The United States has always been a country of invention and innovation. From barbed wire to the electric light bulb; from the abacus to the personal computer, this is a country where someone has taken a vision and literally changed something positive about American life.
For sports fans, some innovations worked like ESPN, which despite all its faults is still the place to catch most of the best live game broadcasts. Some didn’t like the stunt NBC Sports pulled on December 20, 1980 when the Network tried to make a mundane Saturday afternoon game between two non-playoff teams the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins more interesting by broadcasting the game without announcers. It flopped.
Such an event occurred on July 1, 1987 in New York City. That day, New York radio station WFAN changed its format to a 24/7 all-sports format. 29 years later, that one decision changed the way sports fans listen to the radio in their cars among other places, and played a major part in saving AM Radio.
Sports have always been a part of radio both on the National and Local level. Baseball, Boxing and Horse Racing were among the sports to first be broadcast on the radio going all the way back to when NBC developed both its Red and Blue Networks in 1926 becoming the first national commercial radio networks. The Blue Network eventually became ABC Radio. The Red Network was NBC Radio and lived on until it was spun off and eventually dissolved into Westwood One Radio just a few years ago. Local radio has always loved sports particularly high school football and basketball and most major colleges and universities have had their own play-by-play radio networks for football and basketball forever. But, sports talk was something different.
Sports talk has existed in one form or another for a while, just not on the current scale. The reported first sports talk show was broadcast on WNBC in New York in 1964. Just a year later, Seton Hall University in East Orange, New Jersey and it’s college radio station WSOU started broadcasting a show called “Hall Line” about Seton Hall Sports. 50 years later, it still exists.
The first try at a nationwide all sports Radio Network came in 1981 when the Enterprise Radio Network was launched in New York. The format called for twice an hour sportscasts and sports talk in the evening and overnight. Whether it was poor planning or poor management the Enterprise Radio Network lasted all of 8 months and failed due to a lack of advertising dollars. But it did help launch a couple of fairly accomplished broadcasters. Both, Kevin Harlan (now of CBS and Turner Sports) and Sean McDonough (now the new voice of ESPN’s Monday Night Football) were interns.
Currently ESPN, Yahoo Sports, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, NBC Sports and Sports Byline USA all run national all-sports talk networks. There are also national sports talk networks in Australia, Canada, China, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Phillipines, and United Kingdom. Most started out just on the weekends and evenings. ESPN’s Network started on January 1, 1992 with programming on the weekends. It eventually transitioned into the weekdays in 1996. Part of ESPN’s success has been the fact that they’ve been successful in grabbing national play-by-play radio rights for Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the College Football Playoff among others. The Network has been so successful that when the Walt Disney Company (the owner of ESPN) decided to sell it’s ABC Radio division to Citadel Broadcasting in 2007, ESPN Radio wasn’t part of the deal.
Sports Byline USA was the first national network launching from it’s San Francisco headquarters on October 24, 1988. The current Yahoo Sports Network goes all the way back to 1991 when it began as the Sports Entertainment Network headquartered in Las Vegas. In 1993, One-on-One Sports purchased it and moved it to the Chicago Suburbs. In 2000, One-on-One was purchased by Sporting News Magazine. In 2007, the owners of Sporting News sold the network on its headquarters moved to Santa Monica, California. In 2011, it was purchased by Yahoo Sports and now calls Houston its home.
Building off the success of ESPN and others, the major networks all jumped into the sports talk game. Fox Sports (which at one time was one of the best, but is now just crap), was followed by NBC in 2012 and CBS in 2013. They all provide 24 hour a day programming to both terrestrial affiliates and on the greatest thing to happen to sports talk SiriusXM Satellite Radio. SiriusXM has over 20 channels dedicated to just sports, an carries talk programs from ESPN, FOX, and NBC.
The format is largely credited with helping save AM Radio from the scrap heap. I had a buddy in West Virginia who said “AM” stood for “A Memory”, but with sports dominating the AM Channels, it’s revitalized AM stations and turned a dying breed into a money maker. In 2009, Detroit’s sports talk station 97.1 the Ticket became the first all sports talk station to be the number one station in its market. And you don’t need a radio to listen to talk anymore. It’s now available on streaming services like Tune-In Radio and on the Networks own independent apps.
Local stations devote parts of their sports talk day to local programs. All of this fulfills the sports fans’ desire for more information and discussion and creates jobs for broadcasters that simply didn’t exist when I was breaking into the business in the early 1980s. I have to admit I love sports but when I heard WFAN was going to an all sports 24/7 format, my first thought was that will never work. Boy, am I glad it did and as many other sports fans who no longer have to endure sports being nothing more than a weekend time filler.