Though he spent the last 10 years on the Boston sports-radio scene, ESPN 1000 market manager Mike Thomas wore his lifelong Bears fandom on his sleeve.
Actually, up his sleeve.
“I wasn’t one of these guys who got tattoos as a teenager and now looking back, ‘Oh, man, why’d I do that?’ ” said Thomas, who was born Downstate, grew up in Wisconsin Dells and worked in many upper Midwest locales. “I started getting tattoos when I was in my 30s. I think the Bears head is one of the greatest logos in sports. I decided to put it on my arm.”
His other tattoo has a Bears connection.
When Thomas worked at WYMG in Springfield in the late 1990s, he was broadcasting live as Bears great Walter Payton made a promotional appearance at Menards for Menards Racing. Thomas was thrilled to interview Payton, who couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating.
To commemorate one of the highlights of his on-air career, Thomas took the cassette aircheck tape of the interview and had its image, label and all, tattooed on his forearm. It took the artist three hours, but it was time well-spent to Thomas.
Now that he’s running a Chicago sports-radio station, he can follow the Bears closely. But he has done much more than that in almost a year on the job, revitalizing a station that had stagnated while perhaps halting the notion that The Score, the city’s original all-sports talker, is the dominant one in town.
In fact, no one can claim dominance. Sports talk is strong on both ends of the dial. But ESPN 1000 can claim victory in the key demographic of men 25-54 in Nielsen Audio’s summer ratings book.
According to Barrett Sports Media, ESPN 1000 won all three months from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday, winning 3.3-2.8 in July, 3.1-2.5 in August and 3.0-2.6 in September. However, for the full week, from 6 a.m.-midnight, The Score won 2.9-2.5.
The Score gets a boost in the summer from carrying Cubs games, and ESPN 1000 is hoping for one of its own after taking on the White Sox last week. But Thomas also has taken a granular approach to reshaping ESPN 1000 after launching The Sports Hub and vaulting it past the established WEEI in Boston.
“There should be more focus on local digital and social media,” Thomas said. “And with so many people working from home this year, we’ve seen big increases in the amount of people that are consuming us online because they aren’t in their cars for hours.”
Thomas said creating the ESPN Chicago app was a priority for him. If you ever tried to find the station on the ESPN app, you’d understand why — it takes several steps to find. The ESPN Chicago app isn’t fancy, but at least you can hear the station upon opening it. Thomas also was the first in the city to put shows on Twitch, a video-streaming platform that’s becoming inhabited by more than just gamers.
He’s added shows, too, pairing Jonathan Hood and David Kaplan to give the station its first local morning show in more than two decades. Thomas has tweaked the sound of the station, as well, reducing the number of interviews to give listeners more airtime and creating consistency from show to show.
“We still have key interviews and key contributors, but one thing that really stood out to me coming in was that the fans didn’t really have a big voice on the station,” Thomas said. “It was much more interview-focused. That’s been a big change for us in the past year.
“Another thing we focused on were some inconsistencies with our sound from show to show. Things were being done a little bit different. And so we narrowed our focus to make sure that no matter when you tuned in, the overall feel, the overall sound of the station was consistent.”
The station will have a new sound next summer, when the Sox return after meandering from The Score to WLS to WGN since 2015. The Sox were on 1000-AM from 1996 to 2005, when they won the World Series, before leaving for The Score.
Thomas, who was involved in rights partnerships in Boston with the Celtics, Bruins and Patriots – The Sports Hub carries all three – said having play-by-play is essential for an all-sports station. ESPN 1000 hasn’t had the rights to a local pro team since the Bulls left for WLS in 2016. They’re on The Score now.
“It’s just the amount of people that will spend time with the radio station,” Thomas said. “Even if you’re not a diehard sports-radio fan but you like the South Siders, you’re going to probably spend time with ESPN 1000 now. And that gives the whole station a lift, especially with where the White Sox are now.”
Thomas has accomplished all of this while navigating through a pandemic that has forced cuts across sports media, but not at his station. Under Good Karma Brands management, ESPN 1000 has avoided layoffs and furloughs, which might not have happened if the station was still under Disney ownership with ESPN. It remains an affiliate of ESPN Radio, which leases the station to Good Karma Brands.
“Now that sports are back, we’re back to business,” Thomas said. “And I think the White Sox deal is a perfect example of that. There are not many companies that are signing multiyear deals right now with all the uncertainty in the world. And I think that is a perfect example of how we feel pretty confident as a small company that we are in a pretty good position to succeed.”
- Al Michaels will take a bye week when the Bears visit the Packers on Nov. 29 on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” Mike Tirico will join Cris Collinsworth in the booth. NBC said in September that Michaels would take some games off to cut down on travel because of the pandemic.
- The White Sox will appear on ESPN’s first “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcast of the 2021 season when they visit the Angels at 7:30 p.m. April 4. The Sox also will be in the nightcap of an ESPN quadrupleheader April 5, when they visit the Mariners.