There’s a tantalizing — and potentially anxiety-inducing — opportunity for sports radio this September.
All four of America’s major sports leagues are slated to be back in action, COVID-19 permitting: Regular-season NFL and Major League Baseball games will share the stage with NBA and NHL playoff action.
Throw in NCAA football, and America’s radio stations are poised to carry more than 5,000 hours of live coverage during the month, according to The Radio Agency, a national advertising agency that focuses solely on audio advertising.
“There are only so many minutes of advertising a sports radio station or network can cram into one hour before programming content becomes unlistenable,” Mark Lipsky, The Radio Agency’s CEO, writes in a blog post. “And radio stations and networks will be testing that limit in an effort to recoup some of their lost sales from spring.”
Dan Carlson, General Sales Manager for Good Karma Brands’ sports “94.5 FM ESPN” WKTI, “540 AM ESPN” WAUK and news/talk WTMJ (620) Milwaukee, says the sports-is-back euphoria could be even greater in October, with the NFL season in full swing and the other three leagues in the postseason.
“The overwhelming sentiment is that… interest will be through the roof,” he says. “Pent-up demand is definitely building for sports and marketing to be tied to sports. I also think advertisers are looking for new ways to build their brands and reach consumers outside of their traditional sponsorships. We’re looking forward to working with advertisers to find creative, innovative solutions.”
Brian Schneekloth, General Sales Manager of Beasley Media Group’s Boston cluster, which includes “98.5 The Sports Hub” WBZ-FM, says the demand is real — and that advertisers are locking in deals before inventory is exhausted.
“We have had several discussions with clients and advertising agencies and the general consensus is that the return of sports and the anticipated increase of interest will cause a surge in demand for advertisers who want to align their brands with the passion that live sports generates,” he says. “One regional automotive executive shared that he was telling his buyers to throw conventional wisdom with respect to estimating ratings out the window and make sure that they lock in sports deals as he expects there to be a run on the market.”
Some broadcasters could soon find themselves walking a fine line. The revenue-generating opportunities from the return of sports, enticing and obvious, present a path to recoup some of 2020’s lost advertising dollars. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that the radio industry was bending over backwards — particularly at the local level — to aid businesses suffering beneath the economic chaos caused by the COVID-19-related lockdowns.
Making advertisers feel gouged — with coronavirus cases in America now surging — invites some not-so-flattering optics.
“Sales reps could find themselves caught in a precarious place,” Lipsky says. “After months of soft demand, suddenly everyone might be clamoring for inventory! National brands that can pay top dollar may eat up valuable units, leaving less for reps to sell at the local level. Normally, shifting buys to off-prime dayparts would be a viable answer, but with games played at nights and on weekends, sales managers will be working 24/7 to maximize revenue, while discounted rates and added value bonus takes a seat on the bench until things return to ‘normal.’”
Carlson says he expects a surge in demand for Bucks, Brewers and Packers games — which air on Good Karma’s WTMJ — and that company is honoring rates for partnerships already secured, with plans to weigh supply and demand for other potential advertisers going forward.
Schneekloth, meanwhile, notes that with live sports Beasley doesn’t have the ability to add units once it sells out. Strategic advertisers, he says, are locking in deals now before inventory vanishes and rates increase.
Another potential challenge on the horizon for broadcasters is that the plethora of games will inevitably mean scheduling conflicts.
“On 98.5 The Sports Hub, we are home to the New England Patriots, Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics and [Major League Soccer’s] New England Revolution,” Schneekloth explains, “so we anticipate that there will be several conflicts. We have escape hatches built in that allow us to move games to sister stations and/or HD2 channels when these conflicts inevitably arise. Luckily, our program director, Rick Radzik, is no stranger to juggling these conflicts, and we have several top-rated stations that we can move broadcasts to when they come up.”
Of course, there’s a giant caveat attached to everything: COVID-19. Several weeks removed from an attempted “reopening,” new infections are surging. This has prompted several states to return to previous restrictions.
Pro sports leagues preparing for action have already gotten a taste of the difficulty that lies ahead. Last month several MLB teams closed their training facilities due to new coronavirus infections, and several players have decided they’re opting out of the 2020 season. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, meanwhile, is allowing for the possibility that the upcoming season — which is set to be played entirely at Disney World in Orlando, FL (a state that’s seen a dramatic rise in infections) — might have to be shut down once again if new infections emerge.
Says Lipsky: “While almost everyone — especially the fans — want their sports as soon as possible, COVID-19 has shown itself to be an uncooperative partner. All this talk about sports in 2020 could just end up being talk… much to the chagrin of every sports-talk radio personality in America.”