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Why sports radio matters

It's hard to believe that the sports radio format almost died before it had a chance to get off the ground. In 1981, Scott Rasmussen, the son of ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen, tried to launch a national sports radio network called Enterprise Radio. At its peak, 74 stations across the country picked up weeknight and overnight sports talk programming. In fact, current New York Yankees voice John Sterling was one of the first hosts on the network and Kevin Harlan and Sean McDonough were among the network's interns. However, due to a lack of advertiser support and consequently, a lack of funding, Enterprise died after a short nine months.

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The sports radio format was resurrected in 1987 by Jeff Smulyan and his Emmis Communications at a former country station, WHN 1050 AM in New York and rebranded as WFAN. Greg Gumbel and Jim Lampley were among the station's original hosts. The 'FAN languished at 1050 AM, lost a ton of money and almost flipped formats. However, the station got new life when it changed frequencies to a stronger 660 AM, brought on Don Imus as its morning drive host and changed its focus from national to strictly local sports and the format took off.

Seeing WFAN's success, stations in Philadelphia and San Diego quickly followed and there was no looking back. Now, the genre has exploded to the point where almost 700 stations across the country are all-sports, up from 413 just 11 years ago. Some markets have not just one or two, but three or four sports radio stations.

CBS and NBC, seeing the potential for additional revenue streams and new audiences, launched their own national sports radio networks over the last 9 months joining the well-established ESPN, Fox and Yahoo.

In addition, CBS Radio has been positioning sports radio stations on the FM dial in Atlanta, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other markets with great success.

While sports television has seen a rights fee and ratings explosion to broadcast live events, radio is slowly catching up. The Los Angeles Dodgers this year signed a $7 billion deal with Time Warner for their TV rights, but their radio deal with Clear Channel was not even close to that amount. With more competition for listeners, it's expected that radio stations will be willing to spend to control the local rights in their respective markets. And advertising revenue for sports radio continues to rise as WFAN amassed over $40 million, the most of any sports station across the country.

The reasons why so many stations are flipping to sports radio can be broken down as follows:

-The audience is predominantly male – 84% according to Advertising Age.
-Almost half the listeners are affluent.
-Almost half the audience has a college degree.
-The audience skews towards younger males, 18-34.
-Sports radio is seen as a hedge against iPods, Spotify and other music services.

So as executives seek to find ways to compete against mobiles and tabletes, sports radio's growth is seen as infinite with no end in sight.

The sports radio format which was once scoffed and laughed at is now viewed as a powerful genre and a huge force for radio. Just ask anyone at CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC.

Ken Fang

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013. He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television. Fang celebrates the three Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.

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