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Friday, February 4, 2011

Sports Talk Radio--An Appraisal

Whenever I mention sports talk as a radio format to people, I almost always get one of two reactions:

1) “I love it personally, it is a great way to reach guys, and it works” or
2) A soft chuckle followed by “you mean, long time listener, first time caller.”

The format, simply put, is devoted entirely to the discussion and sometimes broadcasting of sporting events. It is known for often boisterous on air talk by both the hosts and listeners who call in to the program. You may be surprised to know that this form of American Pop Culture is spreading globally. Besides the U.S., Sports Talk has popped up in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and most recently, Nigeria!

Despite the dismissive nature some media planners have toward it, the medium has grown smartly in its roughly 20 year history. An old friend, who is a veritable walking encyclopedia on all aspects of radio, put it this way “Sports radio is one of the very few new formats that have caught on during the last 15 years. As a matter of fact, the only other new format I can think of that’s made it is Hip-Hop on FM. Sports radio saved, at least temporarily, a number of AM stations. And as AM’s share further erodes, the format has been moving to FM, including ……some very large markets.”

Another interesting thing about Sports Radio is how vibrant it is locally. Sports giant ESPN has their entries in both English and Spanish and have growing appeal. Fox Sports, Sporting News, and some syndicated and satellite programming is also active. But to many, the local stations with hometown announcers discussing the trials and tribulations of the local franchise are the place to be in many markets. A long time cable and radio sales rep put it nicely—“I think Sports Radio strength is a city by city thing. In a Boston, Philly, or Chicago Sports Radio is a good reach and frequency media vehicle. These are what I call passion towns (I would add Pittsburgh to the list). Local strength of Sports Talk allows for things like effective in-game advertising even inside a stadium and great merchandising with clients (tickets, food sampling).”

He admitted that he listened to ESPN rather the local guys most of the time. The reason? He is a transplant. Markets like Dallas and Atlanta are famous for this. As he put it “more fans show up for their home team than the Atlanta (or Dallas) teams. It is sad. Some towns are not passion towns.” I enjoyed going to hockey games several times a year in both Dallas and Atlanta during my years in both cities. By coincidence, I often saw Canadian teams visiting. Invariably, as they sang the two national anthems before the game, thousands of uber-polite Canadian transplants would rise and sing “Oh, Canada” with great gusto before, let us say, the Stars and Maple Leafs faced off.

In small markets, the stations have issues that they do not have in the major metros. One broadcaster told me that his initial audience was so small that he always had his wife and brother ready to call if the phones were quiet. “They would lob me a pre-arranged question that was open-ended and I could do a fifteen minute rant until someone else called in. Most of the time, it worked.” Another problem they had was that a few gadflies would call each show throughout the day. Some were a nuisance, some were fans, some were practically auditioning but it showed advertisers how truly small our audience was. In recent years with the advent of fantasy leagues getting a lot of play, some serious and well informed statistics freaks would call in. A broadcaster told me that he met a few of them and now has them on as special guests. In their Podunk towns, they have become minor celebrities.

The national and syndicated services are big players in the smaller and mid-sized markets. My radio guru friend put it succinctly as follows: “As far as ESPN, sports stations in major markets are pretty much live and local on weekends and ESPN (or Fox Sports Radio or Sporting News Radio) in evenings and weekends. Small market stations and very small AM’s in big markets tend to rely on the networks close to full-time, and that I think that will continue.”

When do you listen locally vs. nationally if you have a choice? A seasoned and smart TV broadcaster, who paid his dues in radio, explained it this way: “When my home team made the NFL playoffs, I wanted local coverage. After they were knocked out, I wanted national coverage up to the Super Bowl. So for stations in markets with strong pro/college teams, I think locally based stations will have their place in the market. It is a lot tougher for a local station in a market like West Palm Beach that has no pro/college teams and few people grew up there. Older markets with long sports histories are better for local.” This ties back to the “passion towns” discussed above.

He also weighed in on a business reason why national services will not destroy local origination of Sports Talk. “As far as cost goes, there are many people trying to break into the sports business so finding decent producers and broadcasters is neither a challenge nor a budget buster. The new digital media is impacting play by play for radio, but good story tellers will still survive.”

Of course, the big question is does Sports Talk work as a medium? The answer is a qualified yes. One problem that I have seen is that those who love it sometimes put a bit too much of the budget in it for emotional reasons. They listen to it, want to be part of it, attend all local events with announcers, and love the promotional possibilities. In many markets the audience was not all that large although Arbitron’s move from a diary base to PPM measurement has helped many Sports Talk stations substantially. But the reach potential of a single station in a fair sized market is not very large in 2011. Sports Talk should be an integral part of a campaign for many advertisers, but media planners and advertisers should not get too wrapped up in their own hype with it.

The radio guru weighs in on the financial side with these insights: “One great thing about Sports Radio is that it often out bills what is should based on its ratings. The reason is that Sports Radio’s audience is “pure”, meaning sports stations are perfect for categories such as beer, cars and other male oriented products. The ratings don’t matter as much although some sports stations have done well in demos like Men 35-64. The other reason sports stations can make a lot of money is that the format is conducive to sponsorships, such as the hourly scoreboard, and promotions such as spring training. Lots of off-air elements such as signage and on-line can be included.”

Many people echoed this sentiment. A former radio star now in cable said “Although Sports Radio has some challenges, there are people being successful in it by understanding how to tap in to the targeted reach, audience loyalty and work promotional integrations.”

A buying service owner also adds “still another reason for Sports Radio’s is success is that a lot of clients (Men 35-64 who own businesses) listen to Sports Radio themselves and want their business to be on it.” Not the best reason to use a medium but his point is very well made.

Another adds “One of the biggest advantages of sports talk is the endorsement opportunities, contests, and associations for advertisers…….From an efficiency standpoint, these kinds of programs are usually not that great, but they create a lot of emotion for the advertiser and can be sold for a premium. I think that Sports Radio has a brighter future than music based radio.” Emotion and loyalty are still big with us humans. Sports radio can deliver the goods.

What about content? Some of the local independents get a bit raunchy at times and sometimes veer into politics or social commentary on slow news days although ESPN has made slow new sports days increasingly rare over the last 30 years. A Sports Sales maven who is a great friend voiced an intriguing theory that I have never heard before—“Local Sports Radio guys usually tell me that bad things happening with the local team can help ratings more than good things. It seems to be more about therapy than anything else. It is also a way to connect more with the fans emotionally than regular radio.” We could debate that one for a long time but it does make you think.

From a content standpoint, I want to quote another friend who captures the spirit of Sports Radio and the hold it has on many men’s live better than any that I have ever seen or heard. “To me, the best sports radio is local but unfortunately, local sports radio isn’t always the best. Listen-ability varies greatly from not just one station to the next, but even from one local host to the next as our sports interests are now as varied as the options on the FM radio. For those times when I’m forced elsewhere I have an ever increasing array of national offerings (thank you XM) which themselves inevitably wear me down with their own banal bantering, self importance, regional leanings and other proclivities which soon drive me back to my local options as the cycle completes. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. As I grow older, I find my sports radio needs to have an increasing dose of news, pop culture, politics and whatever else is going on. This somehow helps me justify my fixation over the left tackle who whiffed on his pancake block, thereby obliterating my quarterback.”

He continues—“20 years ago we yearned for any discussion of sports, but today we get it how we want it or we tune away. An unintended side affect perhaps from that fateful day in 1979 when ESPN “happened” and our sporting options multiplied exponentially. Sports Radio extends the game and season to where our favorites play all year long. The World Series used to be followed by four months of waiting. Now when the last pitch is thrown we move directly to the Winter Meetings, the start of free agency, off-season trades, Hall of Fame announcements and before you know…pitchers and catchers report anew. Whether these events are as big as sports radio makes them seem doesn’t matter to us so much as the fact that we demand they be all explored in exhaustible detail. Details over which I parse endlessly, yelling at the indefensible comments being uttered and the stupidity of the know-nothing that put them out there. And, I always tune in again tomorrow”.

Being older than almost all of you, here is my vision of where it fits into our lives. Just over 50 years ago, I was growing up in a quaint and lovely seaside village in then rural Rhode Island. Just before Christmas 1960, my older brother Bob and I walked to a village barbershop for haircuts so we would look spiffy for any holiday pictures. The place was packed. The two barbers were great guys but they gave everybody the same too short haircut at 90 cents a head! Everybody was talking. The great Ted Williams had just retired and there was a debate going on about whether he was a better ballplayer than Joe DiMaggio. This was New England, 60 miles south of Boston, so Ted won by a 14 to 1 vote. Then someone mentioned the young rookie who would take Ted’s place in left field at Fenway Park in April, 1961. His name was Carl Yastrzemski and none of the Swamp Yankees in the shop could come close to pronouncing his name. One fellow said he thought Carl might be greater than Ted. An older man leaped out of the barber chair and shouted “Enoch, you are a chowder-head. No one will ever be better than Ted.” The whole place erupted with laughter and the talk continued. After my haircut, Bob got his. But when he was done, I did not want to leave the shop. It was too much fun. People from 10-80 years old were there, everyone commented, and the needling was something to experience.

When I listen to local Radio Sports, I get that same feeling that I had 50 years ago. The barbershop had a sense of community that few of us have in our busy lives in 2011. Well, for a few minutes in the car, Radio Sports gives it back to me.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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