Reassessing the new sports radio wars

CBS may not just be the favorite to take the #2 spot behind ESPN Radio in the Darwinian world that has developed in national sports radio. It has a chance to run down ESPN for #1.

In an absolutely shocking move, Jim Rome, the dean of national sports radio hosts, will be jumping ship to the new CBS Sports Radio network when it launches this January. Rome does have his existing relationship with CBS Sports and the CBS Sports Network, but I am amazed that he would leave his home of many, many years to join a brand new sports radio network when he never left Premiere for ESPN Radio in all the time he was hosting Jim Rome is Burning, always maintained his show’s independence from Premiere’s Fox Sports Radio network, and repeatedly stated his commitment to the terrestrial radio stations that made him, to the point that if you don’t get a station that carries his show, your only recourse is to stream one that does, or sign up for his “Jungle Insider” package. I didn’t even think his contract with Premiere was up for renewal yet. I would also note that CBS Sports Network would love to air a TV simulcast of the show, but Jim Rome seems to have been adamantly against the idea of any such thing for some time now.

Why would Rome do this? I suspect the main reason is the changing shape of sports talk radio. Rome has boasted on his show that he has more stations than ever carrying it, but that hides some attrition among the stations that matter most. If you’re a major market sports station – by which I mean any market with big-time professional or college teams – your bread and butter is going to be local shows talking about local teams that people care about, which you control all the advertising for instead of splitting with a syndicator. By far the most distributed shows of the existing sports radio networks are the ones occupying the period from the start of primetime, when most of the games start, until the start of morning drive, despite these often being the ones with the least promotion and the smallest names, because the rest of the time is usually occupied with local shows (NBC seems to have realized this); despite what I said about CBS’ bank of existing big-market sports radio stations, don’t expect them to carry much CBS Sports Radio programming.

Many big-market stations, including some of Rome’s oldest and most loyal affiliates, have been cutting back on their coverage of Rome’s show or dropped it entirely for local shows. WKNR in Cleveland shunted the first hour off to a sister station with a signal barely leaving Cleveland proper; KILT in Houston dropped the whole show entirely, both of them among Rome’s earliest affiliates with fundamental roles in the growth of the show. Rome may have decided that, in order to maintain his audience and relevance, he needed to find a platform that would give him the biggest exposure in the national sports radio landscape of today, one reliant on streaming and TV simulcasts to find today’s audiences.

Besides elevating CBS Sports Radio, this could prove absolutely devastating to Fox Sports Radio, already essentially a simulcast of flagship station KLAC’s lineup, despite not officially having Rome in its lineup (or the bank of play-by-play rights Fox has recently won for it) – especially if Dan Patrick, whose contract with DirecTV is reportedly up soon, decides to join NBC Sports Radio, in which case it could plunge to very nearly the level of Yahoo as co-favorites to ultimately fold. If DirecTV manages to keep Patrick and keep him on FSR, they should be able to hold off NBC Sports Radio for the time being, but ultimately the fate of FSR depends largely on how much presence Premiere wants to maintain in the sports talk radio market going forward.

The biggest threat to any part of ESPN’s hegemony may end up having very little to do with television.

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