A’s scram­bling to find a 2019 ra­dio sta­tion

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Su­san Slusser

The Oak­land A’s needs this win­ter ex­tend be­yond adding an en­tire pitch­ing ro­ta­tion. They’re still with­out a ra­dio deal af­ter a bit­ter breakup with their broad­cast partner, po­ten­tially leav­ing lis­ten­ers in the lurch come spring train­ing.

With few ideal op­tions in the Bay Area, which has only a hand­ful of sta­tions with sig­nals strong enough to cover the en­tire re­gion, the A’s are ex­plor­ing some un­usual av­enues be­cause they are com­mit­ted to a strong ra­dio pres­ence for their fans, ac­cord­ing to Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer Chris Giles.

“One of our goals is to have the broad­est reach pos­si­ble,” Giles said. “Our strat­egy and vi­sion for ra­dio has not changed mov­ing for­ward.”

One thing is all but as­sured: For the first time since Cal’s stu­dent sta­tion paid $1 to briefly step in to broad­cast A’s games in 1978, Oak­land is un­likely to re­ceive any money for the rights to air the games.

“Most teams are still com­mand­ing rights fees. The A’s aren’t in that spot,” said Ja­son Bar­rett, a for­mer pro­gram di­rec­tor for 95.7 The Game

(KGMZ) who now writes and con­sults about sports ra­dio.

The A’s are look­ing into pur­chas­ing their own sta­tion or pay­ing for their air­time. The for­mer isn’t unique; the An­gels own their flag­ship sta­tion, which has broad­cast games since 2008. It’s not a sim­ple propo­si­tion, how­ever: While sev­eral lo­cal sta­tions are po­ten­tially for sale, given bank­ruptcy problems in the in­dus­try, none are cur­rently geared to­ward sports, and the team would need to learn a new busi­ness on the fly in time for spring train­ing. Even get­ting a sale done in time for Oak­land’s first week­end ex­hi­bi­tion game, Feb. 23, would be a push.

“We are con­sid­er­ing it,” Giles said. “But there are some chal­lenges from a tim­ing stand­point.”

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters: the A’s ac­ri­mo­nious de­par­ture from The Game in Oc­to­ber. The team’s is­sues with its for­mer flag­ship were well known. The sta­tion, cit­ing rat­ings and met­rics, did lit­tle to pro­mote the A’s (or the Raiders) on daily talk shows, which be­came par­tic­u­larly glar­ing when Oak­land raced into con­tention and even­tu­ally a play­off spot. Apart from the broad­casts, there was al­most no A’s talk on The Game un­til the wild-card play­off in Oc­to­ber.

The next week, the A’s of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count pub­lished video of a cart of A’s gear wheel­ing away from 95.7 with the caption, “It’s not us, it’s you.”

That did not sit well with the tight-knit Bay Area ra­dio com­mu­nity. “Ju­ve­nile and ar­ro­gant,” said a long­time AM ex­ec­u­tive.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, The Game is owned by En­ter­com, which holds sev­eral other prop­er­ties that might have had in­ter­est in A’s broad­casts. “Good luck get­ting any­thing done in that build­ing ever again,” one Bay Area pro­gram di­rec­tor said. “It’s prob­lem­atic.”

“That was a big mid­dle finger to their me­dia partner — no one in this in­dus­try liked that,” an­other ex­ec­u­tive said. “It’s con­found­ing to think they’d do some­thing that brazen with­out a bird in hand for an­other out­let.”

Bar­rett was with 95.7 The Game dur­ing the A’s in­au­gu­ral sea­son with the sta­tion, in 2011. He said had he not left in 2015, he would have urged The Game to get out of busi­ness with the team, largely be­cause of poor rat­ings and the fact that game broad­casts are of­ten dur­ing drive time, tak­ing away lis­ten­er­ship from the sta­tion’s top hosts. The team’s swipe at 95.7 only reaf­firmed his feel­ing.

“Don’t stoop to that level, be above it,” Bar­rett said. “The only way to op­er­ate in this busi­ness is to keep the door open at all times. If you want to find a home for your prod­uct, it just doesn’t make sense. You would never see the Yan­kees do that. You would never see the Gi­ants do that. It’s not a good look.”

Maury Brown, a sports busi­ness re­porter for Forbes, called the A’s part­ing shot “crazy.”

“That’s the sort of thing that might be done be­hind closed doors, but you would never do that pub­licly,” Brown said.

Asked about the breakup tweet di­rected at The Game, Giles de­clined to com­ment. The team is not aware of any back­lash as a re­sult, how­ever.

“There is a lot of in­ter­est out there,” he said. “We’re still ex­plor­ing a va­ri­ety of op­tions.”

Which lo­cal sta­tion might be avail­able for pur­chase, would cover the en­tire re­gion and pro­vide the A’s a rec­og­niz­able brand? KGO-AM, whose par­ent com­pany, Cu­mu­lus Me­dia, is emerg­ing from bank­ruptcy and might be will­ing to un­load the sta­tion cheap.

More likely, though, is that the A’s pur­chase air­time on KGO or an­other sta­tion with a debt-rid­den par­ent. Buy­ing air­time isn’t the norm in the pro sports world — the heavy hit­ters in the ma­jor leagues still com­mand mil­lions in ra­dio rights fees. Oth­ers in smaller mar­kets or with rat­ings-chal­lenged clubs have to get cre­ative, some­times swap­ping advertising in­ven­to­ries for in-sta­dium mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties as a means to make deals work. The Mar­lins are such a club, and like the A’s, they are cur­rently with­out a ra­dio con­tract and strug­gling to find a de­cent flag­ship ar­range­ment.

“Cer­tainly, ra­dio has been di­min­ished the last cou­ple of years,” Brown said. “But the one thing that re­mains con­stant is that sports is still pop­u­lar and pro­vides valu­able con­tent, and ra­dio is an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion for any sports fran­chise as part of the fan ex­pe­ri­ence and for fan ex­pec­ta­tions.”

If a team were to out­right buy the time for 162 games, plus pre- and postgame shows and some spring train­ing games, the cost could run over a mil­lion dol­lars, de­pend­ing on the sta­tion’s sig­nal strength. Two ra­dio ex­ec­u­tives in the Bay Area es­ti­mated that 750800 hours of pro­gram­ming would cost $1.5 mil­lion to $2 mil­lion, but that would be off­set by ad sales. One ex­ec­u­tive said if Oak­land were to en­joy an­other strong sea­son, com­mer­cials could bring in more than $2 mil­lion. “That might not be a bad way for the A’s to go,” he said.

Some col­lege teams, in­clud­ing Stan­ford men’s bas­ket­ball, have gone to an on­linestream­ing so­lu­tion, and a few NHL teams are us­ing a hy­brid ap­proach with their own stream­ing ser­vice and a lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion (the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals) or part­ner­ing with a stream­ing app that has a ter­res­trial com­po­nent, such as iHeartRa­dio (Los An­ge­les Kings).

The A’s do not envision stream­ing games them­selves for the com­ing sea­son, but as the for­mat evolves, that pos­si­bil­ity might ex­ist down the line.

“That is not our plan,” Giles said. “I don’t think the mar­ket is there for base­ball yet. I know it’s an in­ter­est­ing op­tion, but based on con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with fans, that’s not some­thing they’re in­ter­ested in.”

A sta­tion en­tirely off the ta­ble is 1050-AM, KNBR’s sis­ter sta­tion, be­cause of KNBR’s Gi­ants com­mit­ment. The A’s have had six ra­dio homes in the past 18 years, in­clud­ing KFRC twice, and one lo­cal in­dus­try ex­pert sug­gested the for­mer 610 AM dial spot oc­cu­pied by KFRC (now KEAR) as a pos­si­bil­ity.

“Money talks and the A’s story last year was one of the most com­pelling around,” Bar­rett said. “If they’re pay­ing, some­one’s lis­ten­ing. When The Game launched, no one saw the A’s mov­ing there. But there’s al­ways some­one wait­ing in the weeds.”

“One of our goals is to have the broad­est reach pos­si­ble,” said the A’s COO, Chris Giles.

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