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A Conversation with WIP Program Director Spike Eskin

Brandon Contes

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The workforce is filled with people who have a job from following the footsteps of a parent, but those that find a career in radio rarely do it because they stumbled on the position.  A career in radio is built on passion, and although Spike Eskin grew up in the business, it’s not his father’s legendary status in Philadelphia sports radio that sees Spike with the position he’s in now, but Spike’s own passion and love for the industry that has him programming the station he grew up listening to.

The current program director for WIP in Philadelphia has filled more jobs than you could find at one radio station.  First, building a 15-year career in music radio, transitioning to sports talk, hosting afternoons on the same station that his father helped build and now he’s putting his stamp on Philly’s beloved WIP from the PD chair.  Mix in website work, social media among other responsibilities and the 42-year old Spike Eskin is as well-rounded as anyone in radio.

Spike grew up in Philly, he understands what makes WIP tick, but also offers a modern perspective of how to maintain the station’s future success.  Eskin began hosting podcasts before most people ever heard of the platform and uses his creative drive to program the station.

I recently had the opportunity to meet up with Spike in Philly to discuss his career and ideas on the industry as a programmer.

BC: We’ll skip when did you first become interested in radio since you grew up around it, but at what point did you decide to make a career in radio…and not sports radio, but radio in general.

SE: I think like a lot of radio people, once you discover you like it there are very few options besides doing this.  I remember my freshman year, I went to Southern Cal and I took a communications class in my third trimester and realized I enjoyed journalism as a career so I transferred to Syracuse and started working at their college station, Z89 and it was really then.

Instead of having a fraternity or parties, I had the radio station and for us at the station, that was our obsession.  Back then it was music radio that I became really passionate about, but once it clicked in college I don’t think I ever thought about doing anything else.

BC: When you were in music radio did you look at the talk format as a possibility?

SE: No, I worked in music radio until 2011 so that was 15 years and it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I started to get a little bored because music radio went to a place where creativity wasn’t important anymore, so I started doing podcasts while I was at WYSP about 10 or 11 years ago.

BC: Which is pretty early on, not many people had a podcast 10 years ago.

SE: Yea, it’s funny. I found a bunch of the old pods on a drive I have…they’re not good (laughs) but they were reps.  The talk aspect seemed fun and I started writing about sports for the WYSP website and my former boss, Andy Bloom, let me do a show on 610 WIP while I was still a music DJ.  I realized how hard it was, but I would say my last few years in music radio, I started to find sports talk interesting, I don’t know that I thought it was something I expected to do forever, but I was interested.

BC: You were doing podcasts before probably 95% of the people that have a podcast today, how important are they to a radio station and to piggyback off that question…you’re offering podcasts as content to listeners, but you also don’t want to drive them away from listening terrestrially because that’s what generates ratings, so how do you balance that?

SE: I think of our podcasts as an extension of the brand.  I don’t want another version of a show that’s on the air terrestrially to also be on as a podcast, I want it to deliver in a different way.  For some of our younger hosts that don’t get a lot of air time, it’s a great opportunity to get reps, extend their brand and build a fan base.

Sports radio is a very specific type of content. I think podcasts should fill different desires.  I don’t think you can be scared of driving people away from listening terrestrially because if that’s the case then you shouldn’t stream, don’t produce podcasts at all, don’t acknowledge that there’s television or music because everything can drive people away from listening on the radio.  You have to think about the brand of your radio station in a bigger more holistic sense.  The more I can get people to know about WIP the brand, ratings are great, but I want to reach everyone.  If a person stops listening to the radio station because they’re listening to our podcasts so intently, I will find a way to measure and monetize that person.

BC: There are a lot of people that would like if you figured out how to monetize that person.

SE: The whole world is trying to figure it out, but I want to be in the business of having a brand that people care about and getting audience share, not just in the Nielsen sense, but in the overall headspace.  When they think about sports in Philadelphia, I just want them to think about us and there are different approaches.

Our voice on Twitter cannot be like our voice on Facebook. They’re different audiences.  Our voice on the air will not be like our voice on Twitter.  Twitter is younger. They love the NBA all the time.  Our radio listeners are a little bit older than the standard Twitter user. They like football more.

These are all extensions of our brand and I don’t think we can be scared of them.  Thankfully, Entercom has the same view, they believe in live and local content, they believe in sports and radio, but they’re also the second biggest podcast creator in the country.

BC: I always loved talk radio because of its intimacy, it took me awhile to get into podcasts because I didn’t think you could connect with the host the same way, but they’re relaxed and allow the host to experiment and try different things and it does build that connection.  How many podcasts do you have affiliated with WIP? 

SE: We probably have 15 that are done regularly and we have a relationship with BGN Radio where they have their own podcast and they have a show on WIP which is really big, but we really believe in podcasting.

BC: How often do you do your podcast, Right’s to Ricky Sanchez?

SE: Twice a week, depending on the Sixers schedule we might do three or four if there’s a lot going on and we’ve been going for five years on July 10th.

BC: That’s a great name, (laughs) not as good as Me and Giglio Down by the Schoolyard. (WIP host Joe Giglio’s podcast)

SE: (laughs) It’s the greatest name ever, he couldn’t think of a name so I told him to ask on Twitter.  He came back with the list and I said Joe…it’s not even close, it’s Me and Giglio Down by the Schoolyard…a lot of your Twitter followers might be too young to get it, but it’s so funny you have to go with it.

Joe is a great example, he’s our evening host, but half the year the Phillies are on so he’s doing pre and post, but the podcast was his idea because all these things are happening in sports that he doesn’t get to talk about and he’s losing out on reps.  Now he’s getting reps and has a way to build more of a following and connect his social media fans with fans that would listen to him on-air.

BC: Was it ever frustrating when you were getting started in sports radio, especially since you already had a 15-year radio career that you built on your own, but I’m sure you still had people saying you were only on-air because of your father?

SE: (laughs) I’m almost 42 and I still get some of that.  There was a point after I got the job in Chicago at a big station in a big market, that wasn’t at all attached to Philly, the Howard Eskin stuff stopped bothering me and I started to be proud of what he accomplished instead of being intimidated by it.  I’ll never forget, a listener told me…if people are bringing that up then it means they can’t find anything else that you’re doing wrong.  Right around then, maybe when I turned 30 it stopped bothering me.

When I started here, I started doing web and social media and a little bit on-air, one show a week.  I had some relationships with people at WIP already and I think I was established just enough to where they knew how different I was from my dad.  If you’re opinionated enough in sports radio, they’d rather fight about those opinions, I thought Michael Vick should start over Nick Foles, most people focused on that instead (laughs), if you’re doing it right they weren’t worried about who my father was.

BC: It’s similar to a professional athlete, you have Ike Reese and Jon Ritchie on-air, retired football players, I’m sure they had to deal with building credibility and listeners saying what do you know about the Phillies you’re a football player!  As ridiculous as that sounds, I never played a professional sport yet I know more about the Phillies because you played professional football not baseball.

SE: (Laughs) Right, if anything he should know more just because he played a professional sport.

BC: Of course, but they still have to earn trust from the listeners, so being Howard Eskin’s son, did you ever feel pressured to be extra opinionated or throw out a crazy hot take to build credibility?

SE: No, I think one of the good things about starting when I did is that I was pretty comfortable with who I was.  I started in sports radio when I was 34 or 35 and been on the radio for 15 years and even though it wasn’t sports, I was really comfortable in my own skin.  I’m wildly different from my father in terms of personality type and views on things.

I actually think one of the things that made me not the best sports talk host was that I was probably a little too reasonable on the air.  “Well you know the truth is really in the middle”…(laughs). That doesn’t really work for sports radio.  So no, I never really felt pressure about it, I think we were so different and our differences were easily highlighted.

BC: Do you think it’s more important for a sports radio host to be passionate about sports or passionate about radio?

SE: I’ve always said that what we do is about radio and not sports.  I think I learned that when I started music and it was Top 40.  I didn’t like Top 40 music at the time, but I worked in it for a month and at the time it was Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and I loved it…then I went to active rock, then I went to alternative and then classic rock, I realized my job was to connect with who was listening and while the music was important to me personally, it wasn’t really important to my job.

I think our best hosts are the ones that are opinionated communicators and love radio.  You can’t do this job without knowing sports, but give me a guy that is passionate about radio and knows sports and I can probably turn him into a sports talk host better than the other way around.

BC: Right, if Howard Stern had a casual interest in sports he could’ve been the best sports talk host ever, but the biggest sports fan that doesn’t know about radio might not be successful.

SE: Our listeners love us, which is awesome, but some of them will say “I think I’d be a great host on WIP” and I’ll ask them why?  “Because I know everything about sports”…and in the back of my mind I know that’s just a base, this isn’t a quiz show.  Everyone has a smartphone with every answer to every sports question ever, knowing the answer is not the most important thing.

BC: Which is also why many sports radio hosts can switch markets and be successful without knowing everything about the market they’re going into.

SE: I’m always amazed by that. I remember when Josh Innes started here from Houston and then with Chris Carlin where I got to see it up close, but I never thought about someone moving here and having to be on our radio station without having lived all of this.

I’m amazed by sports hosts that can do that, especially Philly which is a specific type of place, but that’s hard.  I can take a local host and make them a national host a lot easier than I could take a national host and put them in a local market.

BC: Who were some radio guys you looked up to when you were younger other than your dad?

SE: I was an enormous Howard Stern fan, I would tape the show when I would go to school, I’d sit in the parking lot and listen, I’d buy the pay-per-views and had Crucified By The FCC at home. I was obsessed with Stern.

There was a jock on Power 99 in Philly called Golden Boy and I loved him, he was the first DJ that I really liked.  When I was an intern at YSP there was a guy called Cousin Ed that I really liked, but Stern was really the guy for me.

I also listened to so much WIP when I was younger and I loved Mac and Mac, Glen Macnow and Jody McDonald who were on before my dad, Craig Carton was also great on IP.

BC: I’m always interested with people in radio, whether or not they’re Stern fans because I can’t see how someone in this industry doesn’t think he’s at the top.  And I wasn’t even a listener before he went to Sirius, but even if you don’t like all of the jokes and different things he did, just from an interview standpoint he’s fascinating to listen to.

SE: The most important thing I took from Stern was…and podcasts do a great job of this.  The thing about Stern is if you’re not a regular listener and you turn it on and everyone is laughing at something, you might not be able to figure out for 25 minutes what was funny, but they formed a community that made it if you did think it was funny you felt like you were part of a club joking around with your friends.  Forming that community aspect of the show…was the best thing Howard did.  I’ll even see it now if I’m listening to Howard and my wife is with me. I’m laughing and she’s just staring at me because she can’t figure out what’s funny.

BC: How was the transition of being on-air and then going into programming?

SE: I think it got to a point where I was doing web-work, on-air, KYW Newsradio, TV, social media…and I hit a crossroads where I had to pick what I really wanted to do.  I honestly remember, when Innes got here at night and after 20 minutes of listening to him, I thought…this guy’s our night host?  And I’m not even close to as good as he is…

I always loved programming, when I was on the air in music and got into music programming, the goal was to get off the air.   I think the reason is, I love the process of creating it, but four or five hours a day, five days a week, I don’t know how they do it.  It’s tedious to me.  When Jeff Sottolano left and the opportunity as program director came up, I felt like I had put some time in here and really understood the radio station.  Obviously my time in Philly, my history with the radio station made me a unique guy so it happened at the perfect time for me.

BC: It was a pretty different route to go from a large market on-air personality into management.

SE: Well I was an APD at WYSP and at Q101 in Chicago I was left in charge.  The thing I love about programming is I love helping people to get better and it gives me the ability to be creative on a more macro level without the tediousness of having to do it for four hours a day.

BC: That’s interesting, I would think one of the things you loved about being on-air was the creative aspect because it’s a great outlet, and you would usually think of the program director as someone who doesn’t have that creative passion.

SE: What I love doing is sitting in with the shows and they’ll be trying to figure out what the topic is and I could come up with the take and they’ll get excited and say yea that’s it!  I’ll say great…now you have to do it because I can’t do it for four hours (laughs).

It’s easy to come up with the take that the Eagles made a mistake not trading Nick Foles, but to execute it, make it compelling and make people want to argue and agree and feel passionately…that’s where the host’s talent comes in.  I have just enough in the on-air and creation part of the show to fulfill that desire.

BC: Do you think you differ from most sports radio program directors in large markets?  Are they as creative in developing topics for shows?

SE: I don’t know. I have never been much of an industry person.  I respect that we have some great PD’s at Entercom right now, and I have had some good dialogue with them, but my dialogue has never been what’s your day like?  So I don’t know how they do it. I do know that now as a PD you have to be more versatile than you ever had to be in the past, so I don’t know if I’m different, but it works for me here.

BC: What about in terms of developing topics, the balance of leaving the sports realm?

SE: I think WIP has always been a station that does that, but I don’t think we can ever forget what we are.  I use the analogy of there being a road that you’re set on. There are cars and turns that get in your way, but you think of your show as that road and the road is Philadelphia sports. That doesn’t mean you don’t pull off the road and get gas.

I think that texture is really necessary, the listeners need to know who the hosts are as people and what TV shows and food they like, but I don’t think you can ever forget why we’re here in the first place.

BC: Andy Bloom was still here when you were hired as PD?

SE: Yea, he hired me as program director and then I took over as the sole programming guy for WIP in January 2016 when he left.

BC: So how did your role change from being program director while he was still here to program director without him here?

SE: It was all my responsibility.  We were a radio station in flux. We had some challenges.  There’s a big difference between having a bunch of ideas for how to get better and then actually being the one to say we’re making this change, or this is not the right host, this is not the right promo, this is not the right clock.

I was more like an APD even when I was hired as PD.  The great thing about being an APD is you can say I think we should play this, I think we should hire that host, and it’s somebody else’s ass whether you do it or not. It’s their call.  They’ll get the credit if it works, but they also get the blame if it doesn’t.  When you’re that person, you need to be certain about everything.  It was a lot more responsibility, but it was also a lot more exciting for me to make the station sound how I felt it should sound.

BC: Obviously the goal is to not have to make lineup changes often, but you’ve had to make quite a few changes in the relatively short amount of time that you’ve been in charge.  Getting rid of someone might not be easy, but how about the excitement level of building a show and especially seeing it pay off with a show being successful.

SE: It’s great.  It’s like being the general manager of a sports team.  The challenges of putting players together who have never played together before is very scary, but also very exciting.  If you’re putting a team together, most times they’ve never worked together before.  You can do all the practice shows you want, but you don’t really know if they can work together until they’ve done it for six months.

When I was growing up listening to WIP, everyone had their favorite show, but you could put WIP on at any time and even if it wasn’t your favorite host, you’d still listen to the station.  That’s the goal, to have different shows with different personalities, but have a cohesive feel within the station so even if it isn’t your favorite show, it’s still WIP.

BC: How helpful has it been to have Angelo Cataldi there throughout all the changes as the anchor of the station.

SE: It’s impossible to…impossible impossible impossible to state the importance of being able to have an anchor like Angelo.

THE BEST who has ever done it in morning sports radio.  I don’t think there is anyone better than him and he’s still doing it at an amazing level.  He’s the Peyton Manning of sports radio, he knows where everyone is going to be, knows the right lane and executes perfectly.

His presence both behind the scenes and on-air allowed the radio station to go through that change.  I don’t know how we would’ve done it without him.

BC: Do you think about needing to replace him when he retires?

SE: Sure, you think about it.  Who knows if it’s two years, five or seven years.  Angelo’s passion for the show hasn’t decreased since I’ve been here so who knows when it will be.  It makes it more difficult because you can’t plan for it specifically. You can keep your eyes and ears open, but that will be the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced at WIP, maybe even in radio.

BC: And you can look at WFAN who just tried to do that with Francesa.

SE: Yea…that was tough for Chris and them.  It will be a challenge, but I’d like to think we’ve put ourselves in a position so that whenever Angelo leaves, we’ll be able to take it head on.

BC: Were you clued in the whole time when Carlin was a possibility to replace Mike?

SE: When Chris came here, WFAN was not in his plans.  I know he’s said that, but having lived it, it really was not a thought.  Chris was coming here to stay in Philly.  When it was presented, I think it was an obvious decision for Chris to want to go to WFAN based on his history, but that being said I think he was really enjoying himself here and the show with Chris and Ike was really starting to hit its stride.  I’m sure he was excited to be back at WFAN, but part of him still would’ve liked to see how things would’ve ended up with Ike here at WIP, but he wasn’t eyeballing that job when he came here.

It took a lot of guts for Chris to come down here.  Coming to Philly as a perceived New Yorker, doing Mets pregame on TV, which you can’t hide from and the first thing people saw when googling Chris was Imus firing him.  To walk into Philly and host with a former all-pro Eagle on afternoon drive in the middle of the football season…that takes guts!  And he survived, he didn’t get to see what the next version was, but he weathered the storm and was a crucial part of us evolving.  Even though he’s not here for it, he provided a bridge for us that I’m very thankful we had.

BC: I want to go back to when you said it takes at least six months to really be able to tell if a show can take off or not. You look at a situation like Carlin going to New York to host with Maggie and Bart when they’ve never done a show together, and you’ve had similar situations here at IP. Are there specific things you’re listening for when you first put hosts together knowing there’s a chance in six months the show might not build the way you wanted it to?

SE: Hearing hosts that give each other the space to be themselves is important.  One thing we’re lucky enough to have with our shows is the hosts are different, but their differences fit.  Our midday and afternoon shows, there are definite quarterbacks of the show, but the other host’s personality and presence is just as big, but they don’t get in each other’s way.  There’s an unspoken chemistry that you can hear, but the most important thing I listen for at first is, are they listening to each other and giving each other space.  If they’re doing those things and you can hear some spark, it’s a good sign.

BC: Did you ever talk to your dad about hosting on WIP full-time again with all of the changes you’ve had to make?

SE: I did not talk to him about it.  It’s funny to say full-time, he is working full-time, just not doing four hours on-air each day.  I don’t want to speak for him, but one thing I think that happened when he stopped doing his afternoon show is he loves the relationships.  He loves being at Eagles practice, getting information and delivering the scoop.  Sometimes the radio show nailed him to a chair for four hours when he could be out getting information and doing something else.

He loved being on-air, but I think this has been a great next career for him.  He still does his Saturday morning show, he does sideline for the Eagles, he does an hour twice a week with Giglio who he loves, he does a weekly spot with the morning show, so he’s on five days a week, but without having to sit in a chair and call people nitwit for four hours a day.

BC: Exclude WIP, and not necessarily the best show, but who do you think is the most talented sports radio host.

SE: Man oh man, (long pause)…I’ll give you two that I love.  I think Damon Amendolara on CBS Sports Radio is amazing.  I remember when I started here I would get to work at 6:30am so I would wake up around 4 and get to hear him doing overnights and I could hear at that point how good he was and now that he has an even bigger opportunity with the network, it’s great.  And then Dan Le Batard is fantastic, he does a lot of those things that Stern did with building a community.

BC: Do you ever see yourself doing five days a week again on-air in any format?

SE: I don’t plan to.  The last time I did it was afternoon’s here with Josh and it was fun, but it was exhausting.  Sports talk radio every day is exhausting.  But here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to radio, I went from late night host to midday producer to late night host to midday host to music director back to late night host to APD to PD to middays in Philly to web and social media guy, to afternoon host and PD…(laughs) I don’t know what two years from now will be like.  I will look at every opportunity when it is in front of me, but when I took this job, my hope was to make sure the next 25 years at WIP are as good as its first 25 years and I plan to do that.

Brandon Contes is a freelance writer for BSM. He can be found on Twitter @BrandonContes. To reach him by email click here.

BSM Writers

Your Football Conversation Has To Be Different

I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Brian Noe

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Radio

Rejoice! Ball is back, baby. Life is just better when football season is included; am I right? (That was a rhetorical question because I know I’m right in this case.) Like many people in this country, I’m all about the pigskin. Outside of my family and friends, there aren’t many things in life that I love more than BALL.

With all of that being established, a simple question still exists: is there such a thing as talking too much football on a sports radio show?

I think it isn’t as much what you’re talking about; it’s how you’re talking about it. For instance, it isn’t good enough to lazily say, “Ehh, we’ll start off by talking about the game last night.” Well, how are you going to talk about it? Do you have anything original, interesting or entertaining to say? Or are you just gonna start riffing like you’re in a jam band hoping to accidentally stumble onto something cool after six minutes of nothing?

Talking about football is like opening a new burger joint. Hang with me on this one. There are so many options — Burger King, McDonald’s, Five Guys, Wendy’s, In-N-Out, etc. — that you can’t expect to have great success if you open a run-of-the-mill burger joint of your own. Having an inferior product is going to produce an inferior result.

It comes down to whether a topic or angle will cause the show to stand out or blend in. Going knee-deep on a national show about the competition at left guard between two Buffalo Bills offensive lineman doesn’t stand out. You’ll get lost in the shuffle that way.

A show needs to constantly be entertaining and engaging. One way to check that box is with unique viewpoints. Don’t say what other shows are saying. Your burger joint (aka football conversation) needs to be different than the competition. Otherwise, why are you special?

Another way to stand out is with personality. It’s impossible to have unique angles with every single topic that’s presented. A lot of hosts recently pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys committed 17 penalties in their first preseason game against the Denver Broncos. But Stephen A. Smith said it differently than everybody else. That’s what it comes down to; either say things that other shows aren’t saying, or say them differently.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh made a comment recently that too much of anything is a bad thing. So back to the original question, is there such a thing as too much football talk on a sports radio show?

Variety is the spice of life, but quality is the spice of sports radio. If a show provides quality, listeners will keep coming back. It’s really that simple. Sure, hosts will hear “talk more this, talk more that” from time to time, but you know what’s funny about that? It means the listeners haven’t left. The show is providing enough quality for them to stick around. If the quality goes away, so will the audience.

It’s smart for hosts and programmers to think, “What’s our strongest stuff?” If that happens to be a bunch of football topics, great, roll with it. I don’t know why any host would go with B- or C-material just for the sake of providing variety. That’s silly to me.

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick said something interesting last week while visiting Atlanta’s training camp. Vick was asked which team’s offense he’d like to run if he was still playing today. “The offense Tom Brady is running in Tampa,” Vick said. “Pass first.”

The answer stood out to me because throwing the ball isn’t what made Vick special with the Falcons. He was a decent passer and a dynamic runner. The run/pass blend made Vick a problem. I totally understand wanting to prove doubters wrong, but there are a lot of athletes that get away from what they do best while relying on something else that isn’t their specialty.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook is not an outside shooter. He’s brutal in that area. Yet Russ will keep firing threes at a 30% clip. Why? Attacking the rim and working the midrange is his game. You don’t see Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul bombing threes if they aren’t going in. He kills opponents with his midrange skills all day.

It’ll be interesting to see how Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approaches this season. He’s received a steady diet of “can’t throw the deep ball.” Will he try to a fault to prove doubters wrong, or will he rely on what he does best? Beating defenders with timing and accuracy on shorter throws is where he finds the most success.

Working to improve your weaknesses makes sense, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of going away from your strengths. How is it any different in sports radio? If a host isn’t strong when it comes to talking basketball or baseball, it definitely makes sense to improve in those areas. But if that same host stands out by talking football, at some point it becomes like Westbrook jacking up threes if the host gets too far away from a bread-and-butter strength.

Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player in the Baseball Hall of Fame that was unanimously elected. He relied on his cutter — a fastball that moved, a lot — about 85% of the time. Mo didn’t say, “Man, my four-seam fastball and changeup aren’t getting enough respect.” He rode that cutter all the way to Cooperstown and legendary status.

Rivera is a great example of how playing to your strengths is the best approach. He also shows that quality trumps variety every time. Let’s put it this way: if 85% of a sports radio show is football content, and the quality of that show is anywhere near Mo caliber, it’s destined to be a hit.

One of my buddies, Mike Zanchelli, has always been a hit with the ladies. I think he came out of the womb with at least 10 girls in the nursery showing interest in him. He had a simple dating philosophy: “Always. Leave them. Wanting. More.” That might work in dating, but I think it’s the opposite in sports radio. Most listeners don’t hear the entire show. If they’re in and out, wouldn’t you want them to hear your best stuff when they are tuned in?

That’s why I say screw variety. That’s why I wouldn’t worry about overserving your audience an all-you-can-eat BALL buffet. I think it’s much wiser to focus on producing a quality product regardless if it’s well rounded or not.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Has Gone From Playing Checkers to Chess In Two Years

Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different.

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In the days after the Big Ten news leaked regarding some of the details of their upcoming media deals, I was hankering for more information. I wanted more insight as to the “why”. Why did the Big Ten leave such a long-lasting and prosperous relationship with ESPN. I just couldn’t imagine it and it’s why I wrote about it last week.

It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I tuned into a podcast favorite of mine, The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast. The show’s hosts are deep into the weeds of sports media with John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal and Andrew Marchand at the New York Post. It was Ourand who was dropping dimes of news on the Big Ten deal last week. I wanted to hear him dive deeper, and he did on the podcast. But it was a throwaway line that got my wheels churning.

“This is about the third or fourth deal in a row that ESPN, the free-spending ESPN, to me has shown some financial discipline” Ourand said. “They are showing a bit of financial discipline that I hadn’t seen certainly when John Skipper was there and pre-dating John Skipper.”

I had to keep digging and folks, it’s true. ESPN is essentially Jimmy Pitaro in the above quote, the Chairman of ESPN. Since taking the role in 2018, he was put into an interesting position of being in the middle of a lot of big money media rights deals that would be coming due for renegotiation soon. The rights fees for EVERYTHING were going to balloon wildly. But in the last two years, he has comfortably kept the astronomical rates somewhat within shouting distance.

The big one, the NFL media rights deal agreed to last March, saw ESPN pay a very strong 30% increase for the rights. However, other networks involved had to pay “double” as Ourand so succinctly put it. He also personally negotiated with FOX to bring in Troy Aikman and Joe Buck to make their Monday Night Football booth easily more recognizable and the best in the sport. ESPN in that deal, that did NOT include doubled rates, got more games, better games, and more schedule flexibility. ABC gets two Super Bowls in the deal too. Simply put, Jimmy Pitaro set up ESPN to get a Super Bowl itself, but for now his network will take full advantage of the ABC network broadcast when the time comes (2026, 2030).

The recent Big Ten deal was massive because the conference spent forty years with ESPN and decided to reward that loyalty with a massively overpriced mid-tier package. ESPN balked at the idea. In their back pocket lies a lot of college football media rights deals with a lot of conferences including one that will be a massively profitable venture, the SEC package. ESPN takes over the CBS package of the “top” conference game. Yes, it paid $3 billion for it, but it’s a scant $300 million annually. Sure, that’s over 5X what CBS was paying annually but CBS signed that deal in 1996! I need not tell you all of the advancements in our world since Bob Dole was a presidential nominee. ESPN now gets to cherry-pick the best game from the best conference and put the game anywhere they damn well please to maximize exposure.

The F1 media rights extension is massive because of two things: one, they got it cheap before the sport littered your timeline on weekend mornings and two, when they re-signed with F1 this summer they paid way less than other streaming networks were reportedly willing to pay. The brand, the savvy worked again. ESPN takes a small risk for a potentially exploding sport and much like CBS did with the SEC for 25 years, can make massive margins.

I can keep going, and I will with one more. Sports betting. The niche is growing like my lawn minutes after the summer rainstorm. Pitaro has said publicly that sports betting “has become a must-have” and he’s full-frontal correct. ESPN is in an odd spot with their clear lineage to Disney, but it’s obvious something massive is going to come soon with ESPN reportedly looking for a deal in the $3 billion neighborhood.

Pitaro has been positioning this company from a position of strength. He pays big money for big properties, but knows when he’s getting taken advantage of and most importantly, isn’t afraid to pull his brand’s name out of the deep end.

ESPN may have an issue with dwindling subscribers, but that’s an everyone problem. The difference is ESPN is constantly trying to get you from one network ship you think is sinking into another network life raft. If you want to leave cable or satellite and go streaming, you can. ESPN+ is there to pick up the pieces. Or Sling (with an ESPN bundle). Or YouTube TV (ESPN is there too). Or a myriad of other ways. They are positioned so well right now to be where you think you want to go. Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN have been amazing at doing whatever they can to keep you paying them monthly.

The network has been aggressive with media rights deals but these newer ones have been diligently maneuvered by Pitaro. It was a choice to essentially back the SEC for the next decade, and to put more money into the potential of F1. The effort was a conscious one to keep a tight-lipped mission to bolster Monday Night Football’s booth. It was an understated strategy to reinvest in the NHL. Those decisions make the future ones with the Pac-12, the Big 12, NBA and UFC fascinating to watch but what’s clear is that this ESPN strategy is different. The old adage of “pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered” may have applied to the network under different leadership, but these aren’t eating pigs. These are boars.

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The Producers Podcast – Big Baby Dave, Jomboy Media

Brady Farkas

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Big Baby Dave has his hands in everything for Jomboy Media. He joins Brady Farkas to talk about how he brings a unique sound to each show he works with.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3A7FJ4a

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3bZ7NgG

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3dB4FrO

Google: https://buff.ly/3JVC5NG

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3STupzF

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