What’s changed — and what’s stayed the same — in a decade on the sports media beat in Boston
Ten years ago, give or take a few days, my first media column was published in this corner. It was a tryout of sorts, and the topic was NESN Bruins broadcasters Jack Edwards (who had recently coined the phrase “redcoat retreat” after a playoff victory over the dastardly Canadiens) and Andy Brickley.
They told me they liked the Bruins’ chances of having a special postseason, though Brickley was more pragmatic while Edwards basically had the Bruins shooting lasers out of their skates, pillaging assorted Canadian cities, and taking names en route to the Stanley Cup. Not much has changed there.
I guess I passed the tryout, or didn’t colossally fail it anyway, because I’ve been writing media stuff for Friday print publication ever since. I stumbled onto this least-exciting anniversary ever mentioned while searching for an old story in our archives.
I’m acknowledging it not for any particularly noteworthy reason — I’m not going anywhere, and you can’t make me — but because it got me thinking about how much has changed in this market, and how much, somewhat surprisingly, has not.
The media basically has become the fifth major sports beat in Boston, and it rates higher than fifth if you’re judging by the web traffic it generates. Ten years ago, though, the gig that the Globe’s Jack Craig invented and mastered had become awfully close to an afterthought, a potential victim of shrinking sports sections and budgets.
As it turned out, it was the perfect time to rev up the beat, especially in Boston. Among the major developments on the Boston sports media scene in 2008-09:
■ WEEI relaunched its longtime punch line of a website, hiring Rob Bradford as editor and assembling an excellent staff that included Alex Speier, Chris Price, Paul Flannery, and writer/fill-in host Michael Felger.
■ NBC Sports Boston hired several on-air personalities and launched a revamped website that included Tom Curran, Sean McAdam, A. Sherrod Blakely, and Joe Haggerty as beat reporters/“insiders.”
■ ESPN Boston hired Mike Reiss, perhaps the most respected reporter in Boston, from the Globe, and also added Gordon Edes and Chris Forsberg to editor Dave Lefort’s strong initial staff.
■ 98.5 The Sports Hub launched as a legitimate strong-signaled competitor to WEEI, building its afternoon drive show around Felger and longtime baseball writer Tony Massarotti.
That was a tense time for many of us at the Globe as these various sites tried, with varying levels of success, to pilfer our colleagues. But it also led to some enhancements. Boston.com, which then was also the primary home of Globe content, bolstered its staff, and that’s how I ended up moving over from the sports copy desk. I had written a little sports blog on my own time that they decided was worthwhile, I guess.
It was also within that time frame that the Globe launched a weekly sports tabloid with a staff separate from the paper’s. Maybe you remember it. Probably you don’t. It was called OT, and it lasted less than a year, but it had an eclectic writing staff that included Charlie Pierce, Massarotti, Tom Caron, Bob Lobel, Eric Wilbur, and yours truly. Copies were next to impossible to find at newsstands, and most of the existing ones are beneath cat carriers, Halloween decorations, and various little-used garden tools in my garage.
But it was high-quality, looked great, and was the place where I learned first-hand about the impact of writing about sports media. I wrote two pieces for OT about media that I recall. (Sorry, not going to the garage to take inventory.)
One ranked the Boston sports broadcast teams on TV and radio. I put Mike and Tommy (after 30-something years, no last names are necessary) first, and that would not change today. We still have it great in our broadcast booths, though based on ongoing correspondence, it’s clear a significant number of Red Sox fans will never fully forgive the forced departure of Don Orsillo after the 2015 season.
The other was a pointed criticism/prediction: That WEEI would be humbled if a strong-signaled competitor came along. A couple of months later, The Sports Hub launched. (I had no idea it was in the works.) Less than a year after that, it had surpassed WEEI in the Arbitron (now Nielsen) ratings.
WEEI wasn’t necessarily humbled. The day the story came out, Glenn Ordway spent a decent chunk of his four hours lecturing his audience on how sports radio worked. He certainly knows how to survive it, having been dumped, then returning again.
It’s interesting and somewhat amusing to look at all of the peaks (polarizing Kirk Minihane’s revival of the morning show’s ratings) and valleys (the abysmal Mike Salk months) at WEEI since then and realize that Ordway, Dale Arnold, and Gerry Callahan are all currently in the roles they held a decade ago — and as far back as October 1997, actually.
There is stability to admire here — who doesn’t appreciate Mike Lynch’s 37-year run at Channel 5? — but many of those sports media changes from a decade ago have long since morphed into something else. ESPN Boston is a shell of what it was. NBC Sports Boston has shifted more and more toward the hot-take culture, though Curran remains a voice of reason and institutional Patriots knowledge. Twitter and other social media platforms have added elements both satisfying and infuriating, more and more often the latter.
The Sports Hub and WEEI have long since proven that a two-sports-station town is more than doable. They have battled for the top of the men 25-54 demographic since their rivalry began, though The Sports Hub, with Felger and Massarotti dominating afternoon drive, has had more consistent success.
I never would have believed it a decade ago, but I do now: I think Boston could sustain three sports radio stations, so long as the franchises remain strong and compelling. I’m not asking for that, though.
Not sure writing about three sports radio stations could be sustainable for your friendly sports media columnist’s frame of mind, though. But covering two, and everything else on an exciting and exasperating sports media scene the last 10 years, has been plenty fulfilling so far.