This may sound weird if you read this in a few years, but there was a time when soccer was an absolute non-factor to US media outlets. Now, we live in a time where ESPN, NBC, Fox, and any other sports media company with a digital outlet are battling for the streaming rights to every league in the world.
Most sports fans couldn’t even name the United States’ top soccer league prior to the 1994 World Cup. Major League Soccer wasn’t a major draw when it launched in 1996.
Jesus Christ! Look at those dumbass uniforms.
I went to a game between the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New York/New Jersey Metro Stars during the league’s inaugural season. There were less than 10,000 people in the stands at the old Tampa Stadium, which held 70,000. More of those people were talking about the Debbie Gibson concert after the game than were talking about what was happening on the field.
Things are very different in 2018. The MLS is a lot bigger. Not only do several US cities have soccer specific stadiums for their MLS franchise, but tons of folks born and raised in the USA are diehard fans of clubs in the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. They wear their scarfs with pride. They pack bars on Saturday and Sunday mornings to watch their side. Soccer fandom in the US is as healthy as it has ever been and soccer programming on television is valuable commodity.
As I watch and read and write about the prices the likes of ESPN+ and BR Live are paying to carry leagues from Europe and Latin America, I often wonder how far America’s love of international soccer extends. I casually like soccer, and even I can recognize that there are about half a dozen leagues where the level of play is better than that in MLS. I might give those leagues a look on TV, but I would probably go dial surfing if that play-by-play was on the radio.
Is that the case with die hard soccer fans? What do die hard soccer fans even want from sports radio?
If you love international soccer, you can get your play-by-play fix on SiriusXM, but that hardly tells us anything about what the appeal of a package of international games would be to local stations. SiriusXM’s strategy is to have something for everyone. The company is only concerned that people subscribe to their service, not so much that every channel it offers has a certain number of listeners.
I asked the program directors of three different stations that serve as the flagship for MLS teams a few questions to get their thoughts on the state of soccer on the radio and the sport’s broadcasting future.
Orlando City SC is one of the youngest teams in MLS, but they have a large, dedicated fanbase. City games air on FM 96.9 The Game. Program director Jack Bradshaw says that while not all of his listeners are soccer fans, the ones that are react mostly positively to morning man Mike Bianchi’s coverage of the team. Bradshaw says his morning show devotes a portion of every Thursday show to discussing Orlando City.
City has gained a large fan base quickly, and I wondered if that might have something to do with the Orlando Magic’s struggles. The Magic hasn’t had a winning season in the NBA since City joined MLS.
“I don’t believe so” Bradshaw told me in an email. “I do not think the fan support of one team comes at the expense of another. Conversely, the excitement of the success of one franchise can fuel more excitement for another. That’s just my opinion.”
On the other end of the MLS age spectrum is Sporting Kansas City. It was one of the original MLS clubs, of course, at the time the team was called the Kansas City Wizards. Kevin Kietzman serves as the sports director of the team’s flagship station Sports Radio 810 WHB.
He says the team’s fans are “as rabid as anything you can imagine, but they are not huge in numbers.” He also added that those fans’ loyalty can go a little overboard sometimes. “They generally think they know more about their team and sport than anyone on the air and they may be right except for our morning co-host. It’s funny, when you criticize the sport they just lose their minds. We bash these stupid new tackling rules in the NFL and nobody sneezes. You tell a soccer fan that a 0-0 draw is the worst thing imaginable their heads explode.”
I can attest to seeing a similar reaction from hockey fans in my time on the radio here in North Carolina. This is only a theory, but I wonder if it has something to do with feeling like you need to waive the flag for a sport in a geographic area where it doesn’t have overwhelming support.
If there is a market in the US that could be described as a soccer town, it might be Seattle. Sounders FC has a large, passionate fanbase. It has seemingly been like that since the team launched in 2009. I asked program director Rich Moore of 950 KJR how that happened.
“This isn’t a sport that gets lost in a big city, more like a niche that has a big stage. I would also say that how the team was launched and marketed helped put it on the map at a high level right out of the gate. And at the time the way the team structured itself with a partnership with the Seahawks they had resources more than other start up teams.”
KJR took over as Sounders FC’s flagship this season. Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer makes a weekly appearance with Softy and Dick Fain in the afternoons. Rich says when it comes to covering soccer, he wants his hosts to “have a lot of fun on the air with less x’s and o’s.”
Even in America’s most die hard soccer city, Moore says he has trouble seeing top flight international soccer playing on the radio the way it does on TV. “Without a local connection I don’t think there is a big enough audience.”
It is a sentiment that was echoed by Jack Bradshaw in Orlando. “I think the local connection for City fans to the team helps drive the success of the radio product. That may change, but as a programmer I am not looking for other soccer leagues to broadcast on radio, at this time.”
Kietzman looked at the possibility of broadcasting international soccer as a chance to service Sporting KC’s fans. “We would consider airing some international matches if it fit our schedule. We ran World Cup matches on our sister property, ESPN 1510. Didn’t see a bump or anything, it doesn’t really move the ratings needle. But we like to air live events over there as a service to die hards.”
So here’s what I took away from these conversations. Soccer is having a moment in the United States but that moment doesn’t resonate across the sports media spectrum. America may be coming around to watching international soccer on TV, but when it comes to the domestic product, it may be more about the experience.
“Sporting KC is really good, a class organization and very professional. But for most sports fans, it’s not appointment radio or tv,” says Kietzman. “Going the stadium to see the game is the real draw as is interaction with the club through youth soccer.”
What Can Programmers Learn From A Social Media Following?
“A large number of followers may be the result of using social media well, but if you think the size of someone’s following is proof they’ll be a good part of your lineup, that’s a set-up for failure.”
I first began using Twitter in 2009 when I was a reporter at The Seattle Times. Jim Mora was the Seattle Seahawks coach and I had a smart phone made by Palm. The Twitter app was so wonky I posted live updates from Seahawks press conferences via TwitPic, sending a picture of the person speaking with the news item included as a caption. We’ve all come a long way since then.
I like Twitter. Over the past 12-plus years, I’ve found that my sarcasm and sense of humor (if you can call it that) translated better on Twitter than it ever did in print or later as a radio host at 710 ESPN Seattle. I’ve made friends on Twitter, picked fights with other reporters and generally found it a good place to test out ideas and arguments and an increasingly terrible place to discuss anything important. I have more than 40,000 followers, which is not insignificant nor is it at all exceptional given the market I worked in. None of this gives you any idea about how well I’ve done my job in sports media, though.
Yet an individual’s Twitter following has become part of our industry scoreboard. It’s certainly not the final score and it definitely doesn’t decide the outcome, but it is the best way I know to gain a quick assessment of someone’s reach and/or significance. It’s a data point that is readily accessible. It’s the thing I check first when I encounter someone who’s part of the sports-media industry.
But what does it really tell us? More specifically, how much does it tell us about that person’s ability to do their actual job whether it is reporting news, writing stories or being part of a show? Because as important as Twitter has become in sports-media, no one is making money from Twitter and social media specialists are the only people who are really being paid to Tweet.
For most of us, Twitter is not a job, it is a tool. For a radio host, it’s a way to interact with listeners outside the footprint and time slot of the show. It also is a powerful opportunity to deepen audience engagement through two-way, real-time communication. These things may help a host’s job performance, but they should not be mistaken for the actual job itself. A radio host is not valuable because he or she was right on Twitter or because they were first on Twitter or because they had a viral Tweet. A radio host is valuable because of the ability to attract, entertain and retain an audience during a specific slot of time. Twitter may help you prepare to do that, but it does not actually accomplish the task.
Programmers need to understand this, too. A large number of followers may be the result of using social media well, but if you think the size of someone’s following is proof they’ll be a good part of your lineup, that’s a set-up for failure. Just look at what book publishers have found.
An article last month in the New York Times showed how publishers have used social media followings as a weathervane of sorts for books sales. The number of followers an author has is influencing everything from what authors are paid to which books get published. This is especially true when it comes to non-fiction books. The rationale is pretty straightforward when you look under hood of that particular industry.
A publisher is the business that buys a certain book from the author, essentially making a bet that the sales of this book the author is writing or has written will more than cover the money paid to the author as well as the cost of publication and promotion of the book. A publisher wants as much assurance as possible that this book will sell sufficient copies to not just make its money back, but insure a profit. This is where the author’s social media audience comes in. The follower count is being looked to as an indicator of just how many people can be expected to buy this book. After all, someone following the author is certainly a sign they’re interested in what that author has to say. Some percentage of those followers can reasonably be expected to buy a book by this person. Except social media followings turn out to be a fairly terrible tool of forecasting book sales.
Billie Eilish has 99 million Instagram followers. Her book — released last year — sold 64,000 copies. If I was being catty, I would point out that is one book sold for every 1,546 Instagram followers.
“Even having one of the biggest social media followings in the world is not a guarantee,” wrote Elizabeth A. Harris.
So we should all just stop paying attention to Twitter followings, right? Hardly. First of all, it is a data point, and anyone waiting for social media followings to become LESS important probably thinks the Internet is just a fad. More importantly, having a following is certainly better than not having one as it does indicate the ability to attract an audience.
The issue isn’t whether it’s good to have a large following. Of course it is. The issue is how reliable that is in predicting an individual’s interest or appeal outside of that specific social platform.
What programmers need to do is get smarter about how they evaluate social media followings by answering two questions:
- Why are people following this particular talent? Content is the catch-all answer here. Go beyond that. What sort of content is this person providing that none of his or her peers are? Will that type of content be valuable as part of my lineup whether it’s terrestrial radio, a podcast or other format? Someone who’s funny on Twitter may be funny in other formats. They may also just be funny on Twitter. Are there examples of how this kind of content has worked in the past or reasons to think it will work in the future?
- How likely is this talent’s social media following to migrate to my medium? This is one of the trickier ones. One of the reasons for acquiring a talent with a large social media following is the hope that some of their followers will become your customers. While this is always possible, the more important question is whether it’s likely.
Remember, that example of Eilish, who had 99 million Instagram followers and sold 64,000 books? Well, that number of books is actually not a bad result. In fact, it’s absolutely solid for book sales. The problem was the publishing house didn’t expect a solid sales performance. It expected incredibly strong sales because it paid a significant amount of money to Eilish in the form of an advance.
It’s clear the publishing house made a bad bet, but the principal mistake was not about Eilish’s ability — or lack thereof — to produce a book. She did produce one that was 336 pages long, loaded with family photos never seen before and while there wasn’t as much text as you might expect, the sales were solid. The mistake the publishing house made was overestimating how many of Eilish’s fans would become customers in an entirely different medium, and I think that’s a lesson worth noting in this industry.
Unless you’re hiring someone to do social media for your company, Twitter is not going to be their job. It’s just a tool. An important tool, a useful one, but just a tool.
How Good Can iHeart’s AdBuilder Solution Be?
“It was slick, I admit.”
Do it yourself radio has come to a new client you will never meet. These clients are ready to do it themselves. All they want is to buy a radio campaign. And iHeart AdBuilder is all they need.
Let’s figure this out.
In 2019, iHeart started beta testing a do-it-yourself online platform for small businesses to battle Facebook and Google.
I went to the website to see how it worked. It was slick, I admit. It would be a great topic to add to the BSM Summit.
The first piece of info. the site wants to establish is your campaign goal. The four choices were “Get website traffic”, “Have listeners know my address”, “Get phone calls”, and “Announce an event”.
When was the last time you wrote a new business order with any of those four goals as the single reason for the campaign? Wouldn’t that be easier for the copywriter and the client to track results? TRY IT!
I inputted that I wanted to announce an event and proceeded to the following prompt. My business name, address, website, and industry were the following choices. So far, so good. The only tricky part were the industry choices.
I can see how specific business categories are not precisely represented, like counter service restaurants. They are not fast food because there is no drive-through, but they aren’t a full-service restaurant either due to no waiters being used and many other factors. It isn’t confusing for me, but you know how clients can be!
Selecting the market I wanted my customers to come from was easy, and it allowed iHeart to choose the closest radio stations. Identifying the ONE type of customer I wanted was fantastic. I can see how it focuses the client on a primary target. Parents with young kids or teens, foodies, married couples, single adults, or an option to select my demo all seemed easy enough.
The demos offered weren’t Men 18-34, but men, women or adults, young adults, seniors, adults, or the dreaded all ages. Next was selecting when I wanted to run and how much I wanted to spend. It wasn’t a challenge because you choose your dates, and then you’re given three choices for a weekly budget. In my case, it was $500, $750, or $1,000 per week. iHeart AdBuilder bills you less if the whole week isn’t used.
Impressions, frequency, and reach were highlighted, and they showed the logos of the two stations my $500 was going to be spent on. I noticed there was no information on when the ads would air, how many times per day, or any of that! “You give us $500, and we will spend it over the week on these two stations when and where we want! And it will work!”
The pages dedicated to creating copy are straight forward and, as salespeople, we have filled those types of forms out plenty of times. iHeart is highlighting that they are waiving the $100 production fee. Maybe, that will change in the future. After going to the checkout, your credit card is given a temporary authorization (which will be reversed), and you are told your ad will be emailed to you in a few days. You won’t be billed until your ads air.
What are the odds this $500 campaign over two stations in a few days will work? Who knows, but I bet the automated emails and follow-up calls will be relentless. I think it’s a great platform and can see a decent percentage of smaller new business deals go this direction. Some clients may even prefer to never “deal” with a salesperson again, kind of like most of our agency buyers. That leaves us with a whole lotta middle ground. For now.
Media Noise – Episode 58
Demetri welcomes Brandon Kravitz and Derek Futterman to the show this week. They talk about Hub Arkush, Aaron Rodgers, Michelle Tafoya, and Pete Thamel.
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