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Meet the Market Managers: Sam Pines, ESPN Cleveland

“How are we creating loyal fans and why are they loyal to our product versus any of the other great sports content out there?”

Demetri Ravanos

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For the past two decades, Sam Pines has played an integral role helping Good Karma Brands establish and maintain a strong presence in Cleveland while expanding its sports radio footprint across the country. The Chicago native has poured every ounce of his energy into helping ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR remain a trusted voice for Cleveland sports fans, a valued partner for local clients, and a loyal and supportive employer that has been recognized by both Front Office Sports and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel among the best places to work in sports.

Under Pines’ watch, WKNR has taken the plunge into the subscription business, strategically formed unique local relationships to share in the local market’s sports success, and produced the largest following of any sports radio brand on Twitter. They’ve also continued generating revenue and results for partners despite challenges caused by a global pandemic, and without relying on Nielsen data. Throw in the fact that Pines hired a former BSM columnist (Matt Fishman) as his program director last year, and you can see why he was the first person I wanted to speak with for our ‘Meet The Market Managers’ series.

Before I share our conversation with you, I’d like to thank Point To Point Marketing for their support of this series. Tim Bronsil and his team do an excellent job helping radio stations reinforce their position in local markets, creating robust audience growth and long-term retention. To find out how Point To Point can help your brand, click here.

Now without further adieu, here’s my conversation with the man who has guided Good Karma Cleveland to countless successes, Vice President, Market Manager, and Partner, Sam Pines. Enjoy!

DEMETRI RAVANOS: Before I dive into some of the business matters involving your company (Good Karma Brands) and radio station, ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR’, I want to raise awareness to something you’ve been doing which I don’t see a lot of other market managers do. You’ve taken it upon yourself to write these essays or opinion pieces on LinkedIn that you share with your followers. Where did that come from?

SAM PINES: I’ll give you the quick story on them. They’re called “Time to Win”. There was a short time I was managing both Cleveland and Milwaukee. This is back when flights used to happen. Because I couldn’t be in both place at once, each morning I’d send out some metrics, but with a little bit of a lesson in there.

It just ballooned over time internally. Our marketing director Debbie Brown, who touches all of our markets, kept bringing it to these other markets. Then in the pandemic, we called it the Good Karma Productivity Project. 

We had no layoffs or furloughs. We had to make sure everyone was being productive, because our events teams probably didn’t have as much to do. One of our projects that the team brought up to me was putting this out every week or every other week. They had been after me for a while and I was finally open to it.

The way it works, Liz Staed and Emily Dillinger will take previous ones I have done and together they’ll make some edits and then post it. The nice part on my end is they are all written. Thankfully, Emily and Liz are great writers and great editors, because the public doesn’t need to see the thing that goes out internally. So, it’s one of those fun, uncomfortable things. I don’t consider myself a writer. I don’t think of myself that way. 

It has been one of those unintended consequences of the pandemic. As I consume more and think about these things differently, you and I probably listen to radio differently than we did before we were in the business.It has become something else to occupy the mind, and the response has been interesting. That has been pretty cool.

DR: You mentioned the company not implementing furloughs or layoffs. The past year as you know has been very difficult on the entire radio business. How has the pandemic forced you to adjust to a new reality, whether that means running leaner or trying to stay as productive with everyone in different locations?

SP: The content team, starting with Fish (Matt Fishman) and the rest of the crew in Cleveland have been awesome. I think across the country, guys coming in to do it everyday in a situation that was unimaginable this time last year is just awesome. And then the GKB team overall, the way they have come together over this. We’re actually up 10% in terms of how many full time teammates we have versus this time last year. 

So, it’s been cool to see. I think that no one ever wants to go through this again, but I don’t think I could ever go through it with anyone other than the local team and this company.

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DR: I want to ask you about The Land On Demand, because when you guys launched it, subscription content was starting to become more popular thanks in large part to The Athletic. Some in the industry liked that you were taking the plunge into that space, some questioned if it was the right move. When you’re doing something locally focused in that realm, what is it that you feel has to be in place in order for it to work?

SP: So, Jason Barrett wrote a piece which had a great quote in it. I think he said ‘to grab the brass ring you have to have brass balls‘. I used that quote a bunch when we first launched it. What we needed to get right was what we fortunately already had right. That was great audio content with an absolutely awesome fanbase. 

The way we’re doing it I think is specific to Cleveland. I am not saying others can’t do it. I’m sure they can. It’s just such a passionate fanbase that if they miss one of our shows or there is something going on behind the scenes, they want to see it for something that costs less than a movie, when we used to go to movies.

That is, at its core, what it really had to be. Then, because it has been successful, we have been able to add to it. We’ve moved Tony Grossi primarily there and we’re continually adding different content there. I know (ESPN Cleveland PD) Matt Fishman is continually thinking about what is next there. We want to improve what is there in addition to what goes out over the air.

DR: That space is a lot more crowded now with so many laid off writers announcing they are going to do a subscription-based site or newsletter on their own. Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated said they too were going to launch a subscription model. Is it the local identity that makes you confident that The Land on Demand will continue to thrive even as more options pop up for those subscription dollars?

SP: It’s the fanbase and our team. You have to have them both. You have to have content that fans are willing to pay for. And you need a fanbase that is what the Cleveland sports fan is. There are other fanbases that are like that I’m sure, but obviously that is the one I’m closest to.

Another point to it is that we have the most Twitter followers of any sports radio station in the country. That’s Cleveland, Ohio! We had a team that adopted Twitter really early and didn’t fight it. You need that part of it. Plus, they put great content on it. If you do that and you don’t have the huge fanbase, it’s great social content, but you probably don’t have the most followers of any sports radio station. The combo is unique. 

Ultimately we haven’t changed what we do. It’s great content and a loyal fanbase that buys products from our partners. In this case, it’s great content for fans that pay a subscription and then go on Twitter to talk about it. Maybe I am making things too simple, but that is the way I make sense of it.

DR: I don’t know if you’ve seen what Tom Webster of Edison Research wrote but I want to get your reaction to something he shared in his column. According to the latest Share of Ear data, for every hour of podcasts that Americans listen to, they listen to seven hours of AM/FM radio content. The revenue though is nowhere near a 7-to-1 ratio. That’s expected to catch up over time, but I sometimes wonder if the industry as a whole puts too much of an emphasis too quickly on podcasts and social media. You talk about having more Twitter followers than any sports station in the country, but I think everyone in radio is still trying to figure out how to translate that into revenue.

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SP: If the question is “are we too quick to pods, are we too quick to social, how do we make money on all of it?” I think the answer goes back to audio. How are we creating loyal fans and why are they loyal to our product versus any of the other great sports content out there? I don’t think this was in the article you mentioned, but there’s a stat that says Americans are spending an hour more per day with their media right now. There’s probably even a larger number of choices. So, why would they go to us?

I think the connection that social gives you, even though we’re not going to have sponsored tweets, it’s going to create and cement that connection and passion. We’re not going to have someone tweet “go to the local dealership and get a Ford for $299 per month,” but you build on your community’s passion so that they come to the audio or the video we put out and those people are there for the live reads on air or the mid-roll in a podcast and they are going to support the partner.

Sometimes in radio, I think we silo it too much. We say “okay, how much are we making on our Twitter account versus our Instagram account, versus our 3 to 6 show?”.

DR: So, are you looking at revenue and trying to forget the silo? It’s about loyalty to something like The Really Big Show translating across multiple platforms?

SP: Correct. And the hope would be that we are a partner first. I want us to ask how we help our partners accomplish their goals and take advantage of the social side or do an event, hopefully sometime in 2021, to overdeliver on what those goals are.

DR: Correct me if I am wrong, but Good Karma, in most markets does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, right? 

SP: Well, it’s tough to say “most” now. We don’t in West Palm, Madison, or Cleveland or Beaver Dam. We do in Milwaukee and Chicago. It’s two out of six, but the core of what we do everywhere is still “are we superserving our fans, partners and teammates?”. If Nielsen can help us in a market, great!

DR: Then in your building, what do you say to a new seller or someone having a tough time that wants a specific way to contextualize WKNR’s success?

SP: Well, we have talked about two of them with Twitter and Land on Demand. Those are changing behaviors, but more tangible for the advertising partner is that we have a ton of success stories for partners that have been advertising with us. We have put together a campaign that has overdelivered on what they wanted. 

In some cases we’re part of a media mix. In others, we’re the one and only. We have maybe four or five partners that literally don’t advertise anywhere else. They see quantifiable results from us. Being able to have great partners like that who will write a letter or make a call…you know, we have said “hey, call this advertising partner” and the partner will talk to them. It’s pretty cool to have that support.

There is that quote that a rating point has never bought a hamburger, or it is something like that. We’re in the business of getting people to buy our partners’ products or whatever their goal is. So, if ratings points can help people better understand that, great. But in Cleveland, what we have is stories of “this is the product and this is how it was sold” and that helps. It works.

DR: I would imagine that helps in recruiting younger sellers. I’ll be 40 this year. You and I didn’t grow up with so many different social media platforms to encourage creativity, but 23 and 24 year olds did. I wonder if this way of explaining to potential new partners what ESPN Cleveland can do for their business benefits that younger generation.

SP: It’s a great question and one I haven’t really thought of. As I think of the inexperienced marketing consultants, I think it is probably a little bit exciting by having that more consultative mindset.

They have never checked a fax machine for an order. They grew up as marketers. By the time I got Facebook, I was already out of college. When I go on Facebook or go on LinkedIn, I am marketing, right? I am putting myself out there.

These kids have grown up as marketers. At first, it is what do your parents let you put out there. Now we’re out there at all times because of camera phones…I am not sure, I don’t think we even call them camera phones. That is just a standard phone now. 

Because of that, at all times you are marketing yourself in a positive or negative way. That makes it kind of innate in that generation. They aren’t that much younger than you or I. I’m 46, so just a bit older than you. But the generation that grew up like this might be just six or seven years younger than you. They might have had Facebook in high school.

I remember going on college visits and hearing “If you come here, you’ll get an email account”. And where I went, I got my first email account. That was like a recruiting tool. 

I have a daughter who is 13 and how she is consuming on Instagram and TikTok is fascinating. I don’t think she would accept a role anywhere that I am manager, but whoever is talking to her, she will have so much of an identity in the marketing world that you and I may still never have.

DR: Right! My kids are 9 and 11, in third and fifth grade respectively, and they have graphic design classes in a public school. Now, that isn’t marketing exactly, but it is a great skill to have in the world. The people that educated our generation, it never would have crossed their mind that those skills were useful.

SP: It’s crazy. I will say, I don’t know how much your kids are on TikTok, but my daughter and her friends were on TikTok the other day watching a video about how to talk like millennials. Just imitating the generation above them. It was shocking to me. All of the millennials in our office that make fun of my age, well look, it’s coming. 

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DR: You guys have a relationship with the Cleveland Browns that makes for a unique relationship with your direct competition. The team’s games air locally on both 92.3 The Fan and WKNR. Are the games the only thing you share with Entercom Cleveland or are there other joint marketing and promotions which both brands get involved with in order to help the team with the way they want their product presented to the fans?

SP: There’s definitely a decent amount of collaboration. The biggest part is the 20 games, although in future years, I guess it will be more than 20. 

They are great partners. The Browns are great partners, but also Tom Herschel, Andy Roth, and everyone at The Fan. They’re great partners to work with. Going back to “fans, partners, and teammates,” I think it made sense for the fans. It made sense for the partners, and it put a lot of our teammates in position to do great work on the Browns Radio Network.

DR: Just a few weeks ago, you did something we almost never see. Your station paid tribute to Les Levine, who was a major figure in sports media in Cleveland. 92.3 The Fan’s Anthony Lima appeared on your midday show, and Tony Rizzo went on The Fan’s morning show. Given how competitive stations can be in the sports format, was this a no brainer decision made easier due to the two stations working together on the Browns relationship? Was there any concern of it not going well?

SP: Les wasn’t a Cleveland sports radio legend. He was a Cleveland legend. Beyond that though, an incredibly nice guy, and incredibly welcoming to Good Karma. 

That was all about Les. Maybe it helped that we had that relationship, but it was something our guys really wanted to do. Tony Rizzo, in his early days at WHK, which was one of the predecessors to WKNR, worked with Les. Les was one of the first people I met when I got here. His family’s been great to us. What we did was all about Les.

Tom Herschel, Entercom’s market manager in Cleveland, and I talked regularly even before they were ever doing sports. There’s always been a good deal of trust between us. Craig Karmizin and Steve Politziner were Andy Roth’s interns at WIP. There was a relationship between the two buildings before the Browns that was probably a little different than other markets. That was nine years ago, and those bonds have only gotten stronger.

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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