by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. This is my last column. For a month or so. Pursuing some interesting things for the future. I’ll still be available on Twitter and you can always get me on email. If anything major happens in sports media I’ll drop back in.
Thanks as always to those working at print, digital, radio, and TV outlets who read and take the time to write. It’s a pleasure to work with so many professionals who care about the craft.
Suggested soundtrack: I’m Afraid of Americans — David Bowie
5 Questions with … Richard Deitsch (Sports Illustrated)
Rock star Richard Deitsch (187,000 followers) returned to Canada this week following his very successful 2016 tour stop on the FAN590’s Prime Time Sports. He added more shows this time around with performances at venues such as Jeff Blair, PTS, and Andrew Walker. He was also gracious enough to spend some of his brief off-the-clock time answering some questions from me about sports media. Here is our conversation.
Q: The US & Canada have seen similar reductions to print journalism. Sports media criticism was among the first things to be dropped by Canadian papers. Why has the US and your publication in particular maintained its commitment to sports media criticism?
RD: There has been a shift in my country as well. A lot of papers used to run sports media columns 3 times a week … The Chicago Tribune, the LA Times … and those did go away. The difference is that a lot of what replaced that content was the web. Deadspin, Awful Announcing, The Big Lead … they filled in the gaps that mainstream media left. There are still mainstream places though. SI, the Boston Globe, the New York papers … they all still do it. So there are some parallels. But the big difference is that there were some big online entities that took that content over, whereas in Canada it seems — other than your blog — no one did.
Q: That has been one of the most disappointing things, for me, about Canadian sports media: they don’t seem to think media criticism matters. How do your bosses at SI see the value of the kind of reporting and commentary you do?
RD: The reasons are multifold. First, there are great metrics for it. There’s really big interest and this is a beat that has been undervalued by outlets. Look at this way: you grow up with Joe Buck and Al Michaels and Jim Nantz in your living room every weekend. They are there more than the 3rd starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners (unless you live in Seattle). My point is that you know these people way better than you know 85% of the athletes. So why wouldn’t you write about these people who are such a big part of your sports world. Second, we are independent. We don’t have direct rights relationships with the leagues, so I have a lot of editorial freedom. Third, I am able to get to people and they are willing to talk. Access is easier than to traditional athletes. Fourth, since I write for the web I am able to do long form stuff that wouldn’t fit in a paper. I can do roundtables and podcasts. Lastly, it’s an interesting business because it combines money and ego and fame and jealousy and creativity. And SI has been great in giving me full autonomy.
Q: There are a range of jobs that fall under the blanket term “sports media”: sideline reporter, columnist, broadcaster, TV show host, radio show host, etc. When you evaluate people’s work, do you have a sliding scale based on how “serious” a journalist they are? Or is there just good journalism and bad journalism and everyone should be judged by an objective standard?
RD: All of this is subjective at the end of the day. There are people who like what I do and people who really don’t. That’s just part of an arts profession. I try to be accurate as best I can; to try to find the best possible truth I can when it comes to the reporting of facts. When it comes to opinion I try to be honest with the reader and I try to be strong. Some people can and do ask: can you do both? And that’s a good philosophical question. When it comes to criticism, I think that if you’re an on-air talent there is an understanding that this comes with the job. I try very hard to have a different standard for people who are behind the scenes and not in the public eye. I would still put producers and directors as part of “talent”. But if you’re an audio engineer who never talks to the press I think you have to handle that differently. But the one thing that is odd about what I do is to comment on people who are essentially my colleagues. That said, people in sports media comment on athletes, who have nothing to do with athletics themselves. So I think it is all fair game for someone like me — or you — to comment on what people in sports media are saying. There will always be people who ask “why are you writing about me?”. But there’s an inherent hypocrisy in talking and writing about athletes and not wanting people to comment on your own sports media work.
Q: I want to press a little on the point that it is all subjective. When you point out the (obvious) flaws in the work of someone like Skip Bayless I don’t think you’re saying “hey, this is just my opinion.” I think you are saying this person is doing objectively bad or disingenuous work that falls short of what the audience expects.
RD: I think that’s a great point. There is no such thing as pure objectivity because we are all humans and we all have opinions. So the best you can do is be as factual as possible about the facts, and then be honest with the reader about your criticisms within that framework. So when I talk about Bayless I tell the audience that I don’t respect the guy’s work. I loathe what he does professionally. Now you as a reader can judge all my criticisms for yourself. Rare is the person who is universally loved or hated. So it’s always going to be shades of grey. I think the thing that people dislike is a fake-out; not being authentic about what you really think. Sports media writing is really interesting precisely because it plays between the lines of opinion and reporting, and sometimes you have to do both within the same piece. But it’s also important to acknowledge that there is no common standard between, say, sports talk radio and writing for the sports section of the Globe and Mail. All of the complexities are really tough to navigate as a sports media critic.
Q: How do you deal with angry feedback to your work from the people and networks you write about?
RD: Most of the feedback I get is from representatives of the subjects I write about rather than the subjects themselves. I will hear from PR or the network president but not as much from talent … less than what you might think. When I write something that is critical of talent I will write to them and talk to them and give them an opportunity to comment. And understand that even if we have that conversation we are likely not going to get to a resolution. But there’s at least some explanation for where I was coming from. The interesting thing about sports media writing as a whole is that the majority of it is positive. The minority is what sticks in people’s craw. But I rarely get a call when I write something nice about a network. So what I often tell them when they call in response to something negative is “hey, I respect where you’re coming from but I never heard from you when I wrote all those columns praising your talent.” So I think it’s important to give the subjects an opportunity to give their opinion on what you write, but I don’t think you should cede on your opinion ever in response to pressure. Especially if people challenge you on your credentials to comment on their work. When people try to discredit or devalue you, that’s when you need to hold your ground the most.
Q: We know print journalism is in decline and have seen the job losses. We know there is an increase in cord cutting which will lead to a shrinking of tv jobs. We are also in the “golden age of podcasting”. Do you see the growth of podcasts as a threat to the business model of commercial radio?
RD: I don’t. I see it as a complement and as an added-value play for traditional radio. Here’s why: as long as we have a car culture in our countries then radio will always have a place. People prefer live when they are in their cars over tape. Sports fans want to hear about the game coming up. So I don’t see the two as in competition. I do think podcasts will continue to grow as a forum for interesting content. You can make a podcast as long or as short as you want. You can vary the style to fit your content. You’re seeing the big places do this already: they will put every single show on podcast online; they will create dedicated podcast divisions; they will seamlessly merge all their content into a big library people can access. There will also be new voices in the market because of podcasts. My guess is that you’ll start to see podcasts that draw ten times the audience of traditional shows. Take Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take. They are destroying the Cowherds and LeBatards in terms of podcast numbers. So you can create a gigantic audience going podcast-only. But if broadcasters are smart they will see it as an addendum to what they are already doing. It’s also going to be a great place for younger guys to get their reps in. I love podcasts. You guys should do one.
Q: The model in cable sports seems to be: get the rights, get the ratings. My question is about the value of non-live sports programming. Things like desk shows, panel shows, highlight shows, features, documentaries, etc. How much do you think this programming matters to the success of a network?
RD: In my country you have to have a bridge to live programming. The value to having sports shows like the ones you mentioned is that they are cheap to produce. You already have the studio space and the airtime. You just have to pay for talent. It gives a network an identity — not always a good one. There’s no doubt that during certain timeslots you can bring in people to watch debate style shows. My one counter is that if you go all debate and minimize news and features you become an elongated echo system for noise. I don’t think that is good for the longterm. In the US 10-12am has become the slot for debate shows and it gets ratings. But the real reason they do it is for the reasons I mentioned: it’s cheap and it fills time. It’s also marketing. The reason why so many radio shows get simulcast on TV is that it’s a great ad campaign for the network. Mike&Mike draw a little over 200,000 for their TV/radio show. Not gigantic numbers but also not costing you anything. That’s a no-brainer.
Q: What about 30 for 30 and investigative sports journalism? How do you see the value there? That’s much more expensive programming to produce.
RD: That is not a money maker but it does establish you as a smart thoughtful news entity. Things like 30 for 30 bring in a different high-end and high-dollar segment. But it’s also very expensive and in some cases is burning money because it doesn’t yield results that can fill a lot of airtime. Debate shows can do that every single time. I give ESPN a lot of credit for their documentary work. And every now and then you hit it just right and it becomes a huge success, like the OJ one. That made a lot of money, brought a lot of viewers in, and establishes the network as a place of intellectual heft. ESPN can do this, in part, because they are getting a ton of revenue from subscriber fees.
Q: That leads in to my next question: when the sports cable bubble bursts, do you see ESPN suffering more than FOX because they make so much more money from subscriber fees. (FOX gets about $1 vs $7 for ESPN)
RD: I would still bet on them being the industry leader for a long time. They have banked so much money for so long. They have multiple distribution networks. Their brand is huge. The interesting question for them will be at what point do we break from the traditional model of partnering with cable networks and instead sell directly to consumers. That will come but no one knows what the number is where that makes economic sense. Is it 80 million cable subscribers? Is it 40? Who knows. But right now if you are a college football fan then you have to get ESPN. There’s no other way to get the content you want. The challenge is the generation of young people who form other habits: going to a bar to watch, going to a buddy’s house, borrowing your parents’ password to stream … that person isn’t going to pay $150 per month. But FOX is going to be fine. Murdoch has loads of money and wants to be in this game and can afford to do it at a loss for a long long time.
My sincere thanks to Richard for his articulate and insightful answers. I’m also grateful for the attention he pays to Canadian sports media. It is very much needed.
Looking Ahead to 2017
2016 was a terrible year in sports media as layoffs, firings, cuts, and buyouts dominated the headlines at the papers and the big media companies. The dust has mostly settled but some people are still out of work or underemployed. 2017 is off and running and it is unclear whether things will get better, stay the same, or continue to get darker with the day.
Here are some story lines to watch in the year to come:
- Does the National Post survive the year? It’s clear that the plan is to make it as cheap to run as possible. What happens next is not clear. One suspicion is that Darth Godfrey’s goal is to liquidate Postmedia assets (which have shrunk under Godfrey). Scott Stinson is one person writing sports who still has a contract with National Post. If it goes under I’d like to see him land with the Toronto Sun.
- Since Postmedia owns the Sun chain, it is also unclear what the future holds for the Toronto Sun. Sports became much less expensive overall with the 2015-2016 departures of Bob Elliott, Bill Lankhof, Cam Cole, Mike Rutsey and Ken Fidlin. In an ideal world those big savings would be reinvested in the product by improving the website, developing a 21st century app, and hiring some young talent.
- The financial picture at the Star is bleak. The Globe just dedicated roughly 4500 words to chronicling in painstaking detail just how bad things look. We have already seen some job reductions in sports, as well as some talented people moved elsewhere at the paper (see e.g. Brendan Kennedy). The paper is currently without a sports editor. The wonderful StarTouch tablet app has not been a mainstream success. I worry that things will get worse before they get better.
- GlobeSports. The operation is as lean going into 2017 as it has ever been. Lots of their writers have taken on new duties and shifted roles in the past few months. Let’s watch if they try something — anything — new in 2017.
- The Globe is the only paper currently selling premium digital-only content. Most of it is quite good journalism, and all of it is a free throw-in for people already buying the physical paper every day. Unfortunately that’s the same group that is least likely to read the paper and then go to their app to read the “unlimited” digital content. If you want “unlimited” without buying the paper then it’s $6/week. Given that none of that premium content is sports related, the Globe’s premium product is irrelevant to sports readers. It’s conceivable they could try shifting to an enhanced digital-only sports section in 2017.
- Sportsnet Magazine is dead and roughly 16 editors and 10 writers are now part of the Sportsnet.ca family. That’s a pretty crowded environment. Rogers chose not to keep the magazine as a digital only subscription publication, which it did with some of its others magazines. Does this mean they see no future in the digital subscription model for longform sports journalism? I have an in-depth piece on Sportsnet magazine banked for some time in the future, so let’s put a pin in this for now.
Here’s a graph showing a 10 year trend in radio listening, music vs talk.
What do you see? I see that streaming services (Apple, Pandora, Soundcloud, etc) and large portable music libraries have taken a big chunk out of commercial music radio. The other thing I see is that there is no growth in talk radio.
The Fan’s % share of M25-54 for their entire day has bounced from 6.7 in Spring ’14 (no playoff stories) down to 5.3 in spring ’15 (also no big playoff stories) and then up to 7 for spring ’16 (huge Jays, Leafs, and Raps stories). So there was a bit of a bump vs 2014 but not much. During the same time frame TSN1050’s % share was: 2.9, 1.3, 1.3. What this means is that TSN didn’t benefit from the FAN’s dip in 2015, but it also didn’t benefit from the big spike in general sports interest in 2016.
This suggest that the total share of male sports fans is what it is in the city and isn’t affected very much by winning or losing. The other thing to note is that most of that demo is listening to something other than sports. What will it take to draw in more? Well, TFC, Raps, and Jays are all winning without an appreciable effect on total share. Perhaps everything will change if the Leafs win? The proof will be in the pudding.
Lastly, what will it take for women to matter to sports radio advertisers? There is some evidence that the female audience grew from 2014 to 2016 for the FAN, but the sample sizes are so small that it’s hard to tell. Female listenership stayed flat for TSN during that time. 2016 was the first full year of Andi Petrillo on Leafs Lunch so perhaps we will see an uptick in 2017. The first network that figures out how to draw women to sports TV and radio stands to make a lot of money.
The biggest question in radio in 2017 is whether TSN1050 will show signs of life. Here are some things to consider in that vein.
- First, TSN radio in Montreal is experimenting with using HD radio to rebroadcast its AM content. Rogers already does this with 680 and 590 in Toronto. HD radio receivers are not ubiquitous but they are growing, mostly in cars. If this technology becomes an invisible standard then this might help TSN1050’s signal issues. Speaking personally, I have reception issues with both stations downtown in my car.
- Second, one intriguing question over the last two years is why TSN1050 has not seen any halo-effect from having the Leafs radio rights. It would be natural to think that some people will get in the car the next day and enjoy Naylor & Landsberg and come to favour TSN over 590 at least some of the time. There is no evidence this is happening. If the Leafs have an exciting spring playoff push then this will bring more ears to sports radio, and some of those may stick with TSN1050.
- Third, Jeff O’Neill’s profile at TSN tv is growing. He’s clearly a star at the network. Will his fans seek him out on radio on their drive home?
More generally, something to watch in 2017 is whether we see more stability in radio programming. In 2016 we saw changes to one morning show, three mid-afternoon shows, one lunchtime show, and one drive home show. Here’s another comparison. Between 2011 and 2015 the Fan had 4 (or 5) different morning shows: Krystal, Brady+Lang, Brady+Walker, Dean Blundell & Co (Kollins version), Dean Blundell & Co (Cadeau remix). For comparison, WGR550 in Buffalo has had the same morning show for 12+ years.
The fact that Mike Richards was let go 6 months ago and TSN1050 has not named a mid-afternoon successor is curious. I don’t think I have ever seen a timeslot remain with a generic title this long before. Perhaps that’s the plan? Rotate existing staff through the slot but don’t actually give someone a new contract to host the show. Could be a cost-saving measure. Who knows.
Here’s a poll question for you: of the following 4 names — Brady, Landsberg, Richards, Blundell — which one do you think is LEAST likely to have his current work situation in radio change in 2017? (That means you’re voting for the person you think is MOST likely to stay right where he is, either on or off sports radio. )
We are almost 2 years in to the great Blundell sports radio experiment. Will he go back to music or is the FAN happy to keep him for another year? Brady’s severance and non-compete clause run out in the spring. Does he land at TSN1050 in time for Fall 2017? Would the FAN bring him back to do mornings if Blundell moves on? Does Corus take a crack at giving Brady a variety show? Landsberg ended up on radio because his TV show was canceled after an impressive run. Does TSN eventually move on completely, or do they think they are getting good value out of that contract? Does Landsberg eventually want to devote more of his time to his mental health advocacy? He could still appear on TSN, just not as an everyday radio host. Finally, Mike Richards has been making noise about a return. Is it a podcast? Is it music? Is it satellite radio? Or does the FAN look to pair him up with Walker or Blundell?
If you’re a Bell customer your internet and TV rates are going up. Look for more of this strategy as cord cutting increases: juice those who won’t cut the cord, and increase the cost of streaming to those who do. No matter what happens, you win.
J-Source has a story on the success and failure of subscription based journalism in Canada.
Netflix is now in half of US households. Per their recent comments they have no interest in leveraging that reach to get into sports: “In terms of getting to a full one-to-one tie ratio with today’s cable, that includes a lot of sports, which we don’t have plans for.” This will be something to watch. If you’re a cord-cutter, Netflix is an essential service. The biggest drawback to cutting the cord is the loss of live sports. Imagine if Netflix had a tiered system with live sports as an optional add-on.
Apple Music is getting into sports radio streaming. I have no idea if this would be a draw for anyone who is not already paying Apple $10 a month to stream music. Intuitively, it seems to me that music streamers and sports talk streamers are different audiences.
Cyd Zeigler (who was once a regular guest on the FAN … what happened?) has some thoughts about NHLer Brad Marchand’s claims that he and others would have no issues with a gay teammate. Zeigler argues that this same acceptance would be mirrored by fans of the league.
Low Hanging Fruit
- Deitsch and Bruce Arthur had a fun discussion about the differences between Canadian and American approaches to sports talk. Personally, I think the differences are overstated. There’s a lot of hot take talk here, but we have far fewer people working in sports media relative to the US. So that noise just doesn’t get amplified as much. If you’re reading this space then you really should be subscribed to Deitsch’s podcast.
- John Lott is very slowly and subtly letting his opinions show up in his writing. It’s fantastic. Here’s his story on the recent Atkins/Bautista press conference and the return of Ed Rogers to the forefront of Jays news.
- Damien Cox makes the case for forgetting about NHL players at the 2018 Olympic games. It’s a good piece and I’m buying his argument. The fight between the IOC/IIHF and the NHL/NHLPA is about who is going to get rich off the Olympic games. Maybe we should take a break from having pros at the Olympics and see if we miss them?
- TSN1050’s “Breakfast Club” has some nice momentum and is a great alternative to Dean being taught about sports on air by his producer. My only criticism is that they need to exercise some quality control over who they invite. Like their Reporters TV show, it seems as though just about anyone can count as a journalist according to TSN’s standards.
- Back during the MLS playoffs TSN did a joint radio show between their Toronto & Montreal stations. This would be worth trying more often. They have 7 all-sports stations across the country and are set up to have more inter-market conversations about sports.
- In an act of petulance or courage Cathal Kelly quit Twitter in 2016. No one noticed for a while. Who else would you like to see quit Twitter in 2017?
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)