This is one of my favorite times of the winter – it's the week when our favorite Major League Baseball teams take their respective diamonds in Florida and Arizona to work out the kinks and play an exhibition schedule. Last year's World Series winner – the Washington Nationals – will receive their rings in a few weeks, but for the upcoming 2020 season, you can reset them to “0.” Every team will take the field with the same opportunity to play in the Fall Classic.
But will the games be carried on the radio?
That may sound like a crazy question given baseball's congenital relationship with the radio, first started nearly a century ago on KDKA for a Pirates/Phillies game in 1921. Since then, hundreds of thousands of games have been carried over the broadcast airwaves – on AM and FM radio stations.
In recent years, these same games have been available on satellite radio, on audio streams on the MLB website and app – and of course on TV. But audio play-by-play coverage is now accessible on more sources than ever before.
Baseball's demographics are aging. Or perhaps better put, young people are not as “into” baseball as their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Just like with traditional media like radio, newspapers, and television, American's pastime is a sport much more appreciated by older demographic consumers.
Mashable's Alex Perry quotes Nielsen Scarborough data showing the core demo for baseball is 50+ – not the target for most media buyers. (Of course, Perry notes the same study reveals baseball is more popular on radio than other media.)
Baseball needs to expand the tent, grow its fan base, create a little buzz among teens. But, of course, it's suffered this same problem for years now, despite myriad efforts to make itself more attractive to young demos.
There's no question baseball is struggling to figure out the disconnect. Does it have to do with the media platforms and devices on which these games are available? Or is it more about the appeal of the game itself to Gen Zs? Is it too slow? Or too complicated? Or simply associated with old-fashioned media?
We're about to find out. That's because the Oakland A's – always a shoot-from-the hip franchise back to the days when Charlie Finley owned the team – are trying something brand new this year, and it has captured the attention of the sports and radio worlds.
In an effort to fight its own “demographic cliff,” the A's have decided to end their rocky relationship with broadcast radio (12 different flagship stations since 1968), choosing instead to go exclusively with the audio streaming platform for the 2020 season.
TuneIn is now the sole source of free audio for A's fans on their branded A's Cast. And as A's president Dave Kaval reasons, “The primary motivation for this endeavor is around fan development, marketing, and really understanding how that can acquire new fans.”
A think piece in the Washington Post by journalist Micki Maynard (ironically, a Detroit tigers fan) quotes Sports Illustrated‘s Emma Baccellieri who thinks the A's move might catch on elsewhere around the league:
“I get it, and I wouldn't be surprised if more teams make this move. But it still makes me sad.”
Micki Maynard's sees it differently, and her conclusion is not a good prognosis for the A's:
“I'm not buying it. This move will lose fans.”
I'm with her. There are very few times when addition by subtraction actually grows a fan base. This is clearly not one of them.
Kudos to the A's for attempting to appeal to younger demographics to ensure a brighter future. The team's EVP, Billy Beane, has always been a riverboat gambler. Remember, he was the star of Michael Lewis' “Moneyball,” the book/film that popularized the use of Sabermetric analytics – that is, insightful data used creatively to make core decisions about how to play and manage the game.
But by closing the main pathway for its existing audience to consume the games via audio? That's not going to work for those core baseball fans, even if their Bay Area team choice is the A's over the Giants.
It violates the first law of the Digital Age – give consumers (especially fans) their desired content wherever and they want it. That's why broadcast radio has had to hustle its content on platforms and gadgets ranging from iPhones to Alexa – and everything in between.
And it's a lesson the A's forgot – and will likely ultimately live to regret.
While writing this post over the weekend, I noted the A's were playing the Cubs in their first spring training game of the year. To get a sense for how these “webcasts” are packaged on TuneIn – the look, the sound, the accessibility – I punched up the app and searched for the team.
It popped up, I hit “play” and this happened. Three times:
You can't make this stuff up. This is something I've never experienced on the radio before. And while streaming technology has become a key conduit for content consumption by millions and millions of consumers, it is still miles away from 90%+ penetration and usage.
Kaval adds, “This is the direction of the future.”
That may prove to be true, but as broadcast radio operators would be happy to tell him, the challenge is meeting the demands of the future while taking care of business in the here and now.
It doesn't take a technologist to tell you that not everyone's car is “connected.” Or that while smartphones have become nearly ubiquitous, many consumers couldn't download the TuneIn app, search for the A's, and hit “play” if their lives depended on it. Assuming it actually works, of course.
This thread on the A's Twitter feed is representative of what fans are saying about this grand streaming experiment. These are consecutive comments, not ones I selected to make my point. And it's not pretty.
It's about the experience – whether it's on your iPhone or on your radio.
And you don't expand your tent by cutting off ways to get in, participate, and engage.
In broadcast radio circles, we often talk about the need for the industry to tell a better story. In this case, the Bay Area radio market may end up with a great object lesson in what not to do – and why the medium still matters, even in a tech-centric metro.
President Gerald Ford had one of my favorites quotes on this topic:
“I watch a lot of baseball on the radio.”
He spoke for millions and millions of fans of all ages over the decades.
You have to wonder what they'll be saying in Oakland this season.
I'll be presenting at the Barrett Sports Media Summit on Thursday. I'll break down our most recent Techsurvey with a deep dive on the Sports Radio fan. I have a feeling we'll be talking about the A's Cast and other issues. Info here.