Thursday, November 3, 2011

It's The Game - Not The Sports Station

The release of radio ratings for the mid-September to mid-October period provide reasons to re-visit the impact of sports radio stations around the country. These ratings come during the busiest time of the year in sports, with football, baseball, hockey, and (not quite) basketball all keeping the sports pages busy.

Several of the large market sports stations have recently done some lineup shuffling, whether to fend off competing sportstalk stations, add a fresh approach, or both. Over the past year, I have taken the point of view that sports station ratings are driven too much by the local teams or major sports happenings moreso than the personalities hosting the shows day after day.

With so much time spent talking about rumors, speculation, and predictions by the various hosts instead of increasing "hard sports news" reporting and having more quality guests, many of the sports stations continue to not make a significant impact with the local radio audience, local programming or not. For the most part, when local teams are making significant news or changes, it reflects positively on the local sports stations.

This is not good for the industry. It tells me that sports fans know these sportstalk stations are there, but choose to listen for a hot topic, and not the personalities.

Not everyone who reads and responds to me on this topic agrees, and that's fine. However, I'm seeing even less to support their arguments on this. Let's look at the latest radio ratings for a group of larger markets.

In New York City, WFAN is now #12 in the market in overall audience, and did increase .4 from the previous month. WEPN showed a 50% overall audience increase over the September ratings and has more than doubled its total audience since July, which is impressive. Yet, there were no significant program lineup changes during this time. Fans are not listening more to these stations because "such-and-such is now on in the afternoon". The audience increases for both stations came during the Yankees' run to the post-season with higher expectations and the start of the Giants' and Jets' seasons.

In Chicago, WSCR The Score 670 came in at #18 overall with another slight increase. Yet, rival WMVP ESPN 1000, while tied for #20 showed its strongest overall rating this year. This coincides with the Bears' season starting, as evidenced by WBBM 780 and 105.9, which airs the play-by-play, rising from a 5.4 to a 6.6 overall in just one month to finish #1 in the market.

I'm going to comment more (and separately) on Los Angeles sports radio later this month, since that market again failed to place either of its sports stations in the top 25 in overall audience.

San Francisco also brings the point home. As the Giants were fading from their chance to repeat a World Series championship and the 49ers brought low expectations (at the time), KNBR 680 lost about 20% of its overall audience from one month earlier and fell to #9 in the market. KTCT The Ticket did show a large increase in listeners, but shows a total audience less than 1/3 of KNBR.

In Dallas, KESN showed a 25% audience increase and finished #9 in the market, while KRLD-FM showed a similar increase while rising to #18 overall. KTCK The Ticket held steady. This while the Rangers were on their way to another World Series (decided after this ratings period) and the Cowboys' season was now in full swing.

Houston is another significant example of why it is the sports climate and not the stations themselves. The 3 "leading" sports radio stations showed increases for the October ratings just as Texans began a season with higher than usual expectations. Heck, KILT's audience increased enough to put a Houston sports station into the top 20 stations overall, even though they are at #19. (Other than Los Angeles, Houston's sports stations have shown perhaps the lowest major league market sports radio ratings over the past couple of years.)

Boston was a sports 'hot bed' during this time, with the severe Red Sox collapse at the same time as the start of the Patriots' season. WEEI/WMKK moved up over a full ratings point over the one month. Before I get the argument that the WMKK simulcast recently began and this would account for the increase, consider that WBZ-FM The Sports Hub ALSO rose more than one full rating point during the same time. Sports talk had been on FM in the Boston area. The late September local sports scene is what brought the fans to want to talk about it.

In Detroit, the Tigers' run to the post-season, the Lions best start in more than 40 years, the opening of the Red Wings season, and early success of Michigan and Michigan State football created a sports frenzy. WXYT-FM 97.1 The Ticket had a second straight record-setting ratings month, rose by .6 overall, and finished #1 in the market.

In Phoenix, the success of the Diamondbacks into the post-season brought KTAR-AM up to more than double the audience ratings it had for August.

In Columbus, WBNS-FM's overall ratings rose from a 5.5 a month earlier to a 6.7, an impressive increase, raising the station to #4 in the market. Why? You guessed it. The sportstalk station carries Ohio State football play-by-play.

One more large market to comment on. I'm sure I'll hear from a few of you who will argue that the WEEI to FM simulcast was a factor in the Boston sports radio increase. Perhaps you should also research the Philadelphia market. WIP killed off WYSP-FM's music format to simulcast sports radio, giving this long time sports leader an AM-FM presence for the first time. For October, WIP-AM dropped to #23 overall in the market, and has lost more than half of its audience since July. Yet, WPEN rose to #18 in the market, but showed nearly a full ratings point increase. This looks like the impact of Howard Eskin leaving WIP and many of his listeners trying out the competition - during the Phillies' post-season run and with the Eagles' season in full swing.

Here's hoping that sportstalk stations will strive for more than "Let's go to Joe on the north side who thinks that (name of team) needs a new linebacker" to try and attract more listeners.

Elsewhere, I'm glad that ESPN thought to televise the announcements of MLB's Gold Glove Award winners on Tuesday (11/1) night. With all of the time on the national, regional, and league/conference networks, there is room for shows surrounding award announcements, since many fans want to know exactly when these awards will be announced.

However, if ESPN or MLB Network is going to televise these awards (such as Silver Slugger, MVP, Cy Young, etc.), they need to do a better job of making it interesting or there won't be enough of an audience to make it worthwhile in the future.

"All" ESPN did for each position in both leagues was give the list of nominees, have a former player announce the winner, and THEN show highlights of that player's performance. Sorry, but that wasn't enough of a buildup to make it worth watching again.

Show us clips and information about each nominee, like the major movie and TV awards shows air a clip of each show or film in consideration. Instead, ESPN made it seem easier to go to another news source later that night or the next morning and see the list all at once.

Even an MVP or Cy Young Award telecast could be made interesting. They could include some clips and statistical comparisons of some players not even in the "top 10" in the voting to raise the "How could this guy not have been voted higher?" discussion. In this context, it enhances the winning of the award while adding more suspense. That would be a thousand times better than what seemed like it could have been a pre-recorded presentation.

Next Thursday (11/10) begins Thursday Night Football on NFL Network when the Raiders take on the Chargers. Once again, a new season means a new announcing team. This year Brad Nessler, known for his college football play-by-play over the years, will handle it for NFL Network, along with Notre Dame on NBC analyst Mike Mayock.

Although Nessler and Mayock each do a very good job and figure to be a good team, it seems odd that the NFL's own network would not go with an announcing team strongly associated with the NFL instead of college games.

NEW YORK: It wasn't announced until after our press time last week, but the Yankees broadcasts will indeed return to WCBS-AM for the 2012 season. The significance is that this is a one-year extension and not a multi-year deal. Sister station WFAN has the Mets broadcasts, and that contract is also up at the end of next season. One of the aspects the bears watching is how CBS Radio stations approach retaining or bidding for local play-by-play rights over the next few months. If CBS is looking at a lesser role for sports broadcasts, it could create a wild scene in NYC with both teams coming up. Or, CBS could be bidding against itself and others for both teams next summer.

The Yankees' radio team of John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman will return. How much or how little those two will actually talk to each other directly on the air remains to be seen - or heard.

While WEPN 1050 lacks for programming since there are no Knicks broadcasts during the NBA lockout, the station will carry Seton Hall basketball starting on Nov. 12th vs. St. Francis. The contract allows for the Seton Hall broadcasts to move to WABC 770 if and when there are Knicks conflicts during the coming season, as well as when there will be Rangers conflicts. (WEPN airs the Rangers games as well.)

WASHINGTON D.C.: Although the college basketball season is about to start, it took until the last minute for Georgetown University basketball to get a deal with WTEM 980. The ESPN station or WSPZ-AM 570 will air the Hoyas games again this season, with Rich Chvotkin going in to his 39th season as play-by-play voice.

DENVER: Nate Kreckman has moved into a co-host role from Noon to 3 PM on 102.3 The Ticket, teaming with Charles Johnson. Former Colorado QB Joel Klatt has left the station, with details sketchy as to what happened there.

ALLENTOWN PA: A Saturday morning mystery, radio style. This past Saturday (10/30), The Fox AM 1470 did not air the "Calling All Sports" Show with Keith Groller, although there was no official announcement. Later, Groller stated in his local newspaper column that the show was taken off the schedule "due to some transitions". The station is owned by a large national radio group which has been eliminating jobs around the country over the past two weeks, and this was a weekly locally produced show. So now the guess is it's no longer a mystery and the show won't be back.

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