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Earlier this summer I talked to two broadcasters who are battling the hurricane forces of the Canadian sports media industry. An industry that is threatening to leave them, and others, behind.
I don’t know many people who get more excited when the calendar flips to July every year, than long time Toronto sports radio personality Mike Hogan. The self-proclaimed football nut, is without a doubt, one of the CFL’s biggest supporters, and fans. The months of April and May this year, however, made for a nervous springtime for the long time radio voice of the Toronto Argos. On April 5th, Hogan received a call from Jamie Dykstra, the Argos Senior Director of Media & Communications. Dykstra informed Hogan the team would not be producing a radio exclusive call of its 2017 games. “(It) surprised me a great deal,” Hogan said of the call. “It was a decision that they made. I wasn’t happy about it obviously, but it was one I had to live with, because it was their decision.”
Later that day, Hogan took to Twitter to let his followers know the Argos would be airing the play by play audio of the TSN TV broadcasts on the radio in 2017, and as a result, he was out of a gig. “I wasn’t trying to upstage the Argos or make it look like I was pissed off or anything,” Hogan recalled. “There was part of me that was really sad because I just thought it was over, and I wouldn’t be doing games anymore. It hit home. And I just wanted to thank people because so many people have reached out to me, and made doing Argo football so damn much fun. I just wanted to get it out there, and make it sincere that I was really appreciative of those who had helped me along the way.”
As in most cases, money was a big factor in making the change. “The (radio) ratings weren’t great,” Hogan said. “It’s a tough sell here in Toronto, and (the radio broadcast) is not a cheap venture. You’re paying for flights for (broadcast partner) Jeff Johnson and me, hotels, per diems, travel on the road. It adds up in a hurry. That is the main reason. It was losing money. Very few sales on the broadcast as well. Until it stops being a revenue drag, it makes it more difficult to sell the idea of doing the broadcasts.”
Six weeks went by, and Dykstra called again. This time to let Hogan know the team wanted him back for 2017, with an expanded role – a team story-teller, if you will. Along with calling the home games, and the road games in Hamilton, Hogan writes a blog for the Argos website, and hosts a weekly podcast, called the Double Blue Podcast, with Johnson. Two NHL teams recently added accomplished media personalities to their respective digital editorial teams as well. Long time ESPN reporter Scott Burnside was hired by the Dallas Stars, and popular Winnipeg sports writer and broadcaster Gary Lawless was hired by the Vegas Golden Knights. “The more the fans are able to learn about the team, the better,” Hogan said. “I think (the Argos) realized last year with the new stadium, with the mindset they have, they wanted to stress the fun of going to a game, stress the tailgate. I think what got lost was the steak to go with the sizzle. And they wanted to increase the story telling of the players, of the game. And that’s why (they brought) me aboard.”
As pumped as Hogan is for this season, he is certainly aware of the troubled times in the sports media industry. “I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” Hogan said. “I’m not working much for TSN (Radio) anymore. Without the Argos it was a major hit. Luckily this is going to help, but it’s not a ton of dough, and it’s six month a year. I’m looking, whether it’s moving to another media market somewhere else in the country or finding a job here in Toronto that’s not necessarily in media, or working in football somewhere. I just don’t know. I’d like to be able to stay here. I’d like to be able to still work with the CFL, or with a football team somewhere, but I just don’t know. I was really ratcheting up the job search while I was trying to figure out what was going to happen, because I was just really kind of scared about what the future held. Luckily, this came along, and will keep it busy for the next six months.”
Mike Hogan isn’t the only member of the Canadian sports media trying to navigate his or her way through these unsettled times in the industry. Barry Davis was a popular personality on Sportsnet’s Blue Jays TV broadcasts, filling the role of on-field reporter. Davis was told this past baseball offseason he wouldn’t be part of the 2017 broadcast crew, so he decided to decline other work from Sportsnet, and go out on his own. With encouragement from a friend, Davis decided to start up the Outta The Park Podcast, a weekly podcast focusing on Blue Jays coverage. “When I stopped working for Sportsnet in January,” Davis said, “I knew things had changed a lot in the business. I had to think of a new avenue, a new way to go. I hadn’t really thought about podcasting. I didn’t really know much about (them). I’m an older guy,” Davis said, with a mild chuckle. “I didn’t grow up in that kind of era. I heard of them, but didn’t really know what they were.”
In most cases, bloggers, and podcasts struggle for team access, especially in sports media. Some teams are hesitant to provide media credentials, or allow for player access to what team PR departments call “new media.” Davis’s wealth of contacts from his years working on the team broadcast has allowed him to break through, landing interviews with key Blue Jays players, coaches, and alumni. Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Roberto Osuna have all guested on the podcast, as has Blue Jays manger John Gibbons. And Davis has proved that good content, is good content. It doesn’t matter if it’s produced by the big boys at Rogers or Bell, one of the daily “papers,” or an independently produced podcast. Davis had a revealing interview with former Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro. Navarro shared, for the first time, how his wife’s serious health problems affected his game. His wife, diagnosed last year with a brain aneurysm, had a massive stroke in January that left her in a coma for three months. The story was picked up by Sports Illustrated, and other sports news outlets.
Davis releases a new podcast every week, and periodically a written blog. “I’m probably busier now,” Davis said. “I have a lot more things going on in my life, between the podcast, a band I’m playing in. I’m acting now, and gotten a few gigs, just really enjoying this. And, instead of being on the road for 150 days a year, I’m now spending a lot of time at home with my family, which is probably the best thing of all.”