When Sports Teams Want to Be the Media

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This one is basically being written because of my reading of a Deadspin article. Yes, I read Deadspin articles.

Many of them are interesting, but this one in particular got my attention. It was one about Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and how he practically got a horde of sports reporters in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area to kiss his feet.

And his butt…

And a few other things on his body.

The article basically said that ever since Dan Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, he has tried his damndest to essentially control the flow of information regarding his team. In other words, he wants the entire Washington sports media market to serve as a public relations outfit for his team.

Deadspin mentioned a deal that Snyder just inked with the Washington Times where a weekly Redskins magazine will be distributed via the Times and where its staff will appear on the Redskins’ website.

In other words, don’t expect to see any anti-Redskins stuff (including columns advocating for the changing of the Washington team name) anywhere within the pages of the Washington Times.

This is a newspaper that already is trying to uphold a reputation as one of the most conservative-friendly papers in the nation, rivaling the New York Post, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for that title. It tries to be a conservative alternative to the supposedly liberal-leaning Washington Post.

But, since you already have stated unabashedly that you’re virtually an advocacy rag that tubthumps for right-leaning causes, why should anyone be surprised that you have linked up with the Redskins and its owner, who also happens to be a Republican and donates money to GOP candidates.

So, what else? An announcement that Snyder is also going to be a Washington Times columnist himself?

Political mess aside, this is more about the idea of sports teams (more like, sports owners) being able to control the narrative about their teams especially when their teams’ on-field play is not exactly the best thing going on.

The New York Yankees (YES Network), New York Mets (SNY), Boston Red Sox (NESN), Chicago Cubs/White Sox (Comcast SportsNet Chicago), Los Angeles Dodgers (SportsNet LA), and Houston Astros (Comcast SportsNet Houston) are among the teams with their own RSNs. Even though in the latter cases in Los Angeles, and Houston, those RSNs are not attracting a lot of cable coverage.

The New York Knicks (MSG Network), Los Angeles Lakers (Time Warner Cable Sports Net), Denver Nuggets (Altitude), and Chicago Bulls (Comcast SportsNet Chicago) are among the NBA teams with regional sports networks that they own. The cases with the Time Warner channels in Los Angeles are also striking because, in both cases, the coverage of the teams is relatively soft—even though the Lakers are one of the NBA’s worst teams at the moment.

Many sports teams now own regional sports networks which are able to make a lot of money for their respective teams. Some even own their own radio stations, like the St. Louis Cardinals did a few years back when they moved off of KMOX 1120 for 550 KTRS. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim own their flagship radio station, 830 KLAA-AM.

All four major sports leagues also own their channels, but much to their credit, the on-air talent does not (for the most part) allow the ownership structure of the networks to dictate favorable coverage to a league commissioner. This was illustrated when MLB Network (especially Bob Costas—a common critic of Commissioner Bud Selig) roundly criticized Selig as part of baseball’s problem with performance enhancing drugs when Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was found to have used PEDs.

So, the Snyder case with the Redskins illustrates just how desperate he is in controlling the media narrative around his team. Instead of trying to earn positive coverage with (gasp!) a winning football team, he wants to be lazy and not help in fielding a winning football team, then control the media so no one will say anything negative about him.

In short, that’s what you call an owner who is only using a team as an ATM and could care less if his team has any on-field success or not. Money talks and BS walks.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fact that Snyder owns the flagship station of his team’s radio network—ESPN Radio 980 WTEM. It also has two repeater signals on 92.7 FM WWXT and 94.3 FM WWXX. Needless to say, you won’t hear any more anti-Snyder blabbery on 980 AM moreso than you will see in the pages of the Washington Times thanks to that new deal.

That, perhaps explains why even with its extra sticks, 980 is still not up to par in terms of ratings with its rival across the street, WJFK-FM CBS Radio’s 106.7 The Fan—the flagship station for the Nationals, Capitals, and Wizards as well as an affiliate of Virginia Tech athletics and CBS Sports Radio.

Whereas The Fan does not hold The Fans hostage with pro-Snyder and pro-Redskins coverage motivated only by fattening of paychecks, 980 is essentially Dan Snyder’s PR outlet. In the July PPMs, 106.7 The Fan had a 2.3 whereas ESPN Radio 980 only mustered a 1.5.

Some of that 2.3 can be attributed to the Nationals and the fact that they are having a successful season up to this point. Nats radio ratings on 106.7 the Fan are surging this season, mostly because of the clarity of the FM signal and the success of the team.

But, it also has a lot to do with the fact that (especially) in Washington, DC, people will want to listen to any media outlet that does not have any financial stake in protecting any big boys.

Compare Dan Snyder’s idea of blacklisting any media type that dares to publish or utter one bad word about him in the District to that of the Jaguars and their media relations this year.

Even though the Jacksonville Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the NFL (so bad that they were once rumoured to be allowing fans to watch NFL RedZone on its JumboTron during games at Everbank Field), they seem to be pretty savvy in terms of media relations.

This year, the Jaguars ended a partnership with Cox Radio and its Conservative News/Talk radio station 104.5 WOKV that goes back to when the Jaguars became an NFL franchise in the 1990s. They signed with a new station this year to broadcast Jaguars games—WJXL AM/FM 1010 XL 92.5—owned by Seven Bridges Radio.

That station airs a sports format and is affiliated with ESPN Radio. It also includes for games to air WGNE-FM 99.9 Gator Country (owned by Renda Broadcasting).

The station talked all day on the occasion of the announcement that they landed the Jags’ rights about the deal and how big it was for the station to be the flagship of Duval’s only professional sports franchise. One of the guests on the station that day was Mark Lamping, team president. He said this:

“I want you to support us when we’re doing well and challenge us when we’re not doing so well.”

In my opinion, that was an extremely refreshing quote from a team president regarding a relationship that said team has or is about to enter into with a media outlet. Say what you want about the Jaguars on-field misadventures as of late, but there is no doubt about the fact that their media relations department is leaps and bounds better than that of the Redskins’.

He understood the concern that many in the Jacksonville/Duval area had about the possibility that the coverage on J-ville’s largest sports station could begin to get a little more skewed in favor of good coverage for a bad team. Lamping understood this and knew that he had to put out these concerns with one interview.

Granted, if the station actually stays to this promise is yet to be seen and heard and will be seen and heard by many in the area as the season unfolds. But, it was a refreshing first step.

Colin Cowherd on ESPN once remarked about how earlier in his radio career, he was on radio stations that happened to have rights to air team broadcasts. The on-air personalities had to temper their criticism of (or provide favorable coverage altogether of) those teams because of the financial ramifications of the relationship. He did not like being on those particular stations—and for good reason.

There’s no problem with sports teams becoming media. Sports teams, in fact, are already media by the fact that they have their own websites with their own content. But, does that mean that we can call a lot of these outlets, particularly Snyder’s, journalism?

There’s journalism and there’s public relations. What the Washington Times and ESPN Radio 980 are doing is public relations—and it’s not good PR either. We’ve found something else the Redskins are seemingly bad at.

Why Do NBA Franchises Fall for the Trap of Building Super-Teams? (Guest Writer: Jeremy Johnson @Clark_Kent_75)

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The champagne had not been cleaned from the San Antonio Spurs’ locker room floors before every NBA fan and most team’s executives started to speculate. Where would LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony be playing basketball next season? Would they pair up together and change the trajectory of an entire league? Would they find a team with a budding young star and join them?

The free agency trend that has been prevalent among teams since back in the summer of 2010 when LeBron James uttered his now iconic phrase telling the world of his decision. LeBron spurned his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and joined the Miami Heat in a team up of stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh that rivals Marvel’s “Avengers.” LeBron joined his Super Friends down on South Beach and proceeded to claim they had just created a dynasty.

Oh come on! We all remember LeBron’s overenthusiastic proclamation at the pep rally following the Big Three’s assembling. Though they did capture two NBA titles and make four straight Finals appearances, the Heat fell short of being a dynasty in my book. They did cement LeBron’s legacy by getting him two rings and locking him into being considered a top 10 player all-time.

But eventually in the fourth season of the Big Three era, James had seemingly become the One Man Army similar to the situation that had him bolting away from Cleveland four years prior. James opted out of his deal possibly bringing an end to the Heat’s Big Three era. What wasn’t known at the time of the big three’s conception is that it was about to change the way teams went about planning their offseasons and started an arms race among NBA franchises.

Along with the arms race came the new notion of the buddy system in the NBA—players collaborating and trying to collect their friends or guys they want to play with in an attempt to join forces to make a run at a title. No other team has been even as successful as the Heat were. No other team has even come close. In fact, the teams that have won titles during the Heat’s era are teams built largely through draft picks and trade positioning.

The 2010 Dallas Mavericks, for example, drafted the one star they had on their roster during their championship season. Dirk Nowitzki has played his entire career in Dallas and owner Mark Cuban has worked to put a team around him.
Emphasis on team.

This past season’s champion San Antonio Spurs drafted its three stars in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli and added pieces around them.

So building super-teams isn’t the only way to win championships. So why has it become so prevalent for teams to try to assemble one? Let’s be honest. The Miami Heat were driven by LeBron James to their success though he had a very above average supporting cast. But there’s only one LeBron James, and outside of Kevin Durant, no player in the NBA will single handedly change a whole league’s expected landscape in one move.

So why have teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, and Houston Rockets grappled with stars to join their teams for the last three summers in what always comes up to ultimately ended up being highly publicized unsuccessful chemistry projects that only yield mixed results and do not ascend those teams to the elites. It only puts them in a group with the up and coming built teams that are cheaper and younger. Examples that fall into that category are the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers. So it’s not who a team signs, or who’s friends with who, but how a team is built to fit a common goal every player has a role and fill that role on a consistent basis.

So, why then every summer is free agency held hostage by one or two super stars trying to team up with a buddy? I blame the age of social media and technology that allows these players to connect with each other.

Back in the 90’s at the peak of the Chicago Bulls dynasty, I have a hard time imagining Michael Jordan tweeting about Patrick Ewing having a big game. Or Michael Jordan smiling and hugging Isaiah Thomas after beating them in the Eastern Conference Finals. As it is we sit as fans and the role players that will truly make an impact on creating the winning formula. We collectively wait as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh make their decisions and are wined and dined by teams and pitched on the futures of prospective franchises as if they are about to make a purchase.

This must happen before the Luol Dengs and Trevor Arizas of the world can find their new homes as every team in the NBA is considering breaking their team apart completely to stack a team of stars together a formula that has mixed results to begin with. But teams are not about to remove themselves from contention of hosting the new big three by signing complimentary players. Ignoring the fact that the formula of stacking stars is only creating a giant gap between the haves and have-nots of the NBA as a result.

The smaller market teams struggle to strike gold in the toss up that is the NBA Draft only to watch that gold run to join another team. The quality of the game is suffering as all the good players play on a handful of teams and the good role players follow and familiarity with teammates is a thing of the past. Leaving the bottom tier with the left overs. Yet the NBA is as popular as ever. I leave with the question are spoiled stars ruining the NBA or is the NBA spoiling the stars and ruining itself?

The Double-Edged Sword of Radio’s Format Changes

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Anyone who knows little ol’ me knows that I am probably the biggest radio geek on the planet. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I know that there are places with radio stations that they didn’t even know had places.

My radio geekiness began in 2006 in Atlanta. At the time a popular radio station called 105.3 the Buzz (WBZY-FM Bowdon) was running liners in a continuous loop redirecting listeners to 96.1 WKLS. At the time, the station was the home of 96Rock, a heritage Classic Rocker that at the time was the flagship station for The Regular Guys Morning Show (Larry Wachs, Eric von Haessler, Southside Steve, etc.) as well as the home for Atlanta Braves baseball on FM.

The Braves, at the time also simulcasted on News/Talk 640 WGST.

The new station that was to debut on 96.1 was supposed to be what is referred to in the radio business as “Active Rock” (predominantly current hard rock with a few classics sprinkled here and there)—Project 9-6-1. Clear Channel has since ended ATL’s “Project” and is now airing CHR on 96.1 as “Power 96.1”.

Going back to the original format change in 2006, 105.3 basically relocated to 96.1 just under a new name. 105.3 itself debuted a new Regional Mexican format called “El Patron”, predominantly targeted towards the northeast Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, where most of metro-Atlanta’s Hispanic population lives.

The fact that radio stations everywhere choose such creative ways to end and debut new formats is definitely pleasing to the ears. Shortly after the change in Atlanta took place, I discovered a website called FormatChange.com that features format changes throughout the years in radio. These include very historic ones, such as the MusicRadio 77 signoff in New York and the debut of Smooth Jazz 94.7 The Wave in Los Angeles.

Recently I remember listening to the aircheck I recorded of the debut of Wild 94.1 in Tampa. The buildup to the change (as for any Rhythmic CHR) was well-ballyhooed, so I figured I wanted to listen to this one would sound like. I didn’t hear the actual format change as can be heard on the 94.1 frequency because CBS Radio maintained the stream as if the station was simply changing its name and not moving to 94.1 from 98.7. In other words, the streaming audio was not the same as the frequency. I’m also guessing it’s why despite the enormous buildup to the flip, it’s why the aircheck didn’t make the Format Change Archive.

Wild’s move from 98.7 to 94.1 took place in 2009. It assumed the position of a Broadcast Architecture Radio Network-affiliated Smooth Jazz station at 94.1 which moved to 98.7. That station has since flipped to Hot AC “Play 98.7” and now as CBS Sports Radio affiliate “98.7 The Fan”.

With technology on the up-and-up as it is, the ways in which radio stations flip formats is more sophisticated than ever. With stations having to fulfill financial and ratings obligations to their owners, the rate of format changes is running at more of a breakneck speed than ever before.

The ways in which a radio station can change formats can vary. It can be simple such as quick transition from one song into a top-of-the-hour liner and a promo featuring the new format. Or, a station can flip its format by a long sendoff with DJs saying their final goodbyes and thank you’s to the listeners, then a sequence into the new format that can sound so dramatic that the soundbytes were plucked from “Gladiator” or “The Scorpion King”.

A station can also “stunt”. Say, for example, Alternative radio station 106.3 the Buzz in New York (DISCLAIMER—not a real radio station by the way) was about to flip formats. It signed off, then stunted as “Akiem 106.3” for a few days. After the stunt, a brief announcement could be made by the station’s general manager into the debut of the new format, which could include a simple intro or a more complex one such as a full intro of the new format. In this case, we’ll say it changed to “Love 106.3”—an R&B station—or as it’s known in the radio biz, Urban AC.

Such soundclips, again, can be pleasing to the ears since we’re hearing things that we aren’t used to hearing on a typical radio station at any given day. I have conversations with many of my radio geek folks on Facebook and Twitter always urging them to get their aircheck equipment ready whenever a format flip is about to come down the pike.

While there is an entertaining side to format flips, there’s also a dark side. A yin and a yang. A black and a white.
Format flips, for the most part happen, because either a station’s ratings aren’t doing so hotly against its competition. Or because the station isn’t making enough money. Usually what happens is that the entire airstaff will get fired prior to the change happening. Adam Carolla once said recently that radio station owners sleazily will fire the airstaff prior to the change occurring because if they gave subtle hints of a flip prior to a station changing, the revolt among the airstaff will be massive. This was the case with the old “Froggy 94” in Memphis. This was a beloved Country station that had a close relationship amongst its airstaff—something EVERY radio station should strive for.

Also, many DJs are put into non-compete contracts. For example, if a station flips and the airstaff gets fired, that DJ can’t be on the air for a certain period of time on a competing radio station. This is why it is advantageous for every DJ (or would be DJ) to have a strong internet presence as a way to get their message out.

We have to remember sometimes (and I’ve thought about this more as I continue my observation of the radio industry) that while format flips may produce ear candy for radio nerds, these are people’s livelihoods as well. The job market for radio can sometimes be so screwed that on-air talent will have to move cross-country just to find their next gig.

The format change bug has since hit home when I learned a month ago of a planned format change at Georgia State University’s student-run Album 88 WRAS-FM, a heritage indie music station in Atlanta. The plan was for the hours of 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. to be used by Georgia Public Broadcasting as WRAS was to become its flagship station for its radio network. The remaining 10 hours would still be used by students and the student-run format would still be available online. The takeover of the radio station by GPB is scheduled to take place on June 29th.

The pushback by fans and students has been noticeable. The format flip will provide fewer opportunities for would-be DJs in the future for which WRAS was a major reason why they chose to attend GSU in the first place.

On the subject of these changes again, I can’t even say that when you hear one format flip then you hear them all. They get somewhat repetitive after a while especially when you know how certain stations will debut themselves. The intro for Cumulus’ Rock stations is almost identical. In the early 2000’s shortly after Clear Channel bought out two other radio companies (AMFM and Jacor), they “Kissed” many of their stations (mostly Rhythmic AC or “Jammin’ Oldies” outlets) with Top 40/CHR. The debut sequence for the Top 40 outlets were almost identical. Don’t believe me? Check out FormatChange.com.

I don’t get excited for format flips the way I used to. Partly because I’ve tried to become more in tune with the human element of radio and realize that format changes mean job loss, and the only reason they lost their jobs isn’t because they did something bad. They’re only because of a certain radio organization’s bottom line.

Also, I’ve listened to so many format flip airchecks that I don’t necessarily get excited for format flip sequences anymore. When Adult Alternative station 95.3 The Peak debuted in Calgary, that one was pretty good since it connected the debut of the station with many other landmarks and famous sites in Calgary and around Alberta.

I liked that one. I’m not saying that radio geeks and aircheck collectors should not crave more format flip airchecks, but let’s just remember who is (or was) on the other side of our radios and computers when we hear them.