This is a busy time of year in the sports world. I think that sentence has been written at least four times this month here on SportsRadioPD.com.
NHL and NBA playoff races are coming down to the wire. The NCAA Tournament is giving us memorable moments like Mamadi Diakite’s insane pass to keep Virginia alive. The South is talking about spring football. The NFL Draft is right around the corner. And then there is this season’s signature sporting event, Opening Day.
It’s not accurate to say that Major League Baseball has seen its popularity wane. Its popularity has simply changed. Professional baseball is a regional phenomenon now, but in the regions where it is popular it is an obsession.
I spoke with program directors from four stations, all in different situations as it relates to Major League Baseball. I wanted to know how they approached the season and how their respective audiences prioritized Major League Baseball coverage. The participants were John Mamola of WDAE, the flagship of the Tampa Bay Rays, Matt Nahigian of 95.7 the Game, which is in a market with two teams, but is the broadcast home of neither, and Ryan Porth of 102.5 the Game and Jeff Austin of 1080 the Game. Both are in markets without a team currently, but have been identified as potential expansion homes of Major League Baseball in the future.
Despite the relative youth of the Rays, Mamola says his audience has a lot to talk about when it comes to baseball. He told me in an email that while his primary goal is to serve local fans, with the Rays being a part of the AL East, a division that features two of the sport’s most popular teams “the story lines write themselves.”
Mamola also says that the Rays’ fanbase shows a dedication to players that makes it possible to cover the whole league. “With so many former Rays who made impacts here locally and now play in other markets, we try to make an effort to keep up with fan favorites gone away. Joe Maddon literally lives down the street still.”
There is no shortage of Rays-themed programming on WDAE. In fact, the station sent a reporter to follow the team around the state of Florida during Spring Training.
As for the regular season, Mamola says the team’s manager Kevin Cash visits with his afternoon drive show, Ron & Ian, once a week and his morning show, Ronnie & TKras, gets a visit from someone in the front office every Monday morning with GM Erik Neander & SVP Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom rotating. With that kind of access, plus a one-hour show ahead of every game, Mamola confidently says “No one does Rays baseball better in Tampa Bay, and I’d argue no one covers baseball better than WDAE in the entire state of Florida.”
“It’s like with any team that doesn’t play football in the state of Florida,” Mamola says of how interested the average WDAE listener is in the Rays. “There is a huge passion for sports here, but with so many other elements taking up the entertainment dollar and a lot of the population not growing up with the Rays (est. 1998) or the Lightning (est. 1992)… moving the needle is a bit of a challenge sometimes.”
Matt Nahigian and 95.7 the Game are in a unique situation when it comes to baseball coverage. As mentioned above, the station isn’t the broadcast home of either of the Bay Area’s Major League Baseball teams. On top of that The Game went through a very public divorce with the Oakland A’s at the end of last season.
So does having no baseball play-by-play present a problem for 95.7 the Game? “Not much at all, Nahigian says. “With the Warriors being the best team in the (NBA) and playing into June and then football starting back up in August it works out great for us.”
Nahigian says that when you are the flagship of the Golden State Warriors, how you cover sports in the summer is a little different. “We will have several baseball contributors joining each of the shows, but it will be based on what the Warriors do in the playoffs as to how consistent they are.”
Portland and Nashville are interesting cases when it comes to baseball. Both cities have large transplant populations, but no team of their own. So how much can you talk baseball in a place like that?
Ryan Porth of 102.5 the Game in Nashville says his hosts will talk baseball when the story is relevant to the audience. “Last year’s World Series garnered a little more local talk than usual in the middle of football season since Middle Tennessee natives Mookie Betts and David Price were such stars on that Red Sox team. If they didn’t have ties to the area, the talk likely would have been minimal.”
Without a local team, Porth says Major League Baseball isn’t going to be a daily part of summer conversations on the station. The primary outlet for The Game’s baseball talk will be its Home Plate Podcast, but that doesn’t mean the station won’t take advantage of the right opportunities on air. “Throughout the summer and off-season, we sometimes have a player of local interest (individuals that grew up or played college ball in Nashville) join our station as a guest.”
Portland, to hear 1080 the Fan program director Jeff Austin tell it, is more of a baseball town than Nashville. “As the Northwest’s only team, the Mariners have been quite popular here,” he says, but notes that the team’s support in Portland has waned. “They have suffered somewhat in the Portland area from an extended absence from the postseason. This fast-growing city brings with it many transplants with a variety of rooting interests, while a growing number of natives and longtime residents of Oregon and southwest Washington clearly want a team of their own.”
There is still room for baseball on 1080 AM and sister station ESPN 910. Austin says “we air a weekly baseball show, year-round. We also air sponsored baseball reports and home run call features, and air an extensive schedule of ESPN MLB play-by-play on our two stations, as well as Oregon Ducks Baseball.”
So what about the future for baseball in each city? Austin says that 1080 The Fan is committed to doing all it can to assist in the campaign to bring the MLB to Portland. “The Portland Diamond Project is the group working to bring MLB to Portland. We recently performed an all-day broadcast with our Prime shows, live from the Portland Diamond Project’s clubhouse store, and also air live shows from the Baseballism headquarters store, often in conjunction with the Portland Diamond Project.”
Austin says his enthusiasm and optimism reflects those of the city. Russell Wilson and Ciarra, who are part of the Portland Diamond Project, have made appearances on the station to promote the campaign.
“It’s nothing new to have Portland in the conversation when expansion or a ‘sick’ franchise move has been considered, but this time is different. The fact that a privately-funded ownership group has so credibly stepped forward, and with a stadium site with room for an enterprise zone to boot, makes this feel different,” he says. “You’d be hard-pressed to travel around the city without seeing Baseball to Portland shirts, hats and bumper stickers. It’s everywhere. Needless to say, Portland MLB team topics are frequently discussed with our audience across all platforms – everything from whether it’s better to have an existing franchise like the A’s, or an expansion team where we get to name it and generally give it a robust Portland branding.”
What about Nashville? Just like Portland, it was on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s list of potential expansion targets.
Porth says that the population and the interest is there. He notes that the current growth and future potential of the city is what attracted the MLS, which will see its newest franchise Nashville FC begin play in 2020, and is likely also what drew MLB’s eyes.
Still though, Porth says there are a lot of questions that need answers before he will believe the city is ready, and most of them have to do with who owns a potential Nashville MLB franchise. “The biggest one, in my opinion: will an ownership group do the necessary things to put butts in seats 81 home dates a year for the long term, when there’s already a lot of entertainment options for the consumer to spend their hard-earned money on?” He adds that patience will be a virtue for the city’s baseball fans. “Color me skeptical that it would all come together in the next 6 or 7 years, but it seems inevitable MLB will come to Nashville down the road.”
MLB coverage, like fan support, is largely a regional thing, but it also seems to be a situational thing. Stations like WDAE, which is a team’s flagship, will go all in and make the most of that relationship. Stations like 95.7 the Game, which doesn’t have MLB play-by-play in a market with multiple teams, won’t sweat it. It will instead focus on making the most of the programming it does have. Non-baseball (or at least currently non-baseball) markets will do as much as their listeners will respond to.
Very rarely does an MLB story create conversations outside of the market it is occurring in the way that people across the country have an opinion on what fair expectations for the Cleveland Browns will be in 2019. Finding local angles to exploit may be the best way to ensure that baseball talk won’t be met by your listeners with indifference.