You're excused if last night while channel surfing, you ended up on ESPN, ran across a rock concert, and did a double-take with your remote control. Or if one day last week, ESPN was on in the background, and you thought you heard a promo for the Eagles coming to ESPN on Sunday night, and you assumed it was another of those classic rivalry rerun games between the Philadelphia Eagles and their arch rivals, the Dallas Cowboys from the 90's.
The three-hour Eagles special ESPN ran last night was about guitars and drums – not helmets and shoulder pads. The featured superstars included Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and rookies Vince Gill and Deacon Frey (sitting in for the late Glenn Frey), and the other members of one of rock's most popular and venerable teams…er, bands.
This may have indeed been a first – a rock concert on ESPN, the epitome of sports media on a prime Sunday night when there should have been a Yankees/Red Sox game. But these are COVID-19 times when the old playbook is now soaking in the bath water.
What was the management team at ESPN (and their parent company, Disney) thinking?
That in a world where sports – professional and college – have all but disappeared during the pandemic, you'd better come up with something to fill a 24/7 sports network with multiple channels on cable and on every digital outlet imaginable.
Consider this: earlier in the day on ESPN, they aired a cornhole tournament (the game where you toss bags filled with corn kernels into holes on a wood board), along with tired documentaries and replays of “classic” games. All that stuff might have worked in the first few weeks of the pandemic, but not anymore.
The magic elixir of rock and sports has tantalized many radio and TV broadcasters. And it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows or has done business with long time Eagles manager – Irving Azoff (pictured at right)- that he was the showman that put this event together.
“Music and sports fans have been shut out from live events for more than three months,” noted Azoff. He added the premier of “Live From The Forum MMXVIII “is the Eagles' gift to their fans.” It was also a gift to ESPN, a media behemoth struggling with finding content – something that seemed unthinkable six months ago.
It was also a brilliant move for the wily and innovative Azoff and his band of senior citizens. While other mega-rock stars from Metallica to Elton John have been giving away their concerts and events on livestreaming platforms since the COVID-19 outbreak enveloped the world, the Eagles obviously cashed in on ESPN's programming drought.
Azoff is not only exposing a great concert featuring his amazing team, he's also marketing their assets via Rhino, while also pre-selling “Hotel California” tour dates starting in the fall of 2021. And ESPN included one of their top personalities – Chris Berman – to host the special.
The confluence of rock (especially Classic Rock) and sports has been well-known among radio programmers and managers. But it has never taken off as a format.
Sure, sports radio stations often use hit rock songs for their bumper music, but that's pretty much where the crossover stops. That's because there's a checkered history of rock and sports marriages over the past many years.
Back at KQRS in the late '80s, morning star Tom Barnard became especially well-known for his inspiring rants and parody humor, directed mostly at the Twins and Vikings. While the “homer” station – WCCO – could not speak ill words or even think negative thoughts about the hometown teams, Barnard had license to go off on the players, the managers, and the organizations. And he did. Sports and Classic Rock were two main dishes on his show during a time when he became the top-rated personality in the Twin Cities.
Not long after that, I was consulting WNCX in Cleveland, and we discovered an entertaining character holding court in a local pub, doing bar stool sports commentary. We put Mike Trivisonno on the air – with no real radio experience – and he's become a hometown broadcasting staple.
And during the throes of the Howard Stern invasion in Philly, WMMR experimented with a short-lived rock + sports morning show, pairing John DeBella with outspoken sports personality, Howard Eskin. The chemistry may not have been there, but the concept made strategic sense in a town that takes its sports ultra-seriously.
At a time when more and more brands are being forced to pivot, ESPN is sending the message that it is open to stepping outside of the friendly confines of the field, the court, the diamond, and the rink to get ratings, and create new coalitions of fans.
And while the Eagles (the band) don't need the money, the proof of concept behind a Classic Rock concert on the world's biggest sports network may be just what the doctor ordered.
Sports media – including radio stations specializing in sports – are hurting. And so are many musical artists denied the ability to tour because of the virus.
If social media is an indicator of anything, the reviews on Twitter were overwhelmingly positive:
— JJ McLaughlin⚾🇮🇪🇺🇸 (@JJMcLaughlin6) July 6, 2020
Well, mostly positive:
— Trevor Michaels (@trevmikewrites) July 6, 2020
ESPN may have “broke format” last night, but it was a helluva lot more entertaining than watching a World Series game the the 80's.
Like one of those buddy movies that puts two interesting and very different stars together, a partnership that combines the best of both rock and sports worlds could have merit – at least while we're enduring the weirdest summer ever.
As Chris Berman might say, “This could go…all…the…way!”