The Philadelphia Union's unexpected announcement of a partnership with CBS Radio's SportsRadio WIP came less than six hours before its highly-anticipated match against the New York Red Bulls, and while the aftermath of that match will garner much of the attention and newspaper ink dedicated to the team over the next few days, fans and followers of the Union need to make sure they don't overlook the ramifications of this deal. Despite having one of the best local television platforms in MLS with Comcast SportsNet and 6abc of any MLS team, and the third highest local television ratings in the league, the Union -- until yesterday -- were the only team in MLS to not have a terrestrial radio partnership of any kind. The closest thing they had to a relationship with a radio station was with another CBS Radio property, rock station 94 WYSP, that was absorbed by WIP some six weeks ago. With the loss of WYSP as a friend, the Union seemed to have lost its one foothold in local radio.
From day one of the team's inaugural season, WIP management and talent showed a sincere lack of interest in even mentioning about the Union over their airwaves, let alone carrying some of their matches and partnering on a weekly hour-long show. As a source told the Brotherly Game earlier this fall, the Union had about as much of a chance of finding themselves on WIP as a snowball's chance in hell. Despite being scorned repeatedly, Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz remained courteous and made sure that an olive branch was out there, just in case the seemingly slim chance of a change in heart came to fruition. The team (and perhaps the team alone) said it considered WIP one of its media partners, even going so far as to list WIP hosts Anthony Gargano, Glen Macnow and Brian Startare under its local media directory in the organization's yearly media guide.
When WIP absorbed 94.1 FM on the dial from WYSP on September 2 as part of a multi-pronged effort to deal with increased competition from 97.5 The Fanatic, it immediately began using its new FM location as its flagship, and relegated 610 AM to an overflow station that simulcasts the main 94.1 FM feed when it has no original content of its own (which is just about 24/7). A source tells the Brotherly Game that CBS Radio management decided that it wanted original content specifically for 610 AM to keep it relevant in the local radio space, and that's where the Union come in.
Seventeen of the Union's matches in 2012 will be broadcast on 610 WIP. The team promises that 17 will include both home and road matches, but it seems all but likely that the vast majority of those 17 matches will be home ones. As an entirely independent operation without a billion-dollar corporate backer, the Union have been conscious of their broadcast production expenditures (as evidenced by the use of a studio for many road telecasts), and it certainly costs a lot less to produce a radio broadcast from home than from a road stadium. The team is expected to simulcast its television broadcast audio with JP Dellacamera, Taylor Twellman and Bob Rigby over the radio (as is done in Seattle with Arlo White) instead of hiring a second broadcast team to only call half of its matches, and if it chooses to do that, the math would make perfect sense: the team would probably need a radio engineer on-site to route the audio properly, and in 2011, the team produced 18 of its 27 local telecasts on-site (the other nine, all of which were road matches, were done from a Comcast Network studio).
Just as important as -- and perhaps more important than -- the match broadcasts themselves is a weekly hour-long soccer show to be put together by WIP in conjunction with the Union. The show will launch with the beginning of the 2012 regular season and go through the end of November, when the MLS season ends with the awarding of the MLS Cup. This is really where the Union have been lacking in the local media: ancillary coverage of the team. Comcast SportsNet and 6abc have been generous with the team in allowing them to precede every telecast with a pre-game show, and Comcast SportsNet has done a commendable job in producing its weekly State of the Union show with Amy Fadool and Bob Rigby, but every little bit counts a lot in this stage of the team's existence. The team will join the likes of Portland, Vancouver, Seattle, Kansas City, Dallas and Houston in having a regular English radio presence outside of match broadcasts. For fans who have complained over the last two regular seasons that they've been unable to bring up the team on local sports radio shows, this is your chance. This show, whose hosts have yet to be determined, will be all about the Union. It will be an opportunity to call in and discuss the team and MLS each week. We'll talk more about this over the coming months as the show approaches its launch, but it will be your responsibility as a fan of the team and a fan of the sport to tune in, and particularly to call in when you have something to say. A cynic could argue that this is, to some extent, filler content, and it won't force a change of opinion from some of the more anti-soccer WIP talent, but CBS Radio's management is trying to attract a new demographic, and Union fans need to show that they are as appreciative and loyal to the media that cover the team as they are to the team. Having that kind of attitude is the only way that the team can grow its local media presence: if Union coverage attracts listeners, readers or viewers, you'll see more of it before you know it. Both the match broadcasts and this weekly show will be streaming live over the Internet through CBSPhilly.com and through the Radio.com mobile app, which is somewhat of an added bonus, as game broadcasts are typically blacked out from stations' online streams.
It is presently unclear if CBS Radio is paying the Union anything in the way of a rights fee for the match broadcasts, but even if they are, it's likely to be inconsequential. More important than any dollars that may or may not be passing hands, the Union are gaining an official foothold into the Philadelphia local radio market via one of the most well-known sports talk outlets in the country. Even though the team is relegated to the AM dial (for the moment), and only half of its regular season matches will be available (for the moment), it's a start, and something the team's management has been working towards for a long time. Just the mental association of the Philadelphia Union and WIP gives the second-year organization a more mainstream aura, and that's truly priceless.
We will be following the details of the Union's new relationship with SportsRadio WIP very closely over the coming months, so stay with the Brotherly Game.