With the Cubs headed to the playoffs, riding the best record in baseball and favored to end a centurylong World Series drought, it's been a pretty good rookie season for new radio partner WSCR-AM 670.
The CBS-owned sports station is generating record ratings and revenue, and prepping for a potentially historic postseason run as the only Chicago station — radio or TV — to call the Cubs' championship quest. Heady days for WSCR, better known as The Score, which launched nearly 25 years ago as a low-powered station whose license required it shut down at sunset each night.
"If the Cubs go all the way and win the World Series, that final call is going to live forever," said Mitch Rosen, 49, operations director of The Score. "Imagine Pat Hughes saying the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series — what a story, both for the Cubs and this radio station."
The Score is doing everything it can to leverage the potentially historic playoff run. Rosen held a staff planning meeting last week as the Cubs closed in on the division title. The anticlimactic clincher — the Cubs lost Thursday night to the Brewers, but won the title 90 minutes later when the Cardinals lost in San Francisco — was among the scenarios discussed.
"As soon as the Cardinals lost, we kicked into our clinching coverage," Rosen said. "We had a live host taking calls from Cubs fans until 5 a.m."
Neither the Cubs nor The Score have a clear path to the championship. Despite paying about $10 million per year for exclusive local broadcast rights, WSCR won't be the only Chicago radio station carrying the Cubs throughout the playoffs, with WMVP-AM 1000 set to air the national broadcasts. Last year, the ESPN-owned station siphoned "hundreds of thousands" of listeners from WBBM during the Cubs playoff run, according to WMVP program director Adam Delevitt.
WMVP is "all in" trying steal The Score's thunder, promoting the upcoming playoffs, selling advertising packages and pitching its broadcasts as an alternative to the home team call, Delevitt said.
Delevitt also is counting on confusion over the changing frequencies of Cubs radio partners to snare some listeners, noting fans still call WMVP to ask about White Sox games, even though the team hasn't aired on the station since 2005.
Most Cubs fans, however, likely will tune into the team's flagship station for the home broadcast. From the dawn of radio until two years ago, that call belonged to WGN-AM 720.
WGN began airing Cubs baseball in 1925, documenting 90 years of futility for generations of fans. In 2014, CBS Radio outbid WGN and struck a seven-year rights deal with the team, offering about $10 million per year and the marketing power of its six-station Chicago cluster.
The Cubs aired on news station WBBM-AM for the 2015 season, and shifted to WSCR this year after the sports station parted ways with the White Sox. Moving the team to its third radio station in three years was part of the plan, according to Crane Kenney, president of business operations for the Cubs.
But broadcasting the Cubs in the World Series this fall would be ahead of plan, for the station and the team.
In 2009, the Ricketts family bought the Cubs and Wrigley Field from Tribune Co. (now Tribune Media) in an $845 million deal. The new owners launched a long-term plan to renovate the club and the century-old ballpark, with little visible progress for years.
The team averaged 96 losses per season from 2011 to 2013 while stocking the farm system with young talent. It was a prodigious stretch of losing — even for the Cubs — and translated to lower ratings and advertising dollars for WGN's radio broadcasts, which station executives said were losing millions of dollars per year.
"It's easy today to say, well, it's kind of a no-brainer to (acquire) the Cubs rights," Kenney said. "It wasn't so much of a no-brainer back when the deal was done."
The Cubs won 73 games during the 2014 season, the last with WGN-AM. In 2015, the team won 97 regular season games and made it to the National League Championship Series, boosting ratings and revenue for WBBM-AM.
This season, the Cubs have catapulted The Score's audience into the top 10 among Chicago radio stations. The station averaged a 3.8 share from April to September, according to Nielsen, nearly doubling its 2.1 share during the same period last year.
"The increase in audience year-to-year has been great," said Rosen. "It's the best marketing campaign a station like The Score can have, because you have this influx of people coming in to sample your station."
The growing revenue impact also has been traveling with the Cubs from station to station over the last three seasons.
WGN saw revenue drop from $29.3 million in 2014 to $25.5 million in 2015, according to BIA/Kelsey, a Virginia-based advertising research firm, while WBBM's year-over-year revenue increased from $39.2 million to $43.8 million after getting the Cubs.
Financial figures for 2016 have not been released, but industry sources say The Score will bring in about $10 million in Cubs play-by-play revenue this season. WGN was generating about $5.5 million in revenue two years ago with the Cubs broadcasts, sources said.
Major Cubs radio advertisers this year include Menards, Comcast and Nuveen Investments.
Despite lower ratings and revenue, WGN has improved its balance sheet since losing the Cubs, according to WGN President Jimmy de Castro.
"We weren't profitable, and we're very profitable now," de Castro said.
In addition to the $10 million rights fees, The Score has to pay the play-by-play team of Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer, along with engineering, marketing and sales expenses.
Rosen declined to comment on whether The Score was in the black with the broadcasts. Rod Zimmerman, the former market manager of CBS Radio Chicago who helped engineer the Cubs deal, was ousted in a management shake-up in January. Some industry sources point to the cost of the Cubs broadcast rights as leading to his exit, but Zimmerman stands by the deal as a winner for CBS.
"I do believe that this is going to be probably the most valuable play-by-play sports franchise in all of sports over the next five years," Zimmerman said.
A Skokie native, Rosen started as an intern at WGN in 1988, and was hired the following year as producer of the Eddie Schwartz overnight show. When Schwartz left WGN for WLUP-AM 1000 in 1992, Rosen went with him.
After a brief run as general manager of the Chicago Rockers of the Continental Basketball Association, Rosen returned to Chicago radio in 1997 as program director of nascent sports station WMVP.
In 2005, Rosen switched teams, joining the Score as program director, missing out as his former station broadcast the White Sox championship season. Rosen helped lure the Sox to The Score the following year.
He missed out on another championship season when the Blackhawks left The Score for WGN after the 2007-2008 season. Two years later, the team won its first Stanley Cup in nearly 50 years. Winning a Cubs championship may be a bit of broadcast payback.
"We carried the Blackhawks for eight years, through the tough times," Rosen said. "We've had that feeling in the past."
Source : chicagotribune.com