WJR wants back in game to broadcast Tigers, Red Wings

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

The former flagship station for Tigers and Red Wings radio broadcasts has re-emerged as a player in contract negotiations for 2016 and beyond.

Officials from WJR-AM (760), which carried Tigers and Red Wings broadcasts for decades ahead of their move to a statewide network of affiliates, are beginning conversations with Ilitch Holdings on a new relationship.

Also making a full-throttle bid to retain Tigers and Red Wings broadcasts will be CBS Radio, which owns current base stations WXYT-AM (1270) and The Ticket FM (97.1), the Metro Detroit powerhouses for a 39-affiliate, three-state network that won Tigers-Red Wings radio rights in 2001.

A third bidder also will be involved, sources say, and could raise the stakes on any new deal: Greater Media Inc., which owns three FM stations — WCSX, WRIF, and WMGC (which also carries Pistons broadcasts).

No officials at WJR would comment, nor would executives at Atlanta-based Cumulus Media, which owns WJR. But industry and team sources have verified WJR, which carried the Tigers from 1964-2000, is making its pitch during discussions that have formally begun. In addition to Greater Media's push, CBS Radio will be involved in potential renewal talks and is considered a favorite to retain those rights.

"The Tigers have been great partners and we look forward to continuing our broadcast agreement in the years to come," Debbie Kenyon, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio Detroit, said in an email.

Kenyon would not comment further on CBS Radio's plans, nor on any WJR bid to reunite with the Tigers and Wings.

While it is possible the two Mike Ilitch-owned teams could negotiate separate deals with separate networks, local and industry sources expect the Tigers and Red Wings to remain with one carrier.

The deals are distanced from another matter of media and business speculation: the Tigers' local television contract with FSD. Tigers sources, speaking on background, say nothing has changed with an arrangement that extends into "the early 2020s."

There had been local speculation the Tigers were preparing to negotiate a new local TV contract within the next two years.

At issue for the Tigers and any potential radio partner are raw rights fees, which are affected by ratings that have soared dramatically during the past decade.

With a string of four consecutive division championships, and two World Series appearances in the past nine years, Tigers broadcast ratings — television and radio — have rocketed. The Tigers own the second-highest ratings, per capita, of any market in the major leagues.

WJR's re-entry into Tigers radio discussions indicates the station is serious about returning to a sports landscape it once dominated. The Tigers were a WJR staple from 1964-2000, when a 50,000-watt station, with its clear channel (no other stations enjoy a frequency of 760) could be heard in 35 states and half of Canada.

The Red Wings became part of WJR's portfolio in the 1960s and remained there until they joined the Tigers in a defection to WXYT and its partners in 2001.

WJR's lone sports partnership is with Michigan State and its football and basketball broadcasts. In the event of any new relationship with the Tigers and/or Red Wings, an alternate station would provide coverage for one of the overlapping broadcasts.

When the 2001 Tigers-Wings union began, WXYT initially had problems extending its broadcasts evenly through Metro Detroit. A transmitter-signal problem was eliminated when 97.1 was added as a partner. But saturating the remainder of Michigan, and pushing game broadcasts into other longtime Tigers fan pockets such as Toledo, became dependent upon adding a multi-state network of affiliates.

Those partners now number 39.

WJR is believed to be discussing a single-station deal akin to its earlier agreements. Sources say WJR would benefit not only by the advertising revenue a return to the Tigers and Wings games would promise, but by a relationship natural to many listeners who regularly listen to play-by-play broadcasts.

The dial becomes more habitually set to an originating station. That, in turn, means more listeners during non-game hours, which can elevate ad rates and overall revenue.

CBS Radio is aware of the relationship, as well, and is said by multiple sources to be planning a furious appeal to extend its 15-year alliance.

CBS has a pair of pluses working for it:

■It owns four Metro Detroit stations in addition to WXYT and 97.1: WDZH-FM (top 40 format), WOMC-FM (rock oldies), WWJ-AM (news), and WYCD-FM (country).

■The collective demographics from its FM holdings are considered to be heavy in the age 25-54 age group, which is appealing to advertisers who see it as a heavy-spending consumer bloc.

There is also an ability to cross-market teams such as the Tigers and Red Wings, with regular referrals to game coverage, ticket giveaways, etc.

WJR bills itself as the leader in "news-talk" and skews to an older crowd. WJR has station partners in WDRQ and WDVD, but they typically finish significantly behind the CBS stations, which can have four of the top five-rated stations during any particular ratings period.

The Tigers, though, are known to want more than ratings or, perhaps, raw dollars as their deal-maker. They ideally want more involvement from their players, manager, and front office during daily programming.

The news-talk format allows more easily for such interviews, which WXYT and 97.1 tend to steer away from as they concentrate on listener calls and discussion from their talk-show hosts.

WJR's interest, a motivation shared by CBS and Greater Media, is fueled by benefits industry analysts say extend beyond time allotted for game broadcasts. The radio dial more easily remains on a station that carries games, particularly when the team has 162 regular-season games.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Tony Paul of The Detroit News contributed to this report.

Tigers radio broadcasters

1927-33: Ty Tyson

1934-42: Ty Tyson and Harry Heilmann

1943-48: Harry Heilmann

1949: Harry Heilmann and Van Patrick

1950: Harry Heilmann

1951: Ty Tyson and Paul Williams

1952: Van Patrick

1953-55: Van Patrick and Dizzy Trout

1956-58: Van Patrick and Mel Ott

1959: Van Patrick and George Kell

1960-63: George Kell and Ernie Harwell

1964: Ernie Harwell and Bob Scheffing

1965-66: Ernie Harwell and Gene Osborne

1967-72: Ernie Harwell and Ray Lane

1973-91: Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey

1992: Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun

1993: Ernie Harwell, Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun

1994: Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun

1995-97: Frank Beckmann and Lary Sorensen

1998: Frank Beckmann and Jim Price

1999: Ernie Harwell and Jim Price

2000: Ernie Harwell, Jim Price and Dan Dickerson

2001-02: Ernie Harwell, Jim Price and Dan Dickerson

2003-current: Jim Price and Dan Dickerson

Note: The same Tigers broadcast was on radio and television from 1953-59.