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Why Was Sports Radio Obsessed With Game Of Thrones?

“I think most people have treated Game of Thrones as the equivalent of a sporting event. Either watch it when it airs live or that’s on you.”

Demetri Ravanos

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It’s finally all over and from what I gather, most people are unhappy. Look, before you read what I have written about Game of Thrones you should know I have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones. I’m not one of those dorks that wears that fact like some badge of honor. I just never got into it eight years ago and didn’t feel the need to catch up to be a part of the final season.

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Of course, I also don’t remember the kind of hype for this show that we have seen this season ever existing before this season. Sure, back in 2016 when I was doing mornings with Mike Maniscalco and Lauren Brownlow on Buzz Sports Radio in Raleigh we would make Lauren describe the grossest thing that happened on that week’s Game of Thrones every Monday morning. There would be plenty of listener disagreement on Twitter, but I don’t remember sports radio losing its mind over this show the way it did for season eight.

Why was our format so obsessed with this show? I asked people whose fandom ran the gamut from obsessed to never having seen an episode.

Game of Thrones sends viewers to the internet to study the same way fans prep themselves for a fantasy football weekend,” said 95.7 the Game afternoon host Damon Bruce. “We all watch Sunday, discuss what happened through Wednesday, then pivot to ‘what’s next’ by Friday. It’s just like the NFL sports talk radio schedule.”

“As my son said to me, ‘GoT is Harry Potter for adults.’ It’s like Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones – most sports radio listeners are into it!” said Mike Thomas, PD of 98.5 the Sports Hub.

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When I asked him if he could remember anything that has received a similar reaction Thomas says “Seinfeld would’ve been close, but there weren’t near as many sports radio stations in the 90’s and most of the ones that were doing sports then, were doing straight sports.”

Bruce echoed that sentiment and added that social media has been the engine that helped Game of Thrones take over the world. “We probably all watched, The Wire, Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, but we didn’t have social media driving our conversations. Game of Thrones is a great show for anytime, but perfect for our time.”

Fox Sports Radio morning man Clay Travis is known as one of sports radio’s biggest Game of Thrones fans. His Twitter commentary on the show regularly receives thousands of interactions.

“I get way more positive feedback on my Game of Thrones than I do my sports opinions,” Clay told me in an email. “I think that’s because everyone is on the same side with Game of Thrones, it’s one large fan base as opposed to 32 NFL fan bases or 100 college fan bases. Everyone is rooting for the show. So the fan base is just massive.”

https://twitter.com/ClayTravis/status/1130298402787319808

The show hasn’t been every host’s idea of great material. Plenty of hosts and programmers told me that they felt their audience didn’t want to hear the show discussed on sports radio.

Mo Egger of ESPN 1530 in Cincinnati told me that he isn’t averse to bringing pop culture topics to his show. He trusts that as long as he is being authentic his audience will follow him wherever he wants to take the conversation, but in a town like Cincinnati, where fans have experienced nearly three decades of playoff futility, there’s a desire to talk about the potential for a better tomorrow.

“I’ve spent way too much time sitting in front of a microphone and talking about next year, but I’m always struck by how people keep coming back,” he told me. “Maybe their financial investment in the teams isn’t what it was, as both teams have had attendance issues, but in large part because of how parochial this town is, there is still an incredible, deep passion for these franchises that not even decades of not advancing in the playoffs (28 years for the Bengals, going on 24 for the Reds) can kill.  Every year, I hear someone wonder about Reds and Bengals apathy, and every year I’m struck by how many people keep coming back.”

Armen Williams, who recently took over as program director at SportsRadio 610 in Houston, told me once in a phone conversation that he feels like the NFL is always a safer content choice for his hosts than pop culture topics.

“Every market has its own content filter of what’s important to the listener,” he said when I asked him via email to elaborate. “We’re in Houston, Texas! There’s the phrase often used in our industry, ‘NFL is king.’ We’re in an NFL city with a team who made the post-season last year, and they have a franchise QB. All of those factors, and more, play into the decision of what is attractive to talk about on a daily basis.”

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Ultimately, the appeal of Game of Thrones is what kind of content it can create for your show or your station. Williams even said that while he thinks the NFL is a safer content choice, he still has shows that talk about Game of Thrones and he isn’t opposed to it.

“The GOT topic is no different than any other lifestyle or off-topic conversation on the sports radio format. If the host is passionate about it and can make it engaging, then spend the amount of time on it that they feel is appropriate using the previous stated filter.”

Content can come from either an undying passion for the show or from serious apathy towards it. JOX 94.5 in Birmingham made headlines when its morning show The JOX Roundtable brought the HBO mega-hit up during an interview with Alabama coach Nick Saban, who it turns out is a huge fan.

https://twitter.com/JOXRoundtable/status/1126180409648328705

“I was told he is a huge fan by one of his main guys,” JOX Roundtable host Lance Taylor told me in an email.

Nick Saban has a reputation as one of the best recruiters in college football. Fans of the sport have become accustomed to seeing videos on social media of the accomplished coach dancing at recruits’ homes with their parents and other relatives. The joke has always been that he won’t be caught in a situation where a mom or grandmama hits him with a dance he doesn’t know.

I asked Taylor if he thought the same might be true for Saban’s GOT knowledge. “He lit up when we started talking about it,” Taylor said. “Seemed legit to me.”

Mike Wise of WUSA in Washington, DC and The Mike Wise Show podcast has created great social media content based on not watching Game of Thrones. Every Sunday night for the last month, he has led a Twitter-based support group known as Shame of Thrones or #SOT for those not in on the cultural phenomenon.

“I was watching this really good show on PBS called Unforgotten, about this cold-case homicide unit in London that tracked down decades-old murders, and wanted to talk about it with people who might have saw it,” Wise tells me when asked how #SOT got its start. “And I think it was Sunday night about two or three weeks ago. And I couldn’t find anybody to talk about Unforgotten, because everybody’s world was frickin’ forgotten the moment Game of Thrones came on. Twitter was all ablaze with Game of Thrones Tweets. Like, everybody. Or everybody I followed anyway. I knew it was popular, but this was a whole new level. For the first time in how many years of this show, I felt left out, like the kid trying to jam his way into the circle on the playground, where everybody else is checking out Call of Duty on someone’s IPAD but you can’t catch a glimpse.”

Wise told me that one of his favorite phenomena to come out of #SOT is when his support group starts to look and sound a little like any number of 12-step programs.

“My most satisfying moment is when someone uses a recovery term — ostensibly from a genuine support group — and incorporates it in the #SOT thread. It reminds me that as big as a cultural wasteland as social media is, some people actual get my warped sense of humor.”

https://twitter.com/MikeWiseguy/status/1130304855208280064

A few weeks ago in my column, I noted that we were watching the end of Game of Thrones play out at the same time that we were watching the end of The Avengers story. More people saw Avengers: Endgame than have seen an episode of Game of Thrones, so why has sports radio and social media gone crazier for the HBO show?

“I do think the difference here is everyone watches Game of Thrones at the same time,” Travis told me. “People are worried about spoilers for Endgame. Whereas I think most people have treated Game of Thrones as the equivalent of a sporting event. Either watch it when it airs live or that’s on you.”

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That real-time reaction may explain why the sports media fell so hard for Game of Thrones this year. Whether it was live Tweeting or reaction videos, there was an element of the Game of Thrones fan experience that so closely mirrored the way we experienced Kawai Leonard’s miracle shot to send the 76ers packing – we sat in disbelief and then ran to the digital town square to fire off our best jokes, make historic comparisons, or whatever else we did just to make sure others saw it too. That is the kind of passion sports radio has always been built on.

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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