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Michael Kay Balances The Yankees, Sports Talk, And Now Kay-Rod

“Take a job and run with it, and make-believe like you’re doing Game 7 of the World Series. That’s how you should operate.”

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Spring is in the air as Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement last week, preserving the 162-game season and opening a condensed, four-week spring training. That means fans will be able to return to the ballpark to root for their favorite players and their favorite teams. Broadcasters will be back in the booth with something to talk about.

Since 1992, New York Yankees fans have had a familiar voice behind the microphone, first on the radio on WABC for five World Series championships, and from 2002 to present, on the YES Network. From the time he was nine years old, all Michael Kay ever wanted was to be a broadcaster for his favorite team, the Yankees, and now, he has been living out that dream for the last 30 years.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world in early 2020 and resulted in a truncated 60-game major league season being played, it accelerated sizable industry changes, such as the practice of broadcasting away games remotely. For Kay, making that adjustment was more about the timing than it was about redeveloping chemistry with his rotation of game analysts, and while they were able to eventually settle in a routine, Kay never had any doubt that they would one day return to traveling for road games. Rather, the doubt he had was related to if they would call all of the road games in-person, or whether they would only travel for select matchups. Kay put the speculation to rest, confirming that the YES Network plans to send its broadcast team to all Yankees’ road games for the 2022 season.

“We’ve [been] told that we’re going to be traveling [for] every single game,” said Kay. “I think we made due with what we had to do because of the circumstances – nobody expected [the pandemic] to happen; nobody could ever have forecasted that would happen, but we got through it.”

While he serves as the full-time television play-by-play announcer for the New York Yankees, there is no sole analyst that is scheduled to do every game with Kay this season. While the YES Network still has former major leaguers David Cone, Paul O’Neill and John Flaherty as analysts for the 2022 campaign, longtime network analyst and former all-star outfielder Ken Singleton announced his retirement from broadcasting late last season. As a result, the YES Network added two more analysts to the rotation – in Carlos Beltrán and Cameron Maybin.

When he was first getting his start broadcasting Yankees games though, Kay worked in radio directly alongside John Sterling on WABC. Sterling has been calling Yankees games since 1989, and Kay affirms that working alongside him helped advance his understanding of broadcasting.

“Working with John, I think, prepared me or anything because he always wanted it to be like a conversation between two friends, and the listener on the radio was kind-of eavesdropping on it and being part of [as] the third person that’s really not contributing but listening in,” explained Kay. “He keeps you on your toes – you never know where he’s going to come from, and I think that keeps you sharp. You should expect anything, and you should expect anything.”

The year 2002 served not only as Kay’s first year as the television play-by-play announcer for the New York Yankees, but also his first year as a radio host for ESPN Radio in New York. The Michael Kay Show was not Kay’s first foray into radio though, as he had briefly hosted shows on WABC and, while in college, at Fordham University’s radio station WFUV.

The difference came in not only working with co-hosts Don La Greca and Peter Rosenberg, but also in balancing his duties as an on-air host in the number one media market in the country and a play-by-play broadcaster for the most accomplished franchise in the history of professional sports.

So what does a typical workday look like for Michael Kay during the baseball season? Typically, Kay leaves his home at noon to get to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y. by 1 p.m., from where he hosts his radio show, which is simulcast on the YES Network, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The moment he finishes on the radio, Kay enters the television booth to call that night’s Yankees game, and usually will make it home between 11 and 11:30 p.m.

Kay’s show airs on 98.7 ESPN New York. The station currently has a local early morning show with DiPietro & Rothenberg from 5 to 8 a.m., but then transitions into national programming, including Keshawn, JWill and Max, Greeny, and Bart & Hahn until 3 p.m., when Kay takes the air until 7 p.m. In the New York City media market, Kay is uncertain if it is most ideal to have a programming lineup situated in that fashion.

“I don’t know if that’s the perfect way to have it done with lead-ins and things like that because if something happens in New York City, you want to be able to turn on the radio and know that you’re going to have it covered,” explained Kay. “In one of our national shows – and they do an unbelievable job – they may not be talking about a New York thing at that point…. But they do about as great a job as localizing as they can but I still think radio, especially sports radio, is hyperlocal.”

Much like the Subway Series rivalry between the Yankees and the New York Mets, the ratings battle between 98.7 ESPN New York and WFAN is closely followed among those in sports media, especially in the afternoon slot with Kay’s show going head-to-head with Carton & Roberts. The Michael Kay Show has picked up some wins in the ratings; however, Kay knows the ratings do not tell the whole story about the show’s true accumulated audience on all platforms. In fact, the Nielsen ratings do not measure podcast listeners or those watching the YES Network’s simulcast of the show. Kay says that has formed the basis of an industry-wide critique regarding their dependency in the future, especially with the growing proclivity towards cross-platform integration.

“I’ve always found it quite curious that you can judge the listenership of a radio show by maybe 10 people having a meter out of all the millions of people that are in our potential listening audience – but that’s the way they do business,” said Kay. “I think it is an extraordinarily inexact science, but unfortunately that’s the only way we have to keep score right now.”

With the velocity of the growth of aural consumption in the podcasting space, some professionals have predicted a phasing out of terrestrial radio in exchange for on-demand consumption. Live radio shows have percolated into that space through posting individual segments and entire episodes on-demand as podcasts, with some radio stations, such as ESPN Cleveland, transforming it into part of a larger audio network of subscription-based content. Kay knows that while the growth of audio-based podcasts cannot be ignored, it lacks one major hallmark feature of terrestrial radio; that is, the ability to go live.

“People that predict the doom of radio because of podcasts – I just don’t see it because podcasts are not in the moment,” said Kay. “You just can’t react in real-time, and I think that’s the value of radio. When something’s breaking, you turn to a radio station to hear what’s going on; you don’t turn to a podcast.”

A 1982 graduate of Fordham University, Kay has worked through shifts in sports media from many different perspectives – a writer, play-by-play broadcaster, radio host, and a forthcoming role that will fuse all three into one. ESPN announced in early January that it had signed Kay to a contract to embark on a new, special viewing presentation to air on ESPN2 called Sunday Night Baseball with Kay-Rod.

Kay will be joined by former New York Yankees all-star infielder and World Series Champion Álex Rodríguez on this new kind of telecast which Kay says is a preview into how broadcasts may be done moving forward.

“We’re just essentially going to do a radio talk show while we’re watching the game,” said Kay. “[It’s] not quite the Manningcast, but somewhere between the Manningcast and a regular broadcast…. That’s going to be fun to do, and I’ll get a chance at seeing how I do nationally with those games.”

Not only will Kay and Rodríguez call eight games together during the 2022 season on ESPN2 as part of their special viewing presentation (including some Yankees vs. Red Sox games); they will also be the broadcast team for two exclusive ESPN MLB regular season games and contribute to coverage of one playoff series. Despite the new gig, though, Kay will not miss any of his regularly-scheduled Yankees games on the YES Network this season. Much like how he balances his radio show with play-by-play obligations during the regular season, Kay knows he will be able to handle both gigs on select Sundays throughout the year.

“If I do a YES [Network] game on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s not a Yankee game on Sunday Night Baseball that we’re doing, [I’ll] just get to the spot that we’re going to be doing the Kay-Rod cast and do it, so I can still keep the most important thing going – which is the Yankees – and try my hand at the national stuff,” Kay said.

The question to that respect is whether people will come back to baseball after a 99-day lockout filled with contentious negotiations and constant periods of disappointment for Major League Baseball fans. While the strife, which many fans labeled a fight between millionaires and billionaires, has come to an end for now, the game undoubtedly has work to do to reestablish its eminence as “America’s pastime.” Kay knows the game is up for the task, and will continue to grow its fanbase, especially amid the expansion of the postseason and new broadcast rights deals.

“I don’t see how people could be so ticked off that it’s going to drive them away from baseball,” expressed Kay. “If you walk away from baseball because of this labor dispute – which essentially was a lockdown during most of the winter where there wouldn’t be much going on anyway – then you were looking for reasons to get out. If you really love baseball, I don’t think they really did enough to alienate anybody.”

Kay grew up just 10 minutes away from Yankee Stadium, and constantly followed the team growing up, along with his favorite player – former Yankees shortstop Bobby Murcer – to realize his dream of being their play-by-play announcer. He says that broadcasting baseball nationally has, in essence, completed his lineup of career aspirations, and maintains that he is fortunate and blessed to be in the position that he holds today. For those in the pipeline; that is, the next generation of broadcasters, his advice within an exciting and new media landscape: Never punch a clock.

“You work when you can work. You get on the air when you can get on the air. The more reps that you can get, the better,” said Kay. “Take a job and run with it, and make-believe like you’re doing Game 7 of the World Series. That’s how you should operate.”

Aside from the small fraction of people with an innate talent to work in sports media, the majority of people have to work to earn their spot in this industry – and the primary things they can control, affirmed Kay, is their effort and treatment of other people.

“[If] you give top effort – 100% – when somebody else is giving 95%, the one who’s giving 100% is the one who’s going to get noticed and probably promoted,” said Kay. “I think the people that stand out are the people that treat people the right way and the people that work hard.”

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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