Sports taking over AM radio

Faced with sagging revenues and an increasingly acute shortage of listeners, the owners of AM radio stations are making an all-out play for the loyalty of Canada's die-hard sports fans....

Faced with sagging revenues and an increasingly acute shortage of listeners, the owners of AM radio stations are making an all-out play for the loyalty of Canada’s die-hard sports fans.

Toronto-based CHUM recently announced plans to launch The Team Sports Radio Network sometime this spring. In Vancouver, meanwhile, Telemedia Radio is partnering with local operator Grand Slam Radio to launch the new FAN 1040, Western Canada’s first all-sports station.

The reasons for all this aren’t difficult to fathom. Canadian AM stations have been struggling financially ever since listeners began opting for the superior sound of FM. In the search for solutions, major station owners such as CHUM and Corus Entertainment have hit on the notion of turning to all-sports programming.

Obviously, that’s a potential draw for a key demographic: young men with disposable income. It’s not yet clear, however, just how large the audience for the all-sports format really is.

‘Our experience is that sports radio is a small niche,’ says Doug Ackhurst, vice-president and general manager of Toronto’s FAN 590 – Canada’s first all-sports radio station – and The FAN Radio Network, both of which are owned by Montreal-based Telemedia Radio.

Indeed, most estimates put the sports radio market share at 3% to 5% of the listening public, depending on the size of the market. That’s a pretty small piece of pie to be fighting over, especially if new players enter the marketplace.

CHUM’s ‘The Team’ will be Canada’s only 24-hour radio sports network, with stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and several other smaller markets.

Ross Davies, vice-president of programming for CHUM Group Radio, says he’s excited by the prospect of being able to cross-promote with some of the broadcaster’s other properties, such as the specialty TV channel MuchMusic. He also envisions strategic alliances with the likes of TSN and Sportsnet.

CHUM is hoping to include Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts among its prime offerings. Radio rights for the Jays, however, are currently the subject of an ongoing wrangle between Headline Sports and Rogers Communications, which owns the Major League Baseball franchise.

That creates some uncertainty for The Team, but Davies says CHUM has a solid business plan that will work effectively with or without the Blue Jays.

Rumours have circulated since the fall that Toronto-based Corus is also developing a venture in the area of sports programming.

John Cassaday, the company’s president and CEO, denies that any such plans are in the works – but he does acknowledge that ‘in certain markets there is room for it. It remains a subject of much speculation whether we move that way in the future. Do I think there is a market for a Toronto Maple Leafs radio station? Yes, I do.’

And how is the FAN reacting to all this activity in what has traditionally been its domain? ‘We’re going to ignore them,’ Ackhurst says. ‘We’re experienced and feel that we are the Cadillac product [in the sports radio market].’

The FAN brand name should be further strengthened by the launch of the FAN 1040 in Vancouver, which is slated for early this year.

Paul Carson, director of radio operations for the new station, says it will offer a blend of 70% local content and 30% national programming.

While the battle for ad dollars will be tough, Carson is quick to point out that an all-sports station in nearby Seattle is the most profitable in that city, despite a relatively small market share. ‘When the demographic you’re reaching happens to be largely made up of educated male white-collar executives, advertisers will pay a premium to reach that audience.’

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Canadians have the same appetite for sports content as their counterparts south of the border. In the U.S., people have been known to drive hours to watch a high-school football game. But even pro teams in some of Canada’s major markets have difficulty drawing fans.

Mark Sherman, president of Toronto-based Media Experts, says he thinks the audience is there. ‘Young men [in Canada] love sports. Not as vigorously as they do in the United States. But they do buy the product that goes along with the territory.’

Still, the ability of the new sports radio players to attract advertising will depend most heavily on whether they succeed in securing broadcast rights to pro sports franchises, Sherman says.

‘If they fail in that regard, then it’s difficult to see how they will succeed in such a fragmented marketplace.’