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How Valuable Is Live Play-By-Play to Radio in 2021 and Beyond?

“A recurring theme echoed by the radio leaders BSM interviewed about this topic was that radio stations must be able to stream their live play-by-play games in addition to the traditional terrestrial signal.”

Rob Taylor

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Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Who doesn’t love hearing the great Al McCoy document every “Shazam” on 98.7 Arizona Sports, as the Phoenix Suns try to make a magical run to their first championship?

Besides those in Kansas City, who didn’t love hearing the legendary Gene Deckerhoff’s calls of Tom Brady’s touchdown passes in Super Bowl LV a few months back on the Bucs’ flagship station, 98 Rock?

Live play-by-play on the radio is a thing of beauty, especially if you have outstanding broadcasters, a winning team and a clear-as-day signal. Think about it. Before your very ears, wherever you may be, the broadcast brings you inside the stadium, and you can visualize exactly what’s happening.

But in the technology-filled world we live in these days, with people’s attention being stretched in so many directions, is there a true value to live play-by-play for radio stations in 2021…and beyond? As Scott Sutherland, market manager for Bonneville’s Phoenix cluster (which includes Arizona Sports 98.7, Sports 620 KTAR and KTAR News 92.3 FM), told Barrett Sports Media during a recent exclusive interview, “Who has the big Yamaha (radio) receiver” at their home these days? “No one.”

That’s why a recurring theme echoed by the radio leaders BSM interviewed about this topic was that radio stations must be able to stream their live play-by-play games online in their respective markets, in addition to the traditional terrestrial signal.

Sutherland, whose Phoenix stations carry the Suns, Cardinals and Diamondbacks over-the-air (The Phoenix Rising soccer team is online-only), said a big question market managers better ask when negotiating play-by-play rights with teams is, “Are streaming rights included? If they aren’t, it’s to the point now where it’s probably a deal-killer…where stations are moving people to apps…I think the deals are turning to where streaming rights are included. We’re paying for the audio rights in our DMA (Designated Market Area). If the streaming isn’t included, all we’re paying for is in-car listening…and even in the car, if they listen to an app, those rights would not be available. Streaming rights play a huge role.”

In Tampa Bay, where they’re still bragging about being Kings of the NFL and are in the Stanley Cup Final (once again), WDAE and WFLA Program Director John Mamola is big on stations having streaming rights, too. “MLB.com and the At-Bat app are great, but you gotta pay for it,” he told BSM. “There’s no reason (people) shouldn’t be able to consume Tampa Bay Rays content” in the DMA via the WDAE channel on the free IHeartRadio app. “Not everyone listens on a radio anymore. It’s vital that radio stations continue in that path to find ways to integrate those play-by-play rights on their internet stream. If you’re not thinking of different ways to work with your partnership to get it to more people in any way, any shape possible, then you’re just taking the play-by-play rights for granted.”

From IHeart stations, to Audacy, Cumulus, Beasley and everyone in between, some stations have been able to air the live play-by-play broadcasts on its online stream in the market. For this article, Barrett Sports Media isn’t naming which stations can air the broadcasts on its stream, as it’s a fluid conversation/negotiation that’s occurring between stations and teams throughout the country. What is clear, though, is that for live play-by-play to be viable for some radio properties, teams and leagues (and Satellite Radio) won’t be able to have exclusivity in the streaming space.

If you’re Dan Bennett, the longtime leader of Cumulus’ Sports Radio 96.7 FM/1310 AM “The Ticket,” you don’t necessarily need live play-by-play to be a powerhouse. The Ticket built its bulletproof brand on the backs of its iconic, one-of-a-kind sports talk hosts. Sure, The Ticket is the home of the Dallas Stars, but there won’t be any financial losses on Bennett’s watch to have the Stars’ play-by-play rights. “If you can’t make them make financial sense, then it’s really difficult to justify it,” he told BSM. “…We bill good money with the Stars and we really don’t have any expenses.”

Overall, Bennett said the “value is still there” for radio stations to have live play-by-play. In 2020, “when the Dallas Stars made their Stanley Cup run, our ratings were number one in the market with men,” he said.

Bennett did mention that Westwood One, a Cumulus entity, produces the popular NFL Sunday Night, Monday Night and Thursday Night Football radio broadcasts nationwide, which The Ticket carries. “It absolutely gets ratings and we sell that and generate revenue…it’s one of the most valuable (play-by-play rights) out there.”

The Ticket’s main competition, Audacy’s 105.3 The Fan, is the home to two Dallas big-four pro teams, the Cowboys and Rangers. The Fan is more reliant on ratings boosts from its live play-by-play programming than The Ticket. But you can say that about a number of radio stations across the country. In Columbus, no one can argue that being the “Home of the Buckeyes” boosts ratings on 97.1 The Fan. In Pittsburgh, Audacy’s 93.7 The Fan dominates the sports talk conversation on the Steel City’s airwaves, in ratings and revenue, in the critical 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekday arena, in addition to having the rights to the Pirates and Pitt Panthers. But IHeart Pittsburgh has two Mike Tyson-like punches in its stable — play-by-play rights to the Steelers and Penguins. Fans of those two teams who may not care for Classic/Album Oriented Rock or Alternative Rock have been hypnotized to turn on legendary station WDVE (102.5) for Steelers games, and 105.9 The X for the Penguins, constantly introducing new audiences to those stations.

Pete Ciccone, Program Director for ESPN Radio, is certain that the network’s play-by-play rights to Major League Baseball and the NBA plays a role in whether some stations decide to become an ESPN Radio affiliate, as opposed to, say, Fox Sports Radio.

“It’s a big part of the package. I don’t want to say it’s the only element, but I still believe after all these years, it’s a significant part of the package,” Ciccone told BSM about ESPN Radio’s play-by-play rights. “When you combine that with the personalities we have on our talk lineup…whether it’s the hosts themselves or the number of diverse ESPN contributors who frequent our airwaves, when you take all of that combined, that’s what builds up the value of ESPN Radio. But there’s no doubt that the play-by-play card we can play…that helps.”

Even in this fragmented world we live in these days, Ciccone said ESPN Radio is committed to live play-by-play (the network also airs college football). “There’s been no discussion whatsoever of change,” he told BSM. “We’ve been longtime partners with the NBA going back to ’95-’96, partners with MLB since 1998, been a large part of the college football playoffs in conjunction with our TV brethren…there’s no question, from our standpoint, we see the value in play-by-play and I tend to think our affiliates still do, too.”

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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