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When Rivalries Exist, Everything Matters More

Opinions about ESPN’s programming have been mixed over the past few years, but few have found fault with the network’s 30 for 30 series. And for good reason. It’s without question one of the best pieces of programming ESPN offers. The latest documentary of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is a prime example.

If you watched the three part series then you’re well aware of what I’m talking about. If not, do yourself a favor and block out a few hours to get caught up. It’s absolutely worth your time.

As I watched the documentary last Tuesday and Wednesday night, a few things stuck with me. I began thinking about why the rivalry between those two franchises was so special. Sports fans often mention how the Lakers-Celtics rivalry helped save the NBA, and it’s no surprise that the league grew its attendance, sponsors, and television presence during that time period. What was once considered a league with limited upside, became hip, cool and exciting, and it set the table for future stars to come along and help advance the game to an even higher level.

What made this story compelling was that it involved two teams with a ton of skill and star power. They were led by two charismatic superstars with an insatiable desire to win, who to this day remain among the best I’ve ever witnessed perform on a basketball court. They also represented two very different cities and races and brought a unique style of play to their respective franchises. When the verbal offerings and prior histories of both organizations were added to the equation, it amplified the animosity each team and its players had for one another.

But it wasn’t until Los Angeles won the NBA championship on Boston’s home court in 1985 that the rivalry rose to a different level. Up to that point, the Celtics had dominated the competition, winning all 8 matchups against Los Angeles. It may have infuriated Los Angeles basketball fans that their beloved franchise couldn’t get over the hump against Boston, but fans on the other side had little reason to believe the Lakers would prevail. Once Celtics players and fans were left with a bitter taste in their mouth, forced to watch the Lakers celebrate, the tension grew and the stakes were magnified.

To hear Pat Riley, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis and Magic Johnson share how deep their hatred for the Celtics runs, even to this day, reminds you of what makes rivalries powerful. Those same feelings were shared on the other side from Danny Ainge, M.L Carr, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird towards the Lakers. Winning may have mattered most but doing it against an arch nemesis made it more important and that much sweeter.

When people care deeply about winning, value competition, and know that a legitimate opponent could derail them from achieving their goal, it makes everyone push a little bit harder. It makes great players like Magic Johnson challenge themselves to elevate their game to another level. It forces every coach and player to treat each possession like it could alter the outcome of a ball game.

That’s what competition is all about. Great players, coaches, and teams rise to the occasion. Others crumble when they feel the pressure.

When I reflect back on the Lakers-Celtics story I can’t help but think about how it applies to sports radio. Every quarter hour on the air is an opportunity to form a connection with an audience or send them away. Great talent treat their opportunities with a sense of urgency. Marginal players do not.

But it goes even deeper than executing content consistently.

Most sports radio folks don’t study their opponents. They focus on themselves. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in order to take advantage of a competitor’s weaknesses you have to know what they are and then craft your strategy to best help yourself.

The other issue worth raising is how many in sports radio operate in silence. They head into a building, develop a rundown, execute it on the air, and then head home. They don’t publicly celebrate victories or display ill will towards competing radio stations, unless the individual has gone thru a bad personal experience working for them. Radio people are more worried about keeping the peace and maintaining good relationships for future professional reasons than creating headlines and ruffling the feathers of rivals, co-workers and corporate folks.

But for a rivalry to reach its full potential the audience has to know and feel it on the airwaves. It also has to be felt internally by every member of the radio station. Sometimes that means not being afraid to let it be known why you believe your product and people are superior and the competitor is inferior.

How many times have we seen a media personality offer a strong opinion about another host or station and instantly the buzz and chatter produces increased audience interest and engagement? It doesn’t just occur on-air either. Your account executives are doing it with clients too. Sometimes they take the high road when discussing competitors with potential advertisers, other times they may deliver a verbal uppercut.

Is it any coincidence that the press for ESPN and FS1 has increased since the two brands and their employees began offering unfiltered opinions on the state of each product? Look in Boston and Philadelphia at the way media coverage intensified once WEEI and 98.5 The Sports Hub and WIP and 97.5 The Fanatic began waging battle. If you watch political television, you’ve seen this executed on a daily basis whether you’ve watched CNN, MSNBC or FOX News. And whether it’s been Mike and the Mad Dog, Bill Simmons, Howard Stern, Steve Jobs or Eric Bischoff, many others in various businesses have used the same exact strategy.

To be honest, I wish we had a little more of it in sports radio. There are many cities with 2-3 sports stations yet the buzz for their local competitive battles is minimal. That may be a reflection of the market or the personalities of the individuals involved, but when the audience feels the stakes are raised and they have an influence on the outcome, it becomes more interesting and entertaining.

I’ve told this to numerous folks I’ve talked to over the years, people will always be fascinated by other people. If an on-air talent possesses an ability to create drama on a daily basis, they stand a greater chance of engaging an audience and increasing their ratings. Stats, information, and interaction are all nice, but thought provoking opinions which pierce the skin of others and demand a response will always produce a higher level of interest.

Isn’t that a big part of why we love sports? The game may be the main event but it’s all the hype and drama before and afterwards that keeps the conversation alive and makes the result matter. If emotions didn’t run high and players didn’t express themselves about various situations, the world of sports would be a lot less fun, intense, and compelling.

Speaking for myself, when I operated brands I had no room in my soul for positive sentiments towards those I competed against. I may have respected them and understood why they were successful but to be my best and exhaust the most out of my teams I needed to mentally invest myself in beating them. That may not work for everyone, but when you can paint a picture in your mind of the competitor taking food off your child’s plate and money out of your bank account, I promise you it becomes easier to push yourself towards knocking them off.

Mark Cuban once said “work like someone is working twenty four hours a day to take it all away from you” and that has always been my mindset. I didn’t move to new cities to make friends or enjoy new scenery. Nor was I worried about what competitors thought of me or anything I said or did to gain an edge. My focus was on hiring talented people and creating a vision to help my brands connect and produce results. The thought of failing didn’t exist because I believe that once you allow room for the potential of failure to occupy space inside your mind, you’re already defeated.

Milwaukee Bucks owner Wes Edens offered a great line this week when he said “the guys in Philadelphia want to talk about the process, I’d rather talk about results.” That’s how most business people think and operate. If you can achieve success while being friendly with everyone, great. If it requires being more aggressive and unfiltered, so be it. Either way, it’s all about productivity.

The majority of sports media members I’ve been around want to be great and win the ratings book. If another brand or individual is preventing them from reaching their destination, it’s not uncommon for them to develop a mean streak and offer strong opinions about them. We too often worry about playing nice and keeping our noses clean but winning in business sometimes requires getting dirty. It’s why Kevin McHale didn’t hesitate to take down Kurt Rambis with a hard clothesline in the 1984 NBA Finals. It may not have been popular, but it let the Lakers know that Boston wouldn’t be intimidated. Once the Celtics gained the mental edge, the Lakers never recovered.

I know a number of on-air performers who are extremely talented and successful yet some programmers wouldn’t hire them because they rock the boat with certain things they say in public or on social media. If it’s interesting, accurate, and creates additional buzz and engagement for the radio station, why is that a bad thing? We preach the importance of authenticity, honesty, being fearless and living one’s life on the radio, but when industry people or issues are brought to the forefront, we get nervous and look to muzzle our best talent.

There’s obviously a big difference between being irresponsible and offensive, and discussing uncomfortable subjects and firing public jabs against members of the brotherhood. But when the stakes are high, all is fair in love and war. Jesse Ventura used to say “win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat” and while I don’t believe in cheating to win, there’s also no radio playbook which says you must play nice and shake hands with the opponent.

Business is cutthroat. When you operate in a results oriented industry where money is gained or lost each day, you can’t be afraid to upset the norm. If it means calling out an opponent and in doing so alienating a future employment option, you can’t be afraid to take a risk to win. If you have the skill and backbone to back up your words, and a sound reason to support your position, the competitor may hate hearing it and continue disliking you and your approach, but they’ll have a tough time ignoring your success and impact. You may increase the number of industry friends you make but playing it safe doesn’t help you gain significant wins.

What makes rivalries special are when two sides have the talent to achieve and a burning desire to prevent the other from reaching their ultimate destination. Sometimes it may be ugly or uncomfortable, but that’s what competition brings out of us. The better the opponent, the more we crave beating them, and when we win, the accomplishment has greater meaning.

The more the intensity and public awareness grows for a battle you’re involved in, the more the audience will become consumed by it. If they continue listening and helping you create success, advertisers will follow, and in the grand scheme of things, that matters a whole lot more than whether or not you’re well received by your competitor or by members of the media inside of a press box.

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