20 March 2007

Is there room for another sports talk station?

Note: I'm picking this up from a previous post's comments thread.

We can all agree that the KNBR is skewed towards the SF teams and covers the W's mostly because they're under contract. The Oakland teams get token coverage, while the Sharks get mentioned because the Razor loves them. You can't fault KNBR for catering to their vested interests. Sports talk is not exactly high up on the journalistic integrity scale, so to hold them to task for this skew is laughable. To have another sports talk station makes sense for fans of those affected teams.

However, that's not the issue here.

The real question is: "Is there room in the Bay Area for another sports talk station?" The two KNBR's constitute 1 1/2 stations due to simulcasts (Razor & Mr. T), sloughing off W's or 49ers games when they conflict with the Giants or the Razor & Mr. T, Giants midnight baseball replays, and much of the throwaway syndicated programming out there (late night ESPN radio, most FOX Sports radio). Programming a sports talk station is inherently expensive and risky. Before you answer the question above, consider the following:
  • How do you balance expensive, locally produced programming against cheaper (and less popular syndicated shows)?
  • What marketing strategy do you use? Is the station an anti-KNBR? An East Bay station? A "fair and balanced" station? A more edgy station?
  • Do you succumb to "partnering" with ESPN (Eternally Self-Promoting Network)?
  • How much specialized programming do you include? Examples: boxing, outdoors/fishing, extreme sports, fantasy sports, auto racing, horse racing
  • What kinds of partnerships do you strike with local universities to carry their events?
  • What kind of sports news operation do you run? Do you cover every local pro sports event or cover events selectively?
  • Is it worth it to pay for higher priced, big name radio talent?
  • Should the station have sports programming exclusively, or a mix of sports and other news/talk?
  • How much do you want shows to be content driven (interviews) as opposed to caller driven?
  • How much time do you spend on pre- and post-game shows?
  • How much do gimmicks factor in? Examples: scantilly-clad women, contests and giveaways
Next, let's consider the market. The last published Arbitron ratings I've seen have KNBR at 2.3 for November '06-January '07 in the San Francisco market (14th) and 1.8 in the San Jose market (20th). KTCT (a.k.a. KNBR-1050) hit 0.6 (35th) in SF and 0.4 (40th) in SJ, which explains why they don't spend much on local programming.

Let's talk a look at the shares for sports talk stations in more sports-crazy markets (Arbitron ratings courtesy of Radio Daily News):

I threw in LA facetiously, of course. Other than LA, a market's total sports radio share appears to typically hover between 3 and 5 (3-5% of the market). The combined share of the two KNBR's is nearly 3, and in a place as diverse and segmented as the Bay Area, can you reasonably ask for more? Would the addition of another station take away a 1 share from someone else, whether it was KNBR or other types of programming? While the sports offerings may not be diverse, it could be argued that the market penetration for sportstalk is close to maxed out.

Then again, maybe it isn't. A look at the dropoff from the SF market to the SJ market indicates that the further outside of SF, the less popular KNBR is in general. The SF market includes Oakland, so the pooling of both east and west sides of the bay presents an inaccurate picture in ratings. The East Bay must be weaker than SF and the Peninsula. Perhaps an opportunity is there for an East Bay/South Bay oriented station, one that caters to non-SF teams. There's an obvious marketing angle in presenting the station as the opposite of the so-called effete, wine-sipping types to the west.

Wolff and A's broadcasting veep Ken Pries are paying attention to the market. Pries has indicated that if a station were available locally, the A's would be interested. There's an element of timing to such an acquisition, because in the recent past most local radio station sales have been as part of huge corporate portfolios, such as the Susquehanna sale. It's possible that the rumored sale of various Clear Channel stations may make one or more individual stations available locally, but it could lead to more of the same corporate horse trading.

Thankfully, other teams' owners have already set the trend by buying their own radio properties. The following are two excellent case studies:
  • A year ago, Angels owner Arte Moreno paid $42 million for KMXE, a 50,000-watt AM outfit in LA. Formerly a Spanish-language news/talk/sports outlet, KMXE was transformed into the Angels' spanish flagship. Over the last year, more English-language programming has been introduced, and Moreno changed the station's call letters to KLAA. It is thought that once ESPN-710's deal with the Angels elapses after this coming season, the English broadcast will move to KLAA. But what will happen to the Spanish broadcasts? Moreno has done a skillful job of marketing to that market, and he may be doing the team a disservice by not utilizing the station for Spanish. One way or another, the station promises to significantly boost Angels revenues.
  • A few months prior to Moreno's purchase, a company called Red Zebra Broadcasting bought three low-power stations in the Washington, DC area. Red Zebra is run by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. The three stations form a virtual "flagship" by simulcasting the same programming (ESPN radio and Redskins games). Depending on where you are in the market, you may be best served by listening to either WWXT 92.7-FM in Prince Frederick, MD, WWXX 94.3-FM in Warrenton, VA, or WXTR 730-AM in Alexandria, Virginia. Plans to buy two additional stations in Maryland were scuttled in January. If this sounds familar, that's it mimics what the A's were doing last year with two low-powered stations - though the A's didn't own the stations. Should two or more low-power stations owned by the same conglomerate become available, it's certainly within reason for Wolff to look into purchasing them, price being a major factor. Once purchased, an application can be filed to boost a station's signal to 20,000 or even 50,000 watts if it's AM, even more if FM.
Just as with the stadium situation, patience is required when looking at the radio market. The FCC isn't granting new licenses to anyone, so this radio wait is like looking for a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. It requires timing, skill, and a bit of luck. The industry may shake out even more over the next two years, so with that aforementioned luck the A's may get themselves a station yet.

Cali's a tough place, Noll: Fremont over Santa Clara

The Merc's Mike Swift has two good pieces today. The first covers the generally anti-public funding attitude for stadia in California. The other article has noted sports economist Roger Noll's skepticism over the 49ers' Santa Clara stadium plans, while also saying that the Fremont site is "much more viable."

The only thing missing from Swift's article is SB 4, the 2005 bill that flew under the radar during the legislative session, only to be stillborn as it went through committee. We should be proud of the fact that we aren't likely to get extorted as our counterparts are in Pennsylvania, Florida, and even New York. It doesn't matter that California alone would be one the world's top ten economies. Let's remember who would be competing for public funding if it were allowed at the state level (which it hasn't for decades):
  1. A's ballpark in Oakland/Alameda County
  2. San Francisco 49ers stadium
  3. San Diego Chargers stadium
  4. Sacramento Kings arena
  5. New LA football stadium to attract an NFL team
  6. San Jose Earthquakes stadium
As for Noll, he's right. While the $200 million being pursued is only 1/4 of the 49ers' projected budget, it's still a sizable chunk for any municipality, let alone Santa Clara. If a vote is required - which looks likely - I don't know how well that'll go over. A while back I spoke with one of the Santa Clara project's proponents, and one of the advantages about Santa Clara being pitched - the city's ownership of an electric utility allows it to control and lower prices - could be placed at risk if the money backing that price control is leveraged. Meanwhile, Lew Wolff continues to make appearances in Fremont, yesterday reading to kids at Niles Elementary.
One other nice blurb from China Basin: PG&E will install new solar panels in three different areas at AT&T Park, enough to generate 123 kW, or "enough juice to power the ballpark's scoreboard for an entire season." Applause to both the Giants and PG&E for doing what they can to take a small load off the power grid.

Update (3/21): PG&E somehow "forgot" to tell its ratepayers that they would end up footing the bill for the project. Oops. So much for the good PR.