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How Does Sports Radio Do Hockey Right?

Demetri Ravanos

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Every major professional sports league in America has teams in towns that aren’t very passionate about their sport. Atlanta, for instance, doesn’t seem to be much of an NBA town. The owners of the Marlins, no matter which owners they are, seem to go out of their way to make sure Miami will never be a Major League Baseball town.

No league deals with this phenomenon more than the NHL. That’s not an indictment. As the league expanded, it made sense to establish footprints across the South and the West Coast. While the success of teams in Nashville, Tampa, and most recently Las Vegas have created a decent fanbase in those cities, it is fair to say that the NHL had no established hockey culture to rely on in those regions.

It makes sense then, that not every NHL team has a major presence on local sports radio. As the puck gets set to drop on a new season tonight, I talked to four programmers in American cities that have a passion for hockey about how the local team is covered on their station. We reached out to a programmer in Canada, who did not respond. It sucks, but it actually gives us the chance to focus on coverage of the NHL on American sports radio, where hockey is not our national pastime.

When you think about hockey in this country, your mind might jump straight to Detroit. The Red Wings are in a bit of a down cycle, but the city is Hockeytown, USA. At least that’s what the “Welcome to Detroit” sign says.

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Jimmy Powers, who programs 97.1 the Ticket, says the team’s recent struggles may have silenced some fans, but has created more conversations on his air waves. “[There’s] a lot more to talk about because of the rebuild and their new stadium.” It also doesn’t hurt that the city’s other winter team, the NBA’s Pistons, have been struggling too.

When I asked Powers how much hosts on The Ticket talked about the Pistons in relation to the Red Wings, he answered “It all depends on what is going on and what they have been doing.” It is safe to deduce then that outside of acquiring Blake Griffin from the Clippers last season, the Pistons have probably not give hosts in Detroit much of a reason to push that team into their A block.

But the Red Wings, contrary to what some of us that live outside of the D may think, aren’t always in that A block either. When I asked Powers about the hierarchy of Detroit sports, he described it as “TIGERS and LIONS, until the NHL playoffs.”

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Allan Davis programs WGR, which is in Buffalo, another hockey-obsessed town. No matter how you measure it, the hometown Sabres were the NHL’s worst team last season. Davis says that definitely showed in the way his hosts talked about the team, but it didn’t push the team off the air at all. ” Like the fans – WGR can sound frustrated with the results of the Bills and Sabres at times. We are fans too. But good or bad, season in and season out – WGR tells the story of every more the teams make on an off the ice, on an off the field, no matter the results of the games. Every day starts with ‘What’s the latest news!'”

He also told me that fans in Buffalo are used to struggling teams. Until last season the Bills owned the NFL’s longest playoff drought. Davis says that means most people that are passionate about the Sabres see the team as something more than just an NHL franchise. For many in his audience, the Bills and Sabres are a stand-in for their community as a whole. “Being a fan of either of these teams means, you know and understand how proud the people of Western New York are of who they are, where they live and how they live. Honest, hardworking and giving. Win, lose or draw we stay together, always there to help each other, whenever or wherever it is needed.”

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I asked Allan then how that kind of passion shows up in his coverage of local sports, and if WGR favors covering one team over the other. He said that it depends on the time of year really, but in striving to keep WGR’s local programming all about Buffalo, both teams have a year-round presence. “WGR has a two hour show – The Instigators – from 10AM-12PM that covers the Sabres all year round. From 12PM-3PM – One Bills Live – is all about the Bills all year round. From August through the fall WGR leans more Bills and football. Winter and early spring more Sabres.”

I never really thought of Washington, DC as a hockey town. Like a lot of sports fans that live outside the nation’s capital, I assumed the sports hierarchy started with the Redskins and everything under that was something of a miss mash depending on who was in contention for a title. Whether that is true or not, 106.7 the Fan program director Chris Kinard, says it didn’t take a Stanley Cup title for his station to treat the Washington Capitals like something more than an afterthought. He told me that hosts and management at The Fan have been focused on their relationship with the team for years.

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“We have steadily increased our Capitals content over the last few years, and I believe we will take it to a new level this year. We will have three different players on each week, we’ll be joined by the head coach every two weeks, and we’ll have regularly scheduled segments with several of the team broadcasters. We have had the only Caps-focused radio show for a few years, and that show will continue in a regularly scheduled weekday slot again this year.”

He also said that the Capitals have been more than willing to do their part to grow the relationship as well. “Their PR staff is phenomenal. They understand that, to grow their sport, they need to get their players out in the media as ambassadors. And they know the players are GREAT ambassadors. Funny, smart, open, and easy to like. So we do more player interviews with the Capitals than probably all of the other teams combined.”

Is DC a Redskins town? Well, the team does usually dominate the headlines in the fall, but Kinard says this week “most of our focus…will be on the Capitals as they raise their Stanley Cup banner, and drop the puck on the 2018-19 season. We have special shows planned throughout the week, and a few surprises up our sleeve that I think our listeners will love.”

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Finally, I talked to Jim Graci at 93.7 the Fan in Pittsburgh. That station isn’t the flagship of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but given how important the team is to local fans, Jim says you have to really know hockey if you want to work for him. “Pittsburgh is a hockey town.  So to do sports talk in Pittsburgh, you better know your hockey.  It’s not surprising when you have a team as successful as the Pens have been for multiple generations.”

Image result for jim graci

Multiple generations is exactly right. When I asked Jim how much of a factor Sidney Crosby is in the Penguins’ popularity, he was quick to point out that while Sid the Kid moves the needle in a big way, he is just one of the many superstars that have worn the team’s sweater. “We’re blessed in Pittsburgh to have Sidney Crosby.  It felt like Sid was the second coming of Mario Lemieux.  And think about it, Lemieux had Jagr (Jaromir Jagr) and Sid has Geno (Evgeni Malkin).  Add to it that Sid had the chance to play with Mario, who literally saved the franchise in Pittsburgh.  It was the passing of the legacy torch.”

So given that multiple generations of Penguins fans have their own stars, do they also have their own rivals? Jim told me that while younger fans have a number of teams they hate, one rivalry unites the fanbase like no other. “The Washington Capitals, with the comparisons between Crosby-Malkin and Ovechkin are a rival… From a historic perspective, the Rangers and Islanders get our fans riled up.  Columbus has become a rival without the history.  They’re better, they play in the same division and it’s a close proximity to Pittsburgh.  The years of living in the Pens’ shadow has made much more intense for their fans.  Detroit was a rival, due to playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, losing one than winning one.  But nothing gets hockey fans buzzing better than Pens-Flyers. And it gets even more intense when the Flyers have a good year.”

The lesson I took away from these conversations is that hockey talk can work on sports radio if your listeners have the passion to support it. It doesn’t have to be a “hockey town” necessarily to talk about major news involving the team. Conversely, even in Hockeytown, USA, a bad team can depress fan enthusiasm.

What matters is that hosts recognize passion where it exists and never treat a hockey interview or discussion like an afterthought. Powers says he gives his hosts the freedom to cover the Red Wings and the NHL as a whole however they see fit. “Our local show will take calls, but we also will be talking about the biggest news stories of the day, even if it is unrelated to what game is about to be played.”

Kinard told me he doesn’t waste time worrying about whether DC is a “hockey market.” “For many years during the “Rock the Red” era, which started about 10 years ago, you could argue that the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. I don’t know that the audience has the sophistication and knowledge of the sport as some traditional hockey cities, but they certainly have passion.”

His attitude is one of “if the fans are passionate about the Capitals, then the Capitals are worth talking about.” That may be best way to approach hockey on sports radio, especially somewhere like Raleigh, NC, which is where I live.

I, and most of my neighbors, didn’t grow up with hockey as part of our day-to-day lives. Still though, nothing in sports unites this town, which is so divided by the college sports loyalties that exist here, like the Carolina Hurricanes making the playoffs. That obviously hasn’t happened in a long time, but if our local hosts don’t take the time to at least know who the stars are and develop relationships with the team, they are going to be at a disadvantage when trying to talk about the market’s biggest story when it finally does happen again.

 

 

 

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

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

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

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

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