Pairing two people together and developing a great show isn’t easy. Turning that show into a mainstream brand is even harder. Sustaining it for nearly two decades is virtually impossible.
Yet ESPN has done that with “Mike and Mike”, their morning show on ESPN Radio and ESPN 2.
To enter a sports fan’s mind for that period of time takes a ton of talent, patience, support, consistency, and whole lot of luck. Yet as we’ve seen many times in sports and the media business, even the biggest stars and shows eventually reach their finish line.
But how can you tell when a dominant program with revenue and ratings success has run out of gas? If the true measure of a show’s success is to deliver ratings, revenue and relevance, and a program is providing it, then isn’t it the role of management to stick with them and get out of the way?
This is the dilemma ESPN is facing with Mike and Mike.
On one hand, the show continues to perform both on radio and television. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic have spent more than 16 years together, and continue to be the face of the ESPN Radio network, and a morning show which many sports fans across the nation take their cues from. Greeny and Golic entered the NAB radio hall of fame this past April, and still sound informed, engaged, and interested in delivering a quality program. They also have one of the strongest guests lists on radio.
But on the other hand, many critics say their act has grown tired and it’s time to turn the page. The common criticism is that the show lacks bold opinions, unpredictability and hasn’t refreshed itself, despite growing competition.
According to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, ESPN is considering breaking up the show and moving Greenberg to a morning show hosting role on television and pairing Golic with his son.
To many in radio circles, that possibility is nothing new. ESPN has made this noise before. In recent years, the network began to tinker with the show, challenging Greeny and Golic to add more opinion, more live reads, more bits, and more contributions from opinionated personalities (First Take, His & Hers). They’ve also experimented with adding Cris Carter as a third voice during football season, and utilized Molly Qerim in a part-time third host role.
There seem to be two trains of thought when it comes to Mike and Mike. You have one group of people who value what Greeny and Golic bring to the air and want to continue letting them operate the way they’re most comfortable. Then you have another faction which feels the show is corny, too safe, and lacks the opinions necessary to make the network a bigger destination each morning.
As I spoke to executives across the country, I learned that many feel the ESPN Radio brand has lost some of its luster. The network previously rolled out popular stars such as Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd, Scott Van Pelt, and Tony Kornheiser, along with Mike and Mike, and when you start to lose high profile faces and voices, it takes time to develop the next crop of talent.
But therein lies the issue.
Many insiders aren’t convinced that ESPN Radio has found the next wave of superstars. The consensus is that Dan Le Batard is one of those superior talents along with Mike and Mike, but the rest of the shows are viewed a tier below. With more time and opportunity, opinions could change towards those other on-air talents. But when you’re in the leadership position that ESPN is in, and partners are counting on you to roll out programs with recognizable talent in order to help them win and generate immediate revenue, folks are less patient.
Which makes the idea of eliminating Mike and Mike a tough one for some network executives to wrestle with. Do you break up one of your most powerful brands and leave the radio network in a position where it doesn’t have huge star power? Won’t that further add to the narrative that the network is losing many of its best performers? Or do you sit tight and continue the ride while others continue to get better and listener and viewer tastes continue to change?
In talking to a number of executives, the consensus was that ESPN Radio would lose value without Mike and Mike. Some told me it would force them to reevaluate whether or not to continue their affiliation. But it was clear that there was a down the middle split on whether or not to cancel the show. I asked seven decision makers five key questions about Mike and Mike and here are their responses. The names of the individuals who took part in this piece have been kept private for obvious reasons.
What do you believe makes Mike and Mike a great show?
Executive 1: The chemistry. They have worked together so long that they know each other and how to react to what the other person says. It is also about the resources, every ESPN expert is available to the show to provide insight and perspective that you can only get from those who have the access to the players and coaches from all the sports including the NFL, MLB, NBA and major college. The production staff is second to none and helps keep the Mike’s up to date on what matters most to the audience. The program is also great at covering the big story. No show is as good as Mike and Mike in taking the audience behind the curtain.
Executive 2: Chemistry and tenure. They anticipate each other’s thoughts and words.
Executive 3: It’s authentic. What you hear is what you get. Mike Greenberg is a metrosexual, neurotic, Jets loving fan. Mike Golic is a food loving, family guy, former player. They never pretend to be who they are not, they are themselves. In addition, Greenberg might be the best traffic cop on sports radio. He keeps the show moving at a tremendous pace for morning drive. His teases are the very best in the business. He is incredibly smart with a large vocabulary that he uses well to paint pictures and move seamlessly from topic to topic. Golic is the guy next door, the dude you want to have a beer with. He’s friendly and goofy and reminds us of our brother or uncle that we love. The last thing that makes this show great is ESPN. The strength of ESPN helps the show get the very best guests and top of mind newsmakers. Because they’re on ESPN Radio and TV, Mike and Mike have been able to establish themselves as the show of record for sports fans in the morning.
Executive 4: It’s a great, safe, easy brand to listen to. Continuity has been their biggest asset. In Radio you almost win by default when you’re together for that long.
Executive 5: Longevity and the chemistry between Greeny and Golic. They are always talking about the right content too.
Executive 6: There is no show that addresses the big stories better. They make the content sound big and land the biggest guests.
Executive 7: Mike & Mike’s chemistry is what has made this show great going all the way back to day 1. They do a good job tapping into ESPN’s resources creating a well-rounded sports show. It’s an easy and comfortable listen that informs people about the nation’s biggest sports stories.
What do you believe is missing from Mike and Mike’s show?
Executive 1: Hard hitting opinions. At times the show is probably a little too safe in how they approach certain topics. The show needs to take some chances and push opinionated content that will generate reaction from the audience. Finding ways for the audience to be interactive with the Mike’s is always a good thing that we do not hear enough of.
Executive 2: Localism. They have too wide of net to cover. That is the drawback of a national show.
Executive 3: There isn’t a lot missing. They have access to everything they need through ESPN and their years of credibility and existence. At times the show could use more humor/fun, but it’s not a glaring miss. What it probably lacks the most is a steady fill-in because the two Mike’s are on vacation WAY too much.
Executive 4: The show could benefit from adding a woman to the cast.
Executive 5: Not one thing. I have not been one of those executives who has thought they needed to add to the show. I know the thought processes behind them doing it but I don’t feel it was necessary. Case in point, I tuned out last year during the Cris Carter segments.
Executive 6: For any show that has been successful and wants to stay on top, there has to be a refresh. They need to continue to bring big names into their show on a consistent basis that have strong opinions and can push the story forward.
Executive 7: There is a level of unpredictability missing from the show. The guys rarely take chances and offer outspoken opinions, and they’ve settled to remain within their comfort zone.
How does the show sound now compared to 5-10 years ago?
Executive 1: Mike and Mike used to be a radio show on TV. The show is now a TV show on radio. This is an important distinction in terms of what comes out of the speakers. The show is still enjoyable to consume, however the presentation is different because of the focus on television.
Executive 2: They have more experience and are further established. The show has an easy flow and tempo and their years together work in their favor as they are able to recall memorable moments to past shows.
Executive 3: Too cluttered. They have gotten crazy with the amount of live reads in the program.
Executive 4: The show is still very commercial/network, and non local. It’s safe and easy like McDonald’s – you know what you’re getting. They don’t provide many opinions just the facts.
Executive 5: Just like any relationship that lasts that long, you hope it gets better with age. They understand each other better, they know how to get the best out of each other and push one another’s buttons. One way the show has suffered is that it’s no longer a radio show, it’s a TV program simulcast on radio.
Executive 6: The show has definitely digressed. I think they understood radio and the importance of keeping things moving years ago. They are best when hitting the big stories and reacting to them. For some reason they got away from that and tried to make it more of a morning zoo crew type of show. Play to your strengths, and humor is definitely not one of them, but they continue to try to incorporate it into the show.
Executive 7: The show was at its best ten years ago when it was undoubtedly the sports show of record each morning. As competition has increased, the show has gone the other way. Mike and Mike needed to step up their game and have that same entrepreneurial spirit that made it successful 16 years ago, but they’ve become more stale and predictable. As a result, the “need” to listen has waned. The shtick has stayed consistent, but in my opinion, the guys have lost their fastball. Additionally, the amount of sales clutter and promotion for company initiatives has caused far too many tune-outs.
When you sample their show, do you listen to it on radio or watch it on TV?
Executive 1: Both. Depends where I am and what I am doing.
Executive 2: Both.
Executive 3: Radio when I’m home. TV when I’m on the road.
Executive 4: I monitor the show as a direct competitor.
Executive 5: Radio 100%. The move to the studio was not without growing pains but it’s an easier listen now.
Executive 6: Mostly on TV now.
Executive 7: A mixture of both. They play way too much to TV which has taken the shine off of the growth potential for the show on the radio. It often seems they don’t care as much about the audio platform.
If you were in charge of ESPN, would you break up Mike & Mike and install a new morning show?
Executive 1: It’s all about the big picture and what roles each of the Mike’s will have. Sports radio by nature is locally based and if you are going to have a major national show such as Mike and Mike, the talent must be able to appeal to multiple demographics and in a multi-platform world. Getting the right talent mix moving forward will require creativity and an understanding that the format is focused on serving multiple demos. For now, Mike and Mike is the best nationally syndicated sports show with a strong following. Decisions to change course will be based on more than just what is happening with the radio side of things at ESPN.
Executive 2: I would not bust up an established, successful and tenured show. It is too difficult to achieve a level of success like Mike and Mike have. History has proven this over and over again. Is ESPN’s gain worth the potential risk of the losses of a successful morning show?
Executive 3: HELL NO. They have the very best syndicated morning radio program in the country. No other entity has come close to getting the type of national audience share Mike and Mike has. While I’m a huge proponent of change and evolution, this show is still recognized as the show of record for sports fans in America.
Executive 4: I would blow it up and look to get younger.
Executive 5: Absolutely not, 100% no. ESPN has to remember that they look at Mike and Mike as a TV show that supplies the audio division—but on the ground level this is a key ratings grabber in morning drive on many affiliate stations. You don’t break up a winning show. Mike Greenberg is the glue.
Executive 6: Yes. I think they’ve gotten stale and need to bring in something new to excite viewers and listeners.
Executive 7: The only option at this point is to head in a different direction. If that isn’t possible contractually, then a consistent third voice needs to be added to improve the urgency and relevancy of the content.