The sports radio network battle is beginning to resemble the broadcast cable network battle.
There’s the premier national sports radio network, ESPN Radio, which launched in 1992 (Disney, which owns 4/5 of ESPN, acquired ABC in 1996).
In the summer of 2000 came Fox Sports Radio, which is delivered by Clear Channel Radio/Premiere Networks, and really doesn’t have many ties, other than sports, of course, to the Fox television network which launched in 1987 (the network’s sports department launched in 1994).
Ten days ago, we learned that NBC Sports Group, in association with Dial Global, will be launching NBC Sports Radio Network this September.
And today, CBS completes the “big four” trifecta, announcing the new CBS Sports Radio network, which will be distributed by Cumulus Media Networks. Hourly updates from CBSSR begin Tuesday, September 4, with a “24/7 all-sports talk radio lineup” bowing the day after New Year’s 2013. Basically the same game plan as NBC’s new sports radio venture, but at a more rapid pace.
As you would expect, CBS Sports Radio updates and other elements will be instilled on fourteen of their all-sports stations, which includes the soon-to-be-25-year-old WFAN in New York, and nine FM sports stations. In January, eight stations owned by CBS, some of which currently offer sports content in markets like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Tampa, will convert to the new round-the-clock CBSSR feed.
But wait, there’s more: As part of their deal with CBS, Cumulus Media “will make CBS Sports Radio programming available on 67 of its owned stations.” (Footnote: Once upon a time, ABC owned several radio stations, until Disney’s radio unit merged with another radio operator, Citadel; Cumulus acquired Citadel last year. It bears noting since there could be stations involved that would have been de facto ESPN Radio affiliates.)
So they’re not even on the air yet, and CBS Sports Radio is guaranteed clearance in some form on ninety stations, many of them in top markets (with the exception of Los Angeles). NBC Sports Radio Network is also bound to find some takers. And of course, ESPN and Fox have over 1,000 affiliates between them.
I’m kicking myself in the head because when I wrote about the new NBC network, I was thinking about making a comment that the sports radio network offerings were starting to look like the current slate of major broadcast networks, with the exception of CBS. I couldn’t bring myself to speculate about CBS starting a sports radio network, simply because there were going to be four of them at that point.
Based on NBC’s announcement of NBCSRN, that more than likely triggered CBS to get into the game – and wait no sooner than ten days after to make their plans public, with clearances in top markets to boot.
This seems like a broadcasting catfight over David Letterman, not so much David Wright.
Did you know that in the late 20th century, there was actually another national sports radio network that existed? It was called Sports Fan Radio Network, and based in Las Vegas. (Incidentally, the flagship station of the network, KSFN, now KYDZ, will be one of the eight CBS-owned stations that will carry the new 24-hour CBSSR network come 2013.) Launching in 1994, Sports Fan Radio Network flaunted talent such as James Brown and Pat O’Brien, as well as the likes of JT The Brick and The Fabulous Sports Babe. San Diego radio bad boy Scott Kaplan was also involved with the network. Then in 2001, after Fox Sports Radio had launched, there were four national sports radio networks at that point: ESPN Radio, Fox Sports, Sports Fan, and One On One Sports, which had just been acquired by sports publication The Sporting News at that point to become Sporting News Radio (more on them in a bit). To put it bluntly, Sports Fan Radio Network took their ball and went home. Speaking in terms of broadcast television networks, we can consider them the DuMont Network of this argument.
Since then, there had been three national sports radio networks (and yes, there’s also the venerable Sports Byline USA network that’s been on the air for a quarter-century and counting, but many of their affiliates don’t clear their programming full-time; they can be the “My Network” of national sports radio). And before the end of the year, there will be five (six if you count My, er, Sports Byline).
Think about it: Once Labor Day rolls around, there will be a 50% increase in the number of sports radio network literally within a matter of days – just in time for football season.
It makes you wonder how the odd sports network out will respond. That network, the former Sporting News Radio, has been known as Yahoo! Sports Radio since last year, after the publication’s owner unloaded the network to Gow Communications, which would enter into a long-term marketing agreement with Yahoo! Sports.
With two more players in the national sports radio game, it’s unclear just how long this “long-term” will be.
Give me credit for this, though: while I neglected to convert my speculation of a concept of CBS creating a sports radio network in my post on NBCSRN last week, I did predict that with the advent of NBCSRN, there could be possible affiliate defections from YSR.
Now, we’ll have NBCSRN and CBSSR, firing up within days of each other. Two more attractive options than YSR.
This is exactly what happened during the terminal stage of the now-defunct Sports Fan Radio Network. Many of their affiliates would leave the network for the new, flashier kid on the block, Fox Sports Radio.
Give One On One/Sporting News/Yahoo credit for endurance over the last decade, as their affiliate count doesn’t hold a candle to ESPN Radio or Fox Sports Radio. But this could seriously be a replay of 2001, with Yahoo! logging out of the sports radio game. Especially when you’re about to do battle with two new players in CBS and NBC that have much more sports bling than Yahoo! does.
Here, once again, is YSR’s affiliate list. Currently, their top clearance is Chicago, via WSCR/670 The Score – which is owned by CBS, so we can forget about that deal in the Windy City. Their affiliation with Entercom’s KGMZ/95.7 The Game appears to be safe, as the competing Bay Area sports station owned by Cumulus will become a CBSSR station. As will the Cumulus sports station in Dallas, KTCk/1310 The Ticket – which just happens to be a current YSR affiliate, so that’ll be gone. Houston actually serves as YSR’s flagship city, as Gow Communications also owns KGOW/1560 The Game. Their Philadelphia clearance on WNPV/1440 is actually on a station licensed to Lansdale. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, YSR claims their affiliate is WQXI/790 The Zone – but you would never know it if you looked at their website. (Cumulus owns a sports talker in Atlanta, by the way.)
Perhaps it would be a good idea at this point for Yahoo! to not worry about being the No. 5 sports radio network, and go back to concentrating on being the No. 2 search engine behind Google.
True, the inception of CBS Sports Radio will put a dent in Sports Byline’s affiliate count as well, as three of their Texas stations – one in Dallas, and two in Houston – are owned by CBS Radio and are pending to be involved with CBSSR. But as I mentioned, Sports Byline has been around for twenty-five years – about as long as the first all-sports radio station, WFAN – and before ESPN Radio was launched. For them to withstand the creations of these new sports radio networks with prime market clearances and massive affiliate counts all these years, while staying under the radar, I tip my hat to them. Based on this, I could argue that Sports Byline count continue for another 25 years. That’s why Sports Byline is out of the equation in this post.
Look at it this way: A universe of six major broadcast television networks couldn’t exist. Two new TV networks backed by Hollywood studios, WB (Warner Bros.) and UPN (United Paramount Network) launched in January 1995 within days of each other (sound familiar?). Plagued by consistent low ratings, both networks would merge in 2006 to form the CW network, which is still on the air. Days after the CW merger was announced, plans were announced to launch yet another sixth network, My Network TV. And as you would expect, both CW and My are floundering behind the “big four” in the ratings department.
The point I’m trying to make is not that a national sports radio network needs an allegiance with a major broadcast network to survive. It’s that there are going to be five sports radio networks with so much substance that failure of one of them is bound to be inevitable.
In this regard, I would not predict doom for CBS, or NBC, or Fox, or ABC (via ESPN).
Which means the pressure is on Yahoo! Sports Radio.
Or, if you prefer, UPN Sports Radio.