Does Cardinals' Switch to Smaller Station
Signal Eclipse of Free Radio Broadcasts?
By LARRY BOROWSKY (Viva El Birdos)
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 19, 2006
In April, in just the third game the St. Louis Cardinals played in their brand-new ballpark, they heard a strange sound drifting down from the stands.
Aimed at the home team.
St. Louis fans rarely boo the opposition, much less their own Cardinals. When the team got swept by the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 World Series, nary a catcall was heard at Busch Stadium. Instead, the crowd stayed after Game 4 to cheer the vanquished Cardinals and honor the celebrating Red Sox. So why did these famously loyal fans turn on the Cardinals during their new park's opening week?
"It seems like a greed element has taken over," says lifelong Cardinal fan Tom Murrell. "There's a different mood. The owners have made some decisions that it seems they wouldn't have made in the past."
The Cardinals' new ballpark (the third to bear the Busch Stadium name) has brought spikes in the price of tickets, concessions, and parking -- unfortunate, but not terribly surprising. But Mr. Murrell says he's more upset about a different change of address: The Cardinals have moved down the radio dial from 50,000-watt KMOX, their flagship station since 1954, to 5,000-watt KTRS, whose signal sometimes barely reaches his home in Shiloh, Ill. -- all of 15 miles from Busch.
"It's terribly irritating to lose that signal when we're so close," says Mr. Murrell, who says he's followed the Cardinals on radio since the early 1960s. "We're just right across the river."
Few stations have ever been more closely identified with a team than KMOX was with the Cardinals. For more than half a century, "the mighty MOX" beamed Cardinal baseball throughout the Midwest, the Great Plains, and the Bible Belt, creating deep and long-lasting loyalties. Before the major leagues expanded into Texas, Colorado, Georgia and California, the Cardinals were the "home" team in those states -- and it was KMOX that made them so.
But after losing money on a five-year deal that expired in 2005, KMOX offered a lower guarantee in renewal negotiations. KTRS, seeking to boost ratings in a market dominated by KMOX, wowed the Cardinals by offering the team a 50% ownership stake in the station.
And so the Cardinals became the third team this decade to dump a longtime flagship station: The Detroit Tigers left flagship WJR three years ago, while the Philadelphia Phillies departed WPHT in 2001. Last month the Boston Red Sox sold their local radio rights for the next decade for an estimated $13 million a year, the largest such package ever sold. Under the terms of that deal, next season the majority of Red Sox games will move from hallowed WEEI to WKRO.
All four organizations left clear-channel monoliths for lower-wattage stations, bringing in more revenue, but sacrificing reach. Why?
"The flagship [radio] station is not as important to distribution as it was 20 to 30 years ago," says Cardinals president Mark Lamping. "If the only way our fans could follow the team was radio, we'd still be on KMOX. Knowing that there are alternative avenues of distribution was a very important consideration."
Those alternatives include MLB.com's Gameday Audio, which is streamed over the Internet, and XM Radio, a satellite service that has carried all major-league games since 2005. The Cardinals encouraged fans who couldn't pull in KTRS's signal to migrate to one of those platforms, even offering free portable XM receivers (which retail for about $150) to fans who signed up for a six-month XM subscription.
But there's a key difference between those technologies and traditional radio: You have to pay to hear the games. And that has some Cardinals fans wondering if the seemingly sacred bond between free radio and baseball -- bound up with the mythology of summer nights and transistor radios smuggled under the covers -- is fraying in favor of a pay-to-listen model.
"I don't know anyone who has bought one of those subscriptions," says Mr. Murrell. "It isn't worth the monthly fee just to listen to Cardinal games. Besides, why should I pay for something that by all rights I should reasonably expect to get free?"
That's the general feeling among fans who grew up spinning the dial on a transistor radio, pulling in crackly, far-away broadcasts from all over the country. But more and more people are willing to pay for play-by-play. When XM Radio inked its deal with major-league baseball in November 2004, it had 2.5 million subscribers; by Opening Day 2005 it had 3.7 million. XM now has nearly 6 million customers, and a survey commissioned by XM found that 23% of new subscribers signed up primarily to hear baseball. MLB.com, meanwhile, sold 800,000 radio and TV packages in 2004 alone.
The new media, and the growing number of local TV broadcasts, are fragmenting baseball's audience. "Every local contract has now been greatly diluted," says David Pearlman, a former CBS Radio official who's the president of Lexington, Mass., media-consulting group Pearlman Advisors. That trend is driving away megastations like KMOX and drawing in "niche" stations like KTRS; if it continues, could it eventually drive baseball off the free airwaves entirely?
"It is probably inevitable that baseball radio broadcasts will go to a 100% subscription model," says Larry Rosin, president of Somerville, N.J.-based Edison Media Research. "It might take five years, 10 years, 20 years -- but nothing can stop it. It will happen because there's too much money in it not to do it."
From fans' point of view, that would be a familiar story: As recently as the early 1990s, "free" TV stations carried more than 80% of local broadcasts. Today, that share has dwindled to 23%; subscription-based cable services carry the rest. Seven major-league teams -- the Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, Florida Marlins, Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers -- won't have any local broadcasts on free TV this season.
Mr. Rosin, for one, believes radio could follow a similar trajectory.
"Look at MLB Radio," he says. "It's already incredibly successful, even though the listeners are tied to their computers. Imagine how successful it's going to be when you can stream that audio to a mobile device that's a combination cellphone, satellite radio, iPod, and GPS tracker."
To be sure, there are reasons to expect local radio will endure where free TV hasn't. The most basic is that local broadcast revenues are exempt from baseball's revenue-sharing system, while income from XM Radio and MLB Radio is split evenly among the 30 teams. That leaves the powerful large-market clubs heavily invested in the status quo: A subscription-based, equally shared model would undermine the advantage enjoyed by teams such as the New York Yankees, Red Sox, and Atlanta Braves, whose local radio rights are worth as much as $10 million more than those of poor cousins such as the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers.
"In the era of revenue sharing, local broadcast rights are one of the last bastions of autonomy," Mr. Pearlman says. "This area goes straight to the bottom line. That has tremendous appeal for the large-market clubs."
But nothing is forever in baseball economics; the Cardinals' Mr. Lamping, for one, won't rule out the possibility of an all-subscription radio future.
"I think a lot of franchises would do that if they knew they could pursue that strategy without losing their audience and alienating their fans," he says. "It would probably have to happen in a large-enough market where you had such a huge fan base that you could lose a third of them and still fill your ballpark every night."
Bob Bowman, CEO of MLB Advanced Media, thinks it's more likely that the new media will eventually achieve a rough balance with the old: "We will have millions of subscribers, and we will have our place, but the over-the-air broadcasts will always reach the majority of listeners."
But if those over-the-air broadcasts are no longer on stations with the reach of KMOX, fans who live far enough from transmitters may be increasingly forced to pay for what they once got for free. That doesn't mean the end for the romance of baseball on the radio: Laptops and satellite-radio receivers can bring the sounds of baseball to the porch on a summer night as effectively as an old transistor set -- maybe even without the static. But as baseball's old radio signal grows fainter, a lot of fans may be left behind.
"A lot of people out here," says Mr. Murrell, "feel like they're not in sync with the Cardinals anymore."
Larry Borowsky writes about the Cardinals daily at Viva El Birdos, a blog on the SB Nation network. He lives in Denver and listens to Cardinal radio broadcasts over the Internet.