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Is ESPN Radio Vulnerable?


Move over LeBron James. Weve heard enough about The Decision. 2012 may go down in radio history as the year of The Announcement. It will certainly be remembered as the year everyone decided to jump into the sports talk network format. The big question that remains is, "Can everyone survive and can the Big Dog -- also known as ESPN -- be beaten?"

In September, Dial Global and NBC will get their network rolling. And, in January, CBS and Cumulus fully launch their sports product. When you add in the Fox Sports Network, Yahoo, and the stellar job Entercom and other broadcasters do with local sports, you have to wonder if  everyone can make a good living playing in the same sandbox. In an upcoming issue of Radio Ink, we focus on the exploding sports talk format, which includes a special feature on pioneering station WFAN in New York. Here is just a snippet of what youll read about in that issue.

To say ESPN has a head start in this game would be the understatement of the decade. When we interviewed ESPN SVP Traug Keller in March, he rattled off just a few impressive numbers that the others will be trying to chip away at. ESPN has 24 million weekly listeners on more than 700 stations and over 350 full-time affiliates. And, ESPN.coms live stream has three million unique users per month. Theyve expanded into digital, podcasting, on-demand...the list goes on and on. His leadership propelled Keller 10 spots in the our 40 Most Powerful People in Radio issue. Both CBS and NBC do come into the game with serious sports credibility, which will certainly make 2013 an interesting year in radio. And, like ESPN, CBS and NBC also  have television resources to tap into if needed.

In New York City, with an FM station just added thanks to Jeff Smulyan at Emmis, ESPN is poised to take on the pioneer of sports talk, CBS-owned WFAN. (Somewhat of an irony here in that Smulyan launched WFAN 25 years ago). The competition is so fierce in the New York City market that ESPN bans guests from appearing on WFAN, according to the legendary WFAN afternoon talker Mike Francessa. That is something they started about six or seven years ago. They are steadfast about it, even people that Im close friends with like Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. They are forbidden from being on my show. That's how far ESPN has taken it."

Just this week ESPN announced former New York Giants coach Bill Parcells will be a regular on the Michael Kay show, which probably makes him off limits to Francessa. Parcells and Francessa were very close friends at one point. Can we anticipate similar battles taking place in every sports market across the country?

For a little insight on the upcoming sports battle, we turned to Charlie Sislen, a partner at The Research Director and someone who knows radio inside and out. With years at Eastman Radio, Arbitron, and in the radio business, including an early stint working with WFAN, we wanted to get his take on the big sports battle thats about to begin. We first asked him if it was even possible for ESPN to be caught.

Everybody can be caught. Everybody is vulnerable. I have an example: RBQ in Tampa. When they had Scott Shannon in the morning, that station was invulnerable. Nobody could top it. Jacor came in and took it down in six months. Everybody is vulnerable if they don't do it right. ESPN does have a couple of things going for it. First of all, they have, at the present time, nationally -- the key word being "nationally" -- the best brand in sports. Because it's not just a radio brand. It is a TV brand. It's an Internet brand. If you want to talk about sports, they are the brand. That doesn't mean they are invulnerable. They still have to deliver better product. It gives them an advantage, but they've got to deliver better product than everyone else.

If you were advising a station on how to attack ESPN, what would you tell them?
Sislen: I think there are two different elements, and it is a balancing act. Let's look at New York. There are two sports stations in New York. You've got ESPN and you've got WFAN. Both have pretty good brands in New York. The question is, what does a New Yorker care more about? Do they care more about what happened in Major League Basebell or do they care more about what happened to the New York Yankees? Well, the obvious answer is the Yankees. But, there is one element of that that is missing. That is quality of delivery. The Today Show and Good Morning American have eaten the lunch of all the local morning shows. Why? People care about their local weather and traffic, but they did a better job. You have to focus on what the listeners want. Do they want to talk in New York about the New York Yankees or the Olympics? Well, probably both. So, then it comes down to quality of content. You have to do it better. ESPN is on top of the hill right now, but that hill can always be taken over. You have to remember one other thing: In radio, it costs nothing for the listener to switch allegiances. All I have to do is push the button. If you can out-market and out-program the lead dog, you can win. We've seen it happen hundreds of times in the radio business. You have to make that concerted effort.

RI: Do you think there is enough room for, enough listeners for, all of these new players?

Sislin: "I don't know. Sports is an expensive format to run. Sports delivers an extremely desirable audience: upscale men, 25-54. Advertisers love that group. If I could say upscale adults 25-54 it would be better, but it's upscale men. The second thing that all good sports stations do, they are not relying on the ratings, because the emotional relationship that the listener has with his sports, and therefore his sports radio station, is second to none. You go to Boston, you can go to any bar, start talking about the Red Sox, and everybody is going to have an opinion. That's pretty strong."

RI:  Step out on the ledge and answer whether you think they will still all be around in a year.
: I don't know how many there will be. I think part of it is, when you are talking about networks, its quality of programming. Will CBS be there? Will ESPN be there? Will NBC be there? Will Dial GLobal be there? It doesn't matter how many are out there. How many can get affiliates? How many can get good quality affiliates, if you are talking about the network side of it. But people are looking to fill content, good content. Will somebody fall by the wayside? Look, anytime you have an explosion like that, there are going to be winners and losers. Somebody is going to lose. I ain't betting against ESPN. I ain't betting against CBS. They've both got the infrastructure and the history. Will they all survive? Depends how many there are. If there is just ESPN, CBS, I would say yes. Somebody is not going to make as much money. If all of a sudden there were five or six all-news networks in radio, somebody wouldn't survive. It will make the guys that survive better."

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