There are still five days left in 2022. But when it comes to sports talk radio, the year is effectively in the books. And it is time to start looking toward what could be a wild 2023.
Here is a look at what may, or may not, happen on local airwaves and elsewhere in 2023:
How much longer will Michael Kay be in afternoon drive? Kay has lost to WFAN in the ratings for most of his 20 years at ESPN Radio New York. There were brief moments of glory against Mike Francesa (Fall 2019) and Craig Carton and Evan Roberts (Fall 2021). But for the most part, Kay and ESPN have had to settle for being competitive. And even that seems unattainable currently. They are getting walloped now.
WFAN tripled the audience of Kay, Don La Greca and Peter Rosenberg in November. And while Francesa’s show gradually declined in quality to the point Kay could overtake him, Carton and Roberts figure to only strengthen their stranglehold on the time slot moving forward. So things look pretty bleak right now.
ESPN has never been all about ratings with Kay. As one prominent local voice once told us: How many guys get to lose as much as he has and remain employed? But it’s hard to imagine the station would re-emphasize local programming while continuing to roll out a hopeless flagship show. Kay’s contract is expected to come up in the new year. He already raised eyebrows with his extended sabbatical last summer. This could be the end of the road as he chooses to focus on calling the Yankees for the YES Network.
And you know what? That might be what ESPN needs. Kay has moaned and groaned about Carton and Roberts doing “guy talk” on several occasions. And yes, some of their content is low-brow at best. But if ESPN cannot fight back during an extremely newsy fall in the city with several playoff-caliber teams competing, it probably is time to do something different. Whatever that may be.
Will ESPN’s pivot to (mostly) local programming matter? WFAN is always going to be the top dog in town. But ESPN has needlessly tied its arm behind its back for far too long by carrying so much national programming. They are finally doing something about it, but it is still a half-measure. And that means the impact will likely be minimal.
It makes sense to give Rick DiPietro and Dave Rothenberg a true 6-10 a.m. morning show. They are the station’s strongest link and the morning ratings will improve. But it is hard to imagine they will ever threaten Boomer Esiason and Gregg Giannotti. And the momentum DiPietro and Rothenberg generate will be immediately squandered with Mike Greenberg’s national show he rarely hosts staying on the schedule in middays from 10-12. Which makes no sense.
WFAN’s midday duo of Tiki Barber and Brandon Tierney has been solid. Exactly what the ‘FAN was looking for when it dumped Marc Malusis and Maggie Gray moved back to CBS Sports Radio. But, at least on paper, middays would be the most realistic spot for ESPN to make real inroads based on the current schedules. Why not try to boost Alan Hahn and Bart Scott then? Hahn and Scott should be starting at 10 a.m. and going head-to-head with Barber and Tierney. Or have DiPietro and Rothenberg go until 11 a.m. and have Hahn and Scott begin then.
What is next for Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo? Doggie has experienced a career renaissance thanks to his weekly residence with Stephen A. Smith on ESPN First Take. He even got a bunch of extra reps when he worked the show without Smith last summer. It has been the best $10,000 a pop the Worldwide Leader has ever spent. But will ESPN try to get more in 2023?
Russo’s Sirius XM contract is reportedly up in the spring. ESPN may be tempted to make him Smith’s permanent foil. But that could mess with their mojo. And who knows if Russo wants to commute to ESPN’s downtown studio five days a week. There is also the question of Russo’s MLB Network deal.
Chances are Russo will stay with Sirius and keep doing what he’s doing with ESPN and MLB Network. But the wild card dream scenario: Kay leaves afternoon drive and ESPN Radio New York — owned by Mel Karmazin, Russo’s old boss at Sirius and WFAN — backs up the Brinks truck and Russo returns to local airwaves. It would be a blockbuster, market-shaking move that would change everything.
Another year of status quo at WFAN? Things were pretty wild from 2017-21 — Carton’s arrest and conviction, Francesa’s various retirements, Joe Benigno’s retirement, Mark Chernoff’s retirement, the CMB debacle, et cetera. But WFAN is stable again. The morning and afternoon shows dominate, and Barber and Tierney are settled in with middays. Will the song remain the same a year from now? Everything suggests so. But we are not far removed from Esiason retirement rumors, even if they were more a case of Carton busting balls than breaking news. And Carton’s FS1 morning show has already caused some load management ripples. We also need to know if the Carton-John Jastremski beef is squashed or just on hold.
Will Mike Francesa grace ESPN First Take with his presence? It would be the most extraordinary crossover event in sports media history. We need Francesa, Russo and Smith together on one set. We’re counting on you, ESPN head honcho Jimmy Pitaro. Maybe we even need Disney’s Bob Iger to get involved.
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James Kratch can be reached at [email protected]