Why Sports Radio Is Hitting It Out of the Park (Analysis)

Sports radio has proved immune to economic trends.
Sports radio has proved immune to economic trends.
 Kevin Van Aelst

With more than 27 million listeners tuning in on a weekly basis, the national networks are launching more audio spinoffs and paying big money for big personalities in a genre that's proved immune to economic trends.


“Every single media company in the sports business wants to reach those people every waking hour, whether they are driving a car, at work, playing with their kids, on a run or whatever,” says Simmelkjaer. “Radio allows us to do that in a way that television doesn’t.”

There are 711 U.S. stations running sports talk, according to Fox, up from 586 five years ago. That total also includes 157 FM stations compared with 65 in 2008. There also are 573 HD and streaming-audio stations, giving sports talk radio a nearly 4 percent share of the total radio audience -- up from 2.4 percent in 2008.

As music stations continue to lose listeners to satellite radio and iPhones, the appetite for live content remains. Arbitron estimates that sports talk attracted more than 27 million listeners a week in fall 2011.

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The push includes not only terrestrial radio but HD, Internet and digital. “We don’t call it radio, we call it audio,” says Traug Keller, senior vp production at ESPN, which has been a leader in providing sports talk to digital and mobile platforms.

ESPN has lost some affiliates as CBS and NBC have moved in, but Keller says it has more than made up for that by finding other stations in the same markets. It's also pushing hard into Spanish-language sports and has switched a station it owns in New York City (AM 1050) to a 24/7 sports station. "Along with ESPN Deportes on TV,” adds Keller, “it’s a great complement.”

Sports radio is most popular when a local team has a big game or playoff. To avoid seesaw ratings, the national networks are paying big money for big personalities. Jim Rome left ESPN Radio in 2011 for the new CBS national network and a TV show on its sister Showtime network for a reported $30 million deal. ESPN’s stable includes Mike and Mike in the Morning (Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg).

Fox earlier this year launched Jay Mohr Sports, featuring the actor-funnyman mixing comedy with sports. NBC is countering with an ex-athlete lineup including former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. “It’s a very personal medium, so the right talent can make or break you,” says Wanger.

Sports also has proved immune to economic trends. “Although the larger economy has been challenged, the sports format continues to grow,” says Oliviero. “That’s one of the reasons we felt empowered to launch two 24/7 sports networks.”

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The question is whether there’s room on the field for all these players. Four all-sports stations now compete in Orlando, a market of about 1.5 million people. Multiple stations serve Boston, Dallas, Chicago and many other cities -- with more coming.

“The rhetorical question of the moment is, ‘Are there already too many?’ ” says Harrison,. “Only time will tell.”

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