In ten days, sports radio stations across the nation will invade Houston, Texas to broadcast live from radio row, during the NFL’s annual week long celebration of their biggest game, the Super Bowl. But while the sheer mass of stations may enhance the NFL’s image, and the on-air personalities may gain personal satisfaction from making a road trip to host their programs on location, the question of whether or not it’s a necessary expense creates division among many broadcast executives.
From the programmers point of view, there are a myriad of reasons to be there. It is the biggest event in sports, and the Super Bowl has mass appeal in every local market. Some people subscribe to the theory that a sports station should only make the trip if its local team is playing in the game, but I don’t agree with that point of view.
In most cities, the NFL is king. Ratings for national games are among the most watched programs on television, and they often outperform the performance of a local market’s baseball, basketball, hockey and college teams. Audiences keep tabs on all teams and players, and when you include gambling, fantasy football, and transplants living in each community into the mix, it’s easy to see why interest is high. If a local team is in the big game, it becomes a bigger deal, but it’s a must-watch event regardless of who participates.
While this may be the biggest event of the sports calendar, every station in America is going to talk about it whether they’re live inside of a convention center in the host city, or sitting in the air conditioned studio from which they operate on a daily basis.
So why go?
Many programmers argue that it’s vital to strengthening the brand’s image in the eyes and ears of the audience. Being there reinforces your position of being a major league brand, and if that’s the way your station has been built and sustained, then there shouldn’t be internal debate about whether it’s important or not to make this trip. It’s the same reason why a news/talk station broadcasts live on location from the cities where presidential debates take place.
But if perception isn’t enough of a reason to justify sending your station on the road for Super Bowl week, then what about the ratings? In years past, the brands I managed often saw a minimal bump during the week of radio row broadcasts. The difficult question though was whether or not a minimal ratings increase was worth spending thousands of dollars. It could be argued that the station could generate the same ratings staying in the building and covering the event rather than sending five to ten people on the road for one week.
From a talent’s perspective, they share less concern about the brand’s financial challenges. Their primary interest is to put on the best show possible, and gaining access to high profile athletes and celebrities, and the sites and sounds leading up to the Super Bowl helps them do that. Many on-air people look forward to the week long festivities created by the NFL and its partners, and they value increasing their stature and relationships with others in the media space. Although those relationships may benefit their show in the future, you could once again argue whether or not this is enough of a reason to justify sending a show on location.
What many personalities don’t realize is how costly this week is to the brand they work for. Some talent do appreciate it and recognize the commitment their employer is making, but others just assume it’s part of doing business.
Except it isn’t.
For a Program Director, General Manager, President, and CEO, to sign off on spending ten to twenty thousand dollars to send their people on the road to broadcast for three to five days from a remote location, which won’t provide a huge return on investment from advertisers or the ratings, is a tall order. I’ve heard hosts over the years say, “it’s the Super Bowl, if our sales team can’t sell this then we’re screwed”. That may sound right, but what many talent lack an understanding of is how much value advertisers place on this one to two week promotion.
If you’re a client, the debate becomes whether or not it’s beneficial to spend thousands of dollars on this promotion instead of on a sustained campaign on the same radio station. Many hosts think that by reading the sponsor’s name and five second tag prior to each interview that they’ve fulfilled their obligation, but what they haven’t taken into consideration is whether or not those name mentions and tags help the client grow their business. Giving a client a web banner on your Super Bowl page, a name mention on your social media posts, and on-air plugs prior to interviews may fulfill what was presented, but if the client loses money, they won’t support future promotions.
Ask yourself this question, would you spend thousands of dollars to promote your business during a week of shows from the Super Bowl? If the answer is yes, would you select this opportunity over others available on the same radio station? If your decision had a lasting impact on your company’s bottom line, would you make the call to sponsor this week?
One way hosts and programmers can help themselves is to work with the sales team to gain a better understanding of how a success or failure will be measured by the client who sponsors this week. Have you met with the client to personally thank them for supporting this promotion? Have you brainstormed with them prior to the promotion to gain a sense of what their hot buttons are? Are there other things you’re willing to do beyond the traditional buy to help make the client feel special?
For example, are you sending out a daily tweet and Facebook post to thank the sponsor and encouraging your fans to support them? Have you created an on-site banner with the client’s logo and had every guest who visits the table sign it so you can bring it back to them to display inside their place of business? If the client is also making the trip, have you helped them gain access to a credential to visit your setup or include them on a guest list to attend some of the parties taking place in the host city? Maybe it means making future appearances at the client’s location, speaking on one of their spots, taking the client out to dinner, getting them tickets to a future game or event in your city, or supporting one of their charities to show that you’re equally invested in them.
Certain things can be measured in this business, and some can’t. The value of an on-air mention and web/social sponsorship during this week might not be enough to justify the costs, but when you tug on a client’s heartstrings and give them things that money can’t buy, that has personal value. Don’t discount how important that is.
John Goforth, who previously served as sales manger of 670 The Score in Chicago, and as an account executive for ESPN 1000, 101 ESPN and 590 The Fan, explained how the perception of Super Bowl week was received in multiple sales departments he worked in.
“We always sold it, but it felt like something we were doing to help cover programming costs”, said Goforth.
“In years past we included live video streaming of the shows from radio row, which was cool because it provided other opportunities. For example, if you sold a sponsorship to Dunkin Donuts, and gave the guests who stopped by a coupon for a year’s supply of coffee, it helped extend the brand presence. You could show the client how you were helping put their band in front of notable people. But the extra nonsense added via billboards and bumpers was always overpriced.”
Noel Wax, former VP of sports sales and director of sales for CBS’ Radio brands in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, said much of the value depends on the involvement of a local team and unique assets.
“If we were lucky enough to have one of the teams in our markets represent us in the Superbowl, then it was a big deal for revenue” said Wax.
“What it really came down to was how creative the station was in generating great ideas to sell around its coverage. Just selling audio billboards of the station’s coverage was not exciting or lucrative. If the sales team had access to trips or tickets, that made it more attractive. I found that the best successes came from approaching marketers who were also fans.”
Those assets certainly help drive larger revenues for the station, but the programming department can’t be placed on standby waiting for the company to acquire them. Instead they have to make a simple decision, are we invested in being live on location for this event or not?
One side of the argument that warrants further examination is the role that corporate executives and market managers play in it. If a sports station being live from the Super Bowl is going to be contested, then how else are you providing reinforcements to help your brand cement its position in the local listener’s mind? Is the station reinvesting its funding in marketing to help the brand gain more fans? Are you moving the money from the Super Bowl trip to create a bigger impact at spring training? Is the station holding back the funding because it plans to make a bigger play to snag a local team’s radio rights?
In each of those scenarios, most programmers will be flexible. Their end goal is to grow the brand. Whether it’s done through the Super Bowl or spring training, additional radio rights or a heavy marketing campaign, the bottom line is growing the audience and brand perception. It’s when executives frown upon making necessary sacrifices to help the station, and offer no alternatives, that programmers become frustrated and question the company’s commitment.
When I ran stations, I felt there was value in broadcasting live from big events. It may not have always been favorable on the spreadsheet, but it absolutely made an impression. And sometimes you have to make financial sacrifices to grow your company.
Case in point, during my first year in San Francisco, we sent our entire staff at 95.7 The Game to Indianapolis to broadcast from radio row. The crew had only been working together for a few months, and this trip allowed them to form deeper bonds outside of the building. That’s something that you can’t measure. It was expensive, but we knew that our competitor would have a minimal presence at the event, and that would serve us well in strengthened our identity in the market.
We also felt that it would send a message to the local teams that we meant business. We knew it may not provide an immediate financial return, but the long-term goal was to entice those teams to work with us. By utilizing that approach, we became serious contenders for the radio rights to the Oakland Raiders and Golden State Warriors, with the Silver and Black signing on two years later to become the station’s flagship NFL partner. The Warriors didn’t immediately switch over, but a few years later they too followed suit.
The San Francisco Giants and 49ers, and a few notable sports agents also took notice. Over the next year, players who had previously been unavailable or not interested in pursuing weekly call-in deals with the station, started to adjust their line of thinking. When we signed Buster Posey and Matt Cain the following season to an exclusive agreement, it put everyone in the market on notice.
The final piece of this puzzle that I want to shed light on is the value it presents to the NFL, and their role in making it a better experience for radio operators.
In recent years, radio row has become a bigger hassle. The process to being approved for credentials takes a long time, and that impacts stations who are trying to determine what they can or can’t spend to cover the event. If you’re applying in November, you shouldn’t have to wait until the second or third week of January to find out if all of your people and the hotel rooms you’ve requested have been approved. That puts stations in a tough financial position because booking last minute rooms, cars and flights requires additional expense, inconvenience and in some instances, less manpower.
The next issue that creates a problem are the increasing technical costs. Some stations have to absorb two thousand dollars in fees for ISDN lines and internet, and then either send an engineer on the road or hire a local engineer as an independent contractor. That’s a lot of money to spend just to get on the air. The alternative is accepting lower broadcast quality which would defeat the purpose of broadcasting there.
Then there’s the lack of information of who’s going to be available on radio row. Most hosts and producers have no idea who’s available to be booked for their shows until the day of, and then it becomes a mad scramble to chase down PR people, and team officials. This makes it chaotic for hosts, producers, guests, and handlers, who are trying to foster relationships with one another yet have a limited time to do so.
Lastly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of TLC displayed by NFL officials towards radio stations and their employees. These brands offering up countless hours of their programming time to help the NFL sell its biggest game of the season, and spending thousands of dollars to do so. Many also invest additional millions of dollars on the radio rights of the NFL’s local teams. You’d think that would provide for better treatment, but I’ve run stations that did and didn’t have NFL play by play relationships, and neither was treated any differently.
Whether the league offered better placement inside the venue, access to guests who other brands couldn’t get, priority access inside the building, or something as simple as a few more hotel rooms and advanced approval, every little bit sends a message that the NFL values its radio partners.
Let me remind you, these stations broadcast from a place called RADIO Row. If the costs and challenges become more hassle than they’re worth, it could make brands reconsider attending. A lack of on-site support and reduced air time for the league’s biggest game could have an affect on viewing. Given the current climate of television, and the growing economic challenges for broadcast companies, it wouldn’t be wise for the league to continue making their loyal partners feel neglected during the week of their biggest annual event.
I was curious how a number of programmers across the country felt about the importance of broadcasting live on radio row. Each of these guys work for different companies, and are sending their stations to broadcast in Houston this year. Here are their perspective on the pros and cons of Super Bowl week.
- Mike Sheppard – Mighty 1090, San Diego, CA
- Rich Moore – Sports Radio 950 KJR, Seattle, WA
- Dan Zampillo – ESPN LA 710, Los Angeles, CA
- Chris Kinard – 106.7 The Fan, Washington D.C.
- Joe Zarbano – WEEI, Boston, MA
Why do you believe it’s necessary for your station to broadcast from radio row during the week of the Super Bowl?
Moore: It’s the payoff week to the biggest draw in our format on the biggest media stage. Super Bowl week is an overdose of sports talk content gold. When the format was growing and earning credibility, being at the biggest events was vital. The key now is not just being there, but maximizing the content.
Super Bowl week also used to be about getting big names on that you couldn’t usually get on any other time. That’s still there but now it’s also about the news and content, and being there gives you an advantage. It probably is more necessary nowadays to the stations in markets where the NFL is present and strong.
Zampillo: Two things come into play for us at ESPN LA 710. One, we just got the Rams this year, and given the attention around the NFL returning to LA, and now with the Chargers coming, I think it helps us cement ourselves as the football station in town. Plus, we launched a new morning show with Keyshawn Johnson involved, and given his status and ability to draw big guests, it makes sense to have our morning show there.
Sheppard: It’s a strategic brand decision. Part of our content and event filter is whether or not a listener would expect a particular element from “San Diego’s Sports Leader”. In our opinion, a Super Bowl week broadcast is in sync with the audience expectations of the Mighty 1090 brand. More importantly (and based on audience research we have done), NOT having a presence there would erode our leadership position in the mind of the audience.
Kinard: If done right, it can make your station sound big and create an impression that you own the most important sporting event of the year. But I think whether you make the decision to send a show depends on several factors, including your market’s competitive situation, budget, strengths and weaknesses of your hosts and producers, and what kind of market you are in. In our case, we have a midday show with 2 talented interviewers and some great connections, and I am confident they will produce content worthy of the expense we are incurring to send them.
Zarbano: It’s necessary because our audience is captivated by the Patriots and the NFL. This is the biggest event of the year, and our listeners want to feel like they’re there even if they can’t be. When the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, New Englanders are obsessed with Patriots related content. Broadcasting live from radio row affords us the opportunity to deliver the very best possible radio.
How much of an impact does it have on your station’s ratings?
Moore: It’s a pretty strong week for us. We gain strong AQH. With a natural bigger audience available that week, booking the week on radio row allows us to set good appointments and create great social media and digital content as well.
Zampillo: I think it will have a small impact on ratings if done right. If we get the right guests and handle the show in the spirit of the way it was meant to be executed it will give us a bump.
Sheppard: Minimal. That’s not why we do this. It’s a strategic brand decision rather than a topical or tactical ratings play.
Kinard: These shows can create some must-listen to moments, which has the potential to move the ratings needle. But I think it’s more of an overall branding benefit than anything.
Zarbano: We see quite a noticeable increase, particularly in cume, when the Patriots are in the Super Bowl and we’re broadcasting live from radio row. The interest level in our market is huge.
Why do you think this week of programming matters to the audience?
Moore: It’s the biggest topic, and the hype of the Super Bowl coverage attacks the majority of the cume. If your team is in it, it’s a can’t miss event. If not, it’s a newsy week that helps listeners at the water cooler.
Zampillo: The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports. And even casual sports fans are interested in the game.
Sheppard: Based on our content and topic matrix, coverage of the NFL is far and away the # 1 audience need. Given that the Super Bowl is the NFL’s most important event each year, it would be foolish of us not to capitalize on the buzz and content of this week.
Kinard: The Super Bowl is not just the biggest sporting event of the year, it’s a spectacle. The game is huge, but the commercials and the halftime show are highly anticipated as well. The stars come out, and it’s a great opportunity to hear from the legends of sports, but it also provides your station with an opportunity to crossover into the worlds of entertainment and pop culture.
Zarbano: WEEI’s audience is very emotionally invested in the Patriots and football content. If the Pats are playing in the Super Bowl, the interest level rises. These rabid fans want to be at the game and taking in the week’s events, but since they can’t, they rely on our presence and ability to deliver to make them feel closer to the action.
If you weren’t there, what type of affect do you think it would have on your brand?
Moore: It’s not the end of the world anymore, but the KJR brand has been built with the expectation that we will be live from the big events and deliver those experiences to our audience. With our station located in a great football market like Seattle, and KJR a proud partner of Westwood One, we try to make sure we are there.
Zampillo: I don’t think it would hurt us. If we were not going and still hitting the hottest topics that matter to our audience, we would be in good shape.
Sheppard: It would negatively impact our leadership branding.
Kinard: I think you can certainly cover the game from afar just as you would any of the other major sporting events. As long as the shows continue to spend a majority of their time talking about the game and doing the blocking and tackling of PPM strategy, this should be a great week regardless.
Zarbano: It’s a perception battle. Many of our P1’s also listen to our competitor. If the competition broadcasts from radio row and your station is not there, it can make your brand look second rate. Our audience is going to be more interested in listening to the shows that are on the ground with the team in Houston (Super Bowl City) rather than the show which is sitting inside of a studio back in Boston during the week of the biggest game in sports.
Some industry folks feel that it’s not worth the expense to broadcast from there. How do you respond to that?
Moore: It’s certainly going that way. It is really hard to commit to it each year in advance, but if you work with your sales team, and can justify great value and frequency to see your coverage, it can be done. It’s RADIO row, and yet the NFL is pricing radio stations out of being there. $2000 for ISDN and internet is almost impossible to justify.
Zampillo: I understand that point of view. The problem is, Radio Row used to be special. Now, everyone has the same guests on, and most of those guests are low quality guests who are pushing products that do not connect with our audience. If you can do the best version of your show while working in important aspects of being on Radio Row like BIG name guests, it makes sense. If you can’t do that, then I understand staying home.
Sheppard: It’s not cheap, but we send all of our shows, and make it a priority to not only cover our expenses, but actually make money with our Super Bowl week sponsorships. Many of our hosts will ad-lib sponsors who are more than willing to support these broadcasts financially.
Kinard: For some stations, it may not be worth the cost. It depends on your competitive situation, and what else you would spend that money on.
Zarbano: We are blessed to have a great sales staff. The revenue they bring in always greatly outweighs our expenses.
Since the majority of the week consists of interviews with big named athletes and celebrities, what does your brand do differently to standout from the rest of the crowd?
Moore: We form relationships with NFL guests and contributors all season long, and use this week to extend them and have longer conversations in person that pay off our audience. We also have regular contributors who have established relationships with players, coaches, etc. and we send them too because it helps increase our access to other high profile guests, plus their continued presence assures that our programming will remain top notch.
Zampillo: We are only going to talk to guests who the audience is excited to hear from. We are not putting on a guest to just put on a guest. It has to be someone where the audience says Wow! This is cool or interesting!
Sheppard: First, we want our broadcasters to have good shows. Although I see stations still doing it, pimping non-relevant athletes, celebrities or products is not what we do. Content is the # 1 primary objective with an emphasis on Super Bowl content or guests that really deliver.
The second thing we reinforce is that we are a multi-platform media company, and as such, we are sending two content contributors and videographers to file photographic, video and written content from the festivities.
Kinard: We try be very selective about the guests we book, and make sure the show doesn’t sit around waiting for guests to arrive. The content should still be about the game, and we try to make sure our shows continue to break down the game, talk to listeners, etc.
Zarbano: We are very picky about who we put on the air and what we promote. We will only put on guests that we feel can move the needle.
What is one thing the NFL could do better during the week of radio row shows to keep stations wanting to return and support their biggest game of the year?
Moore: They could help radio stations by managing the inflating technical costs for sure.
Zampillo: It would be nice if it was better organized. Too often it feels like a free for all. I understand it is on each station to book guests, but it would be great if you had a better idea of who will be there and when.
Sheppard: The hotel process could be improved. The longer we have to wait for accommodations, the more expensive air travel becomes. For example, this year we requested seven rooms but were only granted two. That makes it more challenging.
Kinard: I think they generally do a great job with the event. More availability of guests from the league and the NFL Network would be beneficial.
Zarbano: The credential process can be confusing and time consuming. It’d be helpful if there was a clearer process when requesting conditional and regular Super Bowl credentials.