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ESPN might take a hit as CBS and NBC move into sports radio

Sports is big business, but in radio one network has dominated: ESPN Radio. On the air for 20 years, ESPN Radio has a network of more than 350 full-time affiliate stations in all major markets. But now, ESPN faces major challenges in its dominance of sports radio. Both NBC and CBS are stepping into the sports radio arena, and the competition with ESPN will be fierce. NBC announced in early June that would begin airing sports updates and producing full-length sports shows for its new NBC Sports Radio Network, launching in September and set to be distributed through Dial Global. Last week, CBS Sports, a giant in televised sports already, made an even bigger move when it announced a new 24/7 sports-talk radio line-up.

On Sept. 4, 2012, the network will begin airing sports updates on current CBS Radio affiliate stations. CBS Sports Radio will fully launch its 24/7 line-up on Jan. 2, 2013. Unlike NBC, CBS already owns radio stations throughout the country. In total, nearly 70 stations will be airing some CBS Sports Radio content, with eight going full-time as a CBS Sports Radio station. While the total is small compared to ESPN, CBS is aiming for top markets. The new network will also piggyback on Cumulus Media stations for distribution, widening CBS’ radio reach. Cumulus stations currently airing syndicated ESPN shows will have to drop programming, impeding some of ESPN’s reach.

CBS already has an established radio presence, making up about 8 percent of the U.S. radio market. When it goes live, CBS Sports Radio should grab about 10 million ears, less than half of ESPN’s listenership. While CBS Sports Radio isn’t expected to greatly bump CBS’ radio revenue, which stands at about 10 percent of total revenue, the move will solidify CBS Sports as a brand. CBS Sports now holds broadcast rights to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, The Masters Golf Tournament, and PGA Championship. Moving into radio and establishing a presence in top markets gives CBS Sports a good reason to expand its content rights. Bundled advertising packages, incentivizing advertising to buy time on both television and radio, could also bring money to CBS Sports Radio affiliates.

CBS Sports Radio will likely shake things up on the local level. Only a day after CBS’ announcement, WHBO-AM and WHOO-AM announced they would drop ESPN Radio programming by Oct. 1, citing increased ESPN syndication costs. While the stations plan to add more local, original sports content, the high cost of programming may turn other stations to CBS Sports. Several markets could see stations flipping to sports. In Tampa, Fla., CBS Radio Contemporary Hits WLLD-FM announced its future flip to all-Sports. With talk programs that are known to bring loyal listeners, sports programming can significantly grow a station’s audience and attract advertisers.

Kyle Johnson, managing editor of Vocus Media Research’s radio division, says the sports radio shake-up will likely strengthen radio as a whole. “This move, coupled with the announcement earlier this month that Dial Global will be offering the NBC Sports Radio Network, shows just how pervasive sports talk radio is becoming. Sports fans can’t seem to get enough when it comes to their favorite teams and players, and sports talk radio is answering their call. It will be interesting to see how ESPN Radio, the main player in sports talk, will react to the competition, and if listeners will flock to these new options on the dial.”

–Kristina Elliott

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