Leave it to a global health pandemic to potentially help one of the most nostalgic past times come back with a vengeance. Sports radio may soon be the rage again as depressing empty ballparks and stadiums are being broadcasted on television.
MLB recently hit the fields again and without real crowds, explicit and vulgar remarks from the league’s athletes have been seeping into live broadcasts. “It comes with the territory right now,” explained Arizona Diamondbacks sportscaster Steve Berthiaume to Radio.com. “Look, if you heard a bad word that you don’t want your son or daughter to hear, we apologize. But there’s not a ton we can do about it right now.”
The so-called pumped-in crowd noise at empty MLB games has not been doing a lot to drown out the swearing. Hearing these potty-mouthed Big-League players and seeing the thousands of empty seats may turn many fans away and they may start gravitating towards the radio.
Fans are the most important part of the sports industry and help to supply the teams with confidence to win. Inclusion and interaction with fans have long been important aspects of the major sports arena. Navigating a COVID-19 sports world right now where fans are not at the games could create a shift in how fans want to experience the games.
The Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) has said, “Sports is the ultimate in escapism. Think about it. There really is not much else that can take a person away from all the negativity in the world […] in a highly emotionally charged way with a community of individuals that share the passion.”
We are now in a new sports world. One where audiences may not be allowed into stadiums or arenas for a long time. Indian cricketer Virat Kohli said on Star Sports, “I honestly don’t know how everyone will take that because we all are used to playing in front of so many passionate fans. Things will still go on, but I doubt that one will feel that magic happening inside because of the atmosphere that was created.”
Going into 2020, many fans were amped up for a new year of games and championships only to find out that there would be a wrench called COVID-19 thrown into their plans. The global spread of coronavirus has forced major sports to be cancelled this year or delayed and modified. After several months of waiting for decisions to be made by the biggest sports leagues, the NBA, MLB, and NHL have all returned to action but without the fans.
In June, the NBA said it had planned to use video boards instead to engage fans at its Walt Disney World bubble. The league’s Disney World “bubble” campus will host 22 teams as it looks for a new 2020 champion.
The MLB released its 2020 season schedule in early July, and it is the shortest season since 1878. Every team will play a 60-game schedule (minus the fans) entirely against teams in their own geographic region to limit travel. The league is also prohibiting spitting or extra innings this season.
Instead of a regular season, the NHL has opted to do a 24-team playoff which began on August 1st. No fans will be allowed at the games, which will take place in a limited number of arenas broadcasted for television.
“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said when announcing the Return to Play Plan. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.
Soccer leagues in Germany and England have also resumed play and instead of audiences they are having crowd noise piped into empty stadiums. Football, cricket, Formula 1, and the US Open will also be played indoors with no fans to curb the threat of coronavirus.
With no fans in the ballparks or the stadiums, we may see sports radio start to really take off. Fans listening to games on the radio have been considered even more passionate about the sport than those watching it on TV.
Will Leitch, the founding editor of the Gawker Media sports blog Deadspin has said, “Like many baseball fans, my relationship with this great game was forged through the radio. My announcer, the guy I listened to through headphones while hiding under the covers so my parents would think I was asleep, was Jack Buck, the Cardinals’ broadcaster for KMOX. Your announcer may differ. Maybe it’s Vin Scully, or Phil Rizzuto, or Ernie Harwell, or Jon Miller, or whoever. But the sound of that voice, the person describing something you cannot see, giving you the outline that you can fill in with your mind’s eye, for many, many people, that’s what made them fall in love with baseball in the first place.”
Advertisers are attracted to sports radio because it can be localized or regionalized to match up listeners with specific products or commercial pitches. According to the RAB, advertising during one play-by-play broadcast is the equivalent of advertising on up to 20 radio stations within a market.
Sports are still a niche area in radio despite millions of listeners. The RAB said in 2018 that about 24.3 million Americans listen to all sports radio in the United States. Fans being excluded from games could become the new norm in a COVID-19 world and sorts radio as a result may see its listener base rise exponentially.