Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Kick 'em In The Astros

Whether for media coverage or on-the-field projections, the Houston Astros are already a storm and it's only the first days of spring training camp. The new owners took the "arrangement" of moving into the American League in order to get approved, and somehow managed to line up a lucarative deal long-term for a new TV network. Now you have to wonder how long MLB will allow the printing of money with no return to continue before stepping in, as virtually every projection is for the team to lose well over 100 games on the field this season.

On Tuesday (2/12), ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt hosted a national segment which he called "Astro Or Not". This segment consisted of him naming players and asking fans to call in and say whether or not that player was actually on the Houston Astros roster. Five of eight callers that I'm aware of were correct, but either way the point was made about how non-descript the team has already become.

At the same time, any local fans not already alienated and actually looking to follow the team are facing challenges in doing that. The new TV network has had negotiation issues with some of the cable and satellite providers. (As of this week, less than 40% of the market can receive the games, if anyone chooses to watch.) And it's hard to believe that even the "serious" Astros fan feels the need to fork over extra money to watch the team get toasted night after night. Long time play-by-play voice Bill Brown has already decided to reduce his workload by about 33% starting this season. There hasn't even been an announcement yet (as of press time) as to who will take over on play-by-play for the games Brown will not be calling.

On the radio side, as of press time, there has yet to be an announcement of any of the broadcasters yet, even though exhibition games are less than two weeks away from starting. But it gets worse. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the feeling when Clear Channel decided to pull the Astros games off of KTRH 740 after many years, moving the broadcasts to lower rated KBME 790. KBME also airs Rockets basketball games, and it will be the Rockets' broadcasts shifting over to the higher rated KTRH when the Rockets and Astros conflict.

Although the stations' management is acting as though it makes sense to move the Astros over to an all-sports station, I'm not buying it. This move didn't come about until it has become obvious that the Astros don't care who plays for them this season. It is understandable that radio management doesn't want to bog down a highly rated station with hours of games that figure to have very little interest. This is one of the large broadcast entities trying (elsewhere) to make fans believe that baseball needs to be on FM stations these days, even though it is more to try and appeal to certain larger advertisers more than the fans.

In this instance, this company also owns FM stations in Houston. Instead, it is significant to note that they are dumping the Astros games on a station which has done OK within its target demographic but not well in overall audience ratings instead of doing the "move" to FM.

This is an era where the media is dominating and controlling sports with increased rights fees and more ability to change game times, along with college teams able to jump conferences and end long time traditional rivalries. Yet, the Houston Astros have no broadcast teams in place, reduced TV penetration, and now a "lesser" radio station to cover a sub-par team which starts play in just a few days.

You have to wonder if or how soon MLB will step in. This season could damage the overall MLB broadcast audience figures (by losing listeners and viewers in a major market), as well as the integrity of the game by having an extremely poor record allowing teams in the same division to gain additional "easy" victories and throw off the post-season teams balance.

BOSTON: It's truly the end of an era in sports radio with the departure of Glenn Ordway from WEEI after nearly 27 years with the station. His tenure goes back to 1987 when the station was still at 590, well before moving to 850 and expanding to a regional network of sports radio stations.

The Sports Hub 98.5 has passed up WEEI in the ratings in recent months, sending WEEI into desperate measures to regain and retain their audience hold. As of press time, no replacement had been named, despite a Boston Globe story that Mike Salk, formerly of WBPS 890 ESPN, would return to Boston from his current post at KIRO Seattle. (This story was denied while writing this, which is still another example of "reporting" when it is speculation, and this time it is about a media hire.)

It will be interesting to see if Sports Hub WBZ-FM reacts to this by hiring Ordway or not. Even if they were to use Ordway on a roving basis, it would add familiarity and listener credibility to what is really the upstart sports station, while giving listeners one less reason to go back to WEEI. As the saying goes, stay tuned.

CINCINNATI: No doubt about Reds broadcasts. WLW 700 has already strengthened its Reds broadcasting partnership by extending through the 2017 season. That 2017 season will be WLW's 49th season of airing the Reds games. For this season about to start, it also will be Marty Brennaman's 40th consecutive season as radio voice of the team. The Reds' Radio Network is now at 93 stations total.

ALBUQUERQUE: The Team 101.7 has added Robert Portnoy as play-by-play voice of University of New Mexico baseball, starting later this month. This will be the fourth season of airing the school's baseball games. Portnoy actually returns to The Team, for which he hosted "The Locker Room" show back in 2008 when the station had first launched.

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