If Only All Sports Drama Matched Dodgers-Padres
As a disjointed NBA and other entities suffer ratings crashes, a thrilling first series in baseball’s new rivalry issued the industry a reminder: Games must entertain to guarantee audiences in an evolving America.
After midnight in L.A., when even the Jenners and Machine Gun Kelly are asleep, I realized why a ballgame had hijacked me as it cannonballed toward a sixth hour. It wasn’t about rivalry hype, a hopeful premise that the Dodgers — baseball’s corporate goliaths — suddenly are being challenged by a revived bottom-feeder in San Diego. It wasn’t the assembled starpower and affluence — the $365 million of Mookie Betts, the $300-million-plus deals of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, Trevor Bauer’s $40 million a year, the batboys making six figures with comped hotel suites (kidding, I think).
It wasn’t even the startling element of raucous crowd noise, louder than 15,250 humans seem capable of generating in what surely was the decibels leader of sport’s pandemic era, Super Bowl and Wrestlemania included.
No, I was excited enough to keep watching because: (1) the players showed up for the weekend series, in uniform, even as Tatis, Machado and Betts have battled injuries; (2) they were excited to be at Petco Park, engaged in mid-April fury with the urgency of “a playoff game,” as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said afterward; (3) not a soul was taking the evening off due to “rest” or a “minutes restriction” or “load management” or while tending to a “personal matter” or a “mental day;” and (4) the Friday night game was friggin’ great — all four hours and 57 minutes of it, including an incident that emptied dugouts and bullpens — proving that the length of an extra-innings classic doesn’t matter when intensity and quality are next-level and both teams actually are trying to win a championship.
And what happened the next night? Another thriller, crisp and low-scoring, featuring more animosity — a God-fearing Clayton Kershaw, firing f-bombs at Jurickson Profar, who fired them back — and ending with Betts racing 60 feet, laying out his delicate body and saving the 2-0 victory by slamming into the grass and securing a liner in the heel of his glove, an inch or two from a trap. Imagine, a player of that pay grade risking his health so early in a season.
“I just kind of blacked out,” said Betts, who celebrated by pounding his chest four times and shouting into the night. “I was kind of in the moment. I just knew when the ball went up, I had to catch it, and that’s what I did.”
If this is an indirect way of upbraiding the NBA for its disjointed regular season, so be it. Certainly, Major League Baseball is overloaded with its own problems — COVID-19 outbreaks, tanking teams, sexual harassment probes in front offices, ball-doctoring by pitchers such as Bauer, an abysmal percentage of Black players on rosters (7.6 percent) and the darkening clouds of a labor impasse at season’s end. The Minnesota Twins are the latest team to require game cancellations after multiple positive virus tests, making fans think twice about attending games while reminding the sports world that a pandemic still rages. “This is the unfortunate reality that we live in,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. But at least MLB, after weeks of promising special drama in these Dodgers-Padres tussles — “We’re going to get 19 World Series games this year,” the Dodgers’ Justin Turner said — delivered in the first of six series between teams separated by 120 miles of interstate highway.
I have no reason to trust the NBA and its careless competitive breaches. Unspoken tension between the players and commissioner Adam Silver, who insisted on starting a 72-game regular season only 71 days after last season ended, has resulted in an unwatchable mish-mash of athlete and franchise indifference, DNPs and suspicions that some stars aren’t injured as much as they’re being stashed away protectively for the playoffs. And those who are legitimately crippled — Denver’s Jamal Murray is out until next season with a torn ACL, ruining the Nuggets’ hopes — have every right to wonder if a short offseason increased the risk of serious injuries. After losing an estimated $2 billion in the Disney Bubble experiment, Silver saw financial advantages in a Christmas Week start, as encouraged by broadcast partners ESPN and Turner, while ending the postseason just before the Tokyo Olympics in late July.
The players aren’t happy, blaming the league for a spate of injuries both real and imagined. The Toronto Raptors, champions two years ago, are among those deeming “rest” more important than a playoff berth — even in a season when there are 10 qualifiers in each conference. “There’s certainly ups and downs to this thing more than I’ve ever experienced in my life. To be honest, this is probably the most un-pure year of basketball I’ve ever been a part of, just from the whole league and rushing the season back,” the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet said. “It’s pretty much all about business this year on every level and it’s hard to hide it, you know what I’m saying? … I think this year, the industry side has taken precedence over some of the love and joy.”
What Silver didn’t anticipate was an aesthetic disaster, the antithesis of the Dodgers-Padres masterpieces. If you doubt this, consider NBA ratings have dropped again, to the point a TNT doubleheader last week drew only 724,000 viewers, or less than we used to attract on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” during our peak years. The best potential story in Silver’s kingdom is across the bridge, in Brooklyn, where the Nets might be the most potent offensive team ever. Too bad we’ve yet to see the starting core — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Joe Harris — play more than a handful of minutes together. Durant, of course, is returning from a career-threatening right Achilles’ tendon rupture. But it happened almost two years ago. Two months after an unrelated hamstring injury in his left leg, the Nets routinely keep him out of games as a precaution more than a necessity. Harden is out with a hamstring strain, but he’d surely be playing on it in the postseason. Irving? He comes and goes as he pleases, the most maddening free bird in sports, capable of calling in sick or wigging out on a whim. Somehow, Nets general manager Sean Marks is fine with the flim-flamness, which prioritizes playoff health over all else, continuity and chemistry be damned.
Anyone thinking about the fans in this equation? Last week, the NBA was poised for its potential version of a hot new rivalry: Nets vs. 76ers. ESPN was so juiced, it broadcast the game on its blowtorch feed and two other platforms, ESPN2 and ESPN+, which featured an all-gambling analytical focus for the first time. Hours before tipoff, the Nets announced Durant wouldn’t play, choosing to use him 27 minutes the previous night against the dismal Timberwolves to ensure at least one win in a back-to-back sequence. Across America, viewers flipped channels. The showcase game was a bust, producing numbers lower than AEW, pro wrestling’s junior-varsity brand.
“We want to get everyone healthy, and that’s just as important as circling the calendar for Philly,” Durant said.
“We’ve got to protect him,” coach Steve Nash said.
Ah, Nash. He was leading a comfortable life in Manhattan Beach as a soccer aficionado, an advisor to the Golden State Warriors and Canada’s Olympic team and a philanthropist who once was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Why did he take the Nets’ gig again? He has used 30 different starting units and is accustomed to games with 10 or fewer active players. Just when he was excited about acclimating big man LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting unit, the seven-time All-Star abruptly retired due to an irregular heartbeat. If that’s not random, how many times has Blake Griffin suited up compared to his frequent flannel-shirt sightings as a cheerleader?
“We may not get any games with our whole roster. Nothing is promised tomorrow,” Nash said. “I don’t want to worry about or be concerned about things that are out of our control. I also don’t want any excuses. You start playing that game where it’s like, well we haven’t had any games with our full roster. But in a sense, that’s irrelevant. We don’t control that.”
Irrelevant? The Nets are a title contender, not a playoff aspirant. “We just keep moving forward, keep trying to get better, and if we get a full roster that would be great and if we don’t we keep plugging away every day,” he said. “I’m not going to worry about when we’ll have the full roster. We’ll just chip away every day with whoever is available. Continue to build this thing and if we’re fortunate to have everyone back, that will be a blessing.”
Nash won’t say it. I will: The Nets are exploiting their fans, and Marks is on board to avoid a player mutiny. Sunday, Durant was in the starting lineup for an ESPN game against the Heat, who didn’t have star Jimmy Butler, out with what was called a sore ankle. Durant launched an immediate scoring burst — eight points in the first 93 seconds — then was lightly fouled by Trevor Ariza in the hip area. What happened next? Durant walked to the locker room with a “left thigh contusion” and didn’t return. Yet another hyped game was diluted, while NBA insiders asked: If Durant is this brittle, how are the Nets supposed to compete for a title? Or, is he simply a very good actor who’s distracted by his well-chronicled (and foolish) social-media wars?
“He’s sore,” said Nash, “but we don’t know how severe.”
Don’t mistake this as a claim that LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Paul George and Donovan Mitchell haven’t been dealing with daunting setbacks. But I do wonder how many of these cases are being slow-played by teams focused entirely on the postseason, which means the final weeks of the regular season are being tanked by contenders. How can Silver, a self-described integrity enforcer, ignore rampant surrender throughout the league? He’s fortunate ticket-buyers still are kept at a minimum number, or he’d be sued for consumer fraud. He still might be.
This is no way to keep fans watching on TV or luring them to arenas as COVID restrictions ease. The pandemic has jarred many Americans into a pragmatic perspective: Who has time, money or energy for sports when the bigger objective is survival in a swirling, evolving world? As the industry is painfully aware, the ratings continue to crater for the biggest events — the Masters sunk to its lowest spring viewership numbers since 1993. This follows all-time lows for the NBA Finals and World Series and the lowest Super Bowl ratings since 2007. The NCAA tournament title game, which saw Baylor upend Gonzaga’s unbeaten season, was the least-watched since 1982. Don’t accept the easy explanation and assume it’s about cable cord-cutting. Or the premise that politics and anthem-kneeling have killed ratings.
Sports is entertainment.
And if the entertainment sucks, or is unreliable, people won’t watch. That goes for Netflix, the Oscars or the Brooklyn Nets. The NFL is the only league that has stood the test of COVID and continues to expect substantial traffic, which explains why CBS, NBC, ESPN/ABC, Fox and Amazon plunged $113 billion into 11-year deals. When the NBA leaks that it wants $75 billion in the next rights rush, when its current deal doesn’t expire for four more years, I would point to the Nets and other teams in the pattern of sitting players and ask if fans have lost measures of interest. The Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz, already missing Mitchell, rested Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley Jr. and Derrick Favors for “injury recovery” purposes Saturday. Who wants to watch second-rate events? When fans return to games en masse, shouldn’t ticket and concession prices be slashed if roster dilution becomes business as usual?
The NBA playoffs, starting a month later than usual on May 22, could be a ratings bust if watchability standards don’t improve markedly. This is the summer Americans have awaited for a very long time — free of isolation, who wants to sit at home watching basketball when no one knows who’s injured or not? The play-in format, meanwhile, already has been torched by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and star Luka Doncic, who suddenly realize Dallas’ No. 7 seeding would require an additional three-game series against Steph Curry, Gregg Popovich or Zion Williamson. Said Doncic: “You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point.” Now that he mentions it, the fans might not see the point of tuning in.
I didn’t plan on watching more than an inning or two of Dodgers-Padres, Night One. The series seemed like a media creation that annoyed the World Series champions. “It’s just another division series,” Corey Seager said.
“Obviously, we know they’re good,” Betts said of the Padres. “But everyone is good in the big leagues.”
Was this a case of the inferior neighbor to the south, envious of all things L.A. and Hollywood, trying to manufacture a challenge? The Petco DJ played “Dust in the Wind” and “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as the Dodgers took batting practice. Really? Hours later, after four late lead changes and 17 total pitchers, Seager finally reminded us of the Dodgers’ supremacy with a modern novelty — a leadoff, two-run homer. Yes, the new extra-inning rules were in play, with a runner starting the half-inning on second base, and wasn’t it a treat watching the Padres finally succumb by using second baseman Jake Cronenworth in emergency relief? He allowed an RBI sacrifice fly to weak-hitting pitcher David Price, who flew out to … Joe Musgrove, last week’s no-hit wonder, who’d been inserted in left field. Later, Cronenworth struck out Betts, who went down swinging on an 89-mph fastball.
“I wanted to maybe throw a little harder,” he told reporters, “but they told me not to.”
All we wanted was more. It was the best baseball game I’ve seen since March 11, 2020 — the start of the COVID calendar — and probably the best wire-to-wire sports event. Night Two came close, with Kershaw and Yu Darvish dueling as a ripple of the sport’s best two pitching staffs. Kershaw smelled a farce when Profar let strike three whiz by him, then intentionally swung late, wanting home-plate umpire Tom Hallion to think he was checking his swing. When his bat grazed the glove of catcher Austin Barnes, Profar remained at home plate.
“That’s a (expletive) swing!” Kershaw shouted.
“Shut the (expletive) up!” Profar replied.
Hallion, whose performance was wretched all night, somehow let the New York replay crew decide if Barnes committed catcher’s interference, as the Padres were claiming. Meanwhile, Kershaw was yelling and pointing his finger at Profar, who was standing on first base and had to be restrained by coach Wayne Kirby from attacking the regal pitcher. “That’s a little scary,” Kershaw said later. “Barnes could have been seriously injured on that play. He basically swung down and backwards. I’m not saying it was intentional, but that was not a big-league swing.”
Profar was allowed to stay on first — the replay crew, oddly, agreed the catcher had interfered. But Kershaw, as usual, won in the end. With Darvish starting to wobble after retiring the first 14 batters, Kershaw came to bat with the bases loaded … and coaxed an eight-pitch walk that drove in the only run the Dodgers needed. “I was just trying to be annoying, really,” Kershaw said. “I wasn’t going to get a hit off him. He has too good of stuff. I was just trying to be a nuisance to him, fouling off pitches.”
The Padres avoided the sweep Sunday against Bauer, who allowed only a solo home run and two singles with seven strikeouts in six innings. The bullpen let him down, giving the Padres oxygen … until the rivalry resumes Thursday night in L.A. The Dodgers are 13-3, best start ever by a defending World Series champion. Playing in a division with three stragglers and a league with only a smattering of real contenders, why can’t they surpass the 116-win regular seasons of the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs — and the 125 total wins of the 1998 Yankees? That team was the last to repeat as champs, part of a trifecta ending in 2000, and you sense the Dodgers, after years of falling short, are prepared to make the competition pay with a dynastic run.
“When it’s time to make a play or a pitch, we do it,” said Betts, whose 12-year contract extends through the 2032 season. “If we keep doing it, we’re going to be successful for a long time.”
That they rose to match the passion of the moment, with autumn so far off, is a tribute to the organization. The Dodgers are the gold standard in American sports, having mastered modern business practices and analytics and meshing them with MLB financial might matched only by the Yankees. Jerry Jones has the most valuable sports franchise on Planet Earth, but the Dallas Cowboys haven’t reached a Super Bowl this century. The Yankees are second on the list, but they haven’t won the Series since 2009. This season, they are a toxic spill onto themselves, still struggling to beat the team they’ve subsidized in revenue sharing, the Tampa Bay Rays, as fans pelt the field with baseballs and turn the Stadium into a danger zone. The Dodgers are a colossus, the bluebloods who got it right, from the on-field product to a Chavez Ravine experience improved by a $100 million renovation of the outfield pavilion and beyond, including what team president Stan Kasten calls “an open-air baseball history museum.”
Every beast needs an adversary. In a pop-culture context, the Dodgers are the triumphant Godzilla and the Padres are the quashed Kong. Neither the movie nor the first three World Series games, as Turner put it, let us down. “Neither team wanted to lose,” Price said after Night One. “Everybody was playing extremely hard. This is a good rivalry, a fun rivalry to be a part of. Just a ton of really good players.”
“We knew it was going to be emotional and intense coming here,” Roberts said after Night Two. “It’s certainly lived up to the billing.”
“Really fun to watch,” Kershaw said.
By comparison, the NBA tankers remind me of Shaquille O’Neal in his TNT office chair last week, asleep as Dwyane Wade and Candace Parker lobbed grapes at him. They have five weeks to wake up.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Meet The Market Managers – Amy Crossman, Good Karma Brands Cleveland
“We don’t even consider ourselves to be an AM radio station. We are content creators, and we serve it up on many platforms.”
Good Karma Brands dabbles in other formats, but sports radio is its bread and butter. In Cleveland, it is Amy Crossman that is charged with making sure the staples are always in stock and of the highest quality.
This is her first foray into the world of radio, and man, what a time for it! Frankly, what a group for it.
ESPN Cleveland can be heard on 850 AM. That is the way listeners consume the station as a terrestrial broadcast product, but in 2023, no one is consuming any station in only one way. ESPN Cleveland takes the idea of going where the listeners are to an extreme and Crossman says that is why she feels confident for the station’s future regardless of what car companies decide to do about the AM band.
That is one of many subjects she covers in our conversation as part of the Meet the Market Managers series presented by Point to Point Marketing. Amy Crossman also shares her thoughts on live events after Covid, how the premium content model works in radio and what she learned at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Demetri Ravanos: Rather than start with the broadcast product, I actually want to start with The Land On Demand. I am surprised in 2023 that the premium content model for a radio station is still a relatively uncrowded space. Not a lot of groups have followed your lead on the local level.
Amy Crossman: So true. It is really unique and it just goes back to our hosts and our talent creating content that people want to get on demand. Maybe they’re at work or doing something else when The Really Big Show is on, and they want to hear what happened with Rizz and Aaron. They’ll listen at the gym or on their way home.
We found the on demand desire was really high and immediately our fans took to that model. So for us, it’s it’s been this really fun, interesting thing to see. It doesn’t hurt that it’s six figures to our bottom line, right? And it gives us an environment to test things out, podcasts and other kinds of audio and video products, with a group of really diehard loyal fans.
DR: What has been the enthusiasm for that very product from advertising partners? These shows run ad-free but you guys do have a landing page for The Land On Demand. That’s plenty of space to be sold.
I do wonder though, when they look at, say, the Audacy stations, for instance, that’s not behind a paywall. So what sort of conversations do you have with advertisers about that?
AC: Yeah, it’s a great question. It is a commercial free environment. That’s part of the play certainly for the subscriber. Our live reads still happen during programing content. We really just strip the commercials out.
We hadn’t explored sponsorship as a whole until last year and then had one of our partners as a title sponsor of The Land On Demand. We were really thoughtful about how to make that a great experience for the partner but not really intrusive for the fan. We kind of rearranged the title so that the logo was locked up with the title. We had a bug on the video screen and some other kind of careful placements for that partner. It was really about reaching the most loyal fans that we have.
They also did, as part of their partnership, an open house. Leading into training camp, wih the Browns really being our biggest season all year round, we opened up The Land On Demand and lifted the paywall brought to you by this partner so that there was a lot more fan sampling.
DR: That sort of leads into my next question as we talk about fan sampling and these conversations with advertising partners. On average in the industry, we talk a lot about the common man sort of being a little bit more media savvy than ever. I wonder if that if you see that showing up in real life conversations, whether it’s with listeners or advertising partners. Do they have a better grasp or at least do they think they have a better grasp of our industry a little bit?
AC: From a partner standpoint, I would say yes. I think our partners are more media savvy. Their kids are more media savvy. They really see kind of where media is evolving to and we certainly do and have invested in that here in Cleveland.
We added a digital content team at the beginning of this year who are really focused on the content that we create and taking it to every platform for every fan to consume in the way that they want to. It’s a little bit of a catalyst from The Land On Demand, more focused on social video YouTube, but this content team really has created this very different energy, not only in the studio but with our partners. We are allowed to have different types of conversations with the success that we’re seeing with digital content. It’s literally like a TV studio around here because digital content team is running around with cameras, capturing behind the scenes in the studio, capturing what’s going on quickly, editing and posting. So it creates a very different pace around the studio.
DR: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I just had this conversation with a doctor earlier today. I don’t know how old you are. I’m 41 and she is a little bit older than me.
We were talking about popular podcasts and how some of them have blown up into TV series and movies and stuff like that. I said, “You know, as much as we talk about this being true with our kids, I genuinely start to wonder if my generation is the last one that traditional, terrestrial media really means something to.” Has that idea of “I go where the great content is, regardless of platform” trickled all the way up to the oldest ends of millennials and the bottom end of Gen-X?
AC: It’s a really interesting question because to your point, whether it’s children or whatever the generation is, even some of the teammates that we have working here, how they consume media we talk about things like the magazine I used to work for, and it doesn’t mean anything to them.
We don’t even consider ourselves to be an AM radio station. We are content creators, and we serve it up on many platforms. I think that really resonates with that generation instead of kind of building all this great content on this station and asking people to come to us, we’re now going to where they are. It’s just a different model, but it makes it a lot more fun because we’re able to approach them in different ways. We launched a YouTube show three weeks ago and we’re launching a second one before Browns season. All of that is behind-the-scenes content, right?
We know how much our fans love our on-air teammates. And they’re always curious about what happens when they go to break right or the end of the show or what happens at the beginning of the show. So we’ve seen a lot of success, really fantastic success, on YouTube with showing the fans a different side of our on-air teammates.
DR: Given the success of The Land On Demand, the investment in the digital side that you’re talking about, also the station streams through the ESPN app, which has very reliable proliferation every single year. I wonder if you feel pretty prepared if we are indeed headed for the day that access to the AM band in new cars just isn’t there anymore. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is or isn’t any more important to you. It’s just there is a different level of preparedness, it sounds like, in Cleveland.
AC: We’re trying different things and we’re not going to get them all right, but that’s okay. I think the fact that we are eager to test things out and most importantly, our on-air teammates are just as eager matters. If we didn’t have the entire team behind the idea of “let’s get our content to where our fans want it,” it would be a little bit more of a struggle.
We just have an amazing group of people that come from varied backgrounds on our team. And so everybody is involved in the idea is like, “How about if we try this” or “What if we travel this way”. That has certainly been a different level of energy and pace on the team, which just kind of trickles through all of the teammates, sales, marketing, production, and otherwise. I like to think we’re kind of prepared.
DR: I want to talk about the part of your job that is recruiting talent, particularly on the sales side. If you had experience with radio sales at this point in 2022, you expect you’re going to be selling, a portfolio of stations, right? That can be good. That can be more opportunity, but it could also mean you’re stretched thin. How do they react to the idea of coming over to a place where, sure, there are many different products within ESPN 850, but it is a single umbrella that you are selling under?
AC: To be totally honest, I’m looking out at the team right now, I don’t think we’ve hired anybody in radio sales in the past three years yet. We really have kind of a great intersection. We have some tenured salespeople here, marketing consultants who are amazing and know our assets inside and out. The newer teammates we’ve hired over the last three years don’t come from other stations. In fact, we just hired someone who’s starting at the end of May, and he’s coming from Rocket Mortgage, the top seller at Rocket Mortgage. So, there is a there’s a learning curve to teach and coach them in media.
I think that recruits are energized by the fact that it’s not just AM radio, which is a critical part of our business in Cleveland, but there’s the opportunity to test and sell and have different conversations about different products. I think it’s probably an advantage for us from a selling perspective because we really are kind of trying so many new things.
DR: So you guys have a sales opportunity that is not unique to you guys. It is unique to ESPN Radio stations though – ESPN play-by-play. It’s not like you don’t have the Guardians. It’s not like you don’t have the Cavaliers. I mean, hell, they just went to the playoffs for the first time in forever and it was on your airwaves. It’s just not there all the time. It’s not the hometown broadcasts.
Tell me about the conversations locally you have with whether it is advertising partners or listeners when you’re out at events about the fact that your teams are here, it’s just we’re doing it a different way and there is opportunity there for you still.
AC: Yeah, I’m glad you brought it up because, you know, we are obviously the official home of the Browns. We talk about the Browns 13 months out of the year, of course, as important in Cleveland.
DR: Can I tell you that I use your market as an example all the time. I live in Raleigh. I tell people this is a great place to live. It is a terrible sports radio market. And I always follow that up by saying, “We’re not Cleveland. We don’t have a team that unites us in misery like the Browns. That’s what you need to be a great sports radio market.”
AC: It’s so true. Our content mission is Browns, drama, fun. If the content that the teammates are creating does not fall in one of those buckets, we’re probably not going to be talking about it.
Matt Fishman, the director of content, has done an amazing job with adding teammates that are insiders in those other teams. Right? So Brian Windhorst is a teammate and he is our NBA insider for all things Cavs Andre Knott is a teammate, and he obviously travels with the Guardians and is an insider there. So that really is our approach.
Again, we like that it’s less traditional. We don’t obviously have the rights to the Guardians and the Cavs, but having an insider. Our fans really like that, right? They’re getting information from the source and maybe a little bit different than it would be served up in in a traditional environment where we had play-by-play. So we feel like we’ve covered the bases.
Cleveland’s a unique town. The Cavs went to the playoffs and people were okay with it, but they were really still talking about, “is Stefanski going to get fired in the bye week in week five?”. That’s really where all of the buzz is.
We liken the approach that we have to dating. We have great relationships with the Cavs’ and the Guardians’ front offices. They’re great partners with us to try new things and different approaches and unique ways to partner together.
DR: Tell me a little bit about live events post-COVID. Do you see any lingering effects that have changed?
AC: I think Ohio just kind of forgot about the pandemic and really moved on. I’ll tell you, to be honest, we really saw it in 2021 when the NFL Draft was here. It was touch and go on were they going to come or were they not going to come. They were kind of just plowing through.
Pre-pandemic, we would do up to 250 events a year and that may be anything from a small street team at a bar for Corona up to our big thousand-person draft party. So we were certainly itching to get out and create live events. Our fans were itching for it and our advertising partners were as well. So we hosted a VIP event, pre-NFL Draft, which was we we kind of laugh that maybe it was the super spreader event. I think we had 250 guests and everybody was hugging and kissing babies and just being so excited to be back together again. So that was probably the only one where we were incredibly cautious about how we were rolling that event out.
By football season, we were doing our Browns tailgate that we do every week and everything just seemed to kind of come back in Ohio. This year we’re doing as many events as ever.
DR: I don’t doubt the appetite is there for advertisers, but we have entered a whole new economy since the pandemic and I wonder what that does to the to the live event business or those advertisers’ dedication to live events.
AC: Yeah, it really depends on the advertising partner. For so many of the businesses that partner with us on our live events, their objectives are really to have the face-to-face interaction with fans and we can provide that for them. There really aren’t many that have strayed away from that because it affects their business in such a positive way. So we may have streamlined our events a little bit more just so that we could develop a best-in-class event versus just cranking out 250 events a year, but for the most part, the fans still come out.
We have a big event on June 25th, our block party. It started last year. There’s just so much excitement around it in Cleveland. All of the teams are participating. It’s really just a great celebration of football and of sports in Cleveland.
DR: You came to this job from a very untraditional place. You came from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What lessons can you bring from there into running a media operation?
AC: Prior to that, I was in New York for 20-plus years in the media business. So for me, the great opportunity to work at the Hall of Fame and get into the sports marketing world was really a highlight for me, but what I really missed the most was the media component to it. Media is my currency and it’s how I know to create solutions for advertising partners and great content for fans. So that was really my foray from kind of big corporate media to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and then landing here at ESPN Cleveland.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Fred Roggin Deals in LA Sports on AM Radio
“I simply want to grow and learn every single day. I want to experience new things every day. I have a philosophy, when you stop learning, you die.”
Johnny Carson had a very successful run in late night TV. He was incredibly popular and received many awards as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson aired from 1962 to 1992. What I always found interesting about the show was the amount of planning that went into each episode.
Carson prepared, crafted, and rehearsed scenes over and over again. During the show, it sounded like he was just having a bunch of fun and cutting loose. What’s often overlooked is just how much thought and attention to detail went into each broadcast. There always was a game plan.
Fred Roggin operates very similarly. He teams up with former USC and NFL quarterback Rodney Peete each weekday. Roggin & Rodney airs on AM 570 in Los Angeles. Roggin sounds like he’s having a ton of fun — and he is — but just like Johnny Carson, Roggin plans and pays close attention to detail. It’s one of the reasons he’s been so successful in his distinguished radio and television career.
Considering the fact that Roggin hosts a daily show on AM 570, he has some interesting opinions on the fight to preserve AM radio in cars. Roggin also talks about how the LA sports radio market differs from other places but doesn’t lack passion, and what’s in store for him next after an incredible 43-year run on daily TV. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: You did TV at NBC4 for over four decades. How do you feel now after signing off just a few months ago?
Fred Roggin: It’s interesting, the media business has changed dramatically. And let’s be really honest, television doesn’t have the impact that it one time had. It really doesn’t.
More things are digital than ever before. The only way to succeed, I felt, was to try to be unique and different. Always did feel that way. But it just wasn’t as much fun anymore. I haven’t really retired completely from television because I still may be doing some things, but I stopped doing the daily local news. That’s the thing, I just stopped. It was exhausting me.
It’s funny in LA, in the 43 years I’ve been here, I’ve probably done radio for 20 of them at different places. I started in radio, I’m a radio guy. I always kept my fingers in it because I really enjoyed it. We have more people listening to us on KLAC than were watching our newscast on television. Think about that. And that does not speak to the quality of work we were doing at NBC, because our work has always been impeccable; but it was like, I wanted to have fun. I just didn’t want to do daily local news anymore.
BN: When you’re doing a radio show, I think that you have a great feel for when to switch gears. It’s time to be a little serious about this topic, and now it’s time to have some fun. How would you describe your feel between times of content and times of comedy?
FR: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. I would hope that’s one of the reasons people listen to us. I think in our business what you find is, some people are all comedy, some people are all opinion. It’s hard, I think, to blend them. Every show is unique. Every personality that does this is unique. Every host is unique. I’ve always looked at it like this, and it was the same philosophy I used in television, when I was on TV, we would change stuff an awful lot. Even if a show was successful, every year or so, I would tweak it. I would change it. The producers would say why? I would always have the same answer; because if I’m bored, I gotta tell you, the viewers will be bored. They don’t even realize it yet, but they will be. So why would we allow them to feel that way?
I think the same holds true in what we do here in radio. You know when it’s enough. If you went to an ice cream store, would you always order the same flavor every single time? No, you have a favorite, but you try different things, otherwise you would become bored. What we try to do, obviously we’re LA based, so we’re going to go hard on the LA teams as much as we can. But then you drop in things that change the pace a bit, give people a breather and a reason to smile or be mad at you. Either way we know they’re going to react. Then keep moving. It’s kind of a tapestry rather than a giant wall painted all one color.
BN: Do you feel like having a TV background helps with pacing and moving a radio show forward?
FR: It’s funny, I think having a radio background helps you in TV. I think radio really helps you in television because if radio is the purest form of communication, you’re forced to learn to talk with people. In TV, you have advantages. I can lean in. I can change my facial expression. I have video that I can narrate directly off a script. Radio you have none of that. Radio forces you to be a solid communicator and that’s why people that do radio can transition to TV. But people that start in TV oftentimes have a very difficult time transitioning to radio.
When I would build TV shows, my background was really in production. I was the guy in front of the camera, but my background is in production. Pacing meant everything. Everything. Visuals meant everything. Changing the tone meant everything. The radio show is very much the same. Our producer, Kevin Figgers, is terrific. I think you know Kevin.
BN: Oh, yeah. Yep. He does a great job.
FR: I’ll tell you, he’s a superstar. He gets it. He’s good. We always talk about the pace and where we should change things and drop things in. We invite everybody to stay for three hours. You know this as well as I do, they don’t. They have lives.
We always have to be mindful of the fact that at any moment, someone could be joining us. At any moment. Our objective is when that person should find us, that we are giving them a reason to stay. Even with our bumper beds that Kevin created, they’re a little different than traditional sports talk radio. They sound more like an FM music station. We stop, boom, cold, hit the music, hit the sounder, and then we tease. We try every day to be mindful of pacing.
In our medium, like Colin Cowherd who’s brilliant, I think the best in the business, there are few guys like him. He distinguishes himself. How can we distinguish ourselves to stand out or attempt to stand out and give people a reason to come to us? It could be the slightest little thing. It could be the pacing of our show. Everything that Kevin does is strategized. Even the music we use for our games, it all has a feel, it all has a pace.
BN: What are your thoughts on the fight to preserve AM radio in cars?
FR: I think it’s a battle worth fighting. Until you do this for a living, you don’t realize how many people listen to us on the AM band, period. We have listeners that still listen on transistor radios. These are valuable human beings, they make a difference. The AM band provides information in times of distress and disaster. As technology evolves and things blend, I think it’s important to realize that a lot of people still count on the AM band for their news, for their information, for their entertainment, for their companionship. And in the event of an emergency or disaster, it is necessary. I will fight that fight personally because I know how valuable it is.
Here’s the thing, Brian, as we continue to evolve, you can listen to us on the iHeartRadio app. I’m sure that’s what carmakers are thinking, Well, eventually, all cars will just have apps and you’ll be able to listen to whatever you want to. But you’re discounting a huge portion of the audience and the population. People that desperately count on their radio station on the AM band to be there for them.
I’m of the belief, and I don’t manufacture cars, and I don’t know what anything costs, but I do know it doesn’t seem that hard to include the AM band for the millions of people that still count on it.
BN: Have you ever heard from a listener that said, man, I got a new car and it doesn’t have AM. I don’t listen as much as I used to. Has that ever happened?
FR: No, I haven’t heard that. What we find is more and more of our listeners are transitioning to the app. But see, here’s the disconnect, and here is what’s so hard to understand. Just because a number of people are transitioning, doesn’t also mean there aren’t a number of people that still depend on it.
What you’re doing is you’re telling people that listen to AM, you’re not very important. You don’t really count. We know they desperately count, and they count on us. I honestly don’t understand, as I said, the costs associated with any of this, but it just doesn’t seem that difficult to me. Take care of everybody. Don’t eliminate people.
BN: You reacted to a column last year claiming that no one listens to sports talk radio in LA. It’s like you channeled your inner East Coast, I love how you attacked the story with some edge. What was the reaction in LA to your comments about that column?
FR: Minimal. You have to understand your market. And my point there was, yeah, if we were on the East Coast, we would have a larger listening audience, simply because of the market. In Los Angeles, if you just look at it from a business perspective, there are so many ways to spend your disposable income. There are so many teams. To say the people in Boston are more passionate, or there are more people listening in Boston, I think there’s no nuance to that. Understand your market.
Are you telling me that people in this market are not passionate? Well, when you come to town, let’s go see the Dodgers or the Lakers play. You tell me if they’re passionate. You tell me if they are as passionate as Celtics or Red Sox fans. I’ll take you to see the LA Kings, you tell me if those people are as passionate as Boston Bruins fans. I think you’re going to agree they are, if not more so.
It’s understanding the nuances of your market. And to make a blanket statement, and try to compare apples to oranges, that was low-hanging fruit. That was too easy. It’s much more involved than that. It bothered me because I really thought in that situation, someone didn’t do their homework. It could have been presented very much like the audience is bigger here, or seemingly more passionate here, but let’s analyze why. If you take the time to analyze all of it, you realize that the fan bases are as passionate. We just have more things to do here.
BN: Your station, AM 570, is the home of the Dodgers. How does that relationship impact the way you present topics about the team, or any of the opinions that you share?
FR: That’s a fair question. I can tell you in the years that I’ve worked here, if the Dodgers have performed well, or something great happens, we’re on it. If they’re struggling, if things aren’t going well, if something had been bungled, we’re on that too. Never, not one moment, not one time has anyone called myself or Rodney into the office and said back off. Never, no one has ever said don’t talk about that.
I think what all the teams want, and Brian, maybe I’m wrong, and I know this with the Rams because I talk to them all the time, they always say the same thing. I’ve always tried to be this way, just be fair. If we deserve criticism, then we should be criticized. But don’t take cheap shots. If we’ve done something well, that should be acknowledged. Don’t go over the top. Just be fair, be honest.
BN: As you transition from daily TV, when you look at your future, what do you want the next five years to look like?
FR: I want to continue doing this and growing this. We have been working, and we actually need to accelerate the pace, but we have been working on preparing this for multiple platforms.
I simply want to grow and learn every single day. I want to experience new things every day. I have a philosophy, when you stop learning, you die. It might even be the smallest little thing. Even driving down the street and noticing a sign you hadn’t noticed before, you learned something today. Interacting with someone and finding something out about them you didn’t know, you learned something today. I’m very curious. My mind never stops working.
I would like to continue doing this. As I said, we’re working on some things to share this on multiple platforms. We’re probably 50% of the way through it at this point. But grow this, keep growing and keep learning. Then I’ll be very happy. This is such a wonderful, wonderful business. You really do meet the nicest people doing this for a living. People that care, that work hard, that really take a lot of pride in what they do. That means a lot to me. I love working with people like that. I’m honored to work with them. And just keep growing this.
Look at it like this. People said, well, you stopped doing TV. I did TV going on 43 years here. As I mentioned, for 20 of those 43, I actually did radio too. I had two jobs and people would say, well, you’re retiring. I’d say no, I’m stopping doing part of one job, I have another one. Another one that I truly love. It’s funny, on TV, I said I’m not retiring. I’m just not doing the news anymore. That doesn’t mean I won’t be on LA TV. It means I’m not doing the news. I just want to keep growing and having fun to be honest with you. Maybe that’s too easy of an answer, but you get to a point in life, you just really want to love what you do and have a good time. And I do, every single day.
Brian Noe is a columnist for BSM and an on-air host heard nationwide on FOX Sports Radio’s Countdown To Kickoff. Previous roles include stops in Portland, OR, Albany, NY and Fresno, CA. You can follow him on Twitter @TheNoeShow or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.