A radio rightsholder’s plan to return to pandemic-style remote coverage of Toronto Blue Jays road games is “very short-sighted in terms of the impact it’s going to have,” a sports marketing expert said.
Richard Powers, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said with the sports world essentially back to normal, Sportsnet’s decision could end up costing the team fans.
“To keep this going, the only way you can justify it is as a cost-saving measure,” he said. “My take is it doesn’t make any sense at all because it erodes the fan experience.
“It’s difficult on radio already. It just erodes it further by doing something like this.”
COVID-19 concerns and travel restrictions meant remote broadcasting was the norm in the early days of the pandemic. The difference was often noticeable, but it was generally accepted given the unusual circumstances.
Almost all big-league baseball radio crews have resumed regular travel. In the NHL and NBA, a handful of markets continue to use remote radio coverage.
Sportsnet’s broadcasting plans for the Blue Jays’ 2023 season were unveiled this month in a news release. There will be full on-site television coverage for all 162 games, but radio staff will only be in the ballpark for the 81 home games.
“It’s a shame for a team that services (an entire country) — really, the largest market in Major League Baseball — to not invest in a top-notch broadcast,” said sports media analyst Adam Seaborn, head of partnerships at Toronto-based media company Playmaker Capital.
Calling a game off a screen can be challenging since hosts are at the mercy of the camera. They simply can’t get a complete picture from the field of play no matter how many feeds are available.
“As a colleague of mine likes to say, it’s like teaching swimming through correspondence,” Powers said. “You’re not there.”
The road radio decision was panned by many team supporters on social media. Longtime Blue Jays radio voice Jerry Howarth said he was “very disappointed” in the network’s decision.
“You don’t get any kind of picture of what’s happening regarding a ripple effect of a play, a call, emotions, people that are involved in the call one way or another, because you’re not there,” Howarth said.
“You can’t see that. So you can’t fully appreciate what is happening at that very moment.”
The team’s current radio voice, Ben Wagner, has been calling games since 2018.
His call is heard on 14 Sportsnet Radio Network affiliates, including the flagship Fan590 all-sports station. Audio streaming is also available on the Sportsnet website and app.
Wagner is on site for Grapefruit League pre-season coverage in Florida. When the Blue Jays’ regular season begins March 30 at St. Louis, he’ll start calling road games off monitors from Toronto.
“For a few extra dollars to send (a) broadcaster on the road for the good that it has been in baseball for (many) years, its importance to the game and to the audience, I don’t get it,” Howarth said.
Sportsnet is part of Rogers Sports & Media, a subsidiary of Rogers Communications Inc. The Toronto-based telecom giant also owns the Blue Jays and Rogers Centre.
Earlier this month, Rogers reported a fourth-quarter profit of $508 million. The company is still waiting for final approvals on its $26-billion acquisition of Shaw Communications Inc.
A Sportsnet spokesman declined further comment on radio coverage plans. Interview requests with network brass were declined.
“It’s a mindset that is really trying to keep their resources on the big fish in their (broadcasting) pond, which is TV,” said Mike Naraine, an assistant professor of sports management at Brock University. “That’s what they know and that’s what they love.”
Howarth, who retired in 2018, worked with radio partners over his career. Wagner, meanwhile, is essentially a one-man show with occasional contributors and analysts.
“I think having the radio team on the road for the games is a very easy way to signal to your fans that we value your time, we value your money, we want you to buy a jersey and buy a hat,” Seaborn said. “We value your fandom.
“An easy brand-building exercise and they could have spun it into a really good story.”
Specifics on travel costs weren’t available, but radio travel is generally inexpensive.
Most radio broadcasters can travel on the team charter. That leaves hotel, per diem and the expense of an audio producer/technician — often a freelance charge in each market — as the main costs.
“To me the cost of putting (a) baseball broadcaster on the road is insignificant compared to what you get in return for your audience,” Howarth said in a recent interview.
Longtime Toronto broadcaster Mark Hebscher regularly covered the Blue Jays in the team’s early days, often making the trip to Dunedin, Fla., for spring training.
He noted the importance of the press box view for a medium like radio, where details of the scene, players, and emotion within the stadium can captivate a listener.
“You don’t get that if you’re watching it on a monitor,” he said in a recent interview. “It really does a disservice because there is nothing better than a radio broadcast of a game where they’re actually there.
“They can describe to you what it feels like and what the atmosphere is like at the game. There’s no way you can portray it — you can try — but you can’t portray that if you’re not sitting at the game.”
Wagner called road games remotely last season before resuming regular travel for most of the second half of the campaign.
“They’re spending $300 million renovating the ballpark and they’re spending how many millions of dollars on a relief pitcher,” Seaborn said. “For a (small) fraction of that, you can have the radio person on the road.
“If the quality of broadcast is improved even five or 10 per cent, it seems worth it.”