“I watch a lot of baseball on the radio.”
Gerald Ford said it, and people mocked him for it. But if Yogi Berra had made the quip, we’d call it sly genius. We knew what Ford meant. His comment captured what is best about radio sports: the experience of creating a game in one’s mind.
Baseball and radio are perfect partners. Since 1921, when the first game was broadcast on KDKA in Pittsburgh, and 1935, when the Chicago Cubs became the first team to allow all of its games to be aired, the sport and the medium have been bedfellows – often literally, as generations of fans grew up listening to games under the covers. Television came along just a few years later, but never fully dislodged radio as baseball’s special media partner.
Unfortunately for terrestrial radio managers, XM Satellite CEO Hugh Panero probably appreciates this history more than they do. Panero calls baseball “a sport ideally suited for radio, given its natural pace and the ability to vividly describe each play.” He feels strongly enough to spend $650 million over 11 years on a contract to carry Major League Baseball games. The package lets XM broadcast games of every MLB team nationwide beginning in the preseason – just two months from now.
If XM thrives, in a few years that price tag will seem cheap.
As baseball fans, we are fascinated by the prospect of being able to choose from thousands of games from around the country all season. The deal fulfills the definition of good radio: finding innovative ways to deliver great content.
But as radio fans, we recognize that the announcement is a big change in the 84-year relationship between the sport and the medium. Certainly it can be viewed as a loss to terrestrial radio; and we’re disappointed that, once again, the powers-that-be in our biz are losing the battle of the headlines to the satellite guys. Where were they when XM was scrapping to pick up rights to our best sports content? Why didn’t radio put up more of a fight to keep baseball programming – what Panero calls his “crown jewel” – strictly on our local dial, where all Americans can hear it for free?
Part of the answer is that the XM deal does not supplant local relationships between baseball teams and radio stations. But we think it marks a fundamental change in baseball’s relationship with its listeners, one that will have unknown consequences later. The package instantly makes XM the headquarters of nationwide baseball radio. This is a good deal for fans, who will be able to listen to the local broadcasts of their favorite teams and learn about others from anywhere in the country. It’s great for XM, which instantly adds yet more credibility to its case to subscribers and investors.
Smart local radio managers may turn all this into good news. Perhaps some will follow the example given by cable TV and grab this chance to develop nationally recognized brands. Others may find ways to make their local baseball outlets more compelling in the face of new and greater choices on the satellite dial. Most important, perhaps terrestrial radio will start acting preemptively to protect its best assets.
One thing’s for sure: Right now, Hugh Panero – a satellite guy – is doing a better job of selling Americans on the strengths of radio than radio’s top owners and managers are. And if you think that’s about to change, consider the name of Sirius Satellite’s new top salesman: Mel Karmazin.
– Radio World