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WDAE Was Right In The Middle Of The Rays’ ‘Split City’ Controversy

“ When Mamola called to tell me the story last week, he framed it as a story of how easy it can be to work through controversy when there isn’t an adversarial relationship between the team and its flagship.”

Demetri Ravanos

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If you don’t live in Tampa, St. Petersburg or the surrounding area, chances are that you don’t have a particularly positive view of the Rays. Well, maybe you respect how much the organization has done with considerably fewer resources than division rivals in Boston and New York, but the stadium and its plethora of empty seats have almost certainly been the butt of your jokes before.

The Rays will open postseason play on Thursday. While the day will be filled with discussion of whether or not 2021 will be the year the team is more than just a feel good, “Little Engine That Could” story, that wasn’t what had Rays fans talking last week.

On September 25, the second-to-last Saturday of Major League Baseball’s regular season, the team’s president, Matt Silverman, went on WDAE and dropped a bomb on the fans. They already knew team ownership saw value in splitting the team’s home games between St. Petersburg and Montreal. Now, when the team may have the best shot to win a World Series that it ever has, they were going to rub the fans’ faces in it.

“We’re going to add a sign in the rightfield foul territory with a very simple Tampa Bay Montreal graphic,” Silverman said on his radio show This Week in Rays Baseball. “Especially with the eyes of baseball on us this October, we want that visible symbol of our plan and our excitement for it. It will mark the effort subtly and keep the focus on winning.”

Remember, this is on the day the University of Florida beat rival Tennessee and Florida State lost to Louisville to fall to 0-4 for the first time in 47 years. The next day, the Buccaneers lost a game for the first time since Thanksgiving weekend. Still, on Monday morning, all Tampa Bay sports fans wanted to talk about was the disrespect shown to them by their own baseball team.

John Mamola is the program director of WDAE. He told me that the conversation started with his morning show and lasted all day long. The city was pissed. Frankly, I needed him to tell me why. I’m not a baseball fan at all, and even I know that attendance at Rays games is sparse to say the least.

“While the Tampa Bay Rays haven’t been a great example as far as attendance in the last decade-plus, their radio and television numbers continue to be some of the best in all of MLB,” he explained. “The residents of this entire community care, and they understand the challenges of the current ballpark situation. Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium discussion for many years now has overtaken the conversation of the actual team and the high level of play they’ve shown over the last 13 years, and I think that frustration from the fan base for the situation shows how much their fan base does care about the organization in the landscape of ‘Champa Bay.'”

When Silverman made his statement on Saturday, he didn’t have anything to show or post pictures of on the team’s social media accounts. He wasn’t even able to describe what the banner would look like. Maybe Silverman had a plan, but that is all it was.

The area’s sports fans didn’t care. To even bring up the Rays playing home games in Montreal on WDAE, the market’s only sports station and the team’s flagship station, was a slap in the face.

John Mamola was proud of his staff. “Our guys were insanely honest. They were not shy with their opinions,” he said. I asked him what messages he gave them going into Monday morning. He told me that he kept those conversations pretty straight forward. “It’s as simple as listen to what was said and understand the context before discussing, and then walk through it together.”

Plenty of stations brace themselves for a fight with a team partner. Some of those team partners can be very sensitive to criticism. After all, there is a written contract. The relationship is supposed to be mutually beneficial. Where is the benefit in letting hosts on the station where your games air rip you?

I mean, come on. The timing isn’t an accident. The announcement was made on a Saturday with the following week being Tom Brady’s return to New England.

Mamola says that is not the Rays he knows. As long as he has been at WDAE, the team has been pretty easy to work with. Monday’s shows were probably filled with a lot of criticism the Rays were hoping wouldn’t exist but he wasn’t driving to work planning to spend the day on the phone fighting with the team or even with his bosses at iHeartMedia.

“Our job is to spark opinion and conversation, their job is to win baseball games. Both sides want success for each other, and both sides work well with each other,” he said of the Rays. “We’ve been blessed to have great access within the organization to have some face to face meetings with as much transparency as possible with the upper management of the organization to get a better grasp on where they’re headed and take our questions and feedback. That’s the mark of a great partnership. With that, the organization knows that our talent will not make this a personal attack on anyone or anything within the organization but they also have an understanding that they are as open to criticism as anyone in Tampa Bay when it comes to our passionate hosts on WDAE which speak directly to the Tampa Bay sports fan and Tampa Bay Rays fan/consumer.”

That great partnership played a role in the conflict’s resolution. When Mamola called to tell me the story last week, he framed it as a story of how easy it can be to work through controversy when there isn’t an adversarial relationship between the team and its flagship.

By Tuesday night, Stu Sternberg was on the WDAE airwaves saying he was wrong. The team’s principle owner was on the pregame show ahead of what would eventually be a loss to the Houston Astros to address the plans to hang the “split city” banner and the reaction to the announcement.

“I absolutely should have known better and I’m sorry for that,” he said of Matt Silverman’s announcement. “I’m here to tell the fans that the sign is not going to go up.”

Now, this isn’t a movie. Sternberg didn’t announce that he had been wrong all along and finally understands the true meaning of Champa Bay. He still is planning to pursue that Split City plan when the Rays’ current lease runs out at Tropicana Field in 2028.

John Mamola is fine with that. Forty games in Tampa is better than zero games in Tampa.

“I can imagine that the Rays were preparing on their end for backlash to this plan, but we also have to have an open mind with this plan and not only read the headline.  The Rays have made it very clear after many proposals simply have not worked out, that this split-city proposal (they feel) is their last shot at keeping baseball in Tampa Bay long term although on a short term per baseball season.”

So what about the games left in front of this team in 2021? The playoffs start later this week and for as long as they are alive, the Rays will have home field advantage against American League opponents.

WDAE is always invested in the team and rooting for their success. After being in the middle of a story about fandom and civic pride with the Rays, will Mamola put an added spotlight on their success this postseason?

He says no, because the station doesn’t need to. WDAE is the home of Rays and Lightning games and studio coverage of the Buccaneers. That gives them a powerful place in the minds and hearts of Tampa Bay sports fans. Ultimately, he says that is why he and his staff were the ones trusted to make a difference.

“If fans need a place to share their voice, there is only one choice in the megaphone of WDAE and over the past week or so that has only been re-enforced with the voice of the fan changing the narrative of the majority owner of that said baseball team, and thus receiving an apology from owner Stu Sternberg heard LIVE on WDAE and the Rays Radio Network.   That’s the power of the fan, and shows that the fan still has a voice when it comes to their local sports franchises. I couldn’t be more proud of how WDAE helped shape the discussion both digitally and terrestrially and helped deliver the feedback of the fan directly to those within the organization helping alleviate a very difficult and emotional situation, albeit for only till the next time we discuss it.”

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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