My sister isn’t the biggest sports fan. I love her to death. She’s an amazing person, but her indifference toward sports makes me wonder if there was a mix-up at the hospital when we were born. A few years ago we went to a Ravens-Lions game in Detroit. We had an awesome time. When we sat down my sister said, “The Ravens are from…?” I calmly said Baltimore while frantically thinking, “How are we related?!”
Due to my sister’s lack of interest in sports, along with her husband’s own detachment, my two nephews have grown up weird. I’m kidding. Mini Matt (14) and Ty (12) have grown up fine. However, they aren’t exactly oozing with sports knowledge either. When Matthew was younger I asked him if he wanted to watch SportsCenter with me. He eagerly said, “Yeah! Is it on the History or the Discovery Channel?” I jokingly looked at my sister like, “YOU did this.”
Christie actually checked the score of the Notre Dame football game this past weekend. Hey, baby steps. She told Ty there were 11 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter. He asked if there were two innings total in a game. My poor nephew. He knows some rules about baseball after playing in the backyard with me, but he doesn’t know the difference between quarters and innings. I have lots of work to do.
My sister’s beautiful yet dysfunctional sports family got me thinking about sports talk. While my sister and nephews wouldn’t qualify as plugged in, hosts should never take for granted that each listener is. They might not be fully aware of everything happening in sports. People have lives. They have families, projects, hobbies, work, and interests outside of sports headlines. Don’t assume they automatically know everything — or even anything — about what you’re referencing.
I was able to see Notre Dame host Navy a couple of weeks ago in South Bend, IN. My dad was in the Navy. We hadn’t seen an Irish home game in a long time. Plus, my dad had a serious heart attack a few years ago. I always worried that we wouldn’t see another ND game together, so this was a special time for us. My dad, his wife, and my girlfriend, Christina, all froze in the wind and rain that day. I absolutely loved being there though.
I drove to Indianapolis on Sunday with Christina for my morning show on FOX Sports Radio. While sampling some sports talk on the way, I was amazed how some hosts just dove into topics without explaining what was going on. I didn’t need a thesis, but I needed more to go on. I was at a stadium most of the day, went out for pizza afterward, then played Mario Kart with my nephews before bed. Sidenote — there’s nothing worse than getting blue shelled just before the finish line.
It dawned on me that I was in the same boat Sunday morning as a lot of listeners. Refreshing my news feed wasn’t the only thing I did on Saturday. I was playing catch-up with the stories of the day. I wasn’t plugged in. I was in the process of getting plugged in. Hosts need to know that all of the details and opinions within a topic don’t register if the premise isn’t understood. Before getting too far in the weeds of a topic, the base of a thought needs to be easy enough to follow so everybody is on the same page.
Back in my Fresno radio days, a buddy of mine would bring me on his station to talk sports on Fridays. Greg Hoffman, aka G, was the program director at a hip-hop station named B95. Although there were some listeners who knew what was going on in sports, a lot of the audience didn’t even follow it. They had no reference point.
After a few appearances, I finally understood that it wasn’t good enough to say, “Aww, man! That play was crazy!” If that’s all I said in my explanation, a portion of the audience was thinking, “What play? What was crazy? What’s going on?” The same thing happens in sports talk if a host doesn’t do a good job of simply setting up a topic. It’d be like reading a book by immediately diving into Chapter 5. You’d be lost. Don’t assume your audience is incapable of getting lost also.
Think of setting up topics like Twitter. You have limited space. Don’t give me every little detail, but give me enough so I know what’s going on. Otherwise, your opinions will be confusing. If you put all of your effort into shaping a topic, but don’t lay out a few important details first, it’s like preparing a huge meal without telling your guests what time to come over. It’s pointless.
The thought of making sure the audience understands a story is simple, but the importance goes much deeper. Nobody likes feeling stupid. Nobody likes asking a stupid question, admitting they don’t understand, or being viewed as dumb. We fear and try to avoid all of those things. One of the easiest ways to make listeners feel stupid is to assume they know the details of a story when they actually don’t. If the audience feels ignorant, what do you think will happen? They’ll get discouraged and leave.
To me, this is the most fascinating aspect of sports talk — we have to appeal to as many people as possible, and those people are completely different in many ways. There is the 21-year-old kid who can consume sports for hours each day. There’s also the 45-year-old father of three who has a mortgage, a full-time job, and a wife who likes to go for walks and hikes during gameday.
A host can’t be so simplistic that the hardcore sports consumer is bored, or too detail-oriented that the bits-and-pieces sports fan is swimming in a sea of unknown information. It’s a challenge to find that middle ground, but it’s necessary.
You can talk about a zero blitz, just make sure the people who don’t know what the heck a zero blitz is, now do. Jon Gruden did a great job of this recently during the Falcons-Seahawks game. He explained that it’s man-to-man coverage without a deep safety, and the defense is rushing more people at the quarterback than the offense can block. It was concise, and it made many viewers smarter.
I’m not suggesting that you can never have an advanced discussion with complex ideas. Just make sure the details of the conversation are easy to follow. Pretend that your listeners recently got back from a two-week vacation in Yugoslavia. Whatever works for you. Just don’t fall into the trap of assuming your audience is fully aware of each topic you lay out.
A teacher once told me that assuming can make an ass out of you and me. In terms of sports talk, assuming can make an ass out of you and your ratings.