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Major League Baseball — And Radio — Anxiously Await COVID-19’s Next Move.

The abbreviated Major League Baseball season began just a week ago with much fanfare and enthusiasm, but there are already fears the fledgling 2020 campaign could come to a sudden, crashing halt, courtesy of COVID-19.

A total of 18 members of the Miami Marlins organization — including players and staff — have tested positive in the season’s first outbreak, and the news is already wreaking havoc with the league’s modified schedule.

There are also looming implications for radio, which has hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. For radio, a cancelled season could mean as much as $300 million in lost national and local ad revenue, according to Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports economist and a professor at Smith College in Northampton, MA. And that doesn’t take into account the numerous ancillary benefits of the larger, more engaged, excited audience that live play-by-play delivers.

But despite the current anxiety, which is now a prime topic on sports-talk stations across the U.S., radio executives and programmers are nonetheless thrilled that, at least for now, the game is back. The much-hyped “pent-up demand,” as it turned out, was a very real thing.

“We’ve had an overwhelming, positive response to the return of baseball on KNBR,” says Lee Hammer, Program Director and VP for Sports Play by Play Programming at San Francisco’s KNBR (680, 104.5) the flagship station of the San Francisco Giants that’s owned by Cumulus Media. “Our fans were craving it and finally we’re able to deliver. While it looks strange to watch a game on TV with cardboard cutouts, crowd noise and no people in the stands, the listener experience on the radio, even with the embedded crowd, is exactly the same as it’s always been — our announcers painting the perfect picture as to what’s happening on the field. I’ve heard people say that having baseball back on the radio is instilling a somewhat sense of normalcy to their lives.”

While Nielsen numbers won’t be available for a while, streaming data from TuneIn showed a 103% increase in streaming session starts for the Giants Opening Day broadcast against the Los Angeles Dodgers last week, when compared to the best day KNBR had in July prior to that game, Hammer says.

“If we’re getting those kinds of increases on the stream alone, I can’t wait to see the numbers for the over-the-air broadcasts on our KNBR AM/FM combo,” he adds. MLB play-by-play brings an annual summer ratings lift for many sports stations, especially at night.

Mark Chernoff, Senior VP and Sports Format Captain for Entercom, which produces New York Yankee broadcasts for more than 50 stations in 14 states (including flagship WFAN in New York City), says the COVID-19 scare has been a major topic for WFAN’s sports-talk programs.

“There has been a tremendous amount of talk about the rocky start since it’s affected the Yankees by not being able to play their series with the Phillies,” he explains. “The Phillies had just played the Marlins in Philly, and the Marlins [then] had seven or more players testing positive for the virus, so it didn’t seem prudent for the Yankees to set up in the visitor’s clubhouse. It has also led to speculation about the possibility of the season being cancelled, but for now there hasn’t been a major outbreak of COVID 19 on any other team.”

A potential cancellation would be a devastating turn of events for many broadcasters and would — depending on specific contract details — likely require the return of millions of dollars that station groups pay for broadcast rights. For individual stations, much of the broadcast-related revenues are tied to in-game sponsorships, along with some money that comes via shoulder programming, including pre-game and post-game shows.

A cancellation could also have trying implications for college sports, especially the upcoming football season.

Hammer, like Chernoff, says speculation about what’s ahead — whether it’s good, bad or ugly — remains a focal point of sports-talk in the Bay Area.

“No doubt about it, it’s a major topic and everybody has different opinions, but that’s the beauty of sports-talk radio,” he says. “Some hosts are adamant in saying we should play, while some callers and others are saying that playing now is a recipe for disaster. Major League Baseball is doing what it thinks is in the best interest of the game, but only time will tell how successful this experiment will be. The final chapter is being written now.”

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