IMAGE SOURCE: from a simpler time
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Good morning sports media fans. This week’s column is a little more big picture than normal. As always, if there are things you think we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.
Sports Media Mayhem
After the NHL concluded its interrupted 2019-2020 season on September 28th I wrote to my colleague Jonah and said the next few months were going to be pretty boring for us here at TSM. He told me he thought it would be just the opposite. That’s why he earns the big bucks around here. The last few months have delivered seismic change to the local and national sports media landscape and I want to spend some time this morning piecing together what has happened, what is happening, and where we are headed. Buckle up.
The Globe is currently paying Cathal Kelly to review Jordan Peterson’s new book. He’s also their lead (only?) sports columnist. Mike Wilner wrote a column about a Jays game he could not watch, relying instead on MLB’s Gameday cartoon visualizations of pitches. And then he described a player’s performance as “eye-opening.” The Star published it.
Sportsnet has decided to cancel the Jays radio booth, becoming the only team in MLB to abandon the most storied form of live sports broadcast, while hoping the audience won’t notice. They also fired their radio station’s program director around the same time. After disappointing ratings for Tim&Sid on both TV and radio, the show has finally ended. Rather than start fresh with something that has a better chance of succeeding, Sportsnet is going to simulcast “Tim & Friends” on radio and TV starting next week.
Bell dumped its heritage sports radio station in Vancouver despite the fact that it was beating the competition handily. They also fired one half of the duo that made up their most popular studio program, leaving the other to explain to viewers that the show would continue as a solo project.
Most of these decisions don’t make sense. But that’s the world in which we are living. Sports media is trying to figure out what audiences want, and how they can deliver that on decreasing budgets. We have known that the business model for legacy media is on its way out. Print made most of the headlines as the obvious horse and buggy industry in an increasingly digital world. The Athletic has shown that people will pay for digital-only sports subscriptions, but have yet to break even or turn a profit after five years. It is currently available for $1 a month for the first six months. Existing subscribers can renew for 30-40% off the full price.
Fifteen years ago people wrote that MP3 players would be the death of music radio, yet these stations still draw well across all demographics. But in 2021 it became clear that the bell had tolled for sports radio. We knew that podcasting was making a dent into numbers but had no sense that the format itself could be deemed no longer viable. Some of this is pandemic-related, as fewer people are in stuck cars. But Bell’s decision to exit sports radio in three markets is a clear signal that it no longer believes there is money to be made by selling local and national ads in exchange for AM sports talk.
At the same time, Rogers is investing in sports gambling and fantasy, which is a space theScore has dominated for almost a decade. TSN is giving more space to its viral project Bardown in an effort to capture people who like that sort of thing. Sports leagues are making deals with social media companies to allow clips from their games to be shown directly to millions of users. And then companies like Apple and Amazon are positioning themselves as competitors to traditional networks.
Where this is all headed is anyone’s guess. What we know is that business as usual is over. The uniting theme here is that money is moving away from the old ways. The shift came for newspapers a while ago. The same shift has been coming for a while for studio shows on TSN and Sportsnet. The end appears to now be at the door for sports radio.
Bob McCown Returns to Radio
The Bobcat is coming back to radio. He announced this on the Humble & Fred podcast. The details are unclear but reading between the lines it sounds like his podcast with John Shannon will be re-broadcast by at least one station.
Bob McCown on his impending return: “[The radio station] can make the announcement whenever they want.”
— mike in boston (@mikeinboston) March 5, 2021
Bell seems like a possible fit, as Bob’s non-compete clause has now expired. This would allow TSN1050 to lure PTS loyalists over to the station to sample some of their other offerings.
Bob was invited to comment on Rogers’ decision to end Blue Jays radio and used this to opine more broadly on the state of the industry as a whole:
“This just speaks to all of what we’ve discussed here: an inability to recognize the significance of of talent and its impact on audience and on revenue. And things that are traditional are not traditional just because of stubbornness, but because they work. And to take baseball away from radio […] is mind-boggling. It’s inexplicable. It is nothing to do with Ben or the job that he did or that anyone else did. It’s entirely about dollars and cents. It’s the same reason I’m here talking to you instead of sleeping and getting ready to do my show on Sportsnet. […] We all in a way got caught up in an economic re-analyzation of the broadcast industry that […] we all know is fundamentally flawed.”
In an interview with Howard Berger he made similar remarks:
“I believe the stupid decisions by Rogers had a lot to do with people at the top devoid of experience in broadcast media. They hired hatchet–men and hatchet–women; let a bunch of good professionals go, then had to start over. With what background? Would you want a dentist to change your car tires. Or someone working at Canadian Tire to fix your teeth? At least, when I was there, the place was being run by media professionals — Keith Pelley, Scott Moore and others. Now, there’s a lawyer [Bart Yabsley] running Sportsnet. They’re trying to reinvent the wheel and are arrogant enough to think that anybody can do what we did so well for 30 years. But, it’s not working. Which is no big surprise.”
In the H&F podcast, Bob also calls out new Rogers Sports & Media head Jordan Banks as someone who doesn’t come from the world of broadcasting and yet is making decisions about radio. Humble and Fred go on to explain to Bob the merits of their independent business model, which after ten years now relies on Patreon donations and direct advertising revenue but not on the airwaves. They claim that trying to syndicate the podcast on radio was more trouble than it was worth. The hosts claim they are able to earn a living from their podcast model. Despite having 23,000 followers, their tweets routinely generate single-digit interactions. Their Patreon post about Bob’s appearance received two likes.
While Bob is right that it is not working at FAN590, it’s also the case that what worked before can’t work in 2021. The money simply isn’t there to support the kind of radio operation he helped create. The value of the product is not worth what it once was. The only way to make up the difference would be to increase volume, yet the appetite for sports radio stations appears to be shrinking not growing. PTS was syndicated to fewer than 20 stations, mostly in Ontario. By contrast, ESPN radio’s signature radio programs are on hundreds of stations. And even ESPN is re-thinking the value of sports radio.
One of the interesting questions emerging from Bob’s remarks is how the new business of radio will quantify success. Numeris’ flawed system is not going anywhere. They are working on ways to factor in streaming ratings for TV, but radio is still measured by Personal People Meters (PPMs). Individual radio stations keep track of podcast numbers, but these are not shared with the public or the competition. Apple’s ranking algorithms are notoriously unreliable.
If you are currently working in sports radio the signs are ominous. There are a few remaining people who entered during the multi-platform boom that yielded big salaries – Brunt, Blair, Tim&Sid come to mind – but everyone else is dealing with the reality that networks no longer see radio as a growth field. Further, technical and production jobs are disappearing due to simulcasting.
While a return to normal seems far off, it won’t be forever before commuters are stuck in traffic twice a day every week day, and they won’t all have remembered to download something to listen to. Sports radio will continue in Toronto, and most of it will be live and local. TSN1050’s line-up has been locked in for years now and doesn’t seem destined to change until Michael Landsberg moves on to something else. FAN590 is looking for a new program director and it will be interesting to see what changes they make.
Howard Berger has been killing it on his blog lately when it comes to media discussion. He spoke with the legendary Dave Perkins recently, who said this:
“You showed up at the ball park every day, working for a [media entity] entirely independent of the team. If a player didn’t like something you wrote, he knew exactly where to find you the next day: behind the cage during batting practice. I had screaming matches with guys like Dave Stieb and David Wells; then would play golf with them on an off day during the next road trip. They knew I wasn’t going to show them any favoritism while doing my job… and they respected that. A level of trust and understanding developed.”
I’m curious what you think about this. He’s absolutely right that the number of independent media in today’s marketplace is tiny. Many writers are paid guests or contributors on Sportsnet and Bell, the same entities who own all the local teams. That’s a huge shift for the worse since Perkins was in his heyday. However, that heyday also included a ton of fraternizing with players that is less common these days. When reading this quote I am left wondering why a journalist would choose to put himself in this situation. There are plenty of people with whom to golf; why introduce the possibility of bias? Perkins seems to be saying this led to better journalism not worse. This seems naive but also endemic to the era. So many older sports writers will tell you about drinking with the players or the GM.
“It’s nonsense’: Arash Madani had a good laugh over Randy Ambrosie’s recent CFL optimism” – Obviously Arash Madani didn’t write that headline but he did say this:
“I would love to find out, Randy, how you are going ‘full throttle’ with a season opener in Toronto when you can’t even have people gather outdoors.”[…] Ambrosie saying, ‘We’ve done more for our business model now than anybody has in the last 50 years’? Come on now! What have you done? […] You’ve fired people, you’re colluding against player salaries, you want to crush the salary cap and you’re cutting staff salaries. That’s not a new business model, that’s just hacking and slashing.”
Arash has been a one-man wrecking ball when it comes to the CFL commissioner. As a consumer of sports media I want objective criticism. The next time Madani says something positive about Ambrosie, I will write about it here.
Doug Smith called an opposing player a “thug” and was called out for using a term that has racist overtones. He doubled down by defending what he meant rather than what he said. Eventually he issued an apology that included the following: “We all need to be more cognizant of the words we use, how they can hurt, what the connotations will be, how they will resonate.” While this is true, I’m not sure why this needed to be added except to deflect blame. This is about what he did wrong and his own lack of cognizance, not about teaching other people a lesson.
Doug, come on. You’ve been covering this game long enough that you should know how your tweet reads. And “I’ll just say it” seems to indicate you did.
— Katie Nolan (@katienolan) February 24, 2021
Jeff Veillette has an interesting thread documenting blatant deception by a Montreal Gazette writer, using a 3.5 year old quote from Auston Matthews as if it were recent. If a j-school student did this they would fail the assignment. For the Gazette, this is business as usual, and great for engagement. The writer edited the story in response to being found out, but did not apologize. In unrelated news, the CBC is running a blog on how confidence in media is waning.
Jack Todd from the Montreal Gazette has a piece out today where he talks about how the Habs aren't the low point of the week, but a quote from Auston Matthews about kneeling for the Anthem: https://t.co/LBZGEjIHtl
There's only one problem though: The quote is from September 2017 pic.twitter.com/IDwCxaxRXa
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) February 28, 2021
Chris Schultz died at 61. He was a big part of the local sports media scene and will be missed.
I’m devastated to learn that our friend Chris Schultz died of a heart attack yesterday.
He was 61.
Schultzy was larger than life in so many ways…
CFL and NFL.
He played in both.
He covered both.
He loved both.
His life was a football life.
One I’ll never forget.
RIP Big Man pic.twitter.com/CJmggtdBCt
— Rod Smith (@RodSmithTSN) March 5, 2021
Tomi Lahren’s boyfriend who is a baseball player/@foxsportsfl analyst is threatening to beat me up. Luckily, I looked up his batting average and I doubt he could make contact. pic.twitter.com/jMK2ZsOmpa
— Jason Selvig (@jasonselvig) March 7, 2021
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)