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You Don’t Have To Pretend You Know College Basketball

“I think the audience is smart enough to understand we have lives, families and most know we ain’t staying up studying the Mountain West.”

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The NCAA Tournament is always an interesting time for sports radio stations. This is the only sporting event that even comes close to the Super Bowl in terms of cultural awareness. Your mom may not know who the favorites are, but she knows people fill out brackets and there is something called the Final Four.

Where the NCAA Tournament and the Super Bowl diverge is in the lead up. The NFL routinely dominates TV ratings in the fall. NBC’s Sunday Night Football has been the most watched show on television for more than a decade. College basketball doesn’t have that kind of pull. Ask the average American that lives outside of North Carolina, Kentucky or Indiana how much college basketball they have watched this year and more than 75% of respondents would tell you that the first games they watched were during conference tournament week.

So how does sports radio deal with this? The NCAA Tournament is a benchmark on the sports calendar. It is a local event for so many markets, but you probably aren’t an expert on every potential opponent the home team could face. Hell, in some markets, you don’t even really have to know much about the home team.

“Don’t fake it! Your listeners know you and know your show,” says Brent Axe of ESPN Syracuse. “Be honest with them about your knowledge of college basketball because here’s a little hint: It doesn’t matter! How often does it turn out someone in your pool who wouldn’t know Jim Boeheim from Jim Carrey ends up winning the thing?”

Brent covers the Syracuse Orange. That school has a basketball culture. Jim Boeheim is every bit the institution in that city that Dinosaur BBQ is. He isn’t the kind of hose that will tell you the sports world is dead between the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament. But he knows that he is the exception.

If you’re talking about the Tournament field with just the regular cast members of the show, Brent says to keep it light. If there is an investment in a local team, that is the only team you need to be able to give your own perspective on.

“If you want a breakdown of the 2-3 zone or why this is the year Gonzaga is going to win it all, bring on a guest who can speak to that better than you,” he says.

Hosts in large markets with major league sports teams can have wildly different experiences with college basketball throughout the season. Chuck Sapienza, program director of 105.7 the Fan in Baltimore, says basketball is part of the culture of the city. Without an NBA team in town, that means the Maryland Terrapins have a passionate following.

“Maryland Basketball is right up there with the Os and Ravens in terms of fan passion in Baltimore,” he told me in an email. “Baltimore is a huge basketball city. Some of the best High School hoops in the country is played in Baltimore. Jalen ‘Sticks’ Smith (From last season) and Darryl Morsell both went to Mount Saint Joseph in Baltimore City so people follow Maryland hoops from the beginning of the season. Then it really ramps up after football ends.”

As a state, Texas has had an amazing college basketball season. Seven teams from the Lone Star State are in the Tournament. In addition to the Longhorns, who have the state’s largest allegiance, the Houston Cougars are a two-seed. Texas Southern will be in one of the play-in games. The city of Houston should be buzzing, but Sports Radio 610 afternoon drive host, Ron “Show” Hughely told me that if he put a major focus on college basketball on his show, he wouldn’t be serving his listeners.

“This is going to be a real challenge for me because the NCAA tournament is my favorite sporting event,” the diehard Kansas Jayhawks fan told me. “But I can’t be selfish when here in Houston football is king, and the top story in the NFL has fallen right in our laps. We certainly won’t force the local teams in the tournament on our audience. We’re still going to give them what they’re thirsty for.”

I asked Ron what advice he would give a host trying to figure out the best way to cover this tournament for his audience. He said that you can’t be afraid to be honest about what you don’t know. There is no harm in that.

“I think the audience is smart enough to understand we have lives, families and most know we ain’t staying up studying the Mountain West,” he joked. “Hell I’m a college basketball guy and I can’t give you 5 players this year in the Pac 12, but I know the things people will care about and I won’t fake things don’t know.”

Having worked in sports radio in North Carolina, it was imperative to know enough about college basketball to stay in a conversation. I didn’t know the ins and outs of every team in the ACC. I don’t think I really ever knew the ins and outs of the three local teams, but I knew enough to be able to participate in a conversation with the other members of my show and let them do the heavy lifting and analysis.

Sometimes that is the best thing you can do. Whether it is a partner or a guest, let the educated do most of the talking. I asked Brent Axe how he knew when a member of the national media was talking about a team they clearly knew nothing about. He said it was knowing when that host was reading. Someone faking their way through a college basketball conversation won’t have a natural speech pattern he says “because they’ll have more information in front of them or will have to look things up on the fly.”

He then points me to a video of Mike Francesa as an example.

For The Fan in Baltimore, after the Terps, Sapienza says they will look at the tournament largely from a gambling perspective. After all, that is what the event is to most Americans.

“One of the members of the Big Bad Morning Show, Jeremy Conn, is gaining a national following for his gambling acumen,” the PD says. “He is being used by Entercom in the gambling content space on a national level. He will lead our gambling coverage throughout the tournament.”

The running theme here is you don’t have to pretend when it comes to college basketball. Yes, the Tournament is a tent pole of the US sports calendar, but we are talking about a sport featuring more than 320 teams. It is unreasonable to think a host in Denver knows as much about Abilene Christian as he does about Colorado. There’s a lot going on in Denver. Listeners probably don’t expect the host to know much more about Colorado basketball than they do.

In 2021, there are a lot of options for talking about and covering the NCAA Tournament on the radio. The best piece of advice would be to talk about the Tournament in a style that keeps you inside your comfort zone enough to create great content.

BSM Writers

Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards

“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”

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I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.

While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.

Ohio State football broadcasts go remote amid COVID-19 restrictions
Courtesy: WBNS Radio

Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.

This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.

I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.

Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.

I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.

A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.

Highly Questionable 4/12/21 - Changing History? - YouTube
Courtesy: ESPN

There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.

It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.

It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.

Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.

Anxiety and Depression From COVID-19 – San Diego – Sharp Health News
Courtesy: Nuthawut Somsuk

More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.

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BSM Writers

Manningcast Is Best Experienced As A Fan, Not As A Broadcaster

“I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat.”

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ESPN

Much has been written on this site already about the ESPN alternative to a traditional Monday Night Football broadcast, the Manningcast. Andy Masur asked if it worked and questioned the network pulling its audience in two different directions. Mark Madden said the concept undoubtedly works, but the content is poor.

Both articles are good reads. Both provide another level of insight from those in the industry and how they view this unique/high-profile concept. Industry views provide solid insight to the success and quality of the show itself, what works – what doesn’t. But if we can’t sit back and take our industry glasses off, and just look at this broadcast as sports fans, I feel we’ll never see it in clear view. 

NFL Week 1 Monday Night Football, Peyton Manning ratings - Sports  Illustrated
Courtesy: ESPN

I’ll admit, for me, it took me no more than 5 minutes of watching week 1’s Ravens vs Raiders game to say “yeah, this isn’t meant for me”. I didn’t like the non-traditional approach of the broadcast, it felt like it lacked the energy of a traditional sportscast. The stadium volume was turned way down, the excitement was more in the conversation they were having with each other, rather than the game itself. It took me out of the moment of the game, rather than allowing me to get sucked in.

Now, in fairness, I kind of went into it with a narrow mind, thinking that would be the case. I am not someone who has the desire to flip around during the College Football Playoff broadcasts and catch the coaches corner or studio chatter, I want the game. 

Bottom line is, I hated the Manningcast when I watched it in Week 1. I even went on the air the next day and trolled members of my audience that were effusive in their praise of it. In the limited sample I provided for myself, I had come to the conclusion that this broadcast wasn’t made for REAL football fans (insert caveman sound effect here) and that only the most casual viewer would want to watch this SNL wanna be of a football broadcast. 

However, week 2, I decided I was going to be more open minded to it. I made it a point to break away from the traditional Packers vs Lions broadcast and watch the Manningcast, no matter how painful. I was completely wrong in my initial opinion.

Was Peyton Manning wearing a helmet and acting a little too zany for my taste in week 1? Yes. Is the guest connection quality well below what we should find acceptable in broadcasting? Yes. But that’s where I made the mistake. I was looking at this broadcast through the eyes of a broadcaster and not as a sports fan. 

Peyton Manning’s charisma jumps off the screen, he is elite at describing what he sees on the field in a way that no one else can. Eli can be a little dry, but he’s low key funny. And they have real chemistry together, as they should. They are family after all.

The thing that hooked me the most was just how invested Peyton was in the plays on the field, he really gets into the game, truly invested in the success and failure of the quarterbacks. There was a moment in week 2 when Jared Goff threw the ball to an empty patch of grass 15 yards down the field and was subsequently called for intentional grounding. You could see Goff yelling at the referee, pleading his case. Peyton surmised, probably accurately, that Goff was telling the ref that the ball was thrown to the right place and that its not his fault the receiver didn’t run the correct route. Peyton then carried on and told stories of when this type of thing would happen to him when he played for Indianapolis and Denver. I was hooked. 

I realized that I was far more invested in week 1 as a stand alone football game, I’m from Baltimore, I have a lot of love for the Ravens. Being invested in the game itself doesn’t lend as much flexibility. As a fan, you to want to hear about anything else but the action on the field. However, when watching two teams that I have no personal interest in, the Manning broadcast took on this new life. It created a level of interest for me as a REAL football fan that I otherwise would not have had. I still would’ve watched the game had the alternate not been available, but with the Manning breakdown of each play, I was watching an otherwise meaningless game on the edge of my seat. I felt like I had a front row view to a football clinic, held by two of the most accomplished players in league history. 

Best of former NFL punter Pat McAfee with Manning bros on 'MNF' | Week 2
Courtesy: ESPN

Personally, I could live without the guests. I am not as entertained by the back and forth with Rob Gronksowski or Pat McAfee as it seems the majority of social media is, but the Manningcast does a brilliant job of bridging the gap between the hardcore football fan and the casual observer. It’s an absolute hit and I’ll be locked in for the next one.   

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BSM Writers

Keeping Premier League Games Shouldn’t Be A Hard Call For NBC

“Beyond its massive global fanbase, the Premier League offers NBC/Peacock a unique modern 21st-century sport for the short attention span of fans.”

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NBC Sports is facing some tough, costly decisions that will define its sports brand for the rest of this decade.  A chance to connect with viewers in a changing climate and grow Peacock’s audience as well.  However, making the right choice is paramount to not losing to apps like Paramount+ (pun intended).

NBC is currently in the business of negotiating to continue airing the Premier League as their current deal ends after this 2021-2022 season.  NASCAR is contracted to NBC (and FOX) through the 2024 season.

NBC’s tentpole sports are the NFL and the Olympics.  

Negotiations for the EPL are expected to go down to the wire. Rather than re-up with NBC, the league is meeting with other networks to drive up the price. NBC has to then make a decision if the rights go north of $2 billion.

Should NBC spend that much on a sport that is not played in the United States? It’s not my money, but that sport continues to grow in the US.

If NBC re-ups with the Premier League, will that leave any coins in the cupboard to re-up with NASCAR? Comcast CEO Brian Roberts hinted that there might be some penny pinching as the prices continue to soar. This may have been one of the reasons that NBC did not fight to keep the National Hockey League, whose rights will be with Disney and WarnerMedia through ESPN and TNT, respectively.

“These are really hard calls,” Roberts said. “You don’t always want to prevail, and sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re wrong, but I think the sustainability of sports is a critical part of what our company does well.”

Roberts was speaking virtually at the recent Goldman Sachs 30th Annual Communacopia Conference. He told the audience that between NBC and European network Sky, that Comcast has allocated approximately $20 billion towards these sports properties.

Comcast CFO Michael Cavanagh spoke virtually at the Bank of America Securities 2021 Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference and echoed that the company is in a good position to make some strong choices in the sports realm. 

“The bar is really high for us to pursue outright acquisitions of any material size,” Cavanagh added. “We got a great hand to play with what we have.”

While the European investments involve a partnership with American rival Viacom, the US market seems to have apparent limits.

Last Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol Motor Speedway was seen by around 2.19 million people. It was the most-watched motorsports event of the weekend. That same week eight different Premier League matches saw over 1 million viewers. More than half of those matches were on subscription-based Peacock. 

Beyond its massive global fanbase, the Premier League offers NBC/Peacock a unique modern 21st-century sport for the short attention span of fans. A game of typical soccer fan is used to a sport that is less than two hours long. The investment in a team is one or two games a week. 

My connection to the Premier League began before the pandemic.  When I cut the cord in late 2017, I purchase Apple TV.  Setting it up, it asks you to name your favorite teams.  After clicking on the Syracuse Orange and the New Jersey Devils, I recalled that my wife has family based in London, England.  They are season ticket holders for Arsenal, and that family redefined the word “die-hard” fans.

I’ve long been a believer that sports allegiances are best when handed down by family. I love hearing stories of people loving the New York Giants because their parents liked them, and they pass it down to their children.

I’ve successfully given my allegiance to the Devils to my young daughters. 

By telling Apple TV that I liked Arsenal, I get alerts from three different apps when the “Gunners” are playing. The $4.99 is totally worth it to see Arsenal.

Whenever I told this story, I was amazed to see how many other American sports fans had a Premier League team. Students of mine at Seton Hall University rooted for Tottenham Hotspurs, while an old colleague cheers on Chelsea.

Global Is Cool': The Growing Appeal of Premier League Soccer in America
Courtesy: Morning Consult

This is not meant to say that NBC should sign the EPL on my account. The key for any US-based soccer fan is that between Bundesliga, Serie A, and other leagues, there will be no shortage of soccer available on both linear television and streaming services.

Besides, Dani Rojas did say that “Football is life.”  NBC, originator of the Ted Lasso character, should make keeping its Premier League US connection a priority.

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