If you’ve followed the sports media business over the past two decades, chances are your familiar with Sean Salisbury. The former quarterback moved into the media when his playing days were done and rose to national prominence at ESPN, becoming one of their top NFL analysts in the 1990’s and 2000’s. I was fortunate to share an ESPN Radio studio with Sean earlier in my career, and we had a lot of fun, and have maintained a relationship ever since.
Currently Sean is heard in afternoons on SportsTalk 790 in Houston, and one of the things that has made him successful is his ability to deliver strong, candid, unapologetic opinions. He’s well rounded, does his homework, and isn’t afraid to offer a thought that might piss off a player, coach, fan, boss or ex-teammate.
I lay that out for you not as a paid member of the Sean Salisbury fan club but because it connects to this next story.
This past Monday, Sean took to Twitter and announced that going forward on his radio program in Houston, the national anthem controversy would not be a topic of conversation. Not for one minute or one second would sports fans be subjected to discussion on one of the most polarizing topics in sports media circles.
Upon learning of Sean’s stance, I applauded his decision. I love the NFL, and enjoy hearing and watching hosts discuss and debate football teams, players, and topics with fans. Since I was a kid, Sunday’s during the fall have been special. I’ve tried to share my enthusiasm for the game with my son, and fortunately he’s embraced the sport even though our NY Giants have produced less than stellar results in recent years. Despite our disappointment with the team’s performance, our love for the game has never waned.
But as much as I love pro football, I can’t say that the media coverage dedicated to covering anthem protests and highlighting the outspoken views of players on situations outside the sport hasn’t had an affect on enjoying it. If a camera shows a player kneeling, some get angry over a distraction being created. If the camera doesn’t show it, noise is made over freedom of speech and expression being hindered. It’s become exhausting listening to both sides lose their minds over this never ending issue.
To make matters worse, the second a player takes to Twitter to express a personal view or takes a knee on the sideline before a game, it feels like it’s the only thing some media members care to discuss. It’s as if the game itself isn’t enough, and they’re looking for a way to introduce their personal political views into sports.
The reason most fans have watched the NFL for the past few decades is because they love to see two teams and their highly skilled players compete to be the best. The twists and turns that occur during the span of a sixty minute contest have long been the bait to keep us biting at the hook. It’s why the league has remained atop the television ratings year after year.
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on though, the one constant you’ve been able to count on for the past few years is sports talk radio hosts reacting to the anthem issue the day after. In some cases, it’s a content focus the second it happens. But what about when a show takes a stand to eliminate it from its content as Salisbury is doing in Houston? Is that a bad decision? Is he making the right call, sensing that the audience is fatigued, and tired of hearing about it?
Looking at it from afar, here are a few of my initial thoughts.
First, if you hate the amount of attention given to this issue, and it’s affected your interest in the NFL, you’re going to welcome this news. Knowing that you can turn on a show, and not hear a host spend time discussing who knelt on Sunday, and whether Colin Kaepernick belongs on a roster will be seen as a breath of fresh air. It tells fans with that point of view that they can tune in, and count on the show to focus on issues related to their local team, and developments which have or could affect the next game, without hearing about other negative issues taking place in the world.
Salisbury’s position also creates an immediate difference in strategy between his show and the other local options available in his timeslot. That doesn’t mean that the other two local sports radio programs in the market are going all-in on anthem issues, they just haven’t declared the subject off limits yet.
By taking this approach, Sean is energizing his fans, and hoping that more people in Houston share the same belief that eliminating anthem protest discussions on sports radio to focus on the Texans and/or any other key NFL issue is a better use of air time. It also creates an opportunity for the station’s sales department to target advertisers who want to be included in sports radio programming without feeling like there’s a possibility of their spots airing in between divisive commentaries and topics.
But now let’s flip the script, because there’s also danger associated with taking a hard line on specific subjects.
The one thing we know about sports is to always expect the unexpected. You can make a judgement in the moment that feels right, and is initially seen as a positive, but then something happens that you never accounted for. It’s in those moments when you’re forced to either modify your stance, or stay true to it, and miss out on talking about an issue that you never believed would happen, but is now the number one thing moving your audience.
As we sit here on August 15th it’s highly unlikely that we’d see Jerry Jones or Tom Brady take a knee during the national anthem. But what if they did? What if before a game we saw an entire team drop to a knee? Either of those issues would quickly become the biggest story in NFL circles, and inside your listener’s place of employment. Those fans who tune into your show would likely avoid you the next day if they wanted to hear more about the subject because you’ve already gone on record promising not to touch it.
Let’s explore another example.
Wasn’t Houston Texans owner Bob McNair outspoken during an NFL owners meeting last year where he proclaimed the inmates were running the asylum? Given what we’ve read and heard about McNair, it seems unlikely that even in a dire situation he’d approve the signing of Colin Kaepernick. But what if the Texans did the unthinkable? What do you do then?
I realize some of these examples are unlikely to occur, but when you firmly adopt a position, you become married to it. Your intentions may be good, but by definitively promising not to explore certain subjects, you leave yourself little wiggle room when unexpected situations develop.
That said, there’s a lot to be said for sticking to your beliefs as a talent. It’s what many programmers ask of their hosts – pick a side, support your opinion with evidence, and be willing to defend it. There’s always a risk that it can blow up in your face at a later point in time, not to mention a lot more aggravation from dealing with negative feedback on social media. Sean though isn’t worried about that, and he’s committed himself to a position. Whether you agree or disagree with him, I commend him for standing up for what he believes in.
In our world, sports is the main course meal that we promise to serve our listeners. It’s what instantly makes us different from NewsTalk, Music, and other entertainment choices. The NFL’s players, in-game moments, results, contracts, off season moves, etc. have consistently proven to be attractive to our audiences, and that should be enough to stimulate our on-air talent. It’s no coincidence that when the NFL is on display during the fall, many sports radio brands enjoy a spike in listening and engagement.
This notion that sports aren’t interesting enough to excite people to listen for an extended period is not one I share. If a personality is invested in a sports subject, entertaining, informed, passionate, and able to provide sharp opinions that make the audience think, people will listen. Fans do still enjoy the games, and hearing hosts debate in-game decisions, individual contracts, comments made by players, and other sports related issues. If they didn’t, we’d have fewer sports stations, and less companies eager to spend billions to operate in the sports media space.
It’s important to remember that just because you do this for a living, and get tired of traveling, dealing with difficult organizations and players, and watching games, doesn’t mean the audience feels the same. Media people have a tendency sometimes to think that the way they and their colleagues feel is how the everyday fan feels, and that’s not the case. Most fans watch games to enjoy them, not to identify a topic for the next show. That doesn’t mean that our jobs aren’t stressful or complicated, but if you can’t find love for talking about sports thru a microphone, and appreciate how it creates a connection for you with an audience, then something is wrong.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of hosts across the country who love sports, watch them intently, and look forward to sharing what they’ve observed with their listeners. Sean is clearly one of them. Different markets have their own complexities and unique personalities, but a smart on-air talent recognizes which local teams, players, and issues appeal to their audience. By designing their content around those key items, they give themselves the best chance to win.
There are always going to be segments of an audience that flock to a show which dives head first into social issues, and other polarizing topics. There’s another segment of the audience which is going to prefer to hear about sports, and escape those intense real life discussions. In Sean Salisbury’s case, he’s counting on the latter. Now only time will tell if that’s what the people of Houston want or if they prefer the alternative approach.