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The 7 Best Shows Of ESPN’s Embrace Debate Era

“Really, we need to look back to October of 2001. That is when ESPN launched Pardon the Interruption and wrapped its arms around opinions and threw itself headlong into competitive argument.”

Demetri Ravanos

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When did ESPN’s “Embrace Debate” era begin exactly? Well, the phrase was first introduced in August of 2012, when Stephen A. Smith joined First Take.

Front & Center: Stephen A. Smith - ESPN Front Row

I don’t know that it’s fair to say that is when the era began though. That might just be when ESPN put a name on what it was doing with their mid day and afternoon shows.

Really, we need to look back to October of 2001. That is when ESPN launched Pardon the Interruption and wrapped its arms around opinions and threw itself headlong into competitive argument.

PTI has shaped so much of what the network looks for in original programming now. Sometimes that’s great. ESPN and producer Eric Rydholm have come up with some creative spins on the “two people shouting at each other” formula. Sometimes it’s counterproductive and you end up adding argument segments to shows that don’t need it, like Outside the Lines.

The “embrace debate” model has shaped so much of sports television as a whole. This list though is focused on ESPN. Here are the top 7 shows of the era for the network.

7. HIGH NOON

High Noon was a really good show. It unfortunately was something of a square peg in the “embrace debate” round hole. The show featured Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre discussing topics in an intelligent way with a unique television presentation.

The audience that consumes most of the “embrace debate” content wasn’t ready for High Noon. It also didn’t help that the hosts agreed more often than not. Bomani and Pablo are smart guys with interesting things to say, and the show was a lot of fun, but the audience for this format seems to want a little less camaraderie and a little more conflict.

6. SC6

Jemele Hill & Michael Smith’s take on the 6 o’clock SportsCenter lasted just over a year, so you certainly can’t argue that it stood the test of time. But I don’t think you can argue that it got cancelled because it wasn’t good. Ratings were down, Hill’s outspoken stance on politics made her unpopular with some viewers, and in December of 2017, the duo lost its internal champion when John Skipper exited the company.

ESPN exec reportedly complained that SC6 with Jemele Hill and ...

SC6 makes the list though, because it represents an acknowledgement by ESPN that its flagship program needed to evolve. In the age of the smartphone, SportsCenter had become as obsolete as a newspaper with younger demos. Rebuilding the show around debates and personality, you could argue, was a throwback to the days of Dan & Keith, and even though Hill & Smith didn’t last, the format did in the form of individual segments used on current editions of SportsCenter.

5. SPORTSNATION

A lot of the “embrace debate” experience has been about ESPN trying to figure out what other show formats it can mix sports talk with. In looking for a TV presence for Colin Cowherd, the network stumbled upon the idea of variety television.

Sportsnation.jpg

Sports Nation would make stars out of Cowherd, Michelle Beadle, Charissa Thompson, Cari Champion and more. On top of that, the SportsNation format was blueprint for so much that came after it, whether it was another ESPN property like Highly Questionable or Jimmy Fallon’s take on The Tonight Show.

4. HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE

What makes a show great in the “embrace debate” era isn’t the content. It’s finding the right mix of personality. When ESPN added Bomani Jones to the Le Batard kitchen, it took Highly Questionable to a whole new level of relevance. Now the show was built around Jones and Dan Le Batard, two really smart guys that could deliver nuanced thoughts in a way that didn’t seem out of place when surrounded by videos of European basketball players getting kicked in the nuts. Why? Because Papí was there to constantly deliver the perfect one-liner to remind you that none of this is important.

HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE Archives - Straight Official

The show moved to The Clevelander, Bo left, Papí retired, and the show found a way to retool and remain relevant with a co-host rotation that includes Izzy Gutierrez, Elle Duncan, Sarah Spain, among others. Since the Cover-19 pandemic hit and the show has rebranded as Highly Quarantined, it has been one of the best shows in the ESPN lineup in terms of looking different but feeling familiar.

3. PARDON THE INTERRUPTION

I am going to be honest, and a lot of you are going to think I am crazy. I don’t like Pardon the Interruption. I recognize that it set the table for this whole list, but between the penguin dance Kornheiser’s been doing for 15 years and Michael Wilbon constantly shouting about how much he hates the internet, people talking, or sports in general, I just feel like I’ve passed the show by.

The enduring allure of ESPN's 'Pardon the Interruption' - The ...

That doesn’t mean my opinion is the only one that matters. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter at all. Hell, I only wrote this list so you people would click on it.

PTI remains the most successful show in ESPN’s afternoon lineup. It’s a heritage brand that constantly lives up to its audience’s expectations and has proven to be a juggernaut in a time when sports television is ever-evolving. That isn’t an easy thing to do, and the fact that the show that started this era of sports television is the one to accomplish that feat certainly means it has earned its place in this discussion of the GOATs.

2. AROUND THE HORN

I have often described the ESPN daytime lineup as “argument for sport.” There is no better picture of that than a show that literally gives points for making points. Taking a game show approach to sports talk is literally one of the most unique approaches to the format anyone has ever tried.

There Will Be A New Panelist On ESPN's "Around The Horn" Today

Shuffling up the roster of panelists brought a diversity of opinion and a new experience everyday. Changing hosts and changing the set have also been important steps in keeping Around the Horn fresh. I’ll acknowledge that PTI came first and has earned the right to be considered the gold standard of these shows, but Around the Horn is undeniably the most original.

1. FIRST TAKE

If yours is the show with Stephen A. Smith, it stands to reason that you are probably going to top a list of shows built around people shouting at each other. The real testament to First Take’s influence is every show that has come after it.

Stephen A. Smith Slams Kim Mulkey For Baylor Remarks | First Take ...

The media that follows the sports media dubbed High Noon “the thinking man’s First Take. Get Up! was supposed to be “First Take meets The Today Show.” Hell, FS1 stole one half of the show’s formula to create its own version of the show, Skip & Shannon: Undisputed.

First Take created the “embrace debate” format’s marquee personality in Smith and he has been able to turn anyone sitting across from him into the perfect foil for his stardom and his point of view. It is a testament to the entire crew that a show, built around sports journalism’s two biggest wind bags, could lose one of said wind bags and not miss a beat.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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