To this day the two have never met in person, but the podcast, which began as part of the blog network SB Nation and then grew in popularity when it joined the audio network Blue Wire, leading the two die-hard fans to live out a sports junkie’s dream: a job with their favorite team. On Thursday, the Cavaliers announced that they are hiring Rodriguez and Rowan, and that the podcast will be published by the team and hosted on its website.
“It’s definitely a dream come true,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been a superfan since I was a kid. We can’t minimize the wildness of this.”
To Jonathan Sumers, senior director of digital partnerships and esports for the Cavaliers, hiring the two hosts — they are independent contractors and will maintain ownership of the RSS feed — will help the team connect with fans in a growing medium, with the help of the fan’s voice.
It’s also an experiment in a franchise’s desire to produce its own content at a time when traditional media, especially radio and newspapers, are in decline and teams are trying to fill the gaps. And it’s another test of how teams will cover themselves amid those aspirations to grow as media companies.
“We’re looking to use this as a test case to see if there is an audience for it,” Sumers said. If it’s successful, he said, the organization could build more media offerings in areas such as social media and virtual reality.
A full-scale version of what that might look like already exists in Memphis. In 2016, the Memphis Grizzlies, led by owner Robert Pera and team president Jason Wexler, looked around a shrinking local media landscape and decided to act.
“We recognized in our market, as legacy and traditional local media sources were in decline, we had a significant reach and are functionally the largest media and entertainment company already,” Wexler said.
The Grizzlies launched a media company, Grind City Media, and hired a team of media pros, including Mike Wallace, a former ESPN reporter, and one of the city’s most popular local radio hosts, Chris Vernon, who left ESPN radio to launch a daily show. Grind City now broadcasts a morning TV show, available to stream or on-demand, in addition to a podcast network anchored by Vernon and written articles about the Grizzlies but also football and culture.
For Vernon, the move was as much about the radio landscape as what Grind City Media could become.
“Every year at the radio station, revenue was going down,” he said. “I’m sitting there going, ‘I’ve got to make a decision for the next 10-20 years, not the next five years.’ I’m not going to be a radio star in 10 years. I don’t think anybody’s going to be a radio star in 10 years.”
Whatever Vernon was feeling in 2016, the pandemic has accelerated the crunch on local media outlets that are navigating a fracturing landscape and shrinking ad dollars. And with the exception of the Athletic, the digital media companies filling the void, from the Ringer to Barstool Sports, are largely national.
Other teams across professional leagues are still ramping up their own content output. In Washington, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, has launched a digital radio network and a streaming platform that broadcasts some 500 live sporting events each year, including short and long-form videos covering the team. The team now counts a player with Japanese roots, Rui Hachimura, and the Israeli Deni Avdija on its roster, so it has launched its own Japanese- and Hebrew-language content platforms.
There’s an obvious downside, at least for fans who crave independent coverage of their favorite teams: This trend means that more content made about teams is controlled by teams, making it less likely that coverage will include criticism of poor play or coverage of an ugly contract dispute or legal issue. Official team websites, which have been around for years, rarely cover their subjects with as much rigor as the newspapers they are now competing with.
Vernon said in his years with Grind City, the team has never spoken to him about his commentary.
“The ultimate judge is if people listen to it,” he said. “If it was going to be a cheerleader show, nobody would listen, and they didn’t bring in the Chris Vernon Show so no one would want to listen anymore.”
Carter and Rowan said they had conversations about critical coverage with Cavaliers executives. “It’s been communicated that we can be critical,” Rowan said. “They’ve said, ‘Have your own opinions and be the voice of the fan we’ve been to this point.’ But with any criticism, we don’t want it to be personal and we want to put some thought into how we frame it.”