still relatively small, particularly in terms of media operations. You’ve been with them for a long time across a number of markets in a variety of roles. I always wonder when I talk to people inside Good Karma, what are the standards that are expected across each market? Also, how does the company give the VP/Market Manager an opportunity to establish their own identity and do things their own way?

KW: Craig [Karmazin] gives us a ton of freedom. I do a one-on-one with him each week and I’ve got a list of things I’ll go over, and his usual question back to me is, “was this the right thing to do?” “Does it fit our core values?”.

We look at it like it’s our own business. We are in charge of the revenue. We’re in charge of the expenses and everything left over is cash flow profit that we can then invest in our own people and equipment. So it’s up to us to choose our own path within what Good Karma’s core values and culture are, right?

I think one of the things that I have prided my career on is my communication and follow-through. If I hear somebody wanting something, and maybe we don’t choose to go that direction or we do, we always try to explain the why and follow through. So really, listening to our teammates is key to the growth of how to make this place the best it can be. 

DR: So what sort of information were you trying to gather to make the decision about whether Chicago was the right move for you or not? Was it as simple as “It’s bigger than Madison and I want a new challenge”? Or was there something specific you were looking for before you would say yes? 

KW: I told Craig 20-something years ago when I joined the company, wherever you need me, I am willing to go. So I started off in Madison and had no knowledge of sales, marketing or radio. But I just worked hard and did things the right way, always figuring out a way to hit budget or overdeliver on whatever the key needs were.

Then he gave me an opportunity to run some radio stations in Janesville, which I did for about four or five years. He asked me then to join forces with Sam Pines, who is now running our ESPN LA property. Sam and I worked together in Cleveland for ten years.

I was ready to do something different. So we had the big picture conversation, and I was commuting for a period of time to D.C. and Baltimore, running our ESPN digital sales offices there. We redid the structure of the sales team and then Craig said, would you be willing to go back to Wisconsin? And I said, you know, if that’s where the team needs me, we’ll go. We completely rebuilt the team in my three years there, a year and a half of which, we were probably working from home during the pandemic.

Then when Mike left. It became an opportunity when Craig called and said, “would you be interested in this?”. I said I have to talk to my family first, obviously. My wife was super supportive and asked all the right questions.

This is my passion. I love being in a market. Yes, it’s a bigger market, but the principles are all the same. It’s about the people. It’s about doing the right thing for our partners, and giving our fans the opportunity to consume whatever content we’re putting out there on as many platforms as we possibly can. 

DR: So let’s talk about the people and the partners, because that goes to a question about what happened earlier this month when you guys announced that Carmen and Jurko were moving back to noon to 2 pm. The guys on air mentioned that one of the things they liked is that it meant five days a week they’d get to interact with Waddle and Silvy.

I wonder, as somebody that is looking out for the entire brand, how can something as simple as a casual five or six-minute conversation between two shows, groups of guys that don’t normally have a chance to interact with each other on-air, how does that elevate a brand? Why is an element like that important for getting a station to the next level?

KW: I mean, we see it behind the scenes. Even just yesterday walking around the halls, those guys were talking and hanging out. So, it was a behind-the-scenes conversation, and our whole thing is “let’s bring it to the forefront”.

They have such good chemistry, all four of them. I don’t know if you’ve listened to their crosstalk, Unhinged. Not on the radio. It’s their podcast. Those guys really just absolutely love each other. They respect each other and they can poke and prod just like you do with your friends. I mean, it really is great camaraderie, so why not give it a chance to shine?

You could see some of the feedback on social media. People are really excited to hear that again. So we’re listening to our fans. We’re listening to our teammates. Danny made a great decision.

DR: The other side of that move is it puts Greeny back to 10 to noon. It’s interesting to me that as big of a market as Chicago is, the station is not an O&O for ESPN anymore. It seems from the outside that dropping Greeny for more local programing would make sense, but I know his show had solid ratings in that slot before and GKB has a strong partnership with ESPN Radio which is important. I guess I just wonder why it’s important to keep that connection to the network on air when fans prefer local.

KW: We want the connection. Obviously with ESPN, they are our biggest partner. Plus, you know, Greeny does have a Chicago connection.

Our vision with Danny is to get it as close to all-live as we possibly can, but we love Greeny. We are happy with what he’s doing for us. I know it’s not local, but it sounds local when there’s big news for the market because he has that Chicago background.

DR: I want to go back and combine two things we talked about earlier. You mentioned the idea that this is a small company and I want to tie that to what Mike Thomas accomplished while he was in your seat there.

He pulled off some really cool promotions. He gave away two cars to fans when the White Sox threw a no-hitter. He gave away multiple ad campaigns to local businesses. That sort of creativity and headline-grabbing nature of promotions seems to be standard across all of Good Karma’s properties. Can you take me behind the curtain a little bit here? Is there competition among the local market managers for who can pull off the biggest ideas like that? 

KW: Oh, yeah. 100 percent. We want to one-up each other, for sure. Creativity sells, right? So I think the weirder, the more out there a promotion can be, within the legal guidelines, which are always interesting to figure out, the better.

I think we just love being creative. It stands out and it does amazing things for our partners. I mean, when we did that, Nissan No-Hitter, think of all the earned media exposure that Nissan got from that! And who knew that it was going to happen twice? It was just incredible!

Yes, we definitely have competition for ideas. Our teammates love talking about weird and fun promotions. Our partners love it because they get exposure beyond a radio spot schedule, and our fans like it too because they get to participate and win free stuff, especially when it’s a huge prize like a car. We’re always looking for that type of idea, so we have internal brainstorming meetings on how to do these things all the time.

DR: How do the partners and clients that have been with you for a long time view a promotion like giving away an ad campaign to another business during the pandemic? 

KW: If you think about the partners that we have, some are big businesses, most of them probably are, and some are small. So when we were doing that particular promotion, it was in conjunction with First Midwest Bank, which is now going to be changing to Old National Bank. It was an opportunity for them, right? It was a chance to team up with us to give back to the community. So it was a true partnership. We explain that to our other partners. “Hey, this is something that we’re going to be executing for First Midwest Bank. We’re going to give light to a small business that’s deserving and may not be able to afford a radio schedule in Chicago, Illinois.”

DR: Chicago, in terms of being a radio market, is not Boston, where even if WEEI does good numbers, the trend right now is that The Sports Hub is going to come out on top. ESPN 1000 and The Score have gone back and forth over the years although The Score has had a better run in recent times. When you’re talking to, whether it’s the sales staff or clients, what is it you tell them about the unpredictability and volatility of radio ratings? 

KW: I tell them radio sales and marketing, in my opinion, is all about listening to our partners and their needs, and solving their problems in the most creative and effective way that you can. A ratings point never bought a cheeseburger. Now, I’m definitely quoting one of our teammates on that.

It’s all about the idea and the relationship. Advertising is a real simple formula: audience, frequency and message. If you have all three of those and you’re truly listening to the partner’s objectives, whatever you end up coming up with is going to be the right idea for them, and it’s going to work. That’s why so many of our advertising partners have been with us for so long.

It’s not just in Chicago. That’s everywhere GKB is because we truly listen to what our partners need, and try to get their message out as many times as we can. Radio commercials, promotions, endorsements, appearances, events. Whatever that is, our goal is to sell more hamburgers or cars or windows the next day and the day after that. And you know, if we’re truly listening to people, then we have the ability to grow anyone’s business. 

DR: I think, within the business, it is easy to explain and understand the problems with Nielsen ratings, because we all speak the same language and have the same background knowledge. When you’re talking to a business though, so many of them still put value in that number no matter how often you explain that it doesn’t tell the accurate story anymore because listening shifted or because there isn’t a large enough sample. What is that struggle like? 

KW: It’s all about, are we going to move product, right? At the end of the day, if you have a million listeners and only ten are going to buy a car, that’s the ten that matter.

Our focus is just entirely different. It’s all about how do you help somebody’s business grow with our loyal audience that listens as often as they do for as long as they do. If your message is good enough, it’s going to stand out and it’s going to ring at the cash register. 

DR: Chicago, in radio terms, is becoming more and more unique. You guys are still an AM market. You have a partnership with Hubbard that gives you an HD2 signal, but 1000, The Score, WBBM, WGN, all of the big talk properties, are still on the AM dial and finding success.

Could you see that changing as the generations spending money and leading the charge change? Do you have designs on someday seeing ESPN 1000 become ESPN one-hundred-point-whatever on the FM dial r are you comfortable with the position and habits of Chicago radio? 

KW: We’re very comfortable with our position because I think our mobile app is one tap and you’re already into live programming. We have the ability to promote that and you’re right there. Obviously, with smart devices and smart cars and Twitch, there are plenty of ways to get the content.

If we can just continue to promote not only AM 1000, but the ease of the ESPN Chicago app, you can get content right at your fingertips with seriously, one tap on your phone. I don’t think it matters if you’re on an AM or FM. I would just say the more places you can be, the better. 

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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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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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