by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. As the year winds down the sports media news seems to be ramping up. Here’s a collection of things on the radar. As always, if there are things you think we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.
Life After Wilner
Jonah wrote an eloquent post on the end of Mike Wilner’s tenure at Sportsnet. I’ll start this week’s column with a few follow-up thoughts of my own.
First, in my memory there have been only a few Toronto radio hosts who made their name by developing an antagonistic relationship with the audience. When I was a kid I enjoyed Norm Rumack and his “hammerhead alert” siren. I also liked that Norm was a huge Leafs fan. Most of the people whom Rumack would excoriate were supporters of the dreaded Red Wings, or sometimes the Habs. The difference with Wilner’s show was that the people on whom Mike would heap his derision were also Jays fans. So the dynamic was less of us against them, but rather a competition about who was the biggest fan of the home team.
The tributes to Wilner were quite touching. Many of his former colleagues gave very personal praise for Mike’s hard work and collegial spirit. One that resonated was this one:
You either hated or loved Mike Wilner on radio. There's no grey. He made endless content on Jays Talk, even when the team was irrelevant. Hell, he probably hung up on you. He learned at the foot of Tom Cheek and understood the importance of that role. never took it for granted… https://t.co/lVGIZsiB9c
— Ryan Walsh (@LegendOfZombo) November 27, 2020
“You either hated or loved Mike Wilner on radio. There’s no gray.”
The thing that sticks out for me is how different this description is from how we think about other hosts with similar roles. Does anyone hate Andy Frost? Did anyone hate Scott Ferguson? Gord Stellick? I imagine there’s lots of love and lots of grey for these folks among the audience, but not a lot of hate. Why would anyone aim at being either loved or hated as a baseball analyst when just being liked is also an option?
I suppose the answer is that this is better than indifference. But this is, in my opinion, a double-edged sword. Wilner’s caustic style was an inspiration to a generation of aspiring writers, leading to a lot of analytics vs eye-test debates on local blogs. As anyone who has spent a day at the ballpark talking about pitch selection or batting stances can attest, the joy of baseball analysis is sustaining the conversation rather than shutting it down. This sometimes means indulging dumb points for a moment or seeing if you can weave even the simplest of ideas into an interesting narrative. This requires patience and charity rather than talking to people in ways that make them hate you.
My own memory of the Wilner era of JaysTalk is that it was a joyless show (except for Wednesdays with JP). This is the downside of embracing being loved or hated without grey – people who just want a good conversation are going to be turned off by the nightly train wreck.
Congratulations to @benwag247 on being named Sportsnet's new radio voice of the @BlueJays Also happy to welcome @DShulman_ESPN into the radio booth and to his new podcast "A Swing and A Belt." #UnitedBySport
— Scott Moore (@MooreScottmoore) March 27, 2018
With all of that said, I think Mike Wilner was not treated very well by his bosses before and during his brief stint as a full-time Jays broadcaster. I wrote about this a while ago during the awkward audition phase that eventually led to Ben Wagner being hired to replace Jerry Howarth in 2018, with Dan Shulman also coming on board for a number of games on radio and TV. Wilner was allowed to get some reps on the mic that season but the audience was also told that “[w]orking alongside Wagner and Shulman throughout the season will be a rotating roster of analysts. More details will be released in the coming weeks.”
Those details never came and the rotating roster petered out over the course of the season with Wilner getting more and more time. He was eventually named Wagner’s co-host at the end of that season without much fanfare, with the two working together for all of 2019 and the abbreviated 2020 season. To recap, Wilner was passed over for Wagner despite being somewhat of an incumbent. He was not considered to be the main guy for the analyst role, but was eventually given the job after other options failed to materialize.
To fire Wilner after such a short time in the role feels wrong. If the network was that lukewarm on him as a long-term option then it would have been better not to give him the role in 2019, or to give him the role only on an interim basis while communicating to the audience that a search was underway for the next person. It’s worth noting that there have been some leadership changes at Rogers in the last few years and it is possible that Wilner had more support from the previous regime.
As Mike said in his message, this was a dream job and few people ever get to work in the job of their dreams so there is some solace therein. Mike has a good resume and will no doubt be considered for other announcing jobs in baseball. It would be a great story to see him put in some time in the minors and make it back to the big leagues some day.
With Wilner, Zaun, Barry Davis, and Jerry Howarth all gone, 2021 is going to usher in a new decade of Jays broadcasting.
Priority #1 should be recruiting talented ex-Jays to join the radio crew.
Word around the virtual water-cooler is that someone has already been selected to replace Wilner in 2021. Ex-Jays John Axford, Josh Thole, and Ricky Romero have all put in some (limited) time calling games over the last couple of seasons. Romero has the best history with the team, while Thole has the advantage of being a catcher with all the perspective that brings to the analyst role. Axford has the ace in the sleeve of being Canadian.
One option that I hope it being considered for 2021 is simulcasting Dan and Buck from TV to radio. Before shouting down this idea, consider that all of 2020 was called off a monitor from a studio in Toronto. With limited directorial control over the cameras, the announcers had to provide a call that was less focused on the visuals and more on the game story. In other words, it sounded a lot more like a radio broadcast. If most of 2021 is going to be played without fans and with remote announcing, then a full season of Dan and Buck on the radio might be better than John Axford trying to learn the trade under difficult circumstances. There’s also the strong possibility of a labour disruption in 2022 so it would make sense to kick this can down the road.
Last thought: JaysTalk was canceled in 2020 for the most part. Sportsnet needs to bring it back in 2021. We are all expecting big things from the team over the next few years and a dynamic post-game show should be part of the package.
Over to you: What will you miss most about Wilner?
I have updated this post so I can devote a section to the most ground-shaking local sports media interview of the decade. Simon Houpt of The Globe spoke to McCown several times over the last few months. The results are amazing. Go read it, click on some links for wealth management, and consider buying a subscription to the paper.
Here are the highlights:
- At 68 Bob is getting divorced for the fourth time. His home is for sale with Christina McCown as the listing agent. The house used to belong to Doug Gilmour.
- “He’s lost about 30 pounds. “I went – whoa! If I’m going to find somebody else, I’d better look better than this!” he laughs. His lawyer’s girlfriend made him a profile on Match.com. “I’ve got broads coming out of the woodwork.”
- According to Bob, Sportsnet tried to keep him around in a different capacity but the offer “didn’t fit my agenda.”
- “McCown spent his career watching sports actively, as a film critic watches movies, “constantly absorbing things and making mental notes of things that may relate to something I should know, a question I may ask. Enjoyment has almost nothing to do with it.”” – This was the first belly laugh for me. Anyone who listened to the show or interacted with his producers knows that Bob hasn’t actively watched sports in a decade.
- The article several times references without naming a mystery producer of The Bob McCown Podcast (with John Shannon). I have not ever heard Bob give this person credit either. Who is it?
- “You know who I talk to? The 55-year-old millionaire, works on Bay Street. In my mind, that’s my target audience […] I saw the demographics of my audience [at The Fan], I owned Bay Street! There was nobody – now, this is all ego talking, but it’s true! – there was no radio show in Toronto, in Canada, that reached more wealthy, influential, white-collar people. Not one. Not a music station – nobody else. I owned them.”
- “I generated between $7-million and $11-million of revenue. I generated between $4-million and $8-million in profit. Profit! Now, I love Kypreos – but what did he generate? John [Shannon]? Bit player. [Doug] MacLean? Bit player.”
- “McCown says, he was the only person Rogers could point to directly and say, his contribution led directly to profits. “This little island in the middle of this gigantic continent makes money. You can see it! It’s easy to compute! And yeah, it cost them a lot, more than it cost anybody else. But it made a profit. Why would you [mess] that up? That makes no sense!””
- “My [Sportsnet] audience, a significant percentage of it, probably the majority of it, are not traditional podcast listeners. You have to spoon feed them how to do it on. That was part of the equation that we sort of missed.”
- Bob was involved in a stadium proposal that included a monorail.
Go read the whole thing. You can decide for yourself how much of this interview is Bob building on his existing self-created mythology and how much is the unvarnished timber beneath it. A few items deserve deeper analysis, which I’ll start here and we can pick up in 2021.
The pandemic has decimated sports radio in two closely related ways: 1) advertisers are looking to cut costs, and 2) commuters are staying home. To describe this as a vicious cycle would be an understatement. A study from of office towers in Manhattan showed that about 10% of workers were in the office in October. That’s a huge number of people who are not stuck in traffic, or riding transit with their earbuds on. That’s the lifeblood of radio consumption.This too, of course, shall pass. But post-pandemic sports media is going to be a different world.
So, owning Bay Street is starting to look like a very 1990s business model for getting rich as a radio host. And McCown has run into the double-bind of trying to modernize that business model for 2020. His established audience doesn’t know or care to find him on youtube, and the next generation of millionaires isn’t especially interested in what he has to say. Rather than comparing himself to Joe Rogan he should be looking down the dial at Dean Blundell (dot com) for lessons on both what and what not to do.
At 68 Bob has every right to try to stay part of the conversation for as long as he feels up to it. The podcast is a nice way to tread water but there is no Canadian equivalent of Barstool or The Ringer yet. Without that Bob is going to have a hard time extending his reach and getting the six figure advertising revenue that comes with having a popular podcast. The larger issue is that, as I have written many times, there is virtually no appetite for national sports talk in this country. Outside of a segment of the Toronto sports radio market, who else is missing hearing from Bob McCown?
Bob has delivered so much entertainment to Toronto sports fans, and so much content to this site. No one has made more money in Canadian sports media, outside of possibly McKenzie and Don Cherry. Whatever Bob comes up with next – branded sunglasses, lifecoaching webinars, a gambling website, another book – we will be watching with great anticipation.
Ashley Docking resurfaced since being fired from FAN590 and wrote a freelance article for The Star on sneaker culture and The Kickback, “a mentorship program using sneakers as a conduit to break down social and systemic barriers in underserved communities in Toronto.”
Sonny Sachdeva wrote a very thoughtful long read for Sportsnet on the history and cultural impact of Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition.
Richard Deitsch had a great interview with Andre Iguodala. They spent a lot of time on how athletes view their relationship with the media. This is a really skillful interview by Deitsch to get so much content out of his subject on a difficult topic. “You’re trying to form some relationships with people who you can be candid with, people who you can trust. But it is what it is in terms of that, and you can never fully trust.”
Low Hanging Fruit
- I love Bob McCown. But sometimes he is a parody of himself: “I absolutely never felt threatened by what TSN was doing. The truth of the matter was I never listened to them.” That’s from this great scoop article by Sean Fitz-Gerald who deserves a ton of credit for getting McCown to talk on the record.
- Speaking of The Athletic, they went from a $1/month deal in November to a 2-for-1 deal in December. I’m a huge fan of the product but at some point they need to think as much about retaining subscribers as they do about attracting new ones. We’re treading into “all three bananas free” territory.
- I’m trying to find more time for local radio these days. My favourite interview of the last week or so (Dec. 1st, Lead Off) was listening to Scott MacArthur talk to his dad about Skydome. The latter was an early employee of the Dome and eventually became president.
- BarDown is popular according to some. Regardless, trying to create viral videos where you get people to debate you in the midst of a pandemic is a little tone-deaf. We are all trying to keep our droplet output to a minimum these days.
— BarDown (@BarDown) December 5, 2020
- Don Cherry gave his pal Joe Warmington the early Xmas gift of clicks with this glorious quote about himself and the fired Vancouver Canucks anthem singer: “When you give your opinion, you better be prepared to pay the price. Going to a ‘no-mask rally’ was not the politically correct thing to do. You have to do what the left media want now. I should know.”
- Finally, the media is churning out a trough-full of content on the all-Canadian division for the 2021 NHL season. Here’s a question: given the pandemic nightmare unfolding in the US, I wonder if any American teams were given the option to move to Canada for the season? Hamilton and Quebec City, both have spaces available. If the Raptors can do it, so can the Panthers and Coyotes.
thanks for reading and commenting, stay safe
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)