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

This is an expanded version of a story that first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Baseball fans looking to complain about Yankees star Alex Rodriguez’s salary never have had more venues in which to do so publicly. Amid the explosion in ratings and revenue for sports on television, sports talk radio quietly is experiencing its own boom. And traditional TV networks are playing a key role in the expansion, with radio offshoots now serving hundreds of U.S. stations.

Networks run by ESPN, Fox (partnered with Clear Channel’s Premiere Network), Sports Byline USA and Yahoo recently have been joined by two new national networks launched in January by CBS -- one personality-driven, the other for local sports -- that already boast 275 affiliates.

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On April 1, NBC joined the game with its own sports radio network (with Dial Global, successor to Westwood One) that already has signed as many as 150 full- or part-time affiliates. “Dial Global has the most sought-after live programming in the world of radio, which is the NFL,” says Rob Simmelkjaer, senior vp at NBC Sports Ventures. “They’ve been able to package us with their NFL national packages, with the NFL playoffs, the Super Bowl. I can’t imagine a better way into the market.”

Insiders say the surging interest in sports on TV is creating a halo effect for radio. “If you look at TV ratings, 90 of the top 100 telecasts for the year are live sports,” says Bill Wanger, executive vp programming and research at Fox Sports Media. “The networks most involved in sports see radio as a great way to extend that brand.”

Ad buyers, in turn, like sports radio because it delivers the elusive male demographic. “What advertisers are striving for is listener user engagement with the advertising, and the thinking is that sports program content is something the listener or viewer is passionate about,” says Kevin Gallagher, executive vp local activation at the Starcom advertising agency. “They are engaged not only with the program but the commercials as well. That engagement carries through commercial breaks because the listener is not going to turn off the game and switch to something else if they are really into that game.”

And unlike political talk, debates about the Lakers’ woes might get heated but rarely turn controversial. “A lot of [sports success] is fallout from the country’s distaste for the hyper-partisanship we have been experiencing in the political discussion,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine.

“Sports is the ultimate escapism vehicle,” says Chris Oliviero, senior vp programming at CBS Radio. “No matter what’s going on in somebody’s life, they can take three hours to watch a game on Sunday and get away from all the negativity in the world. That’s what sports talk does. It gives people that vehicle to just be a fan.”

Advertisers also like sports radio because it can be localized or regionalized to match up listeners with specific products or commercial pitches. Sports radio talent is usually available to personalize it even more by doing the commercials, including live reads that can allow for very topical content.

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“You can also create value-added features,” says Ron Barr, who is a founder and on-air personality for Sports Byline USA, the oldest continuous sports radio network (on since 1987). “For instance, you will hear CBS award the ‘good hands' wide receiver, or a brand will sponsor the player of the game. One of our sponsors wants to create the ‘Master’s Moment,’ so we're creating a series of them.”

Sports Byline, which has about 200 full- or part-time domestic affiliates (and reaches many more on Armed Forces Radio around the world) also is different in that it does shows aimed at specific audiences, such as those passionate about golf, car racing and ultimate fighting.

This month, Sports Byline is launching The Audio Vault, a digital service where listeners can call up about 12,000 sports interviews done over the years for a fee.

As the major TV networks have expanded their sports offerings and paid ever higher prices for rights to football, baseball and basketball in particular, the focus on the sports audience has grown. Now, with the advent of digital and mobile, the rush to radio is part of a bigger trend -- to reach the sports fan wherever they go. 

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“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.”