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Is Play-by-Play Still Worth It?

February 25, 2020

The Oakland Athletics just announced that they could not find a radio broadcast partner so their games will only be available digitally through TuneIn. This is a sign of the change in the recognized value of play-by-play sports on the radio.

When I started in this industry (okay it was 40 years ago), few things were as valuable to a radio station as play-by-play baseball. That was 162 games (approximately 486 hours) of programming that attracted tremendous audiences. A lot has transpired in those four decades, and it makes me think that play-by-play (even baseball) does not have the ratings or revenue value that it once did.

Why is this?

Forty years ago, not many of baseball’s 162 games per season were on TV. Therefore, unless you were in the ballpark, the only place to follow the games was on the radio. Play-by-play was a tremendous ratings and revenue boost to the station.

Flash forward to today. In most home markets, every one of the 162 games is on TV. Not only has broadcast TV greatly expanded its baseball coverage, but also most baseball teams are tightly aligned with a cable channel; some even own their own cable channel. Besides cable and broadcast TV, fans can watch out-of-market games on a subscription basis. In other words, radio needs to compete for fans’ attention for every game. There are even outlets such as SiriusXM and TuneIn where one can listen to baseball broadcasts.

It is interesting to note that these expanded options have not impacted the cost to the station of the radio broadcast, specifically rights fees. The rights to be the flagship station for a major league baseball team continue to climb. In my opinion, it’s harder and harder to justify the rights fees and other expenses as baseball offers its product elsewhere.

What was once basically an exclusive offering is no longer.

This is not to say that baseball does not have many advantages to a radio station. It drives listenership (yes, it still drives listenership) during what many consider to be non-prime dayparts. A successful partnership between a team and a station can build a tremendous local brand. I just don’t see as much value as this partnership had in the past.

When it comes to play-by-play broadcasts, it is hard to beat baseball, with 162 games mostly outside of prime time. While football may attract a bigger per-game audience, it is only one-tenth the number of games. And the pace of basketball and hockey don’t lend themselves to the storytelling appeal that radio offers.

Change is inevitable. How broadcasters manage that change will determine their success.

Please share your thoughts below, and contact me with any questions.

-Charlie Sislen, Partner