Changing economics of radio and sports
MONDAY, 01 NOVEMBER 2010 12:31
BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
At one time, there were a lot of New York Islanders fans in New Jersey and in Connecticut. There probably are still Islanders fans in New Jersey despite the presence of the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers and in the southern part of the state, the Philadelphia Flyers. New Jersey-based Islanders fans can see the team in a variety of ways whether it is on cable TV, satellite TV, or part of a NHL league-wide pay TV package or on the Internet. What Islanders fans cannot do in New Jersey and in a good chunk of the metropolitan New York region is listen to the game on a radio because the Islanders radio broadcasts are being aired on a signal challenged college radio station on the low FM band from Hofstra University.
Welcome to the 21st century where radio is an afterthought long after announcers brought games into the living room and created legends in the 1920s and 1930s. No one outside of the arena ever saw Joe Louis box live but Joe Louis' boxing matches were there on radio in the living room.
The way radio and sports work now is quite different from the halcyon days of the marriage of the two industries when radio brought games, particularly, baseball games to all parts of the United States and Canada. The St. Louis Cardinals baseball team was immensely popular outside of St. Louis because the team's broadcast partner KMOX's signal boomed around the country. Eventually the Cardinals and KMOX divorced because KMOX after 51 years didn't want to pay the Cardinals a large chunk of cash after the 2005 baseball season. St. Louis' management opted to buy into a much weaker station, KTRS, and all of a sudden the team lost a huge chunk of market penetration in just St. Louis. KMOX and the Cardinals just signed a new contract and Cardinals management is trying to sell off the team's portion of KTRS.
Despite the rather poor signal, St. Louis Cardinals baseball on KTRS and the Cardinals radio network based on the percentage on the size of market was the most listened to team of the all 25 teams participating in Arbitron's rating of baseball teams among 25-54 year old men in 2009. One in every five in that category listened to Cardinals baseball during the season or about 135,200 men. Neither the New York Yankees nor the New York Mets came close to that percentage, although because of market size both New York teams had more than twice the number of Cardinals listeners. The Yankees, the 2009 champions, had on average 412,500 listeners in the 25 to 54 category and the Mets did about 277,000 just slightly less than the big market Chicago Cubs. The Steinbrenner-family Yankees was seventh on the list; Wilpon's Flushing squad was 12th. Oakland was 25th with a 1.7 share but Seattle and Washington had fewer listeners. Five teams did not participate in the 2009 survey. All 30 teams were included in this year's Arbitron's service.
Baseball gets more listeners than basketball and hockey and the numbers are quite low which is why radio stations are no longer giving cash to teams. Radio stations on the AM dial would rather have packaged syndicated program than sports events which interrupt regular schedules. An Islanders broadcast say on WOR (a station that used to carry Islanders games) would get in the way of the syndicated Michael Savage and his daily hate spewed rants. Although Rutgers football and basketball is on WOR for some reason.
The Rutgers aberration might be explained this way. The sports fan is the prime demographic for a lot of advertising companies. And WOR makes more money because Rutgers buys the airtime.
In New York, the sports stations WFAN and WEPN do most of the radio play by play. WFAN has the Mets and sells time to the Giants, Nets and Devils and WEPN sells time to the Jets, Knicks and Rangers. Overlap games go to smaller and weaker signals for the most part although WBBR, with a robust signal, will air a game here and there to break up all financial all the time radio. In Philadelphia, WPHT breaks up its stellar lineup of "conservative" talkers to broadcast Phillies baseball and Temple sports but sports station WIP has the Flyers and 76ers. Some overlap games head over to WPHT. The Eagles broadcasts are on an FM station, WYSP.
In 2008, Michael Weiner, who assumed the Michael Savage character, said that nearly every child with autism is "a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out." The AM radio band has evolved into a pile of rubbish with older men playing the role of nasty creatures who just say things to cause shock and grab listeners' attention. As this has happened, the radio audience has aged dramatically which is exemplified by the number of commercials with products aimed at an audience of 60 and older. A sport brings in a younger audience but it is very costly where as a talk show is cheap.
Just about all radio stations don't want to pay for sporting events.
The radio industry is in awfully poor shape and has been that way for years. The radio "stars" of today are older and cut their teeth at small stations. Because of syndication, there are few stations that allow youngsters to develop a style and radio stations are not looking for intellectual talk either. The poster boy for radio today is Glenn Beck. In the glory days of the industry it was Jack Benny, Fred Allen and lots of sports.
Most sports teams buy airtime and then sell commercials as part of an overall media package. Charles Wang's Islanders either did not want to buy airtime or no stations had any interest in airing Islanders games. The Yankees and WCBS contract may be one of the few exceptions to the rule. The Bronx team actually gets some cash as part of a $14 million annual deal.
Wang's Islanders team can be picked up on a variety of sources. The Hofstra radio signal is available on Long Island, there is the Internet and pay XM radio as well so it is not that the Islanders play hockey in a radio vacuum. The Islanders games are on FM and FM station owners are pressing for an FM tuner as an app on phones and that could help the radio industry.
There probably are a good many reasons why Islanders games are on a college radio station. For those who don't understand the changing broadcast spectrum and have condemned the Islanders brass perhaps they should be paying attention to what is going on in the radio industry. Sure the Islanders marketing strategy has consolidated to Nassau and Suffolk Counties in New York but the team's cable TV deal dovetails the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils cable TV roadmap as all three teams are on the Madison Square Garden cable network. Cable TV is where the money is made. Radio is an afterthought these days. It provides market coverage but it is no longer a money maker.
Islanders hockey is on a college radio station. Oakland A's baseball was once on a college station. The days of Mel Allen and the Yankees, Russ Hodges and the Giants, Red Barber and the Dodgers, Marty Glickman and the Knicks, Marv Albert and the Knicks are gone. It is a different world out there. Last year the Islanders radio broadcasts was a voice feed from TV, this year the Islanders actually have a real radio announcer. The games are available but unlike the two New York baseball teams that are on 50,000 watt stations or the other teams that are on sports stations, Islanders fans in New Jersey have to look for the games.
In the near future, all teams will have apps available for phones and that will appeal to the 18 to 24 year olds who don't own a radio and many in that age group will not buy a radio.
Radio does have an advantage. Radio is a mobile medium. You can have it with you out jogging and in your car. But you need a big signal for a sports team. That is where the Islanders lose.
Evan Weiner is an award winning author, radio-TV commentator and speaking on "The Business and Politics of Sports." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org