photo credit: the internet
Good morning sports media watchers. I have been away for a while and I’m glad to be back this week to comment on a few recent developments. Also, let me echo TSM’s plea for civility from a few days back. Name-calling just drives good discussion away, and good discussion is what brings us all here. Lastly, as always, if I say something wrong or hopelessly naive here, I always appreciate being corrected, either publicly on Twitter or via email.
Ok, let’s get to work …
TSM covered David Shoalts’ profile on Bob McCown in his last post and I am going to pick up right where he left off. The topic of Bob’s departure from PTS and who takes over the timeslot is one of the oldest and most talked about ones on this site.
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we delve into the details: David Shoalts has been delivering quality reporting and analysis on sports media for a while now, and deserves a ton of credit for basically taking over this niche market all by himself. His paper and his editor also deserve credit for devoting space and resources to sports media reporting at a time when every dollar must be justified. Between Shoalts and the excellent tandem of James Bradshaw and Christine Dobby, the Globe has established a lot of credibility in a very short amount of time in this area. This is not to say that all of Shoalts’ media writing has been good — the flawed piece on Blundell’s rebound that cited irrelevant numbers stands out in particular. But the body of work speaks for itself and has been a real benefit to the audience. It has also benefited the industry, which has been without a mainstream sports media critic since Bill Houston went fishing and the Star decided to cast off the very credible Chris Zelkovich.
With all of that said, let’s get granular about the form and substance of the McCown profile. The first question to occur to me after reading the story was this: why was this story written? The answer to that is obvious. Bob McCown retiring is big news in Toronto sports media, and Shoalts landed himself a huge scoop by being able to nail down the timeframe on when Bob’s contract expires.
But the next question to ask is: how was this story written? More specifically one wonders whose idea it was to get this news out there. After reading the piece it seemed clear to me that Bob was annoyed with how things were going at Sportsnet, called up his buddy Dave and said “I’ve got a bunch of money quotes for you,” and Dave trotted over with his recorder and the rest is history. The reason this seems like the right explanation is that Bob’s quotes are pretty pointed and seem intended to deliver a message to his employers. (We’ll come to what that message is in a minute.) However I have been told by multiple people that this story is entirely Shoalts’ doing and was not asked for by Bob. The interview, I am told, took place about 6 weeks ago and was planned to run when there was a lull in sports news. (More on the timing in a minute.)
Now, I’m not sure I fully believe that Dave just happened to catch Bob on a forthcoming day and that Bob had no part in planning this article. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Bob had something to say and subtly let his pal Dave — frequent contributor to the PTS roundtable in years past — know that they could help each other out. There is nothing untoward about any of this. For the record, I have similar arrangements with a couple of people in the media. We have a handshake deal that when the time comes that they want to dish about X or Y, then they will let me know and you’ll read about it here. The story reads just that way: Bob is given free rein to unload, and since it is a profile and not an opinion column, Dave more or less stays out of the way.
Moving on to the substance of the article I want to highlight and discuss a few things.
1) Bob is Bored
No kidding. The most significant change in PTS during my years as a listener is the drop in Bob’s level of interest in his own show. This manifests itself in increasing time spent on tedium about his personal life, getting sports guests on only to have them talk about random crap (“Hey Don Banks, do you like U2?”), baiting co-hosts into arguments not worth having, etc. I don’t want to be too romantic about the days or yore, but PTS used to be a lot better.
Now, why would would Bob announce this to the world? Usually if you’re mailing it in at work this is something you try keep hidden from your boss. The answer is pretty easy to see: Bob wants a better contract and is negotiating through the media to get what he wants. What does he want? Well, it’s hard to see how they could pay him more than he currently makes on the basis of his strong but not improving ratings. “While Prime Time no longer gets the 8- to 10-per-cent share of the overall radio audience …” (Shoalts)
What they could do is pay him his million+ and allow him to work less. “By 2016, McCown says, he expects to be Prime Time’s host for no more than 30 weeks a year.” (Shoalts) So that’s what this is about. Bob wants a Johnny Carson schedule where it’s still his show but he only shows up when he wants.
As an occasional listener to PTS on podcast I think this is a great idea. Bob cannot do 15 quality hours a week. He might be able to do 6 though. My proposal would to work towards getting Bob on a Monday/Friday schedule where he does interviews on Mondays and hosts the roundtable on Fridays, leaving the rest of the week to someone else. He can still takes calls — some people seem to like that — and he can still interview his stable of paid guests and have the conversations we’ve all heard 500 times. My hope would be that with fewer hours to fill he would work harder. When he’s tuned in, he can be very good at managing the roundtable and keeping people focused on the relevant issues. If he doesn’t have to talk sports all week he might even provide a fresh take here and there. (Full disclosure: I have not listened to a Brunt-less FAN roundtable in years.)
2) Bob is Being Squeezed Out
OK so that covers what Bob wants and why the FAN should give it to him. Here’s the other side of this. When I was a kid Bob would open his show by saying that he hadn’t watched the Leafs game and not to bother calling to ask him about it. It became a bit of a running joke, as callers would want to talk about the team’s 4th line centre and Bob would tell them he doesn’t care. His expertise was with the Jays, some dated basketball and boxing knowledge, and being a Browns fan.
There have been two big changes in the last year, each of which is making Bob less relevant at the station.
First, the $5.2 billion dollar Rogers hockey deal has meant that the FAN has devoted way more airtime to the NHL. This is not Bob’s strength. It may be his biggest area of weakness. “There’s no question the hockey contract has changed things and not for the good for me.” (Shoalts, quoting Bob) Beyond the mandate to talk more on-ice hockey news, there is the pressure to give the station’s hockey experts more and more exposure. If you thought we had too much Shannon and Kypreos before the deal, then I have bad news for you. Having a heavy NHL focus with a host who is not that in to the game is not a good recipe.
Second, Sportsnet decided to take Tim&Sid off radio and put them on TV opposite PTS. “McCown said Rogers executives did not consult him about any of those moves.” (Shoalts) Now, one narrative is that this will have no effect on Bob since the shows appeal to different audiences. This is not really accurate. There may be some people in Bob’s audience who would never listen to T&S and vice versa but let’s be honest: most of us in the 25-54 demo will listen to one or the other depending on what’s on offer. So the idea that people aren’t being put in a position to make a choice is false. And Bob knows that.
So Bob is facing internal competition for the first time ever. He’s no longer the only important brand at the network. But he’s also facing external pressure. As Shoalts notes, Naylor and TSN Drive are trailing in 25-54 males 2.5 to Bob’s 6.8. But if you look more closely at the numbers you’ll see that in the younger demo of 18-45 Naylor trails Bob 2.7 to 5.7. That’s a significantly smaller gap. No one is suggesting that Naylor is going to overtake Bob in either demo — he will retire as the king of his timeslot for a generation; an astounding accomplishment — but the trend is that TSN radio is building an audience and will have some kind of home-team advantage when Bob moves on. Management at Rogers have to be thinking about that as well, and many of their recent moves seem aimed at the post-McCown era at the FAN.
3) Bob’s Big Gamble
Here is where things get interesting. Bob is clearly trying to put pressure on his bosses. He has played the boredom card. He is saying “I can take or leave this job, so give me what I want because you need me more than I need you.” In today’s sports media market landscape this is risky. 10 years ago this would have made perfect sense, but there is a chance that Rogers execs will look at the status quo and ask “why are we spending so much money on someone who doesn’t want to be here?”
That’s the danger in Bob’s strategy. He’s aged out of the demos that his bosses care most about. There is no question that he is a Toronto legend and no one will ever have the same stature in this market. But a lot of that is tied up with being around when sports radio started, and hosting a sports show when the Jays went back to back. If you live in Vancouver and they all of a sudden brought Bob in to hold down 4-7, how do you think that would go? “I came to the conclusion it’s okay not to know stuff. The audience will forgive you. I don’t have to know a lot, just know how to interview.” (Shoalts, quoting Bob) That’s the Bob WE know, and sometimes love. Take him somewhere else and he would come across the way Krystal or Blundell does: someone who doesn’t really know sports trying to tell you what to think. I don’t think it would go very well.
Lastly, I said I would mention the timing. T&S just debuted their new TV show on July 1, which still appears in the same podcast feed as their old radio show. To my ears, the TV show sounds a lot like their old radio show, for better or for worse. As mentioned, I was told Shoalts’ piece is running now because there is a lull in sports news and an opening in the Globe’s pages. I don’t fully believe that either.
If this is meant, in part, as a negotiation ploy then reminding everyone that Bob might leave just as people are evaluating the competition seems smart. I say it seems smart because there is a risk people will start to consciously evaluate the two shows against each other. A bored Bob won’t compare well with a show infused with tons of new energy and bolstered by a Sportsnet sponsored heavyweight guest list. (That said, I’m not sure how much value there is in watching middle-aged men shriek with delight at YouTube videos … but that’s for another day.)
With change at the top at Rogers media, a cloudy financial picture at Rogers Inc, a twice rebuffed Scott Moore still leading Sportsnet, and a temporarily re-hired ex-PD at the FAN it would be an understatement to say that the conditions are ripe for major overhauls. In the midst of all of this Bob has lobbed an opening salvo at his own company. It will be interesting to see how they respond.
I have a lot more to say on this but I have already written more than planned above so I’ll keep this short.
One of the most common criticisms readers and listeners make of the media is that once a guy leaves town then media will claim to have known all along all kinds of bad things about the player in question. This is annoying because it reeks of post hoc justifications, reinforces the idea that media avoid reporting things to curry favour with players, but also supports the theory that media carry grudges against players and are waiting with knives sharpened for a chance to unload without consequences.
If there were one rule readers/listeners/viewers would want the media to follow it would be this: don’t say something after a guy leaves that you wouldn’t say if he were still here. You had your chance to say that when it mattered. It’s a simple rule. It speaks to a basic level of respect between players and media that fans expect, and are reasonable to expect. Yet this rule is beyond reach for many, including Steve Simmons.
“What matters is that Kessel is gone. That who he is, what he represents, what he isn’t, had to be removed from the ice, from the dressing room, from the road, from the restaurants — from everywhere. They couldn’t have him around anymore and be honest about the direction they intend to pursue. Everything they believe in for the future is almost everything Kessel has proven to be lacking in.”
That’s from his widely discussed article, one that drew over 1000 comments at the Sun and also attracted the attention of ESPN’s Keith Olbermann and his “Worst Person” segment. Awful Announcing has the rundown on all the gory details.
While others have gone into great detail about the hot dog fiasco, what I want to focus on is the rest of the substance of Steve’s article. (Full disclosure: I really enjoy listening to Simmons on the radio, but cannot take his writing seriously precisely for the reasons I am about to discuss.) If you go through the article you’ll find a ton of comments about how it was time, enough was enough, the return was paltry, the leadership was an issue, the management had issues with Phil, etc. What you’ll also notice is that there is little to no empirical support for any of the accusations. No quotes from key figures. No data comparing Phil’s output to other players recently traded. No comparison of the return relative to similar recent trades. No analysis of what it might take to replace Phil’s contributions. There is nothing at all other than Simmons saying Phil sucks and he had to go.
This is the classic definition of a hit-piece. It has only one point: paint a negative picture of a guy who has just been traded. And the key piece of evidence in the trial — the daily hot dog — has turned out to be a fabrication. I’m not sure how Steve could look Phil in the eye and try to justify what he wrote as being fair. Thankfully for Steve he will never have to do that.
The unfortunate victim in all of this is fledgling sports media member Jeff Simmons, son of Steve. He had to take to Twitter to defend himself while distancing himself from his Dad.
— Jeff Simmons (@realjeffsimmons) July 8, 2015
The Globe has a piece on Howard Berger and his struggles to make money as a blogger.
Andrew Krystal is starting a podcast seeded by sponsor money. Get ready.
Krystal podcasts: Iaunching in Sept. Sponsorship has made that a justifiable endeavor. Hope to assail assumptions and offend when optioned.
— Andrew Krystal (@AndrewKrystal) July 7, 2015
Awful Announcing has some facts and theories about what led to ESPN deciding to part ways with Keith Olbermann.
J-Source has a nice write-up on newspaper convergence and its effects.
Kudos to TSN for broadcasting one of our top juniors from Wimbledon today. Well done.
— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) July 7, 2015
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)