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And so we enter the worst two weeks on the football calendar: the interregnum between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl.
There are many hateable things in this gap: weird performance art reporters at Super Bowl Media Day; Media Day in general; the Pro Bowl uniforms… the list is endless. But one thing dwarfs them all—local radio stations broadcasting from Radio Row.
Radio Row is a physical location—the spot at the Super Bowl from which the radio and TV shows beam their all-important messages back home—but it’s also a conceptual idea. The league concentrates all the media types in one area, then pushes potential interviewees through like so many animals through an abattoir.
The carcasses in question might include movie stars, current NFL players from eliminated teams, ex-NFL players resting on previous glory, or even other sports media personalities (for the full NFL Human Centipede effect).
Each of these types has something to shill, so there’s a quid pro quo situation where the morning-zoo keepers from any random local market get to talk to Adam Sandler about sports for 80 percent of a segment provided that he gets to talk about his upcoming movie for the other 20 percent, or they get eight minutes of Joe Montana on what the Super Bowl means to him and two minutes of what Skechers should mean to us.
The net result is an assembly line where the same guests cycle through about 60 different radio stations, selling prostate care and anecdotes about what Scott Norwood ate for breakfast before missing one of the most famous kicks in NFL history. It makes for less than thrilling radio, and it happens every year.
Chris Kinard, program director for 106.7 the Fan, has tried other ways—in 2013, he sent his crew to cover MLB spring training instead of media week. And the net result in measurable listenership? “When we didn’t go, there was not a huge impact,” Kinard said. “When we have gone, there hasn’t been a huge impact either.”
Personally, I preferred the spring training approach, because it solved two major problems of Radio Row:
1) It is totally irrelevant to local radio. Sure, there’s not much going on with the local pro football squad at the moment, but the Capitals are dominating, the Wizards are Wizarding, the Nationals are whiffing on free agents, and the 27 local college basketball teams are continuing to play games. There are things to talk about that do not include Christian Okoye’s favorite brand of energy drink.
2) These interviewees have nothing of interest to say. There are exceptions to this, sure, but the vast majority of the time, these celebrities and ex-athletes will tell the same kind of tired anecdotes, offer the same kind of boring Super Bowl “analysis,” and then move on to the same kind of shilling. There’s very little new there and less that keeps me tuned in. I listen to Phil Simms for too many hours a year to be impressed by what someone has to say simply because they once played in a Super Bowl.
These criticisms aren’t new, and they’re not particularly unique to me. So why do the stations keep doing it? Why ditch your local focus for two weeks?
The most obvious answer is, of course, money. I had figured that. What I hadn’t figured was just how much money. According to Chuck Sapienza, former VP of programming for ESPN 980 and current executive producer for Navy Football, for ESPN 980’s coverage of the 2014 Super Bowl, the station paid about $8,000—hotels, travel, everything—and saw a return in the neighborhood of $50,000.
“So much stuff was sponsored,” Sapienza says. “Every individual show was sponsored. The trip was sponsored. Guests were sponsored.”
At that return on investment, I’d ignore my complaints also.
Sapienza cites other reasons for the trip as well, primarily building relationships that pay off throughout the year (ESPN 980’s relationship with NFL “insider” Adam Schefter started at a Super Bowl when he was much less well known, and continues to this day) but also simply being where the action is. “Having your people at the center of the biggest sporting event in the country just makes sense,” Sapienza said.
The hosts enjoy the trip, which I can’t fault them for at all. The program directors enjoy the relationship-building and the programming opportunities. Everyone enjoys the money.
And hopefully D.C. listeners will enjoy hearing Steve Young describe the wonders of Van Heusen shirts.
Photo by Matthew Roth / Flickr C.C.