Sports Radio Is Not A Niche Business


(By Jason Barrett) Few radio formats possess the ability to generate buzz the way Sports radio does. With apologies to music and News/Talk personalities, Sports radio is full of local and national talent who often are recognized as larger-than-life superstars in their local communities.

When questions need to be asked of key decisionmakers in sports, fans turn to the Sports radio host. If further explanations are required following a critical game or offseason move, fans flock to Sports radio. And if a fan is watching a game and stumbles upon a piece of valuable information, or if they’re triggered and want to get something off their chest, Sports radio gets their phone call.

Think about it. What other format is regularly covered by newspapers, and featured at times on the back page? Not to mention the laundry list of websites that create consistent content around the format’s top stars and newsworthy issues and the six- and seven-figure social followings these personalities produce.

I bring your awareness to these facts because, as powerful a connection as the format’s top brands and stars have with their audience and other forms of media, the same respect isn’t given to the format by Madison Avenue. That’s a situation we’ve got to improve.

In 2017, the top five radio advertisers on music stations were McDonald’s ($46.1 million), Mattress Firm (41.4), Comcast XFinity (36.8), Home Depot (34), and T-Mobile (32.8).

For spoken word stations, 2017 saw Zip Recruiter listed at the top ($11.1 million), followed by Comcast XFinity (8.6), Geico (7.7), Mattress Firm (6.8), and Accufacts Research (6.8).

Notice that I said spoken word, not Sports Talk. That means those dollar amounts were invested in both Sports and News/Talk.

When you combine music and spoken word spending for the top five music spenders, it reads as follows:

McDonald’s $50.5 million (46.4 on music, 4.1 on spoken word) Mattress Firm 48.2 (41.4 on music, 6.8 on spoken word) Comcast XFinity 45.4 (36.8 on music, 8.6 on spoken word) Home Depot 39.3 (34 on music, 5.3 on spoken word) T-Mobile 35.7 (32.8 on music, 2.9 on spoken word).

First, let me be clear: I love that each of these major companies is investing significant dollars in radio. Their belief in our business should be applauded and appreciated. Those companies should also feel great about spending their money with radio because our business has been proven to provide a great return on investment.

But it leaves me wondering, what is holding Sports Talk back from receiving a larger share of the advertising pie? Is it the perception of the format being niche? Is it because the public profile is that the format only appeals to Men 25-54? Is it a case of sellers having a splintered focus inside buildings? Or is it because sellers know the ad agencies they deal with are satisfied with their arrangement with the music brand(s) they represent and they’re worried about rocking the boat?

I have supreme confidence in Sports Talk’s audience buying cheeseburgers, cell phones, mattresses, TV and Internet services, and home goods if the format’s brands and personalities are highlighting these products. Nielsen research has found Sports radio listeners to be highly educated and tech-savvy, with annual incomes of $75,000 or higher. Those attributes combined with the ratings performances and sheer influence from key talent should be enough to convince our industry’s top advertisers to pledge more than 8-12 percent of their total spending on spoken word programming.

I conducted a panel at Radio Ink’s Forecast 2019 in November with ESPN SVP Traug Keller, Cumulus Media and Westwood One SVP/Sports Bruce Gilbert, and Entercom New York Market Manager Susan Larkin, and our conversation covered a number of these issues. One point Keller made was that he was OK with the format being perceived by some as niche because it’s still a big business and Sports radio has been enjoying growth.

I don’t disagree with Traug. He’s right. But I also think Sports Talk can and should expect more, and that starts with changing the perception and investment levels of the format’s key advertisers.

When people refer to sports television, they don’t call it niche. The medium earns sizable investments from top advertisers and makes enormous investments in household names and top-tier sports rights. Do you think they’d be spending millions or billions of dollars on those big-ticket items if they felt it was a niche space with limited profitability?

The confidence in sports programming having mainstream appeal is also why The Athletic, DAZN, and ESPN+ have developed subscription models and why Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has dubbed Rupert Murdoch’s “New Fox” the future of television. The list of brands that adopt similar business strategies will grow even more in the future, and none of these groups are pledging massive sums of money to a business they believe to be niche.

Sports radio has larger appeal than it often gets credit for. Not only does the programming provide the immediacy that fans crave, but unlike music, the content can’t be duplicated. It’s live, it’s local, it delivers tremendous engagement, and its relationship with the audience runs deep.

Take a minute and do a Google or social media search of Mike Francesa, Kirk Minihane, Mike Missanelli, Colin Cowherd, Dan Le Batard, Clay Travis, or Jim Rome. Then look at the impact of their shows, the content other media outlets create around these hosts, and the insane levels of engagement they generate from their audiences.

That sounds like a great opportunity for advertisers, doesn’t it? Madison Avenue, are you listening?

Jason Barrett is the President of Barrett Sports Media. He is a 20-year veteran of the radio industry with a passion for programming, coaching, developing talent, and delivering results. He can be reached at [email protected].


  1. It seems to me that those numbers are really lopsided for the likes Comcast/Xfinity when they are one of the few ways your listeners can view live games in their home. You have cable, satellite, and only a handful of OTAs that program sports play by play. Cordcutting is so pervasive, you would think they and other cable providers would be dumping huge amounts of money into sports radio and reminding your listeners they have the games they want to watch.

    It’s shortsighted for other categories, but a real marketing miss for cable and satellite providers.


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