Thursday, September 14, 2006

The original voice for Major League Baseball --- silenced!!

In the last six months, three Major League Baseball franchises have cast aside 148 years of radio broadcasting experience, long standing partnerships and brand recognition in favor of what the three organizations referred too as “the bigger picture.”

Tuesday, in the latest “dagger through the hearts” of baseball fans who have a lifetime of broadcast memories with their teams’ flagship radio station, the Pittsburgh Pirates announced they were ending their 51-year relationship with KDKA. In July the Minnesota Twins bid farewell to WCCO. The St. Louis Cardinals bid adieu to KMOX after 51 years of broadcasts come the end of the 2005 Cardinals season. In each case, the respective Major League Baseball franchise showed little if any regard for tradition, loyalty and hallmarks of a by-gone era in sports broadcasting. In broadcasting today, it’s not what have you done for me yesterday? Not what are you doing for me now? But what will you do for me tomorrow? And when you consider the business decisions each team had to make, they may have made the best decision for their respective franchises.

On August 5, 1921 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Harold Arlin, a twenty-five year old Westinghouse foreman and night time studio announcer took his place in Baseball History. From a ground-level box seat in Forbes Field using only a converted telephone as a microphone and some jerry-rigged equipment set up behind home plate, Arlin called the world's first baseball game broadcast--on KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station.

Long before the dawn of television, the 500 channel universe and MLB extra innings package, radio was the medium that delivered baseball across America. KDKA was the birthplace for baseball on the radio, a fact that clearly the Pirates current management team seems to have cared less about.

"KDKA has been synonymous with the Pirates for more than 50 years. We are extremely thankful to everyone at KDKA, both past and present, for the impact they have had on our organization and the many generations of our fans," Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy said in announcing the Pirates move to Clear Channel’s Pittsburgh based family of radio stations. "We have a lot of good friends at KDKA; therefore this was not an easy decision. We wish them nothing but success."

KDKA isn’t just a radio station; it’s a powerhouse, a 50,000-watt station that can be heard throughout the East Coast and in Canada during the evenings. KDKA also aired Pirates games at times before WWSW gained the team's broadcast rights for a period in the 1940s and early 1950s.

In a romantic period for baseball broadcasting, when baseball games on radio where easily accessible, on a clear night, baseball fans could reach out on their transistor radios to 1010 on the dial and magically listen to a Pirates radio broadcast. More so then any other sports radio broadcast, baseball lends itself to the medium. A great radio broadcaster can paint a picture in your mind when you’re listening to a baseball broadcast. The Pirates, Cardinals and Twins flagship stations reached out to millions of baseball fans who otherwise would never have been able to experience the sheer joy of hearing a baseball game on the radio.

By changing radio flagship stations, the Pirates will trade the mass audience KDKA reaches in surrounding states for one with strong ratings in more desirable age brackets for a pro sports team. KDKA remains one of Pittsburgh's top-rated stations, but a large chunk of its audience is an older demographic group the Pirates believe no longer a big part of the market they’re trying to reach.

The partnership gives the Pirates enhanced opportunities to reach more fans outside of the game broadcasts through Clear Channel's massive dedication to sports and the Pirates on WPGB 104.7 FM. It also touches listeners through its five other radio stations in the market; WDVE-FM, WKST-FM, WXDX-FM, WWSW-FM and WBGG FOX Sports Radio 970 AM.

"Our mission is to continue to improve in all aspects of our organization, including in the way we reach our fans," said Kevin McClatchy, Pirates CEO and Managing General Partner. "This new strategic partnership with Clear Channel Communications will maintain an excellent broadcast experience for our fans and help us build our brand and increase our market presence across the entire cluster of Clear Channel stations."

"This is a significant milestone in Clear Channel Communications' history in the Pittsburgh market. The Pirates and Major League Baseball are valuable properties in this region that we will leverage to the fullest extent through WPGB 104.7 FM and our five other stations," said John Rohm, Senior Regional Vice President of Clear Channel. "It is exciting for us to partner with the team to bring Pirates baseball to their loyal fans and our loyal listeners."

In addition to the game broadcasts, WPGB 104.7 FM will broadcast pre-game and post-game shows before and after every game, as well as the "David Littlefield Show" prior to Sunday Pirates games. WPGB 104.7 FM and the five other Clear Channel stations will also provide broadcasting support for Pirates Caravan stops, “PirateFest” and broadcast live from the Montecristo Club at PNC Park prior to every Friday home game. WPGB will also keep Pirates fans updated with extensive Spring Training coverage from Bradenton, Florida.

The partnership allows the Pirates to utilize ancillary programming and cross-promotional opportunities with Clear Channel's five other stations in the market to enhance the team's marketing reach. Each station will support the strategic partnership with ancillary Pirates programming including weekly features with the Pirates players and broadcasters. In addition, all of Clear Channel's stations will aggressively cross-promote the game broadcasts on WPGB 104.7 FM as well as Pirates ticket sales programs and ballpark promotions.

"The strategic partnership with Clear Channel provides us with enhanced opportunities to reach a stronger and more targeted fan base that will help to build the Pirates brand," said Tim Schuldt, Pirates VP of Marketing, Sales and Broadcasting. "Clear Channel's far reaching commitments to the Pirates through ancillary programming and cross-promotion, combined with their listener demographics, size of audience share and growth trends of their stations, made Clear Channel the best choice for the Pirates."

KDKA is Pittsburgh’s number one radio station. Clear Channel owns more then 1,200 radio stations across America and with six affiliates in Pittsburgh, the Pirates believe the synergy between Clear Channel’s ‘family of radio stations’ in Pittsburgh will eventually help the team reach a bigger audience. KDKA lost the Steelers radio rights to Clear Channel earlier this year. Clearly in the Pittsburgh radio market, Clear Channel has established itself as the voice for Western Pennsylvania sports fans.

John Rohm, regional vice president for Clear Channel, made that clear to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "As the single largest media organization in the Pittsburgh market, no other medium can match our market penetration and ability to reach fans. Our years of experience with the Steelers, Penguins and Pitt football and basketball have helped us fine-tune our broadcasts, our delivery system and our talent.''

For the Pirates – it was all about what KDKA (tradition aside) needed; reaching what the Pirates believed is the demographic audience they need to build their base.

WPGB's audience is 116 percent more likely than the mean to have an advanced college degree; KDKA's audience only 10 percent more likely.

WPGB's audience is 112 percent more likely than the mean to have a household income of between $100,000 and $149,000; KDKA's only 7 percent more likely.

"What we really wanted and needed,'' Schuldt told The Pittsburgh Post Gazette "was a firm contractual commitment on secondary and ancillary programming and a cluster of stations that would deliver other audiences that maybe a flagship couldn't."

"People who have the most propensities to buy a season ticket from us are men in the 25- to 54-year-old age group,'' Mr. Schuldt said. “WDVE is the 800-pound gorilla in that demographic.”

"Written in the agreement is heavy cross-promotion on all of the Clear Channel stations. Not only will that recognize 104.7 as our new flagship, but it will detail game times and how to buy tickets. The weight of this is massive.''

The Cardinals decision sent reverberations throughout the sports radio world. The Cardinals radio partner since 1954 was KMOX, the 50,000 watt ‘voice of America’s Midwest’. As the Wall Street Journal put it so perfectly by recently reporting; for more than half a century, "the mighty MOX" beamed Cardinal baseball throughout the Midwest, the Great Plains, and the Bible belt, creating deep and long-lasting loyalties. Before the major leagues expanded into Texas, Colorado, Georgia and California, the Cardinals were the "home" team in those states -- and it was KMOX that made them so.

The Cardinals new radio partner, KTRS, is a small radio station powered by only 5,000 watts offered the Cardinals a much more interesting opportunity, a 50 percent stake in their radio station. What possible reasoning could any major league baseball team end a 51 year partnership with the self proclaimed “voice of America’s heartland” for a 2006 version of WKRP? The St. Louis Cardinals, who’s rationale wasn’t based on the reach of KTRS 5,000 watt radio station, but in a 50 percent stake in the radio station.

In Minneapolis, the Twins decision wasn’t based on audience reach or an ownership stake in their flagship radio station; it was strictly based on dollars and sense (at least what the Twins believed what best suited their needs in the Land of 10,000 Lakes).

The Twins' four-year agreement with KSTP Radio runs through 2010, when the Twins new stadium is scheduled to open. The deal brings the radio rights in house starting next season, meaning the Twins will sell the advertising for the broadcasts and keep all the revenues. In addition, KSTP paid the Twins $1 million a year.

CBS-owned WCCO, the Twins radio partner for 46 years, had been paying the Twins $9 million a year for the teams’ radio rights. In an ever increasing and competitive media market, WCCO wouldn’t ever consider spending $9 million on baseball radio rights.

It is sad to realize longstanding baseball radio rights agreements; the foundation for how MLB teams reached their fans for decades is changing as dramatically as it is. It’s yet another example of how big an industry sports has become on every possible level. Loyalty today, comes with a price – that’s the bottom line.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Pittsburgh Post Gazette