Sports is a subjective business. On the field or court, players are paid a lot of money to perform and make sound decisions. We determine their success or failure based on batting averages, shooting percentages, yards gained, touchdowns, home runs and of course, wins, losses and championships. It matters less to fans if a player is a good locker room leader or valuable to the organization in other ways. If it can’t be measured in a positive way statistically, we deem them ineffective and replaceable.
But in the sports media business, we’re not paid to play. We’re paid to talk. And as groundbreaking as this news might be, it doesn’t take much to deliver a passionate opinion and generate a response. You simply read or watch a story, form a thought in your mind about how it makes you feel, articulate it to the audience in a passionate manner and support it with a few facts you uncovered while researching the subject.
But not every individual has the ability to provide thought provoking opinions in a unique, colorful and memorable way. It’s what separates a good host from a great host. Colin Cowherd has often said the sports media business is less about about being right and more about being interesting, and in the climate that we operate in where attention spans are shrinking by the second, it’s hard to disagree with him.
Whether you like it or not, sports audio and video is all about entertainment. There are no passing grades handed out for accuracy. And it’s always been that way. This is not a new trend.
When an audience consumes sports content they’re often looking for a mental escape, a breather from life’s challenges. They’re not interested in the additional responsibility of tracking a host’s win-loss record when offering predictions and opinions. They simply tune in and expect to hear an interesting conversation, learn a few things relevant to the story being discussed, and then take that information with them to use with their friends or family members in their daily conversations. If the host turns out to be right, great. If not, life goes on.
But if you survey the media landscape today, there’s a growing belief that we should expect more from public figures who are paid to offer sports opinions. If an individual is given a platform to speak to an audience and inform them on what’s taking place in the world of sports, there’s a contingent of folks who feel it should be expected that the hosts are not only accurate with their facts and information, but also more successful with their opinions.
A big factor in the changing perception among fans is social media. The rising influence of Twitter and Facebook has given people an ability to permanently store, dissect, and use a personality’s commentary against them. That’s certainly different from TV or radio where a listener or viewer’s ability to recall specific points, opinions, and predictions vanishes quickly.
The positive side of this development is that it puts added pressure on personalities to be more thorough and accurate with their opinions and predictions. The negative is that it feeds this growing trend of judging people on fifteen seconds of commentary, while disregarding the countless hours of additional accuracy and entertainment they may have provided.
Maybe in the past it was worse than I’m giving it credit for, but it certainly seems like we’ve seen a lot more misses from talk show hosts over the past few years. That perception has been shaped by the increased visibility on social media. Years ago when Mike and the Mad Dog were the dominant duo in sports radio, they were praised for how much they knew about sports and how often they were right. Today, you’d swear neither knows much if you didn’t listen to their show and relied solely on social media to form your opinion.
One Twitter account which does a fantastic job of keeping personalities in check and showcasing their missed predictions is Fred Segal’s Freezing Cold Takes. It may ruffle the feathers of some personalities who reject the idea of being called out for being inaccurate, but it’s become a badge of honor for others to have their misfires recognized by the account. And it’s clearly attractive to listeners and viewers, because over seventy two thousand are following the account on Twitter.
As much as the audience, media critics and an occasional colleague or two may take exception with a host’s ability to be accurate with their predictions and positions, we’ve also got to remember that opinions are personal beliefs. Many factors can influence how a situation turns out, and each person reserves the right to change their mind.
For instance, you may pick the Golden State Warriors to sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals before the upcoming season begins. However, if Kevin Durant and Steph Curry went down with season ending injuries in November, that’d certainly change the likelihood of your prediction being accurate. That doesn’t mean though that you didn’t provide an informed and rational prediction when initially making it.
If there’s an area that frustrates many critics, fans, and listeners, it’s when a host is unwilling to adjust their stance and own a blemish on their record after misfiring on an opinion or prediction. A personality only helps themselves by doing so. It’s fine if you take your sports seriously and strive to be accurate when delivering opinions, but it’s also OK to be wrong.
I’m a firm believer that one of the best traits a host can possess is self-deprecation. If you can own a mistake, laugh at yourself, and show the audience you’re a human being who’s as flawed as they are, it shows you’re relatable. People tune into a show because they want to laugh and learn. If they like you, that’s even better. When you’re accountable and able to acknowledge your personal blunders, it increases your approval rating. If you’re arrogant and unwilling to fall on the sword when you screw up, it’ll cost you fans.
The idea of being more accountable and accurate is welcomed by most people in the sports media business. It’s also beneficial to every on-air talent to be challenged to do their homework and find unique angles to deliver to the audience. But while those areas can certainly be examined and improved, it’s important to remember and never forget that being right matters far less than being entertaining.
As consumers we sometimes scrutinize every detail of a show and every character trait of a host that we become incapable of allowing ourselves to be entertained. We forget that the biggest reason we watch or listen to a show about sports is because it’s fun. It brings people from different backgrounds and communities together to debate, discuss, and publicly express love and support for a common cause and in doing so, the presentation entertains us.
That connection is what makes a program necessary. It’s far greater in value than any host’s ability to provide a stronger winning percentage when spitting out sports opinions and predictions.
This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t some holes that need patching. For one, I’d like to see hosts and networks spend less time rushing to judgment and invest more time putting things into proper context. That happens a lot, especially after a big sporting event when shows/hosts immediately declare a team, player or play as the best of all-time. They disregard the past and live in the moment because it’s easier to ride an emotional high instead of pushing the pause button to process what’s transpired, research and analyze it, and come to a conclusion about where it belongs in a historical sense.
I was curious how programmers and personalities felt about this topic given that it has a direct result on everything they do on a daily basis. Here’s what I uncovered from talking to a number of industry professionals.
- Joe Zarbano – Program Director, WEEI
- Ryan Maguire – Program Director, WQAM
- Don Kollins – Program Director, 95.7 The Game
- Isaac Ropp – Host of Isaac and Suke, 1080 The Fan
- Randy Karraker – Host of The Fast Lane, 101 ESPN
- Scott Shapiro – VP of Sports Programming, FOX Sports Radio
- Evan Cohen – Host of the Morning Men, SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio & Director of Content, Good Karma Brands
Why Is It More Important For a Host To Be Interesting Instead of Right?
Shapiro: It is a human impossibility for any host to be right 100% of the time. Wouldn’t that be nice though? Because it’s a stone-cold lock that our hosts will be incorrect frequently, there’s nothing more important in this business than them being interesting. It’s why Colin Cowherd always refers to the radio industry as the “interesting business,” not the “get it right every time business.”
Cohen: Our job as a host is to properly serve fans, teammates and advertising partners. Nowhere in the job description does it say anything about our opinions needing to be right. It is most important to consistently engage our fans, teammates and advertising partners in relatable conversation.
Zarbano: It’s much harder to be interesting than right. How many times have we heard someone say “I predicted that” or “I knew that was going to happen”? I don’t care. Anyone can get lucky and pick the correct result. Can you consistently tell me something interesting and say something compelling enough that I’m engaged and reacting to what you’re saying? That’s the true indicator of radio talent.
Karraker: To draw a listener in, he or she needs to hear an opinion or a side of a story that they hadn’t thought of and/or don’t necessarily agree with. A good communicator can come up with a strong foundation for their opinion, and that’s what I try to do. I know the background of what I’m talking about, and I’m able to form a reasonable opinion based on a foundation of facts. At the end of the day, we are offering opinions, and there’s no such thing as a wrong opinion. You can take the side you truly believe in, whether it’s popular or not, and be interesting. That said, a talk show host should never present incorrect facts. It’s our responsibility to educate the listener and use our place as “fans with access” to present our opinions based on correct facts, and be interesting with them.
Ropp: Being interesting translates more. As long as your content is interesting you can keep ears on your show. Most reasonable people know a host will be right some but also wrong some. Most are NOT keeping score. And to be honest, the idea of needing to be right is merely an ego thing for the host. The listener’s perspective isn’t coming from that place. They just want something to chew on for the 10-30 minutes they’re tuning in. Hosts fret FAR more about what they say than the listener does.
Maguire: A host needs to be accurate in terms of getting their facts right, but people spend time with the host/show that is the most compelling to listen to. The landscape is flooded with radio shows, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, snaps and tweets of people giving opinions and making predictions. There are so few though that can do so in a way that will make listeners want to invest their precious time with them.
How Concerned Are You of Losing Credibility With The Audience If Your On-Air Opinions and Predictions Turn Out To Be Wrong?
Kollins: The best host(s) can admit they were wrong to their audience. That’s absolutely the most powerful tool in the radio host handbook. It seems there are many hosts that get on their soapbox, spew their opinions, then move on to spew more on the next topic without much back and forth. If a host is willing to listen, ask questions, engage with listeners, and acknowledge when they’re wrong, that’s very valuable and powerful.
Maguire: If a host is compelling enough to listen to, then who the hell cares if they went 0-12 vs. picks against the spread? Stephen A Smith picked seven consecutive NBA finals wrong and is still pulling down an impressive paycheck. Why? Because he knows how to get people talking and keep them watching. The only kind of opinions/predictions that concern me are uninformed ones. A host has to do their homework before opening their mouth and putting themselves out there. Listeners will tune out a host who bloviates for hours with little or no substance behind it.
Cohen: When did I have credibility in order to lose it? I’m being serious. I have no interest in whatever credibility means. Relatability and sellability, those are the abilities I want.
Zarbano: I’m not concerned at all. Predictions aren’t always going to be correct. We constantly see the “experts” getting their predictions wrong whether it’s a game, the NFL Draft, March Madness, season predictions, etc. How many times have Mel Kiper and Jay Bilas been wrong? Tony Dungy is wrong quite often with his game predictions. Media personalities are not going to be right every time and the audience understands that.
Shapiro: What I look for in an opinion on the air is a well-thought out, well-researched opinion. Would I prefer that it ends up being the “correct opinion?” Sure. Who wouldn’t. But with thirty-plus hosts on a 24/7 national network, there will always be times when hosts are right and wrong. What I want is authenticity. I never want someone on the air to take the other side just because. Our audience is smarter than that and can see through the B.S. If the audience are treated like adults, and a strong stance is nuanced via research, context, and storytelling, then I care far less what the outcome of that opinion is. If it’s genuine and sincere, and you can make someone stop, listen, and think, then that’s what good radio is all about.
Ropp: I believe the best approach is to be known for holding a good discussion. If the host(s) present material with good points on both sides of an issue, each listener will identify with the one that matches their sensibilities. It becomes less about right/wrong and more about wanting to listen to a good discussion on the hot button issues of that day.
How Should Talent Be Held Accountable For Providing Accurate and Informed Sports Opinions and Predictions?
Karraker: I try to be as accessible to my listeners as possible. They can reach me on Twitter, Facebook, and via e-mail, and they can call my office phone. If there’s something a listener vehemently disagrees with, I’ll engage them and explain my thoughts more clearly. I want my consumers to hold me accountable for the product I’m turning out. Program Directors should have a playbook for how their hosts present opinions and predictions, and if the talent adheres to the playbook and there isn’t anything to account for, ultimately the listener will make the decision as to whether they like what’s being delivered. That’s the ultimate accountability.
Maguire: A programmer should talk to their hosts and producers and make sure they’re in the loop on what’s important. Usually it’s as easy as “did you see this?” Show prep is like staying shape, you don’t want to let your team skip too many days at the gym. If a host gets something wrong, own it. Some of the best hosts I’ve worked with make fun of their incorrect predictions in a humorous way. Being wrong isn’t a sin. It shows you’re human.
Ropp: This polices itself. Your reputation precedes you. People will figure out if you are a fraud or uninformed, etc. It’s very hard to fake it in radio. The host doesn’t have to be the expert on all things either. He or she can be a person that is thinking the same things about a game or topic that many of the listeners are. It’s OK to tell the audience you don’t have an opinion on something or don’t know enough about a topic to give an informed opinion. It enhances credibility because people know you aren’t going to BS them. It also makes the times when you are very passionate and informed about a subject that much more real and meaningful.
Zarbano: It’s the host’s job to be prepared and put in the proper effort to be the most informed, opinionated, and entertaining they can be. If that’s not happening then that person isn’t doing their job. It should be explained to them what the expectations are and if the prep work and effort still aren’t satisfactory then it might be time to find someone else.
Cohen: Hosts should be accountable for serving fans, teammates and partners. If the #1 thing that all three of those groups care most about are accurate opinions and predictions, then a host should be held accountable for them.
How Do You Feel Social Media Has Changed The Game When It Comes To Recalling Positions and Predictions From Talent on Various Sports Subjects?
Ropp: Predictions or commentary on social media sits on the internet for everyone to refer back to. What is said on the radio vanishes off into the cosmos and most people don’t remember what was said. For this reason, social media has created a currency. It can help some hosts and hurt others. That all depends on the hosts approach on these various platforms.
Kollins: I consider social media the new studio phone. It’s a great way for hosts to get a sample of “how hot” a topic or opinion is. In addition to the phones, it’s absolutely essential to incorporate social media into all opinion based segments.
Karraker: The audience is smart and likes to use social media to remind hosts of things they’ve said. I give opinions for twenty hours a week, and don’t necessarily remember every point, opinion or prediction I make on the air. If a listener hears me say something that they disagree with, especially if it’s one that’s gone awry, then I’m going to hear about it. And I should. That’s what makes the show work. Social media helps increase the engagement.
Maguire: Once you say or post something in a public forum it’s chiseled into the internet for eternity. Don’t try to back track it or split hairs over something you got wrong. You’ll only sound like the kind of person nobody wants to be around.
Cohen: It makes it more fun because we can all be more interactive and trackable in a relatable way.
Zarbano: I believe it has helped. It gives the audience a better opportunity to react to a host’s prediction, whether right or wrong. It also gives the listener a chance to engage in the show and with a personality outside of the normal show hours which helps strengthen relationships.
Why Should a Listener Invest Time In a Host or Radio Station If The On-Air Talent Is Consistently Wrong With Their Opinions?
Maguire: If a host is unique, compelling and entertaining, listeners will return no matter how often they make an inaccurate prediction.
Karraker: As a consumer, I have trouble giving time to someone that hasn’t earned credibility. If they’re consistently wrong, they don’t deserve the listener’s attention. There are hosts that never make it to a game, don’t talk to people to try to find out WHY something happened, and will spout off about things and be completely wrong. If someone is only correct once in a blue moon, I can’t listen to them. There are different kinds of listeners, and I’m glad there are alternatives for those consumers. But, I think people in our business that don’t do their homework and don’t build their opinion on a foundation of facts are being incredibly irresponsible and are doing a disservice to their listeners. We’ve heard the term “fake news” a lot over the last few months, and I don’t think there’s a place for opinions based on fake news in sports talk radio. It’s lazy and unnecessary, and I’d hope listeners would see past investing their time in stations and host that produce it.
Cohen: If a fan of a host knows that the host is always wrong, then that host has done a great job of getting the fan/listener engaged enough to track his or her opinions.
Kollins: Sports is opinion and every sports fan and host have an opinion on every topic. IF the topic is well-researched, well-executed and the host has an open mind for discussion on all platforms, it’s worth discussing in the pre-show meeting.
Ropp: If a host is consistently wrong, they should stop trying to be right. If they don’t change up their approach, I’m not sure why a listener would continue to invest their time.