Seen & Heard – Weekend Edition

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail


Good morning sports media fans. Like everyone else I am trying to adjust to our new reality. Thank you for including TSM in your regular internet travels. Jonah and I use this space in different ways but we both really appreciate having a community of our own, one which is dedicated to providing a platform for the audience and the media to hear each other. I am especially grateful to everyone in the industry who supports us despite the nonsense that sometimes gets published here.


(Editorial note: what follows is a mix of fact and opinion. I have tried to clearly signal when I am moving from one to the other.)


Life After Sports


It has been almost a month since live sports shut down and the media impact has been devastating. Within a week most studio shows on TV were shut down, with American content and repeats of old games being used as filler. The initial results are that replays of classic games are losing their nosalgic value as this stretches on.



TSN is trying out moving content from their website to their TV network:



They are also moving some of their traditional TV content online:



On the radio side, the effects were less disruptive with most shows continuing using remote technology allowing hosts to work from home. In print, some writers have pivoted away from sports due to the lack of content, while others are trying to find creative ways to fill column space related to sports. Podcasting is seeing a decrease as audiences crave news of the day, and are flocking to their TVs to get it.



There is no blueprint for this, so it’s understandable that the transition has been somewhat rocky. Here is a round-up of some the financial consequences related to the loss of live sports.





About 5 days after Dreger’s announcement that “we will be fine” TSN laid off a large segment of its newsroom due to the lack of sports content needing to be cut and logged. These were mostly freelancers, who as a group make up roughly half of TSN’s day to day labour. (Note: TSN has not confirmed these numbers.) This group is separate from the team of freelancers who work on the technical side of game-day production. Those people are also not being paid since there are no games to broadcast.



The Athletic also stopped giving work to its freelance force shortly after Mirtle’s “ditto”. They also came up with a 90 day free trial offer for new subscribers, which is tremendous value for anyone looking to do more sports reading during the lockdown. Current subscribers will not see any rate reductions as compensation for the reduction in content, however. In a note to subscribers Chief Content Officer Paul Fichtenbaum wrote: “Our writers will get as creative as possible to find interesting angles and ideas. Internally, we’ve started a #lets-get-weird Slack channel for our 500-plus employees to contribute inventive ideas to keep you engaged, amused, informed and, of course, part of the daily conversation on our site.”


While TSN and Sportsnet are backed by gigantic telecom companies, The Athletic is backed by venture capital and were hoping to break even this year off their 1 million current subscribers. The site does not draw any revenue from advertising. The Sun and The Star face a similar but different spectre, as they rely on both advertising and subscriber fees to run their operations. Neither paper has announced any cuts to their sports sections. The Hockey News also laid off some staff temporarily, leading to a small scale spat:




This Week in Bad Twitter


Things are tense in sports media and this spilled over to twitter when Steve Simmons wrote the following:



Which led to:



And …



And …



Of note, both Simmons and Arthur draw regular paycheques from TSN despite being competitors at their other full-time jobs. For context, The Star stopped sending their beat writers on the road over the last two years while The Sun committed to being at every event, home and away, including major events like the Superbowl and big ticket boxing fights. The Star, on the other hand, has doubled down on commentary, giving Damien Cox and Rosie DiManno plenty of open-topic column space alongside regular columnists like Arthur, Chisholm, Smith, and Feschuk.


On one interpretation, this provides plenty of diversity in the marketplace for readers. The Star offers more variety of opinion, while The Sun covers more events with Simmons being the lead “opinionist” in the sports section. The Globe also still exists.


As I have written many times, trying to win mindshare by being the largest sports section doesn’t make sense in the 21st century. A lot of newspaper content is stale by the time it is published. Also, the horse and buggy artifact of deadlines often leads to half-baked stories which need to be rewritten later. The traditional newspaper buyer might be a size-queen but that demographic is shrinking. Online readers aren’t going to complain that there is too little content, since more content is always a click away.


In my opinion each of the three papers and The Athletic should be using this downtime to figure out what their identity will be when sports resume. There is currently too much interchangeable sports content driven by a herd mentality in media. The flood of content might seem necessary to compete with blogs, fansites, and twitter, but this is a mistake in my view. Paid content needs to be something for which it is worth paying.


Dave Shoalts also got in on the action from the comfort of his retirement couch:



Some were not amused:



My question for you is how has the shutdown has affected your sports media consumption, especially in light of Shoalts’ complaints of “make-work” projects?


Arguably, these projects are filling the space that would usually be spent on game reports and analysis. As someone who wouldn’t read a game recap on last night’s Leafs game, I’m no worse off. I’m not going to read many of the make-work stories either. I am definitely reading less, but I am also enjoying more of what I am reading. For example, this piece by Eric Duhatschek on how the NHL will likely move to contactless media scrums was a great read. So was this Deitsch piece on what it’s like to cover Tom Brady.


How about you? How much time are you devoting to sports media now that the games are gone?


Skating to Where the Puck is Going


While TV can replay classic games, and writers can come up with sports stories that go beyond the boxscore, radio is heavily reliant on current news to generate content for the 13 hours of the day that matter to advertisers.



The biggest question around the TSM water-cooler is what sports radio stations will and should do if the shutdown lasts all summer.


American giant Entercom announced a round of layoffs, which included a furlough for Sabres radio beat reporter Paul Hamilton. Radio is in an interesting position. Its bread and butter customer is the person stuck in his car on the QEW. This person’s ears are packaged and sold to local advertisers, such as clothing stores and car dealerships. Right now radio is in a double-bind: no one is stuck in the car and local stores are closed and not earning any money. While local news talk is seeing a big spike as people look for updates on what is going on in their communities, this does not carry over to sports.


According to some estimates, local advertising makes up about 70% of the revenue that comes in on that budget line. Most local advertisers don’t pay attention to ratings, so the fact that fewer people are listening is not the main issue. Rather the issue is whether they have the cash to spend on advertising, when things like rent and wages are more pressing. Surviving the coming recession means cutting costs, and that means pulling back on the very expenditure that is the lifeblood of local radio.


While we have not yet seen cuts to on-air staffing at either TSN1050 or FAN590, both networks have shown they are sensitive to this expense even when times are relatively stable. TSN1050 has historically relied on ESPN programming rather than running a mid-morning or evening shows. FAN590 recently cut one of their morning show hosts without replacing her. They also recently axed their heritage drive time radio show in favour of a simulcast from TV, saving a large chunk of cash on payroll. Interestingly, putting Tim & Sid back on radio was one of their first moves after the TV studio shutdown went into effect.


Here is a thought experiment we have been bouncing around this week: is now a good time for a radio network try out a national line-up?


TSN has 7 stations from Montreal to Vancouver, and Sportsnet has 3 from Toronto to Vancouver. Would TSN consider putting some local staff on furlough and syndicating one show per time slot across all 7 stations. You could imagine a rotating line-up that sometimes featured the Toronto morning show and sometimes the one from Montreal. Then mid-morning EST could be the morning show from Alberta or BC. Streaming listeners are able to do this pretty easily via TSN’s app. Why not try out a national format at a time when local sports stories have all but disappeared?


I hesitate to raise this possibility since the people who run TSN and especially Sportsnet have shown a willingness to cut to the bone and then keep going. That said, I think there is actually some upside to trying this out. Radio is hard. Filling 3 or 4 hours a day (minus 15-20 minutes per hour due to commercials and updates) under the current conditions requires a lot of creativity and personality. Everyone in radio believes they are interesting, but few are able to drive a show just based on their own opinions and insights.


I grew up listening to Jim Rome and the striking thing about his show was how little he talked about sports. The show itself was the main topic of the show. Inside jokes and celebrity callers drove many segments. Another example was the heyday of PTS, especially during the lockouts, covering the Coyotes debacle, and the many business of sports stories they chose to cover. The quality of guests and co-hosts allowed the show to run without needing to mention a score from last night or an upcoming tip-off.


There are different ways to stand out from the generic sports-talk radio show, and this seems like a good time to find out who has the talent to do just that. I am not saying I would tune in to hear discussion about the Calgary Stampeders. But I might tune in to hear a Calgary personality talk about how the public is thinking about the public subsidy they just gave their hockey team. There might be enough of those kinds of stories coast to coast to fill 13 hours a day, 5 days a week for the next few months.




The Blue Jays have a special place in the hearts of Canadians, and that extends to some of the people who bring the games to the nation. Jamie Campbell has done something incredible by using the down time to connect to isolated individuals. This is truly amazing, and speaks to his great relationship with fans.



If you have other heroes you want to see mentioned here, post a link in the comments or message me.


Be good to yourselves, and try to be patient with each other.



thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

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