I can remember, dating back decades, how the radio rights for the University of Washington were considered a golden property – No. 1 in the country. That accrued from the fact that unlike most metro areas that had been given over to professional sports, the Huskies still had a strong emotional pull for the populace of Seattle.
It may not be hyperbole, then, how KOMO Newsradio program director Paul Duckworth refers to the acquisition of the radio rights to University of Washington football and basketball in a six-year deal starting in August.
“We think that as much as sports, this is a community kind of thing,” Duckworth told me the other day. “Maybe even more than the pro sports, with college sports and the Huskies, it’s about community and culture and tradition.”
Even when Seattle had the Sonics, I think Washington was viewed as generally more popular in town than the NBA franchise – behind the Mariners and Seahawks, whichever was riding herd at the time (and often the Huskies weren’t a bad third, if that).
Long story short, it’s a big deal when Washington changes radio locations, which it will do in a little more than two months, even as the broadcasts retain longtime voice Bob Rondeau and analyst Damon Huard.
A quick historical refresher: Before the last 10-15 years, schools would take bids on their radio contracts and reap the best offer, after which the winning station would sell ads or the school would handle it in-house. Then companies sprang up that would handle multi-media functions, and they would manage a wide range of components, like sponsorships, stadium and arena signage and radio ads.
Washington IMG Sports has the UW contract. Back in 2002, it was Paul Allen’s Action Sports Media, which sold the UW rights to KJR when that station gained the Huskies.
Terms of the deal last week weren’t announced, and, because of the third-party involvement of IMG Sports, it’s a little trickier getting that information than it used to be (we’re trying).
But there’s no doubt the UW radio rights are a multi-million-dollar-a-year proposition. As far back as a quarter-century ago, 1988, KOMO won back the rights from KIRO at a robust $2,375,000 a year.
While younger readers might not associate KOMO with the Huskies, the station actually has a lot of history there, having held the rights 21 of the past 36 years dating to the late 1970s.
“When the news finally broke, I would say we had a building overflowing with excitement,” said Duckworth.
The converse was said to be true at KJR. The station caught Husky football at just about the exact wrong time, when the Rick Neuheisel years were petering out to mediocrity, presaging eventually an unthinkable 0-12 season in 2008. Basketball brought an awakening, but football is the big mealticket. And football may finally be on the brink of big things again.
“No need to lie about it, or hold back,” said Dave “Softy” Mahler, a KJR afternoon host, last week on the air. “It’s a major downer, a total bummer for me.”
I’m hearing various things about the size of the KOMO offer, and can’t verify how much it might have differed from KJR’s. What seems indisputable is that KOMO offered a superior signal, reaching more people with clarity.
There’s another possible dynamic, though it’s questionable it was significant in the negotiations: The raunch factor. KJR is occasionally, and unabashedly, a fount of sexual innuendo, and one industry figure told me he doesn’t think it helped the station, particularly with some in administration outside athletics at the UW.
“I think it may have been a bigger factor than some people suggest,” he said.
Other thoughts and imponderables:
- This looks like a win-win for Washington. Besides whatever implied monetary bump it got, it benefits from KOMO’s stronger signal. Meanwhile, it may not lose a lot with KJR, which is vowing to minimize a loss of identification with Washington.
“We’re still going to do an awful lot with the university and its sports programs,” says Kent Haehl, market president for Clear Channel media and entertainment.
- Last time the bid was awarded, an Action Sports Media exec noted that a disadvantage with KOMO was its lack of station programming/conversation on non-game days to support the Saturday product. That’s something KOMO will have to improve – but it also has the benefit of a TV station to help prop up the product.
Meanwhile, Haehl says KJR will realize at least some benefit in that IMG dictated much of the pre- and post-game content, and he says, “We’re not prevented from that (now) in any way. Look, we’re a sports station. I’m not denigrating KOMO; they’re a great station with great tradition. But they’re not going to become a sports station just because they’re carrying sports.” In that vein, says Haehl, “The Husky Honks are not going away.”
- What happens to the popularity of each station? Duckworth says he expects a ratings bump in slots outside UW broadcasts. Haehl says, “We’re not anticipating any ratings dropoff.”
- For KJR, it’s a one-two punch to the midriff that began when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. Now the station is without a sports affiliate in the city. Might it respond with a move to get the Mariners or Seahawks? If it does, it will have to wait a while (they’re both amid multi-year deals with 710 ESPN) and be prepared to pay accordingly. Those contracts aren’t made public, but I’m told 710 has the Mariners through 2016 and the Seahawks through 2017.